declaring it ‘throw in the trowel week’

shoes-and-trowelI SAT NEARLY PARALYZED yesterday, trying to sort a design problem as the day slipped away without inspiration’s arrival. I’ve felt vaguely this way for days, frankly. It wasn’t until this morning that I remembered I always get like this at this time of the season, starting sometimes in mid- or late June and reaching a crescendo by the time July arrives, and that I’ve written about it before. Reading this essay from my archive helped:

throwing in the trowel (ca. 1990ish)


These are the kind of phrases, tired but true, on my mind by sundown each of these days, when latest spring has slipped into the reality of summer, after eight or ten hours spent trying to solve the puzzle I started in the dirt some years ago.

Where do all the plants go to make a pretty garden? I wonder, close to tears, surrounded by pots and pots of this and that. At the nursery, I had been certain I had to have them; now, in their company, I am feeling kind of lost.

What goes next to what? How many of these with how many of those will make the picture perfect? And why did I put that there, what was I thinking? Oh, why didn’t I draw a plan, the way I tell others to do, and then stick to it?

If only it were a jigsaw puzzle of cut-up cardboard pieces, and there was in each plant a clue—a die-cut interlocking edge, or some other clever device, that fit it into place and let you know you’d got it right. But that is not how it is, as anyone who has tried this business of designing even a single flower bed will certainly confirm. The purple asters look good with the purple-leaved heuchera, and the allium is good spiking up through the artemisia, but those were merely good guesses—there are plenty of bad guesses around the place, too. No wonder so much of gardening is accomplished on one’s knees; it is a humbling experience.

MY LOVE-HATE of garden-making has been running perilously close to the dark side lately as I desperately dug and dug some more, determined to find the answer. But then came early June, and not-so-early June, and I was still out there, searching for the “right” arrangement. If I moved the smokebush one more time, or that poor, peripatetic pulmonaria, I would surely self-destruct. A weekend or two ago, I felt certain I could dig no more.

“If only I could plant everything in alphabetical rows, instead of trying to make it look good, I’d be off the hook,” I whined to a friend.

“There is no hook,” the wiser gardener replied, performing horticultural phone therapy. “You created the hook.”

That sounded very clever, and quite important, so I filed the remark carefully in my head. I wish he had told me where to put the damn Dutchman’s breeches, or the buckeye tree still sitting in a pot, but he did not. His garden is a showplace; he must know what he’s talking about, I figured.

But I did not really understand his words until the following weekend, back in the dirt. I found myself feeling stressed and panicky, starting ten tasks and finishing none, fixating on all the holes in the puzzle all over again. Then I was overcome by a wild, freeing thought: how liberating it would be to borrow the neighbor’s tractor and mow the whole place to stubble! If there had been a helpline for suicidal gardeners, I would have called it. Oh, if only for a 12-Step meeting of Gardeners Anonymous, I could have gone in and confessed:

“My name is Margaret, and I’m a plant-a-holic.”

“You created the hook.” Out of the mental file the words sounded, just in time. Hallelujah, I (and my garden) had been saved.

Yes, the hook is my doing, and I had hung myself on it, by my nasty habit of only seeing the problems, the weak spots, the areas in need of more tinkering. Perfectionism and the task of starting a garden do not mix, I learned just at that moment. My half-empty mentality gave no gold stars for what had been accomplished, only demerits for what had not. Something would have to change.

If I created the hook, then it is my prerogative to unhook myself, yes? I am therefore declaring this Throw In the Trowel Week, a horticultural holiday I heartily recommend that any other gardened-out souls adopt in their localities, too.

Admit it; spring is not just aging, it is past. So I say enough, and quickly set about to fill in any really embarrassing bare spots with annuals, or even pumpkin vines (where my puzzle’s weaknesses were on a grander scale). An even layer of mulch can work miracles in uniting plants that have far from knit together, too, and a cleanly cut edge around the bed makes things look almost bearable. After these last touches, only maintenance will be allowed till fall, when planting (hopefully without the panic) may be permitted once again.

Conveniently, it is especially good timing for such a declaration. The first official day of summer and the onset of consistently hot weather (hard on transplants and transplanters) have been marked. Time to plug in the last babies and crawl into the hammock with a glass of tea. Time to give it—the seedlings, the soil, the soul—a rest.

