The Garden Life: Achieve garden ‘perfection’ on nature’s terms



I was looking through an old garden journal when I came across a page dedicated to the perfection of the autumn garden. I had just finished a late October woodland hike and seen a grove of red maple trees in full fall foliage. That afternoon, when I returned to my own garden, I was willing to concede that perfection was within grasp.

These days, perfection has become the advertising catchword to describe the least we should expect of ourselves. TV and magazines tout the perfect job, car, bottled water and, yes, the perfect life. As if that is not enough, gardeners are bombarded with the concept of perfection in the garden. It’s as if every garden has to look like a Walt Disney movie set.

If it’s perfection we are after, we should begin by understanding what that term means.

According to Daniel Webster, perfection is: “Having all the qualities or elements requisite to its nature or kind.” Just as I had given up all hope that being perfect was within my reach, this definition worked fairly well for me. After all, I garden for the connection to nature and the satisfaction the garden gives me.

As seasons change, as daylight turns to moonlight, nature has the ability to highlight what is best in the garden at that very moment. Early in the morning, the Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) holds the morning dew in its scalloped, up-turned leaves where water beads like liquid pearls. Autumn awakens the secret colors held within every leaf. Therefore, a garden, by its very nature, has the potential for perfection.

Less fitting to my ideal of a garden is this entry: “Meeting all requirements; lacking no essential.” As wonderful as I feel about my own garden at times, it only takes one new plant catalog in the mail or a visit to a friend’s garden to convince me that my garden is lacking. I need more variegated foliage, sweeps of ornamental grasses, and masses of color. Like the seed head of a dandelion in a windstorm, my desire for the latest plant introduction blows this last definition away.

I went a step further and looked up perfectionist: “One who demands perfect or flawless results or performance of himself or others.”

Can a gardener ever really get flawless results, let alone demand them? I’m a little nervous just thinking about this type of person visiting my garden. I can only hope that they cultivate perfect manners, as well, and let me continue to live in ignorance of my many shortcomings.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that a perfectionist should not be a gardener. Gardening would drive them crazy, even with a team of workers doing all their weeding, pruning and hoeing. Even if a garden is nothing more than a formal design layout of evergreens and gravel pathways, there are going to be moles and blowing autumn leaves and moss with which to contend.

I wonder if a perfectionist ends their day of labor in the garden by slapping the dust off their hands and saying, “Completely done and perfect, too.”

Although most of my gardening friends end a day of work with a feeling of satisfaction at a job well done, they seldom delude themselves into thinking that the garden is now finished. The English novelist H. E. Bates was probably thinking of them when he wrote, “The garden that is finished is dead.”

The Catch-22 of gardening is the fact that a garden is not static.

Can something that is perfect stay that way forever, or even for one day? The most beautiful rose bush, examined closely, will have the occasional leaf touched by black spot. At some point in its development, there will be perfect roses and faded roses on the same bush.

I have come to the conclusion that I want to garden more than I want perfection. When I find a self-sown daisy miraculously sprouting along a gravel walkway, I want to see it as a gift from the garden, not as a challenge to perfection. It’s much more satisfying to welcome a volunteer plant to the garden than to take on the attitude of the Queen of Hearts shouting, “Off with its head!”

The gardening life has taught me to accept sunshine and drought, warm rain and black spot, loamy soil and an aching back. One of the most important things I have learned is that a healthy plant never hides in shame because of weather conditions or changing seasons. Like winter pansies, they take what the elements and the gardener have to offer and raise their faces to the sky.

What could be more perfect than that?

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at