Garden Designer’s Roundtable: By the Sweat of Your Brow Will You Weed Your Bed.

My husband and I moved into our house in Burke, VA (Zone 7a) early in 2003 and immediately got to work on “letting the yard go” for about, oh, 4 years or so.  I’m sure the neighborhood was horrified by our neglect, as I know you will be when you see the “before” pictures. 

2007 was a pivotal year — the year I became a gardener! — and I’m glad I documented the yard that year so that, when I’m feeling horticulturally disillusioned, I can remind myself of the progress I’ve made.  We’ve had a couple of large trees removed, and quite a bit of old decking replaced, but otherwise I have done every lick of work in the yard by myself, with manual tools! 

Anyway, below you will see scary pictures of the yard back in 2007, the book that inspired a particular planting, and then that same area today.  In landscape design school we were taught to come up with an overall “concept” for a garden to help unify it and guide design choices, but you will see that no such unifying element exists in my yard (unless the concept is “Caprice” or “Lack of Control”).  Each time I read a different garden book or visit a new garden, I am inspired to go in a completely different direction in my own garden.  Behold: 

The above bed has been the stage for my most concentrated efforts.  My Big Ideas.  In 2009, fueled by Piet Oudolf’s Designing With Plants and a terrible case of hort- hubris, I attempted a mini-meadow in this location, with grasses and salvias and coreopsis.  Epic fail!  Too small an area and just not enough sun…the poor plants leaned and contorted themselves to get the rays they craved, and the stems wound up nearly parallel to the ground. 

So last year, I made peace with my lack of full sun and switched to plants that enjoy part-shade, like sarcococca, fothergilla, deutzia, heuchera, digitalis:

Much better!  I’m SUPER enthused about the Carex pensylvanica, which is spilling cooperatively over my ugly retaining wall.  I love its fine texture.  I want to comb it and braid it.

Same bed looking the other way:

The next collage shows my backyard as you enter it from the gate.  I love Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s new Well-Designed Mixed Garden, and I would say that the “Mixed Garden” idea is definitely the principle I follow in most of my backyard.

Plants here include the always useful Boxwood in a Pot (‘Winter Gem’), Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, maidengrass, peony, toad lily, Astilbe ‘Delft Lace’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and ‘Biokovo’, Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’, Thuja ‘Yellow Ribbon’.  I’m attempting some creeping thymes and sedums around those stepping stones.  And I just planted a new rose (the climber ‘Golden Showers’) behind that Yellow Ribbon Arb.

Next stop, the Poolside Strip.  Don’t look at the 2007 pic for too long or you may blow out your corneas.  When I re-did this bed a few years ago, I decided to go for a tidy, more minimal look inspired by the courtyard gardens of Kyoto.  So I planted five ‘Macrantha’ azaleas down next to the pool, and I try to keep them pruned in neat low lozenges.  I kept a patch of yellow daylilies as well, and sometimes I stick low-key annuals in there, too. 

The little purply bletillas with the strappy leaves in the foreground aren’t really supposed to be there.  Those were an impulse buy and I’m still figuring out where to move them.

Next is my side yard, which faces southeast and is extremely dry.  It’s not stellar looking, but I am very happy with the performance of the plants I’ve got in there and how they’ve thrived in terrible soil.

The low shrubs to the left are Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Lo’.  The purple shrub in the corner is Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’.  The pic really doesn’t do that shrub justice.  I’ve all but ignored it since planting it two years ago and it blooms heavily and stays robust in very dry part shade.  The Sedum ‘Angelina’ groundcover has been a fantastic spreader, though I’m not in love with the neon yellow color.  The dark green shrub is Euonymus ‘Greenspire’ which I have moved about three times and it hasn’t missed a beat, loves it everywhere. Also in this area are all the flunk-outs from the ex-Piet Oudolf Garden, since there is more sun here.

I’m still working on how to run a path through here…the wooden rounds were cut from the Ash tree in the 2010 pic (which fell over in a storm that same year) and I’d hoped they would look quaint but instead they look kinda ‘woodland ghetto’.

