trowel and mugOn the way to the chickens this morning I placed my coffee mug on the ground in order to tidy the fading blooms of a primrose. I can clearly see now that setting down the mug was the point at which I lost control of the situation.

A one-handed tidy performed indifferently from the walking stoop commits less of the gardener to the process – one’s legs are plodding forward before one’s eyes have had a chance to discover further distractions.

Alas for the chickens, I committed. The moment the mug hit the ground, the true state of things at soil level came into sharp focus; and the primrose petals were forgotten in my quest to free a clump of dwarf Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile) from the graceful advances of self-seeded corydalis.


Corydalis solida is one of those charming ephemeral monsters that alternately delight and dismay, and invariably arrive as dormant seeds in the soil of a more expensive, pedigreed plant. It is ratty in seed, but quickly dies back for a long dormancy, and the soft lavender haze that carpets otherwise bare ground in early spring is welcome – the difficulty comes only when that ground is not otherwise bare.

Case in point – the polygonatum stems, now offering white teardrop blooms to the very tips of their eight-inch frames, perfectly positioned against the top of a stone wall where their offerings could be appreciated…yet completely smothered by ten inches of flash-in-the-pan.

The corydalis was dispatched – heartlessly, and almost certainly in vain – and I remember looking back at my mug (now more than an arm’s length away), and wondering how cold the last few sips had become. That’s when I realized the eranthis seed pods were open and might not wait another day before they dropped their precious freight.  I found a spare, cleanish pocket, and gently rolled the seeds out of their pods.

There was more, of course.  The phrase ‘yada yada yada’ inserted here will satisfy most reader-gardeners, having found themselves in similar situations too often; and gratify the non-gardeners who are surprised they have read up until this point.

When I finally sat back two hours later, I was no closer to letting the chickens out – but both staircase beds were tidy, and my heart was full.



Tidying is both a strength and a weakness of mine.  In my early twenties I might have used such humble-brag fodder in a job interview when my inquisitor predictably asked me to confess my sins. Today, I recognize the slightly sharper side of the double-edged sword that has sliced through much of my life.  It is the instinctual part of my being that allows me to access my 2012 IRS Schedule C in four seconds flat, but makes it impossible to get the Schedule C of the current year completed until my office is tidy, the laundry has been started and the floor is once again swept.

erosion stoppers, ferns, hosta, ground cover

One person’s fern chaos, my Fern Hill.

I have far more creative gardener friends who do not allow such details to interfere in lives lived passionately; but I find myself alternately in awe of, and horrified by, the instinctual indifference to minutiae that allows them to be productive beyond measure.

Undoubtedly they get more of the right stuff done than I. “But can they find it later?” whispers my wicked, envious heart.

All snark aside, my principles tell me it does not matter.  These gardeners are building their own vision for their garden and it will be different than mine or anyone else’s.  If one gardener’s wild Eden is another’s gardener’s green chaos, only the former will know if they have abdicated in their stewardship of that space. It all comes down to personal vision for the area, and that should be our primary goal when maintaining our gardens – seeing our vision maintained.


This is why I reject the insidious reach of Homeowner’s Associations.  They standardize that vision, leaving no room for creative expression or indeed, experimental maintenance.  Even at my tidiest, I reject the concept that I must maintain my garden to an arbitrary idea of taste.

However well-meaning, it arrests the play.  Lawns cannot be left through spring to encourage carpets of claytonia, weedy meadows cannot be grown to encourage pollinators, a rustic DIY bench cannot be constructed to enjoy both.   I may be neat but I am also hot-blooded, and I enjoy a bit of experimentation.

Gardener, know thyself.  Gardener, know thy garden.


This hugelkultur bed would never fly in an HOA, but it allows me to slowly and steadily claim the outline of the cultivated bed-to-be, enrich the soil tenfold with biomass from the property, and to not overwhelm myself. It is a total mess, but it is meant to be that way.

On a practical day-to-day level (recognizing my own tendencies towards neatness, and my inability to conquer them), I appreciate that I cannot take on more formal beds until other beds have matured and ask less of me.  This is what has made my ephemeral woodland garden such a terrific new project – the ‘garden’ bit of it is over by May, and what remains is a summertime walk in the woods.  You’ll be lucky if I even mow the paths – this garden is all about emerging early spring gems.

It’s been a terrific experience to plant up the new woodland garden, as there is no pressure to keep things weeded. My focus is on planting and invasive brush clearing.

Elsewhere there are edges and clippers and two hours lost to corydalis seedlings.

It’s a tricky dance and I am sure you dance it yourself – the key is making sure it’s your music coming over the speakers.