You, dear readers are hereby invited to the before and after and everything in between story of the long wall behind the main house. This is an in depth explanation of the evolution of the Fairegarden told from the perspective of the steep slope and the wall that holds it in place. Please make yourselves comfortable, this will be a bit long winded in the telling. Above is the present day, November 2013 view of the pond. It is what we see from the glass sliders in the master bedroom, so designed to offer nice garden viewing during inclement weather. A few crimson leaves remain on the Japanese maple, Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’, the pink muhly grass, Muhlenbergia capillaris is swaying in the wind, The large leaves of the millions of hellebores, Helleborus orientalis are catching the final rays of the setting sun. It is pleasing to look at, but this was not always the case.
Time travel back with me to 1996. While we were then living in the Tri-Cities area of northeast Tennessee, daughters Semi and Chickenpoet are now both attending a small college in southeast Tennessee on soccer scholarships. Having the two girls together was a blessing for us. Chickenpoet, the eldest, had previously been taking classes elsewhere in the state. It seemed a good idea at the time to look for a small, inexpensive house to buy for them to reside in, also giving us a place to stay when visiting. It was cheaper than dorm fees for two and allowed them to stay in town during the holidays and summer when the dorms were closed to students. Home prices were very reasonable and a place was found near the college that met all the criteria. It even had a yard for me to plant a few extras from my own garden. The back yard was a flat space with a lawn and a steep hill of wilderness. Some plantings of shrubs were done by the girls and our two sons, referred to in our very first blog post as semi-adults. That is how the name Semi came to be used as the internet name for our youngest daughter, who thought it was funny.
In 1997 we left Tennessee for Texas due to a job transfer. Semi continued to go to school and play soccer, Chickenpoet moved back to northeast Tennessee, got married and had a child, a boy, our first grandson. An executive decision was made for us to return to Tennessee in light of this new family addition. We decided to live in the small house and do a very necessary renovation, thinking we would sell the house and move to a larger space afterwards. The first thing to be done was the clearing of the wilderness of the slope. A backhoe was brought on site to dig the foundation for the addition and a price was negotiated for the clearing and terracing of the steep incline. Jim, the backhoe operator did a very fine job and even lifted the shrubs and trees that were planted along the back of the house to be used on the hill.
A small wooden shed that was built to house the lawnmower, bicycles and some items that defy reason or explanation was in the way of the renovations. I mentioned that I sure wished it could be at the top of the hill and Jim made it so. The fork attachment was put on the backhoe, the shed was lifted up and placed on the trailer bed used to bring the backhoe in. Around the corner it went, the truck in reverse, past our neighbors house while they watched in amazement. I must remark about the pitiful paint job applied by Semi and her soccer friends to the shed. D minus on that. It has since been repainted. Several times.
A section of the chain link fence was removed to allow the backhoe access. A sort of road was built with the trees, shrubs and vines of the previous wilderness as a base and the shed was placed at the eastern edge of the property. Several truckloads of mulch were brought in this way, as well before the fence was repositioned.
Finally the digging for the addition was begun. In the meantime, a garden was planted on the slope, using plants brought in the Noah’s Ark gas guzzler from Texas along with those dug up from the back of house.
Progress was made, the structure was framed and roofed. We put in a hot tub on a concrete slab to the side of the master bedroom. The covered vestibule can be seen in the middle, and the greenhouse/sunroom with its two skylights is at the southeast corner of the house. The sheffie mums can be seen blooming.
By spring of 2001, the house is done and the garden has been planted. The Tulipa ‘Spring Green’ tulips can be seen blooming in the Knot Garden. Look how small the maples are on either side of the pond. The pond has been built and rebuilt a couple of times. For more about the pond, click here. But there is a gaping omission for completion of phase one of this project. There is a wall of solid, red clay peeking out from under the mulch and landscape cloth at the bottom of the photo. Something is needed to hold back the hill. Stacked native stone would have been oh, so lovely, but it was out of the budget, which by that time had been hit hard by extras and overruns. Large cement blocks with a rough face were chosen as the material for the wall. A group of masons came to the house, lead by a fellow nicknamed Dead-Eye. He was so called because he could tell level dead on everytime. They did use spirit levels, of course, but he was always right on the money. A large piece of drainage pipe was placed behind the block to escort the water to the side and on down the slope to the street. Strong arms lifted the blocks two at a time, one in each hand as the wall was laid. These blocks weigh eighty pounds each, in case you are wondering. They completed the wall in two days. Sadly, no photos were taken.
The filling in of the space behind the wall was left to my husband and me. This was the fly in the ointment. We used leftover scrap lumber, rocks, bits of broken cement blocks, whatever we had laying around to fill in. We used red clay from the excavation pile to fill in the rest, my husband using the Bobcat that the workmen had left here. We should have used drainage gravel up to about a foot and then topsoil with gravel up against the blocks. Voles have colonized the area behind the wall as a result of our ignorance.
