Garden Downsizing

How can I bid farewell to a jealous lover?
 By Michael Leach
There was no plan to create a lovely but demanding mistress some 30 years ago. Back then, the goal was to grow a beautiful view framed by the sunporch windows, create a sense of privacy in the backyard and reduce mowing time on the narrow acre-plus lot. No matter what the end result might look like, anything would beat gazing at the neglected border along the garage, the overgrown round flower bed in the center of the back lawn, the aesthetically challenged auto body shop next door, and the rear ends of the modest tract houses along the back lot. Attention would be given only when necessary to the family home place that had stood for about a century when I returned to help my ailing father.
First on the agenda, revive the perennial border, eliminate the round bed and cut mowing time. About half the vast lawn was dotted with shrubs and trees planted higgledy-piggledy. It took over an hour just to trim around them with a push mower. Then came the three-plus-hour ride atop the lawn tractor to cut the rest.
The dots eventually were connected to make an eye-pleasing whole in wide beds covered with English ivy and vinca (highly recommended at that time). Transplanting existing small trees and shrubs, planting new woodies and perennials, faithful mowing and regular edgings, building a low wall of salvaged stones, and endless weeding gradually transformed not only the appearance of the sunporch view windows but also my goals.
After only a few years of intense labor my vision of those borders and beds brimming with perennial color was amended to adding splashes of spot color and bursts of seasonal extravagance, such as the hundreds (maybe a couple thousand) daffodils glowing in the spring sunshine. Abandoned was an ambitious scheme for a fanciful gazebo sitting beside a large pond on the former horse pasture known as the back 40. This idea remains only a successful landscape design class project.
Though my jealous mistress held first place in my heart, loyalties were divided between a journalism career, travel whenever  and wherever possible, and necessary — but dull — house work and renovation. This sapped enthusiasm and energy. The garden, meanwhile, evolved into a high-maintenance landscape.
This evolution went unnoticed until  three or four years ago when a gardening friend asked what new projects I planned for the season. None. All I hoped to do was keep up appearances. Gone were the occasional and pleasurable hours of dabbling in the dirt and playing with plants, some of the simple joys afforded by gardening. Instead, I faced weekly hours of repeat and seasonal chores: weeding, edging, pruning, raking, watering, leaf management, bed cleanup, over and over and over. I rarely took time to smell the roses or anything else as I raced from one chore to the next. Even with hiring a couple of guys to mow, there never seemed enough energy or time to properly manage the half-acre or so of borders and beds or groom the small vegetable garden.
How did this happen? I totally ignored the key factor in the equation. Over time bodies decline, plants keep growing bigger. It doesn’t matter how much effort I give, the flora retains the upper and increasingly heavy hand.
Three decades ago it was easy to do 6 to 8 hours of work on Saturdays and other off days and be ready to do almost that much again the next day. The readiness and desire for dirt therapy remain but not the stamina.
So the time is approaching, perhaps next year, perhaps five from now, to scale back. Reality, or is it the wisdom gained with age, seems to be winning over the idealist, the dreamer, the one who never imagined he would think wistfully back to age 50— or be stunned at facing 68 in a few weeks.
Routine maintenance, whether indoors or out, erodes my enthusiasm as I trudge along in vain hopes of checking off items on an endless to-do list. I assure myself there’s more to life than weeding, watering and stooping (or dusting and vacuuming for that matter.)  A condo with a balcony or tiny house with postage stamp yard are current dreams. It’s time to scale back, I assure myself.
Such assurance fades as I stroll along the brick garden path that I laid down after building a small brick-paved patio adjacent to the sunporch perhaps 25 years ago. I cross a swath of lawn to view the little goldfish pool (a family project about 50 years ago), and then wander a few yards more to sit on the bench under the sycamore tree. Was it really 40 years ago I tugged the little sycamore whip from a stream bank in Adams County (Ohio) and brought it home to plant? Little did I know that when the time came for me to hold down the home place, the tree would offer welcome shade on countless breaks from toil and long pauses to simply sit and gaze in wonder at the green and flowery world all around.
After I walk the little brick path the last time, what will become of the flowers that have been in my life for decades? Some of the plants, the peonies for instance, have been part of my life from earliest memories. Grandma Leach and Papaw Stewart passed along peonies from their gardens as soon as we moved here in 1952. These have no names, but their blooms are as familiar and welcome as the faces of friends.
Even when I can no longer pinch back faded flowers and plant seeds, I shall still treasure plants — and the memories of creating (and maintaining) a living landscape painting that grew and bloomed beyond the sunporch windows.
But enough musing, the ivy needs cut back from the sidewalk again and those impatiens are begging for water as usual.
Scaling back — Surely there are readers who’ve scaled back and lived to tell about it. I’m looking for suggestions on how to approach it and no doubt others are, too. So please share suggestions. What worked or is working for you?

