Garden Your Garage

I’ve written before about the garden challenges of garage-forward homes—sometimes called “snout houses.” While it’s not usually possible to disguise that big ‘ole garage sitting in front of your house, I think there are many opportunities to make garages less …. ugly.

The main view of the garage from the sidewalk. (Excuse my shadowing photos, the light in Texas is bright!)

That’s why I fell hard for Pam Penick’s garage garden during the recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, Texas. Pam’s ranch-style home was built in the 1970s and she has one garage advantage over many homeowners—while the garage is a prominent element on the front of her house, it’s a sideways snout, meaning the garage doors face a courtyard/driveway rather than the street. Still, the garage is a big part of the front face of her house, and she’s used plants, seating, artwork and a lot of creative energy to make it as beautiful and inviting as the rest of her landscape. Pam’s yard has no grass, which makes sense given Texas’ climate where gardeners go weeks without rain only to have a gully-washer one day. (We garden bloggers experienced one heck of a gullywasher during our visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center!)

What’s so great about this garage—it’s a garden!

The portion of the garage facing the street has windows, which makes it look like part of the house, and it is surrounded by plants.  A path runs along the back of the garage, leading to a gate and Pam’s charming and oh-so comfortable backyard. She’s planted several trees to provide shade and in a niche between the trees, she’s placed a bench.

Behind the bench, you see two of four framed mirrors with matching panes that add light and decoration to the house. This gives the effect of a gallery and creates a ton of interest on what could have been a long, blank wall of stone. Throughout the garden, she has low, green plantings, softening the brick.

garage wall with mirrors
The back of the garage was a play of dark and light during my morning visit to the garden.

The side yard ends with this rustic gate, inviting visitors into the backyard.

On the driveway side of the garage, Pam added pots and a whimsical wall decoration.  The doors face a large planting area, giving visitors more sights to see than the garage. It’s a masterful piece of distraction.

 

front of pretty Texas garage
Well, what the heck, this actually is a garage.
budha and succulents decorating a garage
This small planting is attached to one side of the garage.

What are your favorite strategies for landscaping around your snout house?

Texture in the Garden: Texas Style

Seeing a lot of gardens in a few days or even on a one-day tour really highlights the importance of certain design elements. During a recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, Texas, I saw texture everywhere. From smooth, hard metals to spiky plants to rivulets of rock or rustic bark, texture evoked a sense of place and style. It gave all of these stunning gardens contrast and made them more interesting to explore.

Here are a few of my favorite textural elements in Texas:

Lady Bird Johnson wildflower center

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center outside of Austin is filled with texture both in plants and the hard surfaces. The limestone on the arched wall is native to Texas and used in many homes and public spaces. It’s softened by the trees and vines growing around it, and its colors are varied. Wouldn’t you love to sit on that bench and contemplate the stone and the garden? If you are ever near Austin, the wildflower center is a must-see.

contemporary garden with corten planter

This contemporary garden used weathering steel (most commonly referred to as Cor-ten) for many of its walls and planters. The contrast between the soft ground covers and grasses, the sharp leaves of the yucca and the hard, rust-color of the steel, which doesn’t shine at all, is striking.  Corten gives a sophisticated, industrial look to both large gardens, like this one, or smaller ones, like this Minneapolis potager, which bloggers toured in 2016.

textured stone wall at Zilker Botanical garden

During a visit to the Zilker Botanical Gardens’ unique Hartman Prehistoric Garden, I spotted this large, deeply cut piece of stone in a wall. The prehistoric garden was created after amateur paleontologists discovered more than 100 dinosaur tracks on the grounds of the botanical gardens. The tracks were preserved and a garden with Cretaceus plants was developed, complete with a dinosaur sculpture that is popular with children. According to the Zilker website, plants in the garden represent those that existed 100 million years ago, including ferns, horsetails, conifers, ginkos and some of the first magnolias and palms. I’m not sure how old this rock is, but its fascinating texture indicates it has experienced plenty.

colorful orbs in texas garden

With so much tan rock and green plants, many of the Texas gardens we saw added color with accessories. But accessories can also add texture. These smooth, shiny, bright blue orbs catch the eye, giving visitors a reason to slow down and notice the rest of this lovely front garden bed in the garden of Austin blogger Pam Penick. The soft texture of the lamb’s ears and ground cover contrasts with both the orbs and that big, pointy agave.

wooden fish swimming through grass

Not all of these Texas textural elements would look appropriate in northern gardens but we have plenty of our own iconic textures, including the smooth stones so common around Lake Superior and the textures of the prairies that covered about a third of Minnesota at one time. That’s one reason I loved these fish swimming through a sea of soft grass at the beautiful garden of blogger, Jenny Stocker.  A native of England, Jenny has created a garden filled with smart details and varied plants in a series of garden rooms. It was a highlight of the tour, especially when Jenny showed us this recently hatched preying mantis.

preying mantis just hatched and nest
Jenny found this preying mantis nest on a branch and one of the babies posed nicely for all the bloggers’ cameras.

What kinds of textures are you incorporating in your garden this year?

 

Garden Planning with Pinterest and Paper

We’ve been in our St. Paul house about 20 months now, and I’m finally getting ready to tackle the landscaping and gardens (or lack of both) in the front yard.

