Thursday, July 3, 2014

“Sucking is the first step to being sorta good at something.”

“Sucking is the first step to being sorta good at something.” 

My border in early July
I love this quote from reddit founder Alexis Ohanian because it reminds me of a thought that almost never leaves my head: I suck at planting. Of course, there are times when I don’t—glorious moments when a planting rewards me with a spectacle more fabulous than anything I imagined. But those ultimately fade and I am left with new shortcomings to address next season.

I remember thinking early in my career that I would look forward to the day when everything wasn't an experiment.  But the truth is everything is still an experiment. It always is. I practice, write, teach, and basically never stop thinking about planting design. Have I mastered my craft? Absolutely not.

In many ways, one never masters this craft. Planting design—particularly the naturalistic strain of it—is like playing chess against a computer (“nature” being the computer in this case). It is a perverse game: nature constantly outwits all attempts at control, ridicules all plans, and even when things are going well—even when it seems like we've finally got the upper hand—it taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that the second we stop gardening, all of our efforts will be swept away. Ours is an ephemeral art. 

Control: Cloud-pruned box for a median I designed with my firm RHI
To assert control, one could use formal gestures: clipped hedges, large blocks of single species, plants that rarely change though the year.  These are entirely effective. While I am ultimately interested in the idea of naturalism—that is, a style of planting more closely aligned with the way plants evolved in nature—my goal is to create effects with plants. So I will use every tool in the toolkit.

But even with plantings we can control, we still lose. And here’s the thing: sometimes losing is the best part. All gardeners know this. Some of the best moments in our plantings are not really ours, but a moment of self-seeded spontaneity, combinations we did not really anticipate, or the dull, overused plants that we’d almost ripped out only to discover they had become the anchors of our gardens.

So dear readers, I wish you many, many failures. I wish you grandiose plans that fizzle into hair-pulling messes, bold gestures that melt into formless puddles, and spectacular fireworks that fail to ignite. I wish you fail often and fail fast. Because out of this comes courage. And out of courage comes good design.

52 comments:

  1. This is very reassuring. I repeatedly discover that the most appealing parts of my garden design were not designed by me at all; they're happy accidents that I neither planned nor anticipated. Maybe what good garden design is really about is recognizing mother nature's genius and figuring out how to work with it. -Jean

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    1. It's true, Jean. Nature is both genius and wrecker. Finding the balance of intervention and letting go is the entire journey of gardening.

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  2. Thomas,
    The chess analogy reminds me of the original tile (Playing Chess with Nature - The Priona Concept) of Henk Gerritsen's book Essay on Gardening. I'm sure have already read it, if you haven't I think would rely like it. As frustrating s all the failures can be, it wouldn't be any fun if we ever finished a garden.

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    1. I don't know that book, Michael. Thanks for another great recommendation. I've loved the Elements of Garden Design book you sent. Remarkable writing and garden mind in Joe Eck. Wishing you a great summer!

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  3. My grandmother used to say "man plans and God laughs". Or something like that. I am always humbled by how quickly our intentions can be obliterated by Nature, and so I continue to try to take her not-so-subtle hints on what works where. -Naomi

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    1. Your grandmother was a wise woman, Naomi!

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  4. It's really an informative and well described post. I appreciate your topic for blogging. Thanks for sharing such a useful post.

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  5. I like clouds! nice post. BTW, what is the herbaceous plant floating amongst the clouds? Happy fourth!!!

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    1. It's Ipomea. It's a rotating annual bed; each year the rotations get simpler and more commonplace, though the effect of the Sweet Potato vine going 30 miles an hour is pretty good. Sometimes volume trumps detail in some settings.

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  6. Spoken as a true professional. No doubt greatness comes from experiencing failure along the way. Each stepping stone that is laid is like a path or journey through learning over and over, leading to new discovery and idea. Nature has a way of making that happen, so unpredictable and trying at times.

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  7. Not trying to throw a monkey wrench into a philosophical discussion, but what do you tell a client when the landscape he's paid big bucks for doesn't turn out as he (and you) thought it would?

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    1. That's a great question, Rick. Usually my idea of "failure" is very different from a clients. I've been fortunate not to have too many bad client experiences mostly because I try to manage expectations about how a garden will look every few years after establishment. I also hedge my bets by taking risks in very calculated ways so that even if an experiment flubs, it will be within a framework that absorbs it without being too noticeable.

      The other thing that helps is installing a planting incrementally. The first year is about covering the ground and getting the "bones" of the planting in; the second and third years are about layering more color through perennials additions, bulbs, and accent plants. That usually allows time to reevaluate the planting each year and make adjustments. The best gardens are an accumulation of plantings over years. It's hard to nail it the first time without making adjustments.

