A Rural Way of Life
“We’re passing our homestead on to you with happy regards. With your varied interests in horticulture, scholastics, journalism, natural lore and land stewardship, you seem the ideal family to pick up at the point that we jump off. We hope you thrive in your quiet little Eden.” – Lloyd and Jeanne McLaughlin
A Well-Loved Piece of Land
So ends Jeanne McLaughlin’s history of Oldmeadow, a type-written account she handed me after we bought the property in 2013. Lloyd began work on the house in Lovettsville, Virginia in 1975, selectively clearing the overgrown ten-acre parcel called ‘The Old Meadow’ bisected by Cool Spring Creek. The open stream valley had once been used as a pasture and orchard before the Second World War.
He laid out the lines to the A-frame home with the aid of the North Star and constructed a stone bridge to link house and road. The long barn came later, in stages; but Lloyd’s true passion was building with stone, and he was good at it. He constructed all of the retaining walls, the house’s massive stone chimney and hearth, and the stone facing on the house itself.
For forty years he and his family homesteaded and loved this beautiful piece of land. In a world where property transactions are often fraught with tension, anxiety and distrust, we considered ourselves fortunate indeed that the McLaughlins sold us the property with happy hearts, and remained friends long after the sale of the house.
A New Beginning
My husband, two children and I had been hunting for a rural way of life for years, and the first few weeks at Oldmeadow felt like a vacation. Reality kicked in a few months later when the furniture was moved, boxes were finally unpacked and we started to realize what Jeanne had told us with a grin at the closing table: “Nature wants it back.”
Lloyd and Jeanne always treated the property as a nature reserve and homestead, and their gardening efforts were mostly vegetable and fruit with ornamentals thrown in when the mood struck. As Lloyd told us, “the property is pretty enough and the deer want everything.”
As a garden writer finally faced with a good amount of land after years in the city and suburbs, I could not wait to get started; but I waited a year to observe the property and get my bearings. I did not have a designer at my beck and call, nor did I have a grounds crew.
Apart from my husband and children, I still don’t.
Almost a decade later, we now have a young garden made up of many smaller ones, and the challenge is bringing a sense of flow and continuity to these separate areas with very different functions – woodland, vegetable, meadow, mixed borders, etc… When I am feeling overwhelmed, I always come back to Lloyd’s words – “it’s pretty enough” – and realize that no matter what I plant or what Michael builds, the land will always have great natural beauty. That is our saving grace.
The Surrounding Woodland
The approximately seven-acre woodland that surrounds the cleared property is primarily tulip poplar and ash. Walnut, sycamore, hackberry, hickory, beech and box elder make up the remaining canopy; and redbud, dogwood, pawpaw and spice bush make up most of the understory. Invasive pests like multiflora rose, wineberry, Japanese honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, and ailanthus make life difficult, but then so do native vines such as wild grape, poison ivy and greenbrier.
The woods offer up many edible mushrooms in spring, summer and autumn, and allow me to flex my foraging muscles. We eat wood ears, chicken of the woods, oyster mushrooms, wine caps, honey mushrooms and puffballs. This spring (2020) I found morels for the first time.
From 2016-2018, ash borer devastated the ash trees on the property and we were forced to remove trees that were close to the house – including one that got a little too close, coming through the roof during a windstorm.
In total, we have had 12 mature trees taken down on the property; but in exchange we have planted nearly 60. The wood from fallen trees has been used to heat the house, make indoor furniture and outside benches and create a hügelkultur along the spine of what will be the Serpentine Bed someday.
Upper Shade Gardens
The house sits on one side of the creek, the barn on the other. As the house is nestled into a north-facing slope densely populated by trees, the beds near the house are mostly shaded or partially shaded and rarely touched by deer. Consequently, I tend to plant treasured plants in the beds that surround the house, and it can be a challenge to make them work well together. Ferns fill in the gaps.
An old, low-lying switch back in the creek has allowed me slowly create a woodland garden filled with spring ephemerals such as Virginia bluebells, snowdrops, bloodroot, trillium, cyclamen, phlox, dicentra and troutlily. Though we are surrounded by woodland, planting into its wilds without a ground crew working right beside me would guarantee the loss of whatever was gambled. Instead, I am able to stay somewhat on top of this smaller woodland area bordered by creek and lawns. It is a continuing work-in-progress that keeps me occupied in the winter and early spring months.
Lower Sunny Gardens
Sunny is relative. At the height of summer, the sun only provides seven to eight hours of direct sunlight a day, and all near the barn where I do not yet have pumped water. Water is collected off the barn roof in rain barrels, so I am careful of what I plant and am constantly amending the alluvial silt with organic material to retain moisture. Chicken manure from our own flock is a huge source of fertilizer, and I haul in compost from the local municipality. Leaves from the many deciduous trees are collected and composted every autumn to make rich leaf mold.
