Hire Help or Lose My Sanity. Confessions of a Garden Writer Who Doesn’t Medicate. Yet.

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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.

Decision Time

“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.

but,

Plow the back fields.”

Not: “Have Wolfgang prepare the menu for forty. Have Sasha design and build tablescape. NB get a Xanax refill

but,

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.

Marianne Willburn is a garden columnist and author of the book Big Dreams, Small Garden. Read more at Small Town Gardener.

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Marianne Willburn

Marianne Willburn is a gardening columnist, speaker and author of Big Dreams, Small Garden. After years of occasional guest rants, she began an on-going digital correspondence with Scott Beuerlein in 2019, and officially joined GardenRant in 2020.

A weekly newspaper columnist for over a decade, she frequently contributes to print and digital magazines and has won several national awards for her popular column and blog, Small Town Gardener.  Marianne also guides European garden tours with CarexTours, a D.C. based tour company dedicated to exploring public and private gardens in a small group experience.

Marianne believes strongly that you should never wait for the ‘perfect space’ to create a restful garden oasis for yourself and your family; and she has spent much of her gardening life in small city and suburban gardens in places as diverse as California, England and the Mid-Atlantic. In 2013, she began gardening intensively and exhaustively on ten acres in a rural corner of Northern Virginia, and occasionally longs for the days of city window boxes, houseplants, and a great Indian restaurant within walking distance.

Contact Marianne by email: [email protected]

28 COMMENTS

  1. I hire people to prune trees and tall hedges, but do almost all other gardening myself. Yes, it is getting to be too much. My issue is that I don’t trust general landscape crews to have any finesse in their work, and I definitely can’t afford to hire a “fine gardener.” A few years ago the crew I hired to prune a few selected things just went around with a chain saw and sheared off everything in sight. They mangled my little grove of winterberry hollies! I also come from a midwestern, working class family for whom hiring somebody to pick up leaves or clean toilets would be considered outrageous. That sort of ethos sticks with you, so I am probably more likely to let things grow semi-wild rather than spend too much money on help. But shoot, if my garden was my calling card and I had 10 acres, I would definitely be shelling out the cash for some muscle.

    I love your old fashioned red phone!

    • I agree Mary – we bring a lot of our ‘growing up’ to the picture, and consequently it is either the easiest thing in the world to hire help, or the hardest. Very little in between. In addition, I have noticed over the years that my male bachelor friends (and married too, to some extent) are much more comfortable with this decision (either in home or garden). This is not a writing prompt for yet further words and wars pitting the sexes against each other, but merely an observation that I find fascinating.

      I love my phone too. It’s a pretty little thing that makes me smile, but perhaps more importantly, it cannot be moved – so it never disappears. I know when the phone rings and I cannot find a cordless, I can answer it. Though there’s often a spammer on the other end, the hanging up of that handset brings with it a satisfying thunk that a cordless button just cannot emulate.

  2. This is a great topic and one I’ve pondered in my head countless times.

    I do almost all of my own gardening and that includes mowing, pruning, weed-whacking, raking, watering, planting, mulching, composting, etc. In contrast, a friend who refers to herself as a gardener with the same size yard as mine hires all of the gardening out including planting, pruning, and fertilizing. She may purchase her own plants, but someone else does the rest although she’s physically able to do these jobs. I don’t think she does any physical gardening other than buying and perhaps directing.

    Maybe I’m going off on a tangent….If a gardener can’t do all of the gardening chores, I think it’s reasonable to hire some of it out. (In fact, I plan to hire someone to cut down my foundation shrubs because they’re holding moisture at my foundation, which is causing issues.) But if you don’t do any gardening at all, then can you honestly call yourself a gardener?

    I think of a gardener as someone who enjoys hands-on gardening. I think of my friend as the owner of a garden….Is this an unfair assumption?

