Sunday, December 10, 2023

Three Projects


Our new front porch!

Greetings! It's been a busy fall and I'm only now able to post about the three projects I've been working on this autumn (now that winter is pretty much here!). 

But I wanted to post one last time before winter. Here's what I've been doing:

1. Plant Moving

In September I did my first project: moving plants out of my long Rainbow Border, which I'm eliminating, as I mentioned in my post earlier this year. I planted many of these in front of the addition on the west side of our house.

Going, going.... The Rainbow Border didn't look too bad this year at the end of May, its peak moment, but it's gotten pretty weedy, and many plants don't grow very well so close to the red cedar windbreak behind it. I moved many plants to a bed in front of my house. (That bed doesn't look like much at this point, so I won't show it -- I hope it will start to look good next year.)

2. New Front Porch

The biggest (or at least most expensive) project of this year was the new front porch that we've been hoping to have for several years now.

Here it was back in 2021, when it still looked OK. But I had to paint it every year or it looked terrible because the paint wouldn't STICK to the wood. 

You can see what it looked like if I skipped a year of painting it. Plus some of the supports had become rotten, so the front steps sagged a bit when people walked up them. Not good.

And even worse was the big HOLE that I had
to cover with a paving stone so no one would 
put their foot through it!

My builder and his son goofing off for the camera as they start demolition back in early October.

Two days later: this utter demolishment wasn't really an "improvement" but it was a necessary phase. My husband remarked that every time he got home from work that week, things looked worse than when he had left in the morning. You can see that the old concrete steps under the porch had listed a lot as they settled.

After two weeks, we had functioning steps again, in a new layout. We had the steps moved to the right, in front of the basement door, and extended the deck out farther toward the front. Now there's more usable space for sitting on our front porch.

We also replaced the cracked old sidewalk around the porch.

It's much nicer with a white metal railing and matching lattice, and I left a small planting bed under the deck overhang, where flowers will be set off nicely in front of the lattice.

3. West Terrace

I also did a lot of work this fall on the other end of our house. In 2011 we had an addition built onto the side of house, and because the ground sloped up so much to it, we had a retaining wall built there.

Here you can see the fairly new retaining wall back in 2013.

I planted tiny boxwoods around the two beds on either side of the white pergola, and planted all-white flowers in both beds, as well as white-flowering wisteria on the pergola. On either side of the steps up to the addition (seen at far right), I planted mostly blue-flowering plants. This looked pretty orderly for about five years.

But by last year it was pretty out of control. I did trim the boxwoods, but I had planted them too closely together (like in my Herb Garden) when they were tiny starts. Then in 2020 I became worried I might transfer the Volutella blight which afflicted the Herb Garden to these boxwoods, so I didn't trim them for a couple of years. Also, the wisteria never once bloomed in the ten years they grew (rampantly) there--maybe it wasn't sunny enough? But they were a lot of work to keep trimmed back, and they made the pergola area dark and creepy-looking. And the beds were getting weedy too....


So in March I asked my son to use the weed wacker (with steel blade attachment) to saw all the boxwoods down to six inches in height. 

The sheer carnage of the area was pretty impressive.

By September, only six months later, the boxwoods had regrown about eight inches of fresh, healthy-looking foliage. I was surprised how quickly they regrew, as boxwoods are slow-growing shrubs. But I've realized that they're only slow to establish and once they've established roots, they are actually quite fast-growing.

Double-Uggh. You can see how badly the nasty runner grass has invaded this bed. I had my husband spray these weeds....

Then we got to work:
  1. My husband cut the wisteria off near the ground and sprayed the stumps with tree killer. Then I painstakingly cut all the twining branches off the pergola, using a hand saw and loppers, and asked my son to haul them to our burn pile
  2. We moved the pergola to another area
  3. My son and I dug out the front row of the boxwoods, as well as every other one in the back row. I donated these to a local group to plant in a public garden. 
  4. Then I had my husband spray the remaining weeds again, I dug over the entire area to loosen the soil, and removed some viney weeds with big root systems.

