I am a Renegade Gardener. Maybe it’s because I was born, live, and garden in Minnesota, a state crossed by USDA Hardiness Zones often given short shrift by gardening books and magazines. Perhaps it’s the healthy skepticism born of my Scandinavian roots. Whatever the cause, after years of toil in the soil, I’ve developed a list of gardening principles not even our governor could wrestle from me. I call them:

The 10 Tenets Of Renegade Gardening

1. Gardening should be challenging, relaxing, and fun.

Gardening is not worth your effort and time if you’re not willing to be challenged and learn from it. The new, pre-designed instant gardens you order from catalogs and plunk into your yard according to directions are the horticultural equivalent of paint-by-number craft kits. In neither endeavor will you actually learn anything.

Starting to garden is to slip on board of train of creativity for a relaxing journey that has no beginning or end. Renegade Gardeners never garden to the point of burnout; there is a pace in place, and we do well to match it. Finishing your first island perennial bed is a noteworthy achievement, but remember, ten years from now it will have a waterfall in it.

When approached properly, every single aspect of tending a landscape is fun, except for mowing the lawn. While mowing the lawn, the best we can do is daydream about what would look better growing here instead of grass. A real Renegade Gardener considers mowing the lawn the gardening equivalent of cleaning the toilet.

2. Renegade Gardeners are cautious and wise when perusing the plethora of products and plants sold by the commercial gardening industry.

Gardening is now a multi-billion-dollar industry, and what the industry creates and sells is products, ninety percent of which you don’t need. From tri-color, double hung daffodils, fragrance-free roses and special-blend fertilizers, to three-pound boxes of Compost Helper and 3,000 new, identical gardening magazines, never forget that industry avarice always travels close behind any legitimate gardening trend.

3. Gardening involves commitment.

Gardening makes a poor part-time hobby, akin to dabbling in dentistry. It never ceases to amaze me how adults who wouldn’t dream of driving the Lexus a mile over 3,000 before having the oil changed treat the trees and shrubs on their property as if they were maintenance-free. Water these things once in a while. If you sprung for the irrigation system, learn how often to use it. One landscaper I know stopped installing irrigation because more clients were killing trees and shrubs from over-watering than those who allowed nature to take its course.

4. Renegade Gardeners learn the Latin names of the plants they grow.

This has nothing to do with opportunities to be snooty, which do arise from time to time. The botanical/Latin names for plants are part of the hobby, similar in this way to sailing terminology, and enable gardeners to purchase plants, trade, write, and talk on common ground.

Relying solely on the common name for a plant is faulty because common names often differ from one region to the next or are used by different people to describe different plants. “Bachelor’s-buttons” must refer to 20 different plants. Common names can be misleading: A mountain ash is not an ash. Only the Latin name exactly identifies the plant your neighbor grows, and you wish to buy.

If you’d like, you can limit your Latin immersion to the category of perennial flowers. In truth, this is usually the only area in which you’ll use it. People who know all the Latin names for trees only work at a landscape arboretum or teach at a university, and those who know all the Latin names for annuals typically display other facets of knowledge that give me the creeps. But learning the proper Latin names for perennials is worthwhile, and fun.
Begin by memorizing the Latin names (just the first half, the genus, to start: “Campanula”) of every perennial you grow. Then add the second word, the species (”glomerata”) and in a very few weeks you’ll know them all. Toss in the cultivar at the end (Campanula glomerata ‘Superba’) and you are describing only one possible plant out of the hundreds of thousands that grow on the planet, and only one out of almost 300 remarkably different varieties of Campanula.

Not for one second are these real names for your perennials difficult to learn. Besides, you know so many already: Astilbe, Clematis, Delphinium, Hosta, Ligularia przewalskii …

5. Gardening is not always easy.

You want an easy hobby, try line dancing. In gardening, there are going to be certain projects that are physically taxing, such as wrestling 300-pound ‘Techny’ arborvitae into a trench or lifting the rental rototiller into the back of the pickup after the kid who was helping you disappears. Gardening is more difficult than surfing and scuba diving, and ranks about even with fly-fishing.

Wanting gardening to be easy is what causes new gardeners to fall prey to the commercial gardening industry (see Tenet 2) and make mistakes such as building retaining walls with brown concrete retaining block instead of natural stone, thus lending their landscapes the air of a state penal facility instead of a joyous celebration of all things natural. Why? Because stacking concrete retaining block flat and level is easy; fitting uneven natural stone is not. Gardening is not always easy.

6. Renegade Gardeners come to realize that lawns are essentially a dumb idea.

The reason your home came with that huge lawn outside has more to do with wealthy landowners in 18th century England and their landscapes’ latent impact on 1950s American caught up in the suburban development craze than with any choice you had in the matter. A strip of grass separating your driveway from the fence, that’s nice; a patch of lawn where you can throw the ball around, go for it. Just don’t think for one second that a vast sea of high-maintenance green surrounding all four sides of your house is something you would choose had you been given better options.

7. Gardening and rock music do not mix.

Do not garden accompanied by an active Walkman, unless you happen to have secured a tape teaching you the Latin names of plants. In general, listening to most styles of music while gardening tends to lessen the beneficial elements gardening infuses into the soul. Playing rock music while gardening makes you ornery, while listening to modern country as you deadhead your Dianthus deltoides can lead to dizziness and gas. Classical music in the patio should be saved for after the watering is done and your guests have arrived; listening to classical while gardening makes you tire early. Only instrumental jazz, I have found, works pretty well alongside gardening, particularly pre-’65 Miles Davis.

The sound nature makes in your yard is the most relaxing accompaniment to gardening, but if you must listen to something man-made, the best thing to listen to is baseball. Listening to baseball while you garden can be a smooth, sublime joy.

8. Renegade Gardeners buy first from local growers.

This is an especially critical practice in the North, where hardiness is key to success. The best perennial you can buy comes from the nursery in your area where the plants are grown in nearby fields, propagated from seeds and divisions, and over-wintered either in the ground or in pots buried under tarps, snow and hay. Same goes for trees and shrubs. Most of the big garden centers and chains in any metro area buy plants grown out of state, from as far away as California, and are simply the middlemen between these mass-produced plugs and sticks and the unfortunates who buy them.

9. There is nothing wrong with cutting down a tree on your property.

It’s your tree, and just like any perennial, shrub, or marble statue, for that matter, if it’s fallen into disfavor, it’s perfectly all right for you to make it go away. People have transferred the devastation of the Brazilian rain forests into a belief that trees should no longer be cut down. Trees should no longer be cut down in the Brazilian rain forests because the loggers there are clear-cutting, lack any reforestation program, and ample substitutes are available for the hard woods being harvested.

This has nothing to do with that damn spruce that has grown so wide over the years you’ve had to move the garage, or the white pine planted by a previous owner that now sits half-dead under the sixty-foot canopy of a red oak that, when planted, was the same height as the pine.

If you want to plant a tree every time you cut one down, great, but if you remove a tree from your property because it’s in a dumb spot and you don’t plant a tree afterwards, that’s fine too. Never take any grief about it from the 12-year-old kids in your neighborhood, or their socialist parents, either.

10. Irreverence is essential.

We’re playing in the dirt, for heaven’s sake.

Note: the Tenets, in altered form, have appeared in Garden, Deck & Landscape magazine.