By Stephanie Cavanaugh
THE MOST CHARMING garden I’ve ever seen was minuscule, about the size of a walk-in closet, and not an especially large walk-in closet, though perfectly scaled for the two-story, 552-square-foot house it sat behind.
The garden was walled, packed with tropical plants, a puddle of a pond, two turtles and a toad. An enormous mirror leaned against the back wall, visually doubling the space, so it appeared to have four small chairs, not two.
Its owner, a sliver of a man, a graphic artist, fitted neatly into the house, built in the 1830s in an alley in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for the poorest of the poor, I was told. Today, it is considered chic.
I’m thinking of this because I just came across, in one of my gardening Facebook groups, a request for advice about turning a concrete patio, about 8 x 10 feet, surrounded by high wooden fencing, into a dog-tolerant garden with a bit of space allotted to glugging wine, or words to that effect.
Reader estimates ranged from $6,000 to $9,000 . . . and that was just for concrete removal. They didn’t touch on an automatic underground watering system and bespoke fertilizers. Haute city gardeners.
And so: Ten thoughts on fixing that garden with change left over from a grand.
- Paint the floor. Get a can of brick-red concrete stain, a brush and a stencil. They’re available in various patterns and also in shapes that replicate materials like flagstone. PLEASE do not put down fake grass.
- If the walls of the fence are mismatched, stain them as well—stain doesn’t peel like paint. A dark gray would be cool. Or maybe a mossy green. In small spaces dark colors recede, making the area feel bigger and calmer.
- Put down a fine pebble surface—très French courtyard. You’ll need to dump a ton of it—it needs to be several inches thick to hide the concrete—and make sure to use smooth stones so you don’t scream when walking barefoot. Now, smooth it with a rake.
- Plants. Put them all in pots. Do clusters in all four corners, maybe a large pot and two or three smaller ones. They don’t necessarily have to match. Use one of the big ones for a small tree, which might eventually rise above the fence line for some umbrella-esque shade. Or put a fluffy parlor palm or somesuch in each. Use the smaller ones for herbs, interesting evergreens or shade-tolerant flowers like begonias. Tuck in a few vines like moonflowers; the scent of their large white flowers is intoxicating on a hot summer night.
- A fountain would be nice. By itself or maybe in front of the mirror? Or in a corner. Nope . . . we’ve already got plants in the corners. Just stay close to an electricity source for the pump or run an extension cord along the fence base.
- Open the space with a mirror, the bigger the better, and lean it, don’t hang it: There’s something so . . . je ne sais what-you-call-it about leaning stuff. You will look taller and leaner, always a bonus.*
- Now lighting. You could do Edison bulbs across the space, an idea a little worn around the edges by now, but can still coax out your inner, unjaded, glee. If you’ve no electric, or prefer candlelight, there are sconces and votive holders and hurricane shades and lanterns. There are patio umbrellas with lights and light kits for your existing umbrella, for a Beam Me Up Scotty effect. GoGo boots should be worn. Lots of ideas here.
- For furniture, check out thrift shops, furniture resale shops, “antiques” shops and malls and big-box joints. I once picked up a thickly framed, 5 x 7 foot beveled-glass mirror at Marshalls for under $100 (which took a thousand bucks in Princely time to hang—another reason to lean a mirror).
- Free is even better. Besides shopping the sidewalks (my favorite venue) there are local Facebook groups, like Buy Nothing, where residents give away everything from ribbons to grand pianos. One thing we can thank Covid for is the rediscovery of Free. No one wants to hold a yard sale or touch that nasty cash yet.
- Now. Just keep the dog out of the pots and poof! It’s a dog-tolerant garden for glugging.
Bet you can finish it by Sunday.
*Mirrors can be cruel. Cheap ones, in particular, do lie. Use this to your advantage and consider the one with the most attractive distortion—and always lean it against a wall. This is assuming you want to look longer and thinner (I don’t know, or care, what you do if you want to look squat and fat). The trick is in the tilt: just a little thinner? Just a little lean. And so on. My shortish but brilliant friend Susan taught me this one: She said after she got fully dressed for whatever, she’d get in front of the mirror and kvell* at her fabulously transformed reflection. Then she wouldn’t look at herself again until she was done whatever she was doing. A tiny mirror was used for lipstick repair. Thus buttressed, she strutted through her day (or night), feeling absolutely fabulous. Which she is anyway.
*Kvell. Yiddish for expressing joy or pleasure.