The Raleigh, North Carolina, backyard of Baby and Her Prince before the ministrations of LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” . . . / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.THERE ARE ROSES in Baby’s garden: floribundas, hybrid teas, and scentless (but prolific) red Knock Outs. These have names like Fragrant Plum, Sunshine Happy Trails and Fun in the Sun, which is about as much fun in the sun as she’ll likely have in this most miserable of summers.
Last week we visited Baby, her Personal Prince Pete, grandbaby Wes and granddog Lu, for a few days in North Carolina. Like so many other grandparents living at a distance, it’s been months since we’ve seen and hugged the family.
Since matters only seem to be getting worse and this may be our last chance for many months more—did you hear about Bubonic Plague and the brain-eating disease blossoming in South Florida?—we strictly social-distanced for two weeks and tested for disease, and there we were.
This is their second summer in the big house they designed for themselves, with double porches front and rear and a staircase that climbs to a roof deck that views the night twinkle of downtown Raleigh. Unfortunately, between the state of the economy and a new baby, the plant budget is lean and the garden looks a bit sketchy. With limited time and funds, we did a quick and dirty fix.
Two-thirds of the sizable rectangle that forms the backyard is Pete’s Lawn, a greensward dotted with cheerful patches of yellow frizzle and dollops of brown droppings, courtesy of Lu, whose playground this is. The sole ornament: a youthful pinkish-red (we think) crape myrtle covered with buds.
The other third is garden, Baby’s domain. Last fall we sculpted a scalloped edge, where border meets grass, and did our best to improve what turned out to be a thin layer of soil atop building rubble, heaping it with free mulch from the city’s yard-waste center. Before this visit she added compost and more mulch, all sprinkled with weed-suppressing Preen—to combat the uninvited guests that arrived with that free mulch.
Already in place were the roses, planted near the house and along the back of the border. At the far end are bulbs just beginning to bloom: calla lilies, ballet-slipper-pink gladiolus, dahlias, pink stargazer lilies, orange day lilies, hollyhocks, sunflowers and purple and yellow iris. Down at the very end, a surprisingly bushy stand of what Baby insists are orange cosmos, but I think not, has emerged near a little birdhouse with a morning glory climbing the post.
All of these will grow fast and lush in full sun, which this garden has in abundance. How unused I am to the luxury of sunlight, I struggle to know what to do, dappled shade (to be generous) being my total gardening milieu.
Though it might sound like a lot of plants, it’s a big border, and there’s still a sizable gap beside the rather large and unfortunate centerpiece: a round metal sump-pump cover at ground level and a gray metal alarm box for said pump that pokes several feet above soil level and is equipped with an ominous red eye that seems to be surveilling the back porch, a ridiculous North Carolina building regulation.
Drinking my coffee and hanging over the back porch steps, a particularly fine vantage point, I decided the red standard hibiscus sitting beside me should move down—it’s several years old and over four feet tall in its pot. Surrounded by quick-growing and colorful annuals, such as zinnias and begonias and such, it will make a fast—and free—distraction from the surveillance apparatus.
I stuck a plate on top of the alarm box. It balanced. Maybe it could be a base for a statue or a Big Pot of Something? Baby has already set a pretty potted lilac on top of the manhole cover: Potted plants are so handy for quick renovations, with not just flowers but the pots themselves serving as color and ornament.
Later in the day we added the three-foot-tall purple Rose of Sharon The Prince and I toted from home, an offshoot from our mother plant and a cold-hardy variety of hibiscus. It filled a blank spot nicely, and will grow into a small tree within a couple of years.
We’re home now for several days and Baby writes: “It still catches me off guard every day when I look out there and see that four relatively small changes completely altered the look of that whole space. For such an impatient person it’s a blessing for my brain and my wallet that the bare spots are full enough that I can take a breath and just enjoy it. Now I’ll have to start squirreling away my pennies for the fall planting season. Oy.”
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” spreads her gardening wisdom and enthusiasm far beyond Washington DC, her home base.