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.
One candidate for change was a classic double border dominated by perennials, some 40 feet long, and now mass planted with a dwarf red-twigged dogwood underplanted with cranesbill and the cyclamineus daffodil Jenny. In time the dogwood will need the older canes removed in late winter to keep the young, stunningly colorful ones coming. I imagine that what she has lost in June glory she has made up with dramatic bands of stems in winter, blood red against the snow.
I think of the redtwig dogwood as more vivid in colder climes than ours. Highbush blueberries would work as well in such a setting. Apart from the fruit, you’d have the red foliage in fall and the orange glow on the winter twigs. Or you could use dwarf varieties of crape myrtle.
The point is that by shifting to beds dominated by shrubs, you can have fabulous landscape effects with much less effort beyond the initial toil and expense. And like Dickey, you can throw in reliable bulbs and the lowest care perennials, too, of course, plants such as cranesbills, lenten roses and epimediums.
“As we grow older, it becomes easier to admire simplicity, even to long for it,” Dickey writes in her book about gardening in life’s third act, “Embroidered Ground.” Through this design and horticultural reduction, “we achieve a welcome serenity,” she says.
Shrubs can grow large in just a few years, so it’s important to know how big your selections will get. There are now many, really good smaller and dwarf shrub varieties available that function as perennials in their flowering, texture and scale. If they are given optimum sun or shade conditions and good soil, they don’t need lifting, dividing or staking, and are less needy in a drought, and you don’t need to cut back and tidy them year to year. What you might give up in flower ornament, you gain in the decorative effects of foliage, along with winter form and color. Shrubs also feed and shelter birds in a way perennials cannot.
Like many of us, Dickey loves the chartreuse-leafed spirea Ogon, sometimes sold as Mellow Yellow. It forms handsome, feathery mounds, about three feet high and wide. She also commends White Gold, a Japanese spirea with golden foliage and white flowers in spring. I love the bumald spirea named Magic Carpet. Its golden leaves are tinged a deep pink in the spring, and it pairs well with tulips that pick up on either color.
I don’t know why the dwarf deutzia Nikko is not used more widely, especially massed. It is a low-maintenance, high-performing shrub that forms a lovely mound of fine, textured green leaves and is smothered in white blossoms in May.
And then there are hydrangeas, in their many forms. Annabelle is a classic variety of the smooth hydrangea valued not just by florists but also by smart gardeners. A suckering stand in an enriched, sunny or partly shaded bed will produce its showy blooms in late June and keep them upright and tidy until September. The blooms age from green to white to tan.
They go well with ornamental grasses — avoid the deep-rooted, ever-expanding miscanthus, unless you’re handy with a backhoe. Dickey likes the deschampsias and the molinias, which have presence without being too large. You can’t go wrong with the calamagrostis Karl Foerster, upright, slender and graceful.
In shadier beds, Dickey turns to the oakleaf hydrangea. I have a few that, 15 years on, are six feet high and at least eight feet across. Smaller varieties are out there, notably Pee Wee and Sikes Dwarf.
The panicle hydrangea offers its own array of low-maintenance favorites. Tardiva is valued for its white blooms in October — it’s a great season-ender — but Dickey also commends others: Limelight, a fabulous six-foot shrub loaded with white blooms tinged green and aging to pink; and Quick Fire, opening midsummer white but maturing to a pinky red. For smaller panicle hydrangeas, she goes for Little Lamb and Dharuma. She doesn’t grow the more familiar lacecap and mophead hydrangeas — it’s too cold for them where she lives. They would work for us, though they do need watering more than oakleaf and panicle types to avoid that pained, wilted look.
Dickey is also a big fan of boxwood, which has the added value of being deer resistant. If you can, give it a little afternoon shade. Planting English boxwood (growth rate: half an inch a year) in your 70s is simply an act of charity, but there are now many varieties that look as handsome without the wait.
Justin Brouwers is a fine substitute, with a quicker pace. I also like the lower-growing Vardar Valley, for its more open habit, blue-green foliage and leaf texture. “Boxwood is a perfect shrub in the garden,” Dickey said in a telephone chat. “It just always seems to be at home, whether you have a cottage garden, a formal garden or a modern garden.”
In her book, she quotes Stanford University professor Robert Pogue Harrison, who says gardens are not memorials to the past but “exist to reenchant the present.” I love Harrison’s “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition” — his esoteric take on gardens and their importance in allowing us to reconnect to a physical world, a link compromised by our digital addictions.
But to me the thrill of gardening is about creating the future, and the act of redoing a part of the garden that has had its day is an exercise in anticipation, which is what it’s all about, whatever your age.
Tips to reduce a garden’s needs:
— Reduce plantings of perennials and annuals and replace them with shrubs. Shrubs come in a range of sizes, flowering periods, forms and season of interest — space them for their established size, which is shown on plant labels.
— Shrubs can be used in almost any garden role, depending on their ornamental traits — as ground covers, screening, specimens, accents and fillers, as well as for wildlife habitat and even container plantings.
— Roses, which are shrubs, can provide weeks of bloom in a low-maintenance landscape, but you must pick proven, low-care varieties. Rugosa roses provide a show in late spring; modern landscape roses can flower continually through the season.
— Hydrangeas work well in all but the hottest and driest conditions. Beyond the common bigleaf hydrangeas, think of oakleaf hydrangeas, shrubby and white flowering in late spring; and the more perennial, such as smooth hydrangea, a great ground cover that blooms in early summer and is decorative into early fall. New varieties of panicle hydrangeas are more compact and shrublike than older forms and bloom in summer into the fall.
— Avoid fast-growing woody plants such as Leyland cypress, white pines, callery pears and the largest crape myrtles.
— Replace a jumble of plants with massed plantings of a single variety. Make sure the light, drainage and soil conditions are uniform for the entire planting.
— Keep hedges tidy with a light trimming, but avoid clipped hedges.
— Use a light layer of organic mulch to keep weeds down.