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Trial and error led to a glorious garden on a challenging lot

Trial and error led to a glorious garden on a challenging lot

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Cyndy and Brian Unwin’s house on Wellington Drive sits high on a ridge overlooking the treeline, with spectacular views in every direction. The front yard is relatively flat, but 30 feet from the back of the house, the yard drops off steeply into a wooded ravine.

While many gardeners might find a landscape like this frustrating to work with, Cyndy Unwin revels in it. Due to the variations in elevation, she said, “This place has every kind of climate to grow in.”

The Unwins spent most of their married life traveling from state to state as Brian, a physician, was stationed at various Army bases throughout his 29-year career.

“I’ve gardened everywhere I’ve lived,” Unwin said, in places as varied as Georgia, Texas and Maryland — all of which gave her experience with growing plants in many different environments.

When Brian retired in 2013, they were living in Fairfax County but wanted to move to a mid-sized community near the mountains.

“We’re both from Colorado,” Cyndy Unwin said. “I’m a mountain girl.” They considered moving back to their home state, she said, but ended up settling in Roanoke, where Brian is now chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Carilion Clinic. Cyndy is the author of several children’s books, and along with Brian, she teaches a narrative medicine class at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. It’s an elective course that prepares prospective physicians to delve more deeply into their patients’ medical histories, both to make better connections with them and to help with diagnosis. She also tutors children with reading difficulties.

“We love it here,” she said about their new hometown. “It’s a perfect fit for us.”

Unwin said they chose the house because it’s near hiking trails and had plenty of outdoor space. As a lifelong gardener, she also knew it would be a good spot for growing a variety of plants. “Roanoke is a fantastic place to garden,” she said.

The one thing Unwin didn’t figure on, she said, was that the lot had been filled and graded to create enough flat space to build the house on the ridge. As a result, the natural soil is compacted clay and rock. Parts of the lot are subject to erosion, and others to developing wet spots when it rains, she said.

“The soil was horrid,” she said. For the first two years, “I was almost distraught. It was a weedy, rock-hard, messy lot.” Unwin attributes the lush carpet of fescue that now covers it to planting good-quality seed.

Unwin is a Master Gardener, but much of her success has been due to trial and error, she said.

“It’s mostly error. I tend to just plop things in and see how they do.”

Because the existing soil isn’t conducive to growing much of anything except the grass, she brought in a special planting mix to create each bed. Shrubs and trees are set in holes amended with soil and compost. Unwin said she lost several before she realized she needed to dig the holes wider than usual to keep the roots from wrapping around the plants and strangling them when they couldn’t grow through the hard-packed clay. She has found a variety of plants that work well in a front yard bed that is frequently wet, but said she has yet to find an ornamental tree that will grow there.

The back and side yards feature a variety of outdoor areas, with an emphasis on native plants and sustainable practices to invite pollinators, such as bees, wasps and butterflies.

Below the backyard deck is a short path leading to a built-in fire pit surrounded by comfortable Adirondack chairs. The area is flanked by a tall stacked-stone retaining wall, which echoes the design of an fireplace inside the house, Unwin said. The same material is used for the fire pit, as well as for an unusual no-pond waterfall, which trickles into a hidden basin, where the water is recirculated.

Unwin said her father, who was also a gardener, used to build water features and taught her how to do it. She has built several of them, but this is her first without a pond.

“The hard part is hiding the liner,” she explained.

She chose not to have a pond because “it catches everything,” from organic matter to wildlife, and can be hard to maintain. Animals are still attracted to the waterfall, she said, but the only maintenance it needs is for the stones to be rearranged when they’ve been disturbed. Unwin has installed shade-loving plants, such as ferns, lilies of the valley, and a dwarf maple in this area.

Under the deck is a flagstone patio featuring a welcoming dining area scattered with container plants. It offers a view of the mountains and the woods, which slope down behind the house. The trees are fairly young, having likely been logged within the past 30 years, and Unwin has planted elderberries, dogwoods and tulip poplars at the edge of the yard, which blend in with the existing trees and help prevent runoff and erosion.

At the corner of the house sits a stormwater drainage easement that diverts runoff from the street into the woods. These easements are generally fairly unattractive, consisting of a pipe laid in a depression and surrounded by rip-rap. But by following guidelines from the municipality that maintains them, Unwin said, homeowners can convert them into rain gardens — as she has done — by installing native plants and grasses that can tolerate being both wet and dry. She has bluestem grass, irises and coneflowers in this area. “They need to be tough plants,” she warned.

The rain garden also gets the Unwins a break on Roanoke’s impermeable surface tax.

Many homeowners don’t know that there are all sorts of little things they can do to reduce this tax, she said, including storing waste containers in a garage so trash doesn’t blow away and into the waterways.

A small arched bridge crosses the easement and leads to Unwin’s vegetable garden. At the moment, she said, she’s growing cool-season plants, such as kale, lettuce and peas, but later in the year, she’ll put in summer crops, such as tomatoes and zucchini. Most years, she said, the garden produces enough for her household, with plenty left over for the neighbors. Because the native soil is so poor, the vegetables are planted in raised beds, which are improved with compost Unwin prepares herself. The garden is sited in an east-west direction so it gets full sun nearly all day. Beyond the vegetable garden are two wildflower gardens designed to attract pollinators.

Attached to the north side of the house is a private courtyard with high stone walls and built-in planters that feature flowering spring bulbs. This area offers a view into Unwin’s orchid room, which was custom-designed for the plants. She has been cultivating them for eight years, and has about 150 plants in all sizes and varieties.

The room will not be open the day of the tour, Unwin said, but she will bring some of the plants out to the courtyard, and members of the Blue Ridge Orchid Society will be on hand to answer questions.

Despite the size of her property, Unwin said she really doesn’t spend that much time working on it. “I try to to be out every day doing something,” but its often no more than a half hour or so.

She likes to pull weeds by hand to avoid using herbicides, she said. At first, “it takes a lot of time, but once the weeds are under control, it’s not so bad. It’s mostly a joy. It’s my therapy.”

Asked if she was done with the design phase of the garden, Unwin said: “A garden is never done.” But she would eventually like to replace more of the lawn with plants that are better for the environment, she said.

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