Monthly Archives: April 2012

A Little Order

I was oh-so-proud of myself in creating my latest garden corner. I tried something different for me when it comes to my garden:  advance planning. Our first order of backyard business had been to landscape around the deck. With foundation shrubs planted, fertilized and struggling to grow, I found myself itching to add a bit more color, and a bit more in the way of blooming perennials. My husband was a bit more reluctant to break through the borders of that mulched space.

“But that’s so big,” Chris gasped when I drew the proposed garden lines out with a garden hose.

I raised my eyebrows and gestured to the backyard expanse. We could easily fit a second house, or a full soccer field, in that empty space. My little nook was hardly going to make a dent.Knowing I wouldn’t win him over with such arguments, however, I tried a different tactic for getting Chris to embrace my garden plot: order. Between the Marines and his tidy mother, my man is the king of “everything in its place.” Sometimes I can squint and see the little boy he must have been, lining his shoes up neatly in his closet and ordering stuffed animals on the shelf according to height. Suffice to say, I was never so neat a child and even the consideration of advance planning in my messy space was an achievement indeed.

Bearded Irises in bloom

With the space mapped out, I took under consideration bloom times, height and color coordination. My kind mother-in-law had given me several bundles of richly purple bearded irises that had grown into their own this spring and a batch of delicate Siberian irises that I simply can’t give away fast enough as the healthy bulbs are overtaking my gray-green azaleas. Those azaleas and a limp camellia halfheartedly bloom in light pink in the early spring (and will be the subject of intense fertilization, proper pruning and close scrutiny in the season ahead). A few happy white candytufts overrun from my front garden had been poorly replanted in the back and were waiting proper attention. This is the combination that set my palette on my first trip to Meadows Farms.

I towed along on this trip Chris – anxious to prove that I was listening to his request for “more interesting” leaves – as well as the sales ad, determined to keep this within a reasonable budget. Into the cart ultimately leapt five “Sweet Drift” roses; two “Obsidian” Coral Bells, and three “May Night” Hybrid Sage.

From five candytufts out front I’m on my way to a full border.

I began the pizza wedge of garden with my go-to border, those white candytufts. I came to love this pernnial this spring, partly because it’s done better than anything I’ve planted, and partly because it launched the blooming season in early March. Behind these perky perennials I dug a row for the roses, whose early blooms were stubbornly clinging to their tiny thorned stems. Per their tag, the Drift groundcover roses are hardy zones 4-11 and want full sun. “The small shrubs produce clear pink double clusters atop dark green glossy foliage.” The characteristics that have had me watching this new variety are its “abundant, continuous flowering and exceptional disease resistance.” A rose I don’t have to spray weekly? Sign me up. The plant is said to grow 2.5 feet wide and 1.5 feet tall. I’ll keep you posted.

Sweet Drift Roses, in need of a little care

Next up, in the center, I hefted a large blue pot of less-than-happy yellow knock-out roses left over from last year. I like incorporating some type of hardscaping into each and every garden as I believe it adds visual interest and breaks up the softness of green and ever-changing blooms. On either side of the pot I added my Coral Bells. Per the tag from Saunders Brothers, this plant has “smooth, broad foliage [with] a polished, black luster. Forms a compact mound. Creamy white flowers on red stems bloom in June. An excellent contrast plant in borders…” The growers advise sun or part sun, note it can grow 10 inches tall by 16 inches wide, and add that the plant is hardy to zones 4-9. I liked that the bloom time would give the garden some interest later in the summer and that the leaves coordinated with my purple theme.

Obsidian Coral Bells

In the back, hugging Bells and pot, I added my tall, spiky sage. Also from Saunders brothers, the tag notes that the plant’s “deep indigo-violet flower spikes bloom in the summer and fall above compact, aromatic foliage.” What made Chris smile was the note that the flower will bloom repeatedly if spent flowers are removed. It’s a full sun addition, expected to grow 1.5 feet tall and 2 feet wide.

