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.