I didn’t start gardening until my 40s. A friend brought a peony plant and a rose bush to my house and told me to plant them, so I did. Watching the plants grow was so interesting, and having flowers to bring inside was lovely.
As the decade rolled along, I became obsessed with the gardens of Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, who invented what was called The Bold Garden, or The New American Garden. The idea was to use dozens, hundreds or even thousands of native plants and trees to create carefully planned landscapes that looked slightly wild, with little to no lawn. These were four-season designs; they looked as beautiful in the winter as they did in the summer.
So, I set out to do the same. But where they had teams of people working to create these masterpieces, I had my shovel and a garden claw. For the next two and a half decades, my rear end got more summer sunlight than my face. I dug up, dug in, cut down, cut back, watered, weeded (so much weeding), learned about many plants and how to combine them, and learned how much I didn’t know.
Then came my mid-60s. One chilly spring day I was walking around the yard looking at where to dig up more lawn and a little voice in my head asked, ‘are you crazy?’ At 69 years old, a 20lb bag of potting soil weighs 30 lbs. Dig a deep hole, and you might not be able to straighten up for a while, even if you’re leaning on the shovel.
I decided just to spend the usual week cleaning up after the winter, to pot herbs for the food I won’t cook this year either, to take care of what was already there, and to replace plants that didn’t cut the mustard. It feels a little strange not trudging around and haunting the garden centers. But seeing as how I would be covered in gold if the Olympics had a contest for sitting around, I’m getting used to it.
Here’s some hard-earned advice so we can still garden, without having to carry our emergency contact information in our pockets.
Get someone else to do the heavy work. Please. Whether it’s a gardening/landscaping company or neighborhood kids, hire out the tough jobs – buying potting soils, heavy weeding, mulching, re-edging beds, digging out overgrown or unwanted plants and shrubs. (Basically, anything you don’t want to do, and things your doctor would make a face at if they knew you’d done it.)
Plant perennials. I love annual plants like impatiens, spider plants, marigolds and many sunflowers in containers, but not so much in the ground, because you have to plant them every year. If you’re planting in the ground, consider using perennials instead. Plants including Daisies, Black-eyed Susan, Daylilies, Phlox, Salvia, Liatris, Hosta, Lavender, Coreopsis, Bee Balm and Native Milkweed (which butterflies lay their eggs on) should come back every year, thought last year’s drought and unsnowy winter took a few plants that are considered hardy. But native plants are the best because they’re beautiful, and they attract those butterflies, plus honeybees and hummingbirds. If you do plant Milkweed, consider asking the nice young people helping you to put up chicken wire around it, so the rabbits don’t eat the plants down to the ground.
If you want roses, buy them at the supermarket. There is no such thing as a low maintenance rose plant, no matter what the tag says. But if you really must have a rose, choose a hybrid tea rose with guaranteed fragrance. That way the spraying, pruning and worry over the dozen diseases roses can get will be worth it. Or plant “Knockout” roses that grow more like a shrub and are relatively disease free. Just remember not to go near a rose without gardening gloves, and preferably long, tough gloves their thorns can’t penetrate. You can find them at garden centers or online.
Use a kneeling pad. If you’re going to weed or plant, protect your knees. You can get inexpensive foam kneeling pads at most garden centers. I used to wear kneepads, but they take forever to put on, and they slip down and you have to keep pulling them back up.
Wear a hat, gloves, long sleeves and sunscreen, and drink up! Even if you think you’re only going to be out there for a few minutes, you’ll probably be out there longer than you planned. You can get a cheap straw hat with a wide brim at almost any big discount clothing outlet or seasonal store. Lands’ End and other retailers have entire sections of sun protection clothing at good prices. I wear light colors, and wear long pants, long sleeves and socks. I tuck my pants into my socks to keep the ticks away. Not exactly red-carpet worthy, but last week a dog tick was climbing up my leg and I wouldn’t have seen it if I’d been wearing dark pants. And stay hydrated! Iced coffee, iced tea and Martinis don’t count. Think water, or a sports drink.
Gardening on a deck, patio or porch. If you’re lucky enough to have a porch, patio or deck, it’s easy to plant herbs and annuals like Marigolds, Geraniums, Pansies and Cosmos in pots or other containers. And if you’d like a ready-made mini garden, most garden centers sell already-potted selections of herbs and annuals. You can buy large plastic saucers and little plastic “pot toes” to elevate pots off your decking at garden centers or online stores.
Mad dogs and Englishmen. The playwright Noel Coward wrote a song about how only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. He wasn’t being nice. If you’re going to be gardening outside, do it before 10am or after 2pm to avoid the sun at its strongest.
Have fun, stay hydrated, don’t lift anything you have to think about lifting.