I am NOT a gardening gal. Green thumb? Nope, black as they come. I have killed more plants and shrubs than I care to say. Even when I tried reaaaaally hard to keep it alive. Kaput.
My Mom has always been a lover of gardens and flowers, and even had her own florist shops for many years. I remember her carving out a plot along our back fence to start a little vegetable garden, from which we would pick sweet peas and baby tomatoes, and dig up fresh carrots and turnips. I marveled at how she could make things flourish, and enjoyed the literal fruits of her labors, but her green thumb and love of the garden did NOT grow within me. I have traumatic childhood memories of spreading beauty bark around our family yard, in the hot sun, under intense protest from all four of us kids who had been forced into what we believed to be tantamount to child slave labor. Oh the SPLINTERS! This was what “gardening” was to me. Splinters. Hot sun. Complaining and dragging our feet until Mom finally let us go run in the sprinkler. I don’t remember her trying to engage me in the garden in a fun way, but I am absolutely certain she made efforts throughout my life. I simply wasn’t interested and have no memory of those times.
So when Chris and I were shopping for a house, I was of the opinion that a smaller yard was better. I threw up my hands and said, “You want a yard, YOU have to tend to it.” Kind of like the puppy every kid wants, Chris wanted a yard just like in his fantastical minds-eye. Mowing the lawn would be his zen. And I decided from day 1 that I would do as little as possible and it was in his hands.
Yeah, that worked about as well as the puppy thing…
Chris’ love for a lawn ended swiftly when, during our destination wedding and honeymoon, Seattle went through an unprecedented heatwave. In our 2+ week travel away we were sad to return to a dead lawn and struggling plant life. Having no yard savvy at all, we threw up our hands and said “someday” we would redo it anyway, so we might as well let it do whatever it wants. And it did. Weeds galore. Large dead patches. We gained two dogs in that time as well, and our precious little girl’s urine was like holding a giant magnifying glass over the lawn in the mid-day sun–dead patches everywhere. The grass grew into the once-tended beds, choking out long established plant life. Some tenacious shrubs managed to survive our reign of terror, but for the most part, over the 10 years we have lived in our home, we let the yard become more and more of an eyesore with each season. We clean it up enough to throw summer parties, but even then we tend to cover as much as we can with a bevy of carpets we have acquired over the years, so no one has to walk on the hard pack covered with spikey brown grasses and weeds.
Come 2009, we were finally sick of our own neglect, and set out to plan and budget for our new yard. It included reducing the lawn size to less than half, adding an efficient irrigation system, creating a new patio area to add another outdoor room, thoughtful placement of stone, and even a water feature with small fountain.
We did tons of research, and I used Google Sketch-Up to create a visual representation of our plan, which could in turn help us calculate square footage and thus plan the amount of our bulk materials. We hired a stump grinder to come out and tear out an old dead tree stump and mulch it down to make way for the patio. We had a guy come out and till up EVERYTHING–nothing was left except some key plants and shrubs. The old dead lawn was gone, and we had a clean slate! Daunting! Exciting! We staked out the yard and worked to level it with appropriate drainage sloping. We had a day-laborer come out and dig out lengthy trenches for us to lay piping for the irrigation, as well as run electrical to the shed (A light! With a switch! A place to plug stuff in!) and to the corner where the water feature would go in. We built a raised bed with cinder blocks where the fountain would go. Backfilled it with a ton of soil, and did the initial placement of the pre-formed pond liner. Filled in all the trenches, spread 4 yards of topsoil, and with the help of some friends we lay sod over the intended lawn area. Man, we did a LOT in 2009! We were just starting to dig out 6″ of soil over the rest of the yard, and preparing to order the stone for delivery so we could get the walkways put in by the end of the nice weather…and then we both got swine flu, overlapping our illnesses by about a week. The last month of nice weather was gone, and we were physically weak and deflated that our yard was now part beautiful lawn…and part mud pit.
