The Joys of an Imperfect Garden

My fences are falling apart, the previous owner's doghouse is still being dismantled to make room for veggies, my cucumbers are plagued by caterpillars and I have weeds up the wazoo. I've even resorted to using Round-Up on the cracks in my driveway the other day... not that it even worked. For all of these headaches, I'm overjoyed. I fail to see the appeal in a 'finished' garden and applaud those who choose to garden without seeking the approval of others.

Oh to have a magazine garden; A professionally designed landscape with flagstone paved paths meandering through bountiful and established plantings, both kept miraculously free of weeds by unseen hands. The view usually seems to go on forever unless it's stopped short by a gorgeous custom made fence or a restored bungalow or cottage. You won't ever see a prominent garage or driveway in a magazine garden either, despite the fact that the majority of homes today have them.

Most gardens, on the other hand, are bravely planted by a single dreamer with any amount of sunlight at her disposal; be it in a windowsill, on the balcony, in a trailer park or behind a generic suburban tract house with zero privacy. If you've taken a chance and purchased even the smallest houseplant, you deserve praise for trying and for your desire to bring a little bit of nature into your life. I'm dead serious about this; taking that first leap is scary and you deserve a pat on the back. 

Environmentalists would like to save the world by protecting the world's riches of ecosystems and curbing global warming, but it is you and your desire to experience nature that will ultimately do just that. If more self proclaimed 'black thumbs' kept at it, our cities would become greener and more diverse. We would eat healthier, get in better shape and have better mental health too. (See for yourself)

My garden reflects my own tastes and personality. Let your garden represent yours!
You deserve praise for your curiosity, determination and adventurous spirit, and I encourage you to keep gardening however you choose without fear of criticism from others for your unique style of gardening. Clash your colors loudly like cymbals and shear those hedges however you want because it brings you joy! When we bought our house last year and I got to start a new garden from scratch, I was torn between sticking to mostly either edibles, natives, flowers or my beloved tropicals that led to this blog's name, the Rainforest Garden. I also wanted to get rid of most of the lawn, but liked having enough front lawn to blend with the neighborhood and some out back for my newborn to enjoy in later years. In the end, I've arrived at a happy balance between different styles and different plants like most gardeners do.

Organic strawberries harvested from my front yard garden
There are lots of movements in the gardening world today, and proponents want you to do anything from going completely organic by banishing all chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides from your garden shed; planting only native plants that originally grew in your area before the Europeans arrived; or growing nothing but edibles so that you can be self-sufficient and won't have to rely on 'big ag'. Within each movement, there are even more stringent guidelines such as 'you should only grow heirloom vegetables' or 'you should only grow plants native to the ecosystem on which your house was built' or 'you shouldn't use organic products sold by companies that sell chemical products'. Mention 'Round-Up', 'GMO's' 'Monsanto' or 'Scotts/Miracle-Gro' to a garden writer and you're likely to hear a passionate speech resembling a born-again Christian's account of the coming armageddon. There are valuable lessons to learn from each viewpoint, but the all-or-nothing approach can alienate the very people who are on the fence about gardening in the first place. 

A dragonfly rests on a bromeliad planted in one of my trees
A green anole enjoys the shelter of my potted miracle fruit
The truth of the matter is that you're making the world a better place regardless of what you grow or how you grow it. Every single garden bed is a vast improvement to our satellite imagery of rooftops, lawns and pavement for the very same reasons that natural areas are valuable. That little garden patch harbors wildlife, produces more oxygen, casts more shade and more importantly, provides physical and mental health to you, the gardener. The little lizard in the photo above doesn't care that his home is a non-native plant in a pot - he's just happy for the leafy green hiding place. Activists have good intentions and noble causes, but it's not really necessary for them to insist their way or the highway. As you discover that birds and butterflies are attracted to your native wildflowers, you'll choose to grow more of what works. Once you experience fresh 'fast food' from your own backyard and the excitement it adds to your kitchen, you'll start seeking out unusual heirloom vegetables for the sheer joy of it. 

The other day I committed the gardener's deadly sin. I bought a bottle of Round-Up and and sprayed it on the weeds that have been pushing up through the cracks in our driveway since we moved in. I anxiously waited to see the dying lizards and bugs crawling out of the carnage with pleading eyes, but the truth of the matter was that there was no carnage whatsoever. After four days, all the Round-Up did was kill some of the exposed foliage and new leaves have since opened up. I got better results with my string trimmer and a bottle of vinegar. I will never use Round-Up again because in addition to the fear of accidentally spraying my garden plants, it doesn't even work well in the first place. I suspect that other gardeners are smart enough to make their own informed decisions.