Still a bit weedy, but much better, with properly spaced boxwoods. You can see that the steps here really need to be replaced too.

Then I moved about fifteen or so tree peonies and intersectional peonies from another area close by, into the two beds on either side of the central area where the pergola had been. I mulched them before winter, and I hope they'll survive....

The tree peonies were in my North Island (located to the right in the prior photo). They are very beautiful plants and were expensive, but this area is so large that it's difficult to maintain. So I moved them closer to the house so I'd be able to take better care of them and enjoy them when they bloom. I'll also plant some annuals for later interest in those terrace beds.

These were definitely worth saving!

Then my very helpful son laid pavers on sand and gravel on either side of the rotting steps. Before, there had been a few more boxwoods in these two beds, but I moved them to the place where the pergola had been before in front of the steps, making an "X" shape, like a parterre. Most of these pavers and materials were leftover from my new Diagonal Garden project of this spring, plus a few from under the pergola, so these paved areas cost hardly anything.

Now we have a nicer place to sit on the two benches that were in a different garden area. My builder wasn't able to replace these steps before it got too cold to work, but the materials are stacked here and in my garage, for whenever we get a warm week.

A sunny, sheltered spot, even in December.

So that's the changes I made this fall in my gardens and other areas -- changes I've been hoping to make for some time.

I moved all my houseplants inside in early October, and I've been enjoying sitting among them on sunny days. I finally just got the last of my spring bulbs planted the other day, and now it's time for the holidays already.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you the very best for the holidays and rest of winter, until it's springtime again! -Beth

Wednesday, October 4, 2023


Greetings to my fellow gardeners. I just don't know where the summer went! Apparently the last time I posted here was back in May.... But I recently had a chance to take a few snapshots of my gardens right before dusk (which arrives much earlier now).

In May, I was working on my new garden area, which I've been calling the Triangle Garden, or sometimes the Diagonal Garden:

The Triangle/Diagonal Garden back in May before planting

As you can see in the top photo, the new garden has come along well since then. I planted three groups of stripey cannas in each bed, as well as a couple of orange dahlias, a packet of zinnia seeds, a few marigolds along the sidewalk, and a purple celosia that became impressively large and has flowered all summer.

And I was surprised that a number of flowering tobacco and climbing petunias have already seeded themselves in the new garden. They have generally reseeded themselves in a neighboring bed, but I thought it might take longer for them to move to a new bed. Nope, by July you could hardly see the things I deliberately planted there because the "free plants" were so big -- I've had to hack them back several times!

It's really been a beautiful annual flower garden, immediately visible to people coming to our front door. (I think the mailman and the Amazon drivers have enjoyed it!)

Here's another view from outside the fence. You can see the stripey cannas and zinnias here.

Moving further down the fence, there's a red hardy hibiscus and one of the many
red dahlias that I have planted in many of my garden areas.
The tall corn in the fields is almost ready to harvest.

More of those red Dahlia 'Jaipur'. I bought a tuber from Brent & Becky's Bulbs 
about five years ago, and it has been the most amazing plant -- I've divided them
numerous times and have at least 20 in several garden areas.

Here's the Paradise Garden, in which I also have several 'Jaipur' dahlias, as well as lots of self-seeded flowering tobacco and petunias, which, unlike the dahlias, have the most heavenly scent, especially at night. This is a wonderful place to sit after dark.

Another view of the Paradise Garden. A few roses are still blooming here -- I've been trying to fertilize them this year , and they've looked pretty nice since May (the Japanese beetles aren't as bad this year, perhaps because of the drought we had for about six weeks).

Here's another place to sit, under the pergola we built about five years ago. I grow tropical plants, in pots and in the ground around this patio next to our house. My houseplants seem to be very happy in the partial shade under the pergola. (And more self-seeded petunias and flowering tobacco.)

Anyway, that's what's been happening in my gardens. I've recently been working on removing a long border, as discussed in my last post, and moving plants around on the west side of my house. I still have a number of projects that I hope to finish, moving more plants, building a couple of small patios for benches using paving stones leftover from the Triangle Garden, and others. I hope I'll be able to finish those and post one more time with some photos before winter settles in.

