Behind posts, articles, conferences and social media, there’s a backstory. Have you kept up with the digital correspondence between Ranters Scott Beuerlein and Marianne Willburn?  You can start here, or go back and find the entire correspondence at Dear Gardener.

16 March 2024

Cincinnati, OH 

Dear Marianne,

Our symposium at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden was a great success this past Thursday and it really got me fired up. The pain in my hip from surgery, now two months past, tries to hold me back, and yet my fingers somehow managed to drag the rest of me, like two giant, determined spiders, to this keyboard this morning, so eager were they to tell you about this revelation I recently had.

To start with, I did some math and the sad, simple fact is—with any luck—I’ll be 80 in just 16 years (which in gardening years is like five), and I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can keep up with this ¾ acre monster garden I’ve built. The answer came to me out of the blue the other day and, ironically, the answer is something I’ve been fighting against for years.

So, for several  years now, I’ve been trying like hell to fill all my diminishing sunny areas with sun-loving perennials. Indeed, they are high reward with all they bring—color, motion, vibrancy, pollinators, and more. Yet they require a lot of work and all the work they require demands that someone (in my case me) gets down on the ground or at least bends over. And, Marianne, I have to tell you that I am no longer any good at either of these two things. So planting, deadheading, weeding, inspecting, praying over, and replacing all these plants requires descending to altitudes that trigger my brain to repeatedly call out, “Pull up! Pull up!”  The only work, in fact, that these plants require that actually allows me to stand up like a dignified human person is limbing up my numerous trees, which I’ve been maniacally doing,  in order to get them about half the light they need.

So, finally, the other day I said, “Hold on. Wait a minute!” It had occurred to me that it didn’t need to be this way. And the more I thought about it the more I realized that I am now the old gardener I had visualized when I was a young person. And the fact is I had never imagined that old man me out there on my knees pulling weeds in the blazing hot sun.  Never. I had always envisioned me puttering around, and mostly doing all that puttering around in a nice, restful, shady garden.

So why for the last decade or so have I been deadset on out Piet Oudolfing Piet Oudolf? The reasons, I think, are these: A) Because sun perennials are what all the cool kids have been doing and, for some pathetic reason, I still wanted to be cool; B) Because for the first half of the last decade I wasn’t so broken. It came on me kind of gradually; and C) Consequently, I’ve been in full blown denial about my stage in life. My God, Marianne, I’m well over 60! Halfway to 70, almost. Late stage middle-aged or early onset elderly! I’m not sure which! (And I’m trademarking that, by the way. Late stage middle-aged or early onset elderly. That’s really good and it’s mine and I’m claiming it!)

Marianne, I don’t like being old. I really don’t. And I don’t like being bent over like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein, but, truth is, I am old. And here’s another thing. A big thing. I was pretty smart when I was younger, at least about this one thing. I planted then and now have all these beautiful trees that I can just let go. Let them be what they want to be. And they can damn well shade out whatever cannot deal with it. Hell, I’ve learned that shit dies. I’ve come to accept that. Sort of. And if a Liatris succumbs to a Chionanthus, so be it. I’m not its mother. It won’t be on my conscience. 

And, of course, there are many fine shade-loving perennials. I have plenty of them now and I can buy some more. And although they are also low to the ground and require some bending, they never seem to need the same amount of attention sun-lovers do. Things move slower in the shade.  Once established, perennials that live in the shade just seem chill. Like a pina colada on a Caribbean vacation (under a cabana, of course). 

So that’s what I’m thinking. I know I’m ahead of you regarding some of this but maybe it’s worth pondering. I don’t know.



PS – I’m intrigued by the book you recommended, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. When I’m in the groove and firing on all cylinders, I can’t imagine anyone being more productive with their time than I am, so it will be an interesting read. Once I buy it, and then add it to one of my stacks, and then finally read it, I’m sure it will be amusing hearing out some imposter’s attempt at the book I would have written if I’d only had the time.  

PS – Yesterday, the the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden was just named the country’s Best Botanical Garden in a USA Today poll. As a purveyor of botanical gardens, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about that. I mean, I look at Longwood and Chanticleer and Denver Botanical Garden and Chicago Botanical Garden and Red Butte and many others and think, hmmm. However, it does go to show just how rabidly fond our community (and even beyond) feels about us. They are obviously pulling (and polling) for us. Our Director, Thane Maynard, calls us the little Zoo that could. We do have an underdog mentality and you know all the world loves an underdog. It also shows without a doubt just how far we’ve come! Credit goes to Steve Foltz and the amazing staff he assembled. Pretty damned cool. By the way, we also polled as the country’s second favorite Zoo. As the underdog botanical side of an underdog zoo, I know exactly how I feel about that!