Are There Levels of Gardening?

luseal(z 6-7 PA)November 1, 2002

I just sent this essay off to be published in our garden club's pamphlet. Comments please. Is this true for anyone else or only for me. imput please... Lu


Looking back on my haphazard gardening life of approximately 35 years I realize that I have gone through different levels of gardening. Not everyone goes through all these levels, or goes through these levels in the same way, or in the same amount of time or with the same results. For the reader of this article, this essay is about my personal garden and my experiences. Your style garden and your idea of gardening can be or will be entirely different from my type of garden.

LEVEL 1 - I was twenty five years old when I moved into my present and only home, a Dutch Colonial House situated on 2 acres. I loved the house and the unpresuming lovely lay of the land. I had an innate love of plants, loved to garden, but really knew not much about gardening. I also had very little money to spend on plants and shrubs and I gratefully accepted anything anyone gave me for my yard. I worked the good earth many hours each day and loved it.

I filled the yard with a million common hostas, the big green ones and the slug lovin' variegated ones, which were free for the digging from Mrs. Lewis's garden. I bought cheap sale plants and planted anything in any free spot. The bigger the better. Spreading Yews were big and cheap and boy did I have them. Because of the interesting slopes, dips and natural curves of my backyard and the luck of having mature trees on my property, my yard was pretty, but still could not be called a garden. I was in the "flowers 'round a tree" stage and Âsingle row of tulips round anything."

My family and friends were very appreciative of all I did, and oohed and aahd about everything. This was all the reinforcement I needed. I was on my way to the Guinness World Record for the most hostas and dull shrubs ever seen in an American yard. Still, this was mine and I loved it.

Should this be called a garden? Yes, I think so. There are many gardeners who are on this level and are much fulfilled. This is their paradise and they love it. Many will never leave this stage of gardening for many reasons which may unfold to you in the rest of this article. I stayed on this level for about 2-3 years.

What is Level One of Gardening?- This is an innocent, nascent state of being with very little experience and knowledge. You are like a young child or puppy discovering life. You play and plant with reckless happy abandon. With possibly only your foundation plantings put in professionally and possibly only a slab of cement for your patio, your property is relatively bare of interesting trees and plants. This may be your garden at age 25 or even at age 70. You may find at age 65 (retirement) you now have time and money and your latent love of planting is just able to burst forth. With the extra money and time you have now, which you may not have had at age 25, you begin to plant and plant and plant. You are more lucky than the strong 25 year old "cause your ackin' ol' bones keep your new yard becoming deluged with the likes of hostas and large common plants. Even so, you garden with abandon, great love, enthusiasm, and yet not much knowledge.

LEVEL 2ÂWhen I discovered garden magazines and garden books, a new world opened up to me. I began to collect books on gardening, joined a monthly garden book club and devoured everything I read on gardening. When I could not buy another book that month, the libraries around our area had hundreds of books on gardening. I went to visit many libraries, new and old book stores, and collected all the used magazines I could find on horticulture.

Old Mrs. Ridge took me to her garden club, The Four Lanes End Garden Club in Langhorne, where I met people of my ilk who conversed about plants and flowers with some knowledge and much love. I went on a few garden tours with the ol' gals and digested everything I saw. I then began to be more selective. I must have that particular tree or that special flower. Oh heavens, there are more than two varieties of hostas. I have got to have them all.

Because of the 60 year old large trees and tall deciduous shrubs in my yard, the garden always looked good to me. And those hostas were great fillers. After a few more years (1 or 2) and with a whopping $20.00 extra in my pocket, I could splurge on professional advice. I asked a nursery man to come visit my yard and give me a few ideas on planting. He came on my terrace for only a half second and said, "Help you? - You have nothing here," and walked out to his truck. I was embarrassed and furious. What a teacher he was. Well, he wasn't a teacher as nursery people should be. (That's another article.) Here he had the perfect chance to educate an Âeager, young student with Âbig bucks in her hand" and he runs away. I calmed down after a few weeks and realized he was correct. And with the $20.00 still in my apron pocket, I was able to buy more plants and more hostas.

Then destiny yanked me out of my garden and saved me. My husband's job took us to live for two years in Worcester, England. I thought I was going to miss my garden very much, but that did not happen, because the head gardener at Worcester College said I could have the patch of land in front of my flat to plant in, and I could have anything I wanted from his greenhouses and beds.

