How to Admit When Your Garden Looks Ugly (and Feel Proud)

Garden Bloggers: I challenge you to post at least one photo of your garden at its worst and put a link to it in the comments here.

When I’m talking to people about gardening I often hear apologies that their yard or produce doesn’t look as perfect as mine. Some even give up trying to grow things because they feel so embarrassed by gardens they perceive as “better.”

Sometimes photos of stunning gardens inspire us, and sometimes it is just intimidating. No need for the latter! These days, most of us automatically know that fashion magazine spreads are faked. Still, we don’t realize that home improvement magazines also hire a team of professionals to manicure and tweak their glossy photo spreads. Even lower-budget garden bloggers like me utilize optimum lighting, staging, close-ups, and editing in order to look our best!

Now, if I’d wanted to do a nice looking post today, I probably could have pulled some of the capsized tomato cages off the back strawberry bed, cleaned it up, and written a post on starting strawberries early. You wouldn’t have known that the only reason my strawberries existed at all was that I never got around to staking the cages last season and that during a storm they blew over on top of the adjacent strawberry bed. You also wouldn’t know that the chickens we took our time fencing out of the garden ate every single plant except for the strawberries because they couldn’t get through the fallen cages.

Instead, let me pull back a little and show you the full picture:

Photo Caption: Our garden in mid-February, 2012. Planning a wedding, navigating the holidays, and procrastinating over building a chicken fence for 8 months aren't unique excuses for our garden to be looking so bad. Life happens -- to everyone! It's okay to have periods of weeds, drought, pests, disease, etc., you'll bounce back.

You can’t even find the strawberries, right? Nearly everyone has on and off again periods where the yard takes a back seat. If, like the majority of gardeners, you aren’t able to make your yard a full-time job, it’s unlikely it will be in top condition season to season. Don’t let it get you down or stop you from trying again!

One thing I recommend is to count your successes along the way and give yourself credit for them. Did you harvest snow peas in June or a few pints of cherry tomatoes before the hornworm ate it? Is your basil or rosemary so big you have to give clippings to friends? Did you pick zinnia bouquets to put in your kitchen window or watch butterflies landing on top of the buddleia blooms? Did your seedlings germinate (even if something happened to them later)? Those things count! You’ll build on those accomplishments every year.

Every single garden you grow, even the jungles and deserts, gets you closer to the Eden in your head.

Take photos early and often of your garden adventures (especially bouquets and harvests). When you get down on yourself, go back and look at the good times — it will help you to take yourself seriously as a gardener. You deserve it!

Photo Caption: Some results from lethal, chicken-ninja combination attacks -- digging up the roots of the plant/ eating the crowns down to nubs. The positive? They might have killed the poison ivy along the fence!

Last year I was so excited that I was done digging beds for a while. Shows what I know! Chickens are phenomenal little tillers, so I get to work out my arm muscles again this year to fix what they’ve leveled. It will also be a dent in the pocketbook to replace the significant quantity of perennial plants they murdered.

Oh well, the eggs sure are tasty…

Photo Caption: Chickens are the worst-ever gardeners. These rows of raised beds have been knocked almost flat and emptied of foliage by their foraging.

Most of us have goals for our gardens that we aren’t able to fulfill in a hurry. It’s important to remember that the garden is as much a process as a product so that you don’t get discouraged. There’s usually a silver lining to the setbacks (nearly always involving education — at the Organic Growers School this weekend I heard someone say that you don’t really know a plant until you’ve killed it 3 times).

Eventually, we’ll be composting in our branch-pattern bed pathways and using no-till methods. In the meantime, we have few backyard weeds because the chickens ate those, too! They’ve also done a good bit of on-site fertilizing and overwintering pest consumption.

Photo Caption: It had been over 2 months since the chickens annihilated every green item in the yard -- except for the parsley. I made the mistake of bragging to a friend, "At least they haven't eaten the parsley!" Next day? No parsley. And look! I even left that grungy plastic container sitting there when I took the photo -- pretty huh?

The best thing? All things come with time. We finally did find the right moment to build our chicken fence and free up the garden for spring transplants.  (Although the first thing I did was gleefully sweep all the poop off our back steps and deck).

The next day, I began the process of making the garden a productive and beautiful place (again):

Photo Caption: It didn't take that long to re-dig some of the raised beds and get them planted with winter greens and root veggies.

And then the rabbits ate the new transplants because the chickens already ate all the weeds they used to prefer.

Well, I’d been thinking it would be nice to own some Havahart traps…

Instead of feeling down, I’m looking forward to the day that I can write a more attractive garden post — and when you see it, you’ll know it doesn’t always look that good.

