Renegade Gardener Parts Company with GardenRant



We've long been admirers of Don Engebretson, the Renegade Gardener.  We love his funny and spot-on yearly awards so much, we recommend them again and again and again.  He's given this blog and especially the Manifesto a shout-out or two and we've become a mutual admiration society among ranters.  But now he's having second thoughts.

The fine and feisty women over at have a manifesto on their home page that includes the statements, “In love with real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden gardens,” and another, “Bored with perfect magazine gardens.” When I first started visiting the site and read the manifesto I thought yeah, right on—rambling, dirty gardens are what most turn out to be, chaos is the norm, perfect magazine gardens are unachievable. I’m easy…

I now find it paradoxical that the first statement in the GardenRant manifesto is, “We are convinced that gardening matters.” You’re damn right it does. And if gardening matters, what matters most, is gardening well.

Accompanying this declaration is the photo above with the caption: "One of mine, I’m proud of it, and I can do better."

Now might be a good time to confess – I don't exactly live by that part of the Manifesto, either.  I DO love gardens that are real, dirty (what else?), and bug-ridden (especially pollinator-ridden).  And rambling is fine in a large space.  But chaos?  That's what gardeners work their butts off to fight off, right?  We bring order to what would otherwise be a big unruly mess.


Here's what I mean.  I may have gotten rid of all my turfgrass but I didn't exactly replace it with a tall-grass meadow.  Lord no.  This 3" tall mosaic of groundcovers criss-crossed with brick pavers is about as much chaos as I ever want to see in my little patch of heaven.  And even as I post this photo my eye goes right to the messy edge around what's supposed to be a perfect oval shape, and I want to fix it.

And am I really bored with perfect magazine gardens?  Actually, I'm more bored by the how-to articles than by the gardens.  Great, imaginative gardens – well photographed – I could look at all day, especially in winter.

So where do YOU stand on "real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden" versus "perfect magazine" gardens?


  1. Levels of order depend on the gardener, and what a particular space is needed for. I like healthy order myself, and as I prepare for a garden tour I remember two pieces of advice given to me by a great gardener, keep the lawn (I know, I know) well mowed for a month before the tour, AND have all edges be crisp. I am doing my best. I think your groundcover mosaic is fabulous.

  2. I enjoy pictures of “perfect gardens” and I like the inspiration that they offer. But they are not always the most realistic gardens. I think RRCB-R gardens are more realistic…honestly, the best thing about gardening is that it can be as much or as little as you want….or as formal or rambling as you want.

  3. Butterfly gardeners hope for a moth & butterfly-eaten landscape. If you want to invite birds into the yard, you must first invite the insects. So I’m good with the bug-ridden part except in my edible landscape where I work eliminate other eaters of my crops, but without poisons.

    Chaotic? Never.

  4. “And am I really bored with perfect magazine gardens? Actually, I’m more bored by the how-to articles than by the gardens. Great, imaginative gardens – well photographed – I could look at all day, especially in the winter.”

    This is on the money.

  5. With a 2.5 acre lot, I have far too large a space and far too small a budget for my garden to be anything BUT chaotic and rambling…at least for another few years. Conquering the space, one bed at a time!

  6. the how-to articles absolutely are awful. I don’t want to read the same how-to articles year after year in my magazines. Give me some great garden porn anyday. Longwoods, and Chanticleer, I am NOT bored with them. I know that they have paid teams of gardeners but I still find them inspirational. Monet’s garden, and Sissinghurst, someday I will tour them, and I don’t think I will find them boring either. But I also want to see and hear about real people gardening. Local garden tours are wonderful, especially the gardens where the people have done it themselves.

  7. I’m in love with nature gardens. Some gardeners like their nature gardens to be well-ordered, formal even. I don’t have a problem with that,though I’d rather be busy with something other than making my garden look groomed/perfect. organized chaos is where gardening is at for me 🙂

  8. F**k perfection. “Perfect” gardens are like “perfect” homes–I enjoy the aesthetics, like most people who love art and beauty, but they are not real and do not bring comfort, only anxiety. Living with one (you couldn’t live “in” one–you would feel that you have to go out in your white gloves, spotless shoes, and lay a hankie on the garden bench before you sit down) would not be fun. Striving for perfection is oppressive.

    I thought of something connected, the way women (and, yes, some men) undergo the plastic surgeon’s knife for another sort of “perfection.” A recent example is Bristol Palin, a very young woman and completely charming in appearance with hints of her Native American heritage. An ORIGINAL. Now she looks like a Stepford Wives clone and my heart aches.

