Starting Over

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Musings

For several years now, I’ve talked and written about how living with ambiguity is an integral part of the creative process. My book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, touches upon this subject in more detail.

 I want to share a personal story with you that once again reminded me that learning to live with uncertainty is an emotional strength, a muscle to be flexed in order to experience a more meaningful and creative life.

redrosesonbacksouthernwall  When I started contemplating a complete renovation of my garden in the suburbs of Philadelphia several years ago, it took over a year for my vision to germinate and the design to take shape. The execution of the plan took another 6 months. I literally walked my property and/or sat gazing out the window every day; observing, contemplating, observing, dreaming and observing again. Throughout this span of time, I intermittently experienced bouts of frustration and questioned my ability to solve this puzzle. But somewhere from deep within, I knew the answer would come to me when I least expected it. And it did; just by glancing at the front cover of an old House and Gardens Magazine with a Gertrude Jekyll garden on it. The solution was literally before my eyes; to build two long retaining stone walls on different levels which would create a series of garden rooms and flowing pathways leading from one garden to another. Brilliant; yet so simple.

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2nd level arbors with perspective

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Twenty years later, on the day that I sold my home, I went into every room, stood for a minute and thought about all of the living that had taken place in this structure for the past 25 years. As the saying goes ‘If only these walls could talk’.  But the garden; that was a whole other story. I  breathed deeply as the tears came streaming down my cheeks, saying goodbye to each garden area; stopping, touching and talking to some very dear old specimens with whom I felt a deep bond.

top bed-spring-with peonies

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June front rose view

meadow in spring

When I decided to move to Tel Aviv, I was clear that I had to have a roof top garden. I had always thought that my next garden would be an urban one, something like a small shaded rectangular yard coming off of the French doors in the back of my townhouse in center city Philadelphia where I would be able to try my hand at a smaller scale of gardening.  But a twist in plans can often prove to be an unexpected gift. The search for an apt. to my liking in Tel Aviv turned out to be nearly impossible. Realtors looked at me like I was crazy, especially considering my budget. But miracles do happen. A young, aggressive realtor brought me to a bi-level apt. in a very small building (3 tenants). The best news was that it had not just one large roof top but two. It was too good to be true. And this is where I live today.

Last spring, I began to tentatively play around with different plant material, the majority quite different from what I planted in my gardens back East; it was the first time in my life that I was gardening in a climate that I wasn’t familiar with. I had done some research, visited and worked in a few gardens and saw what was indigenous to the area; but I just wasn’t sure about what to do on the rooftops. I no longer had a piece of land as my muse. Nothing grabbed me. All I saw was rooftops, streets and other apartments. I was lost. I tried to let the Genius Loci speak to me. So much for that.

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Thank goodness that I had previous experience in learning to live with uncertainty and not rushing to make a decision in the garden and life; it kept me going last summer when I killed as much plant material as I grew. I felt like I was a beginning gardener all over again; in fact, I was. Buddhism talks about Beginners Mind.  My ego struggled with this concept but my soul knew it to be true. When gardening friends from abroad started asking me for pictures of my new Mediterranean garden, I vaguely answered with ‘I’m working on it’ or ‘Nothing yet..I’m learning’.

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I made it through last summer; having experienced the least amount of rain on record in Israel’s history. As I worked with the plants on the rooftop, without consciously knowing it, I was starting to think of the rooftops, blue sky and a slice of the Hayarkon River (sandwiched in between apartment buildings) as my backdrop. The creative process was beginning to emerge from its cocoon. When I went to the garden center last month, without making a list, I knew as I walked down the aisle the plant material I planned on using in designing what I hope to be a drought proof garden. The process was easy; keep it simple, buy plenty of one specimen (repetition, repetition) and limit selections to those that can handle the dry and blazing hot summers here, especially on a rooftop.  

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I’m finally back into my creative mode; planting, combining, moving things around, making lists of what I forgot to buy, researching new ideas and observing. Each morning and evening, I observe. I take pictures from all angles. I imagine. I’m still learning how to position containers to give  more of a feel of borders. But best of all, I’m feeling free to experiment, unfettered with expectations or  results. I am playing with great abandon!

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And once again, an inspiration has come from an unexpected source; in the form of a photo that I’ve kept on file from a GGW contributor, Steve Silk. Little did I know that this photo of Steve’s winding, lush container walkway would facilitate me in making a design leap from thinking of my rooftop design as one border with the eating and seating area on the opposite side to a garden with 2 borders and the seating area on the perpendicular. Will it take shape? I don’t know; when the onslaught of rain stops, I’ll find out. Another significant inspiration has come from an urban garden that I visited last spring in Holland; Harry Pierik‘s who is a very talented garden designer. He has recently become a contributor at GGW. His first post A Hidden Paradise In The City offers a taste of his garden from fall into winter.

