Create a SalvageScape in Your Backyard

Stephen Morris

(Editor’s note: We were introduced to the concept by Heather Levesque. The “we” in this story is my wife Sandy and I, and in the interests of full disclosure, Heather is Sandy’s daughter. She and her family live in Spring Hill, Florida.)

Spring Hill is, like most everything in Florida, relatively new and relatively flat. It has been developed with rectangular lots fronting on straight-line streets organized in a grid pattern. It’s a very orderly place that encourages conformity and weed-free lawns. Heather Levesque, however, is all about individuality, beauty, and whimsy. It only takes a glance to recognize that this is not the domicile of the typical Florida retiree.

First of all, the lawn … well, there is no lawn. Instead there are elevated berms of pine-needle mulch covered with flowering banks of perennial roses that frame the front door entrance. The house is flanked by elaborate gateways that foretell of magic to come. The backyard is not so much a yard as a living sculpture of plants, artwork, and recycled objects that have been resurrected in an environment of delight and imagination, Heather’s own interpretation of the magical kingdom or, more accurately “queendom.”

Woody Allen might have had Heather in mind when he said “The biggest sin in our family was to buy at retail.” The garden encompasses every square inch of the property, and is a living demontration of “Re,” recycyling, reuse, repurposing, and surREality.

Welcome to Heather’s garden.

The mulch comes free from the forest floor of the nearby piney woods. The plants come from her own propagation, barter, or the occasional end-of-season blow-out nursery sale. The objets d’art come from a variety of sources that have in common that they are free. “Mondays and Thursdays are trash days. I know the times and routes of all the pick-ups,” she says with the pride of a professional. “There’s a big difference between what is discarded from neighborhood to neighborhood, and you need to be there at the right place at the right time.”

She also knows the locations of the recycling containers the in parking lots of shopping centers. “A lot of time people will leave objects that are still usable outside the container.” She draws the line at dumpster diving. Needless to say, she is also a connoisseur of yard sales and thrift shops. With its older population, Florida is a SalvageScaper’s dream.

The front of the house does not prepare one for the back. When you enter there’s a palpable sense of falling into the rabbit hole as Alice did in her wonderland. The area teems with life—birds, butterflies, and a jungle’s worth of blossoms and greenery. There’s a papaya tree loaded with fruit, towering bamboo thirty feet high, and a tower of herbs tumbling from a discarded lawn ornament.

The initial impression is overwheming, but gradually the touches of humor, whimsy, and artistry emerge. There’s a boot, but it’s nailed to a tree. That’s because it’s not a boot; it’s a bird house, and birds don’t live on the ground, silly. Aha, that also explains the mailbox in the sky.

There’s a 50s-style Schwinn cruiser that’s actually a garden centerpiece. One visitor commented how the next door neighbor copied Heather’s SalvageScape until she pointed out that the “window” on a wooden fence is really a mirror. One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. Heather laughs when she notes your surprise. “I got it before the garbage truck,” she says with a twinkle. There are a variety of seating areas, including one by the outside clothes line that features an arrangement of transparent glass plates that give the appearance of an stained-glass window. “I had to experiment a lot to find the right adhesives for that one,” she explains. “You know I think I could write a book on adhesives,” she says with a sigh and a smile. She should a book on SalvageScape, instead.

When her teenage son, Tully, invites friends over, the favorite hang-out spot is around a defunct Heatilator fireplace that has been repurposed for outdoor use. It’s rusty, but rusty looks right in this setting. “It functions much better than a firepit” she says, “because it doesn’t smoke.” Evening transforms the SalvageScape yet again. Heather took full advantage of a close-out sale on small solar lights for a buck apiece and has placed them strategically to create a fairyland effect. There is twinkle a plenty.

Transforming the humdrum of suburban America into an oasis of beauty, nature, and natural habitat is not simply a matter of design aesthetics, you also need to balance practicality with a solid foundation of horticultural knowledge. The butterflies, birds, snakes, lizards, and even mosquitoes all have a stake in this setting. The mulch surrounding the roses in the front yard may have come for free, but you have to know that pine needles are acidic and roses need acidity. Not surprisingly, Heather keeps an extensive library of gardening books as well as magazines and catalogs flagged with ideas for future projects. She is also a connoisseur of composting, burying scraps directly in the ground according to the specific nutritional needs of various plants. “You have to know which plants like banana peels and which ones like coffee grounds.”

There are also economic considerations to a SalvageScape. “My gardens need a lot of water,” says Heather, “and there would be a dramatic impact on our water bill if I used sprinklers the way most people in Florida water their lawns. I water selectively and deliver it directly to the roots, so there has been no discernable impact on our bill.”

There are some positive economic impacts. “Perennials need to be split periodically,” she says, “and I’ve had luck selling these on Craigslist.” She’s also had success turning cane-seated chairs into planters. “It’s hard to find people who re-cane chairs and it can cost more than the chair is worth,” she explains, “but they make unique and beautiful planters.” If enough people throw away their chairs, she plans to sell planters at a local festival.

“Mom’s gardening habit” is a source of family lore and legend. Heather maintains an outdoor workshop, an arsenal of tools and fasteners, not mention a storage shed filled with artifacts for future pojects. With a swimming pool, trampoline, and a choice of seating areas, the backyard is popular as a hangout zone for friends of her teenage children, Tully (18) and Cassie (13). Who wouldn’t like a place where it’s always Christmas? But there is a practical side to the SalvageScape, too. When Tully was stumped locating a mask of Yoda from Star Wars needed for a school project, he turned to Mom. Did she, he asked, by any remote chance, have a Yoda mask in her inventory?

“Of course I have a Yoda mask,” was her instant reply, and she knew right where it was.

A SalvageScape is at once personal, practical, and passionate. What can you say about a tree adorned with climbing Mexican petunias, blue glass bottles (“I just like blue bottles.”), and wrapped with solar lights? You can’t explain it, so you just enjoy it.

This article appeared originally in Green Living Journal.

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