My adopted town of Cary, North Carolina has many advantages. Compared to New York, life here is stress-free; the traffic is manageable, the taxes are not bad, and there are Indian and Asian markets if you need tamarind chutney or nam pla. Architecturally, though, it's another story. My house is pretty typical: an assembly-line concoction with zero personality.
I'm sure Cary was charming once. Fifty years ago, it had about 1500 residents, an historic downtown, a lot of one-lane roads, and a handful of traffic lights. When Research Triangle Park opened in the 1960s, though, IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, and a host of other corporate biggies set up shop, bringing with them the massive influx of transplants known in these parts as the Second Yankee Invasion. Developers had a ball ("So many trees, so little time"). Today, the population exceeds 140,000.
The upshot is that Cary, despite a founding date of 1750, is new - so new that my 1989 subdivision is considered an "older" section of town. And since new construction in Cary looks pretty much like new construction everywhere else, you don't get a strong sense of place. Everything is nice and neat (the town's landscapers in particular do a bang-up job) but architectural character is in short supply. The developers are also a bit stingy when it comes sidewalks and are overly enamored of the cul-de-sac.
Maybe I'm crabby about the Cary aesthetic because I just got back from Charleston and Savannah. They are picture-perfect Southern cities, right down to the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Both have an overabundance of gorgeous architecture and beautifully landscaped parks. We spent a lot of time gawking at historic homes and peering through wrought iron gates into exquisite private gardens. Carved fountains are everywhere, as are elegant statues and urns (I think there is a No Kitsch ordinance in effect). Cast iron plants and Japanese holly ferns are the edgers of choice, and there's no denying that they look sensational in Hardiness Zone 8b, where it hardly ever freezes (they are distinctly less impressive in my Zone 7b garden).
If I had to nitpick, though, I'd say there is one problem with the private gardens: they're so perfect they're impersonal. Once I stopped oohing and aahing over them, I realized that they all looked the same, in the way that all blond models on the covers of fashion magazines look the same. They were the epitome of good taste but lacked - brace yourself - character.
It's funny - in Charleston and Savannah the houses have character, but the gardens seem a bit mass-produced, albeit in a very high-end way. What's even funnier is that the homeowners didn't need to go to all that trouble. Even a flat of crummy Walmart impatiens would look fabulous next to one of those houses.
My house, on the other hand, has absolutely no character - in fact, it's the very same model as the one across the street. But at least my garden has personality. It would be an exaggeration to say that if it weren't for my front yard, you couldn't tell my house from my neighbor's. But I will say this: no one else on the block was dumb enough to plant Pyracantha as a specimen shrub.
Have you noticed how complicated it has become to buy yogurt? What used to be a fairly straightforward decision is now a positively Herculean task. In the old days, all you had to do was choose between plain and flavored, fat and non-fat. Now an entire wing of the supermarket is devoted to yogurt. Greek or cow's milk. Splenda or sugar. Extra Lactobacillus acidophilus. Square container or round.
Buying plants has become like buying yogurt. Ever since the garden catalogue avalanche began in January, I have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, wracked by indecision as I debated the merits of amsonia hubrechtii vs. amsonia tabernaemontana, the nuances among the different varieties of flowering tobacco, and all those new buddleia introductions. Meanwhile, the pressure is mounting as the calendar marches inexorably toward spring.
I have an unusually large number of decisions to make this year. Nature has blessed me with a bumper crop of garden bare spots, as well as two little garden beds that require complete makeovers. Ordinarily, I would be delighted by the chance to try new plants and fix past design disasters. Instead, I am paralyzed. There are too many choices.
To narrow things down, though, I have made one resolution: no new introductions. Sometimes it takes a few years to find out that the latest and greatest is not really all it's cracked up to be. A case in point: one of the beds in need of a makeover is currently occupied by three Hot New Plants circa 2006. "Raspberry Dazzle" dwarf crape myrtles was part of the first wave of shorter (3 feet), more cold hardy (zone 6) crape myrtles developed by plant guru Michael Dirr and marketed as the Razzle Dazzle series. My philosophy is that you can never have too many crape myrtles, especially when they are compact enough to fit into a border and remind me of my all-time favorite Crayola crayon, magenta. So naturally I snatched them up.
It turns out that nobody's perfect, not even Michael Dirr. Raspberry Dazzle is a dud. In six years, I have never, ever seen as much as one bud on any of them. An online garden forum confirmed my suspicions: when it comes to blooming, Raspberry Dazzle would prefer not to. Now it has been booted from the market to make way for a better Hot New Plant. Its name? "Berry Dazzle." If you don't think it's different, check the patent number. I'll bet it blooms, too.
Back in the living room, the catalogues are everywhere and my decision-making is nowhere. My current fixation is that fabulous new Buddleia, Miss Molly. Or is it Miss Ruby? No matter. I love them both. They're compact enough to fit into a border and remind me of my all-time favorite Crayola crayon, magenta. If they are still on the market in 5 years, I may just spring for one.
Adjacent to my driveway, ending where my neighbor's holly bushes begin, is a little strip of land that I have dubbed the Valley of Death. A few years ago, Ron and I had the harebrained idea of turning it into a shade garden; ever since, it has been the place where plants go to die. The entire experience has been an education.
First, some background. When we moved in 8 years ago, our future shade garden was an unsightly slope of not-very-nice grass. Two mature trees, an oak and an alder, did a good job of preventing anything decent from growing around them. Throw in years of topsoil erosion and the reflected heat from the driveway, and you had just about the least likely place to plant a garden.
Fast forward to fall 2008. We had just replaced our ugly cracked driveway with pavers, and suddenly the wasteland seemed like a shade garden waiting to happen. We spent fall and winter preparing the site, piling on bag after bag of compost and top soil to improve and raise the planting bed. Then, beginning in March 2009, we filled it with a very expensive assortment of "tough" and "drought-tolerant" shade plants. Among the lucky winners were some A plants (asarum, aspidistra, and acanthus), some H plants (hostas, heucheras, and hellebores), one bergenia, two carex, one euphorbia robbiae, two "heat-tolerant" primulas, and assorted ferns.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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