May Night Hybrid Sage

I used a landscaping fabric over the entire area, at Chris’ insistence. In this case, I laid everything in place prior to digging, to leave room for future stepping stones that will  allow access on the left, to the half-hidden AC units, and on the right, to harvest my blueberries and ripe strawberries. I also sought to leave room for later floral additions as the seasons change. I’m already anticipating a few purple daylilies in the back and some soft lavender asters come fall. A full helping of mulch (courtesy of several autumns’ worth of chopped leaves) was the final step in creating this scented oasis.

Although these discount blooms were bought out-of-season, with a little love and a little time, this garden will be a fragrant addition to my oasis.

It wasn’t until creeping outside early the next morning, robed and barefoot on the splintering deck, that I discovered the best part of this new addition. From the Adirondack chairs perched near the railing, I had a perfect view of my butterfly-welcoming new additions.

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The Lattice That Needed A Little Love

Among the first projects we undertook was repairing the rotted stained lattice that bordered the back deck. Two pieces were already missing completely, so we quickly finished the task and pulled down the remaining sets of lattice and removed as many of the nails as possible.

This wasn't exactly the stellar entertaining area that we sought. The lattice, and the holly, both had to go.

Already in the mood to demolish, we followed up lattice removal with some digging. We created a plot about two feet wide around the entirety of the deck and sunroom, digging up the grass and raking up the soil. We opted to add azaleas, which are the go-to shrub in this region and I thought would do well in our soil. As with planting any shrub, I dug a hole to twice the size of the root ball and poured in a heaping amount of potting mix from Lowe’s around the new plant. The azaleas looked pitifully small beside the yawning maw that was our deck, but I reminded myself that when it comes to shrubs, it’s best to think long-term.

Upon demolishing the remaining lattice, we were in the mood to keep chopping away, with shovels and rakes taking the place of hammers.

We laid landscaping fabric covered by gravel to reduce weeds below the deck.

Chris, meanwhile, took charge of lattice reconstruction. Having seen the maintenance required of a stained wood product, we opted instead for a white vinyl lattice. I’m night usually a fan of vinyl building materials but in this case, with the combination of wood and the promise of someday being covered by greenery, the low-maintenance option was too good to pass up. Together we measured the openings between supporting 2x4s (all drastically different) and cut lattice to fit. Chris also created a framework of 1x1s that sat in front of each lattice piece, to give a more “finished” look to the deck. All pieces were pre-drilled and attached with screws. Before closing in the ends, we sprayed weed cover over the entire area, laid down several sheets of landscaping fabric and carried in wheelbarrow loads of gravel, to reduce weed growth beneath the deck. The area was finished with a custom-made swinging gate, itself latticed, to allow access to the house’s crawlspace.

We replaced the rotted, stained lattice with a white vinyl to mimic the rails and add some much-needed freshness to the old deck.

Once the lattice had been completed, I went to work with planting. Around the azaleas I added the Siberian iris bulbs my mother-in-law had donated to my landscaping cause. At each corner I place a large pot, with contents that I expected to change with the seasons, because I love the look of unique pots growing up out of a lush garden. It’s like stumbling onto the remains of a 17th century foundation wrapped with moss or a Roman aqueduct draped with vine; the perfect hint of civilization bowed by untamed wildness.

Love At First Sight

I write a lot about my husband in these posts, and not just because he’s fast becoming a gardener-extraordinaire in his own right. But this garden has been our story from the beginning. We bought this home because we saw it not just as an investment but as a foundation where we could build our lives together. We got engaged in our driveway, where he stopped his truck on a December night after an evening spent recreating our first date, looking at neighborhood Christmas lights, only to show me the lights on our rooftop spelled “Marry Me.” It seemed a natural to take the next step at home, and so we soon found ourselves planning a wedding in our own backyard. Why invest all that money into a reception hall when we could reinvest in our home?

A beautiful memory created at home.

Now, I’m not going to get into the year of headache that came with that naive thought. I’m going to stick to the headache that was landscaping our home over the next year in preparation of having roughly 100 people, half in high heels, dancing and eating outside in unpredictable temperatures and unknown amounts of precipitation.

