The Garden So Far (I)

Or, a few things I’ve learned in the last four years.

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Four years ago, my husband and I bought a house. The upsides of the house were location, views, and the land itself: a third of an acre (in the SF Bay Area, this is immense) on the side of a gently sloping hill, just south of San Francisco’s fog line, angled to get plenty of sunlight. The garden had an established orchard, small green lawns in front and back, border plantings with cheerful flowers I still don’t know the names of, lots of wood-bark mulch, a gazebo, and views out over the southern end of the bay. (Downsides included the physical structure of the house itself, but we didn’t know that at the time, and that’s another story anyway.)

I’d never had a sunny garden before. Growing up on the beach, my childhood home’s yard was all sand. As an adult, I lived mostly in apartments, with one exception of a shady bungalow with a tiny patch of grass and ivy, not much else.

In other words, I had no idea what I was doing.

I had no idea how to go about keeping a third of an acre going. I didn’t even realize that keeping a third of an acre going was a thing. I didn’t know about seasonality, or how it would play out in my new space. I didn’t know about pruning, or fertilizing, or native or non-native plants, or repairing a sprinkler system. I didn’t know about mulch. I didn’t know about when to plant, or not plant, anything at all. I loved sunlight, and plants, and trees, and the idea of growing my own food. I was all in.

Here are the things we learned in the first few months:

  • Before selling the house, the owners and/or real estate agent had done the usual thing (that we didn’t know was the usual thing) of overwatering the yard so the grass would be emerald green but squishy underfoot; planting a bunch of brightly-colored flowers from Home Depot or similar that might or might not thrive in this climate, and might or might not have anything to do with the overall layout and plan of the garden; and weed-whacking all the weeds before covering the remaining weed-leftovers with wood-bark mulch. They had also torn down, then covered with mulch, a small bedraggled shed-like structure made primarily of construction debris from who-knows-when. In combination, all this made the yard as a whole look much neater and better cared for than it actually was.
  • I love sunlight and a big yard even more than I’d realized I would. This was absolutely a worthwhile thing to spend money on.
  • Taking care of a big yard is so much more work than I’d realized it would be, or even thought about.
  • Sprinkler systems wear out, are attractive chew-toys/water sources for miscellaneous animals when the weather gets hot, and generally involve a lot of upkeep.

“Here’s the contact info for the gardeners the previous owners used,” said the sellers’ agent when we bought the house. We nodded, set it aside, and eventually lost it. We didn’t want a gardener. In our previous rented home, the property management company hired gardeners, and we hadn’t liked them. They showed up at unpredictable times, used a leaf blower I didn’t like (I dislike noise, and don’t mind leaves), pruned the plum tree right before the plums got ripe (seriously, who does that?!), and at several points actually removed plants I had carefully purchased and hopefully dug into the front garden. No gardeners for us!

That first year, we turned down the sprinkler frequency and let the lawns dry out a bit. We took out some of the mulch. The front yard got messy. I planted tomatoes in the planters in the back. We talked about what to do with the back meadow. We bought bare-root peach, nectarine, and plum trees; as a side-effect of that, I read several books about pruning fruit trees in general. The first year, I pruned our trees; in a subsequent year, when I broke my ankle on a treadmill (which shouldn’t even be possible, unless you fall off it or something, which I didn’t!, but whatever), we hired an arborist to do it, but after that I went back to doing it myself. I learned that I love pruning trees. I spent hours repairing the sprinkler system. We upgraded our trash pickup service to the large-size yard waste bin, then to two large-size yard waste bins, then three.

The second winter in the house, we learned that all of the windows leaked and began to realize what a disaster of a building we’d bought. We started looking into the large scale remodel we’re doing now, and of necessity shifted our focus away from the garden – mostly.

But this year, I’ve been shifting back. And that’s what I’ll write about next.

Process vs outcome

If you’re stuck on a project and not making progress, ask yourself whether you’re focused on the process – or the outcome.

During any interview with someone who’s accomplished something impressive – published a book, won a major sports competition, started a company, and so on – someone always asks about process. “What’s a typical day like for you?” “How often do you practice? When?” “Do you write/paint/design on a computer, or on paper?”

It’s always interesting to glimpse into someone else’s life, especially a life that is just familiar enough to imagine, but not quite familiar enough to imagine accurately, but I think there’s more to this question. This question is also about success. If I, sitting in the audience or listening to the interview, can figure out how you, a successful person in an industry I’m interested in, achieved success, then maybe by replicating your process I can succeed as well.

I often work with new college graduates, just beginning professional careers, and this idea shows up there too. “What’s the right way to write this document?” someone might ask, or, “How much time do you spend on email?” Learning to work effectively is a key skill, and yet – embedded in this is that same assumption that identifying and replicating process will lead ultimately to success.

But what if it won’t?

Of course, in many contexts process is necessary. If you want to become an outstanding baker, you need to learn what’s involved in creating that perfect loaf of bread. If you want to sing opera, voice exercises can improve your technique. Success in many fields requires expertise; expertise requires practice; figuring out what to practice and how to do so makes sense.

And yet.

Process can also be a distraction.

Going back to the published author example: one person’s process might include writing for 45 minutes, every day, first thing in the morning. But if the outcome you’re looking for is to get published, writing daily won’t get you there unless you also write things a publisher might want, figure out who those publishers are, and send your work to them. In terms of getting published, it doesn’t matter how much or how perfectly you write if that’s all you do.

Similarly, if as a new hire you create a perfect document, but the team you’re working with prefers collaborative whiteboard sketching – well, whatever your perfect document was intended to achieve it likely didn’t.

And for one more example: if you want better physical fitness, and you go to the gym three times each week, and while you’re there you take a lot of stretching classes… you’ll likely get more flexible, but not stronger, or less out of breath when walking up large hills.

Process can help you achieve an outcome – but it’s rarely an outcome in itself. It may even get in your way, either by giving you a false sense of progress (“I’m writing every day, this is totally going to work!”), or by obscuring shortcuts that could lead to faster success (if your goal is “be able to do 20 pushups,” you probably don’t need to drive to the gym).

When a project is challenging, it can be tempting to think, “If I figure out how to work on this, everything will all work out!” But that’s often not the case.

Better to pause, take a step back, and ask: “Wait, what am I aiming at?”

And go from there.

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