He/she said, she/he said: the gardening tug of war



Is there anyone who truly gardens alone? Although we hear the first person singular used almost exclusively in posts and comments on Garden Rant (and many other blogs), I’m willing to bet that behind almost every “I” there’s another he, she, or even they who bear some measure of responsibility for the garden in question. And even if one lives alone, there are friends and neighbors who help, advise, or otherwise influence for good or ill.

It’s fun—and helpful—to have a partner to garden with, or even a whole family. It can also be a delicate balance. Just as it would be absurd to assume that sharing a house means sharing the same ideas of how to design the interior, it’s equally unlikely that people who live together would always agree about exterior improvements and alterations.

In A Garden Gallery, a book about sculptors David Lewis and George Little, and the well-known Bainbridge Island garden and art business they share, Lewis says “I would like to imagine that it is a beautiful balance of give and take, compromise, and lovingly granting the wishes and vision of that other person. In reality, it is often stubborn reluctance, quiet moping or raised voices among the plants we love.”

As for Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson, according to West she did her best to upset the formality of his designs for garden beds while at the same time respecting his overall concept. “Creative tension,” she called it.

In the less rarified aesthetic air of the gardens and gardeners I know in Western New York, there are a few major causes for discord in the domestic landscape. Number one, at least as far as I’m concerned, is expense. The way I’ve solved this is to quietly accept that I will have to devote a good percentage of my personal income to buying the amount of plants and bulbs that I think are necessary—but which many other people, including the person I live with, would consider insanely excessive. There are many other areas where expense can be a factor, but no need to enumerate them—we’ve all been there.

Another area has to do with individual concepts of a shared garden. I often hear from friends that the person they garden with loves the lawn more than they do, or is attached to certain trees, or that one person yearns after certain plants that the other person hates. This is where the “creative tension” comes in, as each partner learns how far to push the envelope.

The best partnerships I hear about are those where one person takes care of a whole aspect of landscaping—like building furniture, or putting up fences, and the other has complete responsibility for planting. This was often the case in the interviews I did for the Garden Walk book, and it’s the category into which I fall. My husband is totally in charge of setting up the watering system (and watering much of the time), lighting, and such hardscaping as is not carried out by contractors. I do the plants. We still have to agree about major design choices (and don’t always). A recent decision to have a water feature turned out to be the only thing we agreed on—much discussion and compromise was necessary before we could finalize exactly what form that feature would actually take. But now it’s in, and we both love it.

All’s well that ends well. This time.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. My mate takes care of all technology and I take care of all living things. This includes all bio-hazards (right down to the cat box!). When we overlap in the area of gardening, it is alright – until he, who does not understand life cycles, begins with the questions: “Is that dying?”… “Is that dead?”…. “Are you sure you should be trimming it back like that?”… “Shouldn’t you throw that away?”

    After seven years he still does not understand. Maybe he’s hard-wired because he’s originally from Seattle, and we now are in a Mediterranean climate!

  2. For the first few years of building our garden, my partner objected whenever I carved out new planting beds or purchased new plants. I was creating too much work in his view. Now he walks me around the garden and wants to know why this space is empty, why that space isn’t growing faster, and, oh, by the way, why haven’t I planted another smoke bush over there.

  3. Oh thank God I’ve never had to share my garden with anyone – anyone who cares about the plants or the design. I do get totally jealous, though, of gardeners who have hard-working undergardeners to do the structural work and occasional digging. Seriously, when I read about husbands (always) who build bridges, lay patios, create gazebos and regrade sites, I turn quite green.

  4. Ditto Susan’s sentiment. I have a man around at least part of the time, but it’s sort of the same rule we have where if you drive, you get to pick the music. I’m doing the work, you can have an opinion, and I’ll listen to it, but I don’t have to act on it if it doesn’t suit me. Fortunately, he couldn’t care less as long as the grass is green and the neighbors aren’t looking askance at the gardens.

  5. In that same Little & Lewis book, one of them mentions how there was a bit of trickery involved at the beginning: One would send the other off on some errand, sabotage an offending plant that he knew the other would not consent to shovel-pruning. When it died out later, it was determined to be a good thing.

    My first husband worked like that, both outside in the gardens and inside with things like painting the entry way burgundy.

    Now, the house is mine. My boyfriend does things occasionally like throw together a Japanese rock garden as a surprise or bring home a particularly fetching rose (which can sometimes throw a wrench into the plans, needless to say) but largely he leaves me alone. He does, however, encourage me to think big in general… without him to encourage me instead of throw a fit at any little suggestion, I often wonder whether I would have a “bitty” garden without the deep, generous beds that I love.

    In other words, without doing the work… he’s definitely assisting me in the garden.

  6. For me, the jury is still out on whether I can harmoniously share the design and upkeep of a small parcel of land with another human being. For 20 yrs my husband had total control over, and interest in, our gardens. I stopped working 4 wks ago & am ready to get down and dirty with plants, rocks, trees, borders, ground cover, etc. I had no idea that negotiating garden ideas could be so tough. so adversarial. so likely to make me irritable & passive-aggressive. so full of subtle messages (“how can you possible think that plant looks good there?”). Marriage is tough enough w/o this kind of stress. I repeat: the jury is still out.

  7. I do the beds; he does the so-called lawn. This means that occasionally he decides to edge the beds – a neat freak thing that makes me slightly nuts. But, if it makes him happier about the mowing, so be it.

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