Tour gardens are pageant girls

Tour gardens are pageant girls.

And, yes, I could have used contestants in the headline, but that wouldn’t be alliteration would it? So, don’t take the girl thing personally. I know they are women, not girls, and I’m not hating on pageants either.

Tiered borders side view two weeks after the tour.
Tiered borders side view two weeks after the tour.

Do your thing. Just do it well.

Tour gardens are pageant girls. Long view of the back garden.
Long view of the back garden.
Why are tour gardens pageant girls?

Each involves a lot of fluffing and fakery in the best sort of way. Think eyelash extensions and faux tans, both of which are fine by me. I adore a Fake Bake tan and eyelash extensions. Acrylic nails are great for deadheading roses–trust me–but don’t confuse them with a real garden or an All-American woman au naturel.

Acrylic nails are great for deadheading roses--trust me--but don't confuse them with a real garden or an All-American woman au naturel. Click To Tweet
Both are also all about competition.

My husband will tell you that gardeners are the most competitive people he knows. Gardeners who love a particular plant are even more discerning. They will go to great lengths to get their gardens pageant, ‘er tour ready.

I’ve seen gardeners install new landscapes, build new buildings, create ponds–oh, wait, that’s me, or should I say, Bill? He doesn’t know it, but Bill would make the best pageant mom ever. He sees the overall woman–I mean–garden and works on improving what Mother Nature gave her. You may not remember, but three weeks before the Oklahoma Horticulture Society tour, he built a pond with a lot of help from his friends.

I could have killed him.

Cover of Country Garden Spring 2017 issue with the shed as model for my own.
Cover of Country Garden Spring 2017 issue with the shed as model for my own.

Our garden was again on tour two weeks ago. The American Hemerocallis Society Region 11 celebrated its summer meeting in Oklahoma, and my garden was one of six on tour. So, of course, Bill decided to build a potting shed similar to the one in the Country Gardens Magazine Spring 2017 issue. He finished it about five days before the tour. I would have panicked, but I was too busy weeding and laying mulch. After twenty-eight years of marriage, I just let him have his head and run with it.

Then, last weekend, I joined garden bloggers from all over the U.S., Great Britain, and Canada for the Garden Bloggers’ Fling, held this year in the Washington, D.C. area. I strolled through beautiful gardens and knew how much of the gardeners’ hearts and souls went into preparing for our visit.

In other words, I felt their joy and pain.

When you arrive at a tour garden, often the owner or their landscape designer will be outside to welcome you. They will be clean, cool, calm and collected, but that’s not the real story. One owner whispered to me while on our bus that she was out weeding only thirty minutes before we arrived. How she got inside, showered and put on makeup, I’ll never know. She’s seventy and moves faster than I ever will.

Owners and landscape designers smile and answer questions as though the garden always looks this immaculately groomed. Maybe it’s different for landscape designers. After all, they often have crews to help.

Owner/gardeners are usually a one or two-person show. I can tell you from experience that everyone took three Advil and maybe a shot of whiskey for courage before you arrived. Click To Tweet

Owner/gardeners are usually a one or two-person show. I can tell you from experience that everyone took three Advil and maybe a shot of whiskey for courage before you arrived.

Here’s what really happens to a tour garden before you walk through the arbor gate.

If it’s a daylily tour, work begins about two years prior. Gardeners will purchase many, many daylilies that are newer cultivars. Daylily aficionados don’t want to see older plants. It takes at least two years to increase the number of fans–individual plants–for a good show. Daylily people want the newest and brightest. Also, the gardener needs to go around and make an inventory of all the plants they didn’t label. Every daylily in an official tour garden needs to be labeled with the name, year of introduction and hybridizer. Bill and I made a complete inventory and a map of our gardens.

It took us two days, and I don’t even have that many daylilies.

For three years prior, I bought garden markers. I am now very good friends with Bernie of Triple AAA Quality Engravers. You can use any kind of label, but these are the ones I chose because they don’t show up so much in photos if you’re not looking for them. Since the tour is over, I’ll move the labels behind the clumps. I’m not really a label person, but I’m glad to have the names of various plants at my fingertips.

How does this compare to the pageant contestant?

