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One Small, American Landscape

by Marilyn Scott

The vine-laden pergola


For the most part, the men who live in America's suburbs like squared angles and lush lawns. Gentlemen everywhere start their engines, which can be heard droning from Saturday morning until Sunday's twilight. Once they've finished mowing, Guys pull their leaf blowers into action to remove the detritus of blade slaughter from their blacktops and sidewalks. Green must stay inside the lines, and the lines must be straight, with little or no curves. The women of suburbia (more often than not the wives and mothers of mowers), plant their flowers (more often than not impatiens, petunias and geraniums) along these lawn lines, preferably in front of the requisite foundation shrubbery (more often than not azaleas, holly, box or arborvitae).

Companies such as Toro, Scott's, True Value, and ChemLawn (not to mention cottage industries such as "U-Gro We Mow") exist, in large part, thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted, who helped get our lower and middle classes addicted to lawns. Thick, green carpets of the proper blend of Kentucky blue and fescues represent what makes this country's class system better than any other class system in the world: aspiration. Longing for the manoral estate, settling for whatever piece one can get, just as long as it's possible that it might get bigger, and greener. (All without having to pay taxes, of course.)

(Note: For a brief discourse on "Principles and Elements of Design Theory," click here.)


In my solar neighborhood, the homes are passive solar. They were constructed in the early '80s, when R-factors weren't doing as much as they do now, and consequently, there are few, if any, windows on the north and east sides of the houses. They use water walls, which are corrugated opaque sections put on the south faces in place of windows, their purpose being to capture the sun's heat and radiate it into the house. A board perched outside and above these water walls is placed at an angle that accommodates the sun's altered pitch come spring equinox and summer solstice, shading these walls from the summer sun. Deciduous trees, not evergreen, are on the south side of homes. Their leaves help shade and cool in the summer, and once they fall to the ground in autumn, they don't obstruct the precious winter sunlight. There is only one neighborhood covenant: Neither to remove nor add any tree that is influencing a neighbor's solar aspects.

A few of my neighbors pay as little attention as possible to their greenscapes. For example, several whose houses are in pin-oak- and pine-laden areas have sensibly learned to stop fighting nature's way. They plopped in some creeping rug junipers, and the closest thing to lawn they can claim is a clump of volunteer fescue that weeded itself into the gravel driveway. By and large, however, ninety-eight percent of my neighbors' lots are covered with lawn. (It is my view that the only house here to make the most appropriate use of grass is the one that might well house Frodo Baggins of Underhill--it is built into a sodded berm.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for that pastoral feeling. If the 'hood wouldn't mind my bringing in a few goats and a couple of sheep (and some chickens--nothing beats a fresh egg in the morning), I'd love lawn. But they wouldn't go for that. I'm pushing my luck as it is.

And I, too, have lawn. Lots of it, and as much as I try to remove a good piece of it every season, there's still a formidable amount that remains. There are places where I've pulled up whatever blend had once grown there. When I was unlucky, crabgrass jumped over and, symbol of suburbia that it is, crowded out everything else. When I was lucky, however, crown vetch took over. That stuff is great--doesn't grow much higher than about five inches, so you can get by without mowing that part. Vetch prevents erosion from washing away your estate just as tenaciously as grass does, if not better. It even gets these tiny round balls of yellow or pink when it flowers, so who could want more? (The DOT folks know its value. Those high berms along the highway entrances, especially the newly 'dozed areas--that's vetch.)


My different style of landscaping no doubt puzzles my neighbors, although they've been kind never to say so to my face. Many times when I enter my driveway, even I comment, "Abner, why has that crazy woman put those curved cedar logs upside down in her lawn?" If they did ask me, I'd reply that these were leftovers from the rough-hewn cedar pergola that we made and installed one Christmas Eve ("Abner, why is that crazy woman chain-sawing those logs at 9 p.m., and it's Christmas Eve, for heaven's sake!").

Among those aspects I'd leave unexplained, though, would be how I like the logs' lines, which gently curve at their beautiful cedar bases and help lessen the severity and excessive height of my house's vertical lines. My neighbors wouldn't appreciate such diversion, however, no matter how minimal, and it would only help to stamp a "Certifiable" mark on my forehead. I mean these cedars to serve visually as well as practically, but I just tell whoever does ask that one day I'll either find or make just the right birdhouses and feeders to set atop them. (Then their purpose will be visibly complete to all.)