Let me interrupt this story, dear reader, to make a point of mentioning that even among all this work, there has been essentially zero gardening. Landscaping maybe. We were digging shit up and running tubes n’ stuff. The only flowers I planted were in the raised bed in the front of the house. Up until a few years ago, it used to be home to some very mature evergreen hedge-thingies that mainly blocked our view out our front window. I dug it out, put in some new soil (not enough, everything died my first season), and made it into my little green-thumb test-kitchen. Last year was the most I had planted there, and a few things flourished. But so did the casually tossed wildflower seeds I had tried to nurture years before, which inexplicably decided to make their appearance years later! But I digress. Bottom line: still not really “gardening” much at all. Still not very excited by it.
Welcome to 2010! The nice weather is making brief appearances as spring is springing, and we have again turned our attention to the yard and what we hope to accomplish. Chris has been a loving caretaker of the new lawn, and it is flourishing under his caring hand. The rest of the yard we had tilled up last year, ready to be a clean slate, is now coated in weeds and scrubby grass clumps because it was essentially turned and left to seed. It’s worse than ever. Our plans have scaled back for financial considerations, as we want to put more into savings should we be called upon to help Chris’ Mom in the future if she is unable to work. But this has forced us to be more thoughtful about what things we can do in bits and pieces, affordable chunks, that can have the most impact. And I find myself, for the first time, truly EXCITED about gardening! I mean, I go to bed at night excited to get up in the morning and go out and see what I can dig or plant or rake or whatever gardening people do.
I started with my little front bed I spoke of. This year I decided to try and make it more three-dimensional, and add more textures and elements. Kind of a floral diorama if you will. A trip to the thrift store, followed by a trip to Sky Nursery, topped off by an afternoon trying different configurations of plants and additional decorative elements I found around my house, turning the soil, planting, and mulching, and this is what I created:
The Full Bed
The left side, with a green glass vase full of decorative pebbles, a new climbing flower on a rusty mini-trellis, a surviving viney groundcover from last year’s planting put into a wide flat red bowl and set on top of a brass pot turned upside-down as a pedestal, and in the foreground the Mexican lavender that survived from last year as well.
The right side of the bed, with a little collection of stones dug up from the back yard trenches, with creeping phlox tucked between them. The red basket was an old Ikea basket I wasn’t using any more, filled with an ornamental grass I bought.
Moving to the left of the red basket, a tiny paned window/mirror I used to hang on my wall in my old apartment, with a tiny bindi stuck to one of the panes. Behind the snapdragons is a God’s Eye that Chris’ sister made us for a stocking stuffer one Christmas.
One more step to the left. To the very right edge you can see a little sandy-colored “pedestal”. It was a really old candle my Mom gave me post-college. The candle long since burned down, I scraped out the rest of the wax, filled it with decorative pebbles and some pieces of broken pottery. To the left of that is another Ikea basket that was such an obnoxious orange I never kept it out anyplace, so I buried it partway and planted it like a tiny container garden. My fave find at the thrift store was that little piece of statuary that looks like maybe the top of a carved bedpost or something.
And back where we started at the left, I chose this viney-buddy because they said it was a “vigorous climber”. This was proved out immediately when I was trying to separate one from the display to purchase, and I had to disentangle them from one another because they had wound themselves around one another. Here is my guy less than 2 weeks after being invited into my garden and introduced to the mini-trellis. Awwww!
I am so proud of my little multi-media garden. I hope everything grows and proliferates in the coming weeks and months to transform it further!
Then I got inspired to do something nice for the back yard. A trip to Earthwise allowed us to procure some salvaged windows, and whipping through Lowes we picked up some cheap window boxes and some fastening hardware, and voila.
Sorry the pic is a bit blurry and crooked. I was trying to grab pics between rain squalls today!
I want to change the old hardware on the shed to make it a little prettier, and at the next party I want to string some lights along the front eaves.
With the leftover flowers from the window boxes, I decided to replant two large planters I had attempted to design years ago, but had since mostly failed and gotten weedy.
This planter is all new plants save for the viney guys along the front edge, which survived the old planter design. It’s a good sign if they survive my neglect, they will hang around a long time! The pink-and-white striped petunias made me think of circus tents!
