Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Behold the Hibiscus!

This little sucker is about three years old, a standard bought at Home Depot for like, nothing, that bloomed its head off the first year and then...stopped. I've watered it, fed it, sunned it, shaded it, nursed it. And finally! The reward. One stinkin' bloom, which will shrivel by tonight and be gone. Pretty, isn't it?

It is August 4 and there is not a hint of another budling on the bush. Make hay while the sun shines. Sigh.


Frank has it right, I think. Each year he buys his parents an hibiscus for their anniversary in June, and it blooms in their New Jersey garden until it collapses in the first fall frost. And they throw it out and get another in spring.

Stupidly, I keep them. There's another, a double pink standard, at least I think it's a double pink...the plant hasn't flowered in ten years. It stands six feet tall in its pot and I didn't bother putting it out in the garden this spring, a waste of space. Instead, it sits outside my second floor office in my tiny solarium, looking green and leafy. (Truthfully, at the moment it's green and pathetically droopy...hang in there plant, I'll hoist the watering can momentarily).

Greg moved it from the bedroom where it usually sits in the space on his side of the bed, passive aggressively reminding him that he made an immense hole in the wall whenever ago to make a closet and then immediately lost interest.

Not that he's taking the hint.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Dumpster Diving

The house hunting must-have list included the following: fireplace, basement, garage, garden...and swimming pool.

We got everything but the pool, but maybe the perfect solution is at hand. Behold the happy people splashing in the dumpster, it could so easily be we! The husband, after all, has more than a passing fondness for these ubiquitous street fixtures. In fact, he can't pass one without diving in. (That's him above, "shopping" in New Orleans).

Now, just add water and voila!

The story in today's NY Times:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Faking It in the Window Box

Some months ago, in a time between winter and spring, I featured myself in an article about window boxes for the Washington Post. Not that I mentioned it; they’re not hot on first person in the real estate section, which is where my stuff usually lands.

The issue was that I couldn't find a better example of an out of season window box than my own. So there it was (alongside several prize-winning specimens snapped at the Philadelphia Flower Show) a photo of one of the five boxes on the front of my house, wearing its wintry garb: corners dripping ivy, assorted dried shrubbish, and pansies surrounding –wait for it -- a fake boxwood centerpiece.
For years now I’ve tried to get something permanent growing in the center of the boxes, which were installed over a decade ago. First there were real boxwood, clipped into perky balls. These looked particularly wonderful at Christmas, covered in tiny white lights. But they died.

I tried again the next year and worse happened, two of them dropped dead in late October, too late to be replaced and making a mess of the holiday display.

Then there was the year of the dwarf azalea, followed by several featuring spikes. The annual disasters were expensive and thoroughly irritating, though mostly my fault. I’m good with watering and feeding for the first few months and then get lazy, particularly with the upstairs boxes that are sheltered from rain.

Last fall, when the spikes I was trying again yellowed and drooped, I went on-line and hunted up fake boxwood, ordering five 12-inch specimens from a wedding supply vendor. (Who uses fake flowers in wedding displays, I ask you? And then I answer, That would probably be me, on one pretext or another).

12-inches seemed right, but there wasn’t enough stem to loft them into centerpieces, so I wired them onto chop sticks, which helped. They were also surprisingly skimpy things and required a lot of bending about to look fullish.

But they work, and as always with such things, no one notices.

The trick is to mix fake and real, and make sure the fakes are reasonably realistic. Plastic just will not do.

The fake should also be restrained to an accent, not dominate the box like they do in the skin-crawler pictured here, a display I had the misfortune to come across last week in Old Town, Alexandria. At a quick glance these fake peonies looked real, but they were so lush they demanded a closer look, which was their comeuppance.

Had one or two flowers been mixed with real ivy and potato vine, or some other mix drapey, bushy, and virtually unkillable things, they’d be witty—a touch of tromp l’loeil. On their own, a window box display of fake peonies (particularly in a window box where you can go nose to nose with them and sniff their counterfeit souls) is not just unimaginative, it's plain depressing.

I refuse to get into the two boxes full of plastic flowers that Pizzaria Uno currently displays at its Georgetown location. Shudder.

Cultivating Your Home's First Impression

When Alex Dencker, manager of Behnke Garden Center in Beltsville, put his red brick colonial in Silver Spring on the market late last summer, his window boxes exploded with crotons, creeping Jenny and New Guinea impatiens in blazing shades of red, orange and yellow.

