The Privet and the Maple
I once said that I would never live in a ranch house or a red brick house, and I would never have a garden with a Norway maple or a privet hedge or a big lawn. I should learn to restrain myself.
We are currently known as the people who live in the brick ranch on the corner. We have a Norway maple and a privet hedge in the front yard and a great lawn in the back yard, and, as people say these days, it’s all good.
Here is how it happened. We were not planning to relocate and it never occurred to us that we were aging. Daughter Susan and husband Mike in New Hampshire, a little more forward-thinking, suggested, delicately, that we might prefer not to be living so far from relatives in a semi-remote area of North Carolina and might like to try snowy New Hampshire.
We said yes, you are probably right. (Even the snowy part sounded somewhat romantic because we could take a reprieve from interminable chopping and weeding necessary in a southern garden.)
But we would need space because we are not ready to part with our life stories (clutter). And we would need room for a wood shop. And we don’t want to give up gardening. And, if possible, could you find something on or near a lake (New Hampshire has a lot of lakes, doesn’t it?). For not too much money.
That is a tall order, they said, but we will try.
Two days later they called to say they had found a recently renovated, well groomed, mid-twentieth-century house only ten minutes from their home. It had ample living space and a full basement (for wood shop and library). It was on a half-acre-plus lot, across the street from a lake and a mile from a quintessential New England town with a river running through it and a well stocked old-time grocery store and a delicious hardware store and a century old library, also well stocked, with columns and a grand entry.
Slide show of the lake, which was the site of July 4th festivities
Yes, the lake is lovely, but the house was a red brick ranch with not one but two Norway maple trees and a six-foot-tall privet hedge and lots of burning bushes and a huge rolling lawn.
Isn’t there anything else around, say, with more of a New England flavor? My second-guess internet searches turned up quaint colonials that begged for rose-pink ramblers embracing the front door, but, oh my, what fixer-uppers they were, on wooded hillsides that would keep us snowbound all winter. Not so romantic.
So we came back to reality. Apparently there were a lot of other people who were not concerned about red brick clashing with pink roses, or maples and privets in the garden. We jumped smack into a fierce bidding war. Like big-time brokers we fielded numbers climbing at warp speed. On property we’d only seen through real estate photos! Were we turning dotty in our golden years?
Not at all, said our children, four of them, with equally enthusiastic spouses, who had checked out the house for us and were already comfortable in a society that tosses big numbers around like confetti. They desperately wanted to see more of us without having to caravan south and seemed not especially concerned with pink roses languishing against red brick, or Norway maples and tall privet hedges, or globes of burning bushes.
Meanwhile, to ease the transition, Susan compiled a bible with pages of phone numbers, from neighbors to doctors to contractors to local nurseries (hat page is already dog-eared) and transformed our front entry into an autumn welcome center.
So we settled in during a 2021 New England November whose gray clouds kept us focused on re-arranging our life stories inside this brick house which turned out to be winter-snug and cozy. Lovely, because my heart was not quite ready to give up our former garden to tackle a new one.
Our southern garden of thirty-five years had been made and remade in meandery response to tropical storms and changing climate and our personal whims. It was a garden chock full of plants that toppled through life, elbowing each other, with woodland paths and surprises around corners and hot pink roses and just enough grass to service our septic system.
It was a garden that seemed on the verge of bursting out of bounds, reined in imperfectly by a gardener who liked growing more than taming. By a curious gardener who luxuriated in a leisurely work-in-progress that spanned decades.
In this garden of surprises there was no privet or maple, though occasional seeds from burning bush berries plopped by birds would grow into graceful, almost balletic understory trees, short-lived because they were too polite, or exhausted, to compete with rowdies in heat and humidity.
Slide show of our last autumn in North Carolina
On the other hand, our New Hampshire garden is orderly and spacious. There is a classic feel to it. Magnificent trees like a Norway spruce with graceful boughs and an ancient green ash and a perfect hemlock speak of age and cycles and death. Handsome old shrubs and small trees hug the periphery of an expansive lawn, and mature trees on neighboring properties enhance the landscape.
