When you have worked for a number of years in any profession, there are stories you could tell, mistakes you've made and, yes, even some things to confess. With all of them comes hard-won knowledge and experience that can serve you well if you pay attention.
I’ve been a professional gardener and landscape designer long enough to be confident in my skills and to know that experience is a wonderful, frustrating, and enlightening teacher. And my experience has brought me to a point where I feel empowered to make three secret confessions about landscaping and gardening:
The day a client comes to me and says, “I would like a HIGH maintenance landscape, please” is the day I will either fall over or simply stare back, open-mouthed and speechless.
Almost every single client I have had the pleasure of working with inevitably mentions -- usually with a hint of embarrassment or guilt, as though they have offended my inner gardener -- that they want a “Low Maintenance” solution.
Okay, I am here to confess that with 30 years of professional landscape development and personal garden making behind me -- I still want “low maintenance” in my garden. This desire isn't a bad thing, people. We work long and hard to create landscapes with beautiful garden spaces – from concept through construction to completion. The last thing we want is a new landscape that sucks every remaining ounce of energy, money, and inspiration out of our lives.
The trick is to plan your garden to become a low maintenance solution. They do not start out that way. It is a classic "up-front investment" scenario. Plan it well, install it with best practices and the best source materials and then nurture it toward that low-maintenance goal in the first five years or so. If you do that well, the rewards of low maintenance will be yours!
I am often asked how I remain so calm and unflustered by the weather and the seasons and the bugs and the diseases, to name just a few hurdles we gardeners face. My answer is that after three decades of tangoing with Mother Nature, I have discovered a universal truth that I now live by: LET HER LEAD. As soon as you submit to her whims and power and align yourself with the environment around you, it will become much easier to work in partnership with your landscape.
There will still be times that rock your boat and undo your hard work – after all, this IS Nature we’re talking about here -- but they will be fewer and farther between. In the end, gardening is partly an exercise in surrender to a higher power than yours. I still experience some frustration by the curve balls, the foul balls, and the total strikeouts that I suffer in the professional practice of landscape development and maintenance, but it is momentary. My approach is to be totally solution-oriented, understanding that sometimes the solution is to take another tack or simply quit while you’re ahead. Bottom line, if you want to succeed as a gardener – professional or as a layperson – you have to be willing to “work the problem” and exercise your powers of resiliency.
As with anything in life that is worth doing, in gardening or landscaping, you will have moments when you fail. There is no easy way to make this realization less painful, but it’s a fact that trial-and-error is all part of the journey.
I have killed many a plant by accident and on purpose. That’s an ugly thing to admit, but it’s true. Like those roses I planted way back when I was an apprentice, only to see them fully plowed under and crushed in their first winter. Or the Asiatic lily garden I planted that became ravaged by Red Lily Leaf Beetles. Rather than treat the plants with insecticide I just ripped them out and composted them.
I have chosen plants poorly. Like that River birch I planted on the corner of a porch about 25 years ago that basically “ate” the porch and had to be taken down at ten years old.
The good news for me is I have many years behind me on this journey that have enabled me to learn from experience. Especially when it comes to getting to know plants. Becoming a true plants-person includes learning to become an observant and humble participant in and partner with nature. I make decisions more slowly when the situation is new to me. I ask for advice from experts at our land grant university or from the many amazing landscape professionals and contractors I have had the honor of working with over the years.
The truth is, it’s impossible to know everything in this vast and dynamic field, so it’s important to seek good advice when you are faced with a growth moment. Moving at a measured pace when embarking on a project is always better than rushing in! Humility will get you far. Start by embracing that you may not have the full picture or complete answer. Build a support network and use it. Reach out for proper guidance to help ensure you make wise decisions. Then trust your gut and be willing to learn from your next mistake.