Ageing and gardening

Sunday, 09 October 2011

Book by Sydney Eddison

I took up gardening at the age of 24, so for a long time I was by far the youngest in any gathering of gardeners. When I joined the local garden club, the rest of the members seemed incredibly ancient (probably in their 50s!) and I was something of a novelty. I had boundless energy and set about creating a very high-maintenance garden based comprised largely of herbaceous and shrubby perennials, and later went on to make a similar garden (my current one) on a larger site. Whilst my peers were clubbing, I was digging.

However, it has recently dawned on me that I can no longer class myself as a 'young gardener'. When chatting to two actually young gardeners recently, I realised they probably saw me as I saw those Methuselahs from my first garden club. Along with this realisation has come the insight that eventually I am going to have to make changes to my garden and my gardening style to reduce the amount of effort it all entails. These gloomy thoughts were precipitated by hearing that several of our friends have lately downsized from suburban blocks into villas with courtyards, and by my purchase of a book called Gardening for a Lifetime: how to garden wiser as you grow older by Sydney Eddison. For quite a while, I couldn't bring myself to open the book for fear of being told that I would ultimately have to be content with a few African violets on a windowsill.

But I eventually started to read and was quite inspired by the book. Sydney Eddison is in her 80s and still lives in the Connecticut garden of some acres she began nearly 50 years ago. She created wonderful perennial borders with amazing colour schemes, which became quite famous. She wants to remain in her home as long as possible and in the book gives a series of hints of how gardeners can simplify their gardens and reduce the amount of work, without losing the enjoyment of gardening. Whilst I feel I have got a good few active years ahead of me yet, I definitely don't have the stamina and energy I once had and a recent injury showed me how quickly things can change, so I became eager to absorb the ideas that Sydney Eddison shares in her book.

Hemerocallis Autumn Flame: daylilies require a fair bit of work at times

A key point she makes is that many perennials entail hard work, requiring staking, fertilising, watering, regular division, cutting back and possibly deadheading. Apparently, it used to take her two hours a day just to deadhead her daylily collection! She suggests a critical examination of one's perennials to get rid of any that require too much work. Although her focus is mainly on herbaceous perennials, there are also a number of shrubby perennials that I grow that need to be cut back severely at the end of every winter. Whilst I used to savour this task in my younger days, I now often think of it with dread, as I try to fit in all this cutting back into all the other activities in my life. The huge pile of prunings then need to be put through the mulching machine, a task not exactly relished by the person responsible for that, who is also not getting any younger. My passion for Salvia specimens is the main reason I have so many of these shrubby perennials, so I have definitely decided not to add too many more of the really big ones (which require cutting back several times a year) to my garden and in any case, there isn't any room for them!

Camellias at Eryldene in Sydney. Camellias are excellent low-maintenance evergreen shrubs for our climate

Sydney Eddison suggests that shrubs can be used to replace some perennials. In my younger days, I used to think shrubs were horribly boring compared to the brilliant and flamboyant flowers of perennials, but they definitely do appeal to me more and more these days. Shrubs on the whole keep their shape year round, offering strong structural form and often have pretty blooms, and they require very little attention once established. They can also give a more serene effect in the garden, without the busyness of a massed perennial border. There are other plants, too, that can be planted and just left to their own devices with little required from the gardener. For example, I never thought I would gaze upon a clump of bromeliads with deep joy, but now I do just that, so glad that I don't have to worry about that area, which looks good all year round.

Mondo grass in the garden of Sue Black in Sydney: an easy-care groundcover

The use of mulch and groundcovers to suppress weeds; making lists so that gardening tasks are prioritised and so you can quickly choose a job to do when you have a chance to do some gardening (and to aid one's failing memory!); employing help for heavier gardening work; and learning to accept imperfection (especially with lawns!) are some of the other points made in the book. She also talks about her enjoyment as she gets older of becoming a sort of mentor to younger, fitter gardeners. I recall how the older people in my first garden club took me under their wing, giving me cuttings and tips, and generously sharing their knowledge, and would like to be able to do the same to others some day.

Of course, there are definitely circumstances when poor health or age-related disability simply make gardening on any reasonably large scale an impossible burden, and in these cases it just makes sense to downsize. Sydney Eddison devotes several chapters of her book to case studies of her friends who have done this and how they have been able to keep up their interest in gardening on a much smaller scale, using pots and raised beds, for example. I hate to think of ever having to give up gardening completely. I am sure that being involved with gardening into old age has physical, emotional and social benefits, just as it does at any other age: keeping us connected to the cyclical rhythms and the beauty of the natural world.

