Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
March, 2005
Regional Report

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Dwarf evergreens surround an old stone foundation, phase one of my vision for The Grotto.

The Grotto

Since last September's floods washed away one of our outbuildings, my husband and I have been deliberating about what to do with the old stone foundation. On one hand, it's an eyesore and a reminder of the havoc caused by the floods. And having just opened a B&B in our home, we needed to deal with the unattractive jumble of stones where parts of the wall had collapsed.

On the other hand, the foundation is a piece of history. Built on the side of a hill, the 15' x 15' building had a walk-in basement that may have been used as a root cellar; we have heard rumors that former owners used it as shelter for their lawn-mowing goats, too. In any case, someone painstakingly built that foundation by hand, and I couldn't see razing it and planting lawn over it. So, in a flash of insomnia-inspired creativity, I've decided to build "The Grotto."

The Grotto
The foundation -- or what's left of it -- forms a three-sided retaining wall surrounding a 15' x 15' gravel area that then slopes down to the creek. On the upward side, the foundation rises about a foot above ground level. So I started the project by planting some dwarf conifers around the top. I wanted evergreen plants with a little substance, to keep passersby from getting too close to the edge and falling over the low wall. I also love the way their foliage looks against the light stone foundation. But it was just as important that the plants not block the view of the creek from our porch. The plants I chose will get about 4 feet tall at maturity, so that should be fine.

In a few weeks I'll plant some clematis around the top and encourage the vines to trail up and over the low wall and down into the grotto. I've chosen species and varieties that bloom at different times, so hopefully I'll have clematis in flower over most of the summer.

The next phase calls for taking some of the large, flat stones and building stairs in the hillside leading down to the entrance to The Grotto. The stairs will be flanked by gardens with low-growing shrubs and perennials. I've already planted the bareroot roses that will form the backdrop for these gardens. If I'm ambitious, I'll continue the path right down to the creek, but that might be a project for next year.

When the weather warms up, I'll place large containers filled with huge, lush tropical plants down in the pit. Then I'll add a few comfy chairs. I imagine myself bringing my coffee and newspaper down to The Grotto on summer mornings, the warmth of the sun and sounds of the creek magnified by the miniature amphitheater formed by the stone walls. I imagine, too, building a little fire pit nearby, and inviting our bed and breakfast guests to relax out there on summer evenings, lighting a fire to ward off the chill of these mountain nights.

It's a lot more work than renting a bulldozer to raze the area and then planting lawn. But it will be much more inviting!

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