Garden of Plenty

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life.[...] –Wendell Berry

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I’ve been doing a lot of digging lately. As usual this time of year, I’ve entered a maniacal phase of grooming, assessing, and re-arranging my garden. I try to accomplish as much as possible early, before it gets too hot, plants grow wilty, and I grow lazy. That hasn’t happened yet, so let’s take a look at what’s going on in my back yard.

A Brief History

I bought my house as a “fixer-upper” eleven years ago from a tiny woman named Petra. Petra was around 102-years-old and had lived alone in the house for 30 of those years. When Isabella was a baby, we lived a block away from Petra (but didn’t know her). I would routinely stroll around the neighborhood stalking fixer-upper properties, dreaming about owning a home and waiting for the right For Sale signs to pop up. One day, I spotted Petra’s baby-blue, cir. 1922 Bungalow and it appeared to be in an appropriate state of decay to fit my budget. But it wasn’t until I went around back to look at the yard — a big yard was a must for a gardener like me – that I fell in love.

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People thought I was non compos mentis. But where they saw disaster, I saw delicious. I wanted the house.

A For Sale sign never did go up, so my neighbor-realtor friend and I conspired with a note in Petra’s mailbox offering to buy her house. Petra’s relatives who regularly checked in on her got the note and welcomed the idea of selling the house because Petra could no longer afford to live in it — physically or financially. As it turned out, the house was almost in foreclosure and they wanted to take her in.

Petra’s relatives were ecstatic that I offered to shovel out the property as part of the purchase deal. We got to know each other for a few weeks while Petra was moving out and I was cleaning.

my relatives pretending they're happy they offered to help.

Some of my family pretending they’re happy they offered to help.

Every inch of the house, basement, garage, tin shed, and back yard was packed with stuff ranging from useless flea market junk, to knickknacks and vintage, to animal droppings of indeterminate origin.  After Petra’s family hauled away approximately 13 truckloads of her more personal effects (destined for her three storage units), the remaining detritus filled four-30′ dumpsters.

Petra was a bit of a hoarder.

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She was not happy about parting with any of her things. I gave her plenty of time to take whatever she wanted, but her family begged me to throw it all away when she wasn’t there because there was no room for it in their house. Enough was enough.

I did what they asked. But still, there were sightings of Petra after the closing, perched on the side of the dumpsters, fishing out more and more from the overabundance and loading it into her tan Celica.

I found something puzzling In the basement: shelves stockpiled with commercial-sized goods: dusty cans of tomatoes and pickles, jars of olives, bags of shriveled garlic, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, maraschino cherries… I couldn’t figure out why these unopened, rotted things were there. Until I remembered that Petra said she’d worked for many years at Jack’s Restaurant & Lounge.  So, the tiny woman who’d grown up very poor in northern New Mexico, who had run away from home to escape being married off at the age of 13, who never had a family of her own, made sure she always had enough.

After closing, I started renovating the yard while the house was also being renovated.

Another bathtub was discovered! For some reason, I didn't feel it was important to open the lens all the way for this shot.

Another bathtub was discovered! For some reason, I didn’t feel the need to open the lens all the way for this shot…

Isabella rummaging in the wasteland.

Isabella rummaging in the wasteland.

By the time I finished, there was but a single 5′ tree standing (not pictured).

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Then it was time to make something. So I offered my sister the use of my backyard for her wedding rehearsal dinner – nothing like a deadline to motivate. I started by building a pond. Because if there’s one thing you need when hosting a rehearsal dinner in your back yard, it’s a pond. I talked to a few pond owners, read some articles, and started digging. Things have grown from there.

pond

house

rose wall

The treehouse came along in 2009, thanks to a talented carpenter builder.

The treehouse came along in 2009, thanks to a talented builder friend.

treehouse steps

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studio view

View from my studio.

I’m pretty happy with my yard now.

