Mrs. Winning (senior) and her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Winning (junior), live together in a prominent estate in Vermont along with their husbands and families. The Winnings are a highly respected and well-established family in the community. The younger Mrs. Winning chose to marry into this family instead of pursuing her childhood crush on the grocer’s son. She once envisioned fixing up and living in a quaint cottage in the neighborhood, but now she is resigned to living in her husband’s family house.
She and her mother-in-law gossip about new neighbors who will move into the cottage. The grocer confirms that a young widow and her son are moving into the cottage.
Hoping to befriend the new neighbors, Mrs. Winning stops by the cottage and meets Davey MacLane and his mother. Mrs. Winning and Mrs. MacLane become friends, and the former offers her son Howard as a playmate for Davey. As Mrs. Winning takes a tour of the house, she is envious of Mrs. MacLane’s work on the cottage, which is exactly as she had envisioned it for her own home. When the younger Mrs. Winning attempts to describe the magic of the cottage to her mother-in-law, the latter is rather unimpressed. Nonetheless, Mrs. Winning Jr. continues to spend time with Mrs. MacLane, growing more envious of Mrs. MacLane’s close relationship to Davey, while Howard does not display that much affection towards Mrs. Winning.
One day, walking through the neighborhood, Mrs. MacLane notices Billy Jones, a young boy who is half-Caucasian and half-African American. Howard calls Billy inappropriate names, and Davey copies him; however, Mrs. MacLane forces her son to apologize to Billy. Mrs. Winning is surprised when Mrs. MacLane calls Billy Jones and offers him a job working on her large garden.
The next day, Mrs. Winning tells her daughter-in-law that she disapproves of Mrs. MacLane’s choice of employee, but the younger Mrs. Winning defends her friend. However, when Billy Jones’s father offers to tend the garden instead of the son, Mrs. Winning Jr. does not allow Howard to stay and play with Davey. Instead, she is shocked that Mrs. MacLane intends to employ Mr. Jones for more than one day.
Later, Mrs. Winning Jr. runs into Mrs. Harris, another respected member of the community, who comments on the amount of time Mrs. Winning spends with Mrs. MacLane. Mrs. Harris pokes fun at Mrs. MacLane, which makes Mrs. Winning Jr. feel uncomfortable about their association. This feeling is reinforced when the older Mrs. Winning tells the younger one that she should influence Mrs. MacLane to fire Mr. Jones. Finally, Mr. Burton, another neighbor, asks the younger Mrs. Winning to relay the message to Mrs. MacLane that Billy Jones should not trespass in his garden. The younger Mrs. Winning is extremely resentful that people assume she is so close to Mrs. MacLane, particularly as she is not an accepted member of the community.
Meanwhile, Mrs. MacLane’s cottage and garden become the most beautiful in the entire neighborhood. Yet, Mrs. Winning distances herself from the MacLane family. She attempts to make her own husband and son Howard treat her the same loving way as Davey treats Mrs. MacLane, but she is unsuccessful.
When Mrs. Burton invites Howard to her son Johnny’s birthday party, she asks the younger Mrs. Winning if she minds that Davey MacLane is not invited. Mrs. Winning is offended that Mrs. Burton thinks she would care either way, and she completely and explicitly disassociates herself from the MacLane family, expressing disapproval of their lifestyle. When they run into Mrs. MacLane, both Mrs. Winning and Mrs. Burton laugh at her.
From them on, Mrs. MacLane’s garden seems to suffer, though Mr. Jones continues working. Finally, Mrs. MacLane openly confronts the younger Mrs. Winning about the change in the community’s reception and treatment of her. Mrs. Winning hints that her employment of Mr. Jones might be the cause, and Mrs. MacLane is genuinely perplexed by this suggestion. Offended that Mrs. MacLane does not understand the unacceptability of hiring an African American man, Mrs. Winning leaves and hypocritically thinks that Mrs. MacLane is a poor person to blame her problems on Mr. Jones.
A bad thunderstorm knocks the Burtons’ tree into Mrs. MacLane’s garden. All of the neighbors are outside, surveying the damage. When Mrs. MacLane makes a friendly comment to Mrs. Burton about the situation, Mrs. Burton rudely rebuffs her. Mrs. MacLane wonders aloud to Mr. Jones if she should give up on the cottage and return to the city. Mr. Jones attempts to remove the tree but cannot, and Mrs. MacLane tells him that it will be the next occupier’s problem. Davey spots Mrs. Winning outside the house, watching them, and though they all greet her, she ignores them.