Next, my attempt at vegetables. The only full sun I get is on my deck, so I have to grow vegetables in containers.  The veg growing is definitely not my strong suit, but last year I read The Bountiful Container and I got all jazzed about growing food in pots.  Probably more helpful was the fact that I invested in two Earthboxes this year.  They’ve helped me grow veggies with very little effort.  They can be pricey, so next year I might try to build my own from these instructions.

And here’s my other sideyard,  also still Under Development: 

Once I pruned away the protruding branches of my neighbor’s Chinese Arborvitae and then installed flimsy reed fencing, I found that this area actually gets a decent amount of sunlight.  So I dug out some peonies from the front yard that were too shaded and planted them here.  (The white blob on the ground is fallen peony petals, which the Japanese would find very moving.) Also, I planted my very first rose here, a hybrid rugosa (whatever that means) named ‘Therese Bugnet’.  I’m not sure what else I want to plant here, but I like the idea of planting some of the same things my grandfather grew — showy summer bloomers. My eventual goal is for the visitor to have an “enchanting” experience while ambling down this walkway toward my budget-savvy stockade fence (concept: “Go away”).

Ever since reading Heirloom Gardening of the South a couple of months ago, I have been obsessed with old-fashioned Southern plants that sport giant, fragrant blossoms.  It’s weird, because this was sooooo not my thing….I was a foliage and massing girl all the way!   But it just goes to show you the power of a good gardening book, as well as the fleeting nature of my tastes.  This book convinced me that I, too, can grow lilies and roses and jasmine, and that their fragrance will carry me back to my childhood summers spent drinking iced tea on Grandmother’s porch in Jackson.  Never mind that my grandparents actually lived in Detroit and had no concept of iced tea, or that I’ve never been south of Atlanta.  When it comes to gardening, I am totally fine with suspending reality. 

I’ll close with the “big picture”, a shot of my entire backyard from an upstairs bedroom window:

I have literally shed blood, sweat, and tears in this garden over the past five years, plus spent an embarrassing sum on new plants. (I am only now getting into the routine of dividing, transplanting, getting cuttings and transplants from others, etc.  Too bad that didn’t come earlier on the learning curve.) 

Anyway, thanks for touring the Jardin des Noyers Noir with me!  To see more tours from some wonderful garden designers around the country please check out the links below:

Garden Designers Roundtable

Deborah Silver: Dirt Simple

Andrew Keys: Garden Smackdown

Susan Morrison: Blue Plant Garden Blog

Rebecca Sweet: Gossip in the Garden

Pam Penick: Digging

Jocelyn Chilvers: The Art Garden

Debbie Roberts: A Garden of Possibilities

Christina Salwitz: Personal Garden Coach

Rochelle Greayer: Studio G

44 thoughts on “Garden Designer’s Roundtable: By the Sweat of Your Brow Will You Weed Your Bed.

    • Thank you, Gordon. It always seems like there is so much more to do, so much work needed…I’m wondering if the day will come when I just stand there and look around and say, “hm…I think it’s finished.” Not likely.

  1. Now, I *know* you better…thanks to you speaking of your garden evolution! Odd what we can learn from seeing the land, the flora, etc. Regarding the Southern Heirloom gardens book, the comment on Jackson or Detroit is great, as is never having gone S of Atlanta…priceless! And woodland ghetto?

    Of course, your garden is coming along nicely, ever being refined. Mine has changed more than once, but always an upward trend, like your’s.

  2. Love seeing your before and after photos. I can tell how much hard work you’ve done – very impressive and inspiring. You have chosen plants I have never heard of or would be too afraid to try and use. I’d be happy to share some of my divided plants. I have thousands of dollars worth of hosta I could share (best divided in the Fall at this point :)).

    • Hey Sophie! I really have labored out there, I must say. Honestly, most of the plants I mentioned are very easy to grow…the Latin names just make them sound more exotic than they are. Hostas are the one thing I have plenty of, too! That and daylilies. What else do you have to barter? :o)

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  5. By far, this has been one of the best and most useful Round Table blogs I have ever read! Combining the photos of the gardens and the books that inspired them is brilliant. Bravo!

