Monday, January 26, 2015

Cool Garden Blog Discovery

An almost unknown blog about a fascinating subject.

I've been following an incredibly interesting blog recently: American Gardening, which is about American garden history. Anything with the word "history" in it may sound dull, but I can't believe how fascinating it actually is -- there have recently been brief (but nicely illustrated) posts about such topics as:

... how Chrysanthemums became popular in the 1880s (I had no idea how recent an introduction they are, unlike most other "old-fashioned" flowers we grow)

... how women weren't recognized as serious gardeners until the late 19th century
Beatrix Farrand (Pinterest)

... a number of posts about nineteenth century seed catalogs, which are beautiful art in their own right, as well as fascinating for modern gardeners to look at

... and many short reviews of garden and garden history books that the author recommends.

The author of the blog is Thomas Mickey, a retired communications professor, avid longtime Master Gardener and garden historian, who has written a beautifully illustrated book: America's Romance with the English Garden, which I bought when it was published in 2013. There are any number of garden history books about British gardens, but not so many about American gardens and gardeners, so Mickey's book was a nice addition. His book focuses on 19th century seed catalogs and the role they played in influencing our tastes toward English style gardens, rather than Italian, French or other national historic garden styles.

A book full of beautiful images from
nineteenth century gardens.

Anyway, I highly recommend taking a look at Thomas Mickey's blog. It's possible that I am the only person who knows about this blog besides the author (at least, I am the only one who ever comments) and that's a shame, because the blog is really quite interesting. The posts are brief but informative and I always feel I have learned something of value about the history of how we have come to garden the way we do today.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

My New, Improved Garden Map

Click for greater detail.

In my last post, I shared a few of my favorite garden maps, and mentioned that I needed to update my own garden map, as I had made some significant changes to my garden areas in the last year.

I've finished the new, updated map, such as it is. It's no great work of art, not a beautiful perspective map with lovely artistic drawings or watercolor paintings of the house and gardens such as those done by real artists in my last post. Mine is only a topographical map, drawn and traced with the aid of Google Earth and colored in with colored pencils. But I believe it's more accurate than my previous map.

Plus, I have included more labels in this map. When I was writing my last post about garden maps, I realized how important the labels are in garden maps: they serve to personalize a garden and communicate information about the purpose and design intentions of the various areas. (Before, I guess I thought that the labels might deface a map and make it harder to view, but I now realize that this isn't the case at all.) Thus I have labelled many more areas in my new map, including important trees. I hope this will tell more about my gardens than my last map:

My old garden map, done in January 2013. I think the numbering of areas made it harder to understand. Labels are better.

The biggest changes in my gardens that can be seen on the maps, are in the areas to the northwest of my house: the new West Island, North Island and Yellow Garden are now depicted (the removal of one of the two ash trees is evident where the Yellow Garden is now -- there's still one ash tree in the North Island, although it's hard to see in the drawing).

Google Earth finally posted an updated aerial view of my property last June, so it was easy for me to make a new map. Here are the steps I used:
  1. I saved a photo of my property from Google Earth,
  2. Then, I made the colors lighter using Photoshop (so the outlines of the structures and areas can be discerned through another piece of paper) and printed it out, so that it fit the whole size of the paper. 
  3. Then I lightly taped another piece of paper on top of the printed photo and, holding it up to my computer screen so that it was backlit, very lightly traced with a pencil over the outlines of the various structures, trees and garden bed outlines. 
  4. Then I colored in the traced areas with colored pencils, adding details to planting beds, etc., and used a straight edge and a regular pencil to make the outlines of buildings more definite. Then I removed the bottom taped photo.
  5. I scanned the image and used Photoshop to adjust the colors on the map, to label the areas and to add a title and a compass image, which I found online. 
  6. Lastly, I saved it as a JPG file so it wouldn't be too large to post.
(Ed.: Thanks to Linda for her suggestion that I include a map scale in the map; I hadn't thought of that before. I guess in most garden maps they're not necessary, except for the very largest estate maps. I don't have a grand estate, but I do live on five acres, although only about three acres of the property is depicted -- there's a two-acre field to the left that I have left out so that I could focus in on the cultivated areas. For scale, it's about 150 yards/140 meters from the top (north) edge of my property to the bottom (south) edge depicted in the map.)

