One of the fascinating things about enclaves like the Stockade, Georgetown, the Washington Park area in Troy — or any neighborhood where the row houses are crammed together so tightly that alley cats have to slip through sideways — is that the back yards are such a well-kept mystery.
Sometimes you get a glimpse of them, and they’re downright disappointing: nothing but utility sheds, garbage cans and old barbecue grills.
But then there are those gems that will cause your eyes to open wide and your chin to drop.
When I walk through a neighborhood like the Stockade, I’m often struck by the architecture or the Victorian colors or some other aspect of a beautiful old house, and I immediately wonder what’s going on in back. Sometimes there will be enough of a separation between it and its neighbor that there’s room for a gate and you can catch just a glimpse of plantings or statuary or water features.
At the height of the gardening season, I think of our own home like that, thanks to my wife’s efforts.
I was musing about secret gardens the other day, and about a certain purple shed, as we picked up a bunch of young herbs for our back yard, which is not visible to the public except on special occasions, but is the place where we spend many happy hours during three seasons, both by ourselves and with guests.
One of the projects on our list of things to do is to research our house’s history. By Stockade standards, it’s evidently a young one, barely over a century old, though further research may tell us otherwise. Technically it’s a townhouse, attached to another. Its back yard is compact with a garden ingeniously designed by Kathleen Morris.
The house opens onto a canopied deck around which lies the garden whose walkways and center area are brick-covered. At the very end of the yard is a fountain and a shed, but not just any shed. It is painted purple — really a vivid violet — and the door and window frame are orange.
Raised beds on either side of the garden support a variety of plants, shrubs and trees — an impressive catalpa, an apple and a couple of river birches, holly, lilacs, raspberry and blueberry bushes and showy flowers like forsythia, bleeding hearts and old English roses. Annuals are added each spring — last year it was a profusion of New Guinea impatiens — along with a selection of herbs and produce. Because the space is limited, the choices are carefully made. My own preference is tomatoes, preferably big beefy reds but really any kind of heirloom. Last year there was also an eggplant that proved productive, various lettuces and, of course, parsley, sage, rosemary, basil, three or four varieties of mint, French tarragon, thyme, dill, lovage, borage and more.
Our soil is rich and dark, and it owes its fertile nature to the nearby Mohawk, Beverly’s diligent composting and the site’s reputed former tenants. The property was part of the old Green Street burial ground. History tells us that “most”of the occupants were moved to Vale Cemetery in 1879.
A couple of years ago, Beverly agreed to participate in the Stockade Association’s Secret Garden Tour. As she worked at getting the garden ready for visitors, she was advised that the shed — brown at the time — could use a tune-up.
It was master gardener and neighbor Peter Rumora who advised her to paint it purple. She came up with the orange. It turned out to cause as much or more comment as anything else in the garden that weekend.
The Stockade Association’s Secret Garden Tour will take place again this summer — Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23 — but different homes and back yards will be featured.
If you go, and you happen to pass a certain brick, Italianate townhouse, chances are good there’s a garish purple shed out back.