FROM THIS freshly liberated perspective, I think back upon my panic as if it were years in the past.

“All I seem to be doing is moving the same things around,” I recall saying to the same wise friend.

“Well, then you are learning the secrets,” he said, ever inscrutable.

And so I’ll swing awhile and think of what I’ll be able to move to where when the time comes, when the weather cools again and I am feeling refreshed, too.

Gardening is a process. Even great gardens don’t start out great; they take time, and lots of reshuffling, the kind of thing we’re all out there doing from early spring through right about now. Gardening is a process. I repeat this new mantra to myself now as I find myself with time to take a walk or watch the birds. Or—dare I say it?—with time to simply look at what I have accomplished.

Does your garden give you joy? Then it is a beautiful place, something not so common in this world of ours. A newcomer to this brighter philosophy, I am working myself up toward my next declaration: to call my garden beautiful—funky, unfinished spots and all.

Categoriesessays woo woo
  1. Andrew Ritchie says:

    It’s woo-woo at its darkest, a charming spell gone bad. It happens in all creative pursuits: the urge to rip the canvas, to tear up the drawing, to pound recklessly on the piano keys, to burn the ballet shoes…and to throw in the trowel.

    I think it’s necessary to gain clarity again – time away from the muse. And, actually, it’s probably safer for the garden that you do give it some space: you’ll be less likely to make impulsive decisions you may regret later.

    I’ve been there. I once threw out an entire portfolio of my sketches because I didn’t think they were good enough. Oh, regrets.


  2. Ted says:

    Usually I love my garden, but there is a period right at the end of tulip time when the whole thing just seems so shabby and unfocused. I usually want to dig it all up and plant evergreens and lawn. But then everything grows up and fills in and the roses start to bloom and I’m in love again.

  3. andy says:

    Hi wonderful Margaret,
    I had a feeling you might be at a temporary impass of sorts. Mine is also after the bulbs are on their way out. I think I found the key for this ’54 Virgo . I get my plants and I start with the containers (23). As I play with them, I see an area that could use a bed. I cannot sleep till I start it. I stand by my new bed, finally loving it after I double the length. New vantage point. I do not sleep till I start on that. New vantage point, and the process continues. As a Virgo, it is never perfect and the plants always choose different partners once they are here. Finally, July is here.
    Done. Maybe.

  4. Kitt says:

    Amen! I suffered terribly from garden paralysis with my first home, starting with a completely blank slate of dirt and weeds. “Must have a P-L-A-N! Hardscape! Lighting! Water! Plants! What goes where? When should I plant it? Aaaaaaagh!”

    Finally it was just a matter of reminding myself that nothing is really permanent, and plants want to grow. Throw some stuff in, see how you like it, move it around if you need to, and the ideas will come.

    After 10 years, the garden was what sold the house.

    Now I have a new yard, again mostly blank slate, and I’m just picking at it around the edges until a new plan takes shape in my head. A little flagstone here, a shrub there, and eventually I’ll get there again.

  5. margaret says:

    How did you all get so smart and philosophical? Of course I know all this is true…but I really had forgotten for a couple of days, lost in that bad, it’s-all-wrong space that comes a few times a season, when you want to just get a brush hog and…
    Thank you.

  6. mss @ Zanthan Gardens says:

    After 20 triple-digit days, (and not even July yet) I’m certainly having a “throw-in-the-trowel” day. I don’t have the same problem that you do, but my reaction is similar–I just want to mow it all down or pull it all out.

    I know that this too will pass but some days thinking cheerfully only gets me so far. I guess that’s the great thing about these plantaholic 12-step meetings–having a support group.

  7. margaret says:

    @kenn: I will be down by the curb. Don’t stop the car!!! I don’t want you to see the mess…just crack the door and I’ll hurl myself in.
    @mss: Only 85 here but wicked humid and bright, and I am just in from an hour of mowing. Hideous. Kept the wheels out of the beds but it was tempting…
    Why mow at midday, you may ask? Because more storms are predicted, and this year you have to get your mowing in when you can. (But why didn’t I get a self-propelled mower, I keep asking myself? I am too old for this.)
    Oh, and thanks for sharing.

