I feel like I’ve probably opened a few posts this way by now, but whatever: when I was a kid, we moved from one new-ish house in suburban Northern Virginia to a new-new house also in suburban Northern Virginia. Looking back, the move shouldn’t have been a big deal. The two houses were maybe a 10-15 minute drive from each other. The old house wasn’t anything terribly special, and the new house had more space and exciting futuristic amenities, like an ice maker. We didn’t have to change schools or anything, and all our stuff was coming with us, so I’m not really sure what the hell our big problem was with the whole thing.
I blame my brother, Jeremy. Since he was three years older than my sister Laura and I, and I guess we took our emotional cues from him, his upset over the move became our upset, too. And we were very upset. Whenever we went to visit the new house while it was under construction, whether it was to check out the newly-poured foundation or later to pick out our bedrooms, Jeremy stayed in the car. He was having none of it. And while I wasn’t about to sacrifice the opportunity to choose the best bedroom just for the sake of solidarity, Laura and I weren’t much better. We bitched and moaned the whole time, and were general nightmare children throughout the entire ordeal. Moving day found me literally clinging to the curtains of my old bedroom, wailing as if I’d been set on fire while my father dragged me out of the only home I’d ever known and into the car.
Semi-related: the curtains were part of a larger dinosaur motif that had been enacted throughout the decor of my room a few years prior—the bedspread, sheets, wallpaper border, and said curtains were all of the same pattern and very obviously formed a set. I guess since the new owners also had a young son and liked that the wallpaper border matched the curtains, they negotiated the sale of the curtains with the home. Altogether, the various dinosaur-themed pieces displayed quite a dramatic effect, but separated the whole thing just seemed sort of sad and amateurish, decor-wise. I still consider this decision a grave error on my parents’ part, if only because my new room looked really bad with just the comforter left as evidence of its former glory.
ANYWAY. In a move of questionable parenting, my mother and father attempted to quell our complaints and unrelenting sadness with bribery. We were promised a second dog, which we eventually got (Yophie, the best dog ever). We were told that we could each have our own small pet, which we eventually did (I got a hamster and my sister got a guinea pig and my brother got a small exotic frog). Lastly, we were promised that we could all have our own garden.
This last promise still puzzles me. It isn’t as though our old house didn’t have a backyard that we could plant shit in—as far as I know, we’d just never really had any inclination. My brother spent most of his time indoors on his computer, and my sister an I had a swing set we were quite fond of and a whole lot of Barbies who, thanks to me, were always missing the majority of their hair. Gardening? Sure. I guess. Whatever, Mom.
My sister gave it a try, growing mostly edibles like strawberries and a few cucumbers every summer. I started with tomato plants, which I quickly learned needed to be watered and staked and caged to stay upright to actually bear tomatoes. My parents used to buy bagels and lox and cream cheese JUST for the occasion of eating my freshly harvested tomato crop, and I remember both really liking bagels and lox and cream cheese with a tomato on it and the idea that I’d actually grown a part of what I was eating.
And that’s how tomato gardening became my main passion in life. It was a lot of work and I liked it for whatever reason. I was a weird kid.
Soon my interests expanded, I think when my mother took me to our local farmer’s market for the first time. There were a few vendors who sold various types of non-edible plants, and I made quick work of taking over all of the space allotted to my sister and brother with black-eyed susans, astible, hosta, lilies, lamb’s ear, various ornamental grasses, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember. When I’d filled up that space, I moved on to other areas of the backyard. When I got bored of that, I picked up where the landscapers left off and started filling in the front yard, replacing some dead azaleas with more exciting hydrangea bushes, putting some peonies and evergreens on a forgotten strip of land next to the driveway, splitting the perennials that had matured in the back and moving them to various other places…I was prolific. Despite our hard, clay-dominated soil, for some reason everything I planted seemed to thrive. I’d spend entire days outside, completely engrossed in my gardening, and then make everyone come admire my efforts. In the summer I’d clip my flowers as they bloomed and arrange small vases of them throughout the house. In retrospect, I’m sure my mother was thankful for the free labor and fresh flowers, but I can’t really imagine my childhood without gardening. It taught me all the platitudes about life that gardening is meant to provide: about patience, the payoff that comes with a hard day’s work, and that it was OK to have a hobby that was totally my own—solitary, slow, and hardly the type of thing boys weren’t supposed to be spending their time on. I loved it.
