Breaking Out

It has seemed insensitive to write about everyday life when everyday life has been so disrupted for humans everywhere. My husband and I are in our fourth week of self-imposed lockdown. I do wish I had gotten my hair cut before we started, and I would have liked to shop the local garden center for spring plants just once, but we’ve survived fairly well just being on our own.

We’ve ordered groceries online twice, and tipped handsomely for home delivery. Last week I washed every item before putting it away, but we’re not sure whether this extra step will become a lasting habit. Some days I wonder if I really need to wear a bra, or put styling gel in my hair for every single day of this lockdown, although so far the answer has been yes to both. The only place I feel completely safe is in the shower, and the garden. There is not even the slightest inkling of lockdown in the garden.

The gym, coffee shop, ice cream parlor, playground, restaurants, and all indoor spaces in our neighborhood have closed. The trail around the lake became so congested that it was converted to a one-way course to help folks maintain proper distance. I’ve taken to walking the streets, which includes a fair amount of climbing since every street travels ever further up the mountain. I took this picture earlier this week on my way back down toward the lake.

Master Gardening school was cancelled, including the graduation ceremony planned for early May. We studied the chapters on small fruits and woody ornamentals on our own time, answering the quizzes by email as if nothing unusual was taking place all over the world. Then someone had the idea to video-conference class, and this week we held our class by ZOOM. I’ve never ZOOM’d; never even heard of ZOOM. Somehow we managed to not get ZOOMbombed in the process, and after three hours’ time we had covered lessons on garden vegetables, pests and weeds. Who would have thunk.

Three loads of mulch were delivered during the first week of lockdown. Some day I am determined to have a garden that doesn’t require so much mulch, but Mark and his guys had a lull in their schedule, and we were lucky to have their help for several days to toss that mulch all around. That’s when my husband decided we should also attack the wet and mucky side walkway. A flagstone path seemed to be the right answer, and there were just enough stones in one pallet to reach around the corner and all the way to the steps toward the upper yard. This narrow walkway is begging for an inspired design, and it’s high on my list of gardening projects.

During lockdown weeks two and three, things began to break out through the mulch seemingly overnight. The rose bushes, Montouk Daisies, and all the lavender plants have turned green. Unfurled fern fronds stand tall beside emerging hostas, and the trillium I salvaged the day excavation began last year has miraculously re-appeared. The climbing hydrangea have tiny buds in a subtle promise that blossom-laden vines will reach places far and wide in the weeks ahead.

The Creeping Jenny I indifferently stuck in the ground two years ago could very well take over the front garden this summer, and now I’m having second thoughts. I’ve pulled armfuls out and thrown it behind the shed where it can run amok. Perhaps one hundred years from now when Creeping Jenny has crept throughout the land, some irate gardener will trace its origins to my garden and wonder why on earth I would have done such a thing.


Late last year I planted ten bare root trees from the Arbor Day Foundation, and surrounded them with protective covers. If you peek inside the cover, you can see they have developed little leaves, which is pretty exciting. This tiny tree is a Hawthorne.


I’ve searched everywhere for plants that will survive the underground spring in left field. Lilies were an easy answer, but the Elderberry apparently also tolerates some degree of wet feet, so I moved it just a few weeks ago to a moist spot above the rocks. It’s completely invisible in every photo, but there are signs of life with tiny leaves all over its spindly frame.

Last summer I had also added Cana Lilies to the spring area, but quickly changed my mind and moved them to the side yard. It didn’t matter. A few have returned after all, so I guess I’ll leave them alone this time. My dream is that some day this difficult area will become the focal point of my summer garden with bulbs blooming en masse.

A fellow gardener once told me that a gardener always sees what their garden can become rather than what it currently is. Case in point. . .

I can’t help but stare out the window and watch my garden grow. Every day there’s a new job to finish, a tender new plant to notice, or a grand idea to ponder. It still looks bleak in many ways, but I feel confident in its potential even still.

The daffodils were beautiful in the front this year, but I got busy and forgot to take a photo. Meanwhile, the day lilies have arrived in some multiples greater than last year, which will probably dictate a relocation project for later this fall.

I could write 500 words about the fascinating job of pruning, but I’ve finally learned the most important lesson of all: when not to prune. The Montouk Daisy is one of those woody ornamentals that prefers new growth on old wood. In the absence of my severe pruning, as in years past, it’s standing tall and strong for the first time.

Small clumps of viola grows all along the edges of the sidewalk where they faithfully return every year. Or, maybe they never leave.

There was a mystery bulb on the garden center clearance cart last summer priced at just $1, but the nice lady at the register dropped it in my shopping bag for free since no one could identify this strange bulb. A few weeks ago, it finally revealed itself. There’s an experienced gardener somewhere that recognizes this plant already, but I have yet to figure it out.

