‘One must be cruel to be kind’ is a hackneyed phrase that must have originated in a garden setting.

Where else do men and women of good conscience perpetuate extreme acts of violence without a moment’s thought or consideration of that conscience?

Once the deed is done – be it dismemberment or execution – ‘tis done. We rest easy in the knowledge that were our actions to be scrutinized by our fellow gardeners, we would emerge triumphantly vindicated – perhaps even admired. The end almost always justifies the means.

Yet there exists a soft heart locked away in even the most hardened of horticulturists; and at this time of year, that lock is jiggled to the point of breaking by sweet determination, the promise of beauty, and, that Achilles heel of all gardeners, something for free.

In short, by volunteer seedlings.

In my Instagram feed a few weeks ago, the noted British food writer and Observer columnist, Nigel Slater, forgot about that night’s dinner to snap a shot of an ivy-leafed toadflax flowering gently in a crack in his stone doorstep. “How could anyone not love something so sweet, delicate and determined?” he penned (or rather, thumb-typed between courses).

How indeed? Though I loved the sentiment and might have shared it in this case, experience still prods me to offer the following three-step progression in answer:

Step One: The Early Years

The beginner gardener is usually so overwhelmed by the natural cycle playing out in his garden beds (instead of his garden books) that volunteer seedlings not only go untouched, but are coddled.  If they grow with any measure of vigor, they are adored.

It matters not that the purchased plant ten inches away will suffer – losing nutrients and moisture at best, foliage and flower at worst. The Universe has spoken! Life cannot be stopped!


Hmmm….Black Beauty grew near there last year….it could be…. But what about the succulents?


As the season progresses, he will have underestimated the size and determination of this volunteer (and no doubt its fellow invaders) to such an extent that the shape and flow of the garden will now be affected.  Where once stood a bed of healthy leeks, now there is larkspur.  Where once there grew rare beans, now exist thousands of common cherry tomatoes.

Once the beginner lifts the scales from his eyes after a bean-less dinner in mid-July, it is far too late. The garden bed is irrevocably committed to the invader and large voids will result from any type of defensive violence.  And yet, large voids are unavoidable, for these crafty volunteers are mostly annuals with one life ambition – to seed and to die.

Death will not be pretty, and after the carcass has been cleared, the remnants of the spring’s actual garden plan emerge, bent and broken and festering with resentment. The beginner resigns himself, makes an attempt to tidy that which cannot be tidied, and makes a mental note to be crueler next year.

He will repeat the exercise for several years at least. We are at our most vulnerable in the spring months and it takes a harder heart to progress to Step Two.


Verbascum thapsus is a gorgeous volunteer when it blooms. Before it blooms? It takes up a great deal of space, suffocates all nearby and almost always seeds itself in the front of the bed.


Step Two: Hope Over Experience

Having once lived the idealism of  previous decades (and bearing the sunspots to prove it), this gardener may be less enthusiastic, but he is not unmoved by a pretty face.  There are other options, he decides. He has the experience and skill to implement them, and does so.

He transplants a few – knowing little of eventual color, size and vigor.

He gives away a few – absolving himself of guilt and granting it unto others.

Thus does he add to his workload and burden his friends.  And yet he still suffers some measure of chaos.  He may have graduated to pulling out tomatoes when he sees them, but he still has weak moments which are craftily exploited.

The gardener will continue to let his heart bleed for several more years, seldom applying fall wisdom to spring decisions.

Cleome blocks his path to the water barrels and snags his clothes, but he smiles at its tenacity, and endures its barbs. Wild violets push themselves deeper into fragile mortared joints, but he selects the unusual ones, feels justified, and hopes for the best.

Perhaps he has been trying for years to grow poppies, and when the stars align, he is so overwhelmed by the act of germination he cannot bring himself to thin even a leaf.  Skinny, undersized plants result – plants that may have thrived had but their competitors’ lives been ended by a thumb and forefinger.


Larkspur and poppies are hard to thin and the heart must be hardened. Without thinning, they will all be sparse and weedy.


He will continue to let his heart bleed for several more years, seldom applying fall wisdom to spring decisions.  Indeed, many of his fellow gardeners will remain here for the rest of their careers – gambling on those rare seasons that sweet Serendipity scatters only a few of her tastier crumbs.

Cultivating callousness, cynicism and ruthless conviction is the only way forward.

Step Three: Experience Over Hope

And so we come to the horny-handed sons and daughters of the soil.  The cruel.  The pitiless. The envied.

A rock wall is the perfect pairing for this volunteer brunnera – but only one.

This beady-eyed inquisitor approaches each volunteer as guilty until proven innocent.  Will it add to, not detract from, the overall plan? Will it play well with others?  Will it stay true to the bloodlines of its parents?  Will it be kind to all structural features? Will it refuse special treatment such as staking or feeding? And lastly – perhaps most importantly – will it die quietly and with dignity?

Very few can answer yes to all six questions.

Thus, the thumb and forefingers of experienced gardeners are callused and arthritic from a lifetime of laudable cruelty.

If those fingers are attached to a gardener blessed with creativity and vision, the resulting garden – whether formal or cottagey, is deceptively unconstrained and vibrant.

There will be volunteers that squeak through – the doorstep toadflax, the convenient bit of parsley – but they do so with the experienced gardener’s eye fixed squarely upon them.  They will live out their usefulness and be relegated to the compost pile before issues are created.


How can anyone not love something so sweet, delicate and determined?

From the tiniest seeds spring some of our biggest struggles.  One must be cruel to be kind.