Garden as Process

Large wooden praying mantis at Cheekwood Art & Gardens. Temporary art installations are part of the evolving artistry of many public gardens.

Is a particular plant a weed? Is a garden a work of art? And who gets to decide? If you’ve read our recent rantings, you’ve likely noticed these questions do not have simple answers. The answers vary, depending on the gardener.

Many gardeners (like me) learn their land slowly. At first, they may plant one of everything, and see which thrive, and spread those around. Or they may start with tried-and-true passalongs or familiar friends, then gradually add unfamiliar plants here and there. With knowledge and experience, they might make better guesses. With ample money, time, and labor, they might build better bones.

Whatever their approach, for these gardeners, creating a garden is a process. It is not a remodel that will beautify the neighborhood while the gardener kicks back and enjoys having finished. It may very well beautify the neighborhood, but it will never be finished — which is really the point.

And those plants in the garden? They may be place-holding pioneers, filling ground that will later be given to longer-lived (and perhaps fussier) treasures. A certain plant could be a reminder, anchoring beloved memories of a person or place. It might be a weed the gardener hasn’t dealt with yet. Or it could just be there because a curious gardener is getting to know it better.

This type of evolving garden—a living laboratory, an ongoing conversation between person and place—is different from landscapes installed (by professionals or do-it-yourselfers) as a route to decreasing yardwork, much like low-care siding is installed on a home to decrease painting. The steward of a low-care landscape may welcome expert opinions about such things, but I would not presume to tell an avid gardener what is and is not a weed, what is or isn’t art.


  1. Garden as a process. You have described my gardening style perfectly. The next time my husband asks me when am I going to be done, I will show him this.

  2. I don’t think we just learn our land slowly, what flourishes, what fails. I think we learn ourselves slowly too, what pleases us and what doesn’t. We test preconceived notions against the reality of the land.

  3. You are quite right, Evelyn. There are as many different styles of gardening (or landscaping) as there are people. I myself want my garden to be all of those things: experimental, low(er)-maintenance, attractive to wildlife, passalong-friendly, well designed. Hahaha! But never “done.”

  4. As I told my neighbor who is learning to garden: I have killed many plants as I learned what does or does not work. Usually when I am standing by the trunk of a pluot that just did not like our climate north of California.

  5. checking blogs, thinking of starting one, liked this one a lot. Avid gardener, a work of art in progress always. Still remember the couple at the Garden Center arguing about planting: she said it is always in a state of change. He said plant it and be done with it, the couple went at it for awhile, and voices were raised. Of course she was right, he has a lot to learn.

  6. I beg to differ. A garden is always finished, as soon as the gardener stops gardening. I view mine with total and utter defeat every day. Surprisingly, it’s no less interesting. I’ve learned to marvel in the rhythmic spiky spires of motherwort and to cheer on the leaf miners in the lambsquarters. Even thought a time or two about testing the efficacy of cleavers on my baldness. What never occurs to me anymore is attempting to regain control. My biggest challenge is finding and getting the attention of my stone deaf geriatric dog in the thicket.

  7. And yet – granted the absence of bulldozers – there is a remaining core. Like us – changing our cells continually but still feeling ourselves essentially to be the same person as the toddler we once were..

    So – always playing round a theme?

  8. Our garden, high above a bay – in an area where bears and moose outnumber humans – had a very tall post which held a prayer flag. New “neighbor” (other side of bay) came rushing up to the cabin. What he thought was a rescue mission turned into a chance to chat and explain the why of it all. Yes, it stayed until the winds shredded it, carrying its message far over meadow and woodland.

  9. Wonderful post, loved the praying Mantis statue 🙂

    I moved 6 months ago to the city and now I don’t have a garden 🙁 I do have containers to plant in etc. but it’s not the same.. That said, I don’t miss battling with AWFUL Bittersweet vines or Buckthorn saplings with endless traveling roots!!!

  10. I recently had a friend’s garden that I designed on a big garden tour and I overheard her telling one of the visitors that it was a bit arbitrary to view the garden in one weekend visit. “A garden is a motion picture – not a snapshot” she said.

  11. It is crazy how this happens…I was just reading another blog this morning with a similar theme to the post. As a landscape designer…an avid gardener…experimenter…plant-a-holic…I think of gardening as an art much like that of Jackson Pollock. Plants are our medium and the earth is our canvas. Sometimes it appears as though we are just throwing it all together…and sometimes it feels that way…and low and behold we eventually can stand back and see a masterpiece! And then it changes…

    Southern Wild Design (dot com)

  12. As a newbie, first as a gardner, now trying to make sense of it all in a blog, I started searching for other gardening blogs and fell upon “Garden as Process” which really resonated with me. It’s such an important and meaningful subject.
    I’m finding my attempts to reconcile gardening and life is trending towards the long established and elusive tenet -the more personal, the more universal, having seen ample evidence of this in both life surveyed and in all other art forms.
    Maybe some sort of private hermetic activity such as that found in gardening for gardening sake, as in poetry for the sake of poetry has the best chance of elevating and broadening its appeal as an art form.
    I don’t know but so far, it seems that tending to my garden patch has become more and more personal; a process that both quiets the mind and feeds the soul. The art part may be happily beyond my concern and control.


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