Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My Safe Harbour

Scilla in Mom's garden.

It's the first week in May. It has been a tough week and a really long day, but phase one is complete and my parents have been moved from their house of over fifty years into their one bedroom apartment at the Berkley.

Now in their nineties, my parents have putting off making any kind of change for years, but a stroke in early spring left my father unable to manage the stairs. Despite his limited mobility, it was my Dad who continued to be determined to stay in the house, even at great cost to my mother, who had health issues of her own. However impractical, the house was safe and comfortably familiar for both of them. It has taken months of dogged negotiation to make them see that it is finally time to make a move.

Pulmonaria in Mom's garden.

I sit on a corner of the bed and look around me at the half-empty room. It's taken the last of my energy to make up my bed for the night, which is a mattress and box spring sitting on the floor of what was the family room. For years the huge undertaking of closing the house served as an excuse, so to make the task less overwhelming for my parents, my brother and I convinced my parents to grab what household things they felt they needed or wanted, and to leave the rest behind to be disposed of properly at a later date.

I feel no particular nostalgia for the house where I grew up. I haven't lived in Nova Scotia for almost thirty years. With my parents gone, it feels even less like home. It's just a half-empty shell that already feels cold and impersonal. The dated decor looks shabby and I worry how saleable the house will be.

As I look around the family room, the remaining furnishings are an odd hodgepodge of things. There's no house phone, no radio, no tv and no internet. My room for the night feels like it has all the charm of a prison cell. Exhausted, I climb into bed and wonder if my parents, who are probably just as uncomfortable in their new bedroom at the Berkley, will get even a wink of sleep.

Mom's rock garden in better days of old.

When I arrive at their apartment the next morning I find my Mom, who usually gets up at nine, has been up since seven moving things around the apartment, and rearranging her houseplants on the stand that we setup in front of their new living room window. I feel encouraged that this is a sign that she has started to accept their new circumstances.

When I find my Dad in the bedroom however, he seems a bit lost and bewildered. Together we all head down to the dining room for their first lunch. Dad, who has lost ten pounds since the stroke, eats every bit of the three course lunch with relish. The coming months will be an adjustment, but I feel more convinced than ever that we did the right thing.

On the plane ride home to Toronto, it occurs to me that when the house is sold in the fall, I'll have nowhere to go home to. While the house of my childhood has not felt like "home" for years, it was a safe harbour to which I always returned.

Euphorbia 'First Blush' 

I arrive to find the garden hasn't waited for the gardener. April was unusually cold, but in the second week of May, the heat is not only on, it's turned up to high and the temperatures are so scorchingly hot gardening is uncomfortable.

After doing a post on properly pruning clematis, I look with dismay at the clematis it is now too late to prune. With the sudden heat and dry conditions, I worry that I have already missed the perfect opportunity to move perennials around.


Cowslip Primrose, Primula veris 'Sunset Shades

Euphorbia 'First Blush'  in behind with Euphorbia 'Bonfire' to the left. 
Geum 'Mai Tai' in the foreground.

Geum 'Mai Tai' forms a low mound of course green leaves. In early spring, soft apricot flowers are carried on tall branching stems. Removing faded flowers will encourage new buds. A hard pruning after it finishes flowering will also refresh the foliage. Divide in fall. Average garden soil and moisture conditions will work for this plant. Height: 40-45 cm (16-18 inches), Spread: 30-35 cm ( 12-14 inches). USDA zones: 5-9.

Self-seeded Columbine

Sweet Rocket in front of a Dogwood tree.

Weedy Sweet Rocket

Pinks over top of Thyme

False Indigo, Baptisia

I get to work, but its hard to know what to tackle first. It seems everything needs my attention. Which fire to put out first?

I like to begin at back of my deeper flower borders and work to the front. By summer the beds are always so densely packed, it's a safari into a dense, mosquito-infested jungle to do any weeding. Better to get the weeding done early when plants are just emerging from the ground. Edging the beds to keep grass out and mulching are also high on my list of priorities. I couldn't manage a garden of my size without mulch to keep the weeds somewhat at bay.

Siberian Irises

Lupins I grew from seed.

Before I know it, the lupins are flowering. They are past their peak by the time I find the time to take pictures, and a little over a week later, the fuzzy pea-like seed pods have formed.

The white peonies in the back garden open and the flowers smell divine! I had hoped to move them early this spring, but now it will have to wait for fall.