    • I don’t think the assumption is unfair at all. Such a situation is bound to create some feelings of bitterness at the end of a long day schlepping bags of mulch around when your neighbor claims the same result as her own. However, it is precisely these feelings that can get us trapped in the idea that having any help is not doing it ourselves; and utilizing help is somehow ‘lesser’ due to the contempt we feel for those who don’t get their hands dirty. And yes, the word ‘contempt’ is a strong one, but under all those layers – true. I know, I have shared it in the past and write about those feelings a bit in my book Big Dreams, Small Garden. One thing you can be fairly certain of (if it makes you feel better): When you do not work closely with plants, with your soil and with the vagaries of the weather, you cannot possibly learn what it is to garden. You can read every book in the world on the subject and direct crews every day, but until you are working with that garden intimately, you cannot learn from it. Your knowledge is superficial – perhaps academic, but superficial nonetheless. And most importantly, you miss out on the deep joy that comes from cultivating that intimate relationship. I think you probably know all this already, but it is very easy to get bogged down in those other feelings – especially as gardening is HARD on the body and no one thinks like Mother Teresa after a day digging holes. Thanks for the comment Laura – you obviously love your garden!

  3. This past April, I broke my ankle. I was devastated, as I had determined with gusto that 2019 would be the Year I Got Things Together in the Garden. I was at the mercy of my 24 year old daughter, her husband, and my 22 year old daughter. It was just awful. One of them pulled up and discarded my Korean Wax bells, (Kirengeshoma Palmata) which was finally looking like it was perking up after languishing for 3 years. He/she thought it was a maple seedling. (Nobody would fess up to doing it.) A small stand of obedient plant that I had asked them to leave alone got the heave ho. It was the one small clump that was actually well-mannered. You get the picture. In short, I would like help in the garden, but I think mine is a case of “horticulturist taste, grunt budget.” 🙁

    • I so understand, having broken my hip in a riding accident 9 years ago and being laid up for 12 weeks in the middle of the summer! All this angst about whether or not to hire help is only the first step of a complicated process – the actual help itself is very difficult to find. And when you get it for free, you can expect dire things to happen. I have had my children help in the garden all their lives, however, I used to do things like identifying two specific weeds that were growing and say – “pull ONLY this” even if a dandelion was growing nearby and one of the two wasn’t a dandelion, they weren’t allowed to touch it. It seemed to work well. We have had issues certainly. I had my son edge the serpentine bed a few years ago only to find that he had thrown the divots into the grass pathway and it rained hard that night, making the clean up harder than the edging itself. I wish you luck with the help that you get and hope that your ankle is fully healed. – MW

  4. I live close to an affluent neighborhood where all the properties look pristine. Mine, alas, does not though I work hard at it. Help would be wonderful except form my extreme possessiveness. It’s my sanctuary and no matter how well done I don’t think I would be satisfied. So I continue with botanical garden aspirations without the staff. A reality check might be needed.

    • Good gardeners definitely have control issues! But I do believe that delegation to others (over time and with supervision) can help ease the burden and allow ever-greater things to happen. For me, it may actually be a character-building lesson that melts into other areas of my life. However, your garden (as you say) is your sanctuary, and if you are contented there – that is really all that matters. Thank you for the comment Elaine. – MW

  5. I pruned many Himilayan Wild Blackberry vines which had overtaken a fenced garden, and an overgrown Snowball Hydrangea. Hours and hours. I also covered the areas with one foot of mulch. Many scratches and bruises have healed. If the vines are back, I will hire goats or other animals to eat them and layer on more more mulch, ever hopeful.

    • I think about having goats ALL THE TIME. We have the space and damn, we have the understory. Problem is, I have had too many friends over the years that spent hours chasing their goats on neighboring properties (and on top of neighbor’s cars!) because they are such clever clever beasts and like to outthink fencing. Twenty or even ten years ago I would have committed to four or five without thinking, but now I move a bit more slowly into these ‘great ideas.’ A friend has a massive herd of goats bordering the Stanislaus National Forest in California and hires them to clear land – but he also has incredibly trained dogs that live with the goats and keep them (and predators) in check. Mungo my Jack Russell is just not up to the task. 🙂 I need to look into the costs of renting a few goats. Thanks for the comment Louise. – MW

  6. I am the help, a long time peasant gardener for the well to do. Client’s knowledge, skills, interest and physical participation in their own gardens is all over the map. One common denominator they have is actually caring about the gardens and wanting them to look presentable, show ready – that’s really a whole other matter – at all times. That makes me the outdoor maid. I don’t do piece work. I get hired and become part of the family. I come on a schedule. I am part of an annual budget item.

