grow, marvel, eat, laugh, persevere

Sunday, March 21, 2010

My Name is Gina. My Garden is a Mess.

This week there has practically been a civil war amongst garden bloggers over a post written on Garden Rant.  I was disturbed by the post when I read it.  And I hated the way it made me feel about the author and the commenters who supported her view that our ugly gardens are giving "respectable vegetable gardeners" a bad name.  I say "our" because I'm one of the ugly garden people, too.  Just look at the picture of my kitchen garden down in the lower left column of my blog page.  That straw and that bag of weeds has been there since last summer. *gasp*  The picture on the left is my 2009 garden in full production.
When I started my garden back in the summer of 2007, I did so in the exact manner that the Garden Ranter warned against.  I thought about it for about 5 minutes.  Then I rushed out to Home Depot and bought a bunch of plants I knew nothing about growing.  I planted cantaloupe and watermelon in the same space as my tomatoes and herbs.  And I spent the entire summer trying to keep the cantaloupe and watermelon from strangling the other plants.  But guess what?  I had fun!  And I grew the best cantaloupe I've ever tasted in my life.  Did you notice the vine that looked like cantaloupe that had escaped through the fence in the picture on the Garden Rant article?  I know how that happens because the same thing happened to me.  It doesn't mean I'm stupid or sloppy or lazy.  And I doubt that the person whose ugly garden was used for that photo will ever make that mistake again.  
I'm not a designer.  I probably don't look at my garden through an artful eye.  It's not that I set out to have an ugly garden, it's just that I'm not that good at designing.  The ugly garden post made it seem like we are completely unconcerned with the way our garden looks, when in reality, we place plants the best way we know how.  Maybe we focus more on companion planting instead of planting pretty.  Maybe those ugly gardens are the best we can do. 

I don't have a lot of money to hire a professional garden designer or to buy big fancy tomato cages.  Last year I had 18 tomato plants.  If I'd bought the Texas Tomato Cages I really wanted, it would have cost me $300.  I couldn't afford that.  Does that mean I should have reduced the number of tomato plants I grew to, say, 3, so that I could afford the big fancy tomato cages?  Hell no!  I tied them up with wood stakes the best I could.  And they fell down.  And my garden was a hot mess.  And I still canned nearly 30 jars of marinara sauce, salsa and pizza sauce.  And my family loved it because I grew all the ingredients, and because it tasted fabulous.  I also kept several people in my tomato giving circle stocked with organic cherry and slicing tomatoes all summer.  That felt really good.  
I think of all the comments in the Garden Rant post, the one about the "cheap Walmart tomato cages" stung the most.  Because we gardeners know that it is difficult to find good sturdy tomato cages that don't break the bank.  If the author was trying to help, like she sort of insinuated, a better tactic might have been to suggest where we could buy better tomato cages on our modest salaries.  That's information that would have been useful to me.
If you are new to gardening and you're overly concerned with your vegetable garden being pretty enough, your'e not going to learn.  Those weeds?  Those misplaced plants?  They are all lessons.  In a comment posted later by the author of the Garden Rant post, she said that we'd all missed her whole point.  That she was really referring to vegetable gardens that get planted, then never touched again.  Do you know any of those gardens?  I don't.  What I do know about are gardens that improve year after year.  Like mine.  My first vegetable garden was 8 feet wide, in rows.  And yes I couldn't walk through it and it sucked.  But I learned a lot about garden design and plant spacing that year.  All painful but valuable lessons that I needed to be able to manage my vegetable garden.
What I don't understand is why garden bloggers feel the need to make these polarizing types of blog posts and statements.  I am assuming it is for the page views or whatever other thing the publicity might bring.  I hope it's worth it.  But it my opinion, that's not very "respectable."  And I believe these types of things are giving garden bloggers a bad name.  
There are many of us vegetable gardeners who believe in gardening the best you can.  If your garden happens to be beautiful, too, that's great.  But take it from me, even if it's just a big ole mess, you will still love it and you will still be proud of it.  And the food you grow will still taste amazing! 

If you are a garden blogger, I encourage you to show off your so called ugly gardens like Colleen did over at In The Garden Online.  I was so inspired by her post that I decided to write my own.

More Ugly Gardens
Jessica's ugly garden
Julia's ugly garden 
Carri's ugly garden
Jodi's ugly garden
Tina's ugly garden
Kat's ugly garden
Fern's ugly balcony garden


  1. Wish I were home so I could show off my ugly garden! My back yard is kind of a wreck, though not for lack of trying.

    I consider a garden a work in progress, and my gardens at my house are my first that I and I alone (well, along with my husband, who loves to buy random plants at lowes/homedepot/thegrocery/walmart/etc) get to design and grow. It's been a challenge. My foray into veggies last year was an UTTER DISASTER. COMPLETE. I think we got about 12 little pear tomatoes. Out of a lot of $$ spent trying! Ech. The life of a gardener.