What is Level Two of Gardening? This is when you begin to educate yourself with books and magazines. You discover there is another world outside your Âyard and other people are gardening and their yards are not yards but Âgardens. Anyone who has a passion about any subject should maintain a book collection on that subject. Why? Your love and passion should have a solid basis to maintain its effectiveness. Books make you grow. When you speak about your passion, you must have facts to back up your position, not simply emotion. Having a few ÂHow to books is not enough. You are aware of the saying, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing especially for those who know just enough to misquote. Having a well rounded collection of garden books on many aspects of gardening is necessary to understand how much you donÂt know, should know, and need to know. Reading about horticulture and visiting gardens expands your horizons. Critical analysis is a must in this stage.

This began my Third Level of gardening. Through the tutelage and willingness of this gentle garden man I discovered British gardeners, British gardening and British beds. Neatly edged beds. Beds of wall flowers, beds of boxwood, beds of tulips, beds of scrumptious perennials, beds, beds, beds. I became aware of shapes, foliage, gradations of colors, evergreens, structure, landscape, neatness in gardening, height in the garden and a better choice of plants. While walking on this campus I digested everything I saw he and his gardeners do. I also visited every garden in the Cotswold and mucho gardens throughout the whole island. I bought more English books on gardening for my library at home and came home with a million good ideas and a lot smarter than before I left. This was my tour of the continent... After this tour of self knowledge and being surrounded by English people who talk about gardening all the time, I became really hooked on gardening and things began to jell for me.

When I came home to Langhorne, the first thing I did was edge. By edging, my plots became beds. I continued to plant a lot but my choice of plants were more selective. I then discovered that I had more confidence because of my knowledge, and that I must trust my instincts and plant what I love.

I was in the prime of my life, strong as a peasant woman, and could garden for hours on end. I planted hundreds of bulbs, started a rose garden, lily patch, perennial beds and annual beds. Aah, youth, health, enthusiasm and dreams.

What is Level Three of Gardening? Travel and visiting other gardens. Visiting estate gardens as well as small gardens. Also, visiting and reviewing garden centers and nurseries. Visit, visit, visit.

A famous antique dealer was asked how one can develop a feel to know if an object or a piece of furniture is Âgood. His answer was, look at as many pieces of antiques as you can and you will develop an Âeye. Look, look, look. Let me qualify this visiting of gardens. Your visit must not only be on the level of a browser or a gazer wanting to pass a few delightful hours till lunch time, but your visit must be purposeful, sponge-like and critical in that you ask questions and learn about everything you see. Now, as a more educated and humbled gardener, go to your own garden and apply anything you can use in your situation. I donÂt think I have ever visited any garden that I have not learned from or used some of their ideas.

I now progressed to Level Four: After years of visiting, what seemed like a zillion gardens and zoos in England, Italy and all of Europe, I continued visiting gardens and zoos in especially Bucks County, Eastern Pennsylvania, Arizona and in our Southern states. Zoos? Yes, zoos. Some of the best horticulture can be seen in zoos, which as you know, are called zoological gardens. I tell my husband that we are visiting this or that zoo because of the special horticultural interest it has, but really, I am also there because I have this almost infantile love and excitement in viewing and being with animals whose natural habitat are ÂgardensÂ. With my knowledge, confidence, instincts and love of planting, I began to refine everything. Part of the reason to refine things is because I am much older now and I can not plant those hundreds of bulbs anymore.

Landscapers helped me discover my style. Some of the small gardens I visited were planted by gardeners with no thought of landscaping. Plant material is more important to some gardeners than is design. One garden I remember had a hodgepodge of great specimens planted wherever they could thrive best. There was no thought of design or arrangement. The only thought was where is the best spot for this plant? And plop, it went into the ground and thrived beautifully. The principles of landscaping should be incorporated in the garden, and visa versa. Many landscapers are now using the principles of gardening in their projects. This means, more interesting plant material is used in the foundation plantings. But good gardening is a combination of both landscaping and gardening.

