The other morning I had an appointment with the insurance adjuster to inspect my damaged library chimney. (Don’t even ask: it’s a six-month debacle caused by a negligent roofer which I’ll detail in a post later this week). As we climbed up three stories to inspect the still unfinished masonry, he happened to mention what a beautifully restored old house this was, for which I heartily thanked him, trying to sound sincere while negotiating the slippery scaffolding. But then, as he abandoned the planking to nimbly climb up onto the roof without the slightest apparent concern, he asked over his shoulder, “Why, though, on a house like this, do you still have the aluminum siding?”
Despite my precarious perch I had to laugh, because when I bought this house in 1992, I was such an inexperienced homeowner that I never even noticed the house was sided: all the shutters, pilasters and other ornamental details were still painted wood, and the gray siding, which must have been of a very early type, had mottled and faded exactly like wood would. I only realized it was aluminum when one day I went to nail a rose trellis onto the side of the house, and was surprised to hear the clank of metal as the nail bounced off the siding. Of course, had I been at all owner-aware, I would have seen right away that the clapboards weren’t clapboard. But there was so much to do when I first moved in – structural repairs, new kitchen and bathrooms, removal of nasty wall-to-wall carpeting and restoration of the wide pine floors – not to mention the creation of an entire landscape – that I really didn’t pay attention. Later on, the idea of removing the aluminum and restoring the wood siding occasionally surfaced, but the cost, plus the continual headache of maintaining such a huge expanse of wood, always deferred my plans.
Then five or six years ago, I was thrilled to notice that Boston ivy had started to creep up the front facade. I was born in an ivy-covered house, and I’ve always adored the cool, shady, settled look that vines add to architecture. I’d like to take credit for having thought to re-establish this traditional look here, but I really don’t remember setting the original plant in place. I must have though, as its spontaneous generation just there in front, while not impossible (seeds are occasionally carried by birds) seems highly unlikely… I can however, state definitively that I planted the variegated actinidia kolomikta next to it, which has taken a full decade to show just a hint of its dubiously famous pink and white coloration. (Buyers beware: the plant is immensely fickle and often fails to change color at all; and, if it’s not perfectly happy, it will only throw out green leaves with an occasional splash of white, withholding the prized pink variegation for more accommodating gardeners.) I also, unfortunately, take full responsibility for the Chinese wisteria near the back door, with which I do ferocious battle twice a year in a vain attempt to prevent it from lifting off the rafters, but which I can’t for the life of me bear to cut down, as the wisteria covers the upper terrace in a spectacular display of scent and blossom each May. (It was wisteria, after all, that caused my favorite garden writer, Beverley Nichols to remark: “When one turned over to sleep the scent was what some people would call ‘overpowering.’ So much the better, as far as I am concerned. To be ‘overpowered’ by the fragrance of flowers is a most delectable form of defeat.” Merry Hall, 1951).
Despite these annual headaches, I persevere, as I adore my vines. The Victorians rightly called vines the “draperies of the garden” and their potential is tremendously underutilized in American landscapes. The problem of course, is that if you have a wood-covered house, you can’t have can’t have a vine covered one: even if the vines are of a type that twine, rather than attaching themselves with sucker-like roots, the added moisture trapped by the foliage is highly detrimental to painted surfaces. As long as the vines don’t get behind and pry up the siding, however, this concern is obviated with metal, so thanks to what many consider a bane to historic old homes, I can once again live in the ivy-covered cottage of my youth, having fortuitously been given the perfect excuse to let metal remain and green tendrils climb skyward.