The Garden Life: Garden is no place for a perfectionist




The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that a perfectionist should not be a gardener. Gardening might drive a perfectionist mad, even if he or she had a team of hired help doing all the weeding, pruning and hoeing. Even if a garden is nothing more than formal clipped boxwood and crushed gravel pathways, we still have to contend with moles and blowing autumn leaves and moss. If you can’t see the beauty in a lush carpet of emerald green moss, how will you handle patches of dead lawn at the foot of a Douglas fir tree?

Does a perfectionist end their day of labor in the garden by briskly slapping the dust off of 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 for a job well done, they seldom delude themselves into thinking that their work is finished for any longer than this one day. A lot can happen in a garden in 24 hours. The gardener Ray D. Everson wrote, “The philosopher who said that work well done never needs doing over never weeded a garden.”

If your watering system is not an automatic one, begin a hand-watering schedule for annuals, perennials, roses and potted plants. Most trees and shrubs need at least a couple of years to establish themselves before they can be left on their own for watering needs. If you are still putting new plants into your summer garden, remember to water long and deep once a day for a week, once a week for a month and then as needed throughout the season, depending on our rainfall.

Watering plants by hand with a hose is one of my favorite garden tasks. As a child I used to stand alongside my grandmother in her garden as she watered individual plants. In winter, when it was 75 degrees in Southern California, she would let me pour a bucket of ice at the feet of the hydrangeas to give them the winter chill they needed to bloom in summer. We had easy, rambling chats about the indelible scent of gardenias and the beauty of a truly red rose like Rosa “Mr. Lincoln.” At the time I didn’t think twice about our conversations but now they come back to me as vibrant reminders of our familial bond.

Part of the gardener’s job is to choose a selection of plants that complement each other’s assets while compensating for any of the other plants’ faults. After the large, crepe paper-like orange petals of the Oriental poppy fade away, the foliage dies down to the ground as well, leaving an unattractive weedy patch of withered leaves 1½ to 2 feet wide. In my garden a nearby perennial, Coreopsis lanceolata “Zagreb,” grows up and out to fill the now empty garden space with a mass of needlelike, pine green foliage and cheerful yellow flowers.

If your color palette leans toward cooler shades, replace the orange poppy with a white form such as Papaver orientale “Royal Wedding” and the coreopsis with the pincushion flowers of Scabiosa “Pink Mist,” which will continue to bloom through the late summer months. If you are planting a bed of annuals, try all white impatiens along a pathway with a backup of classic red geraniums or a scattering of cosmos in cool pinks for a garden in full sun. Mastering the art of gardening is a matter of trial and error. With that in mind, any gardener can conjure up a uniquely personal garden image.

Mulching flower beds and veggie gardens will conserve moisture and suppress weed growth. An organic mulch such as garden compost will also improve the soil’s structure as it decomposes, making the top few inches of soil looser and more crumbly. The best time to apply a mulch in the growing season is after soil has distinctly warmed up. For many vegetables, the fertilizer that you apply at planting time will be sufficient for the entire season.

Heavy feeders, such as corn or those vegetables requiring a long growing season, which include broccoli, cabbage, and tomatoes, may need one or two follow-up feedings. It’s important to continue to remove weeds throughout the growing season. Weeds compete with perennials and vegetables for water, food, and light. The mulch that you applied will also help to prevent weeds from getting started in the first place. Those that do appear can be eliminated through hand-pulling, hoeing or cultivating.

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