New Year’s Resolution to Edit the Garden

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Winter at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens

Kartik, my friend and computer wizard extraordinaire, went to India last year with his wife and children to visit his family for three weeks.  When he returned, I was curious to know how he felt about the trip.  He told me he was happy to be home, meaning literally back in his home and also that the trip confirmed that the US is his home.  He then went on to explain how the trip had changed him in basic and important ways.

Although he does not view India through rose-colored glasses, Kartik marveled at the simplicity of life there and how that simplicity allows a truer appreciation of and sharper focus on “the important things”.  With few possessions, little access to travel, and monetary restrictions, his Indian acquaintances focus on their community, their friends, their family, and especially their children.  Food, conversation, time together is more important there without all the distractions of a consumer society.  Although on balance he would rather live in the US, he missed the simplicity of India.

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens Winter 1994

Not one to waste an important lesson, when Kartik returned home, he immediately began paring down his own possessions and lifestyle, ruthlessly eliminating what his family didn’t use or need.  He said it gave him a great feeling of power over our endlessly consumer driven society.  And, as he fixed my computer recently, he pointed out all the technological paraphernalia in my closet that I could do without: keyboards, mice, cables, adapters, manuals, disks, etc., that I was saving “in case I needed them”.  At the end there was an almost empty closet.

After Kartik left, I started to relate his experience in India to my own at my family’s small summer cottage in Maine.  With one big room downstairs and one partitioned room upstairs and no closets, our family is always together and there is no space for “stuff”.  When I return to my much larger, closet-endowed home in PA, I feel overwhelmed by the clutter and more isolated as everyone disperses to the many rooms of our house.

my signature dovecote (see header)

Taking a page from Kartik’s book, I attacked our “stuff’ with a vengeance dispersing mountains of un-needed clutter to the thrift shop, my children’s school, and the local 7-11 parking lot where every item disappeared within a few hours.  I too felt empowered by the process.  Life really is simpler and more enjoyable with less things.

Then I started to think about the garden and how similar principles apply.  I have the same reluctance to edit plants as I have to edit my belongings.  There’s always hope for that half dead shrub, for that ground cover that didn’t fill in, for that perennial that clearly needs more sun.  When the real answer is to move on.  So in 2010 I resolved to tear out all non-performing plants, and the result was a huge improvement.

my son Nicky stuck in a snowbank

A row of boxwoods riddled with phytophthora made way for some beautiful fall-blooming camellias.  Large patches of old hostas were removed to make room for new improved cultivars.  A tangle of privet and wisteria was replaced by a magnificent view of the neighbor’s rose bushes.  And, in many cases, struggling plants made room for more of what was already thriving at the site, adding to the overall impact of the garden.

For New Years, I highly recommend a resolution to edit your garden.  The results will produce satisfaction for all of 2011.

Happy New Year,


Note: Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information.  For non-performing trees, I use intimidation before removing them.  I threatened a 15-year-old yellowwood that if it didn’t bloom this year, I would cut it down.  Naturally it was covered with flowers this spring.  I know it doesn’t make sense, but it has worked numerous times for me.

My cats, Otto and Olivia, on Christmas

This collage shows “six closets de-cluttered to help me feel more free.”   December 31, 2010.

53 Responses to “New Year’s Resolution to Edit the Garden”

  1. Another powerful posting that is sheer pleasure to read. Thank you for the experience.

  2. Very nice post Carolyn. I too subscribe to the less is more concept. It works great, but I have to admit going back to find something I got rid of. That does create a little stress sometimes.

  3. Ellen Swirsky Says:

    great article and I love the pictures!

  4. patientgardener Says:

    I totally agree that we fill our lives with clutter that we think is important but it isnt. I tend to have a clear out once a year and anything that hasnt been used generally goes, although not always!! As for the garden I am learning to be more ruthless and if a plant isnt performing it has to go but it is hard to do.

