A Five-Corner Garden

Living at the intersection of five well-traveled streets in a neighborhood just inside the Beltway has been more peaceful than I’d imagined it could be. The bus stop a half a block from my house is really only busy during rush hour. Once commuters understood my covered porch would no longer serve as a shelter during rainy weather (it really just took opening the door once and peering out with an arched eyebrow), we all got along just fine.

5 corner intersection in last year's light snow.

Our five-corner intersection in last year’s light snow.

I spent most of last summer building small gardens in the very small yard that surrounds the house–a project that elicited much friendly commentary from passersby who had watched the property fade and deteriorate for years before we moved in. The bar, in other words, was low. “A new walkway–oh my that’s lovely.” Well, yes, it is, but not stunningly so. Not stop in your tracks to say wow so. But people did. And do. “Your planters,” called a woman from across the street (waiting for the bus). “Those are really some of the most beautiful plantings I’ve ever seen.” Well thank you. Coleus can be pretty. But, well, they’re coleus.

The coleus in spring. They grew quite large over the course of the summer.

The coleus in spring. They grew quite large over the course of the summer.

When we moved in, the only planting that had survived the property’s 15 years of abandonment and neglect was a yucca, situated right at the intersection of Woodstock and Linden and spreading out into the sidewalk. It was the plant that dogs peed on and that toads lived under. The plant whose roots provided shelter and (if I am interpreting the evidence correctly) food for burrowing critters. A hardy, tough, don’t mess with me urban survivor.

The prelapsarian yucca plant in 2015.

The prelapsarian yucca plant in 2015.

We found some old photographs of the property when it had been used as a sorority house for a rather chi-chi girls’ school in 1903. There was the yucca plant. Actually the place was studded with them, since the house–a clubhouse really–was designed to resemble a Spanish Mission.

Theta Sigma Rho in 1903, ringed by yucca plants.

Theta Sigma Rho in 1903, ringed by yucca plants.

These were more tender versions of the yucca plant I inherited, but then Forest Glen was a different place in 1903. A rural escape from the city accessible by a single tram line that traveled from here down 16th Street to stop close to the White House (in the days when getting close to the White House was still possible). And, impossibly, the house and neighborhood still convey a certain rural charm today.

The house aglow.

The house aglow.

I fell in love with our yucca. I added soil to its exposed roots, settled two large rocks on either side of it to discourage bad critter behavior and then built a garden around it–giving the yucca pride of place.

Yucca inviolate.

Yucca inviolate

The garden started out as a symmetrical masterpiece, but soon devolved into a crowded and crazy patchwork of plants from neighbors, family, and friends. Hydrangea, abelia, and globe cryptomeria served as the bones. Heather, coral bells, and day lilies edged the perimeter, and lobelia, sedum, rudbeckia, monarda, and cleome all ran riot in between.

Then, after some insanely warm weather, winter finally arrived with two feet of snow and a county government determined not to let this weather event be an excuse for public scolding and finger wagging. So out came the plows. And then I learned what living on the corner of a 5-way intersection really means.

It means that roads must be plowed and bus stops cleared. It means snow must be dumped somewhere. And a nice flat yard on a nice convenient corner is pretty irresistible to guys who have been up all night trying to stay ahead of the storm.

A big, bad mountain of freezing slush.

A big, bad mountain of freezing slush.

So my garden waits. Not under two feet of clean, insulating snow. But under six feet of icy snow boulders, grit, mud, and churned up grass.

I suspect the hydrangea branches are broken. I am hopeful that the abelia just laid itself down to rest. The cryptomeria is anybody’s guess. I know the perennials will come back and I collected cleome seeds in the fall.

But my yucca? It took the brunt of the plowing. And even with a four-day thaw and temperatures in the 60s, it is still under six feet of icy snow boulders, grit, mud, and churned up grass.

Sometimes I walk outside and halfheartedly kick at the ice. I try not to look out of my windows at the mess weighing down my plants. Yes, it will melt. With patience and care the garden will thrive again. And with luck, perhaps a tender shoot of the yucca survived. Surely in more than one hundred years, it has seen worse.

House, side





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