Imagine our young woman is vying for Miss Oklahoma. I’m no pageant mom, but I know several. Our contestant will be evaluated and placed in a local show where, if she wins, she will go on to bigger things. It takes a lot of hard work to get ready for a pageant and a lot of money. The same thing holds true for large garden tours. Pageant contestants get sponsors. I guess Bill and I are our garden’s sponsors.

So, after clucking over your new plants like a mother hen, it’s finally the year of the tour.

If it’s a fall tour, you have all summer to prepare. However, if you live in a hot climate, you have all summer to fail. The Death Star, i.e., summer sun can sure take its toll on a garden. I’ve been on spring and fall tours, and both are stressful, but rewarding too.

Just one of many loads of mulch I laid this spring.
Just one of many loads of mulch I laid this spring.

This spring, I laid 135 bags of mulch–at last count. Yes, I could’ve bought mulch in bulk, but then I’d have to dig it out of the pile, and I find the bags easier to move. On a normal year, I just use my shredded leaves as mulch, but on tour, I like shredded pine bark.

This border once held roses, but after Rose Rosette Disease ravaged it, I replaced them with grasses, perennial hibiscus and daylilies. Then, I mulched the whole thing in shredded leaves.
Normally, I use shredded leaves throughout the garden as mulch. With the earthworms help, shredded oak leaves make beautiful soil. This is from two years ago. That border is now fully grown.

For the past two years, I’ve pumped up the garden with leaf mulch and then put on the finishing pine bark this year. Mulch is like makeup, or as one visitor said concealer. Anything that looks bad in the garden, you just rip it out and apply mulch. So, perhaps it’s like plucking your eyebrows and then putting on concealer. You get the idea.

Mulch is like makeup, or as one visitor said concealer. Anything that looks bad in the garden, you just rip it out and apply mulch. Click To Tweet
Baby oak trees from acorns abound in my garden this year.
Baby oak trees from acorns abound in my garden this year. I hates them Precious.

But, first, you have to weed, and weed for months and months and months.

Weeding is the laser hair removal of the garden world. Click To Tweet

Weeding is the laser hair removal of the garden world. You weed until your hands have tendinitis. You basically become an investor in Advil or Aleve, and your reward for all that weeding is a glass of wine after a long day. Those baby oak trees that from little acorns grow are very hard to get out of the ground. This year, I had thousands of them. I’ll go outside today and find thirty or forty more.

A clump of one of my favorite daylilies. It's an old Munson cultivar.
A clump of one of my favorite daylilies, Yasmin. It’s an old Munson cultivar.
There’s also a lot of fertilizing to plump up the garden plants.

Daylilies like high nitrogen fertilizer so I use an organic one. I like Mills Magic Rose Mix myself. However, anything with alfalfa like HuMore or sewage sludge like Milorganite will work. For pageant contestants, the equivalent would be lifting weights to get those defined muscles.

And, then, there’s the fluffling. Look at it like all the clothes and accessories a pageant contestant needs. In my case, I grow a cottage garden so my contestant needs loads of plants to fill in spaces where I ripped out nonperformers. You must also buy them early enough that they grow in and look like part of the landscape. Since my Oklahoma garden is a hot one, that means pentas, salvias, lantana, echinaceas, etc. If you have roses, you want to deadhead them almost exactly one month prior to the event. Then, they will hopefully bloom for your guests. Getting a garden tour ready takes much more planning than one would think.

If you have roses, you want to deadhead them almost exactly one month prior to the event. Then, they will hopefully bloom for your guests. Click To Tweet

And, you can’t control the weather. I don’t know what to compare this to in the pageant world, but perhaps, you can’t control your contestant. If she doesn’t stay on her high protein, high vegetable diet, she may gain weight. If she doesn’t do her cardio, she won’t look like a thoroughbred racehorse I suppose. In my case, the garden made me gain eight pounds over the spring in spite of working like a dog. I didn’t have time to cook meals, and we ate a lot of carbs in our restaurant meals as I watched spring rains wash away seeds, gravel in the paths and the all-important mulch.