Talk about curb appeal.


"My real estate lady focused on this -- I thought she was nuts, but it really worked out. When people see your house for the first time, you have to make that bold first impression," he said, sounding thoroughly indoctrinated.

It paid off. The house sold in two weeks.

"Window boxes create a good impression from the start," said Dencker's agent, Tamara Kucik of W.C. and A.N. Miller's Silver Spring office. "When the buyer goes in the home, they're already excited."

Those "bland Colonials and Capes," so ubiquitous in the Washington area, are particularly needy candidates, she said. "Window boxes add an architectural element to the front of the house. ... It's a very simple way to add color." And the bigger the box, the better: "You have to have something that really catches the eye."

Window boxes are big sellers at Behnke, which carries them in wood, terra cotta, plastic, and composites that are lightweight, sturdy and cleverly mimic more elegant materials. Once they're filled and watered, Dencker cautioned, even lightweight boxes become lethally heavy, so make sure they're securely attached to the building or porch railing.

Starting a box to show well in early spring is tricky, but doable. Make sure whatever you select can survive frost: The average last frost date in the city is April 25, in the suburbs it's May 5.

"Generally, if plants are grown in a cold greenhouse, they will probably be fine planted out now," Dencker said. Behnke and other large garden centers in the area that raise their own plants have plenty of specimens to choose from. Loosestrife, coral bells and pansies "can take the cold with no problem," he said. Tuck in some English ivy and you have a splendid spring box.

"You can also do dried flowers, though I'd stay away from artificial plants," said horticulturist Karen Richards, who with her sisters, Donna and Cheryl, had a prize winner at this year's Philadelphia Flower Show, the world's largest indoor display.

"Cockscomb dries very well," she said. "Mix it with cattails and some small grasses for a fountain effect -- red fescue is drought tolerant -- and sunflowers. Oh, those nice sunny little faces with the purpley cockscomb," she added, in happy thought.

That combination of dried and real plants has an additional advantage for the harried -- or absentee -- home seller: It's a dramatic effect that requires little maintenance.

As the weather warms, and the pansies begin to grow leggy and fizzle, the replacement choices include reliably cheerful geraniums, petunias and impatiens, as well as anything that might grow in or ornament a box; Richard and her sisters included a tipsy martini glass in their flower show display.

Dencker is partial to tropicals. "Hibiscus and croton, with its broad striped leaves in orange and yellow, make a big, dramatic statement," he said, but don't dare plant them out until the temperature is reliably above 50 degrees.

He also likes the mosquito plant, which is "actually a geranium. Though the flowers are insignificant, it's bushy and has a nice lemony scent."

The balcony-size box that the Richards sisters created for the flower show featured such a profusion of flowers and greenery that it caused the knees to wilt: orchids, African violets, African daisies, two kinds of ivy, and a towering ficus anchoring the right corner.

Yes, you can try it at home. "Just keep in mind," Karen Richards cautioned, "if you're overloading the boxes, they take more maintenance. But you're selling, and you want that eye-popping color."

Dencker and Richards stress symmetry, balance and variety: making sure that you incorporate taller plants among the bushy ones and adding flowers or vines that cascade over the front of the box as well.

For a fast waterfall effect, "potato vines and hyacinth beans grow like crazy," Dencker said. And yellow creeping Jenny, "is a two-foot-long chain of gold by midsummer."

For height, consider adding a support and training those trailing vines upward. Or, as Dencker suggested, add dracaena spikes, which poke up like exclamation points among the bushier plantings.

"The outside of your home tends to be the last thing you work on," said Kucik, the real estate agent. "But it tells the buyer that you put in the time and the effort -- and that the inside will be fabulous."

Window boxes have a particularly powerful subliminal effect. "Not a lot of houses have them," she said. "So if you do, it tells people you've taken care of all the details. That you cherish your home."

Might they also distract from a trouble spot or two?

"Yes," she added, ever so delicately. "Giving them something nice to look at would mask a few flaws."

This article first appeared in the March 28, 2009 Washington Post

On Wintery Window Boxes

The following article first appeared in the Home section of the Washington Post. It was published in March of 1997, when I was deluded enough to believe I could keep my window boxes thriving winter after winter...

