The vine-laden pergola
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.)
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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).
|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
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 glyptostroboides...by 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.
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
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
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...)
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
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.)
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 varieties...so 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.)
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
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"