Green thumbs overcome bad dirt, too much shade

Tamara Browning

When George and Burma Savage moved into their Springfield, Ill., home 15 years ago, nothing was in the backyard.

Well, nothing except poor ground.

“This house was built into a hill. My husband said a lot of this yard was backfill, so it was not good dirt,” Burma Savage said. “We found broken bricks, chunks of glass. We found all kinds of stuff in the yard. I can’t tell you how many bags … loads of dirt and sphagnum moss and topsoil that I have carried in here.”

Adding the fact that the Savages’ backyard is surrounded with mature trees, it’s been a struggle for them to grow things in the shade.

But they have persevered, which is the key, Burma Savage said.

“Somebody told me this saying: ‘When you plant something, the first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps and the third year it leaps.’ That is true. If it doesn’t leap in that third year, it’s out of here or I move it,” she said.

“A lot of my plants, I know, feel like orphans. They don’t know where they belong because I move them so much.”

Moving has helped a climbing hydrangea to thrive on the fence (its fourth location).

Among the plantings the Savages have are hostas, Jacob’s coat, Japanese maples, tiger grass, Indian grass and a fern garden with decorative pink flamingos. Burma Savage loves the horsetail and the boxwood that she shapes. Boxwoods have been shaped around a bench, giving it such appendages as “arms.”

“I’m not really that great with flowers. I don’t want to have lots of flowers. I love the different shades of green,” she said. “I buy rose bushes every year. I buy them like annuals ... The minute they’re in the ground they start getting smaller and smaller and smaller.”

The Savages’ garden is full of ingenuity with recycled old chunks of concrete used as bed borders, handmade paths made of bricks and a boulder-enclosed fire pit among them. Both have contributed to the garden’s look.

“He was an operating engineer, so he’d uncover a big, huge boulder. Most men bring their wives flowers and candy and diamonds — I got rocks — big rocks,” said Burma Savage, a former floral designer for Pleasant Nursery, who used to put her tropical trees such as banana, lemon and palm trees in the rock circle. The current plan is to put a fountain in there.

The Savages’ current water feature, a reflecting pond, encourages visits from all types of birds — that’s if the evacuation hose for changing water isn’t in it.

“I notice that when that thing’s laying in there, the birds don’t come. They think it’s a snake,” Burma Savage said. “When I don’t have it in there, I mean, you could be sitting there — you’ve got to duck. Birds love my yard. They come dive-bombing through here. It’s like an airport.”

The Savages’ granddaughter, Molly Cooper, agreed.

Molly, 12, lives four doors down from them and visits regularly. During a recent visit, she recites the names of birds that visit her grandparents’ yard — hummingbirds, orioles, bluejays, robins and finches included.

“Her papa George, my husband, is trying to teach her about the birds firsthand,” Burma Savage said.

A tall, wading ornamental crane has taken up residence in the yard by the pond thanks to a Christmas gift from George Savage. Burma Savage wanted a pair of iron cranes after looking through a catalog one day. George ordered a cane for Burma as a Christmas present.

“I’m like a kid at Christmastime. I’d go to this huge box, and I’m thinking, ‘It’s so light. What could be in here?’” Burma Savage said.

“I opened it up, and I couldn’t help but show my disappointment. It wasn’t an iron crane.”

Plus, Burma Savage told her husband it was kind of goofy looking. He told her she could send it back, but she forgot about it, and it ended up in the garage.

Springtime came.

“One day, he’s standing at the kitchen windows real still, and I’m in the living room, and he said, ‘Burma, come here. Quick. Be real still,’ ” Burma Savage said.

She came running.

“ ‘Call 9-1-1,’ ” Burma Savage said she told her husband. She had never seen a bird that big around there. “He said, ‘Gotcha. We’re keeping the bird.’”

Burma Savage said she keeps “plugging away.”

“We’ve been able to do a lot with our yard in spite of the fact that we have these big huge, mature trees and poor ground,” she said.

Tamara Browning can be reached at 788-1534.