The Bare Root

Landscape Design from the Bottom Up


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HOW DOES MY GARDEN GROW

How Does My Garden Grow?

By Barbara Ballinger

I was nurturing a new passion—gardening—and a new life, then watching both blossom simultaneously

Everyone urged me during my divorce proceedings to move on, build a new life, have fun and do things I had never done during my marriage. I listened carefully, though during this very stressful time, I was lucky to keep my head above water.

When I finally emerged as a healthy single, I was ready to heed my friends’ words and that included the purchase of my first house on my own where I discovered a new passion– gardening. It was to become a metaphor for growing and nurturing my new life in general.

I hadn’t planned gardening to be part of my repertoire. Others had green thumbs, not me. But my 1797 house with welcoming front porch and curlicue detailing added after the Civil War sat on one of my tiny village’s main streets. Although surrounded by a darling white picket fence, there was virtually no landscaping in front except one majestic maple tree. The setting of the house looked lonely in front and back (sort of the way I felt initially after my divorce) and was even devoid of shrubs except for a mass of overgrown bushes, leaves spread around the grounds resembling a tossed salad, and a little wood shed in disrepair. It needed some tender loving care.

I had no clue what to do on my own or how to approach this gigantic project. So, I did what I instruct readers to do in my home design articles–look for ideas and inspiration in books, online, in magazines, and call on experts, if affordable! In situations like mine, when starting with a blank canvas, I always advise creating a master plan to achieve a cohesive look. In doing so, you can do the work in stages rather than all at once, which can prove costly.

The first landscape designer I contacted was so expensive the sum could have resuscitated the Greek economy. It was out of my league. Then I read an ad for a couple who focus on edibles and don’t use pesticides. They came to my home, walked the property with me, listened to my concern to keep costs down and my wish for a green, blue, purple and white garden of hearty vegetation that would grow well in my climate. I gave them a deposit, and several weeks later they came back with pages and pages of a detailed, colored master drawing. Selections for both front and back ranged from hostas to ferns for shady areas, hydrangeas for fullness, currants, licorice and fruit trees for edibles, lots of perennials to avoid more expensive annuals, and an area earmarked for a tiny water feature.

Phase one.

Because of the public location of my property, I decided to work on the front garden first. While the couple I hired was busy planting mostly perennials in front, I remembered how much I liked my former neighbor’s grape vines and decided to replicate them. They would look perfect along a side fence in my yard. Moreover, they could be a memorial vineyard to Margaret’s late husband Nolan, who had been in the wine and spirits business. I gave it the moniker, “Nose Acres,” a variation on Nolan’s email name, nosewine. I also purchased two large planters to sit on my front porch, which my garden designers filled with seasonal offerings.

Grape vines were planted in what Barbara calls, “Nose Acres,” a memorial to Margaret’s late husband, Nolan, who was in the wine business.
Grape vines were planted in what Barbara calls, “Nose Acres,” a memorial to Margaret’s late husband, Nolan, who was in the wine business.
When phase one was finished, I found I loved walking out in the morning and seeing what was coming up. Like any new relationship, I loved nurturing it. Even weeding, watering and pruning became a delight for it would mean more would grow and more quickly.

Phase two.

The next year we planted part of the back with hostas, butterfly bushes and the beginnings of a perennial border. We moved on to the side yards, which we lined with ferns, which I had loved when I visited Kew Gardens in London with my mother years before. Because there was more shade on the other side garden, more hostas were planted.

Phase three.

The third year was a major undertaking. I added built-in planters on the back porch for flowers so anyone sitting there would enjoy color. I also extended the perennial bed, and decided to have a vegetable garden constructed as I read about more homeowners wanting to grow their own food, including First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. My designers and I came up with a plan of four raised planters surrounded by gravel and framed by low bluestone walls for more edibles such as mint, basil, asparagus, strawberries, and herbs. In this case, because I proceeded slowly and in stages, it was feasible financially for me to add on and make changes.

Once the vegetable garden was planted, I ventured out early with coffee cup in hand most mornings to see my luscious produce start to pop: little strawberries, juicy tomatoes, skinny string beans, fat cucumbers, lots of mint, basil, and some edible flowers. I found that beets did poorly, as did my eggplants, and I got only one giant zucchini, which quickly was pureed and used in a zucchini bread. The tomatoes became sauce and gazpacho, the strawberries inspired many compotes, and the string beans and cucs were used for dinners. I also would go to friends’ houses with homegrown veggies in hand to show off my handiwork. This was tangible proof that I could see new life growing before my eyes.

There was more I wanted to do. I still didn’t have a terrace for sitting, which also hadn’t been part of my initial plan, so we decided to extend the gravel into a European-style hardscape circle since my initial choice of bluestone was too pricey. We added lovely big flagstone steppers to bisect the terrace and lead to the vegetable garden. I also painted the door of my shed red so I could see it from my kitchen, and also painted the shed’s faux windows with two favorite paintings—one of Monet’s bridges and the other of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Barbara painted the door to her shed red and added
Barbara painted the door to her shed red and painted the faux windows with her two favorite paintings.
Phase four.

The fourth year was mostly for filling in holes. By my backyard fence, I added lilac bushes that reminded me of those from my childhood home, several blueberry bushes for more edibles, and some pear trees for statuesque height.

Phase five.

In this recent fifth year, I extended my hydrangeas from the side along the front to complete the look of the picket fence, because the daffodils I originally planted had such a short life. I also had a messy area behind the shed cleared and three oak hydrangeas planted to camouflage a neighbor’s fence. The back hill was mulched and hostas and other shade loving plants were added.

This past summer I decided to plant fewer vegetables because some “neighbors” as in the many deer in the area had entered the village and were ruthlessly chomping on my produce. (There are ways I found to keep them at bay.) I pared down to a few tomato plants and some string beans, and still had strawberries, mint, and asparagus coming in.

Adding and subtracting.

My three-year garden vision keeps being extended and cut back. I’m now thinking about where I can add that small water feature I put off. I will also remove blueberry bushes since they’ve failed and probably add lilacs in their place. Overall I’m quite pleased. What my garden guide, landscape designer Michael Glassman, who’s co-author of my forthcoming book, The Garden Bible (Images, 2015), taught me is true: The first year a garden sleeps, the second year it creeps and the third year it leaps. He left off sharing that the fourth and fifth year it explodes!

I’m still having fun, though trying to cut back on my expenditures, still only planting perennials here and there for color and height where I see blank spaces, and adding annuals only in planters and pots to trim the expense and annual work. These are the two downsides of gardening. As I visit my favorite nursery to see what’s new and tempting. I’d love to add some roses but I’ve been told they need five to six hours of daily sun, which my yard doesn’t offer. I also need to weed constantly, which is great exercise but grueling work for my back and legs, and can lead to poison ivy and other plant-related rashes.

Rashes, itching, Prednisone and expenses aside, I love that my house no longer looks lonely in its setting. That part reminds me of Monet’s beloved Giverny home with its riot of colors, textures, and heights. How proud I feel when I notice people stopping and lingering in front of my picket fence to study my gardens. And when I sit alone or with family and friends on the gravel terrace in the late afternoon with a glass of wine in hand, chat or read, I feel a tremendous sense of peacefulness and accomplishment.

I’ve certainly added a new passion to my life after 50, and my partnership with the land is only likely to grow as are the many new relationships I have in my life.