Chapter Four: Oasis (Not the Band)
When the spouse and I began the epic quest to find our forever home last year, we tried to be open-minded… ish. We were flexible on the location, so long as it was within walking distance of the hubby’s office. (Of course, COVID-19 has rendered that condition indefinitely irrelevant, as his office closed in March and he’s been Zooming from our dining room table ever since.) We were also open to a broad range of property types, including terraced and detached houses, bungalows, flats and two-storey maisonettes – a new and glamourous-sounding term for this uncultured Yank. Out of the 40 prospects we viewed, the only one rejected on sight was an overpriced penthouse flat inhabited at the time of our visit by the tenants from hell, whose decorating style might be described as Extreme Urban Squalor. The tangle of bras drying on the radiator in the lounge added a certain je ne sais quois, while the half-eaten pot of stew decomposing on the kitchen counter infused the dingy rooms with aromas of bad meat and worse life choices.
But when it came to a short wish list of features that we wanted this would-be dream dwelling to have, we were less willing to bend. The two of us had shared one bathroom for more than a decade without it leading to divorce, but whenever we had overnight guests there was inevitably a queue for the loo, so a second WC ranked high on the list. And at least one of the bathrooms had to be on the same floor as our bedroom, because neither of us fancied negotiating stairs at 3:00 in the morning when we needed a wee. (In retrospect, our wish list seems heavily skewed toward toilet habits. Such are the needs of the middle-aged.) We were also on the hunt for a second bedroom that was large enough to accommodate the occasional houseguest and my ever-expanding record collection. But our top non-toilet-related priority was an outdoor space.
This space – be it garden, patio, balcony, or other – didn’t have to be huge. We weren’t insisting on Kew Gardens here. Who has time to prune and mow and weed all that anyway? No, just a modest alfresco patch would do, somewhere to loll with the sun on our faces, even if it was so bijou that we had to loll standing up. Before we moved to the UK, we spent years hermetically sealed in a high-rise condo in Toronto, what the hubby liked to call our “box in the sky.” The glass exterior walls in this 16th-floor pad gave us a gorgeous panorama of the city, but our only links to the outdoors were two small ventilation windows. If we were of a mind to soak up some rays during the summer thaw, like so many Torontonians were desperate to do after spending months swaddled in bulky winter wear, we had to venture out to a nearby park or to a friend’s back garden. Upon arriving in England, we found a rental flat with an itty-bitty balcony, just room on it for a couple of wooden folding chairs and a few potted plants. But to us it was like a grand veranda out of Gone with the Wind. The simple act of opening the door and stepping into the fresh air was a revelation and we vowed never to go back to “boxed in.”
The forever home search led us at last to a renovated maisonette – ooh la la! – in a lovely Victorian building block on a quiet, tree-lined street. In addition to having that intangible wow factor, it ticked all the boxes on our wish list. There was a downstairs loo, the main bathroom was upstairs next to the master bedroom, and the guest bedroom was spacious enough to accommodate my precious vinyl… oh, and the occasional visitor too. But what really sold it for us was the walled-in courtyard at the front of the property, which had the potential to be the outdoor oasis that we longed for. Mind you, it was in a bit of a sorry state when we bought the place. The concrete steps leading down to it from street level were slick with algae and mould. The badly neglected wooden decking on the courtyard floor had cracked underfoot in several spots. (Devoted readers of this series, all two of you, will remember that a rat awaited us on these battered boards on our first day as owners.) But we had no doubt it could be an impressive space once we gave it a thorough makeover. Step one was to hire a well-reviewed local service to install a spanking new deck made of grooved Scandinavian planks. The reviews were right – these guys did such a nice job that we asked them back to add a built-in bench using the same materials. A little retail therapy online sent a passel of bench cushions our way and voila! We had our lolling spot.