When I took my husband to London last year for his 50th birthday the last thing I expected was to be bowled over by window boxes. It was March after all, hardly peak garden season, but it was the only time of year when we could get away by ourselves. As expected, the gardens wouldn’t be in bloom for weeks, which made me weepy at the show I was going to miss. But if the earth was just beginning to come alive, nearly every building was a mass of color. Whole rooflines were dripping with foliage, iron railed balconies were massed with geraniums, stony terraces were draped in ivy. The window boxes, though, were the dazzlers. Most centered around neatly shaped boxwood, their fronts and sides lavished with ivy or vinca. Topping the green sprawl were marigolds, salvia, coleus, and fuscia.

Not only were these boxes lush, it was March, and they’d obviously been lush all winter.

Since I’ve been struggling with window boxes for the last ten years, I did pause to consider if I was being a dreamer. My terra cotta planters were purchased on a jaunt to the country, and each year the mission has not been to get plants to do something splendid, but just to keep them alive. This was difficult since the planting area was about 6”x12”. But who knew? They fit the requirement of the day, being both cute and cheap. What I didn’t realize was how quickly soil dries out in small containers, and particularly in terra cotta. To do well they required constant watering, which in our house means daily acrobatics with the upstairs screens, something I’m far too lazy to do. Beyond the water issue, I’d been sticking my fingers in my ears whenever I heard that plants need room to spread their roots and grow and thrive.

The result of installing these stingy boxes and giving inadequate care was that most of my plants went belly up pretty regularly. The rest were generally sickly. And I could kiss the lot goodbye come August and the family vacation. Our trusty roof that overhangs the front, keeping the windows shaded and the rain away, also keep the sills dry as a bone. There’s not a prayer that the rain might help with the watering. Nothing was ever alive on our return. Now if I weren’t such a slug this might have worked out. But I am, so it didn’t.

These London boxes though, completely turned my thinking around. Happily, my husband the genius carpenter, was just as entranced. The proof was that was that the wood to build them was purchased and not left warping away in the basement for five years. He had them hammered together, installed and painted within a week. Gloriously deep, and window width, the boxes are painted blackish purple to match the front door. Disobeying the rules about drainage (given my conditions, when do window boxes get a chance to drain? They dry out too fast. The trick is to keep the water in, not let it out) each box was lined with heavy plastic then filled with ordinary potting soil.

We got real lucky with plants that spring  but the hardy material can be installed in fall as well. The weekend the boxes were completed, Home Depot had a sale on miniature boxwood. They were, and are, the best price I’ve seen. Beautifully pinecone shaped, 12 inches tall, healthy and green, each plant was something like $6. Drawing on my wonderful collection of photographs from London, I added small leafed ivy along the front, and packed each corner with some of the oversupply of candytuft from the back yard. The annuals were added next, deep purple petunias for their fragrance, pale pink begonias for their drought resistance, and geraniums for a little aerial interest. The whole was instantly charming, and a tourist attraction by mid-summer. And miracle of miracles the boxes required watering no more than twice a week.

In the autumn I lifted the annuals to drop in miniature tulips and narcissus, then I put the annuals back on top to die when they would. By Christmas the boxes were still splendid with greenery and instead of the usual spare window display of a single white candle lamp, each wee tree was decked with a short strand of white lights. For a little more interest I poked baby’s breath in the gaps left after the annuals died. By late February, the bulbs were poking through and, given our absurdly mild winter, the candytuft was already beginning to bloom.

This spring I bought myself a little treat, Window Boxes by Tovah Martin, a slender $12.95 paperback in Houghton Mifflin’s Taylor’s Weekend Gardening Guides series. Martin’s packed her book with gorgeous photographs of the most spectacular window boxes, and filled it with tips on planting and maintenance. Her suggestions include tuberous begonias, fuschias and the splendid leaves of caladiums for shaded spaces, combining verbena and petunias in sunny spots to attract butterflies, and unusual combinations like brilliant red ‘honeysuckle’ fuscia, white daisy leafed chrysanthemums, and trailing blue scarvola. My favorite, given the deep shade of my late summer backyard, is using the boxes for vegetables and fruits. Martin includes in her suggestions ornamental strawberries, chives, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and peppers. I’d think cherry tomatoes might take to the boxes as well.

