Shut Up and Dig

A Belated Goodbye

One of the basic rules of gardens is that if you leave, you don’t return.

In this respect, I have found, involvement with a garden is like a love affair.   A crucial part of making a success of the experience is having the clarity to know when it is over, and there is nothing more foolish than trying to relive it afterwards. At best in revisiting an old garden you will find that it has gone on just fine without you, and what you once knew intimately now belongs to someone else. That is painful. What is worse is the more common situation of finding the garden either neglected or simply gone, erased.   That’s a little death. Or maybe a considerable one in this case.

For the garden I returned to had been the focus of my life for ten years. It was a grand old estate on the Hudson River Palisades that had been donated to Columbia University, which had turned it into a research campus for its geologists. The estate had been neglected almost entirely for twenty years when I arrived on the scene, but the bones of a great landscape still remained. There were many fine old trees – notably a pair of massive copper beeches – a little orchard, walks, boxwood hedges and a fine Italianate, walled formal garden.


The funds available to me didn’t include much of a budget for plants, so I was forced to start almost everything I grew from seed or cuttings. In retrospect this was the best training I could have had. Every spring, though, I would splurge with an order at Princeton Nurseries (do any of the older readers remember that extraordinary firm?) and pick up some trees worthy of the site: a lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) perhaps, or a cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani). I remember the head of maintenance’s disappointment (the $200 purchase had come from his budget) at the size of that cedar of Lebanon. He asked me if it would grow and I told him yes, that the tree would reach a height of 100 feet and a similar spread. He brightened until I confessed that such a maturity might take 100 years.

Almost a third of that time has now passed. On my recent visit, I found that Cedrus more than 30 feet tall, and the band of white pines I planted to hide a parking lot towering to 50 feet. The lacebark pine was still going strong as were some other trees – honey locusts, white and red oaks – that I planted too. The water lilies I planted in the formal garden’s central pool were thriving too. But almost all the heirloom roses I had planted there were gone, and all the other shrubs and perennials I had started had disappeared. Worst of all, the copper beeches were nothing but stumps.

Saying good bye to what I remembered, and had loved, wasn’t easy, and there is a side of me that wishes I had continued to stay away. I do take comfort in that cedar of Lebanon, though. It has hardly begun its reign and it will long outlive, I hope, the gardener that planted it.




Posted by on December 5, 2016 at 9:35 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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5 responses to “A Belated Goodbye”

  1. J Chapman says:

    Have to agree partly with this – Yes I think that your garden holds much character. Like depending on where abouts the sunlight comes in the morning can totally change the way your garden will grown and also your garden grows so should the wildlife within it.

    I think that whilst going back to a garden may seem like it’s doing just fine but only you really know what it is truly capable of and this might be completely different to how someone has it now.

  2. Rosella says:

    I am facing the loss of the garden I have planted and hated/loved for almost forty years. My husband is failing and we need to move to some one-storey place and leave my pretty house and my cherished garden. It is possibly the hardest thing I have ever done, and when I have time I walk around and admire the sasanqua camellias in full bloom and the japonicas’ fat buds, and all the treasures now beneath the soil. And no, I won’t come back.

  3. Laura Munoz says:

    Your post certainly hits a nerve with me.

    The reason I didn’t sell my home for 10 years after my husband passed was because of the garden. I would cry when I thought about leaving it behind.

    We planted and nurtured every plant. I knew EVERY plant on our 2/3rds acre and there were hundreds.

    I’d hoped when I sold the house to be able to tell the new owner about various plants in the garden. I’d hoped she would allow me to come back at some future point to take cuttings. She would have none of it.–Long story there.

    I query my former neighbors with, “Did she cut it all down?” They say the garden looks the same. I’ve not been back.

    Instead, I’ve begun to move on, but THAT garden will always be special to me.

  4. Such a beautiful post – I know there are many of us who have experienced the same feeling, and wished we hadn’t looked back. But the Lebanon cedar is and will be an accomplishment that matters – both for your vision and your courage to spend $200 dollars of someone else’s budget (that you had to face later), knowing it would be more than worth it for generations to come. Heck I can’t even face my husband for a $50 beech sapling.

  5. Thanks for writing here. Your words created a renewed appreciation of my own garden,now 30 years since I began it.