Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Where not to put a garden

April 15, 2015


The best I can say is that it happened in the early spring. The plants aren’t up yet, and though a great deal of damage has been done, and much more may come, I can at least imagine the damage can be repaired. But in time?

The septic system has been operating with no problem for many decades, but it is old. I knew it would fail someday. Last Sunday, while out broadcasting seed, I noticed the holding tank was overflowing. So I called in someone to pump it out and plumbers to investigate. After failing with minimal exploratory television probes and other less intrusive methods, they cut my 8-foot deer fence and brought in the backhoe.


They started moving from the tank across the end of the garden. I assume many plants will never recover, but still hold out hope some will survive. It happened much too quickly to even think of moving anything. I won’t go into the possible complications. It’s too anxiety provoking.


There’s a six-foot-deep trench across about forty feet of the garden now. Tomorrow? I can only imagine.

The moral of the story is clear.


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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily April 15, 2015 at 10:10 pm

Ohhhh…Ouch. I’ve got my fingers crossed for you and the garden.


James Golden April 15, 2015 at 10:40 pm

Thanks, Emily. I started writing a long explanation, then realized I was just acting out my anxiety. Eventually, all will be well.


Saurs April 15, 2015 at 11:56 pm

There was nothing you could have done to prevent this that wouldn’t have altered the garden, anyway. It was and remains a beautiful testament to your devotion to the New American perennial movement. You and visitors have captured it in photographs; you lived and worked in it; you will not forget what it was. The beauty of this genre of garden is its ability to adapt and thrive in adversity. You have the expertise and thoughtfulness to make this work, to guide it to recovery. It will be changed; in years to come, you may look back fondly on this as an opportunity for creativity. Stay strong! I’m rooting for you.


James Golden April 16, 2015 at 9:16 am

I agree. In this new day, I realize this is a tiny part of the garden, and my planting choices and methods make for a very resilient garden. I’m not sure it’s totally appropriate, but something from a line of John Milton appeals: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” For me the meaning of that is certainly a different one, but I do need to learn to “stand and wait.”


Elayne April 16, 2015 at 12:04 am

James not only will all be well…………………it will be better than ever. I have always found things happen for a reason. We might not like a moment in life but when you look back on it in years from now you will understand and know the reason. You James are a master of masters and will be able to make your fabulous creation only better. I am sure you are already falling asleep at night with new ideas. Don’t worry like you said, All will be WELL! I can’t wait to see it next fall.


James Golden April 16, 2015 at 9:18 am

Elayne, yes, this is much of what gardening is about, turning the unexpected to something beautiful or good.


Jason Carty April 16, 2015 at 3:56 am

It’s always rawest when you’re in the moment. It will recover fast James, you’ll see x


James Golden April 16, 2015 at 9:19 am

It will, Jason. I just have to wait for some pieces of the solution to fall into place.


Cindy MacMillan April 16, 2015 at 6:36 am

I understand how devastating this is to you and I don’t mean to minimize the anxiety you must be feeling (and that doesn’t include the cost part). I know you will create something wonderful out of all this. I can’t wait to see your garden again at whatever stage it is in. I follow you with great interest and awe.


James Golden April 16, 2015 at 9:20 am

I’m feeling less anxiety today, Cindy. They’re out there working again today, and I hope for, if not a solution to the problem, at least a clear way forward.


melanie April 16, 2015 at 7:23 am

I feel your pain, but Mother Nature has a way of fixing things. Hang in there.
I want you to know how much I enjoy your blog. Your garden is so beautiful.


James Golden April 16, 2015 at 9:21 am

Thank you, Melanie. Change is good.


David Feix April 16, 2015 at 8:19 am

Yes, probably why most stick with lawn over the leach field. Pity, and most frustrating. Mostly bulbs?


James Golden April 16, 2015 at 9:25 am

So far, mainly grasses, which will probably be fine if the piles of clay are removed within a couple of weeks. They’re very resilient. They did cut through a favorite planting of Aster tartaricus ‘Jin Dai’ but I have more of that I can take from elsewhere. I think the ultimate solution is to continue the trench across the garden and build a new septic system outside the garden. But I get ahead of myself. The engineer, yet to be hired, will have to approve any such resiting. But the system is very old, and needs replacement even of they can make it partially functional until a new one can be designed, sited, permitted, and constructed.


Karen April 16, 2015 at 12:15 pm

Oh James, I am so sorry for this disruption and can only echo what others have said about all being well in the future. All of us with septic fields can certainly relate to this being a huge challenge. It will all be beautiful thanks to your vision. Karen


James Golden April 16, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Thanks, Karen. I talked to an engineer and he thinks we may be able to design, obtain necessary permits, and construct it before the June 27 Garden Conservancy Open Day. Once I get them to do the necessary new trench across the garden, put in the conduit, and close it up, the rest of the activity will be outside the garden and I can start replanting. In another year, no one will know. But it does put the kabosh on other things I wanted to do this year.