Hemerocallis 'Tomorrow is a Another Day' daylily
Hemerocallis ‘Tomorrow is a Another Day’ daylily

However, one fine June day the rains stopped, the buses came, and people unloaded to see what we worked so hard to achieve. I think the garden looked the best it ever has that day. I truly enjoyed having people over although I will never do a plant-specific tour again. They are just too stressful. My garden is a mix of many, many plants, and although I love daylilies, I’m not very serious about them–or any other plant either. I learned not to love any plant to exclusion when I lost over eighty roses to Rose Rosette Disease.

It was a lesson well learned. Diversity is always key. Well, that, fake eyelashes and faux tans.


  1. JessB says:

    This post made me laugh and is pretty darn accurate!

  2. Oh, my gosh. I’m glad you gave an honest report of what goes on in garden tours. Never in a thousand years would I sign up for that. But I admire your passion, your growing knowledge and your generous sharing over the years. I’m now understanding why women have their critics sitting on their shoulders when they garden. Fascinating. Thanks, Dee. xoxo

  3. bittster says:

    It looks great… it usually does but to actually go after every spot that bothers you or that you meant to work on… but never really did before… is insane! I can’t even begin to imagine all the work and pressure, but you made it. I’m sure everyone enjoyed it and garden visitors are usually a very agreeable bunch. It’s always the gardener who is hardest on themselves.
    I don’t think my garden would ever be ready. I thought I’d try this year but haven’t even made it around once and the weeds are already pretty hefty back in the end where I started!

  4. Rose says:

    What a great analogy, Dee! Loved every minute of reading this article, not to mention seeing all your gorgeous daylilies! We just had our annual MG Garden Walk two weeks ago, and our small Nursing Home garden (one of our community projects) was on the Walk this year. As one of the co-chairs, I was so stressed out this spring, worrying whether the mulch would ever arrive and whether we’d get everything planted in time–and that was with a crew of 10 or 12 helpers! I also know that the beautiful private gardens on the tour had lots of help–we provide “garden angels” from the group to help with mulching, weeding, or any other chore the homeowner needs for several weeks beforehand. I have to keep reminding myself of this when I visit them and get a bit envious–my garden just has a crew of one:) Meanwhile, my garden has been neglected this spring–it looks like the wild, muddy tomboy sister of a pageant contestant.

  5. Pam Penick says:

    Good description of what it takes to be ready for a garden tour, Dee. In anticipation of the Austin Fling visit to my garden next spring, I spread compost this spring and will put on the “concealer” of mulch next March or April. And I’ll be filling the inevitable bare spots with new plants along the way. It’s a process…

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Oh Pam, you’ve got lots of time. Loads, in fact. I expect you’ll be fluffing and putting the mascara on that garden next spring. 😀

  6. Janet Mills says:

    Great story, Dee. It’s always much more preparation that people realize, and probably more so in a cottage garden where everything has a planned “unplanned” look.
    I think the pageant equivalent of weather might be the judges’ questions, which can make or break even the most prepared! And no one has any control over this part- it’s a roll of the dice!
    I kniw you’re glad the tour is behind you. Sit back now and enjoy the fruits of your labor, even if only for one morning. You’ve earned it.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thanks Janet! I think I will. 😀

  7. Excellent metaphor and an eye-opening revelation on what goes on behind the scenes for a garden tour. I think you’ve talked me out of ever agreeing to one.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you Kathy. Well, a regular tour isn’t so bad.

  8. “Precious” in my garden are Ash Trees. Our big ole ash tree puts out thousands of seeds and I pull Hundreds if not thousands of them. The seeds are such you can’t pick them all up. Not to mention the walnut and maple trees that abound. We don’t even have a walnut tree within sight of our garden. ?? Squirrels. I blame squirrels for everything in our garden. That is another story. I would faint dead away if my husband up and built something in our garden. While he does help me from time to time now that he is retired he wouldn’t start a big project on his own. I hope you sit back and enjoy all your hard work now. You deserve a breather after collecting your crown.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Lisa, with the emerald ash borer, your ash problems may take care of themselves. It’s always something isn’t it? We have the same problem on heavy acorn years. Plus, I also have walnut and American elm. I hate squirrels. We can save those little blankety-blanks for another day. (LOL) I’m taking the rest of summer and fall off, well, as much as possible.

