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THE MONTH OF MAY hasn’t been so much merry as schizy (though there have been some undeniably merry moments). I spent the first two weeks of the month saying goodbye to my former home, a vintage cottage in East Hampton, N.Y., enjoying its deck and outdoor shower every chance I got. I gazed into the woods, wondering how I was going to survive without that particular view.
I had one last yard sale, then moved my remaining “staged for sale” furnishings from the cottage to the other house I bought last year — a mid-20th century L-shaped bungalow, below — a quarter-mile away. A few days later, I sold that beloved first cottage, five years and a day after buying it in 2009, and six months after putting it on the market.
It was the first time I ever sold a property (I still own a few; see my About page). Did it feel momentous? Nah. I had experienced all my emotion in anticipation, it turned out. Closings are non-events, I’ve realized. No ceremony, no festivity — just attorneys and a title company rep passing papers back and forth to be signed. No one says congratulations; you’re lucky if get hello and goodbye. Afterwards, I ran to the bank, and then — except for sharing a bottle of champagne with a friend — pretty much forgot about the whole thing. It’s out of my hands now. If the garden on which I worked so hard and long reverts to nature — well, so be it.
Below, views of my “new” house and landscape, as it looked earlier this month:
Now I’m all of a piece — all my things in one house, responsible for only one garden and one Town of East Hampton tax bill. Most significantly, my focus and attention is now in one place. I’ve furnished the rooms comfortably, and I’m doing the best I can to control the indoor climate in my unheated, un-cooled house, alternating space heater and fan as weather demands.
I made a conscious decision to make no decisions for a while — to call no contractors, no deck guys, no guys at all. There are big jobs ahead: replacing the deteriorating deck and installing windows in a long hallway where now there are boarded-up holes, to name two major priorities. But I’m not ready to move on anything quite yet.
Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying my new borrowed view, of dogwoods in the neighboring yard, above, and the rhododendrons have come out, spectacularly, to greet me.
GREETINGS FROM THE LAND of rhododendrons. They’re pink, it turns out, the stand of old rhodies at the eastern Long Island property I bought in March — hot, gaudy pink, immensely cheering on a foggy 57-degree morning.
I’ve been living here four days now. I’ve got all the basics: water hot and cold, electricity, Internet, termites…
At least I think they’re termites [They weren't. They were carpenter ants]. Yesterday’s hot weather brought them swarming out of a rotten ceiling beam in the front room that I knew would need replacing, now sooner rather than later. I conducted my own attack with a can of Raid and a vacuum cleaner; the exterminator comes tomorrow.
I’ve got a space heater and a fan, which I’ve used alternately over the past few days, and a stove and refrigerator as of this morning, though the stove isn’t hooked up — the installers didn’t have the right size connector (I’m not feeling very good about PC Richard right now). The refrigerator looks monstrously huge, though I expect I’ll get used to it.
Meanwhile, I’ve stopped calling this — or thinking of it as — a “low-budget” or “shoestring” renovation. It no longer feels that way; I’ve spent too many G’s already. Nor is it even a renovation — a pre-novation, perhaps. I’m in repair mode, mainly. The on-demand hot water heater I was so excited about turned out to be irrevocably busted and in need of replacement. The windows are done — in the contractor’s words, “a little nightmare.” Twenty-three original single-pane awning windows dating from the 1940s, below, are now planed and re-glazed and re-hung on new galvanized hinges so that they close properly.
For locks, I ended up using the one fancy $24 casement fastener I had bought as a trial sample in the bathroom, below, where there’s a single window, and $4 barrel bolts from the hardware store on all the rest, having realized they do the same thing.
The arborist and his son put in several long days, removing rotting trees in front and back of the house for insurance and safety reasons, but also with the happy effect of making the area around the house feel less oppressive. Right in front of the deck, below, there’s now an open circle, sunny for most of the day.
But what really made the place feel like home was painting the plywood floor in the “front room,” my all-purpose living/sitting/dining room/study — a do-it-myself operation involving two coats of primer and one of white floor paint I had left over from my previous house nearby.
