Posted on 34 Comments

On Gardens Left Behind

Side Garden with Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), 'Axminster Gold' comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum), red campion (Silene dioica), and 'Latifolia Maculata' boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) [late May 2014] at
Side Garden at Hayefield with Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), ‘Axminster Gold’ comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum), red campion (Silene dioica), and ‘Latifolia Maculata’ boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) – late May 2014
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.

'Axminster Gold' comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) with lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and red campion (Silene dioica) [late May 2014] at
‘Axminster Gold’ comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) with ‘Auslese’ lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and red campion (Silene dioica) – late May 2014
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.

'Kosmic' kale at
‘Kosmic’ kale: one of my favorite new finds for 2014

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.

Side Garden with golden oregano (Origanum vulgare 'Aureum'), Seriously Black clematis (Clematis recta 'Lime Close'), 'Screaming Yellow' false indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa), variegated wayfaringtree (Viburnum lantana 'Variegatum'), and Golden Spirit smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria 'Ancot') in late May 2014 at
Side Garden with golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’), Seriously Black clematis (Clematis recta ‘Lime Close’), ‘Screaming Yellow’ false indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa), variegated wayfaringtree (Viburnum lantana ‘Variegatum’), and Golden Spirit smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Ancot’) – late May 2014

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.

Planting annuals in the Front Garden (mid-May 2014) at
Planting Annuals in the Front Garden – mid-May 2014

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.

Planting annuals in the Front Garden (mid-May 2014) at
Planting Annuals in the Front Garden – mid-May 2014

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.

Easter Border after mowing and raking (early April 2014) at
Easter Border after Mowing and Raking – early April 2014

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.

Cotinus 'Grace' in late May, about a month after the first cut-back, at
Cotinus ‘Grace’ in late May, about a month after the first cut-back

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.

Front Garden - mid-February at
Front Garden – mid-February
Front Garden - mid-May at
Front Garden – mid-May
Front Garden Middle Path - late July
Front Garden Middle Path – late July
Front Garden Middle Path - late September at
Front Garden Middle Path – late September

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.

Side Garden after mulching (late May 2014) at
Side Garden after Mulching – late May 2014

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?

Front Garden (late May 2012) at
Front Garden at Hayefield – late May 2012
Hayefield House June 2002
Hayefield 10 years earlier (and later?)


Posted on 34 Comments

34 thoughts on “On Gardens Left Behind

  1. How interesting! Yes you’re right about our gardens, they are so personal. We’ve moved about every 5 to 8 years and each time I’ve started a garden all over again, except the one before this one. It had been created about 40 years ago and was beautiful, lush with so many gorgeous trees. But… I didn’t feel right in it, it wasn’t mine. I looked after it, planted a few rosebushes but still it wasn’t mine. Now I started once again a new garden and this one I love. Also thanks for putting all the latin names of your plants. I don’t know all their names in english and this helps, because it’s worldwide!

    I hadn’t really considered the matter from that perspective, Martine: what it would be like for the experienced gardener taking over an existing garden. I can understand exactly how you felt about it not being yours, though. It must be difficult for you to have to move so often, but your garden-building skills must be top-notch by now!

  2. All my garden friends think of that, we are retired and do the same as you, work(labour of love!) in our gardens daily for hours on end and just run back and forth to see how each others gardens are doing. We have personal gardens, not the professional 3,5, or 7 plantings but we love it. Its a shame to think it will be all gone one day, all the love and thought we put into it. It would be devastating to see someone else plow it all to make grass, yikes. Guess I’d better get out there and enjoy it!!

    The thought of the future makes the present all the more precious, doesn’t it? I think of how close my own plot borders on chaos–just a month or two of neglect and it would very likely descend into a mess–and wonder if I should seriously consider a plan for removing some of the gardens myself. I think that’s unlikely to happen, though, at least this year: I’m having too much fun trying to keep up with what I’ve already made. Have a good summer, Sue!

  3. Nan,

    Given that our home is currently on the market – and our half acre of heaven is almost entirely garden, save for the house, driveway, and hardscape – your post could not be more reflective of our current situation. We were well into middle age when we built this garden and I wish that I had read this while we were still in the design process. I might have done things a lot differently.

    We invested heavily in hardscape – cobbled paths, a cobbled patio and driveway all installed the “proper” way with underlayment and drainage – plus a 9000 gallon water garden, gazebo, several large pieces of statuary and an enormous fountain. It’s a beautiful garden but not for everyone. The realtor we listed the property with was the one who was able to recognize the uniqueness and value of the grounds over the house and his marketing strategy is focused on the garden, not the residence. That doesn’t guarantee that someone with a love of gardening will purchase of course, but it does stack the deck in our favor. Or at least I’m deluding myself that it does for the short term. The hardest part of this is caring for this garden until the day of closing, and then having to simply walk away.

    Because we have a blog that shows our garden in all phases of growth throughout the seasons, the realtor says that the blog will sell the garden and the garden will sell the house. I hope he’s correct. We had minor renovations and updates (now completed) that had to be done to the house before we could list it and the first prospective buyers should be coming through this week. I’m curious as to what they will think of the garden: “How lovely, I can hardly wait until it’s mine!” or “Oy vey, the work, the weeding!” or something in between.

