It is the middle of March. I stand looking at the back garden, which turns 24 years old this August. The Hellebores are blooming up a storm of color. Fragrant Edgeworthia is wafting its sweet scent to call me into the garden. But I just stand and look. I don’t move.

There is a time as spring approaches that I am filled with pit-of-the-stomach angst anticipating that I will not be able to take care of this garden. It is too much. Pollarding, cutting back, removing, digging, dividing, and hauling the “yard waste” to await pickup. So much needs to be done. I do not know where that energy is going to come from. Then the mind leaps to summer (piling on) when the biting insects reign and the growth feels at times overwhelming. What have I done?

Liriope comb-over

Recently, I approached the garden several times this way only to stop and feel overwhelmed. I sat down on the back porch and just looked out at ALL OF IT. Fretting and pondering. 

Wild nature does not NEED in the same way a deliberately planted garden does. We collect diverse plants and set them together in sometimes impossible settings. Our intent is to make a beautiful and unusual vignette for our pleasure. Sometimes we take our identity from the cleverness and ingenuity of what we have created. We are MASTER GARDENERS

But honey, these intricate collections need tending because they ain’t where their mama dropped them, and you’re their mama now. You have made your bed. Master this.

We are expected to have some kind of mastery—at least over ourselves. Tell this to your aging body and mind. We have been set up to fail.  Meanwhile, the work ethic we inherited hums in our synapses reminding us over and over that we need to be self-sufficient, that it shows our worth. Society values the competent. Survival of the fittest. Heaven forbid you falter or lose your way. Does the garden expect this of us too?


I shook my head at those aging friends who decided to downsize and simplify their gardens. At the time I couldn’t fathom it. Fast forward to now and the thought of simplification seems reasonable and even smart, eliciting a big internal sigh of relief. Really? Is it time to throw in the gloves? Or better, how to gracefully and fearlessly embrace a new phase of gardening as I age? Internal sighs are to be heeded and the gardening can be of service.

I stepped back into the garden on a gray, overcast day.

Without noticing I bent over and began trimming old Epimedium leaves. Doo dee doo….dah dee dah. Then I had the strangest feeling that the garden was gardening itself. We were one movement. There was no boundary between me and the garden. As I cut back and tidied, Mary was gone yet gardening was happening. It was clear. But to who?  Madness?

We all have gotten lost in the gardening. Call it being in the zone if you like. We are out of our minds for a while.

In this zone, there were no fears of not being able to manage…. of where the energy was coming from. No worry that I would somehow fail in cultivating this beautiful little garden nook. Just gardening happening. The garden needed tending and so it was. The required movement happened.

What do I mean by “the gardening“? Well, you can’t have one without the other….a garden with no gardener, a gardener with no garden. They come into being together. You can expand that out to soil, air, rain, insects, fungi. The gardening is a synergistic happening.

The gardening worked its magic. The time out-of-mind eased the March Madness and I can breathe again. All of the mind-play circling around the idea of myself as a competent gardener (one of the million stories I tell myself about myself) faded away. Mind-play is our human lot.

I have learned much about life from the gardening.  Much like marriage, what starts in earnest enthusiasm goes through many stages, some more trying than others. It is a kind of madness–this LONGTERM commitment to something so uncontrollable, undertaken with little thought to the complexity of the situation. To the tough times of drought or flooding or myriad other major and minor tragedies. And to the aging gardener’s abilities in the decades ahead–the spring-chicken sixties, skillful seventies, creative eighties, (and fingers crossed) the nimble-ish nineties. You probably won’t survive.

Epimedium ‘Pink Champagne’

In the blink of an eye, 24 years later, I stand at the edge of the back porch looking out at the beauty that lives within my reach. There are piles of trimmings everywhere. Just after a rain, the colors are rich and the air is sweet and earthy. My heart opens up and I can hardly believe that this grace is ME…. the ME that is inextricably part of the movement, part of the gardening. It doesn’t get any better.

In retrospect, the gardening has shown me my humble place in the process. Every gardener should know that the movement is the true MASTER.

The garden awakens slowly, taking its cue from the invisible momentum. So does the gardener. It happens in its own time. It can only be this way.

Why was I worried?

Mary Vaananen lives and gardens in Louisville, KY. She is the North American manager for Jelitto Perennial Seeds, headquartered in Germany.