Usually the display of peonies in the front garden is one of June's highlights, but for some reason the buds on peonies in the centre of the flower border have shrivelled- a mystery that I will have to puzzle through and solve.

Geum triflorum: Height: 30 cm, Spread: 40-60 cm. It tolerates most soil types, but like most perennials, it will be happiest in well-drained soil that has been enriched with some organic matter. Full sun is best. Once established Geum triflorum is pretty low maintenance and is very drought tolerant.

Foxgloves I grew from seed.

Jacob's Ladder, Polemonium caeruleum: forms a low mound of ferny foliage with star-shaped blue flowers on tall, upright stems. It can self-seed prolifically given the right growing conditions, so deadhead it after flowering if you wan to limit seedlings. Average garden soil is fine, but Jacob's Ladder likes the soil to be moist. Height: 45-80 cm (18-31 inches), Spread 30-45 cm ( 12-18 inches). USDA Zones: 2-9.

Most magnificent of all are the pink roses along the fence marking the entrance to the backyard. The display of blooms has never been as lush. 

Explorer Rose 'John Cabot' : This rose has arching stems that can reach 3 meters in height  and can be used as a climber. It has glossy foliage and pink rose that are lightly fragrant. Its thorns are quite lethal!

The time that remains with my parents is precious now. I call them almost every day to check on them. Two weeks ago Dad was back in the hospital again. There were a few tense days, but he made a good recovery.

With the house to be sold in the fall, things will never be quite the same. The safe harbour to which I will now return is a place of childhood memories.

I will be travelling for a few days. Have a wonderful weekend!


  1. Dear Jennifer, I am so sorry for all you are dealing with now. I can identify with every word in this post referring to your Mom and Dad. I lost my Dad when I was 12, but my Mom had early onset Alzheimers, and reading about your parents' reluctance reminds me very much of the situation with my Mom. It went on for almost 10 years.

    I wish you strength, and calmer days ahead, my friend.
    Sending hugs to you. xo.

  2. After my MIL died we had to pack up their home and move my FIL. We went through everything you describe. We swore we would never inflict the same on our children but who knows what we will be like when the time comes. Good for your Mom to get up and get on with the new reality. I hope she is able to have garden time somewhere. Your own garden is surely your safe harbour.

    1. It must have been hard for you and your husband Susan. I'm sure it was very hard for your father-in-law to cope with his grief and new surroundings.
      The staff at the assisted living facility where we moved my folks are just wonderful. They have given Mom her own spot on the grounds that she can tend and garden to her heart's content. The gardener at the Berkley has even offered to help her move a few plants from the house.
      And yes, you are right: my garden is a safe harbour. Thank you!

  3. I have enjoyed your blog for some time now but never commented till this post - the top part sounded so familiar. Your parents will adjust and the food is usually unbeatable at those places! Unfortunately the issues will continue; my mom is now in a dementia unit at 94. Let's all hang together as we traverse this life stage - and lose ourselves in our gardens!

    1. The garden is such a comfort at times, isn't it? My mother-in-law had alzheimer's, so I can imagine what you are going through Beverly.

  4. I empathize with the feeling of where to start after being gone.
    My father passed away late this past April. It was peak planting and transplanting time, and with the warm and wet spring we had been having the weeds were off to a fast start. But time with my Mom and family was my only priority. And truth be told... I didn't have much heart for anything, including the garden, for a time after.
    Now... YIKES! Time to get busy! Too late to transplant, but still time to get the veggie garden in (maybe not winter squash). And weeds... well, I'll catch up on them someday (I think I hear them laughing).

    1. I am so sorry for your loss Kathleen. You are so right! Family is the most important thing. The weeds will always be there!

  5. This has been so difficult for you. When I sold my mom's house and moved back to NY, I realized I no longer had any time of 'home' associated with my parents or family. It was a strange type of unmooring, of being adrift but seeking the harbor of my husband and children, not my parents. Perhaps with a bit of time, they'll be feel comfortable in their new apartment. Reach out if you need to chat or vent. :o)

  6. I can relate to this difficult time you are experiencing Jennifer. I feel for you. It is hard for everyone, change. Necessity sometimes dictates what we must do. I hope your mom and dad adjust well and you make peace with the new arrangements. I'll be praying for y'all. I hope you find solace in your garden. Your blooms are gorgeous!

