The Garden by the Road

The Photography of Darren Higgins

The border serves as a buffer to the road in a part of the yard that was pointless as lawn. Photo by Darren Higgins

We had such a warm response to Michael Tortorello's article in The New York Times last week that I've decided to share a few photos taken by DC-based photographer Darren Higgins that did not make the article. While I did my best to avoid coverage of the less-than-flattering aspects of the house and garden (they are legion), both Michael and  Darren Higgins thought the full context of the garden's relationship to three roads was worth revealing.  It was a horrifying thought to me. Even in my wild fantasies of glowing media coverage, the subject of my garden on the bus route was not quite the angle I imagined. So here is a last peek at the garden before I hide it for another four years.


Jude tears across the front yard. Photo by Darren Higgins

On the day of the photo-shoot in late October, I gave Darren a 7 am tour of the garden. I showed Darren the two or three angles that it was perhaps possible to shoot the garden without getting a road, car, or our house in the background. He politely acknowledged my input and then went to work, generally ignoring my advice and seeking to tell the larger story: that this is a garden surrounded on all sides by roads. Darren placed a ladder out in the road and even climbed on our roof. Darren did a masterful job of not just getting interesting angles, but of telling the story of this garden, its context, and how we use it.

But after seeing his photos, I realize Darren was right. All gardens are a reaction to their contexts. Instead of being surrounded by forest, or the ocean, or a charming architectural backdrop, the context for our house is the street. The placement of the garden, the selection of species, and the character of the planting is all about buffering and even embracing its proximity to roads.

Gravel path and planting. Photo by Darren Higgins

The photo above shows the "border" garden as it intersects our small front lawn. The border is composed of mostly perennials, but here in late October, it is the annuals that really pop. The first year this border was composed of large blocks of mostly native perennials, but to be honest, it was dull as hell. Very little bloomed for more than a few weeks, and the vast majority of summer it was a green blob. The problem was not the natives (it's entirely possible to create a showy native border), but the concept of massed perennials in a small space. It was a landscape concept and this is a tiny garden space. So this year I played with the idea of a successional border. Succession planting (Great Dixter style, not ecological succession) plays with the idea of one wave of color or texture following the next from April to November. This means mixing annuals and tropicals into the perennial border and even planting three or four rotations of plants. All of the annuals here were grown from seed or bulb: Salvia leucantha, Marigold (Tagetes patula '???' I think a French or Himalayan; it was a seed I got from a friend), Pinca Zinnia, 'Arabian Night' Dahlia, Agave parryi, Helenium autumale, Nasella tenuissima, and Canna 'Firecracker'.

Photo by Darren Higgins

The proximity to the sidewalk and road defines the garden. The planting must screen, yet be friendly. A wall or fence would be inhospitable and out of context.

Photo by Darren Higgins
The house has great light and wonderful large windows that look out on the border. The clipped yew in the foreground was one of the few plants that came with the house, though it was almost twice its current size and V-shaped. I initially thought I would remove it, but now am rather fond of them. I've also transplanted a pyracantha from the side yard and am espaliering it up the chimney.

photo by Darren Higgins
The plantings in the border go from 18" tall in the front (where it borders the lawn) to seven to twelve feet tall on the back end (seen in the photo above). This angle was entirely different two months earlier, but the unusually wet early summer created fungal problems that wiped out a three large masses of Agastache 'Black Adder', Persicaria 'Firetail', and Helenium 'Rubinzwerg' that had performed marvelously the year before. Our terrace was completely exposed, so knowing that perennials would not fill the gap in two months, I added the fast growing late season Canna and banana (Ensete maurellii). The large banana was two feet tall when planted in July. I've always claimed that D.C. summers are subtropical . . . 

The "duck blind" from the roof.
Here is a small terrace my brother-in-law dubbed the "duck blind." It's a 12'x12' bluestone and gravel terrace carved into the tallest part of the border. It literally sits on the road and the driveway, but most of the year, the terrace is hidden from both. The planting between the driveway and terrace is six and a half feet wide, proving that it's entirely possible to get layered screening in even narrow spaces.

Within the duck blind, the road and driveway disappear. Photo by Darren Higgins

My wife Melissa and her mother Gail having wine on the terrace. Melissa is also a landscape architect and quite a talented plantsman. Many of the selections in each garden are hers, though she generally acknowledges that I am more obsessed. My mother-in-law is a fantastic gardener herself. Our family eats out in this space several times a year. It gets sun all day long, but mornings are my favorite. The wedge-shaped planting seems to exaggerate the motion of the sun. I think that's why I like the large leafed tropicals. Deep shadows lift to bright pools of light, then back to shadow.

photo by Darren Higgins

I definitely think I overdid the tropicals this year, but the Red Abyssinian Banana is something I will definitely try to keep. The sheer size was delightful. Feeling dwarfed by this giant made the space feel that much cozier. Plus the light on the leaves highlight the beautiful deep red margins. Initially, my goal was to create a meadow-like planting evocative of a wild plant community, but the size of this space and the proximity to the road changed my strategy. When your context is roads and unattractive house, subtle plantings don't work. In a small space, one has to exaggerate effects with larger than life plants. That was my goal this year: go bigger, bolder, more over the top. Next year, I won't tone it down, but I do need to make it more cohesive.


The gravel path. Most of the materials for the garden were building supplies that we had or recycled. I have large ambitions for the two yews on either side of the bath. I eventually plan to trim them into an arc over the path.

Photo by Darren Higgins
This is the other garden along the other road. The first round of plants was just planted this spring, so everything is small and not grown together yet. The idea here is a garden of green textures that evoke a woodland edge. Lots of small shrubs line the street with another gravel path around a raised berm. The stone in the foreground is a yet to be installed path that will lead to the back garden--not yet created. This garden still needs several rounds of planting, including a heavy seeding this winter of woodland edge natives, followed by several hundred plugs of woodland floor natives.

photo by Darren Higgins
This corner is a rather random moment. I've massed low grasses (Sporobolus, Deschampsia, Carex) and other native perennials along the edge, and then plan to seed the center of this bed this winter. The masses around the edge will serve as a frame for the wilder seeded planting in the center. The orange flowers are Profusion Zinnias that I grew from seed last winter--leftovers from the border garden. They are incredibly durable annuals, though I probably won't use them here next year. 

photo by Darren Higgins


And a final shot of Jude, Melissa, and Gail enjoying snacks in the border garden. Ok, that's it folks. This garden's 15 minutes in the spotlight is officially over. On to more worthy and interest topics. 

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