Wednesday Vignette: Decay

Work on the garden progresses slowly this week as I rest from pushing myself a bit too hard and straining my wrist. With my thoughts primarily absorbed in these new plantings, a few threads ironically turn towards decay.

Decay is a natural, inevitable part of life.

One of the first questions I'm frequently asked when I tell people about the new garden, or when they see it, is something along the lines of "Who's going to take care of it when you move out?" Frankly, I'm starting to get a little peeved at hearing that question, whether in jest or in earnest, and I've decided let people know. One friend rightly pointed out that I've brought these questions on myself, having repeatedly ranted about my parents' inability to care for the garden themselves. In all fairness, these rants have been made while I was feeling frustrated, and are a harsher reflection of my parents' ability than the reality.

But the question has gotten me thinking. It's not so different from the questions faced by gardeners who sell their homes to move to a new home and create a new garden. True, in that case the gardener generally has many years in which to see their garden reach a state of at least semi-maturity, but what happens when they leave it behind? Sometimes, a gardener does not choose to neglect their garden. Illness can leave a gardener to watch as their garden goes to ruin outside their window. Divorce can force someone to leave their garden behind. Should any of these scenarios discourage us from attempting to create gardens?
Fall colors in native salmon berry and invasive Himalayan blackberry. The latter is a plant that often overtakes abandoned or neglected gardens in the Pacific Northwest.

Even more similar to my situation is the garden designer who creates a garden, only to abandon it to the uncertain care of clients or a landscape maintenance company. The challenge of creating a garden for someone else is that the person creating the garden never knows if the recipients will take an active role in the garden once it is theirs. There is a dialogue between gardener and garden that must be established if a garden is to survive. At the most basic, this dialogue must include the traits of and care needed by each plant. Gardens must evolve over time, though. They cannot simply be maintained. An understanding of how neighboring plants interact is also needed. A gardener must observe, evaluate, and intervene when they deem it necessary, responding to the growth of the garden.

Some plants will fail while others grow too vigorously. In either case, the gardener must observe and decide. Do they replace the dead plant with something else that may succeed? Do they leave the space empty for the surrounding plants to fill in? Should the over-zealous plant be removed entirely, or merely reduced to keep it from overwhelming its neighbors? Or should the neighboring plants in danger of suffocation be moved to safer locations? Other questions will face the observant gardener, and decisions will have to be made. Gardens cannot survive on a simple prescription of seasonal maintenance. The gardener must observe, note problems, and create solutions.
Decay comes in many forms.

As I create this garden, I do so with the hope that my parents will establish this dialogue. I hope that they will seek to understand this garden, to learn what the plants in it need to thrive, rather than merely looking at it as a painting or statue. More than anything, I hope they are brave enough to develop their own vision for the garden, to make changes where they wish and where they see changes are needed. I do so with the understanding that my parents do not share my vision. Once my hand is removed from this space, it will begin to veer from the path I intended. Will that deviation be from neglect? As the sun-loving plants I'm putting in now are shaded by the now small trees, will they take the initiative to select and plant shade-tolerant replacements? Will the garden slowly fall apart as my parents attempt a static maintenance without seeking to correct problems as they arise? Or will they take the garden down a new path, guiding it as it grows, as plants succeed or fail?

The answer is: not my problem. This may seem callous, but it will be up to them. I will provide assistance and advice when asked, naturally, but it won't be my garden anymore. I'll have begun a new garden, just as any gardener who moves to a new home does. Just as with a garden designer, I will return occasionally to see how my creation fares, but ultimately it's no longer my concern, even if the state of the garden I lovingly created elicits joy or pain. Whatever happens, it will be interesting to observe the changes whenever I return. Even if my parents do nothing, it will be an experiment in what survives and what fails.