  8. GardenGuyKenn says:

    Perhaps I’m the odd ball in the bunch… I go through this several times in a season. This week we’ve been battered by winds, storms, hail, and pounding, pounding rain. Everything is toppled, wet, flat and just looks like someone took plants from a bad garden department at one of those ‘mart’ stores and threw them in my garden. I stand on my porch and ponder what to do. Guests are arriving. How do I make this look beautiful for them to enjoy?? I can’t do a darn thing. As the foliage dries, it reaches for the sun and once again stands tall (or taller). Funny thing…no one else really pays attention. It’s my own obsession to have a perfect garden.
    Margaret, the next 12 step meeting is at 5 this afternoon… I’ll swing by and pick you up. :-)

  9. margaret says:

    Welcome, Sky. Thank goodness someone is remaining calm and collected. We need your peaceful energy to keep us from the brink.
    And welcome, Lyn. I am laughing at the word “volunteers” because when self-sowns (or animal-planteds) show up in the wrong place, I often wish they hadn’t been so generous as to volunteer themselves. Not very helpful, are they?
    And Kenn, better stop for Lyn, she definitely needs a ride…her raspberry situation sounds serious. Speaking of which, I’m heading up the back hillside now to mow my infestation of wild brambles yet again.

  10. sky says:

    yes, gardening is a process, and it is never completed. there is always pruning and transplanting going on. but isn’t the idea of a work in progress part of the glory of gardening? the creative process is always at play with nature and the combination is glorious!

    i love our gardens. i am at peace there more than anywhere else. we have placed benches all through them so we can sit and enjoy them. they are our creations, my husband’s hard work with his strong hands, my designs and ideas, our purchases and our blessings upon each plant we place in the soil. the birds gather in our gardens along with the squirrels to play and eat and entertain us. :)

  11. Lyn says:

    Ah, yes, I too have been to the edge this month. Seems that are still raggedy places where the bulbs refuse to give up and the annuals are waiting not-so-patiently to reclaim the bed.
    In my ‘inherited’ garden, at the end of our first year we still get a few surprises. Right in the middle of my Red,White & Blue bed a pink gladiola has volunteered!
    Raspberry runners are popping up all over the back yard. Asparagus are closing in on them… The Shasta daisies are threatening the hydrangea and the hollyhocks are in direct competion with the sunflowers (which are also volunteers)
    I lost control about a month ago. Maybe, I will wait until the fall to wrestle back the control?!


  12. margaret says:

    Welcome, KatieB. Yes, exactly. Every inch of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of feet of bed edge has been cut by pummeling rain like a trench, the mulch washed into the lawn nearby. Lawn (mulch-coated and all) growing nonstop, needing mowing twice a week at least from all the rain. And I have been bitten by things this month that I cannot even identify, let alone find a remedy for the after-bite of. Heaven save us all.

  13. Kitt says:

    Oh, Lyn, you had to mention raspberries. I almost removed mine completely last year, and only a chorus of Nooooooooooo!s from other bloggers stopped me.

    I’ve now got a root barrier in (pictures here), and diligent weeding is keeping the lawn seedling-free, but man, who knew such luscious fruit would come at such a price?

    At least, unlike other weeds, you do get something good out of it. Next up: steamed lamb’s quarters and sauteed purslane. I’ve got a bumper crop!

    Is bindweed edible?

  14. KatieB says:

    I had a garden meltdown today and just gave up and came inside. Maple seedlings everywhere, $40 worth of cocoa bean mulch washed away by one torrential downpour after the next, mosquito hoards. After 20 years of gardening, maybe I’m not cut out for all the love and loss. But I’ll go back tomorrow-the hollies are going to die in their pots.

  15. Lake Charles says:

    Ah, another archetypal feeling, well described. My daughter is getting married here in the garden in 6 days, and how will I explain the “nursery bed” where all those plants that don’t fit anywhere else have been stuck. Artichokes growing merrily next to blueberries, butterfly weed and kohlrabi…and are those dahlias getting ready to triple in size and change everything?
    My gardening friend says the only thing non-gardeners really notice is the edges – neat edges, mulch, no weeds.
    I think she’s right and all the inhabitants of the nursery bed make me happy so all is well.

