Leaving a garden and starting over: Uprooted by Page Dickey

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December 02, 2020

I left my last garden 12 years ago with little regret, despite my love for that sunny cottage garden. Instead I looked forward to starting a new, larger garden in completely different conditions: from sun to shade, from deep clay soil to thinner soil over limestone, from flat to steeply sloped, and from a deer-free space to deer-overrun, not to mention armadillos, rabbits, and raccoons. I felt excited about the new place and the new challenges.

Making that new garden has been supremely satisfying, although lately, 12 years older, with our kids having flown the nest to homes of their own or to college, I’ve been entertaining thoughts of a smaller garden that takes less time and effort to maintain. We’ve even explored the possibility of downsizing once or twice, but we like our home and location, and anyway the housing market in Austin is sizzling, making it easy to sell but hard to buy. So we’ve decided to stay put. Instead I’ve been working to make my garden easier to take care of. I’ve taken out water features that require extra maintenance, planted more shrubs and evergreens and fewer perennials, and hired seasonal help for big jobs like mulching and cutting back.

All this is to say that gardens don’t just take care of themselves, and as one gets older, less physical work starts to sound better and better. So I was intrigued when I saw author/designer Page Dickey‘s latest book, Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again, which tells how she and her husband, Bosco, left Duck Hill, their celebrated but high-maintenance garden in Salem, New York, and started over at a wilder property in Connecticut, which they dubbed Church House.

I read the book during the runup to the election, as the pandemic was regaining steam — in other words, when reading the news felt stressful. Falling into the quietly melodious prose of Dickey’s book, in which she describes her new garden’s features, soothed me, even if her New England plant palette and weather patterns differ vastly from my own here in Texas. After reading that she moved partly because taking care of the garden and keeping it tour-ready had become too much work, I was amused to learn that they chose a larger, 17-acre property that they promptly started filling with a cutting garden, flower borders, cold frames for bulbs, a greenhouse, and more. If this is slowing down, I can’t imagine what maintaining Duck Hill must have been like!

While Dickey is obviously a very hands-on gardener, I felt a disconnect between her lifestyle and my own. Seventeen acres with an orchard, potager, meadow, and woods, along with weekly gardening help — this is a gardening world beyond my experience and that of my circle of gardening friends. Reading Uprooted sometimes felt like reading the memoir of a society lady keen on garden design from a hundred years ago, with little connection to the suburban, quarter-acre (give or take), DIY gardening that I’ve always known.

Also, I soon realized that the book was not what I expected from the blurbs or jacket description. I’d anticipated an introspective look at all that goes into a decision to leave a garden of 30+ years in order to downsize — how to let go — and what starting over means to the gardener who had become so closely identified with that old garden. The majority of Uprooted, however, is a virtual tour of the new property, from the new front borders through the meadow, woodland, bluff, and fen. Charmingly described as these wild spaces are, they weren’t what I’d picked up the book to learn.

Happily, the last section, “Taking Hold,” did finally deliver on the thoughtful assessment and lessons learned that I was looking for. I enjoyed Dickey’s introspective realizations that:

  • She now gardens differently at Church House than she did at Duck Hill. At first she planted many of the plants that she’d loved at the old place. But these highly cultivated species didn’t mesh with the wilder spaces around her new garden, so she’s been pulling out these once-beloved plants.
  • She’s finding she still has much to learn about plants and ecology even after 60 years of gardening, which energizes her and gives her new purpose.
  • She and Bosco approach gardening very differently, and they’ve designed their new shared garden to accommodate both of their styles. She tends to “stand and stare” at the garden, figuring out how to make pictures with plants and create a mood, and preferring to plant in drifts and puddles for best effect. Bosco, on the other hand, likes “doing” — potting and repotting and acquiring plants with no thought of design, and desirous of more variety rather than planting en masse. While Duck Hill was entirely Dickey’s long before she married Bosco, at Church House they’ve learned to coexist and appreciate what the other brings.

So what’s my take on the book? If you’re looking for a peaceful ramble via Dickey’s observant gaze and deep love of nature — especially for the great natural beauty of New England — you’ll likely enjoy this book. While there are pretty photographs by the talented Ngoc Minh Ngo and Marion Brenner, the photos largely set a mood rather than illustrate Dickey’s prose, so don’t expect detailed images of the new garden or its wild surroundings. And if, like me, you are curious to know what starting over with a new garden really feels like and how it impacts the way you garden, well, skip to the end.

Disclosure: Timber Press sent me a copy of Uprooted for review. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

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All material © 2020 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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