Organizing Theory & Artistry

The Perfectionist Gardener

"Les femmes révées--ideal beauties. La passion des roses--the passion for roses," (1851). Illustration by Adolphe, M. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

There are many gardeners out there who take their yard and gardens very seriously. It makes sense in a way. Your yard and garden is the first thing people see when they come to visit you. It is on display all the time to friends and strangers alike. If you worry about appearances, it is understandable that you might get a complex about what your garden looks like.

As I have written about before, “tempered perfectionism” is healthy and helps us to achieve difficult goals. Perfectionism unchecked, however, is debilitating. In the garden, nature is “perfect” but not controlled. Many times the perfectionist gardener is attempting to insert a little more order into the natural process, to make things look better and to literally grow an ideal world.

Gayla Trail, author of the book, You Grow Girl, and the blog of the same name, recently wrote a very insightful post about perfectionism in gardening.

“I enjoyed [my] garden when I was alone, but still found myself feeling guilty or ashamed when people came to visit. I often pointed out the plants that weren’t thriving or the sections that looked terrible the second my visitor walked into the space. By calling out my garden’s faults, I was saying, “Hey, I know you’re judging me and I’m on board.” I was getting the judging out in the open before they could as a strategy to avoid added embarrassment and shame. And you know what? A lot of that judgment was in my own head. I very much doubt most of those people even noticed half of the so-called transgressions I pointed out to them, or cared for that matter. They were seeing what looked good. I was the one fixating on what didn’t.”

–Gayla Trail, What Makes A Good Gardener?, March 25, 2010

What are some of the things a perfectionist gardener might do? Below are 5 signs you might be a perfectionist gardener.

1.  Painting the grass. If your grass isn’t quite green enough for you (or not green at all), you can paint it to get a deep lush green color! There are special grass paints that must be used for this purpose. This technique is sometimes used on athletic fields or golf courses but is becoming more common on residential lawns as well. Below is one example:

2.  Braiding the leaves of daffodils and other bulbs after they have bloomed. Most horticultural experts agree that you have to let the daffodil leaves naturally die so that the bulb will gather energy to bloom next year. For many gardeners, however, the period after blooming until the leaves die is not a particularly attractive phase. Some gardeners want to either cut off the leaves or take measures like braiding or knotting the foliage in an attempt to hide it.

Braided daffodil greenery. Not recommended but a sign of the perfectionist gardener.

“Braided daffodil leaves have got to be making a reference to psychological health. Some folks see gardening as a never-ending battle. There’s always an ongoing war with weeds, diseases, and insects. . . . Relax. Gardening is about releasing your mind and reducing stress. Don’t think of the dying foliage as ugly. Think of it as natural.”

–Gary Pierce, Ask the Horticultural Agent: Can I cut the leaves off my daffodil plants when they finish blooming?, Harnett County, North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

3.  Constant replacement of plants for a “perfect look.” Plants grown in professional nurseries are given exceptional growing conditions that we have no hope of replicating in a home garden. They are fed the exactly correct proportion of nutrients, given fresh water in exactly the correct amounts, the perfect amount of sunlight and are pruned and transplanted at the very best times. No wonder when these plants arrive at the garden center, it is hard to resist their beauty. For most gardeners, however, the perfect look starts to fade after a few weeks in the home garden. The plant might grow in a funny direction, it might show signs of stress from the new, less perfect growing conditions, or the blossoms might fade. The perfectionist gardener will pull out and replace the plant as soon as it doesn’t look perfect, replacing it with another perfect specimen.

4.  Faux Foliage. If you don’t appreciate the variability and unpredictability of Mother Nature, there are always “permanent botanicals,” i.e. artificial flowers, shrubs, trees and just about anything you would want for your garden. They are getting more lifelike all the time and being used outdoors as well as in.

“Faux plants today are so lifelike that no one will be able to tell the difference, and you may become the envy of your neighbors. . . . There are literally hundreds of faux plants like trees, flowers, shrubs, and bushes to choose from. . . . [Y]ou will never be more in love with your garden and you will have saved 50% of the cost and about 90% of the time it takes to grow all those plants.”

–Rachel Pickett, Gardening with Fake Plants

5.  Digital Enhancement. When manual efforts to make your garden perfect fail, there is always the opportunity to remedy things in the virtual world. All of the gardens in magazines and books are gorgeous and flawless. There is not a weed in site, the plants are all lush, green and healthy and perhaps even in full bloom. It was not until a few weeks ago that I read this interesting secret revealed:

“Goaded by the lush pictures in shelter magazines you can set unrealistic standards that only homeowners with hired staff can uphold. Learn to live with imperfections such as a few weeds and flowers past their prime. Those gardens in magazine layouts have been primped by professionals and, like fashion spreads, the photos sometimes are even digitally doctored.”

–Bart Ziegler, 10 Lessons, Learned the Hard Way, The Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2010.

It never even crossed my mind before that gardens and flowers are Photoshopped! It really seems unnecessary. Apparently even Mother Nature is not perfect enough for magazine editors. With Photoshop, anything can be manipulated. Colors are enhanced, flowers can be “corrected” to remove insect damage, plants can be added in (or removed). The end result might not be anything like a “real” garden. If you want to see an example of the capabilities of Photoshop see the video below showing artist Breathe1909 transforming a vacant lot full of garbage into a community garden–all with Photoshop.

While I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who needed to take a little “cheat” here and there to spruce up a garden for a special occasion or to help sell a house, maintaining a mirage of perfectionism all the time is unproductive and unhealthy. I would hate to see the day when we are all so afraid of a few weeds, dead leaves or spent flowers that our yards consist entirely of fake plants and painted grass.

There is beauty in nature, in variation and even in failure. Here’s hoping you don’t take your gardening too seriously and that you find the right balance between creating a personal eden to enjoy and beating yourself up over every leaf out of place.

Do you struggle with perfectionism in your garden? What gardening “cheats” have you tried? Please share in the comments.