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Gardening—How My Plantings and I Grew Together

September 01, 2017 Barbara Ballinger

I had never seriously gardened before I bought my most recent home. Yes, I had selected rose bushes and hydrangeas to plant in former yards, and suggested to my then-husband how a colorful grouping of statuesque tulips could circle one large tree in honor of our younger daughter’s April birth 33 years ago. However, I had never thought of developing a garden from scratch since I prided myself on being a city gal. 

After buying my most recent house as a single on a very visible, well traveled street in my village, I knew that the barren site needed to be spruced up. It wasn’t just to enhance the 1797 home and its Victorian-era front porch and curlicue trim, but to help beautify my street and area. Choosing to live where I did made me an instant member of a community. I needed to do my part to give back. 

Fortunately, I also knew from writing hundreds of garden articles and one garden book with a landscape professional, The Garden Bible: Designing your perfect outdoor space, that a master plan for the entire site is essential. It helps to create a cohesive whole and one that flourishes in its climate and because of its topography. Yet, I knew almost zilch about the amount of sunlight, type of soil, which plants already existed—since it was still winter when I made my purchase, which plantings are indigenous to the area, what wildlife lurked nearby that might pose a serious challenge, and how a property can go from some shade to much darker as tree canopies grow lush. Again, planning was crucial. 

So, I asked for recommendations about hiring a professional and ended up selecting a knowledgeable young couple who touted their expertise in edible landscapes—both for people and wildlife. I liked that idea, but would end up “eating” those words—or at least the wildlife would. 

After walking the property and hearing about what plants I knew and liked—hostas, hydrangeas, ferns, lilacs, and also about my preferred color scheme of white, blue and purple, the couple I hired drew up a master plan of multiple pages that dictated what would be planted in the front, back and the sides. They also promised to stay within my budget. Installation wouldn’t happen all at once since the cost of plant materials and especially mature trees can be sky high.  We started on the front for the public view the first full season sprinkling the space with lots of hostas and hydrangeas. We then tackled part of the back with more of the same and finally the sides. After a trip to Buffalo’s residential garden walk, the largest in the country, and to London’s Kew Gardens, I decided to plant ferns in multiple groupings along one side adjacent to a gravel driveway. 

And as each season returned, I learned that what my garden book co-author knew was true: the first year plants sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap! 

After writing about so many vegetable gardens and seeing what Michelle Obama accomplished at the White House, I asked a contractor to install raised redwood planters in one empty patch, along with a slate border for herbs to thrive, and a gravel floor. He suggested a water pump to make maintenance easier. 

Then something magical happened. I became smitten with my new tradition of grabbing my coffee each morning and walking out to the planters to see what vegetables and fruits had emerged—strawberries, mint, parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, beets, and more. I removed what was ripe to take back to the kitchen and transformed them into fruit compotes for one former date, simmered spaghetti sauce for the freezer, stirred several ingredients into zesty gazpacho and put away pickles for dinner parties.  

I also learned it’s okay to change in mid-stream my plans as both the garden and I evolved simultaneously. The pond I was going to add for it’s soothing sounds, along with some koi fish and a small waterfall, was eliminated after several friends said it’s costly to build properly and requires a great deal of maintenance.  I checked it off the list. “Buy a CD with the sound of music to enjoy the gurgling,” one friend suggested. I also installed a gravel terrace for a fire pit as a place to sit with friends and maybe roast s’mores. The gravel was selected because the fieldstone I initially wanted is too costly. I rationalized that walking on gravel offers a nice crunchy sound. 

After seeing built-in planters on a friend’s deck in Salem, Mass., I asked the contractor to install those on my back porch where my elderly mom likes to sit, read and enjoy outdoor views. I planned to fill them with a colorful array of annuals. I also added one birdhouse and painted the door of my backyard shed bright red so I could see that splash of color from my kitchen door. 

And last summer my garden team planted a small area below the back porch with more sedum and colorful perennials. They also began installing more shade plants along the rear hill under large maple trees. On my own I added hydrangeas along the front by the picket fence and grapevines along the side fence in memory of my writing partner’s late husband who was in the wine business. I also learned that after plants leap and fill in, it’s time to transplant some to barer spots so they’re not too crowded. Just like people, these living things don’t like to be smooshed together. I also found that blueberries don’t do well in my soil but that pear trees thrive. For some vertical height, I added four of two different varieties so they propagate. 

Feeling that my green thumb was growing, I planted two large pots in front with a changing display according to the seasons and filled in the window boxes on the rear shed with annuals for pops of color. I also painted its faux windows with two favorite paintings: Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh and a Parisian bridge scene by Claude Monet. 

I would never describe myself as a garden expert but have definitely learned more about what I like and where to find good materials nearby—and become a tad obsessive when I spy new possibilities—those great colorful cone flowers, for instance. 

I also have found that the wildlife can be terribly aggressive: squirrels eat my pumpkins come Halloween, deer wander into my yard and jump over the fence if hungry enough despite the traffic and people in the village, and a ground hog loved hiding under my shed and venturing out to the vegetable patch like Peter Rabbit. I have found a way to curtail the deer munching on hostas and daffodils with a good green spray that I repeat several times during the season. 

 

To get ready for garden season No. 7, I filled planters and pots with annuals and added a meditation garden behind the shed with a small fountain for much needed relaxation from stress. However, I have waved the white flag, surrendering to the wildlife! After all, they were here first. 

I relish the return of my perennials like mint and strawberries. But this year I bought vegetables and most fruits at my village’s wonderful farmers’ market. A stroll into town and seeing what others grow represents another good sharing experience and a big advantage of living in a small, welcoming community.

 




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