So what does any of that ranting have to do with decay? It's the worst-case scenario, and also the ultimate reality of gardening. It is the fate of all gardens, everything, in fact, to eventually fall into neglect and ruin. It may happen after decades of loving care by a single gardener. It may happen after centuries of care by many gardeners. It may begin to happen almost as soon as a garden is planted. As gardeners, we know that someday our beloved gardens will change into something else, be it redesigned into a different garden, overgrown into a thicket in which only the toughest plants have survived, or, most depressingly, bulldozed for construction. Regardless of the fate of the garden, it does not diminish the beauty of that garden while it existed, nor does it erase the lessons learned in its creation and care. Regardless of what happens to this garden once I leave, I will have learned a tremendous amount from its creation and care, and enjoyed it while it lasted. That will never decay. And if the garden does fall apart, that will be a learning opportunity, too.
Decay can be interesting and even beautiful.

Finally, to smooth my mother's undoubtedly ruffled feathers after she reads this post, I do not believe that my parents will simply leave the garden to fall apart. After all, I owe my passion for gardening to them. I have no doubt they will care for this garden, especially after they retire and don't have to waste all that energy on work. My doubts lie in whether they will establish that dialogue with the garden, and become the editors and guides the young garden will need as plants grow and conditions change. But I'll still be in touch to advise them when they ask. Until then, I'll continue to engage them in the garden, introducing them to the plants I'm placing for them and helping give them the confidence to make the garden their own.

Though this rant has only loosely been related to the photos, I'm calling this post my Wednesday Vignette, hosted by Anna at Futter & Hum.


  1. Great shots of fungi! Many people take plants with them when they move, you can always do that too, if and when you leave your parents' home. I'm sure they'll take care of the garden once they have more time for it.

    1. Thanks! Yes, once I have my own garden I'll definitely be coming home to steal stuff for myself.

  2. Your last paragraph provided the answer to my query; You must have gotten your gardening genes from somewhere? I imagine your parents will cherish it, edit it as they see fit, but most of all, they will see your presence in it, marvel at your competence and be proud of their son, and grateful for his gift to them. As for the fungi in your photos, I think they make a perfect illustration to the uncertainties of gardening. I mean, very few mushrooms grow "on command". If I knew how, I would grow both morels and chanterelles, and more. Nature will continue to do her thing, as she always does. Whatever thrives will thrive, and potentially push out weaker cohabitants. If something goes a little too bonkers, resulting in a lot of work for them, chances are that your parents will remove the offender, and plant something less labor intensive. These days, I help a lot of people make their gardens easier to maintain, as they grow older. Yours was a good rant, and nice vignettes too. Very relevant topic, Evan!

    1. My parents, grandparents, and probably some of my great grandparents were all gardeners. Actually, I just got a peony start from a plant passed down from one of my great, great grandparents. Good point about the uncertainty of mushrooms. I lazily tried a few plugs of chicken of the woods, but didn't pamper them the way the directions said. I should check on them as the rains bring out the fungi.

  3. I assume you aren't just a garden designer to your parents, and I suppose some conversation took place before and during the establishment of the garden. At the end though, with minimal attention, a garden will evolve into a natural state. Maybe different then the original plan but not necessarily all together bad.
    With the "Outlaw" speaking of death and you of decay, I wonder: am I the only one giddy with the changing of the seasons :-)

    1. Yes, I've discussed it all with them. I'd say any designer that doesn't have a conversation with their client is one that won't last long. I'm designing the garden with minimal maintenance in mind (say that 5 times fast) and in such a way that I hope it will evolve into a semi-wild, natural state. That's one of the reason I'm using so many natives, though I wish I was using more.

      Would you believe Fall is actually my favorite season? I just happened to be in a bit of a sour mood after one person pushed me a bit too far over the future care question.

  4. Expert knowledge and advice is invaluable when creating a garden - it helps prevent many (although never all) of the mistakes that would otherwise be made in making plant selections and placements. Those mistakes have significant costs. Your parents are lucky to have your input and guidance, not to speak of all the extensive manual labor, in creating their garden. I have no doubt they know that.

    1. They do, more or less. I'm also designing this garden in a very forgiving way to hopefully allow it to correct some of those inevitable mistakes on its own.


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