Friday, May 11, 2018

Planning and Making My New Garden Area

My picket fence-enclosed front yard, which I have been wondering what to do with.

I'm excited to reveal the new garden area that I'm working on this spring! -- please excuse the length of this post.

Background: For the past two years since I had our front porch enclosed into a sunroom, I've been wondering what to do with the area in front of our porch. The wooden steps that lead up to the center of the porch are now useless, and I had considered removing them. But then there would be a concrete sidewalk to nowhere (which would be difficult and expensive to remove). I thought about making a garden there using the sidewalk in the design, but I've been trying to reduce my gardens, not make new ones, so last year I didn't do anything in this area.

Instead, last year I re-designed the area behind the spot from which the above photo was taken, and made a new Scented Garden around my East Patio:

The new Scented Garden that I made last year around my East Patio, filled with fragrant flowers, photographed last August.

During the previous winter, when I was deciding what kind of garden to make around that East Patio, I had considered several different sorts of gardens, including a tropical-themed garden.

But I also read a truly inspiring book about Islamic-style paradise gardens, written by a French garden designer. His magical descriptions of the fragrant and fruiting plants in exotic paradise gardens (and quotations from lyrical Islamic poetry about gardens) made me yearn to make such a paradisiacal garden here. But I couldn't see how my patio area could have a water feature, which is absolutely required, nor could I figure out how to divide the garden into four parts, which is the traditional design for Islamic gardens.
A glorious book that made me long to have a
beautiful garden like those in Morocco and the
Middle East.

So last year I simply surrounded my patio with the fragrant plants that I would have planted in an Islamic-style paradise garden. And the Scented Garden turned out quite well, becoming a lovely, fragrant spot to sit on summer evenings.

But I hadn't forgotten my desire to make a paradise garden. And this January, I was very excited to watch British garden personality Monty Don's new BBC documentary about Islamic paradise gardens. And as I did so, it occurred to me that perhaps I could after all make such a garden in front of my sunroom.

Monty Don at Amber Fort in India, during filming for Paradise Gardens.
(The Times.)

I read a lot more books about Islamic gardens in January, and became convinced that this was the type of garden I wanted in front of my sunroom.

Another good book about Islamic gardens that
was very helpful in planning my version of one.

But there were two concerns: First, what about my intent to reduce the number of garden areas that I maintain? I had promised myself that I would get rid of two major garden areas if I wanted to add a new one. I actually decided to do away with three borders in my back yard that haven't worked as well as I had hoped. (I've been able to re-use most of the plants from those areas in the new Paradise Garden or in other borders.)


The other, bigger question is: would an Islamic paradise garden look appropriate next to my Iowa farm house? Obviously, I couldn't have white marble, colorful Moroccan tiles, and exotic geometric shapes in my garden.

This style of garden looks beautiful and appropriate in Damascus, but not in Iowa. (Maktab Anbar Museum from

To avoid an inappropriate style, my paradise garden couldn't look like an Islamic-style garden at all, at least to the untrained eye. But it could still contain all the key elements of an Islamic paradise garden, Iowa-style:
  1. Water. Flowing water is the absolutely essential element in every Islamic garden, as most of the Islamic world is in desert areas where water is revered as the source of all life. While a large octagonal marble fountain would look ridiculous in front of my house, there are many water features that would be quite appropriate here.
  2. Shade. As with water, a shady place to sit is of paramount importance in the desert. Iowa has scorchingly hot summers like the Mediterranean, so a bench under a vine-covered pergola is appropriate and useful here too.
  3. Enclosure. Most Islamic residential gardens are private, enclosed spaces in which intimate family life is off-limits to the gaze of casual passers-by. My garden area is in my front yard, which gave me hesitation, but our entire yard is enclosed by evergreen windbreaks in the middle of corn fields. It's true that the UPS guy will see my garden when he delivers to my front door, but otherwise I think that my picket fence probably lends enough sense of enclosure to be OK.
  4. Fruit trees. Islamic gardens originated to grow fruit, and only later became ornamental. The traditional fruit trees planted around the Mediterranean include dates, figs, pomegranates, olives and citrus, together with grape vines. Figs, pomegranates, olives and citrus are all perfectly happy grown in pots, and I will sink one of each in the center of the four beds of my garden, overwintering them in my basement. And if these exotic fruits don't work out, I could later replace them with patio-sized hardy fruit trees that won't have to be overwintered indoors.
  5. Four beds divided by paths. The great Islamic palace gardens in the Chahar-Bagh (quadripartite) design often have four canals or water rills flowing outward from a central fountain. But modest gardens are simply divided into four parts by paths, with a fountain in the center where the paths meet. 
  6. Scented flowers. The traditional flowers planted in Islamic gardens during the Medieval period included the rose, lily, iris, poppy, carnation, wallflower, lavender, hollyhock, lilac, jasmine and numerous spring bulbs, particularly in Turkey. And by the 17th and 18th centuries, Ottoman and Mughal gardens included numerous flowers from the New World, including marigold, four o'clock, and tuberose. Although I won't be absolutely strict about the historical accuracy of plants, I will prefer traditional scented, colorful Islamic garden plants in my paradise garden.

