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. Kassie says:

    I handle my garden meltdowns with the simple rule: “D.Y.A.E.” This translates to “Direct Your Attention Elsewhere.” If the edging looks awful and the humidity is stratospheric, I simply direct my attention elsewhere. Gather a bouquet. Enjoy the moss, etc. Of course, this is meant to be a temporary remedy…”BYOB” helps, too !!!

  2. Karen Anne says:

    Mary Beth – veggies. Save all that gas driving to the store. Mix them up with flowering plants if you like that better.

  3. If you want to appreciate gardening meltdown, come south! Aside from the fact that there are winter weeds as well as spring, summer, and fall weeds, summer is no time to be outside. I have a potted shrub that I just let die (I hope my husband hasn’t noticed……) because my energy level has gone to….well, you know where. So I save what little energy I have in this heat and with all the mosquitoes attacking me, for watering new shrubs and trees and pulling out weeds, and also praying for rain!

    1. Susan says:

      I’m with you Peg! Gardening in the south is not for the faint of heart! By this time of year my porch planters and pots that were so beautiful a few weeks ago are now tired and leggy. They need water every single day!! The growing season is so long (7-8 months), it would be great if I could rip it all out and replant with fresh new flowers. But, the garden centers have nothing! After June, they rarely get new plants. So, I water, cut back, feed and sweat, cursing all the while. In my back yard garden, things are coming up from last year in the most inappropriate places….do I leave them? Move them? Rip them out and toss? I think I’ll have a cocktail and ponder some more, while…. yes, praying for rain.

      1. margaret says:

        Even up north here, in dry years like the one we are currently having, I feel the same. And I do actually toss things that just don’t look like they will rebound — and sometimes buy perennials to replace them for the rest of the season, like a pot of some ornamental grass or foliage plant if there are no more flowers to be had in the annuals department.

  4. Gloria says:

    Hi my name is Gloria, and I’m a plant-a-holic!

    Take a deep breathe Margaret… this is what gardening is, a delightful challenge!

    Your an artist and a creator…that takes time! There is no time deadline in the garden…only in the mind.
    Take comfort in knowing there are millions of plant-a-holics, learning the lesson we are not in control! Thanks for being here, we are not alone!
    Words of Wisdom, I hold dear: Nothing ever changes, IF, nothing ever changes!

    Deep breathes, a cool drink a spot in the shade relaxing in one of your fabulous garden chairs…repeating the mantra…And I Shall Have Some Peace There!And I shall have some peace there! Rest…Renew…Relax …tomorrow you will see clearly again… Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. ~Lao Tzu

  5. viqueen says:

    Hi, my name is Judy and I’m a plant-a-holic!

    Everyone seems to know it too. “Can you save this plant?” “Would you like to take this (large, overgrown, straggly, spindly) plant home?” “Can you do anything with this?”

    Apt. life can be soooooooo limiting for my plants. And me. My cats like them too much too. Maybe they’re secretly plant-a-holics?

  6. Ann says:

    OK, this delightfully articulate rant — which I’d somehow missed before — is now my favorite of your posts, Margaret! I could relate to every syllable you wrote. I love that Andrew pointed out that this same impasse occurs to artists of every medium. But your mention of perfectionism also reminded me of something the writer Anne Lamott said: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” I’ve struggled with that voice too many times myself — and felt the same panic you described. (Funny how I’ve never thought of *you* being overwhelmed in your gardens!) So I really like the whole “throw in the trowel” idea — here’s to finding joy in our gardens just as they are, right?

  7. Kathy Shepperly says:

    Not one piece of my little 1 acre is finished in the 10 years we have been here, but it is all a work in progress and always beautiful to me!!! all the time and effort of every square inch!!!

    1. margaret says:

      I do understand, Kathy! I guess that’s why gardening hooks us so — it’s a lifelong puzzle, isn’t it?

  8. David Pittelli says:

    My proposal to address your July funk: In early June fill suspected gaps with 6-pack-sized Cleome hassleriana, white and the normal ~purple. Cheap, reliable, quick, structural yet long-flowering, element (S. central New Hampshire).

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, David. I haven’t grown Cleome in a long time, but it was one of my first favorites years ago for the qualities you mention. Lately I fill gaps with tall Nicotiana seedlings here, but yours is a good idea. Thank you!

  9. naomi d. says:

    It is hot, hot, hot, here and that’s not the problem – the humidity is. Somewhere beneath the weeds is a brick terrace, and under the avocado tree planted two years ago is a little pond. The black and blue salvia is hiding it too, fighting with the avocado over which owns that space. Where and when do I move that pond? The gardenia – which “every yard has” here, is yellow. Every yard has one because those people are willing to feed them for a week’s display. However, I’m thinking that spot would prefer a little pond, while my neighbor would like that gardenia. She’s not gonna help, though, and it’s hot. And humid. One corner, under the palmettos, looks good. The rest . . . another two months, and it will be gardening season here again.

    1. Erin says:

      This was the best timing for this post. I am always behind on my list, only seeing my failures, and plotting my next garden take-over of the lawn. I also very strangely planted two pumpkin seeds this morning.

