(Not So) Helpful Helpers in the Garden

THIS garden helper knows all about compost ingredients.

Guest Rant by Wendy Kiang-Spray

It was a casual and calm Sunday afternoon. My husband had just finished mowing the lawn and taking the trash out. He had a particularly energetic afternoon and if I recall, he’d taken some fallen branches to the curb too. He came in, fixed himself something to eat, and as he began downstairs to watch some TV, he happened to mention, “Oh, I left you a little surprise in your garden.” What? What’s the surprise? He explained, “I found a dead chipmunk and put it in your garden.” WHAT??? I’ll admit, I went ballistic.

Is this sheer laziness? Why wouldn’t he dispose of it properly? Why throw it in my garden of all places? Doesn’t he know I work there? That I put my hands in there? I mean, I get down on my knees. I pull weeds with my hands. Did he want me to go about my gardening in my Zen-like way and then come face to face with a dead chipmunk and have a heart attack? Was that the surprise he had in mind for me?

A big blowout ensued. In the end, I had to suspend my disbelief and trust that as he professed, he was only trying to help. You see, he was thinking that this animal will decompose, and decomposition is like compost, and I like compost, so therefore I would like a dead chipmunk in my garden. It was all too innocuous to be sheer laziness, which was what I originally suspected. In the end, he took care of the chipmunk, and I let the issue go. When I was calm, I did explain the concept of greens and browns in the compost and gave him several examples of what should NOT go in the compost bin, and what should definitely not go directly in the garden.

I remember a friend telling me a funny story about the time she was getting ready to plant garlic. She had a whole basket full of garlic bulbs separated by variety and ready for planting the next morning. Her adult son arrived home after she’d gone to bed and he decided to “help” by peeling all the papery skins off each clove. She nearly had the same kind of “surprise” heart attack that I would have had facing the dead chipmunk. This makes me wonder, are there other gardeners who have had thoughtful loved ones “help” in a way that was not really helpful?

Wendy Kiang-Spray is a freelance garden writer working on her first book about growing and cooking Chinese vegetables. She gardens in Rockville, Maryland and volunteers with the DC Master Gardeners. Follow her garden happenings at Greenish Thumb or on Facebook.


  1. My garden helper experience came in the form of my landlords’ young son. I had received a plant delivery. I spent the afternoon planting and labeling. Their son watched with interest.

    I stepped inside for a few minutes. When I returned, I found the boy carefully “returning” a plant label to each plant. After he had first gathered up all the labels.

    I still don’t know what some of those plants are.

  2. My only detrimental help was the planting of a maple seed from the local zoo by my then 3 year old daughter. It’s now the largest tree in my landscape. It’s a silver maple and probably will split soon in the Kansas winds.

  3. My mom “helpfully” emptied and replanted the pots with “dead plants” in them. They were nice hostas, it was winter, they were dormant. I was able to rescue two of them from the dirt pile on the other side of the fence. I suggested next time, she take five seconds and ask me first. Sigh.

  4. Luckily, this help was for a plant I no longer owned — it “went” with the house we sold a few years back. One year after selling, I was speaking with a former neighbor who told me the new owner had chopped down the 30+ year-old climbing rose bush near the front porch – the one I loved so dearly. Next time I saw the new owner I tried to be casual as I asked about it. He said he cut it down because it was dead. It was February. In Denver. The thing was dormant.

    I’m happy to report it did grown back. You probably coudn’t kill that thing if you wanted to.

  5. I had a Rosa Glauca that I’d trained into a beautiful 8′ fountain. My father in law came to visit. He was still in a different time zone, so up before I was. I woke up to find he’d chopped it half! He wasn’t familiar with shrub roses, just hybrid teas. I cut it down to the ground and started over.

  6. Cooking rather than gardening but: Mom asked Dad to prep the pomegranite for Thanksgiving Salad. He carefully fished out all the seeds and threw them down the drain and presented the pith for the salad.

  7. My carefully tended garden was chosen to be on our town’s annual garden tour. The evening prior to the big day I was discussing with my husband all the things I had yet to do before the tour began – I have a tendency to procrastinate and may have been a bit frazzled at that moment. And the discussion may have sounded more like a rant, but oh well…

    My very helpful 5 year-old-son was witness to the discussion and promptly went outside to do what he could to assist me (without my knowledge of course). As I was finishing up my inside chores so I could head out he came beaming into the house with a basket full of flower heads. FLOWER HEADS. The little darling had heard me talk about all the deadheading I needed to do and he did his best to make sure that he clipped each and every blossom from my prized perennial beds. The look of triumph on his face was the only thing that kept me from having a complete breakdown!

    To recover, I simply floated the flower heads – not a stem in the bunch – in bowls and saicers around the property where they would have been blooming and my son proudly told every garden visitor that day that he was the one who deadheaded. It was a tour to remember.

    • That is one of the sweetest stories I’ve ever heard. Although I can only imagine how painful it might have been at the time.

