Toiling in the soil? Not really.



“Lot of work.”

“This looks like a full-time job.”

“Did you do all this yourself?”

“How long did it take you to do this?”

Every year during Garden Walk I am deluged with expressions of amazement that I have been able to create such a thing as an urban garden of modest size without being completely overwhelmed with the stress and exhaustion of it all.

Right after Garden Walk, Robin/Bumblebee did an Examiner column in which she notes how the term “gardener” is avoided by many in the marketing side of the industry. Then, there’s Garden Design’s avoidance of it in their new PR (“exterior” design is preferred). The idea seems to be that “gardening” implies long, dirty, sweaty hours, and just doesn’t summon up a very attractive image that might inspire people to spend money on stuff.

I’m trying to think if there was ever a time when I really worked long, hard hours for days at a time in the garden. I honestly don’t think there was. Sure, in the beginning I cleared a lot of plants and weeds out, threw some soil around, but mainly I planted. Then, when (most of) those plants died, I planted more plants. And so on, eventually arriving at an equation where fewer and fewer plants needed to be replaced, and the garden seemed to look closer to “good,” thus lessening the work somewhat. In any case, there’s no way I could spend that kind of time in the garden; I have a very demanding full-time job.


I read descriptions of double-digging with horror; even the top-down approach seemed too much work. There had been successful plantings there before, I figured, so I’d probably be OK, if I added a few bags of manure or compost and mulched well. And, for the most part, I have been. The truth is, I mainly got into gardening so I could make a space for what you see above: relaxation, occasionally with other people, most often by myself. Every weekday, I come home and sit in my garden, snipping or staking now and then. There are bursts of work: bulbs must be planted, roses pruned, wisteria whacked back, weeding, mulching, planting, deadheading … but in the end, for me, a garden will always be a place to be. Not a place to work.

And what it gives me is worth way, way more than the work I have to put into it. It would probably be worth paying someone else to do that work if I couldn’t.

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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 regularly 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


  1. It’s funny to me that so many people think your garden’s a lot of work coz I look at it and envy how easy it would be to take care of it. Most of the work’s been done in just installing all that great hardscape – flagstones, raised beds, the pond, the wonderful mural on your garage wall. I also envy your summer weather that seems perfect for partying outdoors.

  2. The people you cite have been sold for years on “easy-care” “no-maintenance” everything.

    Where my mom lives, in suburban New Jersey, I often get the impression that nobody knows how to do anything for themselves–cook, grow a flower, paint a room, fix a bicycle.

    If I were a political paranoid, I’d say that corporations have made an awful lot of money on the idea that everything is too much work for the ordinary homeowner.

  3. Work, particularly of the blue collar getting your hands dirty kind, is looked down upon in our current national consciousness. You don’t have to be a paranoid to see the effects of decades of marketing of the American Dream as a class based tool to fuel consumption. The proper role of an American is that they should be to busy making money to do actual work and once they have enough money they will never have to work again. This is the attitude that has devalued the gardening profession as well as making gardening seem like just too much work. If you were a valuable person, a successful smart person, you would be lounging in your exquisitely decorated home in front of your high definition media center figuring out how to lose weight while the gardener did that icky dirty stuff for you so you could lounge outside when the temperature reached proper ambient conditions and the gardener has finished and left the premises.

    That is one notion. There is also the idea that many people are working so hard to pay for all their absolutely necessary consumption, that they are just too plain tired and worn out to work outside in a garden.

    Leisure, ease, convenience sells. Work is for the unsuccessful. That’s not paranoid thinking.

  4. Amen. Gardenin is hard work at first, if you’re starting from scratch, but once you get things settled in, it’s no more work (and a lot more fun) than cleaning house.

  5. Hm, guess I’m in the minority. I have spent many long days in the garden, really working hard. I decided I needed a meandering path and laid 500 patio blocks by myself. I have also installed two stone patios. I also hand weed everything, and since I am trying to eliminate lawn; I strip sod with my own sod stripper (not the gas powered kind either.)But because I work during the academic year, and because there is no gardening here for about seven months out of the year, I have time for this. I don’t call it “work” though; I call it my hobby, and I love all of it so much. Lest you think it’s all work, drinks are served at 5 pm every nice evening in the gazebo.

  6. Yeah, if people think MY garden looks like work, what would they say to those who have acres? Susan is right about my hardscaping, and to be honest, if I had had to install that, I would have used a good design service. Not so much to avoid the work–I don’t think my skills would be up to it.

  7. Maybe I am in the minority with Kitt. There are many days of long, hard, sweaty work in my garden. Far fewer of genteel deadheading and such. I think some of it is the size of the garden. Also the location. Here in rural Maryland, we have a lot of space, which means a lot of maintenance. And I’m still trying to wrestle back large areas from the wild.

    But don’t get me wrong. Even though I call it “work,” it is must enjoyable. But I’m funny that way. I love to work. Must be my peasant roots.

    Gardening Examiner

  8. Elizabeth, I would have loved to used professionals to install my path and patios but I couldn’t afford it. It was do it myself or nothing.

  9. This blog entry leaves me highly amused and confirms my belief that most people don’t have even the slightest clue as to the kind of work that had to go into their properties just to get them ready for one to step across the threshold and eventually out into their lovely little flower garden.

    What is it they say about bliss ?

