Gardening at Ninety

By: Mary Wilbur
Photo: Ted Pease

Mary Wilbur, a native of Wales, worked in the field of psychiatric care, and has gardened in England and New…

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There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,

There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick,

But it can find some useful job that’s crying to be done,

For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth everyone.
Rudyard Kipling, “Glory of the Garden”

As I kneel on the grass to plant daffodils for next spring, I wonder if I shall be here to see them. I am now ninety—well beyond the allotted three-score years and ten—yet I have never wondered this before. Is it an omen? Or is it just that my well-honed skill of denial is now wearing thin? As the saying goes “Denial is not a river . . .” At this point, my dog Sheba, lying by my side, opens one eye and looks at me in skeptical fashion.

The garden does seem larger than the one I decried as “too small” when we first came here. It is so different now that the overwhelming rhododendrons are gone, and there are more flowerbeds and less lawn. It is really my own, but can I keep it like this? Other gardeners that I know of similar age are concentrating on developing “low maintenance” gardens, but I have always felt the whole idea of low maintenance to be a fantasy and have given the time-saving concepts little attention. Perhaps it is time I paid heed—though I hasten to add that working for three or four hours a day in the garden is still quite manageable. Getting up and down is admittedly more of an effort, and gardening tools do seem to be getting heavier. I promise myself I will look into “low maintenance” alternatives.

I visit a local nursery that specializes in rhododendrons and azaleas and ask them about this problem. They assure me that these shrubs are truly low maintenance. “Just keep a heavy mulch—say three inches of shredded bark—and all you will have to do is to pluck a stray weed now and again.” Sounds good to me, but do I really want a garden with just rhododendrons and azaleas? I dutifully head for the library and borrow books on low maintenance gardening.

As I read the books, I feel more and more argumentative and eventually feel like throwing the books across the room. These writers have clearly never gardened in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps I should write a book on the subject when I have decided what works. Grasses feature strongly in the recommendations for easy care. For my part I find these plants, once established, need dividing every other year. Division, in general, is my least favorite chore: slicing down through a tough root ball, tearing it apart, and then replanting, requires more effort than I am prepared to expend. Then there is the problem of finding a fellow gardener who is interested in taking the excess pieces of the plant, or deciding, guiltily, to throw them away. Ferns are also described as “maintenance free.” My experience with fern wrestling suggests otherwise.

The books recommend spreading black plastic on the beds and planting in slits, to discourage weeds. To my mind, black plastic is cruel and unusual punishment. How more unkind can you be to the soil than to prevent it from breathing? The really tough perennial weeds will still find a way through the plastic, and they are then impossible to get out. The same holds true for landscape cloth, although the latter does, at least, allow the soil to breathe.

Ground covers are recommended as one of the least arduous ways to plant parts of a garden. Not in my experience. Chamomile is a wonderful and aromatic ground cover, with little button flowers of bright yellow; I enjoy the patch I have, but labor free it is not. In fact, it seems to attract more weeds than the lawn.

Finding more and more plant recommendations in the books that contradict my experience, I turn to look at heavy tools that I might do without. A large shovel is first on the list. Anything that needs that kind of effort I will ask Todd to do—though I have to remember that he is getting older just as I am. In a garden shop, I found a fork and spade that are bigger than a child’s but smaller than mine. Works well for me. A new kind of small hand clipper comes with a flexible handle that cuts down on the amount of pressure needed to cut a branch. Also useful. One recommendation from the books that I do approve of is to plant in raised beds, to avoid the problem of getting up and down. But that would require a major reconstruction of my garden and I am not prepared for that at this time. A kneeling stool with handles will have to do. At this point, my interest in pursuing more convenient equipment evaporates, and I convince myself I can manage perfectly well with what I have.

I think I shall invite my ruthless friend and see what she suggests that I might change or eliminate. Otherwise, I will compromise and keep the plants I cannot do without. Roses and clematis must stay, though they are hardly low maintenance. The roses have to be pruned every year and deadheaded daily when they are in flower. Clematis are less demanding but may need daily inspection early in the spring to see if they are getting tangled and need tying to their support. These tasks, I tell myself, are time consuming but require little effort. One thing that would save me a lot of labor would be to train Sheba to refrain from littering the lawn with the sticks and branches she likes to gnaw on. Not much hope of that.

As I make my way around the garden, I find there is nothing I want to do without. Even the grasses and other plants that need dividing seem to be essential. So I expect I shall simply muddle along, as Kipling suggests.