THE WASHINGTON POST – “If you have a garden and a library,” wrote the ancient Roman statesman Cicero, “you have everything you need”.
When I started gardening seriously, I turned to books, drawing inspiration and guidance from generations of writer-gardeners, including Cicero. Those writers taught me how to observe a garden, what to pay attention to, what matters. The more I read, the better my observations; the more I observed, the better I understood what I was reading about.
My reading also resolved a lifelong obstacle to gardening: my lack of a green thumb. For years, I held on to a belief that I was far from a natural at nature, and without a green thumb, I assumed I wouldn’t know what to plant, where to plant it or how to make it thrive.
Better not to begin at all.
Gardener-writers helped puncture that belief by dispelling the myth of the green thumb. Vita Sackville-West, a 20th-Century English author, came to gardening as an amateur, too, without formal training in horticulture or garden design.
In time, her garden at Sissinghurst became one of England’s most renowned and revered, a byproduct of her many years of experimentation and innovation.
Sackville-West’s response to the idea of “green fingers” was bracing, “Ask any gardener or farmer what he thinks of it, and you will be rewarded as you deserve by a slow cynical grin and no verbal answer at all, except possibly ‘Green fingers, my foot!’”
The Washington Post’s Henry Mitchell also dispensed with the idea of instinctive horticultural insight.
“There are no green thumbs or black thumbs,” he concluded. “There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises.”
Per Mitchell, Sackville-West and others, being a gardener means simply gardening – embracing imperfection and ignorance, and persisting in the face of “ruin after ruin”. These writers helped persuade me to begin, and as I’ve gained more knowledge, I’ve come to agree with their view: Nature doesn’t have to come as second nature. Experience is what makes the gardener.
The trials, the errors, the joys, the agonies: You’re a gardener when you’ve had your share of it all. By this point, I’ve made countless gardening goofs, big and small, and those mistakes have given me a healthy perspective on our limited power over nature. Of course, there are prudent steps to take when planting. If I plant something at the right time of year, with the right level of sunshine above and with good soil below, those plants are more likely to grow and thrive.
You work with your site instead of battling against it, and select plants suited to the weather, the season, the soil and the sun.
Yet, despite all that, nature will pursue its own course, not the one you’ve paved for it. I remember one year when I took all the care in the world with my cutting garden, specifically my herbaceous peonies.
I checked on them regularly, and eagerly anticipated that moment when they would burst on the scene with all their vibrant exuberance. But nature had different plans: Their blossoming took place in the one week we were away. I returned home to find a bed of fading peony petals – and a lesson in humility.
I had to wait another year to see the peonies’ display, a lesson in another of gardening’s virtues: patience.
“Humility, and the most patient perseverance, seem almost as necessary in gardening as rain and sunshine,” wrote the novelist Elizabeth von Arnim. The time it takes to go from seed to sprout can feel like an eternity, but each time I planted something new, I grew more accustomed to waiting, and I came to appreciate the lull. Nature doesn’t rush, and for me, gardening has become a useful corrective for modern life’s up-to-the-minute hyper-efficiency.
Von Arnim also identified something else that a gardener needs, something far more vital than any illusory green thumbs: hope. In gardening, she observed, “every failure must be used as a stepping stone to something better”.
Something better. If gardeners of the past were sceptics about natural talent, they were also united in their optimism. We garden for a vibrant future, the promise of plant life to come.
And that hope, it seems to me, is so much of what makes gardening joyful and meaningful.
I lost decades of that joy and meaning because I didn’t see myself as a gardener. So I join with fellow amateur gardeners – which is to say, all of them – and urge you not to be deterred if you are a novice.
As it turns out, Cicero was right: I had all that I needed, including the only thumb required, which was the one I used to turn the pages in books and the trowel in my soil.