Steve Silk-patio late summer

Something else I’ve learned throughout this process of downsizing; the ability to be fluid and flexible in my perceptions about garden making. Going from a macro to a micro space has given me a new and refreshing sense of beauty. Because I’m no longer spending much of my time designing in order to create spectacular sweeping views from a distance, I have the leisure to focus on the micro; the enormity of a mass of nasturtiums that are cascading over a  Gardener’s Supply Grow Bag, the colors and shapes of its flowers or how they look when their faces are turned down due a pounding rain or late afternoon sun. The few red tulips in a container that were in bloom a few weeks ago gave me as much pleasure as the mass of red, orange, purple and pink tulips that showed their faces in my Philly garden each spring.

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Tulips 5

 Being a pianist since childhood, I grew up listening to the greats of that era; Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein, to name a few. When these masters entered the autumn of their professional lives, rather than focusing on the complex, voracious works of  composers such as Rachmaninoff, they returned to the simpler pieces of Mozart,  Bach, Beethoven and Schumann sonatas, etudes and fugues. It seems as if they yearned to create, experience and achieve the closest that they could possibly get to perfection with these compositions after decades of practicing and performing. This is something that they wouldn’t have even thought about or could imagine doing as young fledgling artists on the cusp of becoming world renowned musicians. 

orange roses near back entry

Perhaps because I’m a baby boomer, I can relate to the theme of  returning to simplicity as an art form. Regardless of age though, I believe that everyone has a unique way of perceiving beauty that germinates from deep within our souls. Although gardening magazines and books can offer a plethora of excellent information and inspiration, it is up to each of us to make a conscious decision to create a garden and life that represents who we are at any given moment in time; and to respect and revel in it.

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at

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Fran Sorin
15 Comments… add one

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Valerie March 8, 2011, 4:45 pm

A lovely story. I hope that your new garden makes you very happy. It will be different from your old but hopefully will give you the same sense of achievement. V

Valerie….thanks….even if I had a rolling piece of land somewhere, I would design a very different garden than what I had in Philly! Am glad you enjoyed the post. Fran

Bezalel March 8, 2011, 5:12 pm

Really a very moving and soul touching artice.It read to me as if it came deep from within you. Wonderful and Inspiring…………

Hey Bezalel,
Thanks for your kind words. Am glad that you found it moving……and just think, you’re going to see first hand this new garden develop!

One March 9, 2011, 12:28 am

I’ve truly enjoyed your story. Actually, I’m about to tear my garden apart and redesign it. It feels overwhelming. But we should really be focusing on the journey and enjoy the moments. Thank you for the inspiration

You’ve got that right…the journey is what it’s all about. Did you know that Picasso would finish paintings or sketches and trashed those he didn’t lie? He was all about process and created art purely because it gave him pleasure. I’ve always admired him for that! Fran

Jess March 9, 2011, 12:54 am

Just a note to say what a nice blog entry you have here. Well said.

Thanks. The thoughts had been inside of me for quite a while…it was the right time to let them out. Fran

Anna Flowergardengirl March 9, 2011, 3:37 am

Goodness Fran—you express yourself so well and I found myself cheering for your vision to become a reality. You are 100% a clear, articulate, and inspiring fellow gardener.

Anna…your words and support mean alot to me. Fran

Stan Horst March 9, 2011, 9:02 am

Thanks for sharing so openly and honestly. It must have been truly difficult to feel as if you were stepping back to a beginner, but your candid way of expressing, and your willingness to admit you were a beginner in this new realm of rooftop gardening is very refreshing.

Thanks for letting us into your thought process. Perhaps we too can learn from what you’re going through, even in our own gardens. The one thing that stood out most to me is the concept of not rushing it, but to continually look at the garden area from different perspectives, until a design begins to formulate in your head.

Please post pictures as you experiment and begin to see your garden come together.


It is my pleasure to share my thoughts and feelings with you. Thanks for responding to them!
I have found over the years that learning to live with ambivalence, not rush to make a decision, in the garden and life takes strength….but the results are worth it. I certainly will put photos up as the garden develops. I can’t wait to see what happens myself! Fran

Alison Kerr | Loving Nature's Garden March 9, 2011, 12:22 pm

What a beautiful post. It is so true that coming to the right place can take time. Striving to move forward, I find, just leads to problems with letting life take its natural course. Blessings on your new garden. I know it will be wonderful.

It sounds like you have quite a bit of experience in this arena. Your blessings for my new garden are appreciated. Fran

Sheila Schultz March 9, 2011, 5:03 pm

Reading your words about the journey you are undertaking touches my heart. Those of us that garden, whether in a yard or in containers, need to feel the soil under our nails, need to see how combinations of plantings come together as a painting. We garden for different reasons, but in the end… it’s because it makes us feel nourished. Thank you for putting it so eloquently into words.