One thing Martin neglects, perhaps it’s because she lives so far north that any somesuch wouldn’t have a chance, is the year ‘round window box. Hers are filled with bulbs for the spring then wintered over in the garage. Given our climate, and my test run, there’s no reason to do this here. Even if you live where the hot air doesn’t blow quite so strongly, with a little energy most boxes can be moved inside for the few bitter weeks we see each year, or kept safe for a couple of nights with a cover of black plastic.

Elizabeth's Earring

Or, What to Do When You've Misplaced the Other

Elizabeth Eby, aka Our Lady of the Twigs, sent a photo this morning. She's planted a dream catcher earring among the bromeliads, which would seem to be gilding the lily, as it were, given the already hallucinatory colors of the flowers...but then, why not?

I suggested that she look at the stuff garden/artist Paula Hayes is doing ( I tripped across Hayes on the NY Times website a few weeks ago and was particularly fond of her air fern jewelry -- which can be worn or hung in the garden. I've been haphazardly looking for air ferns ever since...they used to be everywhere, weren't they? I'd like to dangle some from a fine gold chain suspended over the pond.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Chinese Lanterns

I don't much care for electric lighting in the garden, or so I'm trying to convince myself.

We have heaps of lights under the back porch, tangled cords in black and green with broken or battered globes that we've collected from sidewalks and trash cans over the years.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to find more in the attic. What's in the attic requires a blog of its own.

At some point in time there was the intent to install these lights, creating an artistic wash over the cherry tree, spot lighting the potted palm. That sort of thing.

Electricity is not something I deal with. That was one of my primary reasons for marrying Gregory, not that he's moving any too swiftly on this project. One of the strings dates to 1984.

Instead we have candles, which I've decided (in some desperation) that I prefer.

There's a candelabra in the bird bath, votives flanking the garage doors, and tea lights in two Chinese lanterns that dangle above the borders. The photo on this posting is from a painting by John Singer Sargent, a gaggle of Victorian girls lighting Chinese lanterns in the garden as evening falls. (Don't you love it? Long cotton sleeves, matches, children...).

But the light through the translucent shades is hauntingly lovely, as is my garden when I light my own.

Mine are not paper, they're some kind of plasticized stuff that's near enough, but that's a good thing since they're left out all the time and can weather the weather. One's bright yellow, the other's vivid orange, and both act as eye level flowers when they're not illuminating the garden.

That space at eye level is a prime spot to fill with something colorful. Border flowers are generally below, and flowering trees above, so suspending something in the mid space adds a little pop of excitement.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mr. Mosquito Rid

A Mr. Mosquito Rid sign has appeared in my neighbor’s property. “I’ve reclaimed my garden!” she said one gorgeous afternoon last week as we sat over coffee in her cigarette-musty living room. She’s rarely out there, though she hires a guy to come by and mow the lawn, and occasionally a team of inepts materializes to thwack back the wisteria.


Last week I caught a glimpse of Mr. Mosquito (not his real name), in full hazmat suit, eyes obscured behind the tiny window in his hood, sweeping his toxic wand over the azaleas and honeysuckle.

Not at all, by the way, as he is caricatured on his sign; like Fabio of the Flies, all flashing teeth and brawny forearms, manfully ridding the garden of blood sucking pests.

The neighbor pays $400 for the season and we appear to be receiving a residual benefit; our back porch, a good hundred yards from her garden, has been curiously mosquito free since the spraying started. Let’s see what else drops dead.

I’m wondering if it has anything to do with the departure of the birds that began to build their usual nest in the chandelier on the porch. Each year they arrive, swooping in with their twigs and cellophane wrappers and shreds of paper and build as I sit on the couch beneath them with my newspaper. In short order there are eggs and mama and papa bird appear to take turns sitting, unless they’re lesbian birds. I know nothing about the distribution of labor among male and female birds. Nor do I know what kind of birds they are. I suspect, doves?

This goes on for weeks, with whichever bird is tending the nest getting more ruffled at my presence as the day of hatching approaches, scrawing when I appear. And I twit back, If you don’t care for company, why the hell do you build here?

It is queer, isn’t it?

When the birds hatch, watching them grow is a lovely activity. Last year there were two, one feisty and brave, the other a little chicken shit. The brave one flew first, perching on the edge of the nest and giving his wings a few pumps up and down before gliding four or so feet to a ceiling fan blade (no, it was not on), cawing at his sibling to join him, which wasn’t happening. He sat for a bit, then with more confidence, flapped back to the nest.