Plants don’t bump up against other plants, or hang over them like drunken sailors. The orderly design has a European flair, and I find that gazing across our spacious lawn produces far less sweat in mid-summer than machete-ing a jungle.
Slide show of our New Hampshire garden
But this garden was not ours, and we did not have the luxury of decades to fine-tune it.
Off with their heads, out with their roots, I cried like Alice’s wacky Queen of Hearts. The order included 18 or 20 globes of burning bushes, arborvitae that blocked windows, assorted large shrubs that required regular, thoughtful shaping (that kind of pruning is not in our horticultural repertoire), and, of course, the privets and the Norway maples.
It would be the first time we paid for garden work that was not related to hurricane damage, and the first time Ranger wasn’t on hauling detail, having been left in good automotive hands in North Carolina.
Brandon from the bible was anxious to try out a brand new scoop with a mean dinosaur claw that could, in the hands of a skilled operator, excavate shrubs and tear out fences (a last-minute request) and smooth out disturbed ground with equal dexterity.
Slide Show of the Mighty Excavator
But at the end of the day, there was no time for pulling privet or maples and no space in the big pickup truck for their remains. Anyway, the maples were too big and needed to be taken down by an arborist.
When we were young marrieds and living in suburbia, our house featured a sweeping front lawn with Norway maples planted by the town for beautification and shade. These were tough street trees (as we called them), planted because they survived.
Late winter they were leafless and twiggy and, unless frosted by storm, not very appealing
When Boisvert Brothers took trees down across the street from us, we were so impressed with their work we hired them to do in the maples.
I thought the company name, which means green woods, was an especially clever choice, until I learned that there really is a long line of Boisverts in the forest industry, descendants of French immigrants that settled here generations ago.
And then a funny thing happened a few days before the take-down. The trees leafed out and showcased a display of knock-your-socks off crimson wine that became stars in the early spring garden.
(Note for Botanical Latin Lovers: The variety of Norway maple, Acer platanoides ‘Schwedleri,’ in our garden has been around since mid-19th century. Its leaves emerge crimson and turn dark green in summer. ‘Schwedleri’ is the parent of the popular ‘Crimson King,’ introduced mid-twentieth century, whose leaves remain crimson all season.)
The old Queen took a step back. But we don’t need two! she asserted. We’ll keep the larger maple in front of the house.
Which turned out to be a lucky call. That maple has benevolently shaded us during languid summer afternoons, before it turned to gold in the fall.
The six-foot-and-growing privet still goes out, the baleful Queen added. No reprieve.
And then another funny thing happened a scant twenty-four hours before Brandon was scheduled a second time to excavate privet. I was browsing Google earth photos that showed our fifties ranch with the young maples and privets. I studied the picture for a while and I had an epiphany of sorts.
We were living in one of the last great examples of mid-century gardening history! People planted maples and privet hedges regularly in front of their houses then.
When I was growing up I can remember parading around with pollynoses from maples stuck on my nose. (Technically these seed-bearing wings are called samaras, but pollynoses are far more fun, unless you happen to be raking zillions from a lawn.)
And sometimes, in the background, I could hear the sharp snap of heavy shears as my father rhythmically clipped the privet hedge near the sidewalk. No power tools in those days.
This minimalist brick ranch was in vogue then, too. Maples and privets once had their place in time, as did our brick ranch, and they belonged together. The Queen retreated. The privet will stay, she said, but cut down to a manageable height.
And so we would preserve this sliver of gardening history. But not quite yet.
Blue jays, who cared nothing for the Queen’s commands, were meanwhile building a nest high in the hedge, with plans to spend most of the summer raising a family there. The trimming would have to wait.
But we were ready now to make a plan of sorts and create a garden that would build on the history of the land and become a piece of our gardening history, too..