19 responses to “Garden Downsizing

  1. A really thought-provoking piece about changing needs and means. Less is more they say and then there is the ‘borrowed view” of garden visiting and other people’s garden stuff to enjoy. Go for it and enjoy life as a fancy-free gardenista!

    • Michael Leach

      Thanks for your thoughts on the topic and your encouragement to share put my garden concerns in print. Less is more, good advice, perhaps a bonsai or two on a windowsill?

  2. Thank you for such a timely piece as I struggle to find the balance in my own flower beds, I already dismantled the vegetable garden. I know it is time to downsize, and will be relocating. But, I think I will be taking portions of my plants with me to start a new bed at my new location, it will be like bringing my best friends along for the move!

    • Michael Leach

      Thank you for your comments. Your dismantling of the vegetable garden is an affirmation that t’s time for me to carry through with downsizing that piece of real estate pronto. Veggies are the prima donnas of the garden. At least one of the raised beds can be used as a nursery for ornamental plants. Poor things have been in tiny pots since a plant sale in the spring of 2015!
      You are so right to plan on taking some of your flowery friends to your new home.

  3. Thank you for such a timely post Michael! My time for scaling back has come as well, and even though I will be relocating to a location with acreage up north, It will be hard to let go of my plants that I have tended lovingly for years. I think perhaps instead of walking away from them altogether, I may split them out and bring some pieces of them with me to nurture again.

    • Michael Leach

      Do take some with you. If you haven’t already done so, pot up a few favorites and keep them in a protected place until moving/replanting time. Continuity is a hallmark of a beloved garden, a little of the past planted in the new.

  4. Angie Paul

    Great article! I spent some time this weekend reflecting in my own garden. We moved in nearly 4 years ago and each season usually sprouts a new and exciting project. As I took a look around, I realized that with 3 very active children, my garden has suffered significantly…as well my own peace of mind. I used to find solitude wandering around pulling a few weeds, and now I find it overwhelming because of the work involved with just maintaining it. Next year will bring a new season…and as the kids get a little older, maybe a little more “me” time to enjoy it.

    • Michael Leach

      Thanks for your comments! You’ve got three wonderful and lively “flowers” to tend to. They deserve your best. So scale back. To avoid guilt, I carefully maintain only what I see from the patio/sunporch. Out of sight, out of mind until there’s time to tend more distant areas. The view provide guilt-free viewing with minimal upkeep and maximum therapy.

  5. Ah, yes. This subject has been on my mind all of this gardening season. The answer for me is to expand on existing beds that require little maintenance. Larger expanses of the same plants look good with the scale of our landscape. Coreopsis will fill a bed and leave little room for invaders that need pulling. Lariope muscari Big Blue can fill a large area and require little or no water all summer. There are places where variety can be planted for the season if we have the inclination to attend to it. After years of changing and trying new varieties, it is clear that some characteristics are well worth the effort, and some – an experience for memories and the photo album. I will look around the garden and the things that have been there from the beginning, the plants I never have to worry about watering, deadheading, freezing during an exceptionally cold winter or the deer eating, those are a sure thing and I will make the most of that valuable knowledge.

    • Michael Leach

      Those are wonderful suggestions for using plants that are eager to fill space with little fuss. I also appreciate your use of memories and a photo album for those experiments that didn’t go quite as planned.Thanks for sharing.