If you’re a garden blogger (or a gardener willing to put up a photo album) I heartily invite you to link to your garden’s “bad hair days” in the comments. Take the pressure off yourself, and everyone else!

Eliza Lord

I'm a Greenville, SC native (the Appalachian foothills) who wears the hats of Greenville Master Gardener & Upstate Master Naturalist. I love to write about food and sustainability.

45 thoughts on “How to Admit When Your Garden Looks Ugly (and Feel Proud)”

  1. Mark Willis
    Twitter: marksvegplot
    - March 5, 2012 4:22 pm

    Some nice sentiments there, Eliza. Many of us strive for perfection, but few achieve it. I am only too conscious that there are times when my garden looks drab, messy or uninteresting, but then I think of how it looks in June and July – bursting with great things to eat and admire – and I get re-inspired.
    Mark Willis´s last blog post ..Over-Wintered lettuce

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 5, 2012 9:15 pm

      Thanks… and exactly! I always hope people want to come visit the garden in June/July when it is flaunting its wares.
      Sustainahillbilly´s last blog post ..How to Admit When Your Garden Looks Ugly (and Feel Proud)

  2. Greenearth
    Twitter: anewgreenearth
    - March 5, 2012 4:48 pm

    Thank you for your honesty about gardening and I can see your new garden will benefit from this fallow period and all those wonderful chicken droppings, (recycled parsley). Always good to read your wonderful blog and share your gardening gems.
    Greenearth´s last blog post ..My Sustainable Home, Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals & Breast Cancer

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 5, 2012 9:16 pm

      Haha! We’ve been happy to eat recycled parsley in our eggs, too! We got a little busy over the past 4 days and today I pulled 27 eggs (from 6 chickens) out of the coop! Happily, none of them were floaters.

  3. Donna - March 5, 2012 8:06 pm

    Funny you should ask for gardens at their worst. I have been posting daily views of my garden since January in my Month in Tens Weather Calendar. So every day, no matter the weather, a photo from somewhere in the garden appears. I never care about the image only what the weather and season brings. On my Green Apples blog, I noted a blogger who made a comment about ‘airbrushed’ gardens which I really found amusing for a blog post, but in magazines they do stage the shots, even bringing in flowering plants to place strategically. I read the Grumpy Gardener who works with a magazine, and you can learn a lot about how they take and prepare these shoots on location. He has taken viewers to a photo shoot.
    Donna´s last blog post ..Fence It

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 5, 2012 9:19 pm

      That’s really interesting. I don’t mind garden eye candy at all… kind of like it, actually. I do feel bad when perfectly capable gardeners get scared off thinking they have to keep a yard looking like that all the time, though.

  4. Janet, The Queen of Seaford - March 5, 2012 9:30 pm

    Share some pictures of our gardens when they don’t look good? hahahahaa…that is most of the time, that is why many photos are zoomed in. :-) Will see what I can do to share some ‘ugly’ pics.
    So the chickens finally found the parsley? hahaah
    Janet, The Queen of Seaford´s last blog post ..Great Nights and Lovely Mornings

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 5, 2012 11:13 pm

      Yeah, I love using close-ups! Today I tried to do a staged, close-up photo to demonstrate how easy it is to make things look rosier. Unfortunately, after all my arranging of multi-colored chicken eggs, spring flowers, and the much happier re-grown parsley… I found out the camera wasn’t working.

      Actually, it turned out to be the memory card instead of the camera. A good thing, but I’d long since stuffed all the flowers in a vase and given away cartons of eggs to family members.
      Sustainahillbilly´s last blog post ..How to Admit When Your Garden Looks Ugly (and Feel Proud)

  5. PlantPostings
    Twitter: plantpostings
    - March 5, 2012 11:27 pm

    Haha! I have plenty of less-than-stellar sections of my garden. I often think it would be fun to have fellow gardeners visit, but then I realize how much I need to clean up before they come. Great post!
    PlantPostings´s last blog post ..Garden lessons learned: winter 2011-12

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 6, 2012 12:01 am

      A few weeks ago I took photos with this post in mind but I still feel apologetic towards the people who have visited my garden in the meantime. It’s hard to let ourselves off the hook!

  6. Flâneur Gardener
    Twitter: flaneurgarden
    - March 6, 2012 12:18 am

    My garden looks a mess, the flowers that I’ve picked from the garden look a mess, and at times I, too, look a mess. The sedum bouquet I picked in August – or was it Septemper? – is still in my apartment, though cut back to 4 inches, because it decided to root before the flowers went off, and this morning I finally got around to potting it up!

