A Garden is Born

The excavation phase of our project is finally over leaving us with a blank slate in terms of gardening, and I have never been more intimidated. One of the songs in my running library is Emmit Fenn’s, “Lost in Space.” It’s the perfect description of my garden.

The area under siege is behind the fence in the photo below. As lovely as it may have appeared, this land gradually climbs to a road up above where most of the trees were dead or dying – in other words, a major threat to the roof of our house. Our plan was to create enough level ground to accommodate a one-room addition to our house while also cleaning things up a bit.


We cleared the trees out last December, although the excavator didn’t pull the stumps out until the first day of April. Then they spent the next two weeks moving dirt. Everyone that stopped by to examine our progress remarked on how wonderful the dirt was. Unfortunately, it was that perfect top soil that got hauled away day after day. Underneath was icky, ugly, rock-filled red clay.

Eventually we were left with mulch-covered 2:1 graded slopes from the upper road that also incorporates a swale for drainage, four boulders, and fourteen stone steps that reach a level area at the top where the greenhouse will be positioned. I didn’t completely grasp the significance of landscaping a 2:1 slope until the project was complete. Now I can tell you that gardening on a 2:1 slope is not for the weak spirited.

Water and electricity have been pulled to the upper level for the greenhouse, and all that’s needed are a few good men to help us lug the greenhouse pieces to the top and assemble. It’s easier said than done actually. We’re also thinking of adding a shower up there – it’s really pretty shocking how dirty a person can become while working in all this mulch.

While most informed landscapers will plot and plan their garden design, my husband and I have employed our usual strategy: we stop by the local garden center’s discount rack almost daily to see what we can find. I call it the ‘E.R. Cart’ because every plant is distressed to one degree or another, but if it’s a perennial we bring it home. The hole in this strategy is that you can’t exactly plan your design.

So far we’ve planted two fig trees, three ‘red hot’ crape myrtles, a cypress, blue spruce, raspberry and rose bush. Six different types of ornamental grasses are planted along the swale while the rest of the slopes are filled with tulips, daffodils, white and pink azaleas, early sunrise coreopsis, two hydrangea, four lemon sunset evening primrose, lilies, iris, red thyme, bellflower, twelve lavender bushes, two bags of wild flower seeds, and several plants that I can’t remember their names.

We found evergreen bushes for $10, big liriope was divided and transplanted from the side yard, and I salvaged a trillium and two additional flowering bushes from the swale minutes before the excavator destroyed them.

Several summer phlox seeds must have drifted over from the native garden next door last year and had sprung up in the front this spring. I’ve transplanted them to the slope by the greenhouse along with a half dozen other plant varieties I bought on Saturday at the native garden’s annual plant sale. I’ve been waiting on the day my husband exclaims there’s no more room for plants! But that’s rarely true in my world.

I wish I had taken a picture before the foundation was poured, but it’s good to see the landscape taking shape – if only in my own eyes.

Some day these distressed and doomed plants will blossom and reach their full potential, and my garden will no longer be lost in space.

My Garden Path

This summer’s project can be summed up in one word: landscaping. I was determined to reveal my progress last week until I saw the pictures. Another week of work, I thought, and it will be ready for prime time. It’s been another week and then some. . . let’s just agree to view my efforts through the lens of potential.

Ivy has been the predominant landscaping material house after house – not by choice. I have seriously wondered if there is some life lesson I should be learning that only ivy can teach. It eludes me still.

Ivy was everywhere.

Eradication consumes the larger part of year one. Mine is not a sophisticated approach. Grab it by the roots and pull. One pull always leads to another, and another – and you never know where it will take you. Roots become entangled – a pull here is thwarted by a root crossing over, which can change the direction of your effort 180 degrees, and send you on a wild chase under the fence, across the yard, or straight up the mountain.

Mounds of ‘pulled’ ivy, and Mr. Boggs

A garden from long ago taught me there is only so much wilderness you can expect to tame, and I’ve attempted to be more realistic in my approach. The best results seem to come about naturally, as if this little spot of ground or that shady area in the corner is ready to become something different.

The dogs always play a role in my landscaping plan as well, and it has served me well to wait a bit and let them chart the path.

The dogs created a path through the garden before I started pulling the ivy.

This was the year my husband also got involved. His first order of business was to organize a thorough clean-up.

