Paula Bickham bought the charming stone South Charleston cottage at auction because she could see the potential behind its unkempt yard and neglected interior.
And then, oh boy, did the buyer's regret set in. A girlfriend admitted later she thought Bickham was crazy to undertake such a project.
"It was a challenge," Bickham said.
Seven years and lots of sweat equity later, Bickham has put the polish back on the stone home with ribbon mortar and its spacious garden. It's still a work in progress, but she has realized much of her vision for the garden, a blend of practical spots to grow vegetables and herbs and a peaceful retreat where she can meditate.
"I have been into plants since I was in college," Bickham said. Everywhere she has lived since, she has houseplants and as much of a garden as space allows.
She comes by her passion honestly - her mother is a master gardener.
The stone cottage was built in 1945 by people who gave thought to the outdoor space by building walls to terrace the steeply sloped backyard and an outdoor fireplace with a brick oven feature.
At some point, the yard was lovingly tended because Bickham uncovered daylily and daffodil bulbs.
But when she purchased it in 2006, the home had been sitting empty for a couple of years, and its gardens had been given over to ivy and weeds.
Bickham's first order of business was making the house livable - cleaning out and cleaning up. She then headed outside to tackle the yard, spending months tugging out ivy and a thicket of weeds that seemed to creep everywhere.
Exasperated with what seemed like little progress, Bickham finally knew it was time to ask for help. She called Harry Netzer, a landscaper she knew from TerraSalis Garden Center in Malden.
"He said, 'OK, I'll come out and see it,' " Bickham said. Netzer began working with her on his days off.
"We designed this together," she said.
Bickham and Netzer began creating a clean slate, re-thinking former gardeners' efforts in the yard by emptying three water features, upending overgrown stone pathways, clearing trees and digging up bucket after bucket full of road-grade gravel that would later be replaced with more appropriate pea gravel.
"We unearthed a lot of things," Bickham said, including piles of boulders and tiles. "And we recycled just about everything we found," including a large - and heavy - stone gargoyle yard ornament that she surely wouldn't have chosen on her own. It retains an honorary spot in the yard, exactly where she found him.
"My initial vision when I came to the house was that it wasn't the house of my dreams, but I loved this room in the back," said Bickham, who is a psychologist by profession and a hobbyist drummer who leads drum circle groups. The room, which offers a view of the garden, has space for group meetings.