September 3, 2014

Seeing Our Garden Through the Eyes of a Stranger

I spent much of Labor Day putting in a new faucet in our kitchen.  It isn’t that there was anything wrong with the old one; it certainly worked well enough.  But we are told by reliable sources that white is out and brushed nickel (or some such metal) is in and a prospective buyer may feel more favorably disposed toward our home if the faucet in our very nice kitchen keeps up the standard of the rest of the room. 

In early April, we have the same
verdant lawn as the ones in the videos
And so, on a day that was supposed to be devoted to celebrating our progress out of the darkness of sweatshops and inhumane working conditions, I spent five hours on my back staring at the underside of a sink cursing myself that I failed to take Shop in the eighth grade.  I am convinced that fourteen-year-old boys have a Home Repair gene surgically activated in that class.  I have never mastered the repair and replacement of plumbing and electrical items.  It is one of my many failings.  Instead, I got the job done with Betty’s admirable and patient assistance.  But it is a half a day my life I will never get back.

However, what is going on inside our home – which will formally go on the market at the end of September – pales by comparison to what is underway in our garden.  (Double-click on any of the photos to get a full-screen slideshow.)

By mid-summer, though,
there's no mistaking that
this is a 'serious' garden
We have been looking at on-line tours of homes in Medfield these last few days.  Each home in these videos is perfect.  There are pink frilly bedrooms for girls with names like Annabelle and triumphant at-home offices for high-achieving executives (a framed Tom Brady jersey is a staple in each one).  We are told that, while the actual rooms in each home are used, the furnishings are brought in to achieve a ‘feeling’ and ‘tell a story’ that will appeal to a certain kind of buyer.  Those ‘stories’ are entirely the product of the imagination of someone called a ‘stager’.  If there is a young girl living in the home, her name is not likely to be Annabelle, even though that name is stenciled on the wall.  The stencil, along with the Tom Brady jersey, will disappear into a van as soon as the photos are taken.

But along with those autographed jerseys, those home have one other standout feature in the videos:  large verdant lawns with meticulously clipped shrubs and a few standard-issue trees.  The grounds around the home are real, even if the contents inside it are ephemeral.  And they’re the kind of landscaping that a prospective buyer will take one look at and mouth the words, “easy care” as the video rolls on.

What's not to love about a
forest pansy redbud with
its red-green heart-shaped
The outside of our home looks nothing like those in the on-line tours.  We have unapologetic gardens.  Our landscaping is a 1.7-acre riot of color and texture.  It is beautiful, even at the beginning of September when New England gardens are quickly winding down.  It is filled with spectacular specimen trees and shrubs that deliver gratification in every season.

And the truth of the matter is that Betty has devoted the past half-dozen years to turning our property into a low-maintenance haven in keeping with her philosophy of having gardens that match the cycles of our lives.  The problem is that our garden doesn’t look low-maintenance.  Betty has done too good a job of keeping up that ‘wow’ factor while simultaneously reducing the hours per week required to keep the property in shape.

Meanwhile, I am scared half to death that a prospective buyer is going to take one look at our garden and say aloud, “Waaaaaay too much work.”   They’ll tell their Realtor to back out of the driveway, tout suite.  I’ll be running down the driveway, waving my arms, yelling that mowing a small lawn once a week is the most onerous part of caring for the place.

This chamaceyparis 'Snow' is now
seven feet tall.
So, these past few weeks we have started seeing our garden through the eyes of a stranger.  We’re trimming back the scary parts.  We aren’t taking out plants; we’re just cutting back things that we’ve allowed to grow unhindered all season.  On Sunday I filled a large barrel with more than half of the growth of three beautiful specimens of persicaria.  Lance Corporal, Painters Palette and Red Dragon are still in evidence in the inner sidewalk bed, but they’ve been subdued. 

To reinforce the low-maintenance message, we are taking care of the end-of-season maintenance promptly instead of waiting until the cool days of October.  Iris and daylilies that are showing yellow leaves are being cut.  Some hostas are being cut down because their leaves, too, have started to show yellow.  We can’t hide the fact that we have a ‘serious’ garden.  Our goal is show that taking care of it is quite manageable.

It took nearly ten years
to establish this leptinella
as a non-grass groundcover
As we do the work, we also are aware of what has happened at our previous homes.  Just weeks after we sold our home in Alexandria, Virginia, our next-door-neighbor called us in tears to tell us that dozens of bushes were piled up in the street.  The new owners wanted a fence and lawns, and our glorious shrub garden was an impediment to both goals. 

Well, we thought, they own the house; they can do with the garden what they want.

That will also be the option of whomever buys our home.  Few people have the time to care for an elaborate garden. We get that. It’s why we went largely to shrubs and trees from perennials and annuals.  But we also hope that the buyer looks at the property and sees the inherent beauty we’ve spent fifteen years creating.  But, if they don’t, there’s always lawn.

Our new garden will emphasize
the same philosophy as does our
 current one: low maintenance,
low water use, native-friendly
But if they do choose lawn, they’re throwing away some gems.  In Alexandria we didn’t have access to the plant material we incorporated into our Medfield garden.  There’s a chamaceyparis ‘Snow’ that turned out to be a mutant of the best kind.  The tips of new growth on the green shrub stay white until the next season’s new growth appears.  It has matured into a stunning specimen.  There’s a cercis Canadensis – forest pansy redbud – that is fifteen feet high and wide and gracefully arches over one corner of the garden with its red-green heart-shaped leaves.  Someone would cut that down?  I certainly hope not.  It has taken nearly ten years, but we’ve established a large colony of leptinella as a ground cover on a shaded slope behind out home that is as beautiful as it if effective. 

But moving is moving.  We have a new garden to create. Even though it will be just two miles away, it will be our new adventure.  We’ll work with the new homeowners to explain what’s there and what makes it all magical.  But in the end, we have to acknowledge that, once you no longer own it, it isn’t yours to control.

At out new garden, we’ll follow the same philosophy that guided us at our current home:  low-maintenance, low water use, and friendly to native insects and animals (well, except for a few herbivores that will remain nameless…).