All posts tagged: Garden

Fall Checklist: Planting Shrubs & Trees!

This blog mini-series is in partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

Fall is, hands down, my favorite time of year to plant. Who wants to dig a big hole when it’s super hot and muggy out? Who wants to watch a shrub struggle all summer because it got too hot too quickly after it was planted? Nobody. Fall is a great, oft-underrated time to plant trees and shrubs especially (before they go dormant for winter), and this year I was determined to do both! AND SPOILER: I DID!

I’ve been REALLY trying to pay serious attention to gardens I like when I see them out in the wild—from the layout to the particular mix and massing of plants that make them up, and this longitudinal study into my own preferences has resulted in one thing I know to be true: I love a boxwood. I love them as individuals and I love them as hedges. I love them when they form parterres and I love them when they form other things I don’t know the terminology for. I love that they stay green all winter and I love that the only real work that goes into them is giving them a haircut once in a while, which is a task I actually enjoy.

So let’s start at this area in front of my recently pressure-washed porch. Back when I bought the house, it looked basically like this. See that mass of hosta? I dug that up and divided it, creating TWENTY-FIVE individual plants.

I moved them to the space in front of the low wrought-iron fence with some purple heart and creeping jenny. Evidently it gets too cold here for purple heart to be a perennial (live and learn!), but the hostas have come back bigger and bigger year after year, as they do! They work really well in this spot because they’re so hardy—they get a little abused with foot traffic in this location but they can handle it. And since they die off for the winter, that space can get mounded with sidewalk snow and come back fine in the spring.

You can kind of see right behind the hostas on the other side of the fence, I did a hideously dumb thing. I planted day lillies. They came from somewhere in the backyard, and at this point I know I was feeling like I’d NEVER accumulate enough plants to deal with this yard and I simply had to use what I had, regardless of whether I actually liked it. Personally, I do not like day lillies. They produce a weak showing of flowers once a year, look crappy the rest of the time, and reproduce and spread like a small annoying plague. More on that in a second.

Anyway. Since I know I love boxwoods, I’ve tried to add new ones every year in the hopes that someday I’ll have all the hedges and fanciness my heart desires. I counted them up and it turns out I’ve actually planted thirty boxwoods since I’ve lived here, which ain’t bad! I tend to buy the smallest ones at Lowe’s, mainly for cost reasons. Prices vary year after year, but they’re usually in the $10-range. I planted these three years ago in front of the porch and on the side of the portico, since neither of these foundations are particularly good-looking but nothing a nice hedge wouldn’t conceal! I’m not really a fan of foundation plantings around the house generally (since I want to maintain access to the siding and foundation for current/future maintenance, and don’t want roots affecting my foundation), but I think around a porch is more OK. Boxwoods don’t root very deeply, which both makes them decent candidates for planting close to a structure and pretty easygoing if they need to be transplanted.

Anyway! This photo is from a few days ago, and despite clearly being on their way out, the hostas have all gotten so big and bushy! The boxwoods have all grown! And those day lillies did exactly what they do, which is propagate and look a mess!

It occurred to me that this area in front of the porch might be a nice place to enact a little parterre action, like in that inspiration image (which is Kingston’s own Senate House, the building where New York ratified its state constitution in 1777!). I already have two of the four sides installed! So I ripped all those day lillies out and took myself to Lowe’s hoping the nursery still had boxwoods in stock.

OHHHHHH YEAHHHHHH. I may have gotten a little excited. Did I mention that another reason I like fall planting is because of clearance sales??! It varies by store, but you can pretty much count on end-of-season promotions as they need to clear out summer/fall stock, so these babies were being offered at 50% off! Yassssss. I bought 22 of them, like any totally normal person whose house is under hella construction would, right?

Whatever, I will take a major discounted boxwood windfall whenever and wherever it comes. These things cannot be controlled.

