For Christmas this year, my daughter-in-law asked for garden advice. In the past I’ve given her advice as she asked for it – for instance, what’s this thing eating my flowers, or when can I prune this shrub? Charmingly, she wanted these written down, to be gathered in one place, where she could find them when they were needed.
I was happy to oblige. As I wrote up some notes for her, I thought also about the nature of advice. It’s a lot like literary criticism. You have to distinguish between your personal taste and eternal truth. Maybe that’s overstating it, but haven’t we all put in some “easy care” plants that were, in fact, total divas? Some supposedly prolific tomato plants that turned strangely reticent in our care? Groundcovers apparently determined to become planetcovers? How much time and maintenance do you enjoy, or tolerate? I say if there’s a plant that gives you trouble, rip it out and never let it cross your garden path again. A weed is anything growing where you don’t want it. I like to recommend leaving old stalks and seedheads standing over the winter, both to provide shelter for wildlife and because I love how they look in the snow. Some gardeners – and some neighbors – think this looks like a big mess.
One of my opinions is that people are naturally predisposed to be good gardeners. We can tell good soil from bad just by the smell of it. This is true even for people who grew up in cities and hate getting their hands dirty: apparently, it’s in our DNA to be able to detect good farmland. Then we also have our famous ability to observe three random facts and draw conclusions, which may lead to bizarre conspiracy theories, but has also led to crop rotation (it’s in the Bible), companion planting (like the Three Sisters of Native Americans), and plant breeding (in evidence for at least 10,000 years). Modern science has increased our knowledge and our options, but basic agriculture is in our bones. Or noses.
So advice based on another’s experience can be a shortcut, but the best way to find what works for you, is to try things. Keep trying them. If a plant fails in one place, move it somewhere else. Pay attention to how the garden responds, and draw new conclusions from it.
I see now that this advice also applies to writing poetry. Literary, as well as gardening, advice.