I discovered I love arbors, climbing plants, Japanese split leaf maples, rare small trees, and wide grass paths with meandering beds on each side. I love stone walls, steps, brick or stone terraces and fountains. Out went my millions of hostas. The whole of my boro is now filled with my "free-dig-your-own-hostas". Hostas were replaced with more substantial boxwood hedges. Spreading yews and forsythia were replaced with Hinoki and unusual miniature conifers. I also discovered I like a slightly formal look with tall things enclosed with boxwood. Not the tidy 6 inch high English box but the larger Korean box. I sometimes am a sloppy gardener so the enclosed beds look like I am neat and have things under control.

Planting hundreds of annuals are now a thing of the past, except the few my husband puts in. Perennials were down to the sturdy few I could handle. Most of my dogwood died, due to anthracnose, but were replaced with more unusual trees. After visiting the Atlanta, Georgia Botanical Gardens I became a conifer junkie. I also fell in love with crape myrtles after spending a few days each spring for the last 5 years visiting gardens in Virginia during their annual Garden Week

Level 4 is when you have been gardening for many years and you finally have a feel for what the plants and you need. You have read many books on horticulture and your knowledge goes beyond what plants you have in your garden. So many times amateur gardeners stay on a level where they can only speak intelligently about plants that they have in their own garden. If you go beyond azaleas, rhododendrons, hostas and dogwoods, it is like talking in a foreign language to them.

Level 4 seems to come with experience and knowledge. You have seen a lot, read a lot and planted a lot. You have met so many gardeners and seen so many gardens that are light years beyond what you know and have done. Meeting these rarified gardens and gardeners humbles you but yet inspires you to continue perfecting, learning and workin the dirt.

On level 4 there is a necessity to speak about your shrub, plants, conifers and trees not only using the common names but using the Latin names. The necessity is because your interest is in more uncommon and select plants. You donÂt want just a maple tree but a shagbark maple, Acer grisium. Or not only a fir tree, but a China fir, ÂCunninghamia,lancelota. Do not judge a gardener as being Âuppity because he is using Latin terms. He is simply dealing with more complex, sophisticated and higher order thinking than you may be familiar with.

Level 5

I have noticed that professionally trained gardeners, horticulturalists and amateur gardeners with much experience gravitate into a specialty. They become specialists or experts in their love. For example; they have a great rose garden, or a grand British garden, or delve into only annuals, or have magnificent rare trees, or rare conifers, or collect only native plants, or plant only flowering shrubs, or have nurtured a woodland garden. This does not mean that they are not versatile, but that they have become collectors and aficionados. Some of this selectivity, especially true for the amateur gardener, is because their ol bones cannot handle the whole world of plantings anymore.

I am nowhere near level 5 of gardening but I wish I would have had the knowledge that a trained Horticulturist has when I was in my 20s and 30s. I wish I would have developed a more insightful eye years ago. Because of this lack of knowledge in my early years, it seems I spent a lot of time and energy on hard, intensive gardening that was quickly erased through trial and error. Either by me or by Mother Nature. In my next life, I am going to have much available cash on hand, hire a wonderful Hort man, know exactly what I want in the garden, specialize in mini conifers, plan the garden on one sheet of paper, have mucho help installing the garden, and finally I am going to sprout wings and fly to the moon.

Luceal, an amateur and opinionated gardener

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galileo(z5 MA)

A beautifully written essay about your life with plants!

I agree there are levels although I'd probably call them stages -- your wish that you knew then what you know now is paradoxical because how could that happen? You have to take one step at a time as your whole analysis describes.

What did Thomas Jefferson say? "Although I am an old man, I am but a young gardener."

Anyway I bet if you were to start over in your next life, you'd say, "Wheee! Let's rip out the conifers and fire the Hort man who's way too conservative and starting digging!"

Wish you lived next door....

    Bookmark   November 8, 2002 at 4:14PM
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You make an interesting observation.....

But that trial and error, and trying to put every plant you land your hands on in your garden, and reading everything you can get ahold of, taking Master Gardener's classes...that's all TRAINING. How can you get to LEVEL 5 if you've never been to Level 1? Some flowers do well in one yard and die in another...that's how we LEARN! Yes, at first it's a mishmosh, but it's ours and we love it! We are toddlers learning to walk...and we've got to go thru the crawling stage.

How can you learn to treat slugs without having the hosta's that draw can you learn to sympathize with fellow gardener's if you haven't had that basic training.

Shoot for YEARS I didn't even KNOW there were slug-resistant hosta, surprise to me! But I dealt with it because I loved the plant, nor did I have the money to replace them, and I learned how to get rid of the slugs without using nasty pesticides. I've learned to recognize bugs having to deal with pests in the garden and it's taught me that there is a balance between victim and predator.

