The Fence Line


Do gardeners want to put down deep roots, plant trees, and watch them ever so slowly become massive and still presences in the landscapes of their personalities?

No, the people who do that are not gardeners.

Do gardeners strive to take a slice of earth stuck in this noisy contemporary moment and make it timeless, to express some eternal mystery in the relationship between humanity and nature?

Only in theory.

In my observation, the more passionate a gardener is about the series of acts called gardening, the more perverse and restless he or she is, too.  Oh my, did that plant just die?  Let me cry a crocodile tear and stick in a replacement, something exciting and weird I’ve never tried before!  Did the garden just get flooded out?  Did I downsize my way out of a place I’ve shaped for 20 years?  Did I just get fired, foreclosed on, divorced, widowed, thrown off the land I’ve been squatting on by the city?

Yeah, it’s terrible.

And now let’s start anew! A new plan!  More plants!  New plants!  Better design this time!  A new kind of soil! Experiments galore!

Gardeners see the yard the same way billionaires see marriage.  Life is a banquet, and if the current situation has become unsettling, there is always another lovely blonde out there to offer a fresh start.

I was thinking of the weirdness of our attitude towards change just this week because my neighbor stopped by to discuss the new fence she and I are getting on our property line.  The old wooden fence has been falling down for years, thanks to a post or two that wandered in our light, sandy soil.  She can’t take it any more.  And indeed, it looks crazy from my side, but certifiable from hers.

But a new fence on our property line means dealing with the denizens of my side of the fence, particularly a ridiculously healthy ‘New Dawn’ rose; the accompanying large-flowered clematises, which are doing surprisingly well for large-flowered clematises, a fussy group of characters, I find; a pair of hardy kiwis that haven’t yet flowered; an ‘Alchymist’ rose that isn’t nearly as much of a feature as ‘New Dawn,’ but is growing pleasingly into an ‘Adelaide Dunbar’ lilac.  Plus the lilac, lots of lilies, an unhappy blue mist shrub or two, many undistinguished perennials and one that I happen to love–telekia–a meadowy weed with huge, coarse chartreuse leaves and yellow daisylike flowers at shoulder height.

My neighbor’s yard guy Ralph, who has been engaged to put up the fence, refuses to go near the issue until I saw down ‘New Dawn.’  Ralph is not foolish.

So my neighbor said to me with that saintly combination of good manners and puzzlement that characterizes most of my neighbors’ interactions with me, “Are you sure you want to do this? I feel so bad for your beautiful garden.”

Oh, I’m sure. And besides, why would anyone pity ‘New Dawn’? Yes, I’m sorry that ‘New Dawn’ won’t get to produce her thousand flesh-colored, hybrid tea-like perfect blooms this year.

But ‘New Dawn’ is a meat eater that has evolved to ensnare gardeners with its hooked thorns, wait until they expire, and then use their corpses for fertilizer. I once got a New Dawn thorn caught in my ear and would have decomposed there if my son Milo hadn’t bravely wrestled the cane off and out of me.  So, it’s not as if I expect to be consumed with sorrow, sawing this thing down to stump.  Instead, it will feel like an act of revenge. Besides, ‘New Dawn’ will surely exact its own revenge in the numerous bloody injuries it inflicts on me as I conduct this operation.  And any plant this healthy is sure to regrow alarmingly from its scaffold anyway.  I think that if I really wanted to kill it, some kind of accelerant would be required.

When I was 20 years old, I got to hear Martin Scorcese speak at UCLA.  He took questions from the audience, one of which was along the lines of, “Why aren’t your movies nicer?”

He said a great thing: “If you don’t like violence, you don’t like the movies.”

Well, if you don’t like death and destruction, a least a little, you don’t like gardening.

Yes, what’s happening on the fence now is pretty.  But it is not nearly as interesting as taking my accumulated wisdom and sharklike character and starting anew there.


  1. The death of a plant is an opportunity. I felt the same way about my marriage(s).

    If I continue to battle the viburnum beetle, I have a couple of replacements in mind for the bare spots they would leave. The weigelia got ripped out even though they were healthy. The spirea are going to follow this year I think. Life is too short to live with something that isn’t giving you pleasure.

