life lessons from the garden tour


Summer comes a bit later to the Pacific Northwest than the rest of the country — particularly this year. As such, my neighborhood’s annual garden tour was held just a few weeks ago (and it was kind of cold and very rainy even then). As much as I loved peeking into other people’s yards — especially those I would never get to see otherwise, like a house right on the water — it struck me that there are universal truths to every garden, no matter how big or small. And even though this season is winding down, these lessons can still be applied not only to gardens, but, I’m finding more and more, life.

Go with what works.
In the Midwest, I could throw seeds pretty much anywhere, and the hot sun and frequent thunderstorms would assure me a huge crop without much planning at all. That’s emphatically not the case in a clime where a day in the mid-60s is considered summery, and I’ve driven myself a little crazy trying to cultivate plants that need more loving care than I have time to give them. The gardeners on the tour were smart: lots of plants that thrive here with little effort, like lavender, Japanese maples, and rhododendrons. The big surprise? A good amount of common annuals like petunias and geraniums. Cheap to buy, simple to replace, and planted in profusion, quite gorgeous. So it really doesn’t require exotic hybrids to plant a beautiful garden.

Take your cue from your surroundings.
I was particularly delighted with a garden on the tour that had a storybook style that isn’t my instinct at all, including a small boxwood hedge sculpted into a fleur-de-lis. But the style worked perfectly with the Tudor home with its arched windows and stained glass. The beach home had very little “yard” at all, unless you count decking and sand. No matter; they filled the deck with potted plants in a variety of colors and textures, used espaliered trees to take advantage of a narrow corridor between houses, and chose a lot of grasses that stand up to sea spray.

Make room for sitting.
If you’re not careful, you might get to the end of a beautiful weekend and find that you spent the entire time cutting, mulching, weeding, watering — but not enjoying. If that’s the case, who exactly are you planting that garden for? Get a $20 plastic Adirondack chair, a $500 designer bench, or a salvaged rock, but set up a place to sit down (or even several places) and do it.

Try to see the potential in everything.
The beach garden mixed up spiky sculpture with spiky grasses growing like hair from a cement head. An eclectic garden (my favorite on the tour) used the springs from an old mattress as great-looking wall art and festooned fence beams with bottle caps left over from barbecues. What twee statues or broken furniture might you re-imagine into a clever addition to your own yard?

Don’t try to get it all done today. Or this year.
One garden that was heavy on trees and raised vegetable beds was very much still a work in progress, and yet they’d been working on it for ten years. Even if you hire someone to weed and mulch, it takes time for plants to reach maturity (just like people). Sometimes you have to give up on a plant that isn’t working (hmm…just like people). And even if you do it all yourself, gardens cost money. Unless you’re among the very wealthy, you likely won’t have a garden quite as glorious as you envision the very first year you work on it. And that’s okay.

You can encourage beauty anywhere.
A lot of houses in my neighborhood include a graceless set of cement steps that lead down to a basement door. I have been encouraging some jasmine to grow over a railing to help obscure ours, and was happy to see that other gardeners had the same idea. Even damp steps to the basement can look charming with a flowering vine or a few pots of flowers.

Keep your sense of humor.
Even the manicured Tudor garden had a yellow rubber ducky floating on a pristine bird bath. Listen to your instincts and have fun with your garden. I can guarantee you that you will sometimes step deep into mud (or worse if you have animals). You will walk into the occasional spiderweb. And you will accidentally turn on the hose when it’s aimed at your face. It’s always good to remind yourself to laugh.

Garden on. — Mary T.

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