    I don’t expect the garden to remain exactly as we leave it. Every year it has evolved and the precise layout has changed as we’ve tried different combinations of plants, moved this here or there, decided that was not a good fit for this garden, or finally located a plant that was on our wish list. Over the past few years we have focused more on roses, adding them into what had previously been strictly perennial beds. Except in the planters, we use precious few annuals. Our perennials are mature and in spring, we divide the largest ones, cull the overgrowth and dig out volunteers that pop up in unexpected places to share with gardening friends. I would expect a person who enjoys the garden as much as we do to put their own stamp on it. The hardscape establishes some well defined beds but other areas could easily be reverted to grass again and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see that happen. A garden, after all, is the manifestation of the creative efforts and taste of the person who works it. You won’t find ornamental grasses here, but another owner may not be as fond of roses and lavender hedges as we are.

    On the other hand, we are very concerned about our koi. They are not just ornaments; they are pets. Without a commitment and a sense from the buyers that they will be well cared for after we leave here, we will gift them back to the water gardening center where we originally purchased them.

    My first home was a small ranch with a fenced in yard and plenty of lawn. I planted a border of shrubs and perennials along the fence and years later, some of the faces and colors had changed but the beds were essentially intact. My second home, which is the home I sold when Steve and I got married, had established perennial beds that were pretty stable, a vegetable garden (small but adequate for our needs) and a wonderful rose garden in the side yard where I left the bistro set and matching settee I had purchased for that area: I spent many hours reading and writing in that garden. Every rose there came from Mike Lowe. I wanted to take some of the roses with me, but decided to leave them, certain the new owner would love that area. That house sold in June and when we did the final walk through before we turned it over, the roses were all in bloom. I was sad to learn that the rose garden had been the first to go. The rest of the ornamental beds followed soon after, replaced by a few shrubs and ground cover. Only the vegetable garden remains.

    On the flip side, we have looked at innumerable properties and speaking as a buyer, we look at each property with an eye toward how we would add a garden or in some cases, add to or build upon an existing garden. The ability to even have a garden has been a major consideration; some of the lots have been shockingly small, with little or no usable land for a garden. In all cases, we know we will make whichever property we ultimately purchase our own. Whether the former owners would “approve” of the changes we make or not is hard to say, but my guess is that if we dig up a carefully manicured lawn or (some would say worse) dozens of carefully tended grapevines (we are moving to Napa) to plant roses, they will likely question our taste and quite possibly our sanity.

    Cathy, you and Steve are two of the people I had in mind while writing this. I think that your garden would have to be a positive selling point. At the very least, it seems unlikely that anyone who was attracted to your property would buy it with plans to immediately replace it with lawn, and there’s enough structure that they could well be inspired to pick up where you left off and make it their own. I can certainly understand your concern about your koi, but we can hope that they too will find another person to nurture and appreciate them. I agree that your blog about the garden could be a real benefit to potential buyers, and I wish you a quick sale to appreciative new owners. You can’t have chosen a better time garden-wise to put it on the market!

  4. Hi Nan, it is often said that beauty is in the imperfections and it is certainly correct with my 40 year old garden (started by my parents, unrecognisable now under my tutelage). Well at least other than on those days where I see nothing but the imperfections. You are so right about the uneven paths and the askew arbour, but these are things that only I notice. It will be the same should I ever leave; what I see the garden for will not be what others will see.

    It is something that is always on my mind through all the hard work, as I have been consciously considering moving from the UK to the Pacific North West to be with my partner for a few years now. It touches my every action in the garden and yet I cannot do anything but put my all into it, knowing that I will leave it to someone else’s whims at some point.

    However, gardening is a process and a journey, never a finished product or destination. That process is with us gardeners always, wherever we are. We just become accustomed to the presence of our past creation.

    lovely article, thanks


    It’s lovely to hear from you, Nick. Forty years is certainly an investment of time and sentiment, and I can imagine how challenging it must be for you to care for your garden now knowing that you may be leaving. As you say, though, you can’t help getting out there and doing everything that you know needs to be done. And really, it’s a bit exciting to think about what you could do in a new place, with all the knowledge you’ve acquired through the years. Just think: you’ll have an entirely new set of mistakes to make! (Er…not to imply that you personally are prone to making mistakes, but just the usual sorts of errors we all end up making at one time or another, as what seem like good ideas at one time turn out in unexpected ways.)

  5. I agree that gardens are personal, and that it’s best to be content with remembering the garden as it was. I recently sold my house and, even though I know the buyer is a (vegetable) gardener, and I did leave her a list of what was what & what its care is, I fully expect that that garden will evolve into something different, and rightfully so. It’s not my garden anymore, it’s hers.

    I’m now housesitting for a friend, and hers is a cottage garden, and I’m enjoying learning about plants I never had the room, or the sun, for, and I’m enjoying tending it, but it’s not mine. I find myself mentally reorganizing it. I think the most important thing I have learned since I began gardening is how ephemeral it all is, really. You don’t cultivate once & sit back. It’s always a work in progress, always evolving, always different at any given point in time. And I’ve come to like that!