      My 3 yr old used my kitchen cleaner (w/bleach) to spray my potted plants. He was mimicking me spraying with dear spray. I only had my back turned for a moment.

  8. Oh, I still haven’t quite forgiven my helpful husband for “tidying up” the ground covers around the stepping stones in my front bed. They’d taken about three years to spread nicely between the stones: in one afternoon, all gone, leaving lots of bare soil for weeds to grow in. (And okay, I had to remove that line of stones later for water-flow reasons, so no harm done in the end, but still: ask first!)

  9. My aging mother in law has an issue with my clematis. I think she thinks they are weeds. Despite me explaining numerous times they are not, she pulls them out every time she sees them popping out of the soil. I clearly mark them and leave labels just for her to see. The worst was when she pulled two out of pots while they were in full bloom. I found the root balls in a garbage bag nearby. She thinks she is weeding.

    She also doesn’t understand mulch. One cold winter she pulled back all my mulch from newly planted shrubs. Of course I didn’t notice until after the ground froze. She left the roots exposed because she pulled back the dirt with the mulch. I found out an hour before an ice storm hit and I ran around frantically trying to recover them although at that point the ground and mulch was frozen solid.

    Did I mention she gardened her entire life before going senile?

  10. Great post, Wendy 😉 Hey, I recognize that compost tumbler. That the one you won in my contest! I have the very same one. Glad to know you guys are using it and it looks like your little daughter is a pro at it !!

    • Yes! We had some awesome compost this spring! It’s still fun to turn, and has been the only compost situation that has worked for me. I’d really love to have just one more.

  11. For several years I rented a house which initially had a somewhat overgrown driveway. I carefully sculpted an arch from the bougainvillea hanging over the driveway from the neighbor’s fence. I kept it very neat and symmetrical until one day I came home from work and it was gone. The neighbor proudly told me that she had cut it down for me since she was taller than me. I’m a mere 5’8″ and she was 5’9″ or 10″. I was crushed.

    Of course, one summer I went to a boyfriend’s mom’s house to help him clean up her yard. Since it was mid-summer, I casually reached down, grabbed a leafless brown rose bush with my gloved hand, pulled it easily off its rotted roots and flipped it into a garbage can. The next time I went over to the house, the dead rose was balanced on a bucket of water to root since “roses lose their leaves for part of the year”. I was never forgiven for “killing” the rose.

  12. Okay, that literally had me laugh out loud. Well-intentioned your hubby was, for sure. Mine chooses, instead of the gardens/beds, to leave the carcasses out in the yard for the eagles, hawks, or any other scavengers to feast upon.

    • Yes, this is definitely his thinking. You reminded me that once, I looked in my backyard and he’d thrown about 6 oranges past-their-prime out there. Just opened the back door and threw them in the yard. For who/what I don’t know. I guess the chipmunk was not the first offense!!!

  13. My in-laws visited from Europe this summer. My MIL asked if she could help in the garden. It was typical South Carolina–humid and temps in the 90s, and frankly–I didn’t want to work in the garden, nor did I want my almost 80-year-old MIL to pass out in the garden. We have a bit of a language barrier anyway, so I was surprised to look out the office window and find her “weeding” the front perennial bed. She had nicely weeded all of the columbine, Mexican primrose, and the creeping blue star that had finally established itself in the rock path. UGH.

  14. I guess I should count myself lucky that for the most part my husband won’t do anything in the garden unless specifically asked (mowing the lawn excepted). However, years back when red plastic mulch was the new thing I spent a fortune on some to test it out. After the growing season was over I tossed it into my weeding tub until I’d have a chance to dry it out and fold it. Assuming it was trash, hubby dumped it all. One use was all it got. Aaargh.

  15. When I was a teenager and before my thumb turned green, I used too mow the lawn. My Grandfather died recently and a Cherry Tree was planted on my parents side tree orchard site. Well, I ran over it with the riding mower thinking it was a weed while listening on my headphones. Still feel horrible, but at least my parents don’t live in that house anymore. If anything, I’ve taking a 180 on the plant knowledge I have gained.

  16. My 4 year old son had watched me pour gasoline into the rototiller. One day he got the cap off and filled the gas tank with water from the hose. Never knew why the sucker quit working until Jesse remembered it for me a few years later.

  17. I have just discovered this website! Whoa. Those stories are so familiar.

    I often start many seedlings indoors. So one year I had several basil plants that I had started inside, and then transplanted to my garden, intermixed with the roses and other flowers. My darling hubby decided to help me one day with weeding, and pulled each and every one of those basil plants from the garden.

    It worked great for him, because now he is only allowed to mow our one tiny patch of lawn.

  18. My darling plucks the tomatoes and other veggies, and any undesireables get tossed – right back into the garden (though as far away from the plants as you can get in a 8 foot wide bed), where they rot and attract flies. Get a lot of volunteer tomatoes and peppers this way…

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