Then I threw down a few area rugs from my extensive collection and moved in whatever furniture I had left after my tenants at that former home took what they could use. I rented that cottage ‘semi-furnished’ last winter, which means they have my sofa, dining table, and other major items, while I have a motley assortment of occasional and leftover pieces. But I’m glad to see them here. “Oh, you Cara-ized the place,” as a friend put it.
The kitchen is coming together. I’m using a Craftsman tool chest bought from the previous owner (for my son, but he hasn’t claimed it yet) as temporary drawers for silverware, linens, etc.
I think I liked the kitchen better, above, before the fridge and stove were delivered, below. I have an IKEA stainless Flytta cart awaiting assembly for the space to the left of the stove. And that’s it; should be a serviceable kitchen.
An architect friend stopped by with some good ideas, especially for the great room. It’s about 400 square feet with high ceilings, French doors on the north side, and two south-facing windows, yet it’s got deep eaves and is quite dark. His idea was to “punch out three lights” [windows] above the French doors (you can see them in photo below), which would not be a structural issue, and “just pop in” fixed planes of glass, like clerestory windows, to bring in light from on high (that’s Phase maybe 4).
The closet in the great room, we agreed, has to go. Demolition: love it. Easy, cheap, and makes a big, sudden difference. But for now, I’ve said goodbye to the carpenter, the plumber, the tree guys. Not the electrician — I still need some light fixtures installed, and outdoor lights as well. But the others have all come to some sort of natural stopping point, and so has my bank account.
What’s next? Well, there’s the garden, about which I’ve done basically nothing. Sometimes I dimly recall a life that was not all about this house. But I’ve got to finish unpacking books and kitchen stuff, measure for window screens, wash the rest of the windows, buy a medicine chest and pot rack, get a proper knob for the front door and another bed or 2 for guests, set up the bathroom, get to work on the floor in the great room… that should keep me busy for a few days.
IT’S BEEN REALLY HARD to tear myself away from the country these mid-autumn days, but return to the big city I must, sometimes. Even though my woodsy part of eastern Long Island, being mostly oaks, is not known for blazing fall color, and though my perennial garden disappointed me in late summer with a paucity of flowers, I’m ending the garden season on a satisfied note.
I’m pleased with the slightly staggered arrangement of my six new boxwoods, top, which I supplemented with a conical, five-foot Alberta spruce, named Alberta ($75 on sale and well worth it). It fills a gap and brings in some textural variety. The seven new shrubs are already effective in screening my exquisitely sensitive eyes from the sight of my neighbors’ car and propane tank, even though they’re not full-grown. I’ve been coddling them with compost, mulch, and water, and they’ll get a dose of Holly-tone on my next visit.
The miscanthus, which my garden-designer friend Lula says is invasive, is indeed rather taking over the sunny bed near my front door, but I’m loving its red plumes. There are two of them there; I’ll move one out in the spring.
Three cheers for chocolate eupatorium, a Brooklyn stoop sale purchase last spring. Very late-blooming (I thought it might never happen), and such a welcome sight right off the front deck.
The wet summer did well by the lawn. It’s full of stuff other than turfgrass, but I don’t care — it’s green. The free-form island bed, which a couple of people suggested I lose in favor of a sweep of lawn, remains. I have planted it up with 54 liriope (yes, ML, the deer nibble it, but they don’t devour it entirely — I have it growing elsewhere — and it’s well-sprayed). My inspiration there is a bed in front of the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library — nothing but liriope, tidy and impressive.
An inexpensive and successful solution to the contorted pine, which I never really liked: moving the three old scraggly azaleas that were situated to its left. They are now in another part of the yard and will be wrapped in burlap to keep the deer from eating them this winter. Meanwhile, the contorta is silhouetted nicely and you can see the newly planted bed of ornamental grasses beyond. I like it much better now.
And the rhodies — lookin’ good! They are reveling in the increased air and light they’re receiving since their radical rejuvenation pruning in July, sending up lots of new growth. I’m going to give the overgrown pieris, which I’m guessing could be 40 years old, the same invigorating treatment next spring.
So gardening must come to an end soon, but next year promises to be even better. If that isn’t a raison d’etre, or at least a reason to get through the winter, I don’t know what is.
