I Am But A Young Gardener

"But tho' an old man, I am but a young gardener" recited P. Allen Smith under an ancient post oak tree. It was a quote from a hero of his, Thomas Jefferson, and it floated in the spring breeze like a paper airplane, smacking me square in the face and right between the eyes. We're all young gardeners. I certainly felt like the youngest and least experienced out of everyone present that day, but at that moment I started to actually savor just how little I knew.

As a gardener, I've always worn my youth like a badge. Rather, I've carried it around in my pocket just out of sight to remind me that I still have the better part of a lifetime ahead of me to grow new and interesting plants. Exciting things like lycopodiums and ordinary things like tomatoes, every day is a new opportunity to help usher another living organism into maturity.

I've never lost that sense of wonder that a child gets when poring over the pages of a book on dinosaurs, or when watching ants toil endlessly beneath a white-hot magnifying glass. Every day that I step out into the garden, I see something new or at least with fresh eyes. Today for example, I marveled at the rolled up leaf of a caladium. It wasn't anything I hadn't already seen before, but this time I looked up close and watched droplets of dew careen down the pink and white painted spire. Tomorrow I'll visit the same plant and watch those dewdrops collect in the center as it unfurls.

Touring the gardens with friends and friends-to-be earlier this month at Garden 2 Blog, I was experiencing a sensory overload of sorts. How could anyone possibly process everything in just two days?

When Allen led us around his garden on the first day of Garden2Blog, it gave me the opportunity to see two things: I saw a whole bunch of plants that don't grow in Florida where I live, and I also saw just how little I knew about gardens up north. Surrounded by some of the best garden writers from around the country, I was feeling a bit out of my league.

After being led through pathways or roses and irises, we traveled down the dirt road to the vegetable farm and then over the hill and towards the Arkansas river below, where we were met with live music and wine in a formal rose garden. Now that's entertainment, I thought to myself.

The next day, I held my first chicken. It doesn't really seem like much of a big deal, but bear in mind that I have always been a little intimidated, if not afraid of chickens. It wasn't the chicken itself that scared me - gently clucking and falling asleep in Allen's arms - but I was afraid that I would screw it up.

"What if the chicken didn't like me? What if I somehow hurt it by holding it wrong? Worse yet, what if I held it and felt nothing at all? And what if I embarrass myself by doing it all wrong and getting judged for my ignorance?" These all seem like silly things to worry about, but they're the same kinds of things that keep people from trying to keep a plant alive.

Fear is what keeps (biologically) young people from becoming gardeners. They're afraid of killing plants and we're afraid of making mistakes. They're afraid of all of that plant-geek terminology and they're confused by all of the different 'right' ways they're told to do things by well-meaning garden writers. Maybe garden writers should just encourage people to jump right in and make some mistakes before getting muddled up in which fertilizers they're allowed to use.

Artists started painting because they watched Bob Ross make mistakes and repaint them as trees, and Julia Child reassured cooks with "Don't be afraid of failure in the kitchen." We garden writers like to laugh at people's gardening efforts as 'crimes against horticulture' or 'crepe murder' (I am so very guilty of the latter) but I can't help but wonder if it only serves to intimidate rather than inspire. Sharing good information is essential, but so is acceptance.

Surrounded by friends and getting bitten by mosquitoes, I anxiously listened to P. Allen Smith tell us about chickens and his Heritage Poultry Conservancy. I had kept my distance from the other chicken encounters on the trip, but after listening to Allen talk about all of the history behind the chicken breeds on the farm, I started feeling something familiar. I remembered my first forays into gardening not five years ago, and how a grubby looking caladium bulb felt like an unharnessed miracle so full of potential and ready to burst into life.

I knew this rooster. I had seen it before, I thought. Maybe I saw it in an old still life painting or maybe my overactive imagination was just playing tricks on me, but I had the clearest image of this rooster being painted in a still life alongside fruits and silver by an English painter centuries ago. I'm sure I just dreamed it, but at that moment I felt so connected to this rooster's noble lineage that I jumped up to hold him myself just as soon as we were asked.

Whether it was a nod to this rooster's noble heritage or a nod to his destiny in a salad, this Silver Gray Dorking rooster's name was Caesar. What was so thrilling to me at that moment is that I felt I was holding a piece of history in my arms, telling me stories about Romans and Aquaducts.

"Buuuccck. Buck buck buuuuucccccckkkk." Caesar sagely explained. And I understood, too.

I was also thrilled to hand Caesar off to someone else without finding a smelly white and black stripe down my pant leg. Many of the other bloggers at Garden2Blog were seasoned chickenkeepers (is that a word?) but I didn't know the first thing about them, other than that I was chased by them as a kid and thought they tasted a bit like chicken.

About an hour later, we had an open forum under the big post oak tree so that the bloggers could give their two cents. When asked what we gained from the trip, I timidly rose my hand and explained that when I held Caesar for the first time, I remembered what it was like to be a new gardener; scared and cautious, but ultimately ecstatic after taking a leap of faith and trying something new.

"We're all young gardeners" I said, remembering the trepidation felt when I dug up my first patch along my mother's fence five years ago. "We all have so much to learn, and it's so exciting!"

Allen lit up at the chance to share one of his favorite quotes. "But tho' an old man, I am but a young gardener"

The majority of this trip including room, board and a bunch of neat swag - was provided to me at no expense for participating in the Garden2Blog event. There was no obligation to write about my experiences and all opinions stated here are my own.



  1. Brilliant piece, Steve. So well done. Glad to have been a part of it and that I got to meet you.

    1. Thank you so very much! I'm sure we'll meet again too!

  2. How wonderful! Looks like you had an incredible time. And you got to hold a chicken!!! LOL Great post Steve!

  3. What a great post about your adventures and even greater pictures. I felt I was there!

  4. Photo Caption: Steve Asbell, a plucky young gardener faces his chicken fears.

  5. Your wonder, awe, and joy remind me of what all of this is really about. Proud to know you and call you a friend. Excellent piece.

  6. Oh Steve, you captured it very well, felt like I was there again at Moss Mountain! That chicken could however use a manicure. :-)


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