Downsizing and Downscaling in House and Garden



Left: the house I just sold.  Right: the house I just moved into.

The latest in the continuing saga of my move to a smaller house and garden is that it's DONE.  My lawnless, complicated garden and cute house sold in three weeks to people who'll love it as much as I did.  (Well, one hopes.  I'll be checking back.)  We're closing this week but I've already moved, and will definitely be ready by spring to create my next garden.  Blog stories to follow.

But right now I'm frankly all about the interior.  Just choosing paint colors for seven rooms is enough to keep me awake until (last night, for instance) 3:00 a.m.  But I'll resist the urge to blog about home decorating and veer off-topic just a bit today to reflect on the move.

House-wise, the change isn't so dramatic – a move from 1,300 square feet not counting the basement to 1,070 counting every possible inch.  For one person that's plenty of space – or it will be as soon as my new screened-in porch is completed.  The big, important change is in the size of the garden I have to take care of, particularly the number of trees that drop their leaves onto my garden (from 40+ to 2).

But the change I've noticed the most in my first week here is – I'll be frank- the move to a much less affluent neighborhood.  You can't tell from the modest look of my former house in the above photo, but it's situated in what's become one of the more upscale close-in suburbs of D.C.  When I moved to Takoma Park in 1985 it fully deserved its nickname of "Tacky Park", thanks in large part to the ubiquitous chain-link fencing, but today every bit of tackiness has been renovated away, and home prices are out of sight for all but the highly paid or luckily born.

My new neighborhood was created in the '30s as a model of low-income housing and has managed to stay surprisingly affordable.  The residents are a mix of people who renovate and pretty-up their yards and let's just say people who don't.  So what I'm missing most so far is the prettiness of my old neighborhood – prettiness that doesn't come as easily in neighborhoods with affordable housing.Westham2

Moving to a less upscale neighborhood has gotten me thinking about a similar move that my mom made back in the '70s.  She was living in the house pictured above, situated in one of Richmond's better neighborhoods.  My family had moved there from a modest middle class neighborhood at her urging because she wanted to live among a "better class of people".  Yes, she actually used those words.

Well, we never even learned the names of our higher-class neighbors.  And I was miserable at the higher-class high school I had to attend because of the move. 

But my mother loved the house and resented like hell having to sell it and move to cheaper housing after the divorce.  She bought a condo in this community where she shared the building below.  She'd been forced to both downsize and downscale.

HamletBut the joke was on her because this modest neighborhood turned out to be so friendly and socially active, she had no time to fret the loss of status or the loss of her husband, for that matter.  Living closeby, her new neighbors not only knew each other; they partied, played bridge obsessively, and gossiped at the pool all summer long.  My mother's years here were the happiest of her life.

Similarly, my new community is more modest but much more social.  I've already joined the aquatic and fitness center and hope to be gossiping with the best of them before too long.


  1. Congratulations – sounds like a new fun adventure! May the new house and neighborhood add more friends and plants to your life.

  2. Wow, that house in Richmond is gorgeous. If I had to choose between that house and friendly neighbors it would be a tough choice! :o)

    I know what you mean about “tasteful” or “upscale” neighborhoods being stiff and boring as hell, but I think they’re actually more visually interesting as well. Some monstrously overgrown shrubs and lawn gnomes at least add variety. In so many upscale neighborhoods, the landscapes tend to all look the same, and they don’t reflect the personalities of their owners….or maybe they do.

  3. It sounds like a brilliant move to me. I used to have a great house in a relatively shabby town. Now I have a shabby house in a relatively rich town.

    To me, the first was more interesting.

  4. How many country songs here?

    Member of the country club.

    Better class of loser.

    Then, of course, there are the New York Times articles always letting you know about a person: John Doe, from the working class town of blah-blah. Jane Doe, from the leafy enclave of blah-blah. Joe Smith, from the car lined street of blah-blah.

    Will enjoy watching your new garden take shape.

    Garden & Be Well, XO T

  5. I’ll be checking back

    Do not ever check back.
    I remember we sold grandma’s property when I was 12. We visited it a year after that. It was so heartbreaking I wanted to scream “What did you DO to that? And THAT? And ROSES???” I am still proud I didn’t say a word to the new owners.

  6. I always think a good neighborhood is a measure of how happy people are with their own lives. And, financially speaking, living modestly within one’s means (garden gnomes and all) is a lot happier than living beyond the budget.

  7. Going back is very likely to lead to heartbreak. I drove by my old house and was horrified to see the extent of what they’d ripped out. And the house was 8 years old, so no, it wasn’t overgrown or deteriorated. Even the patio they removed was replaced with more lawn.
    I have considered including $100 of garden consultation from a garden expert next time I sell a house. When I’m moving I have neither the heart nor the energy to explain the plantings. And there’s a case to be made for objectivity, too. Do you think this is a crazy idea?

