The Definition of Home
An avid gardener blooms wherever he’s planted
By Jim Dodson
Not long ago I realized that we are already approaching our fourth spring in the charming midcentury bungalow that my wife and I purchased in October of 2016 – two doors from the house where I grew up in Greensboro, no less. As a kid, the Corry home was my favorite house in the neighborhood. Providence was smiling on us.
Amazing how time has flown. Until I look at photographs from the first week we took possession of the house, it’s almost hard to believe the amount of work we’ve managed to do in such a relatively short time.
Inside, we pulled up (pink) shag carpet and pulled down a classic lacquered room partition from the Donna Reed era. That opened up the living room, prompting us to polish the nice hardwood floors and ponder what to do about the original hand-cut paneling that was quite fetching but made the room darker than we liked. The solution was to use an elegant linen-colored interior paint that unified the rooms and that invited more light throughout the house.
Since I’ve never warmed up to gas fireplaces — too many years feeding a big woodstove in Maine, I suppose — we had the gas fixtures taken out of the house’s two fireplaces and made them fire-burning again, as they were when the house was built in 1950. A good fire, as they say in the North Country, warms you twice.
Another casualty of initial updating was the foyer’s exotic wallpaper, a tableau of tropical scenes depicting jungle foliage, plumed creatures and birds of paradise that reminded me of a Carmen Miranda erotic dream. When a designer pal learned that we painted over original wallpaper by legendary Greensboro designer Otto Zenke, she was horrified, pointing out that we could have covered the cost of a bathroom reno job had we cared enough to take the time to steam the wallpaper off the wall. We didn’t.
Happily, the fact that our house had “good bones,” in the parlance of shelter rehab programs, meant that the “big stuff” — heating and cooling systems, plumbing and electrical, the roof, and the roomy attic and vast basement, the large capacity generator outside — were all in tip-top shape owing to the house’s original owners and their children. This meant that the vast majority of work was essentially cosmetic in nature — painting, new lighting, and so forth.
Not counting the peculiar toilet in the basement, both bathrooms were original and could certainly benefit from a makeover somewhere down the road, but for the time being they were perfectly serviceable, not only because of high quality workmanship but also because of a kind of retro chic. We decided we could live with them awhile.
The cozy den (where I played a million board games with the Corry boys) underwent a facelift that made it even cozier with the addition of bookshelves and a refinished cabinet topped by a beautiful slab of polished white oak.
The three bedrooms simply needed their own fresh coats of paint to spruce them up. Ditto the recently updated kitchen, which featured new directional lighting and granite countertops Just a tad of brighter paint and breakfast-nook shelving made it strikingly fresh and new.
A new house always brings surprises.
In our case, the nice surprise turned out to be the large screened porch that spans the rear of the house, a rustic space that reminded me of old-fashioned porches you find on mountain lake houses or at summer camps. My initial thought was to remove it entirely and create a fancy terrace or expanded outdoor entertaining area, but my intuitive bride suggested that we simply “live” with the old porch for our first winter. “Just to see how we feel in the spring.”
Come spring, Wendy larkishly suggested we move our beloved antique farm table out to the porch and use the space for a dinner party with friends. We painted the brick floor a rich woodland green, strung up some Italian lighting and moved to our added living room in the making several comfortable wicker chairs and a nifty couch we picked up for a song at a local consignment antique store. A painted antique buffet completed the update, and the result were nothing short of transformative.
What’s old was suddenly new, surprising us and delighting our dinner guests — turning out to be the most popular and versatile room in the house, as well. Our “porch suppers” now run regularly from spring to late autumn. There’s been at least two dozen such affairs since that first spring dinner. One regular commented to me, “Don’t ever change that porch. It’s like stepping back to my childhood at summer camp.”
Wisely, we also held off on changing the small room that lies between the house’s traditional dining room and the porch. Once again, my bride’s innate sense of flow paid dividends. She proposed that we make the narrow dining room a transition space filled with art and the small room — a former patio with its own outdoor fireplace — a library and reading room for my 800 or so crated-up books.
With new directional lighting and a trio of exquisite maple book cases made by a local craftsman in place, I finally have the kind of library I always dreamed about.
The larger transformation happened outside.
Within days of arrival, I took down an ancient pergola in back that became a simple brick terrace. In that sector of the backyard, I planted several Japanese maples and hydrangeas and constructed new stone pathways leading to the garage. I also started a shade garden full of primroses and ferns — leaving a wildly overgrown section of the backyard I called “the Lost World” for another day, week or month.
Instead, I turned my attention to the front and sides the house, essentially digging out a dozen ancient shrubs and a trio of dead or dying trees, leaving only a young pin oak and a graceful old Washington hawthorn standing in the front yard.
Possibly because I hail from a long line of small-time Carolina farmers and utterly mad gardeners, landscape gardening is my true outdoor passion. Wherever I’ve been in the world during my 40-plus years as a traveling journalist, I’ve checked out arboretums and private gardens, and even wrote a book about accompanying plant hunters to Africa and spending two full years hanging out with top gardeners in Britain and America.
During the two decades we lived in Maine, I cleared several acres of a coastal forest of birch and hemlock, rebuilt the stone walls of what once was an 18th–century farmstead, and created my own English garden and arboretum. My cheeky Scots mother-in-law even gave my newfangled estate a fitting name: “Slightly Off in the Woods.”
A downsized house, of course, meant a downsized garden. But I still managed to add 18 flowering trees to the front and sides of the Corry place (whose own nickname, by the way, was “Casa Verde” — the Green House). I also bunkered the place with lush hydrangeas, a variety of ornamental grasses and several kinds of water-frugal sages.
Last spring, it all came beautifully to life. Over the following summer, I got to work finishing an ambitious perennial bed on the eastern flank of the sunniest side of the house. This summer, that garden should be nothing less than sensational.
This allowed me to finally turn my attention to the Lost World waiting out back. With the help of a young landscaper named Guillermo, we carved out the wilderness and gave me a brand new canvas upon which to create the serene Asian garden I’ve long dreamed about building, though that is still a bit off in the ether.
This winter just ending was spent trimming trees and adding to the perennial beds and beginning my annual warfare against Star of Bethlehem.
A garden will always keep you young, an equally addicted older friend liked to say, because you can never complete the work. Thomas Jefferson was probably right when he wrote an aging colleague, “Tho’ but I am an old man, I am forever a new gardener.”
There’s earthy truth in both expressions because there is always something to do, something blessedly craving your attention. Moreover, every season brings new tasks and fresh ideas that rise like daffodils in spring.
The same, methinks, can be said of an old house you’ve come to love and seems to inspire fresh ideas and new possibilities every year, sometimes every season.
In my quiet moments, I seriously miss the house and garden I built Slightly Off in the Woods of Maine.
But Casa Verde is more than the working definition of “home” now.
It’s the place I’m meant to be.
Jim Dodson is the editor of Seasons and its flagship publications, O.Henry,
PineStraw and Salt.
Illustration by Harry Blair