The ten-foot-high pergola now has a healthy growth of autumn clematis and silver lace vine, with smaller clematis varieties at the bases of two posts. Annual vines join them in summer: Heavenly Blue Morning Glory, Moonflower and Cardinal Climber do their best to deal with the clay and gravel. Even at its early age, the blue Chinese wisteria I planted last year is living up to its reputation for being a rampant grower.

In fact, we rented a power auger--and promptly put out both our backs using it--to dig the six holes two feet deep expressly for the purpose of holding twelve-foot cedar logs that could support, specifically, wisteria. (This is one vine that cannot be taken lightly.) Meanwhile, my short-term goal was achieved: to help obscure my view of the neighbor's house across the street, and to provide a little bit of privacy on my end, as a corner lot is exposed on all sides. (Privacy wasn't an issue in my city apartment, but it has become a major issue here in the 'burbs.) My long-term goals are to connect it directly to the kitchen, and add a small greenhouse to the side.

While the pergola's dimensions aren't exactly according to the Golden Mean ratio, they're close enough, and work beautifully. Its twelve-foot length runs parallel to the edge of the west slope, making it set at about a 20º angle from the house's length. The strong architectural lines of this ten-foot-high structure refocus the eye from the house's height. (It also serves as a place to hang bird feeders, as well as being one nifty scratching-cum-watching post for cats, who ponder where the hell the birds went. On occasion, its benefits have attracted even the local juvenile marsh hawk, who also ponders where the hell everyone disappears after he lands.)

The softness of the clematis vines gently winding their way around the cedar's bulk offers an allusion to male and female that, aside from privacy and eliminating lawn, is at the heart of my landscape's design purposes. After I add a couple of pink and cream climbing roses, the pergola image will be complete in my mind's eye. There have even been Maxfield Parrish-blue dusks that have fallen just as the perfumed Moonflowers began unfurling their white capes for an evening out. Sigh.


The male / female theme started with making the surveyors' marks as salient as possible. We called it "pissing to mark my property, I say, my property, son"--or, "lifting one's leg," when in genteel company. It was a very Guy thing to do, which was done merely days after the housewarming party.

Then came the Gal thing, making the clay earth fertile with amendments (hence the ancient Virginia saying, "A woman's work is never done"), that it might become fruitful with perennials, annuals and trees. Among the latter are pear, apple and fig--pomegranate is to follow--that are aligned perpendicular to the pergola to make an espalier "fence."

The espalier process is one where form takes patience and sacrifice, for every year you must sacrifice major growths of limbs in order to maintain the desired shape. Split-rail posts ascend ten feet high between these fruit trees, almost like spears marking the south property line, where a second neighbor resides. Sixteen-gauge wires strung every eighteen inches between the rails provide the guides along which to train the carefully pruned branches, that they may grow perpendicular to their trunks and produce larger fruit. Which they will produce, if the novice femme d'esaplier doesn't prune the fruit-bearing spurs. Oops.

A walk under the vine-laden pergola opens upon a weeping cherry ('White Fountain'), which dominates a voluptuous, hourglass-shaped bed. There, between two huge mounds of lavender ('Provence') and santolina, the arms of a tall rosemary reach out and up, as if trying to grasp them. The size and health of these woody-stemmed sub-shrubs attests to their affinity for their western exposure, where the micro-climate is more akin to a humid Nice than Central Virginia. And these grey-leaved drought lovers have thoroughly enjoyed living in a mix of clay, sand and gravel. Artemesia ('Powis Castle') and a white gypsophila give a lacy, fine-textured relief that fills in seasonally, while echinacea, carnations and several varieties of low-growing dianthus give secondary-color accents and a change of form as the months progress. It's so much better than the lawn that once took up this space, and the house is filled with the smell of lavender when drying bunches of it hang from every ceiling.

