A shade cooler in oasis

June 11, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Walk the alley behind his house, and you'll catch the blast of summer in the city - huffs of exhaust, the rattle and roar of traffic, 85-degree heat magnified by pavement to a stifling 95.

But when Russ Moss opens the rickety gate to his back fence in Reservoir Hill, he invites you into paradise.

Moss, a musician and photographer, calls this his personal rain forest, and it's easy to see why. A canopy of trees overhead - birch and dogwood, mulberry and Japanese maple, all 20 years in the growing - blots out the glare, bathing his long, narrow back yard in cooling shade.

Here, just behind his three-story rowhouse, robins nest in the branches and catbirds call back and forth. The murmuring of a small fountain harmonizes day lilies, daffodils, impatiens and phlox into a living afghan for the place he calls his "outdoor living room."

"I pretty much live out here in the summer," says Moss, 55, a news photographer for WJZ-TV. "It's nice to come into some oasis, some space where I can read, play my guitar, have a glass of wine, or entertain friends - where I can have a moment of silence, watch the birds and feel the cool."

Today and tomorrow, Moss' garden will be one of 30 open to visitors as part of Reservoir Hill's annual home and garden tour, an event he and Glenda Gentner, a neighbor, started in 1994. Weather permitting, they expect up to 500 visitors on the self-guided tour, which includes the chance to visit 16 historic homes, hear live music and take a peek at how some urbanites have fashioned natural respites from summer's congestion and heat.

It takes patience and consistency to create a sanctuary like Moss'. When he bought his place in 1984, his neighborhood in the 2000 block of Park Ave. was a virtual advertisement for urban blight. The sidewalks were "full of rocks, needles and dog excrement," he says. Crime was so bad he couldn't get pizza delivered. And 8 inches of cement covered his 15-by-60-foot back yard.

Moss didn't lose heart. He remembered how planting corn, harvesting beans and picking cotton on the Georgia farm of his boyhood had taught him the healing rhythms of nature. He picked up a sledgehammer, bashed up the backyard pavement and liberated the soil below. "I threw in a few seeds," he says with a laugh, "and it was like the Jolly Green Giant."

His sunflowers were bright, his tomatoes the size of grapefruits. Over the years, he added annuals, evergreens, climbers and flowering shrubs, symphonizing their growing patterns so that something colorful would blossom every season. For Moss, such work blends the physical and the spiritual like nothing else. When spring rolls around, he doesn't feel right until he gets dirt under his nails. In his garden, where plant life attracts bees and birds and cools the environment, he feels "as close to God as I probably ever get."

Like many city gardeners, he especially enjoys the summer, when the colors are most vivid and the temperatures in his back yard can be 15 degrees lower than they are outside his rose-covered fence. "I come here to chill, literally," he says.

The work he has put in, though, has been part of something bigger than his back yard: It's helped seed a renaissance in Reservoir Hill, a district of majestic, 1880s-era brick homes a few blocks above North Avenue. Moss and Gentner, a bed-and-breakfast owner and 30-year resident, planned the first garden tour to promote the district and have seen the event grow each year. They help to tend the neighborhood's medians and other public areas, planting and watering flowers and raising money for other accents.

The tour's yearly growth doesn't surprise Moss, who knows that no matter where you plant a seed, if you tend it with patience, you're going to see a harvest.

"A neighborhood is a lot like a garden," he says. "Put nothing into it, you'll get nothing out of it but weeds. But get out there and do your stuff consistently, and you'll have a bumper crop."

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