We all start at the beginning. We do it for our love of it. It gives back, no matter what level you are at.

We Americans refer to our "house AND yard AND garden". The english refer to their house and yard and surrounding flower beds as GARDEN only-it encompasses everything on their property. It's just a matter of syntax.

Some of us may never get to your level. We don't have the funds, the opportunities to travel, visit other countries and gardens, limit's in our time, busy with families, etc. But it doesn't mean that we're not reaching our gardening potential. We'll probably never reach it, as it's not really reachable(see quote above by Th.Jefferson). Those layers you discuss are steps, I guess. Some stop at certain steps, some continue going. Some are totally satisfied in their "level", other's are not. If someone WANTS to stay at Level 1, who are we to say otherwise?

I guess we're supposed to get sophisticated about gardening as we go along, from what you say. That's all fine and good, but putting a formal English garden in my neighborhood would make my Southern style millhouse and neighborhood, look out of place. It doesn't stop me from admiring them though..from afar....

I do want certain things for my garden now that I've learned about unique flowers and trees and shrubs, but it doesn't take away my still strong love for my everyday plants that thrive and continue to give me a happiness. Yes, some are "everyday" and common, and they survive in my climate without me being out there everyday-sans horticulturist. I'm my own mini-horticulturist. I'm my own landscaper.

We'll never be satisfied as gardener's - we always want more...but I don't think we have to reach LEVELS in order to be happy with what we've got. I don't think there is really any standard or level, unless you are in competition with someone. We all have peaks and valleys, so do our gardens-and we love them no matter what!

    Bookmark   November 12, 2002 at 3:32PM
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john_4b(z4b WI)

I enjoyed your observations very much as I can relate to the stages I am going through in my own garden and my passion as a gardener. These stages have included an initial love of plants and the quest for knowledge, acquiring a library of garden books and journals, visiting all of the gardens I can to gain insight, learning and experimenting with growing different plants, finding out what grows well in the soil and conditions I can provide, developing my garden and the changes that have taken place over the years, transforming it from flat 2 season beds to a structural garden with good bones in 4 seasons.. with as much visual interest in winter as in the other seasons. Worrying less about "getting it right" and enjoying it more for what it is....


    Bookmark   December 2, 2002 at 1:50PM
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Msilaine(NoVa 7)

Thank you for the generosity of your observations.

I recently started gardening seriously, but looking back on my earlier life, what I remember most is the generosity of more enlightened gardeners who tried to share their enlightenment with me.

For example, when I was a child in Baton Rouge, a woman who seemed much older but probably was no older than I am now, lived alone on a largish (several acres, maybe 4, maybe more) plot full of interesting plants, in an antebellum home that was rather modest, not at all a plantation home.

She tumbled seeds of Camellia japonica into my hand, so that I could plant them myself.

It was in the short run wasted on me. I did not plant the seeds, and felt ashamed, and avoided her afterwards. But yet the seeds took root, and I feel them growing inside me, expressing a love for the natural and the beautiful that I learned to see through the eyes of someone who had learned to see them herself over time.

    Bookmark   December 16, 2002 at 9:53PM
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seraphima(z4 AK)

A fine essay. Recently, I have become interested in the idea of growing- particularly growing gardeners. I think that gardeners are a source of sanity in the world, which seems so crazy these days. People growing plants, growing food (instead of buying stuff in plastic bags that has been shipped 2000 miles!), growing beauty, growing some independance from the food companies, growing bee, bird and animal food and habitat.. growing places for children and adults to learn and play. Thank you all for sharing your wisdom.

I invite you over to the Permaculture forum to see a small sowing to grow gardeners...

