One of the greatest joys in my life is getting up on fine summer mornings, loading the wheelbarrow with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction and spending the day whirling around the garden like a mad dervish. There is always something that needs to be done – moving or dividing plants, mulch to be spread, weeds to pull. Sometimes the work is steady but light; a day spent weeding or deadheading the roses. Other times, the shovel is out and the dirt is flying, usually when new beds are being built, which is often.
It has lately been brought to my attention that my habit of putting in 10 hour days amongst the greenery may be coming to an end.
When we bought our home in 2001, we had a little over an acre of bare land. My husband, Brian, and I felt we could build garden beds indefinitely. And over the course of 7 years, we did just that. A new bed each year seemed reasonable; except each year’s bed got bigger. Still, we had plenty of room and the work never seemed to get overwhelming for 2 people. Aching muscles and stiff joints were the norm during the gardening season, but the joy I had in the garden made it worth every twinge. Even after 7 years of expansion, at the beginning of the summer of 2008, we had barely a quarter of the acre converted to garden beds. It was obviously time to get serious.
That was a banner year in our garden expansion. We hired a contractor to clear out the northwest side of our property which was overgrown with sumac, poplar trees, honeysuckle bushes and bittersweet vines. There was also an old foundation, left from a house fire 20 years before, that needed to be pushed in and buried. Other junk was scattered across the countryside, including a fire pit made of 2 layers of cement traffic dividers in which we could have roasted a bison had we been so inclined.
Unfortunately, most of the summer was spent arguing with the contractor over where the property line was located, which trees to keep and what the actual budget of the project was. In the end, we were between 10 and 15 feet over onto our neighbor’s woodlot (they were understanding, especially when we replanted a few nice trees on the edge), every tree was cut down except for 2 enormous maples which were simply too big to remove (thank goodness) and way over budget. It took over 3 months.
It was too late in the year by then to move more dirt or plant green things so we spent what little was left of the season planning out the space. We agreed that a patio in the shade of the 2 remaining maples was a must as the existing patio next to the house had no shade at all. A veggie garden, herb plot and assorted flower beds were designed and garden catalogs were amassed.
In the spring of 2009, a different contractor was hired to install a patio in this barren patch of mud. We discussed it with him at length, wrote it all down and shook hands. He did a great job - in less than 2 weeks, we had a gorgeous round patio, 25 feet across, complete with a (small) fire pit and shaded by the maples.
While the patio was being installed, I got down to work, laying out the new beds I had designed the previous fall and tilling up the compacted sub-soil. All the original topsoil had been stripped off by the first contractor, so my darling spouse, He of the Strong Back, made himself useful hauling wheelbarrows of new topsoil to each bed as I finished it.
If you have such a spouse, treasure him (or her).
With the beds completed, the planting commenced. A dawn redwood sapling, three dwarf apple trees, one dwarf flowering peach and a dwarf cherry tree went in first, followed by a collection of flowering shrubs and lastly the perennials and herbs. We barely got the last of the perennials in before the season ended.
That was the year I started to feel uneasy - I developed serious back pain that year. Normal for gardeners and I had always had some pain when I overworked myself; wrestling a tiller, hauling topsoil and planting plants are all physically intense. Bending over becomes a trial and getting back up a challenge. One expects it and deals with it; however, this pain did not go away when the season ended as it had in years past.
During the summer of 2010, my back pain increased to the point I could only work a few hours before I had to quit for the day. Tests showed a spine with shifted bones, a bulging disc and arthritis. Cortisone shots helped a bit but the only real solution was surgery which no one wanted to do. The doctor felt the damage was not yet bad enough to warrant it; I felt dread at the very thought of surgery.
So. I muddled along that summer, taking things slowly and only working in the new section. Weeding and mulching were the only activities I could manage for any length of time. Any digging was accomplished by Brian. By the end of the summer, despite mutinous joints, the new section looked fantastic.
What about the other gardens, you might ask? The ones we spent 7 years building? Well, the simple truth is they are not faring well. I cringe, now, looking at them. I essentially abandoned them during the 2 summers we were working on the new section and once my back rebelled, I had no extra endurance to give them the attention they needed; no pruning, no weeding, and no mulch.
It is amazing just how quickly a garden starts reverting to the wild. Grass invades, plants become thugs or victims of thugs and chaos regains its hold. If the plant pandemonium wasn’t enough, we also acquired a new garden mascot. A groundhog moved into the bed nearest the patio attached to the house. He has a name I cannot repeat in polite society, though I often fling it at him, along with whatever gardening implements are at hand, when I see him gallumphing across the lawn.
As I write this, I know some hard choices, and harder work, are ahead of me this year. It is difficult to admit that, barely midway through my life (I’m only forty (mumble)), my days of gardening as I please are ending. I have no intention of giving up my garden but now I must engage my brain more than my back. Which plants are the most work and must be removed? What can I replace them with? How can I reduce maintenance chores, especially those requiring heavy lifting or shoveling?
How can I keep my favorite hobby from crippling me in the years to come?
A major overhaul is required. In order to regain control of the situation, I will have to redesign major portions of the garden. High maintenance plants will have to be removed, which means saying goodbye to many of my roses and rampant perennials. Lower maintenance shrubs and trees need to be researched and sought out. Mulch will be needed in heroic portions.
Much of this work will require assistance. I will talk to the second of our 2 contractors and, if he’s interested, offer him the job. A younger, stronger back and small, destructive machines should make quite a dent in my To Do list. With luck, I’ll have my garden back under control and in a more sustainable form by next fall. It will definitely be worth whatever it costs, whether in time, money or achy joints.