My wife Suzanne and I used to have our best fights in the garden. I don’t remember her actually throwing a trowel at me, but on several occasions I’m sure she came close. I’m also sure it was my fault.
I had an idea that we would garden together. That she would hold the plant while I dug the hole. Or vice versa. But when I envisioned this scene of horticultural harmony, I didn’t consider a couple of facts. First, that I had married a strong-minded woman who wouldn’t necessarily agree with me on which plant to place where. And second, that, thanks to an old-fashioned apprenticeship with European-trained gardeners, my idea of cooperation was a lot like that of Captain Bligh on the Bounty. As the senior in gardening experience, I felt entitled to issue directives and advise on technique. Suzanne, who comes from a large family of Irish women (five sisters, no brothers) doesn’t tolerate mansplaining.
Eventually, after enough heated exchanges, I began asking other couples how they gardened together. Most, I learned, didn’t. The common pattern among partners who both gardened was to split the plot into two halves. The proprietor of one half didn’t venture into the other without an invitation and never ventured an opinion unasked. One woman whispered to me that when her husband was away on business, she would move the best plants from his half to hers. Is it coincidence that they are divorced now?
The best advice I got was from Fred and Mary Ann McGourty of the late Hillside Gardens, a most remarkable garden and nursery in Norfolk, CT. They explained that although they shared the entire garden, they never worked on the same area together at the same time. Likewise, they had a rule that whoever genuinely felt most strongly about a plant got his or her way. When forced to make a choice between horticultural purism and co-existence, in other words, they had chosen the latter.
I have taken these tips to heart. I may not like dahlias, but Suzanne loves them and so we have dahlias and I do not denigrate them. Suzanne has agreed that we will only plant natives in our garden in the Berkshire woods, except for the daffodils in the lawn that she cannot live without. I now keep my gardening advice to myself unless asked.
Our garden is less reflective of my tastes and prejudices, but more unpredictable and interesting as a result. Besides, the remedial course in cooperation I have taken in the garden has had a good effect on our relationship as a whole. We still disagree on occasion, but I no longer worry about flying trowels, indoors or out.
on October 17, 2016 at 9:32 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.