The next morning he coaxed his timid brother (or sister, or maybe he was the sister, who knows) to join him on the fan blade and his poor sibling remained there, seemingly traumatized by the effort, for most of the day.

And then they were gone, and I was pulling out the nest and washing bird dreck off the chandelier’s crystals and beads.

This year a nest was begun, then abandoned. Coincidence Mr. Mosquito man? I think not.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Elizabeth's Twigs

The bathroom at Marvelous Market was out of toilet paper. Good thing I had a discount coupon from Safeway for Bush’s Baked Beans in my bag. What manner of association did Safeway computers go through to arrive at a Bushes coupon for me, I’m assuming these are intelligent suppositions based on my buying habits, which I should note, do not include Bush’s, which I actively dislike. Maybe they’re nudging me from the nice cheap cans of Campbell’s Pork and Beans that I use as a base, adding sauteed onions and bacon, mustard, brown sugar and spices. Tough. Coupon is flushed.


Monica left this morning for Austin, where the daughter is resuming her poolside search for meaningful work. Bikini clad and buttered in SPF15 she continues to check the University of Texas on-line bulletin board and Craig’s list for possibilities, occasionally shooting me a link to a curiosity like the ex-drug titan, fresh out of prison, seeking someone to collaborate on his memoirs.

So I’ve been wandering around the Hill feeling sadly for myself, my little pigeon has again left the roost. I looked at the camera, sitting on the kitchen counter before I left. Looked at it for a good 20 seconds or so, and then said, nah. Don’t feel like schlepping it and it’s gonna rain again and just don’t feel like it.

So of course I get to 11th and South Carolina and am stopped in my tracks by a collection of twigs painted in woozy stripes of purple and blue and Chinese red, massed –there were many--in a garden border behind a wrought iron rail.

It’s a newish border, so the plants haven’t yet filled in the blanks, and though there are flowers, they are widely spaced, and I’m thinking – This is wonderful! And I’m also thinking, someone else in this neighborhood would do this so seriously, buying twigs of some exotic wood and looking at them this way and that and then measuring off the distance between stripes and so forth. Or more probably, engaging an artiste to do it for them.

But here is someone who took a bunch of twigs, painted them and stuck them in the earth and they…look like flowers.

So after I completed my stomp around Eastern Market and elegy on the toilet situation at Marvelous Market over a caffeine free diet coke, I went home, grabbed the camera and, because I’m being lazy and it’s now getting late, hopped in the car and drove back to the house with the sticks.

Illegally parking at the corner, and snapping this way and that before looking up and, hellooooooooo.

There's a young woman about Monica’s age, with a billow of dark hair, perched on the doorstep watching me. And I say, Oops, and explain that I'm writing this blog and I love the sticks and she says, “My mom did them and she'll be so happy you like them. She'd like to meet you but she's in the shower .... “

I take her name, Carolyn Eby, and her mom's name, Elizabeth, and start giving her my info when she says, “Oh, I think she's out now,” and skitters into the house and drags mom out in a flowered muumuu of sorts, with soaking wet dark hair dripping fetchingly on her shoulders and I say…

Why sticks?

“Because it was raining and raining,” she began. “And I was looking at these sticks I'd piled up for kindling and thinking I had some paint and also thinking about the neighbor's daughter who was disappointed that I didn't have pink flowers last year...”

Which she still doesn't. She now has a collection of sticks painted violet, blue and Chinese red amid a border of perennials, yet in the subtle stage.

And I say, What I love is how they read as flowers!

Then she goes on to prove my point: “A woman walking down the street the other day said, ‘Those are the most interesting flowers! What are they?’ And I told her, They’re sticks.

“If it keeps raining, I’ll make more,” she continued, adding this bit of wisdom, “No matter how unsuccessful an art project is, if there's a lot of it, it looks great. “

Which is I think, quite true.

Dressed-Up Structures Can Revitalize Your Back Yard

Garden designer Jane MacLeish once installed a 400-square-foot tent at the home of a Syrian oil magnate and his wife in the District's Kalorama neighborhood.

It was set beside the pool on a pink granite terrace, surrounded by pale pink tulips, peonies and roses to match the wife's jewelry.

"They used it for lounging," MacLeish said. "Isn't that a wonderful word, lounging? Something we don't do enough of."