  16. Trish says:

    Thank you one and all for sharing! I’ve often said I need a 12 step program for my plant addiction.

    Went to buy some fresh blueberries – sign said 20% off all plants – you all know what happened! Where am I going to plant them and when while what I should be doing is finishing weeding & mulching & edging & etc.

    Oh well I lv2gdn

  17. Karen Anne says:

    I’m trying to think of why my experience is so different.

    Maybe it’s because I move at the pace of a tortoise in doing things in the garden in terms of adding new things or taking old things out.

    I read somewhere that when moving into a new house, don’t do anything to the garden for a year, until you see what comes up where. Of course, there are always exceptions to that. But that’s the pace I move at.

    Over the years I have inherited a few shrubs that I really didn’t like that previous owners had planted. I waited until I was sure that I was never going to like them, sometimes it took 2-3 years, and then I took them out. I was always happy that they were gone.

    I knew I wanted bulbs planted along a stone retaining wall my neighbor had put in between our yards, and I had a great time pawing thru the web off and on for months reading up on bulbs and heirloom bulbs, and trying a few to see what they really looked like.

    This was a little different when I was younger and thought I was going to live forever, but even now, I just don’t feel rushed to get things done in the garden. The only time I get stressed is when I’m in the middle of some herculean task, like transplanting 80 feet of old rose bushes before the plumbers were coming to trench the area for new piping, and I had a time limit.

  18. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    I think what gets to me most is that if I don’t plant everything they will die in their pots. And it will be my fault.

    And then I tell myself, “Well if I need to pot them on to get them through the summer I might as well plant them.” And then I discover I need to dig out more goldenrod, lawn grass, whatever and–hey! maybe this year I should just pot them on?

  19. Randy says:

    You couldn’t have put this post up at a more perfect time for me. That is exactly how I’ve been feeling the past week. It seems that no matter how hard I’ve worked I’m not satisfied with the outcome. “Perfectionism and the task of starting a garden do not mix,” shall be my new mantra. It helps me so much to hear that coming from someone as talented as you. I was really discouraged last night after seeing the mulch sitting out in the lawn and path way from heavy rains yesterday. It’s so nice to see I am not alone with all this. LOL I was looking out the window at the mulch and saying to myself, “How in the world does Margaret keep her mulch in place when it rains?” Seriously, I was, and the whole time you are dealing with the same things. Whew, glad to find all this is normal and not just a result of my ignorance.

  20. margaret says:

    As you are all confirming, we are one big family of gardeners in need of a padded cell (except Sky and Karen Anne, who are staying calm…at least for the moment).
    As if the garden gods knew I was blaspheming over here on the blog, last night between 1 and 2 AM another storm came and took away my oldest, most precious shrub of all: a giant bottlebrush buckeye of probably 15 years’ residence w/me. About to bloom, of course…now split into a lopsided mess.
    And right beside the weeping kousa area where all my other design confusion mentioned in this post is focused. How dare I tell you, apparently?–look what I get as punishment for saying I’d had it with the season!

  21. margaret says:

    Welcome, Geek+Nerd, by the way…I didn’t mean to forget to say hello. And you are exactly right. In fact, I think gardening is where I learn to live everyday life…all those lessons it teaches about (lack of) control, patience, you name it. Thanks.

  22. Maria Nation says:

    Oh, how wild! I was thinking the SAME THING! How discouraging to spend ALL one’s time/money/friends’ patience/spring-summer-fall… only to look up and realize: It’s all horrible. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The joy I got last week is gone, gone. Replaced by this week’s realization I don’t know what I’m doing.

    So now you all tell me: It’s just gardeners’ psychosis.

    Well please save some room in the car pool for me too. But, en route to the 12 step meeting, can we just swing by Loomis Creek…?

    Oh, and Margaret: could you write about another aspect of gardeners’ psychosis? It’s the response one gets when coming home from, say, Michael Trapp’s garden and wanting to commit suicide. You leave your garden in the morning thinking how lovely the paths look in your garden, go tour Michael’s garden (or your garden, or Hollister House, or…) and come home and everything seems wrong and horrible. It’s a particular down-in-the-dumps feeling.

    Ohhhh, the madness of this business!

    thanks all, for sharing. So nice not to be alone in the loony bin.


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