A couple of quick notes about boxwoods, specifically, after having done some light research. Apparently boxwoods smell unpleasant, kind of like cat pee, to some people. Personally, I don’t have this problem. There are a lot of varieties of boxwoods, which is helpful to know when selecting them—particularly if you’re sensitive to the scent! Evidently English Boxwoods are the stinkiest and on the more difficult end of the spectrum to grow. The ones I bought are called Winter Gem Boxwoods which are a type of Korean boxwood, and they’re one of my favorite varieties. They’re super hardy, grow quickly, and have a nice dense foliage. You might have seen people wrap/tent their boxwoods in the winter, but I’ve never done that (that’s totally one of those aspirational fall tasks that current-me totally envisions future-me doing, but likely I will not) and they’ve been great even with heavy snow loads and record-setting low temperatures.

OK THEN.

Here is where I freely admit that I don’t think I’m a natural-born gardener from a design perspective. I love houses and rooms but I find gardens INCREDIBLY challenging from a conceptual standpoint—this is the part of the house I’d totally hire a designer for if I could. That being said, I enjoy the puttering, and I think I AM really pretty good at growing stuff—very rarely do my plants die, and I certainly can’t credit outstanding maintenance or any other special skills. I do, however, plant pretty much everything exactly the same way, so I like to think that’s what I bring to the table. It is not complicated.

It starts with laying things out. Like a dry fit! Obviously this is so you can get an idea of how it looks and figure out if you have enough plants, adjust your spacing, etc.

Once that’s done, I start planting. If there’s mulch (especially fresh mulch), rake it out away from the hole you’re digging so you don’t mess it up with a bunch of soil. Then dig a hole that’s twice as wide and twice as deep as the pot the plant came in. It’s tempting to not do this, especially if the plant is large, but it’s important to give those roots a good chance at success, and the ability to spread into soil that isn’t so compacted.

Into the hole, I’ll throw a few inches of good, nutrient-rich soil. I try not to freak out about exactly what this is: there are a lot of options but basically a compost, composted manure, topsoil, or a soil mix formulated specifically for whatever you’re planting seem to all be just fine (or at least better than nothing! gardeners, feel free to chime in). In this case I’m using compost from my own composter!

The most important thing is to not panic. That’s a general statement but also applies here.

Then I flood the hole with lots of water, and then mix up the fancy rich soil with the water and other soil in the hole with the shovel or a stick.

Then I remove the plastic pot to expose the roots! Look at those roots! Such vigor! Big up, Monrovia.

Then I use my fingers or a small shovel or whatever I grab first to break up the roots a bit. It’s ok if some of them break. This encourages them to spread out into their new environment and create new growth.

Then I just stick the roots down into the hole, making sure that the base of the plant is even with the surrounding grade. Pack around the roots with some compost and the soil you removed from the hole.

Afterwards, I give everything a good soak from above. Sometimes if I haven’t packed the soil well, this watering settles loose soil around the plant, so check to see if you need to add more soil. Of course, I try to remember to water frequently during the first few weeks or so, but ya know. Sometimes that doesn’t work out, but it’s the intention that counts. Unless the plant dies, in which case the watering is probably what would have counted.

So that’s how I plant stuff.

Then I got to break out my new toy—the Greenworks Pro hedge trimmer (which is currently on sale!)! The hedge trimmers use the same battery as my lawnmower and my leaf blower, which I just love. It’s all so easy to switch between tools. The hedge trimmers are seriously powerful and the quality seems great. I almost wish they didn’t work so well because the job was done so quickly and I was just getting into the groove!

You have to be careful about trimming boxwoods too late into the fall since you want the trimmed parts to harden before the first frost, but I felt pretty confident I still had time left on the calendar. I only trimmed the plants that have been here for a few years already and are well-established, and I tried to be cautious to only give them a light trim—just enough to even things out and make everything look under control.