Most backyard buildings are utilitarian, housing tools or cars. But some homeowners don't stop there, renovating existing structures or creating new ones to make spots to lounge, party, write or put up extra guests. They have found inspiration in tents, sheds and even boats. While simple tents and drapes can start at less than $100, more imaginative structures can run into the thousands.

A British transplant, MacLeish imported an antique stone temple, about eight feet across, from London to sit in her small Cleveland Park garden. Tangled branches of a fig tree lace the iron filigree of the roof, and clematis and scarlet honeysuckle scramble up the pillars. "Old estates in England are littered with these things," she said. "They're so attractive and make a very nice focal point and destination point in the garden."

MacLeish's neighbor took the simple step of adding white net curtains on tracks around the covered back terrace, tied back with ribbons for day and drawn at dusk, effectively tenting the space. "She was having trouble with mosquitoes," MacLeish said. "At night it's like you're on safari; the curtains are drawn, but you can still see the garden."

Washington real estate broker Suzanne Winter never seems to stop adding on to her 28-acre weekend retreat near Culpeper.

Years ago, when she and her husband Jack Rose put in the pool, they masked the unsightly mechanics with a rose-covered pergola, then added a pool house, open on two sides, with a roof supported in part by a Doric column.

Though it is now considerably larger, the main house used to be less than 300 square feet. The only other building on the property was a tool shed, crammed to the rafters with building supplies. To add sleeping space for visitors, Winter and Rose installed a double bed on the pool house platform and a bath with an open-air shower out back, then added unbleached muslin curtains to ward off the bugs.

When guests untied the curtains at night, "we wanted to run right out and be guests ourselves," Winter said.

When her husband passed away, Winter decided to rent the place out for occasional weeks and weekends and started to think about adding more space for guests.

Inspired by an article about landscape architect James van Sweden's Eastern Shore property and its collection of creative buildings, she started transforming the tool shed.

She and her handywoman, Laurie Hannabass, retooled it to include a gas fireplace, a bath, a kitchenette, and a little front porch with Adirondack chairs for flopping and contemplating the mountains.

Then a boat docked in her yard.

For years, a vintage turquoise and white, 25-foot cabin cruiser had been sitting in the side yard of a house on Route 29. Winter kept passing it thinking, "I can put it on the pond, and wouldn't people find it fun to sleep on the boat?"

The boat isn't functional, but there's no pond yet, so Winter figured, "What difference does it make?"

She bought the boat and took a week off work. With Hannabass's help, she buffed and polished and hooked up water for the head and the sink -- then stocked it with cocktails. Indeed, "the cocktail boat," is what she calls it. If you care to bunk in it, "you open the windows and the windshield is a skylight over your face that the stars fill at night," she said.

Now she's eyeing a vintage Air Stream trailer to park in the woods.

Van Sweden had a more literal role in transforming the Georgetown garden of John and Beverly Sullivan into a tropical retreat.

Their modestly sized home was built in 1890 as servants' quarters for the far grander house behind it on P Street, Beverly Sullivan said. When the couple bought the home in 1999, there was no garden, just concrete. The centerpiece was a three-car garage that was once a carriage house.

"And I thought: We've never had a car, so why start now?" Sullivan said.

What she needed then was a gallery, a place to exhibit the Haitian art she had collected over the years.

From the back of the house, at the end of a rambling path that wends past a koi pond, the carriage house is nearly hidden from view. She told van Sweden to think New Orleans to get the feel of a Haitian setting.

Three sets of French doors topped with fanlights replaced the car bays. At the entrance, a stone veranda is capped with a pergola, twined with clematis that explodes each autumn in a frothy white canopy.

Within, oriental rugs adorn flagstone floors and a fan twirls lazily from the beamed ceiling. Though she's stopped selling art, the walls and tabletops still bear brilliantly colored Haitian art and crafts dazzle atop iron tables and against lemon-colored walls. To one side is a bath, on the other a wine closet, cool and dim.

The garden outside is tropical, too, though Sullivan is clueless about what's planted beyond a patch of coral bells. "The names are long and my Latin is lousy," she said.

Watermelon House

"We love color," said Tom Healy, flashing metallic blue toenails.

Healy lives in the house on Q Street NW with the gigantic slice of watermelon painted on the side, along with Wade Wilson and Robert Banaszak.

