Garden Life: Learning requires getting your hands dirty




The best way to learn anything, including how to garden, is by doing. You can study and read and go to lectures, but at some point you have to get your hands dirty to become a gardener. Regardless of the fact that modern technology puts information at our fingertips, the masters of any craft still learned the ropes by actually doing what they do so well.

We first decide to learn more about gardening because everything about it feels good to us. It’s exhilarating to dig in the earth. It’s fascinating to watch over the years as compost mixed with native soil becomes a crumbly loam. As we untangle pot-bound roots, we imagine them growing down into the soil, taking nutrients up into the plant. We like to see a plant in detail, noticing the structure, bark and scent. The lucky gardener is the one who goes into it for sheer joy and learns along the way.

Some of us want success immediately. For best results, give the quest for expertise the time it truly takes. We would never judge a child badly on their performance because they crawled before they began to walk. If you take the time to learn how to plant a perennial correctly, it doesn’t matter that you still can’t pronounce the proper Latin name. Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’ will still become a black-eyed Susan when it grows in your garden next spring. With every step, you add to your knowledge.

There is a lot to learn if you want to become accomplished in any field of study. That’s also true of gardening. On the other hand, information alone does not make us the master of a skill. There is great value to reading books, listening to lectures and sharing information with other people, especially fellow gardeners. However, we become the master of a skill only after a period of hands-on experience.

No method of learning is more valuable than being an apprentice. Working in the field with someone who already has the skill you desire is the ultimate learning method. It does us all good to take the occasional lesson in modesty by following another person’s directions. Even if you’ve read every book on planting roses, nothing compares to actually doing the project with a fellow gardener.

You may already know how deep to dig the hole and the proper mix of soil, compost and fertilizer. An experienced gardener can show you how to spread the roots over the top of your clenched fist before planting, how to remove air pockets from the soil and use a shovel handle to place the rose at the proper planting depth. Hands-on experience and the occasional good laugh together are keystones to inspiration.

Learning involves getting it wrong as well as getting it right. Edison made many unsuccessful attempts before arriving at a functioning light bulb. It’s been said that a reporter asked him, “How did it feel to fail a thousand times?” Edison replied that he didn’t fail a thousand times. “The light bulb,” he said, “was an invention with one thousand and one steps.”

No room for ego

Sometimes even the most devoted apprentice will feel like giving up. Especially if the results they are looking for are meant to impress someone else. It’s disheartening if your well-planted roses develop black spot, a coddled dogwood withers under the disease of anthracnose or the colors in an intricately planned perennial border clash. When it’s all about ego and what others will think, life can be discouraging.

As we learn, we see with different eyes. One of my biggest design mistakes was planting Euphorbia griffithii at the base of a Prunus ‘Kwanzan’ flowering cherry. To my eyes, the brick-orange bracts of the euphorbia clashed with the oversized, crepe-paper pink cherry blossoms. The very next year, gardening magazines were touting the same brash, bold contrast of strident colors in their photographs. Now I just smile and say, “I meant to do that.”

The one who gardens for the pleasure of gardening will find great joy in the process. Ultimately, anyone who dedicates their efforts to a task simply for the love of doing it will find that they are actually quite capable. It’s the nature of the universe that ideas, facts, opportunities and abilities all come to the person who seeks to become more proficient. Even the master knows that the world is ever-changing and that learning is never completed. To be pleased with your garden at the end of the day may be all the mastery any one of us needs.

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