  9. Sally says:

    Great post! I’m exhausted reading it! Haha…but, seriously, that is a LOT of work! It has to be worth it when you hear all the exclamations and see the faces of the tour people…..Your daylilies are gorgeous and I love the potting shed. Diversity in a garden is a must (that’s a metaphor on life!).

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Sally, it took me four days to write it so I get what you mean. Thank you for the kind words, and yes, it is a metaphor for life. God loves diversity.

  10. Peter/Outlaw says:

    Thanks for the morning giggle, a great way to start the day before I go out and start working in the garden. My tour is a month away so, per your advice, I’ll be sure to deadhead the roses. My garden will never look as evening-gown-competition-ready as yours; (it looks smashing btw.) the most I can hope for is Miss Congeniality. “She tried so hard, bless her heart, but her batons kept slipping out of her hands during the talent competition.”

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Peter, your comment gave me the giggles. I had to call Bill and read it to him. So clever you are.

  11. Musette says:

    I am HOWLING! at this article because I feeeeel yer paaaiin! I don’t put my garden on tour because there aren’t any tours around here but I can tell you, if another gardener (or, heavens forfend, a Master Gardener) is coming to view mah li’l plot, I’m out there like a velociraptor, weeding & deadheading. A few weeks ago, a former neighbor (and Master Gardener) was making the 2.5 hr trek to see my garden. A mutual friend said ‘she’s coming to see YOU! heh. Nope. I needed to move some sunflowers into a pot – 8 days before, they were still a bit shocked and I was freaking OUT! By T-1day, they’d recovered. Only another gardener could understand my relief!

    and, btw, give your husband a HUGE smooch for me. Mine wouldn’t get out of that recliner for Anything Garden, no matter what!


    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Musette! Yes, I know just how you feel. Consider Bill smooched. He really is rather wonderful if a bit nutty about garden tours.

  12. Sue says:

    Ha…so true. The last time I opened my garden was 2010. Thanks for reminding me why.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Sue, you’re so welcome. LOL.

  13. Beautiful!!! LOVE your natural, serene garden! I seriously would have helped you those last few weeks before, so NEXT time… I’m in!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you Melanie.

  14. Cindy, MCOK says:

    I know how hard you worked on the gardens, Dee, and I can tell from the pictures that it wowed your visitors!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you Cindy. Yes, you were at the front lines with me at least virtually.

  15. Gail says:

    I love your garden and it’s always a winner to me! I totally agree with your statement about diversity! Critters win, the gardener wins because there is always something in bloom. xo

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Gail, amen and amen.

  16. Patti Moree says:

    As always, a lively and humorous dissertation on gardening in Oklahoma. I love to read about how your garden grows, or sometimes doesn’t grow. I have finally gotten over the fear of ripping out non performing plants. This is my 4th year landscaping a 1/2 acre backyard in northeast Oklahoma on what was cow pasture. The intense sun, the seemingly never ending gale force winds, and either too much or too little rain make landscaping an interesting endeavor in Oklahoma….but also a very rewarding one. Your gardening stories are always encouraging and helpful to me. Thank you!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Patti, “The intense sun, the seemingly neverending gale force winds and either too much or too little rain….” Yeah, that pretty much sums up gardening in Oklahoma. It’s a trial, but, ah, when it works, it is sublime. Kepp on keeping on. Thank you!

  17. Carol says:

    And the runner up is… some other garden because your garden is definitely the winner! I love especially the caption about the oak tree seedlings “I hates them Precious”. Yep, that’s how I feel about the redbud seedlings in my garden, some of which might actually be small trees by now. They grow so fast.

    Loved this post!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thanks Carol. You’re the best!

  18. A wonderful metaphor! I think your garden is definitely a winner! I feel like driving to OK right now and taking a tour! I love how honest you are about the work and preparation it took to get there. My garden is a test garden or that’s my excuse and yes I do have paid help : ) Oh, the shed so perfect, your man is a super star! I loved the story you told me about the little sign. HUGS

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Sweet Laurin, when you and your hubby want to come visit, we have a bedroom ready for you. Please come one day. Hugs and loved being with you in Washington, D.C. It was so much fun.

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