In the few years since it was painted, the mural has become a neighborhood landmark. "Everybody loves it," Healy said. "When kids see it, they scream, 'Watermelon house!' "

It's particularly fabulous at night, he adds, when the "slightly fluorescent streetlights make it pop."

The inspiration was accidental. Banaszak, the communications director for the American Academy of HIV Medicine, and Wilson, who owns W2, a computer consulting firm, painted it "when the painters did the front of the house fire-engine red and the side came out like Pepto-Bismol," Healy said. "So they grabbed black and pink and green and painted a watermelon."

Banaszak and Wilson actually own the house, said Healy, a law student at George Washington University. They bought it from the church at the corner, which used it for weddings and wakes. "They were hoping the weddings canceled out the bad juju."

The art continues inside, where Wilson hand-painted the fireplace mantel. "Wade's really creative," Healy said. A gnarled tree, another Wilson touch, covers a purple wall in the bright green master bedroom, branches snaking onto the ceiling.

"We don't consider ourselves artists," Healy said. "We just can't stand bland colors."

His own alpine mural on the shed behind the house is a work in progress. It's mainly at the waving-arms-around-in-description stage, but he's thinking mountains wrapping up into the side of the house . . . and kites.

But of all things, why a watermelon?

"We're all big fruits," he said with a hoot.

Paradise Found in Petworth

You have to be more than 6 feet tall to peep over the wall off 13th Street NW and catch a glimpse of Edward and Juliet Gill Cunningham's patch of paradise in Petworth.

The wall, which forms the backdrop to their porch and deck, belongs to neighbor "Miss Lily," said Edward Cunningham, who first asked her permission to paint the wall white. When Cunningham's wife was smitten with a photo of Hawaii and started discussions with Silver Spring muralist Ronald Shaw, Cunningham again approached Miss Lily, who was unperturbed. "I don't care. I can't see it," she told him.

That was about 12 years ago. The Hawaiian scene now covers some 30 feet of wall, becoming more whimsical each summer with the addition of mermaids and lions and a rainbow studded with bits of glass to refract the sun.

"Every year, the artist is over here doing something or other," Cunningham said.

He just finished the fence around the hot tub. Last year, he did the cabana.

Cunningham, a night manager at Safeway who studied architecture in college, and his wife, a counselor at the District's H.D. Woodson High School, bought the house in 1990. They gutted it to create a hyper-modern space filled with white leather, art works, and a concrete fish pond with Miami-style spot-lit fountains under the staircase.

A 16-by-12-foot koi pond, stocked with fish Cunningham has raised from babies, is set into a deck outside the back door. The fish roil the water when he scatters food across the surface, tails flashing gold and orange. "My daughter used to sit on the side and dangle her feet," he said. Presumably that was before the fish grew to the size of small sharks.

Surrounding the pond and the hot tub are tables, chairs and benches. "A lot of people come to visit," Cunningham said. "They say, 'I feel like I'm in another world.' "

His favorite part? "My goodness," he said, gazing around his tropical hideaway. "Relaxing in the evening time when the lights come on."

This story was first published in the Washington Post

This story originally appeared in the Washington Post

A Touch of Tuscany

For decades, the lot beside the old house on East Capitol Street was the neighborhood basketball court, straggly with weeds and resounding with whoops and thumps from kids tossing balls into the hoop affixed to the neighbor's side wall.

Then Connie and E. Linwood "Tip" Tipton arrived and restored the decaying circa-1902 beaux-arts home with its terra cotta tiled roof and impressive array of gables, bays, keystones, brackets and pediments. They also restored the broad porch, set Charleston-style on the side of the house. Down came the hoop, and out came the weeds. In went a new aggregate-edged flagstone patio and big raised garden beds.

The only eyesore was that brick wall. "We finally decided on some sort of trompe l'oeil, maybe a garden," said Connie Tipton, chief executive of the International Dairy Foods Association. "But how do you paint a garden on a wall and make it look natural?"

She clipped a stack of magazine photos of gardens and gave them to Andre Kouznetsov of Buon Fresco Wall Artistry in Alexandria, "and he went from there."

What emerged was a lush Tuscan garden that carries the eye past shrubs, statuary and flower borders to a vista of mountains under a hazy blue sky with sunset-tinged clouds.

Sitting on a garden bench are Nicholas and Lena, the next-door neighbor's children, added as sweet payback for letting the Tiptons use their wall.