I'm slowly chipping away at my front lawn with flowers, veggies and herbs!
There's a well-meaning movement to replace lawns with wildflowers, vegetables, or native plants, but it's difficult for the majority of us to dig up all of the grass, design a garden, buy truckloads of plants, install them and figure out how to keep them alive without the knowledge one earns through years of trial and error. A real gardener also knows that gardens take time and are never finished. Plants grow faster each year, structures begin to wear down, shrubs need pruning and perennials require dividing. Weeds are inevitable, so pulling them and tossing them on the compost should be as enjoyable as harvesting veggies. I garden because I actually like to have the satisfaction of creating something from nothing. If it didn't take any work, how would it be any different than playing a video game? The results of my labor are enjoyed every single day as I harvest veggies for my meals and enjoy the view from my living room.

Weeds and pests are worth the trouble.
Which reminds me... it also takes a lot of time and work to get a whole garden looking halfway decent. Those makeover tv shows make it look like your home and garden can be remade overnight, but where's the fun in that? I prefer to enjoy the little things in the meantime. The ripening heirloom tomatoes pictured above look pretty enough, but here's what happens when you zoom out and see the big picture:

Yup. Pretty nasty, huh? The previous tenants had a doghouse built like fort knox and I've finally set to destroying it with a reciprocating saw and a crowbar. The doghouse is surrounded by weeds and dilapidated fencing too. Did I mention that this is where I'l be planting a vegetable garden?

In front of that mess is the veggie patch I've dug up so far, and even that keeps sprouting new weeds every day. It isn't the most attractive garden, but it serves its job well by keeping us fed with cucumbers, green beans and even Mizuna mustard greens right in the middle of a Florida July. What could possibly beat that? Gardening can be rather frustrating if you're obsessed with its many inherent faults, but it's a joy when you zoom in close and focus on the miracles. 

Miracles like this oddly branched inflorescence on a boring bordergrass

or the novelty of growing a record-breakingly scalding hot ghost pepper
or savoring the ephemeral surprise of randomly planted rain lilies
or finding that even when veggies like this radicchio bolt and become bitter, they get gorgeous blooms.
So what if you'll never have a garden worthy of inclusion in a magazine? When you garden for yourself, you're then able to stop seeing all of those little miracles with a wide angle lens and a critical eye. You could own the ugliest house in the nastiest neighborhood, but a garden in your backyard or windowsill offers no shortage of pleasures to the willingly nearsighted optimist.

Outside the boundaries of this photo are weeds and rotting fences. but I've stopped noticing.
Yes, I planted things too close to the water feature. For now, I'll enjoy it the way it is.

No matter how many chemicals you use or however much your neighbors disapprove of your front yard wildflower prairie, I believe that gardeners of all sorts have the potential to make the world a better place if we put aside our differences and use the garden to bring ourselves happiness. My mom used to like a song that went as follows: "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me." If you garden because it brings you peace, then you're then able to extend that goodwill to others. If you're too busy judging the floral faux pas of others and trying to change their ways for the sake of aesthetics or the environment, then the garden becomes a joyless pursuit. Garden for your own happiness and let it teach you about patience and perseverance, and I promise that you'll make the world a better place in the process. 


  1. I applaud your post whole-heartedly. It's great that someone has given voice to those of us who don't want to preach, publish or encourage others to purchase our professional gardening/landscaping/horticultural services.

    I am one of those imperfect gardeners with an imperfect garden. I don't show wide views of my garden because it is not fit for viewing that way. There are too many ugly spots because of many challenging aspects of gardening on this site.

    I trip up in my efforts to be environmentally responsible (yes I've used chemicals for pests) and I just can't muster the enormous effort required to grow loads and loads of edibles in the conditions experienced here in my part of the world, especially given that my work days can be long, stressful and exhausting.

    I don't grow lots and lots of natives either, because quite frankly the native plants for my region tend to be quite unspectacular and a little bit underwhelming in appearance.

    I garden for myself, because I enjoy it so much and love spending time quietly, productively encouraging plants to grow and flourish. I just want to give it go.

    1. Thank you so much for weighing in, Bernie! I'm sure that your garden (based on pictures I've seen) is one of the most beautiful in your area, despite the fact that you've found a healthy balance between different plants and techniques. I grow LOTS of natives in my garden for the wildlife and to lend a sense of place, but it's those Alocasias and gingers that really steal the show. My flowers make the pollinators happy, my native shrubs keep the birds fed and my bold tropicals keep me happy. Ultimately, that's what motivates me to keep gardening.

