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Posts from the ‘Yard’ Category

Pretty ordinary #009

There’s not much I don’t like about magnolia trees. Their thick, waxy leaves, low-hanging, climbable branches and attractive shape make them a favorite feature in any southern landscape. We were fortunate to inherit two enormous, aged specimens with the Ordinary House. They sit in an ideal habitat at the bottom of the yard, on the banks of Stillhouse Creek. For the past few weeks, they’ve been particularly beautiful, as their huge, creamy white flowers emerge for a late spring show.

magnolia flower

Pretty ordinary #008: Memorial Day edition

What makes a white picket fence so universally appealing?  Is it its association with our idealized notions of American domesticity?  Or maybe just the visual allure of a crisp silhouette standing in contrast to the world around it?

Whatever the reason, the color white is key. We had a new fence installed just after we moved in last August and left the picketed portions to weather over the fall and winter. The fence looked okay, but wasn’t particularly noteworthy, at least until this weekend. I knew this dreaded day was coming, the one when I had to start the tedious process of transforming hundreds of feet of ho-hum unfinished yellow pine to eye-catching bright white. There’s really no good way to paint a fence except one…picket…at…a…time. I know how Tom Sawyer felt.

Over the weekend I managed to paint the five sections of fence directly in front of the house. If you’ve walked by and counted how many are left to go, please don’t tell me, I don’t care to know.

Technically, I’m staining the fence with an opaque acrylic stain called Rubbol, by Sikkens. The product covers well enough to make this a one-coat job, a must for my sanity. Sikkens is well known in the building industry for durable clear coat products, so I’m hoping this stain will stand up to the elements for many years to come.

On this Memorial Day, I share this unquestionably American image of our colonial house with its white picket fence, and offer my sincerest thanks to all those who fight to keep my American dream alive.

white picket fence


Wisteria wars

The yard of the Ordinary House has been owned by wisteria for years. I cut one vine last fall that was nearly 8 inches in diameter at its base. It’s an absolutely beautiful plant while it’s blooming in the spring, but it gets out of control fast and is nearly impossible to eradicate completely. I didn’t reach all our vines before they produced fuzzy seed pods that fell to the ground, dried up and deposited nickel-sized seeds all around the yard. I figured that a handful of the seeds would sprout come spring, but baby wisteria plants are popping up everywhere. The photo below is proof of how tenacious wisteria’s grip on your landscape can be.

wisteria sprout

I estimate that the plant pictured here is less than a week old. In that time, the seed has sent out a thick, well-developed root system and three clusters of leaves. When you see this, it’s easy to imagine how a vine can grow to eight inches think and extend to the top of a 50-foot tall tree. I’ve also learned that you can’t casually fling wisteria cuttings to the ground. Nearly any portion of the plant seems to be able to take root if it comes into contact with bare soil. I managed to get the bulk of the vines cleared, but I expect the last 10% to linger for years before they’re completely gone.

Espalier vous?

While this year’s gardening tasks will be mainly aimed at keeping the vegetation in check, it’s hard to resist popping a few new plants in the ground during these warm early-spring days. And while I’m no green thumb, I’m no less ambitious in the garden than I am in the house. I tapped this enthusiasm recently and started a long-term project that I hope will eventually bear fruit – literally.

I started with this beautifully aged brick wall that edges our terrace:

brick wall

I drilled some holes in the wall:

brick drill holes

I stuck some lead anchors in the holes:

lead anchor brick wall

I screwed a stainless steel eye bolt and shackle into the lead anchors:

eye bolt and shackle

From the shackle, I hung a section of concrete reinforcing mesh and planted a Kieffer pear tree just in front of it:


And then I chopped the top of the tree off:

espalier begins

I know you’re probably thinking that I’m really missing the point of this whole gardening thing.  But if all goes well, in the next couple weeks new shoots will form on the tree’s trunk just below the cut.  While the shoots are still pliable, I’ll bend them and tie them off to the metal mesh. And after a few years of attentive pruning, I’ll end up with an espalier (ess-pal-ee-ay) tree.

Espalier is the art of growing plants in a formal pattern against a wall or other structure. The technique was perfected in the Middle Ages as a way to maximize fruit production in small spaces, particularly in the cool climates of northern France and England. The wall retains the sun’s heat, lengthening the tree’s growing season and ripening the fruit more quickly. Espalier was also popular in America in Colonial times, with many fine examples on display in Williamsburg.

My tree will eventually have three horizontal tiers, or cordons. In my dreams, someday it’ll look  like this:

pear espalier

This is not a good project for those who need instant gratification. It’ll take three or four years to fully shape the tree, but ultimately I think the effort will be worth it. Especially when I can pluck a juicy pear directly from a branch just outside the back door.

Pretty ordinary #007: Belated Happy Easter edition


As anyone living in the southeast can attest, spring has not sprung this year. But you can tell that as soon as Mother Nature gives us a string of 70-degree days, the world is going to turn the color of Kermit the Frog and Claritin will be in short supply. I try not to wish away the crisp mornings and evenings, knowing that it’ll be ugly hot before too long. Despite the cool weather, a few hardy flowers are making their presence known around the Ordinary House with colorful displays of petals and pistils. It won’t be long now.

white flowerspurple flowers


Pretty ordinary #003: Merry Christmas edition


At the side of our house, one of the many camellias in the yard has started producing rich red blossoms.  The flowers in combination with our new gray-green siding paint (more on this soon), make a timely holiday display.  Merry Christmas!

