Evolution of a garden area

It is okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to change your mind. If you can afford it, call in a pro. Or, like us, make your progress in baby steps, with a lot of head scratching and shuffling things around in between!

Over 20 years, as our tree canopy grew, I lost most of my flower garden, forcing me (my husband) to either cut down trees or (me) adapt to shade gardening. For the most part, I did the latter. The vast majority of my back yard is covered by a tree canopy of evergreens, conifers, and deciduous trees. On the positive side, many of my hydrangeas thrive. On the downside, my sun-loving perennials and annuals did not.

I am still developing a deep shade garden, trying to add more texture, depth and sculpture each year. This area is often 20 degrees cooler in the high heat of July and August.

Years ago, we converted a sunny dog area, which was free from any vegetation into a raised bed area. That made sense. My husband decided he wanted to grow vegetables and we built six raised beds constructed out of concrete blocks. Functionally, it worked, but after the second year, the blocks shifted, the weeds found their way in, as did the groundhogs. Next year we had a haphazard chicken wire fence to protect treasured veggies from being consumed, but that addition prevented us from easily weeding.

This is the second year of the raised bed gardens. Trust me when I say, it did not look this good in 2018! To the left of this picture is our garage, and a makeshift octagonal path from garage door to yard.

In short, the area became a food-producing eyesore. All viewable from my living room window. I hated it and I wanted it all out. After years of nagging, and a compromise to consider growing some veggies in elevated trugs, I won my way and we tore out and sold off the concrete blocks. If we had built the raised beds correctly, they would still be where they are. But that’s another story!

By now I had really begun to pay attention to the lectures and workshops provided by Cooperative Extension. Extension agents, Master Gardeners, authors like our own UD professor Doug Tallamy, all emphasized the importance of developing areas for pollinators.

This side area area gets full sun. To the left of the above picture you can see two remaining raised beds which were removed in 2019. All this block was removed and the good soil contained inside was spread to the right of the paths.

As we took down the concrete blocks, we spread the garden soil for the future pollinator garden

Before we took down the raised beds, we experimented with a more permanent path leading from the side garage door into the main back yard. In the top left, two sections of split rail remained where a compost bin used to be. I was starting to experiment with pollinator plants.

My first attempt was to plant perennials along the two split rail sections, where we had a compost bin. We then expanded this to where the raised beds used to be located. 2020 and 2021.

We ditched the idea of the tightly fitted stone pathway, and moved them to the side, seen below on the right. This created a mulched foot path, but very unstable edging, a nightmare for navigating a hose. This area has no underground irrigation.

Spreading the garden soil in this area provided a good spot for sun-loving perennials. I envision a tall water feature in the center someday!

We decided we did not like the stones on the side of the path. They moved and I could not move the hose around easily. I began to research stone and gravel paths.

Looking west from back yard to side yard. We didn’t have enough stone to edge the path from the garage to the main back yard, and it was not the look I was going for. We added an arbor to help differentiate the main back yard from the pollinator garden. We did something similar to mark off the shade garden.
We moved the mulch and debris out of the path area and purchased edging material.
I added black plastic landscape paper as a weed barrier. We then bought a pallet of large flag stone (from Grizzly’s) and placed them in the pathway.

These stones were heavy! Both my husband and I are officially “seniors” and I keep forgetting I am not 30 or 40! Three days later my right hand was almost totally immobilized. We knew how to bend our knees to lift heavy stones, but I did not pay attention to my hands. I should have worn hand braces. I did afterwards! It took me a month for my right hand to heal.

Pathway leading to our new arbor and entrance into the main back yard and pond.
We added several bags of pea gravel. I was hoping for river rock colors in grays, reds and blues, but everything sold in our area were very jagged, and the smoother river rock were larger pebbles. So we went with the sand-colored rounded pea gravel.

We do not have an irrigation system on our property. Dragging a hose around is not fun! The green tripod, which a friend sold to me – an extra one she bought from Lowes, was a godsend. I’ve since bought another. I got rid of my heavy hoses and bought two of those lightweight, collapsible types to hook up to the tripod. Most, not all of the new plants in this area are native.

The path after a fresh rain.
We stopped the path at the arbor. Notice the new fence? I am training native honeysuckle vine “Major Wheeler” on the arbor.
Before and after

We also decided to take down our 21-year old split rail fence. It was coming down on its own anyway.