It sounds as if you’re a like minded soul. You know, I used give alot of workshops at my garden in Philly through Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Often it was a mixture of age groups and expertise. Some participants had barely had their hands in the dirt while others were extremely keen gardeners. but all of them intrinsically had the need to touch the earth/soil…whether in containers or on a property….whether several acres or a few pots…..I never felt judgmental about one having a more meaningful experience than another. I think it’s an evolutionary need that all humans have the desire to connect with the earth….Fran

Donna March 10, 2011, 8:17 am

Fran you have out done yourself…it was as if I was reading about my gardening experiences..leaving gardens we have lovingly created to go on to another journey, another garden…getting the inspiration, the guiding force, the picture in our minds as I call it…I love the idea of returning to simplicity…I wrestle with it…thx for your inspiration here

It’s wonderful to ‘meet’ another person who has shared similar gardening experiences….I just checked out your blog…which is rich with so many offerings. Thanks for making the connection. Fran

Erika Jungreis March 10, 2011, 10:53 am

Hi Fran,
Your story is truely inspirational and it is one that can relate to all aspects of life. I appreciate your struggle with starting over, beginners learning and apprehension about a new phase in your gardening “life cycle.” After reading your book Digging Deep I believe that you can teach us much about acceptance and living your life each day as a creative process. I’m a big fan. Keep posting wonderful stories and updates on your new city garden.

Thanks for your support. I do try to live each day creatively….not always successful but the intent is there. I’ll start writing articles as my rooftop garden develops. Fran

valentine March 10, 2011, 1:09 pm

Fran, The simplicity I have finally discovered is having a more natural garden…one that works with existing plants…and that simplifies the process of gardening. Control is not simple. So I wish you success with your rooftop.

A more natural garden does make life simpler. I defintely was moving in that direction in my garden in Philadelphia in the last 5 years that I lived there. Piet Oudolf’s work and writings (our own GGW contributor, Noel Kingsbury collaborated with him on at least one of his books) pushed me in that direction. And boy, did I ever love it. I would probably never design a garden with rose bushes again!! Fran

Debra Lee Baldwin March 10, 2011, 3:41 pm

Frannie, your story is both poignant and inspiring. I love the way that moving to Tel Aviv and creating a rooftop garden has changed your perspective of beauty. I suspect you take beauty with you, wherever you go, and your neighbors will very much enjoy their views of it!

You’re a sweetheart! I really do appreciate that my perspective on beauty has changed. It has blown open a world for me that in the past, I only appreciated through a crack in the door! I hope you come and visit one day….succulents that I’ve never used before are showing up all over the place….and I’m loving them. Fran

The Intercontinental Gardener March 11, 2011, 12:22 pm

Hi Fran, I loved how you describe the process of adapting to change – I really can relate to it, having lived in so many places and countries. The initial paralysis of nothingness just taking it all in, then tentative attemps that gradually grow in strength, before feeling some kind of ownership of the new situation. And yes, it is good for both one’s mind and sould, even if I sometimes wonder if I haven’t already flexed my muscles a bit too much, and would need some rest. Thanks for a touching post, Liisa.


You definitely have moved around alot. I see why you so clearly understand what I wrote. You have lived it several times…I admire what you’ve been able to do in moving so many times. And yes Liisa, you certainly do deserve a rest!! Fran

J.P. March 12, 2011, 9:40 pm

I’m a new visitor to your blog and must confess I was a little intimidated before reading this post.
I have never planted anything before, but I want to start a garden this year. I have a lot of challenges and could really relate to what you relate about waiting for the “vision to germinate”. We bought a 105 year old house about 4 years ago and now finally I am about to start a garden. I think I can finally see what direction I want my garden to go. I know it will be a long process and I’ll probably never be done with it. But I hope it will be a rewarding one.
I would appreciate any tips/suggestions you may have. I have no idea where to start researching.
I live in Buffalo, NY and my garden will be a small space in the shadow between houses. And my budget is very limited this year due to some home renovations. Is there hope for my garden?
Thank you so much… And I I wish your new garden can grow to be as important to you as your old one is.

First, I’m glad you did read the post. And welcome to Gardening Gone Wild.

You’re asking alot of questions…way too much for me to even begin to answer! If I lived in Buffalo (I grew up in Rochester), I would come over and see what’s going on at your place…..and would offer you some suggestions.

A few ideas:

If you get onto my website,, there are several dozens of articles on garden design..some have tips and will help get you going about how to begin designing and doing it on a budget as well.

It sounds like you’re going to be designing a shady side yard. Is that correct? If so, get onto google and write in ‘Designing A Shady Area’ or ‘Designing A Shady Side Yard’. Those are good beginning points to see what you can learn on the internet (and there is plenty!!)

Bottom line is …’ll learn as you do more and more gardening. Just be calm, take one step at a time and enjoy the process! Fran

Sheila Schultz March 12, 2011, 11:38 pm

Your post has been pretty close to spiritual, and when re-reading your words… there is no doubt that we would be friends upon meeting. You touch my soul. Keep writing about your experiences. BTW, have fun with containers… they are a whole lot of fun!

You certainly hit the nail on the head. The entire process of writing the aritcle was spiritual. It means a great deal to me that I touched you. After checking out your website, it looks like you’re the person I should be coming to for help with my containers. WOW….your containers are gorgeous!!!

When I saw the face container in one of your photos…which I think is Campania….it brought back memories of the same one I had in my garden….now the question is….did I give it away with almost all of my other pots or is it in storage in Philly somewhere???

Thank yor for connecting with me Sheila. Based on your instincts, maybe this is the beginning of a new friendship!! Fran

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