It was six years ago that Page Dickey and her husband, Bosco Schell, “walked away from 34 years of making, nurturing, loving a garden.”
They left behind thousands of perennials and bulbs, hundreds of shrubs.
Sad? Of course. But it was time. The cost of living in Westchester County, N.Y., was too high. The gardening was too intensive. They were, ahem, getting on in years.
But with the resilience of a sturdy perennial itself, Dickey found that the challenge of a new garden in a new place — 17 acres in northwest Connecticut — offered new lessons, new beauty, new joy.
She wrote about it in her latest book, Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again, and she’ll talk about it during a video conference hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society on Jan. 25 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. (For more information or to register: https://phsonline.org/events/guide-creating-new-garden)
We spoke to Dickey, who grew up in the Philadelphia area and knows its gardens well, about her experience.
What’s happening in your garden right now that excites you?
So far, we have been having a mild winter. And yesterday, I picked about six hellebores in bloom. The one called the Christmas rose. That was one special thing.
Also, just beyond the gardens around the house are fields. They are full of a native grass called little bluestem. I was just looking at it, thinking about what color I would call it. Somewhere between a beige and a red-gold. It looks so beautiful in the wintertime. When the sun hits it, it’s just amazing. That’s one of the pleasures right now, looking out from the windows even, to see those sweeps of our native little bluestem.
I love how you gave away bulbs from your garden before you moved. What does that say about the nature of gardeners and gardening?
I think gardeners are incredibly sharing and generous. I still have in the garden here descendants, you might say, of a plant that was given to me when I was 21 years old by a neighbor. It’s a kind of blue lungwort.
When we knew that we were going to be leaving the old garden, and we were pretty sure that some of the treasures there might not be appreciated by a new owner, we dug up pieces of this and that and gave them to young friends who were enthusiastic gardeners. Bulbs, pieces of perennials, cuttings of wonderful old antique roses. Every year, I hear from those friends: “Page, your rose is blooming.” “The snowdrops you gave us are blooming.”
And then, a couple of friends brought me back pieces of a plant that I had given them to put in the new garden here. It’s just really nice.
After all of your years of gardening, were there still things to learn?
If you’re a gardener, you never, ever run out of things to learn. It’s endless. What happened here is that I am gardening on limestone now. That’s a completely new experience. You dig down and you hit chalk. Some plants love it. But lots of plants don’t. A lot of the acid-loving plants that I grew at my old garden just hate it. But what I learned are a whole bunch of new plants, natives that are growing here, in the woods, in the fields, in a little wetland we have. It’s opened up a whole new world. That’s been a real thrill.
Aren’t even the most expert of us beginners, in a way, with each new season, each new bed we till, each new tree we plant? Isn’t that one of the things gardeners love?
Absolutely. It continues to be an adventure, no matter how young or old you are. Every year, it changes. And every spring, we’re so excited, as though it’s never happened before. And then by summer, when we have heat and drought and bugs, we think, “Oh, no.” And don’t we all end up digging a new bed, when really we should stick with what we have? But it’s a joyous disease.
One of the things your book teaches is that it’s perfectly OK to abandon yourself to your garden. You write, “I can’t resist adding …” or “I lose all control … " or “I could not imagine a garden without …”
Gardening has nothing to do with being reasonable. I’ve reached a certain age (81) where I should not be planting a lot, not be adding gardens. But they give me such joy. And there are certain plants I love so much. They thrill me. And as long as I can, I’m going to plant them, although not on the scale that I did when I was 40 years old.
For instance, roses. Today, I only grow roses that don’t take a lot of care. The garden is organic. I don’t use any herbicides and pesticides. So these roses have to stand up to the fact that they’re on their own. One easy-care rose I love is a burnet type called R. Stanwell Perpetual. It needs no spraying, grows about three, four feet high, has intensely fragrant semi-double blush-white flowers, and blooms off and on through November.
But then, as you say, I can’t be without this or that. Snowdrops are one. I love snowdrops. So I’m not going to be without a garden where there are not a lot of snowdrops. Every year, I dig up a clump and pull it all apart and plant it in more and more places. I think we all do that. We all go with our passions.
What surprised you most about your garden redo?
What surprised me most was not the garden, but the fact that I had bought a piece of property that had wild, uncultivated land. The fields and the woods thrilled me and continue to thrill me. I’ve made paths through the fields and trails in the woods. I’m fighting invasives and nurturing natives and helping to make habitats for birds, butterflies and bees. This is all new. It’s really changed me, as a gardener.
Are you making plans already for spring?
Of course! I keep a garden notebook, writing down thoughts in spring and summer. It’s full of things like “move this plant here,” or “get rid of that plant,” or “I need something here that blooms in August.” So I start rereading it. It’s amazing how quickly you forget.
Toward the end of the book, you write, “I feel no need for a showcase now. In the years I have left, I simply want to savor the outdoors and the garden for the joy of it.” How might that be a lesson for the rest of us?
Sometimes, new gardeners are in awe of doing a garden. They’re thinking too much about what other people are going to think of their garden. I think that creating a garden for the joy of it is so important. You’re the one who should be the most pleased.
My old garden, where I had been for 34 years, had gained a certain amount of notoriety, and we had visitors coming all the time. So I constantly felt I had to keep the garden weeded and pruned and so on. I don’t want a show garden now. I just want to enjoy what I’m doing and do it for my own pleasure.