We took some of the extra pieces of stone we had lying around and put a temporary path in from the gate to the garden. We plan to develop this further.
An established path from the gate to the main pathway is our goal for 2023.
For now, these smaller stones from the pallet delivery give us an idea where to connect the two paths. I am looking forward to selecting native ground covers for this area.

The area behind the bench (pictured above) still needs rehabilitating. We planted a redbud tree, not quite large enough to cast some shade over the bench. Behind it, a very sunny spot will be an area devoted to milkweed and taller native plants.

To balance out the back yard, we added a second matching arbor as an entrance to the shade garden. In between the two arbors is our pond. As you see, we are still doing stonework!
We reduced the size of our pond in half.
A teak Lutyens bench rests on a patio which used to be a larger pond. We cut the pond in half, back filled it and laid stone on top.

In the past two years, we redefined our large back yard into separate areas. Our pond, which we downsized, is the centerpiece of our no-mow, no-lawn back yard. Facing the pond to the right is our evolving deep shade garden, with a tent-type gazebo. To the left, our sunny pollinator garden. It is a rustic and wild-life friendly oasis. In the future, we plan to thin out some non-native trees and plant some red oaks and other native trees.

Among other things, my goal with this garden is to eliminate plastic and resin and stick to stone, wood and ceramic objects – natural as possible elements to contribute to a serene environment for humans and critters alike.


Sussex County Delaware Master Gardeners’ Open House

It is a great honor to be asked to take photos of one of my favorite annual events, the Sussex County (Delaware) Master Gardener Open House. Their beautiful demonstration garden just happens to be located directly in back of my office and I even have a window so I can look out!

20130713-195554.jpgThe garden has many interesting niches and surprising little things peeking out of corners and unusual places. The demonstration garden is actually open all year long, and the public is welcome to stroll through the clearly marked plantings any time of the day, but a few times a year, the Master Gardeners have planned events, which allow the public to not only tour the garden, but have informal, friendly chats with Master Gardeners.

Enjoying a summer slurpee
Enjoying a summer slurpee

Like most gardeners I know, the Master Gardeners are a generous and humble lot. This is their passion and they love to share it. Not everyone is an expert in everything. Each Master Gardener brings his or her own talent to the table…or raised bed. Some are into veggies, others native Delware plants, children’s gardens, hostas, hydrangeas, garden photography. You name it! We have someone who knows their garden subject matter. Together, it all homogenizes into a poetry of color, nutrition, affection for all things fora and fauna. In Delaware, Master Gardeners are selected, trained and supported by Delaware Cooperative Extension through the University of Delaware and Delaware State University. Delaware has a lot to be proud of with these tireless and talented volunteers. What a treasure we have!

Here’s a photo set of pictures taken today at their premiere annual event.

2013 Open House

Nice neighbors

We have some new neighbors who have moved next door to us this spring. We’ve been keeping an eye on their mailbox and house as they travel back-and-forth from their old location. They are a lovely couple, and they surprised us with Brazilian coffee and candy! Delicious!

We didn’t have anything quite so exotic to offer in return, but this morning we dug up the first of our red potatoes to share our harvest from three potato plants! with our nice neighbors.


Raised beds – a beginner’s attempt

I saw this post today on Facebook, from the Raw for Beauty site. I love the infographic they used!

Source: Raw for Beauty Source: Raw for Beauty

Our raised bed area doesn’t look quite as picturesque – but it does the trick.

We had an area off the side of our house, that used to be a dog run and had been unused for several years. In 2012, we decided to make some raised beds. We had been composting in a corner of this rectangle area (behind the very healthy Nandinas to the right), using old pallets for the composting bin. It had been tucked away with its own area sectioned off with split rail, and some tall arborvitaes, so it was a perfect area to create a veggie garden.  We started pricing raised bed materials and were amazed how costly they were. Hundreds of dollars per bed! We decided to look for other materials.

