When you walk up to the front door of Melissa Wiley’s Belmont house, you’re struck by a sense of tidiness: old railroad ties are stacked into low walls, well-tended plants are arranged just so, and the grass is lush. Walk through the house’s central hallway, with its checkerboard paint job, and keep going out the back door: Everything still serenely in its place. Wiley’s husband, Peter, breezes by with a hello but no handshake, since he’s in the middle of treating their new back deck and has stain on his hands.
Tiptoe across the deck and settle into a seat on the patio made of huge flagstones, and Wiley—who heads up the Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign—will explain that this 1920 house was “a blank slate” when she and Peter bought it three years ago. “The downside was our backyard was a mudpit, with broken bottles and car parts,” she says. “It’s been a long process of creating a space that would be enjoyable for us and our family and dogs”—one of whom smiles and pants from a spot near the new fence.
They’ve coaxed grass to grow, put in the patio and ornamental plants, and added a shed and vegetable garden. They picked out a trumpet vine that will someday cover the pergola over the deck. They’ve waved at neighbors walking on the pedestrian alley that runs along two sides of their yard. When their 18-month-old daughter plays behind the house, Wiley can watch her from the three big windows over the kitchen sink, “like June Cleaver,” she jokes.
“[Before moving here,] we had a 21-acre farm in Madison County. What people don’t know about me is I’m a failed farmer. I had this romantic notion of being an organic vegetable farmer, but it turned out I wasn’t cut out for it. We went from 21 acres to a quarter acre, which I couldn’t have been any happier about.
“We have friends over and spend a lot of time on the porch. We eat lots of meals outside. It’s fun at night when you hear music from La Taza and of course from the Pavilion.
“[Having the garden] has been fun with my daughter. She has a chance to get her hands dirty. We built a little cold frame; it took me almost a week to build. We had some greens in there in the spring. She sits in it now; it’s ‘her’ cold frame.
“This was a flat deck that came out about 10′. We decided to bring the deck out, build the pergola, and make a nice transition from inside to outside, and a nice play space for our daughter. She likes to pull things up—I planted this baby thyme in the cracks between the flagstones, and she pulls it up. She plays with the rocks, then the mulch…she’s just gotten old enough to break off rosemary and smell it. She wanders around the whole yard. She tries to throw the ball with the dogs.
“That tree is a river birch. Belmont’s really wet and they say there are underground streams running through it. Our yard does get really wet, so we were looking for a tree to suck that up. We also have this perfect, loamy soil. That’s a fig tree over there. We were inspired by our neighbor; she has a whole line of dwarf fruit trees. We’re always looking rather enviously at hers. I’ve been trying to create a butterfly garden.
“It’s a little urban oasis. The ironic thing is, it’s actually quieter here than it was out in Madison.”