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 Every year before winter sets in, a garden needs one final visit. Most of this work consists of cutting down dying herbaceous material. In the ‘biz, we call this ‘putting the garden to bed.’ With a sharp pair of pruners or shears, the gardener grabs handfuls of leafy plants and snips them right down to the ground. To the casual observer, it looks like the plants are dying off one by one. I’ve explained the process of what’s going on to many clients who are first-time gardeners. Some are far more emotional than others; they come running outside with their hands waving in the air, shouting concern for their plants.

I tell them the five magic words gardeners world-wide eventually burn into their brains; “It’s going to be okay.”

Concern turns to curiosity, and I explain what’s happening.

“All of this stuff I’m removing is dead and dying material. If I don’t remove it, it’s going to invite all sorts of nasty shit into the garden,” I’ll say (casual swearing is my forte), “And it doesn’t hurt the plant. The important parts are in the ground, the roots and such. They can handle the winter, and they’ll grow happier in the spring without a mess of dead weight pushing them down. This is what we call ‘putting the garden to bed.’”

The client nods in better understanding with a new bit of knowledge added to their lives. “Alright, so the plants are okay, and they’re not going to die because of this?”, they ask.

“Nope, they’ll be just fine. And if they don’t make it through the winter, we can get new plants to fill in the gaps. The best way to earn a green thumb is to stain it that color with a lot of dead plants; experiment with different plants and new combinations and see what sticks, then you clear out what doesn’t work.”

Then I repeat what I first said, “It’s going to be okay. Pruning the dead and the excess only helps. The more you practice, the better you’ll be.”

The client will typically nod and think about this; if I’ve done my job well, they’ll see that lessons in the garden translate pretty damn well to the rest of their life. Putting the garden to bed is all about giving things their due time and then moving on when that time is up. Every year we get a chance to learn something new about an old favorite or a new addition. And in the end, it’s all going to work out just fine. We keep working, trim what isn’t needed, then accept our losses and move on. 

Witnessing first-timers enjoy themselves gardening is one of the best aspects of my career. Tied to that experience is witnessing people learn a more significant truth from their time spent outdoors digging in the dirt. A gardener’s first full season culminates with putting the garden to bed. It’s the last act of the season and therefore has a sense of finality. 

This last action in the garden carries excellent wisdom. Truth. It consists of five words. Repeat them after me.

“It’s going to be okay.”

Matt Suwak
About the Author

Matt Suwak was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. This upbringing keeps him permanently affixed to the outdoors where most of his personal time is invested in bird watching and hiking. He presently resides in Philadelphia and works during the day as a landscaper and gardener, and by night a freelance writer. He can throw a football ten miles from a stationary position and has grappled mountain lions and lived to tell about it. The lions cannot say the same.

His other writing can be found at www.heyplantguy.com

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