Sunday Opinion: Willing To Work

Alan Armitage, the noted garden writer, teacher, and Director of the horticulture reseach gardens at the University of Georgia, spoke at the Independent Garden Center conference in Chicago this past August. Of most interest to me was his brief mention of a marketing trend he had detected in the nursery industry aimed at convincing customers that gardening was not only pleasurable and satisfying, but really not that much work, either.  He went on to emphatically state that gardening was indeed plenty of work, and any suggestion to the contrary was ridiculous.  Those advertising photographs depicting a smiling gardener, outfitted in white sneakers, clean socks and outfit unsullied by dirt or water, brand spanking new garden tool in tow, bear no remote resemblance to the truth of it.  Gardening is dirty, sweaty, buggy, and overwhelmingly hard work.  Backbreaking, and heartbreaking.  Gardening is work ad infinitum, until you could drop over from it.  I suspect he was partly referring to the Proven Winners brand of annuals and shrubs.  PW is a plant marketing empire based on the unspoken idea that if you buy this particular brand of plants, you will be guaranteed success.   The PW consortium has presumably tested, and selected, only the rugged, the beautiful, the carefree, and the foolproof. The final implication – it will be little or no work at all to have a lovely garden; these plants will virtually grow themselves. They even go so far as to market their plants in white buckets.  Some nursery people have commented about how difficult it is to keep those pots clean in an environment where soil, water and weather rule. White containers aside, he is right; if there’s gardening going on, there’s dirty work going on.

I understand the impetus to characterize gardening as a benign and not too demanding pursuit.  It is hard to tell people that a landscape and garden is expensive to create and install, and in the next breath inform them that the work of it is only beginning and will likely go on indefinitely.  The orthodontist can divert your attention away from the expense, discomfort, tweaking and cleaning of your braces with the  prospect of the permanently lovely smile you will have when the work comes to an end. Anyone can bear anything-given a start and an end. Such gloom-broaching the topic of how everything in a garden quickly tends towards perennial dissolution; who wants that job?  The pots unwatered over a weekend, the grass unmowed in a May week, the perennial garden not weeded, the Japanese beetles not squished-any of these experiences can provide a rude awakening as to the reality of the work of a successful garden.  Though I watch over and coach, once I have laid up the stone, mulched the last tree, and washed the driveway, the work gets passed on.

I make no distinction between my clients that put the shovel to the ground, and those who hire someone else to do that job.  Some people are after all working at something else that enables them to hire out the gardening work. The work of gardening is not more demanding and difficult than any other kind of work. The noun work implies the committment, self discipline, and energy which results in that action verb, work.   The work of an elementary school teacher or police officer would flatten me far faster than shovelling dirt or pruning roses. Plenty of work is far beyond my capabilities. But I find people who know what work is, and  see to it day after day, have common ground with me.  Some clients take the baton that is passed to them with little effort on my part. Others I need to pick that stick up, and place it firmly in their hands.  There are those people who have too many other batons in their hands to even think of taking on one more; they have services of one kind or another.  I have to address the reality of the work from the beginning. At the first meeting I am likely to ask if they are a gardener, and all else that goes along with that question.  A client that handles the work successfully makes me successful at my work.  If they should go on and decide that the work of gardening is interesting, entertaining and supremely satisfying, the pleasure is all theirs.  This may be the best part of doing the work-owning the satisfaction.

I buy books and read as time and money permits; I make an effort to be educated. Design work that doesn’t work gets done over. I do my own drafting; even if it isn’t the most gorgeous drafting on the planet, it’s my hand.  When I finally go home, I water and tend my own pots.  It is such a good feeling, when they look good.  When I do not have one ounce of energy left at day’s end, I do the work of persuading Buck to help me out. (This is not much work, by the way.)  All of this makes me better able to appreciate the work of others.  I think I have a good understanding of what it takes to push a idea or project from one point to the next. 

I have met a very few people that seem to have little understanding of what it means to be willing to work. It may be they can’t or won’t make it work, or work it out.  It could be they don’t understand the importance of good works.  Perhaps a working knowledge of something doesn’t interest them. They might lack the confidence it takes to rely on their own work.  They may not appreciate the work of others.  They may have not found something worth working for.   Interestingly enough, not one of those few was a gardener.

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