Words of Wisdom To My Younger Self About Gardening

– Posted in: Garden Musings

2005-07-10 19.10.24-2.jpg- Chanticleer- face at the ruins

Today is my birthday. Like most days, after taking a few sips of my morning coffee and giving thanks for being alive, I go out onto my rooftops to awaken my senses. Because I’m such an early riser, I observe the stars and moon begin to fade as daylight takes over.

It never ceases to amaze me, especially in the quiet of the early morning, how magical the garden feels. It doesn’t matter if my urban garden is in full bloom during the spring and summer or if the blooms are less abundant, like this time of year. I discover the beauty in what is presently there.

This attitude is so very different than what I experienced when I began to garden over 30 years ago. Today I look back at that young mother who knew little about parenting – and just a tad more about gardening – with empathy and love.

Doe Run Garden

If I were to meet her today, here are some words of wisdom I would pass onto her.

  1. Become acquainted with your property. Take the time to familiarize yourself with trees, bushes, perennials and bulbs. If you don’t know the names of them, don’t worry. You’ll find out soon enough. The important thing is to get up close, and to look, touch and smell. Also, feel your land. Let it speak to you. Each property has its own history, energy, and aura.2005-07-10 18.58.28-1.jpg-up close seed head on peony
  2. Develop a beginner’s mind. If you experience fear when you start learning something new, that’s OK. It’s more common than you think. Just note the fear and then try to ‘drop it’. Even if it persists, don’t let it stop you from moving forward with gardening. Rollo May wrote in The Courage To Create that “we create, not because we don’t have fears, but in spite of them.”
  3. Perceive gardening as an adventure. It truly is one of life’s great joys and mysteries. An entire curriculum for elementary, middle, or high school students could be developed around gardening – including history, math, English, science, art, and whatever else a teacher wanted to include. Can you imagine how exciting that could be?
  4. Start slowly. Select plant material that’s easy to grow and that you can reap pleasure from quickly like a butterfly bush, perennial grasses, sunflowers, veggies, and some native perennials. A love for gardening can start with planting easy to grow flowers.
  5. Take the time to learn the basics of gardening before spending a lot of money and time on developing your garden. There is a plethora of wonderful resources on the internet that offer a slew of terrific information. Invest in at least a couple of books that can serve as references as you begin your journey as a gardener.
  6.  Let go of being a perfectionist. When I lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a neighbor of mine used to spend time placing rubber bands around the strap-like leaves of already spent daffodil blooms and pruning her shrubs into tight little balls. She worked relentlessly to keep her garden looking manicured. But what she never acquired was the artistry of gardening. Her addiction to being a perfectionist kept her from gaining access to her internal landscape where all creativity takes place (and which all of us possess).2005-05-13 17.53.47.jpg- spring -woodland walkway- Chanticleer
  7. Research all plant material before buying. Unless you’re a seasoned gardener who is familiar with a large variety of specimens, it’s easy to impulse buy. You see a plant, love it, and feel a sweeping desire to buy it. Don’t. Even if a plant has a tag with information on it, it’s important to go home, decide on the precise location where you want to plant it, and be reasonably certain that the plant will not only thrive there but complement other plant material that’s already in the ground.
  8. Think of yourself as an artist. You have a choice. You can plant some annuals in your front bed and call it a day, be a gardener who strictly weeds and maintains the plant material, OR you can experience yourself as an artist who is beginning a new endeavor. As I discuss in my book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, 10th Anniversary Edition, your attitude has everything to do with the outcome of your garden (and life).
  9. Use gardening as a tool for well-being – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Not only is gardening good for the soul but it also can be a dynamic physical activity. It deserves no less attention than exercising, taking a yoga class, or meditating. It’s a wonderful tool for healing, for gaining access to your creativity, for minimizing stress, and for appreciating the beauty surrounding you.2005-05-07 12.17.20.jpg- Chanticleer spring garden
  10. Develop a relationship with your garden. If you slow down, take the time to observe, touch, and hear all that is happening around you in your landscape, over time, you will be hard pressed not to feel an emotional attachment to your garden. If you treat your garden with the respect it deserves, it will give you much more than you dare to imagine in return.
  11. Initiate a sense of play and humor in the garden. In other words, don’t take it so damn seriously. This is not heart surgery. You’re doing what our ancestors have been doing for thousands of years….getting down on all fours, digging, planting, weeding, harvesting, and maintaining the earth. It’s an intrinsic and natural part of being human.
  12. Practice failing spectacularly. Yep, that’s what I said. As you develop some skills and a sense of the craft of gardening, it’s time to start taking risks. And once you start taking risks, you’re going to fail at some of what you attempt (which is a good thing). 2005-07-13 12.50.56.jpg- pots at front doorI failed spectacularly when I created what I thought was going to be a spectacular rose garden on the side of my house. After buying 30 plus rose bushes and planting and maintaining them with TLC, I knew within a year that it was not working. So, I used some in my perennial beds, but gave the majority of them away to gardening pals. Rather than feeling like I had ‘screwed up’, I just saw it as another experience to learn. And wouldn’t you know that years later, I planted several magnificent climbing roses on arches and pergolas in my front yard perennial garden with great success.2002-05-29 09.49.14.jpg- Sorin front yard rose garden
  13. Follow your instincts. This is a tough one. As a beginning gardener, it’s important to learn the craft and design of gardening: in a sense, it’s almost like following a recipe. But once you’ve gained enough traction, it’s time to unlearn and break some of those rules and let your instincts kick in. You want to paint a chartreuse fence even though all of the doyennes of style are saying that black is the new color for this year’s garden? Or you want to design a garden whose two predominant colors are orange and purple? Do it. True artists know that they need to follow their instincts at all costs.
  14. Garden to please yourself. Unless you work as a professional gardener, the only person you need to please in the garden is yourself. Don’t compare your style of gardening or how your garden looks with anyone else. If it brings you joy, that’s all that matters.

