‘New Dawn’ rose in the author’s garden after 25 years

Time adds an important dimension to gardening. Nobody told me about it. I just had to learn it on my own.

When I started gardening as a newbie homeowner I went about sowing seed in my newly dug beds. I was flummoxed when I read the back of my packet of Forget-Me-Not seeds. “Flowers 365 days after sowing,” it said.

I marched right inside the house and announced to Da Missus: “Who, in their right mind, would ever grow something that took a year to bloom?” Well, 50 years later, I know. Gardeners, that’s who.

Every year, we put in plants that take a lot longer than those 365 days to mature. The nursery catalogs, with their pretty pictures of blooming shrubs, floriferous perennials and graceful trees, don’t mention the patience required before our yards look like their photographs.

The oft-quoted Gertrude Jekyll observed: “A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.”

(NOTE: I’m calling “BS” on that last bit.”Entire trust” my butt! Turn your back on Mother Nature and she’ll teach you all right. Your garden future holds unpredictable plagues of squirrels, drought, leaf-munching critters, downy mildew, deer, late frosts . . . need I go on?)

But Ms. Jekyll was right about the “patience” part. ‘It takes a good three years for the average perennial to get to a decent blooming size (“sleep, creep; leap”); and three to five years for most shrubs to have a real presence. My Japanese Maples took seven years to display the colorful fall foliage you see online. Many trees are still adolescents at ten years, and while the catalogs do tell us how tall they’ll be then, they fail to mention that many will keep on growing long after that. I don’t worry about that, however. At our age – 73 – Da Missus and I call tree heights after ten or more years “someone else’s problem.”

To be fair, the nurseries are not trying to fool us. Showing us pictures of mature specimens helps us choose. We just have to remember that some nurseries may ship us three-inch containers with plants no bigger than a popcorn fart. They won’t suddenly spurt to three to five feet tall and wide. Several seasons will be required.

It’s up to us to plan and plant our gardens so that they will still look good and not be too crowded or under shade by the time your toddler become a hormonal teenager.

We must accept that gardening is an art practiced through both space and time.

The most notable evidence of the power of time in the garden is vanishing in our suburban landscapes. Many of you likely have memories of a giant rhododendron or rose in your grandparent’s yard. I do. In bygone times, people didn’t change jobs or move as often as we do now. Back then, shrubs were allowed to stay in place and become dominant in the garden – and offer superb hiding places for visiting small children. Now, we tend to remove those behemoths in the yard when we first set out to “improve” our new yards. Le sigh.


The very fact that plants require time to grow provides us one of the greatest pleasures in gardening: anticipation. I love the process of adding to, or changing plantings. For most changes it will be at least three years before you can judge whether the new elements work. Even patio gardeners are not denied waits for maturation. That newly potted hydrangea is not going to look like its Better Homes and Gardens counterpart for at least a couple of seasons.

The sweetness of anticipating what another year’s growth will bring takes the bitter edge from the delay. As Thomas Cooper said, “A garden is never so good as it will be next year.” Who among us doesn’t say exactly that to friends or family touring our gardens? (Put your hand down, Martha Stewart. We don’t all have peacocks in our yard!)

The promise of “next year” keeps us interested. This is not a passion for those who insist upon instant gratification. (Cue Freddie Mercury of Queen. . . “I Want it All and I Want it Now!”)

Oddly, it is precisely the delay that ends up being important to me as I get older. Wanting to see how things turn out gives me something to work toward and look forward to in the coming years. It is opposite to the situation when Da Missus and I were starting a family. Work and raising our girls kept our heads down, busy managing the life right in front of us. Gardens took second place. Now, my garden keeps me going.

In retirement, we have time – Lord willing – to pursue knitting and gardening and not fretting over how long it will take for those Forget-Me-Nots to bloom.

Time in the garden is a good thing . . . for the plants, and for us.