I continued gardening here and there until I graduated from high school, albeit without quite the same vim and vigor I had when I was younger, and then I stopped. I moved from one apartment in Saskatchewan, Canada to another, and then I moved to a dorm room in New York, and then an apartment on the Upper East Side, and then another apartment in Brooklyn. Aside from a few houseplants I’ve kept alive with varying degrees of success, I never had the outdoor space or the inclination to do anything else gardening-wise. And sometime in the space of that near-decade, I forgot how much fun I used to have.
WELL. As much as I love working on the inside of our house, the electrical work is still not totally done, which means we’re more or less at a stand-still with what can be done for the moment. I’ve been getting some things accomplished here and there, but I’ve taken the opportunity to really start focusing on the outside a bit more—more specifically, the front garden that was created when I built the fence! The weather in the Hudson Valley has been beautiful, and even though I’m trying to be cautious about spending money on plants when I really need to be saving for ceilings and stuff, I’ve been having a hard time resisting buying a few things and putting in a ton of work to make my garden dreams a little closer to reality. Doing all this work in the front also helps distract me from the disaster in the backyard, which is an added bonus.
So! What did I do? Let me explain.
It started with this huge clump of hosta growing next to the gate in the front yard. See it? It was huge. I had to dig out a section of it when I was breaking up the weird concrete path next to the entryway of the house so that I could fit a wheelbarrow into the space to cart off the concrete chunks and bring in soil to back-fill the resulting hole. I realized while doing this that the clump of hosta was long overdue to be divided and thinned out a little, so one thing led to another and I ended up digging out all of it and dividing it up into still-sizable chunks—25 plants in all!—each of them probably still bigger than what you’d buy at a nursery. All from about a 2’x3′ space. Crazy! I know the common wisdom with perennials is to divide them in the fall while the plants are going dormant for winter, but my childhood experiments in gardening taught me that hosta is super hardy and can pretty much be divided whenever. It won’t look so hot after it’s divided, but the next spring/summer it will re-emerge and look great.
Hosta isn’t really my favorite plant in the world and this variety of it definitely isn’t my favorite, but I don’t dislike it and I had so much to work with. So I started digging.
The first to go was actually the patch of grass in front of the original wrought-iron fence—a little over a foot of space between the fence and the sidewalk. I considered planting something evergreen here, but decided that was a bad idea when I remembered how much snow we got last winter, and how covered this area gets when we shovel the sidewalk! I felt like anything I’d plant would just get completely ruined, and we’ll be better off with something that completely dies off in the winter. Hosta it is!
The basic process of gardening this area was to dig out the grass and a fair amount of the soil to bring the ground level down a bit. It had built up a lot over the years, and the grass/clover/weeds had overtaken a good 6 inches or so of the sidewalk! It was kind of labor intensive filling up the wheelbarrow, bringing it to the back, and dumping everything in the newly-excavated area where the asphalt used to be, but it was kind of fun, too.
After I dug the area out, I started placing my hostas about 2-3 feet apart. They’re going to continue to expand over the next few years, so I wanted to give them some space to fill out. After the hostas were planted, I mulched the area with black mulch and filled in the gaps with some creeping jenny and purple heart. I find that it’s easier to mulch around bigger plants, but easier to plant smaller things once the mulch is down. We’ll see how it all does! The purple heart is a perennial and supposed to be about 12″ tall and wide, so I’m hopeful that it’ll fill out and provide a nice contrast with the hosta. A few commenters have warned about creeping jenny (or any creeping ground cover, really!), so I’m keeping an eye on it. I liked the idea of planting something that would fill in around the purple heart and the hosta (and even creep onto the sidewalk and between the cracks, if it looked prettier than the weeds…), but I also don’t want it to be too aggressive and kill the other plants in the process!
OK, yes, I’m aware that this doesn’t look so hot. The hostas definitely went through some trauma during the splitting process, and like I mentioned, they probably won’t really look too great until next year—I was hoping they’d perk back up this summer, but I don’t think it’s going to happen! They’re still growing and are just beginning to flower, though, so they’re OK. Just a little in shock and need some time to establish themselves.
