Ghosts in the Garden

Spring has sprung here in Boston, and with the recent advent of warm weather, the phone is merrily ringing  (thankfully!) here in my office, with clients calling to set up design appointments, eager to get started with landscape renovations. And while enthusiasm is generally a highly commendable trait in the gardening game, there are times however, especially with older properties, that the best advice I can give homeowners is “not so fast.” Before making dramatic changes, it’s important to get a feel for your place, and take full stock of whatever venerable old features may be lurking about the shrubberies.

Some of these garden remnants will be obvious. Ancient apple trees, crumbling stone walls, and abandoned bowers of lilacs are all reasonably hard to miss. But other clues others will be less evident, overgrown in weeds, or covered with vines, hidden from first sight. These are the ghosts in your garden, and they’re not only marvelously individual to your property, but they also constitute important cues to your renovation design strategy. Archaeologists are well aware of this trick for linking structure and garden, using aerial photos taken during the dry season to find remnants of past landscapes. Buried and forgotten features of ancient gardens such as old foundation walls, walks, and drives will often retain moisture long after the surrounding areas are dried out, the grass that covers them remaining visibly green in contrast to surrounding browned-out sections. The placement of old trees often give valuable clues as well—chances are, if you have a line of old oaks or maples, they once marked a boundary or drive of some sort. Often features like these can be charmingly restored or renewed, providing a one-of-a kind focal point for your landscape.

A few years back, I was called out to an old farmhouse in Concord, Massachusetts. The owners were wondering what to do with the foundation of a barn that had long ago burned down; they had been advised to knock down the walls and bury it. A simple stairway, a fountain, some gravel and four grass panels later, they instead had a truly unique garden space. The moral of the story: don't always be in a hurry to remove the past.

As you review the various existing features of your garden keep in mind a lesson I first learned from Thalassa Cruso, the great garden guru of the 60s and 70s, who saved me from one of the biggest mistakes of my gardening career. In her book Making Things Grow Outdoors, she relates the story of a large tree on her property that she was tempted to cut down shortly after moving in because it darkened the house. She thought better of it, though, and decided to wait a while. Thank goodness she did, for the very tree had been carefully planted to shield the house during the summer—that shade which had seemed so unwelcome in the early spring actually kept the house from turning into an inferno in the summer.

I had a similar situation here in Southborough, shortly after I moved into my 1852 house. There were two large spruces about 25 feet off the north side of the structure, that at the time seemed stranded in the middle of nowhere. My immediate temptation was to take them down and design a new garden in that area. However, I had just re-read Cruso’s work, and I decided to wait and follow her advice. The following winter proved her point: not only do those two spruces shield the house from terrific northerly blasts all winter long, they also provide vital interest and refuge for a host of wildlife during the winter.

As the Romans said:  festina lente! Hasten slowly!

The point is this: you need to determine what you already have in your garden, and treat it as the framework for your improvements, before adding or subtracting elements. This does not mean that you can’t cut something down just because it’s old. It does mean that you need to move cautiously. Here’s some sage advice on the subject, which is as true today as when it was written centuries ago.

One is often in great straits when an old garden is to be set to rights without wholly destroying it. In such a case, an exact plan should be taken, and every part of it examined one after another before we condemn it. Above all, we should conform the buildings, wall basins, and canals, already made, unless they are exceedingly ill-places and without destroying too much, in order to rectify every fault, redress only those that are most necessary, preserving as much as is possible, especially the Wood, Hedges, and Walks of High Trees, which are long in raising and which in this renewal should be looked upon as sacred, and be very little, if any at all, meddled with. This indeed requires a very provident and skilled hand, not such as are for cutting down and destroying everything to make way for their whimsical designs, of which one sees to many sad instances.

Dazallier d’Argenville The Theory and Practice of Gardening (1709)

Finally, keep your eyes open for other features of your garden that may be more reclusive. Certain plants are extremely long lived and often give indications of what the garden looked like years ago. Once when I was doing as historically correct garden redesign of an 1870s Italianate mansions in Boston, I was faced with considerable uncertainty as to the accuracy of my final design, since very little documentary evidence existed for the garden. I had first seen the property in winter, and returned to meet with the clients on a beautiful March day, brisk but sunny.

Here in my garden, a clump of white Chiondoxa luciliae - Glory of the Snow, flower near the old well, in what is now the middle of the lawn. They mark a long forgotten flower bed. These hardy little bulbs by the way, are fantastic for under-planting in the grass. They come up, flower, and are gone (or at least tolerate trimming) by the time of the first mowing, appearing faithfully each spring just after the first crocus, making a dull space come alive just when garden spirits need reviving most – late winter.

As I approached the house, I noticed that there were a few small white specs waving in the lawn. Curious, I got out of the car, and found in the still brown grass, circles of the tiniest snowdrops. There was no clue in the current lawn that there had ever been beds there, nor were there any old pictures of the house that I knew of. But in front of me, like silent ghostly witnesses, stood the hardy little snowdrops, still blooming after almost a century of neglect. When viewed from above, the pattern of bulbs showed that there had existed an elaborate layout of beds along what had once undoubtedly been a semi-circular drive. With this evidence in hand, I was able to recreate the original layout with complete confidence, all due to the faithful testament of those tiny snowdrops.

So gentle reader, if you’re puzzling what to do with your garden design this spring, it may pay to be on the lookout for the occasional  green-garbed horticultural  ghost – you never know when an odd flitting spirit may teach you something entirely new about your landscape.

Until next time, I’m Michael Weishan, for Old House, Old Garden.


Ghosts in the Garden — 2 Comments

  1. While clearly not grand, like the gardens you describe, the overgrown garden of the tiny bungalow we just bought will require a few years of study, before it tells me what to do.

    Well, a few years, and a lot if weeding!

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