Finally, MULCH TIME! Normally I just mulch once in the spring, but I didn’t get to it this year! I probably would have just waited until this coming spring since retaining moisture and preventing weeds aren’t such big issues in the winter, but mulch also acts as an insulator to keep roots warmer and protected through the winter—which with freshly planted shrubs is more important than ever.

My old faithful is this inexpensive black mulch from Lowe’s. I think of mulching a lot like painting a room—it’s that thing at the end after all the hard work that instantly makes everything look so goooood. I aim for about a 2-3″ layer, making sure to get all the way around the base of the new plants. Then it’s just a matter of watering everything again to help kind of settle the mulch into place.

Different time of year, but this is as close as I could get to a before-and-after! I’m so happy with how this area has progressed over the past few years. I feel like it’s starting to look like something nice! Feel free to review progress from 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 if you really want to take a deep dive.

The two old rhododendrons are amazingly still going, although I think their remaining years are numbered. I’ll probably rip them out when I make it to restoring the porch itself and need more space to work. It’s possible I’ll have to transplant the boxwoods during that process as well, but that’s OK. This stuff can be tricky to figure out, because there’s so much of the house to get to but I’m not sure exactly when that will come to pass, and I still want it to look good and relatively cared for in the interim! I have a deep fear of making it a decade down the road with this house and realizing I don’t have any mature plants to landscape with.

Oh! I also dug up those hostas in front of this section of the fence, split them, and planted them closer together so they form more of a hedge than they currently do. I think if the boxwood hedge gets to about the height of the porch floor, and the hosta hedges much closer to the ground, this will look nice and layered but still structured and simple. We shall see in the coming years! I hope to get to splitting ALL of the hostas this fall but that might be rapidly becoming a spring project. We’ll all find out together.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Because I bought…so many bushes.

The rest of the boxwoods went to the newly-restored side of the house, which may not FEEL that exciting—but holy cow, getting to the point that I can safely plant stuff without worrying I’m going to accidentally trample them or squish them with the ladder I’ve moved around this area a thousand times over the course of this summer/fall was VERY EXCITING. Finishing up the work on this side of the house has felt like climbing a mountain, at the top of which are a series of many smaller mountains I won’t be able to climb this fall (like restoring every window), but having the bulk of the work done and something nice happening with the landscaping feels like major victory. I’ll show you the whole thing soooooon!

BUT WAIT, THERE’S STILL MORE! I’M NEVER SHUTTING UP! Let’s time-hop again, back to…

3 years ago, I planted 3 Cleveland Flowering Pear Trees from Lowe’s in that strip between the sidewalk and the street. See them? One of the truly striking things when you compare old pictures of the neighborhood to new ones is the current utter lack of trees in a neighborhood that used to have tons of them! My block, for instance, used to be lined with big beautiful trees, and now there are exactly three trees and they’re all babies and they all belong to me. It’s a shame, because nicely placed trees are not only one of the easiest ways to instantly boost curb appeal, but they also help with pollution, storm water management, property value, and more. Research even shows that mature trees make a difference in public safety and crime! A quick google search returned this nice succinct run-down of why trees are so important to urban spaces.

I am the Lorax.

I’m not sure why it took so long, but it finally occurred to me that I could totally plant a fourth tree in the same line, but to the right of my garage. There’s space!

So I went and picked up another Cleveland Flowering Pear. Flowering pear trees also seem to have a certain…olfactory problem for some people when they’re in bloom (which realistically is a couple of weeks in the spring), which…I’ll let you research on your own. But they’re beautiful, they grow quickly, they flower but don’t fruit (helping avoid vermin that might want to snack on fallen fruit!), and they grow in this predictable, very upright columnar shape that makes them great for a narrow spot like this, where you don’t want to interfere with the sidewalk or eventually have it growing too close to the house. They’re also SO hardy—I probably haven’t watered the three original ones basically since they were planted, and they’ve easily quadrupled in size and are really starting to look great. This is even with the teenaged neighbor kid who seems determined to kill them and breaks off branches and messes with them when he thinks nobody’s looking. Facepalm.