Truly, our engagement was the precipice of a full year of hard-core landscaping. With the arrival of spring, we had a full checklist of items to tend to:

  • Get rid of moles – no one wants their grandmother to break an ankle on their wedding day due to stepping into that pesky mole hole. The short version is that every chemical, every sonar repellent, every cure we tried failed miserably. And then we got an Akita pup. Problem solved.
  • Seed grass – while the clover was lush and green, it wasn’t exactly the lawn of Chris’ dreams. A few John Deere attachments later and I had an excuse to ride my beloved mower for hours more and the grass was quickly greened.
  • Repair lattice around deck – gaping holes and rotted wood don’t exactly say “welcome.”
  • Paint everything – we called in the pros for this one. Painting the deck was pain enough for me, but, boy, what a difference fresh paint makes. The shed went from being an eyesore I ached to raze to an adorable little barn I can’t wait to wreathe with flowers.
  • Landscape – the yard wanted for the softness that shrubs and flowering plants can bring. While I knew that would be a long-term project, we needed some quick fixes prior to the wedding.
  • Fix the giant hole in the yard – oh, have I not mentioned the giant hole in the yard? Oh-ho-ho, that’s because that’s a story unto itself.

There were plenty more things we wanted to add to the list. And lots more hours spent wandering in circles on the grass wondering if the giant tent would really fit and what to do to keep the fence from showing in photos. Somehow, it all came together. I’ll share that story in a future post.

A Blank Canvas

I still remember the first time I saw my house. My then-boyfriend, Chris, and I had been house-hunting for several months and after losing a bid on a short sale had hung up our realtor pages. We were about to depart for an overseas vacation, anyway, and it seemed a good time to take a break and recharge mentally before going back into the trenches.

It’s hard to really stop looking, though, once you’ve started. If you spend all of your time watching HGTV, you’re already addicted to peeking inside other people’s lives to see how yours might fit in their space. But since we weren’t taking it seriously, Chris and I agreed that I’d go on my own to visit this last listing before our trip.

Love at first sight

The house was at the end of a cul-de-sac, one of Chris’ main criteria. He wanted his  kids to grow up the way he had, biking on the communal asphalt circle with tons of neighbor kids. Two stories, no basement, a loss in his column. It had good bones, and beautiful porches. I remember standing on the deck in the back and thinking to myself, “Yes, this will do.”

It was a 1.55-acre lot, a veritable parkland compared to the 1/4-acre lots typical in our locale. Most of it was fenced in. Along the right, a small run-off creek flows along the property, preventing close neighbors. The right was fully wooded, owned by a foundation with a limit against selling in my lifetime.

There was probably a good 1/2 acre of lawn fenced in the back alone. There wasn’t much to it, but boy there was a lot of it. A big shed sat smack in the back center. There were a few dogwoods scattered about and an oddly pruned holly tree immediately off the back deck. That was about it. No flowers. No shrubs. Just grass.

Room to grow!

The front had a lopsided fir of some type that reminded me of the type of tree around which Dr. Seuss’ Whos might clasp hands and start singing.  Another holly was planted virtually on the front porch. A disaster of pyracantha reared up on either side of the house’s front fence, which bordered the neighbors backyards, and strings of ailing forsythia faced the garage. A side yard nearly as big as my current backyard was shaded by nut-bearing trees, eliminating all possibility of grass.

An awfully big space for such sad, little forsythia.

“You might want to take a look,” I told Chris when I talked to him that night, a strange quiet overtaking me. He worked 24-hour shifts, and agreed he’d stop by on his way home the next morning.

“But what do you think of it?” he asked repeatedly. I wouldn’t answer. I wanted to see if he felt the same strange flutter in his heart that I did when he stepped out on that clover-filled lawn.

Against all odds, he did. So we went to see it again together. And then again, upon signing papers, with our mothers, both avid gardeners ready to sketch their own plans. After several weeks of bizarre obstacles (including a signing deadline nearly missed due to a Finnish desk clerk and a faulty fax machine), somehow, the house was ours.

It was quickly clear I'd be gardening on a much bigger scale than I was used to.

We have cursed it, we have praised our lucky stars, we have pledged to never mow grass again, and we have practiced the stories we’ll tell our children someday about the pull we felt that kept us from leaving this land. We sit out by the pond and tell ourselves stories about the next project, the next little room, the next thing we’ll grow.

Oh, did I not mention the pond? That’s because that’s an entirely different story.