Downsizing in Life and the Garden

The longer you live in a home, the shadier the landscape gets. This always baffles folks and they stare at me not quite sure what to make of that simple observation. “Look up,” I say. They do. “Are the trees taller?” “Was your neighbor’s home there before?” 

It dawns on them that this is true, that trees grew, houses were constructed, fences of green now separate homes, and like our own aging, it snuck up on them. What was once a new home with a blank slate for a landscape and full sun, is now an older home with mature trees, and lots of shade. The echinaceas quit blooming years ago, but they were busy raising kids and didn’t notice until this very moment with me–the garden coach–standing in their yard, our necks bent backward, faces looking up at a canopy of trees.

I sense what they’re thinking. They’re wondering where all those years went and how they missed those trees growing. Did they miss the kids growing, too? One is in college, another one is going this fall. That’s why they’ve called me. No one plays basketball in the driveway anymore so balls don’t land on perennials beds. There are no more bike paths through the worn-out grass. The chalk drawings on the stones in the patio faded years ago, and the shrubs that were once so small little feet could trample them, are now hiding windows appearing to devour the house.  There’s possibly a Japanese maple in the front foundation somewhere, at least there’s a vague recollection of planting one. 

I know I am there to help determine what “to do” with the landscape now that kids and dogs aren’t going to be there to destroy it, and there’s the possibility they may downsize, but they aren’t sure yet. Where would they go? Their friends across the street have already left, making the decision to leave two years ago. We gaze up at oaks, poplars, maples, pines—some planted by them, some not—and time stands still for a precious few seconds while we acknowledge, quietly, the enormous transition happening. 

So, is this the last one? I ask. I mean the last child leaving the nest. 

Yep, they nod. One of them mentions how quiet it’s gotten. Both of mine are gone and I’m a grandmother now, I tell them. What’s that like they want to know. Oh, It’s a game-changer, for sure. The grandchildren are perfect, naturally. Adult kids are a whole new ballgame (I use way too many cliches), and downsizing is not a bad thing. I joke about being able to plug the vacuum cleaner into one spot and vacuum the whole house. Everybody understands that. We laugh. 

I change the subject back to the landscape–the reason I’m here. I start discussing the Helleri hollies eating the front windows. Perhaps it is time to remove them, I say with compassion. These changes are hard enough. Wouldn’t it be nice if a few things stayed the same? But, I know, clinging to one part, is clinging to all of it.

Some plants can be rejuvenation pruned, meaning you can cut them back to the ground, and they will start all over again, growing a new shrub. Honestly, it could all use a bit of an update. A fresh look, like a new coat of paint. I stand still beside them and let my words sink in. I imagine what it looked like when they first planted it and how proud they probably were of their new yard.

We don’t know how much to spend they say quizzically. The question is: If we’re moving do we spend a lot or a little for curb appeal? If we’re staying, do we spend a lot or a little since we don’t know how long we’ll be here?

This is one reason why they hired me. They’re unsure of what it will take to spruce the place up without breaking the bank while making it attractive in case they downsize now.  

I break it down into 3 categories. 1. A complete redo. 2. A moderate upgrade. 3. A few new plantings and clean up of existing plants. Their family home is in a popular neighborhood, near good schools. It will sell easily, no need to go all out. In that regard, they’re fortunate. Besides, I tell them, chances are very good that whatever you plant, the next homeowner will tear out and start over. People like to put their own stamp on a place. I don’t tell them that I’ll likely be the person helping those folks to do just that. Right now, that feels like a betrayal. 

We all have our time and it’s the job of each generation to make room for the next. My clients span the generations. I work with young families like this couple once was. I work with those downsizing due to empty nests or loss of a spouse. I work with single moms whose budget is so little it’s hard to justify my cost. I’ve watched the seasons of life as closely as I’ve watched the seasons of a garden. I often participate in sacred moments with my clients, but then life began and ended in a garden so it makes sense when you consider my job.

Those trees are really tall, the husband says, his face still looking upward. I nod in agreement. Should we cut some down if we’re going to replant? Yes, I say and give him a referral for someone to do the tree work.

Are we going to do this, his wife asks, more to herself than her husband or me. The husband takes the wife’s hands and they ponder for a minute then tell me to start the process. They’re going to downsize. I smile at them both and say to get a place with a pool closeby, grandchildren love to swim.

Is fall a good time to plant, the wife wants to know. Yes, it is, I say. Soil temperatures stay warm as air temperatures drop, helping the plant to set down roots since the plant’s energy goes into root development instead of shoot development. Fall is the best time for transplanting because roots can get established more quickly. I’m talking about the garden, but the three of us know, I’m talking about life too.  

corner of house used for herbs and veggies, transplanted and still blooming, Cinthia Milner

Garden Coaching: What Is It?

I’ve got an excellent gig. I’m a garden coach for a garden center. That means I drive to folk’s homes and coach them regarding their landscapes. Before you get the idea that it’s all about the master gardeners and hobby gardeners desiring to use my services to expand their horticulture knowledge, it isn’t. I rarely have a client who wants to garden. The primary directive I receive from my patrons is, “I want a low maintenance or no maintenance yard.” Sadly, that’s a lot like wanting the body without the gym.