I used up all my homemade compost on the boxwoods, so I picked up a big bag of this Sta-Green Tree and Shrub Garden soil. Otherwise my planting method was exactly the same.

Grow, little tree! Grow! This guy was also 50% off, making his total cost a whopping $15. For a whole tree! Can’t beat that. Hopefully at some point it’ll catch up to its siblings that have had a few years head-start. This also reminds me that I have to get out there and add some mulch around it! There’s always something, am I right?

PHEW! Well I’m pooped! My big fall checklist is winding down, though, and I’m starting to get excited to turn my attention back toward the inside of the house. I guess technically we have another month of fall, so I’m going to try to keep working through those remaining items and see how far I get. Hang on just a little longer, mother nature!

Raised Beds in the Backyard!

When I was little, before I recall having any real interest in growing flowers or trees or shrubs, my parents granted me a little territory in the backyard where I was permitted and encouraged to plant things. Tucked behind the garage and a part of the deck, this was a terraced section of the yard, each level retained by railroad-tie-style walls. It’s a set-up not uncommon for over-scaled homes built in the 1990s, where developers insisted on constructing houses whose boxy plans bore no relation to any given site’s existing topography. The land was simply built-up as needed, compacted, retained, and mulched. Consequently, the soil was difficult to plant in: rocky, full of clay, and nutrient-poor. It was shady back there, too, but I did what I could to encourage the success of my garden. My brother and sister had their own plots adjacent to mine, although I don’t remember my brother ever taking advantage of the opportunity. For her part, year after year my sister wrestled with a few strawberry plants whose results were scant at best, but found her footing more successfully with cucumbers. She took to peeling one and then perching at the kitchen counter with a paper plate of salt in front of her, eating it like a carrot and dipping the gnawed-off end onto the plate between bites. She still does this, and I still find it equal parts cute and grotesque.

Tomatoes were my thing. I don’t recall even especially liking tomatoes, but I really liked growing them. Part of it might have been that I knew my sister—who despised tomatoes—wouldn’t mess with my crops. She treated the plants like they were toxic, as though failing to give them the proper berth would result in disease or instant death. I’m not sure why sibling tampering was such a concern of mine. Would she try to…sabotage me? I can’t really say. We’re deeply competitive.

Likely due to the aforementioned sun and soil conditions, our plants’ production was never especially impressive but we didn’t know that. To us, anything our plants grew that we could eat felt like some form of low-level sorcery. Ripening tomatoes were placed in a neat row along the windowsill behind the sink, and on weekends they’d get sliced and served with bagels and lox to much fanfare and accolades. I loved it.

Then I grew up. Summers in high school tended to keep me away from home for long stretches, so it didn’t make sense to plant crops I couldn’t tend and harvest. Of course I didn’t know that over the next decade I’d find myself in a series of small urban apartments without outdoor space, occasionally entertaining the idea of one of those upside-down tomato plant grower-thingies from Skymall before forgetting about it. Then again, tomatoes were readily available at the store, and—like I said—it’s not like I even love tomatoes. I like them. I really like growing them. Outside. In the sun. And the dirt. With bugs and stuff.

SO. Then I bought a house, and shortly thereafter experienced the revelation that omg I can do that again! Technically, as it happens, some olde-timey Kingston law actually grants me the right to practice my husbandry on a whole goddamned farm. I can have chickens and goats and ducks and probably other stuff I should never, ever be allowed to know about. Can you imagine?? GOATS??? I fucking love goats. I guess let’s see how the veggies go first, though. Then we can discuss urban homesteading the shit outta this joint.

Between the asphalt-covered backyard, and the fence-building, and the front-garden-creating, and then the side-garden-planting, and the great dirt-moving effort, and SO MUCH WORK on the house, and also several other houses, it took a few years for the vegetable garden to start to become a reality.