Hope your own garden projects are going well for you, as we finish out another gardening season this year. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Monday, May 15, 2023

My New Garden Project


Greetings! I'd like to share with you my new garden project, which I've been thinking about doing for some time now. (I apologize for the long post.)

I've noticed for some years now that I enjoy the gardens that are closer to my house much more than those areas that are farther away or located in places where I rarely see them. This makes sense, of course, and not just because I'm able to enjoy them more often because they're closer. Also, I remember to maintain them, which is much easier when they're right outside my door, and so they are more successful garden areas -- which are much easier to enjoy than garden failures.... :-)

So, I've been thinking that I might get rid of one or two of my more distant areas, and make better use of a spot in front of my house.

Here's my front yard last summer. My Paradise Garden is to the right, just out of the photo, and there were two rectangles of grass at the foot of my front steps.

And here's the Paradise Garden last July, with the center grass section at forefront. This garden area is pretty easy to maintain.

My Paradise Garden right next to my house is so much easier to maintain than other areas, both because it is close to my house (I can pad out in bare feet and casually pull a few weeds), and because the garden beds are surrounded by paving stones, so nasty runner grass isn't always invading the beds like it does in beds in other parts of my property.

So in late April, I paid my teenage son to use a sod-remover (a manual one that you kick with your foot, which he was able to get the hang of using) to remove the grass in the corner section of my fenced yard (see first photo).

Then, I used a shovel to excavate several inches down, where garden paths would be laid...

...ordered a bunch of pavers, gravel and sand to be delivered, and paid my handy son to help lay the paths. I then began to dig over the planting areas to loosen the soil that had been below the sod.

I'll plant the two triangular beds with annuals this year (probably this week), in case there's still some runner grass in the soil that needs to be eradicated. (I tried to pick out as many roots as possible when digging over the beds--that's what the bucket was for--but I probably missed some.)

I'm hoping these beds will be much easier to maintain than some of my other garden areas. I haven't yet decided what to call this new garden: the Corner Garden? the Diagonal Garden? the Triangle Garden? Hmmm... what do you think?

But I must eliminate some more difficult garden areas in exchange for this new one--that's my rule: any new garden must be offset by eliminating two old garden areas (or a much larger one).

So, I'm afraid I will be getting rid of a garden that hasn't been working so well for the past year or so: the Rainbow Border.

I made the Rainbow Border back in 2012. At first, I tried to plant it in sections with flowers in the order of the colors of the rainbow: ROYGBIV.

Here's a long-distance view of the Rainbow Border back in 2014. The Orienpet lilies made a pretty good show in July, preceded by early June perennials and followed by zinnias and other annual flowers.

After a while, the Orienpet lilies I planted declined and mostly disappeared--I think it's possible that the red cedar windbreak behind the border interfered with their ability to grow in that spot. Some perennials seemed to do better, so I let go of the ROYGBIV plan and mixed up the colors, but still tried to stick with brightly colored flowers in all colors of the rainbow.

This looked pretty good for a few years. Here it was in 2019 and 2021:

Very colorful in late May/early June....

This was a respectable perennial border, even in June of 2021.

But there were some problems with the Rainbow Border: first, it was infested with grass that was impossible to dig out. I sprayed that grass with Ortho Grass-B-Gone, which did help, but I don't think it took care of the problem entirely. And the red cedar windbreak behind it was probably not so good for the plants.

And the border looked OK around June 1st, but looked ratty later in summer, because the annual flowers I planted there never seemed to grow very well.

In mid-July 2022, the border just looked ratty, weedy and blah. Maybe that was just a bad year, but this made me wonder why I still have this border.

The Rainbow Border is a fair amount of work to maintain--which, when it looked good, didn't bother me so much. But hard work and bad results is tremendously discouraging. 

