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Gardening for the Ages

Sage advice for keeping in the gardening game
when the AARP likes you and your joints don't.

 

Encased in business-sized envelopes, they appear in my mailbox as occasional mementos from the devil with the fiendish greeting, "Dear Friend." It strikes me that if one envelope was enlarged by a factor of nine, the new dimensions would make a suitable template for constructing a coffin. The devil, as many believe, is the greatest subliminal conjurer.

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Container gardens allow you to cultivate colorful, exotic plants that thrive in pots. Due to their mobility, Eddison compares them to set design for the stage—her former profession. Above, under a shady catalpa tree, tall papyrus, brightly colored coleus and unusual succulents turn a small patio at Ditch Cottage into an atmospheric, escapist nook. (Photo by Vivian Savitt)

I read the envelopes' contents with my usual bemused disdain, wondering how much Livingston Audiology & Hearing Aid Center (say what?), The Scooter Store (a "personal mobility assessment" is always enclosed) and the Senior Final Expense Program (funeral insurance, not MasterCard) pay for the mailing list containing my name. Better had been a lot.

I wad up the doomsayer tidings into a paper orb, aim toward the recycling bin, then exit to my garden.

Here, for the present, my ears retain the audio acuity to hear bird songs and breezes rustling — and my joints and muscles the flexibility to stoop, bend and stretch unencumbered, if I remember to take occasional breaks.

Although my garden at Ditch Cottage is writ small and quite manageable when compared to those of friends and acquaintances — some featured over the years in this column — I recognize that even my little plot may present future physical challenges for an unraveling body.

 

This thought resonated most recently on a hot, "pre-monsoonious" afternoon when I assumed the "dead-heading pose" and commenced to remove graying achillea blooms. Never a big deal in the past, the experience was rather exhausting. Eek!

Time to read Sydney Eddison's Gardening for a Lifetime, with its beckoning subtitle: "How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older" (Timber Press, paperback edition $14.95, 208 pp.).

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With their silvery foliage, the shrubs Artemesia filifolia and Elaeagnus x ebbingei (foreground) set a stunning stage for easy-to-grow white zinnias, centranthus and bishop’s weed at Ditch Cottage. Writer Sydney Eddison advises using more shrubs than perennials to reduce time-consuming, strenuous tasks like weeding, deadheading, pruning and division. (Photo by Vivian Savitt)

For five decades, Eddison has gardened two and a half acres in Newtown, Conn. — that's hosta, fern and rhododendron country, not to mention all those lush conifers frothed in snow.

Now approaching 80, in her seventh book (and as a recipient of many gardening excellence awards), Eddison shares a storehouse of memories and advice that's geared toward understanding that as you and your garden age a simpler way of maintaining it must be found "in order to hang on to something you love." With witty hindsight she adds, "It took a great deal of time and energy to make (my) garden as hard to manage as it ultimately became."

In 2005, she lost her beloved husband to cancer, and although he was no fan of manual labor, he enjoyed those manly gardening chores using power equipment.

When forced to hire assistants to help with upkeep, Eddison eventually realizes, "These kind people had allowed me the illusion that I was still taking care of my garden."

 

One day, while Eddison undertakes neglected indoor tasks — a clearing out of "overstuffed closets, drawers and bookshelves" — she finds herself feeling "lighter of heart and better able to cope." She decides to apply this strategy out of doors, noting. "If I couldn't bring myself to make the garden smaller, surely I could get rid of some things and make it simpler."

With this in mind, Eddison's tale gets underway as she takes "a hard look" at her sunny perennial borders. The reader stays enthralled because her writing is filled with warmth, wisdom and practical advice. Remarking upon her personal foibles — inflexibility, perfectionism — we learn Eddison's eventual realization that "Life is perfect only rarely and briefly, and gardens are the same."

She continues: "Living things are always in a state of becoming. A seed becomes a mature plant, which enjoys a brief prime, ages, dies and becomes compost to nurture a new generation. As that is how nature works, our best hope of a simpler way to garden lies in learning to go with the flow."

Eddison's "gleanings" on how to begin the transition to gardening wiser include: staff up, scale down, make lists, simplify, limit the color palette and accept imperfection. These and other gleanings are summarized in workbook style at the end of each chapter.

The topic of gardening aids such as pneumatic or compressor tools, raised beds, padded kneeling stools or hanging planters with pulley systems is not recounted. Eddison's significant aids include human resources of all ages, outstanding gardening books, visiting botanical gardens, simple observation and friends she can rely on.

Sydney Eddison is someone to invite for High Tea if your time with her could extend at least until dusk. She is truly someone who can both charm the devil and encourage you "to make your garden with the resources still at your command."

 

 

Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.

 

 



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