    Hope you had a good Christmas and best wishes for 2011

    • Happy Holidays to you Helen. My major problem with getting rid of things and plants is that if they are still useful, I have to find a home for them. I can’t just throw them away. Finding someone or someplace that wants them is the hardest part. Carolyn

  5. Mary Stamper Says:

    You got that right, woman! “Stuff” is the bane of my existence sometimes. It’s so liberating to get rid of the unused, unnecessary and redundant. And yes, getting rid of the same in the garden is so necessary. How else would I make room for new plants? 🙂 If something doesn’t perform, I move it. If it still doesn’t work, I give it away. If something can’t resist disease, I get rid of it. Who needs all that extra work, when there are so much more rewarding garden projects? Thanks again for another inspiring article!

  6. Forget the garden, I will start with the house first.

  7. What a lovely post. I too am trying to whittle away at clutter in my life-mainly my home. Coming from a time of not so much prosperity it seemed I needed to hold on to everything but that just isn’t so now a days. A hard thing to do is to edit, though it is sorely needed at times. Your garden is beautiful in the snow. Love those stairs and wall.

    • My father grew up in the Depression and both my mother and my father came from a long line of collectors and savers. Fortunately (I think), I am the only person in the family who didn’t inherit that gene. Nevertheless, it is still quite hard for me to get rid of a living thing.

      We were very lucky that when we bought our home in 1983, all the walls and terraces were already built. Our home is the gardener’s cottage and carriage house for an old estate, exact age unknown but probably 200 plus or minus. The really old walls are beautiful.

  8. You’ve inspired me Carolyn! I’m pretty ruthless when it comes to clutter in my home but not so in the garden. And to be honest, I’ve never even thought of it! Thank you for the confidence and encouragement to take out those plants that I’ve been reluctant to remove for whatever reasons I’ve conjured up! Have a wonderful and happy new year! I look forward to more of your posts in 2011.

    • Hi Cat, We got a foot of snow here so I am slogging through closets and cabinets inside the house reorganizing and removing. Taking out the Christmas decorations allowed me to leave a large bag of ornaments at the local convenience store on Christmas Eve for a family less fortunate than ours to enjoy. To paraphrase, the giver gets the greatest benefit. My removals during the gardening season were so uplifting that I plan to continue in 2011. Happy New Year, Carolyn

  9. Thanks for this post, i know i am full of clutter but i can’t seem to part with them. I inherit this from my mother, who grew up in less favored times. I always hoared my old things, saying “they will come handy in the future”. I think gardens are really reflections of owner’s personality, as my mother’s garden is just like a biodiversity garden, with bits and pieces cluttered around, everything growing in whatever way they would like to be.

    Those cutie cats are so lovely! Happy New Year and thanks for the picks.

  10. I wish you could “edit” the snow so that we could see those changes — sounds great! (I don’t really wish you could edit the snow because I’m loving the coated trees and dovecote).

    • Your comment was again in spam–not sure what is going on. “Edit” the snow, ha, ha. I didn’t know I was going to start blogging when I did the editing in my garden so I didn’t take before pictures. I will be more careful about that from now on. However, I think the editing had an even greater positive effect on my frame of mind than it did on the looks of the garden. A feeling of accomplishment generates a lot of positive energy. Happy New Year, Carolyn

  11. sob, I am missing something. Had one response on the first day of Christmas, followed by a deafening silence. Wait, I LOVE the comments, and I know this is absolutely not a good time of year to throw out a meme. We are busy, and tired … Please, please do join in!! Diana of EE

  12. Carolyn I love your cats and snow photos, I hope your son recovered from being head first in snow, I have been slowly editing my home as I have much too much stuff, I really admire anyone who can do it quickly, unfortunately the salt winds edit my garden too frequently I long for the days when it will be neccessary for me to edit it,
    happy new year and all best wishes for 2011, Frances