  10. Elizabeth, your garden is beautiful and must be a great pleasure to you. When I began to garden seriously in this garden, there was almost nothing planted here other than some big and nondescript trees. At first it was a LOT of work — laying out beds, removing honeysuckle and poison ivy, planning and planting, replanning and replanting but now — except for my fairly frequent brainstorms of … “Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to have a big bed of ….. there?” — it honestly takes very little time, although from my complaining about it one would think I was tied to the mast 24/7/365.

    The pleasure it gives me is boundless. I am 71 and I know that some day in the not-too-distant future I won’t be able to keep things going. When that happens I will, I suppose, just shuffle off to the old folks’ home and complain about boredom but in the meantime, I have a plan for the side garden which will involve consolidating all the daylilies into one mammoth bed.

  11. I received the same comments on the Walk too. In actuality, I spend less time in my garden now than ever – it’s 95% perennials and no grass.

    Granted, to do a project or two takes some intensive time, but it’s not as though I’m building a raised bed, patio, stone path or an arbor every weekend, or even every summer. The majority of the hard, back-breaking, toiling work in the garden was done, generally, in a weekend, once, years ago.

    Now it is maintaining, which is occasional weeding, staking, watering & throwing compost at plants mostly. And I don’t consider that to be work either.

    Says the guy in the femmy shirt in the photo above…

  12. A friend actually encountered the opposite response from her doctor.

    “What do you do for exercise?, asked the doctor.

    “I garden,” she responded.

    “That’s not exercise!” exclaimed the doctor. “It’s not vigorous enough.”

    We were dumbfounded. What exactly did this doctor think gardening was? A gentile pastime of a gentlewoman dressed in a pastel floral dress, a straw hat and white lace gloves, delicately snipping blooms for cut bouquets? I’m still at a loss. I should have sent photos of the tons of rock we used to build more than 200 ft of rock wall since last April, not to mention the tons of soil and gravel and plants we hauled as well. Not vigorous enough?! Harumph!

    Rosella, seeing your name gave my heart a little lurch. It’s an uncommon name, and other than my mom, I’ve only met one other Rosella in my life. I had a moment of sweet sadness; my mom died almost 3 years ago. This may sound strange to hear, but thank you for the memories your name evoked.

  13. Lisa, yes, gardening is very good exercise, which your doctor should know, as scientific studies have been done on it. I think we posted here once on it.

    Michelle D, The fact is that most of move into properties where others have gardened–for decades. (It’s not like we’re arriving in covered wagons and tilling the soil in between fighting off the Iroquois.) But sure, credit is due to those who came before and made it possible.

  14. I liked this post, Elizabeth, because it serves to remind me of what I often forget to do–to just “be” in the garden. I find that I mostly go into busy mode when I’m in the garden. Sometimes I call it “work” but it’s mostly of the “nice work if you can get it” variety. A friend recently advised me to take a few minutes each day to just sit on my deck and meditate on future life decisions I’m considering. Sounds good and I actually tried it, but had to stop. I found that sitting in my garden, I was completely distracted by thinking about all the things I needed to do in my garden. Future life concerns vanished into the wind. Which may speak to why I really love my garden–it’s here and now, whatever shape it’s in. And maybe for me (and many other gardeners, I suspect), “being” in the garden may be a more active verb than for others.

  15. I’m with the ‘lots of long, sweaty days of work’ at least when I was really getting the garden going. There are plenty of days now that are much easier but back when I was putting in rock and brick it was definitely classified as hard work. But I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t love it.

  16. I look forward to the day when I can devote more time in my garden to just being and enjoying… but for now (and I suspect maybe always) I am like Robin: genetically predisposed somehow to enjoying the work. And even if I ever look at the garden and can think, “Huh, this is looking good…” I’ll find the one spot that doesn’t have have to tweak that to death…

    All in all, I think that what we are all proving in these comments is that with a garden, you’re really able to create a garden that is as much–or as little–work as you desire. If you want (or have) to haul your own stones to make a path, or if you are lucky enough to inherit a garden with good hardscaping, it’s all good. It’s all gardening.

  17. A mature garden is less work, but, sorry gang, it’s still work. Now, I and you all obviously enjoy the work, but let’s not kid ourselves. We still put way more time and effort into our gardens than most people are inclined to do.

    I have finally learned to completely ignore the pleas of a friend of mine to “help” with her landscape. She never likes the advice I give her and, even more importantly, she won’t take care of it. Not a criticism really. She’s got other passions and pastimes. But, she’s not a gardener. I was over at her house just last night and it was all I could do to not pull the weeds next to the house or water the plentiful but pitiful containers of random annuals on the deck. Now, most of us barely consider pulling a few weeds and watering a few containers work. But, it is and most people aren’t really willing to make the time to do it.

  18. What’s wrong with a little hard work, with getting your hands dirty? If more able people in this country would work in their gardens, rather than hiring someone to cut the grass & garden for them, this country wouldn’t be one of the fattest in the world. Sorry, I couldn’t help the ranting.

  19. My doctor knows gardening is exercise, Eliz – she’s a gardener, too. And she’s seen me enough times for gardening mishaps (finger fractured while planting!) to know that I garden with extra vigor. My friend’s doctor, however, was completely clueless. She needs to be enlightened. We briefly entertained a mad plan of kidnapping her for a day of gardening. hahahohohehe

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