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Space Odyssey

Sweat trickled down my face. Late-summer insects buzzed in the throbbing sunlight. An ambulance siren grew louder, then faded away. A baby cried. Vultures circled overhead. Sinister laughter echoed in the alley. Blind moles roiled the soil beneath my feet. A snakehead dragged its oily form through the grass. On its way to join the raccoon and panda in the garage.Okay, I was hallucinating. But in my delirium I did get an idea for my garden. Curves! This is not entirely inspired, since there are only two kinds of garden lines -- the straight kind and the curved kind. But I had been thinking that a small space needs a simple, formal treatment. Then I realized that curves would solve the problems.

The difficult L-shaped space could be treated as a continuum that gradually turned, dodging the basement stairs, around the persimmon tree to a spot near the alley gate. This offered some opportunities.

A small patio under an old wisteria
A small patio under an old wisteria
A small patio under an old wisteria offers privacy in the far corner of the author's yard. (Tom Toles)

There is a landscape trick called forced perspective in which two ostensibly parallel lines are actually closer together at the far end so as to create the illusion of greater length. I could use this device, but in a gentle arc, creating a graceful space that curved away and seemed to recede in an artificial distance. The lawn area in the form of a yangless yin.

I could reroute the straight path from the house to the alley into a complementary curve. The perimeter would be one long graceful turn that neither began anywhere nor ended, providing quite a lot of bed space for flowers. The grass and path would make differing routes to walk through the yard. A circular stone patio could be created in the bigger space near the house, and a smaller echo could be built in the back corner where an old wisteria vine grew.

A lattice fence and an arbor gate to the alley could replace the solid barrier of the existing plank fence. Painting the garage a subtle green would help it visually recede.

I could build a simple structure to shelter the tiny back patio and hold up the big old wisteria.

Move and prune a few shrubs, trim the lower branches of the persimmon, plant perennials in the new beds, and I'd have a garden.

It would be a warmer, Washington garden. I anticipated some new experiences, but the azaleas, when they bloomed, were quite a shock. The colors, planted in an assortment and juxtaposition that is most charitably referred to as a "riot," were only half the surprise. How could so many trees and shrubs be so emphatically covered in flowers? In my yard the result was a debatable aesthetic success, but for now I don't mind living a few weeks each year in Oz.

The look I hoped for, particularly with a small informal scheme, was a cottage garden. Dense, fluffy, multi-layered. Small trees above shrubs above abundant perennials. Flowering vines. Something midway between the machined perfection of institutional landscaping and the overgrown chaos of a haunted house.

I dug the beds, reshaped and moved some of the shrubbery to fit the new plan, and pruned away the lower branches of the persimmon. I cut some of the azaleas back really really far, almost to espalier proportions, to create more space. The azaleas yelped, but yielded.

I also changed the slight slope in the lawn into two flat levels with a step. Trying to avoid buying a little grass seed, I did this the hard way by cutting the sod into squares and moving them to one side, regrading and then replacing the sod. Instant results, if weeks is your idea of instant.

We planted small trees. A crepe myrtle, two chaste trees, a Japanese maple, a little gem magnolia and a flowering cherry. Under these we planted many shrubs and as many perennials as we could afford or beg from neighbors. Aucuba, nandina, cherry laurel, fothergilla. Hellebore, dicentra, narcissus, iris. Astilbe, alchemilla, heuchera, coreopsis. Phlox, echinacea, chrysanthemum, geranium.

Drawing a patio on paper turned out to be a good deal easier than making a real one. This is a significant difference from the world of cartooning. When I draw a cartoon on paper, there it is. It's a cartoon already. A patio on paper is not the same.

No, a real patio would need to be physically constructed. I ordered some flagstone, which is delivered to your home shrink-wrapped in chicken wire in million-pound stacks on pallets. Stones in every shape and size except the ones you want, ready for assembly, forklift not included.

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