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Actively preparing for retirement

Updated on October 6, 2015

I inherited a garden that was almost 50 years old. It surrounded a house of the same age. Given that I'm only four years older than both of them, getting them into a condition that I can manage is the perspective of this series of actively preparing for retirement.

The plot is roughly a sixth of an acre on a hill, there's clay soil that's reasonably well-drained because of the hill, gets all the benefits of an Irish climate (lots of sun, rain, frost and very little snow). Because of the orientation of the house we use the back garden as the leisure garden and the front for herbs and vegetables.

I inherited a lawn surrounded by a hedge and perhaps should have left well enough alone until I knew as much as I do now about gardening.

The plan for now is define three separate areas within that one space that are useful and manageable for the part-time gardener who doesn't really want to spend their entire day every week keeping on top of its growth.

From the road, there's a laurel hedge, about six feet deep at its widest. This heroic set of plants provides aprivacy screen that needs serious attention about twice a year either before the birds have nested (say in January or February) or once it's been checked for nests and confirmed clear of current chicks can be relatively easily tackled again in April. While trimming it this year I came across a nervous robin under the lavender bush that was hiding like Horton till the Who went away. It'll need another shave around September or October.

There's an Oriental-style pretty wooden feature that was ably built by a local joiner from posts, panels and trellis, over which I've planted climbing versions of roses, hydrangeas and jasmines. They too need pruning twice a year. Three rampant climbers on one upright garden fixture is a little touch of overkill that I probably won't do again. However the idea was to have perfume from the jasmine, colour and charm from the clusters of tiny roses, and flowers in a different season from the climbing hydrangea. The hydrangea's the only one that seems to be crowded out in this grouping, so I've to focus on its needs this summer. The genius idea for this year is to prune the climbers on the inside of the fence, and train them as trailers over the other side where there's a central cordyline, some hyacinths around the edges, a penstemon, and finally, a flat sprawling pine for dense ground cover to discourage opportunistic weeds.

That 'geometric' very short fence was put in because there's an odd series of corners rather than a simple right angle at the edge where the road meets the driveway and it's still looking good enough to be renewed with this year's effort rather than being dug out.

  • Next time I'm starting over with a garden I probably won't
    pull up the lawn:
  • I got pretty fit digging up that front lawn and disposing of the gazillions of stones that lurked underneath the surface. Covering the naked clay with Mypex and gravel was to save me having to use a 'pull-rope' lawn mower that needed more strength than I had to easily ignite the engine; An electric hover mower with an outdoor socket was the eventual solution that worked in the back garden where the lawn was retained. The gravel garden out front settled into a seasonal hoeing exercise to keep the gravel clear of mossy weeds.
  • The joinery done when the pergola-style upright was installed, btw, is standing the test of time graciously – the oriental-style corner 'fence' and a circular wooden platform upon which garden chairs and a table can find a home every summer were good investments of time, energy and money.
  • The bentwood borders to contain the semi-circular herb beds were never going to survive many winters without snapping, but a salvaged rope disguised one of the snapped borders and kept the shape of the herb bed and tulip bed intact.

Cut branch treated with gungy stuff – this is very gluey and difficult to get off your hands so wear gloves that you're prepared to throw out afterwards.
Cut branch treated with gungy stuff – this is very gluey and difficult to get off your hands so wear gloves that you're prepared to throw out afterwards. | Source
Short-stemmed tulips (6" stems), April 2014.
Short-stemmed tulips (6" stems), April 2014. | Source
Foot-high tulips.
Foot-high tulips. | Source

The back garden

The ash tree finally got its surgery this year. Himself, as my better half is known, lopped off one of the branches, chopped it into firewood, and treated the cut plane with a gunge that's supposed to act as the missing bark till it scabs over by itself. The amount of water that gushed out of the branch was astonishing.

We've a line of lelandii that are 30' high that we'll have to tackle in autumn (nesting, time-consuming, possibly expensive..I've been drawn to cherry-pickers for hire websites that we may need to rent a day at a time to deal with the amount of wood that needs processing for our stove).

Meanwhile, the back garden's lawn is fine, the surrounding flower beds are beginning to behave themselves – yes that does mean I've sweated this spring and last autumn rowing back on the eejitry I committed in previous years. Shrubs that were about a foot high were planted too densely and let grow to see which one survived. All of them did. So I'd to dig out privets, red robins, birches, cordylines and a lavender; I'd to move tulip bulbs, hellebores, african daisies, hyacinths, grape hyacinths and so on, so that the short tulip wasn't hidden behind a lovely, sprawly clump of hellebores, or the grape hyacinths behind their bigger, more perfumed cousins. Upon close inspection that bed still looks like a dog's dinner but less so this year than last and meanwhile it's most often a pretty vista of textures and colours from the kitchen window.

We've also got the left hand coordinated with the right hand thing going so far this year in that Himself doesn't undo something I've just done and vice-versa.

Springing back into your high-season routine for a small urban garden can mean doing your preparation the month before you think you'll be able to spend your time outdoors. Quality Shed Time during the winter months could be usefully spent drawing up planting plans for the coming year, checking and repairing your summertime tools and furniture or checking the hard landscaping for weather damage.

The off-season is perfect too for visiting gardens, soaking up ideas you can adapt to your own space and getting the ball rolling on pricing and sourcing materials that take into account any sudden or unforeseen illnesses that advancing age often accompanies.

Given the physicality of maintaining a garden, putting in the grave garden in the front may turn out to have been not such a ridiculous option after all.


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