August 5, 2015

You Can Go Home Again (But You Probably Shouldn't)

I’ve been thinking these past few weeks about the inevitability of change. 

It started last month when Betty and I visited Bedrock Gardens, which is easily the most visually intriguing garden in New England.  Located in Lee, New Hampshire, it sprawls across more than 30 acres and is created from equal parts intelligence and whimsy.  Its creator, Jill Nooney, has filled it with plant combinations that challenge the imagination, and garden art – sculptures forged from century-old industrial detritus – that inspire both laughter and thought.

She and husband Bob Munger have been working on the garden for roughly 30 years.  It is a labor of love in every sense of the word and I have enjoyed watching it grow and mature.  But Jill and Bob have been on this earth, by their own admission, for a combined 135 years.  What happens when they can no longer care for the garden?

The perennial border at Great Dixter.
Sir Christopher Lloyd left us nine
years ago but his garden is still alive
The late eminent English gardener, Christopher Lloyd, is credited with the wisdom “The garden dies when the gardener dies”.  Lloyd’s home, Great Dixter, was still going strong the last time I was in East Sussex so, perhaps, death does not bring down the curtain on every garden.  An entity called the Great Dixter Trust is charged with preserving the garden for generations to come.  Looking to the future, Bedrock Gardens has similarly established a non-profit entity to help fund the preservation of that treasure.

Which brings me to the fate of a much smaller garden; one with much more limited notoriety: the one Betty and I created at our last home.

As everyone knows, we downsized this year; moving from a Colonial on Steroids on one side of town to a brand new 2100-square-foot jewel of a home on the other side.  In a perfect world (meaning one where money was no object), we would have stayed put on our same piece of land and built that smaller house.  The reason we would have stayed involved great views, terrific neighbors, and a garden that provided vast and continuing pleasure to us.

Our gardens, though extensive, covered
less than half of our land.  The rest was
a woodland we restored
We sold our home to a couple with two young children.  They loved the site, loved the pond view and shared our thoughts about pesticide-free lawns.  The garden was buried under several feet of snow when we accepted their offer in February.  We invited them over to take a tour of the garden as soon as the snow melted so that that we could identify some of the very unusual trees, shrubs, and perennials in it.  They demurred, citing family demands.

When we closed on the house in April we reiterated the offer – a hands-on walk-through so that they wouldn’t accidentally cut down a rare specimen.  They thanked us but said the pressure of packing and the impending sale of their own home made it impossible.  A few weeks later we passed along another invitation through our Realtor.  Again, regrets.

Then, three weeks ago, we stopped by to see one of our former neighbors and saw the beginning of the transformation: a small copse of pines and oaks at the front of the property was gone.  For us, it had provided desired privacy; we were part of our small neighborhood yet secluded.  At the edge of the copse we had planted a number of specimen trees and shrubs.  Most of those were also gone.

Beyond our house was an acre of oaks
and pines.  The new owners have
cleared it.
Last week, we were again at our former neighbors’ home.  This time we saw that our ‘forest’ had disappeared.

We had nearly two acres at our previous home, but we gardened only one of them.  The other acre was maintained as a forest preserve, primarily of oak and pine.  Over the years we had painstakingly removed invasive plants and fostered native ferns, wildflowers and ephemerals.  The forest floor was comprised of a rich duff and slowly composting leaves.  When tree limbs broke off in storms, they lay where they fell. Because it adjoined town conservation land, our forest was full of wildlife and was a wonderful habitat, especially for birds.  Now, it had been clear-cut; with massive logs from beautiful, mature oaks stacked like cordwood waiting to be taken away. 

This is all that remains of the forest
Naturalist Doug Tallamy tells us that a single oak tree supports 500 species of moths.  Those moths feed birds and pollinate plants, which beautify our world while playing an important part in the cycle of life on which we ultimately depend.  The dozen or more oaks in our forest are gone, likely to be replaced by a lawn suitable for young children.

We understand we ceded the right to dictate how our property could be used the moment we signed the papers passing title to it.  As long as they obey zoning ordinances, the new owners are entitled to whatever they wish to the land.  They have paid for the privilege.

But it does not stop us from mourning – and ‘mourning’ is the right word – the passing of those woods and, likely in time, the rest of the garden. 

Sir Christopher got it only partly right: a garden does not necessarily die when the gardener dies, but a change of ownership will almost certainly do the trick. 

1 comment:

  1. Neal, this is a heartbreaking story, but unfortunately one that is not unique. I have declined to go back and look at my old garden in MD for fear every rose has already been yanked. I have my memories. But what would possess these people to destroy what was a gorgeous setting you and Betty created? It couldn't have been maintenance worries. I share your sadness.