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Downsizing a garden

Kerry Ann Mendez downsized her New York garden by replacing two-thirds of the existing garden with sod. The plants in the remaining garden, above, were chosen for four-season interest. Part of that strategy is choosing plants with interesting foliage.
Kerry Ann Mendez downsized her New York garden by replacing two-thirds of the existing garden with sod. The plants in the remaining garden, above, were chosen for four-season interest. Part of that strategy is choosing plants with interesting foliage. TNS

Kerry Ann Mendez speaks from experience as a recovering plant-aholic.

An accomplished author and garden designer, Mendez rationalized that she had to have all these plants for her work, but her garden went way beyond testing new varieties.

Whenever she discovered another irresistible perennial, she would add it to her burgeoning collection. It didn’t matter if there wasn’t room; she’d find a way to squeeze it in.

“We can’t help ourselves,” Mendez said in a phone interview of others like herself. “We see beautiful plants, and we can’t resist. It’s insane.”

Eventually, she’s the one who got squeezed. Her garden overwhelmed her. It swallowed up all her time in big green chunks. She couldn’t keep pace with its ever-growing demands. Finally, a family crisis forced her to change. Some plants had to go.

“I just didn’t have the time or energy to keep it all going,” Mendez said. “It wasn’t fun anymore.”

Just like decluttering the house, the garden may need decluttering, too. The right plants in the right place in the right-size garden can cut down on maintenance, costs and water use.

It’s the right idea at the right time for boomers and others who still love to garden — or spend time outdoors — but don’t have the time (or healthy backs) to keep up their former hectic pace.

Mendez recorded her experience, with plenty of suggestions for other gardeners, in her new book, The Right-Size Flower Garden (St. Lynn’s Press, 178 pages, $18.95).

“I approach it like decluttering indoors,” Mendez said. “You don’t have to keep every plant. We have the freedom to get rid of poor performers or ones that give us more angst than joy. As gardeners, we’re inherently nourishers. And that’s why we don’t want to give up on any plant. It’s hard to let go.

“But these aren’t your children, they’re not your pets — they’re plants,” she added. “It’s OK to dig some up and say goodbye. We have the freedom to change.”

Mendez hopes other gardeners don’t have to face traumatic situations like hers before they decide to make that change. Her husband, Sergio, broke his neck. Fortunately, he wasn’t paralyzed, but he was forced to retire.

Suddenly, Kerry needed to be both caregiver and family breadwinner, commuting 40 miles each way from her home in upstate New York. There was no time to garden.

“I lost my passion,” she recalled. “The garden had become another chore.”

And their sprawling century-old country house was a headache, too. Eventually, the couple decided they needed to downsize.

“Or as I prefer to call it, we right-sized our lives,” she recalled.

Her garden also overwhelmed potential house buyers — nobody wanted to commit to a garden that jampacked with unusual plants. They looked like too much work.

Systematically, Kerry Mendez pulled out perennials and plugged in alternatives that offered a lot of showy impact with little or no maintenance.

“My goal was to reduce overall maintenance by 50 percent without compromising beauty,” she said. “I did that and then some.”

The big house sold and the couple moved into a condominium with their teenage son. She now maintains a much smaller, but still color-packed, garden.

“I have my time back,” she said. “To me, right-sizing is freedom regained. And I love gardening again because it’s manageable.”

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