  2. Steve, I so LOVE this post! And by golly, we're going to get you to Austin for CTG (national PBS) where we share the REAL gardener experience.

    1. Thanks Linda! I'd be honored to as soon as I can find an excuse to buy some plane tickets. :D

  3. Wonderful post my dear! I am too a dreamer of that perfect garden. But since I can't hire someone (which I think a lot of people do), and funds I do a little at a time!

    1. Thanks, Candice! Your garden is gorgeous, but more importantly it's SO creative! I continue to find inspiration in your fun projects.

  4. IF I learned only one thing by becoming a Master Gardener, it is that we all garden differently .Be ware of questioning another gardeners method or style.

    1. Exactly! The same could be said for so many other things in life. When I stop trying so hard to change the views and actions of others, I'm able to focus on improving myself.

  5. "the truth of the matter is that your making the world a better place regardless of what you grow or how you grow it", then leave the weeds grow! Your right, the little lizard doesn't care what plant he is that case the little lizard would have been just as happy sitting on one of those weeds in the cracks of your driveway. I to am a gardener, and know all to well there truly is no such thing as a "finished" garden. I am appalled at how lightly you take the use of Roundup! A garden should mimic life, nature and diversity, not death. Please educate yourself on the toxic killer Round Up.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and here is my opinion. First of all, weeds between concrete don't bother me much aesthetically, but my neighborhood and homeowner's association would beg to differ and they can eventually damage the concrete. For the record, I used roundup once and decided that it wasn't worth it after all. As far as educating myself on the 'toxic killer' roundup goes, I've lost count of how many articles, blog posts and facebook posts I've read that rendered their arguments illegitimate with opinionated rhetoric like "a garden should mimic life, nature and diversity, not death." or referring it to a "toxic killer". According to an EPA report, the herbicide glyphosate has more than doubled in use, from 85-90 million pounds in 2001 to 180-185 million pounds in 2007. According to that report, 41 million households used herbicides in that year, which is nothing compared to the 922 million acres that were doused with herbicides in much larger amounts than a spray bottle of roundup. Also, I don't see nearly as many gardeners using roundup as I do non-gardeners looking for an easy way to keep up appearances. Census data shows that the majority of those who spend time in their yards are mowing the lawn rather than planting veggies or flowers. Gardeners have the tools and know-how to remove weeds, while someone with nothing more than a lawn and obligatory foundation plantings would not. I'm of the belief that the more one gardens, the more they become informed of other, more appropriate ways to kill weeds.

  6. Mr. Asbell, as the Rainforest Gardener, you of ALL people should know that is better to let your yard and house be swallowed up by kudzu, poison ivy, wisteria, privet, honeysuckle, ragweed, thistles, and nettles than POISON OUR PLANET by judiciously applying a few drops of Roundup so that you can see out of your precious windows. How many rats, snakes, mosquitoes, and roaches will lose their homes because of your callous behavior? If you can't garden without resorting to terrorism, then move to the deserts of Afghanistan where "weeds" won't bother you!!

  7. Well said, Steve! We all garden is such vastly different areas that I find it difficult for one sweeping ideology to apply to every garden/gardener -- lawns make sense in some parts of the country but not in others, some neighborhood HOAs require lawns or even a certain amount of native plants, prairies and meadows don't make sense in every area, and not everyone has the necessary amount of sunlight to grow edibles. All of these arguments remind me of the Mommy Wars where women attack each other for either staying home or working outside the home. When did we as gardeners get so judgmental and critical? Make the best decisions you can, try new things, don't be afraid to learn how to do something differently, and keep your nose out of other people's gardens.

  8. Grumpy Gardner, I hope you are kidding about the remark to RainForest gardner. I am glad you are not my neighbor. You sound like a neighborhood nuisance with your rats, snakes etc.

  9. Native rats, mice, snakes, spiders, scorpions, skunks, possums, and coons were here centuries before Mr. Asbell polluted Paradise with his foreign, invasive plants. Why not just nuke Florida and been done with it? Or are you not man enough?

  10. Great post, Steve! I try really, really hard to garden completely organically, but it's not always possible. Sometimes I use my husband, and I also occasionally use RU on my driveway and paths. If I didn't, you wouldn't be able to find my house. I'm glad you're encouraging gardeners to THINK and to grow and do the best they can. Gardening should be a passion, not another thing that must be done, following someone else's rules. Garden on!



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