With the deck and bench in place, the courtyard looked spiffy but bare. Botanical adornment was urgently needed. We’d brought three potted plants, a snowdrop and two snapdragons, with us from the rental flat and the plan was to supplement those with many others to create a verdant sanctuary. But COVID threw another spanner in the works. By the time we reached this phase of the makeover, the UK was in strict lockdown and all the garden centres and nurseries were shut. When they finally did reopen in May, there was a mad rush for greenery and we couldn’t find a fern, a fuchsia, or any other flora for love nor money. Luckily, friends and neighbours came to the rescue. A couple who we’re close with gave us a bamboo cutting that sways gracefully in the breeze and an echeveria elegans, which looks to me like a cabbage that’s putting on airs. Our neighbor chipped in with a fragrant thyme bush – a gift that has kept on giving in the countless home-cooked meals we’ve made during the pandemic. In time we happened upon an out-of-the-way nursery that hadn’t been ravaged by flower-starved quarantine gardeners, where we scored a tray of geraniums and a portulaca, a shaggy hanging succulent. With dense, leafy tendrils that grow whichever way they please, the portulaca is the bed-head of the plant world. Bit by bit, bloom by bloom, our oasis was coming into focus.
Annoyingly, with the new foliage came sneaky creatures that began treating courtyard garden like their own personal buffet. The geraniums were apparently the tastiest, judging by the copious nibble marks that appeared on the leaves. We couldn’t tell which creepy-crawly had caused the damage, but eventually it was suggested to us that it might be slugs or snails. On closer inspection, we discovered suspicious slime trails near the crime scenes, however we couldn’t catch any actual gastropods in the act to interrogate them and uncover their motives. Our next-door neighbour Sally has a beautiful, unblemished patio garden, and one day I noticed her and her adult son tending to it, so I asked them what they did to keep the critters away. “That’s easy, we just send them over to your place,” Sally’s son quipped. Hilarious. You should take your act on the road, pal. Sally kindly offered me a cupful of slug pellets, which the spouse spread around the bases of the violated plants. But they had no noticeable effect, so maybe it wasn’t slugs. Or maybe it was some kind of super-stealthy, pesticide-resistant ninja-slug. If they return in the spring, dynamite may be our only option.
We were also besieged over the summer by a band of roughneck squirrels that turned our plant pots into storage units for their nuts. While recklessly stashing future snacks in the soil, they knocked flower petals from their stems, uprooted seedlings, and tossed compost all over the deck. One sultry day in July, I propped open the front door for a bit of breeze and went into the kitchen to fix lunch, only to be interrupted moments later by a vigorous rattling sound coming from the foyer. I rushed back to find a bushy-tailed trespasser inside the house, head-butting our parlour palm as it gouged at the soil in the pot. What I yelled at this rude rodent in the moment I won’t repeat here. One of our green-thumbed chums recommended sprinkling cayenne pepper around the base of the plants, and we tried that, but as with the slugs, the squirrels took no notice. Again, more firepower may be required. Would a bazooka be overkill?
Unwelcome pests aside, the hubby and I are smitten with our courtyard to an almost embarrassing degree. My mom got us a little fold-away garden table for my birthday and when it arrived we ooh-ed and aah-ed over it like it was a priceless work of art. We’ve also suddenly developed an intense passion for televised garden reno shows. The hard-partying nightclubber I used to be in my 20s would sneer at how domesticated I’ve become, but who cares? That version of me never stopped to smell the echeveria elegans. If our oasis is still a work in progress, it’s been a labour of love that has kept us contentedly busy during this strange and anxious year. Now that autumn has come, we’ve put further improvements on hold and have stowed the plants in a mini greenhouse until spring, when we’ll pick up where we left off. (We’re thinking of getting some climbing vines for the courtyard walls and hanging a rustic mirror or two.) When the makeover is finally complete, perhaps we’ll even have a wrap party – socially distanced, if we’re still doing that – where we’ll show off our efforts to our friends. No squirrels allowed.
[Blogger’s note: I’m an American expat living in Portsmouth, England, with my British-born spouse. We moved to the UK together a few years ago and lodged in rental accommodations for a time, but eventually the property bug bit us and we purchased a flat of our own – a first for this fifty-something vagabond. Here you can read about the lows, the highs, and the near-constant DIY that have followed. Check back soon for the next installment in the series!]
Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged UK Newbie