The office is lightly scented with pencil shavings and old coffee mugs this morning. Not an unpleasant smell, but an unfamiliar one.
I have ignored this room for two weeks over the Christmas holiday, and come back to it apologetically now – watering the parched papyrus tub and mindlessly straightening piles of to-do on three separate desks. They threaten to overwhelm me if I let my eyes linger, so I tidy instead and finally move to my writing desk where a screensaver has danced for days.
Outside we are being treated to unseasonably warm weather, which brings out the deep tawny reds and browns of still standing grasses, and contrasts them against turf grasses and weeds responding to warmth in shades of bright green. It is the only time I feel any fondness for Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum) whose dead, russet foliage sharply marks the lines between cultivated and wild; and – perversely perhaps – gives shape to the landscape.
From the window it is oddly beautiful. In the summer, the same weed will take on height and vigor, and leave me as a gardening Sisyphus – beating back multiple germinations, ever mindful that there may be no end to it.
January’s garden beckons after a month of rest and I am excited over projects on the docket: a cleared woodland garden, an expanded mini-meadow, an ornamental grass-filled berm to direct storm water. For that matter – another year of growth on juvenile trees, and the knitting together of established beds.
We have been at Oldmeadow six years and it is glorious. But for all my excitement, there is a creeping feeling that it may be time to hire a few hours of help with rough work going forward.
It may actually be time to make a tough resolution – and keep it. For there are new projects in that quiet office just as pressing as those outside the window and only so much time. My sanity is on the line.
“You are at a point,” a garden designer friend said last winter, “that what you want to achieve in the garden is impossible without extra help. You can stay where you are, or move forward. You must make a choice.”
There was no value judgement either way, just a choice – the same choice I outline for groups when speaking on matters of garden maintenance: Constantly assess your resources and do not work beyond them.
And ‘resources’ can mean everything from back muscles to bank accounts.
My friend and I were only discussing a few hours of help a week. So why did this feel like such a massive conversation to have? Why am I sharing it here?
Because gardeners rarely have it. And I think we should.
Indeed, this particular conversation only came about when, faced with the incredibly busy life of my friend, her upcoming manuscript delivery, and the fact that she had her own garden on top of everything else, I finally broke down and asked her that which is never asked:
“Do you have help?”
She was very quick to answer – in fact, I think her exact words were “Are you kidding? Of course I do.” But up until that point, I thought she did it all.
All is Not Always As It Appears
Many of us make similar assumptions when visiting gardens, and garden writers may be culpable of setting that tone. Private gardens are often written about in terms of what the owners did, and, unless a designer is involved, not who they hired to do it.
Perhaps that is as it should be – the details could get unnecessarily complicated – but when gardeners and owners speak of “I did” and “I planted” and “I dug” and use terms that intimate full communion with the process, and then one finds over direct questioning and the soup course, that the ‘I’ is really ‘we’ twice a week and on Sundays, and isn’t it a shame there is only that? ….well, one feels misled. There are few direct references to help unless the garden is public.
As if it is a dirty secret.
Ironically, non-gardeners do not play these games. If you don’t like yard work, and you live in the twenty-first century, it is obvious you hire it out along with the grocery shopping and dog walking. You may even brag about it to friends (as one did to me recently over 2000 bucks worth of mow and butcher). It is only the gardeners that keep such details under wraps.
I will never forget reading a June [personal] calendar of daily tasks in a magazine that-will-not-be-named, that scheduled a plowing of the back fields on Thursday and a garden party for forty on Friday, along with some miscellaneous flower arranging and incidental television appearances on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Not: “Have the back fields plowed.”
“Plow the back fields.”
Not: “Have Wolfgang prepare the menu for forty. Have Sasha design and build tablescape. NB get a Xanax refill”
“Prepare menu for forty and set table.”
It is subtle and it is clever and it can have the effect of making mere mortals feel a bit inadequate.
It is also an extreme of course. But conscious or not, there is a reticence to discuss the help one has in the garden, or indeed in the home.
In wealthier circles I appreciate that the issue of ‘staff’ is understood. One has land: ergo, one has staff. But in middle class squares, where I solidly reside, it feels as if you’re cheating.
It is an expense. If you’ve DIYed all your life and never seen a problem you felt you couldn’t solve at some level, it can feel as if you’ve given up.
When Garden Help Makes Sense
Over the years I’ve found that those of my acquaintance in retail horticulture who have their own private gardens (and display gardens) share an unspoken understanding that help is required. Period.