  8. I hear you all about the hazards of going back to check, but I’ve promised some coaching – esp re pruning – and the buyer said YES, please. (He’s an experienced food-grower but an eager newbie at ornamentals.) I’ll also go back at least next summer for the block party, and can’t help but check in on the front garden – at least.
    THey also asked for help identifying everything and I already created detailed charts labeling every single plant, and we did a walk through of the garden during which they asked copious questions. I know they’ll replace the back lawn for their small kids and that just makes sense.
    So sure, it may break my heart but then again it may not. What broke my heart a tiny bit on moving day was when one of the movers looked out over the deck into the woods below and said, “How could you leave this?” Yeah thanks, buddy.

  9. I find this post so interesting.

    I agree with other posters that looking back could lead to a lot of sadness, but then again, maybe this won’t be the case for you since the new owner (from your description) seems super interested in the landscape and plants.–That’s a real plus.

    I need to downsize too and it makes sense to do so, but everything pulls at my heart including five neighbors who separately have told me, “Don’t move. We like you.”

    On the positive side for you, you now have new dirt to work in, and I think that’s pretty exciting. I can’t wait to see what you do.

  10. I went back and saw my old garden on Maui after three years. Some stuff was gone. Some was still there. New things had been added. With me out of the way, the owners and new tenants did what they wanted. It was still a decent garden.

    It didn’t really feel all that bad. I have been way to busy starting a new life and new garden to dwell on the past. I think the same will happen with you.

    The thing that tugged at me the most was the stones I placed on my kitties graves were gone. They were too old and too ill to move here with me.

  11. Congratulations! It was good seeing you last night and I got a good feeling about your new and interesting community. Downsizing is a brave and smart move and by definition involves a different “class” of people. You’ll make new friends a
    nd like others have said, you get a new patch to dig!

  12. I’m with those who advise against checking back. The first year might be OK, but it’ll get worse from there.

    We moved from our first house to a new home about 2 miles away, which made it easy for me to see how the original homestead was doing. They took out my honeysuckle, my callas, all the fruit trees except the cherry … it was devastating to see my hard work so unappreciated. For your own sanity, don’t go back!

  13. Nice blog, I think your new home is more beautiful and comfortable. You made the right decision.. 🙂

  14. A new adventure! Going back will be filled with bittersweetness, I’m sure. God only knows what the former owners of our house said when we cut down the big Norway maple in the back yard and ripped out the purple plum and the sand cherries in front. They were kind enough not to mention it when they visited the neighbors.

    In the next few years, my parents will downsize from their large house in an upper middle class suburb of Chicago. My dad is a tree-man. Their small yard is filled with trees he’s planted like the shagbark hickory he raised from seed or the katsura from the arboretum’s plant sale. It’ll devastate him if the next people cut down his babies. So, no going back once they make the transition.

  15. Good luck, Susan! I second (third, fourth) not going back if you can help it. It just hurts, and you can’t get the vision of how the house is now out of your head, and it competes with the vision of how it was.

    I wish the fancy neighborhood = stand offish neighbors / working class neighborhood = lovely community thing held true. We live in a working class community in the DC burbs, and it just doesn’t. There are crime and drugs and at least one family at a time in the apartments across the street having marital troubles the whole neighborhood gets to hear. All those things make people turn inward, not outward, and the yards reflect that. Of all the houses in my neighborhood, only two (mine and one other) have anything you’d label a “garden.” The others are just some sad looking grass and foundation planting, with lots of chain link. I wish there were garden gnomes and petunias!

  16. Congrats on the move! Just found your blog today, BTW. Love reading it. Was interesting to read about your living in Richmond–we lived in The West End (“For members only”!-remember that?!) for 25 years. Moved 5 years ago this month to rural Mathews County here I live on 3 acres and have access to all the leaves I can use for my compost making. 🙂 I have 9 raised beds built “lasagna style,” more or less. I have 6 compost piles and have been loving these warm temps–I am outside every day shredding raking and shredding leaves from our property and surrounding properties, building beds and compost piles and planning the 2012 spring and summer plantings. Our front yard was turned into a small orchard of fruit trees-plum, pear, peach, apple, cherry, and figs!

    I recognize that condo area! We got out of Richmond just as the new mall in Short Pump was about to open and Hurricane Isabel baptised us into our new home (which we sold and then built our current home because it had more acreage). We get up to Richmond to shop at Strange’s which has changed so much.

    And I know what you about your mom being happier in her condo–before I had my son I babysat for some folks in Windsor Farms and nearby communities (we rented a little brick home on Libbie Ave near Grove until the rent was sky high) and they didn’t seem all that happy and the dramas were unbelievable!

    Anyway–great blog; glad I found it!

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