Now it’s your turn. Share your words of wisdom with us!


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 www.fransorin.com.

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Fran Sorin
34 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Jean Campbell November 1, 2015, 7:59 am

“Look, touch and smell” — best advice. Once the texture and odor of plants are memorized, the names come more easily and identification has a beginning point.

Diane November 1, 2015, 8:23 am

Thank you for such Beautifully written advice for gardeners, young & old. I’ve added #15 for myself: Reread #’s 1-14 once a month, every month to reflect, inspire & “stay the course.”

Marilyn cornwell November 1, 2015, 8:28 am

Love your advice – it is wise indeed. I can’t think of anything to add to it and thank you so much for sharing it.
Happy Birthday!

CC November 1, 2015, 8:29 am

thanks so much for sharing….. these thoughts apply to my new (a little over a year into it) job too in addition to my garden time! HAPPY birthday!!!

Benjamin Vogt November 1, 2015, 8:59 am

Risk more. Risk a lot. Don’t hold anything back. Be reckless in your vision and your dreams. Go big. Go big. Go big.

Erika jungreis November 1, 2015, 9:01 am

I can attest to Fran’s extreme talent as I grew up in her garden! as her daughter I was lucky enough to see the evolution of fran’s garden and boy does she speak with experience. all i can say is as a child growing up in a phenomenal garden, having any garden, even a small one is a wonderful experience for every child. i have many fond memories of putting my hands in the soil, being grossed out on how my mom picked up worms, watching flowers bloom and watching my mom in her prime. all i can say, and not just because she is my mom – listen to fran’s advice…..she’s the expert in all things relating to nature and spirit!

Ed November 1, 2015, 9:44 am

Happy Birthday!
I really enjoyed your post.

Pat Evans November 1, 2015, 10:01 am

Wonderful post! And not just for beginners. I’m ready to reconsider the garden for reasons of age, resourses, and an overabundance of wildlife (mostly deer). I think I’ll be rereading this post every month.

Debra Lee baldwin November 1, 2015, 10:19 am

Happy birthday, dear Frannie! you have wisdom well beyond your years (you young thing, you). I hope your fans and followers are aware that you wrote a wonderful book along the same lines: Digging Deep. A treasure for anyone who gardens, and a great gift for gardeners.

