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.  

Hiking With Platypus

Five years ago, I would have titled this column “Hiking with Big Dog.” Prior to that, it would have been “Hiking with Fruit Loops.” This gives you both a chronological history of our family dogs and an insight into our dietary preferences. But I’m also reminded of the privilege I’ve enjoyed over the last 15 years: hiking with my dogs. I do it almost every day. Rain never stops us, though extreme cold will keep us parked next to the wood stove.

Platypus, the best dog.

Fruit Loops —an Aussie with blue eyes—hiked with me during the early years of my marriage. During the middle years it was Big Dog, the Airedale who could get turned around in a pen.

Now, with my first son grown and serving in the Coast Guard, Platypus joins me as my much-older legs carry me up and down hills. His effervescent joy in the great outdoors is highly contagious, and I’m thankful that he gets me moving. Hiking with my dogs has been one of my life’s blessings (not to mention the fact that dogs don’t talk, meaning all those secrets shared on the trail are still secrets).

But Platypus and I harbor different ideas of what constitutes a great hike. To me, “hiking” evokes places like Clingman’s Dome, Mount Mitchell or Mount Pisgah. Platypus, however, seems to be dreaming about the quarter-mile track at the Leicester Community Center. The minute I change into my hiking clothes, Plat starts dashing back and forth between the door and me, and he doesn’t slow down till we’re finally out the door and in the car. As we near the Leicester Community Center, Plat’s excitement reaches a crescendo. And why not? He’s made friends there. He loves the children who play on the playground; many know him by name. He’s made a point of knowing the senior citizens who carry dog treats in their pockets (a good way to make friends with even the meanest dogs—which Plat is not, by any measure). Plat has also made quite a few dog friends over the years.

And while I’m stressing over how many times etiquette requires me to say hello as I circle past the same person each time around the track (is the first time sufficient, or is it impolite if I don’t speak at each encounter?), Plat is busy saying hello to everyone—whether it’s our first lap or our last.

Imagine his disappointment as I drive right by his favorite jaunt. There’s a bench where we always sit, beneath the tree and beside the creek. As we drive by, Plat gazes at it longingly. He knows he has to settle in for a car ride to some faraway destination, and his displeasure shows. Why seek out greener pastures? What’s wrong with the Leicester Community Center? his expression says, and I console him with Skittles (a sort of updated version of Fruit Loops).

But don’t mistake his dissatisfaction for a dislike of national parks and well-mapped trails that disappear down steep embankments. With his 3-foot-long body, 8-inch legs, rottweiler head and basset-hound eyes, Platypus loves every step of every rock, root and creek we cross. He jumps, leaps, circles and smells everything in sight. He streaks to the top while I plug along behind, and when we reach the summit, we both deserve a treat.

It’s simply that in Plat’s mind, the summit behind our own house is every bit as glorious, exciting and adventurous as Sam’s Knob or the tower atop Mount Pisgah. The creek at the Leicester Community Center is just as much fun for splashing as the water cascading over the rocks at Graveyard Fields.

Plat is right. Often, I’m seeking greener pastures when right out my back door is a mountain marked by old logging roads so familiar we could hike them with our eyes closed. And sometimes I’m just trying to fit into the Asheville crowd. Just as I never tell my friends that I listen to country music—in my car, very loud and with the windows rolled up—I also never tell them that the Leicester Community Center is fun. I prefer to say, “Plat and I were at Max Patch yesterday.” It sounds more impressive, so “native” (which I am, by the way). And if I really want to show off, I can even call my friends on my cell phone on the way home and casually mention my day at Devil’s Courthouse with Plat. It has a Katharine Hepburn feel to it: woman and dog, hiking alone on a mountaintop.

But dogs are quite good at exposing pretension. Plat knows when I really need a day away and when I’m simply trying too hard to be cool. He knows when I’m more interested in saying I spent the day on Shining Rock than in actually driving there and doing it. Even sitting on the summit—as beautiful as it is, and as wonderful as it can be to get away—Plat knows when I’m a fake.

That’s why I like to hike with my dogs. They never fail to out me with the truth, but they never hold it against me. In a marriage nearing 20 years and a life nearing 50, hiking with my dogs has provided some of the sanest moments—whether close to home or somewhere in Pisgah National Forest. Those walks saved my marriage on many days, saved my children on even more days, and saved me almost every day.

So to Fruit Loops, Big Dog and Platypus, I am forever grateful. And tomorrow, Plat, I promise: the Leicester Community Center.