    “Borrowing” your friend’s garden must be a very interesting experience, Vicki. Wouldn’t she be surprised to come home to find that you’d moved everything around? I know how challenging it can be to move from shade to sun: new methods, new plants, new problems. Such a good learning opportunity for you, though: excellent training for your next garden!

  6. This very subject has been on my mind for years. My big concern is that no one will buy our house because of the garden. Even I think I have created a monster. This subject is also fresh in my mind because we just returned from a trip to the UK and our last garden visit was that of a Gertrude Jekyll designed garden, The Manor house at Upton Grey. Maybe you have heard of how the Wallanders restored the garden using the original Jekyll plans. Now, there was a garden that had gone back to its wild beginnings. If you have the time you can check the posting I did on the garden.

    It’s hard to know what will happen when any of us have to sell our current gardens, Jennifer. But even if you thought about the resale value from the day you bought your place, would it have prevented you from making your garden in the first place? Trying to be practical can take a lot of the fun out of the creative process! I will definitely check out your post about the Wallanders. (I added a direct link to make it easy for everyone to find.) I sometimes wonder about trying to restore gardens, though, or to maintain “historic” gardens exactly as they were left once their original creators are gone. I can’t help but think that true gardeners are always making changes, and that the gardens they designed or created at one period of their life would be very different if they attempted the same work 5 or 10 or 20 years later.

  7. My last garden in Pennsylvania is still a garden, although I’ve never wanted to go back and see it. I think one of the reasons is the hardscape–all the stone walls I built from the rocks I dug out of the beds. That plus the water garden. Anyway, I hate to think about my current garden being turned back into lawn, and I hope it will end up with some semblance of what I’ve planted here. Since we gardeners all share plants with each other, maybe that’s where our gardens endure.

    Hey, Barbara. I was thinking about your garden here too, and you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if much of it was as you left it, because you did so much with long-lived perennials, groundcovers, and woody plants. Can you imagine how the hellebores have seeded and the epimediums have spread by now? I love your idea about our gardens living on through gifts of plants that share with others. I always think of you when the ‘Crimson Beauty’ persicaria you gave me before you left is in full glory.

  8. I was glad to learn how much time you spend on your garden. Now I know why mine doesn’t look as good: I don’t have as many hours to spare! It would be heaven to focus on the garden at this time of year, and nothing else!

    We all have our priorities, Kathy! I bet your family would be sorry if you ignored their needs to immerse yourself in your garden as much as you’d like. Fortunately for me, the only non-plant souls I’m responsible for are happy when I’m outside, because it means that they might get something good to eat.

  9. I, too, have thought about the legacy we leave behind with a garden.The one I built at a former home was fairly resilient, and survived several changes in ownership. It may still exist, but I have not visited it in a decade (although I could probably tell based on Google Earth imagery). With regard to the present garden, it has taken nearly a decade to build it (sewer installation, water main relocation), and now a large number of woodies are in. But there is a lot of sun, not much water, a lot of rock, and too many weeds. Add in abundant evidence of a tinkerer’s fascination with obscure botanical subjects of marginal hardiness or suitability, and there’s little doubt that many parts are far too fussy to appeal to any future homeowner . . . they may be too fussy to appeal to me in another decade!

    And there’s the appeal of starting a second (or third or fourth) garden: knowing what sort of site you’re really looking for and being able to try new plants and new styles. And, you get to leave behind your now-boring or less-than-wise design decisions and plant choices!

    By the way, the Stipa viridula seedlings you sent are settled in and growing well, and the Asclepias hallii seeds germinated beautifully. Thanks for both!

  10. Thanks for the thoughts on gardens left behind. I’ve had similar thoughts about what would happen if I moved. I’ve put 5 years into mine and it’s a unique little space in a neighborhood without any comparable spaces. I don’t feel like would want to move right now because I don’t feel like I’m ready to move on from this garden.

    Ah yes, it’s one thing to leave a long-established garden and another to leave one where you still have lots of projects you’d like to accomplish or recently finished projects that you’d like to enjoy. May you have as many more years with your current garden as you’d like, Amy!

  11. Nan, thank you for this article. Many times I wondered what ever happened to previous gardens. My father planted a pink dogwood tree for his mother-in-law, my grandmother. A few months ago curiosity, and a long winter, lured me to Google Maps to see my grandmother’s house. The house has been sold more than three times since Gran lived there, and I am happy to report that the tree is still in the front yard…after 50 years.

    At the house where my children spent their childhood we worked together to create a front garden area to eliminate one third of the lawn. The focal point was a Kwanzaan cherry tree under planted with azalea, hosta, blue rug junipers – all of which remain after 20 years.

    What happy stories about your grandmother’s dogwood, Mary, and the continued existence of the garden you created with your children! It’s good to hear that some plants and plantings live on long after their original gardeners. FYI, the papaloquito (Porophyllum ruderale) seeds you sent to me sprouted well, and I have several small clumps of them in the herb garden. The various descriptions of the flavor are so intriguing that I’m very curious to experience it for myself.

