LANDSCAPING

The word landscaping always conveyed to me something far too elaborate that one would find on an eighteenth-century French or Italian property, a place owned by an old, vastly rich family. And so, as we moved from place to place in our marriage, I never thought beyond the certainty of planting as many trees as space allowed (my first and beloved botanical concern). When we settled here in Rockbridge County, however, our simple house (which we adore) seemed desperately to require foundation plants. A nurseryman down the Valley gladly put in a row of shrubs out front. I didn’t select plants but stipulated that nothing should ever grow to more that three feet in height.

Somehow this message did not reach the fertile mind of my landscaping dealer. The final shrub that I somewhat later dug for discarding was a juniper that I liked and saved. It now towers about seven feet in another (acceptable) location. And then I became a Master Gardner, where various horticultural meetings and friends tried to teach me about landscaping (along with much else). At conferences, determined to find some validity or practicality in landscaping, I attended many sessions on the subject. All my teachers agreed on at least one principle: Avoid foundation planting. To quote one of my sage mentors, “this practice looks like you are decorating the house,” like a Christmas tree or a cake, I presumed. (I wonder if the negative attitude actually came from seeing the general condition of foundation plants everywhere. They are badly neglected.)

And, lacking imagination, I never absorbed any other useful provisions. Well, why not look at the gardening books and magazines? I did, but inevitably found magnificent photographs that resembled, yes, eighteenth-century French or Italian estates, patios surrounded by marble statues and exotic plants in large, tasteful urns, also marble. And beautiful stone paths extending through apparent acres of overwhelming blooms probably leading to the pool or the tennis courts.

The solution to my dilemma came from the Master Gardener program and the concrete-like texture of the soil here in the County. “I’ll plant a bed of small plants on the back of the house along the deck and screen porch.” The British would call it a border, the back yard being to them the garden. Surely, I reasoned, my border won’t resemble foundation planting. So, I rented a rototiller and went to work.

Will this machine till concrete? No, and County soil is much harder, I found. The tines just bounced atop the surface. Then I discovered what had been the former owner’s asparagus bed, extending about fifteen feet from the back door, shaped roughly like the state of Florida. Here the soil had been worked for years, was quite receptive to new plantings and would not even faintly resemble foundation planting. I like stones, so I bordered the bed with large stones, all the same dark color. I admired the looks of my creation, and decided that my “landscaping” should be an extension of the “Florida” bed, not rectangular borders, but lines consistent with the primitive look of the stones.

The stones suggested walls of raised beds, and so I piled large stones high enough (and I hope imaginatively) to hold soil, making true raised beds and making the back yard become what the British call a garden, just without boarders. A neighboring farmer kindly donated muckings from his barn stalls, and a landscape was born. Since I had created a Florida (with a special stone to mark my birthplace, Jacksonville), I decided to fashion the southeast landscape (if you’ll pardon the expression) of our U.S. south Atlantic. Cuba was created as a raised bed directly south of Florida; and The Bahamas to the east. No borders, but with fair geography. Fortunately, our house faces directly north, so the geology is accurate. Well, sort of. But the terminology is useful for reference.

No marble (well, some odd-shaped pieces here and there that I bought years ago from a stonemason), but plenty of blossoms. And no foundation plants.

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