Three decades in the garden


For one reason or the other, few gardeners will be around a single garden for three decades. Staying put for so long is no accomplishment, but there is a benefit in witnessing Japanese maples grow into middle age, to budget a modest expenditure each year that grows to fill a property so that no part feels incomplete. A purple leafed European beech, that grew agonizingly slow for years, finally takes hold, and one day the gardener looks up and admires that it now towers over the house.

The long sought after Golden Full Moon is one of an ever growing collection of thirty five or more cultivars of Japanese maple.

Many plants reach a mature size quickly, and the gardener sees some that come and go. Deer have whittled a hundred hosta varieties to half that number, but the gardener’s failings are responsible for many more losses. A lack of care, of preparation, or planning has imperiled too many treasures, and over a period the gardener learns what will grow (or not) given his soil, sun exposure, and quality of care. The result, I suspect, is a happier balance than in a younger garden, and certainly the gardener’s disposition is improved as maturing trees and shrubs cover more ground and ease his maintenance.

Large and small leafed hostas line this stream and stone paths that wind through the garden.

The garden is ever changing, as a Katsura and other trees shade areas that were once mostly sunny, and roots spread to sap moisture. Some changes cannot be explained, so a corner of the property becomes soggier by the year, finally killing long established witch hazel and holly. The now swampy area must be recreated as a bog garden, and while starting over is painful, there are new plants to discover, and cherish.

Colorful bracts follow the abundant white flowers of Seven Son tree in late summer. This tree was snapped off by a summer storm, and replaced by a Red horsechestnut. A small, recently purchased Seven Son will someday find a spot in the garden. For now, it will grow in a container on the patio beside the koi pond.

The garden (and the gardener) weathers natural catastrophes, wind and hail, ice, and snow that break branches, or fell a favored Seven Son tree. Damage can be done in severe cold or mild winters, and also through summer droughts, though injuries are most often far less serious than the gardener first presumes. Several long time favorites have been lost, but the gardener plants a Red horsechesnut after much consideration, and after a few years the sting is nearly forgotten.

While the loss of the Seven Son was disappointing, the Red horsechestnut planted in its place has quickly become a favorite.

The gardener learns that native does not mean low maintenance, or resistance to pests and diseases. Many are treasured, but a few require regular attention to ward off hungry deer. For years, dogwoods have been plagued by leaf spotting and cankers, but optimism returns each year in April with a fresh set of blooms. A dogwood labeled as pink, but flowering white, was bothersome for a decade, but the flurry of spring blooms slowly erased the disappointment.

Jane magnolia flowers a few weeks later than Royal Star and Dr. Merrill, with blooms less susceptible to late freezes.

Flowers of magnolias are occasionally damaged by late freezes, and the gardener who will be around for a short period is severely discouraged, but this injury is only occasional, and often after the trees have flowered for ten days. If the blooms are short lived this year, they might not suffer again for five, and in twenty of thirty years this has not been a worry.

The front of the house is hidden behind Japanese maples and dogwoods. A purple leafed beech off the left corner of the house has become huge.

The gardener’s interest never wanes. While appearing to be overflowing by mid spring, there are small gaps in the garden to be filled. For the gardener who must collect one of everything that captures his fancy, somehow a space is found for each new acquisition, though no room is to be found to expand the Japanese maple collection, so these must now be kept in containers on the patios. The challenge, as the completion of the third decade nears, is to eliminate maintenance, an absurdly impossible goal, but one that seems within reach as low growing shrubs and perennials are shoehorned to cover every open space.

The gardener learns the rhythm of the property, when labor must be accomplished, and when there is time to enjoy. As weeds are crowded out by maturing trees and shrubs, the period required to maintain this garden grows shorter, and time to enjoy becomes longer. Certainly, this is a benefit of three decades in one place.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Aw… but a fresh canvas is so hopeful! Having been a quasi gardener forever, and only diving in last year.. the joys of learning and discovering is a gift almost every day. I’m only 29 years behind ya but eventually will get there! Thanks for your example and all the lovely photo’s you share.

    1. Dave says:

      The move into this house was such a disaster, I said never again, but now it is the garden that ties me to the house.

  2. Steve says:

    Actually have been with our garden for 25 years now so are not so far behind. You are right things do fail and this sometimes means significant change. Last year a large pond developed a link which became a significant project to sort out and in the last storm we lost a substantial part of a tree. However, that is just gardening and we love it.

    1. Dave says:

      This summer the wall that retains the lower end of the koi pond must be rebuilt, though it is possible this could slip until next year. Perhaps a whack with the sledge will keep the wall standing for another year. Small projects are much easier to get around to.

  3. C says:

    On my wish list: this stream and stone paths that wind through the garden.

    Working on my 12th year gardening in place, with lots of space left in this .40 acre woodland lot. You are a great inspiration.

    Best to ya!

    1. Dave says:

      I’ve run out of space to plant Japanese maples, but after the fifth pond was constructed my wife put a halt to more.

  4. Eric says:

    Great post, Dave. Poetic. And the garden looks amazing. I started my (much smaller) garden only 7 years ago, and now looking forward to getting to three decades.

    1. Dave says:

      For three years after starting the garden I was anxious and fertilized at every opportunity. After the third year I was satisfied that the minimum had been reached. Since, no fertilizing, but lots of additions, plants, paths, patios, and ponds until the twentieth year. Ten and twenty years are significant points for the garden as trees mature, but at thirty it’s the gardener who has grown old.

  5. susurrus says:

    I think there’s a massive benefit in gardening in the same place for a long time.

    1. Dave says:

      I hope to be around a lot longer, preferably in the garden.

  6. Just beautiful! Starting year 25 in my garden … so true about the perspective that time brings! And we inherited a garden that was already 40+ years old. Humility becomes any gardener …

    1. Dave says:

      With unusual weather that more often seems the norm, you understand how much there is still to learn.

  7. Ang Lee says:

    Dave, you’re constantly encouraging me and give me so much hope about this two-year-old garden. I agonize over it because it is so sparse and when I lose a large transplanted Japanese maple as I am about to, it is quite painful.
    I adore Japanese maples and have a half an acre of lawn which they should occupy. Unfortunately, my neighbors would be upset at my blocking their view of our lake. Having moved so frequently, unlike you, from state to state I’ve had to walk away from my beloved gardens . Thank you for providing beautiful photographs that I can enjoy and very interesting banter. Your practical knowledge and approach to gardening is refreshing.
    PS:you were correct about my peonies. They withstood the freeze and dusting of snow and are charging up rapidly with these few warm days. Let’s hope this Irish weather does not continue or they will drown in the clay for certain.
    The English gardener.

    1. Dave says:

      I once completed the transplant of a large Japanese maple that had overgrown its spot by hooking a rope to my car and jerking it out of the ground. Now, it threatens to overgrow its new location bedside the driveway. I tell my wife we can park on the road.

  8. catdobe says:

    blockquote, div.yahoo_quoted { margin-left: 0 !important; border-left:1px #715FFA solid !important; padding-left:1ex !important; background-color:white !important; } Hope this gets to you. A great article. Each picture is stunning. Thank you. 

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

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