The Curse of the Garden Tour

Because I have had about enough of myself being a big whiner about this upcoming family trip to Niagara Falls, I made a conscious effort to focus on the positive today.  I appreciated the sunshine, I looked around the yard, I noticed the green tulip leaves coming up in the yard, and I was delighted to see some tiny yellow crocuses popping up around the linden tree.  “Photo opp!”  I thought.  “A happy, positive thinking photo opp!  How nice!”  So I grabbed my camera, knelt down on the grass to get closer to the crocuses, and here is what I saw: 

Spring Still Life: Crocus with Trash

In case you can’t quite see it, it’s a crocus with a Sour Wild Strawberry Jolly Rancher wrapper lying next to it.  And this is exactly what I hate about gardening: it lures you into believing that it offers a lovely, cyclical way of being in your life–the renewal of spring, the return of lifeblood to the earth, the time when your senses awaken, blah, blah, blah–but then it exposes itself for what it really is: the fruitless quest for perfection.  You might catch sight of something beautiful, but the residue of your past indiscretions, failures, and general sloppiness will still be clinging to it. 

I live in an area of the midwest where gardening is a religion, and I am not a convert, not because I’m opposed to dirt, effort, flowers, fresh basil, beautiful organic produce or gorgeously landscaped yards.  I’m not a gardener because none of these things ever work for me, and I don’t know why.  Even the idea of trying to learn how to garden feels overwhelming; gardening books are about as comprehensible to me as software manuals.  Finally, I’m not a gardener because gardening, and ESPECIALLY Garden Tours, make me feel inadequate (so much for today’s goal of positive, non-narcissistic thinking). 

Garden Tours to me are like the dark side of home improvement:  as soon as you repaint the walls in the family room, you are stunned by how hideous the carpet looks; your new Welcome mats only serve to highlight the dirt on the front door, and cleaning the front door makes the outside of the house look filthy and old.  And so on.  On a Garden Tour you might think, sure, we can afford a new hydrangea or some grasses in the front, but what about that dried out empty gravelly patch on the side?  Garden Tours remind me of all that I can’t achieve, or all that I can’t achieve IMMEDIATELY, so instead of being inspired by them, I feel resentful and discouraged, and return to view my home with a mean and judgmental eye, as if it is a seedy, weed-infested trailer park, instead of the beautiful, patiently landscaped, work-in-progress that, through the labors of my steadfast husband, it really is. 

So this year, I am going to try a new approach.  It is what I am calling the Julia Child approach to gardening.  Julia was a master of imperfection, self-permission, optimism and perseverance.  And mostly importantly, of refusing to entertain the fear of failure.  In instructing her audience on how to flip an omlet, Julia advises having “the courage of your convictions.”  And when things don’t come out quite right, i.e. when food falls out of the pan onto the stove or the floor, try to have more courage next time, but in the meantime, just “pop” it back onto the plate because “if you’re alone in the kitchen, who’s to know?!”  

Martin reminded me that we are sharing an organic gardening plot with our good friends John and Joan this year, which is fabulous.  It will be the perfect way to learn lots of things, grow delicious vegetables, and spend time together.  But I am going to take on a little Julia-inspired project of my own: I am going to grow basil in a tiny spot in my own yard.  

One of my most tangible, sensory memories of childhood is picking basil for my mother when she had quite a large garden in our backyard.  The warm, pungent leaves that tell your whole body without a doubt, “This is summer,” is what I loved, and still love about picking basil.  Buying it fresh is wonderful too, but if I have the emotional capacity to grow only one thing at a time, I’m putting my efforts towards the thing that I love the most: the taste of summer in my own backyard.  

Julia has inspired me to one element of gardening that I can really get behind and that is paying attention to detail.  She was obsessed with the minutia of food, with the perfect butter sauce, the glory of mayonnaise mixed in a slightly warmed bowl, the way that adding salt to the inside of a metal bowl and then wiping it out again before you beat egg whites in it made all the difference.  She cared enough to know that paying attention matters, paying attention is everything.  She didn’t just want the finished product, perfect and delicious, to appear on her plate, and that is what I have been guilty of in terms of gardening.  I want it perfect and I want it now.  And no trash on the side, please.

But this summer, we’ll see.  My basil and I will give it our best shot and we’ll see. 

I have two offerings today, one is a poem called “Mindful” by Mary Oliver, celebrating the wisdom of paying attention, suggesting, actually, that if paying attention is all that you do, that is more than enough.  The second is a YouTube clip of Julia Child on Letterman in 1987 which is absolutely HYSTERICAL.  I hope you’ll check it out!


Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab, 

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

 Mary Oliver

7 thoughts on “The Curse of the Garden Tour

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  1. This had me laughing aloud, too, Leslie! You capture the concerns of “everyday” so well. I could very much relate to your feelings regarding seeing others gardens and that one home improvement project leads to another and then another. I feel quite incompitent when I stand in my sister’s garden. Until recently, I lived in a 10 x 16 foot cabin off the grid, in the woods with no landscaping and I was satisfied but I now live with my gentleman friend in a large house that requires endless hours of work. I leave it to him; he is obsessed and now stands in my sister’s garden feeling incompitent.
    Thanks for Julia as well as the Oliver poem. Your writing is my evening vespers.


  2. Julia Child with a blow torch!

    Another fantastic piece, Leslie. Over spring break, I’m supposed to be writing an article about what I learn from travel. I think I’ll just point them to your blog instead! 🙂


    1. The blow torch–I know!!! Here’s my 2 cents on what I learn from travel–no one should ever be allowed to serve in a high-ranking government position in this country without having seen most of the world. Seriously, how can you make a single decision that will affect so much of the world without having seen as much of it with your own two eyes as you possibly can? Just a totally random thought.


      1. Good point. I was so glad that we had a leader who actually lived in Indonesia – a place most of us have never even been as tourists! That has to change you.


  3. I know this feeling. You capture it so well. When I step into a new surrounding that is visually appealing to me I expand, I hum with joy at what I see. And then, the doubt begins to creep in, the dissatisfaction, the fear. Why doesn’t my backyard look like this? Why didn’t we think of those kind of pavers, why are we so lazy, we haven’t even swept our patio…and pretty soon I have shriveled inside of myself with despair, disgust and well…a pretty intense dislike of those who have created this “inspiring” space. Harumph. Thanks again for getting it and for saying so well the things I can’t.


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