Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Exile from the Garden

My wife and I recently bought and moved into our house.  It is a single story 1950’s rancher that does little to combat the idea that all post World War II architecture is crap.  The location is killer, and the house was incredibly priced.  After almost seven years of trying to get into the DC market, we made the plunge.  Of course, the house was incredibly priced precisely because it was so run down.  The previous owner had some issues with hoarding and an apparent aversion to maintenance.  The listing called the house “ignored not abused”—one of those euphemisms that only a realtor could spin.

Since we closed on the house in December, our lives have been absorbed by the enormity of the projects.  Every surface of every room needs to be replaced, re-covered, and re-done.   The bathrooms and kitchens must be scraped down to the studs and rebuilt.  The floors have to be refinished or replaced.  Every window, door, and heat register must be made new again.  It's not because we're perfectionists; the place was just nasty.  And because we dumped all of our savings on the down payment, we are doing the entire renovation ourselves.  Thanks to the epic kindness and patience of my father-in-law, who comes over almost every weekend to help us, we have been able to do things I never imagined doing myself.  But the scale of the project, combined with the care of a seven-month old baby, is overwhelming. 

We live in the midst of the construction.  The rituals of domesticity merge with our construction projects in confusing ways.  Our “kitchen table” is a piece of plywood set on two sawhorses.  The other day at dinner, I reached for my fork and picked up a wrench instead.   I brush my teeth and wash dishes in the same sink I clean my drywall knives and fill up the tile saw.   And I’m beginning to think of our Shop-Vac as our family pet (we call him Vacu-saurus, and he’s always at my side).

We buzz around the house like little bees, all the while the yard outside is ignored.  For years I have dreamt about a yard this size, all flat and sunny and full of possibility.  April brings the first few days of warm weather.  I long to be outside.  I look out the window at the overgrown yew hedges and imagine the shapes that I will carve them into.   A stare at the blank lawn next to the busy street and compose a shrub border in my mind.  Every few hours, I redesign the patch of lawn outside the kitchen where I want a perennial meadow.   At night, I flip through my library of garden inspiration images, mentally dismantling and constructing the garden over and over again. 

A wild garden? A pumpkin patch? A perennial garden? A shrub border? 
Every week that goes by, I miss precious preparation time for the garden.  I need to transplant several hollies, but that should have been done last month.  I am smothering several thousand square feet of lawn underneath cardboard, newspapers, and compost, but that should have been started in January, not March.  It’s becoming obvious: the garden will have to wait until next year. 

So I remain in exile from the garden.   But perhaps this exile is a blessing.  Some of the greatest works of art were produced while the artists were in exile: Dante produced the Divine Comedy while exiled in Rome; Ernest Hemingway his best work while in Paris; and Antonin Dvorak was a flurry of creativity during his three short years in the U.S.  Absence from the place where our hearts long to be sharpens and intensifies our understanding of that place.  Will this time away from the garden enrich my concept of it?

A year of thinking and no doing . . . can I stand it?  Of course, that is the fundamental tension of gardening: thinking and doing.  Thinking without doing is pure abstraction; doing without thinking is just yardwork.  A garden in its very nature resides somewhere between the two.  Being a garden designer makes that struggle even more acute for me. The garden is a mediated state between projected possibility (concept) and objective reality (site). Too strong a concept can obliterate the subtle details that make a site special.  But a strong site or context can swallow a timid concept.  The best gardens hold this tension throughout. 

Perhaps one year of exile is exactly the sentence required to turn a garden designer back into a gardener. 


  1. I can relate about exile. Just mine is in "multiple deadline, more work than ever" exile, dreaming of what I will replant, refine and change to replace all the casualties from this winter! Great points you make, thanks.

  2. "The garden is a mediated state between projected possibility (concept) and objective reality (site). Too strong a concept can obliterate the subtle details that make a site special. But a strong site or context can swallow a timid concept. The best gardens hold this tension throughout."

    Hopefully, people will be quoting you on this for hundreds of years. It's worthy of it.

  3. David,

    I love to hear that a great landscape architect like yourself is so busy. May you never get to your garden! Albequerque needs you.


  4. Julia,

    Thank you! It's much easier said than executed in a design. If you see a project that pulls it off, let me know.


  5. Nice, I feel your pain or is it gain? I too struggle with an artistic brain which never rests. I believe as designers(professionally) we have to succumb to economic realities (time constraints, client budgets, plant availabilities, client requirements, among other things), and are not able to spend the amount of time to understand the site. But, as our own gardens are concerned we have to ability to "live" and share in the site on a daily basis, and can "edit" as we go.

  6. Great point, Greggo. What's the saying about the cobbler's children's shoes?

  7. Dear Thomas,

    Congratulations on your house. Be careful of lead.

    Two stories:

    My husband and I once bought an abandoned three flat, gutted it, and as soon as the top floor was more or less done, moved in and lived on that construction site, doing much of the work ourselves. This is where our son was born.

    Then, son being a year old, we moved to our present house. As a city girl, I had no idea what to do with the garden. The weeds grew and grew, until one day I saw the former owner outside chopping them vigorously. That day I became a gardener through sheer embarrassment. Yet I still, after my daughter was born--busy, busy-- mainly had to watch the light for several years before I could do much more than tend what was there; but learning all the while.

    Now, twenty-four years later, the garden and I (and my husband and children) have grown in wonderful ways I would never have imagined when we were starting out.