    On the flip side a local gardening friend lovingly worked on her personal garden for over 25 years, recently selling her house to non-gardeners. Her friends pitched in to re-home many of her plants; my job was to remove the contents of her two huge compost bins as the new owners will be raising not plants but dogs.

  12. Great and thoughtful post, Nan. All so true. I sold my own, first small house with my initial gardening efforts to someone whom I knew would not garden. No surprise when it all reverted to turf. I was able to take a few plants with me. Now I have expanded my efforts and enjoy it so much, but it would be a small miracle to find a buyer who would embrace it as well. It is for the love of plants and not prosperity that I garden. By the way, I followed your pruning advice on my ‘Grace’ cottinus, with some anxiety from our very cool spring-no growth seen for quite awhile-but now it’s back, and I will do the 2nd prune in mid June. Thanks, I look forward to its controlled beauty!

    I’m so sorry to hear about your first garden, Donna, but we can hope that this one meets a happier fate when you move on. I’m so glad to hear that things worked out well with pruning your ‘Grace’. The rich color of her new shoots is stunning, isn’t it?

  13. Nan,
    Lovely post and great comments. As you know, Dear Husband and I are trying to age in place by modifying our garden to make it more accessible for us and visitors who are less able to get around in a garden (for example, paving and widening paths so a rollator or stroller can easily be used in it). We are also less able to spend the 5 – 10 hours a day that we used to working in our garden, so we are trying to grow less taxing species and varieties (for example, switching from annuals and deciduous perennials to evergreens, letting more shade take over to reduce weeding). We still love to sit and enjoy the garden, we just can’t work in it quite so much. For example, yesterday and the day before, we spent about 4 hours each in the garden, and I came in yesterday just exhausted, even getting a cramp in the back of my knee (never before happened). So 4 hours may now be the new maximum. Or maybe 3 hours should be the new normal. Certainly an hour a day during the heat of the summer is my limit. And we get less done in an hour of work that we used to. What did I do yesterday? I divided lamb’s ears to plant in large planters and under a maple tree. The deer don’t like them and the liriope that used to be under the maple died during this very severe winter. I planted about a dozen divisions, and pruned six bushes, an azalea, three piers Japonica, a birds-nest spruce and a mugho pine. Not really very much at all, you see. It is true that digging through the liriope was difficult, but…

    I hear you, Shen. I’m hoping I have a good few years yet, but after nearly 30 years of heavy-duty gardening, I’m finding that the aches show up more quickly and go away more slowly than they used to. Though I work a bit more slowly these days, I still get a lot done because I can now do a lot of the maintenance automatically, without stopping to make decisions. I probably ought to start thinking of ways to simplify things for myself, though, as you are doing.

  14. Yes, I worry about the next owner taking care of my gardens. I just figure when I move from here I’ll take everything with me. HAHA! Thirty years I’ve lived and gardened here. Hopefully the next owner will like to garden or will learn to garden. I have garlic and Egyptian onions my granma gave me 40 years ago. I can’t think about.
    I don’t know how you take care of it all. I live in an old neighborhood on a small urban lot….and I have a hard time keeping up. Your gardens inspire me so much. I just saw my first flower on the TASSEL flowers.(seed from you) I have a bunch of Solanum ‘bed of nails’ to be planted somewhere.(seed from you) I planted a bunch of ‘moldova’ marigold plants(seed from you) Did you know that it’s foliage folds up in the evening? My other marigolds don’t do that. I have 2 nice crosswort plants to find a home for.(seed from you) Thank you so much for all the seeds. It’s been really fun growing all of these NEW things.
    I love that KOSMIC kale. I saw it last year on a French blog. Where did you find it?
    take care and happy planting,

    Hah, Mel – thank goodness that “You can’t take it with you” generally doesn’t apply to our plants! I’m so pleased to hear that you had such good results with the seeds. And the kale…well, I’d heard of a variegated perennial kale called ‘Daubenton Panache’ ages ago and have coveted it ever since. I saw ‘Kosmic’ in the Territorial Seeds catalog this spring, but it would have cost so much to get just one plant that I couldn’t justify it. Imagine my delight to find several flats of it for sale at the Lancaster County greenhouse where I do my usual spring shopping! There’s some argument about whether the two varieties are the same, but I couldn’t care less what the plant is called as long as it’s so stunningly variegated, and vigorous too. I just wish that it would come true from seed.

  15. I already know that the day I move is the last day I’ll ever see this house and garden — I won’t risk coming back in a few years to see everything gone. Totally personal, but also designed so that many aspects of it cannot be easily erased. :)

    I bet that when the time comes, you will have more plants than household goods in the moving van, Alan!

  16. Your post resonated with me. I left a tiny garden I’d tended for 20 years behind 3 years ago and often wonder if my little jungle is once again covered by a patch of lawn struggling to survive in a space shaded by neighboring houses. Although I brought some cuttings and divisions with me, I’ve wished time and again that I’d dug up and taken some of my treasured plants – I hesitated to do that at the time because I felt as though they belonged to the place.

