After all the unease and inner work it seemed to take me to “let go” of our old place, the surprise to me has been the ease with which the new house has become “home”. Not ease as in not having anything to fix or upgrade or change to suit us, but a kind of inner ease, feeling like this has always been ours.
11 months have passed since my last blog post…sorry about that if you are a follower of my writing! When I last wrote it was about losing our cat Charlie who went walkabout in October 2017, and never came back. After about six weeks we noticed Spirit Cat was out of sorts and off his food. After a vet check found nothing amiss, we assumed he was missing Charlie and so we found him a new buddy at the shelter, Leo, a mellow five-year-old.
At the time I was still struggling to be okay with the “in-betweenness” of not knowing when we’d get a purchaser for We Are One Farm, and whether, once we did, we’d still be able to buy the house in town we’d had an accepted offer on since the January before.
Today I am looking out my office window into the shade of a gigantic black locust tree which is covered in an equally massive and dense English ivy, positively vibrating with bees of all kinds. Bumblebees and honey bees are darting in and out of the leaves and the whole thing is humming when I step outside the front door. They are collecting all the goodness, pollen, perhaps nectar, that is in the abundant tiny blossoms that are bursting out on the ivy. This tree is outside of our new home in town, smack in the middle of Bridgewater. We moved here on February 5th.
From all the breath-holding of the previous 11 months since we’d had our conditional offer accepted on the house in town (conditional on selling our place), we both heaved a great sigh as we finished loading our (somewhat) pared-down belongings into this 1947, Georgian-style traditional home. We were blessed with mild weather for February, no snow to impede the loading and unloading. Friends helped us out, along with local movers. We felt a little stunned after having accepted the offer on our house on Christmas Eve and moving within 6 weeks.
Our expansive hilltop with its sunset views and 38 acres of forest and open, sunny fields, has been replaced with a couple thousand square feet in a shady, root-filled and fenced back yard, tucked in between older single family homes and backed by a couple houses converted to multiple rental units. We are two blocks uphill from the main street in town which runs along the LaHave River. We can’t see the river but it is a stone’s throw away.
No more chicken coop, no workshop, garden sheds nor wood shed. No greenhouses nor vegetable garden. No fruit trees nor grape vines. No long driveway to plow nor lawn to mow (“Yay!” says my husband.) No lavender field or remnant thereof. No flower beds. No flower beds??
It was February, I wouldn’t be able to garden for a few months anyway, so we focused on refreshing the space by painting some rooms and getting rid of heavy draperies. We upgraded a few unglamorous things like some electrical grounding issues, installed a new sump pump, had a defunct wood furnace removed, and later had the brick chimney re-pointed. We bought an auxiliary heat source in the form of a propane stove for the living room, a gas kitchen range, and a diesel generator we found on sale, preparing for power outages in the increasingly windy winters. It all added up to more than we were planning, but these changes help us feel a little more safe and secure for the extreme weather that seems to be plaguing the planet more often.
We’d had one particular vision for the place when we first saw it, and that was to change out a giant picture window at the back of the dining room to a patio door and add a deck, so we could connect with the outdoors and have somewhere to sit and enjoy summer evenings. That work was done in May and June and has been an excellent investment. We have enjoyed more dinners alfresco this summer than we ever did in all our years at the farm, due to the lack of wind and bugs!
The deck addition proved slightly more complex than planned however, when the builders found rot in the small enclosed mud porch, as they were about to tie-in the deck to the house. They followed the rot from the bottom of the back door to the roof of the porch and over to the opposite corner, where they also found carpenter ants! As the older wooden windows in the porch had lost their seals and were getting soft around the edges, needing replacement, and the roof of the porch was also getting spongey and needed work, we opted to remove the porch altogether and just extend the deck to the back of the kitchen.
What had seemed like bad news turned out for the best: the deck is slightly more spacious and functional, we got rid of hidden carpenter ants before they could invade the rest of the house, we got rid of a draughty old door into the unheated porch, and without the little porch roof that was also a balcony of sorts, we got rid of the draughty upstairs door and replaced it with a new window. So, there were extra unforeseen expenses and some siding to replace, but in the end it all looks better and is more energy efficient.
The other unexpected surprise caused me some grief for a while. For months I had been happily anticipating spring, when I would take all the ideas I had been collecting on Pinterest for my “small shady backyard” and put them into effect. My first disappointment came from the discovery of mounds of goutweed encroaching from both adjacent properties. There was a little in our backyard but it looked like the main issue would be continually beating it back from creeping under the fence from the neighbours.
The next issue with the garden, however, caused me more grief. I had divided and saved plants from our old place months before we sold it, had overwintered them in the greenhouse and brought them here, imagining how I would tuck these beautiful lush beds in around the trees, just like I’d seen in the photos I’d collected. Little did I know that gardening under trees was not just about dealing with shade-loving plants.
I discovered there was a dreaded condition called “Dry Shade”. (“dun dun dun dunnnh!!!!”) Dry shade is when the trees not only block or filter the sunlight that gets to the beds, but also blocks a lot of water getting down to the ground. AND the trees’ feeder roots themselves fill the top 18 inches or so of the soil and often beyond the drip line of the branches, reaching upward for air and water. They can literally suck any flower beds dry, competing with your plants, sometimes coming up through your garden and choking them. The horror!!
