Sunday Opinion: A Life Span

Everything in the garden has a lifespan.  This is a polite way of saying that every living thing lives their life, and eventually dies.  The redwood trees in California, and the old yews in England, among other ancient plants, are prized by many not only for their size and shape, but their astonishing longevity.  The Wollemi pine trees-of which there are 40 trees in some unknown location in Australia-date back thousands of years.  The National Geographic has made a big issue of protecting first, and secondarily propagating these trees.  Their sales of new starts of Wollemi Pines helps to cover the cost of their protection. They grow no where else on this planet, but for a remote valley in Australia.  Yes, I did buy small starts some 8 years ago-why wouldn’t I?  Both of my Wollemi pines belong to my landscape superintendent-Steve Bernard.  They were a gift.  They are at this moment, thriving.  As is our relationship.  We work together.  But not every plant thrives.  Plants which have lustily grown for years eventually die.  Some plants die just days after they are planted.  Do I have an explanation for this-not really.  The life and death in a landscape is an issue both Steve and I deal with every day.

Landscape clients want me to guarantee that the plant material I put in the ground will live-for at least the warranty period.  For one year, I am asked to stave off death.  I oblige, in spite of the fact that the life of a landscape and garden depends more on nature than me.  I do what I can, but I am rarely in charge. Some plants thrive in spite of my skepticism.  Other robust plants inexplicably die, leaving me with lots of questions and not so much comfort.  Anyone who gardens knows that every plant has a lifespan.  Every gorgeous moment in a garden is just that-a moment.  And that which is treasured is ephemeral.

I have a few plants that are original to my garden from the day I moved in.  A magnolia, some dogwoods, a pair of picea mucrunulatum, some rhododendron, a norway spruce some 40 feet tall,  some azaleas, and some challenged maples in the tree lawn.  But these plants are not centuries old. They are at best 90 years old.  Ninety years old is a blip that one blink will miss, in the history of our planet.  Every gardener needs to realize that their influence is short.  And not necessarily what nature values.  Peonies and asparagus are very long lived.  Trees that have a good siting and thoughtful planting live a long time.  As in my lifetime.  Perennials live but a very short time.  Foxgloves are beautiful, and short lived.

The lifetime of the planet-vastly more years than mine.  I understand that eventually, and sooner rather than later, I will wear out and die.  The numbers of perennials and annuals in my garden that will wear out and die before me-considerable.  Lots.  The trees that will mature and finally die-they will be much older than me on the day of their demise. My gardening is but a brief moment in a scheme that is long, substantial, and just about impossible to predict.

Does the prospect of a limited lifespan to my landscape worry me?  Not really.  A beginning and an end to anything significant in the landscape is beyond my grasp to orchestrate.  I spend an extraordinary amount of time in an effort to keep every plant in my landscape happy and healthy.   Every gardener, just like me, learns, and leans into the natural demands of a life span.  Leaning in-what every gardener knows how to do.


  1. Deborah, you are so inspirational. I look forward to each and every post.
    Thank you for all you do.

  2. Everything dies…we begin again.

  3. Way deep down, I have always suspected that the way in which the garden cycle acts out for us us a mini-performance of our own mortality has something to do with its allure. At least for me. Mind you, I am not a morbid person but I have always found that a healthy sense of our fleeting moments here make them all the more special. I always feel the most alive when everything in the garden is dying all around me….and peaceful. And for me the garden is always the most beautiful during its very last moments. It shimmers.

    One of my all time favorite pieces in all of classical music captures this feeling perfecting:
    Richard Strauss’ “September” from his Four Last Songs. Poem by Hermann Hesse.
    Best part starts at 1:57 when she sings “Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
    at his dying dream of a garden.” Wow.

    Der Garten trauert,
    kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
    Der Sommer schauert
    still seinem Ende entgegen.

    Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
    nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
    Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt
    In den sterbenden Gartentraum.

    Lange noch bei den Rosen
    bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh.
    Langsam tut er
    die müdgeword’nen Augen zu.

    English translation:

    The garden is in mourning.
    Cool rain seeps into the flowers.
    Summertime shudders,
    quietly awaiting his end.

    Golden leaf after leaf falls
    from the tall acacia tree.
    Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
    at his dying dream of a garden.

    For just a while he tarries
    beside the roses, yearning for repose.
    Slowly he closes
    his weary eyes.

  4. What a romantic way to put the life of a garden or landscape. I have been working in the landscape industry for 20 years and every project I step onto gives me a sense of life. I love making something beautiful and sharing but there always is a sense of being a part of the world we we care for nature. I agree I give a 1 year warranty and explain to the nth degree to a client what their responsibilities are, it never fails that in every few clients there is a person who gets busy and under waters or doesn’t do something properly. Those conversations can be tough when it is their fault and they are trying to not spend another penny for their mistake. We usually compromise and provide labor if they pay for the expenses like the plant, labor, etc. Evergreens for me tend to go all at once when they are going to die, and although some others can be revived to the client it just isn’t the same. I am glad I found this article, have a wonderful day.

  5. My pots/containers have never looked better. Must be the last hurrah before their cycle ends. Each and every plant is shimmering. Even the brand new clematis keeps producing until the very end…such good soldiers.

  6. Jean Guest says


    I am an keen amateur gardener living in Bristol, England and happened upon your blog a few weeks ago. Sheer bliss – blog Heaven – gardening Nirvana!

    I think I have read every single entry and enjoyed them all – my eyes are sore from staring every night at my computer screen avidly drinking in your words of wisdom. My husband has given up trying to communicate with me and just supplies the coffee – he’s good like that. One message from your readers rings out loud and clear – you are AWESOME (using the US vernacular). I love the glorious photographs, the ‘how to’ descriptions, planting information, design inspiration and the fact that you give us mere enthusiastic novices the tools to aspire to achieve our dream gardens.

    It is my 64th birthday today so I share your ‘time line’ along with a few other things – the wisdom of age, the frustrations of having a body that no longer keeps pace with my mind, the ‘abundance mentality’ – there really is enough to go around so why not share as much as we can, the contentment that comes with knowing that what we have is enough, maybe not always materially but certainly spiritually. Once you are at one with nature there really is nothing else that you need. I watch the seasons change, plants and flowers grow, and the birds and the bees. I love my cat Bob – even though he persists in laying in the flower borders and digging around the Dahlias – who cares – enough to go around for me and Bob! What’s a dead flower here and there.

    The day I found your blog my gardening world was complete. Thank you, thank you dear Deborah – YOU ARE AWESOME!

    Must go now – my husband is making me another coffee – I think he feels slightly neglected!!


    PS – I have just subscribed to become a follower – first time ever!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Jean, your letter is AWESOME. I appreciate it more than you can imagine. I am especially keen about your thought that there really is enough to go around-so why not share whatever one has-love that. I am thrilled that you are reading. I welcome you, your cat Bob, your devoted husband, and your garden to my life. Truly. All my thanks and best regards, Deborah

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