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Cultivating your garden’s story: Think character, setting and plot

Every garden has a story. Each gardener helps write that story, one chapter at a time. 

I know this because, after more than four decades of tinkering in and writing about gardens, I have observed one universal truth: Gardens don’t just grow plants, they grow stories.

Think about it. No matter its age, size, style or purpose, every garden has a backstory, and, regardless of their horticultural skills or intentions, everyone who tends a garden shapes its narrative. 

  I’m not alone is noticing this connection, either. As Eudora Welty once said, “Gardening is akin to writing stories. No experience could have taught me more about grief or flowers, about achieving survival by going, your fingers in the ground, the limit of physical exhaustion.” 

With that in mind, here’s an idea to get this new gardening year (and decade) off to a storied start: Be the author of your garden’s story, even if it’s just one chapter in a never-ending story. 

And whether your garden’s story is rooted in just-the-facts history or in imagination-run-wild whimsy, you can create or influence its arc by focusing on three essential story-crafting elements: character, setting and plot.   

Start by making a list of all the characters that play a role in your garden. The humans, wildlife, pets, plants and even the structures, physical features or microclimates that inhabit or impact your garden will be your story’s heroes, villains or bit players. 

The setting, of course, is the place where your story occurs, so describe your garden as it exists in the present — its size, terrain, plants, soils, landmarks, temperature ranges, lighting, view and the like. You may also want to describe the way it looked in the past, especially if you’re writing a garden history, but you definitely want to describe how you hope the setting will change as your story progresses. 

The plot (as in plotline, not garden plot) is the general premise of your garden’s story, the structure that outlines the story’s arc and timeline from beginning to middle to end.  It’s also the place to establish two other vital parts of any good story structure — conflict and resolution. Figure out what problem needs to be solved and how your characters will resolve it.

If all this seems daunting, don’t succumb to gardener’s block. Just start filling up a page with your dreams, concerns and ideas. Whether your “page” is a cocktail napkin, notebook, computer file or a mobile device app, the important thing is to collect concepts, images, aspirations, inspirations or even random thoughts into one central, easily accessible location. 

Need inspiration for your garden story? Take a stroll through a public garden, the woods or around your neighborhood, or browse through books, catalogues, magazines and websites for ideas. If you need further inspiration or structure for your ideas, consider focusing on a specific theme for all or part of your garden story and use that theme to influence your setting and characters (choice of design, plants, containers, accents and garden art). 

And always remember this writing truth — everything is material!

Garden story prompts

Need a prompt for your garden story? Here are a few themes that may trigger your imagination and can influence choice of plants, design, accents and other garden elements.

  • The Bard: focus on Shakespeare’s stories or his era
  • Wild Things: focus on wildflowers and wildlife, including pollinators and beneficial insects
  • Story Time: focus on a beloved book or tale
  • Good Sporting: focus on specific foods and drinks such as pizza, salad, tea or lemonade
  • Kids’ Play: focus on educational or imagination or imagination-provoking topics like alphabets, numbers, dinosaurs, fairies and zoo animals

January Tips

  • Start a new garden journal and revisit last year’s notes.
  • Order seeds and bulbs for spring planting.
  • Plant bare-root trees and shrubs.
  • Water newly planted trees and shrubs and other established plants if winter rainfall is scarce.
  • Prune most trees and shrubs except early spring bloomers such as forsythia and quince.
  • Start seed for early early spring crops.
  • Plants hardy, cold-tolerant vegetables and cool-season flowers such as pan sleds and snapdragons.
  • Keep bird feeders and baths clean and full.
  • Pullweeds as they emerge.
  • Add compost and other amendments to garden beds.
  • Sign up for gardening classes or Master Gardener programs.