From contributing Ranter Allan Armitage
I have been asked so many times “Why are you so keen on gardening?” My reply is “You should see the people who come to my talks, now they are really nuts!” I wrote this short essay after being asked that too many times.
—Excerpted from Herbaceous Perennials Plants 3rd edition
I still possess a small booklet called To Buy or Not to Buy about why people buy plants, based on in-depth interviews with gardeners in different areas of the country. Its objectives were not to determine common motivations such as “to make my yard look pretty,” but to bring out the true and somewhat deeply hidden reasons why people garden.
I have talked about some of their findings in almost every lecture I have given for the last twenty years. And whenever I do, people nod their heads in agreement, and wonder why they haven’t heard these things before.
When gardeners are asked to describe reasons for gardening, three words emerge time and again: therapeutic, creative and exciting. Such words are more often associated with sporting events than gardening—nonetheless, therapy, creativity, and excitement are integral parts of gardening.
Therapeutic, because of the feeling that all is well with the world when our hands are in Mother Earth. Therapeutic because when a seed is sown, a cutting rooted, or seedling planted, we have accomplished something important.
Creative, because artistry is an inescapable part of gardening. A swath of Astilbe brightens the shade, a grouping of cool-leaved Artemisia brings calm to its neighbors, and a half-dozen forget-me-nots sing of spring. Each grouping creates vistas of beauty. We do not require a degree in landscape architecture to create such beauty; all we need is the simple love of gardening.
Exciting is a word seldom attributed to gardening. But is it not exciting to watch a garden change with time? To watch wild ginger bull through the soil in early spring, anticipate the popping of the buds of balloon flower, and anticipate the magic of the re-emergence of resurrection flower—these things are truly exciting.
Perhaps a couple of quotes from the past are also appropriate. The first is attributed to the great plant hunter Ernest Henry Wilson, who wrote it just three years before his death in 1930:
There are no happier folk than plant-lovers and none more generous than those who garden. There is a delightful freemasonry about them; they mingle on a common plane, share freely their knowledge and with advice help one over the stepping stones that lead to success. It is truthfully said that a congenial companion doubles the pleasures and halves the discomforts of travel and so it is with the brotherhood who love plants. (from E. H. Wilson, Plant Hunting, v.1, 1927)
A second quote comes from one of my former students, who wrote an essay on why people embrace perennials in their gardens. His essay could have been about any of our favorite groups of plants. (Those who believe our students aren’t among the finest in the world need to come and visit my classes.)
Americans, as a rule, live with a certain sense of urgency. Perhaps this is the price we pay for living in such a young country. Why waste time with some fickle plant that will flower only for a few short moments each year when there are countless annuals just begging to bloom all summer long? The commitment perennials require represents the driving force behind gardening as a whole. When someone kills a window box of petunias, there is no love lost. Odds are that a quick trip to Kmart will have the window box blooming again in short order. Let there be no doubt about the glorious beauty of a well-planted annual garden. But for all their show and eagerness-to-please, annuals provoke no anticipation. To be among an established garden teaches one why we have gardens at all; gardens are our refuge from the irritations of everyday life, places of peace and serenity that provide the hope and anticipation of good things to come.
(Ken James, student, 1995)
Today, Ken and his wife Leah are proud owners of James Greenhouses in beautiful Colbert, Georgia, and are exceptional growers of perennials. And the booklet To Buy or Not to Buy was written in 1968. It is just as relevant now as it was then.