Originally the idea was something like this. I wrote about it back in 2015. Outside of the new french doors on the garage there would be a fire pit/chill zone, and beyond that 4 large raised beds. As often happens, I’ll throw out an underdeveloped idea, and you guys help to develop it! Primary concerns were a) the location of the fire pit/chill zone is sad and b) those beds are too big to easily tend and c) pea gravel is apparently the work of the devil.

So the plan changed in subtle ways. I put the chill zone in the middle of the beds, and made the raised beds a foot narrower—bringing them down to 3 feet instead of 4 feet wide to make them easier to manage—and aligning them with the structure of the garage and the placement of the new doors. Pea gravel got replaced with reclaimed brick for improved walkability and weed prevention, and this plan felt solid enough to at least get started.

During the autumn that followed the great dirt-moving effort, I managed to build one of my raised beds and even get a coat of stain on it! I was so antsy to just get something done other than filling up the yard with soil, and wanted to see even a small part of my plan enacted just to make sure I even liked it, and that the height and length were right, that kind of thing.

In the spring, I promptly and efficiently picked up where I left off, finished the beds, got them all filled with great soil, and by mid-summer had a booming garden!

HAHAHAHA. I KID. IT DID NOT HAPPEN LIKE THAT AT ALL.

First thing’s first: Marimekko did that line of stuff for Target, so I got myself some cute chairs. I ordered a fire pit on Amazon. It was smaller than I’d imagined and arrived damaged but I was SO DETERMINED TO GET THIS PARTY STARTED that I just decided to use it rather than deal with a return.

Then I set about building the rest of the raised beds. I don’t think it’s especially useful for me to walk you through my process because I wouldn’t do it like this again if I were building these today. Basically the structure is just 1×6 pressure-treated boards attached to 4×4 pressure-treated posts, and I did most of the fastening with shanked siding nails because I was working alone and a nail gun is way easier than a drill and screws if you’re trying to hold things up at the same time.

To keep the middle from bowing out once the box was filled with dirt, I fastened these 2×2 pressure-treated stake things to the posts. They do the job.

I don’t especially know why I chose the wood I chose, but I wish I hadn’t. Pressure treated wood ALWAYS breaks my heart. I don’t know why I keep giving it the benefit of the doubt. It’s like, if you let the boards dry out before using them, they crack and warp and split. If you use them and then let them dry out, they crack and warp and split.

Unsurprisingly, my planter boxes have cracked and warped and split. Not in a way that makes them non-functional, and it’s not even that noticeable, but it is just…annoying.

If you’re interested in building similar but better raised beds, my pals Kim and Scott (sometimes we live parallel lives, I think) tackled pretty much the same project but with a few adjustments, including using 5/4″ decking boards (which are actually 1″ thick) instead of 1-by boards that are actually 3/4″ thick. They also capped off the top perimeters with a board, which looks much better and has the added benefit of obscuring the 4×4 posts.

I’d also strongly consider using cedar rather than pressure-treated, which—again—I have no idea why I didn’t do the first time around, but I didn’t. Cedar should last a comparable amount of time, and is naturally rot-resistant rather than needing to be treated. It should be noted that pressure-treated wood is made very differently than it was years ago, and seems to be now generally accepted as safe for growing edibles, but even just from a functional/aesthetic standpoint I’d prefer the cedar.

Ah well. That’s why this is not a step-by-step tutorial post. The raised beds are 3′ x 10′, and I used Cabot’s solid-color acrylic siding stain in black just on the parts that are visible with the planters filled to avoid unnecessary exposure to the soil.

If this WERE a step-by-step tutorial post, this picture PROBABLY wouldn’t make the cut. Any fledgling vegetation you think you see is just weeds. I built my raised beds in the spring with big ambitions, and then I went and tore the entire side of my house apart, which then meant wrapping up an ENORMOUS exterior project while also trying to reclaim my house as a place fit for living, attempting to pick up the tattered pieces of my kitchen, laundry room, pantry, 1/2 bath, bedroom, office, and den. So some chaos ensued. That was two years ago and I’m honestly only STARTING to feel like the house has recovered. Suffice to say there have been some decisions I would revise if given the opportunity but, of course, that’s not how life works! Lolz. *bursts into tears.*

So I built these raised beds, and then I didn’t plant a single solitary thing. Instead of filling them with soil and plants I filled them with mayhem and foolishness. That was it.

