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.  

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