The racism portrayed in this story has more troubling and concrete effects than in "After You, My Dear Alphonse." Furthermore, the racism in "Flower Garden" is prevalent in the entire town, not just in one individual. In fact, it leads to the ostracism and eventual indirect eviction of Mrs. MacLane.
The younger Mrs. Winning appears to have the ideal life. She is married into a well-respected family, enjoys a comfortable lifestyle, and is the mother in a young family. However, she is deeply unhappy because her husband pays little attention to her and she does not enjoy living so firmly beneath her in-laws' wing. Like Mrs. Walpole of "The Renegade," Mrs. Winning suffers from a lack of closeness in her familial life. In essence, her lack of personal attachment makes her just as unfulfilled and unhappy as the delusional narrator of "The Daemon Lover."
However, this story does not foray into fantasy, as does "The Daemon Lover." Instead, Jackson, no doubt affected by her own negative experiences dealing with the hostility of a close-knit, rural community in Vermont, depicts how Mrs. Winning, her family, and the entire town join forces to exclude Mrs. MacLane, simply because she has hired an African American man to work on her garden.
As in "The Lottery," Jackson emphasizes the strength of tradition and ritual in "Flower Garden." The younger Mrs. Winning is described as following in the exact footsteps of her mother-in-law, the elder Mrs. Winning. After so many years of living together, the Winning women have even begun to look similar. Mrs. Winning "was now officially a Winning, a member of the oldest family in town, and her hair was beginning to grey where her mother-in-law's had greyed first" (79). These details are simply a more obvious physical manifestation of the firmness of tradition and ritual in the Vermont town. She following the tradition held by the family, the oldest one in town, into which she has married. Furthermore, this stagnancy eliminates any hope for change or for the village to expand and become more accepting of city people, such as Mrs. MacLane.
The protagonist appears to be Mrs. Winning, but as she grows colder towards Mrs. MacLane, the reader finds it more difficult to sympathize with her pettiness. Mrs. MacLane serves as Mrs. Winning's foil in every way, eliciting the latter's envy. Mrs. Winning has been unable to escape the Vermont town and its social mentality and expectations. She has resigned herself to a relatively mundane and discontented life. On the contrary, Mrs. MacLane has enjoyed a seemingly more glamorous life in the city and had a very happy marriage and family life. She does not conform to the town's expectations, though this does result in her deciding to leave. Just as Miss Clarence wishes she could be Mrs. Roberts in "The Villager," Mrs. Winning envies Mrs. MacLane.
This jealousy is manifested physically by the cottage that Mrs. MacLane inhabits in the village, which is one that Mrs. Winning always wished to live in when she was younger. "Young Mrs. Winning had wanted, long ago, to buy the cottage herself, for her husband to make with his own hands into a home" (80). However, Mrs. Winning is constrained in the home of her husband's family. "Mrs. Winning thought wistfully, remembering the neat charming garden she could have had, instead of the row of nasturtiums along the side of the Winning house, which she tended so carefully" (84). Instead, Mrs. MacLane, a free and happier woman, moves into the pleasant cottage. Again, homes in Jackson’s works represent the women’s identities.
Furthermore, Mrs. MacLane’s flower garden serves as a metaphor for Mrs. Winning’s inner turmoil and outward treatment of her friend. While Mrs. Winning maintains the facade of friendliness towards Mrs. MacLane, the flower garden thrives. Even after Mrs. MacLane hires Mr. Jones and gossip begins to trickle through the town, the flower garden remains vibrant and colorful. Correspondingly, Mrs. Winning successfully hides her discomfort with Mrs. MacLane's actions. However, after the first time that Mrs. Winning shuns Mrs. MacLane in public and outright laughs at her, the garden begins to wilt. This symbolizes how Mrs. Winning has succumbed to the town's unjust social conventions and made the decision to reject Mrs. MacLane.
Ironically, Mrs. Winning is offended when Mrs. MacLane pinpoints her ostracized position as the result of her hiring Mr. Jones. Mrs. Winning thinks to herself: "The nerve of her, trying to blame the colored folks" (99). This statement is ironic, as clearly the white citizens of the town are to blame for the malicious treatment of Mrs. MacLane. The further irony lies in the fact that Mrs. MacLane herself is not blaming Mr. Jones at all; instead, Mrs. Winning blames their presence for causing the problem.