My partner, Paula Rose, and I settled for the house next door, where we had our daughter, Walker. For five years, we'd sit on our back deck and see squirrels, opossums, and raccoons run in and out of holes in the chopped up house with boarded-up windows and bland beige siding. The backyard was a 12-foot-high patch of kudzu.
Then the owner changed his mind, and we leapt at our chance. We bought the house in 2005 and immediately began gutting the space—but saved everything of value. We thought the house would be a challenge but nothing extraordinary. Well, we were in for a surprise. A few weeks into the project, while on vacation in Puerto Rico, we got word that the third vintage house on our block had been set on fire, and the blaze threatened both the house we were working on and the one we were living in. Both homes survived with no structural damage, but it was a close call.
Sadly, the fire did kill a 200-year-old oak next door, but I talked the tree surgeon into leaving the two truckloads of wood chips it had become. I spent weeks carting a bit every day until I had shoveled a one-foot-deep layer of mulch onto the front yard. Previously, the dirt was red clay and incredibly acidic, but everything I plant just goes nuts now.