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A Green Retreat: An energetic gardener has transformed her Roanoke lot into a verdant retreat, demonstrating that beautiful things come in small packages.
Sitting by the pond in Betty Keyser’s Roanoke backyard, you’d never guess that just a few blocks away heavy traffic plied busy - Southwest Trafficway, or that you were in the middle of an urban neighborhood located within sight of the downtown skyline. No, you’d think that you had hiked miles to a remote forest clearing, just large enough to let the sun in to highlight the many fish beneath the pond’s sparkling surface. This is a shady place where you can be alone in nature. The sounds of water splashing upon rocks from a small waterfall compete only with the singing of birds and the breeze blowing through the pines. Of course, that was Betty’s intention all along; and she achieved her goal. But it didn’t happen in just one gardening season. This garden oasis took years to realize. And, as most gardeners will attest, there never really is a finishing point – there are always places opening up for new actors on the garden stage, as some specimens become too large and must be removed. ”It takes a while to develop,” Betty notes. ”Some things work and some things don’t work.” It’s an exercise in trial and error. She dug the pond herself in 1991, expanding the depression left by an old swimming pool that she had removed. ”I like a very natural, restful garden,” Betty explains as she shows off her efforts. The backyard ”is very shady and cool; a great spot to sit. I come out here to read and end up looking at all the plants instead in this woodsy natural environment.” And looking at all the plants can take up an entire after- noon if you let it, because so many different specimens have been incorporated into this naturalized setting. Large yews have been allowed to grow untrimmed around the perimeter, where they compete with the serviceberry trees, that serve as harbingers of spring in this area.
Various strains of deciduous magnolias add to the southern forest setting, along with 1oblolly pines from Betty’s native Maryland. The understory is a tangle of azaleas, hostas, and ferns, especially Japanese painted ferns – which have taken a special liking to this peaceful environment, not to mention the soft green moss that has volunteered between all the bricks on the surface of the walkways. In the spring a riot of tulips will steal the show for a while. Birds, of course, flock to the place. ”I have cardinals that come to the back door and beg. They do it every year, so the mother is obviously teaching her young where to go for food,” Betty says with a smile. ”I like to do at least one major planting each year, so last spring I put in the water oak.” It’s another paean to her southern heritage; a number of southern plants thrive in the secret, sheltered space. A chinquapin oak on the back prop- erty line dictates that this is a shade garden, so the emphasis is on attractive foliage rather than floral display. Fall adds another colorful dimension as the deciduous trees and vines turn brilliant colors – especially the sourwood trees, whose red leaves glow in the October sun. Flowers and tropical plants are displayed in pots that flank wooden steps leading to a glass-enclosed back sitting room that was added to the house several years ago for enhanced garden viewing.
It wasn't always like this. Betty, her late husband, and two children moved to the house 23 years ago. The tiny backyard got a lot more sun early on, so they grew vegetables. But after the kids were grown and pursuing careers and their own lives, Betty got the urge to gar- den in grand style. Perhaps it was the influence of next-door neighbor Brian Kissinger, a professional landscaper, who shared his ideas and plant stock with her. Whatever it was, her garden certainly stands up to and blends in with the garden of the professional next door. What’s surprising is the number of micro-environments you encounter in this tiny urban yard. Plants are placed strategically to force your gaze in intended directions. Focal points capture the eye everywhere: turn a corner. and there’s another bench; cross the brick patio, and here’s a couple of Adirondack chairs where you can converse with a friend. Let your eye wander, and there’s a large urn that brings your gaze back to the front of the property. ”I do everything in the garden myself,” Betty says with obvious pride. ”My challenge was to demonstrate how much vou can do with a small plot.” Every inch of’ the midtown lot is planted with trees, shrubs, and perennials. The front yard, with its large trees, magnolias, azaleas, and hollies, blends effortlessly with the two narrow side strips, which are densely planted with rhododendron and other ”woodsy natural stuff.” The south side features a brick walkway that runs from the focal point urn to a pergola constructed from stone pillars found at an antique shop at 45th and State Line. From the backyard, the urn in the distance is perfectly framed by the pergola. Very natural in look, but very much designed to effect that way. And that’s the quintessence of fine garden design.

Landscaping changes take imagination and determination and often, an expert’s suggestions will help. Whether you intend to work with a professional or do the job yourself, consider this advice from landscape designer, Brian Kissinger.

– A well-thought-out plan is the most important part of any landscape design, Use your home’s plot plan to make a map (double-check all the measurements). Copy the plan (enlarge it a little, too) and draw your present landscape on it. Use extra copies to sketch out ideas.

– Every landscape has strengths and weaknesses, Decide what to keep and what to take out. You may have to be ruthless. Removing overgrown trees and shrubs can be traumatic, but having sketched the look of your new landscape may give you the courage to make the cuts.

– Observe traffic patterns in your yard and work with them, It will be difl’icult or impossible to grow grass where dogs run, under trees, or under the children’s play equipment. Be realistic.

– Make sure your proposed planting sites drain ivell, Dig several test holes and fill them ivith water; if water stands in the holes 10 to 12 hours, the grade of the yard may need to be changed. This is a job for professionals.

– Take the time and trouble to improve the soil before you plant anything. Organic material such as compost improves the soil’s structure and adds nutrients. Send soil samples to your local Extension Office and follow Extension agents’ advice.

– Resist the temptation to plan a landscaping project as you wander around a nursery or garden center. Keep your plan in mind, or better yet, in hand.

– When you buy plants, ask for advice on their care at the nursery or garden center. Make your own decisions, but follow planting and care direc- tions. A professional landscape architect nr garden designer should provide writ- ten maintenance instructions.

– Many gardeners want more color in their landscape, but remem- ber that green is a color, too. Gray green, olive green, blue green, and deep, for- est green look dramatic together, and form sophisticated combinations with fis- sured or smooth trunks of trees, red holly herries, diEerent shapes and textures of leaves, and the bony branches of deciduous trees in winter.

– When designing paths and borders, consider the style of your house. Straight lines are very formal. Symmetry is formal. Curves are almost always more re.laxed.

– If you have a large yard and want to landscape it yourself, phase in the work, Assign priorities and work on one phase at a time.

 
 
 
A brick walkway cuts lateraly in front of Betty Keyser's densely planted Roanoke home. Potted palmettos reflect her fondness for plants of the South. Boxwoods and ground covers create a thick carpet of foliage offset by hanging shrubs and trees.
Wisteria twines around a pergola constructed of objects found in a local antiques shop.
Contrasting foliage creates interesting neighbors in a pot.
A young loblolly pine shares a nook with a hosta in full bloom.
A large urn of Caladium and Ivy creates a focal point at the front of the house.
One of several seating areas that demonstrate you can get a lot of use out of a very small garden space.
A riot of green foliage makes for a serene setting and a place to relax.
The centerpiece of the rear garden, the water feature is a deep forested pool.
View from the front through the pergola to the rear seating area.