Garden Tips | October 5, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - October 5, 2012

Garden Tips

How gardening can offer a fresh perspective on life

by Jack McKinnon

Do you ever get to that place in life where you feel like "I can't do this anymore"? Just about everybody does at some time or another. This is what brings about change, learning and growth. Every student who has had to study something he or she was not a "natural" at has had to face this difficulty and go through it to pass.

Life for adults is really no different. We all reach our limits and somehow struggle through or around or away from these transitions. This month's tips will be about how gardening can help us to get a new perspective on our lives: how we can get away, stretch, work through and continue with life and all it gives us; know that there is always hope; and we can always do something to make our lives better even if it is just a different way of interacting with it.

Gardening has been used as a way of relating to life for centuries. Here are the tips:

1. Talk with somebody. This is important especially if you are at your wit's end. If you are feeling suicidal call 9-1-1 and say this is an emergency (it is) and they will get you help. Talking to another gardener or just someone who has great-looking geraniums can help get you into a different and better place. Professionals like nursery staff, master gardeners or a personal garden coach can get you started on to the next achievable project. It may be as simple as buying an orchid at Trader Joe's or as complex as applying for a plot in a community garden. The key here is to talk about what is going on and getting help changing your life a little.

2. Lower the bar. A high jumper that cannot get over the bar has to lower it a little and keep working at that height until it is easy before raising the bar. If you have gardened before and not done so well you may need to lower the bar. Grow some easy plants in order to get your spirits up before moving on to more difficult species. Try geraniums, Bacopa, ornamental grasses and succulents. If these are already doing well for you then grow some annuals from six packs. Do a variety and mix them up. Some may be more successful than others but that is where you learn where your bar is and you can work at that level for a while.

3. Do a little less in your life. Life is not about how many breaths you take but how many moments take your breath away. Make your moments count and you will feel better when you are nearing completion. For a moment that will take your breath away, watch the YouTube video "Jonathon and Charlotte," the one with 74 million hits. Gardening is about slowing down (unless you are a professional and then it is about quality and detail); let it slow you down so you can appreciate life.

4. Know that this is an art and being an art there is always more to do and to learn. A key to doing any art is practice and consistency. Good teachers help enormously as does study, observation and an openness to change. Practice gardening every day even if it is just a five-minute walk to look at your plants.

5. Have a routine for your practice. If it means getting up a little earlier then go to bed a little earlier. Note that I am suggesting little changes here. Clean up dead leaves and branches. This simple practice is quite valuable in the long run. It improves your powers of observation (and by default your appreciation) and it shows you how your garden is doing and it keeps you on the lookout for problems before they become big problems.

6. Know the names of your plants. I don't mean "Bill or George or anything but Sue." I mean the real names. Most of the plants we come across have two names and sometimes more. The Latin name helps horticulturists, botanists and gardeners positively identify a plant by genus and species. The common name is what is given by loving admirers and sometimes sticks while other times another loving admirer may give the same plant another name. What I mean by the "real name" is the Latin name. If you get your plant at a nursery there is a good chance it will come with a name tag that is correct. Look it up when you get home to be sure.

7. Subscribe to a garden publication. There are so many of so many different specializations you may need to do some extensive research before filling out the card you find in the magazine you like at the book stand. Pick one that is at your level of gardening or a little above. "Pacific Horticulture" is good but may be a bit nerdy for the beginner while "Fine Gardening" is a good start in general. I also like "Horticulture," "The Gardener" (a Royal Horticultural Society publication) and of course "Sunset."

8. If you don't have a hot tub, I highly recommend it. I got mine free (there are a lot out there) and use it almost every night especially in the winter. Watercourse Way has tubs by the hour for rent if you don't want to pay the power bill for owning your own. For aches, pains, tension and general malaise there is nothing like a soak in warm or hot water. The Romans did it and look how long they lasted.

9. Be gentle with yourself. Yes I know you high-functioning guys out there who need to defend your manly acumen. Give it a break and lighten up once in a while. The quality of the work and relationships in your life will reflect how you balance the achievement orientation you got growing up in this culture with your attention to detail. Gardening or just growing some ornamental plants in pots can make this balance happen.

10. Play classical music to your plants (and yourself) once in a while. I try to play the prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 on my mandolin every morning. I don't always make it but when I do it seems to make a difference in my day. I know the plants out on my deck can pick it up. Half Moon Bay Nursery plays opera to its plants all day long and it is amazing to walk through there and see the flower show. Just think, even if it doesn't help your plants, you will be a little less stressed and thus a happier person and a better gardener.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687 (cell), by email at Visit his website at


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