The Patience of a Gardener


Recently we’ve hosted lively discussions here at Garden Rant about spending gobs of money on our gardens, choosing native over non-native plants, and to what extent gardens are art. To me, there is a more personal and pertinent issue at stake with regard to America’s current horticultural practices: how they affect our daily experience of nature.

A garden may be expensive or not, it may qualify as art or not, and it may host plants from all corners of the globe or from within a 5-mile radius of its location; regardless, it is an intersection between person and place. Ideally, it could be not just a community of plants or a series of outdoor living spaces, but a mutually beneficial relationship.

Part of the fun of creating a garden is trying unfamiliar plants, like this silver-leaved horehound (Marrubium rotundifolium) mingling with winecups (the red-purple blooming Callirhoe involucrata, an old favorite) in my new courtyard garden.

Unfortunately, the emotional and spiritual rewards of gardening are diminished by our reluctance to allow gardens to develop slowly, over time, in response to climatic and geologic factors as well as a gardener’s growing familiarity with his/her land.

Affluent gardeners tend to want results right away. So do their neighbors. Gardeners and garden designers in certain locales may be pressured to have a garden looking fairly settled soon after it is planted (or “installed,” a term that underlines this bias).

We are not tolerant of someone’s newly created garden, tending to judge its current look without exerting ourselves to see their potential landscape as they envision it. But dreaming and anticipating are key parts of the gardening process. For some, they are the most rewarding parts.

Creating a place at a pace limited by one human’s physical abilities can be satisfying and meaningful. Even if the visible results seem miniscule to outsiders, less visible results might include a growing pride, a deepening sense of rootedness, new understanding of local plants/animals/climate/geology.

Like many, I enjoy learning about and growing plants native to my region. Growing native plants can test your patience. Depending on where you live, they may be hard to source. If you are lucky enough to find a grower, the plants may be small and require several years to produce blooms or fruits. If you cannot find a local grower, you may opt to start seeds, which further lengthens the timeline.

One of my most rewarding gardening experiences so far was growing New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) from seed in my Minnesota prairie. Over the years, these asters spread through my garden, producing a delightful variety of flower colors from shell pink to deep purple. Seeing its natural variations, I felt I was getting to know New England aster as a species rather than as one plant. When I think of this aster now, my mind supplies not one image but a diverse array of them.

Seeded New England aster variations in my Minnesota prairie garden.

It takes patience to find the right plants for a site. Sure, a knowledgeable local gardener (or grower or designer) might be able to give you a head start by recommending plants that have a good chance of succeeding in your new garden, but it may still take years of experimenting with different plants and locations, spreading (or letting spread) the successful ones, to arrive at a healthy landscape.

In this culture of instant gratification, where a landscape that does not meet neighborhood standards can invite public reprimands, fines, and even destruction by the authorities, what’s a patient gardener to do? Where’s the fascination in a picture-perfect garden? Where’s the personal growth? Where’s the relationship?


  1. Hear, hear. Nongardeners don’t have long-range-vision glasses on when they’re seeing my new garden, so my favorite visitors are people like you, who see the potential, the vision, the process, and appreciate my garden for where it is today.

  2. Definitely the most satisfying way to have a garden. Otherwise it is just another job– like housework–which also requires patience to figure out the best place for things.

    You are very wise, Evelyn, and know what is best for your soul.

  3. Well said and well written. I was on a garden tour recently and notice the huge difference between the professionally “installed” gardens and the blood/sweat/tears/pride gardens that took years to develop. The professional gardens just didn’t seem to have a soul.

    • Thank you, John.

      Actually, I didn’t mean to suggest that professionally designed and installed gardens lack soul. Some of them are neither personalized nor loved, but on the other hand, when a designer works closely with the homeowner or gardener, they can set the bones in place and get the garden off to a good start.

  4. Nicely written, Evelyn. Even though I work for a gardening company, I certainly enjoy developing my own garden, at home. The satisfaction you get after the months/years of patience is priceless and wouldn’t trade it for anything!


  5. Thank you for validating “slow gardening”. As a recent homeowner, I’ve returned to gardening after many years of apartment living. I’m learning that the implementation of my plans is so much slower than my thoughts that went into them. But I am learning also to appreciate that slowness, as it allows me to really find out if that plant was really right for that spot or not and to change accordingly. Just being out in the yard pulling weeds or snipping deadheads is pure joy.