Eliminating as much lawn as possible from the west bank beneath the pergola took priority because its steep slope was actually dangerous to mow. Starting at its northern side, the soft forms and textures of pink heaths and white heathers now punctuate a clay-sand bank of blue rug juniper. For a sense of depth at the corner, light green layers of a wide Pfitzer juniper's branches rise up at stiff angles almost five feet, beside one of the original blue cedars. Dark-green mounds of cotoneaster spread out, and are dotted with the crimson or blood-red berries that follow their tiny white flowers. A crimson and yellow honeysuckle winds its way up a solidly square ten-foot post, with birdfeeder.

The slope's south side starts with a lilac bush and another pissing post-cum-birdfeeder. Under it, a wave of spring green sedum flows down beneath an eye-popping red 'Blaze' climbing rose. It does its level best to survive, and I have no doubt it would climb the post, if only it had the energy. Fortunately, the birds plant sunflower seeds from the feeder, and these volunteer into small risers with sunny faces that help fill in the empty spots until a duo of blue Morning Glory and Moonflower get rolling up the post in late August. Some kniphofia, better known as Red Hot Poker, loves it there.

This graduates to dark green creeping phlox, which in spring display their patches of white and blue, beside arenaria and achillea ('Paprika'). Beside them more fine-textured mounds, these a pale-yellow threadleaf coreopsis ('Moonbeam,') flow down the slope, looking almost like a blonde's '50s flips. In early summer, spikes of purple liatris mount up above it all, with scarlet blooms of annual pineapple

Scotch broom
sage taking over from late summer through fall. The blooms are so brilliant, they're like the baboons' competitive display of butts. This year they were joined by rudbekia, helenium, echinacea, delosperma, gaillardia, boltonia, perovskia, evening primrose and another rosemary ('Arp'), all of which promise to consume every remaining spot where grass might possibly want to grow. Filling in the strata between them and the pergola are forsythia and a copper and yellow Scotch broom ('Lena'). At the apex are a pale green ligustrum and a deep forest green Leyland
cypress (because I wasn't going to take any chances with the privacy aspect should the pergola's vines take too long, and that twenty-four-inch-high Leyland cypress passed the ten-foot mark when it entered its sixth year).


Recently, my real estate agent passed by my corner lot, and she wasn't sure it was the same place. While today it teems with life, this lot that is just under an acre was a virtual tabula rasa when I arrived. Oddly enough, this was one of the house's selling points for me: I saw the benefit of having free design reign, despite an unfortunate paucity of trees and the resulting lack of privacy. It allowed me to plant exactly the trees I wanted, exactly where I wanted them.

This took me a while, for it is quite a heavy responsibility to plant trees--indeed, it is a holy act. Not only will they influence several generations of residents, there is the covenant to consider. It is also an expensive prospect, unless one buys the twig versions.

At purchase, I had exactly five emaciated plum trees, four solid cedars, three sweet gums and an impressively massive willow oak. All of the gums were dead from disease, which wasn't apparent when I purchased the house in the late winter or it would have been a factor in my offered price. So I hired a professional to remove them, lest they redesign the neighbor's house during a storm. This cost hundreds of dollars, but it was far cheaper than what a new roof for the neighbor might cost me, because that was just where the gums were headed come one decent storm. The plums were thrown into the deal--the tree man took pity on me, because not only were the tiny fruit of these leggy monsters worthless for eating, they produced hundreds of little hatchlings. (The gums and plums were removed seven years ago; I'm still dealing with their hatchlings. If you heed no other landscaping advice in your life, heed this: Plant only flowering, fruitless plums and non-fruiting gums. And get rid of the lawn.)

'Heritage' river birches replaced the sweet gums. Their salmon bark curls away from the trunk, providing an interesting texture and a light color for that shady section. The dappled light beneath them offers a naturally psychedelic effect as they wave their arms in the breeze. They're at the bottom of a slope, where it can get quite soggy. They aren't called "river" birches for nothing--they like wet.

