Homely: A Valentine

the old home garden

Sleeping Bear Oasis, where I garden before the flat corner lot.

Would it be a stretch to say you love your garden? It might frustrate you from time to time (OK, a lot). There may even be times you want to tear out whole beds. Start over. Walk away. Then, there are the moments you wrap your hands around a mug of favorite brew and take a stroll. You might bend to lift a flowery face or pinch away a browned leaf, but mostly you just look, even admire. This isn’t because there’s nothing to do, no weed to pull, no hose to drag. It’s simply because you want to visit, to be together with your garden.

You might grab your camera and snap photo after photo of the same greenly emerging bun, the same trio of lilies, the same burnished ferns that you photographed last week, last year, or the year before. Approaching plants just like the children you adore, you only wish you could say, “Smile for me, honey.” If you’re like me, you probably do say, “Oh, you’re so beautiful.”

“Most of us intuitively believe that the things we labor at are the things we love…” wrote Shankar Vedantam in Why You Love That Ikea Table, Even if It’s Crooked which aired on NPR’s morning edition on 6 February 2013. “What if… it isn’t love that leads to labor, but labor that leads to love?”

To pursue the question, Vedantam spoke with Tulane University Marketing professor, Daniel Mochon, about a phenomenon he calls the Ikea Effect. “Imagine that you built a table,” Mochon said. “Maybe it came out a little bit crooked. Probably your wife or your neighbor would see it for what it is, you know? A shoddy piece of workmanship. But to you that table might seem really great, because you’re the one who created it. It’s the fruit of your labor. And that is really the idea behind the Ikea Effect.”

From a marketing director’s point of view, this effect is a great way to get people in the door. For every person who has ever struggled against criticism, Mochon says, “Building your own stuff boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent.”

Any gardener who has successfully pruned an overgrown red twig dogwood knows the truth of that.

In the business world, however, it turns out the Ikea Effect has a definite downside. It can cause a detrimental loss of objectivity. After laboring on a concept for a couple of months, the person working on the project or an entire company may fall in love with their idea and not see its flaws. It becomes a failed project, and time and money are lost.

To some extent, we gardeners are subject to the same failing. And I think we can turn it to our advantage.

Some years back, my old garden was suggested as a possibility for a garden tour. A statewide organization of garden clubs sent a representative from Denver to deem whether or not my garden was worthy. She came before I had a chance to do some planned maintenance, and I arrived home in time to see her standing in the mess, gesturing toward a brush pile near a chain-link fence, and shaking her head at the local garden club representative. My face and ears burned with a bit of shame and a dollop of anger.

broom in panorama

Deemed unworthy.

Here is where a gardener has a definite advantage over the Ikea Effect. For two truths were revealed that day: 1) An outsider declared my garden a failed project in business terms. She saw my garden through the objective eyes of one who had a certain standard, which my garden didn’t meet. 2) I loved my garden, anyway. My time and money were far from wasted.

I don’t only mean I loved my garden sentimentally (which I surely did). I mean I loved it by rolling down my sleeves, removing what didn’t belong, and providing what it needed. Even more, I loved it by seeing the uniqueness and beauty it offered, photographing it, and sharing it with friends.

I confess, I often think of the flat corner lot as homely. Budget constraints in time and money haven’t allowed me to fill it with plants and sculpt it with stones. Even so, I love it. Loving a garden transforms both it and the gardener. It allows the gardener to change definitions of beauty. When I look up homely in my German/English dictionary I find the word heimlig, which means atmospheric. The gardenhood cradles the atmosphere of home.

About a million years ago, I read The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. His love-as-verb approach shook my romantic adolescent concepts of love to the ground. As the Ikea Effect — labor leading to love — jogged my memory of reading Fromm, l had to look up the quotation. He wrote, “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissm. It isn’t a feeling, it’s a practice.”

Gardening, too, is a practice by which we come to love.

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22 thoughts on “Homely: A Valentine

  1. Nice post! And I would be very pissed off if somebody showed up to inspect my garden without letting me prepare. I also agree that the process of working on our gardens also builds our love for them. By working them, we come to know them intimately and pour ourselves into them. Even when they are not perfect, we love them (much like our family members).

  2. Wow, what a great read with cup of coffee in hand and chin of Kainame resting on my leg…early morning, quiet walk, no noise in the house other than a clock ticking…let it rain, and I’ll walk in my garden. Thanks!

  3. The main thing is that you love the garden – I have many plants that were given to me by friends, family and others (and some are no longer with us) and these plants mean far more to me than someone else’s opinion of what a good garden should be.
    Very thought provoking post – gardens are loved like a family member. They don’t always behave or look their best and there always seems to be a new problem… but we love them anyway x

    • Oh, I love the notion of my garden behaving like a family member (in my case, probably a hormone-crazed teenager or a clueless spouse).

      It’s love that matters at the end of the day. Thanks, PJ.

  4. This is a deep post, Cheryl, I love it. And it certainly reinforces my suspicion of national-state-whatever (means nothing to me) garden club “standards.” For one, you can’t the feel of anything standing at the fence. What I care about is, yeah, the beauty, but mostly the heart of the gardener that is seen in their creation. If you can afford a crew of workers, meh, not as cool to me! I really loved that garden–it was FABULOUS.
    On the other hand the whole IKEA effect is a little disturbing (as I immediately wondered how it connected to my magazine – ha!!). A writer friend of mine had a joke about our writing labors and about how we felt putting them out into the world to be judged, possibly harshly. – “Those our our babies and we don’t want the world to say we have an ugly baby!” And then she laughed. And I laughed. Because it doesn’t matter as long as we love it.

    • There are no ugly babies, Sandy.

      …and if we didn’t fall in love with our gardens (our magazines, our writing), how could we go on? When it comes to those things we put out to the world, we have to excpect they will be seen through different lenses. It’s hard not to take the critiques personally, and yet we must try, knowing that most people and the great wide universe want us to succeed.

      That garden was a beauty, and fiercely loved.

  5. Beautifully written — and certainly food for thought. It brought to mind a trip to a dahlia show several years ago. Gardeners going to such incredible lengths to transport their blooms, and then to have them judged on some mysterious standard. I’ll take my garden any day — with all of its faults. It’s mine. It gives me joy. It teaches me. It moves me forward. Cheers!

  6. I think about my garden as more of a Taoist experience that rewards by just beginning the the journey, becoming part of the journey. Pulling weeds, and watching the spring blooms is all one experience.

  7. The first part of this reminded me of last spring. I looked at the flowers that were just starting to bloom am asked them to smile, a part of me half expected them to do just that. While reading this I visioned myself with you in your garden with my sleeves rolled up. You are like the wings of an angel; you lift up my life. Keep em comin’ ol girl

    • Thanks, Jim. I wish I was better at accepting help. I’d say come on out and roll up your sleeves. Glad the writing lifts your spirits, but, sheesh, I’m no angel.

  8. I personally think your garden is great. I have been on many garden tours where the gardens look cold and not lived in. The best gardens are the ones that reflect the gardener. Different personalities have different styles. Do what makes you happy! To heck with the others

    • Thanks, Brenda. That garden was a real beauty. The experience of the “judgement” helped me to realize that my home garden had design issues I couldn’t mitigate on my budget AND it helped me to understand that I needed to give up competitive gardening in order to focus on what mattered more to me: Love.

  9. Your photos had me admiring the loveliness of your garden. There is no pleasing everyone, and I hope that gardening representative gets as much enjoyment from their practice of love as your words make me guess you do of yours =)

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