To make the 16-by-45-foot mural work with the house, "the architectural design was incorporated into the painting," said Tip Tipton, a former chief executive of the dairy association and the man behind the milk-mustache campaign.

"The artist picked up the stonework and keystones over the front windows and the dentil moldings at the roofline," he said.

Kouznetsov even incorporated the aggregate edging along the patio, extending it into the mural's winding pathways. Then he daubed in bits of whimsy, such as the wine bottle tossed behind a bush.

"He told us it would last 100 years," Connie Tipton said. "But we'll never be here," she added, clinking wine glasses with her husband and envisioning, perhaps, a real Tuscan retirement.

This story originally appeared in the Washington Post

A Garden Variety Masterwork

"What's this article about again?" asks Evelyn Nef, standing in the foyer of her Georgetown home. Not because she had forgotten but because she wants to hear it directly, instead of filtered through her assistant.

"Murals in private homes around the city," she's told. "And you're the top!"

"You're the top," she sings, doing a little soft-shoe down the hall. "Noël Coward!"

It's early afternoon, and the sun is shining brilliantly. She doesn't see anyone before noon, her assistant explained. She works out every morning. "Weights and stretches," Nef said. She'll be 95 next month.


"Come into my back yard and see a marvel," she said, leading the way through the house. And there it is, surrounded by magnolias and climbing roses, the only Marc Chagall mosaic in a private home in the world.

At the top she points out "Orpheus and his lute, Pegasus and images from Greek mythology." Below are European refugees coming across the ocean, and in the right corner she and her husband sit in the shade of a tree.

Chagall was a good friend of her third husband, historian John Ulrich Nef, whom she married in 1964.

"Every summer, we went to France and saw the Chagalls," she recalled. The people, not the paintings. "We always went to the Hotel du Cap -- they'd come to get away from the tourists in summer. In the morning, Marc would paint and my husband would write and Valentina and I would gossip. We became like a family.

"When he'd come to New York, where Matisse was his dealer, he'd come to visit us in Washington. He loved the village of Georgetown and shopping at Woolworth's for new pencils and colored crayons."

It was something of a hostess gift, the mural. When he proposed it for the garden, she was imagining a plaque of some sort, "a little 8-by-10-inch thing to hang," she described with her hands.

"I never dreamed we'd have to build a wall."

The mosaic was flown over from France in 10 panels and attached to the wall with bronze pins so it can be moved. "When I die, it will go to the National Gallery. The present plan is to put it in the sculpture garden," Nef said.

"When it was done, Marc came and the French ambassador and the society person," she said. "It was a very big deal."

This story originally appeared in the Washington Post

I See a Mural in Your Future

"I've been waiting for you for 10 years!" Pam Marcon trilled in welcome. That's how long friends have been urging her to tell the press about her murals. You would think the Arlington artist, who is also an astrologer, would have seen a sign.

Ten years ago: That's when her computer crashed and she decided to paint the back of the house. "I started at the back, and within eight hours, I had the first one done," she said.

The neighbors liked it and asked her to do the sides, too. But commissions were rolling in and the computer was back up, so it took eight years to complete the other three walls -- all, that is, but a little waterfall beside the front door that went on hold while she painted three airplanes for this spring's Crystal City Flight art show. It is a neck-breaking sight, particularly in winter when the trees are bare and the sides of the house are visible to passersby. She supplements the show in warmer months by lining up canvases in front of the porch.

Marcon has been painting since 1972, when a knee injury sidelined her dream of becoming a Rockette. There was another stab at show biz in 1979, when she joined Ringling Brothers as a showgirl, but she couldn't hack the close quarters. "I ran away from the circus," she said.

She has lived here 32 years, and as expected with starving artists, the house has begun a gentle decay. As is expected with artists, starving and otherwise, boundless creativity remains. So the house, inside and out, is a canvas.

The crumbling stucco walls add texture to the mural; cantilevered chunks have become mountain crags; gouges are chutes for waterfalls. Trees grow up the walls, covering this and that, and the tumble-down basement stairwell is a grotto.

Beside her "victory garden" -- planted with, she ticks off, "50 tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, onions, radish and corn. Ooh, and sunflowers!" -- is a shed that's becoming a Greek temple, with columns.

While she's adept at such realism, her passion is the "neo-primitive landscapes" that cover her house and her canvases. "Recession art. It doesn't cost a lot of money."

This story first appeared in the Washington Post

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