Pat Webster April 16, 2015 at 6:10 pm

No, the moral of the story isn’t clear, or at least it isn’t clear to me. But I truly sympathize with the anxiety, disappointment, fear of loss, and other negative emotions you may be feeling — I know I would be. Let’s hope that what follows is excitement at the prospect of something new. Someone wrote in a comment that things always happen for a reason. I don’t believe that. Sometimes things happen simply because they happen. Sometimes nothing good follows. But sometimes, when we’re lucky, something better results. My optimism rests on that.


James Golden April 16, 2015 at 8:06 pm

I’d say the moral is don’t build your garden over infrastructure that may have to be ripped up and repaired. But you’re right. The real meaning is much deeper and more deeply felt. It’s about adapting to contingency and turning the unexpected to good. I went to the gym today, leaving the guys to their work. Doing that simple thing for myself gave me new perspective and restored my sense of control (a measure of how personal a thing my garden is). The trench has been filled, I retained an engineer, and the process of siting and designing starts next week. My engineer thinks we may have a new system constructed outside the garden before the June 27 tour date. (This small part of the garden will hardly be visible when it’s in full summer growth.) I know I will have to make changes and adapt to an altered place, and I’m looking forward to starting a new creative process.


Marlene King April 16, 2015 at 7:23 pm

While you are feeling the shock of not having enough time to try to move plants, etc., I am excited for you finding out how your plants are going to compete for the newly upturned earth. A real battle of the fittest. I garden in Southern California, and we are facing effectively 40% cutbacks in outside irrigation, coupled with historically high temperatures. Recently I have been looking at my garden to observe which plants have taken advantage of the high temps and low water. I have a 25 year old tree that has never looked as good.
I hope you enjoy keeping good records of the plants that quickly pop up when the earth is finally leveled. Adventure awaits you.


James Golden April 16, 2015 at 8:12 pm

Today, after seeing the piles of clay returned to the trench, I looked at the bare soil where I know many plants have yet to emerge. As spring advances, what survived will slowly be revealed. Once I know the path of a new trench that must be dug across that end of the garden to reach the new system on the other side, I’ll have time to do some plant rescue. Perhaps I’ll try some quick annuals as a partial cover crop. Lots of experimentation to come.


Carol April 17, 2015 at 6:40 am

So, so, sorry. Hoping for better results than you, right now, are thinking will happen.


James Golden April 17, 2015 at 7:02 am

Thanks, Carol. Posting the photos, documenting it, has helped me move on. I can at least ameliorate the visual disturbance with grasses, perhaps annuals, and some mulch, for this season. And the opened earth presents an opportunity to do something I otherwise might not have tried. Disturbance is no ecological driver, so I can guide the change to come.


Lisa - Ontario April 17, 2015 at 8:51 am

We had a septic bed installed at the cottage, and with full knowledge of the possible future implications it is completely garden. We are in the process of planting the entire hill for the tank as well. I think by the time the septic needs to be redone we will be in a different cottage, and someone may have ripped out all the plants and put in lawn by then. You must live for the now, not the what ifs later.


James Golden April 17, 2015 at 9:07 am

I completely understand. I did the same thing. But our situation is different. I think it is slightly over 50 years old, much longer than any septic system should last, so it would have been prudent to build a new one when we moved in. But I want to move forward as quickly as possible.


ross hamilton April 19, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Ouch! that’s unfortunate. But the garden will heal itself soon enough.
On the other hand, I see that you now have a dozer in your garden. Are you not tempted to put it to use? a new pond, perhaps?


James Golden April 19, 2015 at 10:11 pm

Ross, if we manage to move the septic system, and the conduit and power stay out of the way, it may become possible to make a new pond in that area of the garden. Many questions remain. Now I hope to be mindful and able to adapt to any contingencies in the next three weeks, when I leave to help with a garden tour in England, a pleasure that came as unexpectedly as this new “challenge.”


ryan May 3, 2015 at 10:23 pm

Sorry to hear about that. I find it frustrating when gardens and plants have to defer to infrastructure needs, whether for fire safety or a building foundation or a septic system or various other ways in which a beautiful garden gesture or a tree has to be sacrificed in order to accommodate the things that humans need. You seem to have a good attitude about it. Hopefully you find something constructive from the change.


Susan Cohan April 15, 2016 at 4:35 pm

I think we have to remember always that gardens are about evolution and change. This is just another. I had a shade garden once that changed overnight to full blazing sun when the tree that shaded it came down crushing everything in its path. Change in a garden is a good thing.


James Golden April 25, 2016 at 8:45 pm

I’m always living with change in the garden. The area of the septic disaster is now an experiment in gravel planting.


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