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Mission Drift

The art of horticultural digression


Okay, so here’s the scenario: you head out into the garden with a firm agenda. You’re going to tackle the summer fruit prune. Or weed the veg patch. Or clear the pond. Whatever the task, it’s top of today’s horticultural hitlist.

So why is it that two hours later you’ve done everything but? You’ve deadheaded the cosmos, fixed a wheelbarrow, spent a highly entertaining if unscheduled hour locating and terminating box moth caterpillars on the buxus balls. And still the step-overs remain unruly; the brassica patch overrun with chickweed; the pond unkempt.

Gardening is an occupation uncommonly prone to what my old gardening chum Jim used to call ‘mission drift’. He was always pulling me up on it. I’d head out into the cut flower beds to stake the dahlias and notice en route that the crinums were looking tatty. Or decide that today was the day to edge the veg garden only to be brought up short by the undeniable fact of sweetcorn in urgent need of harvesting.

‘Max,’ he’d call, over the dull thrum of an idled mower, ‘mission drift, fella!’

And he was right. I’d gone off-piste … again.

But it’s not just me. I’ve spoken to a number of other gardeners about this, and they recognise the symptoms. In themselves and in others. Of course, they might just be humouring me, trying to make me feel better about myself, about my wavering attention. But I don’t think so. Gardens are tailor-made for diversion and in my experience so are gardeners.

Why? Well, for a number of reasons…

First, they are alive – gardens, that is (gardeners too, but that’s a given really) – and apropos of this fact they are forever changing. Nothing stands still for very long in a garden – leaves fall, weeds emerge, flowers fade, grass grows. Oh, and things die too. And if everything is always on the move, if the parameters are always shifting, then it is perhaps understandable that one’s priorities will change too. Ask yourself this: in which other profession might today’s primary objective be invalidated because it’s either a.) been eaten, b.) metamorphosed into something else, or c.) died? I rest my case.

Second, nothing is ever complete in a garden. Very rarely are you able to move a task from pending to ‘job done’, because no sooner have you done it than it needs doing again. Take edging or mowing or deadheading or harvesting or leaf blowing or just about anything else for that matter. Off you trot, quietly confident that you carried out a certain task last week only to be undone by its arresting urgency.

Third, and bear with me here, mission drift really doesn’t matter that much in a gardening context. What I mean is: it’s not the end of the world if you overlook one task in favour of another. Think of it as a horticultural detour: it might not be best practice, it might not contribute towards optimal productivity, but in the great scheme of things it’s small potatoes (especially if you’ve dug up the second earlies a little prematurely) and you’ll soon be back on track.

Which can’t be said for all occupations. Take surgery for instance. In this line of work, mission drift is, I suspect, heavily frowned upon. ‘While I’m here, I might as well have a rummage around and see what else needs doing’ is the last thing you want to hear as you slip into anxious anaesthesia. Or how about air traffic control? Mission drift should arguably be kept to a minimum here too. What else? Paramedic? Submarine commander? Tightrope walker? Lifeguard? In each of these roles, the ability to stay on mission would, I suggest, be highly desirable if not a condition of employment.

So don’t feel bad if you have every intention of tying in your rambling rose but find yourself derailed by a barrowload (or ten) of mulch, pleading to be deployed. Or instead of staking the delphiniums you somehow made a batch of comfrey tea. It could be worse … much worse (I refer you to the previous paragraph). And anyway, surely mission drift is just another way of demonstrating how flexible you are, how adaptable to changing circumstance? Doesn’t the tree stand firm because it bends with the prevailing wind? Doesn’t the seed that scatters widest prevail with greatest efficacy? For that matter, isn’t abstraction simply an expression of a liberated mind, a free spirit unencumbered by edict and design?

Yeah, okay, who am I kidding! I think it’s time for another pep talk. What would Jim tell me? How would he help me get my head back in the game?

I can picture it now: me noodling amongst the legumes; him mandhandling a Hayter, intent on pinstripe perfection. ‘A little less mission drift,’ Max, ‘a little more mission accomplished…’

‘Okay, I hear you, buddy, I hear you, I’ll be right on it, I’m just gonna…’

And on it goes...


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