Gardening Notes number four, Gardening for Old Age

Gardens for old age.

I first wrote about this in good time, probably 25 years ago. It’s a bit late now.

At a recent conference dedicated to praising the virtues of gardens and nature (spiritual, emotional, wellbeingall), only one problem was admitted: the pain an increasingly neglected garden can cause an ageing gardener. Even if she can afford to pay someone to work in her garden, they won’t do it right. Or they’ll do things their way, the wrong way. Or if she’s found a decent gardener she can’t afford to match all the time she used to spend gardening.

As a lively garden grows the gardener reaches out and gets more and more plants, and the cracks in the paving fill with interesting seedlings and the lawn shrinks before the swell of flowers in crowded borders seeking space. The balance of a crowded group of plants is only kept by attentive, diligent weeding and pruning.

The myth of Eden gives, not so much a vision of a garden as an image of a gardener, in the very brief indication of what Adam actually did: he named the plants, and his work was ‘to dresse and to keep’. To my mind this means the kind of gardening sometimes sentimentally expressed in advertisements for pensions and insurance: the lady, usually a lady, probably wearing gloves, secateurs in hand, cutting roses and laying them gently in an old-fashioned wooden basket called a trug, trimming, dead heading, lightly re-arranging unruly shoots. In housework the equivalent would be waving a feather duster or a quick wipe with an anti-bacterial spray. In Eden the plants are all amenable, thorns and thistles came after the Fall.

A few days of dressing and keeping and not much else are possible in our fallen world, but only after and before the labour with saws and forks and loppers, work which makes you crouch and stretch and hurt your back and stimulates your arthritic pain.

But if, say, you plant a favourite little tree in good time, and just one tree will do it in a small garden, it will mature as you grow old, whilst gradually smothering the demanding complexities of your earlier garden, and with a bit of luck become a slowly changing resting point, lending itself to a contemplative old age. No, I’m still not quite convinced either. …

Under it you might have cyclamen and snowdrops which also take a long time to multiply to a colony. 1A few of them are nice, like welcome visitors, but a whole crowd becomes a kingdom. and small plants can make a crowd even in a small garden. Or if you have hellebores as well, as they slowly multiply they will give you different but harmonious colours and markings on the petals. It will be a spring garden of course, because in the summer it will be dry and shady.

The one tree garden is the extreme version, you could go for a few big shrubs, or use dominant, long lasting herbaceous flowers like japanese anemone, whch gradually spreads from its roots. It can be liberating just to let a big shrub rose arch outwards and not have to worry about the plants in its shade. You will find that the given size of most roses, given on the plant label that is, could be a quarter of the reality, if you give up ‘hard pruning’. One of my first customers kept using the word ‘severe’: severe pruning is what he wanted, discipline. You can give up the axiomatic pruning of dead wood. The tangle of dead and dying twigs at the heart of a big rose provides nesting sites for robins and wrens.

Just make sure when you’re still fit that you’ve got rid of all the bindweed.

I couldn’t easily give up all the self seeding annuals and biennials. That’s what made the empty spaces around plants at Hele House (see Gardening Notes number two,)  depressing, the lack of any spontaneity, of change taking place without the gardener’s consent. I would have to have, say, honesty and forget-me-nots. And to make it easier to manage them it would be necessary to have overcome, over the years, the chickweed and the ground elder and the dandelions and the wood avens. And the bindweed. The lawn will have to go. We seem to be drawing near a time when the English lawn – which was always labour intensive and disappointing – will be, at least in the south east, as anomalous a thing as the Spanish lawn. You can sit and doze in a little paved area instead.

Here are two plants for old age. The rose is Buff Beauty. Unpruned or lightly pruned it will grow eight feet high with a spread of at least ten feet. It was growing here when we moved in 33 years ago and is still healthy. Here you just see a part of the shrub. The geranium is G. psilostemon, vigorous, self seeding.

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