Garden Epiphanies

– Posted in: Design, Garden chores, How-to, Meditations

Gardening experience, for the most part, is accrued bit by bit, as decisions are made to do this chore before the other, plants die and we know why–or we don’t–and mental notes are made about what is blooming when. But every so often, the gardener has an epiphany, a light bulb moment. These milestones represent major shifts in the gardener’s modus operandi and are a significant component of what we call gardening wisdom–the mythical green thumb.

Today is a milestone birthday for me. I am older now than my grandmother was when I was born, which made her a grandma. Grey hair, bifocals–yep, I’m old enough to be a grandma. So I thought I’d share some of my gardening epiphanies with you, so you can take a shortcut to your own green thumb.


I had just moved into our first house, after a succession of apartments and a mobile home. Finally, I had a yard. But I didn’t want a yard, I wanted a garden! The only problem was, I didn’t know what made a yard feel like a garden. There is no one right answer; you have to find the answer in your heart. So I mulled over this as I washed dishes and pondered it as I cared for my children. One day I was flipping through a garden magazine and saw a photo that made me realize I needed to have a path for it to be a garden. Every outdoor space that held enchantment for me as a child had a path wending through it.

mown path through high grass

I created this path at the old garden. It is lined with snowdrops in March and narcissus in May. It brings you into the secret garden. And who knows what is around that bend?


I had read about the need for varying foliage texture in a garden dozens of times without really grasping what was meant. An article in a garden magazine illustrated this concept with a greyscale photo–and suddenly I got it. Take the color out of a garden photo and all you have left is foliage texture. You will notice if the texture is all the same. Frances of Fairegarden calls it Little Leaf Syndrome. Texture keeps a garden interesting even when there are few flowers blooming.

greyscale image illustrating foliage texture

Take away the color–does it still hold your interest?

Take photos of your garden, convert them to greyscale, and see what you can learn.

Color Echoes

I had heard of contrasting colors and complementary colors, but until I read Color Echoes: Harmonizing Color in the Garden by Pamela Harper I had never thought to use one plant to pick up and echo the color of another. I started to look at plants a lot more carefully–the green heart inside a yellow daylily, the red stems on a green fern–and search for plants that would highlight those subtle color details. Often they were already in my garden, and just needed to be moved around.

container of orange and lime colored plants.

The diascias in this container echo the stripe in the canna leaf.

Not All Weeds Are Created Equal

Some weeds, especially tap-rooted ones, need to be pulled out on sight. Better yet, yesterday. And in my garden, dock is far worse than dandelion. I hate not finishing a task once I’ve begun. So if I’ve begun, say, pruning the roses, and if on my way back to the garden shed (to get the rose gloves I forgot) I see a dock seedling, I used to say “I’ll pull that when I’m done pruning the roses.” No more! Experience has taught me that I won’t remember the dock seedling after I am done with the roses, and the next time I see that weed I will have to dig to China and damage three garden-worthy plants in the process of getting it out.

dock roots

These are dock roots. They are almost impossible to remove whole except in mud season, when the soil is saturated.

How About You?

I could go on–you know how old folks ramble–but I’d like to hear about your garden epiphanies? What sudden insight made a big change in the way you garden?

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

Deborah B April 15, 2013, 10:12 am

A late happy birthday to you Kathy! One of my garden epiphanies was that it’s okay to yank out plants that I have decided I just don’t like or that look miserable (usually because they just aren’t hardy enough for my zone). It’s hard to give up on a plant, or admit I don’t want a plant after spending money for it. Another epiphany was to be more aggressive about dividing plants I already have to spread them around more, to combat the collector garden syndrome. I now have a lot more European ginger, for example, because I finally took an old patch apart and spread it to more areas of the shade garden. I’d love to also have an epiphany about how to deal with the ravages of chipmunks.

Kathy Purdy April 15, 2013, 10:43 am

I almost put those first two epiphanies of yours in my post as well, but decided it was getting long enough. The only partial solution I have found to the chipmunk/vole/squirrel problem is to be adopted by a hunting cat (aka mouser). But she doesn’t get them all.

Donna@Gardens Eye View April 14, 2013, 8:28 pm

Happy Birthday Kathy. Wonderful lessons we can all learn from…I love a good garden book and bought the Color book. My epiphany was when I learned to go with the flow of my garden and garden for wildlife. I have never had more fun.