Another surprise came along on Monday in the mailbox. I had made a second small donation to the Arbor Day Foundation a few weeks ago, and they replied with thirty Ranunculus bulbs (buttercups). Hopefully I’ll remember all the places I’ve planted them, and hopefully they’ll look just like this picture.

Until next time, be well. My heart is with you all.

Test Your Knowledge on Woody Ornamentals:

1. What are the four types of vines? __________, __________, __________, __________

2. True or False: When planting a bailed and burlapped plant, leaving the burlap exposed above ground level provides an extra moisture reservoir.

3. What problems can occur with volcano mulching?

a. Tree roots can grow into the excessive layer of mulch.

b. Mulch too close to the trunk allows voles to access the tree to chew the bark.

c. Mulch touching the trunk may cause bark decay.

d. All of the above.

Answer key:

1. Clinging, Twining, Scrambler, Tendrils

2. False: exposed burlap will act as a “wick” pulling moisture away from the rootball.

3. All of the above.

Volcano Mulching:

My Garden Propagation Project

There’s lots of ways to gather plants for a landscaping project, and I’ve been willing to try any and all methods to fill the barren land behind my house. In fact, there’s been little time this summer for anything except gathering plants.

The excavation part of our construction project from earlier this year left us with a set of stone steps, and mounds of red clay covered in mulch. I’m familiar with inheriting a fully landscaped yard – even if I might spend the next few years tweaking, moving and fine-tuning what was already there. Reversing the total eradication of all plant life is a horse of a different color altogether.

My goal has been to cover as much ground as possible, literally and figuratively speaking. My ultimate garden would be one that requires very little mulching, no cutting grass or weed-whacking, and includes spots of shade all around. By mid-summer I had finally thought to start a Pinterest board with the names of every plant we’ve added to our garden to help me keep track of things. I’ve registered 116 different species so far, although we’ve rarely added just one plant of any variety.

My favorite method of propagation starts with a visit to the discounted rack of plants at the nearby garden center. There’s something uniquely rewarding about reviving a distressed plant that’s been left to your mercy – not to mention it’s also easier on the wallet. And you never know what variety of plant you might find on the discount rack.

Our savings have become fairly substantial in the process of discount-rack shopping. One day we had finished shopping when the nice lady at the register advised us of an additional 50% off all discount-rack plants. We went shopping again and made off with a total $362 savings.

We’ve accumulated plants by transplanting from near and far as well. When our friend Irene divided the Iris in her garden earlier this spring, my husband brought a bucket full home in his little convertible. It was quite the sight.

Last year a neighbor opened his garden to anyone that was willing to divide and dig day lilies. Next year these same day lilies will be ready to divide and transplant again into the vast unknown of our back yard – where I’ll be quite happy for them to multiply till their heart’s content.

A photo of the front taken on September 9, 2018 after planting the day lilies from our neighbor’s garden.

This photo was taken June 16, 2019 when the lilies were in full bloom.

The next two photos were taken earlier today. Some of the day lilies are still blooming, but the Montauk Daisy steals the show. Last year I cut a stem from the more mature daisy on the right and started a new plant on the left. If anything more than a leaf falls off a plant anywhere, I’ll toss it in water and see if it roots. Some experiments are more successful than others.

My husband found several platters of sedum on the discount rack one day, and we planted them everywhere.

It was a fluke decision to put one of the platters into the St. Francis statue’s arms in the shady side garden, and now there’s sedum starters that have taken hold all around just underneath. In some cases, propagation could take the rest of my life. It’s still fun.

Each time I’ve added a new plant to my Pinterest board, I’ve researched its particulars. It’s been fascinating, and sometimes stunning.

I fell in love with the Evening Primrose and their delicate early-morning blooms, but there was an urgent warning regarding how invasive this plant can become if left to propagate at will. And I didn’t think much about burying the leftover Creeping Jenny from a summer arrangement last year to see what would happen. It’s the best ground cover ever, although we could possibly drown in a sea of Jenny by this time next year.

There’s been a few stomach turning lessons along the way as well, such as the day I discovered ‘dog vomit fungus’ and the ‘stink horn’ mushroom. Both thrive in mulch, both are simply horrible, and you can’t possibly make this stuff up. But there’s also been great pleasure in finding the perfect spot for a tree I’ve never heard of before, or finding plants that would survive where an underground spring keeps the ground surprisingly wet. Pictures do not do our hard work justice, but some day this cottage garden will be the garden of our dreams.

I found Mr. Boggs sitting at the top of the hill in the back garden and snapped his picture – it looks like he’s wearing the Canna Lily in the background as a hat. My experimental wildflower garden is just beyond the Canna Lily and an even more experimental rain garden is just below the ridge. Bentley is at the far right sitting in front of a small white azalea that has just decided to bloom. This is home. And this is where I’ve happily spent most of my summer days.

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.

