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.  

Dancing through a Mid-Life Crisis, Transplanted and Still Blooming, Cinthia Milenr

Dancing Through a Mid-Life Crisis

No, I’m not taking a ballroom class. I plug my earphones into my IPhone and hit play. I hit play in the parking lot, before I even get to my car. All day long I help people solve plant problems. What to plant where, what plant best matches the porch cushions (really?), what works in shade, in sun, on an embankment, and so on. I answer questions politely and hopefully, informatively, but if you could read my thoughts, I’m looking forward to the music.

So why the music and the mid-life crisis?

Because life gets hard about this time in the journey. For some, it starts out pretty darn hard. For others, hard things happen along the way. But by mid-life, the ball really gets rolling. At least, that’s what I’m finding out. My mother died so unexpectedly and suddenly last July, that I am still reeling and forever picking up the phone to call her. She missed Jordy’s birth, my 3rd granddaughter. And now, my dearest and oldest friend is facing brain cancer. Weren’t we just decorating our college dorm room? It goes fast. There is no other way to say it. A blink and it’s gone.

Here’s the weird part. Once great, grand, and parents are dead, you’re up next to bat. Yes, if family history prevails, I have 20+ years still, but the generation before me is gone. They were my buffer. Now, I’m the buffer for kids and grandkids, and well, that my friends is a sobering thought.

Add empty-nest, jokes about how long we can live based on our IRAs, grandchildren we never see, working long hours in hopes of increasing that IRA a little and then the dang downsizing. I hate the downsizing.

When did life become about downsizing instead of building? When mid-life showed up, that’s when.

You see what I mean. Full on mid-life crisis. I read some articles about it. Not much there. Did glean one gem. That my brain can’t process everything happening at this stage of life. Agreed. So, I gave up reading the self-help stuff and hit Crazy on You, or Hooked on a Feeling, or Spirit in the Sky or I Want You Back (yes, the Jackson 5), and tuned it all out. When I open my front door, I dance. I dance while preheating the oven. I dance in the shower. I dance and vacuum. I dance around my house to everything from Queen, the Eagles and yes, even PitBull.

And I remember. I remember dancing with Donna in our college dorm room, dancing with my sisters in our childhood bedrooms, dancing with my toddlers and boys and even teenage sons in our family living room, dancing with my mom and dad in our family living room. I had forgotten that my family–that I–love to dance.

The kitchen is the best place for it. The floor is slick. After dinner, I crank it up and stand Aggie up on her hind legs and dance around with her. She doesn’t like it, but she tolerates it as one would expect a good dog too. I dance until way past bedtime, and for a few hours I’m not the grandmother with grandchildren way too far away, or the divorced wife living paycheck-to-paycheck, or the 56-year-old looking straight at the fact that mid-life is really just a term for what I’m experiencing.

Because I passed mid-life a decade ago.

My oldest son says our goal is not to be successful. Our goal is to come to terms with ourselves and the choices we make, or, I would add, perhaps the choices others–or life–make for us. Mid-life has definitely been a choice-evaluating-time for me. To consider where I stepped wrong or maybe right, but mostly, I’m just dancing.

P.S. This one is for Carol. 🙂

 

garden carrots transplanted and still blooming cinthia milner

Veggie Gardens (and) Dahlia Gardens (and) Empty Nests

Yesterday, a friend was bemoaning her soon-to-be empty nest. Two beautiful girls graduating (one from high school and one from college), and the college girl getting married. All within a couple of weeks of each other. Her house will go from hustle and bustle to tomb-stone quiet. Her therapist suggested a hobby. Why do therapists think hobbies are a good replacement for kids?  Anyway, gardening was suggested, but she’s never gardened, and hasn’t a clue where to begin.

So, if your kids are leaving, or you’re just bored and feeling a tad interested in gardening, here’s a wee bit of advice.

Start with a veggie garden.

#1 reason why: You are rewarded with your own food. You’ll have the delicious thrill of holding in your hand, one sun-warmed, juicy-ripe tomato that you grew. What better hobby than one that produces produce?

#2 reason why: You will till, sow, weed, water, harvest, and basically tend to your garden, if not daily, several times a week. It is gardening 101+.

It is baptism by veggies.

You’ll begin by finding the sunniest spot in your yard. You need what I call parking-lot sun. Direct sun 10-4 is best. If you live with no yard, containers work too. I grow my lettuces in big, fancy pots that I used to plant elaborate container gardens in, but now prefer the lettuces. And, since there’s no reason to reinvent the how-to-garden, veggie garden instructions, here’s a great book on getting started. It’s fairly cheap on Amazon, or I’d bet the local library has a copy. I have one copy if anyone wants to borrow it, and feel free to pass it along to the next gardener-in-training when you’re done.

Veggie Garden Book Ed Smith

Here’s the link for his book.

Side Note: I regularly tell my clients, you don’t have to do everything in the book. I’m generally speaking metaphorically, but in this case, I mean it. This guy loves his vegetable garden, but you’re allowed to start small. Overwhelmed = Failure. Do a 1/4 of what this book suggests. Another little, pithy thing I tell clients, it is easier to add than to delete.

We want success here.

Last bit of advice: Buy and plant dahlia bulbs around your veggie garden. (You buy these now, and get them in the ground over the next few weeks.) They’ll bloom late summer when the veggies are winding down, and keep you motivated to get out to the garden and clean up the summer veggies, or plant fall veggies. Here’s inspiration.

firepot dahlia transplanted and still blooming cinthia milner

Firepot Dahlia

 

dahlia garden transplanted and still blooming cinthia milner

Assorted Dahlias

dahlia transplanted and still blooming cinthia milner

Dahlia