TO GARDEN OR NOT TO GARDEN?
By Peter William Gribble
Warmer weather has kicked in and chores mount. The spring shrubs have finished flowering and need pruning, the leavings raked up and broken down for the compost, beds have to be edged, others widened, the lawn needs mowing yet again, spent flowers clipped, the tomatoes protected from too cool nights or too much rain, the lettuces checked for slugs and thrips; the roses for aphids, the compost has to be turned, the smaller pots need daily watering and then there’s the weary eternity of endless weeding. With every spring, life grows shorter.
My gardening colleagues – most of whom are younger – usually start bemoaning the travails and fatigues of gardening about late July. By August, the rot has set in and they can hardly wait for the first frost. However, for the more seasoned gardener, the onset of spring can be daunting if not dangerous to your health and moral.
That perennial you should have dug up, divided and moved to a more appropriate spot last year but didn’t is now (almost) too large to tackle by yourself. Some projects that would have taken an afternoon not so long ago now take several to complete. But pat yourself on the back, they still get done … or at least some of them do.
In my case, an established garden bed is heavily overgrown with grass. It’s smothering the irises, choking the anemones and driving out the aubrieta. Each year I pulled up what grass I could but it was way ahead of me. Grappling the problem piecemeal made it worse. The dreaded solution? Everything in the area has to be dug up: the two lilacs, the rose bush, the large veronica, the ferns, the day lily, the rhododendrons, every last iris, while salvaging all the bulbs I can find and all without disturbing the nearby roots of the large wintersweet bush (Chimonanthus praecox). After which every scrap of grass has to be painstakingly dug out, the soil replaced, bushes and shrubs put back, then the area underplanted with defensive ground covers against any re-encroachment. At the very least, this will take many days perhaps more than a week.
The very thought of this Herculean labour in a Stygian garden burns calories. A Presbyterian part of me insists on doing it right now while the devil at my garden fork tells me transplanting is best done in the fall. Now or in the fall, if it doesn’t get done this year, I might as well give up. Though if I do, I am well aware it’s the first step down a slippery slope of precipitous capitulations.
A couple I know (about a decade older than me) did just that. So what if the dandelions are spreading – bees like them. So what if the big tree needs pruning – it gives shade from a hot sun. So what if the buttercup is running rampant – just mow it when it blooms. And as for growing tomatoes – why bother, they’re available at the market.
Another friend decided against capitulation and slowly transformed her garden into a low maintenance, evergreen-studded marvel with no lawn. It took her years to do it but her heather, camellia, azalea and rhododendron collections are breathtaking.
Capitulation is not yet for me, nor do I have the budget (or the heart) to change my garden over. I will likely just forge ahead and get the damn tasks done somehow. But this is when it sinks in – again: gardening is one, big, months-long chore.
Exacerbating a seasoned gardener’s labours is a list of afflictions a friend of mine (a professional musician) calls ‘the organ recital.’ It’s the backache, the sore knees, the corns, the arthritis, sciatica, tendonitis, the incipient hernia and whatever else. You go out to do some pruning and a few hours later your hands are so stiff and painful you can’t hold onto a fortifying cup of tea. You kneel for several hours weeding the wretched dandelions and – too late – you realize you’ve developed all the flexibility of concrete and it might take as many hours to creak back to an upright position again. To combat this tendency to fossilization, a friend of mine sets an old windup kitchen timer for an hour, puts it on her porch and starts gardening. When the bell goes off, she breaks for a sip of tea or stops for the day.
Eventually, the tasks get done and as you ease your aching body into the lawn chair with a good stiff drink (or other medication) and survey your work, you savour the sweet sense of accomplishment, confident in the knowledge only gardeners possess …
… that gardening keeps you young.