The Constant Gardener
In the back yard of The Post's gardening columnist, you'll find buzzing bees, a lively pond and a vision being continuously, laboriously revised

By Adrian Higgins
Sunday, April 22, 2007


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.

The back yard's main organizing feature would be a stone wall, stepped as low as four feet and as high as eight.

It would push back the hill, wrapping around the west and north sides of the property and creating a succession of little gardens next to the house and on the hillside behind it. At a key point, it would wrap around a man-made pond.

The contractor said establishing that blueprint might take eight weeks. His workers arrived in early May and wrapped up in September.

The crew consisted of three saintly Salvadoran masons who created the wall from Stoneyhurst stone quarried in Montgomery County. It is a distinctive, light-color mica schist, tan, blue-gray and, at times, purple. As thrilling as it was to see the wall first take shape, I realized its texture was too fine and the stones too uniform. Hastily, I got a picture of an Oehme-van Sweden wall, laminated it and nailed it to the side of the house. The masons dismantled what they had begun, then set about replicating the picture faithfully. I like to think they ended each day consoled by their crafted progress and the knowledge it would last for decades. Who among us can still reach out and touch our work of 11 years ago?

Building a landscape is not for the fainthearted. The project got seriously bogged down as we faced one of the wettest springs on record. The excavated areas around the house, a sea of malleable orange clay, looked like a set from a morose western. We uncovered several seeps that oozed out of the hill, so days of sunshine and warmth did nothing to dry the ground.

Then there were the other difficulties. The survey was incorrect in key areas, throwing off the wall's heights and alignments and forcing major adjustments. A neighbor's tree fell on the formed pond the night before the concrete was to be poured. Another neighbor was threatening to sue over cracks in her driveway, allegedly caused by the work.

As the last of the great landscape stepping stones was laid, I was spent, emotionally and financially. I allowed myself a simple celebration: In the small, terraced vegetable garden that had been created at ludicrous cost, I put in three little cabbage seedlings. Within 20 minutes, a cabbage white butterfly appeared from . . . where?

I doubt there were other cabbages for five miles. I took the appearance of this pest as a cruel taunt from the gardening gods, but if they were trying to signal an arduous journey ahead, that was fine with me. You don't become a gardener by giving up.

THE GARDEN COST TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS TO CREATE, not counting the plantings over the years. I have always thought of it as our little condo at the beach, without the traffic or overpriced restaurants.

After a few months turning the exposed clay subsoil into something approaching living soil, I was ready to start planting.

On the west side of the house, along the porch, I established a garden of grasses and perennials. Behind the wall, a hot, sunny and exposed hillside has become a place to experiment with sun-loving annuals, perennials and grasses.

Next to the porch, where it is shadier, I have interplanted the large stepping stones with a ground cover named mazus, a large drift of black-eyed Susans, the late-flowering shrub caryopteris and switch grasses. I've tried lots of bulbs over the years, from alliums to tulips.

As the wall turns 90 degrees to the back of the house, it forms the agreeably shady flagstone patio, where small beds hold interesting plants. In one corner, I am pruning an unusual variety of weeping Japanese maple, named Red Select, into a living sculpture. It is underplanted with a fabulous, slow-growing perennial ground cover for shady locations, named epimedium, or Bishop's hat (for its miter-shaped leaves). I have trained a deciduous vine named schizophragma onto the wall. In the main bed of the patio, a stewartia tree is gaining size and presence. It is underplanted with a fragrant, late-season hosta named Royal Standard, as well as plants with ornament in winter to be seen from within the house, namely hellebores, cranesbills and arums. Each fall, I shoehorn about 200 late tulips between the hostas. They announce spring with grace and confidence.

Ponds are trendy and, thus, big business. Among the enticements offered by the pond industry is that they are as easy as they are picturesque. Anyone who says a garden pond can be low maintenance ought to be thrown into one, preferably with some piranhas.

The pond is possibly the single most onerous element of my garden. I have devised ways to reduce the work, namely installing an elaborate pump and filters that, critically, sit outside the water. The equipment replaced submerged, algae-clogged filters and undersize and overworked pumps that required me to get wet far too often cleaning them.

