A Landscape Is Born. And Later Adopted.

Dear Woman Who Built Our House:

Well, I fully realize that you didn’t literally build it. But you did leave a notebook, which I found in the front room closet, left there by the people who bought the house from you. And let me say that your attention to detail is, um, a marvel. I’ve never ordered a house before, but I’m fairly sure I am incapable of such detailed notes covering every door, light switch, kick plate, and landscape plant. On the one hand, I appreciate your pursuit of the builder whose painters left spatters of paint on the back window and whose “cleanup” left smears of paint and whose second cleanup left smears of cleanup solution.

On the other hand, I think I also understand why so many of your notes read, “Called contractor again, no answer.” “Called contractor, not in.” “Called contractor, has not called me back.” “Called contractor, spoke to secretary…”

Sometimes I feel I can reach all the way back to 1997 and see you, still in your apartment as this house was being built, carefully selecting all the best landscape plants Home Depot had to offer, meticulously recording each plant, how much it cost, and where it went in the yard. Thinking ahead to where shade would be welcome, envisioning an oasis of flowering plants and trees. The notebook in the closet bulges with receipts, plant tags, directions for planting and watering, and transcripts of your phone conversations with the yard people.

For instance, I know for a fact that you ordered three hundred Asian jasmine plants to be put in under the magnificent live oak you named (?) Virgil. And I could tell you a thing or two about how many pain pills were involved in the removal of said plants (a foot deep and virtually impenetrable by the time I arrived) by me personally over the course of two years. But let’s let bygones be bygones, shall we?

I discovered a number of things while sawing and forking and hacking my way through all that jasmine. I’m assuming the little garden statues and stained-glass hummingbirds were artifacts of the woman who bought the house from you. But I’m fairly sure you were responsible – yes, here’s the receipt! – for the little pink azalea that still sits at Virgil’s patient feet. It’s a wonder every spring! And while I’m a little embarrassed it’s there, still, it blooms. I simply make it a point to state to every passer-by that the azalea came with the house, and evidently Virgil manufactures enough acid to assure its survival.

Did you grow up in Dallas, by any chance? Or Houston? Or east Texas? Or any of the trillion other places where the soil in no way resembles the alkaline substance into which we thrust plants here in Austin? Because little plastic plant markers I have found in the yard, and receipts in your scrupulous notebook, suggest to me that this little pink azalea wasn’t the only foreign plant you foisted onto this landscape.

Even the crape myrtles (so many of them on such a small lot!).  I have wanted some since I first knew what they were. That they were called “the lilac of the south” struck me as hopelessly romantic. Perhaps they stirred the New England part of my garden psyche. I was willing to overlook the fact that they aren’t natives here; I was willing to compromise my gardening beliefs and tell myself “sort of well adapted” was good enough. You rescued me: I didn’t have to plant a single one. And, if I don’t clip back the runners every eight hours or so, before long I could be living in a crape myrtle field, aphid urine sprinkling down on me all day long in that charming way aphid urine has.

You chose a number of trees that always seem to be doing something messy. But the dark pink blossoms look lovely in Travis’s dark silky coat. He looks like a car in a Calcutta wedding ceremony.

My arborist would be much happier with me if I would pull out all the nandina, but he knows I won’t do it. First of all, I love their tropical shadows and their color changes and all those dark red berries adding color to an otherwise dank landscape throughout the winter. And if I am going to be completely honest here, sometimes “May Be Invasive” is exactly what I am looking for in a landscape plant. I know that’s bad, but if I didn’t have flaws I would be completely insufferable, let’s face it.

What we have pulled out – and the welding truck has proved a real trouper with this – are all those strange round shrubs you planted as … as… Well, now I’m stuck. They weren’t really hedges; they existed here and there to encircle certain areas of the yard, like leafy miniature Stonehenge monoliths. In the back, they made a ring around a crape myrtle. They never did anything particularly interesting or pretty, and my skills as a pruner are really not to be spoken of. But the little round bushes were a hard to comprehend, and so they are gone. In the back yard, the wild lantana of my California heart now asserts itself under the biggest crape myrtle, and the bees and butterflies are happy about that.

I shouldn’t be so harsh (something that could be said about me pretty much any day of the week). You made some excellent choices. Some of the shrubs and trees you ordered have grown up enough to screen us from the neighbors, and even to block out some of the radiance of the 1,000,000 watt streetlight outside our bedroom.  The Nellie Stevens holly outside the kitchen window not only makes a beautiful dark green curtain against the western sun, it feeds thousands of bees in the spring and houses families of small birds, making chores at the kitchen sink a whole lot less odious. I thank you for those every day.

Remember the yaupon at the end of the driveway, the one you complained to the yard care people was “whimpy?” It has become anything but. Mockingbirds had a nest there when I first moved in, and I hope they will again. I like to think you’d be happy to see how lush it’s grown, and the Texas sage beneath it, and the Texas Beautyberry between the corner of our lot and the yard next door.

Even though I can imagine your young 1997 self, thrilled to be planning your first house and landscape, trying so hard to get all of it right, I have a hard time picturing you now. Do you have another house, another yard? Or does the fact that you only lived here two years suggest that harder times befell you and your little family?

Once in a while when I’m working in the yard, I imagine you driving by , on a little nostalgia trip such as I’m prone to take past houses where I’ve lived at different stages of my life. I envision you pointing to the trees and shrubs you chose, amazed to see them all so huge, remembering aspects of your life back then – who you were, changes you couldn’t have foreseen, things you might do differently if the impossible were made possible and we actually could go back.

I like to think you would be happy to see what’s become of what you started.


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