    We moved into a 1/2 acre property with an established garden designed by a professional for people who had little or no actual interest in gardening. I immediately began making changes, starting with the removal of a sections of lawn here and there. As drought has become an increasingly troubling issue/constraint here and as I learn more about which plants will thrive here and which will never do more than struggle, my planting plan continues to evolve. Grass continues to disappear. Overlaying my aesthetic and environmental choices is also a developing concern with my own ability to maintain this garden as I age. Already troubled with one bum knee, I suspect I need to make choices with some insight into my ability to maintain my garden 5, 10, or more years down the road. I guess the bottom line is that a garden must be seen as an ever-changing canvas – some of the changes will be driven purely by the gardener’s vision, while others will be dictated by time and circumstances beyond the gardener’s control.

    It’s so easy, isn’t it, to get caught up in the thrill of garden-making and -remaking? I’m almost sorry that I brought up this topic at this time of year, when we all should be thinking about the exciting prospect of the current growing season and not dwelling on sad thoughts of slowing down or even ungardening. I completely agree with you about bringing treasured plants along when you move, if it’s at all possible. It’s great to have some familiar faces in your new garden space.

  17. Your post confirms so many of my own thoughts in leaving my garden 10 years ago and wondering how it would fare. Unfortunately, after visiting it five or six years later it was barely recognizable as “my” garden. My mechanism for dealing with the disappointment was to face the fact that it wasn’t mine anymore. In the meantime, I made a bigger and different garden that I love. Our hope is that we will live out our lives here and when we move on, our spirits will remain. At age 71 I’m not as tough as I used to be but I can still put in a solid three hours (the mosquitoes sometimes take the fun out of it though). Someday I will no longer be able to make that kind of commitment but I pray that we will have the means to hire some help so that we can enjoy what I created until the end, and try not to be too concerned about what someone else might do to it. What a joy it is to have my morning coffee while listening to the birds and watching nature change my garden on a daily basis. I can’t imagine living any other way.
    Thank you for such a thought-filled post.

    I appreciate you sharing your experience, Ann. We can all strive to be the best possible stewards of our own bit of land while we have it, whether it’s measured in square feet or in acres, knowing that many others have been there before us and will likely be there after as as well. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to be able to see a time-lapse video of your property over the last 100 or 200 years? Who knows how many other gardeners might have put a bit of their own soul into the earth there?

  18. A very interesting post Nan. I was devastated when I looked on Google Earth at what was my first real garden. Yes you guessed, it was turned into gravel and lawn. It was deeply upsetting because my partner at the time and I had spent 17 years perfecting it and the reason why I moved was because my partner died of Cancer. The garden my current partner and I have was a wasteland when we first moved here 10 years ago. We have planted every plant here and as you say they are all personal, birthday, Christmas presents, gifts etc

    I’m so sorry that you had to see the current state of your first garden, Allan, but I hope you still have good memories of the joy it brought to both of you while you had the opportunity to nurture it. Let’s keep good thoughts that you’ll be enjoying this one for many years to come.

  19. I appreciate your mentioning how many hours a day you devote to your garden, Nan, as it helps me appreciate, and admire from afar, what that much “gardener’s shadow” can do. As to leaving a garden behind, yes, I think most of us could expect that new owners will revert to grass or at least let the easy-care shrubs survive and groundcovers take over the rest.

    Sometimes not, though! It’s been 5-1/2 years since I left my cottage garden, and surprisingly, it’s still there, although much shaggier and less diverse than when I left it. At least it’s not lawn.

    I don’t feel nostalgic or disappointed when I see it because it isn’t mine anymore. Happily, my old garden still lives on through my blog, and so will yours. Yay for blogging!

    It seems impossible that you’ve been in your “new” place that long already, Pam. I remember it from your blog, and I’ve enjoyed watching how you have developed this one. By the way, just this evening I finally put into practice a bit of inspiration I got from you years ago: my first galvanized-tub water garden! It’s not nearly as large or as cool as the stock tanks you’ve used, but it’s a start!

    1. How fun, Nan! I hope you enjoy your container pond as much as I do with mine.

  20. Hi Nan-
    New or old, it’s nice to read how many hours you spend and reassures me that I am not obsessing too. And the before and after pix plus the time progression pix give hope, I’m sure, to all of us. February to July – amazing!
    When I bought my first house, the seller lived next door. She had lived in the old house most of her life, maybe 50 years and was married to the yard work. Until I moved in she agreed to mow the lawn and would not even relinquish the key to the freestanding garage where she stored the riding mower! Once I moved there, she would show up with the electric hedge trimmers in hand and say she had to plug it into the dining room outlet to reach the shrubs. It was hard to disengage this sweet old lady but slowly, I took over one task at a time. I hope I learned a lesson from all that!

    What a great story, Tiiu! That must have been difficult for both of you. In a way, having a practically resident gardener to guide you sounds like an ideal situation, but I can also imagine how it would prevent you from trying new things and putting your own stamp on the garden. I wonder what she would have made of your weed border?