Just up the slope are two Metasequoia glyptostroboides. They like wet, too. (They're commonly known as Dawn Redwood Cedars, but the Latin is just so rhythmic that I prefer to call them by their botanical name; sometimes it even launches me into reciting Longfellow....) Metasequoia the shining big-sea water...were thought to have been extinct until it was learned in the 1940s that they were alive and well and living in a valley in China. Seeds were shipped off to the National Arboretum, which produced all the resulting offspring in our country. They appear to be evergreens, rather like sequoias (hence the metasequoia), but are actually deciduous, turning copper in autumn before they shed their ferny, needle-like leaves. This, and the fact that they love water, prompted me to site them at the north side of my property, which is the south side of my neighbor's--providing me the immediate opportunity to display my obedience to our sole neighborhood covenant.

The capacity that large, mature trees have to keep the earth an honest woman became clear this year, after the neighbors finally removed their own two dead gum trees from the same area: Their lower lawn is now flooded with water. Even in their last breaths, those gums' roots helped sponge up copious amounts of rainfall. (May their spirits rest in peace.)

The property's sloping northern border also heeds the male/female concept, with the strong and stately architecture of 'Metasequoia glyptostroboides' towering over the delicately refined curves of the feminine, pink birches and, Girls that they are, they are indeed reaching maturity sooner than the Guys. A deodar cedar has since been added to complete the eastern front's border. By the time the neighbor's pines die, these trees will have come into their own, to be dignified and enduring replacements who contribute a blue tone and Nordic atmosphere.


The dangerously sited driveway and shed posed a serious problem with both line and practicality. AAA tow truckers had a reliable source of income, having to come repeatedly and fish out my departing visitors' cars from the ditch at the end of this poorly placed driveway.

So we moved it.

Far more easily said than done. Aside from liability factors, moving the driveway from the east side to the north allowed me to move the shed. This, in turn, allowed me to borrow the view of the east neighbor's back yard with its poplar, whose silvery undercoated leaves flutter at the slightest breeze. I liked that. Added to that of the birches' and willow oak's, there's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on down there now. It's almost hammock-worthy, and once the trunks are chunkier, they'll support one, where I can read Whitman--or perhaps an Ingmar Bergman screenplay, for the wild woodland strawberries have replaced much of the lawn there in the Nordic sector.

All that earth- and building-moving meant hiring bulldozers and cranes, which threw the street into a flurry of True-Guy Action Figures. Because said action figures came complete with Tonka Dream Toys Realized, this attracted entire batches of other Guys from throughout the neighborhood. Most just liked to watch, but one of them committed the ultimate watching act and (privately) filmed the whole event from his bedroom window. ("I'm a very observant person," he told me when he introduced himself soon after I'd moved in. Uh-huh--gotcha. Any questions about my privacy issues?)

It was all an incredibly sexy process, what with a hired crew of bulgingly

bicepped men digging ditches and otherwise manually moving some more earth, digging the bamboo trench...and the crane hoisting that midget building up in the air, where it swung as if it were a dollhouse. Oh, my. What a treat to keep offering sweaty Guys cold water and sandwiches.

The new, circular drive now bears a Chaste tree (Agnus castus) in its center, which is surrounded by a semicircle of alternating santolina and 'Provence' lavender. All have a silver-grey quality, and the santolina's yellow buttons contrast well with the lavender's purple spikes come late spring. The Chaste's purple cone-shaped blooms come late in the season. My bumbles love the lavender. Hummingbirds and butterflies adore the tree's flowers which, when

The corner of the midget building
finished blooming, produce seeds resembling peppercorns. These are said to have an effect on men's desire as well as their sperm count, and they were a big hit with the monks in monasteries ages ago. (In another part of the property, I planted some Arum varieties, or "Jack-in-the-Pulpits." Native American women used the roots of these plants to lessen the sperm count of their men, but I diverge...)

To sew up the privacy factor along my north and east sides, I decided on an evergreen semicircle beside the new driveway. It alternates volunteer cedars (technically, junipers) with arborvitae. The cedars I rescued as mere adolescents from a Goochland farm--its entire property was about to be severely rearranged. The arborvitae were languishing from the deepening shade at the south side, where the other neighbors' willow oaks towered. Beside the fact that interspersing bluish cedars between spring-green arborvitae works amazingly well, the whole deal was within my price range. (Those earth-moving Guys don't come cheap, and the budget was wincing.)


