THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS
By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins
Like a lot of kids, I dreamt of exploring exotic locations, perhaps conducting research in far-away lands. Fast forward several decades, now I’m discovering my own backyard offers endless opportunities to learn new things.
For a couple of years I’ve been a student in the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s native plant program. In addition to classwork, students are required to conduct field research so, in a fit of practicality, I decided to investigate my own neighborhood.
Given my interests, you might imagine I live in the woods surrounded by native plants — I don’t. My husband and I actually live on a tiny lot in suburbia. Land transfer records for our neighborhood tell a tale which is common in our region.
In the early 1800s, a family cleared some of their land to grow tobacco. This is a plant that farmers politely describe as a “heavy feeder” — it pulls nutrients out of the ground at an astonishing rate. After a couple of seasons, the family introduced cattle whose manure helped restore the soil’s fertility.
Next, they switched to commodity crops before finally converting to timber to generate income. Acre by acre the family repeated this cycle until all of their land was covered in trees. The last clearing of the timber made way for our houses — a common crop in North Carolina.
Starting with depressingly similar landscapes, some of the houses in our neighborhood now look rather different. What drove my neighbors to make changes? It’s a researchable question that could yield some practical insights. As a result, I designed my project and started interviewing our neighbors about their choices.
When I started a few weeks ago we lived in a different world. Back then, I visited my neighbors, chatting with them in their gardens. Now, I make appropriately socially distant telephone calls, but I’m still asking the same questions. “What made you decide to put time and money into changing your landscape?”
As I make my calls and review my notes, patterns are starting to emerge. I thought I would share three ideas that frequently pop up during these interviews with my neighbors.
First, we garden from memory. My interviewees told me stories about plants from their childhood, or previous home, that they just had to include in their landscape. Plants become old friends. Their departure in winter and return in spring mark the years just as certain as a calendar page. We want our friends nearby.
Next, we garden for color. I’m struck by how many times the words “pretty” or “attractive” are linked to descriptions of colorful plants. While people seem to accept winter’s monochrome landscape, come warmer months we want a landscape that offers more than just a background of green.
Finally, my neighbors garden for ease. I need to disclose that my husband and I live in an age-restricted community, so we are all of a certain age, to put it delicately. I’ve yet to hear anyone admit to selecting a plant that is hard to grow. “Easy,” “low maintenance” and “hardy” come up repeatedly in my discussions with my neighbors.
Will my research project tell us anything we don’t already know? Probably not. But perhaps it helps us focus a bit on the reasons why we reach for a certain plant at the garden center. Memory, color, ease — I can see it at play when I look at the choices in my garden.
How about you? What drives the changes you make to your landscape? Drop me a note at our email, I’ll share what I learn here in these pages.
Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: email@example.com