The fallacy of garden magazines

By Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn
Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn The Absentee Gardeners -

I have officially given up on gardening magazines because they simply aren’t truthful. Poring over unrealistic pictures of how gardens should look is not my idea of how to spend a rainy afternoon. For years I would castigate myself because my garden resembled a hit-and-miss philosophy more than it portrayed a scenic picture postcard.

And then I caught on as to what was going on.

Many of the photographed gardens are creations of armies of garden tenders. The nonexistent drooping plants are either beautifully and artistically staked — or they have been cut off at the base. The chief deadheader has been working vigilantly on the scene as has the weeder-in-chief.

Most of all, the garden creation has been timed to be at its utmost composure and serenity at the time the photographers rounded the corner. We, the readers, are left to assume that this is the way the pictured garden always looks.

Long ago, in 2005, “A Gardener’s Diary” approached me about featuring my garden. Fluffing my feathers up with pride, I replied, “Of course.” My pride turned to dismay when the producers announced they would come by the latter part of August to shoot the garden. My dismay was due to the fact that this is precisely the time when the garden is naturally transitioning from a late summer garden into a fall garden, a time when nothing is blooming.

Paralyzed with fright at the idea of showing off a garden that lacked any blooms, I quickly called in a friend who acts as a garden consultant. She stated that we had to quickly fill in the holes. Now perennials need time to take root — and time was something we didn’t have. We bought a lot of large pots of muhly grass — Muhlenbergia capillaris — and filled in the inevitable holes my perennial borders hold. This gave the garden a pinkish haze, something I wouldn’t normally seek out, but that worked in the filmed result.

We then purchased pots of blooming chrysanthemums, those rigid round mounds that are obsequious every fall. Dividing them into two halves and then planting the halves got rid of the artificial mound shape: They actually looked as though they belonged where we had placed them.

And then we manicured the plants. Unruly plants received a haircut. Leggy plants were cropped down to size. Plants with powdery mildew, a problem I have with phlox by the end of the summer, were yanked out. The garden was filled with ornamental grasses at this time, as deer were a constant problem (a fence ultimately cured the deer problem) and the grasses looked pretty good as I remember.

What we essentially did was the equivalent of sticking a camellia blossom on a non-blooming camellia, pretending it belonged to that camellia. Would I do it again? Probably not, because I believe that presenting garden problems is more educational, of greater interest than staging a fake garden.

Every garden has empty spaces in it during part of the year. I know my crinums will take up a lot of space once they reemerge so I have learned not to plant anything around them in the early spring. The reappearing hostas seemingly get larger every year, requiring more room. Heat and humidity at the height of the summer can take a toll, as can an early frost in the fall. The result? A normal garden that never looks perfect.

So, look at the garden pornography if you must but please, don’t try to emulate it. Most of the time these gardens either are carefully created just for the picture-taking session or they require an army of caretakers to manicure them. Savor your garden in its imperfection.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn The Absentee Gardeners Jenkins and Kit Flynn The Absentee Gardeners

By Lise Jenkins and Kit Flynn