    I'm no garden designer, though. And I DO feel cooped up after the winter. Even though I live in a relatively warm place, it has been kinda cold for us!

  2. Oh, my gosh. I didn't show my straw bale that's been sitting there since last fall. That's on the other side of the mismatched trellises :-)

    This was a great post, Gina. You hit on something I meant to, but didn't get to in my post -- gardening is a learning process, but it's one of those awesome experiences in which you get to have fun even when it might look like you're just making a mess. And you're just getting better the whole time.

    BTW -- I thought I was a big shot with my 12 jars of canned tomatoes! You rock!

  3. My mom has an expression that's fitting here: Jeder wie er kann (Each as s/he can!) Everyone has different talents, income, time, physical abilities, and tastes... but anyone can garden! It's exactly that five minutes of joy that starts most people gardening, and we learn as we grow. Yes, gardens require maintenance and yes people should have that in the back of their minds before they start so they know what they're in for... but the only rules or admonitions should relate to plants' needs, not aesthetics. Finally, I scored some awesome hollow metal tubes for 25 cents each at a garage sale that make awesome tomato poles. I bet they sell such poles at Lowe's for cheap and they'd cut it for free, too.

  4. I buy first, worry about where I'm going to put it later! Great post...we learn as we go, and we do what we can. Food is beautiful, children in the garden are beautiful, even weeds can be beautiful. They would probably hate my big rebar stakes that I was tying a couple tomato plants up to at one point. There is nothing more important than getting people out there to try to grow things.

  5. (Okay, about to go on and on! Forgive in advance, plz.)

    I'm actually a "beautiful garden" person. For *myself*. It has never occurred to me to disparage someone's garden on looks alone. Yes, when I see a messy garden, I notice it, and then I notice the melon that I thought I couldn't grow, or the way they've maximized space, or I laugh when I see the trowel they left out (I have trowels planted all over my garden. Eventually I will get a trowel bush, I'm convinced).

    But my garden is beautiful because it's how I make art nowadays. I started my garden as a living art project and it morphed into the family farm. I have tons of space and lots of nooks and sideyards, so I can hide the inevitable detritus that a working garden generates.

    The controversy, if it can be called that, reminded me of part of my experience last week among the zealous locavores at the FamilyFarmed Expo. After a couple of hours I stopped contributing my experiences in discussions, because people kept telling me how ignorant or wrong I was (I'm a 54 year old cook and gardener for more than 20 years, so in fact I actually DO know what I'm talking about.)

    My family knew exactly what I meant when I came home and said, well it was great, but it was full of True Believers.

    Robin's just a True Believer. Smile and nod, and learn what you can.

    Then let the weeds grow in your cracked backyard walk. Who's going to see it but you?

  6. Great post. I have an ugly garden and can't afford the 12-step design program required to improve it. So I love it just the way it is:)

  7. Great post Gina!

    I have committed the horrible crime of using Topsy Turvey Tomato planters in my garage because I just don't have the room in the ground. The look really ugly, but when I have people are over having a tomato feast in my 'outdoor room' they sure don't care how ugly they are - he tomatoes are organic, sweet, and didn't cost me an arm and a leg to get hothouse grown ones from another country!

    But I also wasn't offended by Robin's post, because I too have a potager in my home gardens and they are beautiful, just not very productive. I grew 4 purple cauliflower for a year and got constant comments on their beauty and interest, BUT I got one meal from all four heads and it was bitter. I bet had I grown them in a raised bed that had a covercrop growing all winter to feed the soil, I would have had much better tasting food (and more!).

    I'm just learning gardening too, I think it is ALL beautiful, even if it is a so-called mess. I now have a community garden plot which will be ugly to some (as I won't be able to tend it daily), but if it is productive, it will be beautiful to me.

  8. I love you Gina. That was an awesome post. (as is Colleen's, but I haven't written her a comment yet). It should be required reading for everyone who's involved in this discussion.
    I spend most of my time, and generate a LOT of my income, encouraging people to garden. I do not care if they grow all veggies, have perfect potagers and perennial borders, or three scarlet geraniums in a planter. If they want Walmartian garden art, and it makes them happy, cool. I JUST WANT PEOPLE TO GARDEN.

    The hoity horty set make me want to hurl things. At them.

    Not all of us can afford designers to make our gardens perfect, or get everything terraced and edged and planted and mulched just so. Some of us have limitations in what we can physically DO in the run of a day.

