Friday, May 16, 2008

a dirty slate

As a gardener and preservationist, I respect many of the planting choices other green thumbs have made on and near my almost quarter acre of property in central southwest Durham. Others I am lukewarm about, but fifty plus years of landscape history have given me quite a few things to learn from and be grateful for. This is just one benefit of living in an older (some may argue historic) neighborhood.

My house was built in the mid 1950s. It was around this same time that the Rockwood Park neighborhood was annexed into the city. A quarter century or so before that, our residential subdivision was most likely carved from the eighty-plus acre Mangum family farm that also gave rise to a core-portion of the Tuscaloosa-Lakewood neighborhood. These are part of Durham’s early family of automobile suburbs.

A large willow oak sits on the west side of my street. It was likely planted in the late 1920s, the same time that a handful of the earliest Rockwood Park houses were built. From my front room window, a view of this impressive tree shows me what hundreds of other street-planted oaks in Durham were imagined to be, before above-ground power easements chopped them into monstrosities. Trees like this cannot be replaced overnight and barely in one lifetime.

Over the past two years, I have spent a lot of time adding things to a large planting bed in my side yard. It is now a garden with a picket fenced border and several nearby shrubs. Before, this had been part of an uninterrupted lawn dominated by Bermuda wire grass, clover, and some fescue. Now I have less to mow and a lot more to look at. However with all the attention I have given to this area: raising butterfly weed from seed, remembering to prune back my buddleias, stressing out about whether or not my buckeye gets enough shade, or if my red-twig dogwood will be too thirsty, I have neglected to appreciate some other parts of my yard that do not need “new” landscaping. These old choices are very vital to my home landscape. I like to think of them as the horticultural equivalent to the forty-five year old basement fridge that was conveyed when we bought the house and is still keeping our leftovers and homebrews cold.

First, I have to applaud the Oregon Grape Holly (Mahonia aquifolium). Once you recognize the 4-6 foot tall shrub, you will begin to see it everywhere: beside shady old patios, skirted with monkey and mondo grass on the north side of municipal buildings, and peeking out from behind garages and outbuildings. It is easy to grow and does not mind drought. It likes shade and provides berries, clustered spikes of highlighter-yellow flowers, and attractive leathery green leaves. These leaves can prick but mine have not caused any major cuts (unlike the wintergreen barberry that I wish had not been planted so close to my carport). My healthy mahonias would cost a lot to replicate and I cannot think of anything else I would rather have in their place. Thanks is owed to Mrs. T., who probably picked out and planted all four at least twenty years before I was born.

Secondly, we have been blessed with camellias. I cannot claim to know much about them beyond their color (red, white, pink, red-and-white) or bloom time (early winter, mid-winter, and early spring). Mine are established enough that I have not had to care too much for them, but a western exposure (or lack of appropriate fertilizer) on one or two has contributed to some yellowing leaves. As a group, these half-a-dozen camellias serve a great purpose in the ivy covered no-man’s land behind my house by enhancing the evergreen cast of the backyard, helping things look lush even in winter. I am also able to use them for flowers on Valentine’s Day.

My yard has also offered surprises. I have dug up over a dozen heavy pieces of flagstone slate from beside my driveway. They are discarded remnants from when the original sun-porch floor was set and are useful stepping stones for a garden path. Daffodils that should be divided, multiplying spiderwort, and an ephemeral grape hyacinth or two show themselves in the spring. I need to rescue cuttings from a vanishing bank of azaleas that are choked in underbrush after I transplant some roadside golden-rod to a sunnier and roomier location. My spicebush viburnum, that I finally identified this year as NOT a crabapple, needs two large dead branches pruned. Come August, I will need to lift and move clumps of dormant bearded irises which have never bloomed under my care.

These are chores that I am glad for. Starting over on a scraped clay cul-de-sac with no landscaping or shade, it would be tempting to pay for a carpet of sod and rows of whatever was on sale or blooming at Home Depot. I am tempted by the home and garden stores, but lucky I do not have to depend on them for making a yard or garden from scratch. I owe a lot to the folks who came before me and planned out my property and surrounding neighborhood when it was a newer subdivision on the edge of town. I am doing my best to honor their past weekend projects and make a mark with my own.

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