It is a very odd sensation to step away from a place that has just become home in the past few years, knowing that it will be home again in the future. As I prepare this week to leave for Iowa and Minnesota for my new position at Seed Savers Exchange, I am reminded of how often I put off investing in those garden tasks that involve long-term benefits in favor of those that provide short-term gain (an approach that seems to be afflicting American businesses and government even more significantly than my own garden).
So often we allow mundane garden tasks like weeding or raking up fallen leaves and spent magnolia flowers to distract us from the garden activities that would benefit us more greatly in the future. How many times have I noticed lilacs and other shrubs in need of structural pruning, perennials in need of division, and European ginger, which seem to be germinating in record numbers in this cool rainy season, in need of transplanting to new areas of the garden, but have ignored them all as I invest my energies in edging the curvilinear borders behind my house?
Now, as I pack up and load my car with the few things I wish to take west with me for this new stage in my life (and at this moment my VW Tiguan seems to be like an old Conestoga wagon as I determine which household items will be essential for my life on the prairie), I also have another force pulling me. Between selecting which pots and pans and coats and shoes are essential (mysteriously, the items I am most concerned about bringing along are the creature comforts for my dog Fred, whose beds, dishes and favorite miniature chair have taken priority over my favorite garden tools and any plant that cannot be moved forward by bringing along its seeds), I find myself grabbing a pruning saw and loppers and cutting back beautybushes that have just finished blooming, trimming out the old wood of decades-old lilacs and shaping the magnolias that are viewed from my soon-to-be-abandoned bedroom. Weeds abound and need to be dealt with, but my priorities for the short term seem to have fallen away, in favor of a new appreciation for the long term. I do not know when I will be back here for good (it may be in my retirement a decade or more hence), but I want to do that work that prepares these plants to greet me in their best form whenever that moment is upon me.
For many years, even what passed for long-term maintenance for me had a much quicker return on investment. When I would head off for a week or two to visit friends in Nantucket or Charleston, I would cut back the catmint, geraniums, lady’s mantle, and sage that was past flowering, so they would push up new growth while I was gone and exhibit tighter growth or even re-bloom later in the season when I was back. I was motivated by a desire to avoid bearing witness to those less attractive early stages of recovery that these plants would go through, and to arrive back home just as they had put on a new flush of growth – looking far more invigorated and much less leggy than they had before I cut them back.
This approach was the equivalent of being a surgeon and not having to see patients after surgery until their wounds had healed and they were well on their way to recovery and a new life. With this in mind I have taken loppers to trees and overgrown shrubs, including a row of yews that I cut back to old wood, knowing that their painful recovery would be well over by the time I was back in town. Yews are one of the few evergreens that, when cut hard, can re-sprout from old wood (such cutting triggers dormant buds into growth), but the process usually takes a season before the plants look good again. I had been looking at these overgrown specimens for two years now without bringing them down to size and giving them the tight geometric forms that was the original intention of their being added to the garden, to bring a sense of formality to the back garden.
In my enthusiasm to prepare for my move, I cut the yews a few weeks before I was to leave town, and now, despite my effort not to be around for their recovery, a little fertilizing and a bit of rain have made their dormant buds come back to life fairly quickly. My timing has left me mesmerized, as I watch this new growth pushing forth from their old wood. And I cannot help but wonder, why do we perform these tasks as we are heading off when the sight of such miraculous growth is so inspiring? I hope I remember this lesson in the years ahead, when I am back here full time, gardening in my retirement. The edging and weeding can wait, and the long-term result will be the proof in the pudding. Yes, I know I will regret the weeding that I have not managed to do, as it too has long term benefits (removing weeds before they set seed reduces their seed bank in the soil), but I will pay the price for this in the years ahead when I once again reinvest my energies in their removal, surrounded by healthy trees and shapely shrubs as I do my quotidian garden chores.
Oh, and there is one more task to be done before heading off that always benefits from time (and a little water that will need to come from the skies above or a friend who is caring for the house): planting a few trees that I want to see as mature specimens in my “mature” years.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.