Again, the result is not a great work of art, but it certainly suffices to communicate the plan of my gardens to anyone who might be interested in them.

Now, I'm working on trying to figure out a way to make the areas of my map clickable, perhaps with hover images or at least links to pages about each area. Since I don't know much about HTML, this is going to take some research and fiddling. We'll see if I'm successful....

I'd love to see how other bloggers map out their gardens -- do you include a map on your blog? Thanks for sharing, and for reading! -Beth

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Garden Maps

I've been thinking about updating my garden map (the current one can be viewed at the "My Gardens" link above). I've made some significant changes to the layout of my garden areas since I drew that map last winter, and I'd like to update it. (Using Google Earth to trace over makes it easy.)

I love garden maps. I think every book or article about gardens should include a map of the garden. Even a quick sketch with crayons tells the reader so much about the relationship of the various areas of the garden to each other, and serves to orient the reader better than numerous confusing words trying to describe the layout. A picture is worth more than a thousand words in this case.

There are two types of garden maps: topographical maps (the regular sort of map in which the viewer is looking straight down from above) and pictorial maps (also called illustrated, perspective or bird's-eye maps, in which the viewer sees the objects depicted from an oblique view). Pictorial maps are far more interesting to look at and are often beautiful works of art, requiring artistic skill to draw or paint. I would love to be able to make one of these, but I fear my drawing skill might not be up to the task.

I'd like to share a few of my favorite garden maps, drawings and plans that I've run across in books and online, maps of real gardens as well as of fictional ones:

I think I may have gotten my love of garden maps from the illustrated maps in
books (like Winnie the Pooh, the Oz books, etc.). This drawing is from the
back cover of a Dell paperback reprint of Agatha Christie's "The Secret of
Chimneys." There's just something so cozy about how everything is laid out
for us to view, and I love all the hedges and garden rooms shown in this
English country house murder mystery illustration. 

Another literary illustration, this time from the incredibly charming children's book, "Miss Jaster's Garden" by Danish author and illustrator N. M. Bodecker. It's a beautifully silly story featuring a near-sighted lady gardener and a hedgehog who lives in her garden.

The illustration of Beverley Nichol's garden in "Down the Garden Path,"
published in 1932. The annotations and labels pique the viewer's curiosity to
learn more about these gardens and the stories behind them.
I love 1930s formal gardens!

Here's another view of Nichol's entire garden, showing the lovely illustrations around the perimeter of the map. The drawing was done by artist Rex Whistler.

One of the very finest modern garden maps done in a classic style is that painted by Jonathan Myles Lea for Roy Strong's Herefordshire, England garden, The Laskett. His book of the same title is one of the best books about making a garden that I have read, and one I return to again and again. I love that the gardeners and their cats have been portrayed in such memorable fashion around the title legend.

An architectural plan for Kansas City's Municipal Rose Garden, from the 1930s. This might not technically be a garden map, but it's so enjoyable to look at that I had to include it.  (Library of American Landscape History )

The beautifully illustrated map of Burtown House and gardens, a historic property that has been owned by three generations of artists, in County Kildare, Ireland. The map was painted in watercolor by artist Rosalind Jellet and the depiction is lovely, with multi-hued flowers and the fresh greens of late spring captured for posterity. Also, the labels of the various areas, like those of Nichols' gardens above, tell us the garden area names and also make us curious: Who is Wendy? Just how new is the New Garden? What is the Gallery-Cafe about? The Burtown House website offers a fascinating look at the history of a lovely Irish property and the generations of the family that has inhabited it -- and check out the Gallery for some breathtaking garden photographs by James Fennell, a professional photographer and resident at Burtown House, who generously permitted me to share this beautiful map. Another place to add to my list of places I want to visit when I finally make a trip to the ancestral homeland!

The garden plan for Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., one of the United States' finest gardens. Although the map itself is done in a topographical format, the perimeter is surrounded by vignette drawings of numerous features of the gardens, which were designed in the 1920s and 1930s by Beatrix Ferrand

Lastly, this is an amusing garden map done as an advertisement for Whiskas cat food. It purports to be a guide map to the untamed wilderness of a backyard, from a housecat's perspective. Quite funny!
(From the imaginative work of leading British advertising agency AMVDDBO.)