    You've said it very well. You just keep right on planting, baby!

  9. Great post, Gina. Probably the best thing written by you that I've ever read. Comes from the heart and hits all the right notes.

  10. Honestly? I can see both sides of this issue. Is my garden perfect? By no means! And I'm a big proponent of learning from one's mistakes. A couple of years ago, there was a meme going around called "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," where bloggers showed all three in their gardens. We all have them.

    But if I lived in a neighborhood where my next-door neighbor had a messy garden that I had to look out on every time I stood at the kitchen sink to do dishes, I'd get a little irritated as to why they aren't taking care of it. The first year, I'll forgive anything, but if they keep doing it that way, yeah, it would bug me.

    The truth is, I live in the country and no one has to see my gardens except for me. Still, weeding is a priority, if only for the reason that my garden veggies and flowers grow better without them!

  11. I hope you're not gonna hurl one of your pony patties at me, Jodi :-) I am NOT one of those hoity horty designers, y'all, but I do think that gardens, like homes, should be lovely. Which is why I don't have a large veggie garden. Veggie garden is labor-intensive. SO shoot me!

    I don't care what's in your back yard garden as long as I don't have to see it. It's what's up front that counts to me if I have to see it when I pass your house. I hate to look at front gardens that are a bunch of overgrown weedy flowers posing as a "prairie " meadow, worn-out, straggly shrubs or just a patch of lawn.

    I have to travel far and wide to find just one garden that looks like the owner cares about it. And this in a neighborhood with million-dollar-plus homes. Frustrating in a city this size that homeowners can't budget for this very important thing.

    If you've ever visited the UK you'll find so many simple, wonderful gardens in the humblest of cottages. It makes a statement. It says how much they love their gardens. And it adds so much beauty to the world.

    I want people to garden as well and I wish they'd start with front curb appeal. Come'on people it's not costly to put in a few bushes and flowers . You don't need a designer, you just need to get off your butts and do it.

  12. So true, kind of funny that this is a first world problem since we don't "need" to grow our own food. If we were all starving we'd have a different view entirely, trying to grow as much as we can.

    Ultimately gardening is like anything, you have a right to do it however you want, if you want your entire yard to be echinacea like one our neighbors, good for you. I applaud anyone that goes beyoned the boring tiny shrubs surrounded by dark mulch *yawn*.

    I get excited when I see tomatoes growing even if they're a tangled mess. I think it's beautiful to enjoy the freedom of growing some of your food regardless of the tidying or designerness of your garden.

    I think this is also an urban issue, out here in the country you think it's great if your neighbor actually mows their lawn, and everyone had a weedy garden outback, you think it's "designer" if they put up a scarecrow and a fency.

    There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments ~ Janet Kilburn

  13. I am 100% with you! The last thing we gardeners need to be is snobby. I like my rectangular bit of veg garden ugliness! I can't design a darn thing, but I like to eat what I grow. The post on gardenrant misses the point. We should be encouraging other people to garden by eliminating fear - not by increasing the sense that gardening is too hard. We should be saying to everybody who wants to give it a try that they CAN do it and that the point is to get started. Don't worry about making it worthy of a magazine. Make it worthy of yourself.

  14. This is really a great message. I guess I see both sides of the discussion. Yes, by August my vegetable garden typically looks like a tornado went through (it looks great when everything is small in April!).

    What I took from the post on Garden Rant was to simply take the time to weed and attempt to keep it somewhat tidy. Not necessarily create a Monet painting.

    I think most reactions to the post were, "Oh hell no you didn't just call my garden ugly!" *with 2 snaps and a twist, girlfriend* And that's understandable because of the tone used in the post.

    Well, that was my perception anyway.

    You are very right in saying it is a learning process. I don't think the learning ever ends - whether you have gardened for 60 years or 6 minutes. There is always something to learn. It's one of the things about gardening I love so much.

    As many have already stated, the important thing is for people to just start growing. Everything else will work out over time.

    GardenMom, That's hilarious! I do the same thing. I can have 20,000 seedlings started and still come home from the nursery with 30 seedlings and no clue where to put them. Darn things are so hard to pass up.

    Thanks for the great post, Gina! And happy gardening everyone. :-)

  15. Doesn't look like a mess to me. Omg, a straw bale! Heavens! For shame.

    All kidding aside, as I posted over in the comments section at Garden Rant I think it's almost impossible for any vegetable garden to be unsightly. The plants are so beautiful themselves, whether they're sprawling over a fancy tomato cage or not.

    The good thing about this trend, or even this current debate, is that it is a sign of the fact that the vegetable garden can be thought about in terms of beauty instead of just a practical thing hidden out of sight.

