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Green Acre #435: Nature’s Way

A mass of coneflowers is one highlight of this native garden. / Photo above and on the front by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

LAVENDER SPILLS onto the sidewalk, rudbeckia floats purple flowers above a sea of milkweed and goldenrod. Down a walk, the tiny, sweet faces of summer-blooming iris bobble amid a tangle of yarrow, peonies, black-eyed Susan, and liatris. 

Over it all flutter butterflies, bees, and less-pleasant ankle biters. That’s what a “native garden” will do for you—equal parts eye-popping beauty and . . . extreme itch. 

A woman ambles by. It’s a neighborhood treasure, she burbled. I walk by often.

The house and quarter-acre native garden, just outside Washington DC in suburban Virginia, is about to go on the market. I suggest spraying for mosquitoes before that happens. 

Another cascade of color in this Virginia garden, soon no doubt to be bulldozed by a developer. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Baby about bit off my head. The bees! she yelled. Oh, right, save the bees. I have two ankles and can spare one. 

Baby and her mother-in-law are a team of two Realtor/developers who restore, rebuild, and build new houses. One rarely hears I-love-my-mother-in-law stories, but this is one. The two have been working together for years (they also get their nails done together). 

A couple of guys created this corner Eden and tended it for 15 years before selling and moving to Germany. I don’t know why, just reporting. It appears they’ve shared the bounty, since many of the homes that line the street sport similar, if far smaller-scaled plantings. There’s just so much!

However. Even I, an avid preservationist or pack rat, depending on your viewpoint, consider the little ranch house that accompanies the garden a tear-down. (Baby and the MIL decided to flip it when interest rates rose and the price of the project grew too steep.) While it would be fun to tart up if one (me) had to, going far out with design feels reckless when the price tag exceeds $800,000 and you have resale in mind.  

Built in the 1950s, the house is a tiny place, with a master bedroom that you could barely shoehorn a queen-size bed into and two other bedrooms that are even smaller. There’s zero architectural interest—a nicely redone galley kitchen, though. 

No! No! yells My Prince. I’m getting a lot of abuse today. 

It’s a middle-class home, the kind people sought after WWII, he insists, even getting a little teary over it. The kind of home where Mom’s in the kitchen, your 2.5 kids bike the quiet streets, Dad comes home, and dinner is at 5:30. Donna Reed! Father Knows Best! It’s wonderful, he says. Those were the days. Old coot.

A developer has shown interest before the house is officially on the market; he’ll tear it down and build a mini-mansion, like others going up in the neighborhood. Of that, I’m sure. 

The house won’t be missed (by me), but the garden, how tragic to let that go, and once again I’m sure it will be let go. That’s what developers do: plow under the plantings, they’re just in the way of progress. Such a nuisance, those pesky hydrangeas.

We’re here to save what we can—digging for treasures to cart off to our own homes. The ground is so well tilled and improved that the plants come up easily, roots intact. They’re all sun-lovers, so it’s a bonanza for Baby, whose large garden is nothing if not sunny.

Our haul will go to the Prince’s patches, along the alley fence behind our house and the tree boxes out front beside the curb. Our neighbors have volunteered their hoses and water bills, if not their backs, to the effort. It will be a community cutting garden, with masses of flowers for bouquets. 

Just watch your ankles.


5 thoughts on “Green Acre #435: Nature’s Way

  1. Stephanie S Cavanaugh says:

    Update! The house is under contract as of today – a contractor, as suspected. But he’s agreed to let us remove what we want from the gardens, so a neighbor alert will be going out.

  2. I live in Venice, part of Los Angeles county. The houses are being flipped and torn down rebuilt at an astonishing pace. Most of them do need to be torn down… Underground pipes are going, roofs are shot, and all of that old house stuff. The fact that they’re often turned into tasteless, biscuit box monoliths is a separate conversation. But seeing the trees and the gardens go for no reason is heartbreaking. I love this article.

  3. Stephanie Cavanaugh says:

    Thank you Lauren! I should have mentioned that it’s primarily native plants — with a few beautiful exceptions. We are talking about how to spread the wealth if a developer does buy the property and intends to bulldoze it (gag). Neighbors will be told to come and get it. I don’t think we’ll have to tell them twice. S

  4. Lauren says:

    Thanks for this nice reminder that when houses with beautiful gardens get torn down, the old owner or new owner, at least can offer up the garden plants to friends and neighbors for reuse. I had a similar situation in my neighborhood, and the new owner offered the old garden to the local garden club. Many of us dug and dug for a couple of weeks, potted up all the plants, and sold them at our annual plant sale.
    I must also say, at first, I was pretty indignant with the opening part of your article. Our bug population has reduced precipitously due to loss of habitat, but also the pernicious habit of spraying whole yards for mosquitoes. Please don’t encourage this. Use repellent! Eliminate standing water! Put a small fan on your patio and the mosquitoes will stay away. A garden like the one you described will have far more beneficial insects thriving in it than bad ones.
    Finally, I love that you referred to the garden as Native. 95% of our cultivated land in America is now planted in non-native species. We are seeing ecosystem collapse across the country… Bird populations are down 50% largely because they can’t find the caterpillars they need to feed to their young, and these caterpillars, in turn , need native plants on which to reproduce..
    The garden you showed is a lovely example of swaths of plants that will attract pollinators. Please remember, though, that some of the plants you mentioned or showed in the picture are not natives, and not particularly valuable to our bees and butterflies: lavender, non-native iris, and hydrangea, butterfly bush (the nectar is like drinking soda pop) and peonies.
    Thanks for all your fun garden stories… Keep them coming!

  5. patricia spirer says:

    Loved it

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