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.

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