THIS IS NOT my East Hampton garden’s finest hour. I came back after two weeks in the Big City and a hurricane — no, a tropical storm, but still — to find it looking…well, shvach. That word comes to me from my grandmother: it’s Yiddish for ‘lacking, underwhelming, disappointing.’
The only real color in the front perennial beds is the ligularia, which puts out rich yellow spiky flowers right about now. I was conscientious about my Deer-Out regimen in spring and early summer, but as the season progressed, “SPRAY!!!” moved farther and farther down my list of things to do. So the cranesbill geranium ‘Rozanne,’ for instance, which is supposed to bloom till frost, is bare of flowers.
One of the accomplishments of the season was the extension of my perennial border another 30, maybe 40 feet, to the left of the path below. It’s all mulched [thank you, Barbara!] and ready to go — if only I could think what to plant there. To the right of the path, the shadiest area is home to ferns, Korean boxwoods, pieris, epimedium…green, all green.
It’s not unusual for gardens to lack color in late summer and fall. They needn’t; it’s just that people tend to start out all gung ho and buy out the nurseries in spring, then rest on their mountain laurels and more or less forget about planning for later in the season. That’s not entirely my problem — it’s more about the challenges of excessive shade and deer.
On the plus side, the recently pruned rhodies, above, are happily sending out fresh new growth. Below, the miscanthus are satisfyingly full at the end of their second season. I’ll probably be dividing them before long.
Perennials will be on sale in a few weeks, and I’ll try to pump up the late summer color quotient for next year.
An old clump of chelone, or turtlehead, above, pre-dates my 2009 arrival. I moved it from under my about-to-be-built deck to a spot way at the back of the perennial border, where it is a standout. Ought to get more of that stuff, come to think of it.
Below, still no decision on what to do with the amoeba-shaped island bed in the middle of the back lawn. Ajuga (bugleweed) is colonizing it, and I see no reason not to let that happen.
Then there’s this vast empty area along the western property line, below, a fairly sunny spot where I might create a fenced cutting garden, or plant a variety of ornamental grasses. There’s an baby Eastern Redbud tree toward the back; I’m looking forward to it filling out and blooming pink next spring.
Below, the wrath of Irene. A huge — no, I mean, huge– oak keeled over toward the back of my property. Actually, its trunk was on land belonging to the Town of East Hampton.The first five feet of it fell on Town land; the other 70 feet on my land. I’ve made the phone call and been told someone will “take a look.” Uh-huh.
Trees and shrubs go on sale around here tomorrow. I’ll be exploring the local boxwood selection. Boxwoods are tidy, shade-tolerant, deer-resistant, evergreen, classic. They provide screening and structure. Yay, boxwoods. What could be bad?
GARDENING REQUIRES many leaps of faith, especially when you’re learning on the fly as I am (but then again, I suspect that’s what most gardeners do throughout their lives). This morning I took a giant leap, with Dong’s help. He arrived at 8AM, chain saw in hand. I was still in my pajamas, but no matter. This is the country. I went outside.
He was here to radically prune five overgrown rhododendrons that have towered over my East Hampton cottage since I bought it in May of ’09. Those rhodies bloom magnificently purple in mid-May, but 20 feet up, way over the roofline. I never really got to enjoy the flowers.
And though they sheltered the house and I enjoyed the sense of seclusion they provided, two close friends who are professional garden designers agreed they ought to be hacked back, both for appearance sake and the health of the shrubs. So when Mary-Liz visited two weeks ago, she got out her pink marking tape and, at my request, thoughtfully tied ribbons around each branch just where they should be cut. I could never have made those decisions myself.
Finally, this morning, Dong arrived to do the job. I held my breath. He buzzed his way through the five rhodies (Mary-Liz had suggested possibly leaving one large near the house, but when the other four were down, I thought it better to make them all uniform.) The operation was over before 9.
Suddenly the area feels bare. The side of the house is exposed in all its discolored cedar shingle glory. I looked at some nearby shade plants, like the pulmonaria under the magnolia, and thought, it’s not gonna be happy. Other things, however, probably will be very happy for the extra sun.
Am I happy? I’m afraid to go out and look again. But as Dong said, “Don’t worry. Next year it will all fill in.” Let us pray.