Living in coastal Delaware, we get a lot of weeds. Crabgrass and wild Bermuda grass is a serious problem. We placed landscape paper over the entire grass area and my husband began mapping out large rectangle areas for raised beds out of concrete block. (Yes concrete block, also referred to as cinderblock, cinderblock is actually a different material and much harder to find these days, many people use the term cinderblock but what they actually purchase at a big block store is concrete block.) Whatever their name they are those large, unattractive blocks I used in college to support bookshelves for my stereo and vinyl albums! Since no one is really going to see this area in our back yard, and it is well disguised from the road and neighbors, we weren’t too concerned with aesthetics.  My husband started out with two beds, but quickly anted-up to five. They were easy to install, and each bed  cost under $50 to construct.

Finishing off the first cinderblock bed. Under the blue tarps is firewood. Finishing off the first concrete block bed. Under the blue tarps is firewood.

Here are the first three concrete block  beds.  We eventually put landscape paper all around the area. Our beds were two courses high. We did not anchor our blocks with concrete. We had quite a lot of old larger red rock and we filled some of the holes with that, some with extra soil.

Cinder block project Steve stands by his concrete block project. The empty one in the foreground became the bed where we “hilled” potatoes

We probably should have, but we did not use any drip irrigation. As you can see we have two rain barrels, so we have water readily available. Later that summer we added two more.

Same area with mulched and first plantings Same area with mulched and first plantings
Cinder block raised beds As you can see each bed is two blocks high, and we staggered these. Nothing else is holding them in place except for perhaps every fifth hole, we poured some loose rock and gravel.

Along a split-rail fence we added another longer, but narrow bed:

564179_294941800583953_713853871_n In this photo five beds are visible. Under the blue tarps is firewood. Off to their left is a cluster of plants that disguise a compost bin made from recycled pallets. We’ve been tossing household food waste, lawn clippings, vegetation in there for years and created some beautiful black compost. We strongly believe this is what made our garden grow so well!

This was our first experiment with growing vegetables. I am not a tree-hugging, organic-only type of consumer, but I’d rather not use pesticides if I don’t have to! Our first year, we used nothing. No fertilizer, no pesticides. A few air-borne weeds landed in the mulch area. Since we have a pond and bird-friendly structures nearby, we get a lot of bird traffic and we saw many near the garden area. I think they picked the vegetables clean of any insects that might have tried to gain a foothold. We have plenty of common rabbits in the area, but none damaged our vegetables, due to the two-course high of block. Our second year has seen very little insect damage, no diseases and very good yields! Compost, compost, compost!

For our first year, we planted way too much lettuce, and we were eating salads with Romaine, Red Sail and butter crunch for quite some time. We also grew broccoli, cauliflower, yellow and green snap beans, peppers, and beets. My husband grew tomatoes in pots, but they did not do as well.

Romaine lettuce Romaine lettuce
lettuce Lettuce
Brocolli Broccoli

One of our more interesting projects was growing potatoes. We planted red seed potatoes in our largest bed. We had looked into “hilling” potatoes in buckets or large sacks. Once we had the bed created, we decided to try and hill them in the bed. We put only a couple of inches of soil in initially, then laid the potato sections in the bed and covered them with another two inches or so. Once the plants sprouted and got taller, we added more soil (50% compost, 50% purchased garden soil) and kept adding soil as the plants grew taller. Eventually the soil reached near the top of the second course of block. Once the leaves started to turn, that was our cue to harvest the potatoes. Hilling produces more potatoes per plant as it encourages a root system (tuber) to sprout from the plant’s nodes.  We averaged around 5-6 potatoes per plant! They were delicious!

We We “hilled ” these red potatoes in a raised bed, adding soil as the plants grew!

Here is a video of my husband and his daughter harvesting the potatoes:

My plans are to stain the blocks, and I have already started growing herbs in some of the pockets provided by the block’s holes.  I would love to have some creeping phlox or other annuals grow in the pockets. In 2013, we rotated the crops, and this year, we planted tomatoes directly in one of the beds and they are doing very well.  We have had no issues with mildew, mold, pests, insects or disease. I attribute this to our birds, for the vegetation being raised, and my husband’s diligence tending to his crops. We’ve been invaded by sedge grass this year, which lands from the air and grows on top of the landscape paper. Fortunately it is easy to put up, but they keep coming back!

We have not had any push back on the block. They have stayed in place. At some point we might need some rebar or concrete to anchor them, but it hasn’t been an issue so far. The area primarily receives afternoon sun – at least four hours of direct sun. So far, everything seems to be the perfect combination!

Another video of my husband talking about the beds: