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Green Acre #1: In the Beginning, There Was Dirt . . .

Garden circa 1983

The author’s “garden,” leading to the garage, circa 1983, when she and The Prince purchased their Capitol Hill house. COVER: The lush green that now envelops the same space, some 30-plus years later (complete with a charming new garage door). / Photos by Stephanie Cavanaugh..

THIS IS NOT a tutorial for gardeners, at least those sorts of gardeners who are organized and careful about watering and pH levels and plants that prefer acidic or alkaline soil, or who consider pruning, for god’s sake.

Fundamentally, I am very lazy, and would much prefer to direct gardeners to do this and that, not do it myself. But thirty-odd years ago my husband, The Prince, and I happened to buy a house, spitting distance from the Capitol, and the house happened to have an area behind it that could only be called potential.

Here is what was there: dirt. Not particularly good dirt either, just dirty dirt, not soft and turned and rich and lovely and squirming with fat liver-colored worms. It was gritty and dry and heavy with clods of clay.

There was also a stick that the guy who owned the house before us said was an apricot tree. When he left we found a naked GI Joe doll in the attic, with hair glued on in a strategic place, and a hand gun. There was a rare lack of dispute between My Prince and me about the disposition of the doll. The gun was more contentious, though it eventually went. I believe there was some manly Clint Eastwood make-my-day vision involved as the neighborhood was—well, let us just say, to put it calmly, 30-some years ago there were no fancy prams, nannies and $35-a-pound cheeses on Capitol Hill.

But that is neither here nor there.

On either side of the 15-by-30-foot plot of dirt were walls. On the right, between us and the alley, was a six-foot-high wooden fence, which is just high enough for children to pop up and down on some miscreant race or other, little jack-in-the-box faces grinning big-eyed at the steaks on the BBQ.

On the other side was a rough-textured block wall, also six feet, which was just high enough to hide the neighbor’s derelict car and clothesline. This was painted salmon, as was the garage, which brought up the rear and had actual charm, like a little brick cottage with two windows flanking the center door.

So we had walls and dirt and a stick and a straight, if a bit cracked, concrete walk that led from the back porch steps to the garage.

Oh yes,  there were also some tufts of patchy grass-like stuff, like an adolescent beard without the zits, about which there is a story that will be told.

The Prince brought me a soil test kit, which I admired and stuck in my “potting shed,” a jumbled table under the porch. It’s still there under something, I’m sure. Then, as now, my philosophy is: If it grows fine, if it dies it’s an opportunity to plant something else.

Over a winter of daydreaming I developed a plan. Certainly not a plan based in any knowledge of gardening, which previously consisted of several pots of this and that on our apartment’s fire escape in Adams Morgan, and before that a collection of guacamole pits stuck with toothpicks and arranged on my New York apartment windowsill. There was also a hideous philodendron in bondage to a wooden post, but that’s another story.

Garden full

Chez Cavanaugh some 30-plus years later. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

I worked up my nerve by studying House & Garden, the endlessly amusing gardening columns of Henry Mitchell in the Washington Post (his books  are still available on Amazon and make for a lovely read), and the insanely expensive White Flower Farm catalogue. So armed, I bravely set forth.

Along the ugly path I trompe-l’oeil-ed a brick walk with brick-colored stain and hung lace curtains in the garage windows. The Prince topped the walls with an extra three feet of trellis, which could arguably be called temporary plant supports should the gendarmes that enforced the wall-height code ever catch us going over the sanctioned six feet. And upon these walls would grow vines and various climbing things in splendid profusion.

Two flagstone patios were put in, one on either side of the stick that insisted it was a tree. One would be used for the round dining table that used to live on my parents’ terrace, the other would be set up with the white wicker sofa and chairs we found at a garage sale for a hundred bucks, the first of many coups. That this was the sunny side of the garden had yet to occur to me.

