Taking care of a property for many years and watching the plants that you put in the ground mature and flourish is one of the most satisfying parts of gardening, but sometimes circumstances require us to leave our beloved gardens behind. My guest this week, garden designer and acclaimed writer Page Dickey, shares her journey and growth from starting over after leaving her garden of 34 years and what a fresh start has taught her.
That experience is also the subject of Page’s latest book, “Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again.” In it, she writes about leaving her longtime garden, Duck Hill, in Westchester County, New York, and starting a new garden, Church House, in the northwest corner of Connecticut. “Uprooted” was a joy to read, and it had wonderful photos as well. I don’t need any help inspiring me to get out in the garden every day, but this book lit a fire under me. I love the way Page writes and have already ordered more of her books.
Page is contemplative, observant, forward-thinking and environmentally conscious. Though Page now has a very large property, her advice is on a relatable scale that gardeners with any size garden can use and be inspired by. Gardening larger led her to gardening smarter — and we could all garden smarter.
New York Times gardening columnist and “A Way to Garden” podcast host Margaret Rouch calls “Uprooted” “an intimate lesson-filled story of what happens when one of America’s best-known garden writers transplants herself, rooting into a deeper partnership with nature than ever before.”
Page is a prolific writer and lecturer. Her other books include 2011’s “Embroidered Ground: Revisiting the Garden,” 2005’s “Gardens in the Spirit of Place,” 2002’s “Cats in Their Gardens,” 2001’s “Dogs in Their Gardens,” 2000’s “Inside Out: Relating Garden to House,” 1997’s “Breaking Ground: Portraits of 10 Garden Designers” and 1991’s “Duck Hill Journal: A Year in a Country Garden.”
Before proceeding any further, I want to remind you that I have a free resource available to listeners of “The joegardener Show” to help them keep track of their seed collections. My Seed Inventory Chart and Seed Longevity Chart are available to download. By knowing what you have on hand and which seed is likely still viable, you will be off to a great start for the 2022 growing season.
How Page Dickey Became the Gardener She Is Today
Page says she learned how to garden through a combination of reading good gardening books and actually being out in the garden, where she can experiment and make mistakes.
Page’s parents gardened, and her beloved aunt was an avid gardener. Page recalls raising potted plants on the windowsill from the time she was a little girl and sowing corn in strict rows with her father. When she was a teenager, she asked if she could have a garden at her parents’ summer house in New Hampshire.
In a clearing in the woods, Page marked a circle and a path with pieces of granite she found. She filled the circle with ferns and other plants that she dug up in the woods and tended her garden.
Around age 21, Page was house-sitting for a couple who asked her to plant a new garden bed. The couple gave her access to their charge account at a nursery, and that was her first time as an adult designing a garden for someone else. It was pink and white, full of snapdragons and phlox.
She still loves to try new things and to expand her gardening knowledge.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are or how young you are,” Page says. “There’s always more to learn in gardening, and there are always new discoveries.”
She says if you get bored with perennial gardening, you can learn about water gardening, rock gardening or vegetable gardening. “It just never ends, and it keeps us gardeners excited all the time.”
Page and Bosco’s Duck Hill
Page moved to Duck Hill in 1981 and thought she was going to live there forever. It was an old Greek Revival farmhouse and a clean slate: no flowers, no gardens.
Page designed formal, geometric gardens off the front door, the kitchen door, the porch door. There was lots of boxwood, and each garden was hedged in. Beyond those three gardens, Duck Hill’s landscape wasn’t very formal at all. “I love a certain wildness in gardens,” Page says. She grew shrub roses, perennials and bulbs that she allowed to expand and seed unfettered.
When Page married Bosco Schell in 2000, “he came with a dowry of snowdrops and Epimediums,” she says. They created a woodland path with a copse of trees around two edges of the garden. The garden included Bosco’s plants, a number of native and non-native plants, and “all sorts of treasures,” she says. They allowed the garden to spread and spread over the years. She and Bosco also created a big and beautiful vegetable garden that involved so much work, she adds.
