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THE OTHER NIGHT I WENT TO A TALK by Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher who has just published a book called Real Happiness, at a yoga center near my Brooklyn apartment. One of her suggestions — you’ve heard this one before — is to keep a gratitude journal, to write down three things each day that you’re grateful for. The idea: to keep the focus on the positive and not on the griping.
As I sailed eastward on the Long Island Expressway yesterday morning at 6AM, I already had three things for the day, despite the early hour. One was a decent night’s rest so I woke refreshed and ready for the 2-1/2 hour drive. The other was that I’d see the sunrise for the first time in God knows how long. And the third, that I was on my way to Springs (East Hampton, N.Y.), to spend the day — sunny and not too cold — at the property I’m in the extended process of buying. I’d be spending many more hours there than I’d ever spent before.
Through the day, my gratitude list grew. Most important, and a great relief: I still love the place, even though it’s not quite mine yet. Another good thing: the job I was there to make sure was accomplished — the filling in of a derelict swimming pool, above, per the Town’s requirements for an updated Certificate of Occupancy — went fine. Added to my list: bulldozers, dump trucks, and the men who deploy them.
I’m feeling more proprietary about the house, even though I have yet to close, because this is the first big job I’ve done there. I’m paying for it; the seller is not obligated to cover upgrades to conform to C of O requirement under the terms of our contract of sale. So — another $4,000 invested. I don’t care! I’m glad to do it. Even if I decide to put in a pool in years to come, it would not likely be the exact same shape or in the exact same spot.
Pool no more, above
From 8:30AM until late afternoon, I really communed with the house and the land around it. After installing three smoke detectors and a carbon monoxide detector, per the Town’s guidelines, I hung out (fully coated, gloved, scarved — there’s no heat — and with occasional forays to the car to warm up). I opened doors to experience the extra bit of sunlight they admit, walked every corner of the .52 acres trying to determine where I might be able to plant a vegetable garden, and noticed that the property is not as pancake-flat as I thought, but gently undulates. I met the lovely next-door neighbor, who wandered over, quite naturally, to find out what that bulldozer was doing.
I spent time at the southwest corner of the house, above, where there’s an unfinished second bathroom. The window will be replaced with a door, and a deck built for an outdoor shower, similar to the one I have at my original house in Springs (now rented to a couple who signed their latest email “Your elated renters at Zen Gardens”).
I took stock of the oak tree population. Almost all the large trees are oaks. Some will stay, many will have to go. How many? A lot. More than a dozen. They are all over the place. There are few evergreens — scraggly cedars. They will be supplemented by other conifers. Above, southeast corner of the property.
Northwest corner, above (I know, it looks a lot like the southeast corner). Perhaps that’s the place for veggies? Depends how much sun it gets after trees are removed.
Above, a view back toward the house from the northwest corner. Neighbors on this side are rather close, but behind a 6′ stockade fence that completely encircles the property. That fence will also exclude those other neighbors, the cloven-hoofed kind.
Most exciting of all, speaking of Zen gardens, is my great epiphany about the landscaping. An abundance of moss, above, a great stand of existing rhododendrons, the sense of enclosure provided by the fencing, and the fact that the house is simple architecturally and the lot will never be entirely sunny no matter how many trees I take down, all suddenly pointed to one obvious thing: the landscaping will be inspired by Japanese garden tradition.
Never mind that I’ve not been to Japan; I’ve gotten a stack of library books on the subject and am planning an intensive course of self-study. I’ll be able to use many of the same plants I’ve been using all along, including ferns, pines, ilex, bush clover, dogwoods, bamboo (the non-invasive kind), pachysandra, irises, and all things Japanese. That incorporates some of our most popular local gardening material: Japanese maples! Japanese anemones! Japanese painted ferns! Azaleas! Cherry trees! And lovely non-deer-resistant things like lilies and hostas and Solomon’s seal that I had to avoid at my previous, un-fenced place. I’m not even thinking about koi ponds, bridges or lanterns. I see gravel, but I don’t see boulders; they’d have to be imported (maybe I’ll substitute driftwood). I’m trying to internalize the principles on a more subtle level, and take it from there.
The gratitude list is long, my friends. I drove back to Brooklyn dreaming of rounded mounds of boxwood and artfully sculpted pine trees, right into the sunset.
IMPATIENT PEOPLE (like myself) should not try to landscape on a budget. Last Friday, hoping to create a hedge in an afternoon, I drove an hour west to Stables, a garden center in East Moriches, L.I., where I bought eight ilex crenata ‘Steeds,’ a type of holly, for $15 apiece. I was hoping to use these shrubs to block the view of cars in my beautiful new parking court.
The shrubs looked much bigger in the garden center. But they were in containers, not balled and burlapped, so I could fit them all in the back of my Honda, lying on their sides, and plant them myself. As soon as I got them home and placed them where I wanted them, top, I could see this wasn’t going to work out quite the way I planned.
Nor was the planting as easy as I naively hoped (when will I ever learn?) It took me many hours over two days to dig the requisite trenches on either side of the gravel walkway from parking court to house — one about 7 feet long and the other 11 feet. Most of that area had been part of a driveway for 50 years, so the dirt was compacted, hard as concrete, and I had to go at it with a pickax. My neighbor from across the street came over to sympathize.
I dug generous sized holes, did what I could to improve the “soil” with bagged compost, and placed the eight 4′ tall plants where I wanted them. I had bought two more than the garden center recommended for the available linear footage; they said to space them 3′ apart to allow for growth, but no way was I going to see that much air in between. Then I filled in the holes, built up little watering ‘moats’ around each one, and topped it all off with wood chips to give it a finished look.
I was going by what Julie Moir Messervy, a garden writer, said in her book The Magic Land about how it’s done in Japan: “We planted shrubs so that their branches would just touch, allowing them to grow together as a mass, while pruning them at least once a year to keep them in check.”
A good weekend’s work. But oh dear, I can still see the car, above. These ilex (I’m becoming something of an ilex specialist, since they’re evergreen, deer-resistant, and cheap — I now have several varieties) will grow to 6 feet in height and widen, but will I still be around? That’s no way to think, I keep telling myself. Meanwhile, every little bit of green helps.