This pot has the lavender from two years ago, and more of the viney-guys. I just added the snapdragons and petunias to match it up a little more with the other planter.
By now, Chris is digging on my motivation to get things rolling. He suggested on Friday that maybe I could tackle a small corner of the front yard while he was at work in his office. Basically a 3X6 foot area area just in front of the raised bed we intended to put a mounded bed, maybe fronted with bricks or stone or something. We hadn’t really decided. But right now, it was a pile of sandy soil and weeds that had been dumped there over the last few years. I grabbed my gardening gloves, trowel, shovel, and rake and head out to assess the situation. I used the shovel to start to mark out where I thought the bed might go best. And I realized that the whole front of the house needed a nice mounded bed. I marked further down the front of the house, and even a little around the corner into the side yard. I had my work literally cut out for me. I wanted to preserve the good soil underneath, so it meant I had to weed it. All of it. By hand n’ stuff.
So I lay down a chunk of cardboard and set to digging up all the tenacious weeds and grasses in one section, shoveled down deep to turn the soil, and moved down to the next section. I was dirty, sore, and exhausted. It had begun to rain. But the air was fresh and almost warm–enough that with the exertion I was down to my tank top. The drizzling rain felt refreshing, and the results I was getting were so satisfying. Clearing away all that clutter and creating a pristine bed in which new growth could take hold. I was on my first gardening high! I kept plugging away, and when I was done I had weeded the entire area. Chris was blown away!
The next day, despite still feeling very sore and tired from all I had done, I was eager to get back to it! So we hopped over to HD and picked up some clay brick (actually cheaper than the recycled brick we had planned to pick up for the project. Sorry, finances won out over upcycling this time!); and despite feeling a bit sick, Chris helped me dig out all the beds to lay down some wet cardboard as a weed barrier, and I put the new brick border down. This is what we had when we were done:
You can’t see it very well, but it gently curves in a couple places, in a meandering shape that will define the gravel path we plan to put along the front of it as a walkway from the front door/driveway to the back yard.
More soil will be on top of this bed, but we are going to order it along with other soil and bulk materials we need for other projects. And there near the center is the pretty new filigree hose caddy, replacing the rusting aluminum one that was nailed into the brick by the original owners.
Sunday we were supposed to go to a friend’s little girl’s 3rd birthday, but Chris was flat out sick, and aside from just feeling crappy, he didn’t want to spread anything potentially contagious. So with the unexpected day free ahead of me, I decided to tackle prepping another mounded bed. Under the dogwood tree in the backyard had been piled with excess soil from the sod project, and like everything else had been left to weed over. Plus the dogs had made it a favorite spot to do their business. It was an icky messy pile of yuck. I grabbed my rake and raked out all the feces, and then got down on my hands and knees again to pull every last week and clump of grass. Then I dug down and turned the soil, and raked it all pretty. We had expanded the bed to wider than we had first intended, making the center of the bed difficult to reach from the edges, so I wanted to put something low maintenance back in there. It is also a full-shade area, so I knew I had to be careful what I tried to grow there. Well, lookie here! Two stubborn ferns from other parts of the yard, defying our every (inadvertant) efforts to kill them over 10 years. I carefully dug them up and put them in the bed to get started in their new home. And here is what that looks like:
Not very exciting, I know. Wish I had a before/after, because THAT would get you excited.
Finally, I started marking where the stone pathway will be, delineating the other planting beds yet to come and the new doggie mulch area in the plans:
So that is what I have accomplished in the last week-and-a-little-bit. I have a lot of planting ahead of me, and I am actually excited about it. And daunted. I want to do it right. I want to keep these things alive. I need to succeed at this right now, because lord knows I need some happy spots in my life right now. Growing things. Living things. Creative things that are coming from me that are flourishing. My gardener is coming out of me at a time when my soul really needs to tend to its garden. No coincidence, I am certain.
If you are a gardening type, and have recommendations for easy, low maintenance plantings (we are Zone 8-9 in Seattle), I am all ears. I have these brand new beds, and when I get back from Kauai, I want to get some things in there!