When I first moved to my home in downtown Durham, the property's tiny area of pavement between the city parking lot and the building was pretty desolate. Empty Wild Irish Rose bottles were the only flowers blooming amid the few puny weeds that poked up through the cracks. I couldn't stand that: I've got to have my flowers.
What to do? The available space was so small, and so exposed to the elements and the peripatetic denizens of downtown--the blasting sun and scouring wind; the wandering winos and the partying transvestites from the club down the block. A loading zone separated the area from the travel lanes of the parking lot, but that also meant there was a parade of 18-wheelers perilously close to the bottom of my steps. All in all, this was not a spot where you'd expect to find a garden.
But a garden I must have, and since I wasn't going to jackhammer up all the concrete, it was going to have to be a container garden. I think of it as the urban version of raised beds. You can't grow everything in containers, but you can grow an amazing range of plants. Container gardening is perfect for renters, or people who just want a few choice plants close to the house or on the balcony or deck--or people who don't want to have to bend or stoop quite so far.
The entry to our flat is on the second floor. You go up an exterior metal staircase with one landing and a small top porch. I spent a lot of time on that porch, looking down, until one day--Eureka!--I realized that what I had was vertical space. In 225 square feet, I couldn't spread out at ground level, but I could go up. Next thing you know, I had scored some leftover strips of semi-flexible wide-mesh wire rod used to reinforce concrete from a construction dumpster. I wired it together to make an arch over the bottom of my steps, and was soon growing morning glories over it. (This material was not really very satisfactory--it swayed madly in the wind!) I made another sort of trellis to lean against the wall under the top porch, and got vines going there, too. One day I was talking to the artist Patrick Dougherty, and he commented on this strange sight he'd noticed driving along Durham's Downtown Loop. Somebody had these weird growths on the back of a building down there. Yup. They did look really ridiculous, not the least because I was growing the plants in old sheetrock mud buckets from another construction project. But I proved to myself that I could grow things in that inhospitable environment.
From there the garden advanced quickly, moving into clay pots and whisky barrel tubs--infinitely more attractive than white plastic buckets. But still it was not a hospitable space. I had initially resisted the idea of enclosing it because of its small size, but it needed boundaries. The lower flight of the staircase marked one edge--to balance it I had a lace-work brick wall built by a mason, with a shallow planter on its long edge, and two deep ones at its ends, perpendicular to the wall. Although this made it clear just how little space I was working with, the walls made it a real place, a place one would want to be, despite its proximity to the gritty parking lot.
Once these horizontal, ground-level forms and planters were in place, I could get back to growing upwards. Now that I had a big enough planter to hold some substantial roots, I could do it in a grand way. Where I'd previously had the makeshift arrangement for vines, I put in a tremendous arch that goes all the way up to the top porch, and had a sturdy arched trellis built at the foot of the stairs. I had the welder use rebar steel for these, and they are well reinforced and attached to the metal staircase--no swaying now. Now two "Climbing Don Juan" roses and a tangle of Carolina jessamine grow 15 feet in the air. They cover that arch and put a mass of flowers at my feet when I step out my door, while harboring bold purple finches and bolder mockingbirds. The jessamine also softens the top and the sunny side of the lace-work wall with its evergreen leaves and wealth of golden blooms in early spring. Native red-flowered honeysuckle winds up the other arch, sending out long stems from a topknot that is much favored by the sparrows and goldfinches.
L-shaped bamboo trellises support more vines--and provide more definition to the area. Two large-flowered clematis adorn one; on another, the more delicate autumn flowering clematis entwines with the bold variegated leaves of the porcelainberry vine. In the early fall, the starry flowers and wispy seed heads of the one set off the turquoise berries of the other. Both are well above eye level on the ground, but I can see them very well when looking down from my second-story windows. Yet another trellis holds a trumpet vine at a height for me to see from above the iridescent hummingbirds it attracts to its red flowers.
I've also learned to mix plants of differing heights and growth cycles in my pots and planters. I like bulbs planted deep with perennials above them, and fill in with annuals as needed. Lemon balm quickly rises up from its winter mat to hide the dying foliage of early hyacinths. Tall daylilies and callas grow up to cover the fading leaves of the bleeding heart. In another tub, Shasta daisies bloom--then are overtaken by six-foot sunflowers, while low-growing mint spills over the sides. Stupendous tall Oriental lilies loom at the corners of the property. The lacinated leaves of fall-flowering monkshood provide a backdrop for rudbeckias and further screen the patio area from the parking lot, as does an ornamental grass--which also provides shade for some trailing ivy in the same pot. This year I've got something new: The towering stalks of hollyhock will rise over the basal rosette and more delicate spikes of cardinal flower in a stunning contrast of scale and form.
The garden is now a wonderful place to sit out in the evening and weekends. We have a drink, maybe cook out and chat with the neighbors or the folks heading for the ballpark. People love to see this little oasis in the middle of town, and it definitely proves a garden can be made just about anywhere. If you have only a small space, you won't be able to make an expansive landscape, but you can turn it into a bijou pleasure spot.
I just have one problem with my garden: I can't fit in one more plant! And the plants can only take so much coddling and grooming. Now that the garden is established, I want more.
For some time I've been planting things in the parking lot medians, and in the alley, and in my neighbor's flower bed. But as any gardener knows, the plant nut is never satisfied. I was really getting anxious about this until the solution presented itself this spring.
I don't have to bemoan my lack of space, because actually, I have a much larger garden that needs tending. I can't use up all my gardening energy on my own private garden--so some of it can go into the new public gardens being created in Durham Central Park. As a citizen, I am part owner of that park. I can play with the flowers there if I want to.
This was brought home to me several weeks ago when the Grace Garden was planted in Durham Central Park. Named after Grace Richardson, who was killed in a car wreck a couple of years ago, and funded by memorial donations from her many friends, this garden is the first area of Durham Central Park to be actualized. On a beautiful spring morning at the end of March, more than 100 people gathered to dig the beds around the paths and seats already built by the brick masons of TROSA. There were all sorts of people there, and we had a fabulous time. And at the end of the day, trees and shrubs anchored the slope, and pansies filled out the curving patterns of the garden design.
Now, when I can't find one more thing to do in my own little garden, I walk down the street and tend flowers in our shared garden. I'll take a turn this summer keeping the new plantings watered, and when the next stage of planting comes along, I'll be ready with my tools. Each thing I do makes that garden more mine--and more ours. I think this is what they call civic life, and we need to make one in every town.
Our parks can be our new town commons. I'll plant a flower for that.
To volunteer in Durham Central Park, call Joel Kostyu at 682-2800.