      1. margaret says:

        I was thinking of pushing it and replanting one hill of squash where it just never took off, too…so I hear you Erin!

  10. Andrea says:

    It’s comforting to know that even master gardeners get the blues. Thank you for the hopeful and helpful words of inspiration to carry on despite feeling overwhelmed. One thing at a time…

  11. Nancy says:

    Just today I realized I was getting tired of all this digging and moving things around. So it was a relief to be reminded that it will be too hot to plant anything new for a while! Time to try to fit the gym back into my week, yeah! Then I will invite a friend to lunch and give her a “garden tour”. Refreshing to have a change of routine, though I doubt I will be able to stay away from the nurseries!!!

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, Nancy: Blame the heat, and take a needed break! :) The one thing I can’t skip here (besides weeding) is mowing, which with recent wet weather that’s also warm, seems to be nonstop. But you’re right: no big projects right now here, either.

  12. Katy Jones says:

    Oh, I needed to read this right now. I’d taken to saying “meh!” when anyone asked how the garden was doing this year. Thanks, Margaret, for this.

  13. Mary Ashcraft says:

    According to G.B. Charlesworth – gardening is simply a part of life with the elements of Science, Art, Craft and Play – Gardening does not need to be inflated or trivialized into something it is not – Is gardening an obsession? YES! Love the Opinionated Gardener.

  14. Chris says:

    I read this article many years ago when I lived further up island on Long Island and was still working full-time. Back then, i rushed to plant my garden on my “days off ” – mostly weekends – and like Margaret , never felt like I was keeping up. Surprisingly, the article was just what I needed to read – that I did NOT HAVE TO KEEP UP with any one or any thing or any schedule; that gardening was my mental health, a chance to putter and get my hands in the dirt. I clipped that Newsday article ( 6/18/92), and moved it to the back cover of my copy of “A Way to Garden”a few years later. I take it out and read it every spring to get into the right frame of mind. I am now retired, and live in a more rural area bordering a wetlands, so my garden is more natural, and always evolving. It now also includes natives and wildlife.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Chris, for the nice note. I have to re-read it too every spring…or else. “Progress not perfection” as a 12-Step slogan goes, apparently. Right?

  15. Margaret says:

    I too planted my Long Island garden over 35 years. Mostly after commuting from Manhattan or on the weekend. It was lovely and near my vision of perfection – evergreens and privet hedges for privacy, hydrangea, ornamental grasses, perennials and a beautiful lawn overlooking the bay. Then came Super Storm Sandy and it looked like a wasteland. This was far more devestating to me than the major destruction of my house, cars and dock. I knew those things could be repaired and replaced but a garden requires time and love.

    I’m happy to say that almost five years later, I again have a beautiful garden and treasure it knowing how it can be gone tomorrow.

    You always catch me with your insights. Thanks for the inspiration and permission to accept my garden as it is.

  16. PollyAlida says:

    Just what I needed to read today! Thank you for such wise advice. My goal for this hot, long weekend is to finish spreading mulch. Leaving design decisions aside for now. Must save this for rereading every year. ❤️ Hope you have a lovely, relaxing weekend.

  17. Laurel says:

    Looking at all those things that need to be moved, divided, thinned…all those jobs that I should have done in late winter or early spring, but life intruded…I was feeling depressed and overwhelmed. Then this came in! Thank you! I’ll relax and think: don’t obsess: there’s always next year!

    1. margaret says:

      Good mantra, Laurel. I am trying to see the longer view, too, and forgive myself for the spots that I just haven’t gotten to…yet! :)

  18. Rhonda Reeves says:

    Wow Margaret-thanks for this reprint–so timely and welcome! Here in the Midwest it is horribly hot and I’ve been out thinning a wildflower bed and feeling overwhelmed (yes, I should have done it much earlier!). It is so nice to know that I’m not alone!

  19. Shelley says:

    What a welcome story, thank you! The extreme heat and humidity here in OH the first week of July was really stressful on everything, plants and people. Just cleaned things up a bit and fresh mulch in places will let me enjoy the garden until cooler temperatures arrive. But then I’ll be back to school, feeding kiddos, and there won’t be time…HA!

  20. Susan Gilmour says:

    Thanks I needed that, I have been feeling over whelmed in the gardens with the weeds growing like weeds! And the annuals and perennials not able to keep up with them. I just turned 65 and have been slowing down. So I have decided to do what I can and just enjoy the gardens. As much as I would like everything to be perfect it isn’t going to happen. I had some students come in and weed, mulch and edge one garden, oh dear, almost lost my gas plant and lots of foxgloves which can easily be replaced but I am now enjoying that garden, now for the other 15! It is too late to get in and weed them but that’s OK, I pull the biggest ones walking around, it is a wild place anyway and they are great native pollinators, fancier name for weeds! I have been an avid reader of yours for years, I live in zone 5 in Nova Scotia. Although the last 2 years have been really mild and the plants are coming on faster, I have liatris and my mums in bud, kind of scary too. Might have to do that Chelsea chop next year. Hope you have a wonderful day and thanks again.

  21. Mila says:

    Love re-reading this every season (this being early July 2021) – gives me a refocus on what I have done rather than what I cannot do – thank you!

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