I love our sidewalk, by the way. It’s made of these enormous and very old locally-quarried bluestone slabs, which is pretty common in the Hudson Valley and in Kingston. During all of this gardening, my neighbors from across the street sauntered over to talk about plants—they’ve lived in their house since 1958 (!) and were so excited to see us taking care of the outside a bit! They told me that there was an initiative at one point to replace all the bluestone sidewalks in Kingston with concrete to make winter shoveling easier, and while plenty of other people leapt at the chance, the previous owner of our home (yes, the same one who died in the bathtub…) would not, under any circumstances, allow the city to replace the sidewalk bordering his house. That still makes me feel really good for some reason. Even though I spend a lot of time wondering what the hell this man was thinking when he paved our yard with asphalt or smeared caulk on a beautiful old radiator, it’s nice to know that for whatever reason, he was so instrumental in saving this bit of history. I think our sidewalk is absolutely beautiful, so I’m happy I get to take care of it a little bit. I love being able to see the edges of the bluestone slabs on that side! It makes me want to plant out the “hell strip” between the sidewalk and the street in a similar manner, too…I’m sure I’ll get to it someday.
After I finished planting the area in front of the wrought-iron fence, I still had a bunch of hosta and pretty much just needed a place to dump them! I put three back where the original enormous clump had been…and then I started obsessing over the bluestone path that leads from the sidewalk through the wrought iron gate and to the new wood gate (and continues beyond it!). At some point, somebody set or, more likely, re-set all of these slabs in concrete. I think it was an attempt to keep water away from the foundation of the house, but it wasn’t doing its job—the concrete hadn’t bonded with either the bluestone or the foundation, leaving lots of gaps and cracks and weeds growing through the cracks and general ugliness. You can kind of see what I’m talking about here, although I didn’t really get a good shot at all.
I didn’t really plan to, but I ended up digging out all of the concrete and moving the bluestone slabs and re-laying the path entirely. It was a workout, but I think it looks a MILLION times better and more charming and more period-appropriate this way.
Once I got all the hosta in the ground, I felt the urge to get some stuff planted back along the new wood fence line and start to establish a little path through the future-garden.
A big slab of bluestone in the backyard was unfortunately damaged during the asphalt removal, so I chipped the concrete from the salvageable pieces and began to set them in a little path through the space. I like how it turned out! I didn’t do anything fancy like set them in gravel or sand or anything like that…I just messed with the soil until they were level and let them sit. Old school! It’ll be interesting to see what happens with it over the next couple of years…if it’s not fairing well, it’s not such a big deal to just redo it. Anyway, the path looks a little silly and arbitrary right now since there’s still a fair amount of sod in the front of the garden that I need to remove, but that would then involve buying lots more plants and that shit adds up. Someday, though, the path will be a nice way to get into the garden to water and prune and all that.
ANYWAY. I figured I’d start by getting some stuff in the ground by the fence line, so I marked off the general shape of the bed with a garden hose and got to digging! The shape didn’t really matter too much since the rest of the sod will eventually be dug out, too, but I wanted it to at least look kind of OK in the interim. I’m not honestly sure when I’ll do that second part of the project…hopefully later in the summer, but we’ll see!
Andddd, done-ish! Done for now. Whatever.
I know this picture is awful, but it was the only one I got that kind of shows everything going on back here…
I’m really pleased with how the bluestone situation is panning out. Removing all the concrete and rearranging the stones opened up a nice little gardening bed area next to the porch, which is nice! I already feel like the hosta behind the fence line needs to go and get replaced with boxwoods or something evergreen, but I’m hoping I can catch a sale. My favorite boxwood variety is the “green velvet” ones (which are a little softer and less formal feeling than the traditional boxwoods…), but I’m having an impossible time finding inexpensive ones. The cheaper and free-er I can keep this project, at least for now, the better!
One of the things I love about gardening, though, is how low-pressure it is, relatively. Stuff can pretty much always be moved and shifted around, so I’m not expecting it to be perfect the first time around…I just wanted to get some things going while the weather is nice. The hardest part BY FAR is getting all the old sod/weeds out of the way, so I’m glad to have a lot of that over with!
