Gardening 101

What Will Happen to Our Gardens When We Leave?

Garden scene

I have reached a certain age when I’m debating whether I should (eventually) reside in a retirement home—and this has caused me to consider the fate of my garden. Endowed gardens such as Longwood or nearby Montrose will endure, although in different hands they, too, will change. But what happens to our respectable, unendowed plots of land that we call “gardens?”

Gardens have a habit of disappearing. Nature never gives up, tastes changes, babies arrive, and suddenly comes the recognition that gardens take too much work.

Think about Malmaison, the Empress Josephine’s famous garden. This garden was famous for more than its roses: It served as a botanical park for scientific experimentation. The lady amassed collections of rare plants from all over. At a time when roses were relatively unfashionable, she sought to gather a specimen of every rose variety then in existence—in all, she collected over 250 varieties. Upon her death the garden fell into rapid decline. Today the Malmaison garden is no more. Sadly, I fear this will happen to our gardens.

There are many reasons for this decline. Ours is a fast-growing area where land suddenly becomes too valuable to sustain an acre garden. Gardens can also be costly to maintain. We have to lug in mulch, spread topsoil and compost, and then there is the constant weeding required. Plants cost money and then there is the added cost of watering. With more people moving into the area, the demand for water grows, and with that demand comes a higher price.

Now none of this is bad—we simply have to face the situation head on. A friend of mine had an extensive garden that her builder plowed under when he bought the house from her. Why? He wasn’t anti-garden, he simply explained that it’s easier to sell a house with turf than it was with a significant garden. Of course she was heartbroken—but the house did sell quickly.

There are those who do not gasp with delight at the first sighting of a Camellia sasanqua in bloom, just as there are people who don’t appreciate the first spring rose. Maintaining a garden requires dedicated commitment. Nature works against us, sending us innumerable weeds and catastrophic climate conditions—think of those droughts and floods we have experienced in the last decade alone.

The sad fact is that some people want the house but not the garden. There are those who love the idea of a garden but life has a habit of getting in the way. Babies and gardens don’t mix: Both are time-consuming, both are demanding. Sooner or later, something gives way and usually it’s the garden. Society deems that it is preferable to give up the garden before giving away the baby.

Tastes change. I describe my garden as “organized chaos.” Gardens reflect our personalities and the sad fact is that some want more organization than I deem to be desirable. We all like different colors. I dislike the color orange in the garden but my replacement might prefer it to the pinks I tend to favor.

And this is the point I’m trying to make: Future gardeners will change your garden. Just be thankful that they want to garden. Some will prefer turf, an incomprehensible predilection for those of us who relish every perennial.

We regard our gardens as our babies—but there is a difference. We can and must at some point let go of the garden, recognizing it is no longer ours, but we never give up on the baby, even when that baby has college age children. This is the pattern we call life.

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After joining the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners in 2003, Kit Flynn now has emeritus status. She also writes gardening articles for the Durham County Extension Master Gardener newsletter, an online magazine “Senior Correspondent,” and “The Absentee Gardeners” column for “The Blowing Rocket” with Lise Jenkins.