The vision was to have English ivy, yes, I know, cascading over the edge of the wall to reduce the stark prison wall look of it in the beginning. A line of lavender was planted along the mulched pathway to provide scent and evergreen sweetness. My husband and I made concrete steps going up to the top of the slope. A split rail fence was erected to hold back the drooping Miscanthus and help hide the silver chain link fence.
In the meantime, the house next door that we had bought to enlarge the property, thus changing the plan to this being our forever house, happening midway through the construction, are you with me?, was torn down and a garage was built. The garden behind the garage was begun, without the help of heavy machinery. The end of the block wall can be seen above in this shot from September of 2002. The daylily hill has come into existence, protected at the corner by the cement casted keystone of Athena. The hose and patio furniture were not cropped out, to show the real view.
The ivy grew surprisingly fast. Most of the lavender eventually died. There needed to be a rethink of the vision. The above shot is from April of 2003. As life has a way of happening during renovations and gardening, daughter Semi was married in 2003. The ivy was cut and used extensively in the church decorations for the wedding. Folks even remarked how lovely the long tendrils were. Where did we find so much ivy, they asked? Waste not, want not!
Right after the wedding, the ivy was painstakingly dug out. It went easier than anticipated and only a couple of sprigs returned, quickly removed. The thinking cap was put on about the planting of this forty plus foot narrow bed. Daffodils that came with the property were used for spring cheer. Concrete stepping stones were made in place to help keep footsies dry and clean whilst traversing the lower terrace. Later, step stones were made for all of the pathways that were not already laid with gravel.
Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ volunteers were one of the first replacements for the ivy and lavender. They proved to be too tall, at the time, blocking the view of the hillside and were later removed. The plantings up the steps were gorgeous that year. Pink Dianthus ssp., blue Ajuga reptans and white Cerastium tomentosum created a groundcover tapestry. Yellow deciduous Azaleas are beacons of beauty. This scene has never been duplicated.
By March of 2005, only the daffodils remain. Voles and/or the tough conditions of poor soil have proven to be problematic for the plantings. On a brighter note, moss is beginning to grow on the concrete blocks.
Experiments with plantings are not showing much promise, but the yellow creeping jenny, Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ has spread from the hillside around the pond to the area behind the wall. This is the way the successful plantings have evolved, without help from the gardener. The above photo is from September of 2005.
By March of 2007, with the daffodils being stalwart soldiers, there is still a lack of easy care successful perennials growing behind the wall. I built stone walls with leftovers from the stone purchase to help shore up the ever sliding soil.
This brings us to the here and now. The planting behind the wall is finally pleasing. A couple of years ago I gave up trying to have colorful annuals or even flowers there. Japanese blood grass, Imperata cylindrica rubra is the matrix, impervious to voles and drought. One lone lavender remains alive and well from the original planting vision.
Dianthus has joined the hard to get started party. Sedum acre moved itself over from the Daylily Hill where it had been living since before we bought this property. Native violets are now welcome. It was not always so.
A thug to some, star of Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum is a welcome sight at the western end of the wall. It too was grandfathered in. I love how it blends with the yellow foliage of evergreen Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’.
The ever changing foliage of Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’ adds shades of reds, purples and others all along the wall. These self seeded plants are progeny of the two purchased parents planted early on either side of the pond.
Lambs ear, Stachy byzantinus was added last year, giving in to foliage as the stars. Black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planescapus ‘Nigrescens’, an original planting from 1996 has spread itself from the pond to the wall. A smattering of small heathers, Calluna ssp. have been survivors.
Other Euphorbias have been tried in this space, including E. ‘Ascot Rainbow’ and E. ‘Blackbird’. While totally stunning, perfect and immune to voles due to the poisonous milky sap, these plants are short lived. We need long lived here. When these few die out, they will not be replaced.
What we really appreciate are plants that replace, or reproduce themselves. These grown from seed Rosa chinensis ‘Angel Wings’ have done some self sowing, making for a nice stand of them in the middle of the long wall. The flowers are nice, but the winter interest offered by the tiny red hips are the greatest gift of this rose, dropping to the ground to sometimes germinate and share nature’s miracle of reproduction.
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Thank you for reading this self indulgent garden history lesson, dear friends. As with all of the 956 blog posts, beginning on December 7, 2007, these stories were and are for my friends and family to enjoy. That anyone else would even bother reading them still is astonishing to me. They are to help me remember what was blooming when and where. I so enjoy sharing the photos, as you can see from above, I have been taking pictures of my garden well before the blogging began, even before owning a digital camera. That digital gift from my husband in 2002 was met with disdain. Why do I need that electronic device, I already have a good camera, was my ungrateful reaction. To take pictures of your garden, and put them on the computer to look at, for free, was his sweet response. And so a door was opened to a whole new world.