Gardening with Diminishing Returns



Rose unleashes the Louisville garden.

I am 68 years old and have been gardening for almost 50 years. For more than a third of this long garden row—18 years—I have been planting and weeding accompanied by Multiple Sclerosis. As a consequence of disease and age, my gardens—and my ambition—are slowly unwinding.

Life is still generous.

Gardening has soothed my soul for as long as I have gripped the handle of a hoe. Weeding can transport me to a loving and peaceful dimension—at least, until an army of noisy neighborhood weed eaters and leaf blowers brings me back to the overheated earth I love.

Science Source image

I cannot be without a garden.

M.S. is a chronic autoimmune disease. It’s not going away anytime soon. The disease works in mysterious ways. The immune system, in overdrive, attacks the protective myelin sheath that surrounds the spinal cord.  The brain may be targeted, also. The result: Short-circuited, neurologic functions go catawampus. M.S. has not dulled all my senses.

I am okay. My balance is a little wobbly but manageable, but heat, stress and fatigue are my constant foes. Cognition, in my case, has always been a little suspect, even before my diagnosis, but doesn’t seem to be worse because of M.S.

I am lucky.

I am more patient and observant —not nearly as self-critical of imperfections as I once was. I move through garden beds now at a slower pace, often on my hands and knees. I enjoy finding bits of old labels that memorialize plants long dead; I often uncover camouflaged weeds just about to unleash a gazillion seeds.

Rose, Rufus, the white swan and a daylily with the best name ever—’Ground Control to Major Tom’. Salvisa, Kentucky.

Two years ago I turned over our Louisville garden to Rose. She was game. I couldn’t find the time or energy to love and fuss over two gardens. The country now holds my heart.

The Louisville garden now has a much wilder appearance. It’s more daring and less controlled. Rose has allowed the tougher perennials and shrubs to flourish. No more messing around with hard-to-please plants. Amsonia hubrichtii, baptisias, Packera area, Northern sea oats, epimediums, hellebores, Solomon’s seals and Japanese roof iris, ironweed, Lilium superbum, American beak grass and Joe-Pye-weeds have been allowed to spread their wings. Oak-leaf hydrangeas, sweetshrubs, paw paws, viburnums a golden larch and flowering magnolias attract attention in the woody sector. There’s a lot packed into our one-third-acre city lot.

It’s hard to see the forest for the ironweeds.

Up the road, an hour from Louisville, I have planted hundreds of little trees on our Salvisa farm, over the last few years, with help from Rose and friends. Twenty-seven acres are leased and planted with organic soybeans.  My neighbors don’t understand why I am taking out a couple of acres of good cropland to plant a small forest of oaks, yellowwoods, red buds, spicebushes and Norway spruce. Bird habitat, I answer. Part of me worries I might be channeling Don Quixote, but I don’t think so, even if hobby farms—and ours is a hobby farm—are often non-productive, and impractical = quixotic.

Maybe, one day, a few of of our gingkoes will look like this 150-year old beauty in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.

I pretend I know what I am doing.

Gardening is quixotic.

A planned grove of male Gingko ‘Autumn Gold’—not the stinky seed-bearing sort—may raise more eyebrows. I have 20 four-foot whips in a nursery bed that I will plant next year. One day, I can imagine a huge autumn carpet of golden leaves covering the ground. I will be long gone, but I am enchanted with the idea.

The young gingko whips are doing better than the cabbages that were eaten by worms; indigo buntings got the blackberries.

The meadow stormchasers. My nephew Robbie Cooper and his girlfriend Callie Allison.

The meadow is flourishing.

Tomato blight is right around the corner, but Rose’s wonderful, dopey zinnias, giant sunflowers and salad-plate-sized dahlias have never looked better.

I am full of gratitude.


  1. a link to your post on my Facebook feed was followed by this from Jan Johnsen: “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.
    Gardening is an instrument of grace. ” – May Sarton

  2. As are we, for all the plants and plant-loving people you’ve encouraged into existence! And for your newly planted trees; long may they flourish.

  3. Rose and Allen, I truly love this and thank you for being you.
    Wouldn’t our parents have gotten a kick out of this.

    • Thank you, Mary. i can just imagine our parents sitting on porch on Easter, enjoying a cocktail or two, and maybe joking about the golf game I gave up for gardening.

