Jessica Helfand | Essays

My Dirty Little Secret

Photograph from "Beginner Gardening." Happy News Vol. 1 No. 1, 2007.

I have become an obsessive gardener. Not that I am any good at it — in fact, quite the opposite. Yet I persist in what's become an endless struggle to tame our jungle of odd trees, peculiar perennials and insistent alpine plants. I am fascinated not only by my own terrain but by everyone else's garden, too. And every roadside nursery, and every unsolicited seed catalog, and every passing article on the virtues of organic fertilizers and the wonders of homemade mulch, on planting tips and pruning tricks and the intricacies of successful weeding. I engage in purely illogical (though to me, enormously instructive) searches on various gardening websites and pore incessantly over the piles of gardening books I have gathered from used bookstores, borrowed from friends, and occasionally, bought for my own amateur library. Here, I draw site maps, scribbling unintelligible notes to myself in the margins. I mostly do this late at night before I go to sleep, and not surprisingly, I wake up having dreamt of mountain laurel and creeping phlox, of nepeta, euphorbia and campanula.

Gardening is its own infuriating design challenge. You fret and you rethink and you second-guess yourself constantly, and then for one delirious, thrilling moment something blooms and you feel utterly triumphant. And then it dies and you are back where you started. You feel like a failure, outwitted by nature. And by rain, or the lack of it. And by that ultimate conspiracy, weeds — endless, unconquerable weeds — like an army in perpetual attack mode. What once seemed a heavenly pursuit now seems beyond hopeless, and therein lies its magic: gardening is the most comprehensively satisfying of design challenges, because when it works you feel like God.

And when it doesn't work, you want to dig a hole in the garden and bury your head in it.

You can, of course, inherit a garden. If you are lucky it will be a garden that has been tended to, capably maintained and cultivated, over time, with great care. But even here, there are inexplicable factors beyond your control. Sixty years ago, long before my time, there were some 40,000 basil plants growing in my meadow: today, what remains of the herb garden is small but fertile, four perfect beds with superb soil karma. Everything grows there. Everything, that is, except for one thing.

I can't for the life of me grow basil.

Even given the most ideal conditions, a garden is not a place where you can cut corners. Growth happens slowly here, if at all. A garden thrives when treated as a choreographic concoction of height and color, fragrance and bloom. It is, in a sense, a quintessentially time-based medium: like a designer's orchestration of type and image, or paper and ink, or even sound and movement, a garden is a compendium of mixed, temperamental and essentially unruly phenomena. But gardening, unlike graphic design, subscribes to certain fundamental tenets, its success hinging on unarguable facts like cosmology and climate and soil type, inalterable conditions that preceded and will outlive you.

And then, on top of everything else, you come to realize that tending a garden requires a kind of ineffable patience, the very kind you lack. Abbreviations are not intended to speed one's experience, but instead are reserved for particular genus or to denote the peculiarities of hybridization. (Go figure.) Barring good fortune, better soil and a regular treatment of Miracle Gro, there's no technology to accelerate growth — making gardening, as a practice, about as analogue as you can get. Plus it's hard work, and you have to ignore all those competitive instincts because, let's face it, there's always someone better at it than you. A bitter frost comes and annihilates all your lavender (yes, two years in a row now) and your shrubs flower only when you're out of town. It is, to put it simply, a humbling process.

And so, as I continue to struggle with how to pronounce Latin names with even the most marginal accuracy, as I water and weed and wonder why I am sitting in the dirt for hour upon hour, I am reminded of the ineffable bylaws that centuries have wrought. Some plants refuse to perennialize. Others take over your lawn. There's labeling, staking, transplanting, propagating, fertilizing, grafting, mulching, edging, and more watering than you ever believed imaginable. Success comes slowly, if at all. Praying doesn't help, nor does holding your breath or buying more plants. (I write this with some authority because I have tried them all.) It's a waiting game, a story with a loose narrative frame: you give it a beginning, but its middle is ambiguous, and its end, uncertain. And in the end, isn't everything? The poet May Sarton once wrote that a garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs — like life itself. I lost all my lavender this spring. But maybe hope springs eternal after all: my peonies, great big gobs of fuchsia blossoms — are just about to burst into flower. And I feel utterly triumphant.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, Science

Comments [30]

Jessica, For years I've described myself as a possessed gardener. As I begin planning my move to London from Atlanta, I wonder if I dare add to my list of needs in a home: a spot to garden? Or at least space for a few pots? After all, Sparkie will add enough of a challenge.

