AS THE NARGS Executive Secretary, a position that includes handling memberships, I often receive notes from members telling me that, because they are downsizing, they will have no space to garden, and therefore are canceling their memberships. I've often wanted to write back, suggesting they reconsider, because apartments and condominiums can still be satisfying spaces for gardening. There are patios, porches, and decks that accommodate plants in troughs, pots, and other containers, as well as the indoors for houseplants. I've recently had success in developing such spaces and I hope my experience will inspire those who are thinking of downsizing.
My spouse and I closed the gate to our garden and home in late May 2016. We sold the property to an exuberant young couple, eager to embark on their own garden adventures while vowing to maintain much of the work we'd done over the past 41 years there.
We moved to the property on a cold day in March 1975, a bank having agreed to make a loan to two young men just starting careers. The first plant I identified along the pathway to the house was the native Podophyllum peltatum, and thus we named the property “May Apple.” The 0.80 acre (0.3 hectare) wooded lot contained a spring-fed stream that cut through the property, which poured forth cool water continuously, even during the driest weather. The bedrock of the creek was slate aggregate, which provided a melodious trickle, easily heard inside the house with the doors open. The water cascaded in a series of gradual step-downs, serving as a home for snapping turtles, minnows, water snakes, crayfish, and frogs. The wooded land on the north side of the property was pure sand, the result of the creek having deposited sediments as it meandered over the property for thousands of years. The sunny south side, where the house sat, consisted of heavy, Piedmont red clay.
The native overhead canopy primarily consisted of loblolly pine, southern red oak, red maple, and hickory. The garden slowly developed over the years as my various interests in plants changed. Because I had a full-time job, I was limited to weekend work only. An early interest was in hellebores and some of the shady areas quickly became a collection of numerous species and cultivars. Each February for friends and neighbors at peak flowering season, we held a hellebore and garden viewing party with tea or wine in hand. Cyclamen were another interest and they dotted the garden. Numerous bulbs, including daffodils, crocus, and rain lilies filled spots. Clematis armandii climbed the deck and provided early white flowers in late winter. There was sufficient space for medium shrubs such as Edgeworthia chrysantha, Calycanthus x raulstonii 'Hartlage Wine', Clerodendrum trichotomum, Mahonia japonica, a hardy Schefflera delavayi, Corylopsis glabrescens var. gotoana (winterhazel), and Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum.
I added a Japanese fiber banana (Musa basjoo) and a windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei (a form from northern India sometimes referred to as ‘Nainital’), both of which add great height to the garden. A plant that became rampant was Tetrapanax papyrifera ‘Steroidal Giant’ (rice-paper plant). There was plenty of room and shade for trilliums, arisaemas, epimediums, and arums. I added camellias ‘White by the Gate’, 'Hagoromo' (also called ‘Magnoliaeflora'), ‘Dr. J.C. Raulston’, and ‘Shishigashira’ (“Lion’s Head”) and many species of Cercis (redbuds). There was sufficient space for larger trees: Emmenopterys henryi, Magnolia kobus, Magnolia ‘Wada’s Memory’, and Magnolia denudata (Yulan magnolia). There were a couple of small Magnolia tripetala already on the site, seeds having been dropped there by birds as there were no other ones in the area. I had an interest in variegated plants and there was always another Daphne odora, Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’, Gardenia jasminoides, or Fatsia japonica to plant. I annually enjoyed the yellow winter flowers of witch hazel Hamamelis mollis ‘Boskoop’ and the evergreen poet’s laurel (Danae racemosa) with its shriveled red fruit. In later years, I developed two raised beds where I grew snowdrops, dwarf conifers, and dwarf hollies, including Ilex ‘Rock Garden’, the dwarf Gardenia ‘Lynn Lowrey’, and various rock garden-type plants. But I never quite mastered a respectable rock garden, except in hypertufa troughs.
