Over the years, I've belonged to many garden groups. Some specialized in a genus - like the iris, daylily, clematis and lily societies. Others focused on a particular style of gardening, like North American Rock Garden Society.
I joined the Dirty Ladies Garden Club for the sexy name, and because it was low key, specializing in visiting gardens and swapping plants - two favorite activities that fed my obsession.
This year I joined The Golden Years Gardening Group that Gail Austin began in January 2009. When she wanted more time to visit with friends and enjoy her garden, Gail began simplifying the design to make it more manageable. She removed many high-maintenance perennials, culled out plants with short bloom periods and consolidated beds. She studied easygoing shrubs and added them to her palette. In the process, she reflected on a bigger concern.
'I got to thinking about how many of my friends who turned 70 went into a panic about how to downsize their gardens,' she said. She realized she could help others while they helped her.
'There's the mental and emotional side of it; you feel as though there's something wrong with you,' she said. 'A support group could say it's OK to have less than 1,000 daylilies.'
I too was struggling to make my garden less work and more fun. When I heard about Gail's group, I rushed to join up. Turns out I've found a perfect match for what I need in my late 60s. Twenty or so of us meet in each others' homes, share our gardening tips, visit each others' gardens and check out nurseries and other gardens too.
What strikes me as really different about our new group is that we're not competitive. As we're getting to know each other by sharing our challenges, our joys, our knowledge and our lives, we're pulling together in this journey into older-age gardening.
I can't help taking notes at our gatherings, and want to share some of the wisdom from gardeners with lifetimes of experience:
'We've all made plenty of mistakes,' Gail says.
'I call that a learning experience,' says Priscilla Senior, a landscape gardener who still plants and maintains gardens for clients.
'And we all know it will never be perfect. You have to keep tweaking it!' she adds.
Make that your mantra. Once you get this, it takes a load off. Gardening is a process, a living canvas. Plants grow, get too tall, too thick, need to be pruned. Perennials fade, need to be deadheaded, fertilized, divided. What you love at 30, you may hate at 60. In the garden, as in life, change is the one thing you can count on.
Let me share some helpful gardening tips I've noted that you can use at any age:
• Raking up leaves now is better than waiting for spring, to prevent slugs from overwintering beneath a cozy blanket.
• Instead of throwing away your leaves - they're gold - compost them, or find a neighbor who composts and haul your bags there. One of our members takes her leaves to a nearby neighbor, and he shares his finished compost in return.
• Plant bulbs in big pots, and stage them where you most enjoy the color. When they're spent, move them to a holding area where the leaves can slowly die down, and you won't have to look at the yellowing foliage.
• Learn to love clay - it's nutritious. Add gravel and compost to lighten it up, but don't overdo amending, or water will drain too quickly.
• For flowers from October to February, plant 'Apple Blossom' sasanqua camellia with large white blossoms edged in pink, and a central boss of fluffy yellow stamens.
• If you plant a 'Profusion' beauty berry (Callicarpa 'Profusion'), you'll get gorgeous purple fall berries and probably a visit from cedar waxwings, another beautiful sight (while they feast on the fruit).
• Use a wall calendar to schedule tasks such as pruning roses, planting veggies and fertilizing.
• Protect dahlias in the ground by cutting back the stems, covering them with plastic pots turned upside down, then topping them with black plastic and a couple of inches of wood chips.
• Potted dahlias, tuberous begonias and geraniums can winter over in a garage, basement or cool greenhouse. Let them dry out, watering only sparingly until their spring foliage pokes up.
• Use a moisture meter to see if your beds really need water.
• Wrap big pots with insulation foil, and secure with insulation tape (available in hardware and home supply stores), to prevent cracking in winter.