  21. Hello Nan, What a wonderful, thoughtful post. It really struck me that my garden is one that has been “loved into existence” and is composed of uneven brick paths, funky stacked rock walls and walkways that don’t quite line up where they are supposed to. I too have “drifts of one”, precious cuttings given to me by friends, neighbors and fellow gardeners. I like to remember the associations with each plant: Mrs. Smith’s Annabelle hydrangea brought to the office in a dripping paper towel, wild columbines seeding themselves with abundance originally from my friend’s garden, cannas now four feet tall given to me by a patient last fall. I could never afford to have a “real” landscaper install “real” hardscape but I have toted uncounted truckloads of fieldstone scoured from empty lots and by the side of the road to build raised beds. I have re-purposed an old pile of pavers left by the former owner of the house into various pathways and edgings and I have built my own waterfall over my bathtub-sized koi pond. Truly labors of love!

    I too moved my garden over ten years ago when I remarried and lucked into 4.5 acres. (yeah, the acreage did kinda effect the way the romance went! LOL!) It took me the best part of a year to move everything that I could including the field stone, topsoil, small trees and shrubs, perennials and a pond. Now that was craziness! I have never been back but the first little garden is enshrined in my heart forever as the place of healing and recovery that I needed at that time in my life.

    There is a saying that “when the gardener is gone then so is the garden”. I am afraid that to one extent or another that is true. I think it just enhances and enriches what we do and love so much. Life is transitory anyway and we need to remember that and embrace the moment for what it is. At least it helps me not to get so lost in the work of gardening (which I love) that I don’t stop to enjoy the beauty or even the imperfections around me each day.

    Thanks again for the evocative post. Now do one on how you prune those shrubs in your flower beds to keep them under control. I have a nine-bark I want to keep down to size!

    Kate P.

    Wow, Kate – our gardens have a lot in common! When even your rocks have stories behind them, you know that there’s as much sentiment as horticultural handiness in your creation.

    I do have a post about the pruning techniques I use on many woodies here: Cut-Back Shrubs. The exact timing, amount, and frequency that I prune depend on the weather and on the vigor of the individual plants each year. On my long-established ninebarks out front, I’ve been cutting all of the stems down to about 8 inches every year, before the new growth starts, for the last 3 or 4 years, and they seem to be okay with that so far. In mid- to late June, I usually snap off maybe half of the new shoots to thin them out a bit. You do lose the flowers and seedheads this way, but I feel it’s worth it to keep the plants well shaped and control their size to about 6 feet by 6 feet by the end of the growing season. And honestly, my ninebarks have produced so many seedlings over the years that I’m just as happy not to have them bloom these days.

  22. We listed our house about a month ago and with it comes an intensive garden that we have tended for 20 years. I think it is going to be a hard sell because of the garden. I know there is a lot of work involved and not many people out there want to take that on. I am hoping that the perfect buyer (and gardener) will come along but who knows what will happen?

    Oh, Phillip – it must be so difficult for you to leave the garden that you’ve put so much of yourself into. I do hope that you’ll be able to take some of your roses and other treasures. And, it’s exciting to think of what you’ll come up with in your new space! I wish you lots of luck with the move and settling-in.

  23. I left a fabulous little 0.1acre Missouri garden–all my own making–for 1.25 acres of lawn in Alaska. My sister still lives around the corner from my old garden, and she gives me editorial updates. Apparently the garden is not thriving but it is surviving, likely because I focused largely on native plants (it actually won an award for best local native plant garden…8 months after I moved).

    My new house was surrounded by 1/2 acre of lawn when I first moved here 4 years ago. I’ve carved my name into the land by removing lawn and planting garden. But I remember well a conversation I had with the former owner–an art teacher who had just lost her husband to a three year struggle with pancreatic cancer: “He loved the lawn. He could spend all day tending to it. In fact, when his sisters found out he had pancreatic cancer, they bought him a riding lawn mower.”

    I look at the fabulous NEW garden I’ve created in this spot, by reclaiming almost 1/4 acre of lawn, and I love it. But if she were to walk through my arduously stacked stone walls and terraced plantings, she would be sad, because she pictures her husband riding his lawn mower here.

    Gardens are ephemeral, and that is part of their beauty. Constantly evolving, constantly responding to the climate, to weather, to their cultivators. Those of us passionate about growing things just need to remember this and not be too heartbroken when our formerly loved and nurtured gardens change.

    That’s an interesting insight, Heather: that the native plants you chose for your previous garden were tough enough to withstand a good bit of benign neglect. And though we tend to think that turning lawn into garden is always a good thing, your story is a good reminder that it’s not always a positive from the perspective of others. Here, I know that at least two neighbors disapprove of my meadow and would prefer that I mow those acres once a week, as they maintain their properties. Sigh.

  24. We lived just outside Stockholm for 30 years and even if it was a really small garden – only 700 square meters – I had a lit of nice plants. So when we sold the property to a Chinese couple with interest in the garden – I even think they wanted it just for the garden – I had to do a map over all the flower beds with both the common name and the latin names on.
    Last year they had lived there for 10 years and hadn´t changed anything. Rather boring in fact! Every year when I visited my friend and former neighbour I looked over the hedge hoping something new had happened – but no!!
    So last year they sold the place and now the whole garden looks like a working place, mud all over it and all flower beds are gone. Wonder what they will do!?
    But – I don´t really care. Maybee because I moved to a better place with nicer house and larger garden.
    Which now have become a really nice garden and a little “park”. Its 5000 square meters and I have find “my spot in the world” so they can do what they want with the old one. But here beside the garden beds I´m also planting a lot of nice trees which I do hope the next owner will like!

