This year my husband Jim and I pulled up our roots and moved from Washington D.C. to Annapolis, Maryland, to a new home in a new landscape. We had been thinking about a change for some time and had dreamed of living near the water, with views of the sunrise and an open sky to watch the weather roll in. For three decades we would escape our city home during a week or two each summer and revel in the natural beauty of Hatteras Island, North Carolina. Many times we considered buying a second home on the Outer Banks, but threat of hurricanes and the distance away from family kept us yearly vacationers.
Our home in the Chevy Chase section of D.C. was set on a tree lined street surrounded by neighbors on all sides. It was an ideal place to raise our son and daughter, within walking distance to shops, schools and our church. Our property in the city was a generous 0.2 acre rectangle, with the house set about 20 feet from the sidewalk facing West, with a deep back yard ending at an alley. The "tree box" between the sidewalk and the road where we parked -- the house had no driveway or off street parking -- held a single tree along with a scraggly mix of grass, wild strawberries and other weeds. We did mow and edge, but this area never looked very tame. What we lacked in curb appeal at the actual curb, we tried to address in the front garden.
Along the the front of our property was a short stone retaining wall divided by a set of steps which lead up a stone walkway to our large covered porch and front entrance. The wall was a perfect place to sit, as people did from time to time on their walk through the neighborhood. As you approached the house, a side hall Dutch Colonial, our front door was on the left. The stone walk split the front yard into two distinct gardens. One the right of the yard was a neat lawn bordered by mature azaleas, a dwarf weeping crab apple, a celeste fig, a large Japanese holly, several big leaf hydrangea, lemon lime nandina, peony, iris, salvia may night, sage, rosemary, lemon thyme and several spring perennials like daffodil, grape hyacinth and giant allium. One the left side of the walkway was a formal parterre of four low open rectangles formed by green mountain boxwood. A crushed gravel path divided the parterre beds and provide a base for a large planted pot in the center of the garden. The four beds held similar plants, but were not strictly identical. Each one contained the hybrid tea rose, Sweet Mademoiselle, at its center which bloomed a soft salmon, to peachy pink in long strong stems. The candy scent of the rose was unique, and its color blended well with purple, pink and white palette of the salvia, nepeta, scabiosa, monarda and rudbeckia planted below.
One the North side of the house was a narrow sidewalk that winded around to the fenced back yard through a wooden gate. Along that side of the house was a mostly shaded spot where I had good luck growing hostas, hellebores and sweet woodruff. Direct sun blasted that area for an hour or two late each day, a fact that helped keep it somewhat dry and mostly slug free. I tried growing sweet peas there, but they could not stand the strong, if brief, afternoon light.
Along the fence was a very narrow planted strip - not exactly a bed - which ran the length of the back yard along a sidewalk. This area was no more than 18" wide and proved to be a challenge to cultivate. I tried many times to establish a perennial border that looked interesting and did not flop over or spread onto the sidewalk. Bearded iris, daffodils and daylilies held their own over the years, but they all needed to be trimmed or cleaned up, leaving a void in the bed during the hottest part of summer. Sage, lavender, oregano, lovage and chives made up some of the narrow bed, with oregano being an aggressive spreader, needing the most attention. In the end I decided the area was just too narrow to give most plants their rightful space.
Centered in the back yard was a large silver maple, with a graceful open canopy thanks to regular pruning and reinforcing cables installed years earlier. It's shade was welcome to afternoon visitors in the yard, while it kept our small kitchen garden partly shaded throughout the heat of summer. Lettuces and herbs grew well in my four square raised beds along the south side of the yard, but nightshades and other heat lovers did not thrive or produce much in this garden. I found better luck when I moved the tomatoes and peppers to the front yard, planted in big pots and staged in between the shrubs and perennials, treating them almost as ornamentals which incidentally provided fruit to harvest.
As I write this I sit looking at my long front yard, with its gently curving gravel driveway leading through a loose alley of gum, poplar and holly trees. To one side is a row of overgrown trees tangled with climbing ivy and wild rose vine, with a marshy area at the lowest point of the yard where invasive phragmites are marching their way into our lawn. Weekly mowing is keeping them at bay, but I know it wouldn't take long for them to insinuate their way right through the lawn and toward the driveway if we let down our guard. Closer to the house the gravel is sparser, and lawn much poorer, a result of the recently completed construction. One the other side of the driveway is a wider swath of grass with several mature trees spaced out over the lawn. The largest and most regal is our sycamore tree, home to an active bald eagle nest.
Close to the house is a freestanding glass greenhouse, built from a kit of parts by my husband and myself with the help of several family members. It stands facing South to catch the most sun, and creates a friendly view to and from the house. Inside are dozens of pots, large and small, containing as many plants as I could manage to take from our D.C. garden.
Outside the greenhouse is a large expanse of dirt leading up to the house. In my mind I see the formal kitchen garden to come, fenced to protect both edibles and ornamentals from the many deer who live on our property, I see wide planted beds with lush green shrubs and perennials along the foundation and small flowering trees such as redbud or dogwood near the walkway to the front door. There is lots of rich green and pops of purple, pink, white. There are shapes and textures repeated along the planted beds, creating a visual rhythm in the yard... all in my imagination for now. I am a gardener without a garden, transplanted and struggling to get my footing on this unfamiliar ground. The hard work is about to begin.