Staff hours may be used in personal gardens when business is slow, both to keep them employed and to take advantage of employees already sourced and hired. It is not so easy to find good labor, and if you are lucky enough to have found good people, it is wise to keep them employed.
Furthermore, if you are a garden designer or landscape architect, your garden is your calling card and there is no sense in mulching beds for eight hours when you should be sketching plans.
If you’ve DIYed all your life and never seen a problem you felt you couldn’t solve at some level, it can feel as if you’ve given up.
Since that eye-opening conversation last winter, I have made a point of asking gardeners when I tour gardens two important (if impertinent) questions. First, how many hours do they spend in the garden each week, and second, do they employ help – from basic ground crews to fine gardening. If it is a public garden, I ask about current staff, both permanent and temporary.
Those questions are in no way asked judgmentally, but instead, serve as reference to help me understand what is possible and what may be impossible with current resources – and indeed what I can in good conscience, recommend to others.
And there have of course been gardens and gardeners where I felt it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.
So, today, a few short days into the new year, this gardener/writer is faced with a decision. I can either resolve to stop creating new areas and maintain what is – perhaps even letting some beds or areas drift back to a natural state (which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do); or,
I can get over my hang-ups and control issues and hire out the mulching.
I’d add weeding, edging, mowing, watering and clearing to that short list, but there’s no sense in completely losing my head. One must have aspirations. And cash.
After a lifetime of DIY and making do, and faced with ten acres of rampant Virginia stream valley and a whole lot of dreams, it might just be time.
Stay tuned. And Happy New Year.
This article has been edited from its original version.
Excellent post. I always wonder if gardens I see, or read about, have hired help. Monty Don for example. I dislike Martha Stewart, one reason being she implies she does it all by her lonesome self. She sets expectations that no one can obtain singlehanded. I am hired to maintain one private garden but at 66, am trying to hire out some heavy digging in my northern Virginia clay.
This is an interesting discussion. For me, and so many serious gardeners I know, the question isn’t whether it would be nice to have help, it’s how you FIND help. Given that I’m the only person who has ever worked in my garden, I’m a bit of a control freak about it. The thought of letting someone loose in my garden is so unsettling. But yet, I’m with you … I either need to make adjustments to my garden or call in reinforcements.
Yes – This is the second part of the discussion. Once you have made the resolution you actually have to find someone – and who? I know that in early days at least I will be working side by side with them (lol they will love that :)). If I am not doing the same work, I’ll be working in the same area.
Thank you Marianne!!
Thank you! I have toured so many gardens where the owners claim to do it all only to find out later that they have, “people”.
I have also become painfully (both physically and ego wise) that I can no longer garden for eight hours five days a week. It is humbling to say the least. I have had to take a reality check and scale back my garden plans.
I enjoy reading your blog and would love to tour your garden and meet Mungo.
Happy New Year,
I appreciate this message so much. Thank you!
Excellent topic. I do all my own gardening and help others with theirs. BUT! I have a small lot, (50′ x 100″) and my husband insists on having a lot of yard, so my gardens are small.
Knowing that others, with far bigger gardens, have help is a wonderful thing to know and does not diminish what I think of the garden or it’s owner.
I recently subscribed to your newsletter and am very pleased with its honest, no-nonsense tone. I garden in northern CT near the MA border, so a little shorter growing season for recovery time, but I’ve realized as I progress into my seventies that my ambitions (fantasies) exceed my grasp. I have interviewed so-called professional landscape/garden help only to find them either too expensive, or worse, to have gardening styles that have not kept up with movement to more natural, native and chemical free garden practices. The alternative was delightful, very willing, but completely inexperienced middle and high schoolers. I’ll try again this year. Meanwhile, what did I do to address the weed-infested garden beds, start another one to indulge my desire for more meadow.
If you are willing to mentor, the middle and high school schoolers would be a very good option – and might develop a love of horticulture and spawn new careers in the industry. Thank you for joining the subscription service – hope you enjoy the articles and newsletters.
Excellent discussion. I love to read about these. You describe it very well. Thank you again
What a great post- I fear I’ve been naive to this reality for nearly all the years I’ve been gardening! While I’m not ready to hire in help just yet, it certainly lifts the pressure to create perfection all while manning a non-garden-based 40-hour work week. I do wish folks were more upfront about using help- there’s certainly no shame in it and it would go a long way towards knowing, as you said, what is really practical and reasonable to strive for without said help.