  4. You have no idea how much I needed to read this today. A year ago, we bought 2 acres of lawn (and a house) in suburban Columbus, OH. I’m 58 and I realize this may be our last big garden. The osteoarthritis is coming on strong in my hands and lower back, but I’m determined to plant as much prairie and other native plants as I possibly can over the next few years. Folks pull into our driveway to say, I drive by here all the time — what the heck are you doing? I look at my yard and answer, I’m not sure. I’m growing roots and birds and bugs. I too have wee oak saplings and serviceberry sticks stuck into the ground here and there. Only in my imagination can I see how regal and lovely they will become!

    • Tisa, when you get a “…what the heck are you doing?” it must mean you’re up to goodness. At least, I think you are. Your oak and serviceberries will be wonderful one day. I’m proud of you.

  5. It’s good to hear from you. That may be the best (not) Christmas letter ever! Thank you for putting the old label smile into words. Old labels mean the plant is gone, but the reminder is more than just a memory of the long gone plant. Old labels remind me of how much I have planted, how much I have enjoyed this piece of earth. So glad you are enjoying yours.

  6. Dear Allen
    We havent seen each other since something like 1980! and I rarely visit my FB account but today your post is the first one that reaches me after months. Echoeing the beautiful quote by May Sarton here is a sentence by Pierre Rabhi from accross the Atlantic and with my warmest thoughts.
    “The garden allows me to get out of a frenetic, overworked life where you have to save time and never lose. It allows me to find the rhythm of the seasons and therefore the truth of life itself. He teaches me patience.

    • Maïté, so good to hear from you. Yes, it has been a long time—1980, my goodness. I love your quote. I’ll keep that handy. My step-son was in Bordeaux last week with his wife. We’ll return to France one of these days. It would be great fun seeing you again.

  7. Dear Allen, thank you for your comments and your many years of friendship. I recall a visit you made here several years ago, following which, several varieties of Poppies and perennials appeared mysteriously in my garden, Allen Appleseed! Jasmin and I are so sorry to hear about the M.S., it does put a dent in physical gardening output. We send you our love and our hearts.
    Jasmin and Peter Gentling

    • And thank YOU for your many years of friendships and gardening, Jasmin and Peter. I’m always happy to know of a few, shared, perennials that ended up in good hands. I’ve been very lucky with M.S. but I’m always good with a little love.

  8. My grandma had MS a few years before she died…

    I felt so sad when she was diagnosed…

    Despite the advancement in modern medicine, there are still illnesses that can take us away from planet earth…

    Hope you will keep on rocking, and not let this illness to take away what you do best 🙂

  9. All of this makes perfect sense. Never give up, never give in, keep planting.
    bonnie in provence france

  10. This was a splendid posting. It helps to put the petty annoyances into context and justifies my planting new trees every year, though I am unlikely to get another 74 years on earth.

  11. Allen, yes time is short and anything can happen, but your attitude and writing transcend time and bring us all joy and connection while we’re here. You can’t do much better than that!

  12. Allen the essay is so lovely I want to fuss with the idea of diminishing returns, to make it suggest either that although the returns are lessening, that’s o.k. because it never was about returns, really, or that the diminishing has it’s musical sense, as in a diminished interval, which is not just o.k. but sometimes best, because it fits with so much else you are dealing with in what you write, the uncertainties, mysteries, resolution of dissonance, promise of increasing harmony. What a quibble. I would be ashamed to say it if it didn’t have the bonus point: something to add to the list next time we jam.

    • Charles, thank you so much— really, for so much. You’re right on the money and that’s a mighty good return. I’m intrigued with diminished intervals and look forward to a lesson down the road. I’m trying keep up with the turnaround in the meantime.

  13. Oh and Rose and I share the same taste in plants! My garden is almost the exact duplicate, plantwise, that is. Less fussing, more enjoying.

  14. Imagine the “I needed that” sighs over the world as gardeners read this piece . . . enough to cause a slight breeze in the garden!

  15. “A society grows great when old men (and women!) plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Old Greek Proverb
    I don’t believe that being a living embodiment of this expression is non-productive, impractical or quixotic. If more people thought the way you do it would mitigate many of today’s environmental problems.
    I do not say this lightly or often, you are doing god’s work. And inspiring all of us as well!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here