Moving heaven and earth to be together

Changes: When two gardeners unite households, they transplant their accumulated years of plant treasures as well.

In The Garden

September 09, 2001|By Denise Cowie | Denise Cowie,Knight Ridder / Tribune

When Liz Ball and Rick Ray decided to sell their individual homes and buy a house together this year, they moved more than two households' worth of furniture.

They moved two gardens.

Not just easily dug clumps of perennials, although there were plenty of those, but mature shrubs and trees 10 to 12 feet tall -- at least 400 plants altogether from Ray's garden, he estimates, and an additional 100 or more yet to be dug from Ball's.

"There was absolutely no doubt that we were going to move the gardens," Ball said. Those plants, after all, had motivated the couple to find a new location when they opted to move in together.

Ball, a garden-book author and photographer who also teaches and lectures about gardening, had lived at her house in Springfield, Pa., for 26 years. Every spare inch of her suburban lot was taken up with plants, many of these hard-to-find specimens with stories to tell.

But Ray couldn't simply move in with her.

"It wasn't big enough to hold his garden and mine," she said. And his house in Bucks County, Pa., was too far from her professional roots. Ray, a woody-plant specialist who taught horticulture at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., for 20 years before he retired in May, said he had expected to live in his house "forever and ever." His yard was virtually a nursery, a plant collector's accumulation of the rare and unusual.

"Rick's trees are his babies," Ball said. "One is a dwarf Hinoki false cypress; another is a Stewartia monadelpha; and there is one very special Japanese maple, Acer palmatum shishigashira, which is called the lion's mane Japanese maple, and a Japanese plum yew, Caphalo taxus harringtoniana Prostrata.

"These were the biggest plants and among his greatest treasures. And then there were a million other shrubs and trees, katsura and crape myrtles, Asian this and variegated that."

Their solution: Find a modest house with enough land to accommodate prized plants from both gardens in a new setting.

"One of the reasons I retired is so that I can concentrate on gardening," said Ray, 58.

"People at our age are more likely to go into a retirement home than start a new garden," Ball added with a laugh.

But gardening has always loomed large in their lives. The couple, both divorced, met at a horticultural venture eight years ago but didn't get together until a couple of years later, when Ball's garden was on a garden tour.

As the tour wound down at the end of the day, he helped her clean up -- and their relationship blossomed.

Finding a new garden site turned out to be the easy part.

Just a few miles from Ball's original home, they discovered a secluded two-acre property, about half of it a floodplain. The house perches atop an eight-foot drop to the plain, providing excellent views of rabbits, chipmunks, painted turtles and "zillions of birds," including hawks and ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Large grassy areas of the upper yard beg to be turned into gardens that will be home for many of the transplants. An in-ground pool has been given a year to prove itself, or it could become a vegetable garden. And the riparian habitat along a creek offers the chance to showcase moisture-loving natives -- once the new owners figure a way to cope with the deer and the sluicing effects of flood water after heavy rain. Here, Ray says he hopes to plant sweet-bay magnolia, Itea Virginica Henry's Garnet, summer-blooming clethra, Joe Pye weed, swamp milkweed, New York ironweed, ligularias and button bush, a native that grows along the Susquehanna.

But first, there were two houses to sell and hundreds of plants to be carefully moved, most in an open trailer hitched to Ray's station wagon. Only the largest two trees, which took four men to move, went by truck.

"This was strictly a do-it-yourself job," Ball said. The movable forest has spent the summer tucked into the woods at the new house, waiting for fall planting .

Ray delayed putting his house on the market while he organized the removal of the plants he cared about most. With the help of some students he paid by the hour, he spent nearly 2 months hand-digging. One after another, root balls were eased from the earth and wrapped in burlap, and smaller plants went into pots.

"We found some melon boxes lined with wax and used them for herbaceous plants with big clumps of soil attached -- huge chunks of hellebores and Asian ginger and astilbe," he said.

When it became clear that he would run out of time before the digging was done, he had written into the agreement of sale that he would have until next spring to take out one tree, a paperbark maple more than 20 years old that was given to him as a sapling by the late John C. Swartley, Ray's mentor. This will be the tree's third move. "I'm very partial to trees," Ray said. "They get top ranking. You have to start [a garden] with the structure, the trees, and work your herbaceous plants and shrubs around them."

Ball -- whose latest book, Month-by-Month Gardening in Pennsylvania (Cool Springs Press, $19.95), was published in spring just as the moving got under way -- also has strong ties to certain plants. Renowned plantsman Charles Cresson, for instance, gave her the uncommon Clethra barbinervis 18 years ago, when it was a baby.

"That's really important to me, sentimentally," she said, "and because it's such a bang-up shrub."

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