The aging ageless jardin

I turn 50 this year, and it’s time for a garden redo.

Last year, my husband acknowledged his own milestone birthday by examining his somewhat balding head (I like it) and his very graying beard (I really like that). Then he made an appointment for a physical—in the 20 years we’ve been married, the first one that I didn’t make for him (or threaten divorce if he didn’t go).

Garden overflow: Last year’s abundant cottage garden may be more than the newly-turned-50 author can handle. Photo by Cinthia Milner

My husband bemoans the fact that at 50, there aren’t many redos left in life. He utters such clichés as, “The hay is in the barn now,” and “That field’s already plowed.” I counter that some redos are still possible. So I’m going to acknowledge this hallowed year with a garden redo (pronounced, Southern-fried French style, as “gar-DAN ree-do”).

Of course, I have an advantage over my husband: I planned to get old all along. In my family, women peak in their 70s. Yes, the knees go, the feet swell, the wrinkles come and the hair whitens, but the Milner women all live to ripe old ages, having lots of fun and displaying plenty of verve along the way. They take those last 30 years and, like a scarlet red oak, they show off their colors long after everyone else has faded. I intend to do the same; in fact, I look forward to it.

But—and there’s always a but—I’m practical. What my much younger self did in the garden is not what my 50-year-old self does now (or can do). Each spring, I’m profoundly grateful to that 30-something Cinthia who had the foresight to plant the thousands of bulbs I now enjoy—Scilla siberica, Spanish bluebells, daffodils, crocus and grape hyacinth. (I can call it “foresight” now, but at the time, it was gardening insanity. As you get older, history gets revised.) So without that part-time gardener I’ve always dreamed of having, there’ll be no repeat of that feat.

Besides, it’s time for a makeover. Although the profusion of foxgloves, hollyhocks, delphiniums, daisies and irises is lovely, maintaining a cottage garden requires a minimum of four hours of backbreaking work—each day, all summer. Mine does, anyway. And those days are gone.

Instead, I hereby declare that my garden shall age with me. I intend to replace (almost) every bleeding heart and lily of the valley with azaleas, framed by a backdrop of mountain laurel and rhododendron. The new look shall rival the gardens of quintessential Biltmore Estate horticulturist Chauncey Beadle, who spent 60 years developing the grounds there. Osmanthus and gardenias will go where hostas once swayed, and peonies will stay put (a grateful nod to my college roommate’s well-designed Greenville, S.C., garden). Besides, who would ever replace a peony? Till death do us literally part, their heavy flowers will still plop down on the path that trails my perennial border.

But here’s my husband’s point: “I thought this whole gar-dan redo was based on the premise that we’re too old to maintain a garden that requires a lot of maintaining.” I nod.

He’s obviously getting the idea when he fills in my unspoken words: “But we’re not too old to completely redo the garden, which will likely kill us in the process?”

This is why we’ve stayed married for 20 years: He totally gets me. “Precisely,” I say, smiling and planting a kiss firmly on that old gray beard.

Thus, I plan a gar-dan-redo day, inviting all my friends who’ve turned 50 recently (or soon will). Showing their age, my friends all grumble. Oh ye of little faith, I say, many hands make light work, even if the collective age of those hands is more than 500 years. Think of the dirt they’ve seen; who better to celebrate a gar-dan redo with me? My friends ask what refreshments come at the conclusion of our master task. I smile.

One friend can’t garden, but she sure can cook. My table runneth over with culinary delights, so off to the gar-dan we go, amazingly lighter in step—and younger in spirit.

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]

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8 thoughts on “The aging ageless jardin

  1. gourmet gardener

    Cinthia, please don’t pull up your cottage garden! If it’s half as beautiful as your description, it must be absolutely delightful. But, as one who just turned 50, I think I understand. In fact, your article gave me hope just when I needed it. I want to take my last 30 years (or 50?)and show off my colors. Thank you for reminding your readers that those of us who have hit the half century mark still have some living (and gardening) left in us!

  2. There can be more to an aging garden than azaleas, kalmia and rhododendrons. There are evergreen and deciduous hollies, fothergilla, witch hazel, conifers in all shapes sizes and colors, viburnums, hydrangea, deutzia and spirea to name just a few worthy shrubs. Then there are the small flowering trees, dogwoods, redbud, magnolia and cherries or my preferred the upright small Japanese maples.

    A less intense maintenance garden, with year round interest, variety, movement and some drama would show more verve than a monoculture of azaleas and rhododendron with a brief show in late spring.

    You’re a Milner woman. Have fun in your gardan reedo.

  3. Frankie Milner

    I believe this was the best that Cynthia has done. I enjoyed all the comments that she and her husband made about “age”. The picture of the garden was beautiful!

  4. Cinthia Milner

    Christopher, you are so right and my garden will have much of what you mentioned–lots of experimenting with evergreen shrubs and trees that I’ve ignored in the past, partly because of lack of knowledge and partly because I just loved the flowers so much. But I am looking forward to learning about a whole new “lot” of plants and giving them a try in my garden. Suggestions always welcome from this gardener.

  5. Cinthia, I started my first North Carolina garden just a little bit after my eleventh 39th birthday. It is in virgin forest on pretty steep terrain. There are grand visions of course, but no budget or real desire to flatten a forest filled with natives to start a garden from a blank slate. There is also that voice in the back of my mind that says, “Who will win in this contest of wills to create a garden, you or the forest?” Somehow the two must merge. I think the shrubs will of necessity be the backbone that says garden in a wild forest.

    There is hope. My parents have managed to plant, 10,000 daffodils alone on two acres of tended grounds on this mountain. They did this between the ages of 65 and 80 and are still going strong, dividing and planting more bulbs. Garden creep, where the edges keep expanding continues, despite some grumbling from half of the team.

    I have been chronicling my gardening efforts at my blog, OutsideClyde

  6. Cinthia Milner

    Christopher, thank you for sharing your blog with me. Your pictures are amazing. The spring bulbs, my favorites, are incredible. I spend a lot of time at LJunaluska’s native garden. Have you been there? I am currently creating a native garden, well, it is already is so many respects, just bringing in some stuff that isn’t already there. I’m fortunate to have the advantage of living on old pasture land so the cows ate a lot of the undergrowth and spring bulbs and native flowers do great there. They love the rich forest floor and don’t have to compete with anything, the floor is clear–except for some spice bush and sassafras, oh and a favorite striped maple. I love expanding that area bit by bit because the wildlife enjoy it so much and it tends to itself.

    Now your parent’s are inspiring me to get back out there and start with my bulbs again. Dividing and creating more. LJunaluska has a native garden plant sale in May. Not sure when but you can get some cool stuff.

  7. Cinthia, it took some searching, but I found where the Lake Junaluska Bryan Native Garden is located. Is it open to the public? I am certainly in the neighborhood often enough.

  8. Citnhia Milner

    Christopher, yes, the garden is open to the public anytime. I was there just last Tuesday, before all the rains, and things were coming up. I am sure, after this wonderful rain this week it will be blooming like mad. Everything is labeled, which I appreciate. The story of its inception can be found there, originally it was a dumping ground till this wonderful lady named Corneille Bryan took it over. Go visit, you’ll love it. Students from Haywood Community College and Western spend time studying there, others just for enjoyment.

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