    • Oh, I like that, Mary. Slow gardening.

      Yes, even if we were able to implement all our plans at once, I think they wouldn’t satisfy in the same way. It takes living with a change to recognize what to change next. At least, that is how I have to do it.

      I do know some real visionary folks who might be able to think up an entirely new landscape for themselves without needing to go step-by-step, but I wonder if they’d be able to create an effective design for someone else without that gradual feedback process.

  6. Your Minnesota prairie garden is Van Gogh worthy. Just beautiful. There are many instant delights in the garden but, as you’ve stated, the most profound is watching its (and the gardener’s) development over time.

  7. It takes years to learn the nuances of a place. Thanks for your essay and the reminder to take it easy.

  8. Yep. No gardeners in my neighborhood, so they don’t see the potential in my “work in progress”, but they LOVE my couple of beds that are established already and doing well. They don’t understand that it’s already been a couple of years of hard work to get those beds established, and the other beds need that kind of time too! I keep telling my neighbors: “there’s a plan”.

  9. Thank you for eloquently describing the thoughts I have had in my head for years and haven’t had a way to diplomatically share with those around me. I typically spout out, “That’s not a garden – that’s a landscape!” “No soul!” to my companions and walk away while on local garden tours in typically more affluent neighborhoods. They bore me.

    Don’t get me wrong-the show properties can be stunning but I lose interest in them quickly, as the same plant combinations and hardscape is used in every other yard. I can typically guess which landscape company installed each one; most lack individuality and personality. Thank goodness for GARDENERS who keep things interesting by changing and developing (and using) their space over time. Even if I don’t agree with their aesthetic I am intrigued by their voice.

  10. Damn, but this may be my favorite post ever. I garden in Southern CA, I grew up in England. In some ways I garden just the way that I remember gardens in the fifties in England: slowly evolving, trying new things and discarding them if they don’t work out, getting free plants and relocating them once they show what they can do. After finding a great plant, using it freely in other places in the garden. Discarding plants that are prima donnas and embracing those who are happy with my conditions. Planting trees is part of this. They take time to grow, they change microclimate and sun/shade environment. Gardening is a process, a moving meditation (credit Margaret Roach), a lifetime endeavor, not a designer showcase. Understanding that (almost) all of the critters that come into the garden have their place.
    Thank you Evelyn!

    • BooksInGarden, YES to all the strategies and techniques you mention here. I can tell you have been gardening for awhile! It takes time to learn these, unless we are lucky enough to have wise garden mentors. We evolve along with our gardens.

  11. absolutely agree= when we had been in our new home only about 2years, my follow members of the local garden club came for a ‘tour’ — I called it my Tomorrow garden and wrote about balancing my love of gardening and family time when kids were younger. and now my garden is overflowing!

  12. I loved your post about patience.  Reading it triggered a memory from my early days living in New York City, long before I even contemplated starting a garden of my own.
    It was 1978 when I first encountered the garden of indigenous plants from pre-colonial times created by the artist Alan Sonfist.
    Titled “Time Landscape”, See This tiny (25′ x40′) oasis of native grasses, flowers, scrubs, and trees became a very special place, drawing me close whenever I passed by.  At the time I didn’t know why.  In retrospect, it was a particularly lonely and lost time of my life.  I was in my late twenties and had not yet come close to finding my own “garden”. It was a time spent in my own wilderness before therapy or love entered my life.
    Looking back, I’m quite sure that by gazing deep into the shadows of that green space so rich in
    history, memory, and mystery, I was looking deeper into the self I had yet to discover.
    It’s a strange that the garden I only recently started nurturing behind my NYC home is similar in size to Sonfist’s.
    I can honestly say (to myself at least) that it’s been 36 patient years in the making.

  13. I really appreciative the authenticity and respectfulness of the comments at Garden Rant. Great conversations happen that I mull over when I am back outside in my garden oasis in a small city. I’m just a country mouse who happens to live in the city. Allen Bush your comment about getting to know a piece of land over time reflects my relationship with my gardens, the soil, the weather and the critters which help create what you mention Evelyn – a symbiotic relationship. This relationship teaches us about cycles and patience. Whether our gardens grow over years or roll out of a truck in a week may everyone be open to the mysteries, the wonders and the lessons they have for us.