  9. Why does a garden have to be perfect or chaotic? Why do we have to choose when most gardeners fall somewhere in between? Both fill the
    souls of different gardeners and like people have their own personalities. Live and let live.

  10. Kinda like the difference between Kandinsky and Rembrant. Two artists, two vastly different styles but definitly more than finger painting.

    I think well thought out gardens are ususally best for me, but at the end of that day though can anything in nature produces really be a mess?

  11. One thing to remember – gardens are dynamic, not static. As living things, they change and evolve over time. At my house, at any given moment, some areas are tidy and manicured and others are completely out of control. When the chaos reaches a certain level, I go in and restore some order. While I’m doing that, the tidy areas are trying to get wild again. Things move back and forth between being “perfect” and being “chaotic”. And isn’t that never-ending, cyclic process part of the fun of gardening?

  12. A well thought-out, well-groomed formal garden is a thing of beauty. What I don’t like is many of my neighbor’s yards/garden–everything clipped/cut/pruned within an inch of its life, very little color, nothing allowed to grow into a natural shape or to develop any kind of natural lushness.

    Give me my rambling, chaotic beds any day.

  13. I am not a detail person. I have a friend who’s vegetable garden is laid out in perfect, measured rows and it is beautiful, but I have no patience to do it in my own garden. I am haphazard and lean more towards chaos, but I also want to keep the chaos reigned in a little so that it is still beautiful and functional. I love that gardening is forgiving in a way. I can stuff my perennial bed too full and then move things and spread things the next spring. I can plant too many pumpkin plants because I am so excited and I just have to pull one (or two or three) up and the compost will feed next year’s bed.

    Gardens are fabulous, whether they are “perfect” or bug ridden and inspiration can be found in both.

  14. The thing is perfect glossy magazine gardens ARE bug ridden, chaotic, real and dirty. The photographer is just ‘setting you all up’ to think it is a story of perfection. It’s not. Ask any professional garden photographer or garden owner / designer who has had their garden published.
    I think the how to articles benefit newbies. We all had to start and learn from some point in our lives.
    I’d appreciate it if there were better writing in those articles or if the person who was writing the article actually had some real talent.

  15. I agree – why does it have to be so absolute? If you think about it, at some time in the process of weeding beds, the weeded ones will look manicured and the unweeded ones chaotic, so both exist simultaneously. Go with it; do the best you can and don’t obsess. And may I say, this is an area where being a plant collector pays off – people tend to fixate on this or that cool specimen to the exclusion of all the stuff you’d prefer they ignore…….

  16. What the hell is perfect, anyway?

    Gardens are process, not product — by which I mean maintenance is everything. You don’t garden by planting a bunch of specimens and walking away (though deities know some people try). Entropy is real; the universe really does move toward disorder.

    So even those “perfect magazine gardens” are the result of someone contantly engaging in the process — weeding, deadheading, and so on — and that means that um, hey … they’re probably not “perfect” all the time.

    Upon reflection, I think I know what the perfect garden is — it’s the one I want to be in, digging and weeding. Whether or not anyone else wants to stare at pictures of that is not my problem.

  17. I am a garden writer and avid gardener. But my deep dark secret is that I probably write as much (or more ) than I actually garden. I have health issues (lupus), resulting in fatigue and I cant be exposed to the sun for too long and I don’t take heat very well. So you may ask how do I garden, Answer: very carefully. (ha!) Having a chronic illness for most of my life I decided a long time ago that since I feel like crap most of the time anyway, I might as well feel like crap while I am doing something I enjoy. Now in my 50’s that is gardening. Parts of the garden are looking pretty good right now (if you don’t look to close) and other parts are a mess. As a writer I can identify the bugs that are eating my hibiscus, I can tell you how to prevent the black spot which is defoliating my roses as we speak, and I can give you turf alternative such as the clover and weeds in my lawn. But when I sit out in a shady spot and doze off near the Zepherine Drouhin rose, while sipping iced herb tea made with my own herbs, I don’t care about these imperfections. This is heaven and this is why I garden.

  18. I recently attended my neighborhood garden tour. While I appreciated seeing the “purchased” landscapes, they just did not have the impact of the ones obviously built by the homeowners.
    You need to see the “finished” product (as if we ever finish) in addition to the beginning and during shots–but we often don’t get to see those. Gardens in progress–warts and all–are what really educate me.

