Garden tour this Saturday 🤪

Our garden is a lush, chaotic mess of most-excellent failures, plus lots of successes. Come visit!

A few months ago, before the humidity of summer sent our entire yard spiraling into an explosion of overgrown greenery, I agreed to be a destination on our town’s garden tour. I thought it would be a nice way to show people what we’ve been up to, and to meet other local gardeners. I also felt excited by the challenge of setting a deadline for when everything should “look good,” because anyone who’s creative knows how motivating a due-date can be. But this morning as I surveyed the floppy, fecund mess of things, rattled by too much coffee and the anxiety of impending judgment, I laughed to myself: Why the hell did I sign up to have strangers come gawk at this mess?!

“No-mow May” turned into barely-mow summer 🤪

Now, anyone who’s ever agreed to showcase their creative work in public knows the feelings that tend to accompany such opportunities. While still abstract and far-off, the commitment feels motivating and exciting. But as the date draws closer, some stress inevitably creeps in. You begin to notice every little thing that seems “wrong” with whatever it is you’ve agreed to share, and time starts to feel like a countdown timer that’s ticking away the days you’ve got left to whip your sh*t into shape. But sometimes—as is the case with my garden—you just can’t. And for me, that’s been a great lesson.

Our new “rock pit gardenhas been struggling to fill out thanks to slugs, a hungry family of woodchucks, and maybe too much compost? 🤷🏼‍♀️

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In my previous life—before moving to the woods, becoming a freelancer, and having a kid—I used to be a glutton for stressful opportunities. For years I worked as hard as I could and jumped at any chance to rise to the occasion. Back then, I wanted to be great at what I did; the best at it, even. Although I probably wouldn’t have admitted it, I wanted to be impressive. Unfortunately, since I was extremely career-focused at the time, this led me to pouring way too much of my energy into my job(s), which stifled my creative spark and ultimately left me feeling like a cog in a heavy machine.

I spent nearly a decade of my life this way, hustling, networking, and ~maximizing impact~ for whomever I worked for at the time. Sometimes it all felt worth it, and I liked, even loved what I was doing. But I always seemed to give too much of myself away. I had fully attuned myself to professional people-pleasing, and in this way, I lost sight of myself.

Eventually that way of living became too much, and it began to manifest as chronic back pain. On one particularly bad day, desperate for relief, I went to a highly recommended acupuncturist. After an intense treatment, I arrived back at home to find a bizarre email from her saying that the negative energy pulsing through my body was so strong that she almost fainted while treating me. She asked me to seek treatment elsewhere. (Yikes!)

Sad little dahlia 🫤

Even though I find it somewhat funny now, being flat-out rejected by a healer for having “too much negative energy” was probably my breaking point. Whether or not I was actually riddled with demons, I couldn’t deny that my stress levels had sent me over the edge into some kind of pain-induced dark place.

But as usual, the low point brought out an epiphany: Working hard isn’t always worth it, especially when you’re working within capitalist structures, in service of someone else’s vision and bottom line. And, more importantly: It doesn’t fucking matter what I achieve if I’m doing it to please other people, or to be impressive. For me, that particular flavor of ambition was completely unfulfilling.

Chipmunk-gnawed strawberries 🤬

I’m grateful I came to my senses and realized I needed to switch things up before the demons fully got me. These days, I’d consider myself an in-recovery people-pleaser and a rehabilitated overachiever. I’ve completely stopped striving in my “career,” preferring to instead pay the bills by taking on contract work that is vaguely aligned with my interests, and which (more importantly) doesn’t tempt me down the rabbit hole of work-related over-achieving. This enables me to direct my creative energy and ambition in ways that are actually fulfilling, and to get stressed out over fun things, like my garden. 🤪

It’s a whole different ball game when you’re stressed because your creative energy is pushing you and motivating you to go bigger and better; when you have a vision, and the idea of getting anywhere close to realizing it makes you feel energized. Honestly, I think that’s why the garden tour is making me anxious: Because I know how good things could look around here if we just had a little more time, a little more help, a little more knowledge. But the thing is, we don’t right now. And you know what? It’s all good—our garden is f*cking epic, despite all its flaws.

Please clap for this “wildflower meadow” that still only has one flower 😆

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Before I go on, let me tell you a little more about the garden tour. Basically, this Saturday, anyone who wishes to attend can make a $25 donation to our town’s library, and in exchange receive a map that includes descriptions and addresses for several “notable or interesting” home gardens in the region. Then they can drive themselves around to whichever gardens they feel like checking out.