  2. I totally ROTFLOL right now. Michele, I want you to know that reading your description of New Dawn’s bloom as ‘a thousand flesh-colored, hybrid tea-like perfect blooms’ may have just pushed me over the edge towards tackling the removal of my own plant from its place in the sun. Fortunately I planted mine, decades ago, in the perfect spot for climbing roses in my benighted climate. Unfortunately I planted New Dawn. Oh yes it is bulletproof, and it blooms its socks off every spring. But oh, how boring the color. How unfragrant the blossoms. And yikes-a-rama: the tangle of thorny hooks on its far-wandering branches! Conventional wisdom is that we can’t grow climbing roses here in the central Oregon desert. Conventional wisdom never whispered in New Dawn’s shell-like ear, for mine took hold with a grip of iron and has been known to thrust itself 30 feet up in an aging apple tree. We named ours Darth Rose, and every year I have to go out two or three times during the summer and rescue both our clothesline and the multitude of Princes that have become enmeshed in its vicious clutches. Why oh why didn’t I plant something prettier and more fragrant, all those years ago?
    I grok the fence/beautiful tangle of harmonious plants thing. We faced a similar problem 1 years ago when we replaced a 40-year-old falling-down basket-weave cedar (ugh) fence. I whacked, the fence guys wore motorcycle leathers (just kidding) and the lilac & Darth got knocked back somewhat.
    Over the last 2 very dry winters, though, Darth has experienced a severe setback. He is looking brown and dead except for a few measly branches near the roots. Maybe this is the year I bit the bullet, pull on my suit of armor and Take The Bad Boy Out!
    Great post! Death makes way for something new!

  3. You’ve given me the resolve to take out a pyrocanthus. Two or three weeks of beautiful glowing red berries does not balance a season of scrapes every time I walk by.

    By the way, my New Dawn somehow managed to do itself in.

  4. Ha! And keeping to the movie theme, paraphrasing Woody Allen, a garden is like a shark; it has to constantly move forward or it dies. Or gets too shady or fences lean, etc.

  5. A trio of trite phrases apropos to the situation:
    “Nature abhors a vacuum.”
    “Survival of the fittest.”
    “No good deed goes unpunished.”

  6. When I decided that I was tired of dead looking roses all winter, I asked my husband(who earns the money to pay for my gardening habit) if he would mind if I pulled out the roses and went to conifers and rhododendrons. He said nothing and after breakfast was out in the rain digging out roses. Guess the answer was yes! I am much happier without blackspot!

  7. I was prepared to comment gracefully in agreement about the fence line, but the last comment threw me off…NO ROSES? How would one survive?

    If one would grow roses, one must take the thorns, and blackspot, and aphids….

    One marriage here to a very patient non-gardener…and I’ve planted trees on the prairie for my grandchildren to enjoy.

  8. HA! I have always said to my pals & students at our community garden that the best gardeners are ruthless. And thankfully, I have successfully persuaded every client who ever wanted a New Dawn, to choose some other rose.

  9. I just moved my New Dawn rose too! And it broke my pruning sheers in the process. So many people were getting hurt by those aggressive canes.

  10. You’ve helped explain my ability to leave with almost no remorse my 26-year-old garden that had no room for anything new – because I get to try so many new-to-me plants. Also, I now live 5 minutes from a great garden center – my home away from home.
    Photos and full report coming soon!

  11. Great post! A few months ago my son moved into a new apartment and one of the first things I wanted to know was which windows were south-facing, and what kind of light he gets on his balcony 🙂

  12. I have enjoyed immensely watching a garden mature, get shadier, and change over 20 years. I would hate to miss how it will keep changing in the next twenty. Theres nothing to stop one from ripping out a tree or making drastic changes, but usually a couple of volunteer sessions at the botanical garden cures this… there space allows for experiments impossible or too costly at home.

  13. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I have had to leave behind lots of gardens in the past and while I’m sometimes sad I won’t get to see them mature I am always looking forward to the next garden.

    My current garden at my rental is one I hope to have for a number of years and I worry that something might happen and I may be forced to move out. I also worry because my town is converting from septic to sewers so I know at some point they will have to remove the septic tank and connect pipes from the street to the yard which will cut through a huge chunk of gardens. I worry about these things for a bit and then just think “Well then I’ll just start over.”

  14. love the post and comments.

    i’m at a beginning stage (5th growing season), and after much destruction of junk trees, etc. – i’m settling in to watch it “mature” (very long process with bareroot plugs – sigh).

    whether the death of a plant is intentional or not, i’ve finally learned to accept the loss as an opportunity, even when it is brought on by squirrels.

  15. Maybe I’m not a gardener after all. I’m hanging onto the Apricot tree despite the fact that I’m the only one in the family who eats the fruit, it’s disease-prone, the roots are invading the irrigation & drainage systems … and mentally I’ve replaced it with a dozen other fruit trees. It’s a pretty tree otherwise, & some lovely shade-loving perennials enjoy life beneath its branches. Removing it would make that climbing Joseph’s Coat rose & Jackmanii clematis flourish in the newly-revealed sun. Yet, I can’t do it. Instead I cram more and more of the things I could put there into every other corner of my yard.