So, I've made the decision to eliminate the Rainbow Border, and move the best of the remaining plants to other areas in my gardens that need additional plants:

This border in front of my house, shown in 2020 after I fixed the edging, still doesn't have enough planted in it. I removed the two large clumps of yarrow/Achillea and moved them to my Yellow Garden, and this fall or next March, I will move many of the Rainbow Border May/June perennials here.

My Yellow Garden behind my house could use some of the yellow flowering perennials from the Rainbow Border.

And my Front Border in front of the white picket fence might look nice with a few of the Rainbow Border plants.

Anyway, that's what I've been working on, thinking about and making decisions about this spring. I'll show the results of my changes over the next year as they occur.

I hope your own gardens are easy and enjoyable to maintain, and thanks for reading about my efforts to make mine easier. -Beth

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Spring is Here!


Greetings after a long winter! Somehow it's already May, and it seems like most of Spring has snuck by me.

There were some nice days in April, but also some stretches of cold, wet, windy days, so I've done very little in my gardens until recently.

But it certainly seems like I've been busy all winter -- a quick update on what I've been up to: 

  • My retail store was destroyed in early October, and finding and remodeling a new space, re-ordering all the inventory and furnishings, and getting going again was incredibly time-consuming through February (I'm still dealing with the insurance).
  • Then I got terribly sick with influenza in mid-December, which took over a month to recover from; followed by two colds, one three weeks ago from which I'm only now feeling strong enough to work outside after. 
  • My husband had hip replacement surgery several weeks ago and he's needed my help
  • and I published my latest garden history book last week:

My book is about a Japanese garden builder who lived in Chicago during the early 20th century. In my earlier book, Iowa Gardens of the Past (2020), I included a short section about a c.1930 Japanese-style garden in Muscatine, Iowa, now part of the Muscatine Art Museum grounds. The museum director asked me to look into the history of their garden, and I discovered that it was likely built by that Chicago garden builder. But almost nothing was known about him, so I wrote a book about his life and work (he built numerous rock gardens and Japanese-style gardens throughout the Midwest). This was really quite fascinating -- I learned about Japanese samurai (his father was one), the Japanese-style gardens built at World's Fairs, classical Japanese garden manuals, Chicago history, and many other topics -- as well as the stories of the wealthy clients who hired him to build gardens for them. Perhaps obscure, but tremendously interesting work.

But spring marches on, no matter how many other things we're doing. Here are a few pictures of some spring scenes around my gardens from the last month:

This "patio" dwarf ornamental peach tree has never bloomed more a few flowers in the decade I have had it, so I was astounded by the copious flowering this spring! I guess the weather was just right this year, plus, I did cut back some of the limbs last fall -- perhaps that further stimulated it. Whatever the cause, it's been beautiful.

This Magnolia 'White Rose' in my North Island flowered well this year too.

The North Border is looking pretty good this spring. My teenage son put two loads of wood chip mulch on last fall as a birthday present for me, and it's much less weedy than usual -- I'll have to stay on top of the weeds this year...

This Korean Spice Viburnum makes the whole yard smell wonderful.

Not so many tulips this year -- I planted a bunch of them two autumns ago and they made quite a show last spring, but only a few are left among the self-seeded bachelor buttons coming up.

This tiny fern-leaf peony is doing well in my Paradise Garden right next to my front porch, where I can see it up close and personal.

And this is the newest addition to our household: meet Henry (1/2 Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, 1/2 rat terrier). He has a rather bad dog mischievous look on his little face, don't you think? He does still need to be trained to not chase our two cats, and I'm discovering that he likes to "help" me in the garden rather too much. But he'll soon pull more than his own weight in the garden, by keeping away deer, rabbits--and the coyotes that we see encroaching in the corn fields around us (I feel uneasy letting our cats out at night, where they really want to be on warm nights, since our last dog, Puppy, died last autumn at age 14).  

We have finally been enjoying a few days of nice weather this week, and it's been good to be able to get outside and start clearing out the beds I haven't been able to get to yet. And I have been working on a new garden project, which I'll show in my next post. 

Until then, I hope you are enjoying some beautiful warm late spring days in your own gardens. Thanks for stopping by! -Beth