A Testament to the Spirit of the Gardener


    Guest Rant by Wendy Kiang-Spray

    I try not to judge gardener-created art or design because I feel so much of it is subjective.  We all have different tastes.  However, the only aspect I do constantly question is the “fortress look” in deer protection I wrote about here.

    Today I ran by one of my favorite could-be-lovely-if they-only-lost-the-cage areas.  I always slow to check out the serene woodland scene, surrounded by netting, and shake my head just a little bit. Today I noticed a new structure around the apparently well-loved hosta .  It’s a ladder-like scaffolding holding the whole thing up.  The gardener, figuratively and literally, has reached new heights with this contraption!

    My first inclination was to balk at it. Maybe discreetly take pic and do a little Internet-shaming.  I then recalled the hours I’ve spent recently writing a section in my upcoming book about the many trials the gardener faces – plant diseases, insect pests, clay soil, deer… when I felt a little ashamed of myself, actually.  It occurred to me that the bottom line is that this homeowner refuses to give up on the hosta.  I remember years ago, there was simply a cage around the plant.  Later, it became covered in netting.  Now the scaffolding.  No matter how ridiculous it looks at first glance, it is a true testament to the spirit and persistence of the gardener.

    My first season gardening was not successful.  While I thought I would simply be able to do a little digging and plant rows of vegetables, I found my backyard soil was dense with maple tree roots, rocks, and lots of clay to pack it all together.  Did I give up? I built raised beds.  When I learned I didn’t have enough space, I disassembled and rebuilt.  When my dogs trampled everything one spring, I built a fence.  When flea beetles got the best of my eggplants, I moved them to pots in a different location.  I’ve only been gardening for just over 10 years, but it feels like a lifetime.   Yet, every year, I have some new plan for fixing something that failed the previous year.

    What about lifelong, expert, or professional gardeners? Do you have a foolproof plan for each season that works? Every time I think I have a foolproof plan, some unexpected force puts a wrench in it.  Maybe it’s a heat wave.  Maybe it’s an unexpected killing freeze.  Maybe it’s a life event that prevents me from getting into my garden as much as I want to.  Maybe it’s the Brood X cicadas! Is there a perfect reliable system?  I suspect not.  There is always more to learn and good gardeners are never willing to give up.  There are always new ideas to try – no matter how attractive or unattractive I personally may think they are.

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


    1. When I first started reading obsessively about gardening and garden design, I was all on board with the lollipop evergreen and red mulch shaming. Now maybe it’s age, maybe it’s being more of an experienced gardener thing, but I really just appreciate any person’s efforts to add a little cheer to their garden or take care of their plants, or experiment with some silly trend he/she read about. So hear, hear caged-hosta gardener!

    2. So true Wendy, about how every year presents it’s own set of challenges! In the garden, and on our farm as well. In fact, we mark the years by what unique thing happened (“That was the year we had scab in the pears”, etc). It’s also what makes each year interesting–sometimes too interesting, but never boring!

    3. I’ll admit I still do the shaming thing in my brain at least. It’s not so much about people who are doing things to protect their plants as it is about people who don’t seem to notice their plants – the stakes left around a tree whose trunk is bigger than both stakes together are my biggest pet peeve. They have to see them. For pity’s sake, they mow around them every Saturday!

      *deep breath*

      I think one of the great things about gardening is that you just never know what Ma Nature plans to throw at you. Last winter we had early, heavy rains and so we all thought “bonus rain year!” That’s when Nature turned off the spigot and we were bone dry for the next 3+ months. And because we had no moisture in the air, night time temps plummeted to record cold (which, frankly, is only in the teens and 20s, but still unusual for us), while day time temps soared (for winter). Add to that a few new invaders coming from ports in the south, and water restrictions, an emergency hysterectomy in the middle of fruit harvest ….