I'm surprised that a book has not been published that features the art of garden maps from history and today. Perhaps I should publish such a book -- I'll add it to the list of projects I have already, the first of which will be to update my own garden map, even though it will be a far cry from these beautiful works of art. I'd better start working on my drawing skills!

Thanks for reading! -Beth

Friday, January 9, 2015

Winter Window Views

The view outside my library sliding glass door. The boxwoods on the terrace are filling in, and I hope the evergreen trees and shrubs in the new West Island, below, will survive the winter and grow larger so they can be seen more easily from inside.

In my last post, Winter Interest in the Garden: Does it Exist?, I somewhat grumpily pooh-poohed the idea of "winter interest" in the garden for those of us living in the colder parts of the world. My main reasons:

  1. There are no such things as "winter blooming" plants for us, unlike for gardeners living in Zone 7+ areas. Even the earliest flowers rarely appear before mid-March in Iowa, and we hardly even have any green foliage showing by then. The entire landscape, even the grass, looks dead until March, and March isn't winter. 
  2. Small-scale winter details like bark texture, colored twigs and berries must mostly be viewed from close-up. Unless trees are planted right next to the house (which can cause foundation problems and loss of sunlight -- important to have in winter), this means that the viewer must travel outside, and I think I established in my prior post how not fun it is for many of us to spend time outside in the sub-freezing, windy conditions that we have nearly every day in winter here. 
However, I want to be clear that I don't think our gardens should simply "go away" during winter, and leave us with nothing to look at outside our windows -- perhaps I didn't make that clear enough in my post. I was mainly referring to the idea of planting certain plants because of their winter details or early blooms, which, other than planting evergreens for structure, seemed to be the main idea of most of the "garden in winter" books that I discussed in my last post.

A number of readers, including Linda, who wrote a good post about the topic on her own blog, Each Little World,  responded to my post that they need to look at interesting things outside their windows during the winter. I absolutely agree; I too look out my windows numerous times each day during winter (and every other time of year) and need to see something happening, the progression of winter, the slow coming of spring, the masses of flowers I hope to see in summer. This is one of the main reasons I live in the country: for the views.

My first view every single morning, from my upstairs bedroom window.

And I mentioned in my prior post that the view is more interesting if there is something outside your window besides a perennial bed that has been cut down to the ground, lying flat under the snow. Planting evergreen shrubs and leaving some perennials standing over the winter definitely yields more interesting views from inside, which is the only place most cold winter residents experience their gardens from for four months of the year.

This new garden area still needs more work. There is a small tree that I hope will survive and grow (planted right-center, near the far edge of the garden) and I have considered adding a bench, a statue of some sort and perhaps a few boxwood shrubs, which are common to most of my beds, to add year-round structure to this area.

But I don't really consider garden structure to be for winter interest. Garden structure should look good year-round. Hardscape elements such as paths, benches, pergolas and sculpture make the garden more interesting during every season of the year, as do evergreen shrubs and trees that retain their leaves and form all year.

The same view in early October, when you can still see that it's the Yellow Garden. The stepping stone path provides an interesting pattern on which to focus during all seasons (except when it's covered with heavy snow). Again, I will try to add more hardscape detail to this area, but I think it's not bad for being six months in age.

Gardens should be designed to be seen from strategic points inside the house, no matter what the season. I feel certain that the beautiful view in Linda's last photo of her blog post looks just as breathtakingly beautiful throughout the year, not only in winter, because her garden, like many gardens of Japanese influence, has such a strong structure.

Another reader, Larry at Conrad Art Glass Gardens, commented that he enjoys watching birds out his windows. Many people do; I would love to put up a bird feeder, but the same dog that allows me to garden virtually deer-free also insures that our property is largely bird-free. I wouldn't want to tempt birds into a dangerous situation by providing food for them close to the house, and Puppy would likely scare them away from a feeder anyway.

The frost on the upper halves of these windows almost looks like a tone-on-tone damask fabric, and the greatly enlarged snowflake shapes on the curtains are obviously related. The picket fence outside is an important part of my hardscape, whether when contrasting with the emerald grass and multicolored flowers of summer or in the white-on-white with winter snow.