Ardy and his crew spent three days taking out dead foliage, pruning overgrown limbs, and clearing the fallen trees. They sorted out the hardwoods for firewood, and burned the rest in four self-made fire pits around the house. The fires burned for two days after they left.

After suffering through a constant string of poison ivy outbreaks, we realized Bentley must be bringing it back down the mountain and transferring it directly to me. Abel stopped by and weed whacked the whole mountainside, and I’ve been free of a new outbreak of poison for over two weeks.

Dudley, Mr. Boggs and Bentley (right to left)

A Garden of Potential

With a clean slate (or, at least almost clean) we visited the Lowe’s Garden Center discount cart weekly (or more) and it was shocking what could be found there – $5 hydrangea, $2 canna lilies, $1 coral bells.

The ferns are placed in such an even line around the rock that I wonder if this was a flower bed long ago – before the ivy took over. 
There were day lilies underneath mounds of ivy on the other side of the path.

The $2 lilies found a home in one of the fire pits on the far side of the front yard. Fifty years of dead trees were removed from behind the house and now we can see all the way through the forest.

The patio being cleaned last August before we moved in, and at its most barren state this February.


By May, the ferns have taken over with just one lone day lily peeking through.


The sun hits this side of the house late in the day, and it seems to shine a light on a path that leads through the garden and up the mountain. . . some day.

The excess spring rain has nearly destroyed the potted plants, Dudley chased a critter underground and tore up the herb garden, and Mr. Boggs plows right through the ferns smooshing them flat to the ground.

As with life, each season brings new challenges, unexpected catastrophes. . . and sheer delight. There’s lots of work to be done before this project looks like my inspiration photo at the top of the post, and I wonder what sweet journeys lie ahead on our humble garden path.


How the Garden Grows: Eradication



June 2015: our lovely, old home. . . and the ivy.

imageIt may be three years before it takes hold, but then it will grow to 50 feet or longer, in the shade or direct sun, up vertical surfaces – rocky, smooth, or otherwise, and it is nearly impossible to kill due to its waxy complexion and a phenomenal resistance to toxins.

Should you somehow manage to force it to an untimely death, chances are it will come back to life with renewed vigor on perfectly dead foliage – daring you to even think of attempting to kill it ever again.

May 2015: the back fence area.


The U.K. has dealt with this beast longer than anyone on the planet, and I have spent hours seeking the advice of their best assassins:

Chop the roots down as far as you can with pruning knives, axes, pruning-saws, or whatever you have handy, and then try to pull up or dig up as much of the root system as you can. If you do this thoroughly enough then you may kill the ivy plant completely. . . GOOD LUCK!



March 2016: the back fence area ‘in-progress’ – a rock wall and dozens of tiny trees were discovered under the ivy. Mounds of ivy debris wait to be bundled and hauled to the curb.


December 2015: three matching flower beds, a drain, and garden planter are discovered underneath the ivy.
March 21, 2016
March 22, 2016: new gardenias in the flower beds; Dudley listens for the neighbor’s dog.
Tulips were blooming in the first flower bed, except that’s Mr. Boggs’ favorite “bed” and he smooshed them all. . .
Mr. Boggs

Eradication efforts are greatly improved in winter when the ivy is dormant – not it’s most attractive side, although losing its thick, summer foliage also forces it to give up hidden treasures, including dozens of bricks, toys, a spoon, plate, pot, hammer, rake, a hand spade, full-size ladder, a little Coca-Cola bottle, garden planter, a fair amount of trash, and two wrought iron wall planters. . .  so far.


March 2016: beautiful wrought iron wall planters were discovered in ‘dormant’ ivy under this tree. That’s Dakota in the background.

May 2015 and October 2015: in-progress

October 31, 2015: before the ivy went dormant.
June 2015: the front yard ‘before’
It took a full day of this week to clear the ivy from the bottom of the azaleas on the right. The rock-lined foot path was discovered under the ivy last fall.
A pretty, single azalea is brimming with white buds, but still smothered in ivy. A project for tomorrow. . .


How the Garden Grows

A garden that has survived nearly a century will understandably contain a little of this, and a little of that courtesy of each of its resident gardeners. Some things will flourish and multiply while others tucker out and hang on for dear life. The garden attached to our lovely, old home seems to mass produce holly, liriope, and ivy – but mostly ivy.

