Backyard Garden Tour

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A few years after we moved into our home and my garden had started to look respectable, Fine Gardening Magazine ran a contest called “Inspired Gardens.” I thought my garden fit this contest perfectly because of it’s unique inspiration. I had to write an essay, submit photos and wait. I told my family I thought I could win. They thought my bubble-brained optimism was in overdrive. But I won. And my greatest prize was a workshop in Vermont with designer Julie Messervy. ( Julie was an inspirational, talented and gracious host and I carry her lessons with me every time I design. But I also learned a lot from all the other gardening geeks like myself. I learned, (in a pretty cool kumbaya moment) that, well, I’m not all that odd.

So here’s a little tour of the backyard. Some photos are from the year I entered the contest (2006) and some are from last year and a few are from today. I could spend weeks labeling all the plants so if you want one identified just ask. I’ll answer.

The essay I submitted for the contest:

My husband and I stood on a lot that was for sale. The property barely supported knee-high weeds because the topsoil had been scraped away in the land’s past life as an airport. Recently, the solid Ohio clay beneath, had been bulldozed into high swells and deep swales to form a shapely rolling golf course just beyond the edge of the lot. I thought buying this puny piece of real estate would be gardening suicide.

Our house at that time sat on a partially wooded acre where I had spent 18 years building soil and perennial gardens. We enjoyed wildlife: cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers and migrating orioles. Raccoons and skunks visited nightly, and muskrats raised their families in the creek running along the back property line. Forty-foot tall american elms had escaped disease to arch over our gardens. And a towering pin oak supported the families of many squirrels.

We sat on a lump of discarded concrete on the rear of the property, watching golfers stream past in their crisp red shirts and wondered why anyone would buy this lot. We laughed when they cursed their luck as their balls landed in the beautiful undulating white sand traps which were the highlight of the view. We counted the number of golf balls that landed on the lot, estimating how many windows could be broken.As the weeks went by, I began to see the drawbacks for what they were. Errant balls were mere annoyances, like mosquitoes that circle a gardener on a summer night. And the baked clay need not be turned. I could bury it the way any dead thing should be buried, in lots of rich beautiful topsoil. The fact was, there was inspiration here, and the more I spent time on the small empty lot, I found that watching golfers was fun – even more fun than watching the squirrels in our back yard. Golfers were just as entertaining and had slightly higher IQ’s.
I began sketching my garden while our house-to-be was just a hole in the ground, and the windows I first worried about were still months from framing the inspiration behind it’s design. From every window you would view beautiful amoebas of white sand, a curving green, shaped like a giant lily pad, and tall fescue bending on rolling hills. Nothing in this new garden would be straight.I realized quickly that I would have very little lawn in this yard and that any grass would act as a curving path to take visitors around the garden. If I was to have room for any flowers, grass was what would be sacrificed. There was, after all, an entire golf course in the back yard. In the sketch, as in the finished design, the gardens’ graceful curves act like arms and they wrap around our tiny lot in a sort of garden hug. These beds weave in and out of a line of thin Maples that the course planted along the edge of the lot. During the planning stage, I stood in the middle of the fairway and looked back to the house to view the shapes of the beds and contemplate plant selections. I had two views to consider – mine and the golfers’.
Loads of top soil and manure were brought in to support new life in the beds. Because beds surround the entire lot, this required only slightly more dirt than an indoor monster truck arena. Even the bowling alley strip of space between houses required top soil. In this narrow space, an undulating stepping stone path winds through big blue hostas and astilbe that I brought from my previous garden.

The kidney bean shaped patio, which acts as a vista, is supported by dry stacked stone walls which curve to mirror the shape of the putting green. To add shade to the sun drenched patio, I selected a 25 foot tall Ash from a field (it would have met it’s demise to construction if I had not saved it) and had it planted next to the patio. It serves to break up the straight lines of the house and anchor it to the lot. It’s root ball forms a gentle swale. Even the front yard is inspired by the golf course. Swooping beds of myrtle mimic the shapes of the rough and fairway, and a 30 foot red maple (discovered while looking for the ash) anchors a curving bed to the street.

The once empty lot now blends seamlessly with a golf course that looks like cumulus clouds turned green. The shape of the beds and the position of every tree, shrub and flower, were inspired by the view. I knew what time of day sun would filter through the grasses, and understood how the red twigs of a variegated dogwood would splash against a backdrop of white moguls in the winter. After 3 years, the garden is beginning to mature and I am rewarded daily. Now I enjoy prairie birds like bluebirds, purple martins, gold finch and red tail hawks. A great blue heron has visited the fountain on my patio. And when our golfing friends stop to admire the gardens with their hands on their hips, they temporarily forget about their unlucky shot and comment on its beauty. Squirrels never did that.


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2 Responses

  1. Laleh March 26, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    Your garden is inspirational for me. I have inheritated my grandmothers house and want to keep it in the best of order. She always kept up on everything. One thing that was always a struggle in the yard was all along the back fence. It is rocky clay. My huband and I have turned it got clay buster,talked about going 3 feet down to eliminate bad dirt ,and going 4 feet up with a rased garden bed. Now i think I will try covering it with a bunch of good soil like you did. Thanks so much . Your garden is luscious and beautiful. I hope mine will turn out the same. Its a great work in progress.


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