I took myself on the tour last year, and while it was lovely, it mostly featured the gardens of retired-age folks who seemed to have ample time and money to spend perfecting their plots. One woman’s expansive shade garden was so immaculate and free of weeds that I felt suspicious of it. Another was billed as a “jardin secr​​ète,” and it truly lived up to its name. It dazzled me when, behind an unassuming stand of pines and a heavy gate, an astounding oasis of flowers and blooming shrubs revealed themselves. There was also a labyrinthian stone garden created by a couple for their daughter’s wedding, and a woodland Zen garden that spilled down a hillside towards the Ashokan reservoir. All of these gardens were impressive and beautiful, and yet none of them really “did it” for me. In a way, they were too professionalized; too self-conscious; too controlled; too perfect.

Finally, though, I arrived at Linda’s garden. Hers wasn’t a large, tidy, or over-the-top garden—but I loved it. There were flowers everywhere, all blooming together in a natural and painterly way. She’d used old strips of weathered carpeting to make a path (why not!?), and had kale growing with foxgloves; pink peonies surrounded by herbs; plus tons of flowering “weeds” fitting right in. With every plant, there was a story of who’d given it to her, or where she’d found it, or why she’d planted it, or what she used it for. It was simply fun and inspiring to experience.

Linda (at right) in her garden during last year’s tour 😍

Unlike the other gardens on display, I don’t think Linda had spent hours pruning and weeding before the tour. She knew her garden was great just the way it was, in all its honest, chaotic beauty. And most importantly: She didn’t five a f*ck if people thought it was unruly, or simple, or not up to their standards. She was happy with things the way they were—and she let other people see it.

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Cabbage worms living large on my kale 😥

Perfectionist and over-achieving tendencies aren’t just my demons to exorcise. Unfortunately, they’re rampantly running through our capitalistic, social-media-poisoned culture and leaving way too many of us feeling stressed and unwell. I’m sure other millennials would agree that most of us were brought up to believe that excelling in our careers in particular is imperative to our “success” as people. Because of this, we attach our self worth to the work we do, and to what we get paid to do it. We hustle and polish ourselves to appear like we have everything in control; like it’s a breeze to keep up with everything; like we aren’t each tired and sick of the bullshit. But this is such an exhausting way to live.

Luckily, another way is possible—and all it involves is being honest with ourselves, and with each other, about the messy and chaotic nature of life.

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As the date of this silly little tour draws closer, my perfectionist tendencies are hard to stifle. I can’t help but notice our garden’s multiplying weeds and woodchuck-gnawed stems and aphid-rotted poppies sticking out like sore thumbs. But I’m also acknowledging the enormity of what we [perhaps naively] took on when we moved here, and reminding myself that learning to be caretakers for several pre-existing gardens, several new gardens, a few acres of lawn, two old cabins, a pond, and our very impractical (but awesome) house is A LOT to manage. The thought of trying to perfect our garden, while simultaneously working and raising a toddler and doing all the other things we do, is laughable. It’s just not possible! And maybe because of that, it’s easier to let it all go.

If I’ve learned anything from the past five or six years, it’s that pursuing an impressively controlled state of order and achievement is unsatisfying, both professionally and in the garden. I’d rather see gardening, working, and living as ways to become entangled in networks, in ecosystems, and in the webs of still-evolving knowledge that will illuminate our collective future. Our garden may look a bit out of control, but that is its purpose—it is composed of life, after all, and unruliness is natural. Messiness is freedom. To exist is to experience unending chaos—we should embrace it!

As I look forward to welcoming strangers into our rowdy and unruly grow-zone, my hope is that, as Linda’s garden did for me, our yard will remind them that planting and nurturing living things is not about exerting control or executing an unrealistic state of order. Instead, it is about collaborating with wildness and becoming immersed in the unpredictable nature of beauty. It is about feeling excited and creative and hopeful instead of exhausted and stressed. It is about conjuring abundance and having faith that, while uncertain, the future will be amazing. This, at least, is what I’ve found. And the more we can embrace the great funk of it all, and show people our real, messy selves, the better and more magical it all becomes.

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This entire newsletter is my extremely long-winded way of saying: You are invited to visit our garden(s) on July 13, 2024, between 10am—4pm. Just reply to this email for the address 🙂 

Can’t wait to show you the chaos of it all,

~ Willa