#250–Taming the wilderness . . .

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The mariner motif in the center section really appealed to us.

We had done our research when deciding to move to Oregon, and settled on the area around one of Florence’s lakes as the ideal place to live. So when the Realtor took us to a home overlooking Mercer Lake, we were already inclined to like it. Little did we know that we both would decide that it was THE HOUSE FOR US without ever going inside, and it would have nothing to do with location. For Walt, it was the level spot next to the existing garage where he could envision another garage with workshop. For me, it was the front door. I’ll explain in a one-paragraph backstory.

This is how it looked in 1984, We have changed the garage door after adding a new garage and changed the shake roof in 1996.

Backstory: We had bought a lot in this area four years before in 1980 and put in a septic tank and drain field. We also had drawn preliminary house plans, which included choosing a very special front door. All that was before being told by the county that a building moratorium had just gone into effect. And we would not be able to build because of a watershed situation. When we got over the shock, we were determined to buy a house, already built, and not go through any more aggravations and problems involved with building from scratch. Besides, we lived in California and wouldn’t be moving here until late 1985 and didn’t want to have to drive 500 miles for every little problem.

So there we were in April 1984 on the porch of a house that had the same exact front door as we had chosen for our dream house. The owners had already moved, so the house was empty and we could take our time to look it over carefully. After exploring it with the Realtor, we were doubly convinced that this was the house. It was only 1 ½ years old and had the rooms in basically the same plan we had drawn except this house was split level and ours had been a straight two story. So we wanted it from the get go!

As to the yard, only a small section in front was landscaped. Since the area is hilly with mixed forest, it would be “taming the wilderness.”

In 1985, we had a new garage added to the house. Had to move the septic tank in the process.

We came up twice a year when I had breaks from teaching. Walt would be retiring in 1985, and when the school year was over in 1985, I would take a year’s leave. That way, if it didn’t work out, I would have a job to come back to. If all worked as planned, I would resign the following year. So during that interim period, Walt had his second garage with workshop built. He had just a shell built and did all the finish work himself after we moved in. During that period, he was a very happy camper!

In the yard, I had moved a few camelias in pots that were sitting in the area where the new garage’s driveway would be. I put them alongside the house on the bare east slope. Then I planted some colorful Scotch Broom on that rather steep slope. I also placed stepping stones to help on walking downslope. Along the edge of the property was a bank where salal was starting to take over. I let it grow there, but drew a line at the top of the bank where I wouldn’t let it get past––endless battle. About halfway up the east slope on the edge of the salal, I planted a tiny redwood seedling that a neighbor gave me.

Moving plants to bare east-side slope.

Down below, we had a graveled level area, then a steep slope, another level area, and then it was solid blackberries to beyond our property line. We didn’t do anything about the blackberries during the 1 ½ years between buying and moving in. So by the time we moved in, blackberry vines were actually climbing the stairs. I had nightmares of them covering the house.

When my folks came to visit in the summer of 1986, we picked blackberries and canned jars and jars of blackberry spread—sort of a jam without seeds. Then we worked to get rid of the blackberries that were on our property. What a lot of work! My dad was a big help. I should say we only started to get rid of them on their visit. It actually took several attempts. When we had a big pile of what we’d pulled out, we’d burn it. We did that over and over. Then when we thought they were all gone, new sprouts started coming up everywhere in that back area. I think I took kerosene and dribbled on the plants whenever I saw them for a couple years. ( I know better than to do that today.)

These railroad ties turned the steepest area of the backyard into four terraces.

In 1987, we saw in the paper where a lot of railroad ties were for sale. So we called and had a bunch delivered. Some up front and more down below. Then we hired someone who had helped build the house to construct a RR tie retaining wall out front as part of our new RV driveway and to build terraces down below with the remaining RR ties to hold the steepest part. I remember the man we hired as a big guy and very strong. He could pick up a RR tie in each hand and carry them around. He had a helper, and it didn’t take them long.

The trees were short enough in the front of the house that we could cut down the ones we didn’t want.

On both sides of the house in front were mini forests of Douglas fir and cedar. Most were no taller than 12 feet. At that size, they were easy to cut down. I would grab the tree and saw the bottom and toss. So we thinned out both sides. We left about a dozen trees that we wanted in the front of the house and maybe eight on the driveway side.

