I’ve got to admit that I felt privileged to be asked to participate. But I also felt like an actress on the opening night of a play. I was exposing my beloved garden—a piece of living art that represented years of hard work—to strangers who might callously rip it apart within a few minutes.
Was I up to the challenge? The answer was a no brainer. As a keen gardener who wanted to share what I had created with others, I knew that having my garden on tour was a must. My ego could handle being bruised a bit, I told myself.
On the day of the event, I was cleaning up an already almost perfectly coiffed garden when I heard car doors slam shut on the cul-de-sac. I quickly put the broom in the garage and raced inside. I was too scared to meet the initial crowd of folks as they sauntered through.
But after 15 minutes of doing busy work in my kitchen—which had wall to wall French doors that allowed me to observe the visitors stopping at certain plant combinations and chatting, or gazing at the garden from the long distance perspective, or standing close to a tree smelling the blossoms— I realized that my garden was getting a lot of ‘thumbs up’, took a deep breath, stood erect, and walked outside to meet and greet.
It was truly a fun and rewarding afternoon: I felt that the years of creating my personal paradise were being appreciated by others. It was also wonderful connecting with other inquisitive and keen gardeners.
After that initial event, I was asked several times to participate in garden tours, I taught workshops for Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in my garden, and gardening clubs made visits to my garden—often in conjunction with an outing to Chanticleer which was a 10 minute drive from my home.
I noticed that when I had folks over from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for 3 hour workshops, I never felt the need to create a manicured and over planted garden the way I did when it was on a tour. If a pile of mulch was piled up in the driveway, when 20 folks piled into my kitchen for coffee, muffins, and a discussion, so be it. Other than tidying up the landscape a bit, everything remained as is.
Change is inevitable—in the garden, as well as in life. As my garden matured and took on a different look, I became interested in pushing the boundaries of what gets labeled as ‘the garden’. Without over-analyzing why, I began to let my garden become more natural and less tended.
At some point in that time period, hosting garden tours started feeling like an imposition. I observed myself staging a garden for these tours rather than showing my garden as it normally would be –in process. Not only did preparation require a tremendous amount of extra work and dollars to make it look like a ‘showpiece’, but the question I continued to ask myself was: “Is this the best scenario for other gardeners to learn from?” My garden tour mania had transformed itself into garden tour apathy.
Around that time period, the folks at Scott Arboretum asked me if I would participate in a garden tour in early May. Without even mulling it over, I reflexively said , “Yes, of course.” So much for listening to my instincts.
But as the snowy, freezing March turned into the damp, cold April, I began to experience some discomfort. I had a bad cold and truth be told, I just didn’t have the desire to turn my garden into a show piece.
About a week before the tour, I made the conscious decision that I was going to break out of the ‘garden tour mentality’ of perfection and let my garden be viewed ‘au naturel’.
When the day of the tour approached, similar to my garden tour years ago, I was nervous but for a very different reason. This time around, it was about letting other gardeners see what I hadn’t done yet. A piece of me felt like I was inviting someone to my home for a dinner party and then opening the door in shorts and having an informal b-b-q instead. My inner critic had a field day reminding me that I was destroying all the years I had built my reputation as a serious garden designer, communicator, and teacher.
But rather than hide inside as I did years ago, this go around, I put on my sun hat and walked out to greet visitors as they came up the drive. I purposely didn’t go out of my way to explain to anyone that I had made the decision to keep the garden as is unless someone engaged me in conversation about it.
My father, who came to offer moral support, chatted up the guests and took several of them around the garden. He was having a grand time. When he stopped in front of my in-ground rectangular fountain which had not been cleaned out and planted up yet, I felt like waving my arms and screaming “Don’t. Keep on moving, Dad.”
Without missing a beat, he said: “This is one of my favorite places in the garden. It’s so simple and elegant. And look at that view.” With that, he swept his left arm open, pivoted and turned his head towards the expansive, long garden to the left of him. He was right. The view was pretty darn good. And the fountain? To my Dad, it may have been beautiful –or he was just one heck of a good salesman.
Since this was a large tour with hundreds of people visiting over a span of 3-4 hours, I didn’t talk with everyone. I would guess there were some folks who found my garden less than appealing. I chose not to even think about it.
The people who did interact with me, though, commented on how much they appreciated the fact that I hasn’t transformed my landscape into a show garden, like some others on the tour. Several visitors said how much more they were able to relate to my garden because they were able to see it in its natural state on a crisp, damp day in early May.
By the time the last few visitors and volunteers had bid farewell, I was exhausted. But I also felt like doing a victory dance. I had taken what felt like a huge risk of breaking out of the ‘garden tour mania’ and made it to the other side. I had shed what had in recent years felt like a false mantle of ‘perfectionism’ in hosting these garden tours and let the real ‘me’ shine through.
Now it’s your turn! I’d love to hear if you go on garden tours and if your garden has ever been part of a tour. Share any thoughts, reactions, and ideas.
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