My Garden’s a Mess

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Photography

Where do I start ?

My garden's a mess

My garden's a mess

“My garden is a mess.”  I hear this quite often when I am asked to photograph a garden.  “I don’t mind, my garden’s a mess too”, I usually reply, trying to put the gardener at ease.  But to be honest,  if the gardener is a serious one I find I often really like a mess of plants.  I like them personally because I just love plant textures and unexpected combinations.  They feel good.  The plants are just plain happy.  Looking good is an aesthetic that garden publishers often don’t understand. Don’t we all love our happy messes?

I like a mess because, as I start a new book about sustainability, I realize they are quite sustainable.  There is a whole lot to be said about sustainability and I hope you will all buy the book (in 2 years), to get at the heart of what makes a sustainable garden; but for today let it be known, my job will be to make pretty pictures out of messy gardens.  The Camera Always Lies – right ?

So lets start with my own mess.  Look back at that opening wide view.  Wonder and guess where a “real” garden photo might be.  I have an intention and it will be revealed.


I often find I start with a wide view and “work” the garden looking for the essence.  I start with no intention other than looking for beauty.  If  the garden is ready, and the photographer is open, photos will reveal themselves.  After I get the feel of a garden I begin to interpret it and look for the themes that my client has sent me to find.  It could be a photo assignment about pathways, grasses, roses, native plants, design, lawn alternatives, drought tolerance, sustainability – all themes that could pertain to this garden, but each idea calls for a different way to look at the garden.  I have written here before that the best photos have an intention, they should say something, be “about” something.

And the fun thing for me as I write this, is I know where I am going, I know what the payoff picture is.  I know my intention – and am presenting a treasure hunt.  OK, we entered this garden room looking away from the rustic pergola that I used in the Find A Photo post.  Now that we are looking for a photo, where are we going ?  The second picture was easy to find as I work the room; I know this garden well.  Now let’s grab a nice photo combination of California native plants:

Deer grass and Godetia

Deer grass and Godetia

This was a grab shot really, one I just couldn’t pass up.  The Muhlenbergia rigens silhouettes itself nicely because of the dark space behind it.  The Clarkia amoena is just beginning to open.  I invite those who want to learn a bit about photo composition to see how this photo evolved from the one just before.  The lower right quadrant of my second photo becomes this tighter one.

Before going on to the photo that was waiting for me when I grabbed my camera this morning, look back at the first photo again, the wide messy one.  Where I am going?  Note the dab of yellow, left center?  See the climbing roses ?  I am going to walk down the path, just past the yellow Achillea ‘Moonshine’ and photograph the roses.


I have been planning this photo for 7 years when I planted 5 rambling rose to grow up into and enliven the Eucalyptus trees that separate me from my neighbor.  It pleases me well this day when Rosa ‘Apple Blossom’ has peaked.  Also we see a bit of the white rambler ‘Bobbie James’ but ‘Apple Blossom’ steals the show.

The great joy of planning a garden is giving it all the care you can, letting it go, and seeing what happens.  This scene will never look like this again, and maybe next year I will share some new look.  The persimmon tree will give more bright green to the upper left and the Cornus ‘Elegantissima’ will provide more silver foliage right there in the dead center.  Maybe.  Hard to grow a photo composition to order, one must let the garden decide.  Today let’s enjoy the ‘Apple Blossom’ cascading down through the gray Eucalyptus leaves:

Rosa 'Apple Blossom'

Rosa 'Apple Blossom'

In my last post about Capturing Spring I said I spent 30 minutes finding one particular photo.  This time I spent 30 minutes getting them all.  Or maybe it took 30 minutes to find the one final tapestry.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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12 comments… add one

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Lisa at Greenbow May 25, 2009, 8:04 am

It is nice how the little path draws you into the scene and how you picked it apart. Lovely roses.

Thanks Lisa. The littlest path gives a garden some structure for photographs and can always be a help in composition. – Saxon

Wendy May 25, 2009, 8:59 am

I have thought about garden perspective many, many times. My organic CSA farm was closest to Montpelier back when I owned and ran it. If they needed some farm footage on TV, they would come to my place. All I could see was what needed doing, they picked out and highlighted what was lush and gorgeous. Always amazed me 🙂

Hi Wendy – As I said in the post almost ALL gardeners only see their mess, and a photographer can make the camera lie. But I will admit farm gardens are the hardest to photograph as usually there is little concern for design or structure. – Saxon

Katie May 25, 2009, 1:56 pm

Thanks for sharing your tricks with us. I am so inspired to go find shots of my own yard now!

I am really looking forward to your book. Please keep us updated about it!

Thanks Katie – the book is still just beginning production and no doubt many photos from those gardens will make their way into posts. – Saxon

Duralee May 25, 2009, 10:56 pm

Enjoyed the pictures of your yard and what you have done with it. Enjoyed reading your blog.