    • Frances, I am glad you liked the snow photos–I thought they were fun. I can’t edit my home quickly because each item has to be placed in a new situation (reduce, reuse, recycle). I rarely actually throw something in the trash. I too try a lot of new plants that don’t make it, but they are never the ones I want to edit. Your Scottish island must be a particularly hard place to establish plants. However, the islands of norther Scotland are a place I have always wanted to visit. Happy New Year, Carolyn

  13. Great post! and amazing photos!
    I hoe you had a very merry Christmas! and also that you have the best new year!

  14. Dear Carolyn, I love how you have juxtaposed your friends trip and admiration for simplicity to your editing your gardens and home. You have touched upon a dire need within my life. I have pledged to do so with earnest within the following days. I should love to be able to edit out the invasive Bishops Weed from my gardens! If only I could hit a delete button! Your kitties look adorable and your home and gardens dressed in snow white are astonishingly beautiful. Joyous Holiday Season! Many Many Blessings for the New Year! Carol

    • Hi Carol, Editing your belongings becomes rewarding (and dare I say fun–I’m a Virgo) as you get into it. For my husband and children, I started with the rule that they didn’t have to get rid of anything they wanted, but they had to make an individual decision on each object and then it had to be put back in an organized fashion. For me, I can’t handle more than an hour straight of quality editing so most sessions only lasted that long. For bishop’s weed, I remove everything from the bed, dig out as many little roots as I can find, and then wait for them to re-sprout, and dig it again. I have had great luck with this but it does mean getting rid of some good plants if bishops weed is entangled in their roots. Down by my stream, I just practice containment. Happy New Year, Carolyn

  15. Great reminder not to overstuff the garden and to be open to change. Love the picture of your cats! Happy New Year!

  16. I very much agree with your philosophy, Carolyn. The difficulty is in the ‘doing’…not so much that, but actually finishing. At least for me. I have started these projects throughout the house, clearing here and there, but never seem to completely get things done. Same in the garden. I feel like it is a never-ending process that cannot actually be ‘finished’. I guess the trick is to work on things when you can and not let the unfinished business become overwhelming!

    • Hi Jan, You aren’t a real gardener if you think your garden is finished so you are safe in that department. My point for the garden is don’t hold on to things that aren’t working. It’s Kartik’s philosophy on life not mine and that’s that your possessions hold you back and keep you from focusing on your friends, family, neighbors, and community—the things that will really sustain you. Again, there is no finishing, there is just starting and mindfulness of the problem. From a practical standpoint, I set my goals low—one shelf, one closet—and move on only when it’s done. Good luck, Carolyn

  17. Oh, if only I could edit my household like I edit my garden! I have no problem doing it in my garden — I don’t care if it is a tree or an annual. If it is not where I want it or performing like I want it to, it’s out of there. But I have crammed closets and boxes and drawers of old computer “stuff” that I have no idea if I need or not. I usually start out the year motivated to declutter, but as the year moves on and I move outside into the garden, the house takes a backseat once again. This was a good post to get me thinking about what needs to go, though. Thanks!!

    • Hi Toni, I too suffered from de-cluttering procrastination. But when my friend Kartik raised the level of the conversation to a higher plane, I suddenly realized this wasn’t about clutter, but about a simpler and more focused life. About rearranging my priorities and thinking about–dare I say it–the real meaning of life. He believes you can’t do that with all the “stuff” around. and I have to say I agree with him. Start small, think big. Let me know how it goes because I am on the same path. Carolyn

  18. Sharon Downs Says:

    Carolyn, you have so much gardening knowledge to share and I look forward to each posting. Especially love this entry and the metaphors that relate our inner lives to our gardens. Those invasive vines strangling life out of the forsythia way out back are like the clutter interfering with potentially useful space in the garage. Those non performing bushes on the back patio that I hang onto for sentimental reasons represent possessions that once held special meaning but now collect dust and keep me stuck, unable to move on and create anew. So, I plan to join you in this resolution. I’ve already started indoors (5 large trash bags off to Goodwill) and I feel empowered!