    That must have been a very odd experience for you, Susie, seeing your old garden preserved for so long just as it was when you left it. I’m sure you’re right about your trees being appreciated: even non-gardeners seem to have a fair amount of respect for beautiful trees and shrubs, especially if they don’t have to do much of anything to take care of them.

  25. Nan,

    Excellent post that hits close to home. The replies are icing on the cake. As you know Villa Gracie has been sold and will have new owners in 25 days. (I thought if we called it Villa Gracie the nursery receipts might not be scrutinized as much.) In our case the garden helped sell our home in just 10 days. We have not met the buyers and don’t know what is in store for our beautiful garden. After 9 years of cultivation we are apprehensive. We know our garden’s expiration date is close and so we are looking forward to starting over. has had a very positive affect on our horticultural thinking, what we plant and how we garden. Our plans for the new property are exciting and we are looking forward to creating an even nicer garden. Thank you for sharing, we are appreciative.

    I’m sure you guessed that you and Grace were the others who inspired this post, John. Having seen what you managed in just 9 years there, I’m very much looking forward to following your progress as you develop your new property. I hope the opening of the new native-plant garden that you designed for the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, NJ went well last week!

  26. Thanks so much for such a reflective and thought-provoking post. Our first little house was on the west coast of Sweden. Not much of a house, but the lot had two magnificent, I’m guessing 250-year old, oak trees flanking the view over fields from the kitchen window. Our stay there coincided with a newborn, so not much gardening was achieved, but I used to marvel at that view on foggy mornings. A few years after we moved, I looked it up on Google Earth, and to my horror, the trees were gone. I know the massive amounts of oak leaves can be a pain, but I’m still heartbroken that they were taken down… My current garden isn’t really what I would think of as a garden. It is my first garden in the Pacific Northwest, and I see it more as a learning lab and a place for experimentation. As you can imagine, the plant choices are endlessly more expansive in Oregon than Sweden, and I’m still reveling in the fun of building vignettes. I recently learned the term “cram-scaping”. I hate to admit it, but that is exactly what my garden is at this point – a fine example of cram-scaping! When we first moved here, everything was such a novelty. By now, I think I have a better idea of what my new garden would consist of if we end up staying in this climate zone. There are a lot of plants I would dig up and bring along, and also several things I would feel fine about leaving behind. As several have pointed out – gardening is indeed a journey, and it continuously evolves. Thanks again for a great post!

    Oh dear, Anna – I think the lesson we can take from your experience, as well as the experiences of several other folks who have left comments, is that we should stay far away from Google Earth–at least as far as our old gardens are concerned. Thanks for sharing the term “cram-scaping.” That’s a new one to me, but it needs no explanation. I can imagine you’ve gone quite wild exploring all of the exciting new plant possibilities here!

  27. A compelling post, Nan. I’ve been reading your blog since the Gardening Gone Wild days and am learning as much photography as gardening.

    I, in my early forties, am angry. I’m angry that I have spent the last decade fixing the house instead of working on the garden. Now that the house is nearly done, and the kids have started school, our priorities have shifted and we’re preparing for another move.

    I won’t get to install the garden I see in my mind here. Someone Else is going to see all of the tiny seedlings I started, grow into something spectacular … assuming they have enough sense to see what I’m trying to do and actually water them. Someone Else is not going to fix the endless expanse of lawn just calling out for a tiny circular lawn surrounded by a raised wall, with perennials densely planted down to the sidewalk. And, I’m resigned to the likelihood that we’ll end up in a new house needing just as much renovation, and it will be another decade before I get to play.

    I can only hope that when someone comes to buy our house that they are won over by smart improvements, and they, themselves, will be interested enough by what is here to learn more about gardening. But it is easy to be despairing. A nationally-reknown garden is for sale here in the PNW, and the owner writes: “Indeed, the lack of appreciation for gardening in the general public, and the total misunderstanding of what growing plants do is discouraging.” []

    At least, I’ve spent the last decade reading and thinking and planning and practicing. I’m playing with propagation so I can make 10 plants from 1 instead of buying those 10 plants (and save my $$ for larger trees!). I’m constructing paths and irrigation so that when I buy my new home, I’ll know just what to do so I can age-in-place and not move again. I know how to use my greenhouse and coldframes and worm bins, and I know how much joy I get just from turning the compost. I know the next house we buy will be selected as much for gardening potential as for the house itself. And, gardeners are ever optimists, like the elderly lady who bought two oak saplings and a hammock.

    I completely get why you’d feel so sad and frustrated, having to leave before seeing your plans really take shape. Would it be terrible to suggest that maybe it’s not such a bad thing, though? You’ll have the perfect memories of what you envisioned for the space, rather than the reality, which often doesn’t turn out like our plans due to the limitations of time/money/available materials/growing conditions/etc. And, as you say, the skills you’re working on now will prove invaluable when you find the perfect space for your next–and hopefully last?–garden. I wish you all the best in your search!