Marcia Brown Meigs April 14, 2013, 12:34 pm

Happy happy day and year. Hope you will fiddle around doing what you love most(I adore digging galanthus and repegging in new areas…trying to get my list of trades and sales out once again).
Hope you are getting more sunshine than we do although I never mind rain as summer drought is always a threat and reality. I sometime fantasize about having another well dug, just for the gardens, but have never run out yet although in droughty times there is more sulfur smell and sludge.
I have never done plans for the gardens here as I am very impetuous and have simply bought plants throughout the years, frantically tilling and improving more planting areas, and so do not have the loveliness of wandering paths and “rooms”. The one advantage of having a fruit salad of many wonderful and rare plants is that when one gets enough, one can begin to carve and paint with what is there.
So one does end up having to toughen up and remove trees and shrubs, if damaged by being planted too closely together, but this does open views to other areas and that can be very rewarding. Spreading colonies of worthy bulbs and perennials, present the opportunity to divide and “paint”.
Unfortunately some plants have taken over due to their rambunctious or downright thuggish behavior: small flowered species epimediums, thousands of hellebore seedlings(contrary to the opinion of one guru they are not easily gotten rid of by hoeing in heavy clay soil), eranthis coming up in the middle of everything(I forgive this due to the thrill of seeing the sheets of gold in earliest Spring), violets, allium zebdanense, numerous ordinary perennials that have small flowers in too much foliage, lily of the valley, blackberry lily, anything in the artemesia family, etc. Nice to have when one is young, but at 75 with fibromialgia and a horrible back, they are no longer desirable.
I would love the peace of a “room”, but it is not likely and we do enjoy our very expansive views.
Perhaps asking for a list of 10 most beloved plants would be in order. Better make that two dozen, laugh. I am a bulbs and Asian plants collector.
See you at the meeting on the 20th?

Donalyn April 14, 2013, 8:59 am

Happy Birthday Kathy! The trouble with getting older is that you sometimes forget your epiphanies, but later on when you discover them again, they are like brand new ones and you feel smart all over again.

I think the combining textures was a big one for me, but even bigger was when I realized that my gardens had no backbone – that made a huge difference in everything, of course.

Jason April 13, 2013, 9:29 pm

Well said! I especially agree about the paths.

Charlie@Seattle Trekker April 13, 2013, 3:57 pm

…epiphany, gardens aren’t presentations or competitions. They are so much like old clothes that make you feel warm, and most of all they make you feel a comfortable kind of love. When you are in your garden you are home, you know that like it is a universal truth. Pulling weeds, pruning, you do it because it is like making your best friend feel better, and that makes you feel good in a really special way.

Joene at Joene's Garden April 13, 2013, 3:09 pm

Kathy … wishing you a happy birthday and many more gardening epiphanies in the years to come. Gardening is learning, if one keeps their eyes and ears and mind open to what nature tries to teach. You get this.

joan April 13, 2013, 1:52 pm

Happy B’day Kathy… my epiphany, when I finally realized if you can’t beat them plant something else. I am talking about the “chomping rats with antlers”. So instead of yummy posies… I now plant… fuzzie, gray-green, prickly plants.

Deirdre in Seattle April 13, 2013, 1:48 pm

For me, learning to garden was more a slow, steady process. Before I went into horticulture, I studied art history, so aesthetics are part of my mindset. I needed to learn about plants and what they will and won’t do where I live. When I have epiphanies, it’s about a specific situation in a specific garden. A couple of months ago, I was reading about definition, and realized I needed to rearrange my side garden to distinquish it more from the front garden. Went out and did it almost immediately (ADHD means I have issues with impulse control). All I need now is an arbor for the path and you’ll really know you’re in a separate space when you turn that corner. Usually epiphanies come when I sit and stare at some portion that’s not quite working, and my eye starts “wanting” to see something; a shape, a color, a texture, something tall. Then, I figure out will give me that shape, color, texture, or height.

Deirdre in Seattle April 13, 2013, 1:49 pm

PS. Happy birthday!

Layanee April 13, 2013, 11:39 am

Happy birthday Kathy. ‘Although I am an old man, I am but a young gardener’…I may have paraphrased but T. Jefferson was so right with this one. I know your tips will help serve new gardeners and remind older gardeners of some basics. 🙂

Frances April 13, 2013, 11:31 am

Happy, happy day to you, Kathy, and many, many more! Gardening is a state of evolving, learning, adapting, full of wins and losses. When we learn that new thing that makes everything fall into place, makes sense of our vision, there is always something yet ahead just around bend, like you path of snowdrops. And thank goodness for that. Thanks for the linkage, my dear friend, and here’s to a lifetime of epiphanies for us all.

patsybell April 13, 2013, 11:10 am

I think when I began to say, “You are always welcomed to my garden,” I began to enjoy my own garden more. The garden doesn’t have to be Garden Tour Day perfect all the time. Even when I think my gardens are at their worst and weediest, most folk take a less critical view. They see the flowers and vegetable plants. They see the big picture: a blooming, thriving garden. Where I see that dandelion blooming in the sidewalk crack and the cart of compost I need to get under the roses. So, you are always welcomed to my garden.

Alison April 13, 2013, 10:50 am

All great insights, Kathy! Your photo of the Diascia in the tub is a wonderful illustration of color echoes. Beautiful! I tend to have a one-track mind when in the garden doing particular chores too.