    • Sharon, I feel so happy that I have been able to reach out to gardeners in this way. All the comments tell me that I have struck an important chord. Clutter in our outer material lives, whether in the home or the garden, does indeed represent clutter in our inner lives. Thanks for summarizing my post so beautifully. Carolyn

  19. I am looking forward to some “sunny gardening” this year. A Nat. gas pipeline cut a 40ft wide swath thru my corner of Chester county, and my wooded lot, so now I actually have a sunny space, AND only a partly shady woodland border. I am planning to use /propagate a Lot of my plants that are “OK” in my deep shade out to the “normal shade” border.
    AND …Tropicals in 3 raised beds—after 15 years of hostas and ferns, I am ready for yellows and orange Cannas.
    My resolution is to not just go out and buy a bunch of stuff-=-but to use what I already have , and purchase judiciously for sunnier spots , and year round interest

  20. A great post. I absolutely agree. Instead of getting a bigger house, we should consider a smaller one. This way, we keep less thrash and get to see one another living under the same roof more frequently. 🙂 Happy New Year!

    • Hi One, It ‘s harder to collect “stuff” if you have less space, and smaller houses make for closer families. However, in the US, the trend is towards bigger and bigger houses—we call them McMansions. And that still isn’t enough space because renting storage space for people’s belongings that they can’t fit in their houses is a multi-billion dollar business. Somehow we have really gotten off track. Carolyn

  21. Louise Thompson Says:

    What a great resolution! And the planning of it can even be done in winter, or whenever the ground is walkable, making us feel like we’re actually in the garden again.

  22. Susan Zemel Says:

    I have been getting rid of things for a long time — I call it the bearable lightness of being. The first time I cleaned out a part of my house, it was so hard. It wasn’t until later that I realized how much easier it made my life to have less — and I can see how that would translate to the garden. This past harsh summer did a real number on two of my beds, so I have been expecting a different sort of spring, seeing what survived and trying to revive! I want to thank you for posting you and your friend Kartik’s experiences, it is always good to be reminded (and inspired). Susan
    now if I could convince the rest of my family…..

    • Thanks Susan. I like your term the bearable lightness of being (good book and movie too). Kartik inspired me, and it appears that I have inspired others, what a great New Year’s Eve gift to me. Did you see the collage of my six closets that I added to my post for another blogger’s sixth day of Christmas post? Most of them are almost empty. Happy New Year to you and your family, Carolyn

  23. i like the cats

  24. Japan, Australia, the Bahamas! What amazes me is, that that list just keeps getting longer and longer. All the countries I’ve ever heard of. And then some!

  25. Carolyn, I couldn’t agree more, less is more.

    Happy new year, Heather

    • Heather, I am having a deja vu moment here. You must have just read the comment I left on PatioPatch earlier today where I said my garden mantra is “less is more”. Even if you didn’t see my comment, I’m glad we agree. Happy New Year, Carolyn

  26. […] doing,  but I was not totally at ease with Present, no reason just a feeling, then after reading Carolyn’s post about editing her garden the word Edit kept coming back to me, I have been Editing things […]

  27. NWPhilly Eric Says:

    Editing the gardenis definitely a great way to simplify maintenance while enhancing the design because it allows you the opportuniy to divide and expand those perennials that really perform vigorously. And having a plan for the items removed is super satisfying. In addition to my own yard, I help maintain a terrific community garden here in NW Philadelphia. Plants eliminated from my yard usually find their way into the Park’s annual plant sale or into the Park itself if the conditions are better there for the plant’s success.
    So how many years do you usually give new perennials before deciding it’s time to give up?

    • Erik, many of the perennials that I plant don’t need to be given a time limit because they edit themselves. In that case, you should be asking how many times will I try any new plant. Usually the answer is three in three different sites. If a plant is living but languishing, I would like to say I edit it within three years. The truth is it usually goes when I need space (in which case it could be less than three years) for something else or I am working on the whole bed, which means it has been there way too long. Carolyn

Leave a Reply to Carolyn @ Carolyns Shade Gardens Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: