We bought our house in Portland in 2006, right at the height of the real estate market, when being outbid by at least $25-30K, escalation clauses, and “two weeks to close with no inspection” was the norm. As you can imagine, it was quite the emotional roller-coaster. After being outbid on 8 different offers, and with a rejected offer becoming our standard outcome, we were astonished to learn that our offer had been accepted. Joy of all joys be damned – we looked at each other with more resignation than elation. “Oh, we got THAT one”, we said. Oh well, for as much as this was not our kind of house, it was still a house in our price range in a crazy market, and we decided to go for it. In retrospect it might have been wiser not to, figuring that all bubbles will eventually burst, but done is done. At least it was in a part of the world that bounced back – not in Detroit or Dayton. It wasn’t all bad. There were three things that we liked about the house. Okay, maybe four:
1) It was relatively close to downtown, with lots of arteries to allow you to escape the ever increasing traffic.
2) It was about a hundred yards to a park with a playground.
3) The mahogany front door (behind the butt ugly screen door) was nice.
4) It had a massive Magnolia grandiflora in the front yard.
We moved in.
It had your typical 1940’s foundation plantings – a couple of Pieris, a few Rhododendrons, and – horror of horrors – a Laurel! All but one came out rather quickly. The one I kept was the Rhododendron on the corner to the right in the photo. It soon became a pretty good privacy screen for the living room corner window, and remains in place to this day, even though many times I debated taking it out and replacing it with something else. And then, there was the tree.
Before long, we had a rope tied to one of the branches, and a few rocks to stand on, so the kids could make it up into its cool shade. Soon after, we also hung a swing from its canopy.
So, while the kids were busy exploring the tree, I was scheming on how to create more privacy. I decided I wanted to eradicate the gentle slope down to the street by building what I ended up calling a “containing wall”. I took weekly trips to a local rock quarry and brought back however many rocks my little red truck could hold. Before I was done, I had made quite a few trips. I did read that Magnolias don’t like to have their roots covered in additional soil, so I was a bit nervous about my venture, but went for it anyway. So far, 10 years later, it seems to be doing okay. I sometimes worried that maybe I caused the extensive leaf drop by covering up half of its roots, but then my neighbor (the one who has the perfect lawn) told me that she appreciated all my plantings because they “keep the leaves from blowing over her way”, so I guess they have always been coming down. Whew!
Once my wall was in, I backfilled it with beautiful, steamy, black compost. By the time my front yard was level, the wall was about 18″ tall, and you could stick your arm down to your elbow into the soil. This is when the fun began! Oh my – the CHOICES! The beauty of this wall arrangement was that seen from the street, you’d gained a foot and a half in height because of that wall. And you had made yourself some flat land in the process.
More than any other part of my garden, the front personifies my learning curve. Having moved from a zone 5 to a zone 8 increases your plant palette exponentially. I just thought it was so cool that you could grow Italian cypresses here. And those awesome Yuccas. Not sure why, but I think I just wanted to see if I too could grow one. They are both still there. I saw this irresistible blue coniferous foliage at the box store. That came home with me too. A what did you say – a Hebe? What’s that? Really, there are that many kinds? Well, maybe I can grow all of them…? Then there was the variegated red twig dogwood I bought for the kids’ school when they were starting a garden. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I liked it so much as it sat against my Cypress, that I kept it for myself.
When you first move to Oregon, you know, you just have to get yourself a Japanese maple. Well, a red one, of course! Not having a clue what I was doing, skipping the research part, and going completely on impulse, I got the first red thing I could afford – well, it DID have such a cool name. Red Dragon… Oh darn, it turned out to be one of those little ones. No, what I really wanted was an upright one. A Bloodgood on sale at the box store did the trick but, just because, I kept the little one too. When my boss’s neighbor sold her house, and the new owners tore out her rose garden, I took two Hot Cocoa roses home. For one thing, they were orange, but I also liked the name. Good gawd – there is so much arbitrary emotion in gardening, isn’t there? Having already bought a regular green Fatsia for the backyard, I saw my first variegated one, and I had to have it. It now lives under The Tree, sheltering another Oregon must – a Daphne aureomarginata. Then, I moved a Lonicera that was growing in the backyard out to the front. By now, it’s starting to fill up, my privacy is coming along, but I’m not one to let that stop me. A fuchsia or two, oh, and I hear Stewartias have this really nice bark… Pretty sure that red Barberry will look really good with the other reds. And so on. To make a long story endless – this was my budding start as a flourishing cram-scaper and plantoholic.
Strangely, this is still one of the parts of the garden I leave alone the most. Besides an Eastern Redbud (which arrived in a tube from the National Arbor Day Foundation) that died an untimely death due to Verticillium wilt, it has stayed largely the same throughout the years. (The Redbud was replaced with the Stewartia. See – by now, I’m actually starting to do my research – Stewartia is resistent…) At this point, the front garden not only provides the privacy and makes our street face seem reasonably tidy – it also hides all the experimentation that continues on the inside. Trust me – the rest of my Botanical Learning Lab is a friggin’ trip hazard. Just ask Laura if you don’t believe me…
Last fall, one of the Hot Cocoa roses which had gotten progressively overgrown by the Cypress, got moved out into the hell-strip. Gotta tell you – the blackspot it suffered in its previous spot has all but disappeared. A mega-improvement, for sure! This, and the removal of one or two other things left a big hole in the front. Earlier this summer, at our Garden Blogger’s Yard Sale, I bought this blue-green octopus-like creature – a Crinum lily from Lance. I also had a white Baptisia languishing in a nursery pot, along with a tiny Formosa lily. For as crazy as that sounds, all of those went into the hole, together with a Chocolate Eupatorium I moved out of too much shade. I know that before long, all of them will fill out and outgrow the space, but hey – that’s what cramscaping is all about, not to mention plant testing. Besides, this is one of the few sunny spots I have – gotta use it, even if the way I use it is more akin to a holding tank than to carefully planned appearances! It will keep them alive for now…
Living where we do, you can’t really put too much faith in plant labels, as plants don’t generally read labels. With few exceptions, everything seems to get bigger in Oregon. A relatively safe strategy seems to be to multiply any given dimension with 1.5 – which seems to give you a more truthful number. In other words, it won’t be long before I move things again.
One of the projects we need to accomplish in our fixer house, is to replace the sewer main. It goes right through the front garden. Of course we could go about it the expensive, trench-less way, which would leave everything looking untouched. Or, we could have it done by the old-fashioned trenched method, where most of what you see in the photo would need to be dug out. My husband, who is feeling a bit desperate about the jungle I have created, tells me it was bad planning to plant all this stuff when I knew the sewer line needed replacing. Of course it was. But you do what you gotta do, right? There is no reasoning with an addict. Although I’m still fairly happy with how my front yard turned out, I’m asking myself how much I would really mind starting over. Funny enough – I’m kind of thrilled at the idea. At work today, I entertained myself by thinking up a list of plants that could be dug up and given away, and I was rather excited at the space such a maneuver would generate. We’ll see what happens… Perhaps my front yard will be a clean slate once again. Well, not quite, but you know what I mean. Revisions can take on a domino effect… I’ll leave you with a photo from Google Earth. Other than illustrating the spectacular size of our beloved Magnolia, the most striking thing in that photo is the contrast between our front yard, and that of our next door neighbor. It made me laugh!