    I do like to makeover other parts of the yard. The small area in front of the big picture window has been re-designed 10 times in as many years. But still the apricot stays …

  16. Anne, our 30 year old sun is also moving into a new apartment, I asked the exact same question. This is only my 3rd year of gardening (HE is the one that suggested that I start) and sadly last year his best friend from High School was killed in an auto accident and we lost my brother-in-law to cancer, don’t know how I would have gotten thru the 2 deaths without my garden. I am headed to Prides Crossing, Massachusetts for his Graduation of his Master’s Degree in Special Education in 2 weeks and will then be heading to Wethersfield Seed Gardens to supply his new deck and kitchen window sill with Heirloom Plants.

  17. Good luck on the new bed. It really is necessary, by the looks of that fence.

    Yes, a mature gardener does learn to be ruthless and take out plants that don’t do well, or just aren’t right for the space! Just one example: I ripped out Artemsia ‘Valerie Finnis’ once I realized it was a floppy, invasive mess. I was talking about new gardens just this morning with my partner; we plan to move when she gets her nursing degree next year.

    I’m excited, yet know I will shed not a few tears over my garden that I’ve had for 17 years. I’m thinking I ought to start a list of “must-haves” for the new place. I know for certain I will be looking at the lot just as carefully the actual house!

  18. I laugh at your New Dawn. She is the daintier daughter of the Good Doctor – Dr. Van Fleet. Now that is a rose that takes no prisoners.

  19. Do gardeners want to put down deep roots, plant trees, and watch them ever so slowly become massive and still presences in the landscapes of their personalities?

    Yes some of us do. Some of us never intend to leave our gardens again.

    Do gardeners strive to take a slice of earth stuck in this noisy contemporary moment and make it timeless, to express some eternal mystery in the relationship between humanity and nature?

    I have to do something with all these rocks, so yes some of us do.

    A gardener can be ruthless and strive for more permanent good bone structure that will out last them, all in the same garden.

  20. Glad to hear others see their “gardenocidal” tendencies as allowing new opportunities for the garden-it is what gave me the strength and stamina to take out a William Baffin rosebush!

  21. I guess I fall in with Christopher C NC above.

    The main reason I haven’t moved from my too-big house is because of the garden. I cried each time I thought about leaving it, and the twit who approached me to buy my house didn’t want a garden at all. It’s not all about money for me.

    My garden is my art/creation/sanctuary/escape. When no one understands or accepts me, my garden always does.

    I want my garden to be there forever or at least until I die.

    I accept change, but only when absolutely necessary for good reason. This is probably why I don’t rearrange my furniture and also why I felt so guilty pulling out a dying rosemary a few days ago. 🙂

  22. Every gardener is different. I personally hate killing plants. I blame it on Roald Dahl’s BFG. It has been years and years since I read that book, but I will never forget when he says that he can hear plants screaming when children pick their flowers.

  23. I love this post Michelle! It is so nice to know there are others who can leave their gardens and start over with reckless abandon. I am currently in the 6th year at my fourth house/garden. My friends all think I must be broken hearted when I leave my gardens, but not so. I am really excited at the chance to build something new! Even though I haven’t filled this place to the brim yet, I am already looking forward to my next move and starting over with a blank canvas at a new house. It is reassuring to know I’m not the only crazy, start-over gardener out there!

    Does anyone else get confused when they hear non-gardener types say they hate to plant things “because they might die”? I have to stop myself from saying “what’s wrong with that?” And “It is also possible that they might live!!” I have never mourned a dead plant (although I did get upset when my $30 clivia died — not because it died but because it cost $30).

    Thanks for sharing your fence story and here’s to new gardens and the gardeners to make them!

  24. In my zone, we cry in dismay of ever having a rose we would have to hack at to control, roses being sort of sheepish souls here. There is nothing like a well-grown, properly placed herbaceous perennials. And as for planting the tree under which the shade of the gardener will not sit, everyone should do that in addition to raising a child. It is our link with the future.
    I do not chase after the ephemeral “what’s new?” or demand the instant, no-effort garden. I am NOT like you Michele. I must be a gardener of the first sort…

  25. I totally get it. I had a New Dawn climbing on the side of my garage, and it was gigantic, healthy, vigorous, noteworthy and eye-catching. But when the time came to get siding on our garage, I did not shed a tear (other than those caused by thorn-pricks, that plant was mean) when I had to cut it down, and watched the workers stomp around in the bed. Now I have several clematis and a bevy of other smaller, less noteworthy plants in that bed who all live in harmony and don’t jab me. Change is good.

