Excerpted from "Gardening by Heart," by Joyce McGreevy, with permission of Sierra Club Books. Copyright c 2000 by Joyce McGreevy.

When you picture a garden, what comes to mind? Rolling acres of manicured lawn and formal topiary? A painter's palette of blooms untouched by weeds, bugs, or seasonal droop?

Or do you see a few bachelor buttons poking their blue heads above the backyard's wild grass? A small but promising native pine where once there was only the bare ground of a housing development? Three pots of cheery pepperomia on a windowsill?

Too often, our image of what's acceptable as a bare minimum is based on the grandest scenario imaginable. Glossy gardening magazines and catalogs don't help. Many a novice gardener has thrown in the trowel after "failing" to produce the lush and weedless copy of a retouched photo spread.

Am I suggesting that you limit your dream garden? Not at all. If you want to grow sunflowers in the snow or re-create the Boboli Gardens on your balcony, go ahead. But don't let the garden of your dreams close the gate on the garden that you have.

I once knew a man who said he longed to learn piano. So why didn't he? I asked. Because, he explained, the only thing he wanted to play was Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," a work many virtuosos might consider a challenge. What about the basics? I asked. Even Gershwin must have put in his share of five-finger exercises. "No way," my friend responded seriously. "I don't want to fool around. It's 'Rhapsody in Blue' or nothing." So he chose nothing. His very goal kept him both from achieving the goal and from experiencing smaller joys along the way--hearing two notes merge into a chord, playing a melody line by heart.

We risk stunting our own growth as gardeners when we intimidate ourselves with extravagant notions of what a garden "should" be. So let's take a closer look at some of those glossy gardens. They aren't what they seem.

Take the magazine cover depicting a certain celebrity out "working" in her garden. Clad in a pearl-gray skirt and a white silk blouse with billowing sleeves, she is holding a delicate seedling and a small ceramic pot in her immaculately groomed hands. In the background, a lavish rose garden attests to her apparent ability to maintain a floral paradise without breaking her long nails, tripping on her hem, or tearing the heck out of those sheer and copious sleeves.

Then there's the photo essay about the family in the American Southwest whose garden looks like something straight out of "Brideshead Revisited." There's not a cactus, a cottonwood, or a hint of that quintessentially southwestern red soil in sight. Nothing, in fact, to locate the viewer in that unique and magnificent bioregion--a region where the rainfall is considerably lower than the water level required to maintain such fussy blooms.

Perhaps the worst insult to a gardener's intelligence are those articles in which a single gardener--again, dressed more for a state dinner or high tea than for scrabbling around in gooseweed--is credited with the work of achieving a garden on a par with the grounds at Versailles. Tucked discreetly into a caption or at the end of the commentary will be a cursory reference to the professional gardeners and crew who "provided encouragement." One pictures this anonymous team cheering on Mr. or Mrs. Mulchwell from behind the shrubbery.

The simple truth is this: A garden is whatever you can raise. It is that place of conscious relationship with nature in which one becomes apprentice and steward to what grows.

What grows, ideally, will have less to do with fixed models on the gardener's part than with a gradually honed perceptiveness of the garden's own intentions--with the inherent longing of the land--based on a careful reading of soil, microclimate, size, direction of sunlight, history, and other clues.

The word "garden" comes from the Old English verb gardyn

, meaning "to enclose." On one hand, then, we derive the stereotype of the garden as one's own private Eden, a site of order and beauty, closed off from the chaos and brutalities of the outside world.

Yet there is another way to look at it. When you bring daily attention to what blossoms, dies, and returns to the earth, you soon discover that the smallest aspect of the garden holds within it the vast store of nature's wisdom. Seen from this perspective, the cosmos flower is well named, because like any organism, it encloses the greater cosmos, right down to the planetlike electrons that orbit the brilliant suns of its nuclei.

At the same time, intimate involvement with a particular garden increases one's own sense of belonging to nature, of being lovingly enclosed within the unlimited mystery.