The small house, the big tree, and the clean slate

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.

Our house

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.

Oh what a wonderful tree!

Oh, what a wonderful tree! As you can see, as compared with the photo with the sale sign, by the time this photo was taken, my plant obsession was  already in full swing.

With big, bowl-shaped flowers that smell so good!

With big, bowl-shaped flowers that smell so good!

Some of us were a little too small to make it up by ourselves...

Some of us were a little too small to make it up into it by ourselves…

... and needed help.

… and needed help.

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.


This was best climbing tree EVER!!!

This was best climbing tree EVER!!!

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.

These red twigs glowing against the Cypress gets me through the winter. I can see it from the kitchen table.

These red twigs glowing against the Cypress gets me through the winter. I can see it from the kitchen table.

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.

Here it's still fairly new. The Italian Cypress is still small, and so is the maple. The Alliums and Lilies are still among the tallest things in there.

Here the front garden is still fairly new. The Italian Cypress is rather small, and so is the maple. The Alliums and Lilies are still among the tallest things in there.

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…

Here is the Eastern Redbud succumbing to Verticillium wilt.

Here is the Eastern Redbud succumbing to Verticillium wilt.

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.

The unfilled hole. This is great news for a cram-scaper!

The unfilled hole. This was a great opportunity, indeed!

This is what the hole from July looks like today.

Fast forward two-three months. This is what the hole from July looks like today. Obviously the Chocolate Eupatorium is quite happy in its new spot. I’m just not sure I like it there – it’s very somber…

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!

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 9.19.31 PM









About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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32 Responses to The small house, the big tree, and the clean slate

  1. mattb325 says:

    Wow – the garden has undergone an amazing transformation – and best of all, you’ve been able to put your own stamp on it. It really looks charming. I absolutely love the magnolia tree. Just stunning!

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks Matt – it’s a crazy big tree, and it’s messy with all those leaves constantly coming down, but I still adore it. It makes everything else around it look minuscule. 🙂

  2. Loree says:

    For the first half dozen or so paragraphs I was sure you were telling us the magnolia was dying and going to have to come out. Thank goodness that’s not the case. I love your front garden! It’s plant madness (which is a very good thing in my book). I had no idea trench-less lines were so much more expensive, it’s what we did because there was no way I was loosing my plants!

    • annamadeit says:

      Haha – it’s complete plant madness! Oh no – I would HATE to lose the tree. Would feel completely exposed without it! As for the sewer line – when we first checked into it, there was a big difference in price, but it’s been a few years. Maybe things have evened out some… (One can always hope!)

  3. Great transformation. Marvellous work

  4. rusty duck says:

    A complete transformation!
    I had to laugh at multiplying the given dimension by 1.5. I have to do exactly the same. It’s good to know that we have such excellent growing conditions though isn’t it. Must be all the rain! We also grow a lot of the same plants which is fascinating to see.
    Good luck with the sewer main.

  5. Pauline says:

    What an amazing tree your Magnolia is, I can understand you not wanting to cut it down. You have worked so hard on your front garden, it is a credit to you.

  6. Before and afters – what I love to see 🙂 Hmmm…perhaps a tree or two you no longer want can find a new home in St. Helens soon. Planning, planning, planning….oh what would one do with a completely blank slate all over again? Gorgeous garden, Anna.

  7. annamadeit says:

    Thanks Tamara! I would love to let you adopt “my graduates”. As for the blank slate, I’m bringing you some inspiration today… 🙂

  8. Alan @ it's not work, it's gardening! says:

    Sewer main replacement is one of my worst nightmares — in my sloping yard the sewer line goes through the *back* garden. Good luck and keep us posted!

  9. Alison says:

    What a lot of hard work you’ve done on your front garden! We did our garden in stages, first the back, then the side gravel garden, then the front we did last a few years later. Just before we did the front, we discovered problems with our sewer line, and had to have some sections of it redone (there was an enormous dip in it that was making it really hard for our outflow to reach the street.) Anyway, we did things in the right order, had the sewer redone, and then built the greenhouse on top of it. I hope it never needs redoing, cause that will be….difficult.

    The garden that you’ve built around that gorgeous magnolia is fabulous! It’s always fun to go back and see all the changes that you’ve made.

  10. Love the demonstration of making a new garden. I am facing the same thing; downsizing, I expect to have a space similar to yours. Great post…hope we hear more about this project!!!

  11. rickii says:

    I can identify with the impulse to start over…especially when you have more or less run out of room. Now that you work at a nursery, it must be torture to rein in the need for ever more plants. What astonishes me is that the neighbors have failed to catch the fever. You’d think they would welcome a little spill-over.

  12. Kris P says:

    I TOTALLY understand both the planting mania and the excitement in contemplating a clean-slate. I think your house and garden looks wonderful but I’m sure I’ll like its next incarnation too. You’ve made me wonder about my own Magnolia, though – I wonder how much bigger it’s likely to get and what I’ll hear from the tree-hating neighbor up the street if it further obscures her view.

    • annamadeit says:

      Oh no – a tree hating neighbor… 😦 Hopefully you planted a smaller variety than my Mega-mastodon one. Whatever it is I do next to this tree will surely appear Lilliputian in scale. 🙂

  13. hb says:

    The house where the neighborhood plant lover lives is always easy to identify. 🙂

  14. Peter/Outlaw says:

    I love your front garden! What a transformation! Obviously a plant addict lives in that house!

  15. Bethany says:

    I had a good chuckle at your descriptions… We moved into our first place last October, and due to a crazy busy year, I’ve made very few improvements to the yard…yet. I’m excited to build the soil and establish new beds and start growing my favorite things!

    • annamadeit says:

      Fun times ahead for you, Bethany! It’s a journey in and of itself. The Portland gardening community is large, generous, and vibrant. Welcome to our merry gang, and feel free to hit us up for information if you’re ever in doubt or get stuck. 🙂

  16. rindymae says:

    Fantastic. It could be my story from a gardening standpoint. New to me 1940’s house. Lawn. Rhodys. Mongolia tree. Yours is fantastic. Alas, mine was not just giant, but ugly, and a constant mess. He met his demise quite a few years ago. As did the lawn and the rhodys. I often wonder what the previous 90-something year old owner would think of it now.

    • annamadeit says:

      I bet he or she would love it! Yeah, the mess makes me crazy too. One raking fills both our and our neighbor’s compost bins, and a week later, it looks like nobody ever raked it. By now, I’m resigned to the fact that I will always have a messy yard…

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