But change happens. Trees grow and sunny places become shady, things die and need replaced, the pond and deck need maintained. And no matter how many plants I’ve already planted, I can’t seem to stop buying them. Gorgeous plants. With their endless variety of textures, colors, shapes, smells, sizes, habits. Big plants, small plants, common plants, exotic plants, edible and inedible plants, pond plants, sale or full-priced plants, local or mail-ordered, plants in pots, plants in the ground, plants in the air.

There is always room for more and more and more.

pink lilac

onion

dill

gerber daisy

honeysuckle

flower

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28 thoughts on “Garden of Plenty

    • Hey Vicki! Yeah, this is where the reception was. I had a pond and a bunch of wood chips back there. Fortunately, guests quickly became drunk on Pisco Sours so they didn’t seem to mind… Thanks for the comment!

  1. What a fabulous story! You are definitely one brave woman for tackling that crazy ‘yard’ and and very dedicated to turn it into that beautiful little sanctuary! It’s obviously a labor of love. :)

    • Spoken like a gardener himself (?) Thanks John! Too bad there is so much land between NM and Brazil, because otherwise I’d invite you over for a nice lemonade under the trees :)

      • The thoughtful invitation is more than enough :)

        My garden is a haphazard herb and veggie entity. I also grow catnip for local rescue shelters and vets (for free) so between the semi-planned islands there are seas and oceans of cat drugs. I think there’s a method to the madness ;)

      • You are so funny! Islands defined by cat drugs, ha. Sounds heavenly, except I hope it doesn’t also attract the neighborhood cats… “potato harvest” takes on a whole new meaning with a cat around :( One of the many reasons I’m a dog person.

      • Oh, we have dogs AND cats but thankfully they treat the garden quite well. Yeah, there are the few cat landmines here and there but that’s a small price to pay ;)

    • Aw, thanks Mike! The tree house is yours and Marti’s if you ever stop thru on your way to Santa Fe :) I would love to consult, but it’s all based on experience and not any official landscaping science. I don’t know the growing conditions in Ohio, but I’d love to see pics of your new yard… aren’t you starting a second blog sometime soon?

      • Done deal. Do you think I could get it on the plane? I have a perfect spot for it.

        Well, poop. Ohio is weird, never had to pay attention to growing conditions until this whole house thing.
        Yes, blog launches on June 1st – or so my better half tells me.

    • Thank you Guap, keeping those before pics around has helped me not get discouraged when I still see work to be done. So nice to have you back in the ‘spere! I have some catching up to do on my reader…

  2. THIS IS FABULOUS!! and what a gorgeous place, gorgeous garden��you’ve done an incredible job. And Laura, if you’re not already: YOU HAVE GOT TO WRITE A BOOK

    • Oh, what an excellent comment, thanks! I only wish I could share the garden with more people, more than virtually. But happy it’s appreciated in that way as well ;)

  3. Laura, that is one amazing transformation. My first house I bought all on my own, too – it was an estate sale. And although it required some updates, it was nothing compared to all the work and magnificence of how you transformed yours!! Well done, and I agree w/ some of the comments above; you really ought to consider consulting work for how you did this. Your gardens are lovely, also!

    • Oh, Patricia, so you can relate to the dreams & dramas of first-time homeownership ;) Thanks so much for your words and confidence in my consulting abilities… I don’t have any professional training, but lots of experience that I’m always happy to share!

  4. Not only is the transformation outside amazing, so is the inside of your home. When you bought it from Petra, it was a dungeon/fortress what with all of the dark pseudo-wood paneling and cheapo partitions. You are a true transformer.

  5. Beautiful transformation, Ms. Talent! Your writing is, as always, intriguing and beautiful as well! BTW, we are continuously using my lovely cherry blossom bowl to house our extra cherries this abundant season!

    • Thank you Heather! I always think of you when I’m gardening, for some reason… dating back to our Owings/Dewey days, just starting out in the world of gardens :) Glad your blossom bowl is well-used and loved! Still jealous about those cherries…. none here yet.

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