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Jan/Feb 2012

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Another year older!

Shirley Lanigan reflects on the cycle of gardening life

Out and about, I seem to be constantly coming across gardens in the middle of being age-proofed. These are gardens that are already very presentable, smart, interesting and well-worked. But the owners all seem to be in the middle of reducing the scale of their gardening operations with an eye to the future. Be it visions of a bad knee foretold, or an existing creaky back, I keep meeting gardeners who have decided that they will derive more pleasure from their gardening if the workload is simplified and reduced.

But the hard-won mastery of the art of creating a perfect succession of ornamentals in the flower border from early spring bulbs, displays of peonies, irises and roses, through to autumn with asters and dahlias, is lost when the bed is rationalized into a low-maintenance shrub border.

As enthusiastic new gardeners and those with young families ramp up the growing of vegetables, the empty nesters, meanwhile, are travelling in the opposite direction and grassing over the vegetable garden. It is hard to maintain an interest in growing food when there are not enough mouths to eat masses of beetroot, carrots and lettuce. But it seems sad, that having spent decades becoming expert in growing vegetables, the grower should be retiring for want of consumers.

Maybe the natural swing of life is that we eventually tire of the thing we have mastered. In that case, why should older gardeners keep up the hard slog of turning compost heaps and pruning gigantic climbing roses when they might prefer to take day trips on the train to visit the Botanic gardens or Fota, their grand children or the shops in Dublin? As long as they are doing the thing they most want to do, that is fine.

Accumulated knowledge going to waste is a terrible thing. And some of the gardeners I meet do seem to regret not being able to keep up the effort they once could. But a garden can be re-ordered successfully and need not be uninteresting if easy-care plants are used. It is just a thought, but youth and enthusiasm might venture to ask age and experience for some advice. Meanwhile, age and experience might consider that the gardening knowledge they hold is gold-dust and that there are new gardeners that would dearly love to learn from the experienced, in return for a little assistance.

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