A New Home and New Lessons
Though Page hadn’t imagined leaving Duck Hill, one of her sons pointed out to her that if she and Bosco continued living there and paying those high Westchester taxes, they would run out of money in 10 years. By the time they did decide to sell, Bosco had turned 80 years old and a young man was helping them tend their 3-acre garden once or twice a week. Page knew they could never afford to hire a full-time gardener, and she wanted to do the gardening herself. They needed to downsize.
Page and Bosco left New York for New England in 2015. Their new home, Church Hill, is in the northwestern corner of Connecticut, an area where land is much cheaper and the taxes are much lower. They now have 17 acres, 11 of which are wooded. Though they have a lot more land than they did, much of it is wild and uncultivated with various habitats. “We loved the openness,” Page says. “We loved the space and sky, and I loved seeing out to the wild fields and of course, the hills and the woods. And so I decided I wanted a garden here that brought the birds and the butterflies and bees, and I wanted to just sway in the wind.”
It went against everything she ever thought was right in garden design, but she fell in love with the land. The house itself was not the old farmhouse she imagined herself in, but rather a deconsecrated Methodist church.
A difference she found between Duck Hill and Church House is the soil is less acidic at her new home. At Duck Hill, she could easily grow ericaceous plants — trees and shrubs that belong to the Ericaceae family, also known as the heather family, which includes Rhododendrons and Azaleas. They thrive in acidic, infertile soil.
Church House is on limestone, which makes the soil alkaline. While ericaceous plants don’t like it there, chinkapin oaks really love it. Page also discovered native flowers, sages and grasses at Church Hill that were new to her, and she learned that some of those natives are very important to butterfly larvae.
To the front of the house is a dry field that dips down into a wet field with all of the wonderful flowers that grow in wet meadows, Page says. Farther down are deep, dark, wet woods with lots of ferns, wildflowers and witch hazels.
Page learned a new term at her new house: fen, which is a type of peatland with a basic pH that is dominated by sedges and mosses. Water runs through a fen, unlike a swamp, where several inches of water just sit. She and Bosco had a boardwalk built over the fen, and a trail camera found a bobcat walking over the boardwalk on Thanksgiving. Coyotes and bears also roam their property, and Page loves having all the creatures.
At her new garden, Page is reducing her lawn space by mowing just once per year. By allowing the grass to grow, she has seen native grasses and native flowers creep in. She says that when gardeners relax and refrain from weeding too much, all sorts of fun things can happen, like plants going to seed, which can give a garden soul.
When Page does weed, she gets down on the ground. She’s like me in that we both enjoy weeding. She says she learns so much when she is down there because she can observe the structures of the plants. It’s also instant gratification to turn around and see all the weeding work that’s been completed.
Dealing with Deer at Church House
Page thought long and hard about putting a deer fence around the whole Church House property but discarded the idea. She took a more conservative approach to keeping deer at bay, including installing small borders around her apple trees that could prevent a deer from approaching.
Her helper, John, cut up logs of cedar to create 6-foot-by-6-foot cages around the individual trees. It creates enough distance to stop large deer from reaching in and eating the small trees. Three strands of wire around the bottom hold back fawns as well. It’s a solution that will work while the trees are still small.
John and Page put wire around shrubs to protect them from deer browsing and around oak saplings to save them from deer rut damage, which can kill young trees.
The emerald ash borer is threatening Connecticut’s white ash trees. It’s a jewel beetle native to Asia that was first detected in the state in 2012. As Page loses ash trees to this invasive species, she thinks about planting trees to take their place. However, she only plants species that already exist in her woods: native species that she knows will be happy there.
“Every time we plant something, we put wire around it so the deer don’t eat it. They’re so beautiful, but they are very destructive to the woodland.”
