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A Small House And A Large Garden

April 27, 2010

“I never had any other desire so strong, and so like to covetousness, as that one which I have had always, that I might be master at last of a small house and a large Garden.” ~Abraham Cowley, The Garden, 1666

Surveyor's map of property Each month, Noel at A Plant Fanatic in Hawaii invites garden bloggers to reflect on a quotation he has chosen. This April quote resonated for me. When I acquired my property in Maine twenty years ago, it had a small house (less than 1000 square feet), a big weedy clearing, an even bigger woodland, and no garden to speak of.

The previous owner had focused her energies on the interior of the house, which was beautifully maintained and spotlessly clean. But it seemed closed off from the outside, as though its warmth and coziness were a refuge from hostile surroundings. The only easy access into or out of the house was through a walk-in basement door at the end of the driveway. A “front door” into the living room and a “back door” into the mud room, both facing the front of the property, were at the top of a steep slope and difficult to reach from the driveway below. The set of wooden steps shoved up against the foundation beneath each door provided evidence that they were seldom used. These stairs were so narrow that it was difficult to open the door while you were standing on them; and, as we discovered when the delivery crew tried to bring my new refrigerator in through the front door, some of the wood had rotted.

Since a big part of the property’s attraction to me was the quiet, beautiful woodland setting, I went to work connecting the house to the outdoors, first building a flight of wooden steps up the steep slope from the driveway, then adding small decks and more substantial steps for the front and back doors, and finally creating walkways to connect those doors to the driveway steps. As I went, I also added some plants: a small circle of annuals at the entrance to the driveway, some gift plants on the sandy slope beside the back door, a half-moon planting of Siberian irises beneath the living room bow window, a little strip of bulbs and perennials against the foundation outside my bedroom. All of these early gardening efforts were tentative, and small – in keeping, I thought, with the small scale of the house. (See Don’t Be Small-Minded for a discussion of lessons about scale I learned from my early gardening efforts.)

Even as I worked to improve the front yard, though, I was aware that there was still no easy access to what I considered the most beautiful part of the property, the woodland-facing back yard. Back garden and deck (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)Finally, ten years after I moved in, I developed a plan to replace a window in the dining area with a sliding glass door and add a deck to the back of the house. I also decided to turn the 30’ width of weedy “lawn” between the house and the woods into two large perennial beds facing each other across a central walkway. By the time this project was completed, my back yard had been transformed into a back garden, I was practically living out there during the summer months, and I already had plans for further expansion.

In the years since, I have added a new fence border to the back garden and have begun to design yet another new flower bed. Then I will shift my attention to the front of the property, with plans for a house addition and a new front garden. When all of this is done, I still will not have moved outside the bounds of the original clearing around the house. I sometimes fantasize about creating a meandering path into the woods with a small garden at the end of it, but I don’t know if that vision will ever be realized.

Perhaps I don’t desire a large garden to go with my small house. Practically, there are limits to the amount of garden one person can maintain and enjoy. Philosophically, I like the fact that more than half my property is still wild and wooded and the way the garden – with its combination of plants, hardscape and wooden structures – links the built environment of the house and the organic environment of the woods. I’ve decided there’s a great deal to be said for a small house and a medium-sized garden.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2010 10:05 am

    My idea of a perfect scenario would be to find a house like yours with a wonderful interior and a blank slate on the exterior, especially in a forest setting!

    • Jean permalink*
      April 29, 2010 8:12 pm

      Sheila, This may be a much easier scenario to bring about in Maine than in California. Maine is the most heavily forested state in the nation, but the most highly valued property is that along the coast or on the shores of the many, many lakes and ponds that dot this glacial landscape. Property that’s in the woods, away from the coast, and without a shoreline is relatively easy to find and acquire.

