How Does Your Garden Grow?

My neighbor’s garden is perfect.   


Not my garden. 

Every morning I walk my oldest son to school. We stroll down our street and one particular garden always stands out among many lovely landscaping efforts. It is manicured and perfect, but not fussy. Colors abound but they aren’t garish. Tulips bloom in a palette of peachy-yellow, purple and red against silky green foliage. Ivy frames the fence in dark contrast. It is the perfect spring garden.

Gardening in Chicago is a challenge because we have extreme seasons that change overnight from one to the next, with little transition for gardeners to anticipate the growing cycle. So I admired this display with a feeling of admiration and yes, jealousy, all spring and into the summer.

There, I said it. Someone else’s garden made me feel bad about myself.

I gazed upon it with awe and a touch of contempt whenever we passed, and I thought about it whenever I was pulling weeds from my own haphazard attempts at making things bloom in the little spare time I had after we went to the pool, played at the park, chased fireflies and had s’mores long after dark.

How I wished that other garden were in my own front yard. Its perfection made my meager efforts seem sad and pathetic and, it seemed to me, magnified my failure as a gardener, as a homemaker.

My own summer garden consisted of the sad remnants of Black-eyed Susan and coneflower plants that never had a chance to bloom before they became rabbit food. Red mulch was strewn unevenly under lanky peonies that exploded in huge, pale-pink blossoms but then all-too quickly faded into twisted, brown blossoms that attracted hoards of insects. By contrast, the lilacs never bloomed at all and neither did the begonia even though I put powders and supplements around the roots, as recommended by Internet Plant Experts. Only the weeds thrived, marching up the trellis and around the bannister by the stairs in victory. All together, it is not a remarkable garden.

The more I thought about that perfect garden just down the street, the less I wanted anything to do with my own humble plot. But towards the end of summer, I saw something that changed my mind.

On our usual route one day, the sidewalk up ahead was blocked. We got closer, and I noticed that the obstruction was in front of the Perfect Garden. Several huge racks of plants on rolling carts stacked with dozens of gorgeous potted mums and purple-green cabbage plants lined the sidewalk. A small army of people hurried around with work gloves and shovels and rakes, ripping out the old, carefully placing in the new. A supervisor in a button-down shirt consulted a diagram (an actual diagram!) of the layout and pointed out the color pattern of flowers to another gardener.

This garden was a group effort by professionals, and took nearly a dozen people hours to accomplish. Clearly these folks were experts and the results were stunning. All along I’d made the assumption that this garden was like mine – a solo project done by an amateur with more ambition than time – with limited budget.

I laughed out loud. How silly of me? Of course a garden of this size and scale was a professional task. I’d been envious of this garden in all its splendor because I’d pictured it as a labor of love, like my own. But it wasn’t someone’s passion. It was simply a landscape project. A beautiful one, but an outsourced project just the same.

Suddenly my own efforts didn’t seem so pathetic. I remembered that we had a few successes. The brief peony boom had been remarkable and fragrant. The cherry tree we planted for my husband’s birthday did produce a dozen or so sour cherries in its first year, and we tasted a few before the birds helped themselves. The tomatoes and basil and mint I grew fed us and some of our friends all summer, and the sauce I made will be the secret ingredient in my lasagna this winter. A few daffodils and tulips actually bloomed, some even where they were planted. 

Today I raked cleaned out the flower beds and, in a fit of optimism, planted a huge bag of tulip bulbs. I bagged leaves and trimmed the straggling remains of the iris and peony, knowing how much I’ll appreciate them when they return next spring.

As I worked I thought of how easy it is to be jealous. Other people have success in areas where we are clearly superior. We see things that we want. We watch people live lives that make our own seem somehow, less. We have less money. Less attention. Older cars. Uglier gardens. It’s easy to admire from afar, to covet. Why not us? We are nice, deserving people, right? Of course. We want more.

Online we put our most perfect creations for all to see. I do it, too. My online life looks like this: The cutest picture of the six that I took of my boys, featuring the smiles that came after the tantrum and the bribe, not the tantrum itself. A smiling selfie after a run, not a face in agony during the leg cramp I got while trying to tie my shoe before that run. My best cinnamon roll artfully presented, not the one I dropped icing-side down onto my less-than clean kitchen floor. (I ate it anyway.) 

There’s no end to the ways one can feel inferior as a parent, too. Birthday parties for babies with every Paw Patrol detail in place and greeting card perfect bakery cupcakes, piles of gifts under the Christmas tree in wretched excess, winter vacations in the sun under blue, foreign skies. I don’t want to want these things, but sometimes I do. It’s OK. 

The truth is, most of the time I’m really very happy with the life we have created together as a family. I enjoy my crazy garden, even if I’m not particularly good at planning it out. I love making cinnamon rolls, even though sometimes the frosting is too soft and runs down the side. They are still delicious. I’m lucky in ways that no carefully styled photo will ever truly reveal. 

And I will try to remember to ask myself, when self-doubt in the presence of  someone else’s perfect something creeps back in: How does your garden grow?

Quite well, thank you.