In addition to physical barriers, Page sprays Deer Defeat, which she finds is very effective at protecting young plants when she applies it once a month.
Encouraging Beneficial Birds & Insects
To encourage birds and beneficial insects on her property, Page is serious about planting native. She follows the principles of Two Thirds for the Birds, an initiative based on the work of entomologist Doug Tallamy, a friend of the podcast. Doug teaches that if our landscapes have at least two-thirds native plant material, they can sustain native bird populations. That’s because native plants are food for caterpillars and other insects that are, in turn, food for baby birds. “The bugs and the birds are very connected as Doug Tallamy taught us,” Page says.
In general, Page has become more involved in caring for land that’s uncultivated. In her fields, Page encourages natives by pulling out invasives like mugwort (Artemisia) and mowing at the right time. She leaves the fields tall all winter so there is seed for the birds, and so she can enjoy the beautiful seedheads. She says she loves meadows for the life and movement that they afford. “It’s all about bringing life to the garden, I think,” she says. “That’s what I get excited about.” Refraining from mowing until spring allows native seeds to spread in fall and winter and native plants to proliferate.
It’s not complicated at all, Page says. It’s about letting the wildness come in, and pulling out invasive species as you see them. Natives like ironweed (Bechium) and blackroot (Veronicastrum) are spreading in her wetland, bringing butterflies and birds.
I was visiting Charit Creek in Tennessee a few months ago, and I really enjoyed the mowed paths through native meadows. It demonstrates that we really don’t need much lawn on our properties — and the birds and beneficial insects really love it.
Adopting More Organic Practices
Page says that as she has grown as a gardener, she has become more and more determined to be organic, using no pesticides and herbicides. She also doesn’t use any of the tick spraying companies that are popular where she lives. Putting down poisons on your lawn where your children, dogs and cats roll around is dangerous, Page says. “You can have a wonderful garden without doing that without using chemicals,” she adds.
The Benefits of Gravel Paths
Page has a fondness for gravel paths, particularly natural river pea stone. She likes the crunch of gravel underfoot, but that’s only one reason. Gravel is cheap compared to concrete, stone and brick, and it allows water to percolate into the ground. And some plants love to grow in gravel, including columbines (Aquilegia), poppies and Cosmos.
To keep the gravel in place, Page used pieces of stone standing on end. Wood, slate and steel strips can all be used to create borders around gravel paths.
Influential Garden Writers
There are many, many garden writers who Page can name among her influences, and we discussed just a few.
Fred McGourty was known as the guru of perennials and he designed gardens for many estates in the Northeast.
Plant curator William Cullina’s books include “Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines” and “Wildflowers”. “He writes poetically and gives so much information,” Page says.
Landscape architect Darrel Morrison wrote “Beauty of the Wild: A Life Designing Landscapes Inspired by Nature.”
English plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas wrote many books on roses, including “The Art of Gardening with Roses.”
“If you’re at all interested in old antique roses or shrub roses or climbers and ramblers, he’s the guy to read,” Page says. He also wrote an incredible book on perennials, she adds. Page visited his garden once. He had a quarter of an acre and no lawn at all, she notes.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Page Dickey. She was a delight to talk to. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
Have you had to leave a garden behind? How did it make you feel? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again” by Page Dickey
“Embroidered Ground: Revisiting the Garden” by Page Dickey
“Dogs in Their Gardens” by Page Dickey
“Inside Out: Relating Garden to House” by Page Dickey
“Breaking Ground: Portraits of 10 Garden Designers” by Page Dickey
“Duck Hill Journal: A Year in a Country Garden” by Page Dickey
“The Fragrant Garden: A Book About Sweet Scented Flowers and Leaves” by Louise Beebe Wilder
“Pleasures and Problems of a Rock Garden” by Louise Beebe Wilder
“Beauty of the Wild: A Life Designing Landscapes Inspired by Nature” by Darrel Morrison
“The Perennial Gardener” by Frederick McGourty
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.