Then we had a woodshed built on the driveway side. On the street side of it, I planted four rhodies and other plants. Before they had been there long, a freak summer storm blew over the woodshed. It had not been anchored yet and crashed down on my rhodies. I was out of town and the neighbors helped Walt get the woodshed back up and rescued three of the rhodies. I had worked so hard on clearing and planting that area, that no one wanted to be the one to tell me that all my rhodies had been smashed and ruined.

The new woodshed with newly planted rhodies and an azalea and pinks.

Those first few years, there was always something happening in the yard on all sides of the house. Every few years, we would thin out trees and every year, I would trim up trees. Finally, they were high enough to plant rhodies and other plants under them. I loved the look of the trees as they got taller. And I loved the look of the yard in front on both sides as we could plant under the trimmed up trees.

As the trees grew and we trimmed them up, it provided space to plant under them. I loved being able to do this.

The back area took the most work. After the terraces were built, I had to put decent soil in them. Much of our property is sandstone because it had been leveled. So all good forest duff was gone. I would start with a crowbar and break up the sandstone and wheelbarrow it away. Then I would add all kinds of planting mix and amendments.

The top terrace has roses interspersed with ivy, second terrace was more ivy interspersed with white-blooming perennial, and bottom two were for veggies. The cover on the bottom row is to keep out deer, dogs, and rabbits.

We had a very steep bank adjacent to the terraces that was loose dirt left from leveling for the new garage and RV driveway. So I planted it with ivy and then put ivy in every other planter section of the top terrace alternating with rose bushes. The second terrace had ivy in every other section alternating with a white-blossoming perennial. The bottom two terraces would be for vegetables.

Here is the greenhouse and terraces with picnic table and in the distance, RR tie steps.

In 1988, Walt and I saw greenhouses for sale in a grocery store parking lot. The price was right. They were not beautiful glass, but Fiberglas and resembled septic tanks. But, hey, they would have lovely diffused light and provide the extra warmth needed for warm weather loving veggies—like tomatoes. We had tried growing tomatoes, and all we got were lots of green ones that never turned red.

Walt wasn’t well right after we ordered the greenhouse. So neighbors helped me get a spot leveled for it and to set it in place. Then I spent some time leveling the area and then built steps with RR ties around the terraces to be able to walk between the house and greenhouse without slipping on the fairly steep slope. And before any weeds grew back, I ordered gravel. One of the neighbors, who helped with the greenhouse, helped me wheelbarrow gravel around three sides of the greenhouse and inside it too. And, also, between the steps leading up to the house. What a lot of work! I had wheelbarrowed heavy plants in containers and heavy sod. But nothing is as heavy as gravel. That was exhausting.

Planted in 1985 when it was 2 inches high, it now towers over the house at about 70 feet tall with a substantial trunk. This view is from my dining room window.

Over the years, trees grew, creating more shade, which required changing out some plants. The tiny redwood seedling did well, in spite of being surrounded by salal. It is now about 70 feet tall with a substantial trunk. It shades the east slope and that side of the house. It’s a real beauty.

The ivy in the terraces, which I kept under control, was great for about 25 years, and then the deer started eating it––much to my surprise. Seeing only the gray branches and stems was really ugly. So I had it removed in 2018. 

Almost 20 years ago, in 2001, Walt passed away after numerous illnesses. In spite of friends trying to talk me into moving into town, I decided to stay put. And I made it possible by having help in the yard. I have someone come in on a regular basis for the big stuff. (The same person has been helping me for more than 30 years.) And when an area starts to overwhelm me, I hire someone on a temporary basis.

More shade and flowering perennials instead of veggies. Notice the railing built along the RR tie steps. I absolutely need that to access the lower area. And deer are an ever present part of the scene and must be taken into consideration whenever planting anything.

As it became more difficult for me to get up and down the stepping stones of the east side slope. I hired a lalndscaping company to put in steps and sloped walkways. And last year, I had railings added alongside those steps as well as the steps alongside the terraces.

Anyone with a yard knows it’s a never-ending, ongoing work in progress. But it’s worth it . . . once you’ve tamed the wilderness.

About crossingsauthor

Judy Fleagle spent 22 years teaching 1st and 2nd grades and 21 years as editor/staff writer with Oregon Coast and Northwest Travel magazines.Since 2009, she has written five books: "Crossings: McCullough's Coastal Bridges," "The Crossings Guide to Oregon's Coastal Spans," "Around Florence," "Devil Cat and Other Colorful Animals I Have Known," and "The Oregon Coast Guide to the UNEXPECTED!!!."
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