As the character Ouiser says in Steel Magnolias, "I'm an old Southern woman. We wear ugly hats and we grow tomatoes."

How am I going to grow tomatoes in London? What about my collection of hydrangeas and irises? My grandmother's peonies, that only seem to bloom AFTER I've moved to the next house?

Gardening can give you total freedom. Freedom from methodology, Bauhaus principles and most of all, whether you want it or not, freedom from CONTROL.

Because you have none.

You do have a chance to connect to the Earth, the Creator force that comes from it. Take your cordless phone or mobile out and pull weeds as you talk to a challenging client. It is amazing how fast those weeds come out.

I grow bushels of basil in pots and some even survive in the studio during winter, but I can't grow zucchini. How can anyone NOT grow zucchini? I have conquered growing tomatoes in pots on my deck.

Time to go haul the saved bathwater to water the flowers on the front garden. We have a watering ban and a severe drought. But I will save my one little lavender (the first I've ever had thrive) and those hydrangeas and make babies for my friends to adopt and nurture. Anyone want to start some irises from seed?
Michelle French

Don't feel bad, Jessica: I can't grow basil either.

My scented geraniums, rosemary, sage, dill, and mints huddle happily in the small greenhouse we build on our apartment deck in summer (and our living room window in winter) and give us great pleasure, but basil? Nope.

I've taken this as a sign that I need to shop more often at our local farmer's market, and make as much pesto as I can when basil shows up in July.
L.M. Cunningham

I don't garden but recently found myself clearing my backyard and working the soil a bit. I must admit that flowers now bring a bit of color to my otherwise 9 months-out-of-the-year colorless yard.

Sounds like a job for the crew of "This Old House"... Would like to see Kevin, Norm, Tom, and Roger tear up your yard on national t.v. LOL!

I both love and fear gardening. I am excited when I plant something new that just might thrive, and tie the garden together so it might look like the gardens I see in books. This rarely happens.
For five years I have tried to grow thyme between patio stones, hoping for beautiful mounds of scent and color, but by spring time, as I wait for signs that maybe this year will be different, I am met by brown, scraggly thin failures. This spring I planted DIFFERENT species of thyme - hoping hoping ...
I think gardening is much like a second marriage, the triumph of hope over experience!

Jess--I really feel for you. Thirteen years ago, when I first moved into my garden apartment, I had grand visions of having the kind of garden that would be featured in the New York City garden tour. I set about removing all of the old appliances and car tires that the previous owner had stored in the yard (using a yard as a storage facility was baffling to me) and went to the Chelsea Garden Center and spent a small fortune on rose bushes, peonies, and other magnificent flowers and plants. My unbridled enthusiasm was met with great failure, not only did I quickly find out that I knew *nothing* about gardening, I came to realize that roses and peonies do not flourish in a shady, slug-ridden yard with bad drainage and clay soil. It took me years (and God knows how much money) to figure out what I was doing, and even now, all these years later, I still mourn when a hosta doesn't come back or I am traveling the two weeks a year my azaleas bloom.

The one thing that has not diminished is how much joy I get plunging my hands deep into the earth, watering my precious plants and observing the ivy go from "sleep to creep to leap." I think that gardening is a true art and a great gift. Like design, when you figure out one little mystery, it opens your mind and enlivens your soul.

Last week I threw a wedding party for a good friend of mine and I wanted the garden to look as perfect as possible. But I had been traveling and was left with one day before the soiree to fill the window boxes. Unfortunately for me, the day before the party, it rained all day. Nevertheless, I found myself out in the yard, soaking wet and covered with mud, determined to make it as beautiful as possible for the coming celebration. After I finished, I surveyed the results and couldn't remember the last time I had felt as much pride.

Thanks for a great post.
debbie millman

This year -- due to an freak April freeze -- my peonies, lilac, rose of sharon and iris didn't bloom. ( Basil, oregano and ceyenne were liquified. )

Tulips made it!

Really miss the peonies though. Hope they come back next year.