Fran Sorin November 1, 2015, 1:40 pm

Dear Debra,
Thanks for your birthday wishes and your kind words about Digging Deep. I appreciate your thoughts…and even more so, I appreciate you! xo

Fran Sorin November 1, 2015, 1:43 pm

Dear Erika,
Wow! What a magnificent birthday gift this is. Thank you so much for taking the time to express your feelings about your experience with our garden in Bryn Mawr. Your words have touched me deeply. I love you. Mom

Fran Sorin November 1, 2015, 1:45 pm

Thanks for your comment. Am glad the post grabbed your attention. Fran

Fran Sorin November 1, 2015, 1:47 pm

Dear Pat,
I’m delighted that the post resonated with you. It is important to continually re-evaluate your garden based on your life style, needs, and desires. And yes, deer can be a real nuisance. Selecting the most deer resistant plant material…as well as using organic deer repellants can make a huge difference. Fran

Fran Sorin November 1, 2015, 1:49 pm

Jacca- Am so glad you found the post helpful. And congratulations on your new garden. How exciting!! I hope it’s giving you tremendous pleasure. Fran

Fran Sorin November 1, 2015, 1:50 pm

Marilyn…It’s my pleasure to share my thoughts and experience with wonderful gardeners like you. Thanks for the birthday wishes. It has been a magnificent day. Fran

Fran Sorin November 1, 2015, 1:51 pm

Jean- How true that once you become intimate with a plant and have a true connection with it, the names do become easier to memorize. Thanks for YOUR words of wisdom. Fran

Fran Sorin November 1, 2015, 1:54 pm

Dear Benjamin- I feel like we are kindred souls. I love your spirit and unabashed desire to speak your truth and share your knowledge and passion with others. Thanks for your words of wisdom. Fondly, Fran

Fran Sorin November 1, 2015, 1:55 pm

Dear Diane,
You helped to make this magnificent birthday and even more special one with your comment. With gratitude- Fran

Martha November 1, 2015, 2:34 pm

I love your blog and have shared it with others. I have a large suburban organic garden north of Chicago over 22 years old with woodland, prairie, butterfly and vegetable gardens and many perennial beds. This summer I found my compost full of amynthas (jumping) earthworms and wonder how you deal with them in Philadelphia gardens? Thank you…

jeanne cronce November 1, 2015, 7:14 pm

Happy Birthday! It is a good time to reflect back with the motive of going forward. I suppose my words of wisdom would be from experience that start with hardscape. Iam speaking about trees! There are so many trees I wish I would of planted when I first started gardening here where I live for 35 years now. I am now 60 and I don’t have the amount of time a younger me has had and I sure wish I would of thought about it. There are so many beautiful trees that I have purchased now but I wont see their fullness like I would like. So whatever happens to “Winter springs gardens” in the future…well I hope they appreciate trees! Rocks are great too! But that is a whole other subject!

Fran Sorin November 2, 2015, 6:20 am

Jeanne- Thanks so much for commenting about planting trees on your property as a young gardener. The good news is that you have now planted them, will enjoy them for as long as they live, observe their growth, and leave this world with the knowledge that you have made it a more beautiful and healthier one for the next generation. Although I made plenty of mistakes as a young gardener about where to plant certain trees, I did plant a lot of them and was able to observe their growth, almost in unison with my children’s growth. It was magical. Fran

Fran Sorin November 2, 2015, 6:20 am

Martha- I no longer have a garden in Philadelphia but when I did, I never had problem with jumping earthworms. Have you researched the subject out on google? Fran

Loni Shapiro November 2, 2015, 6:48 am

Thank you so much for sharing these ideas. I have been living with my garden (after retiring) for 17 years. I live in a difficult place to garden (7000 ft.) and it has been a struggle to learn what works. I have been through so many of your points but could have use a few on the list. This year I shared my garden as part of a city wide garden tour. It validated all my hard work and fun in creating it.

Fran Sorin November 3, 2015, 6:15 am

Dear Loni,
Thank you for your comment. When people at presentations approach me about having a ‘black thumb’, I tell them that the only thing that differentiates them and successful gardeners is persistence. Those of us who ‘keep at it’ in the garden continue to fiddle, fail, and persist until we find solutions or strategies as far as what ‘works’ on many levels.