I drew a rough plan of the new garden area I'm making:

A rough sketch of the layout of my Paradise Garden. At the center top (north) are the steps to my sunroom. At the bottom is the front gate through the picket fence to the driveway.

  • Each of the four beds are about 6 by 9 feet in size, and I'll plant some extra boxwood shrubs I have in the outer corners, for winter interest. 
  • A small pergola, 4 by 6 feet and about 7 feet in height, will be at the west end of the garden, providing shade for a bench under it. I'll probably plant a vine on the south side to cover the pergola.
  • The paths will be made from 16"x16" concrete pavers laid over sand, two pavers wide, for paths of 32" in width. 
  • The central water feature is something I thought about a great deal. Because a fancy fountain would look ridiculous in front of my farm house, I asked myself: what would look appropriate in a rural setting like mine? On I have noted recently that galvanized stock tanks are becoming quite popular even in non-rural locations, and a number of people are making water features and raised beds out of them. Then, while walking around Hobby Lobby, I came across a very large galvanized milk can, and realized that it could be part of the water feature: 
Waiting on my patio: The galvanized sheep tank from
a local farm store, 4 feet in diameter, and 2-foot-tall galvanized 
milk can that I intend to  make into a bubbling water feature.
 I'll have to figure out how to run electricity to it and fit a pump inside. 
Simple, inexpensive and unpretentious, just right for a rural 
Iowa farmhouse.

Here is a rough drawing, with Photoshop effects, of the layout of my new garden:

After crudely adding a pergola and water feature using Photoshop, I printed out the photo and drew the beds and paths using a Sharpie marker. Not a high-tech computer rendering, certainly, but I think it gives a 3D idea of the layout (minus all the colorful flowering plants, of course).

What's not included in my black & white rendering are the brightly colored, flowering plants that will billow out of the beds, the whole point of the Paradise Garden:

  • In the center of each bed will be a small fruit tree: an orange that I already have, a fig and pomegranate that arrived via mail order, and an olive that I have yet to procure. I'll also plant a grape vine on the fence.
  • Surrounding the fruit trees will be plants that I'll move from the gardens that I'm eliminating. Roses, lilies, irises, pinks and poppies will find spots in these four new beds. 
  • I'll also buy some fragrant annuals, some new lavender plants and perhaps a small lilac for the bed in front of the porch.
  • In autumn, I'll plant some bulbs for spring, especially lily-flowering tulips and scented hyacinths.

This was delivered two weeks ago -- my work was certainly cut out for me!

My long-suffering husband and I have been hard at work in the past two weeks. And although removing the sod and laying all the paving stones has been a lot of work, I think this new garden area will be much easier to maintain than the larger borders in my back yard that I'm eliminating.

We've been making good progress: grass removed, pavers laid, pergola mostly built. I've finally reached the planting stage, and I'll reveal the results of all the work in my next post.


And even more fun: In the first episode of Gardener's World on BBC in March, host Monty Don announced that he will be making his own version of a Paradise Garden in his garden at Longmeadow. So I'll be able to watch as he designs, lays out and plants his new garden, as I'm doing the very same thing in my own, much more modest, version of a Paradise Garden.

Monty Don on Gardener's World several weeks ago marking out one of the four garden beds (which will be excavated sunken beds, unlike mine) in his new Paradise Garden at Longmeadow. A circular fountain spilling into a square pond in the center (marked out with a single stake at left) will overflow into a long water rill that will lead to a large, paved seating area in a structure at the back end of the garden, behind the camera. I'm sure his garden will be magnificent when finished! (BBC)

Unlike Monty Don, I don't have garden assistants and construction crews helping me out -- but it still makes me feel better that he is going through the same process that I am. Great minds, and all that.... :-)


Thanks for reading this very long post! I hope your own garden plans are getting underway this spring, and wish you warm and sunny days to work in. Best Regards, -Beth

My visit to the Missouri Botanic Garden in St. Louis the weekend before last was wonderful, and I especially enjoyed the Ottoman Garden there, filled with tulips and Persian buttercups (Ranunculus).

Truly a paradise... gotta get me some of this....


  1. I can't wait to see it, Beth! How creative you are! Hope all is well with you and that you will have a blessed Mother's Day.

    1. Thanks, Beth -- happy Mother's Day to you too! So glad you stopped by! :-)

  2. Wonderful plan, I'm also very excited to see the progress !

    Wish you a nice weekend.

    1. Thanks, Birgit! Hope you are enjoying warm, lovely days in your gardens -- a wonderful weekend to you too! Best, -Beth

  3. Oh, your new garden is going to be spectacular! Well worth all the hard work, I'm sure. A joy, and a delight.

    I got inspired by Monty Don's Paradise Gardens, too, although much more informally than you. I'm going to create a sort-of Persian fragrant meadow in a long rectangular border next to the drive. There are things already in there, such as a crab apple and a laburnum, so my grasses and their fragrant companions will run like a river around them. I hope.

    Good luck with all the work you're doing. Isn't it exciting?

    1. I'm so glad you stopped by so I can find your blog, Jo -- and your fragrant meadow sounds heavenly! I look forward to reading about it. Best, -Beth


  4. What a beautiful house!
    I loved the pictures.
    Nice to meet your blog.

    1. Thanks for visiting, and for you kind words, Janicce. So nice to see your blog too! Best, -Beth