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Cover Story Plant Life Postscripts Now & Then

Plant Life
Illustration Embrace Waste
In art and gardens, make room for mistakes

As the earth seems to spin ever faster, turning over years with increasing haste, we rely on our gardens as antidotes to days speeding past. Thank goodness plants progress through the seasons and years with their own measured, internal rhythms.

Helleborus niger have just begun to open their snowy white flowers, yoshino cherries are a haze of pink bloom by the last day of March, and tomatoes usually show color by mid-August. It is reassuring to witness such primitive and dependable patterns. Slipping into this timeless pulse is the great comfort of gardening. Furthering a plant's progress, making the most of its beauties, is a source of true joy. And the hard outdoor work and fresh air integral to caring for the garden get many of us through a long winter.

As I was thinking about this end-of-the-year column, meditating upon grandiose notions of time and change, I came across this quote, which effectively cut my musings down to size. I had to laugh sheepishly at this keen description of gardeners in "Counting My Chickens and Other Home Thoughts" (Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 2001), a book of recollections by the Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the flamboyant Mitford sisters: "My father-in-law (the Duke of Devonshire) said people go through five stages of gardening. They begin by liking flowers, progress to flowering shrubs, then autumn foliage and berries; next they go for leaves, and finally the underneaths of leaves. Alpines ought to come in somewhere."
Illustration Now In Bloom
Mahonia 'Arthur Menzies' is a tall (to 15 feet), handsome evergreen shrub with the surprise of upright sprays of fragrant yellow flowers during the darkest days of the year. It will do best in well-drained soil and partial shade. The leaves are toothed, dark green and handsome year-round. The showy flowers not only perfume the garden but provide nectar for overwintering Anna's hummingbirds when not much else is in bloom.
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I'm afraid another perennial truth, brought home to me by the pithy Duchess, is that while our gardens are important to us and to the future of our city, and perhaps even our planet, we don't need to take ourselves quite so seriously. Despite running one of the grandest houses and gardens in England, the Duchess never misses the chance to poke irreverent fun. (You should read what she has to say about flower arrangers.)

All-too-serious gardeners, and that is most of us at least part of the time, would be wise to consider the business model of "sunk cost." If you can really absorb, and put into practice, the idea of sunk cost, it will greatly expand your creativity and enjoyment. Simply put, sunk cost means that money and effort already spent cannot be recovered, so shouldn't affect any decision you make today. A good example is when you have theater tickets in hand for tonight, but really don't feel like going to the play. The money is spent no matter whether you attend or not, so you may as well do what you want, and give no further thought to what the tickets cost. This concept has helped me immeasurably with my writing, for the art always lies in the edit. This column may end up at about 700 words, but the first draft is always closer to 1,000. I never lament those lost words because they needed to happen before I could reach whatever coherence I can manage.

And what does this have to do with gardening? Everything, really, because gardening, like any other art, isn't particularly efficient. It inevitably involves a waste of both time and money. You'll rarely get it right the first time — nobody does. Think of all those Old Master canvases that the artist painted over many times, learning from his mistakes, and tweaking the results again and again, adding a little more blue here, or changing a tilt of a head there. Can you imagine a collage artist assembling the perfect amount and kinds of materials she needs beforehand, then using exactly what she had? How many test pieces does a glass blower go through before producing a finished work? So why, as gardeners, do we expect ourselves to get it right the first time, let alone the second or third?

If we accept that a certain amount of overspending, dead plants, transplanting and general rearranging is the only way to create a vital garden, let alone an interesting one, we'll probably all enjoy our gardens far more in the coming year. I wish you a year of plentiful rains, warm sunshine and wonderful discoveries.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

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