And THEN I discovered in my research that trees do not generally like to have the grade raised around them. If you add too much soil or other material on top of tree roots, you can effectively smother them, causing a gradual die-off of the tree. So, in spite of the multitude of pictures on Pinterest showing lush raised beds surrounding tree trunks, just brimming with hosta, astilbe, heuchera, and ferns, many sources were warning me not to plant anything within the drip line of trees, not to add more than 2 inches of soil or compost or mulch, and definitely to add nothing that touched the bark at the base of the tree or over larger exposed roots.
I was heartbroken. What was I to do? And oh, that back patio I dreamed of beneath the two hemlocks at the back? Uh-unh. Nope. Hemlocks are particularly sensitive to ground compaction. What to do…what to do. I realized that perhaps this was why there was no garden as such in this backyard, just a few thorny bushes, including a massively overgrown rose bush, and pointy yucca plants that, it seems, have an incredible will to live, despite my best efforts. I am not a fan of pointy and thorny plants.
The deck construction also added to my misery over the garden as it meant excavation for footings, with dirt and rocks and building materials being piled on this already problematic yard. All the remnants of that project had to be cleaned up before I could even see the blank canvas I had to work with.
After a little cry I decided to consult a local landscaper who is all about natural ways of dealing with the landscape. After a look at the place she reassured me that some raised beds, not covering the whole area, and not up against the tree trunks, would not be a big problem. She advised we could use geotextile below some added garden soil to stave off the tree roots for a while to get plants established, and water well. Maybe give some compost or fertilizer to the trees themselves to help keep them from competing with the juicy piles of earth and fertilizer around the plants. And some selective thinning of the trees around our yard could help as one tree was being smothered by too many around it, and another was already dying off. An arborist consultation followed, now we are awaiting the “ok” from a neighbour about the tree on the property line that is dying and a potential hazard. So, if those two go, there will be slightly less root competition and less worry about smothering tree roots.
So, with renewed hope, and reinforced by a gardening blogger I found who has had long-term success in this kind of space, I have forged ahead, creating beds with the hope that they can survive the tree roots below, and preserving as much space as I can for the roots to get air and water by creating paths with gravel instead of paver stones.
And, instead of a patio under the hemlocks on which to put our dining table, we’re thinking perhaps a low, ground-level platform, with only patio slabs around the edges, and geotextile underneath to keep plant growth from springing up through. Air and water can get to the ground through the slats in the wooden decking, and the earth will only be compacted in the few spots where the patio slabs are around the perimeter. I think it is do-able. Time will tell whether the plants and trees can co-exist, but we’ll keep an eye on it and tweak as necessary.
Worst-case scenario, I have to go back to one friend’s suggestion of pot-scaping, keeping all my hardy perennials in large, deep planters that I can tip on their sides and store together under cover of brush in the winter. I was almost going to go with that plan but didn’t like the idea of having to move the huge and heavy pots, nor risk breakage of the plastic from the freezing and UV damage over time. But it’s an option if the challenges of this dry-shade zone are just too much for my plants.
One thing we hadn’t planned on was having any grass. None was really growing there and that was fine with us, we didn’t want to mow anyway. But in our walks with Alfie down the street, she would always want to roll around on someone’s lawn. Edward decided she needed her own little patch of grass, so he installed some sod over some of the garden soil we’d bought, on top of weed mat to try to keep the tree roots at bay. Another experiment, but Alfie gave her stamp of approval immediately.
So, that’s where we are for now, physically, at least! Just a bringing-up-to-date on the mundane level for this installment, for those interested in the difference between the old farm and the new town home. For fall and winter projects we have couple spare rooms upstairs left to paint, and maybe some wainscoting to install for the lower half of the kitchen walls, which have some lumpy old fake tile wall covering on them. The kitchen and bathroom are a little outdated but functional, and the reno budget is exhausted for now. I guess having come from our expansive piece of land, making the outdoors an enjoyable space to be was more important to me than fixing up the inside. I needed my connection with the plants and fresh air!
My forest connection I now satisfy with walks in the many nearby parks, some of which have lovely tall pines, and a feeling much like my “cathedral” back at the old place. Some have ponds or streams, another is right along the LaHave River, so I’ll share some of my favourite rambles in another post.
And as for how life in the middle of town is different, I will leave that to the next chapter. There are a number of things I occasionally miss from the farm and the other house itself, and many things I enjoy about this location.
But it has surprised me, as I mentioned above, how easily this place has felt like “home”… how, once moved, there was no pining to be back in the other house. As different as this house and land is in style and features, once some fresh paint was applied and our own things moved in, it just became ours, with a strange familiarity as if it had been ours for years already. I’m not sure how that happens. Is it just the process of deciding, and having cut off other options? Is it that I had been visualizing myself in this space for the preceding 11 months as part of my “manifestation” process?
Maybe a house sometimes calls you to it with some kind of resonance, and I was drawn to this one, even though from the outside, I would not normally have been attracted to this formal style. It was the price and the images of the interior, the way the light came through the windows actually, also the staircase and the nice dining room, that made me take a second look at the listing.
It was funny, when we first walked in, I said, “this feels like a lawyer’s house.” I had been a lawyer once, maybe it reminded me of some of the homes I’d been in, and the one I’d had, in Cape Breton years ago. Sure enough, when we toured the basement, there on the wall were the names of the previous owners of the house, and the first one was a lawyer whose office had been on the next street over. In fact, his son became a lawyer too and is now a judge. So, maybe that’s part of the resonance, even though I abandoned that profession long ago after such a brief time.
And maybe it is simply that the old adage is true, “home is where the heart is”. As long as we’re together, Edward, me, and the critters, we are home. Although I think I’ll always need a garden!