My planting decisions consisted of two words: I want. Some of these rank with my finest irreversible mistakes.

So it was that I observed a neighbor’s magnificent wisteria, perhaps 40 feet of twisting branches hung with what I liked to call “pendulous” of drop-dead purple sweetness across her garage roof,  and I wanted one.

A few blocks away was a ridiculously floriferous yellow rose that scaled a two-story wall, splayed out to clamber along a second-floor railing. I wanted one, or something similar but in pink.

And the honeysuckle that draped a wall on Independence Avenue, I wanted that too. Is there any other plant that so brilliantly announces that it’s spring?

So the wisteria went in the far right corner, where I imagined it draping fabulously across the garage roof to meet a climbing Queen Elizabeth rose on the left. The pale pink rose blossoms would be trained (hoo ha) like a frippily scented umbrella above the dining table. I could pass out at the memory of this thought.

Along the side walls I planted ivy, which I figured would grow thick and fast for a splendid background. And overplanted a honeysuckle, dead center on the alley side, which would tendril along toward the wisteria.

And good lord. I’m hyperventilating.

The garden “bed” or “border”—I use quotes here solely to indicate how delusional I was— would be planted mainly with annuals, since I have absolutely no patience and needed to finish Wonderland the first summer, since in a year or three surely we’d move into something a bit bigger. To this I say again, hoo ha.

I smashed away at the hard-packed soil and dug in a patch of lily bulbs, because I wanted them. Other than they, Eastern Market provided flats of fairy-colored cosmos and frilly cleome, fringes of white alyssum along the edges and masses of zinnias and dahlias. A psychedelic blather of color and texture that needed only a dusting of glitter to resemble a birthday card for a 5-year-old girl. My favorite sort of birthday card, by the way.

I had no space to waste on vegetables, which were easily found at the market.

It’s amazing how well annuals can do growing out of their itty bitty plugs of soil. That you can get an entire season’s growth from so little is simply extraordinary.

If you continue to plant those little plugs every summer for 30 years or so you’ll find you’ve absolutely inadvertently created rich and friable soil out of hard-packed dirt.

And sticks that are said to be apricot trees do grow, eventually. One spring day it will tickle the second-story roof and burst into white blossoms that will in turn drop away to reveal little nubbins that grow round and apricot-colored and continue to fatten and then fall, since there’s no way to pick them, and that rot and drop on your head and squish underfoot, bloated with maggots, and befoul your life until the damn thing up and dies, thank god.

But that’s another story.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

Next week in Green Acre, Gardener Cavanaugh will discuss the demise of the apricot and what happens when it is replaced with a kwanzan cherry. Hint, a very brief thrill. Stephanie is currently at work on a book about life in a small city garden.

4 thoughts on “Green Acre #1: In the Beginning, There Was Dirt . . .

  1. Rhonda says:

    It was an adorable account of a new gardener, learning to be a gardener, many times I have moved and restarted a garden where there was none, a year or so much to neighbor’s disbelief of the out come, they would complement me on my achievement and ask the question, how did you do it, :;-) keep planting, even if something dies, keep planting, water,water,water and planting, :;-) suddenly you look out and you have the garden of your dreams _(gratitude)_

  2. Bonnie Mitchell says:

    Agree on delighting in the blooming lovely language, Maggie. How do sticks, dirt, and old GI Joe’s meld into Gardener Cav’s wonderous recounting of the making of a garden? And why does the Prince always amuse? Not sure – but waiting for the next chapter and, of course, now I know what kind of card to get in Nov. Carry on sis!!

  3. Maggie says:

    Such a lesson in life! The impossible becomes – when enthusiasm and faith are planted – blooming lovely. Wish I’d been able to read this piece when I had a patch of scrub and did so little with it. Roll on the next episode…. not particularly for the gardening tips but to delight in Gardener Cavanaugh’s use of language.

    1. Maggie Hall says:

      Need to add: looking forward to the book!

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