  2. April 27, 2010 10:32 am

    I’ve been trying to envision what actually happened with the poor refrigerator on the rotten step! I agree though, we have a modest house on the largest lot we’ve ever had, and it is overwhelming. The vast majority is natural woodland. We’re also striving to connect the outside to the inside, as this house felt like a cave with little connection to the forest when we moved in. It will be a slow and gradual process, as there really are limits to what the two of us can do. However, we should be in great shape physically when it’s finally done…if it’s ever really done…

    • Jean permalink*
      April 29, 2010 8:19 pm

      Clare, Fortunately it was the bottom step that had rotted, so no significant damage was done to either the refrigerator or the delivery personnel! I have been impressed by the ambition of the projects you have taken on (especially the orchard and the deer fencing, but the chicks too). I have had to learn, especially since I am a work crew of one — and twenty years older than I was when I started all this — that I have to be patient and to understand that each project will take me several years to complete. I don’t think I will every think it is done; there will always be one more thing that I’d like to do. You are right, though, about gardening/landscaping being a great physical fitness program. Twice I have been offered jobs by nursery personnel who saw me heft large potted shrubs or heavy bags of manure.

  3. April 27, 2010 11:38 am

    Just think of the opportunities wasted by those who stay closed in their homes this time of year. I love that you created a wonderful combination of both indoor and outdoor living.

    • Jean permalink*
      April 29, 2010 8:26 pm

      Noelle, I love being outside and I use to fantasize about someday having a house where every room led out to some kind of outdoor living area. (I once saw a house on a garden tour in Paris, Maine that had these characteristics, with each room leading out to a beautiful garden area; I have never coveted anything so badly before or since.) My scaled down version of this dream is to add outdoor living space to the front of the house by having the new master suite that I am planning open out onto a screened in porch and to also have a small flagstone or paver patio as part of the new front garden.

  4. April 27, 2010 1:12 pm

    You are very wise, Jean. The small house large garden was a similar dream of mine and we got those things with this house. But as time moves forward, the wish for a large garden dwindles with the ability to care for it properly. Turning back to wild is the only answer. I love what you’ve done with your place. The secret garden in the woods sounds so inviting. It would fun to do a simple path with a chair or bench at the end.

    • Jean permalink*
      April 29, 2010 8:31 pm

      Frances, thanks for giving me a scaled-down vision of the secret garden in the woods. This is definitely a lower priority than creating a front garden. Right now, with the exception of the circular bed at the end of the driveway and the iris bed, the front yard is mostly a mess of weeds and moss that is distinctly lacking in curb appeal (or whatever the dirt-road version of curb appeal is). We’ll see how I’m feeling about the secret garden after the front is done. Right now, I’m in good health and good physical condition; but I think it’s reasonable to expect some decrease in what I can do as I move through my sixties and into my seventies.

  5. April 27, 2010 6:01 pm

    I enjoyed reading how your home and gardens have progressed through the years. Your back garden is lovely, and a little secret room in the woods might be do-able. But just today, I was thinking that if I ever move from this place I will have a small formal patio garden with structure and defined limits! But I do love my gardens and all the space, and I have lots of untouched woodlands still. I have thought that if I am ever unable to maintain the gardens I will let them revert to woodland, and it will be a very beautiful woodland, for not everything would perish.

    • Jean permalink*
      April 29, 2010 8:59 pm

      Deb, As I think about creating a front garden, I also find myself thinking about a patio garden with quite a bit of hardscape. On the other hand, there are all those plants I want to include! If I ever get to the little secret garden in the woods, I’d like to create it on the edge of the vernal pool closest to the house, where I could grow some moisture-loving shrubs and perennials that are a challenge in my sandy soil.

  6. April 27, 2010 6:47 pm

    This is a nice peek into how you live and how you created it. It is also nice to remember that all good things do not happen at once.

    • Jean permalink*
      April 29, 2010 9:06 pm

      Jess, In my garden, things definitely don’t happen all at once! For me, though, doing things slowly has been an asset. I didn’t begin with some grand vision of the completed garden. So, as I create one section at a time, I learn new things that I can then carry over into my design of the next garden area. Going slowly has allowed time for me to mature as a gardener and for my garden design sense to develop.

