Home & Design

Green Acre, #6, Indoor Division : The Prince

Garden full

The Cavanaugh garden on Capitol Hill. COVER PHOTO: The Cavanaugh grand-dog Lula, in the conservatory. / Photos by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

INTRODUCING THE PRINCE: Never marry a man whose job it is to fix things. You’ll always be last on the list and even then uncertain that the work will ever be completed. Thank God, My Prince, love of my life for 33 years, is not a plastic surgeon. He’d yank up one of my jowls and wander off, announcing he’s busy and telling me to just turn the other damn cheek.

We generally maintain more or less traditional roles in this house, me doing the cooking and cleaning and him doing the hammering and cursing. This is because I’m a writer and he’s a contractor—not the type that swoops over in the Jag and gestures eloquently at the pitiful condition of your home and then leaves you to the guys he picks up in the Home Depot parking lot. He is the sort that forever sports a bloody bald spot, sweats through his cell phone and cleans the daily grit from under his nails with my tweezers.

I cannot blame him for not wanting to work on the house when he’s been demolishing and rebuilding things all day, but dammit! As soon as I have the house marginally tidied he finds something in urgent need of fixing.  And instead of finishing a project—reinstalling the kitchen ceiling molding that I have been whining about for a year and a half, for instance—he starts another.

Last year I was fluffing the window boxes, which inspired him to paint the outside of the front door, a project that actually deteriorated as the days passed. For some reason the normally welcoming lantern was now hanging mournfully from its wires, drooping over the rather handsome pot of camellias.

Figuring he was safely occupied with that project, and anticipating weekend guests, I tackled the front hallway—polishing the bookcase and dusting the pictures, bathing the gargoyle, then Swiffering, then vacuuming, and finally scrubbing the floors on my hands and knees. How clean it all was!

Then I set about rearranging the hall table, a bombé chest of some age topped by an even older mahogany mirror. I set a fine spray of mock orange branches amid greens stolen from the neighbor’s yard in a Chinese pot of various bold colors and stuffed the unopened junk mail that accumulates, as these things do, into the top drawer.

Then I decked myself out and went off to a cocktail party, to which only I was invited, and left a note about being home for dinner and the oven is set to go on automatically so Do Not Panic if you hear the whoosh of it starting and yank the plug from the wall as you are prone to doing since you do not know how to turn it off.

And I got home, as promised at 7:30 or near enough, and not at all ploughed since the hosts were abstemious with the tequila in the margaritas, and there my boy was, on a ladder, framed in the glass door panel, making Do Not Open the Door signals, and my mind plummeted.

With good reason.

“Wow,” he said as he let me in, indicating the door frame, which was no longer trimmed out. “You could stick your fingers right through the wall!” This said as if the hole had not been there for probably the hundred years since the house was built.

He was waving about a can of this foam that billows like an episode of I Love Lucy to insulate your crevasses with vile yellow humps. Theoretically, once pumped into your holes and gaps, it is to be covered (or recovered) with molding. Sadly—remember that kitchen molding?—in this house it tends to sit for years wherever it is pumped, flibbering at one (me) like an egregious attack of hemorrhoids.

I had handled this situation wrongly, which I should have anticipated—adding the hole to my list of things to do,  because if you (meaning me) say you want something done around here it will never happen. Or worse, it will take place in parts—with the next part dangled in space like teasing a horse with a carrot, always an inch too far away to chomp.

Ideas must be inserted very casually, as if you really do not want whatever it is at all, and then pay no attention to him, because if you watch it will never take place.

Or one suggests a plan so offensive to his sensibilities, and just possible for one (again meaning me) to do (badly), that he is frightened into action.

My conservatory, a triumph of subtle misdirection, happened in this fashion. One fall day a few years back I off-handedly said, “Hmmm . . . maybe we could put up some plastic around the porch for my tropical plants?” And then pretended to forget about it. Next thing I knew, I had a little greenhouse off my office, a second-floor porch the size of a walk-in closet that was suddenly and wonderfully glassed in, becoming a tropical garden from November through March.

Alternatively, to keep things as they are you must always say, “I want that changed.” And the more insistent you are, the more assured you’ll be that he’ll leave it alone.

Take the near catastrophe involving the screen door that separates my office from the greenhouse. A beautiful Victorian piece with  scallops and circles and cut-outs that resemble dunce caps or ice cream cones laid sideways, it was something The Prince found and fitted to the doorway when the porch was still open—but with it enclosed, is now purely decorative.

But I love to see the plants through it. Particularly in the morning, when I walk into the office with my coffee and there’s this perfect green world floating there, sunny like no other place in the house, flower-filled and sweetly scented with jasmine and Meyer lemons.

Mine! Mine! Mine! I think. And I open the door and go out to sniff this and that and pinch off a yellowed leaf and note that the gerbera is returning from a near-death experience and has three fat buds coiled near its base and ready to burst. And I sit in a white wicker chair and drink my coffee . . .

The richness of this experience, of course, depends on the door. Like opening one of those gold Godiva boxes, what do they call them . . . ah yes, a ballotin.

And yet, last fall this delight of my days was nearly destroyed. How? I turned my back for a minute (one must never do this around him) and the door was gone.

“Why the hell do you need a screen door inside the house,” he said.

Clearly, I should have beaten him to it, told him to take it down when the porch was first enclosed, I hate that fool door, it has to go. Why the hell would we hang a screen door inside the house?

But I didn’t, and so he took it down. And now we had to have an argument about putting it back up, which . . . oh crap, I don’t feel like relating it.

I’ll just tell you this story instead:

It was a miserable, cold, wet September afternoon and I’d just had a really hot bath for the first time in a week. My bones were warm and I wouldn’t need a second pair of socks until the steam died off my feet.

The bath was hot because I had finally braved the basement, which is another story, and turned the water heater up from where it was set, at medium. Again.

This is a perpetual battle when the air turns cool. I turn the water heater up, My Prince turns it down.

“Why does it have to be so high?” He says.

“Because I want a hot bath.”

“But I get a hot bath without turning up the heat. It’s a waste of money.”

“But, my sweet” (I don’t actually say that, but you need to think I’m nicer than I am), “I don’t displace water the way you do. You fill the tub halfway, get in, and the water goes up to your chin. If I do the same, all sorts of parts that need to be submerged are floating like icebergs on the surface.”

This is an argument he distrusts.

We have similar arguments that go around and around to nowhere. Like this recent one, in the garden.

I’m contemplating the sickly red caladium, which is right next to a healthy, bushy greenish-white caladium with red splotches, when Prince Mishkin wanders past on his way to the garage.

“What’s that thing?” He says.

“It’s a caladium.”

He scratches his bald spot and says, “So what’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t know. It’s just . . . not doing well.”

“What’s that nice thing next to it?”

“It’s a caladium.”

“One’s green and one’s red?”


“So why is this one dying when it’s right next to the other?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did it get too much water?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you overfeed it?”


“Well, what’s wrong with it?”


He wanders over to the pond.

“There’s a dead fish. ”

“Oh. ”

“Why did it die?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, there has to be a reason. Was it old? Did it get sick?”


“The others are fine.”

“Uh-huh. ”

“So why did it die?”


But first make sure you check my list of things I absolutely do not want fixed.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

Next week Gardener Cavanaugh describes the Subtle Beauty of the Dying Allium. Stephanie is currently working on a book about urban gardening.

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