Who wouldn’t want a little life-changing magic? That is probably why the catchily titled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo spent over nine months on the “New York Times” bestseller list. I know I didn’t want to miss out on the happy-making transformations of a decluttered pantry and organized sock drawer—so I bought the book. But when I read through the instructions, it struck me that I could apply most of them to my garden. Since I’d much rather toil outside than in, why not start my personal life-changing journey in the fresh air?
Applying Ms. Kondo’s instructions to the garden meant that before I could add any of the plants I’ve always craved, I would first need to “tidy,” that is, get rid of any plant that did not induce “Joy.” An essential part of this process is to hold or at least touch each considered item and wait for the emotional upwelling it brings—Joy or its absence—which then determines its fate. This is roughly equivalent to the gladitorial thumbs up (“Good news!”) or thumbs down (“Sorry, Charlie!”).
And if the prospect of confronting each and every plant wasn’t enough, there was another critical step in the process: giving thanks. After you’ve decided that a plant doesn’t make the cut, you don’t just chuck it out. You thank it for the purpose it served you before you let it go/toss it on the compost pile/feed it to the chipper-shredder/leave it swaddled on the neighbor’s doorstep. That may have been to satisfy an emotional need, such as giving you a momentary thrill when you impulsively put it into the nursery cart. Or it may have been to teach you a gardening lesson, such as learning that letting mint/wild violets/garlic chives spread willy-nilly is not wise.
Ms. Kondo suggests we start our household purge with low emotional-attachment items, such as clothing, and work our way up to more sentimental items, like photographs. Ranking the garden elements similarly, I started with the inanimate objects. For example, the bobble-headed plastic owl that the robins too quickly befriended and the solar-powered light globes that seemed snazzy at the time but didn’t give off enough light to keep me from tripping. And where did all those flowerpots come from? Who knew that terra cotta could reproduce? I thanked each no-Joy item for the purpose it once served as I filled up large black garbage bags earmarked for donation.
I moved to the garden itself. It had been planned and planted with much deliberation a quarter of a century ago, so its bones were sound and its contents largely satisfying. Yet having seen its share of random plant comings and goings, it was ripe for review. I started with the container plants and the annuals before turning to the perennials and shrubs, with the trees last on the list.
I couldn’t pile my plants in the middle of the floor (or the yard) as Ms. Kondo instructs us to do with our household belongings, but I could give each plant my complete presence and thoughtful attention while I asked the all-important question: “Does this plant fill me with a surge of Joy?” I stroked the petals of a certain daylily. Did I feel that surge? No. My reaction was more of a “Meh.” Its beige-flowered days were numbered. I paused to thank it for the pleasant anticipation it gave me when I first brought it home and planted it, long before I saw its bland blossoms—a far cry from the colorful beauties on the nursery tag photo. Thanking it did make me feel a little better about taking it out.
I continued with the process, focusing on each plant and touching its leaves, petals, or bark. Finally I got to the last of the list: trees. I turned to the Amazing Fruitless Apricot Tree, which had remained barren lo these 20-something years. I owned up to the fact that I had made a poor choice of tree, one that was too big for its site and that bloomed too early for our locale. This truly had been a no-Joy tree. Each year we watched its lovely blossoms transformed to tattered brown shreds by late frosts, dashing any hope of fruit. Plus it required an annual bonsai-ing just to keep out of the drooping cable and phone lines above. I patted its substantial trunk. I thanked it for teaching me a valuable lesson on fruit tree selection.
I moved onto the French pear tree. It had two qualities that made it a pain-in-the-patootie. Its fruit was golf-ball sized and always went from rock hard to mush in about three days. I patted its trunk and got a distinct thumbs-down feeling. I thanked it for the tiny bits of ripe deliciousness it had provided.
I then promised my sweet spouse several sweet rewards for cranking up his chainsaw, and we spent most of that Sunday cutting down the Amazing Fruitless Apricot Tree and the teeny-fruited pear tree. I now had the true Joy of filling these new garden gaps with a dwarf sweet cherry and a full-size pear, both of which are now settling in nicely, with the prospect of delicious fruit to come. With that, I had completed my task.
Had this whole garden decluttering experience been life changing? Well, I now go to the garden with a keen sense of gratitude that every plant and element serves its purpose, and that makes me happy. Conscious decluttering taught me not to settle just because things have been a certain way over time and to be brave enough to take action.
Recently I was out in the garden, just to savor the positive changes and pleasing results. At that moment, a monarch butterfly swooped over my head from behind. It glided up, dipped low, and then up again, making steeply banked turns as it checked out my handiwork. Hovering here and there for a longer look, it visited every tree and shrub. Indeed, the whole garden received its blessing. I felt a surge of approval and Joy that was definitely magical. So Ms. Kondo’s techniques may not be life changing, but they certainly are garden changing! ❖
This article was published originally in 2016, in GreenPrints Issue #106.