Surrounded by a sea of overgrown green even Kermit The Frog would consider too much, our newly hired “stager” parked her moderately priced car in front of our house and quickly surveyed the project. Unclear why a house in the San Francisco suburbs that’s in excellent condition needs a major outside overhaul, Diane and I recently gave in to our real estate agent’s wishes and agreed to a major exterior cleanup project. Having successfully found a great app to sell our crap, we even raised enough cash to pay for the project.
Classified as “Mediterranean Climate”, the inland suburbs of San Francisco are a paradise for gardeners, botanists and undocumented workers that do every conceivable form of maintenance seven days a week. Literally the ONLY homeowners in our entire neighborhood that refuse to pay for yard work, a task our generation grew up doing ourselves, we admit that our quarter acre corner lot is a bit “overgrown”. Regardless of cut-rate prices charged by unskilled laborers that generally live an “all cash” lifestyle, given the choice between retiring early in Malaysia versus or up with the neighbors, the choice was always a no-brainer.
Besieged by an astoundingly large task, we watched as Kim walked around each nook and cranny of our property, taking notes, making irritated gestures and compiling what turned out to be three pages of “exterior staging notes”, enough to make a Silicon Valley mansion owner grimace.
Problematic is not what grows here, it’s how much of it grows. Willing to undertake the challenge ourselves, Diane and I actually gave it a shot ourselves the first few years, sacrificing many weekend afternoons of leisure in favor of our seemingly cheap self-maintenance mission. Working reasonably well for about two full seasons, both with normal rainfall, Diane and I figured if we did this in Canada, we can do it here. HAAAAAA !!
What’s the difference between a gardening season and in Canada and California? About nine and a half months a year. Easier than boiling water, the “gardening season” in Calgary doesn’t even start until after May Long Weekend (otherwise known as Victoria Day). Breaking out the planters, fertilizer and lawn mower, you scrape off the late spring snow and hit the ground running for a few summer weekends. Lacking warmth nine months a year, you’re happy to be in the sun.
Conveniently, Labor Day arrives and ends the season every year. (It’s spelled Labour Day in Canada but unlike the beginning of summer holiday, falls on the same day as America). Already tired from the couple of weekends spent planting, gardening, mowing and trimming, nature kicks in with a frost almost magically on the first Tuesday after the holiday weekend and follows it up with some snow. And that’s the end of the gardening season for nine months.
Here in California, stuff never stops growing. Throw in the worst drought in 100 years featuring over 330 days of sunshine and it becomes a perfect storm. Almost impossible to control even with experienced professionals, the past season overpowered anything we’ve ever seen in our seven years at this property. Knowing you probably think we’re exaggerating, allow me to elaborate with a series of photos I snapped yesterday, ahead of the project’s insanely complex start. Frustrated with the ivy’s relentless climb up the house, I scraped it off one part and quickly learned why you don’t ever try something as dumb as that.
Below is a crazy rose-bush on top of the trellis in our backyard. Normally a beautiful refuge from the summer sun, it’s become fourteen layers of uncontrollable mess that produces spectacular yellow roses every spring. Two weeks later, they fall and turn into a huge raking project.
Continuing the tour of our overgrown back yard, you’ll notice magnolia leaves. While thought of as an aesthetically pleasing tree, it’s a huge pain in the ass. Dropping leaves 12 months a year, I hope they don’t grow in Southeast Asia. Producing fruit not even the birds eat, the California pepper tree is another big mess that never stops growing. Making things even stupider, we have plants on the side that have died, apparently from crappy sprinkler placement. Adding more to the bill, new plants will need to be planted.
Turning our attention to the front of the house, the highlights are a yew tree known simply as “the green monster” to us, a side view of various plants that tower way over the windows and have thorns so spiny even the mice steer clear and some strange ugly thing seen all over my neighborhood that looks like a big Panama straw hat.
Even Kim had no suggestions for Oscar (the guy stuck with a three-day project that’s worth thousands but will come in well under that because early retirees can’t waste large sums of money and our real estate agent knows this).
While treated as stately in New England, ivy in California is another enormous pain in the ass. Easily one of nature’s most indestructible plants, it will no doubt survive a nuclear war along with the cockroaches. Sadly, I tried pulling some of it off in past years and ruined the wall. Unsure whether to leave some ivy or simply gut it and power wash the windows, our real estate agent looked to Kim for guidance but got nothing and decided to table this for now.
Probably the nicest feature of our property is the flowering crab apple tree on the front lawn. Producing a spectacular scene of beautiful flowers for about three weeks a year, it’s hopelessly unshaped although it still looks nice. Servicing trees is the most popular and expensive gardening activity and only a professional arborist can protect the tree’s health, ensuring healthy roots and a long life. The picture below is from our first month we owned the house. Use your imagination and guess what it looks like today.
Wonderfully relaxing during my weekly yoga class, lavender’s sweet scent is always a welcome part of the session. Trying to trim and control its growth in the garden is another story. Constantly infested with bees, it’s hard enough to get anywhere near it, never mind keeping it trim. Constituting a violation in the eyes of the city, about a year ago my corner lavender plant made its way all the way to the sidewalk, blocking passers-by and moms taking their kids to the local elementary school.
Attempting to remedy the situation, I broke out the giant gardening implements and simply gutted it. Learning that even the heartiest plants don’t appreciate being cut down like a tree branch, the lavender plotted its revenge by simply refusing to grow back. Stripped to an ugly bunch of dead branches, Kim gave me one nasty looks as if knowing I was responsible for its demise as she scribbled down more notes. Deciding the entire section needs to be replaced with something that grows quickly, Diane and I looked at each other as the exterior staging notes grew to three long pages. Clearly my duties as a House Husband would have to be limited to mostly inside activities that don’t kill living things.
Ironically, even the inside plants in this crazy place grow like wildfire. Way back in 2008, Diane and I visited the local garden center looking for an inside plant that would help fill the room. Ensuring us the small little plant we brought home never exceeds about four feet, the clerk seemed to know what he was talking about. Five years later, it’s like a small intestine that would unfold into eight feet or more if we had a higher roof. Refusing to understand what the ceiling is, it just wraps around itself ten times and leans to the window looking for sunshine. Undaunted by its small pot, dying is simply not an option in this land of ever-growing foliage.
Beginning today, the clean up project starts. Oscar is the gardener in charge and informed me he’ll be here at 1:00 PM sharp. Only the first step, the apple tree’s leaves don’t even drop until mid-December, leaving a short eight week period before first blooms appear again. One month before listing the house, Kim comes back to decide how she’ll stage the house, another ridiculous ripoff whereby you pay someone even though you’re the seller.
Although Diane and I have no intention of purchasing property in Malaysia, I think we’ll still avoid renting a house with any kind of tropical foliage. Having visited three of the world’s four major rainforests, I’ve seen first hand the amazing array of flora and fauna that loves the heat and humidity more than us. Feeling like I’ve done my time, we’ll stick to a high-rise condo and let the gardeners worry about the tropical plants.
Have you ever sold a house that required a “staging”? If so, please share; We’re anxious to see other examples.
Hot off the press: New rules enacted November 1st might make trouble for American MM2H applicants (myself included). Watch for my next post