The Pleasures and Perils of Young, Broke Gardens


To walk through a young garden in winter is a courageous act when the garden is your own, and the budget, diminutive.  We forget how much frosting the active growing season naturally spreads over an imperfect cake – or indeed, how much frosting the resourceful amongst us can whip up with the aid of dramatic, fast-growing, but tender, subtropical foliage.

young autumn garden
Summer-installed Red Abyssinian bananas and bright canna hide the wide spacing of steadily growing ‘Black Dragon’ cryptomeria, ‘Cardinal Candy’ viburnum and ‘Celestial Shadows’ dogwood in early autumn. As time passes, there will be no space for the bananas, or the miscanthus for that matter – but right now there is nothing but space.

Royal icing will work magazine-worthy miracles in the kitchen, but that is nothing compared to a glorious threesome of Red Abyssinian banana drawing one’s eye away from a tiny but precious viburnum struck just two years before.

When the seasonal trappings are removed, and one is faced with deficiencies that are yet to be remediated by the skeletal remains of large specimens; or the gravitas of thousands of dollars’ worth of hardscaping; or indeed, by the comforting presence of a staff gardener edging pathways or schlepping compost, thoughts can weigh heavy.

I have been gardening long enough that I routinely look past What Is and visualize What Will Be, but I still suffer from these moments of clarity, and they almost always happen when The Brown and Grey Time settles in for the season.  I am reminded that my garden is young, and I must fight against the urge of a once-younger me to feel inadequate.

young garden with tropical container plants
Bet you can guess what this area looks like right now. Thank God for the mature edgeworthia just off camera. (Photo from Tropical Plants and How to Love Them, Cool Springs Press)

My current garden is seven years old.  Thirty years ago, seven years might as well have been forty, it was so remote. Today, it’s about the time it takes me to master a new software update.  When I first started gardening, I would have been adamant that seven years and a strong work ethic would give me a fully mature garden in every sense of the word.  What I failed to add to that equation was the phrase “and ninety thousand dollars.”

And that’s low-balling it. Unlike us, a young garden retains its youthful appearance longer when you put less money into it.   How often have I found myself redoing tasks and setting back the clock because I didn’t have the budget to do them right the first time? It’s frustrating certainly, but it doesn’t mean we should wait to begin our gardening life until the funds are flowing or the sugar daddy is found.

great garden design
When I find myself sinfully lusting after greater resources, it is almost always triggered by strong garden artwork showcased by exceptional garden design. (Garden of Contrasts, Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Cornerstone Sonoma)

What we gain from young, broke gardens is experience.  Hard experience that cannot be bought. We learn skills from necessity: how to propagate, how to build raised beds and trellises, how to skillfully but ruthlessly divide our plants, how to carefully match precious plants to our soils, and how to enrich those soils without depleting our bank accounts.  We fully absorb the ordinary, the extraordinary, and the individual eccentricities of our outdoor spaces in a way that others with greater resources cannot appreciate.

It’s work experience. Apprenticeship without the master craftsman or curfew.

But the good news (albeit bittersweet) is that time moves more quickly the longer one lives upon this earth, and compensates such loss with the unexpected gift of patience.  You cannot watch a child go from babe-in-arms to bristly and beer-drinking without cultivating some perspective on the size of your viburnum.

pleasures of the garden
There are glimmers. Thankfully I planted this Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Snow Cream’ within six months of moving, and in my micro-est microclimate. It is extraordinary throughout the winter and early spring and gives me hope for small shrubs and trees I am putting in right now. Underneath its branches is housed a collection of cloches that currently propagate next year’s tiny (but free) shrublings.

Yes, I would love unlimited funds.  Or at least the brazen insolence to apportion more of our household coffers to an ultimately ephemeral creation Nature waits patiently to reclaim.  But in the absence of such reserves or resolve, I am no less served by the passage of time, the on-going cultivation of skills, and the very great gift of watching a tiny viburnum cutting come into its own. – MW


  1. I want the ball of stones. I deserve the ball of stones for all the things I didn’t spend money on – the trellises the neighbors were pitching. The old brick pavers I lugged home. The stones from beside the road, the free plants. Nah it’d be more fun to find a metal wire something and fill it with stones myself.

  2. Time is indeed both challenging and immensely rewarding. And I hope the simple truth that unless you plant it, it will never grow, sticks by me to the end. In my dotage, I’ve gradually discovered that, instead of spending money, using up crap that’s been lying around for years, no matter how artlessly, quickly becomes the most satisfying addition to my garden ever. So, a 500 gallon poly irrigation tank recently became a 500 gallon tool shed. Stuff like that. In a way it’s a form of “death cleaning”, as they call it in Sweden (or wherever it is that they think it’s cool to talk about creepy stuff), although, in effect, it’s actually just transforming stuff no one else would ever want into bigger and more firmly ensconced stuff that others will eventually need to deal with. So there’s that nice little passive agressive element as well. Then there is also the shameless pocketing of seeds from any place that has no closed circuit tv cameras, scattering them around at home, and refraining from yanking out anything unrecognizable in the Spring. But that’s not exactly a new thing. In any case, I hope you look forward to truly more liberating times.

  3. My garden has no budget. It was planted with rooted twigs and sticks, thinnings called weeding, transplants and division, castoffs and the wounded brought home for a second chance at life, seeds sown and flung in mass quantity and the very smallest size available of needed purchase. Ten years later I wait in anticipation for the Barren Time when a whole new garden of a completely different character comes into being.

    Twenty years on Maui was enough with the tropicals. In the growing season the frosting is a zone appropriate flower meadow chopped and dropped to the ground that fully reveals a garden planted purposefully for winter.

  4. I actually loved the artwork full of stones Marianne…I’d love to have something similar! I am a huge fan of “metal and stone” artwork for yards. Where did you find it?
    By the way, living in Florida, I’m blessed with great climate almost throughout the year, which clearly allows me to work fairly well on tropicals. These last couple days have been strangely (and insanely) cold though. I hope no big damage was done.

    • Sadly, the metal sphere is not mine – it’s part of a exhibition of display gardens at Cornerstone in Sonoma, CA. This particular garden was designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates and the spheres contrast magnificently with the mature agave, aloe and feathery grasses dotted throughout the space. – MW

  5. Well, I have a garden which is 33 or so years old, and, if it adds any joy to your reflections, my experience is that you eventually find yourself having to start over after everything you wanted to grow has grown. Because things like to die, or get too big, or give trouble in various miserable and unpredictable ways.

    But there’s never a moment when we might dream of calling a halt, since we go on being desperate to see what comes next….

    • This is a good point Anne. There are a few of my conifers, particularly a Chamaecyparis obtusa, that I would like to stay right as it is. Perfect height and shape and has been for two years. In five years I’ll need to be rethinking the choice… – MW


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