I often wonder what makes people become gardeners. What makes them want to get down and dirty and play with the plants, worms and other creatures of the earth? Is it something in their DNA, life experience, a moment, an epiphany? I think about this often while working in my own garden. I am at my happiest spending hours digging in the soil, getting my hands, knees and face dirty, coming in at the end of the day completely exhausted but utterly satisfied. For me, it’s all worth it because of the reward – a rose garden I love.

My 2021 garden surprise – a third bloom from my ‘Lady of Shalott’ roses. Photo by Marie Woodward, 2021

But what makes other people – people not as attached to roses as I am – decide to become gardeners? I think I got the answer (or at least part of it) recently when our local historical society hosted a home garden tour and asked if I would lend my garden as a tour site. Saying yes was quickly followed by doubts about my ability as a gardener. I’m no P. Allen Smith or Monty Don. Aside from having received a certificate as a Master Gardener (a license to learn) in 2018, I am by no means an expert in horticulture or design. I’m still a newbie, but I draw my inspiration from fond memories of childhood visits with my grandmother to the tucked-away “garden rooms” in the city parks of Glasgow, Scotland – magical secret gardens with lush greenery, cool waterfalls, and secret paths that made a city park romantic. It was my happy place, something I aspire to bring to the garden of our 240-year-old New England colonial home.

Despite my diffidence, the garden tour was a success. All the host gardens were rewarded with many curious and appreciative visitors. But it was the “after-party” the next day – when the hosting gardeners visited each other’s gardens – that proved most memorable to me, because it helped answer my question about why people become gardeners.

Every garden I saw is as unique as the gardener (or gardeners) who created it, and each person has their own unique story of how they became a gardener. There’s Lisa and Frank, who inherited their love of gardening from Italian parents. Cancer pivoted their focus away from traditional vegetable growing, however, to creating to a fully sustainable, organic farm that supports their now-vegan lifestyle. And, they designed it in creative ways that will allow them to garden easily as they age.

Frank and Lisa are creating a year-round, self-sufficient, sustainable, organic, vegan, age-in-place garden behind their 200 year old home. Photo by Marie Woodward, 2021

Then there’s Justin, who loves Japanese-influenced gardens and designed his garden with stones and large rocks in a small patch of forest. He asserted, amusingly, that his gardening style is organic, since, well, stone is as organic as you can get!

Justin’s Japanese Garden Pond. Photo by Marie Woodward, 2021

Paul and Ginny garden with raised beds to accommodate Paul’s motorized wheelchair. Rather than let Paul’s spinal cord injury deter them from what they loved to do, they designed a garden that lets them continue their life-long love of growing vegetables that are the envy of their neighbors.

Paul and Ginny’s Raised Bed Garden. Photo by Marie Woodward, 2021

Two extraordinary teenage brothers, Brandon and Colin, both at an age where social media can be all consuming, choose instead to garden as a way to honor their beloved grandparents. Carol is an engineer turned gardener who earned a degree in horticulture in retirement, and now expresses her love for native and nonnative plants and trees through an informal natural garden of amazing variety. Point out any plant and she will instantly provide complete and encyclopedic detail (complete with Latin genus and species). Amazing.

After seeing each other’s gardens, we gathered for refreshments and shared stories of our garden pasts and design plans for the future. It was a beautiful gathering of ideas and helpful hints for one another – Frank speaking with the boys about adding fruit trees; Justin proudly presenting a photo of his latest stone-sculpture acquisition, Carol offering advice on growing methods. No matter what we grew or how we approached design, we were all gardeners, and  new friends eager to share and learn from each other.

I think all of us were a bit sad to see the day end. But we all had gardens to tend, and I came away with a clear insight into my often-asked question about what makes people gardeners.” The answer is, there is no answer, or at least no single answer. We each garden for different reasons. There are no common expectations, no universal, standards. Each practitioner is completely free to design and create their own happy place. But one common thread unites us all – the deep satisfaction we receive because we are gardeners.

Marie Woodward