I’m radically downsizing, moving from a 4,100 square-foot complex to a house that’s barely a quarter that size. I’m enjoying the challenge of creating efficient and carefully crafted spaces sized for my new solo life, but which–like my current place, embrace their environment.
My new yard and garden will also be much smaller. My current place measures almost half an acre of formerly neglected industrial property. My late husband and I worked to revive the place, restoring a thriving native bunchgrass-wildflower grassland in the main yard and adding borders of native plants and heritage varieties that have flourished for generations in this wrong-side-of-the-railroad-tracks neighborhood.
We built a 500-plus-square-foot raised-bed organic vegetable garden, which supplies family, friends and neighbors with heritage tomatoes, mesclun mixes, broccoli, beets, edible pod peas, strawberries, asparagus, carrots, cabbage, chard, and herbs. The thriving community of native pollinators attracted by the wildflowers keep the kitchen garden healthy too.
My new yard is less than a third the size of my current one. It is long and skinny, measuring 150 feet from front to back, but only 26 feet wide at the alley end and widening to 58 feet at the street. The wedge shape and steep slope to the creek that borders one long side means that my small house and garage with its second-floor studio take up a larger proportion of the space. Almost all of the ground has been disturbed by construction.
Not that it was pristine ground to begin with. My new place is part of the same industrial parcel as my current home. Its native “soil” of rounded river cobbles, sand and a bit of silt is interlaced with layers of fly ash from railroad engines, plus broken glass and crockery, old rusted steel and iron, chunks of broken concrete and the other detritus accumulated over the decades.
This won’t be my first serious restoration challenge. There’s my current place, junky and weed-cloaked when my late love and I fell in love with it 16 years ago. And the coal-fired power plant bluff transformed into a wildlife garden in partnership with my landscaping friend Erica Holtzinger, with the support of Audubon Colorado, Terra Foundation and Xcel Energy.
Over the past year, I learned fine carpentry in order to finish the interior of this house and guest cottage, and then sorted through the accumulation of stuff from nearly 29 years of marriage, plus the tools and sculpture materials filling my late love’s 1,600-square-foot shop. I’ve given away and sold more than I knew I had and much that I never thought I’d be able to part with.
It’s a different matter entirely though to sort through the living community of a garden and native grassland that I’ve nurtured and loved.
I started by walking this place and noting what worked, what didn’t, what surprised me, and what’s been more trouble than it’s worth. Then I scrambled around the construction debris at the new place and envisioned the three outdoor “rooms” the two buildings create, and what could flourish on steep slopes and in the nutrient-poor and rocky soil without much water and fuss, while providing habitat for songbirds, pollinators and other wildlife.
I’ll recreate on a smaller scale the vibrant native bunchgrass and wildflower grassland we lovingly restored here. I’ll transplant some of the heritage plants too: a lilac bush, a Copper Queen rose, a few peonies and some English irises that represent the garden history of this working-class neighborhood.
I’ll select my favorite varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs from much-too-big-for-the-one-of-me kitchen garden to plant in the two galvanized stock tanks that will comprise my new kitchen garden. And I’ll take the opportunity created by the new site to try out more species of native plants adapted to this dry, high, and spare landscape.
This radical downsizing and re-envisioning my garden is not easy. What matters, I’m learning as I collect and bag seed, dig up plants, and draw plans for the new place, is not the size of the space. It’s how you use it.
I’m looking forward to helping my new place, long a neglected and junky vacant lot, revive and bloom, even as I find my way in this new solo life path.
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