Through four decades at “May Apple,” we saw many changes, as neighbors' babies grew to college-age adults and left home, while other neighbors moved to retirement homes or passed away. A series of house cats came and went. Generations of gray squirrels grew fat from the winter bird feeders, gray foxes denned under the porch next door, and broad-shouldered hawks nested in the crotch of our southern red oak. We came to accept the sounds in autumn of acorns and hickory nuts ricocheting off the rooftop. Flying squirrels scurried overhead on the shingles at night and shared space in bluebird boxes during the winter. I particularly valued the pair of barred owls I heard regularly as I picked up the morning newspaper before daylight.
However, with the years creeping up on us, it was time to close the garden gate. It was good timing because our subdivision had become a highly desirable area with its location near a major shopping center complex and the interstate. We put the house on the local real estate market’s website late one afternoon and had our first acceptable offer two hours later. There had been many teardowns on our street, so we were apprehensive at first that our 1968 A-frame-style house and woodland garden would be razed, but Raleigh’s new ordinances regarding setback distances from the creek, neighboring houses, and the street meant a larger house could not be built.
At the new owners' request, I gave them a complete garden tour, identifying plants and offering various suggestions, including a hope they’d protect the resident five-foot-long (1.5 m) rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta) that had been on the property for several years, valuable in controlling the vole population. I also warned them to be prepared for the requisite raking each autumn of some sixty 40-gallon-sized bags of leaves from the many large oaks, maples, hickories, and deciduous magnolias. Their continued expressions of delight with the house and garden made it easy to move on to our new place.
Moving to a new house and garden
We moved to a three-floor townhouse with no delusions of having a large garden any longer. As a gardener, I accepted that I would be downsizing and would be limited to small areas for plants. But I wasn’t exactly sure how to use these spaces. There was a shady deck facing the northeast; a five-foot-wide (1.5 m) plot in the front of the house facing the southwest with full sun except a bit of noonday shade from a crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia ‘Miami’); a shaded, somewhat dry 15 x 5 feet (4.5 x 1.5 m) plot behind the house designated as a common area owned by the Homeowners Association (HOA), anchored on either end by a southern red oak and red maple; and a tiny porch entrance to the front door. And, of course, plenty of room for house plants.
I began by planting the common area behind the house, as some of my neighbors had already done, using familiar shade-tolerant plants that I had grown previously. Hostas, cyclamen, arisaemas, asarums, hellebores, ferns, heucheras, and variegated forms of Rohdea japonica and Aucuba japonica made the list. Also, Pulmonaria ‘Moonshine’, Acorus ‘Ogon’, Ajuga reptans ‘Golden Glow’, Liriope muscari ‘Okina’, Spigelia marilandica, Saxifraga stolonifera, Euphorbia amygdaloides subsp. robbiae, and others. Some plants I lost through mismanagement or damage from squirrels that love freshly dug soil. It became a respectable shady nook that I could enjoy through the seasons because the plants were an assortment of deciduous, evergreen, spring ephemerals, and summer dormant.
But there were three things that I was not aware of. The first was that, as fiber optics services became available from two competing companies in the neighborhood, the common area would be dug up and cables buried three times now and counting. The second surprise was that the landscapers hired by the HOA would weekly mow or blow leaves to keep the neighborhood tidy. Autumn leaves were blown onto my planted area, sometimes smothering the evergreen plants in winter. I placed markers where the winter cyclamen and a few other plants were located and kept them uncovered. Lastly, tree trimmers regularly trample the area to remove dead limbs and cut away branches touching the house.