    My calling card is a love of plants and a degree in horticulture. Caring for plants is a multi-dimensional learned skill. The physical labor involved casts a big cultural demerit on the profession keeping wages down. That is why skilled gardeners are few and hard to find.

    If you want a good gardening assistant, you should be willing to pay for that skill. A big bonus is that a skilled, efficient gardener can do in a couple hours what would take most people a month of Sundays, even when they are under the impression they are gardeners themselves. When that gardener comes on a consistent and regular basis throughout the year, the results add up.

    Marianne, I suggest you look at your budget. How many hours of skilled wages can you afford on a monthly basis. Buy that amount. Have it placed on a regular schedule. Ask your neighbors, garden friends, at the best local garden centers for a gardener. The few that are around are already working for the people you know. It is a very incestuous profession.

    With ten acres of Virginia forest you may dream of more help than you can afford, but you might be surprised what can get done by a skilled gardener with just eight hours a month. Lawn mowing not included.

    Hearing all the “I did” and “I planted” and “I dug” from the client can cause a warp in the space time continuum when you are standing right there, but it comes with the territory. I am still just the help.

    • Excellent advice – thank you Christopher. I am looking for precisely the relationship you describe, and can only start out slowly, with about 6-8 hours a month. I have someone in mind and hoping it will work out well for both of us. I don’t think random work crews would work for me and for the way I garden. Lawn mowing will always be my husband’s territory as he enjoys it tremendously – beer in hand, Jack Russell at feet. I am interested by your comment “The physical labor involved casts a big cultural demerit on the profession keeping wages down.” as I believe you have hit the nail on the head.

  7. Great post! The comments remind me that we all want different things from, and in, our gardens. My garden I know looks quite unruly to those who like a tighter, cleaner garden, but I am so interested in the ways nature interacts and pushes back on what I do there, that I think I tolerate that mess more than many gardeners would. Also, my garden is partly my “alone” space, a sanctuary at the end of a people-filled day; I’m not sure I could tolerate the hand of strangers in there. But I do love visiting other more formal gardens too, and often get inspiration from them.

    • Your garden sounds a lot like mine. I want to nurture wildlife (with the exception of squirrels). It’s a place of refuge for those who want to be in it including bugs, snakes, lizards, birds, etc.

  8. Boy, this is so familiar. Even though my wife and I are both retired, we basically tend our gardens ourselves and the weeding and mulching are almost beyond us especially as we move into our 70s. I still do most of the shrub and small tree pruning because I am still better at it than most. The big trees are another matter and we already spend a couple of thousand a year to get the necessary pruning done.

  9. A gardener’s life becomes easier with better tools:

    When most gardeners plant something, they guess how much shade or sun it will get; it’s simply too difficult to do otherwise. The sun and the shade it casts are never still: they move all the time, hour by hour, season by season. Tracking this movement, recording it and averaging it, is both laborious and prohibitively time consuming.

    Until now!

    A new Android app, Sun and Shade Analyzer (SASHA), does it all in seconds. The app’s author – inspired by a gardening spouse who could not decide which locations in their yard have part sun and which have part shade (despite a PhD) – decided that this was a simple matter of physics and programming, and set to work writing an app which will change gardeners’ relationship with the sun!

    SASHA quickly and easily predicts the average hours of direct sunlight at any chosen plant location over any number of days. For the first time, users can go to a location, quickly scan their surroundings with the app’s camera, and the app will compute the daily direct sunlight at that location, averaged over the date range they have chosen, and taking into consideration all objects which might cast shade.

    Find it here:
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.hookmountain.sasha.paid.release

  10. Thanks for the post about this subject. I also am a garden designer and writer. I still work many hours in my garden but my one indulgence is two hours of help every week. I was able to find a great gardener who used to work at a local nursery. Working alongside them is the best way for me to be ‘in’ the garden, and to help with direction. Many plants need special care, or are dormant at certain times, and locations are important to keep track of. While still in good shape the pruning of trees, moving and placing mulch, gravel, and wood chips is heavy work for me. Gardens are never stagnant and things are constantly changing. One of my great joys is the growth and movement of the garden as it matures. Remember the quote ‘The best fertilizer is the Gardener’s shadow’.