It's not that I don't think we should try to find interest in our winter landscapes, only that "garden interest" means foliage and flowers and fragrance, as well as garden structure, to me. The writers of those "garden in winter" books clearly think so too, because aside from recommending a good structure in a garden, they otherwise concentrate mostly on early flowering shrubs and bulbs, which is understandable. It's flowers and lush foliage that delight most of us -- why most of us started gardening in the first place -- not interesting bark, twigs or dead stalks standing in winter. I'm not saying there's no beauty in those things, only that they compare so poorly that I find it hard to get too excited about them.

An ice sheet forming on my bathroom window has a similar shape as the conifers in the windbreak outside, and also echoes the edges of the window treatments. 

This is a very interesting topic and I've loved reading what everyone has written about it. Many people have heartfelt opinions about "the garden in winter" and winter is just the time we need a bit of "heat" in our discussions! Thanks again for reading and for your comments, which I feel privileged to receive. -Beth

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Winter Interest in the Garden: Does it Exist?

There have been two posts over at GardenRant in the last couple of days, The Myth of Winter Interest, and a post in response, Forcing Winter Interest. Both posts have ignited a flurry of comments in further response -- everyone has feelings about the subject, it seems. Is "winter interest" realistic?

I've long wondered about this issue. Certainly, as a serious gardener who deals with a long period of winter every year, I wouldn't want to overlook a major portion of the year if it were possible to enjoy my garden then. Perhaps if I just planted the right things, I'd have all sorts of interesting areas to look at in my gardens from December through early March.

I decided to take another look at the four books I own on the subject:

Rosemary Verey's book is filled with many beautiful photos of her legendary Cotswolds English garden at Barnsley House, mostly formal shrubbery covered with snow, naturalistic areas sparkling with frost, and a "Winter Corner" filled with early flowers such as hellebores, snowdrops, winter aconite, crocus, early narcissus, etc. Plus, she tells of cozy winter activities in her lovely greenhouse, and jobs one can do in winter that free up time in spring, such as trimming hedges and the like. Her garden has winter lows like US Zone 8b, lows of 15 to 20F.

Susy Bales' book is similarly filled with lovely photos of her Oyster Bay, Long Island, NY garden in the snowy months. Numerous pictures show evergreens, berries, brightly-colored twigs, and cute, colorful bulbs poking up from the snow in February. Her area is Zone 7a, lows of 0 to 5F.

Eluned Price's book features winter photos of many of England's most famous gardens taken by well-known garden photographer, Clive Nichols. Concluding is a Winter Plant Directory, with winter bloomers such as camellias, daphnes, mahonias, and the usual early bulbs. Few of the flowering shrubs she recommends are hardy below Zone 7, but she prefaces the section with an admonition to "take everything you hear about zones with a dish, rather than a pinch, of salt."

This book, part of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden series, is a collection of short chapters on various topics related to winter gardening, each written by a different author, mostly from the eastern (several from Philadephia, Zone 7B) and southern United States. However, a chapter about Minnesota winter gardening, which relates how interesting shrubs can look completely buried in three feet of snow, and one by an author in Michigan, who writes about trees and provides many closeups of bark and twigs, are included.

And Amazon lists at least half a dozen other books on winter gardening, which shows us that this is a popular topic in gardening. But I think you can probably see the pattern with these books: they are nearly all written by people who garden in relatively mild-winter areas.

In Zone 7 and higher, winter can probably be somewhat enjoyable, and many herbaceous plants remain evergreen in those conditions. Our winter of 2011-2012 was an exceptionally mild one, and many plants held their leaves all winter. It was fun to walk around in the mild temperatures and see all the green color. Crocus were blooming by early March and daffodils by mid-March. We had tulips by the last week of March!

This was NOT normal for Iowa! (Although it was very nice.)

The posts I've recently been reading by British bloggers show that they already have numerous flowers in their gardens, in January, which is simply mindboggling to a Midwestern gardener. They are able to make beautiful bouquets with the flowers and leaves in their gardens, and could enjoy all manner of blooms the day after Christmas(!). English gardeners have more flowers in their gardens now than we have green leaves. Their winter (this is apparently a mild one) is basically equivalent to our spring, and who doesn't love spring?

