I was a latecomer to home ownership. After grad school, I embarked on a career in professional theatre that took me all over the place and often involved series of short-term contracts. So I spent most of my adult life in apartments, condos, and hotel rooms.
When I finally settled for academia, tenure, and the illusion of security, I realized that it might be time to grow up and own a house. My real estate agent and I spent a few months looking and after many houses, none of which quite felt right, my patient realtor said, “I want to show you some townhouses.”
“I’m not looking for a townhouse,” I responded. “Too much like the apartments I’ve been living in since I was 19.”
She showed me townhouses anyway and I realized I was in my comfort zone and that a townhouse was probably the way to go: Not too big; not too small – and not much yard, but enough to pursue my attraction to gardening on a small manageable scale. I quickly brought in a landscaper to get my tiny front yard in shape.
Then I began to eye my back yard.
It is a long narrow yard with a privacy fence in three parts (since it is a shared fence on two sides, it doesn’t quite match). A towering Rose of Sharon anchors the northwest corner and spindly nandinas are grouped in the middle of the southern fence. All were untended and overgrown when I moved in and I discovered how easily they were improved by radical pruning.
The plan has always been to do a complete landscape redo in that back yard and I have sat at the bistro table in the yard and mused over plans many times over the past several summers. All of my planning revolves around eventually creating the sort of freestyle, eclectic, and semi-wild “hidden garden” that one finds throughout New Orleans, particularly in the French Quarter. A book, Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess by Jeannette Hardy and Lake Douglas, with photographs by Richard Sexton (Chronicle Books, 2001), serves as a major inspiration. My plans constantly evolve and change. While I work on my to-do list, I add things to the yard randomly, eventually settle on where to put something in the ground, add architectural finds, and move pots around to experiment with ideas.
I still plan to do a major overhaul of the yard but I realize that the yard has gradually begun to take on some of the characteristics of the New Orleans spaces I admire. The real surprise, though, is that it reminds me of my Granddaddy Harbison’s yard in Fairfield Highlands west of Birmingham.
My grandfather, Leonard Harbison, had a sure green thumb and a love of the outdoors. (My green thumb didn’t grow until I was well into my 30s.) Granddaddy grew up in Cullman County but lived most of his adult life in and around Birmingham. Even so, and even in densely populated urban neighborhoods, he could always find a wooded area to take a nature walk, stick in hand and often with a dog or cat or grandson in tow. His yard was always the prettiest in the neighborhood with a seemingly random mix of blooming plants, vines, pots, and small garden plots growing tomatoes or peppers or other edibles. He worked hard to achieve yards that looked effortless.
In my small backyard, there is a small wild rosebush that grew from a cutting from the rosebush that once belonged to my Harbison grandparents and is now in my parents’ back yard. After all of these decades, a part of Granddaddy’s rosebush flourishes in my little yard. Nearby is a Jazz Feeds chicken feeder that I picked up at an antique shop. Jazz was a brand of farm feed that has disappeared but I remember it well from when I was growing up. My grandfather always had Jazz feed on hand for the hounds he continued to run into his later years. When I saw the feeder with the Jazz name and the logo of a rooster playing a saxophone, I knew I would buy it then and figure out where to put it later.
When my grandfather died in 1997 I was working in Texas. After much deliberation and tampering with my schedule and finances, I realized that it would be best not to go back to Alabama for the funeral. On the day of the funeral, I took a late lunch at 2:00 – the time the funeral was scheduled to begin – and wandered around a local nursery and bought plants. It seemed like the right thing to do on that particular day. All of the plants would have done well in Granddaddy’s yard.