  11. This hit home. I have gardened all my adult life and always prided myself on doing all my own work- except for the grass which bores me to tears. However, at age 84 and having had two knee replacements and several back surgeries, it became obvious two summers ago that I could in no way continue my stubborn pride in doing it all because in fact, I couldn’t. But how to find someone to trust with my precious over-planted garden?
    And pond? I started mentioning in virtually every conversation I had where ever I went. And at my local garden center, when I mentioned it to the young woman who works there part time, she said that she did and her fee was $35.00 an hour. She was also working on a certificate to become a horticultural therapist and was a single mom. We agreed that she would come by and take a look at the garden and I would figure out how much I could afford. In short, she was extremely knowledgeable and extremely hard working. A match made in heaven!!So in spite of my concerns, I am now firmly in the I will budget for it and make it work because it is the only way I can continue to have the garden I want.

  12. I think it is fine just so long you spend some time tending on what ever level so you can get a good read on what had grown… how well it is doing or not and leave room in your psyche for the spark of an idea for a bed, or a path or a corner, that you would otherwise not have had the time for such a musing… in short..some task times are musing times and a way to nurture yourself and the garden…..

  13. Thank you for the office desk tidbit. 4 desks in my office: administrative work, book/dictionary research, design, writing. Doesn’t include using dining room table as a conference room table….

    A handful of my clients have all their gardening hired. To them, I say, after spotting perfect arena, You must take care of this area yourself, no help.

    Why? How else to know agrarian caretaking? A bit of washing-of-the-servants-feet from Providence. To understand what others do for their garden, and them. Awake to the seasons, as they are cleared away. Buying tools for their hands/arms/back. And, more.

    No one balks. All got it, upon first being told. Sure they fudge, but mostly, they caretake their zone.

    In heaven, in addition to what I already do in my garden, I want to do all my stone work, and work the giant Caterpillar expertly. Among other things !

    My new garden, is similar to how Mount Vernon began, trees, paths, meadows, shrubberies, wildwoods, groundcovers, with some gravel paths and terraces. I can handle all of that with my tractor, vintage kubota.
    Of course I’ll have rosemary, lavender, iris, bulbs too.

    Previous garden, a vintage historic cottage garden, less than quarter acre, I had for 30 years, and was so much younger, not able to have it again, unless hiring help.

    Realities: my age, bank account, huge & numerous deer/armadillo, and timber rattler.

    Caretaking my garden is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given upon this Earth. Poyeema.

    Garden & Be Well, XOT

  14. Just want to say I love the first picture/ office. I can just imagine how the view changes with the weather and seasons. I personally don’t always have the luxury of an office as I am in the tree care business. Gardening is what I do when I get home! In nearly all parts of my life, I’ve gained a real benefit from just accepting the fact I can’t do everything myself and either asking a friend for help, or hiring help (depending on what is appropriate for the situation.) I only plant a small vegetable plot in the season, and I can manage it all with the help of a trusty tiller and some other small tools. But if I had a whole yard to keep up (whether maintain or build), I wouldn’t hesitate to get some help, especially when it comes to expanding and implementing new ideas. But I tried to mostly overcome my hangups about getting help a long time ago. Certainly gets easier with time and age.

  15. I am drooling over the pink Lycoris squamigera adding drama in the part shade. Marianne, that photo is inspirational. I know they’re quite pricey but I will find a way to add a generous drift of those for some mid summer drama, picking up the pizazz after the Astilbe have properly pooped out.

  16. Fantastic article Marianne and a highly entertaining writing style too! I couldn’t agree with you more regarding trusting certain aspects of garden design and landscape architecture to the experts to get the very best for your home residence.

    Most households utilise hired help to prune, cull and clean up gardens, however, I’d like to offer another perspective. As a business owner running a company focused on resurfacing driveways and pathways, tree and plant roots are a huge industry problem that we encounter regularly. Most of the time, these are due to trees located near driveways at the front of the property, but sometimes homeowners call us out for more random occurrences of split pathways and driveways which they, quote, “Didn’t see coming”.

    My point is that professionals understand this risk and are able to mitigate the risk of cracked driveways and damaged pathways, which can be costly. It starts with choosing the right vegetation, but can end with simple maintenance and recognising the early warning signs of cracks early.

    If you don’t have the resources for hired help, it pays to understand the root displacement of the plants and trees around your property as it may just save you from a costly future resurfacing project.

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