    My garden looks a mess, and I have a pot of small dead twigs with little green leaves standing in my bathroom window, and I feel VERY accomplished at having (accidentally) successfully propagated a perennial!
    Flâneur Gardener´s last blog post ..Pruning Poetry

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 6, 2012 1:06 am

      Haha! I love accidental propagation. I did the same thing this afternoon to a bunch of elderberry bushes that had come up from stray, severed roots!

      I look a mess right now… I think it is because I am so sleepy! Goodnight. :)
      Sustainahillbilly´s last blog post ..How to Admit When Your Garden Looks Ugly (and Feel Proud)

  7. Croft Gardener - March 6, 2012 8:04 am

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My garden regularly gets trashed by the riders on the storm (aka the four horsemen) who drop by on the autumn, winter and spring gales. It just provides an opportunity for a little design tweaking!
    Croft Gardener´s last blog post ..Sky Dancing

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 6, 2012 11:50 am

      That’s true. Since the chickens leveled most of the beds I’ve definitely been retweaking the new ones a bit based on the experiences we had last year.

  8. Shirley/Rock-Oak-Deer - March 6, 2012 9:47 am

    This was a fun post! We don’t have teams of professional stagers here either so I just might take you up on the challenge.
    Shirley/Rock-Oak-Deer´s last blog post ..Scene on the Street – Sunset and Broadway

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 6, 2012 11:59 am

      That would be great! Of course, if you have succulents and xeriscape plants like the ones in your most recent post, I doubt they look bad very often. :)

  9. Pam's English Garden - March 6, 2012 10:16 am

    Dear Eliza, This is such an IMPORTANT posting! It makes me feel so much better about my mess of a garden. I always feel nervous when other gardeners are visiting because I feel my garden can never live up to theirs. But you are so.o.o right — macro photos and staging hide a multitude of (gardening) sins. P. x
    Pam’s English Garden´s last blog post ..Dirt Under My Nails (At Last)

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 6, 2012 12:01 pm

      Thanks! I’m glad it had the desired effect. Although it amazes me that you worry about visitors to your garden… I feel certain they leave feeling impressed by your garden and your enthusiasm. :)
      Sustainahillbilly´s last blog post ..How to Admit When Your Garden Looks Ugly (and Feel Proud)

  10. Christine @ The Gardening Blog
    Twitter: ourgardens
    - March 6, 2012 1:59 pm

    I loved this candid post and isn’t it just so – we zoom in to show the best views of our gardens for our blogs. I recently did an “ugly” post showing some of my neglected spots and mistakes. We all have them :)
    Christine @ The Gardening Blog´s last blog post ..Garden Bloggers Harvest Day for March

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 9:45 am

      I think the comments on this post made me realize how many people were relieved to see everyone admitting to the same problems. :) Glad you wrote one, too!
      Sustainahillbilly´s last blog post ..How to Control Kudzu Bugs (Megacopta cribraria)

  11. debsgarden - March 6, 2012 8:06 pm

    Great post! A friend and I were visiting a local public garden once when we noticed weeds and some dead plants. It was quite encouraging to see that even a professionally tended garden has its less attractive moments!

    I actually do not think your garden looks bad. It is simply in its pre-planted stage, and I find that exciting. So much potential!
    debsgarden´s last blog post ..Now I’m Famous, Briefly

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 9:50 am

      I remember my early days of gardening that I always felt gleeful when I saw an admired garden/gardener with “issues.” :)

  12. tina - March 7, 2012 7:13 am

    Cute post!
    tina´s last blog post ..The 2012 Nashville Lawn and Garden Show & Local Garden Opportunities

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 9:53 am

      Sustainahillbilly´s last blog post ..How to Control Kudzu Bugs (Megacopta cribraria)

  13. Di (@courtyardgarden)
    Twitter: courtyardgarden
    - March 7, 2012 6:39 pm

    My only problem with total honesty is I don’t even have chickens to blame!! But I agree that honesty is important: how can we appreciate our successes if we don’t recognise what it would look like without all our efforts?

    My blog so far seems to be mainly full of me hacking at things and making them look worse, but I’m hoping that’s (mainly) temporary! Will definitely come back and check in as yours springs into bloom :o)

    Di (@courtyardgarden)´s last blog post ..Pruning our old overgrown quince tree

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 9:54 am

      Haha, well I can definitely point the finger at human neglect, too. We just didn’t make the garden a priority for a bit.

  14. The Sage Butterfly - March 7, 2012 7:13 pm

    I had a lot of damage to my garden after a hurricane and some tropical storms last year. It was not fun or pleasant but it is the life of a garden. Great post!
    The Sage Butterfly´s last blog post ..The Vole in the Garden: Control Methods

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 9:55 am

      I think “hurricane” is up near the top of excusable excuses. :)

  15. Casa Mariposa - March 8, 2012 7:16 pm

    I posted some pretty ugly pix of my garden in my post Accidental Enlightenment. When a gardener brags that their garden always looks great, I just figure they’re either lying or highly medicated. I just try to make sure I don’t have dog poo in my pictures. :)
    Casa Mariposa´s last blog post ..Seed Starting for Zombies

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 9:55 am

      Haha! Yeah, I’ve definitely framed some shots around the chicken droppings on the ground.

