I grew up in northern Ohio, in a sprawling suburban development. The lush, grassy backyards were separated by wood piles stacked high with logs from the oak and ash trees felled to build the homes. My dad took four railroad ties and laid them out in the back corner over a sheet of plastic, creating an 8-by-8-foot sandbox in which we built medieval Playmobil villages with marauding pirate ships floating on hose-filled lagoons.
We played croquet and badminton and tee-ball under the shade of the remaining trees. Bratwurst, not brisket, was always on the grill, and tomatoes were bursting with fruit in a sunny bed in back.
When, as an adult, I moved to Texas in 2004, I picked my house because of the backyard. Unlike the flat, treeless Dallas suburbs, Oak Cliff was hilly and leafy. The previous owner of the 1920s bungalow was a gardener, and outside the back door she had planted a bed of native rose bushes, which she surrounded with a miniature white picket fence. A wooden bird house on a post stuck out of the middle.
Farther back, a vintage bicycle with a flower pot in the rusting basket was propped against a two-story guest house. Ivy vines grew up the trellis that covered the outside stairwell. The whole tableau reminded me of the Beltane Ranch in Sonoma, a favorite getaway, romantic and rustic.
Then it tried to kill me.
Leisurely summer pruning and weeding, mulching, and planting, is a pipe dream in Dallas. So the backyard soon became an unfettered jungle. The rose bushes died in a freeze, and I planted two small peach trees in their place. Left to their own devices, they grew taller than the house, dropping rotting fruit from the tip-top branches, drawing hordes of bees and flies.
The pomegranate bush I planted by the guest house grew into a thorny mass, making ingress and egress impossible. For years, we simply walked the tiny path to the trash bin in the alley, closing the back door and retreating to the air-conditioned interior.
Finally, a fortuitous couple of years before the pandemic struck, we remodeled our house. And in so doing, we convinced our architect to also try her hand at doing our landscaping. It’s just two of us in our little abode; we didn’t need more living space, but we needed more living space. Space to entertain. Space to breathe.
She created an incredible oasis with what feels like multiple outdoor rooms that are shaded at different times of day. It saved my job, providing a new open-air conference room for our weekly office meetings. It saved our sanity, allowing us to have al fresco dinners and drinks with friends.
Now, even as the world reopens, it remains an integral part of our lives.