My husband held no fear of the old house which sits in this garden, but every time he looked outside the window he moaned and warned me that it was the yard that was the money pit.

A chain link fence created a dog run in this yard's previous life.
A chain link fence created a dog run in this yard’s previous life. The branches of the Magnolia rested on the ground.

Our little spot of earth came fully equipped with a wooden fence – on two and one half sides, a small playground, a chain link fence within the fence, storage shed, broken concrete bird baths and tables, a brick patio and pathways. . . with not one level brick amongst them all. Abundant plant life was also evident – we just couldn’t see it for the ivy.

Whales fished out of the ivy.
Whales fished out of the ivy.

Every spare moment of the past 3 months were spent discovering my new garden, and each trip into the jungle brought new finds from deep within the underbelly of ivy: toys, tomato cages, bricks, a cake plate, rake, hand spade, and a ladder. I have also discovered rock walls, long lost flower beds, and under what we thought were stumps covered in ivy there were little trees.

My Aunt tells me Grandmother always had a ‘plan’ for her garden, and this sounds like a smart approach. So I go out and walk around the yard with the intention of developing a plan, but then I’m curious what’s under this clump of ivy, or I become obsessed with the ivy smothering this poor little bush, or climbing up that tree. Before I know it I have spent hours pulling ivy.

While battling overgrown urban ivy is identical to battling the overgrown mountain ivy of our previous home, there are distinctive differences in the cleanup.

At the end of a long and productive day of pulling ivy in the mountains, I would load up the scraps and throw them over the side of the mountain, and just that easy they were gone.

At the end of a long and productive day of pulling ivy in the city, we must bag the remnants, or tie them in a bundle, and place them by the curb.

Bags are to be clear and bundles tied with string. It was when I ran out of string this week that I realized ivy can, in fact, be good for something.

Turns out ordinary garden ivy makes a hard-working string for tying bundles of yard debris.

This garden is far from “reveal ready.” It may even be fair to call all of these pictures the ‘before,’ but the hot, mosquito-ridden days of summer have turned into brisk, leaf-laden days of autumn, and my gardening adventures are numbered.

Maybe during the cold, snowy days of winter I’ll develop that ‘plan.’

The space behind the house 'before'
The space behind the house ‘before’
The same space 'after'
Underneath the clumps of ivy were little trees.
‘Before’ a window well to the basement was an eye-sore and ivy had covered the side of the garage.
The area behind the house now In-Progress.
A rock wall was completely covered by the ivy.
Rock walls were completely covered by the ivy. Hercules has been part of the family for years, but the little frog came with the house. . . and the ivy.
The dog run 'after'
The dog run and Magnolia ‘after.’
A flower bed waits to be unencumbered from the ivy.
A flower bed waits to be unencumbered from the ivy.
'Before:' a well-worn path leads from the front of the house to the back.
‘Before’ a well-worn path led from the front of the house to the back.
A new brick path leads to the front yard.
‘After’ a new brick path leads from the front to the back, and a new fence to separate the two.


“He-Balsam, She-Balsam”


North Carolina’s geography is divided into three biomes: Coastal, Piedmont, and the Appalachian Mountains.  Home for me has been the Appalachian Mountains: elevation 3,218 feet (980.24 meters). With 53.79 inches of average annual rainfall, our climate is comparable to Miami, Florida (58.53″), except that 90+ degree days…. they are just unheard of at our house.

Balsam, North Carolina is located near Balsam Gap, a mountain pass between the Great Balsam Mountains and the Plott Balsams, two of the highest ranges in the Appalachian Mountains. The town and ranges are named after the nicknames of the Red Spruce and Fraser fir (“he-balsam” and “she-balsam,” respectively), which are the dominant tree types at the highest elevations in the Southern Appalachian mountains.

A view looking toward Balsam Mountain from the side of the road on my way home from a long run.
A view from the side of the road on my way for a morning run.

Post officeAs of the 2000 census, Balsam had a total population of 49 with 14 households, and 11 families residing in the town. There is one United States Post Office where I stop most mornings on my way to the track in the next largest town Eastbound. The Jeep sits in the small parking lot, keys in the ignition, while I check the mailbox that has represented where we live for more than eight years. It was only two years ago that UPS finally agreed to make their way up our drive and deliver large packages directly to our door.

