Real Estate

Garden Tips: the difference between gardeners and good gardeners


We're going to look at some fine details about gardening this month. I don't want to go into what makes a great gardener at this point, just the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between most gardeners and the really good ones. One thing is clear to me, and it may be your experience as well: The length of time gardening doesn't necessarily make a good gardener.

Another thing to get out of the way is the myth of a "green thumb." Yes, some people have better dexterity or memory for Latin names of plants. Some can even diagnose problems, such as too much water, too little water, nutrient deficiencies and infestations of vertebrates and insects without even seeing the culprit.

Jack McKinnon. File photo.
These are learned skills, and depending on one's ability to recall names or symptoms, most people can learn them or learn where to look up the answers. I have, and I tend to be a slow learner; yet once I know something, it usually sticks.

Also, if you are reading this column, you are most likely a gardener. This simplifies the tips I have to write this month because what it takes to be a gardener is an interest in plants and plant culture, and you already have that.

Now let's look at what it takes (in my opinion) to be a good gardener.

1. Good gardeners tend to have a passion for certain elements gardening -- be it design, color schemes, textures or types of foliage, flowers or species of plants. They seem to get excited when you mention something interesting about their garden or something they personally take pride in establishing. This excitement can be subtle because high art is not always obvious to the casual viewer. In other words, good gardeners know good gardeners when they see or meet them.

2. Good gardeners may seem eccentric. I met the head gardener at the Jardin de Plantes in Paris when he was being interviewed for an English television show. After the interview, I was able to talk with him for a few minutes. Note: It was quite a short conversation. What I learned about his skills, I could see in the gardens; but what I learned about him, I had to look at him and notice his character. He wore an apron with pockets, smoked a recurve pipe, had a handlebar mustache, and if I recall correctly, had a very interesting hat, the likes of which I had never seen before. This may be normal for Parisian head gardeners but to me it appeared a bit out of the ordinary. I considered him a good gardener.

3. Good gardeners have a love of plants and generally know many more genera and species than most people they know. When they gather, they could almost carry on in Latin.

4. Often when I talk with gardeners, I respect they have stories to tell. Stories of other gardens and gardeners from long ago and near and far. We can talk easily for an hour about nurseries we have known and nurseries we recommend to visit often. We talk about estates and small cottages, equally exciting because of the gardens that surround them.

5. Good gardeners have a passion for certain species of plants. Stories are told and sometimes written of the first time this plant was seen. I can remember, maybe 20 years ago, seeing a Weigela variegata in the San Francisco Botanical Garden (then known as the Strybing Arboretum), and it was in full bloom under a Magnolia stellata. I was literally weak in the knees at seeing that plant. Having told that to some other gardeners, they just smiled and said, "I know."

6. Many really good gardeners have way more books on gardening than is really healthy -- hundreds of them taking up shelf space and cherished like old friends. "Someday I will read it, so I just can't let go of it yet," they say. Personally, I think it will probably be a great find for whoever gets them when I am gone, but having been the recipient of some of these collections, it often is not.

7. Good gardeners are in demand. There are so many gardens and so many potentially great gardens that the good gardeners are booked often into old age. Their knowledge is valuable and their passion contagious. Property owners who really know the value of these artists (eccentric or not) are wise to hold on to them.

8. Being busy with the gardens of clients and friends makes it somewhat difficult to have time with one's own garden. This is good news and bad news. Good gardeners dream of their perfect garden -- often from a young age -- thinking of the orchard and rose arbors and sitting in carefully designed meadows surrounded by collections of their favorite flora and fauna. Yet they seldom completely realize these gardens, let alone have the time to maintain them.

9. So, how does one become a good gardener? I think, if you have read this far, you are probably already one. Keep up the good work.

10. And lastly a little advice to the good gardeners out there: Let go of some of your books; somebody else needs them more than you. Be gentle with yourself; buy a hot tub and soak. Keep dreaming and telling your stories, for we all need to hear them. And when you are old and cannot easily get down on your knees to cultivate your beds, take a child by the hand into the garden and teach her or him how to pull the weeds.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at or 650-455-0687, or visit his website,


2 people like this
Posted by Patricia Bahamonde
a resident of Atherton
on Mar 2, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Wow! What a great article. You just described my father. Who I feel so proud of.

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