My garden keeps me firmly planted

Lush yard keeps the temptation to downsize at bay

October 20, 2011|Susan Reimer

I have often thought of downsizing. Even when the children were babies, I daydreamed about a smaller house to clean, with fewer rooms for them to scatter their messes.

But I have never been sure I could leave my neighborhood behind. And I don't think I could walk away from the house that has been the scene of so many memories.

And I am certain I could never leave my garden.

I can't imagine driving by my old house a season or two later and seeing that new owners had plowed everything under because they know what I ignore: My garden is too much work.

Susan Harris is doing just that — selling her garden in Takoma Park "and the house it surrounds."

The difficulty here is gardening is more than Harris' hobby. It's her job.

She is the fourth voice on the popular garden blog, "Garden Rant." She handles the blogging and social media work for three garden centers, including Behnke's in suburban Washington and Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville.

She is a garden coach, helping the likes of you and me make sense of our gardens, and she contributes to the top garden magazines in the country.

And her yard — planted with ground covers instead of grass — is the living, breathing example of her newest cause, the Lawn Reform Coalition, which she formed in 2009 to promote natural lawn care and lawn alternatives.

But her garden had become too big a job. After 26 years, she was starting to feel it in her joints.

"It was too much old house, too much garden and too much expense," said Harris, during a sunny Sunday outdoor lunch not far from my garden.

"And it occurred to me that I am sitting on a big asset that isn't doing anything for me."

She got advice to move to Delaware or Florida if she wanted to stretch her dollars, but the idea of moving to a retirement community on a golf course was more than this lawnless gardener could stand.

"I'd shoot myself," she said.

So she discovered the historic cooperative community of Greenbelt. It is a neighborhood of townhouses built during the New Deal, populated by older, progressive people like her. It is a bike-riding place where houses are selling for a quarter of what her Takoma Park house is worth.

"I thought I wanted to live where I am until I died. I wanted them to take me out in a box," said Harris.

But when her longtime housemate and all-around handyman married and moved away, and when a close friend died, and when she realized that her neighborhood was starting to turn over and all the new people had kids — she began to feel isolated.

"I confess that as much as I looooove my back garden and the woods beyond," she wrote on Garden Rant, "it's a lonely place to spend so much of my time."

"I began to feel like I had been sentenced to a beautiful island," she said of a house that looks out over a downhill sweep of gardens that end in the woods. "My gardens looked like more of the same, only harder. I can't imagine doing that much work in my 70s."

"Besides, the garden is done!" said the woman who has replaced the last blades of grass with liriope or sedum. "I can't think of what else to do."

So she has put her house on the market, and she hopes she can sell it to a gardener. She promises to return to help prune and to offer other garden guidance.

"But I know that if I sell it to a family with children, they may just want to tear it all out and put a lawn in."

Harris thinks she has found the perfect townhouse in Greenbelt. The interior is compact, but the yard is large, with plenty of sun. It will take some digging up and tearing out before it is the blank canvas a gardener like Susan Harris deserves.

"I hope to be settled and unpacked by spring, in time to start my new garden."

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