The Ohio Garden

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.

Ohio Garden

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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10 Responses

  1. Shelly Windeknecht October 18, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    You are such an amazing designer and gardener! I am so glad to see that you have your own blog now because I trust that you’ll be inspiring other total strangers the way that you have me these last few years! My garden is still nowhere near as beautiful as yours, but I am still working on it. Thanks for all your help!!!

    • greenthumblonde October 18, 2012 at 7:51 pm

      I’m so glad you stopped by. You know how I created sketches for you over the top of the photos you supplied? I’m hoping to do that for others too. If I can find my sketches I intend to write a post on that. I’ll bet your changes look great. Your path through the woods was so unique for a front yard.

  2. Laurrie February 18, 2013 at 9:19 am

    Inspiration! I spent a long time this morning looking over your transformation photos and reading about your thoughtful design approach. We also started with a builder’s lot scraped bare in 2004 and I have transformed it into a garden (no golf course views, but a meadow beyond). You’ve given me additional ideas here, particularly the genius of that stone wall, which I so want to incorporate in my space. What I am not sure I can imitate is the way you have tied house and land together, and combined garden and golf course so seamlessly. Beautiful!

    Congrats on the Fine Gardening win, clearly deserved in my opinion (and what a prize — a workshop with Julie M!!) Thanks for this rewarding look at the birth of a beautiful garden. Loved it.

  3. jeff/tntreeman/gpod March 14, 2013 at 6:31 am

    tried to email direct but it bounces back saying you don’t exist! i’m thinking you do. i was reviewing past GPOD features and knew your name from gpod so i wanted to check out the website,,, glad i did. i am totally envious of your hostas as voles eat mine almost immediately. all beautiful gardens and i’m sure you are anxious for it to spring to life in 2013.
    thankful for gpod for showing me what everyone is doing “out there” and it’s a great way to start the day,,,,,,,,,well except for that one dark cloud from NY but we won’t go there. make it a great day and have fun!

    • Jan Meissner March 17, 2013 at 8:07 pm

      Sorry I don’t exist jeff/tntreeman/gpod! I’ll look into that. Thanks for stopping by and visiting the gardens. Sorry about the voles. I have soooo many. I started sprinkling vole deterrent. Vole Max I think is what it’s called. Even the stray cats won’t eat those darned critters. Hate them. Don’t want to poision them for obvious reasons of poising everything up the food chain, but it’s a constant battle. The best vole killer is my fountain. They fall in and drown. I have to fish their soggy little corpses out with no remorse. Spring is coming!

  4. Stephanie Betts May 1, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    After I met you in Florida, I spent the next morning curled up on the couch with a cup of coffee, traveling through your garden. Lucky me! I always pause on the golf course when I reach your garden, and spend a couple of minutes admiring its beauty and peaceful balance. It gives me a break from my often not so peaceful golf game. What a pleasure to finally peek inside through your blog.
    Visiting your Harvest Inn blog brought back our August wedding adventure. I plan to revisit again this evening with a glass of Napa vino!
    Thanks for sharing your blog and your garden!

  5. Jacqueline May 2, 2013 at 10:22 pm

    Your blog and gardens are lovely and have great ideas. I was reminded why I love echinacea. In your top photo ,you made the foliage and shapes as beautiful as the flowers around the bird houses. I live on cape cod and I am planning my second wedding reception in four years in my yard. That top photo made me want to weep… it is such a charming garden. Got to go.. more garden to weed but loving it.

  6. mary sweeney May 6, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Is there a way you can identify some of the plants in your great photos? I have shared your site with several folks who love gardening also. I am mostly interested in the Ohio home garden. I see mounds of pink flowers and wonder if they’re petunias?? wave petunias? I see some begonias that are pink but am wondering if you have used hardy geraniums also? I really do think that these aren’t photos but paintings of someones garden…? Only kidding, that’s how beautiful they are.

  7. Stephanie Betts May 10, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Jan, I also tried to email you to no avail. The Redtail Homeowners Assoc meeting is coming up May 15 …. I can’t think of anyone better to serve on the Common Area Maintenance Committee!! Think of it as a larger palette!


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