Are Gardeners Really Necessary?

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As the season changes, David Jensen wonders if gardeners are really necessary.

A change of season always makes me contemplative. I ask myself the big question that has been worrying me lately: Are gardeners really necessary? Sometimes, I doubt it. We tend to think of ourselves, egotistically, as the overseer, designer, architect and benevolent dictator, but the truth is nature seems to do pretty well all by herself—and always has. No one is tending the wild dogwoods and rhododendrons in the hills of Appalachia, and they look as lovely as any fussed-over arboretum. Lovelier, really. Not to mention the natural, untended glories of, say, the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the endless forests of Canada, Bora Bora in French Polynesia, and so on.

Dahlias, Beaver Creek

Still, we do sort of think of ourselves as in benignly despotic control of and imposing our will, brilliant or otherwise, on the gardens we tend. And yet, as the gardener ages, he begins to realize (at least the smarter and more introspective sort do) that perhaps this isn’t the way things really work, after all. Little doubts begin to emerge. What if the garden is in control of the gardener in the same very subtle way that the hollyhock is in control of the honeybee and the canna lily is in control of the hummingbird? Perhaps the gardener does what the garden wants and needs him to do—provide useful things like nutrients and water, keep the weed and pest populations down, and so forth—so the plant population can flourish and go about its business of elegantly and manipulatively taking over the world.

Sometimes I think we’re more designed upon than designing, more controlled than controlling. And every gardener has had the disturbing experience of finding an unplanned effect or an unplanted guest that arrives at just the right place and in just the right colour to perfect a scheme that the gardener himself has failed at.

The sedums were superb this year.Earlier this morning, I saw—much to my amazement—a bright and dignified blaze of blue on the patio among the red and white impatiens. Upon closer inspection, I found it to be a perfectly gorgeous morning glory, the kind you wish you could find in garden centres but never can.

Last night, as we sat out on the (now perfected) patio, on what is surely one of the last few nice evenings of this year and, to my surprise, I saw two fireflies signaling in the backyard, after not seeing any for weeks. They cheered me up tremendously, and it was lovely to watch their tiny signaling lanterns slowly move around the darkened garden. It’s Mother Nature doing what she has always done—and all without any help from the (unnecessary) gardener.