Over the course of that exterior renovation project that summer, I remember one day it felt COMPLETELY logical to spend the afternoon going to get a couple yards of stone dust, so I could begin whatever paving situation I was planning for around the beds. It’s not like there were at LEAST one thousand more pressing things to take care of.

I think by this point I’d actually calculated how many bricks I’d need, and it was almost 2,500 bricks. Which is just simply too many fucking bricks. So then I had this whole idea of using my impressive stock of bluestone slabs to do kind of a flagstone thing between and around the planter boxes.

So we spread landscape fabric and a few inches of stone dust, and then I got to work!

On other stuff. I worked on other stuff. Not my paving solution. Did I mention I wrecked the whole house at once? So my stone dust sat in these weird almost-paths with landscape fabric elegantly bordering them.

Adding insult to injury, one day I was innocently burning off-cuts of framing lumber and whatnot in the fire pit, and the fire department came. They shut that shit down. Apparently there is NO OPEN BURNING in the city of Kingston, which I kind of knew but thought a) was clearly not at all enforced, because fire pits are totally commonplace here and b) didn’t apply to manufactured fire pits, only to, ya know, that guy who wants to arrange some rocks in a circle and burn stuff in it.

Evidently I was mistaken. No open burning. No fire pit. Nobody can seem to give me a straight answer on whether this also applies to things like chimineas, which don’t exactly seem open so I’m maintaining that as an option until I inevitably buy one only to be told I just wasted hundreds of dollars, and to please keep my pyro tendencies in check.

I love burning things. I have a constant and steady supply of things to burn. Everyone back off.

By early the next spring, the situation had devolved into THIS. Feel free to note that the defunct fire pit has not moved. Also feel free to note the extreme chaos and disorder that would be…impossible not to note.

I share stuff like this not because I think embarrassing myself online is THAT fun (it’s a little fun), or because I think this is anything worth emulating, but you know what?

THIS. SHIT. IS. HARD. ALL OF IT. IT IS REALLY HARD. I AM ONE PERSON. TRYING TO DO THESE THINGS. AND THESE THINGS ARE TAKING ME YEARS. BECAUSE THEY ARE VERY BIG THINGS. AND THAT IS JUST HOW IT IS. SOMETIMES LIFE LOOKS LIKE THIS AND IT DOESN’T FEEL GOOD.

So. That’s what I have to say about that.

Like a fucking cherry on top of this shit sundae, also the tree fell. There are three other trees in the opposite corner of the backyard, but seeing as this was the ONLY remaining bit of intentional vegetation within 50 feet or so, this felt like a real slap in the face. On the bright side it was a Rose of Sharon, which I don’t actually like, so. No big loss but I was hoping to have some other stuff going on before removing it.

It wasn’t until early that summer that the beds finally got a little more attention! It was getting late in the season and I didn’t want to delay things further by worrying about giving the raised beds another coat of stain, so I just went ahead and filled them with enough soil, amended with compost, and planted stuff!

After this prolonged process, you can imagine how exciting this felt. Growing things to eat! In my very own backyard! At long last!

This was taken a few weeks after planting and before things really took off, but that summer I planted tomatoes, brussels sprouts, japanese eggplants, parsley, basil, cucumbers, and broccoli! AND IT ALL DID WELL! Like, REALLY well. TOO well. At a certain point, nobody wants your weird homegrown tomatoes anymore. Nobody is interested in your buckets of cucumbers. You can take your multiple kinds of basil and shove it all where the sun don’t shine.

