Garden teaches self-acceptance

With a little imagination, I can accept my garden infill project and hope for the future.


My garden gave me a lesson in aging and self-acceptance last week. 

 I had been pushing my physical training in hopes of getting into better shape for the fall basketball league. I added straight running, which I haven’t done since before my hip-replacement surgery more than five years ago. I had visions of a makeover – out with the old, in with the new. “You can be obsessive,” my wife remarked. 

The body seems to have its own priorities. My muscles tightened up, my legs felt wobbly and a general tiredness descended upon me. I worried that I had damaged something irreparably. I took two days off and immersed myself in redoing a narrow triangular strip of the garden near the walkway to the front door of my 1930s-era Sacramento house. 

An old camellia that I had kept presentable by pruning off ever larger branches had begun to look terminal. Two branches were filled with splotchy leaves. I hesitated to kill it because – well, it had lived a long time and produced exquisite pink flowers. It might make a comeback…. 

I cut the camellia down to the base. It had stood about 6 feet high and 4 feet wide. That left a landscaping challenge. The sprinkler system’s shutoff valves alongside the house were exposed, as well as a hole in an old shrub that had co-existed with the camellia. The trunk of a graceful, 20-foot high Japanese maple stood a dozen feet away. Two geraniums in pots and a day lily in a converted concrete-turtle hose receptacle provided patches of color atop the root-heavy soil. 

My initial idea for this infill project was to plant a sun-tolerant sasanqua camellia and let it gradually fill in the hole in the landscape. Unfortunately, after digging down a foot, I discovered that the stump roots of the deceased camellia were smack against the cast-iron sprinkler pipes, which ran parallel to the house. I dug some more and cut away some roots. I thrust the shovel deep into the ground and pulled up against the stump. It didn’t budge. 

I sat down on the stoop. Much as I wanted to start fresh, I feared a plumbing catastrophe more. I feared digging up more ground and damaging the Japanese maple, which could die a slow death from a thousand cuts. I’d have to find a compromise. 

I recognized the symbolism quickly and wasn’t thrilled. Compromise – nothing but compromise. My artificial left hip had forced all kinds of compromises. My 65-year-old body rebels when I try new exercises or activities. I can run up and down the basketball court, but I pay for two hours of trimming shrubbery or running a mile. Hovering on the periphery, not surprisingly, is a vague, unsettling anxiety. A 65-year-old friend died of cancer a few months ago. 

I remained on the stoop for a long time, visualizing a layout for this patch of garden. I took three trips to nurseries to look for inspiration. I hauled in big pots from the backyard and moved around the ones I had out front. Finally, I  bought a two-foot-high sasanqua camellia, decided on  a spot not quite where I wanted one, dug a hole far smaller than recommended and cut some roots I hoped were minor. The camellia looked pretty small. I planted a couple of day lilies and added two dwarf nandina bushes to hide the sprinkler pipes. I’m hoping everything will jell in a couple of years. 

In gardens and life, you sometimes need to accept the hand you’re dealt and make the best of it.

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