When I flip through the pages of gardening magazines, it is wonderful to take a look at pictures of new gardens. The process by which an individual begins with high hopes, stakes, strings and drawings (either meticulous scale drawings or scribblings on the back of an envelope), adds elbow grease and ends up with a living blooming “field of dreams” is quite awesome. Having started one garden from ground zero, and laid out many new beds in my time, I can identify with the whole process.
But these days I find myself drawn to old gardens in the same way that many people find themselves drawn to old houses. It sounds like sacrilege, but there are few things as interesting as an old garden that is so overgrown as to be almost lost. As long as you have stout shoes, clothes that cover 98% of your body, imagination and a tolerance for brambles, there is nothing better than prowling through abandoned beds. The combination of history, horticulture and archaeology is fascinating. The possibilities for restoration are tantalizing.
Sometimes the first thing that you notice is plants. In the spring, daffodils will come up even if a garden has been neglected for decades. Even if there is not enough sun in a particular spot for the plants to flower, daffodils will persist in sending forth the distinctive elongated foliage. If self-sown trees or overgrown shrubs have not created too much shade, other long-lived sun lovers will also make an appearance later in the growing season. Peonies, if they are well sited, can last for generations. Everyone knows that English ivy (Helix hedera) can outlast almost any cataclysm, which is why you frequently find it growing around old home sites. Vinca minor often infests abandoned cemeteries, having once been sown long ago on individual gravesites.
When I visit abandoned gardens I look for the remnants of hardscaping—walls, paths, decorative elements and the remains of water features. These help you figure out the way a landscape was laid out initially, and what style the architect or designer had in mind. Sometimes a regular series of bumps in the ground indicate the edges of long-disused beds. In one garden in my neighborhood, the owners detected the shapes of a group of Victorian-era beds (used for the complex bedding out schemes so popular during that era) when they glimpsed an overhead view of their backyard from a third floor window.
Lately,I have been working in an old garden that has been neglected for several years. The most important task right now is the removal of the tangle of vines and underbrush that have completely taken over the cultivated areas. It is an arduous process, but intensely satisfying. For a woman who hates housekeeping,I derive an amazing amount of satisfaction from setting things to rights in a garden. It must have something to do with the fact that removing vines is a form of physical labor that stimulates helpful endorphins, while cleaning toilets is a minor form of physical labor that stimulates boredom.
Once a specific area is cleared of the rampant honeysuckle, the pencil-slim self-sown saplings, and all the other green hindrances, the shape of that area of the garden begins to be clear. Within days the ornamental plants that have been eking a meager existence amidst the choking underbrush start to recover. The original gardener’s intentions become more clear.
Last fall I cleared an area of an old garden by trimming back some thuggish barberries and filling many bags with weeds and rampant wisteria. When I looked at the same area early this spring I noticed giant snowdrops (probably Galanthus elwesii) sprouting boldly. They may have come up every spring during the years of neglect, but I like to think that they appreciated the encouragement from me. Now I can provide added encouragement by dividing the clump and spreading the divisions around.
Restoration of an old garden calls out for both patience and caution. Patience because it takes time to restore order. Caution because it is easy to get overly enthusiastic and start pulling out everything in sight. Remember that the green nuisance you yank out today may be the collector’s plant that you regret losing tomorrow. When in doubt, leave the plant alone until you can find out what it is. Beware of the “brush hogs”, backhoes and electric hedge trimmers that make appealingly short work of any garden clean-up task. Short work is not always good work in the case of an old garden.
Working slowly and steadily to bring a neglected plot back to life has its own rewards. The outlines fall into place a little at a time, and, if you are lucky, your appreciation for the gardeners who came before you deepens. Gardens are very much like old houses. You can “renovate” them by gutting them completely and replacing the original equipment with shiny modern goods. Or you can go slowly, preserve what is preservable, and in so doing find the soul of the place. I prefer the latter.