    However, I think the most humble, non-designed, veg garden is always a lovely thing to see.

  16. I'm with Mr. BrownThumb-GREAT post! I agree completely...True Believers should just congratulate each other for being so "right", and leave the rest of us to our messy joy and happiness. They never will "get" it, anyway :)

  17. wanna see messy? I sold my lawnmower last year because I NEVER mow my 1/4 acre lawn. Bet I'm "Miss Tidy-Pants"' anti-Christ :)

  18. Quite an interesting bit of talk there has been lately. I've already weighed in on it but wanted to give all a tip on tomato cages. Most small and large towns have a salvage yard. This is the place to go to get some great concrete reinforcing wire to make into your own Texas cages. My husband purchased a large roll here for $10. Out of that roll we made a good dozen tomato cages that stand 6-7 feet (double layered the wire) all and are about 3' around. We also made about 20 peony cages. All you need is a good pair of bolt cutters and some heavy gloves. I keep saying that was the best $10 I've even spent on my garden. Of course I do still use Walmart tomato cages-on gladiolus and some other flowers:)

  19. For me gardening is my art. But art is messy! As a front yard gardener I do my best to keep the neighbors in mind and try to keep up on my weeding. The backyard however.... well that's where the wild things are! I'm working on the eventual taming. But it takes time. Art doesn't happen without the mess. It's part of the process!

    Great post!

  20. You know, I think we're arguing extremes here. Total mess vs. Magazine worthy. I think there's a awful lot of room in the middle and that's where most of us are.

  21. Popped back in to giggle at Carolyn, and promise I won't throw pony patties at her or anyone else. ;-) There's been some good discussion today, some snarkiness, but ultimately the thing is to enjoy gardening, right?
    Xan, I love what you wrote about True Believers. They pop up everywhere, don't they? Smile and nod and learn what we can seems like a good attitude to take.

  22. So glad you posted this Gina! I have to garden within my own financial means too, and it makes me feel really self-conscious about my garden. There is so much pressure in the online gardening world to avoid big box stores, but sometimes Ikea, Home Depot, and Target are all I can afford.

  23. I will planting my very own garden this year at my new house. I'm going to plant it behind the garage so it's not in plain sight because it might not be that pretty when all is said and done.

    I have decided I'm going to start small and then add more vegetables next year.

  24. I think your garden looks great.

  25. I wish I had an ugly garden! I live in an apartment. I'm green with envy at all the gardens I get to see. I get anxious in the spring to garden and I can't. :(

    I think the ugly and pretty gardens are both nice. I think it's great that people can garden any way they want.

    Will be linking to you. :) Will love to read more.

  26. My garden is ugly, but you know what? It is all organic. How many pesticides and chemical fertilizers go into making a pretty garden?

  27. I'm with Kylee. There's a lot of room in the middle, won't you come join us? I really think Robin was referring to the dilettante who starts gardening on a whim and quickly loses interest and doesn't care for their garden at all. I winced a little at the Walmart cage comment because my garden is full of fact the really cheap ones from Odd Lots...but I this is kind of a non issue in my opinion. I've read Robin for a while and though her interests are not exactly aligned with mine, I think she's getting a bum rap based on a 'rant.'

  28. I didn't realize that my vegetable garden could offend that many people.... But I think I'm going to keep doing it my way regardless, and I'm going to plant it right in the front yard so everyone can see its uglyness :p

  29. Thank you all for the comments. If nothing else, this has gotten us all thinking about what's important to us in our gardens. I think that's great. And when it comes right down to it, it won't kill me to throw a few flowers into my vegetable garden to pretty it up a bit. That's what I plan to do this summer.

    Gayla Trail of YouGrowGirl wrote this really nice piece called The Perfect Garden. In it she says that gardening magazines are sort of like fashion magazines in that they may leave us feeling like we don't measure up. That has really got me thinking. Here it is if you'd like to read it.

  30. If you're planting flowers, how about planting a small native prairie/savanna wildflower patch as a pollinator habitat? Nice for you, great for our native bees and butterflies.

  31. I expect some would think Masanobu Fukuoka's place was ugly too. I should be so lucky.

  32. this reminded me of the year, i on a daily basis would lean on my fence at the end of a hard days work, tired & coveting my neighbours squash plant which unlike mine, in my ugly garden, was prolifically fruiting all over his plot until it dawned on me the vine was mine ... and i had to sneak over and disentwine it from all his plants and haul it back over the fence to my side - YA!

  33. I know it's a while after, but your last paragraph on this post brought a tiny tear to my eye. Thank you! It's so true!