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.
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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