To walk through a young garden in winter is a courageous act when the garden is your own, and the budget, diminutive. We forget how much frosting the active growing season naturally spreads over an imperfect cake – or indeed, how much frosting the resourceful amongst us can whip up with the aid of dramatic, fast-growing, but tender, subtropical foliage.
Royal icing will work magazine-worthy miracles in the kitchen, but that is nothing compared to a glorious threesome of Red Abyssinian banana drawing one’s eye away from a tiny but precious viburnum struck just two years before.
When the seasonal trappings are removed, and one is faced with deficiencies that are yet to be remediated by the skeletal remains of large specimens; or the gravitas of thousands of dollars’ worth of hardscaping; or indeed, by the comforting presence of a staff gardener edging pathways or schlepping compost, thoughts can weigh heavy.
I have been gardening long enough that I routinely look past What Is and visualize What Will Be, but I still suffer from these moments of clarity, and they almost always happen when The Brown and Grey Time settles in for the season. I am reminded that my garden is young, and I must fight against the urge of a once-younger me to feel inadequate.
My current garden is seven years old. Thirty years ago, seven years might as well have been forty, it was so remote. Today, it’s about the time it takes me to master a new software update. When I first started gardening, I would have been adamant that seven years and a strong work ethic would give me a fully mature garden in every sense of the word. What I failed to add to that equation was the phrase “and ninety thousand dollars.”
And that’s lowballing it. Unlike us, a young garden retains its youthful appearance longer when you put less money into it. How often have I found myself redoing tasks and setting back the clock because I didn’t have the budget to do them right the first time? It’s frustrating certainly, but it doesn’t mean we should wait to begin our gardening life until the funds are flowing or the sugar daddy is found.
What we gain from young, broke gardens is experience. Hard experience that cannot be bought. We learn skills from necessity: how to propagate, how to build raised beds and trellises, how to skillfully but ruthlessly divide our plants, how to carefully match precious plants to our soils, and how to enrich those soils without depleting our bank accounts. We fully absorb the ordinary, the extraordinary, and the individual eccentricities of our outdoor spaces in a way that others with greater resources cannot appreciate.
It’s work experience. Apprenticeship without the master craftsman or curfew.
But the good news (albeit bittersweet) is that time moves more quickly the longer one lives upon this earth, and compensates such loss with the unexpected gift of patience. You cannot watch a child go from babe-in-arms to bristly and beer-drinking without cultivating some perspective on the size of your viburnum.
Yes, I would love unlimited funds. Or at least the brazen insolence to apportion more of our household coffers to an ultimately ephemeral creation Nature waits patiently to reclaim. But in the absence of such reserves or resolve, I am no less served by the passage of time, the on-going cultivation of skills, and the very great gift of watching a tiny viburnum cutting come into its own.
I loved this post. I moved to a new house five years ago and am slowly creating the structure of my garden while constantly wondering to myself if the deer will leave XYZ alone. I’m a garden writer, so I wish I could snap my fingers and have a twenty-year old garden appear before me. It’s humbling to start over.
Thank you Roxann. It is humbling – that’s a good word for it. I am battling deer also, but in that occasional way which tempts you to let down your guard, and ends in tragedy here and there. Just four weeks ago I hunted out a couple specific shrub cultivars to bring light and heft to an area of the serpentine bed, paid a little more than I’d like to, and had them stripped bare within two days because the deer were off my radar. We must stay ever vigilant. – MW
Marianne, I very much enjoy your writing and this column is delightful. I love the wry humor, the lessons learned, the positive outlook that is so easily transferable from Life to the Garden and back to life again. Plus you are just a delightful and talented writer. Thank you.
Thank you so much Anne. Deeply appreciated.
Your edgeworthia reminds me that I had one. Once. It thrived for 10 years until a January warm spell was followed by temperatures in the mid-twenties. It took me months to accept the loss and grub it out. The three or four I used to see around near me in DC aren’t there anymore, either. 🙁
Mary Jane, this is a great fear in my horticultural life. Edgeworthia is a daphne relative with many of the same issues. I am technically 6b and the edgeworthia has no business being here. But it is here, it thrives, and I will enjoy it as long as I can. In hindsight it probably was a terrible idea to put it near the front door as its loss will be more deeply felt in the end. Thanks for your comment!
I think it was good that I didn’t have much money for gardening when I was dumber than dirt. So much of what I have planted (even in my wiser years) has gotten eaten by snails, gophers, deer, sowbugs, birds, or simply failed to thrive. Persistent gardening is the triumph of hope over experience.
Your observation of “a young garden retains its youthful appearance longer when you put less money into it” deserves expansion. I’d love to hear further thoughts on this.
Yes – there’s something to be said for experimenting with cheaper plants and learning lessons the hard (but not terribly expensive way). I am currently renovating my vegetable garden after five years, and it will be hard to turn back the hands of time and begin again, but this time at least I will invest some money into the renovation so that we don’t have to do this again in another five years. Maybe I’ll get ten. 🙂 – MW