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    2. I had the same question Rick, and Thomas, I love your response. That is so helpful. I am going to borrow that line "the best gardens are an accumulation of plantings over years." I couldn't agree more! Thanks for another excellent post.

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  8. Most of us need lifetimes to master this most chimerical of art forms. Hmm. Next time, I'll return as a mantis or a bee?

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    1. "this most chimerical of art forms" beautifully stated, Tony!

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  9. Great quote that I couldn't agree more with (wow that's not how you should end a sentence). It takes experimentation and making mistakes to figure out how to do things right, both in the garden and in life.

    Sadly garden "structure" or proper planting and I have never really gotten along. Most of my best work comes from rushing to plant stuff (there's a thunderstorm coming!!!), instances of "I'll just put this here in the pot for a while 'till I figure out where it should go", or where things have self-seeded.

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    1. I understand better than you can imagine!

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  10. Personally, I'd go with a roulette analogy and amplify the role of chance. If a seed finds a home to its liking in my cold, dense clay, it's telling me it's found home. Only for powerful aesthetic reasons would I pull out that plant.

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    1. Yes, I like the "roulette" analogy better. Not all of us are wise enough to embrace chance as well as you have. You've created a framework that makes chance plantings all the more welcome and enjoyable. That's very hard to do.

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  11. Beautiful! I am sending a picture of your border to my 5 month old granddaughter in Brooklyn and looking forward to discussing your post with her someday, perhaps while we're tromping around the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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    1. Sounds like she's going to have a great teacher! Gardens are the best places for children!

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  12. Haha, whenever someone tells me that I have a green thumb, I respond that I have killed more plants than they will ever try to grow. If you aren't failing occasionally, you aren't trying hard enough.

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  13. Dear Thomas, this essay is a gem. So grown up. So thoughtful. So personal. Perfect-that description of the intersection of desire and mayhem. Thank you for this, all the best, Deborah

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    1. Thank you for the affirmation, Deborah. Best to you.

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  14. I love your sentiment that failure is the beginning of any real journey. It is both quite reassuring and absolutely terrifying. I am going to need to find a place to store this concept in my head so it is not destructive.

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    1. I know what you mean, Charlie. I think it's actually a very creative thought, not so destructive. Of course, creativity is destructive in its own kind of way . . .

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  15. I had never, ever tried gardening until retiring & moving from an area with rich, dark brown soil to hard-packed clay soil. The house only had a Silver Maple plus 3 Indiana Hawthorne in back & two Silver Maples plus 3 Boxwood & Hollies in front. Since I knew nothing about landscaping or gardening, I volunteered at the state botanical garden & studied every book they had in the gift shop before finally designing a landscape plan. Then it took a year to find someone to get it in the ground! It then became my living 'canvas' over the years. After 7 yrs of growth despite a drought (high water bills!) plus yearly addition of annuals for color, my landscape has added tremendous value to my home. It is one of the most satisfying projects I have ever engaged in, but even more - it gives me (& my neighbors) great enjoyment throughout the seasons.

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    1. Your garden sounds delightful. Wishing it is a continuing source of pleasure for you.

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  16. Yes, you've summed up my gardening experience. Here's to many more garden failures.

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  17. So, yes, "beginners mind." Since our little selves are always just starting out, whereas we are dealing with something billions of years old that is also in some ways always beginning again.

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    1. Always wise and well spoken, Adrian! I like that image.

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    3. Thomas-I'm awfully late to the game, but I'm both humbled and reassured by this post. Adrian--I love the concept of beginner's mind as it relates to gardening. Beginners mind allows us the openness to be present and observe without the impediments of preconception or ego. With beginner’s mind--childlike and open--I can attempt to walk the fine line between nature and artifice that we know as gardening.

      I once heard a monk describe his spiritual life: "I fall down, I get up," he said. "Then I fall down and get up. I fall down and get up again...and so it goes." There was something heartbreakingly human in his simple description.

      And so it goes in the garden. We fall down, we get up—we try something, we adjust; we always remain a few moves behind the chess master of Nature—even in our best moments. We suck.

      More than anything else, being in a garden is about presence and connection. Gardens help us understand the passage of time by bringing us into the present moment. Our best laid plans are experienced only right now—incomplete, fallible, insistent—not as idyllic notions. Just as I’m swelling to pat myself on the back the moment invariably passes and I must start again with beginner’s mind, perhaps a bit deflated. The Buddha described it thus: “Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind . To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all.”