Our driveway
Our driveway
I grabbed a pot and spoon off the rack to shoo the bear away when I realized, "Wait, I want a picture of this!" and then I wooed the bear back toward the door to snap this picture.
The bear followed Dudley home after they had a little quibble on the mountain. I grabbed a pot and spoon off the rack to shoo him away when I realized, “Wait, I want a picture of this!” so, I wooed the bear back and snapped this picture through the screen door.

Flying squirrels, wild turkey, ground hogs, and ring neck snakes also call our property home. Indiana Bats have spent the long summer days under the eaves of our porch since the late 50’s. A black bear took a stroll through our porch one sunny afternoon, lounged around the yard for a couple of days, but was never seen again… thank goodness.

Last year, one of my instructors from school walked all 13 acres of our property to identify every tree and plant. There were 17 different varieties of trees and shrubs, 31 flowering plants, 3 native ferns, 4 vines and ivy, but….. mostly ivy.

Although our winter temperatures are moderate, a white blanket of pristine snow will randomly cover our land at some point during the first four months of every year – the last of which inevitably comes about after my first trip to the garden center.

The native rhododendron in full bloom.
The native rhododendron in full bloom.

The rest of the year, these mountains overdose on color beginning with the daffodils, which pop up everywhere as if the wind has blown them here and there, followed by the bright white of the dogwood against the new green of the spring forest, while rhododendron, fire azalea, and day lilies usher in the warmth of summer. A cornucopia of color chases the beautiful, starkness of winter, but the ivy – it stays with us all year.

If we could add the hours I have spent coaxing the ivy into submission, time would surely measure in months, not days or hours. Ancient flower beds and old, brick patios have been discovered under mounds of ivy – poisonous and otherwise.


The ivy works its way all the way up the mountain.

Long ago, an unknown neighbor cut a trail up the mountain on one side of the waterfall and back down the other. Those willing to walk its path are privy to the sight where the waterfall begins; the image likely bringing visions of a grand, bubbling fountain. Instead, it is merely a dribbling spring. Yet, as this dribble gains momentum, tumbling down the rocky mountainside, it becomes a beautiful waterfall.

A cross marks the beginning of the trail at the base of the waterfall.
A cross marks the trail-head at the base of the waterfall.

I once read that it takes three years for a garden to mature. In fact, it may take my gardens a little longer than most.

This spring my favorite bird built her nest in a basket of geraniums.
My favorite bird built her nest in a basket of geraniums. The babies left the nest weeks ago on wobbly legs to brave the unknown of the forest.

For years, I have planted beautiful flowers, moved them to another spot and then another…. and sometimes watched them die. I’ve transplanted ferns, trillium and miniature orchids from the wild of the mountainside to the yard, fussed over why they refuse to grow in the places I’ve put them, and marveled how sometimes they catch on and flourish.

There’s nothing quite like falling asleep to the sound of a creek, or waking up to the song of your favorite bird. Every year, my favorite bird has her babies in various containers on our porch or in the hanging baskets. She jumps up and down, chirping her soul away when the babies have opened their eyes. These things I will never forget

The greatest lesson this property has taught is that you can take over a piece of wilderness for your own delight, but the wilderness will always attempt to take it back. It’s ok. I’ve learned to cooperate with these mountains (ivy), accept what it is willing to give up, and seek the beauty in what it insists on remaining unruly. In the end, the key is to find a way to live happily, in harmony together.

7 Days of Effort

This has been the first full week of 10-minute strength and mobility exercises after each run. Three days of Core H and three days of A Better Myrtl. A Better Myrtl goes pretty well but I struggle through the last 3 steps of Core H. I read about physical therapist’s Gary Gray’s lunge matrix as a warm-up to running so, of course, I had to try this out every day this week as well..

On Monday, the 10 minutes of Core H waited until I stopped at the garden center to pick up  plants for all the planters around the yard. While Mr. Boggs wrestled the empty plastic pots to the ground, I worked my way around the yard with my garden bucket full of 80 pounds of good, black dirt and beautiful flowers.image

By now my husband has usually called Abel to stop by with his weed whacker and whack off everything between the house and the creek down below. Being fully preoccupied with his work this year, the call to Abel was left to me….which I procrastinated a bit.