Early on, we built a pergola and chicken coop perpendicular to the barn and landscaped the area with grasses, winterberry, hellebores and daffodils. Hopefully within the next year or two a second pergola parallel to the barn will ‘enclose’ the area, creating a courtyard that will open into the current Serpentine Bed, Vegetable & Cutting Garden, and Mini-Meadow. Someday I hope to extend the path onto the sunny south facing hillside where dry sandy soils might make it possible to push my USDA Zone 6b into 7b territory.
In 2019, the Vegetable and Cutting Garden was fully fenced against deer to protect some of their favorite foods and ours. Trial plants are planted here until they are big enough to plant out in other areas of the garden.
Rural life doesn’t seem complete without chickens. Especially as we fought for them in suburbia. We’ve had two main flocks of mixed-breed chickens, including chicks born here. When you have a garden, chickens complete the circle, eating bugs, weeds and kitchen scraps and producing rich manure and richer eggs. As much as I love to watch them wander, our chickens are confined to a very large run, as they can be extremely destructive to the root zone of most plants.
We are between flocks of guinea hens, which normally prowl the property eating ticks and bugs and act like tiny velociraptors in sound and movement. Sadly they come down from their tree roosts very early in the morning, when fox are waiting.
Five ducklings arrived in March of 2020 and delight us with their antics. Two have survived clever foxes — Jemima and Ping. They wander and play in the shallow, gentle areas of the creek. Occasional duck eggs add to the dozens of rich, wonderful eggs the chickens give us each week.
We have been keeping bees for thirteen years, both here and in suburban lots. The honey is wonderful, but watching them in and around the garden is almost enough to make suiting up in August worth the sunstroke.
Never let your twelve-year-old pick your barn cats. She’ll pick the sweetest, friendliest kittens and you’ll be forced to allow them into your house in winter. We have three total – Pepper, a black cat; Daisy, a calico; and Tiger Lily, a tabby. Thankfully they are all good hunters – rural life is filled with voles, moles & mice.
I have often been thankful that we moved to Oldmeadow just for Mungo’s sake. He is a rough-coated Jack Russell Terrier and is bred for rural life and to hunt ground hogs – which he does with great skill. He spends hours each day by my side in the garden, and often goes across the way to play with the crews working on our neighbors’ vineyard or to play with another neighbor’s dog, Marley. Mungo was chosen for his good-natured temperament; and though he is a little scrapper – as are all JRTs – he is a brilliant dog with a too-fine brain. May he always use it for good.
The Pandemic of 2020 brought with it many challenges, but it also allowed us more time at home, and more time to take on the puppy we had wanted for three years, but always put off. Nessa is a sweet natured, massive Irish Wolfhound who looks more like a muppet creature from The Dark Crystal than a regular dog. She towers over Mungo – and the two of them remind us of an animal version of Me and Mini Me. Both scruffy, both lovely. She will be a puppy for some time yet — a fact that doesn’t amuse Mungo in the early morning when she wants to play and he just wants a bit of quiet time and a sniff ’round the garden.
I will defer to Jeanne’s detailed description of the comings and goings of wildlife at Oldmeadow, as they are little changed in the last forty years.
“Yours for the spotting are owls and hawks; a stray eagle may come foraging from the Potomac. Great blue heron often stalk their way upstream – when startled, their ascent is extraterrestrial. Indigo buntings, phoebe, goldfinch, warblers, gnatcatchers, waxwings, orioles, kingfishers, tanagers, bluebirds, cardinals, ruffled grouse. Most summers the bridge pool teems with fish and crawdads – I don’t know all the taxa…I do know the horned shad and shiners are fond of cat food. In September, there is the evening bat show above the kitchen-side deck. And always, eyes are watching you. Fox, skunk, coyote, opossum, muskrat, squirrel, turkey, deer, black bear. After dark in late summer, grab a flashlight and a blanket for meteor-watching and fireflies over the meadow.”
A Place Where Life and The Garden Intersect
And that is the story of Oldmeadow thus far. Each day brings a new challenge in a rural life. A broken tractor…a raccoon in the potting shed…a washed-out bridge…a hard, punishing freeze. But each day also brings a great deal of peace, a chance to design and experiment with an incredible palette of plants, and the joy of sharing it all with friends and family. The learning curve is steep and wonderful.
We are incredibly thankful to act as stewards for this lovely place. I very much hope that you will enjoy the seasons of our Mid-Atlantic garden through photos and articles; and perhaps bring that sense of rural living into your own home and garden, wherever you live.