Reader Comments

  • By Maureen 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 October 2011

    How timely and thought provoking as I attack my spring pruning thinking to myself 'how long before it gets beyond me'!! I try to ignore the niggling thoughts at times such as 'do I enjoy it any more or is it becoming a chore When buying now it has to be 3 feet or less!! Regards.

    Thanks, Maureen. I do think it is valuable to appraise plants in terms of how much maintenance they require and if they are worth it. Deirdre

  • By Rae 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 October 2011

    Oh Deirdre, I am so grateful for your mentoring. Your generosity with knowledge, cuttings, advice and for the invite to garden club in the first place is so very appreciated. Look around garden club and you're not in the older members set quite yet!

    Thanks Rae. It is great to have a mixture of ages in a garden club so that everyone can share cuttings, knowledge and experiences! It is wonderful to know there are young gardeners around! Deirdre

  • By Georgina 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 October 2011

    Deirdre,like you I was once a young gardener at garden club meetings but after a day in the garden on Saturday I was feeling very,very old and creaky that night.It took quite some time to straighten up and get the old bones moving,but come Sunday I was back in the garden. Can't help myself! Georgina

    I know exactly what you mean! Deirdre

  • By Sue 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 10 October 2011

    Hmm sounds like just the book I need. My friends too are downsizing,and I keep thinking - not me, not yet, maybe never:-)Will try and get this book - thanks for the blog.

    Thanks, Sue. Try Florilegium for the book. Deirdre

  • By dorothy 4060 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 10 October 2011

    Hello Deirdre, I am trying to change my gardening habits but firstly I am tidying up my whole garden and it is a big job. I hope to not have as much work to do when I replant but I do not want to lose my daylilies yet. Thank you for all your information. Kind regards, Dorothy, Brisbane.

    Hope your tidy-up goes well. I want to evaluate which plants are causing me the most work and maybe phase some of them out! Deirdre

  • By Lynette 2780 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 10 October 2011

    I am about to have a double hip replacement and this year have found gardening difficult. Like you I have thought through the makeup of my garden which is very high maintenace, have rationalised my borders and hopefully have created a longterm sustainable garden. Lynette

    Hope all goes well for you Lynette. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 11 October 2011

    loved this blog and can relate to it. Must buy that book, it is most inspiring. I started gardening when I was five years old, and have always loved the activity, but have come to realise, grudgingly, that things must change in the future. However, I trust I shall always have some sort of garden.

    Thanks, Margaret. I am sure we have lots of gardening ahead of us! Deirdre

  • By beverley 2113 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Saturday, 15 October 2011

    One tip to help make gardening easier, I am 72,if you love roses as I do, try the old Tea Roses. They are very healthy and don"t need all the spraying, pruning,deadheading etc. They grow into large shrubs and flower nearly all year. All I do is feed with manure pellets a couple of times a year.

    Thanks, Beverley. Your roses are magnificent! Deirdre

  • By Margaret 4350 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 02 November 2011

    This book arrived yesterday - want to devour the whole lot at once; beautifully written and speaks to my heart. Like Sydney, I catch a glimpse in the mirror and think - who is that old woman? wait, it"s me! I found your this blog when looking for somthing else; Serendipidy a treasure thank you.

    Thanks, Margaret. I really did enjoy the book and it was helpful for me. Deirdre

  • By Richard 2112 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Friday, 04 November 2011

    My love of plants & gardening started as a pre-schooler in my grandparents garden, and it has been an obsession ever since. Now a busy 45yo professional & father of 3 highschoolers, & a dodgy back, I still try to steal a few mins each weekend in the garden. One day might have time to join a club!

    Hopefully you will, Richard, as it is a great way to meet other gardeners and exchange cuttings!

  • By trish 4068 (Zone:11B - Tropical) Monday, 21 November 2011

    I"ve re-read this entry, as I do many others. I was thinking I would get the book for my older sister in the UK. She has a huge cold climate garden - rather like Sydney Eddison. I wonder if she"ll ever speak to me again??

    It is tricky, but the book is very positive. Good luck if you do decide to give it to her! Deirdre

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