  19. Like anything else, there’s got to be balance and there’s got to be a season. I’m a young-ish mother of 5 and ANYTHING that takes too much time away from my children is not worth it. Right now my season is mothering. Not to say that I can’t have hobbies, everyone needs an escape, but there’s no way I can expect perfection from my garden. I like looking at perfect gardens, but it would be an exercise in frustration if I demanded that of myself and continually fell short..

    My husband and I toured a local garden the other day and we just drooled at the perfect order. Not a blade of grass was out of place. We drove home and pulled into a driveway full of bikes and scooters and our youngest son ran to my door and handed me a bouquet of dandelions. Apparently he thinks his yard is pretty darn perfect.

  20. I am persistently caught between the exuberant chaos that engulfs me and my maintenance gardener mind that wants to tidy it all up. The Lush works at it all day. I work at controlling it when I can find a few spare moments. The result, long ago I learned how to find beauty in the middle of chaos.

  21. My garden always needs something. that is the way I like it. weeding, transplanting, mowing, pruning. as all gardeners know, and some of the comments here have said, gardening is the way, not the end.
    I love it that way..
    Speaking about perfect gardens…Later this week I am attending the American Hosta National Convention here in New England. The gardens we will visit are ‘perfect’ and have been groomed for the past five years for these three days. hundreds of hostas in each garden. a treat for any hosta lover. It is also a lot of work for the gardeners. If something is not perfect in a garden, that’s alright too.

  22. In winter my garden is orderly, though formal it will never be. It’s just easier to tend to the cleaning & clearing then (Mediterranean climate, mild winter). In the height of summer, chaos reigns, particularly in the veggie bed. Keeping up with produce & deadheading the bulbs, annuals & perennials is more than I can handle. Would I prefer orderly, magazine-perfect ? Sure, if I had the time. But since I don’t & chaos is truer to my nature anyway, I’m happy with my “real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden” patch of dirt.

  23. Besides being bored by the how-to articles, I cannot STAND the standard “top countdown” type articles. “6 great plants for ____.”
    “5 ways to improve _____ in your garden!” “3 elements of design!”
    It reminds me of those silly Cosmopolitan covers I see in the checkout lines : “top 3 ways to shock him in bed” or whatever. Can’t there be more imaginative stories than the old checklists all the time? Snoooooze. Yes, just give us more pictures of gardens taken in their best light, the plant porn, instead of these tired articles please. I’d rather read about the kind of issues or people discussed here on garden rant any day.

  24. I think one has to go with the ‘spirit’ of the Garden Rant missive, rather than hold them strictly to their statements. But, to each his/her own comfort level.

  25. I have spent much time trying to make a garden in a difficult setting: deer, surrounded by woods, on a country road.
    What I have finally learned is that the most fun for me is to have a harmonious group of plants that attract butterflies & hummingbirds and blend into the natural background. The work is to keep plants growing well.
    We all enjoy the work if we stop thinking of wanting a ‘perfect’ garden; the work will never end. Enjoy what you’ve got and work a little each day to improve your enjoyment!

  26. You can’t take chaos out of the equation, literally! It is always there, beckoning us to come and tame it. I bet the folks with the seemingly static, perfect gardens have an intimate knowledge of the chaos gardens can bring because they are always fighting it.

    I love that your manifesto is punky. It challenges the norms, and that’s cool. When I first saw your manifesto I had three years of professional gardening and a horticulture certificate behind me, and I was like “Yeah!” As someone who wanted change in the “horticultural industry”, it was what I needed to see. Posts may be hit or miss, but a manifesto like that is gold.

  27. Improving our gardens and getting them to look more the way we want is what gardening is all about. But manicured perfection is boring – and often means that this perfection is maintained by hired minions with chemicals. Having a wildlife friendly garden means letting plants go to seed and not often looking like a photo-op. My favorite gardens to visit don’t look perfect, they always have some part under construction – and they look as if the owner did the gardening.

  28. Thank you Don. Somehow it’s become unpolitically correct to strive for excellence. If I want unkempt and wild I go for a hike in the forest. Gardens allow for a sense of order and peace in a chaotic world-this is why humans started gardening in the first place.

  29. Don is a landscaper, so a garden is a product. He, and his clients, would like it to be perfect at the moment of completion. What happens after that……

  30. Ironically, I am a Master Gardener with a pretty chaotic garden: many 1/2 finished projects and a few piles of plants and supplies (stakes, row covers) at the margins. Not the garden one would expect from the title of Master! But my emphasis is on inspiring, teaching and coaching people to grow as much of their own food as possible, and finding beauty in the web of life as well as a visually delicious flow of leaves and blossoms. In my weekly ‘Ask the Master Gardener’ column I admonish to get rid of their monoculture ‘lawns,’ unless they host pro-golf tournaments or croquet matches. A group of volunteers just started growing food for the local Food Banka in a 2-acre garden. To me, the next step is creating a community garden where food bank clients can grow some of their own food, w/accessible raised beds & pathways for those who need them.
    I agree with Alison Kerr – without how-to articles, new gardeners will not grow. If you don’t need that information, just skip it & relish the gorgeous photography.

