Hearing that several of you are in the process of leaving your current gardens and starting over in new places has gotten me thinking about the fate of gardens that are left behind, either by choice or necessity.
What happens to a garden in the absence of its creator depends a good deal on the person or people who are left with its care. If they are non-gardeners—and yes, though it’s hard to remember, there are lots of people out there for whom gardening is not a consuming passion—they may think of buying the house, rather than the landscape, with the idea of turning the garden back to grass as soon as possible.
Other people may be equally attracted to the house and landscape. Taken with the idea of having a garden, they may start out with the idea of keeping exactly it as the previous owner left it. Eventually, it’ll likely go one of two ways. One possibility is that they’ll give it a try for a year or two, then get frustrated with not knowing what’s there or how and when to take care of it; then they may hire someone to do the work for them or else they too may decide that lawn is an easier option. Or, they may make the effort to learn what’s growing there and how to maintain it, and in the process become gardeners themselves.
The complexity of the garden itself likely plays a part in whether its new owner would want to keep up or give up after the first season or two. I imagine that yards that include lots of hardscape—paved paths, fences, arbors, patios, and the like—accented with defined planting areas are far more likely to stay relatively intact, because they don’t require quite so much time or knowledge to maintain: the structures say “this is a garden” and the plants themselves are almost incidental. But if the new keeper doesn’t have to make any major design decisions or put effort into making new beds and can easily manage the plants that are already there, it may be a good way to get them hooked on the experience and give them to desire to add something of their own choosing.
For the same reason, I’m guessing that gardens based heavily on “permanent” plantings are pretty likely to stick around once their original creators are gone. Trees, shrubs, and groundcovers can typically get by with minimal input for a few years, giving their new owners time to get up to speed with pruning and other maintenance techniques. On the other hand, their relatively static nature may not provide a lot of inspiration for their new owner to add new plants or renovate older areas.
The sorts of gardens with the least positive fates are the sorts I imagine most of us have: “personal gardens,” which are not designed in a CAD program or professionally installed all at once, but which are loved into existence over a period of years. Whatever hardscaping elements there are have been added a bit at a time, with whatever materials we could find or afford to buy. Sure, the brick paths may be a bit lumpy because we didn’t bother to put in a proper base of gravel, but they look all right from a distance, and they’re imbued with the memory of the day we spotted that pile of bricks for sale by the roadside and decided they’d be just the thing for the new cottage garden we made out back. And yes, the arbor in the side yard might be a bit askew, but if you’d been the one digging the holes for it and knew how many rocks we had to pry out in the process, you’d be impressed that it ended up even that close to level.
And the hodgepodge of plants: How could anyone but a true gardener be expected to appreciate that each plant has a story behind it, associated with memories of the original giver, the tiny gem of a nursery we found it at after years of searching, or the day it arrived as a tiny twig in a cardboard mail-order box? Forget the rules that say we must plant in groupings of three or five or seven; “drifts of one” are perfectly acceptable in a personal garden, even if the intensive variety of different plants makes maintenance infinitely more complicated.
Looking back over the past two months, I sometimes get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of effort it takes to maintain my own garden. I’m out there easily 6 hours a day, every day, just doing general care stuff. And at this time of year, on the days that I’m focused on laying out all of the annuals and tenders and getting them into the ground, I can be out there 12 hours a day without it feeling at all like work. I can get away with it, because technically it is my work, and there’s nothing else I ‘d rather do more, and no where else I’d rather be. I can understand that spending that much time puttering around in flower beds might be incomprehensible to a “normal” person, however.
I’m inclined to think that personal gardens really shouldn’t outlive their creators, and in many ways, that has influenced how I’ve made and maintained the garden here. My first house, right in the center of a small town, already had a bit of a garden and—the main reason I bought the place—a small pit greenhouse. I gardened there happily for 7 years and was naïve enough to think that the new owner was serious about liking the garden and wanting to take care of it. When I saw it several years later, all lawn and with little evidence that there’d ever been any sort of garden there, I was crushed.
