Ketzel Levine

SOME TIME AGO, I went public with my ambivalence about roses. I admitted that this humbling genus pushed all my buttons about conformity, tradition, and settling down (and I’ll bet you thought roses were just high-maintenance plants). Since then, I’ve moved again -another short-term rental -but a rose now climbs over the garden gate celebrating a future other than mine.

Call it maturity if you dare, but in an uncharacteristic moment of unselfishness, I came to realize that my plant palette was far too idiosyncratic to impose on a temporary home. Think about it -have you ever had anything nice to say about the previous tenant’s garden? Who hasn’t dealt with someone else’s crazed remains? We’ve cursed their excesses, lack of vision, and total cluelessness about the property’s strengths. Yet the transient gardener’s dilemma speaks to the very essence of fine gardening: striking a balance between complete indulgence and considered restraint.

By way of example, take my space: a partly shaded, 26-by-28-foot fenced yard hemmed in by houses and everyone else’s badly pruned trees. No access exists from the house to the garden, not even through the basement; a sense of promise and possibility were the only additions I could afford. My instincts were to create a cozy, densely planted woodland that would obscure the garden’s boundaries, detract from the urban squeeze, and showcase the million plants I was dying to grow. Sounded perfectly reasonable. My instincts were dead wrong.

Had I pursued that vision, I would have created a short-term paradise and a long-range mess. The space itself was shouting the answer but I was deaf to its needs. One fine day, my friend Danny stopped by, took one look, and relayed the message: hardscape. The brutality of the word hit like a cross to the upper jaw.

Truth, however, revived me, and after reluctantly acknowledging what would never be, I began to see my options. I could reuse the existing aged brick (currently a landing strip with paths that lead nowhere) on an easily excavated sand base and create a generous destination that offered breathing room in an otherwise claustrophobic space. The brick could start at the fortresslike entrance (made mysterious with a peephole), unroll like a red carpet, and move guests through five seconds of fragrant space en route to the patio proper, a circular center stage.

Low plants could lap at their feet in all directions, getting bigger and bolder in the distance; so what if the beds were only eight feet deep? Simplicity and restraint would add depth and much-needed calm. The primary color would be green, the secondary color white, and excitement would be provided by the patio, a swirling mosaic of brick and iron-rich local stone. My legacy would be a stretched and ready canvas, balm to the next transient gardener’s soul.

Did I stick to the plan? Believe it or not, I did. I spent almost nothing on hardscape materials and bought readily available, easy-to-leave-behind plants: mahonias and huckleberries, fatsia and lacecap hydrangeas, white bleeding hearts and blue corydalis, and a climbing rose. Admittedly, I feel like I’ve traded in a riotous adolescent wardrobe for the horticultural equivalent of basic black, but you can still tell it’s my garden by the jewels in my collection, the heart-throbs I’ll take with me wherever I go.

Incidentally, for balance, I’ve begun a labor-intensive, peach-and purple-drenched, all-blue-foliage front garden, figuring that the next guy’s going to need something to do.

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