Joe Moran

It's sobering to read the frustrations of one of the most complex yet rewarding art forms divised by humans. Not only are we trying to create something of ephemeral beauty, but we have to keep them alive. Part artist, part scientist, part civil engineer, part ecologist--add the variations of weather and no wonder we hold our collective breath waiting for those two weeks when perhaps the garden will be firing on all cylinders and we happen to have the camera at the ready!

So if you'd like some unsolicited advice from a landscape architect and design teacher, try this. Imagine a garden that never flowers--imagine that your garden gnome comes home drunk and nasty every night and plucks every ready-to-open bud from every plant in your garden. That's payback for having to stand out in the weather and feel slugs crawl up your pant leg every night.

My advice is to design primarily using plant form, foliage contrast, textural differences (light green wispy grasses paired with a neighbor with stout, dark burgundy leaves for example).

Plant in bold groupings--not one of this and one of that. Then create that killer-combo plant grouping and use it as a focal point that will knock your socks off from anywhere in the yard.

If the flowers come, even better! Just make sure you have a color combination that adds to the glory.

'Nuff for now. If you need a bit of instruction, cruise to http://gardenwiseguy.blogspot. Lemme know if this relieves a little angst.

BG (aka Garden Wise Guy)

I once briefly worked with a pottery master, firing slow-firing kilns –24 hours up to temperature, 48 hours+ to cool. He scorned us (the ‘others’) for impatience, and need for ‘instant gratification’, for wanting to open the kiln before the wares would be body temperature. I understood his point, but I also despised him for not realising this ‘instant gratification’ also is pure curiosity; a force that moves us forward.
In gardening, there is no instant gratification- it’s a neverending process, and the process is the goal, joy and occasional disaster. But there’s abundance of curiosity- staring at seedlings, trying to wish them to life.
Designing a garden is almost an impossible thing, but with enough love for living things, dandelions and roses can indeed compliment each other, and live happily together. And there is an imperceptible process going on too... over the years, you learn to like the plants your garden will support, even if you disliked them when you started out.
A little like potters learning to like brown, iron oxide pottery out of heartbreakingly slow kilns.
Ms. Norway

about the basil, we have a cousin of basil called the holy basil or tulsi in india. according to legends tulsi was cursed, "if you are loved or cared for by somebody you would suffer".

and from personal experience also i can vouch for this fact, if you don't care for it, (no water, no fertilizer, etc..) it grows with a weedlike strength.

you could try this :)

happy gardening

The only place I can get anything to grow is in the cracks of my driveway.

Fortunately, my wife truly loves gardening, and all the creativity and frustration that goes with it.

Mother Nature, it seems, can be a fickle client.
Daniel Green

Maybe try organic permaculture gardening? It's a lot less bother -- no Miracle Gro, even no watering if you do it right.
Ari Moore

Try gardening in Texas. I really have no idea why I do it.

Internet is ruining the green thumb. Just grow stuff. Don't think so much. Learn from mistakes, let time teach instead of constant scurrying for the latest information on how to "win" at gardening. True mark of a designer would be over-engineering such a free-flowing and spiritual practice.
rick fox

3 year ago, I "adopted" a rock garden in Riverside Park here in New York. My first year was dedicated to cleaning out the debris from this long-neglected site, finding everything from condoms to chicken bones to shoes! Now, it's finally starting to look like a garden, people no longer throw their trash in it and babysitters must restrain their charges from climbing in to help me dig. Creating a public garden provides an extra kick to something that I already love doing.
nancy butkus

A writer, I garden without words. If I don't know the name for some plant, I learn it over time and without effort, like a second language I never went to school for.

I inherited my first garden from a determined Swedish woman and did everything wrong with it. Who knew poppies don't transplant?

"Cultivate, cultivate, cultivate," an elderly neighbor told me. After twenty years, I finally have enough patience to do just that.

I garden as creative avoidance; something that is not writing. I see something I like--vegetables as design elements, paying attention to the vertical dimension--and I try it. Sometimes it works where I am and sometimes not. Hot peppers burgeoned in Central Massachusetts and failed in Denver, something I never would have expected. Rhubarb, transplanted from one corner of the yard to another for reasons of design, grew to Pre-Cambrian heights and self-composted under elephantine leaves--hot, hot compost that I thought would kill the plant, but it never did.

A first attempt at non-linear garden rows resulted in an embarrassingly vulval design that I came to think of as my George O'Keefe garden.

My next-door neighbor in Rhode Island, a RISD-papered landscape architect, tucked a design for my yard done on graph paper into my mailbox as a greeting when I moved in. It was strikingly similar to what I had planned for myself, except that the veggie patch was in a spiral. I told him I would be damned if I mowed the lawn in a spiral around it. We thought together about multiple arms to mitigate the effect, a kind of garden galaxy, but ended up being too afraid that it would look like a swastika from the air--my yard is directly under the approach to the Providence airport.

That garden ended up more or less rectangular. For a while it grew a tail to accommodate the pumpkin vines; a peninsula of earth that kind of looked like Florida. Then I realized that the pilots flying into T.F. Green would think the garden was a map of the United States. My landscape-architect neighbor jested that I ought to grow corn in the part that would be the Midwest, wheat and sunflowers in Kansas, artichokes in California...I didn't think so.

My first theory of gardening was that you only have so much "aggravation," as they say back East, in a day, so you might as well get it out of your system weeding, before you go to work in the morning.

The ultimate frustration was watching Japanese beetles mating right on my basil plants--the female enjoying a nice, fresh pesto as she got ****ed. And that is why I wrote.

Carol Anne Buckley

Damn! I HATE gardening. And trimming hedges, and mowing the lawn, and pulling weeds, and raking leaves and digging holes, and spreading mulch and watching as another season yields but a dozen mealy, sad tomatoes and way too much zuccini. Any of you garden nuts are free to come to my house to do any of the above chores.
Mark Kaufman

Allow me to share my vision, one that has tormented neighbors, landscape architects, and my family, one that I wax poetic about once I've had a glass or two of wine: the white garden.

I've gardened since I can remember. My mother dug a square patch by the back fence of our Connecticut yard and I planted marigolds, lettuce and tomatoes. One of my earliest memories is standing under a cherry tree in full bloom after a rain shower and inhaling the glorious scent of the pink blossoms.

Anyhow, back to the white garden. I live in Chicago, not exactly the garden capital of the planet. But I work doggedly with what I have. Years ago I decided to create a garden in front of my house that was stictly green and white. I've planted a birch tree, white daisies, white azalea, white clematis, sweet woodruff, and grasses. There have been a few deviations--coral bells with dark red leaves, red sedum that only bloom in the fall (so are green most of the time), and pulmonaria that only bloom in the spring (and have beautful green and white speckled leaves the rest of the time).

There was a brief setback when the big, supposedly white, magnolia tree I had a landscaper put in two summers ago bloomed bubblegum pink last spring. I called my landscaper friend Dave and said simply, "Remember the idea of the white garden? You might want to take a drive by the house." The next day the errant tree had been replaced.

When the winter starts lifting in February I begin to visualize what I will plant next season and that sustains me until I can begin clearing leaves and brush in March.

I don't know that anything I've ever created in my life has given me as much creative satisfaction as this garden.

Coda: Lest you think that this garden is an Eden. It's utterly pedestrian when compared with some of the glorious older gardens in my neighborhood. It's the IDEA of the white garden and what it might become that sustains me. Besides, it's spring and the air is filled with the sweet promise of gardening successes. (Next week's installment: the attack of the Cicada Killing Giant Wasps.)
Kathy Fredrickson

So take a poll-- how many middle-aged designers have swapped the night clubs of their youth for the garden? In my youth I was an attempted droll hipster in a black turtleneck -- now I run home to change into a grubby shirt and gym pants so I can go out and work in the garden. It's an endlessly fascinating experiment in color perception and scale--- I love dark purple tulips. A clump of two dozen 80 feet from the window is basically invisible. However bright orange pointy tall ones look great 80 feet from the house. June is purple, lavender, white-- August is orange, yellow, and red. Orange and purple can look great together -- in the garden. Skip it if it's pants and shirt. Why do I love yellow-green foliage but despise greenish yellow flowers? And why is my white phlox now magenta? I'd write more, but it's may 31, a gorgeous day, and I have to get the hell out of here so I can go home and weed.

My wife and I inherited a garden when we bought our house 12 years ago. A landscape architect had ripped out the front lawn and planted (I am not kidding) close to 200 different plants in its place. The architect had since rented his house to his mother, who'd let everything go to pot and destroyed the drip irrigation system, which was rigged to water roses, but not the cacti right next to them.

I spent years trying to find out what everything was and trying desperately not to kill anything still green.

