Secret gardens bloom in Alexandria

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Jerry Chambers looks at the multi-level garden in his backyard as an extension of his house. The French doors open onto a covered porch with a couch, table and chairs. Five steps lead down to a sunning area with lounge chairs and a few steps more take the visitor to an outdoor dining area under a cedar pergola, designed by his son Joshua, a professional architect.

Everything is intertwined with the gardens, including a large garden that occupies the rear portion of the yard.

In todays urban landscape, many Old Town or Del Ray owners are maximizing the yard space to suit their gardening and leisure enjoyment.

We use it as an outdoor living room, Chambers said, it makes for a very intimate space.

Seen from outside, the 1800s era rowhouse on South Fairfax Street is like others on the street. The garden takes up the entire backyard, fitting the garden industry description of a secret garden. Chambers has spent many hours out there honing his gardening skills and tending to the many flowers and plants that surround the structures. It evolved, he said. While digging one flower bed in the back, he uncovered a dumping ground for the farmhouse next door, and found bottles dating back to the 1800s. One was a bottle from the Portners Brewery.

Norma Gants of Long & Foster Realty, is listing the Chambers house for $1,850,000. They have dinner parties here at night, Gants said.

Over on South Lee Street, Jeanne Donavan has a private garden right outside her living room, and then another behind her guest house ? all in the confines of a small lot, common in Old Town. Her garden is full of azaleas that thrive in a partially shaded area, but take a lot of watering she said. Donavans neighbor, Marjorie Kline, is proud of her private yard which she has spent many hours planting and nurturing. Its my handy work, she said. Kline has bamboo, decorative plants and some spices she uses for salads and cooking. Between the gardens that line the fence and walls, Kline bricked-in a patio and walkway. I love it; I spend lots of time out here, she said.

Enjoying the plants and soothing atmosphere a garden brings is not the only reason some gardeners create these personal oases, though. Nancy Burns, president of the Belle Haven Garden Club, looks at improving the ecological situation and caters to bees and butterflies that pollinate the plants in her perennial garden. Burns has a special butterfly garden area with nectar and host plants to attract the insects, and bought a colony of mason bees which are now thriving in her garden. A certified Master Gardener and regular columnist for the Alexandria Times, Burns  covered the roof of her screened-in porch with wisteria vines to absorb sunlight and reduce rainwater runoff. It keeps the screen porch cool, she said.

At Eclectic Nature in Del Ray, Christy Beal sees a lot of plans drawn out by the do-it-yourselfers. She recommends plants that are easy to maintain, have a long bloom time and arent going to overwhelm their smaller spaces, she said. She supplies them with perennials, table top fountains, bird baths and small statues for the secret gardens. Recently, Beal helped a resident convert her backyard space, which included a free standing garage, into an outdoor living space. They gutted the garage, removed two doors and redid the floor with stone. She came to me for the design. Its like her own little paradise back there, Beal said.

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