      Yes, I suck—certainly no master, tiny spec in the cosmos that I am. Buy by sucking I become fully free to practice. I don't have to grasp tightly to what is called good design or try to be clever in the service of ego. I genuinely observe, experiment and adjust and observe again—these flawed efforts are the very best I can bring to planting design.

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  18. I love this for so many reasons! It is a doubt that nags at me incessantly as I spend hours and hours working on planting plans. Most folks have no idea how much time, research, and just plain old pondering I do to get the planting just right. And then you just never know...

    I love it because I get a little turned off by folks in our industry (particularly at conferences) who carry an air of arrogance about them of being the experts. Who on earth could possibly be an expert at arranging Mother Nature? We just give it our best shot.

    And finally, I think of landscape design--particularly that of planting--as an art much like that of Jackson Pollock. Plants are our medium and the earth is our canvas. Sometimes it appears as though we are just throwing it all together...and sometimes it feels that way...and low and behold we eventually can stand back and see a masterpiece!

    Happy gardening!
    Julie
    Southern Wild Design (dot com)

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    1. It does indeed require a massive amount of effort, and the results don't always even show it. But there are enough moments to keep us going, right?

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  19. Heigh ho, me too. Every year at about this time I start buying plants in an effort to tinker with what is currently before me. I blame myself more than nature, really, but it's not a bad alibi.

    And you are raising one of my big questions, which didn't get quite the debate it should have had on thinkingardens recently (http://thinkingardens.co.uk/articles/everyone-has-their-idea-of-paradise-an-interview-with-john-sales-by-anne-wareham/) - how do designers follow up their initial effort? In the UK, I rather think they don't?

    Thing for me is also, that it does seem as if I'm reaching for such an amazing result, but I'm not sure anyone else would distinguish it from my current lesser efforts. People are easily pleased, perhaps. Wish you'd come and help, Thomas. Or James!

    And, of course, I have no idea how it is going to look in three weeks time....

    Xxxxx

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    1. Designers on this side of the pond have the same trouble with following up as well. For an art that requires constant re-creation, not always having access after the "project" portion of the work is complete is problematic. It's all about relationship, right?

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  20. I took a design class this spring and have been putting into place my plan ever since, as an experiment.

    First, turns out I couldn't afford my plan. Whoops! Carex plugs are expensive!

    When I realized I couldn't afford my plan, I filled in the gaps employing my magpie gardening sensibility: "Oooh, shiny!" One of everything. I tossed seeds around.

    But I put into place some of my lessons from the class. I planted so densely, loosely, randomly. I let plants duke it out. (It is not a space for a precious specimen: some things didn't make it, others thrived.) I used grasses for the first time.

    So what's great is my critical eye looks at it and sees all kinds of issues and opportunities. Things to try next time, ways to improve it, ideas that will make it better. I obsess over my bulb order (and bulb budget). I ponder what I am going to do in the next season.

    But then I turn off my critical side and just spend time loving my garden. I love this particular garden more than anything else I've ever done. I sit and watch it and marvel at it and the plants. I love the grasses in the wind, and I watch the bees. I'm so pleased with what I've done, and I love being surrounded by my plants.

    I guess it's good to have both sides: the critic and the lover.

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  21. While design principles may be called upon to start a garden, isn't the real design of a successful landscape created by continuous adjustments....daily, seasonally, & through lifetime of the garden as physical conditions and human needs dictate? The garden's true artfulness perhaps ought be measured not by a day's snapshot, but by the shrewdness and effectiveness of the changes we make.

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  22. Ideal design maybe you use the best landscape covering material,like your post content so much,thanks for sharing.weed control fabric

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  23. One of my friends is getting some landscaping work done. He's getting some bush trimming done, and even some flowers planted. They're bulbs for winter, of course, because it's a little bit late for a anything else. He's hoping they turn out. If they do, he'll be getting an earlier start next year! Thiago | http://www.naturaldesignslv.com

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  24. I love your little motto. I think it's good to explain to people that you have to suck at something first before you can get good at it. I think landscaping is a good example of this. I'm still at the sucking stage, hopefully I will get better soon. http://nobletree.net

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  26. You're quote actually originated from a cartoon called Adventure Time.

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  27. I love that motto. Often times I think we tend to wait for the perfect moment to get out there and start something, when in reality we just need to get out there and do it. It applies to everything in life.

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  28. I enjoyed this post. It shows us that we will never have complete control when it comes to planting and that is okay! After all, we are working with life and life, even plant life, can be random at times. I also agree that we have to make mistakes in order to learn. Some people need many mistakes but that is all in the process. We can't expect ourselves to pick up a shovel and be a landscaping master. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  29. I was read and enjoy your post, love the lavender so much. :)

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