NATURALLY, this coincided with the summer where I really didn’t have a kitchen. Even the makeshift kitchen wasn’t nearly as equipped for actual cooking as it ended up being as the months went on and a new kitchen didn’t magically materialize. The only functioning sink in the entire house was the original bathroom sink upstairs, a shallow double-tapped roughly 130-year-old porcelain little number that is really not ideal for washing dishes or, say, vegetables in.

This is a roundabout way of saying that a lot of those vegetables ended up making really nice compost for this year’s vegetables, and I still feel lousy about it.

ALSO. AS WE CAN ALL PLAINLY SEE. I was delusional about the amount of stone I thought I had. It’s so hard to tell when things are in piles. Then you spread them all around and it becomes painfully obvious that you have miscalculated. Maybe you spread a little more, because denial. And then you’re like, why did I spend hours spreading all these individually heavy objects out that now I have to put back? So perhaps you don’t put them back. Perhaps you decide that by seeing them all splayed about, inspiration will come. Perhaps while the inspiration is coming, you allow the spaces between them to fill with weeds that seem to overnight become as tall as you, turning your compost-from-the-dump garbage dustbowl yard into a kind of weed resort-spa.

Perhaps.

Also you may notice I built 4 planters but have planted 2. On one hand, due to the truly insane amount of produce for someone with no easy means to cook it, I’m glad for this. On the other hand, it’s just because they were still in a state that was not good for planting, i.e. full of mayhem and foolishness rather than dirt and mulch.

WHICH brings us to this summer, where things are still nuts but not as nuts. This summer I got 3 of the 4 beds planted, this time with tomatoes, collard greens, romaine, chard, japanese eggplants, basil, parsley, cilantro, cucumbers, kale, broccoli, lavender and tarragon!

Every year you learn something about what to do next year, so now I know I definitely need to do tomato cages next year (I really like Joe Gardener’s approach!), definitely don’t need this many collard greens, strawberries are still kind of a waste of time, and I really don’t eat as much parsley as I thought I did.

Oh also! You can see where I decided to put the stone to use—walls! I’ve been chipping away at building these dry-stacked stone walls to kind of separate this area from the rest of the yard. It’s slow work but each stone that gets placed represents just a littttttle bit of progress, and there’s something kind of nice and meditative about that. Isn’t THIS ENTIRE ENDEAVOR basically just…that? Stone by stone until it starts to be something.

Look at those little tiny bottom teef! Look at the size of those weeds! The weed situation is sometimes under control and other times intense and not under control. This is in large part because there’s no weed barrier around and between most of the planter boxes or anything else to discourage weeds from growing.

Which leads us: back to the original plan for pea gravel! I cannot be talked down this time for various reasons. It is practical, it is affordable, it is beautiful, it is classic, and I have loved it forever. I believe I have a healthy understanding of the pros and cons and I have decided that the pros outweigh the cons and so IT IS SETTLED.

Except for the part where all summer now I have been talking about the enormous amount of pea gravel imminently arriving in my yard, but have not actually ordered or bought any pea gravel. Like every other summer, the demands of the house renovation and other projects have forced the backyard down the list of priorities, so while I WISH this area looked a whole lot better by now—and honestly expected it to—it’s not like the tomatoes really care whether they’re surrounded by pea gravel paths or bare landscape fabric or dirt. I’m still dying to get at least some of the gravel down while the weather’s still nice, since I’m excited for it and SO TIRED of looking at this mess.

ANYWAY. Now that I have more than sufficiently whined and moaned about stuff being difficult and time-consuming and disappointingly slow, I’d like to circle back to the part at the beginning—you know, about how this is fun and satisfying. I LOVE growing food in my backyard. I LOVE puttering around the beds, pulling weeds and cutting things back, yanking out spent plants to make way for new ones, thinking about what I’ll do the same and differently next year. It’s a fucking lovely experienceand someday it’ll be beautiful, too. Stone by stone.

 

Progress in the Front Garden!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

 

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