Why we garden


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

Armi_in_sasmall_small30695919_stdI 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.

Previous articleGreat blizzards I have known—and a great giveaway!
Next articleSnow thrower giveaway update
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 yahoo.com


  1. Gardening, is a meditative ‘one with the universe’ experience for me. Not the planning, not the gazing but the active doing– digging and planting. The quotes are excellent! Gail

  2. “But is it not exciting to watch a garden change with time? To watch wild ginger bull through the soil in early spring…?”

    Yes! The everchanging magic of wildflowers. It’s an amazing botanical clock. It IS exciting!!! (I like my Zinnias, too:).

    But my vote for “bulling” in the Spring is Bloodroot! …And Trillium; …And Solomon’s Seal; …And…oh, never mind:)

  3. I was just reading some poetry criticism / theory by Robert Bly, and this made me think of that, and vice versa. He argues that humans are unique in our capability to have one arm reaching outwards into nature, and the other inwards into human intelligence and emotion. We do this, he says, by using metaphorical imagery in language. It seems to me that gardening is a metaphor itself for Bly’s argument that we need more of this two-armed connection in our lives; not only need it, but can’t do without it if we are to remain sane, innovative, evolving. Every perennial is a metaphor for our hope, faith, and patience in the larger world we create in our small, brief, seemingly insignifcant lives.

  4. “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.”

    I beg to differ.

    Starting flats of annual seeds in a basement while January and February scream outdoors is the epitome of anticipation.

  5. What your student Ken James wrote. Yes gardens are a refuge from the irritations of life partly because they can teach us a great deal of tolerance for the vagaries that are inherent in life. Most gardeners can accept the good, the bad and the ugly in their gardens, the successes and failures, birth and eventual death. That is life. That is the nature of things. It isn’t personal.

    The transition of using lessons learned in the garden and applying them to our social environment, to our fellow human beings is much more difficult. It is harder to believe that most things are not personal, that it is just the nature of the beast. So we head back to the garden.

  6. I think gardening is everything mentioned above and more. My garden is an arena for all my friends. I don’t rush in the garden, but rather savor each visit and slow down. I created my garden from the plants I aquired. Many bought, others given, some by chance…oh, this one came from Tony, this one from Garden Writers, this one from my friend kk, this one from a Friends Lecture at the JC Raulston Arboretum. Each visit to my garden is a trip down memory lane. Each visit. What I created from each of these “gifts” are the ingredients to my pie…to my special space. To hell with landscapes. Its a garden that speak from our soul.

  7. I’m with Firefly! Growing many of my own annuals from seed (some of them veggies) is the height of anticipation and excitement, and therapy and artistry and delight (weeks of planning where to plant, what new combinations to try, etc etc)–not to mention life affirming.

    I don’t see how “annuals bashing” serves the purpose of trying to woo American gardeners into appreciating perennials more! It’s silly…and, I’m afraid, feeds the harmful notion of gardener elitism that makes me nuts.

    Could Americans be taught a thing or two about using annuals in more creative and exciting ways–and to “dig deeper” into the joyful world of gardening? Absolutely…but we need to be careful we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot in the process.

  8. In the research stages of writing our book Sacred Gardens, it was hard not to return again and again to the classic A History of Garden Design by Derek Clifford. Like us, Clifford saw gardens and gardening in emotional terms. He said,

    “These two emotions, joy in relief from stress, and hunger for spiritual reawakening, are the remote source of leisured man’s garden making.”

    For those of us who garden for peace, for relaxation, this is pretty obvious, but it’s interesting to note that our ancestors had the same inspiration.

    Our anthropologist friend,Dr. Fred Meli, told us that early humans often built their own living spaces on or around rock outcroppings, hills and other
    landscape features that “felt good to them.” Often the site had other “powers, forces and energy that were discernible”, said Fred. Dr. Meli feels that human
    beings today create landscapes – gardens, ponds, a whiskey barrel filled with water and a water lily, whatever – as an act of meditation and veneration of
    that space and a need to be connected to it, even if they (humans) “don’t understand that is what they’re doing”. Fred goes on to say that “Many humans have lost the ability to sense power in the landscape, thus, they involve themselves with other
    activities.” Like planting annuals for color.

Comments are closed.