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Mid-Life Crisis in the Garden
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

May 18, 2003

I think I'm having a mid-life crisis in my garden. I didn't even know there was such a thing until I picked up a book titled Growing Pains: Time and Change in the Garden by Patricia Thorpe. But there it was in plain black and white: I and several million other gardeners, it seems, have entered a phase of predictable crisis.

A garden, like a life, in Ms. Thorpe's intriguing analysis, passes through a series of stages. Starting a garden, she writes, is a little like starting a love affair. You can coast for a while on all the early excitement and enthusiasm.

How true that is. Remember those intoxicating days of wine and roses, before you d ever heard of root canker. The carefree bliss of life before botrytis blight. The unalloyed joy of believing that perennials are plants that live forever. Like lovers in springtime, we planted with carefree abandon, heedless of future consequences.

Thereafter, according to Thorpe, we entered a second stage -- what she calls the years of encouragement -- when our plantings hit full stride, and the successes of several seasons inspired a phase of confident expansion. We stretched ourselves boldly to the very borders of our properties, some of us even spilling over onto sidewalks and public boulevards, where we had no legal right to be. No artificial boundaries could constrain our grand vision.

Across North America over the last 20 years, Thorpe writes, more people embarked on more ambitious garden making with less information and less help than at any time in the last two centuries. A similar wave of enthusiasm for gardening swept across the continent in the first three decades of the 20th century. The difference being that back then there were still a lot of skilled growers around to dispense advice, and a ready supply of experienced labour.

Today, on the other hand, we have only the labour of love. Waking up one morning and gazing out at your vast expanse of gardening experimentation, you find yourself seeing only mistakes and terrible miscalculations. Monstrous plants running rampant. Obscene colour clashes. Everything a jingle-jangle. No coherence. No unity of theme. No proper proportions. Disasters in every direction.

You have entered the third stage -- what Thorpe calls the years of crisis. The growth comes all at once, magnifying the mistakes made in those heady earlier days. Having known so much once, you now recognize how very little you know of all there is to know about gardening. You are, writes Thorpe, poised between the garden of your fantasies and your slowly accumulating knowledge of what you may actually achieve some day. Add to this an awareness that aging muscles and bones cannot quite do what they did so vigorously 20 years ago.

What's to be done. Some erstwhile gardeners fade away at this crisis point, like evening primroses, abandoning gardening forever. Perhaps it's for the best. But for those with real sap running in their veins, the garden's mid-life crisis represents a transition period, a time of reassessment and replanting that will eventually result in a more mature garden of enhanced loveliness. All gardens require a systematic remaking every decade or so. As Patricia Thorpe puts it, the knowledgeable plantsman accepts this as a matter of course; the beginner discovers this in the course of a nervous breakdown.

After the breakdown and tears, after the summoning up of new courage and the development of new visions, the gardener reconnects with the essential truth of the craft -- that it is the actual doing of it that's important, the mucking about with soil and seeds, pushing boulders uphill, bending plants to our will and bending ourselves to the willful ways of plants. Fitting ourselves into the lay of the land and the blowing of the wind. It is the long-term process of making a garden that we must love if we are to persist, writes Thorpe, whose book is an engaging read whether or not one is in mid-life crisis.

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