  6. Denise Schreiber

    I’ve gone from planting the latest must have perennials to almost none at all, preferring to have lots of color with annuals, herbs are now planted in deck boxes which keep them much cleaner and more accessible and doing a lot more containers that I can change every year. I still have a penchant for trees and shrubs but am running out of room. I find myself wanting to spend more time doing other things or just sitting on the deck ENJOYING the garden rather than working in it.

  7. Michael Leach

    Amen to wanting to sit back and enjoy the garden! That’s been one problem in recent years, giving in to the Adirondack chairs on the patio instead of religiously doing the chore list. Thank you for sharing your approaches to a more sensible garden. Why haven’t I thought of putting more herbs in a containers, instead of just the one tender rosemary?

  8. Glenna Major

    Thank you for the timely (for me) article. Every now and again I sit down with a book entitled “Gardening for a Lifetime (How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older)” by Sydney Eddison. Although she apparently has more acreage and funds than I do, her book has some excellent ideas and food for thought. Since I live next to a deer-infused park, I gave up on a veggie garden long ago, although I still plant a tomato plant or two in containers on my deck. Insofar as flowers are concerned, I have tried deer-repellent with mixed results. The deer may stay away for awhile, but eventually they get to my hostas and various flower buds before they can bloom. Some plants, however, do not seem too appealing to the deer (e.g. lenten roses, wood poppies), and those I will retain and encourage to spread. In sum, my current plan, dreamed up after fighting deer and drought for many years and feeling too old to keep up the battle, is to go with nature’s flow rather than continually watering, etc. Whatever survives the environment that I offer can stay (except weeds). The rest will be eaten by deer or die a slow death. I am sowing the seeds of more native plants (e.g. goldenrod, asters, coneflowers), and using colorful annuals only in the front of the house, where deer forage less frequently. Ultimately, I may move to a condo with a much smaller gardening area, but I like where I am and hope to stay here for at least several more years. We’ll see if my “go-with-the-flow” concept works in reality!

  9. Michael Leach

    Many thanks for making me feel less guilty for being practical. A garden is constantly changing. There was a time when mine was much simpler but there was a harvest of pleasure all the same.

  10. Eddi Reid

    You are not alone in this dilemma, very apparent there are lots of us. We have struggled with maintenance of a fairly large property and have opted for not fighting the wildlife or the weather. Deer roam freely and rabbits, squirrels plus muskrats, visiting, nesting geese and various others live peacefully here. Some of the landscape is given over to wildflowers and although there are messy periods the increase in wild and bird life is unbelievable. No watering takes place except for pots of special favorites.
    Herbs, vinca, hardy perennials, low maintenance shrubs and trees have been under planted with numerous spring flowering (and deer resistant) bulbs. We use no pesticides or herbicides with the exception of dealing death blows to rampant poison ivy!
    We have had to hire help for some of the work and I have to tell you that nobody will care for your beloved garden the way you do yourself. Be prepared for that aggravation!
    Eventually we will have to leave this garden and all it means, but Oh! What a gift it has been. We have raised four children here, two horses, numerous dogs and cats and been blessed beyond belief.
    Going through the transition has helped me come to terms with thoughts of moving but it still hurts.
    But I will survive. Maybe orchids in a sunny space?
    Good luck Michael.

    • Your observations and comments are so welcome. These help me as the process of coming to terms with separation continues. Knowing we aren’t alone in this is a plus. Also I appreciate your warnings about the possible frustrations of hiring help with the maintenance. Most of my house improvement projects have been fraught with contractor-induced annoyances making me dubious about those endless makeover shows on HGTV. You are right to think of the garden as a gift — one we give ourselves with God’s help and a lot of sweat.

      • Eddi Reid

        If we can only work on taking none of it personally — and our own homes/gardens are so very personal – then perhaps we can sail peacefully through it all!!

  11. Good point. Another thought, we didn’t start out of the gate with an enormous garden. It grew a bit at a time. In a sense, we turning back to a simpler era as we unload the maintenance.

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