Beware of the Garden Expert!

“In the beginners mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki

Thanks to being a bit time-constrained, most of my gardening questions are answered by a small library of reference books or a Google search.  I also follow some fantastic fellow bloggers who are full of ideas and innovations.

But recently,  I thought it was high time to broaden my garden knowledge by branching out, visiting some local gardens and signing up for some courses.

You know, away from my desk and own garden, actually outside, with real people, face-to-face.

A panoramic shot of my front garden raised beds.
A panoramic shot of my own front garden raised beds.

My first workshop cost $100 and took up most of a premium family Saturday.  The instructor was indeed a highly qualified expert in his field.   But his communication skills were terrible.  He complained of a hangover, puffed away at cigarettes, repeated himself often and frequently trailed off topic.   He was poorly organised and I felt embarrassed for him. The garden that hosted the event was not a great example of edible urban design. For starters, it needed a good clean up!

I was so disappointed.  I should have asked for my money back.

Then a few weeks later, I went along to a free council community event at a local centre with Josh Byrne from Gardening Australia. Josh also is a highly qualified expert in his field.  He was awesome.  In a few hours, he covered twice as much material as my other so-called expert. He gave out local, relevant, insightful information. He showed plenty of photos from his own spectacular new garden space, but most of all, he was engaging, entertaining and all too keen to share what he knows.  I would pay to see him again.

My only complaint was that he mentioned he had just written Small Space Organics, and my local bookstore had sold out.  If he’d bought a few along, I would have purchased one on the spot!

Given those contrasting experiences,  it has prompted me to question, what makes a garden expert anyway?  Or any kind of expert for that matter?

My broadbean bed, planted with fenugreek, buckwheat, sage and beans.
My broadbean bed, planted with fenugreek, buckwheat, sage and beans.

For a time I have held a theory that it is not enough to just “know” or complete a qualification.  It’s how that expertise is applied and communicated that makes an enormous difference to quality of experience.  It’s hard to take a garden expert seriously when their own garden is a mess or poorly kept. Credibility is gained by what you can show rather than what you claim to know.

The most natural teachers and mentors I have met seem to bubble over with enthusiasm, information and purpose.  They live what they know. People who can cut the fluff and consistently make things happen. They are the people I want to learn from and be around.

It’s not the age to be secretive or possessive of knowledge. Information is everywhere.  There is real skill is in curating and delivering the fact from the crap.  In my case, I’m not just seeking a course that will deliver me a certificate or officially recognised qualification.

The most trendy vegetable of the year, kale.  Here I have Scarlett and Tuscan Kale growing...
The most trendy vegetable of the year, kale. Here I have Scarlett and Tuscan Kale growing…

Instead, I’m seeking to know and to grow.  Thanks to the internet, it seems the global is often more accessible to me than the local.

But one thing that has surprised me from travelling outside my own garden is how much I appreciate my own space.  I am indeed fortunate that I have been to be able to pursue it’s design and creation at my own leisure.  As it turns out, my years of experimenting and researching are starting to pay off and I actually seem to know more than I originally gave myself credit for.  My collection of disasters shrinks each year and my triumphs are beginning to multiply.  I have tried to give most things a go and have adapted along the way.

Lucky for me, I have not had the mental burden of subscribing to one philosophy or another so haven’t had any real expectations of what was possible.   I’m not a certified  permaculturalist, horticulturalist, or  biodynamic guru.  I have no commercial partnerships. The foundation of my garden was built on an overarching “no chemicals” and “keep it cheap” philosophy.  Everything else has required some form of active experimentation to discover what worked for me.

This approach means that I have been able to grow and learn organically. (Pardon the terribly bad pun)  There have been some fantastically informative failures. And in some cases, doing the opposite of the conventional wisdom has really paid dividends.  It is my intention to never stop questioning and learning.

So if you were to ask me, an official garden amatuer, how to go about starting your own edible garden, I would recommend you take the path of the “non-expert”.

Be ready to research, try, observe, apply some common sense and prepare to be amazed how far that can take you.

What about you?  Do your follow conventional advice, or do you prefer to experiment?


  1. Bron says

    I’m sorry to read about your disappointing experience with the “expert”. I’m a big believer in the value of knowledge you construct yourself, learning from your own successes and failures. That makes you the expert for you! I also like to ‘borrow’ the wisdom of others, sifting though to find what is relevant for me. Agreed, blogs are great sources of personal experiences. What are the favourite blogs you mention?

  2. says

    I’ve had the same experience with so-called experts – communication and passion for his/her discipline are their two most important strengths. Like you, my most positive experience was with a community gardening expert. I left with a wealth of knowledge that would have taken me a long time to learn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *