The Saga of an Urban Oasis

By: Bruce Adams

The landscaping around our micro tract of land on Auburn Avenue is no overnight TLC makeover; it’s just the latest chapter in an unending narrative of sore backs, green knees, and dirty fingernails. When my wife Renée and I first moved into our modest Victorian house in 1977, if a movie camera had been placed above our property set to snap one frame of film each day, there would exist at present seven lively minutes of shifting shapes, textures, and color: evidence of an ongoing transformation.

The “finished” pond features a magnificent bleeding heart.
Photos courtesy of Bruce Adams.

Imagining such a film, we see litter-strewn patches of dirt and weeds punctuated by broken concrete walks. Overgrown evergreens crowd the front porch but quickly vanish, followed by the remainder of the erstwhile terrain, which is gradually buried under a geometric arrangement of slate, brick, and elevated flowerbeds.

Flat topography mutates into mounds of rocky earth. Ponderous railroad tie borders materialize, then, over several minutes of film, shift and rot until they are replaced by sleek blond timbers. A wood arbor springs from the house, then gradually weathers as it’s engulfed by colorfully ostentatious clematises; suddenly both arbor and vines vanish. A slate patio rises up off the ground and later drops back down. At first, the backyard is bathed in sunshine, but as bordering trees stretch skyward and unfold, the daylight grows sparser until only a small window of light remains. Over the same time period, sun loving plants give way to shade dwellers.

Trees and shrubs come and go; eventually a curbside locust and crabapple tree thrive where others perished. Tiny patches of sedum aggressively expand over rocks and land, then retreat from advancing armies of myrtle, and later ajuga. A peculiar collection of objects gather along the side of the house. Midway, a variety of plant containers pop into view like characters in a Richard Lester movie providing space for added vegetation. At two thirds, a lingering patch of lawn is replaced with rocky terrain and foliage. At three quarters, the earth opens and a stone-lined pond appears; thirty seconds later a second one seems to grow from the first. As the images stop, and the film flaps against the projector, it’s clear that the story has not ended.

Springtime by the pond.
Photos courtesy of Bruce Adams.

“And the earth was waste and void…”
When we bought our Elmwood Village fixer-upper, we were newly married and at the start of our careers. It was imperative that household renovations be accomplished with resourcefulness and innovation, which is to say: cheap. The yard consisted of equal parts mud, trash, and trampled weeds. As it was small, we agreed that it would be possible to achieve even the most elaborate landscaping, an advantage of compactness.

As the artist of the house, I charted our yard on graph paper, paying particular attention to the space between our house and the neighbor’s—a no-man’s-land of muck and debris. I obtained permission from the neighbor to construct a gate across the front, with the understanding that we would maintain the newly enclosed area flanked by our houses. This effectively converted our 30-by-15-foot yard into a comparatively lavish L-shaped enclosure.

On paper I carved the expanded lot into Mondrian-like flowerbeds, walkways, and patio space, opting for orderly geometric structure over fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants organic uncertainty. Gazing from our attic windows I contemplated such critical matters as projected traffic flow and barbecue dynamics. If I had known how to use a slide rule, no doubt I would have.

Garden planning utilizes the same design elements children learn about in art class: line, shape, color, texture, space, form, and value. To these are applied principles of contrast, repetition, pattern, movement, variety, unity, and balance, among others. To add vertical contrast, surface planes were fragmented with elevated flower beds and other split-level ground features; a small rectangular patch of green grass (homage to our suburban roots) plays off an elevated circular red brick pattern, and so on.

The planning completed, we needed to acquire a mountain of landscaping materials on a molehill budget. Swap-sheet ads and word-of-mouth leads led to some terrific finds. One was the purchase of several dozen 2-by-4-foot slabs of decorative inch-thick blue-gray slate which had been removed from a public building for auction; the cost: about $5.50 each. The stones, each weighing as much as an anvil, had to be transported a few at a time in my aging Chevy van, which groaned audibly as it sunk to the pavement under the weight. The unwieldy slabs—soon to be patio stones—had to be “walked” into place and dropped.

Other materials fell into the general category of “obtainium,” which is to say anything that can be scavenged for free. We rummaged the countryside for small stones and medium-sized boulders, which we somehow managed to hoist into the van, momentarily suspending the laws of physics. We scooped baskets of spilled sand from train tracks near Furman Boulevard to use for laying brick and slate. A lightning-quick Sunday morning raid on a demolition site provided obtainium in the form of dozens of bricks that otherwise would have ended their days as landfill. Two massive sandstone slabs were liberated from a soon-to-be demolished masonry fence on Elmwood. The question we asked was not “how can we find what we need,” but “how can we use what we find?”

I picked up landscaping tricks talking to people who unlike myself, actually knew what they were doing. Longtime Allentown gardeners Dave and Phyllis Vitrano shared their extensive know-how on topics such as how to grout paving materials by sweeping dry concrete into the cracks then wetting it with a hose. They offered us starter plants that still populate much of our garden today, and supplied us with other assorted obtainium.

“Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”
Renee became Commander Botany, fighting a never-ending battle in pursuit of plants possessing the unique characteristic of being capable of survival on our property. Our front yard is shaded and the back sees less light every year. Discovering a variety of plants that thrive without the benefit of light was not easy. Spring flowers bloom before shade trees grow foliage; daffodils and stars of Bethlehem punch through snow that lingers until May on our dark side of the street. These are followed by the pageantry that marks the arrival of our tulips, the blossoms of which are joined by creeping tufts of migrant forget-me-nots, and an ostentatiously huge bleeding heart.

Lush oriental lilies.
Photos courtesy of Bruce Adams.

As spring turns to summer, fathead peonies, brilliant begonias, proud gayfeather, Echinacea, downy-soft Astilbe, geraniums, jazzy clematis, iris, and ballerina roses have all survived in limited sunlight. Hanging planters of fuchsia, wave petunias, and pansies stage snazzy summer-long shows. Trumpet vine blossoms proclaim their arrival in July. In our single semi-sunny spot, magnificent globes of purple Allium Giganteum (flowering onion) pave the way for monster-sized Stargazer and Casa Blanca lilies. Of course every gap in the foliage is filled with the ubiquitous impatiens.

Within the confines of the rectangular flowerbeds, chaos reigns. We plant with random unpredictability, avoiding rows, preferring for instance to toss bulbs on the ground and bury them where they land. Over time we realized that humans require surprisingly little space to exist once you abandon thoughts of backyard touch football. Numerous and sundry containers were added several years ago, planted with tea roses, Stella D’Oro daylilies, cannas, beds of blue lobelia and pin cushion aster, and assorted herbs. In high shade areas variegated hostas, magnificent ferns, and porcelain berry vines (invasive in sunlight) thrive.

Our property incorporates a number of rock gardens, including one of Buffalo’s earliest curbside patches—a rare occurrence back when we decided to extend the landscaping all the way to the street. Assorted groundcover unfurls over rocky terrain including several varieties of sedum—particularly the versatile poppysue. These are joined by creeping Jenny, thrift (with large marble-sized pink flower balls), and ajuga (providing a purple blanket of blossoms in the spring).

“Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place.”
About seven years ago, consumer-friendly pond equipment became widely available and a previously unrealized component of our garden plan became feasible. Adding a pond proved challenging, however. After several futile attempts at gathering enough wild obtainium rocks, we settled for the domesticated Home Depot variety. After purchasing the other necessary supplies, I dug an organic-shaped hole 5 feet across and 3 feet deep (enough to winter fish).

This was when I learned two important lessons about digging: you should always dig in moist earth, and watch the weather forecast. Thinking that dry ground would be easier to shovel, I worked under arid conditions, which was akin to excavating rock with a soup spoon. That night my shovel-pushing leg suddenly and severely cramped, necessitating a rapid rescue response from Renee, who massaged my thigh until the screaming stopped.
Then it poured. With a makeshift tent I attempted in vain to keep the unlined hole from flooding and collapsing. Finally, after several mucky, mud-splattered days the situation was under control and the liner, rocks, pump, and filter were all in place.

After adding plants and fish, I soon discovered what only ichthyologists and pond owners know: koi view water plants as gourmet cuisine. Two seasons later an adjoining, elevated pond was added to serve as a fish-free water garden and low maintenance biological filter. A curved water stream rushes from the upper pond over several small waterfalls into the lower pond. A gentler waterfall tumbles over a rocky slope at the opposing end of the lower pond, and a third cascade trickles down a rock elevation above the upper pond. This multi-tiered effect, so delightful to view, presented numerous engineering challenges. Floating plants initially impeded the water flow from the upper pond, causing it to overflow. Fake rocks of car body filler on wood provided a necessary “natural” border to contain the plants while allowing water to pour freely.

Similarly, the flow rate needed to be adjusted so the upper pond maintained the correct depth without spilling over. After several complete reconstructions and numerous tubes of sealer and other patching devices, the system was perfected. Today our pond is home to water iris, taro, duck weed, water hyacinth, marsh marigold, pickerel weed, pennywort, and a variety of colorful koi.

“…and there were other precious things.”
A garden can become the final resting place for all sorts of random objects whose usefulness has otherwise run its course. What to do with those fifties-style ceramic bathroom fixtures? Add them to the garden. Renée’s childhood wooden potty? Make it a flower potty. Assorted too-cute ceramic junk? Throw them in there too. A large rusty sculptural star hangs on a fence, as does an equally rusty dishwasher door.

Buffalo’s elaborate garbage policy makes it difficult to dispose of concrete and other building material, so the walkway next to our house became our “lost ruins,” where castaway objects take on new life. Hosta, begonia, mint, and assorted ground cover envelop stacked brick, stone, and other materials. Elevated marble slabs support potted house plants. A blue bowling ball rests on a stone perch. A plaster torso leans against the wall decaying. There is a whimsically sculptural approach to all this.

Our yard also sports a covered patio table, grill, and decorative evening lighting, making this a fully functional garden. People often comment that we must spend a great deal of time maintaining the yard. I can’t say for sure. Whatever time I spend peacefully weeding, watering, or otherwise quietly tending to the garden, is time I’m not doing other work. Even Adam had to tend the Garden of Eden, but it was still paradise.

Bruce Adams is an artist and educator living in Buffalo.