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?