This article was published in the Mountain Xpress in October of 2008. Platypus passed away last year after a long life of hikes, hanging out with Bear (his buddy dog) and enjoying South Turkey Creek Farm. Now I hike with Aggie, short for Agapanthus, who, it turns out, prefers the city streets to the woods of a National Forest.

My Picket Fence Garden

Some of my clients just want an audience. I know how they feel. When I lived at South Turkey Creek, my garden was beautiful, but it was for the benefit of one–me. We lived off an old logging road, off a secondary road that was so far out a friend of mine brought milk and bread when she visited. Our home wasn’t visible from the road, and my garden was only seen by those who drove down our driveway, and they had to get through a locked farm gate.

So, I get it when someone calls for an appointment and I drive up and think, they do not need my help, but I am getting the camera out because oh my gosh. Sometimes, it’s a legit question, or they need another eye on the garden because it feels “off”. But when my sole contribution to the hour is to suggest white wood’s aster for fall shade areas, I know they mostly wanted garden company and someone to appreciate their creation. Don’t we all? If we create it, don’t we want someone to see that creation?

That’s how I feel about my picket fence garden on the west side of my current house, where I moved to from South Turkey Creek. I finally have an audience.

My picket fence runs parallel to the sidewalk and the street and has a small planting space on either side of the fence, a pathway, and a row of azaleas against the house. My house sits at a four-way stop and while I live in a small town, it is a short-cut for many, so there are lots of drivebys for the garden, plus all the walkers, runners, moms with baby joggers, couples in the late evenings, dog walkers, bicyclists, pretty much the whole dang town. I love it. I break every garden coaching rule in the book and do as my friend Carol says: “We can be subtle all winter, in summer lets break out some color.”

In the horticultural world, there’s a bit of snobbery around plants. Some plants are considered “tacky” others are considered “acceptable” in the garden because, well, only horticulturists know them. The more obscure, the better. Example: My gladiolus, which just finished blooming, would be scorned by many of my more plant-knowledgable friends. But my mountain mint (Pycanthemum muticum) which is planted next to my Astilboides tabularis is adored.  Lest you think I am exempt from this snobbery, I promise I am not.

But now that I have an audience, I don’t care about horticulturally correct plants. I’m going for the fame, and I am shameless about it. I garden when my neighbors are walking or driving home from work. Why? Because that’s when they all stop to say how beautiful it all is.  Aggie knows the drill. She stands next to me, looking adorable while I weed, and people stop and say, “I love your flowers. Thank you so much for doing this.” One guy yelled from his car that my garden made his day especially since his kids were such brats (yes, his kids were in the car). It’s enough to make up for all those years when I gardened in oblivion. What I know about most people is that they don’t work in beautiful gardens like I do. They work in cubicles. They work in hospitals, convenience stores, office buildings, classrooms, patrol cars, firetrucks, insurance offices, stores, and restaurants. They don’t drive up to beautiful homes with magazine-worthy gardens and stroll around the landscape.

Echinacea? They love it. Orange daylilies? They’re so pretty.

I throw so much color at that fence I expect to explode and the more color I plant, the more people stop. I’m not trying to teach them anything about ornamental gardening. I am creating a 35′ length of sidewalk for them to enjoy during snippets of their day. Nothing brings me more pleasure because this world is hard. And gardens bring joy.

I am asked all the time if I ever envy the gardens of my clients. No, I don’t. I mean they’re lovely, unbelievable works of art that I wish everyone could see and enjoy, but everyone gets to see my picket fence garden. They only have to drive by or walk the dog. They can smell the roses, stoop over to examine the salvia, exclaim over 4′ tall allium, wonder what a passion flower is or just stand there enjoying. I change it up every year. I add and subtract and see what works, but there are no rules of design or even maintenance. I don’t worry about the weeds overly much because they don’t notice them. They just see the dinner-plate dahlias and swoon. It’s nice to toss out everything I know and just plant what I think will make people happy. Some years I plant vegetables, some years elephant ears, but every year I plant sunflowers because they all love those.

The best part of sharing this garden with all my neighbors? They tell me stories of the gardens they remember. Maybe an aunt’s, or a grandmother, or their father, but they love to tell me and I love to listen. They don’t know the names of the most basic flowers, but they remember those flowers from loved one’s gardens. And for reasons only the gardeners know, those stories almost always bring tears. I like to think they’re healing tears.