    1. Thanks for your kind words. It’s funny … we have an old photo of our house from the early 1950s, just after it was built. And there is STILL the same expanse of lawn in the front after 60 years. In fact, there was a border of flowers between properties, which is GONE. Grass is easy and seems to be a lasting design element, sigh. I’m sure it will still be the same a decade hence. Oh well, I can’t convert all of the awful lawns …

      Yeah, as wonderful as it would be to turn all those lawns into gardens, or at least groundcovers, the reality is that not everyone is interested in ecological diversity: they just want something they can mow once or twice a week and then get on with whatever it is that they find more entertaining.

  28. Some of the farmhouses in our part of Texas have been abandoned for years. And yet, the roses are still blooming amid the weeds.

    I’ve seen the same thing with daffodils around old home sites here, David: gardeners long gone but patches of bulbs still blooming each spring.

  29. My daughter, Claire, just looked at your last photo and said, “She has a cabin too.” It’s amazing to me how similar and yet different our abodes and gardens are. I have to say your post made me a bit sad although I loved it as usual. Why? Because I think about this all the time. I don’t think anyone would spend the time I do to make my garden work for them. It’s too much trouble. When I am gone–for whatever reason–my garden will be gone too. Mine is a high maintenance garden even with the pebble paths. If I had a lot of money, I would’ve chosen dg for the paths. The river rock was free for the hauling. It always washes down the hill though. I like your bark paths very much. So clean and earthy. As for your plants, you teach me so much. Thank you for that.~~Dee

    Hey there, Dee! Yes, thinking about all this has made me a bit sad too. But you know, some positive things have come out of it, too: I’ve identified a list of goals for simplifying some of the higher-maintenance aspects of my garden, and I’ve sketched out a multi-year plan for doing some ungardening in some of the more complex areas. And by changing my attitude to relieve some worries about the future, I’ve found that I’ve enjoyed gardening more thoroughly in the last few weeks than I ever have. And really, having fun with the process is what it’s all about, right?

  30. This post sure hits home with me, Nan. As a military wife we have lived in 10 homes in the last 21 years and have had some form of a garden at each one, even if it was just some pots on a balcony. One of the most difficult parts of moving is leaving my plant “babies” behind. My friends always ask why I bother to make a garden if I know I’m leaving. I suppose I don’t just love to garden, I HAVE to garden. It’s not a home without plants! I rarely see my former gardens and I think it’s a good thing. Might break my heart!

    Why would you *bother* gardening? Why do people *bother* watching movies or going to sporting events or collecting shoes or any of the other things non-gardeners do to fill their free time? That’s the difference between people who think of “garden” as a noun rather than a verb: a thing you have, rather than a process of experimenting and learning and enjoying your little successes. It must be so hard for you to have had to relocate so often, but by now you’ve polished your garden-starting skills to a high level, and you’ll hit the ground digging when you finally get to settle in one place for a while. Just think what you could accomplish after a few years in one place, Lynn!

  31. Fascinating topic, Nan! And so many of the responses are tinged with bittersweet emotion that reveals garden-making as a personal expression of love.

    Because of two stellar gardens that have recently sold in my garden-loving neighborhood in Philadelphia, this topic has been bandied about by my circle of fellow gardeners. Instead of the cliched question “Which 5 items would you take with you in the event of a fire?” we’ve asked ourselves “Which 5 plants would we take and why?”
    My own answers lead to sentimental attachments regarding the source of the plants. They include a silvery-gray hosta that I remember selecting nearly 40 years ago as a young teenage gardener visiting garden centers with my parents. When I sold my childhood home after they passed, that was one of the plants that I reclaimed before moving on.
    I recall the enchanted local lore of beloved neighbor, an elderly woman – Mrs. Haslam, who got a degree in botany after all her children had left the nest in the early 1940’s. Her garden was filled with all manner of rare and special plantings. Whenever a new neighbor moved in, she greeted them with a specially prepared box of cuttings and seedlings. And when the charmed but anxious new homeowners declared, “Oh, I’m afraid I no nothing about gardening!” she’d respond, “Just plant these. If they’re not happy, they will let you know and then you can move them.” Sadly, after she passed away, following the advise of a realtor, her grown (out-of-town) children had the garden completely cleared of all that botanical wonder. Today, her 60 year old dawn redwood is the sole survivor which towers above all else.

    That’s a sad story, Eric, but inspiring, too. I wonder how many of her cuttings and seedlings went on to grace other homes and possibly lure new people into gardening. And I like the idea of “which five plants would you take with you?”; sounds like a good topic for a blog post!

    1. Another thought I’ve had about this great thread:

      When looking at houses on the real estate market, I always feel badly to see an elaborate, expensive and very personally designed kitchen (especially when not to my taste). I think it would be much more painful to demolish and redesign such a kitchen than to strip an outdated, neglected kitchen. Perhaps that’s also true with gardens!?! A very quirky and personally-crafted garden might be harder for another gardener to take charge of than a cleaner slate of lawn and humdrum foundation shrubs. What do you think?

      I think you’re probably right, Eric. Although…it might depend on what’s growing there. A design-oriented gardener may prefer to start with a blank slate, but if there’s really cool stuff already growing there, a plant geek would likely be thrilled!

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