Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | September 25, 2007

Perfectionism: Bad for gardens and government

“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

Gardening is good for me. It’s not just that it’s good exercise, making gardening good for my physical health. Gardening is an antidote for my perfectionism, making gardening good for my mental health. Gardening is also a metaphor for life.

Even on my relatively modest suburban lot, a perfect garden is an impossibility. There’s simply no way I can pull every weed, remove every slug, deadhead every spent bloom, or harvest every fruit at peak ripeness.

But I can appreciate my garden and enjoy taking care of it, even if I can’t achieve Martha Stewart-like perfection.

Although my garden unceasingly teaches me the futility of perfectionism, every once in a while my perfectionist nature takes over. When that happens, it’s never good for the garden.

That’s because when I focus on my garden’s imperfections more than the process of gardening and the beauty my garden contains, I stop weeding, pruning and harvesting altogether.

Late this summer, I mostly ignored my garden for several weeks. Weeds flourished, spent flowers dangled abjectly on branches, tomatoes and raspberries rotted.

It didn’t take long for the results of neglect to begin to obscure my garden’s beauty.

My period of benign garden neglect ended last week when my love for gardening overcame my perfectionist tendencies and lured me back outdoors. In my spare time, I pulled weeds, lopped spent blooms and pruned overgrown plants.

Gardens are very forgiving; it’s one of their finest features and essential lessons.

I didn’t get everything done, but I didn’t expect to. Instead, I made a good start and improved the situation.

While pulling a bevy of weeds from my vegetable beds and trimming overgrown basil and sage plants, I made a discovery: three nearly ripe watermelons.

I bought the crimson sweet seedlings a couple of months ago on whim – chiding myself as I did because I’ve had no luck with melons – planted and forgot them.

But despite my benign neglect they quietly flourished and produced three lovely specimens that I hope to enjoy in the next few weeks.

And I’m very glad I reined in my perfectionism before the melons rotted unnoticed on their vines.

Gardening offers lessons that apply to many parts of life, including civic participation, government and democracy. I ponder them while I putter in the sunshine.

Consider rampant apathy towards government and public policy issues: I wonder if the cause is that the problems are just so overwhelming and perfect solutions are nonexistent that many of us don’t even try to tackle them.

Gilroyans wonder how to pay for a much-needed new library with no state matching funds, no redevelopment agency and stiff competition for city funds from projects like an arts center and the possible purchase of Gilroy Gardens.

Morgan Hill residents wonder how to pay for more police officers when potentially cost-savings measures are off the table and tax hikes are unlikely to win voter approval.

San Martin residents want to take control of their community’s land-use issues, but face a difficult challenge to fund the necessary studies to try to incorporate.

Californians are still searching for ways to reform redistricting, fix the state budget process, control spiraling public employee retirement costs and relieve overcrowding in prisons.

National and international issues overwhelm us, too: The war in Iraq, the war on terror, health care, immigration, homelessness, Darfur, and budding nuclear states Iran and North Korea need seemingly nonexistent solutions.

But the lesson my garden teaches is that ignoring problems is never the answer. Things don’t improve with benign neglect.

Instead, citizens must pay attention, stay involved, and communicate with our neighbors and our leaders. We must give up the fantasy that perfect solutions exist and find practical ways to improve the status quo.

If we don’t, citizens’ lack of accountability and interest will lead to a government garden crowded with weeds of corruption, greed and tyranny.

There’s beauty in the democratic process, all mixed up with the hard work of studying public policy issues and the squalor of petty politics. But the process and the results make it all worthwhile.

If we want to preserve the beautiful blooms of liberty, democracy, and freedom, we must tend our government garden.

“We have descended into the garden and caught three hundred slugs. How I love the mixture of the beautiful and the squalid in gardening. It makes it so lifelike.” ~ British author Evelyn Underhill


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