One advantage to ignoring the garden for awhile (like the entire ridiculously hot month of July) is that when you finally attack the chaos, the results are dramatic. Getting started, though is a daunting task. Where to begin?
My philosophy on tackling overwhelming tasks is to start with one big thing that is really bugging me and that will make a huge difference when it is done. You can’t just start at one end of the garden and pick every little weed until you get to the end. You’ll never get to the end. There are an infinite number of weeds in there.
This philosophy is one that I presented to one of my daughters when she was in middle school and had a disaster area for a bedroom. If she tried to tidy it, she would spend an entire afternoon and have one tiny tidy corner to show for it. I finally said to her, “Do you need me to write out directions on how to do it?”
“Actually, that would be really helpful,” she replied, without a hint of sarcasm.
So I did. “How to clean your room in less than 10 steps.” She posted it on her mirror, where it stayed until she got married. This does not mean that the room was clean. It just means that if she decided to clean it, she had a 9 step process to get it done.
But I digress. It’s my garden that is a mess. The fennel arches over the oregano like Snoopy the Vulture. A bazillion seeds are poised ready to bomb the garden with an explosion of more fennel. The oregano, meanwhile, is creeping back to the chives. Chocolate mint bullies its way past the pineapple sage and into the chamomile. The chamomile,which had its glory day in the sun weeks ago and is now turning brown, hangs over the thyme which makes a pathetic attempt to lean forward over the rock border to get a sunbeam or two. Spearmint is getting much too friendly with the basil. Lemon verbena has overshadowed the tarragon. Weeds pop up with audacity and gill-over-the-ground wends its serpentine trail through it all.
Now the garden is reminding me less of my daughter’s bedroom and more like a school filled with teenagers. I ponder my students as I hack and harvest and weed.
1. Boundaries. Certain boundaries are set in my garden. Rocks and flat stones create the border. Small fences establish perimeters for plants within the garden. It’s really easy to cut back the mint because I know exactly where it has overstepped its bounds–the little white fence. My students need boundaries too. If I create clear boundaries, then it will be easy to keep behavior under control.
2. Space to grow. Some herbs in my garden are bullies. Some are over friendly. Some are just so happy and thriving that they dominate the landscape. I like my herbs. But I like all of my herbs. Lemon verbena is absolutely my favorite scent. But I really really want tarragon too. My students need space to grow too. In the classroom, certain personalities often dominate at the expense of others. If I give the overshadowed students space and attention, they have a chance to thrive, too.
3. The right spot in the garden. I’m thinking that perhaps I need to grow tarragon someplace not so close to the lemon verbena. Lemon verbena is great, but my big thriving verbena is not great for the struggling little tarragon. You know where I’m going with this. Some students need to be separated for their own good. Even if they are friends.
4. Weeds. When the plants are under control, I can see the weeds better. This is definitely where the “10 steps to a clean room” comes into play. I have to address the big ones first. Which ones are the most problematic and/or unsightly. There are some big, tall weeds that take up a lot of space but are easy to pull. (Some big, tall boys come to mind here. They can drive you crazy but respond to discipline.) Yanking them is like making the bed–it doesn’t take too much effort but yields big results. The sneaky vines aren’t quite as dramatic, but they choke everything. They are not hard to pull and a good weeding produces a gratifyingly large mound of debris, but you have to keep at them. They never really go away. And it only takes one to get the whole garden back into a tangled mess. (Certain girls with their gossipy ways, or sneaky rule-breakers, or cheaters seem to be like this.)
5. Eliminate excess. Because I actually do not have a green thumb (it’s more like the Black Thumb of Death), I am very reluctant to rip out plants that volunteer to grow for me. “What! You want to grow in my pathetic little garden? Why, bless you! Welcome!” This is why I have a ridiculous amount of fennel–I think I have to harvest every single seed, even though a bunch of them escape. It is part of why garlic chives are everywhere–the flowers are so pretty but often go to seed before I snip them. In the classroom, as in the garden, I have to remind myself that I can’t do everything. In my desire to not have wasted class time, I tend to assign far too many tasks and then can’t follow-up on them all. Focus, focus, focus. That’s not just for the students; it’s for me.
6. Rip out unwanted growth. You know what? I don’t like chocolate mint. Oh, I like the flavor. It’s the plant I don’t like. For starters, it doesn’t really taste that chocolatey. When it flowers, the blooms are a silvery green that look like they would like to be something prettier but are not. Stupid ugly little flies are attracted to its flowers. And it takes up a lot of space. I think I would rather have orange mint.
Oh… I can rip it out and plant orange mint. It’s my garden. Just because it has been in the garden for ten years doesn’t mean it has to be there forever. Huh. I’ve been teaching for a long time. I wonder how many things I’m doing that I don’t want to do but continue to do just because I’ve always done it that way. I’m not talking about ripping out the whole garden and starting over (ugh!), just a thing or two.
7. Room for more. With the bullies cut back and the weeds eliminated, I find I have space for some fall color. I never thought of putting ornamental cabbage in here before, but now it seems like a fun idea. As I ponder the personalities who will be returning to my classroom, I know that if I keep the dominant personalities and the over-exhuberant students from taking over, there will be space for the new students and time for the fun stuff.
FYI, in case you were amazed at how together my act seems, the fact that I have this tidy little list of observations does not at all imply that my garden is under control yet! (Or my classroom, for that matter.) After an hour of hacking and weeding, my ponderings got the better of me and I ran up here to the computer. So don’t look for any ornamental cabbages quite yet. In fact, if I don’t get them planted before school starts, you may not find them ever.