The last remaining area is the "back" yard, which still awaits a concerted effort of design and labor. It is so shady beneath the huge willow oaks, grass does not like to grow there. Willow oaks suck up water and nutrients like there's no tomorrow. I've watched two neighbors haul in truckloads of topsoil and try to nurture new lawns back there, but to no avail. Guy after Guy gave it his best--there's no telling them, however. Guys gotta have lawn.

Ajuga and moss do like it back there, though, so I keep growing more of them. The moss growing was slow-going until I happened upon a recipe: take some buttermilk, add some moss, shake it up or whir in the blender, and spread it where you want it. Keep spritzing the area with buttermilk and water, and voila! Moss on a Shaded Slope.

I lined the trench that the Guys dug along the border of the south neighbor's property with some solar tubes another neighbor had removed from his house in his desperation to gain a window view. I threw some gravel in the bottom for drainage, then the dirt, and then--are you ready for this? Bamboo! It may not be exciting for you, but it sure is for me. I spent two years researching how to grow it, the right varieties to grow there, whether to get blue culms or black culms or a fountain shape or the twenty-foot-tall I was thrilled. They even survived their first winter, which had a two-week ice-over, and their first two summers of drought.

Here's what I learned about planting bamboo. First you dig a trench and line it with material that is impervious to bamboo shoots--like twelve inches of cement. Otherwise, you'll have bamboo all over the place, your neighbors will have bamboo all over the place, and pretty soon you'd have a second covenant on your hands. I compromised, and went with fiberglass solar tubes, and planted clumping instead of running varieties.

The bamboo and the moss are providing a basis for what is to become my Japanese garden, but that's about as far as it has progressed, since the other areas had to be nailed down before I designed the back. I have a spot I call "limbo," where I just keep placing a wide variety of plants and trees that I know will be a part of this design--paperbark maple, pussy willow, Japanese maple, cryptomaria japonica 'Yoshino', kousa dogwood, redbud, rosemary willow, deciduous and evergreen azalea, mimosa, Joe Pye Weed, Japanese anemone, ferns. I've had some topsoil hauled in so I can berm up at key angles and use the downward slope to full effect. I've been carefully monitoring the microclimate there, so I can maintain this incredible breeze that sucks its way up and over my back deck as it moves from west to east. (Yes, it's just like the weather maps on television--that stuff moves west to east! Well, for the most part, anyway.)


It takes years to eliminate lawn just from a single, one-acre yard. I've made decent headway, but I know all of my design goals may not be finished in my lifetime. I can't imagine how long it will take to remove grass from the psyche of a society that aspires for a castle to call one's own. Until that is accomplished, I have to go out and rev up the mower again, spewing out the pollution equivalent to that of a day-long car trip until I can afford that electric mower I've had my eye on.

With every pass I take around my own little manor, I'll be thinking of you, Olmsted. Thinking of how your own design goals included trying to inspire any average Joe with the designs of those higher-priced spreads. You may not have succeeded entirely, but folks sure did like that lawn part. And I do confess to grumbling in your direction the occasional, "Eat it, Fred--eat it, and barf like a dog." But I don't really mean it.

After the drone of the mower stops, I gaze upon my momentarily trimmed acreage and recline to take in some reading. My shoes and socks are covered with chlorophyll. The smell of freshly cut grass fills me with the satisfaction of a job well done. If I do nothing else on my long list this weekend, it doesn't matter. I have been a contributing member of my suburban community, a good ant playing my own little part in the colony.

The Olmstedian view I enjoy of my landscape often also includes Walt. Both of them speak from their day to my day about the vision of America they shared, from parks in cities to those in the wilderness--even to humble, suburban yards. His vision bore that same Whitmanesque intention--to imagine, then create, a democratic vista that would further allow man and nature to merge into the divine. Stanza after breathless stanza, row after breathless row.

Not much could be more American than that.


...Nature, true Nature, and the true idea of Nature, long absent, must, above all, become fully restored, enlarged, and must furnish the pervading atmosphere to poems, and the test of all high literary and esthetic compositions. I do not mean the smooth walks, trimm'd hedges, poseys and nightingales of the English poets, but the whole orb....*


*excerpt from "Democratic Vistas"


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