    Wishing the best for you and your family,


  8. It sounds like we won't be seeing a garden transformation implemented on your blog this year, however I hope you do take us a long on your thought process as it evolves.

  9. Adrian,

    It's so reassuring to hear stories like that. Even if I could install the whole thing tomorrow, it would take years before it really fills in, so I feel this enormous pressure to get started NOW. So stories like yours remind me that it's ok to slow down. We've been on such a frantic pace to get the insides renovated, it's hard to think about subtle change. But that's exactly what's needed.


  10. We've traveled a similar path. We bought our first house six years ago. The previous owners were hoarders, smokers, and they had a dog that was not let outside on a regular basis to do what dogs need to do. And the decorating was circa 1970. Consequently the interior both looked and smelled bad. But this was during the housing bubble and the price and location were great, so we bought it.

    It was easy to feel overwhelmed, but we've taken it one piece at a time. Both my husband and I have taken non-credit classes at our local community college to learn how to do things around the house. The classes usually met once a week for three or six weeks, and we have learned about carpentry, plumbing, wiring/electricity, and hanging and repairing drywall. You might want to look at your community college to see if it offers something similar.

    Since buying this house we have done the following ourselves: ripped up the what-we-thought-was-grey-but-was-really-bright-blue-under-all-the-grime carpet, refinished the floors to get rid of the charred look from the dog urine (saved a lot of money doing it ourselves, but I wouldn't do it again), ripped panel board off the walls, removed the wall paper under the panel boards (mustard yellow), painted all the walls everywhere, redid the electrical wiring, put in a ceiling light fixture in our living room (there wasn't one there), put in ceiling fans in several rooms, and we're almost done redoing our main-floor bathroom (we took it down to the studs and put in new everything). As money presented itself over the years we've had hired out to professionals to replace our: furnace, hot water heater, all our windows, doors, siding, our clogged sewer line, and to finish the unfinished attic.

    I'm proud of all we've been able to accomplish over the years, but it's still hard not to be impatient. I'm still waiting for the money to redo my kitchen which is the size and shape of a large walk-in closet. And I'm waiting to re-landscape the front yard where the sewer line was dug up. Right now I get to look at a sea of mulch. I was planning to take on the front yard this year, but one of our cars just died, so that will probably have to wait until next year. I've gotten better at waiting, I suppose.

  11. Thomas,
    I admire your patience. The wait will be worth it though, think of all the views you will see and gardens to conceptualize as you look at each of your windows throughout the season. You will learn so much about your space by viewing it for a whole year. I think this is something we all should do before making poor design decisions. Just don't forget to take plenty of photos!

  12. Heather ( don't you love auto- correct! )

  13. Thomas have no fear! I too am in the exact same position as I stare into my blank canvas of a yard on a daily basis longing for a luxurious haven to escape to and play with my children! Some landscape architect I am....... Having a new house, a three year old and twins has thrown off my plans, my ability to work on my yard and my budget.......perhaps I am going to have to wait until my three handy helpers are there working by my side. All the best. Love your blog!!!

  14. I forgot to say that I found your blog though Garden Rant and have enjoyed it ever since.

    Sounds like you are undertaking some major projects. If you haven't already, make sure you check with your county to get the proper permits if you need them. It's a pain, but the county can make you tear out all your work if you don't. I'm across the river from you in Montgomery County, and a neighbor of mine finished his basement without getting the necessary permits, and when he went to sell his house the county made him tear everything out.

    And don't give up. It won't last forever, even though sometimes it can seem that way.

  15. Renovating a home and raising a child, it's a wonderment that you have time to compose a blog so beautifully written that I was sorry the post finally came to an end.

    If it's any consolation, I suspect that all of your hard work and inconvenience will kick the value of the property into the stratosphere.

    Also, I am certain that the garden, whenever it gets done, will look far better for having been mulled over in your imagination countless times.

  16. I would just wait. Take your time making the interior more livable and in the meantime you will see the yard through the seasons. That may even help you come up with better plans for your new yard and garden. If the wait is just too much you can plant some containers out that can be moved around later on.

  17. Heather,

    Your garden is one of my inspirations. I love seeing the transformation you've done with your yard. It's a wildlife oasis.


    Great to hear from you, dear friend! My complaints about business pale in comparison to dealing with twin babies. I don't know how you do it.

    Vicki, so nice to meet you. I'm glad you found the site. Yours is lovely and charming as well!

    Allan, thanks for the kind response. I'll probably end up over-thinking the garden. Too much time to think is not a good thing for me.

    Kaveh, that's good advice. Although my containers are overcrowded already. Hmm, maybe I need to buy more. I'll tell my wife it's necessary . . .

  18. Don't worry, it's a natural feeling. It kills me to be away from my parent's garden when I'm living at my tiny student place in the city. The windowsill there is too small to even hold a spider plant :(

    Focus on getting the interior just right. The garden will survive a year without you and next year you can run out ready in spring with a toddler to "help"...

  19. I highly recommend that you not wait a year. Life is short, and a year without gardening is an eternity. I recommend killing off all the sod, and hydroseeding the whole yard with a wildflower mix. It will be inexpensive, and you'll have tremendous joy watching a million little seedlings grow into a meadow. I've blanketed several of my yards with wildflowers. One year I had cars slowing down out front, and taking pictures. All for the cost of a few packets of seed.


If you liked this post . . .

Related Posts with Thumbnails