My conclusions are these: If you like the idea of including winter interest in your garden, you should include it if one or both of these conditions is true:
  1. If you enjoy being outside in your winter
  2. If you garden in zone 7 or higher
Obviously, if the winters in your area seem enjoyable enough to take walks in, by all means plant things to look at during the winter months.

But I sometimes think that people living in mild-winter areas don't really understand just how bad winters can be in other places. Right now in my location, it's a sunny noontime, but it's windy and -2F (resulting in a wind chill of -22F, which is equivalent to -30C). These kind of temperatures can kill a person in short order (exposed skin will freeze in 30 minutes).

Humans shouldn't be out in these conditions, and certainly aren't going to enjoy the "winter interest" in their gardens. Yes, it's often nicer than this, but it rarely gets much above freezing in January and February and it's often quite windy too.

What's more, I live in Zone 5B, a fairly "mild" part of the Midwest, and feel fortunate compared to my friends north of me who garden in Zone 4 and even Zone 3 (temperatures as low as -40°F/-40°C!).

(On a related garden rant, I've read comments from gardeners in England who seem to be annoyed that all we Americans talk about is hardiness zones -- like Eluned Price, above, who clearly thinks zones are an exaggerated over-reaction to a little bit of cold weather. Yes, Americans do understand about microclimates, and that other factors such as drainage and soil type are important too. But a microclimate isn't going to allow me to grow many of the most beautiful early flowering shrubs -- although I did plant a Camellia that is hardy to zone 6 last year! I'm sure most British gardeners wouldn't want to spend their money planting tropical trees outside each year, only to see them die each winter, even if our gardening friends in Brazil tell us how easy they are to grow.)

April Rose, hardy to Zone 6A.
I hope it survives the winter!
(Update: Nope.)
(Camellia Forest Nursery)

Don't get me wrong, planting hardy early bulbs and flowering shrubs is great no matter where you live. They will still be the first things that bloom in your garden, and why wouldn't you want things blooming as early as possible? Gardeners just need to understand that if you live in Zones 5, 4 or 3 (bless you, my long-suffering friends), these "winter bloomers" will not bloom in "winter," that's all. Winter ends on March 21st, and only rarely do my crocus bloom before mid-March. I'm happy enough to see them, of course, whenever they appear, but I don't regard that time as winter. March means Spring!

I do totally understand why southern gardeners would regard winter as one of the best times of year, because it becomes so searingly hot in summer that they simply can't go outdoors to enjoy their gardens then. It's exactly like our winters, only it's the heat that's life-threatening, not the cold. I wish our southern friends many deliciously cool days in this time of year to enjoy their gardens. But that's not how it works here.

Since I don't enjoy being outside unless it's sunny, above freezing and not windy -- and those conditions rarely occur here in winter, perhaps once a month -- I haven't spent much effort planting trees with interesting bark or brightly-colored twigs. To me, gardening means flowers, or at the very least, lush foliage. Yes, berries are interesting, for about two minutes (thirty seconds if it's below freezing and windy). Perhaps I simply lack a positive attitude.

Certainly, evergreen shrubs do provide a more interesting view out of our windows in winter than cut-down herbaceous plants (leaving some standing over winter gives a bit more to look at as well). But there still aren't any flowers -- the major reason I garden. Rather than have unrealistic expectations of my gardens to give me something they simply can't provide, I choose instead to just take a break from gardening in winter.

A quick snapshot today before my face froze off. This is certainly more interesting to look at than flat garden beds, but still not anything I'd venture outside to see.

My winter suggestions for gardeners living in zones 5 and colder (I'm doing all of these things this winter):

  1. Get a winter hobby, an interesting one that occupies you during the cold months and doesn't require going out.
  2. Purchase cut flowers and potted bulbs. In the past, I've tried to avoid "wasting" money on flowers that will only last a few days, but I've now come to the conclusion that having flowers, especially fragrant ones, at least every other week, can make the winter more enjoyable. I've also potted up some bulbs for forcing this winter, and will see how that works.
  3. Read garden books filled with glorious photos of spring and summer gardens. You know, those of the pure "garden porn" variety, such as this one (most of the book can be viewed) that you don't even need to read (it's just for the pictures!).
  4. Leave. Spend a week or even a few days someplace warm, like Florida, south Texas or southern California. Do this in late February if you can, when no one else is traveling and prices are cheap. Sit outside in the sunshine, sip a fun rum-based drink and marvel at the greenery and flowers around you. Visit a botanic garden if you're so inclined and admire the incredible (and sometimes just weird) things that will grow there. This will break up the winter and really help, even if it can be brutal coming back to -5 degree temperatures.
  5. Sit by the woodburning stove with a warm cat on your lap and think about what you want to accomplish in your gardens when spring comes.
I'll be right back, Tigger!

