Saturday, May 19, 2018

Making my new Paradise Garden

BEFORE: My front yard before I started constructing and planting my new Paradise Garden.

Greetings! I'm excited to finally be able to show you my new Paradise Garden. I (and my long-suffering husband) have been hard at work constructing and planting this new garden area in my front yard.

As I wrote about in my last post, I became enamored of the idea of an Islamic-style paradise garden, filled with scented flowers and fruit trees, and decided to make an Iowa-style version of one in our front yard. It's not quite finished (as if a garden is ever "finished") but I'll show you the progress I have made so far:

(April 25th) I rented a sod-cutter and transported it home in our ancient pickup truck. But it was a different kind than I had gotten from the rental place several times before -- MUCH more difficult to control than the old kind. So my poor husband had to run it this time. Then he and I (and my son, who is now big enough to usefully bribe) moved the sod to its new home in one of the flower borders I eliminated from our back yard. Nothing wasted.

(April 27th) I had a neighbor with a front-end loader come and scoop out some of the soil from the front half, which was too high, and move it to the back left corner, which sloped down, in order to make the garden more level. I then used a shovel to excavate where the paths would be, moving that additional soil to the back corner as well.

(April 28) I had materials delivered: 150 paving stones, 80 bags of paver base sand, and lumber to build the pergola.

(April 30-May 4) I laid out the paving stones over the paver base material, working out the spacing. I also built a wooden retaining wall in the back corner to hold up the newly shored up level of soil. Additionally, I dug four post holes for the pergola at the back. This was a fair amount of physical work, I must admit....
(May 6) My long-suffering husband leveled the paving stones, re-laying them over leveling sand. He and I then built the basic frame of the pergola. It's a small, light one that I designed to hold lightweight climbing vines like clematis and sweet peas (no wisteria!), and to provide a bit of shade. 

(May 7) I could then begin to dig over and loosen the soil in each bed, sifting through to remove the many roots from the nasty runner grass that threatens to take over most of my garden beds. (I think being surrounded by paths instead of beds will make it easier to keep it out of this garden.) I then added leaf compost from our county landfill on top.

(May 8-19) Finally, I could begin the fun part: planting the new garden beds with all the colorful flowering and fragrant plants I had been dreaming about filling my Paradise Garden with!

And finally, the big reveal:

My new Paradise Garden!

I attached lattice panels to the pergola for more privacy and for vines to grow up, got a new wood bench, sewed a temporary cover for the pergola to provide shade until the vines grow up, and flanked the center entrance with potted annuals.

The orange tree that I've had in my sunroom for two years is covered in blossoms that smell
heavenly -- just like a Paradise Garden should smell.

A closeup of the pergola, with the temporary fabric cover. A clematis paniculata 
and a clematis 'Rooguchi' are growing on the near (south) posts, and a sweet pea 
on the right back post. 

I planted a lot of scented and colorful flowers in the beds, trying to mostly plant ones that have traditionally been used in Islamic gardens (although I've also used substitutions like clematis for non-hardy jasmine, and the like):

  • a traditional fruit tree (potted) in the center of each bed: a fig, a pomegranate, an orange, and I'm still waiting to find an olive tree locally
  • sixteen roses that I moved from other beds that I eliminated (four per bed)
  • boxwoods I had elsewhere to mark the corners and provide something to look at in winter
  • scented orien-pet and oriental lilies
  • poppies from another garden bed
  • twenty dianthus 'Sweetness' I started from seed last year, five plants lining the outside edge of each bed
  • a dozen lavender 'Ellagance Sky' plants, three plants lining the inside edge of each bed
  • several dozen fragrant tuberoses that I divided from last year's bulbs
  • scented daylilies: 'Persian Market,' 'Pardon Me,' 'Hyperion,' 'Pandora's Box' and 'Wayside King Royale'
  • several short bearded irises that I had in other garden beds
  • some wallflowers I started from seed last fall
  • annuals such as fragrant stocks, snapdragons in Persian carpet colors red, magenta and orange, and orange-red marigolds

I still have yet to work on the fountain: getting a water pump and wiring it to bubble water out of the galvanized milk can into the sheep tank. I hope to accomplish that in the next week or two.

Meanwhile, my main job will be to keep everything watered until it's established. I'm really looking forward to seeing the plants grow and flower in brilliant colors and with lovely scents. And this fall I'll plant some spring bulbs like lily-flowering tulips and scented hyacinths.  

Hope your own garden projects are going well for you as we head into late spring. Thanks for reading! -Beth

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 my East Patio, I 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....

Friday, May 4, 2018

Spring is here, and it's Tulip Time!

Greetings! I've been incredibly busy in my gardens for the past couple of weeks, now that the snows have stopped and beautiful spring weather is finally here. I'm making all sorts of changes to my gardens -- getting rid of some, adding a major new garden area -- but I did manage to take time to enjoy the spring bulbs that are blooming everywhere. Here are a few scenes:

Another shot from my Front Border.

Orange Princess double late tulips in my Scented Garden around the East Patio.

Mixed Darwin hybrid tulips in the Mint Circle.

And about those changes I've been making in my gardens, here's one major change: I've eliminated the front curvy flower border section of my North Border. I (and my husband) removed the sod from my new garden area and moved it here, after I dug out all the plants and moved them to other borders or to put in the new area:

You can see the lighter colored sod in what was the front curvy section of my North Border. No more flowers in that section, only the evergreen back part of the border remains.

It's been a chore trying to keep the transplanted sod watered in the hot, windy days that we've been having here recently. But we got two inches of much-needed rain over the past couple of days, which I think will help the grass establish in its new home.

And I will reveal my major new garden area in my next post, I promise (it's still very much "under construction," in the hardscape stage, and not much to look at yet).

I hope you have been enjoying many beautiful days in your own gardens too, now that winter is finally and blessedly behind us. Thanks for reading! -Beth