I kept thinking about writing about the experience in a blog, book, or newspaper, but it really never took off. Turns out when I get these thoughts while weeding, I just stay where I am and do my work.

Strangely all I wanted to accomplish in my writing, the sense of well-being, of being at peace, is right there, and I don't need to go in and write about it.

I got rid of my gardener last year after someone told me how ridiculous it is to work out when you've got your workout right out your own front door. It's true, haul water, chop wood.

Enjoy it.

Thanks for the read.

Someone once remarked that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience. For a gardener, each spring is another marriage. In your head you know that disaster awaits -- drought, deer, fungus, weeds -- and yet your heart keeps saying "maybe this year it will be different".

Not unlike a new client or a new project, come to think of it.

Gardening? Are you serious? Some of us are not middle aged, and would like to see more substance and less domesticity. As the lone female in the DO bunch, you are starting to play to all sorts of ugly stereotypes, Ms. Helfand. Children, gardening... How terrifically boring. How extraordinarily uninteresting. Sigh.


Try to grow ...


Joe Moran

Alex. Please. What an offensive thing to write. What does gardening have to do with "middle aged domesticity?" Not much. Gardening is an art, a science, a design challenge and a gift. If you don't appreciate this post (or any other), don't read it. But know that there are plenty of us out there that look forward to this particular type of contribution on Design Observer and it is actually extraordinarily short-sighted and prejudiced of you to assume otherwise.
debbie millman

Ah, pity the arrogant who imagine that little bits of type and paper and digital virtual whirligigs are somehow always more substantive than flesh and blood children, a home, a garden and also imagine that they will never sucuumb to age. That my friend Alex is only possible if you strike a bargain with...the devil. Plenty of designers have and most are not remembered. Thank you Ms. Helfand for your growing green humility and thank you for introducing the peculiar dynamic of landscape design and architecture (an art form thousands of years old) to this post. I guess it takes a design gal to do it.
Bernard Pez

A part of me feels slightly bad for chastising an obviously young and simple-minded Alex, but let's get serious. Alex look at it this way - gardening is sexy. Try it. Get your hands dirty, cultivate a seed and enjoy the power and surprise of nurturing a living thing. Take on the challenge of ripening a perfect tomato - size, shape, contour, firm healthy skin. Photograph it, slice it and scan the slices, to make some art. Gardening as design gestalt.

Have you ever smelled fresh, loamy earth?

How about trying this on for size: There are community gardens EVERYWHERE. One happens to span for 4 miles near where I live in a hybrid-urban city space. Tons of wonderful people - senior citizens in fabulous straw hats, rugged Vietnamese immigrants, families with adorable and mud-covered children, impressive CEO types - still in their TIES after an oppressive day of work, ALL stop by to pick off buds or berries in our community garden.

AND - what's best - it's a space that's unbranded! It's still open to interpretation and imagination.

Alex, If you feel the need to trash talk on this site - especially in the name of young (gasp! unmarried) people, make sure you know what you're talking about.
Jessica Gladstone

Age definitely shouldn't matter with something like this. Gardening can be taken any way you want it to. In my opinion, gardening can be a very admirable talent. It involves process, anticipation and planning and at the same time there are variables that are not in your control (such as miss mother nature and insects) that provide challenge to a gardener. Gotta go, I've got my mom's orchids to tend to!
Frank Duenas

Maybe Alex is a teenager. I distinctly remember being about 15 and standing in the middle of the lawn, watching my parents gardening, and telling them that they were pathetic. That they did not throw the pruning shears at me (or even turn the hose on me) was a testament to great parental patience. Now when I look at a really good garden, I am stunned at the ability of anyone to be able to design in that medium, in real time, for the future rather than right now.
lorraine wild

My astilbes are coming into bloom, and for two or three weeks all the obsessing and labor will be worth it. For me, over the last 15 years in leafy Irvington On Hudson, it's been a battle not only with weeds and shade and insects, but with the larger creatures who roam freely 39 minutes north of Grand Central Terminal. Last summer when I could have been spending my time, I suppose, getting more clients or updating my web site, I installed invisible deer fencing and moved most of the vulnerable plants from the front to the back. Unlike design, which can be very public and published, garden design is private and personal. So that's what I've been doing all these years!
Ellen Shapiro

I couldn't finish reading this post. I have to go outside and peruse my garden immediately.
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