Congratulations on your garden being part of a city wide garden tour. That’s a big deal. I’m delighted that it validated all of your hard work and fun. It is a real high when folks walk through your garden and praise it. Plus, isn’t it lovely to share the beauty of what you’ve created with others? Warmly, Fran

Linda November 3, 2015, 8:59 am

In pic 4 what is the blue plant?

Anna November 3, 2015, 10:35 am

Developing a relationship with your garden and really listening to the land and learning about it’s personality really rung in my mind. I’ll get into my own personal mess in a bit, but I wanted to mention something that is going to come from being a garden designer: Even if you hire design and execution help for your landscape, no one is ever going to know your land as well as you do. It’s really up to you to make sure that your garden and landscape evolves in a way that is not only beautiful, but that is supremely functional- for you. Great design and building can certainly do a lot of the work for you, but it’s really all about the choices you make. And, you’ll never get the outdoor space you want if you’re not willing to try.- so jump in! 🙂

Oh man I just love this. I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed lately in my personal jungle. I work on my garden bit by bit but I can’t help but look up and take in everything else I want to “change”. We bought a large property, and I’d really like to make this space more natural, beautifully. I’d like to minimize the lawn- but it feels odd. And, along with this I’d like to make the area where I keep my much loved chickens, ducks etc a beautiful, healthy place for them too. I’m looking more and more into prairie restoration- but even that is overwhelming. I would like to be able to focus on making my foundation plantings what I picture in my mind and have well-defined pathways etc etc on and on. And then on top of it all I want to have a giant veggie garden. All while battling box elder seedlings every single year. So many box elder seedlings…

See, I am overwhelmed. I’m going to re-read this article and calm myself. We’ll be living here for decades, I have plenty of time to break up my projects and enjoy instead of worry.

in fact, I have six little viburnums that I’m adding to the family today. I’ll just focus on that for now.

Fran Sorin November 4, 2015, 11:29 pm

Your comment is an incredibly important one. Design clients often want the end result BUT really don’t understand ….even if they have a caring garden designer who sets up parameters about time and money in maintaining- prior to proceeding with a design. So thank you for your words of wisdom.

As far as your own personal jungle (I Love this term), it looks like you need a little help in practicing the ‘zen of gardening’. It sounds like you have a phenomenal property that will challenge you creatively. Remember, gardening is a metaphor for everything in life. If you rush to get it all in place and designed, you’ll be missing out on a lot. My book, ‘Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening’ addresses slowing down, opening up to creativity…and much more.

I’d be happy to send you a PDF of it if you want….I think it could prove really helpful to you. Just send an e-mail address where I can send it. Hope your viburnums are nestled in their new home! warmly, Fran

Fran Sorin November 4, 2015, 11:35 pm

Linda- It looks like Brunnera macrophylla. I took this photo years ago at Chanticleer. It’s a wonderful spring blooming perennial…terrific for partial shade/shady area. Fran

Love 2b Rewarded November 12, 2015, 1:34 am


Fran Sorin November 15, 2015, 2:37 am

Thanks so much!

Alys Milner November 21, 2015, 12:27 pm

Great piece! I think you’ve covered it magnificently. I too have made many garden mistakes, but also like you, they’ve informed my choices going forward. We’re in year four of the California drought. I’m learning to fall in love with a very different garden, one that can take the heat and the dry without making a fuss.

Fran Sorin November 25, 2015, 11:43 am

Alys – Thanks for your comment. You know, I think that part of living creatively is adjusting to circumstances. And certainly the drought throughout the country, but especially in California, has made all of us re-think how we garden. Kudos to you for not just ‘accepting’ what is but for ‘falling in love’ with a very different garden! Fran

Tina January 21, 2016, 12:37 pm

That is perfect advice in so many ways. As a longtime gardener and person in plant industry, I think that really sums it up beautifully.

Fran Sorin January 27, 2016, 3:37 am

Thanks Tina. I appreciate your kind words. Fran

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