I've been watching more Food Network lately than usual, which can only mean that autumn is around the corner.
What I like about Food Network is that it makes food — or, more precisely, an elevated dining experience — approachable. I'm no gourmet chef, but I can still up my cooking game thanks to Bobby, Rachel, Giada, Alton et al.
However, such egalitarianism carries a risk: once I feel empowered to cook North African Meatballs, I also feel empowered to change the recipe. Perhaps I leave out the cilantro, or add a bit of nutmeg. Perhaps, when I'm making Ina's French toast, I use nonfat milk rather than half & half. Or maybe I only have medium eggs on hand, not extra-large.
Whatever, right? After all, some of the joy of cooking is experimenting, putting your own stamp on things. Except, too often I take that first bite and think, "Hm. This looked a lot better on TV." I then shelve the recipe and forget about it — never really getting that it's my fault the French toast fell flat. Somewhere along the way, I forgot: I'm no gourmet chef.
Gardening isn't terribly different from cooking. How often do we drool over the plants we see at the nursery or in the magazines, and decide to experiment with them in our own yard? Never mind that our site has deeper shade, or gophers, or a careless gardener. Never mind that winter brings temps in the 20s and that plant isn't hardy below 35°F.
Sometimes the experiment turns out great. Experienced gardeners are like experienced chefs: they know their ingredients. They know their site, the way a chef knows her oven. And they know the rules (even if that means knowing which rules to break).
But for less experienced gardeners, the experiment might not be quite as rewarding. Plants bought impulsively die; favorite trees sulk wedged into too-small spaces; and those combinations that "should" have worked, well, they looked a lot better on TV. Discouraged, we vow to never again spend our weekend in the garden.
I'm not at all suggesting we shouldn't experiment with our gardens. It's not only likely we'll make mistakes, I believe it's vital. But if you're going to take risks, take responsibility too. Know that the plant combination featured in this issue of Fine Gardening isn't well-suited to your clay soil. Know that there's a difference between a Spiraea and a Nandina, and therefore probably a good reason your landscape designer specified one rather than the other. Know that "regular irrigation" isn't synonymous with "drought tolerant."
If you're not interested in such minutiae, your best bet probably is to hire a pro to design for you. Think of it as going out to a really nice restaurant: sure, you'll pay more, but the experience will be wonderful, and you won't dirty a dish.
On the other hand, if you really yearn to be out in the garden, why not hire a landscape designer, fine gardener or garden coach to help you learn? You can be the sous chef, or at least the apprentice. You may still lose a few plants and blow through some money along the way. But when you do come up with your own amazing creation, you'll be able to take all the credit.