My parents grew vegetables; I had no interest in digging in the dirt until I left home. I planted my first vegetable garden in the yard of a rental house in 1977, but I moved out before I could harvest a thing. I decided not to plant again until I owned a piece of land. That took another 20 years, although I continued to stick things in the ground wherever I landed. In fall 1999, I bought a house and began to make big plans for my property—but you know what they say about the best-laid plans. Nowadays, I’d call my whole yard an “experiment.”
Not me. But I learned. I read about and experimented with conditions that would make for happy plants. I bought plants on sale from catalogs; I made pity purchases at greenhouses in late July. I was introduced to verticillium wilt by a local greenhouse I haven’t visited since. I discovered Klinger Farm Market, the largest greenhouse in the area 20 miles north of here, and began supporting the Klinger children’s orthodontia. I became bold: I moved plants around. I began to mix edibles with ornamentals. I planted for the birds. I planted for the bees. If I saw pretty flowers along a sidewalk in the neighborhood, I wanted some, too. If I saw a pretty tree in one of my books, I bought one—like the Prairiefire crab, the Sunburst Locust, the Red-twig Dogwood in the front yard. When friends offered me plants, I asked what the plants liked and tried to provide it.
Our first spring, 2000, I planted my oldest bed in the southwest corner of the property. It’s in a state of flux even now, fifteen years later. There, you’ll see red peonies rescued from under my cousin’s black walnut tree, Shasta daisies, penstemon, ornamental onion, irises rescued from a pile of compost when we dug a memorial garden at the high school down the block, tansy, various sedums, hyssop, orange butterfly weed, Goldmound spirea, Happy Days daylily, and delphiniums (the finicky things). I hope you don’t see any sprouts of a pretty plant I bought at Klinger’s ten years ago and stuck in there. The plant was so happy it began to spread. Everywhere. It was Japanese Knotweed, which is notoriously invasive. Once I learned what it was, I became its nemesis. I dug it and poisoned it without mercy, but I preserved a sprig in a pot and told it if it lived, I’d save it. It’s still alive in that pot, waiting for me to turn my back for just one minute. . . .
Our first summer here, I laid the brick patio under the Basswood tree and included planting beds. These beds featured Asian lilies until the Nashiki willow, Korean Spice Viburnum, and weeping lilac grew so big and cast so much shade the lilies gave up, so I transitioned the space under them to ferns and coleus and violets and spurge; you'll also see European ginger, a Sum and Substance hosta, and a Big Blue hosta. Porcelain berry vines up the trellises. A Henry Kelsey climbing rose grows in the one spot under the Basswood that gets sun. Nearest the garage are two sunny spots I reserve for for herbs and vegetables; this year these spots are planted with carrots, broccoli, green beans, chocolate mint, tarragon, rosemary. A Bowl of Beauty peony and Mugo pine stand guard to the east and the catio (an eight-foot-tall outdoor playpen for my cats) stands guard to the west.
The next part of the yard that got dug up is the southeast corner. It’s planted with barberry, sedums, and an Annabelle hydrangea, all tough plants that can survive the shade and the roots of the boulevard maple to the south, which is the bane of my existence. Its prolific seed production gifts me with myriad baby maples every year that must be pulled by hand. Same with the silver maples in the back yard.
The sidewalk leading to the house came next and expanded to the west a couple of years later when I removed an overgrown birch and replaced it with a Prairiefire crab and a Sunburst locust. The ferns went in between them in 2014. Those ferns have been moved three or four times, bless their plucky little hearts. Along the curvy front sidewalk grow a rhododendron, an azalea, a Diablo ninebark, white peonies, artemisia, sundrops, Egyptian onion, variegated iris, and milkweed (yup--it's for the Monarch butterflies.)
Across from this curvy bed is a heart-shaped bed that changes from year to year. It gets sun, so that’s where I often plant vegetables; this year, there’s a tomato and cucumbers. It’s also planted with ornamental Japanese corn, Malabar spinach, and scarlet runner beans, which I planted after hearing the founder of Seed Savers Exchange, Diane Ott Whealy, talk at our library—Seed Savers and I had corresponded at length for many years via checks from me and seeds from them. They do good work.
I do good work too, but sometimes a living plant gets sent to that Big Garden in the Sky. A damaged maple was removed to the east of the house around 2005; the pond sits atop the tree’s ground-down base. (Check out the pond's sassy goldfish—he thinks he's all that when he moves to the big pond for the summer.) This bed is anchored on the south side by raspberries that want to take over the world. It’s anchored on the north end by a cherry tree that also has empire-building tendencies. Three kinds of currants grow to the east of the cherry tree along with a Little Free Library and, this year, tomatoes and golden zucchini. Beside the pond are two trees, a Harry Lauder walking stick and a pagoda dogwood. I stuck them in together saying, “May the best man win.” They decided war is not the answer; they both lived. You’ll also see tradescantia, a Hansa rose, Morden Centennial roses, European ginger, and baptisia, all volunteers or refugees. Last year I beat back the raspberries so I could plant flowers beside the pond. One plant of lemon balm has become an army that’s challenging the raspberries and cherry tree for world domination. This bed was expanded in 2009 when I dug up the row of red honeysuckles I’d planted along the sidewalk and moved them north to the backyard fence.
West of the cherry tree along the house stands a birch frame that was another experiment: in France, many stone building exteriors showcase living walls, layers of felt with pockets that contain plants that are watered and fertilized from above. I tried to build such a wall, freestanding, but winter was not kind to it. So that experiment requires tweaking. South of the birch frame are tulips, Bonfire spurge, Japanese Hakone grass, and a Rosa Mundi plant that struggled its first year but seems to be perking up this year. That giant rose at the southeast corner of the house is a John Cabot climber. Its climbing rival on the east side of the garage is a Jackmanii clematis that sat in a washbasin all summer when the garage was built in 2007.
I can’t do a lot in the back yard because I have a dog and a kid who owns a trampoline, but two years ago, I put in a little woodland garden between the silver maples. I chose plants I hope can handle shade and competition from the maple tree roots: dogtooth violets, foam flower, maple-leaved heuchera, columbine, hostas, and clematis Virginiana.
Like every gardener, I battle deer, rabbits, grass, dandelions, and baby trees. Terry Hershey, who lives on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, says (courtesy Dave's Garden), "People who love this world, people who pay attention, are gardeners. People who are invested, people who are aware. They are gardeners, regardless of whether or not they have ever picked up a trowel. Because gardening is not just about digging. Or planting, for that matter. Gardening is about cherishing."
Cherishing and experimenting. That's pretty much life, am I right?