Primarily, I help with small designs. And, I identify what plants are what. I show them how to prune. (Horror films could be produced from people’s fear of pruning.) I help them decide what plants should be “edited.” (Political correctness crosses into the garden.) I explain that their new garden will look like a pet cemetery until the plants grow into themselves. I discuss drainage. (Water has to go someplace and your neighbor’s yard is not a good idea.) I lure them out into the street to look at their home from a drive-by view–possibly for the first time since they drove by as a potential buyer. I affirm. I listen. I hug. I help decide. I tell them life started in a garden. I offer condolences. I pet dogs, play with kitties, push kids on bicycles, and help children and elderly up the stairs. It’s called garden coaching but it really is just life coaching in a garden.

Rarely are my clients from Asheville. They moved here for a variety of reasons–the breweries, the mountain biking, the cheap housing (to them), the views, the grandkids, etc. So, naturally, my clients are surprised when they discover I am a native—which around here is translated as four generations back. They think I am the luckiest person to live in a beautiful place where my ancestors lived, and my family continues too. It seems a lot of people haven’t found a home yet. Part of my job is helping them to find a home, and it helps that I never had to look for mine. It gives me a leg up.

My people skills are probably more helpful than my plant skills and as much as I’d love to merge the two–plants and people–sometimes it is not a happy merger. Recently, a woman from New Mexico was looking for advice regarding a huge, stone planter in her backyard that spanned the distance of her patio. Her neighbors had offered up their ideas for the space, which fronted a furniture-less terrace. That phrase is significant–furniture-less.

After reciting the neighbor’s thoughts–herb garden, annual bed, perennial garden, rock garden–I asked if she ever sat outside. Her patio was quite large, running almost the length of her home and wide enough for a nice set of chairs, a table, and lots of container gardening. It faced east and looked over a wooded lot. It was a gardener’s dream. She responded, “No, I never sit outside. I like to read and sit indoors and look out that window.” She pointed to a window that looked over her patch of woods.

“Then why do you want to plant anything?” I asked.

“Well, this stone bed is here and it seems a waste not too, and the neighbors are telling me too,” she responded.

“Are the neighbors going to do the work of maintaining the garden?” I wondered.

“No,” she said flatly.

“Then, let’s ignore the neighbors. What do you say?” I asked her.

She agreed, though a little reluctantly. It is difficult to tune out one’s neighbors, especially on the issue of such a pretty stone bed with nothing planted in it. I’ve found it odd over the years how our neighbors feel free to make suggestions and comments regarding what we should plant and where but thankfully, keep those same comments and suggestions regarding the inside of the house to themselves. I guess we should be grateful for that, at the least.

I said, sort of as a joke, “Now that we have the neighbors dealt with, let’s talk about the landscape. Or is there anyone else we need to discuss before we do?”

“My daughter is having a few problems. It’s been keeping me up at night,” she replied. What I meant as a joke, she took quite seriously.

“Okay,” I said, “let’s talk about that if you’d like.” She liked.

Sometimes, you need to clear your head before you can move into a project. I find it helps tremendously.

Our conversation did not solve the issue of her daughter but we both felt we gained some ground regarding the 26-year-old and by the time we moved onto the subject of the yard, she was more than ready to dismantle the bed and send it away with whoever might want it. Turns out she doesn’t cook either, so an herb garden was somewhat pointless. Neither of us do. We prefer prepared foods.

We finished with a conversation about the best place to get chicken salad or broccoli salad, then I charged her 85 dollars and left. Her note to me later said it was the best 85 dollars she’d spent in years. I hear that a lot. And, think about it, all I did was give her permission to do what she already wanted to do.

I’m always thrilled to hear my clients affirm the money they spend for my services, but if my goal was to make everyone a gardener, I am doing a horrible job. As often as not, my interaction with my clients is exactly that–giving people permission to ignore the neighbors or even themselves and spend their happy dollars on what makes them happy. Life is short, the neighbors will be fine.

It’s all about the questions. My therapist from a billion years ago asked the most thought-provoking questions. I learned a little trick from her. It turns out it isn’t the deep questions that reveal; it’s the simple ones. Where do you hang out in your yard? How do you travel around your yard? Do you enjoy entertaining? The most innocent questions can provide the most transparent picture of a life sometimes.

In my quest to help homeowners transform their landscapes, I’ve opted to suggest turning the deck into a screened-in porch and buying furniture, and skipping the plants for now. I’ve recommended not worrying about the late husband’s garden this spring, plenty of time for that later when the wounds aren’t so raw. I’ve sat at the children’s picnic table and listened to a young mom cry about her marriage, her kids, and her overwhelming life and said maybe now isn’t the time to redo the landscape. I’ve told parents to get the firepit and use it with the teenage kids and told parents of toddlers to skip it for now. I’ve weighed in on downsizing, upsizing, and making that final move. I’ve participated for one hour in countless lives. If I were keeping stats, I’d venture to say that less than 5% of my clients become avid gardeners and even fewer gardeners at all. But maybe, like myself in so very many beloved gardens, all remember the exact moment the pressure was released and where they were standing in the garden when they felt they could breathe again. Were the roses blooming? Or was it the hydrangeas? Either way, when I drive off, I know I’ve done my job.