THE ADVANTAGE OF NECESSITY

Years ago, approaching the seventh birthday of a dear friend’s son, I thought that I should write him a book. I had written several kids’ books while my own son was growing up and all had been wildly imaginative, which meant that the writing process was great fun but took forever. With Nash’s book the opposite was true: the writing didn’t take long at all. When I excluded everything that wasn’t directly relevant to Nash, my focus narrowed and I was able to concentrate on the small things that are so big in the life of a little boy.

I notice the same thing in property design: narrowing the focus gives us pretty good parameters for any landscape project. Constrained by budget, we apply the money where it will do the most good; constrained by space, we make every item count; constrained by time, we concentrate our energy on what’s important.

A few seasons back I designed a walkway for a young couple who’d moved into the worst house on the best block just after having their second child. I tell you this because even the worst house these days is pretty expensive, and moving is pretty expensive and babies are hugely expensive. This meant that their budget for landscaping fell into the ‘little or nothing’ category, which meant that we’d have to watch every single dollar.

There was no question that the walkway had to be done first, but to resolve the money issue I decided to do the installation in stages. This had a nifty way of resolving the time issue, as well, since we were already into November and here in Maine there’s no telling how many suitable days you’ll get that late in the year. I had the excavator prepare the entire length of what would be the finished walkway but I had the crew set stone only in the first section, traveling from the driveway to the ‘family’ entrance. The second section, the one that would carry people on to the main entrance, would go unused until Spring, anyway, because no one in their right mind is going to shovel an additional thirty feet of snow.

The following Spring the snow melted, the budget eased, and the two walkways became one. Necessity had dictated that I design two essentially separate walkways, and design them in a way that their connection would be seamless, but those necessities produced a design that is at once powerful and versatile. That’s a pretty good advantage.

Here’s another, from a property in Bath, Maine, on which sits a gorgeous Greek Revival. The front of the house is canted 90º to the street, which makes the best use of a long, narrow lot. At the rear of the lot is a lovely, private area made even more secluded by the fact that it’s about five feet lower than the rest of the yard. The slope in between became, over the years, the chief garden space and that was fine when the owners were younger. Tending a garden on a slope, weeding and dead-heading and staking and trimming, is hard on the knees and hell on the back. It’s tolerable even into your forties, but at the point you’re still in pain the day after you’ve been in the garden, it’s time to consider alternatives.

In this case, what necessity demanded the property immediately provided. The space between the front of the house and the driveway had been home to a maple, long gone, and now boasted only an array of crab grasses and a line of sad, sorry yew from the Fifties. Don’t get me wrong, there are loads of things from the Fifties I adore (the cashmere alone is enough to keep me happily scouring thrift stores) but badly-shorn, half-dead yew is not among them. The area, more than three hundred square feet, was flat, in full sun and blessed with the richest soil on the property. I knew, of course, that it had to be better than the clay that packed the slope, but when the crew stripped out the roots of the yew, work stopped for a few minutes and we just stood there breathing in this heady, aromatic earth as though it were perfume. If your soil doesn’t smell like that, by the way, you probably need compost.

It will take a while to transition from the old garden to the new, to replant and recombine and re-imagine, but last Fall two of the things on our materials list — a wonderfully mature ornamental plum and eight ‘limelight’ hydrangea — were on sale and we grabbed them. We also scooped up all the pink peonies, from shell to magenta, that had been tucked here and there around the property, and as soon as the snow melts we’ll transplant the pale pink roses from the slope and the mallow, too. There’s lady’s mantle and heuchera, as well, which we can use under the canopy of an old crab apple at the far edge of our new garden. I always make an inventory of the plants on site whenever I start a project, because the Nursery Chez Nous beats the best sale price any day. It also gives new landscaping a more mature look straightaway, which is a nice little advantage itself.

The final advantage of this necessary shift in garden locale is that it enhances the public face of this Greek beauty. By removing the yew, we’ve exposed the long, elegant porch and allowed the fluted columns to stand front and center. By installing the garden, we’ve extended that porch visually and given the front of the house greater presence. This also brings floral scent back up to the house, where it can be enjoyed by both the owners and their neighbors. Come July, an evening stroll will give passers-by hints of rose and lavender carried on the warm ocean breeze. That bouquet may not be a necessity, but it surely is an advantage.
c.2007

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