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  9. Some beautiful things going on. If I might make a few recommendations – try burying the ash rounds so only the tops show, and perhaps move the bletillas against the wood retaining wall, behind the azalea. Can’t wait to see what else you’ll be doing and how things will look in another few years!

    • Rob, great advice! The ash stepping “stones” are just cut too darn thick and honestly its just my laziness preventing me from burying them. I will see how the bletilla look behind the azaleas. Thanks so much for touring my garden!

  10. I could totally have written this! I can’t stick with a theme either. (or why else would I have a sweet woodland path that ends in a shocking purple wall?) Every time I go on a tour, head to the nursery or read a new book, I want to change up my own garden at least a little. Your garden looks lush and inviting, so clearly you’re onto something.

    • Susan, changing things around and having constant bursts of inspiration is part of the fun, don’t you think? A true gardener would almost certainly never have a completely static garden. Thanks for visiting!

    • Thank you Melinda for keeping us all so well informed on what is going on in gomnvnreet concerning this issue. By the way, I saw Susan M. from you bible study yesterday and she told me your Esther group is great.

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  12. I love the fact that you’ve included the books that inspired you! But I love even more that you not only embrace many different styles of garden design but also manage to include them in your garden in such a way that they blend together beautifully. Yours is a garden I would love to spend an entire afternoon in, strolling with a glass of wine just taking it all in. Lovely, indeed.

    • Thanks, Rebecca. I’m glad you think everything seems more or less “blended” as that is a big challenge. Also, I’ve noticed wine appears to be the beverage of choice for garden visits. :o)

  13. You’ve done a LOT since 2007! I think I started my garden in 2007 too? Um… I may have some catching up to do. (Also, “I want to comb it and braid it.”–HA! Nice.)

  14. 1. I think your garden is GRAND!!!
    2. I am jealous of how much space you have! :o)
    3. We have the same pot.
    4. I love that you have a beautifully designed but very real garden that includes grass play space/etc for the family.
    5. I love that you did the work yourself and showed the before pictures. :o)

  15. Mary, you took a lot of time and trouble to detail the evolution of your garden. I so like the notes on what has inspired you. Like Susan, I think you are on to something. Though I find design, planting, and gardening to be a solitary and mostly wordless process, you manage to be a great and engaging writer. Thanks for this great post. Deborah

  16. I adore your take on this topic with the books as inspiration! You did such a wonderful job putting your own personal spin on the ideas!

  17. Mary, I like your approach of before-and-after pics combined with the design book that inspired your changes. You’ve done so much in a short time, and I’m particularly taken with the raised bed with the sedge (love!) and the poolside bed — so overgrown before, but now elegant, restrained, and harmonious.

  18. What a wonderful example of how planning, hard work and persistance (and time) pay off in the garden. All too many of my clients have come to me asking for help in resurrecting a garden which has either not been planned properly with correct plants and materials. Many of them also desire a beautiful garden without having to put in the hard work to achieve such. Your garden is beautiful a credit to you.

  19. Its a beautiful transformation and could easily be the center spread of magazine! I had a blank slate around my house when I got here a dozen years ago and failed repeatedly until I finally took the university master gardener course and became an (IL) MG…now I understand all my past issues.
    Thanks for sharing your journey, the book inspirations and most of all the photos.

    • That’s very kind of you, Deborah. The magazine spread is probably several years away but who knows! My classes, too, were invaluable in teaching me how to garden…trial and error, though, has been the best teacher.

  20. What a great post…I find it fascinating to see how gardens (and gardeners) evolve over time…try new things, admit defeat, try something else. It makes me feel so much better about constantly moving plants around…trying to find the best plant for a particular spot. I remember at first feeling like I must be an awful gardener…but after seeing numerous posts like this, it cements the fact that very few (if any) gardens get it completely right on the first try. Then again, what would the fun of that be…what would we do if our gardens were “done”?

  21. Everything is looking very, very good. I especially liked the overview at the end that brought it all together. Thanks for the book recommendations, too.

  22. Pingback: Garden Designer's Roundtable: A Report From My Own Experiment Garden - Cultivate Your Garden Style

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