Gardening as you age: How to go low maintenance without losing beauty

After three or four hours digging and weeding, a hot bath, a soft chair and a couple of aspirin have their appeal, but I like to think I’ve got a fair few years of full-bore gardening in front of me. And yet I do wonder what happens when you reach that point in life when the limbs are too feeble or arthritic for the work.

For many folks, not much will change. They will continue to view the space around the house as a necessary evil and get the mow-and-blow brigade to cut the grass, mulch the beds and shape the bushes. (Favorite cringe scene of the past year: mow-and-blower sculpting a gumdrop azalea with gas-powered hedge clippers.) But for active gardeners, who love to nurture plants and work the soil, the decision to scale back gardening also means scaling back the garden. This can be hard, to let go of beds that are full of memories as well as flowers.

Page Dickey, a garden designer and writer in North Salem, N.Y., has consciously dismantled some of the beloved elements of her 30-year-old, three-acre garden at her property, Duck Hill, now that she and her husband, Bosco Schell, are in their 70s.

Taming the unruly tomato vine

By Barbara Damrosch,
We’re all rooting for the tomatoes right now, hoping for fast growth, strong stems and branches laden with fruit. How easily we can forget what happens when tomatoes run amok.

It’s probably too late to warn you not to grow too many of them and not to plant them too closely. But without dampening your enthusiasm, let’s talk about support. How much you invest in that is up to you. The easiest thing is to do nothing and let the plants flop on the ground. This works with the determinate types, which stop growing after a few feet and set all their fruits at once. But the indeterminate vining ones must be trained upward before their heavy fruit brings them to their knees in a tangled, impenetrable mess.

Tomato cages, if they’re strong, work fine. I make mine out of concrete-reinforcing wire, which I buy in five-foot-wide sheets from a building supply store. This sturdy mesh has six-inch-square openings through which I can easily reach the tomatoes for picking.

I form it into cylinders 16 inches in diameter and set them over the young plants to guide their ascent, pinching out the suckers at the bottom. (A sucker is a little shoot that emerges in the angle made by the leaf branch and the main stem.) The lowest suckers emerge just above the first pair of leaves, the smooth-edged seed leaves. Left to grow, they would branch out rather than up and just get in the way. After that, there’s little to do except remove wayward branches and a few more suckers if growth is rampant.

Flower bandit filches Cleveland Park blooms

They’ve waged war against deer and battled hungry possums that snatch tomatoes just when they are at the peak of their flavor. But there’s one pest the Newark Street gardeners have been unable to thwart: a certain two-legged rat with a penchant for peonies.

For 10 years, gardeners in this Northwest Washington neighborhood believe the same man has been stealing spring blooms from their plots in the Newark Street Community Garden. Not just a few stems, mind you, but bunches — as many as 30 to 50 at a time.

“He does this every year, starting with the peonies,” said Marcia Stein, one of the flower thief’s victims, who lost a bunch of blooms this month. “Last year, he stole all of my peonies.”

Gardeners say the suspect has expensive taste. He ignores lesser flowers in favor of pricier blooms. (At Johnson’s Florist and Garden Center in Cleveland Park, peonies sell for $8.99 a stem.)

And when he steals them, he’s not gentle: He rips the blooms right out of the ground.

For years, the gardeners kept quiet, fearful that publicity would encourage more thefts.

The Chelsea Flower Show: New plants and the not-so-new

The Chelsea Flower Show is perhaps the world’s brightest stage on which to launch new plants. It’s great opportunity to tell gardeners about new plants, and blogs, websites, newspapers and magazines are full of the news. The Chelsea Plant of The Year award, launched last year, has ratcheted up the interest.

But some nurseries announce plants as new when they’ve been around for years. Others fail to mention really good new plants that they’re exhibiting and have to have the information coaxed out of them. And can a plant first publicised last summer really be “launched” at the show?

Hillier Nurseries have a very attractive new ruby-red leaved maple, Acer palmatum ‘Shaina’ (pictured above), a lovely plant, which they say is “Available exclusively through Hillier Garden Centres and online at in 2011”. But in fact it’s been available since the 1990s, the RHS themselves say it’s listed by 24 other nurseries and garden centres all over the country have it. Despite three or four attempts I have been unable to get hold of Hillier to ask why they’re promoting the plant in this way.
Clematis ‘Celebration’ Clematis ‘Celebration’. Photograph: Fred Godfrey/Sussex Plants

Clematis ‘Celebration’ is certainly a breakthrough clematis – the first ever large-flowered type with yellow foliage – and Thorncroft Clematis are lucky to have it.

Chelsea Flower Show a target from touts after record sales

The public isn’t even let in until Tuesday but the “sold out” signs are up already. If your heart cries out for streams of individually hand-washed pebbles, orange trees with each fruit in its own little shower cap to be whipped off just before the judges arrive, or a silky lawn weeded with eyebrow tweezers, and you haven’t already got your ticket for the Chelsea flower show, then bad luck. Your only hope is to lurk around the railings until a sinister figure in print dress, straw hat and pearl earrings shuffles up to offer you black market tickets – about 10 times the £47 face value might be a good starting point.

All 157,000 tickets sold out months ago, in 16 days, a record. The Royal Horticultural Society is warning the public to beware of touts and of forged tickets.

The RHS also notes that visitor records are being broken at all its gardens, and 19,000 people have joined the society in the past three months. “I believe this increased interest can largely be attributed to a desire to get back to the simpler pleasures in life and also to benefit from the huge trend to grow your own food,” Sue Bigg, director general of the RHS, said.

On Monday the judges and the royals arrive: the Queen is definitely coming, and the romantics among the show staff hope William and Kate will too, to inspect the new rose named in their honour.