The Secret Garden Cottage – Part II


It’s been almost a year since we began renovations on this little cottage. After it spent several decades in a 1970’s decor, it has been fairly receptive to our suggestions both inside and out. Two new porches and a metal roof were added earlier this year, but it was this summer that the side yard got a total make-over, including a koi pond, stone steps, a raised flower bed, and lots of plants.

September 25, 2017: the side yard day one.

May 1, 2018

We covered a hundred years of roots (and ivy) with mulch instead of grass. I have never planted so many plants straight up in mulch rather than dirt.

July 20, 2018

There was an awkward slope up from the front of the house, and I thought it would be helpful to have a couple of steps.


September 10, 2018

A koi pond fit perfectly in the corner, and we added five goldfish that I’ve worried over every day.


We visited the discount rack at the Lowe’s garden center after lunch most days. If there was a perennial there, we brought it home – most of them just $1 each.

691766A7-9997-428D-AEF5-47ED892ED70FAnd I convinced my husband to rip off the lower boards of the front porch so we could crawl underneath and dig out the ferns that had been trapped there since the remodel began. Anything for a fern.

72CD9215-909A-401E-AF10-0DED18F14B4DThe flower bed was my idea for covering a set of concrete steps from a kitchen door that was closed off during the renovations. It was either build over them or take them out, and none of us seemed to want to take on that chore. Lewis did most of the carpentry work during the renovation and all of the stone work. He filled the flower bed with mulch, and I filled it with herbs.

7A8811B6-D22D-4641-939D-A53AB83B2B0CAfter a year of debating whether to paint the living room paneling, we compromised and painted one wall. Then I played musical chairs with several rooms of drapes back at home so I could move a brighter pair to the cottage, which complements a new rug. The result is a significantly brighter living room.

January 2018



September 10, 2018

89530604-BADE-437B-9E23-C60B9897998CWe’ve also swapped out the too-small-queen-size-bed for a beautiful king bed, there’s a new fig tree – barely visible to the far right of the picture below, and plans are in the works for the next phase of construction. . . which will entirely change this little cottage yet again.




The Great Land Grab

If curb appeal is everything, our little cottage had nothing. A nice collection of ancient trees gave the place a mystical appeal, but they denied us a driveway. There seemed to be enough room, if we could only recapture some of that land from the forest. What we didn’t realize was that taking down 12 trees would be the easy part.


B28CB8E2-4FF1-4F7A-9BE2-DB105DB839F1The cottage sits in a holler; a term used in our area for a small rising valley region between two hills or mountain often containing a creek. We’ve lived in a holler with a creek before. Moving water can wreak havoc on your landscape.5DEAB8A5-03B0-4544-90EB-32D142D5A373Starting at the top of a large hill behind the cottage, the water ran along the left side of the property. From there it found its way under the street to a creek that runs through a park in the middle of Stuart Circle. Over the decades the water had carved out a wide ditch along its route that left little room for a proper driveway.7DB520DC-C29E-4915-B530-604F3D3C2A56.jpegAn excavator worked for several weeks to take back the land from the moving water. He added a corrugated drain pipe from the top of the hill to the street with collection drains at the top and bottom. Then he moved the earth around to fill in the ditch and take the steepness out of the drive, and still he hauled away tons of dirt.542B5752-7CEA-48EA-BE3E-E5BC96A4C645Hundreds of rocks uncovered in the process now form a retaining wall.2DBEAB09-F48B-4F20-B4AC-1AB6C8817FCFWith that job finished we now realize there’s room for a driveway and a garage with a guest suite. The first land grab went quite well.78FB3E51-D2BA-43FE-B6DD-AD24C7DB3962Meanwhile, my focus had turned to a parcel of land behind the cottage. At the top of an ivy-laden hill is a small sliver of land that sits below another road up above. I wanted this sliver of land to be part of our back yard, but it wasn’t. My worry was that some day a house would go up on this land and ruin everything.0E2540BC-1E30-4A43-A98A-F619C11DEF7AThe long sliver of land was hardly wide enough to build a house given the required set-backs, but it wasn’t impossible. What it lacks in width is made up for in length. It stretches behind our property and past our neighbor’s house as well.F3FBE50A-E8F9-41CB-A90C-FF9843E776E7We found the road above our cottage where we also discovered a For Sale sign attached to that sliver of land. We called Julie, our trusted realtor, and made a ridiculously low offer – a move my husband called a defensive purchase. Julie made our case to the owner, they accepted our meager offer, and our final land grab is complete.

Now we can dig into the mountainside to have even more room for the garage – and I admit that my imagination runs away with me over what else we can do with all this extra space. The only caveat is that my husband has made me promise, for real, that this will be our last move ever. Thank goodness there seems to be enough projects left on this little cottage to last me a lifetime.

The Secret Garden Cottage, Still In-ProgressA99626A7-B1FA-43E7-987B-4B90D032C29A



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

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.