  7. April 27, 2010 9:41 pm

    Having a deck is great. Having a back yard garden is wonderful. Having a deck that leads to a garden backed with woodland is sublime. You have the best of all worlds.

    • Jean permalink*
      April 29, 2010 9:21 pm

      Allan, I agree. A deck in the garden looking out into the woods is wonderful. Some days, I take my computer and telephone out onto the deck and turn it into an outdoor office — I’m not sure it improves my work efficiency, though. 🙂

  8. April 27, 2010 9:45 pm

    I can picture it all! I’m on the multi-year plan with my house and garden too – it’s fun to do a bit at a time and then realize a few years in you’ve made a huge difference. Nice to have found you – thanks for picking my post on blotanical!

    • Jean permalink*
      April 29, 2010 9:35 pm

      Kelly, Thanks for visiting. It is a great thing when you get to the end of a multi-year project and look at it and realize how much you accomplished. As I think about it, another advantage of the multi-year project is that, by the time you get to the last part, the first part is already mature. (By the time I finished digging and planting the blue and yellow border, the first section of the deck border across the walkway was already 4 years old.)

  9. April 27, 2010 10:02 pm

    I like how you appreciate “big enough,” in preference to just big, which this status-driven age seems to require of all of us. I realize that life necessarily focuses on the indoors during some of your year, but it must be exciting to look forward to the transition to warm, long days outdoors.

  10. April 28, 2010 2:52 am

    I love that you’ve left a large part of your property wild. You’ve left a haven for wildlife. My dream is to one day have a small house and 2 studios enclosing a tiny courtyard which would be my only garden. This in turn would be surrounded by a natural forest setting. Just ferns, trees and deer.

  11. April 28, 2010 4:57 am

    Wonderful post. Your place sounds wonderful. We built our house ourselves, and added things in stages. I love lots of windows/sliding glass doors to view the outside.

    • Jean permalink*
      April 29, 2010 10:03 pm

      James, I do sometimes find myself getting sucked into the “bigger is better” version of gardening. I think I’m saved by the fact that the whole point of a garden for me is to have a place to sit, relax, and commune with nature — something I can’t do if the garden is so large that I have to be working on it all the time! You’d be surprised at how much time I can spend outdoors, even in the winter months — snow shoveling, cross-country skiing, and hauling in wood for the wood stove that heats my house take me outside pretty much every day.

      Helen, I love your vision of the enclosed garden. Because, of course, one of the disadvantages of a garden that borders all that great forest habitat is that some of the wildlife inhabitants (in my case, deer and woodchucks) like to eat the garden. So I’m not always feeling totally friendly toward my wildlife neighbors!

      Tammy, Thanks for visiting. When I was in my twenties, the man I was married to at the time and I built our own house; it was a sometimes stressful but very valuable learning experience. I, too, love lots of glass to view the outside — and one of the advantages of living out in the woods is that I don’t really need curtains. Since I’ve added the sliding glass door that links my house with the deck and garden, I’ve found that it affords a wonderful view of the winter woods, where I have seen wild turkeys, deer, fox, and fishers.

  12. patientgardener permalink
    April 28, 2010 6:16 am

    I think because you have woodland around your property if might make your garden feel bigger a opposed to if you were surrounded by other houses etc. Borrowing the landscape is always good

    • Jean permalink*
      April 30, 2010 9:14 am

      Helen, You are absolutely right. And because my woods abut woods and open land from neighboring properties, I have even more landscape to borrow. Interestingly, the garden also expands the boundaries of the house and makes the house seem larger (this is a lesson it took me a long time to understand). I can understand why the previous owner created a closed-off environment inside the house; before I developed the larger garden areas, the small house did feel overwhelmed by all the wild land surrounding it.

  13. April 28, 2010 6:50 am

    I think the small house, big garden dream is a thread that runs through many of us. But most of us really don’t have time to manage a large garden. I like the way you told us about the progress of your garden – keeping some wild area is always a great idea. Congratulations.