Thanks Duralee – I am increasingly relying on my own garden for material for the blog. It is actually fun to describe my own process. – Saxon

Melanie Jolicoeur May 26, 2009, 10:42 am

What an interesting post! I find that the trickiest thing about photographing in my own garden is that the entire yard is on a slope and it can be hard to try and compose the shots so the inevitable messy parts (propane tank, peeling paint on the house) aren’t in the photo!

Hey Melanie. Slopes can be tricky as they have to be designed up or down. I know in my own back yard, on a slope, cross paths help give direction to both design and photo angles. To help get around non-garden mess, such as your tanks, go stand by that mess and turn around. Look to see what might be planted to divert the eye. – Saxon

Pomona Belvedere May 26, 2009, 10:55 pm

I appreciate and endorse your garden philosophy; I can enjoy a formal garden but I don’t get comfortable in them, and I have a feeling that neither do the plants.

My photo philosophy is the same as yours, with the added caveat that when I see the light looking beautiful on a plant I’ve learned to run for my camera RIGHT THEN because if I get distracted that photo will vanish.

Looking forward to hearing more about your book.

Thanks for the comments P.B. You are absolutely right to run with the camera when the light is right. I have written that I am chased by the light through the garden when working. – Saxon

Wildsuburbia May 27, 2009, 2:55 am

Couldn’t agree more that as gardeners we tend to focus on what needs to be done – especially when we invite someone else into our gardens. When I look back at my own photos of my garden I realize that I do use the camera to eliminate unwanted elements. Since pictures should help the viewer see what the photographer wants to show, I guess this is okay – kind of a white lie. Thanks for the great tips.

Barbara – The “white lie” you refer to is my business and why I tag all my posts with The Camera Always Lies. I have come to accept this little deceit to further the ends of promoting good garden practices but I do sometimes feel guilty showing a photo of a beautiful garden that the viewer assumes the whole garden needs to look like the photo. – Saxon

Shady Gardener May 27, 2009, 9:32 am

Thank you for sharing your “mess.” I do feel ever so much better about being behind in my weeding and gardening chores. Now, if it would stop raining… 😉

Rain ! What’s that ? One of my gardening chores is watering my containers – which I am off to do now …. – Saxon

healingmagichands May 28, 2009, 12:28 pm

I am in the same place as Shady Gardener, waiting for it to stop raining so I can clear up the mess out there.

When I first read the title of this post, I thought maybe I was going to get some sort of hints as to how I can deal with what I refer to as “The Bird’s Habitat Garden” which would be the area around the small pond I established several years ago. It has gotten way out of hand, the birds will plant whatever they are eating and after a while it is just too hard to get into the mass. The birds love it, though, and I have no trouble finding great shots inside the area, just have an aversion to photographing the whole thing for fear I will be drummed out of the Gardener’s Corps for rampant inattention and generally Total Messiness.

“rampant inattention” love your word. In situations of Total Messiness grab a macro lens and shoot flower, leaf and seed close-ups – Saxon

Lost In The Flowers May 28, 2009, 8:02 pm

Through the years I have come to realization that there are two kinds of gardens.

There are showplaces that are designed, installed and manicured weekly by a landscape company. Yet, these are not really gardens but landscapes as the owner usually hasn’t “gardened” but enjoyed a living painting.

When you visit a gardener’s garden it is a work that never ends. No herd of uniformed people appear regularly and leave it in perfection. It doesn’t matter to a gardening person who understands that hoses should be handed not hanging neatly in a shed. Weeds are to be expected when one is gardening for the love of it.

You are getting to the core of one of the themes of my new sustainability book. A gardener’s garden is one sustained by that gardener and beauty is in the doing. – Saxon

Hazel White June 4, 2009, 4:59 pm

Saxon, I loved your title, My Garden’s a Mess, and I love your photos, which turned the mess into order—I’d say, turned it into order through the creative process of your photographing it. Without that effort it’s still a mess, sorry. I think maybe when we say “my garden’s a mess,” we mean we have lost our relationship to it, we’ve lost the feeling that we can create something there or that we’ve ever done well enough what in our hearts we’d love to do. So photographs are not lies; they’re witness to someone entering into relationship with the glory of what’s there, and they remind us that that is what counts. You’re right, “beauty is in the doing.”

Hazel – Thanks for dropping by. As usual your replies are provocative, demanding a long conversation in a quiet place. Your comment: “I think maybe when we say “my garden’s a mess,” we mean we have lost our relationship to it…” requires consideration. Using the word “mess” is really an endearing term for a place I can explore looking for order. Many gardeners have more of a connection to the mess than to finished parts. It is in the process that we connect. – Saxon

Kathy J, Washington Gardener Mag July 30, 2009, 5:30 pm

Thanks, Saxon, for this revealing post — I’m looking at my messy, weedy, drought mid-summer garden with all new eyes now!

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