Garden Life: State of perfection in the garden is elusive




These days, perfection has become the catch word to describe the least we should expect of ourselves. TV and magazines tout the perfect house, car, bottled water and, yes, the perfect life. As if that’s not enough, gardeners are bombarded with the concept of perfection in the garden. It’s as if the measure of your landscaping is nothing if it’s not comparable to a Hollywood movie set.

If it’s perfection we’re after, we should at least know what that term means. According to Webster’s, 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 the realm of possibility, this definition brought it back within my reach. After all, I actually do have a park-like landscape of well chosen trees, shrubs, seasonal flora and hardscaping.

As seasons change, as daylight turns to moonlight, as morning breaks, nature has the ability to highlight what is best in the garden at that very moment. At dawn, the Lady’s Mantle cups the morning dew in its upturned, scalloped foliage. Water beads up like liquid pearls. Autumn awakens the long-held secret colors within every leaf. So a garden, by its very nature, does have the potential for perfection.

Less fitting to my ideal of a perfect 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 mine is lacking. I need more variegated foliage, banks of grasses backlit by the setting sun and flowers en masse for sweeps of seasonal color. Like the seed head of a dandelion in a wind storm, the longing for what I don’t have scatters perfection to the wind.

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 expect flawless results, let alone demand them? In the Pacific Northwest, the rain can weigh down an unstaked peony blossom until its face falls flat on the ground in a soggy heap. I’m a bit nervous just thinking about a perfectionist visiting my garden and confronting this travesty. I can only hope that they cultivate perfect manners as well and let me continue to live in ignorance of my many little flaws.

Even if something is perfect, it cannot stay that way for very long. In life, we get caught in the Catch-22 of the fact that perfection is never static. 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. Perennials die back in winter. The lovely flowering daylily lasts for just one day.

Instead of seeking perfection, I have decided to put away the dictionary and let perfection come looking for me. I can easily accept a daisy sprouting up in the middle of a pathway — miraculously developing from seed to seedling to flowering plant with a sparkling energy all its own. The garden exists; there is life in there for anyone willing to grub around on their hands and knees. We own the experience when we deign to face the world with our nose to the ground.

When I’m weeding in spring and find a self-sown Lavender growing in the crack of a sidewalk, I choose to see it as a gift from the garden. It’s much more satisfying to see the beauty of a volunteer plant than to take on the attitude of the Queen of Hearts, shouting “Off with its head” when something happens in the garden that was not in my plan. After all, the results of gardening are not totally up to me. The world of nature has an equal responsibility in the outcome.

I’m beginning to understand that perfection has its ups and downs. Like life itself, the garden is a world of sunshine and shadows, warm rain and black spot, rich, loamy soil and an aching back. Through it all, I’ve noticed that the plants in my garden never hide in shame because the conditions are not perfect enough for them. They take what Mother Nature and the gardener have to offer and raise their faces to the sun. What could be more perfect than that?

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