Even with the upgraded filtration, I fight string algae by draining the pond every April and cleaning the surfaces with a power washer. The job takes a whole weekend. I love it; I do. Why? The pond is not just the main focal point from the house but the soul of the whole garden. It is agreeably square (13 feet) and, to my eye, paradoxically organic in its geometry.

It has two submerged, built-in planters. In the larger, I have a rice plant relative called zizania. Its bladelike leaves grow to eight feet by Labor Day, and then flop in late summer storms. I used to try to prop them up but now cut them to the waterline, and they make some regrowth before the November frost. In front of the zizania, I have a stand of pickerelweed. In the other planter, I have thalia, which looks like canna, except it sends forth a wiry stem with clusters of purple flowers and, later, shiny purple seed pods. By October, the stems are long and tensile, and sway slowly, like a finely balanced kinetic sculpture.

I have other plants in the pond in sunken pots. One is a lotus, and its flowering around Independence Day is a seasonal event. I used to grow hardy waterlilies but have switched to tropical versions, which bloom from June to October in electrifying colors. A Scottish laird has his trout and salmon; I have four koi and about 30 goldfish. I had a bullfrog I raised from a tadpole, but it left last year. In search of love, I suppose.

Still, the net gain of creatures to the pond way outpaces the losses. The pond and its bubbling fountain draw loads of birds every year. I have seen a pair of mallards, a sharp shinned hawk and an American redstart, and among the more frequent feathered beauties are cedar waxwings, yellow-rumped warblers and Carolina wrens. For a period, I had a great blue heron, which ate a koi. Its presence was truly menacing and dark.

The fish eat from my fingers, and I can sit by the pond and see dragonflies and, sometimes, hummingbirds up close. The pond lures a species of spider that by late summer spins large webs that shimmer in the garden lights.

The area between the pond and the vegetable garden is one of the few parts of the back yard that gets anything approaching full sunlight, and here I have ornamental grasses and perennials, namely Siberian iris, lamb's ears, catmint and a hardy relative of the poinsettia named marsh spurge.

OVER THE YEARS, I have modified the plant choices, as certain ones have outgrown their spaces and as site conditions turned out to be different than first thought.

One of the toughest areas to develop was the woodland garden that revealed itself under the hollies, once they were trimmed. The first planting plan counted on the ecological model of the woodland where the deciduous trees drop their leaves, the soil is replenished from year to year, and the site gets plenty of moisture. Wrong. The hollies formed an area of extreme dry shade, one of the most inhospitable environments for plants of the deciduous forest.

In time, with several missteps and much coddling, I have established groundcovers using such things as dead nettle, sweetbox, a spurge named Mrs. Robb's bonnet and leadwort, simply because they will grow, if grudgingly.

A few years ago, I had woken up to the fact that I no longer saw, or heard, honeybees in my garden. For all my life, the gentle, contented humming of a honeybee at work was the essential music of summer. But now it was gone. This is a problem throughout the continent, as wild bee colonies have been killed off by new parasites. So, you are now likely to see honeybees only if you live within a couple of miles of a beekeeper, who will manage and medicate the insects.

I realized that if I wanted to see bees again -- not for the honey or the pollination but for the pure pleasure of seeing and hearing a bee -- I would have to become a beekeeper. So I did. As I started this endeavor, a colleague asked me whether I was allergic to bee stings. "I don't know," I said. "We'll find out."

The bees have presented me with their venom on occasion and given me honey, and lots of berries and fruit through pollination. Most of all, they have shown me their world, which is endlessly fascinating and fundamentally mystic. I love to watch them at the pond, where they alight on lily pads and then march to the edge for a sip of water. But that's another story.

To an observer, parts of the garden must look wild, even out of control. My philosophy is that if you are going to go to the trouble of gardening instead of landscaping, the results are meant to please (or displease) you, not the passing dog walker. The endeavor is one of striving for beauty, not attaining it. Sometimes you perfect it. Mostly you don't -- thankfully.

NEXT: See the photos.

Adrian Higgins is a garden columnist for The Post's Home section. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company