A Small House And A Large Garden
“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
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. 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.