I still love living and gardening in Iowa, and we have many gardening advantages, but winter gardening just isn't one of of them.

Here's to a short winter, and all the interest that spring brings. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Monday, January 5, 2015

2015 Goals

Happy New Year! Now that we're in the first week of January, it's the traditional time to set goals for ourselves for the new year.

The personal goals are easy:

1. I want to complete my Master Gardener volunteer work, so that I can become a MG (I'm still an intern, as I've finished the course work but not the initial volunteer requirement of 40 hours).

2. I want to write my history of Iowa gardening book that I've been researching since October and started writing a few weeks ago. I don't think I can finish writing it before the spring gardening season begins and I get busy with that, but I think I can make a pretty good start if I continue working as I have been. And the longer I continue looking for garden photos and other research material online and in libraries, the more I will discover, so I'm not in a hurry to cut off that process, but I don't want to drag out the project for years. I guess I'd like the draft to be in good enough shape that I can start shopping it around to publishers by autumn.
The house and grounds of the wealthy Eldridge Rand, an early amateur
horticultural enthusiast of Burlington, Iowa,  shown in 1873.
Note the large greenhouse at right.

3. I'd like to get in better physical shape and lose a few pounds, like most Americans. I want to be in better shape by the start of the gardening season, so it will be easier to do garden tasks. The season starts in about three months -- I'd better start getting in shape now!

Gardening is hard work -- I'd better start getting in shape!
(wikipedia commons)

4. I want to be a better lesson planner for my children, whom I homeschool. Sometimes when I get busy with my projects, I let the lessons go on autopilot and I end up not having enough time to cover every topic that I want to before moving on. I need to do a better job of pre-planning, so I can cover more of what I think is important.
...or not!
(wikipedia commons)

5. I want to visit more gardens in Iowa this spring and summer. I'd really like to go to the Pella Tulip Festival in early May, and there are some beautiful parks and botanical gardens that I've discovered while researching my book that I'd like to see.
The Pella, Iowa Tulip Festival (

6. I want to read more garden books, and more books in general.

The garden books I bought at a large
booksale in October.

7. I want to improve my blogging skills and enthusiasm, and make my blog more enjoyable and interesting for readers. Equally, I want to do a better job of keeping up with reading other bloggers' posts, so I know what is happening in their gardens and lives. As with gardening, I tend to feel burnt out in both midsummer and late autumn, and I often need to take a break from both gardening and reading about gardens during those times, but I need to find a way to do it that minimizes my absence from both posting and reading others' posts.

I was shocked and greatly saddened to return from my autumn break to find that Lee May, whose blog I had followed for some time, had become ill with cancer and passed away in early December. To my shame, I had become so distracted researching my garden history book during October and November that I had missed his announcement sharing his diagnosis with readers, as well as his last, short post. This graphically illustrates the importance of making an effort to keep up with what's happening in other bloggers' lives, because blogging is being part of a community, not just writing posts.


Those are my main personal goals for 2015. But the goals for my gardens are harder, because I purposely haven't thought about them too much yet, so that I'll have something to think about in February and March when I'm tired of winter. Last year, I posted a list of garden goals on January 1st, but by March I had many more goals and had rethought many of the earlier ones. I will need to think about this some more before I commit myself online.

I look forward to reading about your own goals for 2015 -- I hope you will share them, because you don't know someone until you know what (s)he wants out of life, what goals (s)he is striving toward. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Major Garden Accomplishments

Happy New Year! It's hard to believe that another year is over and we're now in 2015. We're starting the winter wait for spring again, and it's the time for thinking about what we did in our gardens last year and what we want to do when spring comes 'round again.