  7. Isn't it a wonderful grace that we have work to do in our gardens where we can do our thinking and crying.

    1. This could be a garden quote Anne. I love the sentiments expressed.

  8. Dear Jennifer, As you can see from the above comments, many of us have been there too. Please know that we hold you in our thoughts and know too, that your garden will wait for you. I've had 2 years of having to let my garden mostly go on without my attention but it's still there and, although I'm a bit behind this year too, we'll make it. Hang in there and let your garden be a refuge not a chore!

    1. Thanks Diane. The garden does feel like a chore at times, but then it will surprise or delight me and I remember why I garden.

  9. Jennifer, I can truly appreciate your post, and I send a hug. I'm going through the same thing with my mother and it's hard. I'm so happy you were able to get your parents settled into a place they like and that your dad is eating. My mother's appetite is not good and she's slowly dropping weight even though she's in her own home yet. I think it's wonderful your mother is doing her best to adjust. I feel the same way about my garden, it's the place I run to when I just don't want to think any more, even though that sounds silly, but I can lose myself in the tasks at hand. Sending you another hug, I can truly relate.

    1. Thanks for the hug Karen. My Mom is 89 pounds and still she keeps going, so your Mom will probably just fine with the weight loss. A big hug to you as well!

  10. Garden is such good therapy. Never easy as our parents age..even though my Mom has been gone a number of years, I still miss her. Sit in your garden with a great cup of tea and take in the beauty.

    1. I am sure there will come a time when I miss my Mom in just the same way. Thanks for the suggestion Betty. I will try to find a moment to pause and enjoy the garden.

  11. Jennifer girl .. this is a very poignant post .. the transition is not only your parents moving on to a new place and stage of their life but also of you. I sense a feeling of sadness ... but this is the right path for your parents. They are in a safe place and will be well looked after. Your path has shifted as well and I am sure you will settle into it more comfortably as time goes by.
    You have grown so many wonderful garden plants by seed ! Your patience is amazing , I just can't do seeds myself. I love your roses and yes they are looking so healthy and lush.
    We had such an odd beginning to Spring with that incredible heat and drought in May .. and so little rain still during this season.
    The chores we would normally have gotten done ran past us at lightening speed .. so I try not to feel to guilty and we both know the garden will be there waiting for us in any case.
    I hope you feel better soon and the garden doesn't overwhelm you as much.
    As always your pictures are so beautiful.
    Funny thing ... I haven't lived in Nova Scotia in many years but I always feel a tie to it .. sea salt in our blood ? : )

    1. Thanks Joy. You're right about the garden always being there.
      I am not sure about sea salt, but Nova Scotia helped shape me as a person. Even after all these years I feel very tied to the place I grew up.

  12. Hi Jennifer,
    On photo #11 I see the Bird House/Apartment Building. Last Fall I received one as a gift and even though I have a variety of other bird houses and they are occupied every year, this "bird apartment building" has no occupants so far. It is already end of June and I wonder, if, perhaps it was not meant for some kind of birds we don't have in our area. Can you please ask owner, if they do have any birds using it and if they do, what kind of birds?
    Thank you,

    1. The birdhouse that you are asking about is one that my husband and I designed. It has three separate floors and a roof that can be removed so you can clean out the "apartments". We even designed in a rod so the birds would have somewhere to land.
      One mistake we made was to make the entrance holes too small. Only the tiniest of birds have nested there as a result. I am not sure of the name of the birds, but they are small brown birds with a pretty song.
      I am not sure what is going wrong with your birdhouse, but I found this article that might help:

  13. Thank you for your reply, Jennifer. Mine was owned by previous generation - parents. I am 70 now. Google says that Purple Martins like to live in "apartment buildings". My bird house was bought ready made, so I hope openings are o.k. I will be looking for Purple Martins now. My other (5) birdhouses are occupied every year by little chicadees (I think).
    Thank you for your beautiful website. I am enjoying it for many years and your photos are one of the best.

  14. I was sad to read this Jennifer. However, considering the facts as you described them, perhaps they are in a good place now. It will be less worry on you and your family, I feel sure of it. Having travelled some of this same road, the steps taken are always tumultuous especially for a senior, leaving their safe harbour. Your garden, although overwhelming, like the journey those many months, will bring you some gentle 'down time'. Loving the photos, as always, and enjoying your gifts and your mom's gift to my garden. xo


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