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Woodland Gardening in the Suburban Outback

by Jenny

By Marianne Willburn

flooding in the suburbs
Even my Subaru won't make it through the post-flooding mess.

It’s April. Heavy rains have taken the bridge out between my place and town and it will be at least 24 hours before crews will have gravel down and tickets back to civilization three miles away. Any sane person would hunker down with a decent internet connection and a Netflix password, but live streaming isn’t an option at the end of a two and a half mile dirt road frequented by deer and coyote. I am suburban gardening in the Capitol District 'outback' by choice.

There are still little pockets of rural wilderness surrounding metro cities in the United States. They’re few and far between and the gravel roads are sketchy, but they exist.

Instead, we’ll check retaining walls and rain barrels, herd chickens indoors, close up cold frames and bring in wood for the furnace; and when a friend from town calls to see how we’re doing “out there” and inquires as to our supply of bread and toilet paper, we’ll smirk at his choice of words. For just three miles away – albeit three rough and rocky miles – there’s a main line commuter train heading straight for the heart of D.C every half hour.

Finding Suburban Wilderness Surrounding Urban Cities

There are still little pockets of rural wilderness surrounding metro cities in the United States. They’re few and far between and the gravel roads are sketchy, but they exist. Three years ago, my family and I found one of our own, 60 miles away from the Nation’s Capital on a train line that each day deposits government workers and assorted Starbucks-sippers at Union Station – a train line whose existence makes it impossible to plead ‘excessive distance’ when guests insist on forgoing the U.S. Botanic Garden for yet another shuffle through The National Museum of Natural History.

shelling peas with wine
Shelling peas in the vegetable garden is a great excuse for a glass of wine.

Virginia is now our home. Just two miles away sits Maryland, and another six, West Virginia. Luckily, trade between the states is still free and I can cross the Potomac and buy a hellebore without unreasonable tariffs. But for a California girl who grew up excited to travel the four hours to Nevada every few years, it’s been an adjustment.

So has the garden. For twenty years, I apartment gardened, I patio gardened and I rental gardened. I small lot gardened and I window boxed gardened. And in the midst of all this gardening I dreamed of space.

Boy did I get it.

Suburban Gardening is Defined by Space

Space is a mixed blessing for a gardener without a work crew at her command. In the moist Virginia climate, plants, weeds and trees grow at a mind-boggling pace. An unmown field will be un-mowable within six months and a forest within six years. Spend a day removing invasive weeds like wine berry and honeysuckle and you’ll be removing them again next week.

golf cart garden cart
The purchase of a used golf cart has made weeding, trimming and hauling much easier.

Reflect for too long on this reality, and that of your rapidly aging back, and you might be looking at listings for Capitol Hill condominium living by the end of the week. Small gardens are, after all, manageable gardens. My new garden is not manageable by any stretch of the imagination, but in a place of such natural beauty, I’m not entirely convinced that this is the point.

My new garden is not manageable by any stretch of the imagination, but in a place of such natural beauty, I’m not entirely convinced that this is the point.

The facts: Our house sits in the middle of an ten acre dell of mixed woodland and open meadow. We are low lying here. In our driveway the temperature will register five degrees cooler than in town. Tricky during ice time, fabulous during sun time. The USDA places us within Zone 7a, but local gardeners and growers generally agree that erring on the side of 6b is safer – and less traumatic for all involved.

Learning About Your Newly Acquired Suburban Gardens

The property has always been referred to as “The Old Meadow” and its sandy, alluvial soils are testament to the constant cutting and re-cutting of the year-round stream which bisects the property and attracts wildlife from blue herons to black bear. In many beds near the house, the topsoil is black and rich with enormous earthworms – enriched year after year by thousands of leaves.

suburban garden mole and vole patrol
Pepper, one of the three cats who patrol the gardens for voles and mice.

The gentle dappled light and rich soil in this area allows me to grow many species of fern, wild ginger, arum, and hellebore, and a large hole in the canopy gives a five hour window of light to flowering beauties like deutzia and hydrangea. This is the garden for many of my more precious plants that need protection. Between my Jack Russell Terrier, Mungo, and my husband’s rifle, it tends to stay deer and groundhog free.

Across the stream near the barn, the soil is poorer, but the exposure and gritty drainage allows me to grow sun lovers in ornamental gardens that surround the chicken coop and are slowly spreading westward. A vegetable garden was last year’s project, and there now stand nine raised beds and two cold frames – to be joined by another three cold frames this spring. Nursery beds are also here for plants I’m trialing, as well as the beginnings of a 30x12 foot mixed border.

Traditional gardens are joined by paths through the woods and down in a sunken wooded hollow formed by an old stream switchback, I am slowly planting bluebells and bloodroot as well as many other native beauties for what I hope will one day be an eye-popping ephemeral walk in early spring.

Taking Time To Observe Before Planting In A New space

Our first summer here I didn’t garden at all. I spent my time observing sun patterns and moisture levels, deer populations and groundhog holes, and sketching out thoughts in my journal. The challenge here is linking disparate growing areas in a fairly large space with a strong sense of flow and purpose. The other challenge is doing that on my own with a small budget.

Our Mid-Atlantic growing season starts out with all of the promise of an English spring. Flowering trees, colorful bulbs and cool breezes fill the gardener’s head with the nonsense that this will be the year of the delphinium, then heat and humidity descend and we remember why autumn is such a welcome season.

suburban shade garden
A shady bed near the house feels lush and cool in the heat of the summer.

Finding New Plant Loves in Your Garden

Luckily, that same summer heat and humidity paired with summer rain make tropicals like cannas and bananas explode with texture and color, and allow me to experiment with exotic foliage whilst indulging my interest in native flora. Never mind the fact that our bitter winters will kill tropical beauties where they stand – that’s what basements and light racks are for. It’s a climate of contrasts and extremes and it keeps the gardener on his or her proverbial toes.

When visitors wonder how we cope with pot holes and bridge closures and spotty internet service in an area where such mythical inconveniences have surely been conquered, we gently put a drink in their hands and walk them through the burgeoning gardens, ending with an hour or two on the deck. Soon, they too are a part of this place – the excitement, the challenge, but above all, the great sense of peace. Often, being disconnected is the greatest connection of them all.

At least that’s what I tell my eye-rolling teenagers. That whole ‘spotty internet connection’ thing is not going down well. At. All.

Marianne is a columnist, blogger and the author of ‘Big Dreams, Small Garden,’ now available on Amazon. You can read more at or follow The Small Town Gardener on Facebook.