Approval is required by the homeowners’ association to plant in the front of the house, and the number of porch planters is limited, but I mostly have ignored those rules, so far with no complaints or fines. The plot in the front of the house had been previously planted with three species of evergreen hollies, which provide greenery year-round: Ilex vomitoria (yaupon), Ilex cornuta ‘Needlepoint’, and Ilex cornuta ‘Carissa’. They were large and couldn’t be removed without attracting attention. The hollies were pruned and shaped seasonally by the landscaping crew and I became friendly enough with them to help direct their pruning—a little bit more each year so that I could get easily to the water hose hidden by the overgrown ‘Needlepoint’. There was also a spot four feet wide (1.2 m) with old yellow-flowering cannas that die back after frost. I dug some of the cannas, but removing them all became impossible. So, I just clipped them back every month or so during the growing season. I planted a variegated form of Poncirus (Citrus) trifoliata ‘Flying Dragon’ and a hardy pink banana (Musa velutina), native to northeast India. It was one-foot (0.3 m) tall when I put it out and it grew to about five feet tall (1.5 m) in the second season and bloomed. The neighbors think it’s an overgrown canna and otherwise ignore it. When it and the canna die back in the autumn and winter, it’s a nice sunny spot for bulbs, such as Sternbergia lutea, crocus, daffodils, rain lilies, lycoris, and last fall I added the hardy x Mangave ‘Whale Tale’ and Iris ‘Beverly Sills’. I also planted the much-passed-along plant in the Southeast, Kalimeris pinnatifida ‘Hortensis’ written about by Elizabeth Lawrence, which she referred to as the “Japanese double aster.”
In front of this area, there is also sidewalk space that dead-ends into the Ilex ‘Carissa’. An assortment of tender potted plants occupies that space during the growing season, requiring me to tiptoe around them to get to my allotted parking space. Last summer the pots contained coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides), Tibouchina urvilleana 'Edwardsii', calibrachoa, variegated Alstroemeria ‘Princess Fabiana’, x Mangave ‘Mayan Queen’, coleus ‘Shiny Shoes’, euphorbia, dyckia, Pennisetum ‘Burgundy Bunny’, Agave ‘Kissho Kan’, Evolvulus ‘Blue My Mind’, Pentas ‘Red Velvet’, also lovage and basil for kitchen use.
On the small porch entrance, I have added a hypertufa trough containing only xeric-type plants, the suggestion from a friend, Mike Chelednik. The plants consist of Pleopeltis lepidopteris ‘Morro dos Conventos’, the Brazilian hairy sword fern; Ochagavia carnea, a terrestrial bromeliad from Chile; Agave parryi subsp. huachucensis ‘Excelsior’, from Mexico; and Sempervivum ‘Pacific Blue Ice’ (Berry Blue™). These plants receive full sun in the morning through the afternoon and are protected from rain by the house eaves. And don’t forget there is always room for house plants, such as African violets, winter-blooming bulbs such as amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp.), and many plants that can tolerate low light conditions.
On the somewhat shady back deck that receives only morning sun, I have several hypertufa troughs. I constructed a few in classes held for members of the Piedmont Chapter of NARGS. Then I had to purchase a couple more troughs because I had too many plants needing a home, results from over-zealous impulse buying at local nurseries, egged on by a gardening friend (you know who you are). Currently, there are eight troughs in which the majority of plants are evergreen. A couple contain summer dormant cyclamen, sternbergia, snowdrop, and hoop petticoat daffodil. There are conifers including, Cedrus deodara ‘Snow Sprite’ and Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Butterball’. Also, Rohdea japonica ‘Shishi’, Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’, and Ilex crenata ‘Dwarf Pagoda’. I have two asarums, Asarun splendens, an evergreen, and the deciduous A. canadense. Because of the troughs’ location on the deck near the kitchen, they are the plants I see most often and probably get the most attention. It’s also the only place that our two black cats, Cato and Pepper, are allowed to roam outside. Thus, I also put a pot of catnip there each spring for them to enjoy while squirrels overhead chatter at them.
In addition, I now have two miniature crevice gardens in half-barrels made of plastic resin, one on the back deck, and another out front on the sidewalk. They were constructed and planted this past summer with the help of two gardening friends. A separate article about the preparation of these two barrels is next in this issue (page 330).
As difficult as it may be to leave a beloved garden when downsizing, I hope I've convinced you that gardening can continue, even in the smallest of spaces.