A COOL SPRING DAY EMERGES from a spate of warm afternoons. Rain intermittently pours and drizzles. It teases with a pause and starts again in earnest. Water droplets slide off of the back porch roof, splattering into the fish pond at the edge of the decking of Crystal and George Eskola’s National Hills home. The rhythmic sound provides a backbeat to birdsong. Goldfish swim amid the anacharis. They’re oblivious to the wet and to the weather.
In a small clearing beyond the pond, a variety of birds pecks along the ground where Crystal scattered seed earlier. “I love the nature that the garden brings to our house,” she says. Several years ago, the Eskolas’ yard was certified as a backyard wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. “There are a dozen different species of birds out there right now,” she adds. Fat squirrels join them in grazing. A woodpecker lights on a birdfeeder, grabs a morsel and flies back to the heights of a massive pine. Some days, a hawk swoops in, reports Crystal. When that happens, the smaller animals disappear then gradually return once the danger passes.
…a multitude of plants that only a master gardener could easily name…Footpaths meander through the lush garden.
THE PATTER OF RAIN on the leaves of rhododendrons, ferns, magnolias, azaleas and a multitude of plants that only a master gardener could easily name lulls the mind. Footpaths meander through the lush garden. They beg visitors to venture from the porch and explore. “I always have wine in the fridge,” says Crystal, “for anyone who wants to come over and have a glass and wander around.”
Who needs television when a window to the natural world awaits? Crystal and George rarely recline in their den, opting to unwind from busy work schedules on the back porch. From comfortable leather chairs, they watch an owl hunt at the fish pond. They listen to the melody made by frogs and toads and nighttime insects. Propane heaters prevent Mother Nature’s icy breath from driving them indoors during winter. Fans further the cooling effects of shady trees in hot months.
The chocolate brown brick home tucks into the green foliage. It takes on the demeanor of a retreat, a getaway destination, an escape from the grind. Mature trees obscure any view of the neighbors, giving the illusion that the garden is much larger than the third-acre corner lot.
Metal elements she has either commissioned or discovered and brought home are strategically juxtaposed against the verdant greens.
THIS GARDEN that consumes every square foot of land, save for where the house stands, is Crystal’s creation. Her own hands assembled the wood plank fence that encloses the backyard. One by one, she dug the holes for the trees and shrubs. By sinking sturdy trunks and branches of dead trees into cement and covering them with dirt, she created stands for feeders. Metal elements she has either commissioned or discovered and brought home are strategically juxtaposed against the verdant greens. In other areas, brightly painted bamboo spikes pierce the landscape.
In 1992, when the Eskolas purchased their home, the unfenced yard was grass both front and back. They immediately added a chain link fence and a dog. Then she started gardening. Working her way from the edges in, she planted beds. Annuals featured heavily in those early endeavors. As the years rolled on, the layers of plants grew more complex. “The crepe myrtle to the left of the driveway and the pine trees are the only things that are still here from the original yard,” says Crystal. Every other inch has been turned and toiled and mulched and modified and labored on and loved into existence.
Crystal maximizes her personal plot of terra firma in two ways. First, she limbs up—which means to trim lower branches—trees and shrubs to reveal usable ground space beneath them. Second, she plants all the way to the streets that run in front of and beside her house. So extensive and thorough is her use of space that someone unfamiliar with the neighborhood may assume hers to be an undeveloped wooded lot.
AND THAT’S EXACTLY the idea behind her gardening style. “I want to live in the woods,” says Crystal, “so I’m trying to create my own.”
Not only is it a woodland habitat for birds and squirrels and butterflies and other lucky animals and insects that discover it, the Eskolas also give their three dogs the run of the property. Friends coming to visit often bring their dogs too. Crystal doesn’t fret about pet damage. Several of the paths were created by the canines, and she says, “They’re going to go where they want to, so I may as well make a path and work around it.” A living testament to her easygoing attitude in this regard, a viburnum leans heavily against the fence, knocked into that position by a friend’s dogs. Crystal, ever seeing the world through artistic eyes, liked the way it looks and left it off kilter.
Here, there’s no pressure to achieve perfection. “What some people consider a weed doesn’t bother me, so I just leave it,” Crystal says. In the same breath that she exuberantly declares she wants one of every plant, she exhales and says, “If it doesn’t work and it dies, I just won’t buy another.” And her garden layout, though dually stunning and interesting, is haphazard at best. “I buy something and then I have to find a place to put it.” And she is as equally bold with a can of spray paint, changing the color of garden art, benches and chairs at whimsical will.
Not to say that there haven’t been mistakes. She admits that when she first put shovel to dirt, she didn’t give thought to the order of things. Looking back, she says she should have planted trees and shrubs first and saved the flowers for another day. A gardener gets to know herself and her tastes the more she engages her green thumb. Crystal, in her quest for horticultural diversity, for the most part abandoned annuals and incorporated perennials and evergreens into the evolving landscape.
THE MAJOR TASK with a garden of this size is keeping it watered. She does it all by hand. The window in which to install a sprinkler system opened and closed years ago. Now, the underground tangle of roots would suffer irreparable damage from the trenching that would be necessary. So Crystal uses an old-fashioned garden hose and hardware store sprinkler to get the job done.
Fortunately, the garden needs little other maintenance. In the early years, it demanded more attention, but in its maturity it requires less effort. She cuts back plants periodically, gathers the sticks and debris when they collect, ignores the weeds she can and pulls the few she can’t, and spot-spreads mulch when it thins. She can go for months without tending to it and spruce it up in a single weekend, which gives Crystal more time to sit on the porch with George and enjoy the view.
Crystal ever seeing the world through artistic eyes…is equally bold with a can of spray paint. changing the color of garden art benches and chairs at whimsical will.
Low maintenance doesn’t imply stagnate, though. On the front corner where the streets intersect, Crystal is constructing a wood retaining wall inspired by one she saw in North Georgia. Elsewhere, several pots contain vegetation waiting in queue to join the landscape. Over the summer, she plans to add a bog to accommodate her pitcher plants. Her fondness for unusual flora and yard art will inspire other adventures in her woodland oasis, as well.
She has the heart, the mind, the eye of a gardener. She’s willing to plant and to wait and to see what happens. Crystal won’t say gardening is easy or that it’s for everyone: “If you don’t like the hot, don’t like the cold, don’t like the bugs, then you might want to pick a different hobby.” She does, nonetheless, believe that the results are worth minor discomforts.
As she walks through the garden on this particular day, pointing out plants, naming their names, describing how they grow and when they bloom, the rain turns to a soft mist. A beam of sun breaks through the cloud cover. Everything sparkles. On a day like this, in a place like this, who wouldn’t want to be a gardener, regardless of the bugs?
This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.