So here’s what I planted…
Along the fence line in the back, I took a bunch of your suggestions and put in some big Hydrangea bushes. They aren’t so big right now, but they’re supposed to be huge! Like 6-8 feet tall and wide, although I’ll probably prune them when they start to get huge to keep things a little under control. The two on the left are Tardiva Hydrangea and were only $15 a pop at Lowe’s, and since I wanted one more and they didn’t have it, I compromised and bought a “Pinky Winky” (seriously), which is the one in the photo above. As the flowers mature, I guess they’ll start to turn pink from base to tip before dying. Sounds nice! The two varieties seem pretty similar, so it’s OK that they aren’t all identical, at least right now. Who knows how I’ll feel in a year or two.
Even though none of these are my absolute favorite variety of hydrangea, the price was right and I think they’ll be great when they mature next year and the year after. If not, I can put them to work elsewhere and plant something better up here. Not worried! I do think the size will be super nice, though, and the white flowers against the black fence will look really pretty. The hydrangeas should bloom in the summer and into the fall.
Near the start of the path, behind the hostas which I want to remove, I put in 3 Dazzleberry Sedum, which are a type of succulent that seems to do well in our zone (5). I liked the blue-purple-grey color of the foliage, and that it stays pretty low (about 6″ high) but spreads a good 2-3 feet. I guess they’re supposed to start flowering in early summer and continue until the beginning of fall.
One of them has started flowering since I planted it, and it’s pretty! I dig it.
Behind this sedum is some bleeding heart, which I transplanted from the backyard. It was getting strangled by hosta in its old location, and since the backyard is going to go through a lot in the next few years, I wanted to save it before it got killed. Bleeding heart is a really delicate plant, so it isn’t looking so hot post-transplantation, but I think next year the softness of the foliage will look nice among the hosta and the sedum and the hydrangea, and it should flower earlier in the spring. I’m trying to keep in mind that it’s nice to have things flowering at various times.
Beyond that stuff, I threw some irises in that I also took from the backyard…same deal, just trying to save them before they get destroyed. I love iris but honestly have no idea what this variety is or what the flowers will look like, but I guess they also bloom early, so assuming they come back, it’ll be nice to have those little patches of color scattered around until the other plants take off for the summer.
I also planted a clump of 3 Autumn Joy Sedum, which should reach about 2′ high (they’re so tiny right now!) and about 2′ wide. I might have planted them a little close together, given this, but it happens. They should start to bloom pink flowers late in the summer and into the fall, which will be nice as everything else starts dying out. I like them! I’ve seen some mature plants around the neighborhood so they seem to do well here.
In the back corner near the pine tree, I planted a Golden Mop False Cypress, which is supposed to potentially be really large—like 10 feet wide and 6 feet high. It can be pruned, though, and I wanted something evergreen to kind of fill in this corner near the tree, and I liked the color contrast it provides. It’s a slow-grower, though, so I don’t know how long it’ll take to start doing what I want it to do…
Anyway, I know it’s hard to get super stoked about a bunch of dead-ish-looking plants and things that really need to mature and fill in and this remaining patch of grass that still needs to go, but to me this reflects a lot of hard work and a huge amount of improvement! It can only keep getting better…at least that’s what I keep telling myself! In any case, the neighborhood is super happy about all of this, which makes me feel really good.
I still have a ton to learn when it comes to gardening. I sort of ignored the traditional wisdom of amending the soil with good compost/topsoil/humus/etc., which may have been a bad idea. My friends in Kingston talk about how amazing and fertile their soil is, so I figured I’d give it a try just plopping things in the ground and seeing how they do. I do need to pick up some fertilizer at the very least, though.
Oh! And yes—I am aware that black mulch can be toxic to dogs. My dogs don’t really seem to be interested in eating it at all, but given that this is a dog-free front yard, I’m not really concerned. I’ll definitely keep that in mind when I get around to really working in the back, though.
Phew! OK, I know I can’t be the only one going a little garden-crazy right now. Who else is logging some serious summer garden hours? Tell me EVERYTHING.