  16. PJ Girl - March 10, 2012 7:31 am

    Really great post – I have been left a lot of mess by the builders which is going to take months to clear up! I’m trying to embrace the mess as the wildlife seems to like it… you’ve inspired me to take a photo of my rubbish heap but maybe I’ll wait for the weeds to look better 😉 ha ha

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 9:58 am

      Uhoh, nothing like people who don’t appreciate plants digging up the yard!

  17. stone - March 10, 2012 10:48 am

    Those chickens are terrible gardeners!!!
    But they’re fun to be around… I haven’t had chickens in a few years, and they are definitely on my wish list… But… they won’t have easy access to the garden…. I’m more of a believer in chicken tractors, and a permanent pen around the chicken coop, and using their pen as a compost pile….
    You are a brave gardener to post the winter bleh pictures…. I’d much rather post close-ups of the winter bloomers, and just not focus on the unattractive aspects… like the weed piles, and the beds of winter vegetables that it got too cold for…
    stone´s last blog post ..stone wrote a new post, Gardening with Deer

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 10:00 am

      I hear you on the chicken run being a large compost pile. “Pile” is a loose description, since anything I pile up is quickly torn apart and spread around. I’m hoping to fill their run with about a foot of leaves so they can churn it up for fast compost.
      Sustainahillbilly´s last blog post ..How to Control Kudzu Bugs (Megacopta cribraria)

  18. Indie - March 11, 2012 11:12 pm

    What a great post! I’m not much of a weeder myself, and with kids there’s always stuff strewn around, so my garden often has a disheveled look to it. That’s what close ups are for, right? Focus on the positives! And the wildlife love those weeds! (That’s what I tell myself anyway..)
    Indie´s last blog post ..Garden Surprises

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 10:02 am

      I’ve started putting deliberate piles of sticks in spots for wildlife. Weeds for wildlife sounds good to me!

  19. Alistair - March 13, 2012 10:40 am

    Well, yes I have showed my garden at its worst but don’t tell anyone, honest I did! well once. Not that I would be so self assured to think it looks fantastic even when I show it at its best. Now, the post which I have already prepared for next week hmm, looks like I have done the opposite to what you suggest, but I will remedy this at some time, well maybe. och no wonder some folk think I am an annoying little shit.
    Alistair´s last blog post ..Helleborus Party Dress Picotee

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 10:03 am

      I think you may have the upper hand on most of us for the amount of time your garden stays looking well-manicured. :)

  20. Julia@PolkaDotGaloshes - March 13, 2012 12:53 pm

    Love this post! Comes at a time when I look at my own garden and go Ugh! Although I see some new shoots and that is giving me hope for whats to come. Gardens are always evolving and the ratty, overgrown, dead winter phase is a blessing as it makes the beauty of spring/summer/fall all the more delightful and something to look forward to, to get out and enjoy it while its there! Great post!
    Julia@PolkaDotGaloshes´s last blog post ..Journey of a Seed Sower…sowing caledar 2012

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 10:05 am

      Yep! I love it when summer’s weeds vanish and there are large patches of bare ground. Reminds me that I really can keep up if I want to put the time into it.

  21. Helene - March 16, 2012 4:06 pm

    Love your post, I live in London and I’m sorry but I can’t post a photo of an awful garden because my garden looks absolutely beautiful right now! But come and have a look at my house instead, the dust bunnies are roaming free, I can write my name in dust on my book shelves in the living room and I can’t remember when I last washed my kitchen floor. Who cares, my garden looks great! I’ll be back in August, when my plants are suffering from lack of water, the summer flowers are gone and the autumn flowers haven’t really begun….Oh, yeah, I do have times when it doesn’t look perfect, but I am still proud of my garden, all year round :-)

    1. Sustainahillbilly
      Twitter: appalachianfeet
      - March 28, 2012 10:06 am

      My husband calls that “doodling.” No really, he draws in the pollen on his car. :)
      Sustainahillbilly´s last blog post ..How to Control Kudzu Bugs (Megacopta cribraria)

  22. Pingback: How to Find Out When We Sell Things or Give Talks (and a Garden Update) | Appalachian Feet

  23. Pingback: How to Go on the 2012 Greenville Urban Farm Tour | Appalachian Feet

  24. Pingback: How to “Permiculturefy” an Urban Farm | Appalachian Feet

Comments are closed.