The extra time gave me a good look at what Mother Nature grows here naturally, including Nodding Trilliums. Tuesday was the day I decided to spare as many as I could from the whack of Abel’s blade and I climbed up and down the mountain in search of these tall, beautiful wonders.

Wednesday I added a few stones to the walkway I’ve been working on since last fall. This area is always muddy after it rains and I wanted a walkway that looked like it has always been there. The only reason this has been a success is because I have no clue what I’m doing.

For days I’ve searched the yard for just the right size rocks, lugged them up to the path in my garden bucket, dug the hole, placed the stone, moved the stone, dug the hole deeper, put the stone in, jump on it to see if it wiggles, start the process all over.


Thursday was clean-up day around the yard. I gave Abel permission to cut ivy from anywhere he found it but threatened his life if he touched the ferns or my newly found trilliums. He’s a good man and now I have a clean slate all the way to the creek with colonies of trilliums standing tall.image

My Sifu got a new floor mat for the classroom so Thursday night at Kung Fu we all practiced our rolls. First we walk up to the mat, fall over head first with our weight on one shoulder and simply roll – working our way up to diving on the mat and into a proper roll that lands us in a fighting stance. i can’t say I’ve mastered the diving roll but it was great fun trying. We dived, jumped and rolled for an hour.

Friday morning I rolled out of bed….oh boy. I was sore.

My thighs hurt and my gluts…my arms, quads, sides and abs. Everything hurts. This was a bad day for my run to be on one of the more difficult routes. The track was right there and so tempting but I avoided the easy way out and worked my way through the hills.

Our neighborhood in Atlanta was having a garage sale so my husband suggested I drive down with the dogs Friday afternoon. Mr. Boggs agreed to take a bath for the occasion and then we all piled in the Jeep for the drive.

Up and down the stairs I carried this and that to the garage. I think all of us neighbors were our own best customers and by Saturday afternoon I was in the car again heading north with a few dollars in my pocket and a few new treasures in the back seat.

One last Sunday morning run, 10-minutes of work and I’ve finally completed another week.

My husband and I had a debate this morning as to whether the week ends on Sunday or begins on Sunday. I told him anybody that works this hard all week deserves for the week to be over on Sunday night.

His calendar can begin and end any day he wants. My week is officially over.

Becoming a “Mature” Runner

ImageIf you started running as an adult, or even if you ran in school but then left it for a while, you probably understand what I mean when I say running evolves. I read once that it takes 3 years to create a mature garden and I think running is quite similar to my garden.

I was working outside yesterday, contemplating this one flower bed that I have nurtured for several years. When we bought this property, the day lilies and ivy had taken over everything. At that time, it was a summer home and each summer I worked to clear up one more section – pulling the ivy and cutting back…. well, everything.

porch photoA framed collage of pictures has survived almost 60 years on our porch and shows the original owner building the rock walls that surround the house. There was no ivy, no day lilies, the boxwood were mere shrubs where now they are trees. Each picture shows one man carefully and  lovingly creating something to be quite proud of for years to come.

A few years ago, I discovered a beautiful brick patio and a flower bed, long covered in mounds of ivy. I’ve spent three summers clearing and  planting this flower bed, experimenting with different flowers and plants – planting them, moving them, exploring different options. At the end of the season, I’ll buy up the discounted plants at the garden center and wait until the next spring to see them bloom. It’s a long time to wait to reap the rewards of a pretty bloom.garden 1

In the fall, it looks beautiful with just the right mix of mums and flowers that take it through to winter. Except that last fall a tree fell right in the middle of this flower bed and smashed all of the beautiful flowers.

My running also takes a good bit of experimenting – trying different training programs, diets, recovery strategies. I train for so long, weeks and months, and don’t reap the rewards of my effort until race day, maybe a whole season away. An unwanted injury is like that tree that fell last year just before the fall peak.

It takes years to evolve into a seasoned, mature runner I think.

And, if you’re reading my blog and you’re not a runner, I imagine you could substitute anything in place of the word running. For me, this could be any one of the other things I so enjoy in life: Tai Chi, definitely Kung Fu, piano, cycling.

When I was younger, I wanted everything now. I would obsess over something until I succeeded according to my definition of success. Sometimes you realize, success is the continuum of an effort undertaken over the course of your lifetime.