Saturday, May 19, 2007

Buxus R Us

I moved into the house you see here in March 2007. After the contract closed I would lie awake at night and plan my first steps: cutting back the leggy boxwoods. A couple of years ago there was an article in the Sunday New York Times magazine about a famous German landscape architect who had taken on a property with a 50 yard path lined with 4 ft. tall boxwoods along that had been completely neglected for years. Rather than cut them back, he had worked with their natural wild forms, sculpting the shapes and bulges. The result was this stunning swath of oceanic emerald waves, almost bizarre or creepy in its rolling masses. While I can't remember the man's name, I've never forgotten those boxwoods.
Nevertheless I immediately cut back the boxwood hedges the day after I moved in. Once they've gotten as leggy as these were, the understory of the plant become bare and the whole hedge looks like it's trembling on house of cards. Which it in fact in can be in the event of a really bad freeze. Anyone who gardened in Austin in the 80s will know what I'm talking about. We had two winters where there were several days where we didn't make it above freezing. Almost every pittosporum in town died. When it was over, the photinias were still standing. Thus the horrid over-planting of this shrub.
Back to the boxwoods. So off they went, lopped to about a foot from the ground. I have inherited boxwoods in every house I have ever lived in Austin. They can be terribly boring and smell weird (Nancy Lancaster, my gardening heroine, said her father thought they smelled like dog pee). There is something suspect to me about a plant that only seems appealing if it is rigidly controlled and shaped. But then they do work well as a simple wall of green in many garden settings, both formal and rambling. My oldest daughter spent a summer at Blandy in Virginia, a state run horticultural research center where they have the world's most complete boxwood garden and it was interesting to see how vast the array of sizes and varieties. So I hope my boxwoods take the rigorous pruning. But if not, asi es la vida.
I've just moved to this house from my previous half-acre in Rollingwood. Giant lot, giant lawn, vast perennial beds, back-breaking work every winter cutting back the woody perennials, never ending policing of the drip-irrigation hoses. Way too much lot for any city-dweller to own or maintain. When they put in the sewer system 5 years ago, the trencher dug up my front yard and I could see with horror the fact that I had at most 5 inches of topsoil sitting on solid limestone. Of course it only confirmed what I already knew and felt every time I stuck a shovel into the ground and heard the dreaded "CLANG!"
So now I've moved a little ways north to plain old black clay, or as Scott Ogden calls it, mbuga. 1940's cottage, miniscule front yard, and completely unadorned back yard. I'm always amazed to find old houses where no one has planted so much as a single rosebush or carved out a tiny bed. But here we have a virgin plot, except for the some very minor nominal landscaping done by the houseflipper's paid guns.
At my last house I kept a garden journal, pasted in pictures and i.d. tags from purchased plants. For this house, I think I'll do both: journal and blog. Next post will outline my Grand Plan.

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