Creating Some Curb Appeal

Christmas has come early this year, and Santa delivered the goods on a flatbed.

Our local garden center is close to giving away inventory as it switches to a new computer system, so last week we picked out four Centennial Girl hollies and three Green Velvet boxwoods. Hours before the truck came, we upped the order to a fifth holly.

Our plan for the front yard continues to evolve to some degree, but we’ve been set on a few basic elements. In the spring we’ll be demoing the concrete walk and installing pavers of some type in a wide curve that broadens at the end as it flows to the driveway. The front yard is massive and has next to no design element, so we’re focusing on creating a massive semi-circle bed against the front of the house. Although those plantings are largely dependent on the walk coming up, cutting down the holly this spring freed up a small area for planting now, and fall is my favorite time to plan since it gives roots a season to get established without need for frequent watering. Well, with boxwoods being sold for a song, even Chris couldn’t resist the urge to get his hands dirty.

We finally settled on the Green Velvet – which the tag assured us would keep a mounding shape at a top height of about 3 feet someday – because I liked the softer feel of its leaves compared to other boxwoods and Chris liked the smell. He assures me this is a crucial factor in his love of boxwoods (the great debate over whether boxwoods do in fact have a fragrance is an entirely different post).  My vision is to have a background of tidy boxwoods against the house foundation, with a front border of low-trimmed dwarf boxwoods, leaving an inner explosion of more naturally shaped color. I’m leaving a Drift Rose on either side of the walkway, but am researching my options for inserting additional color into this boxwood frame.

My first consideration was a burgundy barberry, but I’ve found the only non-invasive options in my state will reach closer to 5 feet and up, and I’m really shooting for low maintenance in the pruning department. I’m now looking at Midnight Wine weigela, which is a low grower with some brilliant purple foliage.

Then of course there are the five hollies. We selected Centennial Girl because it should reach around 8 feet high and 3-4 feet wide, retaining a compact pyramidal shape. Chris has been scared off by the massive Nellie Stevens and gangly American Hollies growing all over the property, so I’ve been researching comparatively low growers that would still screen the backyard.

The goal for me was to create a screen between the street and backyard, and these hollies certainly achieve that. But a new element snuck into our design plans after Halloween. That’s our annual “drag the fire pit out to the front” and “why don’t we do this more often” event. We’ve been trying to agree on a location for an in-ground fire pit for years, but when Chris suggested a small patio and fire pit in the front, everything clicked. We shared a vision of the neighbors joining us for hot chocolate, or watching the kids on their bikes in the cul-de-sac as we snuggle by the fire. Not to mention it expands the hardscaping, thereby lowering plant maintenance and further integrating the walkway paver elements into the entire yard. Today’s challenge then is positioning the hollies for a patio we can’t yet afford but are determined to install someday.


Checking Items Off the List

I’m one of those people who likes to put at the top of my lists “make list” so I have something immediately to check off. I love lists, and certainly there have been plenty on this site. But it’s not enough to simply make a list – you have to put it to use.

As a result, after turning up my 2015 to-do list from this past March I realized there are a few items yet untouched. I thought recapping it here might help motivate me to check off one more project before my most critical growing – that of baby number 2 due this fall – saps all of my remaining energy.

So without further ado, how did we do?

  1. Plant all six veggie beds – Success!
  2. Fertilize the lawn (finally) – Well….. not so much
  3. Cut down the front holly – Alas, yes
  4. Plant the boxwoods in front of the house and extend the front bed – If you count the pokeberries it’s sort of planted. I guess that’s a no.
  5. Edge the garden near the veggies with stone – Stone has been purchased, so step one is down
  6. Plant at least one shrub in the corner near the baby’s swing – Nope
  7. Complete my rain barrel making project (more on that as soon as my galvanized drum cover arrives in the mail) – Oh I’ll check this off before fall is officially here or die trying (which is possible since Chris keeps saying I shouldn’t lean inside the thing to inhale the fumes when I silicone the gaps in my assembly)!
  8. Build the long veggie bed (would love to plant it but am trying to rein in my enthusiasm before my garden partner rips out his hair on one project to many) – Yes!

3.5 out of 8’s not bad?

Assessing the Edibles

The veggie garden has been a fun experience this year – my little helper is mastering her colors (“Green means go, unless you’re a tomato,” we sing); enthusiastically wields her own bag of rakes, hoes and shovels; and has loved crunching everything we harvest. Now that I’m planning for fall planting, I thought I’d sum up how everything has done so that I can better prepare for next year.