      Every year, it’s something new, sure. Ma Nature is testing your commitment, and getting you to readjust your thinking cap. And she’s also having a good laugh at anyone’s “foolproof plan”.

    4. I hit the tender age of 70 last year, a milestone apparently so traumatic that I spent a considerable amount of time this year telling people that I was about to turn seventy next month. I really believed that, until corrected by those who knew better. Anyway, long before that minor embarrassment, I started adapting my strategy for dealing with setbacks in my twilight years. It’s called total surrender, turning belly up, doing absolutely nothing and seeing what happens. I’ve now refined this approach into a proactive perfection of pushing slack to its limits. Seeing just how little can I avoid doing before it bothers me more than I can handle. Sure, there have been a few complaints from the city, stuff like claiming to need their sidewalk back or to be able to see their street signs but, to a person, every average passing pedestrian who comments on my yard, and there are many, fairly gushes about how wonderful, delightful and interesting it is. While out there only inches away from a passersby just the other day, but easily totally concealed, I overheard her saying excitedly, “And he has trails through his garden!” That anyone considers it a garden at all anymore serves only to amaze (and embolden) me. I have a rampant grapevine literally eating my house, leaving but a few morsels for the Virgina Creeper and Bittersweet to fight over. Deciduous awnings, I call them, and we do indeed stay remarkably cool through the summer. The only down side so far has been finding my geriatric, stone-deaf dog out there in the thicket. Calling her is pointless. Unless I can make eye-contact, it’s a really long process getting her back in the house. Long story short, there are not only energetic and determined spirits, there are tired resigned and defeated ones also. And that is turning out to be a really good feeling.

      • Joe, I love this! More, please. Write something about gardening and aging, from your on-the-ground perspective. My husband and I are a few years behind you, and find ourselves inventing elaborate strategies for doing tasks we never thought twice about doing before. But after reading your comment, I want to explore the delicious invitation-by-aging to let go and see what happens in the garden…or parts of it, anyway! Your garden sounds enticing.

          • Sure, I’d be honored to, if it can wait a few weeks. Right now I’m gearing up to hold forth at the national conference of the ASCFG, (Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, for those 2 or 3 of you who might not know about us). Advanced age buys you a little slack but I’ll bet they’re expecting some sort of planning in exchange for the plane ticket, room and meals. I’m pretty sure there’s a topic I’m supposed to cover.

    5. This poor gardener. I feel their pain. This is about preserving a plant. We will do what we must, however dyed mulch is something entirely different.

    6. These words – “foolproof” and “plan”. I did not know they go together.

      At the end of the street lived an elderly couple. She had a most marvelous Zen garden – a small Japanese maple on a miniature hill, a lantern, some flowers surrounding a meticulous tiny yard. On the other side of the driveway they had replaced the lawn with a field of gravel; a grey patch shaped like a miniature lake (with raked waves) and a brownish field of gravel around it. Very calm, very pretty. Then there was a visit from the ambulance, and the house was soon occupied by a new family. This lady added a windmill, primary color irises and a squared-off hedge bordering the lawn, and a plywood cartoon squirrel to give it that …very American …savoir faire. Her son or son-in-law parks his pickup on that handy patch of gravel next to the driveway.

      I try not to judge, I really do. This new old lady, bless her heart, must enjoy gardening. But I can only hope that the previous occupant, if she lives, has never driven by to see what has happened to her garden. Or unlike me, perhaps she is enlightened enough to see only the pleasure it has brought to someone else.

      • It’s painful, though understandable, what the young couple did to my 80-something mother’s landscaping after they bought the house. (Short version: tore it all out to make room for swingsets.) I learned not to drive by the house I grew up in.

        As for cringing about other’s gardening ideas, its the volcano mulching of trees that drives me crazy.

        When I first got my house and yard, I wanted to create a tropical paradise. In New Jersey. I’ve learned to use natives and not force anything. If I had to completely fence in hostas to keep them in my yard, no, just no. I’d let them go.


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