Here, maybe it’s not unreasonable to hope that a person who would buy a small log house with several acres and places for keeping animals would also value at least the practical part of the garden: out back, with the vegetable garden and herbs and fruit trees. The fiddly bits out front and on the sides, which require days of planting and many hundreds of seedlings each year to produce a spectacular effect in late summer and fall? Not so much of a draw, I suspect. And without that huge yearly spring input of time and plants, it wouldn’t take more than a few weeks for the weeds to take over in the spaces I leave open for the annuals.
If I decided I wanted to eliminate the “problem” of the yearly addition of annuals, it probably wouldn’t take me more than a year or two to fill those holes with perennials. But as we gardeners know, the definition of perennials as “plant them once and they come back year after year” glosses over the fact that it still takes work to create that easy-care look. My lowest-maintenance borders are the areas outside of the fence that I’ve planted only with tough perennials and ornamental grasses. I can make the yearly cutting-back go quickly with a few passes of my brush mower, but there’s still hand-trimming the remaining stalks, raking out the debris, yearly edging to keep the turf from creeping in, and at least two passes of weeding to keep the weeds and self-sown seedlings down until the perennials can fill in.
Inside the fence, where the beds are all mixed plantings, it’s a constant challenge to balance the growth of the shrubs and trees with the perennials. By necessity, I always start with small woody plants, so for a while, I have to worry about them getting smothered by the perennials. Then, once the woodies are established, I have to employ a variety of pruning techniques to make sure they don’t crowd out the perennials. Would someone else be willing to use the same hard-pruning/thinning/light-pruning system I use to keep the golden catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’), smoke bushes (Cotinus), ninebarks (Physocarpus opulifolius), and elderberries (Sambucus) in proportion to the perennials? Probably not.
Yes, it would be easier to let the shrubs fill out into their natural forms and minimize the pruning, but that would give the whole area inside the fence a much more mature look, and that’s actually what I’m trying to avoid. More than a few experts insist that gardens should have woodies and structures for “winter interest.” That’s fine if it’s pleasing to them, but by the end of the growing season, I’m physically tired and mentally satiated by the splendor of the late-season garden, and I’m grateful to have a break from it all for a while. And when spring returns, I get an immense amount of satisfaction in watching the transformation from bare earth to a jungle of foliage, flowers, and fruit over the period of just a few months.
Perhaps the biggest decision I’ve made that will affect the garden’s future is choosing bark mulch as the topping for nearly all of the paths. Each year, I have to spend several hundred dollars on truckloads of mulch, and about 10 hours to spread it all—not to mention the many hours of weeding out all of the thistles and self-sown seedlings that still manage to come up throughout the growing season.
I originally chose bark mulch because it was the easiest and least expensive option. This year, though, it occurred to me that the money I’ve spent on mulch over the past 10+ years would have been more than enough to pay for paved paths instead. But if I could do it over again, would I make a different decision? Probably not. Paving certainly would make maintaining the whole garden easier. And, if I bought just half of that amount of mulch, I could use it on the beds instead and eliminate a lot of weeding time. But, as with the woody plants, I feel that adding paving would give the garden an illusion of permanence that I don’t really want. Imagining that a very few hours with a backhoe and tiller could turn my labor-intensive creation back into turf makes it all the more precious to me now. Granted, I hope to never see that happen while I live here, but once I’m gone? I think I’d be happy to remember the garden as it was, instead of seeing someone else’s interpretation in its place.
What about you: Do you ever wonder about what will happen to your garden when you move away? Do you hope that it would inspire a new person to become the same sort of gardener you are, or would you like to think of it in the hands of an experienced gardener who would appreciate all of the work that you had put into it? Or, do you expect that your own creation will meet the “from lawn it came and thence it will return” fate?