The year started with our spring bed, where we planted a small 6-pack of lettuce leaves, a handful of carrot seeds never truly thinned and four rows of sugar snap peas. The lettuce and peas were a particular hit, although I think the peas needed stronger trellising and maybe even a few more rows. Steamed peas were served at about two dinners for three, the rest my Rose gobbled before they ever plinked against the tin bottom of our gathering bucket. I pulled the first truly sizable carrots here in August, so I think with better thinning and moving them to the deeper bed we might get a better yield next year.

SONY DSCWith room to spread, the basil has outdone itself and has yielded five jars of pesto so far, as well as tons of dinner flavoring. I might have had even more if my toddler hadn’t eaten every leaf off of one plant back in May! She particularly loves making the pesto, pushing the green and purple leaves into the food processor and thoroughly licking the spatula once we’re done.

The Roma tomatoes were puny this year. Although I got a decent yield, their stems never seemed to strengthen and they flailed against the bottom rows of their support cages. I’ve canned eight pints, with plenty still to go. I think here I need some serious additives for the dirt, a smaller diameter frame to help the plants grow upright, and I’d actually like to double the space for this for a bigger yield. I’m not sure if I truly need more plants – from six to 12 – or to just give each one more room and attention, but I feel a little silly getting 3-4 jars out of an hour+ of work over the stove. I’d like to have more tomatoes ready for canning at one go.

The Big Boy tomatoes have been fantastic and tower over me. They simply need taller trellising. Oh the BLTs we have enjoyed..!

I picked the onions as their tops grew brown and fell to the side, as recommended by the fantastically comprehensive Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, but none were as large as I half expected. I’m not sure if I harvested too early, if I need more dirt or just better dirt, but I’m also not sold on trying them again.

I got a grand three cucumbers before my remaining two vines shriveled, at which point I reminded myself I hate picking the prickly things anyway. Next year I’m nixing the cukes and devoting a full bed to squash and zucchini. I miss my grilled zucchini and that hadn’t thrived until the cucumbers died and left it a bed unto itself.


The corn has been a treat to watch, if nothing else. I picked three ears that we actually ate, although each was so deformed I wound up slicing the kernels off and frying them. The stalks did make a nice little trellis for the green beans. Still, the green beans have been my favorite success so far. I’ve frozen several bags of them for winter and we’ve had beans about once a week since early July.


Finally, I planted several rows of sweet potatoes only to have some critter (possibly the Akita nosing around in the dirt) eat all but one delicate vine within the week. Disappointed, I decided to give up and planted a pretty sage and a purple dahlia to liven up the empty bed. Ha! My one remaining sweet potato starter is intent on taking over the world. That vine has circled the bed about 40 times and grabs at our legs if we get within a few feet of it. I have no idea what’s going on beneath the dirt, but the results up top are impressive. I’m hoping to move that to the deep bed next year – and free up this space for strawberries … with chocolate mint. Doesn’t that combination sound divine?

Ode to a Holly Tree

This is the sight that has welcomed my family home for the last several years.

Few days have passed without Chris snarling about  my beloved holly tree.


I love that holly. In the summertime, I can sit out on the porch in complete privacy, sheltered from the rest of the cul-de-sac, lost in my own cool oasis. In the winter time, the holly has been one of the few colorful things in the entire yard, and it’s a very welcome sight at Christmastime. All year long a family of cardinals, and their feathered friends, dance among the branches while I watch from my living room window.

But even I’ll admit that a tree shouldn’t grow that close to anyone’s foundation.


And now she’s gone. My beautiful berried holly is gone, leaving behind nothing but a hole in the ground where the pokeberries have begun to thrive.

For months, I thought if one more person were to tell me how beautifully open the house looked now I would lose it. Then one day, while I was sitting across the yard next to my would-be pumpkins, I thought to myself, “Wow, the house really looks nice and open now.”

I bit my tongue, then realized that it wasn’t the house I really wanted to shelter, it was the yard. And so the plan for the front yard has evolved further, and I have been hunting online and locally for the perfect medium-growing holly trees to create a semi-circle just beyond the house to help shield the yard and provide a new home to my cardinals. I’m looking for a balance between the fast-growing 40-foot heights of the Nellie Stevens or American Hollies and the slow-growing yet more appropriately sized Blue Prince/Princess. The Castle Spire/Wall combination (this variety needs a pollinator) looks promising but the search will continue through September.

