Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Giving It All Back

C.D. Friedrich (1774-1840)

Gardens are so ephemeral.  And you can go ahead and call me a pessimist or a glass-half-empty kind of guy but every time I see a beautiful garden, there is one nagging question that always pops into my head:  What will happen to that garden when the gardener is gone?  Considering all the hard work that goes into making a good garden, wouldn't it be nice to think that if some fate would separate the gardener from the garden, a supremely confident, yet beneficent, garden avenger (yes, maybe even wearing a mask, a cape and a pleasant smile) would swoop in and rescue the whole thing from the clutches of Mother Nature who, as we all know, is obsessed with the entire notion of ecological balance and likes nothing more than to give everything an equal shot at life, including things like weeds, pests, deadly viruses, and even telemarketers?  But this almost never happens. Few gardens outlive their creators for very long. This became especially clear to me last week when I visited family in Pennsylvania.

The Garden Avenger, who cuts a G with his blade.
"Hold on Mother Nature... not so fast!"

Living next door to my sister for many, many years were Chet and Eleze whose entire lives revolved around their garden. They were out there every single day, in heat and cold, even when they were well into their nineties, planting, clipping, and fussing with that garden. And, it was beautiful.  But then Chet  passed away in 2002, at 91, leaving Eleze alone to care for this beautiful, but rather large garden.  She did what she could on her own for awhile but was soon forced to seek outside help.  And so, with the assistance of a small crew who would come into the garden every week or so to do the heavy stuff, Eleze continued to maintain this little piece of paradise until last year when she too passed away at age 96.  Now, their house and garden are up for sale but, as the Wall Street executives keep reminding us, it's currently a poor housing market (through no fault of their own, they will tell you) and so it has been difficult to sell the house. And realtors tell me that large gardens, even gorgeous ones like Chet's and Eleze's, can actually hurt the sale of a house because most 21st-century men would rather spend their weekend tending a case of beer and a TV remote than anything resembling a large garden.  So, when couples come to look at the house, as soon as the husband gets a whiff of all that manicured green he immediately high-tails it off the property before the wife even has a chance to say "honey, look at the nice zinnias."  And so, after a year of Chet's and Eleze's garden sitting idle, you-know-who has begun to take over with her equal-opportunity-for-all-life-forms program and things are now starting to look a little ragged.

photo by Joe King

But, I'm no longer so sure this is a bad thing.  As I get older, there is something very comforting about the thought of giving it all back to Mother Nature someday. After all, it only seems fair that if we wrestle it all away from her in the first place, simply to pursue our own idea of beauty, we should give it back when we're done with it.  And, anyway... I don't REALLY hold any serious grudges against Mother Nature.  I will say, however, that she could have eased up just a little on the weather last winter.  And, there were all those heavy rocks through the years.  And then, I almost forgot, there's the powdery mildew.  But that's all beside the point. As I see it, when we get too old and tired and it's finally time to turn in the trowel, we gardeners are faced with only a few options:  We can pay someone to keep the garden going (ca-ching, ca-ching); we can move away so we don't have to watch the reclamation process as Mother Nature moves in (a little cowardly, maybe?); or we can make up our minds to give it all back and embrace the reversion to wildness (romantic ruins?).  Somehow, this last option seems a lot less angst-ridden, and perhaps even entertaining to me.  And, I must say, I was recently happy to see that I'm not alone in this view.

When I returned home from my trip to Pennsylvania, I was glancing through my latest copy of Gardens Illustrated (July 2011) and ran across a letter to the editor from Mary Hope (what a nice name) of Wiltshire in the UK.  Mary's letter was accompanied by a few photos and, like her name, was full of optimism.  Here is what she said:

This view of our garden, taken recently, looked very different in 2003, when it appeared on the cover of Gardens Illustrated.  Since then, too old to garden, we go into decline together and quite happily.  I wonder how others feel about abandoning their gardens to nature, or whether they employ a gardener instead, or even move house.  We have someone to clip the topiary and mow the lawns but otherwise the garden is reverting to the wilderness it was when we arrived 54 years ago.  I love watching what happens and never feel sad about it.  Who would have guessed that a wave of Cardamine bulbifera would sweep through to meet the one of ground elder, or that the orchard would grow thick with fritillaries and cowslips.  I would love to know how others feel about gardens and old age.

I would like to know, too.  So, please, weigh in with your thoughts.


  1. Hi Joe,

    The life of a garden, is a very interesting subject for your blog. One very distinct childhood memory is of being in a public park, once a beautiful and glorious garden that had become overgrown and neglected. The bones of the garden remained and even as a young girl I could imagine how beautiful it must have been. It made me a little sad really, the thought that gardens that had been once so well loved had been left to be reclaimed by nature.

    Now all these years later I am still a little torn by the idea that a garden tended and designed with love could quickly revert back to a wild overgrown patch, but I am well aware of the fragile nature of life. We are all just visitors really and the marks we make on the world are rarely indelible. I try to remind myself that the love and energy we pour into the earth is never lost, that regardless of the weeds and thickets that may take over we have added something to the world.

  2. It would be interesting to see if a design principal could be developed that would let you gradually transition back. Not that I want to give up (yet)!

  3. I ponder this a lot as I grow older along side my gardens. My garden is sacred to me having spent years and countless hours shaping it, and just as many enjoying it. Even the thought of having to give this up, and the new owners bulldozing the gardens can haunt me. Yet, I reminded of how temporal life is and that I'm only a small piece of this land. Before me it was farmland, grazed by animals and tended by farmers who, no doubt had similar thoughts about this land. What happens after me I will not know, but whatever becomes of it, I hope the new inhabitants (humans or wildlife) find beauty and shelter here. Thoreau says it beautifully:

    “Every blade in the field
    Every leaf in the forest
    Lays down its life in its season
    As beautifully as it was taken up.”

  4. Great post Joe and very timely as I read an article in the Financial Times this morning addressing the very same topic. I thought of you when I read it. I will see if I can find the link, if not, I will write separately for your address to send it. I seem to have mislapled it.

    Jeanne :)

  5. Thanks, Jeanne! I look forward to reading the article!--Joe


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