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The Constant Gardener

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By Adrian Higgins
Sunday, April 22, 2007

I AM OFTEN ASKED: WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE GARDEN?

The question is perfectly reasonable. As part of my job as a garden columnist for The Post, I have visited some of the finest around. Dumbarton Oaks is magical; across the pond, Sissinghurst Castle Garden is horticulture's holy grail. Yet my favorite plot is my own. Not because it is better than the others but be-cause this third of an acre in the old Alexandria suburb of Rosemont is where I get to do my gardening.

We move, on average, every six years in restless America. Sad, because that's how long it takes for a garden to begin to look like something. Though expensive, instant landscapes are the vogue. But by doing it yourself, you are likely to achieve a landscape that is far more interesting, more sustaining and deeply enriching.

I have been lucky to tend my hillside plot for more than 13 years. Parts of it are incomplete or going backward, but there are moments, increasingly, when I realize I have created genuine scenes of beauty. Perhaps it is the evocation of a wildflower meadow in late summer, drawing butterflies, goldfinches and hummingbirds. Or the variegated grasses that soften the lines of the walls and capture the moonlight. With the years, possibly, there will be enough of these vignettes to pull it all together in space and time.

THE HOUSE MY WIFE, TRISH, AND I FOUND IN SUMMER 1994, when we were looking to move, had a lot going for it. Built in the 1930s, it is a modest-looking brick Cape Cod from the street; inside, it is something else. Three years earlier, the sellers had hired a skilled architect to enlarge it by about one-third. The dining room looks out to a hillside that wraps around the house. The same hill, really a steeply graded pasture, extends as far as the eye can see. The property backs up to a private historic estate of several acres, which by some heavenly grace has escaped the maw of property developers.

So here, with the addition, was an Arts and Crafts cottage geographically inside the Capital Beltway but emotionally in the countryside. It had its problems, certainly, including a failing basement wall and, in the parlor, an ugly framed picture that, once removed, revealed a gaping hole in the plaster. The largest leap of faith, though, was with the landscape.

The addition had eaten up the one flat area of terrace, and there had been no effort to perform earthwork that would have given the enlarged house room to breathe. The hill enveloped its north and west sides. Even more telling, there was no passage to the outdoors other than a door in the screened porch on the side. At the back, the floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining room begged for French doors.

It was clear no one had ventured into the garden in years. The lot was dominated by the largest tulip magnolia tree I had seen and two old male American hollies, the overgrown boughs of which skirted the ground almost to the house. The lawn was a collection of weeds. There was a woodpile so old and large that I would spend an hour removing logs, and it didn't look any smaller. I cut away the lower branches of the two big hollies and realized how much hidden land there was.

Through the first fall, winter and spring, we labored to clean up the land, and began to get a feel for the place, its soil types and microclimates. This is, in a way, the most exciting point in the life of a new garden. All is possible, and it can only get better.

But it was obvious that if the garden's true potential was to be unlocked, we would have to excavate a lot of soil, preserving old trees, hopefully, while giving the house the setting it deserved.

Although I am a qualified landscape designer, I didn't want to undertake something with such obviously acute engineering difficulties. I am fortunate to count among my friends James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme, who in the 1970s became the preeminent exponents of the New American Garden, or the New Naturalism, a style of landscape architecture inspired by nature and characterized by large plantings of ornamental grasses and perennials. Trish and I commissioned their firm to develop a master plan, construction drawings and a planting plan. I acted as a project manager, getting permits, interviewing contractors and arranging for a topographical survey of the lot.

Alexandria has what one might call an active and enthusiastic building department, and I also had to pay for a soil engineer to write a soil report, another engineer to sign off on the walls, and a complete reworking of the drainage scheme. A third engineer suggested I increase the capacity of the main drain, and I did, knowing nothing can undo a garden quicker than poor drainage.


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