Searching for magic in a quiet garden spot

#165 in a series of true experiences in real estate
October 1996, Hills Newspapers

More than ever before, we hear from buyers these days that they want a place out of doors to sit in the sun, a sweet spot where they can be quiet and renew.
These people have a garden image in mind, and because they do, they look for it in every house they see. They walk from the front door to the back wall of the house and look out. Is their garden there? If not, that’s the end of that.

They don’t seek a particular garden (the images are fuzzy), but they know they’ll recognize it when they come upon it. And they will, too. Houses that sell quickly and well have various things going for them, but one of the most persuasive is an easily reached, private and quiet, enclosing green space.

Buyers (and agents) walk into that space and they say, “Oh, how pretty. Isn’t that nice? I just want to stay here forever.” Are these blowzy English border gardens full of climbing roses? Not often. Are they green and lush, and do they offer a feeling of protection? Yes, always. Can you make your garden like them? Very likely.

Even if your outdoor area looks bad now – brown and burnt or wild and wooly, or if there is nothing there at all – it can be fairly simple to make a haven, a place someone will want to make his own. It will take a little time for things to grow (six months may do), so if you are thinking of selling in the next year, now is the time to begin.

I have made my own little study of gardens people love. I go to see houses that agents say have a “wonderful garden,” and have found that those appealing to the most people almost always have certain things in common. They are well watered but not muddy or moldy. There is a sitting place, a brick patio or simply a raked clearing under a tree, and there is sun.

The plants are often simple to grow, are planted in mass, are usually repeated in several places, and they have the look of being at ease where they are. There may be nothing more growing in a garden, for example, than several different vines prettily tumbling, lightly trailing. But they have not been allowed to become runaways, nor are they stiff or trimmed square.

The garden doesn’t have to be large. It does have to draw the visitor in. It doesn’t have to have much variation or complexity. It does have to have height, look healthy, give the feeling of a place to rest.

If there are wood fences or trellises, they look soft and weathered, or better, covered with green. Any trees are well-pruned; any bare dirt is dug and smoothed. Abundance is evident – an extra long bank of round-leafed nasturtiums, or a whole grove of abutilon with its graceful bell blossoms.

Once I saw many identical tree ferns planted along the front of a house, coming up to the bottoms of the windows, baby tears beneath. Simple. Fabulous.

And I remember agents standing at the doorway to another garden, recall hearing them exclaiming, delighted by what they were taking in. This small garden contained only one young maple tree plus ivy, jasmine, and tough, low-growing bergenia with stalks of pale pink flowers and spade-shaped leaves that make a satisfying repeat design.

I’ve thought of this garden often because it succeeded so well. It contained few different plants in a simple design, all very easy to grow, and it offered a haven, sheltering and inviting.

Gardens that have a sense of mystery or of sweet romance do not usually contain primary yellow and red flowers, colors that are fine in pots on porches, especially many lined up in identical containers. But in the garden, a restful, veil-like affect is better, a place to hide and be side.

Wide paths are good, gravel is good. Tall, amazingly fast-growing iochroma, with its slender, hanging bell-shaped flowers in clusters, will mask and deepen the boundaries of the garden. A pear or apple espaliered against a wall is excellent, classic, and recalls thoughts of European gardens even to those who have never been to them.

The entrance is all-important. If now you must go around a corner and through the laundry to get to the out-of-doors, is there another way? Can you make an entrance, preferably a wide one through glass and wood doors that will swing open – not slide — to the outside? If it is possible to cut a hole in the dining, living room or bedroom wall, this could be the best money you ever spent.

Take stock of what is already growing, and do not too quickly cut down anything, particularly anything that is enthusiastic, until you have carefully considered. You may be able to shape that bush or tree, water and feed it, make it into a treasure.

Talk to the people at the nursery. You want tough and evergreen plants. You want many of the same one, concentration of each at least as wide as your arms spread. Don’t use chips or bark, lava rocks or sparkly white ones.

If you need to hold up dirt in mounds and you don’t have sizable rocks, you can use logs or limbs or broken concrete. Just clothe them in something. I like nasturtiums. Plan for the widest pleasant expanse.

Take out rangy bushes and trees in the middle so the eye can flow easily. But exclude from view, if you can, your neighbor’s buildings, and place a bench or table and seat in a protected place. If there is a gate, good. It’s old but not broken, and it has a good latch and hinges, and they are tarnished, not shining.

Trellising, especially if painted green or white, and wood arbors and grape stakes all bring joy, but they must be built there, not stapled together at the lumber yard. You want an old look, and timeless.

The garden you are making will gently embrace. It will contain nothing that is startling or brash, and because of this, the moment the visitor enters, he will be gently embraced.

It might be you who wants to stay forever.

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