    Bookmark   December 18, 2002 at 6:07PM
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Luseal-- I know this is an older thread but, where in Langhorne is the garden club you spoke about? I'm not too far from Langhorne and I would love to join a garden club. Thanks, Lilly.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2003 at 9:13PM
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luseal(z 6-7 PA)

Our garden club is called the Four Lanes End Garden Club and it meets in the community building in the center of Langhorne Boro. Come to the next meeting on January 28. We would love to have you. Coffee and cakes at 9:30, meeting at 10:00 and a speaker or a project for all at 11 or so. Our website is:I thinbk If that doesn;t work wait and I will get back to you. Lu

    Bookmark   January 10, 2003 at 10:26PM
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Luceal, I have just finished reading your essay and the posts. I read your post on Aging and Winter Gardens also and here are more of your good ideas. I too would like to join your Garden Club, but California is too far away. I don't travel at all because most modes of transportation would not allow me to take 10 cat carrying carriers with me! I don't stray far from home and too many "strays" have found me out. The big problem with the "Winter Garden Forum" is that I will want to be here rather than other forums I have found to be interesting. Which level is that???

    Bookmark   January 11, 2003 at 8:04AM
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luseal(z 6-7 PA)

Langhorne's gardenclub website is http:/
I woul love it if I would get comments back.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2003 at 9:30AM
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njcher(Zone 6)

What a wonderful story of your growth in gardening. It is a pleasure to see someone else as enthused about it as I find myself. We do tend to find that here at GardenWeb but when we're operating in the world that's immediately around us, those of us with such enthusiasm stand out as being a bit eccentric, I suppose.

(C'mon, I'll bet you've gardened in the dark with a flashlight, haven't you? Or worse yet, strung some extension cords and dragged the lamps outside.)

I like the detail in your essay. It creates a vivid picture for the reader.

I tend to agree with the poster who said she would call them "stages" instead of levels. I think if you call them "levels," it implies a hierarchy which can therefore put some people off.

I would so enjoy seeing your gardens, Luceal!

Seraphima, there is an article in the December issue of Organic Gardening about "guerilla gardening."

Loved the Thomas Jefferson quote, Galileo. I just found some lovely pieces of slate and had intended to paint garden quotes on them. That will be my first one. I will treasure that quote, always.


    Bookmark   January 15, 2003 at 3:35AM
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luseal(z 6-7 PA)

"I tend to agree with the poster who said she would call them "stages" instead of levels. I think if you call them "levels," it implies a hierarchy which can therefore put some people off."
Cher. you are 100% correct. They must be called stages instead of levels for exactly the reason you state. I wish I could rewrite that essay for this posting. I will correct it tho for my own. Did you check the Langhorne gardenclub's website? Lu

    Bookmark   January 15, 2003 at 10:34PM
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njcher(Zone 6)

Yes I did and spent quite a bit of time there. I found you and if I ever get over your way you're gonna' get a phone call!

That one sentence of yours about visiting your gardens in the a.m. with your "beasts" has made me chuckle several times since I read it. I said to myself that I'll bet she got that from when she was in England.

Beautiful homes and buildings you have there. And I envy the camraderie I see with you and your colleagues in the club. I have nothing like that here--only one friend here and another in another part of the country--that even come close to sharing my interest. My own mother, who fostered my interest, says she is losing interest in gardening. I hope that never happens to me because I get so much pleasure from this.

In fact, I wrote an essay about looking for a gardening friend but I can't print it here because I intend to refine it and send it to a magazine. I need to revise it. (You'd think a professor of writing at a university would get that done, wouldn't you? But no, our stories are like the shoemaker's kids).


    Bookmark   January 16, 2003 at 4:29PM
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luseal(z 6-7 PA)

Cher, get that story done. We all want to read it.Lu

    Bookmark   January 16, 2003 at 5:29PM
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jones3g(z6 CT)

I have just read your beautiful essay on gardening, with a lump in my throat. I was born in England, and remember well the beautiful gardens my father had around our house. Not a large plot of land, but manicured to the inth degree. Roses and flowersing trees, everything used to thrive. I remember going with my father, on our bicycles,small carts attached to the back wheels, to the woods to gather leaf mold. Some times we would follow the horses and pick up the droppings, all good stuff for the garden. Later, after I was grown and had land of my own, my father called me a fanatical gardener. I considered it a compliment, considering that he had nothing but contempt for what we call soil in Connecticut. You are lucky that you have a husband who enjoys your passion. Mine gets a distinct glazing over of the eyes whenever I bring up the subject. He can't understand why I spend eight hour days out there or forget to eat. He usually goes missing when I plan a gardening day. I have found that gardening in the U.S and in England is like comparing apples and oranges, so never try to do it like they do.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2003 at 4:44PM
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veer(SW England)

well said Maureen

    Bookmark   June 3, 2011 at 4:21AM
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