Monday, July 14, 2014

The Return of the Lawn

There is nothing quite as calming as a long, cool and green lawn.  In my dreams I see protective borders, portable chairs and tables, arbors and croquet sets, a writer’s hut at bottom of the garden -- all very Virginia Woolf.  Then I wake up, plagued with the larger question. 

Is it wise to plan an ambitious garden for a property I don’t own?  Why not? What is ownership anyway?  A capitalist construct at best, I tell myself.  My charming landlady, H.S., will of course have to agree to a plan, but I will make a strenuous argument about improving her property and, furthermore, she can come and stay whenever she likes.

The Lawn at Bellefield

I don’t know anyone other than myself crying for more grass and a larger lawn area.  The thinking seems to be in the other direction, removing as much grass a possible.  Most gardens are developed by the occupant with this in mind: eliminating grass and then planting bed by bed, pocket by pocket, as the mood strikes. 

Instead, you can turn to a garden pro to help you out, but that can be disappointing if you are new to the site.  The most successful merger of occupant and pro occurs when the occupant has sat in her garden for a year or more, observing and making note of the shifting light patterns, base conditions, and habits of use.  It’s also a good idea to look at what other people in the neighborhood are planting, to see what works.

After a year of this, my thinking has grown stale, and I’ve turned the backyard over to Gail Wittwer-Laird.  You might remember her from the August 30, 2011 post “Growing for the Table.”  To help her get started, I asked the Village for a block and lot plan, but it did not locate the house on the site correctly.  Nor did it locate the aging cesspool, a discovery that fortunately came early enough to avoid problems. 

Gail Wittwer-Laird & Maxwell

Gail began by measuring, photographing, and laying out a plot plan with the major features correctly located.  While I tinkered with the side border shared with my neighbor, Gail was charged with coming up with a simple, elegant plan for the back. 

I currently use three different areas for sitting.  The first is a sunny spot on the western property line.  The second is at the rear of the property, in front of a recovered bed, now in its second season. The third is under maples on the eastern property line, where a children’s worktable is set up for August visits, and where I can escape the cascade of falling black walnuts.  The most important sitting area – off the kitchen, does not yet exist.  It is presently a doormat of small concrete slabs, wet with run-off from the roofline.  The entire backyard is enclosed with a 5’ tall hogwire fence, a surprisingly elegant solution to corralling dogs and small children, while eliminating grazing deer. 

The Blank Backyard at Livingston Street

If a lawn is to invite you to linger, it has to be intimate, to have a sense of enclosure.  Unless you are blessed with a river or a lake you will have to build your enclosures – buildings, walls, shrub borders.  On Livingston Street, most properties are uniform – long rectangular plots, the house close to the street, perhaps a barn, shed or garage at the end of the driveway or tucked in the rear.  We have none of the above; instead there is a gated and fenced portion of the driveway for tools, trash, etc.  No beauty here. 

Happily, there are only a few rules to remember about lawns:
  1. Locate the septic system before you put a shovel in the ground.
  2. Think about your lawn as a green garden.  No matter the dandelions and oddly appearing groundcovers, just mow them as you would grass.
  3. All gardens should provide privacy and bit of seclusion.  Your green garden is no different.  Start at the boundary lines and work inwards.  Borders should be generously deep.  If there are views worth capturing on neighboring property, leave openings to capture them.
  4. Plan your seating areas carefully.  Here on Livingston Street most of the shade trees are black walnuts with a few maples on the eastern property line.  By the fall of my first year here, I learned my favorite seating areas were in war zones and I was hammered by falling walnuts.  I moved to the maples, where I safely spent the cooler months. 

At the moment, just to have something to grow, I’ve planted out the existing oval bed at the rear with hosta, fern, astilbe, hellebore and hydrangea.  The front door garden is in its second year and with a few changes has settled in happily.  This spring we’ve added the companion border to our neighbor, doubling the size.  Respecting the established color palette, we’ve stayed with her blues and pinks, and added several whites.  We’re gambling on a predominately phlox border, ordering older varieties from Perennial Pleasures in Northeast Vermont, and filling in with newer varieties from local nurseries.  We’ve tucked in a few meadow rue for stature and left spaces for peonies.   

From The Front Door

The “We” has changed.  Natalka is concentrating most of her work on the other side of the river, but stops by for an occasional tweaking.  Benito has taken over the heavy work, coming by on Saturday mornings for a few hours.  The beds have been heavily dug, prepared with a beautiful edge, extensively weeded and heavily mulched.  I’m hoping the maintenance has now been reduced to watering, deadheading and staking, which are all manageable tasks for me.

The overall plan is almost complete, and I will share it with you when it is finished, that is if it earns a seal of approval from H.S.

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