Vegetable Oasis

My original garden plan evolved, and I wanted to make a note of the final beautiful product so I can prepare to rotate crops next year.


I’ve been, as usual, surprised by how well everything has come along. From this…



To this…


Everything has come along beautifully. By fall we’re hoping to start killed off the grass inside the garden “grid, filling it in with mulch for now and then perhaps someday a pea gravel to give it the Old World look that Chris so admires. For now, mulch will be easier to maintain then having to pull out the push mower after mowing the rest of the yard, and the stone border will help maintain a tidy edge and tie into the rest of the yard.

We’ve been steaming snap peas for dinner at least once a week, and they are just as good off the vine as I remember from my childhood. We’ve also had plenty of huge salads from the few small lettuce leaves with which we started, and somehow it just tastes better when plucked straight from the garden.


Snap peas, lettuce and carrots blossomed quickly in the cool May.


Red onions and Big Boy tomatoes are divided by cheery marigolds.


Bush beans grow among Burpee’s new hybrid container corn.

The Finished Wall

The wall has turned out beautifully. After construction was finished,I went through and stained both sides of the untreated wood, hoping to provide a little added protection from weathering.

Next, Chis drilled an upward-angled hole in the bottom slat every five feet and inserted a small length of copper tubing to promote drainage. Inside, we filled the bottom foot all the way across with gravel for the same purpose. Finally, we added a lining of landscape fabric to keep too much dirt from filling in that gravel, while still allowing the water through.

The last step has been the most difficult: filling the 2×20 foot bed with dirt. I’ve been taking a couple wheelbarrow loads here and there from our compost pile in the front, but have emptied about as much as I can without disturbing what has suddenly turned into an unexpected pumpkin patch (my favorite type of surprise).

I’m aiming to finish the bed up shortly so that I can transplant my remaining sweet potato vines, letting them drift beautifully over the edges of the wall, as well as a host of trailing herbs ready to go wild.


Our garden “room,”


Future plans call for decorating this side with a collage of colorful tealight holders.


The next step will be to add a small storage bench on this side of the garden wall.


When looking off the porch, it’s a delight to have one corner of the yard that seems almost “finished.”

How to Build a 20-Foot Veggie Wall

At the end of last year, I had finally built the last two raised veggie beds for my vegetable garden, and they sat empty, unfinished and uneven for the rest of the winter, the pale thorn in my side. So the first warm day of March found us all outside, adding landscaping fabric and mesh to the bottom of the beds to keep out rodents, leveling the sod so the beds would sit evenly and adding a couple of coats of stain to protect against further weathering.

SONY DSCWith that all easily accomplished in an afternoon, I was a bit surprised that Chris agreed to immediately tackle the one remaining raised bed we had discussed.

There are two reasons I figure he jumped all in to this project:

  1. It’s using the last of the wood from our homemade dance floor from four years ago.
  2. Chris can’t resist a good wall.

I can’t remember who first suggested it, but we had fallen in love with the idea of sectioning off the vegetable garden from the rest of the yard with a tall raised bed that would act essentially as a wall, creating a vegetable “room.” Gardeners far more experienced than I will tell you that the best gardens entice you to move forward to discover what’s just around the bend. In my mind each corner of the yard will someday offer its own secret room, a sectioned off area where visitors will find a private world with its own scented secrets.

The wall in question measures 20 feet long by 2 feet wide and roughly 30 inches tall. The plan was to use 4×4 lumber for the corners and vertical supports, but we didn’t want to use pressure-treated wood, with chemicals that could potentially leach into the soil and roots. That pushed us to 2×4 kiln-treated wood that Chris considered fastening into 4×4 bundles, but then we had to be concerned with rot and replacement. Ultimately he found 4- and 8-foot-long metal L-shaped pieces at Lowe’s that were corrosion-resistant and could be easily driven into the ground, the perfect solution.


With a sledgehammer and a level, we placed the longer Ls in each corner, then Chris fastened a series of the shorter pieces together to create Ts, and we place four of those in the middle for supports at 5-foot intervals. Chris strung a line level to ensure the tops of his posts were all even, since we’re working on a small grade.

While Chris leveled, I stained the wood we had on hand. Once it had dried, we began cutting wood to size.

By the end of the night, we had two boards up, and a narrow trench dug fairly deep where the ground is higher so that we can slip the next boards in level. Once the bottom row goes in, it should be fairly simple to build up from there.

How to Build a Raised Vegetable Bed