  14. April 28, 2010 12:47 pm

    aloha jean,

    thank you for telling us about your experiences, i’m actually in the same predicament with a large parcel and a big portion of it left to the wild since there’s only so much time and i have so many other passions, i do only what i can.

    this poem also resonates and i’m perplexed why i can’t even finish this…many because i do get distracted and my future garden is also way in the distance of where i want it to be….i think i will have an easier quote for others to be able to express their love of gardening.

    mahalo and thank you meanwhile for your contribution.

  15. April 28, 2010 2:11 pm

    Sounds very similar to our property, which we bought specifically for the small home (who really wants to heat/cool and clean a huge house?) and it’s huge, open yard.

    • Jean permalink*
      May 1, 2010 9:08 pm

      Heather and Noel, I have to admit that when I began writing this post, I didn’t realize I was going to come to the conclusion that I didn’t really want a large garden after all. I kept struggling with the ending, and when I finally figured it out it was quite a revelation to me!

      Dog Island, I must also admit that I am wishing for a little more house — both because I would like to have a real guest room and because the addition I am planning will also allow me to connect indoors to outdoors at the front of the house. I guess when I’m done with this addition, I’ll have a medium-sized house (about 1400 sq. ft.) and a medium-sized garden. Sounds kind of boring, but I think it will be just right for me.

  16. April 28, 2010 5:07 pm

    I think it’s beautiful how you have transformed your property into a more open and inviting one, a livable place, and done so as you were able, gently, learning as you went. I love it when I step into a home or garden that has developed over time, where every little trinket on the bookshelf has a story, and every flower seems to glow with meaning. These places have character! I envy you being able to put down roots and make it your own. 🙂

    • Jean permalink*
      May 1, 2010 9:13 pm

      Meredith, It has been a good learning process to do this slowly, and it has also been part of a process of putting down roots. When I bought this property in 1990, I didn’t expect to stay here long-term. I was in my early 40s, was in my second year of a new job in PA (after being denied tenure at the college in Maine where I had hoped to make a career and a life), and realized that I needed an anchor in Maine. For the first few years, I assumed that I would sell this house and move to a different one when I retired. But as the garden developed, I became more and more reluctant to leave it.

  17. April 28, 2010 9:18 pm

    It sounds like your home and garden are where mine will be in a few decades. I have so many plans for indoor and outdoor projects, but they all take time, energy and money. Wise words about a medium-sized garden. I try to keep maintenance in mind to check my wilder ideas about gardening.

    • Jean permalink*
      May 1, 2010 9:17 pm

      VW, I’m afraid you’ve been fooled by my selective photography. Your front garden is way ahead of where I am on the front of my property. (Heck, your *before* pictures look better than my current front yard.) It is true that each project takes time and money; time and energy are the bigger issue for me. I think that’s why I think of the garden in terms of small, manageable projects that can each be accomplished in 2-3 years (and try to ignore how many such projects are piled up in the pipeline of my imagination!).

  18. April 29, 2010 7:35 am

    Jean, I appreciate the wild in your garden space, as does the wildlife. What a nice combination of hardscape, landscape and wildscape. Wonderful! Besides, what good is your garden if you can’t relax and enjoy it?

  19. April 29, 2010 11:58 am

    Hello Jean your garden aspect is just perfect for a hellebore! I used to want a large garden – I was brought up with gardens rather than a garden but nowadays I want to be able to enjoy my garden and relax and watch the wildlife rather than be a slave to a large plot. But a meandering path through the woods sounds ever so inviting.

    • Jean permalink*
      May 1, 2010 9:21 pm

      Kimberly, Thanks for the word ‘wildscape;’ it’s just what I was looking for! My philosophy of gardening is definitely about “being” in the garden more than about “working” in the garden, so that does, as VW said, put a check on some of my grander ideas.

      Rosie, Thanks for confirming my thoughts about hellebore as a plant for the new shaded, tranquil garden. The meandering path through the woods does seem inviting. I am imagining it leading to the edge of the vernal pond closest to the house, where I could plant some moisture-loving plants. The question is, though, how much would I really go out there and enjoy it?

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