  31. “And if gardening matters, what matters most, is gardening well.” – No, what matters MOST is gardening to support and increase biodiversity – not only of plants, but of animals as well.

    The garden in the photo leaves me cold. Too unnatural-looking. Too many right angles. And the blue pot is like a slap in the face. Oh well, at least I don’t see any hostiles in the photo… er, hostas.

    Perfect magazine gardens all too often look like the landowner hired someone to do all the work for them. And to me, that is NOT gardening.

  32. I do love looking at pictures – virtually any pictures – of gardens, including formal English and French gardens but mine’s a messy mix of plants I’ve started from cuttings, found, been given… and I’ve decided I like chaos. But I still love the photos.

  33. I think it’s less about the garden and more about the gardener. If a rambling, chaotic garden brings pleasure to your life – go for it. Personally, I’m way to OCD to enjoy my garden/yard if there’s too much chaos.

    Only recently have I started gardening with my “right brain” – which has allowed me to better appreciate the diversity of various gardening styles.

  34. One person’s “perfect” garden is not quite good enough for someone else, yet it will be more than adequate for others – it’s all highly relative, personal, subjective, climate specific, and never ending. The most interesting gardens are never declared finished by their creators – they are constantly evolving, both by natural means and by human intervention. The day my garden is “finished”, then so too am I. Gardening is as much about what goes on in the mind of the gardener as it is about what actually exists in the garden – all that planning, scheming, fantisizing over glossy garden porn magazines and seed catlogues during the annual winterment…lamenting over what never managed to flourish as we had intended, because mother nature keeps throwing us a curve ball. I enjoy the photography of garden magazines, but I too find the articles so dull and insipid sometimes; just the same old thing – yet I can think of oodles of garden-related topics I’ve never ever seen discussed in a garden magazine or on a web-site that I think are worthy of closer examination and consideration; there is so much still left unexplored by the collective gardening community – this web site has done a good job of breaking new ground, but there are new plateaus of gardening dialogue yet to be reached…I keep waiting for it…sometimes I think perhaps I need to start authoring some yet-to-be explored areas myself just to get the ball rolling and hopefully expand the collective awareness and knowledge base??? Sure thing…I’ll get right on that – just as soon as I finish weeding the side border and pruning the boxwood hedge and watering the veggies and so on…

  35. A landscape is for standing back and admiring. A garden is for getting inside and looking around in. A landscape is finished (and then it is “maintained”); a garden never is.

    Gardening says to landscaping, “You missed a spot.” Landscaping says, “What? That wasn’t there before. Hey, you’re not supposed to be looking so close. Stay on the path!” Gardening smiles to itself.

  36. My garden is not tidy, it isn’t neat and it isn’t orderly. My garden is filled with weeds and insects and wildlife eaten plants. Currently a large portion of my hosta look like some odd stiff grass. My old fashioned hydrangea that has never been eaten before has been denuded of it’s leaves and flowers, it’s skeleton left to stand tall and exposed.

    I don’t prune, I don’t fuss, I don’t stress over my plants and flowers. I don’t like magazines for gardening anymore than I do for beauty or fashion. They aren’t real, I want to see gardens full of happy mayhem, delightful disorder and curious colors. A friend was here this weekend, standing looking and watching. She looked at me and said “I love it. Happy butterflies and bees all over, colors just tossed together, just growing, it’s just awesome, it’s what I want.”

  37. I stand firmly with Mr. Engebretson. I love this site but I’ve always had a problem with its manifesto. I took issue with certain points many months ago, writing that gardeners I know want to get beyond chaos; and that “bug-ridden” and “dirty” have undeniably negative connotations. I got scolded. I also asked the Ranters to define “real gardens” but nobody came forward with a definition. Pardon me for ranting.

  38. Dean, the four of us don’t even agree on every word in the Manifesto, but it sure succeeds at starting conversations. Love your comments and keep ’em coming.

  39. What does ‘gardening well’ really mean? Gardening should be about what makes each individual gardener happy. If a gardener’s goal is to impress others, fine; if the goal is only to impress oneself, FINE. Don is a snob, not a renegade in any way.

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