The sasanqua stink eye

People are funny about plants.

As you know, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past months giving our yard a thorough and long overdue haircut. So long as I’m hacking away at a runaway wisteria vine or errant English ivy, I receive plenty of bravos, attaboys and well-ain’t-that-purtys. But the second I grab my pruning shears and step within 15 yards of a camellia or a boxwood or a magnolia, I pay witness to snail’s pace drive-bys, accompanied by menacing death stares.

Yesterday, I chopped back the boxwoods that line the entry walk and pruned up the gigantic camellia sasanqua tree that obscures the front porch. The boxwoods were huge, overly healthy specimens that gave the entry an unkempt, Southern gothic feel. As boxwoods often are, the bushes were victims of their own success, suffocating the woody braches at their core and choking off growth wherever the sun failed to reach.

boxwood gauntlet

I did some research and discovered that the only way to get the bushes under control in a reasonable amount of time was to prune them back…waaay back…to a more manageable size during the colder winter months. They’ll look empty for awhile, but I’m told that new growth will emerge this spring now that sunlight and air can reach the inner branches. After they’ve filled back in, a regular pruning regimen will keep the shrubs to a manageable size, with the thick, billowy growth boxwoods are known for.

entry steps

The camellia is a more perplexing puzzle. As I highlighted a few months back, the tree puts on quite a show in late fall, covering itself with light pink blossoms. But, it also hides half the front of the house and creates mildew problems on the front porch. Then again, I like how it arches over the front steps and the privacy it provides for the porch is nice. I’ve gotten the full range of opinions on how to deal with this tree. I’ve heard everything from “cut it two feet tall and it’ll make a nice bush” to “don’t touch it or you’ll feel God’s wrath”. I think the proper solution is somewhere in between these extremes. I’m going to take a slower, more methodical approach with the camellia, shaping it in such a way that it can continue to be a beautiful specimen, but minimizing its impact on the house. For now, I pruned the young, low braches so that the crown of the tree is higher up and away from the house. I figure if I keep doing this as the tree grows upward, eventually only the trunks will be in the way of the porch, making the house more visible.

pruned camellia

All in all, I really like the more open feel of the entry area.  The 13 steps to the front door make for a suitably grand entry without requiring anyone to run a boxwood gauntlet.

All fenced in

The ordinary is fenced, ya’ll.  The fence contractor made quick work of the installation, and now the yard is suitable for wayward hounds.

The picket fence out front was built to resemble what was there before, minus the falling apart part.  The wood is pressure-treated pine, so we’ll let it dry out over the winter before painting it white in the spring.

The house has looked better.  With plastic in the windows, a whole lot less paint on the siding, and faded-paint shutters, it takes some vision to realize that progress is being made.

Out back, we built a new section of picket fence similar to the one in front.

For now this means that we have to go through a gate to get to the back door.  Long term, we think we might relocate the door to where the small window is on the left side of the picture.  We know from photos that the door lived in that spot in a former life:

In the rear and side yards, the fence transitions to a post and wire type.  Can’t see it?  Exactly.

After getting the fence around the yard ship-shape, the segment along our parking area started to look really bad by comparison.

It leaned like a drunken sailor and was missing several pickets, so I took it out this weekend.  The posts were almost completely rotted through, so knocking the sections over took little more than a forceful shove.  While I was at it, I cleaned out the culvert pipe that passes beneath the driveway and raked the leaves from the drainage swale.

I wasn’t certain that this would be a good change, but it makes the yard much brighter and more friendly.  We’ll probably add some plants this spring to restore some of the screening the fence provided.  Yes, that’s a Porta-John.  No worries, our indoor plumbing still works.  But with painters on site for at least a month, it’s a necessary yard ornament.

Going on the offencive [sic]

One of our first major projects for the new house was to install a fence for the dogs (priorities, right?).  Our planning efforts started well before we moved since we needed formal approval of the style and placement of the fence from the town’s Historic District Commission in order to build.  Similar groups in nearby towns have reputations as project-killers (ahem, Chapel Hill, ahem), so I was a bit nervous leading into the approvals meeting. Fortunately, my concerns were unfounded.

We considered several types of fence, but ultimately decided to replicate the existing white picket fence on the street-facing sides of the property and to use a post and wire style along the inside lot lines.  We weren’t certain that the wire fence would be acceptable to the commission, but they were reasonable and agreed that it was the least visually-intrusive fence style for side and rear yards.

Our fence builder started on Friday and will probably wrap up in the next day or so.  I’ll post more images when it’s complete, but I wanted to share one view that I particularly like:

There’s something primally satisfying about defining a dead straight line in a decidedly non-linear world. Perhaps it’s the control freak in me, or maybe the architect (or both), but I really enjoy the occasional rational overlay on our wild and woolly wilderness.

Pretty ordinary #001

To prove how much of a gardener I am, I didn’t know that camellias were trees, or that they thrived around these parts.  In my mind, they’ve always been the large bushes that live in cemeteries in the deep south and bloom in the dead of winter.  Nevertheless, I’m happy to find that we’re the owners of several impressive camellia trees, most of them spread across the front porch of the house.  There’s one in particular, at our front steps that probably hasn’t been pruned in twenty years.  It’s shaggy and overgrown, but it’s blooming and the results are impressive: