A Lesson Learned – Don’t Judge a Plant by Its Label

By Sarah Garrett

Ask any gardener and they’ll tell you that one of the keys to success when tending a garden is to relinquish a little bit of control. If you allow the garden to flourish as it wants to, allow it to surprise you, you will find joy in new and sometimes challenging discoveries.
The role of the gardener is that of a caretaker for the many living beings that make up a garden. The gardener is there not to force or conquer, but to guide and tend to these beings as their individual needs require. One of the most important skills for a gardener is flexibility. It’s not uncommon to hear a gardener say “Well, plants will never do what you want them to.” And nor should they.
As gardeners, we’re able to accept the challenges plants throw at us, and I don’t just mean the challenge of an unruly bed of nasturtiums or stubborn tomatoes that refuse to ripen. I also mean the challenges to our values and our prejudices. Opening oneself up to being proven wrong is an essential lesson to learn when wanting to become a caretaker of a garden and, by extension, of this wonderful and fragile garden called Earth.
I recently graduated from Uni with my Diploma of Horticulture and, along with my certificate, I walked away with a head full of ideas and opinions. I left knowing what plants I adored and what plants I absolutely, not on any account, could abide. I was adamant that, when I finally had my own garden, any Nandina within a 1km radius would be pulled out and my mattock and I would send any Dietes to the next life. I knew Pittosporum was overused, I was of the belief that annual flowers were a waste of time, and I thought roses were overrated.
When I finally did get my own garden, I was overwhelmed with joy that I could finally tend to my own patch of earth. I was less impressed by the fact that the garden I inherited was filled with Nandinas, Dietes, roses, and a huge Pittosporum tree.
When I finally had a free day that coincided with stunning gardening weather, I stepped out into my garden, boots and gloves at the ready, and walked over to the first Nandina that came into my line of sight. I looked at that Nandina for a long time. It filled the spot perfectly, shielding an otherwise dull view of my fence with greenery and offering red and yellow hues to bring colour into the shade of the tree above. It dawned on me that actually, that Nandina was exactly what that space of garden needed. Perhaps I had been too quick to judge this plant that horticulturalists often refer to as “The Macca’s Plant”. Perhaps, in the case of my garden corner, The Macca’s Plant was perfect. Like a book by its cover, I’d judged the plant by its less- than-fortunate nickname.
I also quickly realised that the Dietes was the perfect choice for a troublesome garden bed with poor soil that was hostile to any other living organism. Again, I was surprised by this previously disregarded plant and was beginning to feel rather silly for being so quick to dismiss. I also now know what all the fuss is about roses: they are truly stunning when in bloom, especially when thick raindrops sit like pearls on their petals. My neighbour has a jaw-dropping rose garden you can smell down the street. I was fortunate enough to receive a bunch of them for Christmas, and as she handed them to me I finally understood. I understood why people have been cultivating roses for centuries. I understood how you could love them and find joy in tending to them. You truly can find the most exquisite pleasure in burying a greedy nose into a rose. When spring came, I walked out of my front door and was greeted by a patch of daffodils that had sprung up overnight and brought the sun with them. The joy I felt when I saw them and the anticipation of seeing them next spring is something I now treasure. As I’ve come to know these plants as individuals, each with a unique set of gifts to offer and abilities to share with us, my assumptions and values have been continually overturned. And this has been wonderful. It’s been surprising and fun, and I now look forward to the next time plants prove me wrong.
These days, as I sit under my Pittosporum tree, I am thankful to it. I am thankful for all those summer evenings I’ve sat under it with my family and friends, drinking and eating while it shares its shade with us. I’m thankful to it for providing relief from the afternoon sun and for providing branches to hang fairy lights from. I am thankful to it for keeping the sun off my partner’s face after they’ve dozed off into bliss in their hammock. I’m grateful for its blossoms that bring swarms of happy, bumbling bees to my garden, and I’m thankful to it for providing a home to the family of black birds that dig around in the soil and play in the fountain.
A lot of this comes from being new to the industry and from being new to the role of caretaker in my own garden. But it also comes from being human. We all have our prejudices and preferences, and we all sometimes fall into the trap of believing that what we think and know is the rule in every situation. Accepting that we may have been too quick to judge isn’t always easy and sometimes it can take active effort to acknowledge our lapses. The bright side is that plants are here to teach us that being wrong is ok, and can actually be incredibly exciting.
So, the next time I find myself dismissing a plant, I’ll instead ask “What are this plant’s strengths? What are this plant’s gifts?” This lesson from plants, our teachers, makes us better caretakers and I think it also translates rather well into other domains of life.
I saw a Nandina in a garden,
And at first my heart it did harden.
A sweet second of realisation
Had me halt in hesitation.
I have a Nandina in my garden.
A Nandina I’ve now come to pardon.
Upon further meditation,
It’s even worthy of admiration.


Photos supplied by Sarah Garrett

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