  26. Soulfully stated, Christopher C.–I’m with you as well. Sometimes things must go and it’s for the best but I never have get pleasure from it. Then again, the roses here (in Colorado) don’t grow like monsters and the blood-letting is kept to a minimum.

  27. Repairing the leaks in our basement wall required taking out a hedge of forsythia. My wife was sad, I was delighted – forsythia bored me. Growing in their place now are some red elderberry and a lilac.

    When it comes to gardening, my spouse is a conservative, and I am an anarchist. My spouse hates to see anything change. I am almost eager to pronounce a plant sickly or dead so I can replace it. Plants that emerge late in the season do not have a good survival rate at our place, due to my tendency to seize on the possibility that they didn’t make it through the winter.

    By the way, when it comes to thorns, I’ll put my Darlow’s Enigma against your New Dawn any day.

  28. Agreed on all of the above -we are also having fencework done. Top quote from the fence guy as I sentenced some scilla to death:
    “Are you sure about these plants? Because when we put the post in, they’re going to, um…experience that….”

  29. I loved this post, Michelle, and the best was linking Scorcese and films to gardening. I too have a tenacious New Dawn. By mid July it’s chewed up by insects and spotted with fungus, but every spring it leafs out, undeterred. I haven’t dug it up as I would like because I don’t want to go near the thorns. It’s my only rose. Here in mildewy, clay-y, droughty, deer-infested Central Virginia, you have to be a wily advocate for roses, which I am not. I think a gardener is anyone who experiences a range of emotions in relation to the garden–joy, hope, despair, lust, heartbreak, tenderness, anger, and so on, usually while wielding a shovel, mattock, saw, clippers or other weapons–er, tools.

  30. Sorry, I have to comment again. In all honesty, I am more truly in the ‘I never want to leave my garden’ camp. I’m planted here, and after 34 years, my successes and failures are still with me. So for me to say I look forward to taking out Darth Rose is really something. Ongoingly, just this morning I read a post on Ann Lovejoy’s blog, in which she shares an insight about how gardeners and non-gardeners tend to see a hole in the ground differently. Non-gardeners might think of a grave awaiting a coffin; gardeners see a hole waiting for something new and alive to be planted. Don’t you love that?

  31. I’ve been moving plants out of my community garden plot for the past month or so, and just last week I found out I might not have to move out! So I have a blank canvas, maybe, and I’m looking forward to filling it if I can indeed stay.

    But what’s interesting is that, as I’ve invited other people to dig up plants, I’m happy to see the plants going to new places, but seeing people stomp on my soil is hard. I grew perennials (for the pollinators) as well as vegetables in wide beds, with fluffy soil that I’ve not walked on in 9 years. I find that I’m willling to part with plants but want to find a way to take the soil with me!! Everyone who takes plants comments on the beautiful soil. Some areas had regular additions of homemade compost (from my 5 Biostack bins), and others just had regular mulch added.

  32. I have adapted to necessary changes over a long life with relative ease. I am able to hold the thought that that better things lie ahead, even when they have been pretty good before. Just this very day I determined to rip out a pathetic potentilla. I don’t care how much it screams. I’m sure I could put something really nice in that spot.

  33. Back in the olden days, plants like pyracantha (Firethorn) and Darth Rose were planted under windows to deter unwelcome visitors — like burglars.

  34. Plants are pretty smart. And unsentimental, unlike humans. I’m pretty sure they don’t scream when being nibbled by deer or munched on by caterpillars. IMO removing a plant for whatever reason is morally ok, provided it is done with respect and gratitude, and I know the plants ‘hear’ that. And when you think about it, flowers don’t really need to be beautiful (to us) — they only need to look attractive to their pollinators and other creatures that assist in carrying on the species (animals that eat and spread seeds in fruit, etc). I think that beauty is a bonus gift to us from nature, and I always tell flowers and other plants they are beautiful. What goes around, comes around. And we are part of the circle.

  35. I actually really like my New Dawn. The only rose that seems to thrive in my muggy mid Atlantic garden without a life support of nasty chemicals. I’ve pulled out every other rose I’ve tried. It has covered the pergola over my front porch and blooms gloriously once and then nicely all summer (makes the neighbors happy). And I kinda like doing battle against it with my pruners a few times a year. Thwack!

  36. I like my New Dawn, too. It’s no thornier than the wild invasive roses I am working at ripping out. And not nearly as thorny as some of the old roses I’ve grown.

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