  14. You’ve said it so well. I’ve been gardening for only about 10 years and I now have some areas which are establishing in ways I really love. But I have loved the whole process. I remember having garden visitors some years ago, before things were really established. I was so excited to show them things I found to be fantastic but as we walked around I realized how my ‘garden’ must look to a non-gardener. Some of the plants I was most enthralled by were not even noticed. My gardening friends appreciate, knowing what it takes.

    Thank you so much for expressing so well a concept so fundamental to those of us who love our gardens.

    • So true, Bill, a plant may not even be noticed by non-gardeners unless it’s blooming (and with large flowers!). It is a real treat to have gardeners visit and see, or try to see, the garden that we see.

  15. Anyone that doesn’t garden probably just wants flowers, regardless of the season. I think gardeners understand that gardening is a long-term lover affair. I’m sure my neighbors think I’m crazy and wonder what I’m doing with my garden just about 90% of the time, but I don’t garden for them.

    Now getting non-gardeners to see things our way is a real challenge, but maybe as the internet spreads the word and people can educate themselves, we’ll see more educated landscape design consumers. Until then, I will happily continue to befuddle the neighbors.

  16. Evelyn,

    I’m not sure I agree that rewards are diminished if one chooses to speed up the process of creating a garden fairly quickly. In my case, I don’t think I will be living at my current home much longer as I want more land. I wanted the shrubs and trees to be bigger to attract more wildlife in the short time I will be living at my current home. Of course, the perennials take time, but I was not willing to wait for the shrubbery and trees.

    I needed to replace something beautiful removed by my new neighbor. Not only did he remove the tree that divided out properties, I had to pay to remove the stump because he had no interest. As you can imagine, this was a bit stress-inducing, so I wanted a screen of plants. From this stress, came my greater interest in gardening and, if interested, I have a FLICKR album where you can view the transition in 3 short years.[email protected]/sets/72157646273039971/

    (And, I think the wildlife liked the quick change. As Jessica Wasiller says, “I garden for them” [bugs].

    • Marcia, kudos to you for (1) knowing what you wanted design-wise and (2) having the knowledge/experience to choose plants that would thrive in your site. What a lovely transformation, and I am sure the wildlife flocked to your new garden.

      It is great that you had the resources (and the confidence) to start with larger trees and shrubs. I would say that you are still celebrating the process, even though you gave it a jump-start.

  17. I really needed to hear this. With limited time and money to spend on the garden, it is easy for me to look around and just see all that needs to be done. My eyes gloss right over the bits here and there where I’m really pleased with what I’ve accomplished. Sure, there is still lots (and I mean LOTS) to do. But I need to relax and enjoy the process more.

  18. Late to the party…but here never-the-less! Beautifully written and a topic that strikes home. I moved into my home a year ago and started the PROCESS. Of course, I have the worst yard in the neighborhood right now, but I am building a garden…not a landscape. (I agree Mischelle!) It’s going to take some time to transform 1/2 acre of Bermunda grass. $#@!&#

    On the business side, I design (not install) gardens. I have this crazy idea that design help should be for everyone…not just the affluent. So most of my clients are folks who want help to develop a long-term vision and then they plant in phases either with some help or themselves. So recently, when a woman who called about a commercial design asked to see my portfolio I explained that i don’t have pictures of finished (flashy) gardens because they really aren’t ever finished and that’s not really how I work. I was immediately discredited! But that’s ok. I’m really tired of the flashy landscapes everywhere. It’s Oz.

    I saw an article recently that informed me of the fact that great outdoor living required lots and lots of building stuff…kitchens, pools, etc. The fact is, there was very little outdoors in that article! I would counter that great outdoor living only needs a garden tended to with love and patience…and maybe a bench!

    • You’ve just described the current set of “gardening” shows on HGTV, focused on big-bucks hardscaping and few plants.

  19. I am going to print copies of this, hand it to all my neighbors and tell them “this is my plan” so get used to it. Perfectly written and a rallying cry for true gardeners. Thank you!

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