Home is where the heart is

Inside/Out challenges our thoughts about home and garden, asking us to look outside the norm of glossy magazine spreads to consider the non-traditional home. Can a yurt be a home? How about an underground house, as in the case of my neighbor? 

What about gardens? Are they restricted to plants, neatly laid-out and designed, or do trailer-park gardens count? 

For some, trailers are a blight on our mountains. When I was a city planner, I attended copious meetings to eradicate trailers, or at least clean them up with underpinning and decks. Often it was my job to go to visit the trailer and recommend (read require) that the owner move it to a less-offensive site or make it a “permanent dwelling” by installing underpinning. There's something about the transitory aspect of a trailer that's unsettling to some. They're not concerned about pipes freezing — it seems to be purely aesthetic. Or, perhaps they fear gypsies? 

I don’t know why some folks dislike them, but here’s what I do know about trailers: They're often permanent dwellings. An obvious sign? When the owners plant gardens. 

I’m not talking elaborate, Biltmore-esque lay-outs here. For many trailers, a pot of begonias sits besides the steps. Alberta Spruces seem popular, clustered around the foundation, and peonies and butterfly bushes are a certainty.

One of my favorite single-wide trailers has two gorgeous crepe myrtles, full of deep red blooms in the yard. In my rounds of trailer parks and trailers, I’ve also seen golden chain trees, scarlet oaks, sugar maples, hibiscus in so many colors, Japanese maples and large vegetable gardens  

It’s been almost 20 years since I worked as a planner. It’s been almost 20 years since the hostility toward trailers brought them to my notice and I began a hobby of photographing their gardens. My pictures were my silent acknowledgement of their right to be considered a home, just as the 5,000-square-foot rock foundation house across the street had the right to call itself a home. 

I am asked a lot, “What is your favorite garden?” My answer is always the same — and always unexpected — “I love trailer-park gardens.” 

Out of all the gardens I see, I appreciate them the most, because to my eyes, they come with the most care. These are simple gardens designed to bring beauty to a small place called home, a word that connotes permanence.

But permanent is not necessarily good anymore, is it? Permanent and carbon footprints go together. So perhaps my favorite garden homes are coming into their own?

My friend, Robin Smith, an environmental scientist, wrote this to me:

“Manufactured housing is actually one of the more 'green' options out there, based on the amount of raw materials required to achieve each square foot of living space. No matter how much reclaimed barn wood and bamboo flooring you install, a brand-new, 5,000-square-foot house is not green, unless there are 10 people living there.

Even then, building new is problematic; increased energy efficiency in the house's operation must be measured against the energy and environmental impact of obtaining and manufacturing new materials and delivering them to the job site. This is not to say that we shouldn't build “green”, just that there is a whole lot more to the equation than most people realize.”

It’s a simple concept. To Smith’s way of thinking, trailers have about as much space as any of us need in order to live. A single-wide is roughly 700-800 square feet, and a double-wide is, well, double that.

One of my favorite trailer gardens is currently thriving. I drive by it every day. Right now, the Turk’s cap lilies are blooming out and the butterfly bush is looking a little ragged, but I am looking forward to the fall colors of the sweet gum tree that stuns us every year with its multi-colors. The trailer, that non-permanent dwelling, is long gone. Nothing was ever put in its place.

The elderly couple who lived there all their married life died, and all that remains of their home is its lovely garden. The carbon footprint has vanished — recycled by the family elsewhere — but the flowers and trees remain.

— Cinthia Milner can be reached at alarka@att.net

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6 thoughts on “Home is where the heart is

  1. Donna T.

    I believe this is about the most real gardening article I’ve ever read. Cinthia shows that the appreciation of horticulture has very little to do with the extravagance of the home but with the desire to plant and to enjoy nature’s flora wherever one calls home.

  2. bikeman

    Nice. It is always the unexpected that provides the most viewing pleasure. I am forever pointing out specimen trees and bushes in odd locations, trailer included.

  3. Summer

    Very interesting – and surprising! I never considered trailer park gardens before. Now it will catch my attention. Also, I suppose a ‘used’ home, or a preexisting structure might be the ‘greenest’ housing option compared to new construct…ion. I would like to know how ‘green’ retrofitting a preexisting home with environmentally friendly appliances/fixtures/siding/windows/energy, etc. really is when considering the amount of pollution is made while creating those products. (I must say I don’t buy into the whole ‘carbon footprint’ thing, as we are carbon based beings, as is everything living, and trees use carbon dioxide to make oxygen – but I do believe in being good stewards of the resources God has given us.)

  4. Nice article Cinthia. There is a certain trailer I drive by on a regular basis and always check to see what is blooming.

    A garden can speak for itself no matter how large or small and no matter what is parked or built next to it.

  5. Mtnsmith

    Love it! I lived in a beautifully landscaped mobile home when I was first married. It was in a small park in east Asheville, with low stone walls and perennials everywhere. The home was 12×60, one bedroom, and perfect for two people. Being good stewards includes not taking more than you need, be it donuts or living space.

  6. Beth

    As a doublewide dweller, I can particularly appreciate your wonderful piece. When we moved to our doublewide in Alexander a few years ago, it was basically a beige box with no landscape and only one redeeming feature—a front porch. The first year, we blew our grocery budget buying flowers and shrubberies, but the result has been worth it. It’s been such a joy to watch the things we planted with such care bloom in gaudy profusion and send their roots deeper, even as we send our roots deeper here. And it is satisfying to know that those plants will continue to grow and give pleasure, even after we are long gone.

    Thank you for challenging the stereotypes that so many have about those of us who live in trailers and for recognizing that many of us love and take pride in our homes, however modest they may be. I enjoy the gardening column very much…and I really like your writing.

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