From the Editor
The Cruelest Sport
Planting and pruning ain’t for sissies
By Jim Dodson
Aficionados of bullfighting and boxing both claim that their sport is the cruelest sport of all. They are certainly among the most violent. Long distance cyclists make a similar claim, noting the acute fatigue and dangers of the open road to both body and soul. I’m guessing marathon runners and long-distance ocean swimmers can make a similar argument.
But as an aging four-sport athlete who has the carved-up knees and aching joints to prove it, I have my own firm ideas on Gardening at home is the cruelest of sports.
Yes, I said gardening.
To me, gardening is almost a blood sport, in part because every time I do it, I seem to draw blood.
Three years ago this month, my wife, Wendy and I took possession of a beautiful mid-century bungalow in Greensboro’s Starmount Forest neighborhood that once belonged to close family friends and sits two doors from the house where I grew up.
The Corry house was built in 1951 and meant to be the dream house of the man who built it, a talented house builder by trade known as Big Al Corry. Al and his wife, Miss Merle, raised four children in the house and Miss Merle lived in it till the day she passed on, a few months before we discovered it was on the market.
Within minutes of seeing the house for the second time (the first was when she met Ma and Pa Corry many years ago), my Yankee wife fell in love with it and orchestrated its purchase in a matter of days.
Being a mid-century bungalow, with the exception of an updated and modernized kitchen, the house was pretty much as I remembered it from the 1970s when my mother and Merle were best chums and I palled around with the crazy Corry boys. The décor, frozen in time, included beautiful original parquet flooring, deep-shag, pale pink wall-to-wall carpeting, exotic Otto Zenke wallpaper that looked like Carmen Miranda’s heated jungle dream, an Art Deco–themed living room, a pair of gas-log fireplaces and two charming 1950s tiled bathrooms — three if you counted the toilet sitting in the vast basement.
Over that first year, Wendy and I pulled up the carpet and polished the floors, repainted the walls and refreshed every room. Then we restored the fireplaces to their wood-burning original states, changed lighting and began transforming Miss Merle’s cozy den into a library for our 1,500 or so books. We also turned the garage out back with its studio-like apartment into my home office. Our objective was to bring the place gently into the 21st century without compromising its lovely mid-century vibe.
In my opinion, the more daunting job — where the blood-letting part comes in — lay outside in the long-neglected yard, front, back and sides.
That’s where Miss Merle’s yardman basically let Nature have her own way for nigh on a decade or more.
Massive, impenetrable shrubs basically obscured most of the street-facing windows and swarmed over the east side of the house.
I spent the first few months of our first winter just digging them up, donating a pint of blood and muscle to the cause, coming to loathe English ivy, out-of-control wisteria and evil mahonia bushes with equal fervor. Liberating the front yard’s beautiful old Washington hawthorn of decades of ivy was no picnic. But both tree and owner seemed relieved when the job was finished. We named the grateful tree “Old George” to celebrate its release from English ivy.
By spring, my back was sore, but the front and side yards were a cleared canvas awaiting a new creation.
Because we live in an urban forest, I planted 17 trees around the property — a variety of crepe myrtles, red buds, Korean dogwoods, Japanese maples, a trio of river birches, a beautiful harvest sugar maple, tulip magnolias and the willow tree I’d always wanted — picturing in my head what I hoped it might look like — a Scottish glen in a year or two. I also built a pair of large perennial beds to frame our curving front walkway with hydrangeas, two kinds of sage — Russian and Indian — black-eyed Susans and society garlic plants that put out the sweetest lavender blooms.
Simultaneously, no fan of Bermuda grass, short of bombing the whole property and reseeding it like a rich guy’s private golf course, I spent an untold number of hours digging out the old grass and half a million different weeds by hand, carefully enriching the soil, reseeding with fine grasses and watering till the cows come home.
At the same time, I started work on part of the shady backyard that sits beneath the vast canopy of old white oaks, part of which I have made significant progress transforming into a Japanese garden.
The other half, as they say — is a work in progress.
Formerly, this forgotten corner of the yard resembled an outtake from Jurassic Park, a jungle of pretty horse Buckeyes overwhelmed by Virginia creeper, thorny vines, dead azaleas, forgotten dogwoods, an occasional Carolina silver bell and miles of maniacal wisteria vines. Lest husband disappear into this jungle maze with machete in hand, never to return, my practical-minded bride engaged an able young yardsman named Guillermo, who showed up to hack the jungle into submission and help me clean out the grounds for its next incarnation as an Asian hidden garden with stone pathways and a soul-soothing water feature, exotic plants and meditative spaces.
All of that, I’m afraid, is yet to come. Think summer of 2022 . . . if I’m lucky.
Meantime, I am comforted by how so much of the garden has come splendidly to life in this third year on the premises.
My perennial border is just reaching its floral glory as I write, the 17 trees seem to fancy their permanent home and even the final patches of Bermuda grass are more or less behaving. Neighbors ambling past on their evening walks often stop to comment favorably on the change in the landscape. The Corry boys seem to concur.
Yet jobs await, tough decisions must be made. Full contact-gardening may give you the illusion of playing God at times, but the work is never complete and even the good Lord can be ruthless when it comes to making a memorable garden.
Cuts and bruises and sore muscles aside, I’m still not happy with the “natural” area around Old George. The ornamental grass theme just didn’t take off as hoped.
I’ll probably tear out the whole area and start over next spring with something more conventional, like ornamental roses or — God forbid — azalea bushes.
It’s such a cruel sport, this gardening game.
But oh, how I dig it. h