Starting Over: In leaving a beloved garden, new opportunities bloom

A garden designer friend of mine advises we sell our gardens every five or six years, before our mistakes catch up with us. Gardeners need to experiment, design fresh gardens on new sites. He's on his third since I've known him, and still recommending moving on — even though the people who bought his last place buzz cut the garden with a chainsaw.

Despite the specter of such horrors, I and several other gardeners around town have recently sold our longtime gardens. Maybe it's nothing more than that phenomenon of suddenly noticing droves of pregnant women as soon as you become pregnant yourself, but I think maybe we're part of a trend. The tradition seemed to be for gardeners to stay put and cultivate their plots until they could no longer lift a trowel. How could you part with a garden so lovingly and expensively created, something you've spent uncountable hours working on and dreaming about? For me, after years of diligent tending, the burden had begun to outweigh the pleasure.

Jeff Hedgepeth, a Pacific Northwest Gardens contest winner and creator of a much-admired tropical garden on Capitol Hill, recently moved to a condo. "The garden became overwhelming after I won the contest," he says. "Tour buses showed up." He enjoyed sharing his garden but felt the pressure of keeping it looking good all the time. He was consumed by the garden, without time for other creative pursuits. "You can't turn your back on plants," he sighs, explaining that he and partner John Medlin wanted to go back to living right in the city, like when they met 27 years ago in New York.

What surprised him was other people's outcry over his decision to sell the garden. His friends and neighbors couldn't believe it. But the garden had become too much of a project, and he was ready to leave. He looks forward to growing only the plants he loves most on his condo's three decks. "It's such a sense of relief," he says, to be settled in a new place, with far fewer plants to care for.

Ilga Jansons and Michael Dryfoos, whose Ridge Garden was much toured and published, have also moved on. They have new acreage , however, and as different a site as you can imagine. The couple moved from a steeply wooded hillside garden in Juanita to a flat, sunny, grassy garden in Edgewood near Puyallup. Jansons describes herself as a "serial monogamist — I've distanced myself from Ridge Garden and am in love with Edgewood Garden."

While Hedgepeth and I had both been contemplating moves for several years as we felt increasingly indentured to our gardens, Jansons had no intention of moving. She and Dryfoos found their new place by chance, attracted by the idea of 32 acres with a well for irrigation. "It was love at first sight," says Jansons, who was charmed by the potential of so much space and sun, and the close-up view of Mount Rainier. They thought it would be a great place for parties and fund-raisers as well as the bed and breakfast they'd pondered for years.

"For me, building a new garden is the thing . . . so my enthusiasm and excitement for the new place supercedes my grip of the old," says Jansons. She brought with her only especially rare plants, ones given to her by dear friends and plants she wouldn't expect to survive without the coddling she'll supply. But with 32 acres to plant, the couple is pretty much starting over.

My new garden on Whidbey Island is much smaller and simpler than my old one, and I intend to keep it that way, even though my family doubts my sincerity on the simple part. Here in town, I'm gardening on a balcony just 4 feet wide. Like Hedgepeth, I'm looking forward to growing only my most favorite plants, and having time to tour and appreciate other people's gardens. I'm most looking forward to the leisure of reading more books and going to the movies. Hedgepeth's new mantra — "fewer plants, greater impact, less responsibility" — sounds pretty good to me.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

Now In Bloom

Architectural plants like New Zealand flax show to full advantage in late autumn when the herbaceous layer of the garden dies down. The large, boldly striped phormiums are especially effective when the slanting sunlight illuminates their glossy blades. Phormium 'Sundowner' has bronze foliage banded in rosy pink; P. tenax 'Dazzler' (above) is striped in shades of red, orange and pink.