In my last post, I assessed how I measured up to the gardening goals I set for my myself last January. The result was a pretty dry list of tasks that only the owner of a garden could find interesting. I hope this post will be a more interesting short review of the major changes I made in my gardens in 2014, with photos to illustrate:

1. The New West Island and North Island:

My biggest new project was two new island beds in the north and west yards. The area had nothing but a few young cherry trees planted there. Now the west yard has the West Island, shown above, with a mix of flowering and evergreen shrubs and trees. I will add a few more shrubs this year, perhaps some peonies, as well as some patches of spring bulbs. I hope this will be a lovely but relatively low-maintenance spring flowering area when the trees have grown larger.

The north part of that yard now contains the North Island. As this island bed receives deciduous shade from the ash tree, there are azaleas, a pink-flowering dogwood and other partial-shade trees and shrubs in the part of the bed under the tree. I think I'll add some tree peonies here, because they will benefit from the partial shade.

2. The New Yellow Garden

Last March, there was only a narrow planting strip against the north side of the house and a large ash tree in the center right of where this photo was taken last September. The tree made the area dark and cut the yard in half, as well as being too close to the house (and in a time of the coming Emerald Ash Borer). Now there is a bright garden of yellow and gold plants to view out the north windows of my house, with early-blooming bulbs that can be enjoyed from the warmth of the house. I'll continue to work on this area this year, perhaps adding a few more annuals and perennials, but I think it was a wonderful addition to my yard and I'm quite happy that I made it (despite promising not to make any new garden beds last year!) The North and West Islands can be seen in the background.

3. Improvements to the North Border

Almost nothing bloomed in my new North Border in 2013, and many of the things I planted that first year in this bed did not make it through the hard winter, so this border was depressingly bare last spring. But I planted many annuals, perennials and bulbs in 2014 and I believe this made a big improvement. I hope it will be even more bloom-filled this year.

4. Cleaned, Painted and Organized the Garden Shed

The garden shed was dark, filthy with years of bird poop, and filled with disorganized junk (click on the post link to view the "Before" foulness). In July, I removed everything, swept it out thoroughly (a nasty job), spray painted the walls and beams white (they were old, dark wood like the roof rafters), rolled the counters green and the floors brown, installed shelves and tool hangers, cleaned the windows, hung curtains and organized everything. Now I have a decent garden shed, one I don't dread going into.

5. A New Flower Bed Around the Garden Shed

There was nothing but grass right up to the shed until fall 2013, when I made this new bed and planted tulips under the pear tree.  Last spring I transplanted the hostas and ferns from other beds and planted the yew tree at left. I might plant some bluebells in this shady area this spring, and perhaps the foxgloves I seeded there last summer will make a nice show this year.

I also installed the window box for impatiens (this is the north side of the shed) and the lattice for the 'Blaze' roses on either side of the door to climb up. The original roses I planted in 2013 died over the terrible winter, so I replanted them last spring and covered them with compost this winter -- I hope they will survive and thrive. I also planted a number of perennial plants in front of the roses last spring, and I hope they survive too. I have a hope-filled vision of the lattice being covered with glorious 'Blaze'-ing red blooms each June, and I'm really hoping I'll see at least a little bit of that this year.

6. The New Chicken Shed

In October, we finally got a good shed to keep our chickens warm and safe, next to the fenced-in run area. It makes a nice addition to our Kitchen Garden area, and we have nicknamed it 
the "Grand Chicken Hotel." 
A thick layer of wood chips makes for plush chicken accommodations. The nesting boxes are at top left and there are two roosting bars crossing the shed for them to sit on. 
The door at right leads to their fenced run.

Anyway, these were the major changes I made in my gardens this year, and I feel pretty good about what I accomplished, even though I didn't do everything I hoped to (my last post details the things I didn't get around to doing). I'm looking forward to seeing how these areas I made last year look in the second year, and in years after as I continue to improve them.

I know I've vowed this for the past two years (and failed spectacularly to adhere to my vow), but I really am not going to make any new garden areas this year. I think I already have all the different types of gardens I want for right now (shady/sunny, borders/islands, formal/informal, spring/summer/autumn blooming, etc.), and I still have a number of improvements to make to these already-existing areas. These will give me something to think about in the next few winter months and plans to make for spring, when it finally arrives.

Many thanks for reading, and many wishes for a wonderful 2015! -Beth