Over the first half of this month I have been in California. Surely an insensitive way to start a column in a Mid-Atlantic newspaper, but I ask you to set aside your envy for a moment. There is both more and less to this statement than you might assume.


Almond orchards a few days from blooming in the Central Valley.


My visit was not steeped in hedonism – either of the traditional variety, or that which passes for hedonism these days in my world (three garden tours on two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and a bit of good cheese).

Nor did I leave with the foreknowledge of a winter weather phenomenon that has the ski industry crying into its collective Coors Light every night. My motives were pure.

I came to help my parents. More specifically, I came to help my parents with their garden.

For nearly forty years now, my parents have scratched that garden out of unforgiving granite-based soils. They have considered the work involved as much a spiritual necessity as an economic one, and have never begrudged it. The garden has provided food for their freezers and pantry and a place to escape from the worries of the day; and over those decades, they have created rich soils, terraced beds, and a deer fence to keep them sane and happy.


My father in his front garden.


But life changes as we get older (see ‘hedonism’ above). Our needs change. Our bodies change. The bits of me that are just beginning to twinge are positively twanging for them. And it ain’t so positive.

We age.

Of course, there are those who don’t seem to: The carefree amongst us who blithely skip from age to age dumping the possessions, habits and expectations of the preceding decade in preparation for the adventures of a new one. We all know and hero-worship one or two of these people: They’re the ones exploring New Zealand on a sailboat while their peers are feeding elderly chickens and filing reverse mortgage paperwork.

The great majority of us cleave tightly to those possessions – those habits – those expectations – even if they don’t serve us well anymore. Changing them feels a bit like ‘cheating’ and a lot like giving up. We need an outside eye. And it certainly helps if it’s attached to a fellow gardener.

I don’t see weedy paths or too-big perennials – I see the opportunity for a new mulched patio.

Thus my efforts to help my parents shape their garden into a manageable space that brings them joy without unnecessary heartache.

A place to pick a bunch of basil and several tomatoes for a summertime salad – not sixty-eight pounds of canning tomatoes with arthritic wrists.

A place for grandchildren to enjoy the miracle of a freshly picked pea without forcing them to pull bind weed until they find it.

More joy. Less work.

For the most part my parents utilize a raised bed system, and that makes things a lot easier.

Using a roll of landscape fabric and several flakes of straw mulch, retiring a few beds was the work of an afternoon. Later, three main beds were weeded, tested and fertilized in preparation for the season ahead.

My mother’s herb bed – still critical to her wonderful cooking – was lightly amended, weeded and segregated into ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ herbs, cutting down on future watering. A space was reserved for basil and dill, and all duplicate herbs were removed from the rest of the garden space. Even Lebanon doesn’t use that much parsley.

A garden of raised beds also means a strong line of demarcation between ‘bed’ and ‘beyond,’ and so on a still day I carefully applied weed killer to overgrown paths and gave my parents a chance to stay on top of future hand-weeding as it arises.


Straw-mulched beds (top) are in hibernation mode. Two additional beds are weeded and covered just in case one or the other isn’t needed. Meanwhile my mother has all the herbs and greens she needs and more to come.


Perhaps most dramatically, I completely removed a long bed of miscellaneous perennials that, whilst lovely in bloom, created extra maintenance and added to a sense of chaos.

To my credit, I saved a chunk of everything and replanted these bits in the now consolidated perennial bed; but much went to the chickens, more went to the compost pile, and until she reads this in print, my mother is as yet unaware.

In place of that bed, I mulched heavily with hardwood chips and set up an old patio table, umbrella and chairs. Just before I left, we all sat and had a cup of tea, watched the chickens foraging and surveyed the results.


A cup of tea on a warm February afternoon with my parents and a chance to think about the season ahead.


More joy, less work.

My parents are pleased, not least because this is not an end – it is the beginning of a brand new phase in gardening. Beds can always be woken, but until then there is peace in hibernation.

More joy, less work.

I am home now and certainly viewing my Mid-Atlantic garden and its future through different eyes – and not just because the sun isn’t shining quite as brightly here. I may be decades away from this change – or from a sailboat for that matter – but it makes sense to let these thoughts inform a decision or two right now.

Reprinted with the kind permission of The Frederick News Post