Guest rant by Marianne Willburn
The office is lightly scented with pencil shavings and old coffee mugs this morning. Not an unpleasant smell, but an unfamiliar one. I have ignored this room for two weeks over the Christmas holiday, and come back to it apologetically now – watering the parched papyrus tub and mindlessly straightening piles of to-do on three separate desks. They threaten to overwhelm me if I let my eyes linger, so I tidy instead and finally move to my writing desk where a screensaver has danced for days.
Outside we are being treated to unseasonably warm weather, which brings out the deep tawny reds and browns of still standing grasses, and contrasts them against turf grasses and weeds responding to warmth in shades of bright green. It is the only time I feel any fondness for Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum) whose dead, russet foliage sharply marks the lines between cultivated and wild; and – perversely perhaps – gives shape to the landscape.
From the window it is oddly beautiful. In the summer, the same weed will take on height and vigor, and leave me as a gardening Sisyphus – beating back multiple germinations, ever mindful that there may be no end to it.
Microstegium in July – besieging a too-old bed filled with rhododendron and forsythia.
January’s garden beckons after a month of rest and I am excited over projects on the docket: a cleared woodland garden, an expanded mini-meadow, an ornamental grass-filled berm to direct storm water. For that matter – another year of growth on juvenile trees, and the knitting together of established beds.
It has been six years since we moved to this lovely property, and it is glorious. But for all my excitement, there is a creeping feeling that it may be time to hire a few hours of help with rough work going forward.
It may actually be time to make a tough resolution – and keep it. For there are new projects in that quiet office just as pressing as those outside the window and only so much time. My sanity is on the line.
“You are at a point,” a garden designer friend said last winter, “that what you want to achieve in the garden is impossible without extra help. You can stay where you are, or move forward. You must make a choice.”
Weeding, pruning, mulching…these jobs never end on a large property.
There was no value judgement either way, just a choice – the same choice I outline for groups when speaking on matters of garden maintenance: Constantly assess your resources and do not work beyond them.
And “resources” can mean everything from back muscles to bank accounts.
My friend and I were only discussing a few hours of help a week. So why did this feel like such a massive conversation to have? Why am I sharing it here?
Because gardeners rarely have it. And I think we should.
Indeed, this particular conversation only came about when, faced with the incredibly busy life of my friend, her upcoming manuscript delivery, and the fact that she had her own garden on top of everything else, I finally broke down and asked her that which is never asked:
“Do you have help?”
She was very quick to answer – in fact, I think her exact words were “Are you kidding? Of course I do.” But up until that point, I thought she did it all.
All Is Not Always As It Appears
Many of us make similar assumptions when visiting gardens, and garden writers may be culpable of setting that tone. Private gardens are often written about in terms of what the owners did, and, unless a designer is involved, not who they hired to do it.
Perhaps that is as it should be – the details could get unnecessarily complicated – but when gardeners and owners speak of “I did” and “I planted” and “I dug” and use terms that intimate full communion with the process, and then one finds over direct questioning and the soup course, that the ‘I’ is really ‘we’ twice a week and on Sundays, and isn’t it a shame there is only that? ….well, one feels misled. There are few direct references to help unless the garden is public.
As if it is a dirty secret.
Ironically, non-gardeners do not play these games. If you don’t like yard work, and you live in the twenty-first century, it is obvious you hire it out along with the grocery shopping and dog walking. You may even brag about it to friends (as a friend did to me recently over 2000 bucks worth of grounds crew and a tidy front yard). It is only the gardeners that keep such details under wraps.
I will never forget reading a June [personal] calendar of daily tasks in a magazine that-will-not-be-named, that scheduled a plowing of the back fields on Thursday and a garden party for forty on Friday, along with some miscellaneous flower arranging and incidental television appearances on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Not: “Have the back fields plowed.”
“Plow the back fields.”
Not: “Have Wolfgang prepare the menu for forty. Have Sasha design and build tablescape. NB get a Xanax refill”
“Prepare menu for forty and set table.”
It is subtle and it is clever and it can have the effect of making mere mortals feel a bit inadequate.
It is also an extreme of course. But conscious or not, there is a reticence to discuss the help one has in the garden, or indeed in the home.
In wealthier circles I appreciate that the issue of “staff” is understood. One has land: ergo, one has staff. But in middle class squares, where I solidly reside, it feels as if you’re cheating.
It is an expense. If you’ve DIYed all your life and never seen a problem you felt you couldn’t solve at some level, it can feel as if you’ve given up.
When Garden Help Makes Sense
Over the years I’ve found that those of my acquaintance in retail horticulture who have their own private gardens (and display gardens) share an unspoken understanding that help is required. Period.
Staff hours may be used in personal gardens when business is slow, both to keep them employed and to take advantage of employees already sourced and hired. It is not so easy to find good labor, and if you are lucky enough to have found good people, it is wise to keep them employed.
Furthermore, if you are a garden designer or landscape architect, your garden is your calling card and there is no sense in mulching beds for eight hours when you should be sketching plans.
Since that eye-opening conversation last winter, I have made a point of asking gardeners when I tour gardens two important (if impertinent) questions. First, how many hours do they spend in the garden each week, and second, do they employ help – from basic ground crews to fine gardening. If it is a public garden, I ask about current staff, both permanent and temporary.
Those questions are in no way asked judgmentally, but instead, serve as reference to help me understand what is possible and what may be impossible with current resources – and indeed what I can in good conscience, recommend to others.
And there have of course been gardens and gardeners where I felt it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.
Lycoris squamigera in July at Oldmeadow — making all that microstegium elsewhere on the property disappear from my brain for just a moment of gardening bliss. But what if someone else was making it disappear for real?
So, today, a few short days into the new year, this gardener/writer is faced with a decision. I can either resolve to stop creating new areas and maintain what is – perhaps even letting some beds or areas drift back to a natural state (which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do); or,
I can get over my hang-ups and control issues and hire out the mulching.
I’d add weeding, edging, mowing, watering and clearing to that short list, but there’s no sense in completely losing my head. One must have aspirations.
After a lifetime of DIY and making do, and faced with ten acres of rampant Virginia stream valley and a whole lot of dreams, it might just be time.