This is a big project: it will likely involve removing and replacing sidewalks and it will definitely require rerouting water to correct issues we have with icy areas and sloping walks.  I did the design and the installation on our backyard myself, but this project requires a skill level and muscle beyond what I have. I know from previous garden installations we’ve done that it really helps the landscapers if you can provide them with a good sense of what you want done, what plants you like and what your vision for the project is. Then, they can add to that or let you know what is not going to work. It makes for a happier and probably cheaper project.

So, I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks trying to get what is in my head into a form that is shareable, and to do that I’ve been using both Pinterest and paper.

While I haven’t used Pinterest much in the past few years, I revived my account and created a board with some of the ideas I’m thinking about. One thing I’ve discovered is that the style of house we have is tricky to landscape well.  It has no front porch and the door to the front is flat—no roof over it, no stoop, no ornamentation. It’s technically called a “minimal traditional” house and was popular in the 1930s to 1940s when people were absorbed with other issues like the Great Depression and World War II. Keep the houses simple was the mantra.

The current situation minus about a foot of snow

Simple is good. Boring not so much, and that’s what we’ve got going now. The three shrubs in our foundation beds are ancient and overgrown. We’ve done some aggressive pruning to shape them and that’s helped, but they need to go. I replaced some of the perennials (mostly Stella d’Oro daylillies) with plants I like better, but the whole front bed needs to be redone. We planted a Minnesota strain redbud tree on one side of the yard about halfway to the street, and I would like to pull the front bed out to include that tree with a path to the back fence through the bed.

I’m also interested in creating a pollinator garden, and likely will put that in the boulevard area of the yard. I have a pollinator plant Pinterest board as well.  St. Paul has a few rules about boulevard gardens — the main one affecting me being that plants cannot be more than three feet tall. I can work with that.

Rough draft of pollinator garden idea plus some plant pictures.

For both gardens, I’ve created a notebook, where I’ve done some clunky drawings as well as pasted pictures of designs and plants that I like. The notebook is really helpful because it’s a physical object I can look at in quiet moments and page through. To me, it seems more concrete than the Pinterest board, where everything seems possible. It’s a great way to create rough drafts of ideas. I can also give it to the landscaper when the time comes. I’ve been reading some design books as well, and found a few good ones at the local public library. A couple of the designs spoke to me, so I copied those pages and pasted them in the book, too.

These designs won’t work for my house, but there’s something in the ideas that I find appealing.

So far, I’ve only given slight thought to budget—though that will be ironed out before we contact landscapers. For now, it’s mostly about dreaming and letting my ideas find some shape, whether on paper or on the internet. Let me know in the comments how you like to capture ideas for your garden.

Orange is the New Purple

I have always loved purple in the garden for its deep hue and because many plants I like for other reasons (baptisia and anise hyssop, for example) have purple flowers. But this year, I decided to grow a few orange annuals, and I may have to change my new favorite color. I first heard about the power of orange during a garden talk by Eric Johnson, one of our Northern Gardener columnists.

This ‘Torch’ Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) was grown from seed. I love the bright orange, especially on a gloomy, rainy day.

According to Eric, orange is a color that brightens up drab spaces, and it certainly is working in my patio/vegetable garden area. On the site of a former garage, I’m growing vegetables in raised beds. The vegetables are, of course, mostly green, and the perennials I planted this spring are still getting a foothold in the clay soil and aren’t blooming much. I have a ‘Blue Heaven’ morning glory that is covering a trellis and part of the back fence, but that hasn’t bloomed at all yet — so again, more green.

Marigolds pair well with this yellow-centered calibrachoa, which is called Superbells® Over Easy™a new plant from Proven Winners.

Enter orange, in the form of several containers filled with orange marigolds, orange pansies and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). I bought the pansies as a six-pack early this spring, but grew the others from seed. The ‘Torch’ tithonia came from Seed Savers Exchange and has been a magnet for monarch butterflies in my backyard.  The plants are more than 4-feet tall, with large leaves and several flowers per plant. Next year, I may plant them as a low hedge along one of my fences because they are big and pretty.

The marigolds are also from Seed Savers, a variety from the 1930s called Starfire Signet. The blooms are in shades of yellow, orange and red and they grow at least 12 inches tall. We ran an article on marigolds in the May/June issue of Northern Gardener and that got me inspired to use more marigolds and to grow them from seed. They are very easy to grow and the results are warm and fun.

I may have bought this marigold as a plant. It’s super pretty though.

The last orange annual I’ve been growing is an old-fashioned nasturtium called Lady Bird. This one has not done as well as the marigolds, but in a few of the containers the orange-yellow blooms are adding to the show.

Orange can be too much if you have a lot of other colors in the garden–especially reds and pinks. In this area, I’ve got mostly green with some white blooms and (of course) a touch of purple. So far, it’s been a fun departure from my usual color palette.

What’s your favorite color to brighten the garden?

I paired these orange pansies with a Ginger Wine ninebark in a container. I love the ninebark and will be planting it in the landscape this fall.

Garden Planning: The Questions to Ask

I have a hard time visualizing how drawings on paper will look in three dimensions and in real space, which means my garden beds get done and re-done, sometimes on the fly, as I try to get the look in the ground to match the one in my head. In the past, I’ve had the good fortune of working with a local landscaper who I trusted to take my ideas and give them an appropriate shape that looked good in both two and three dimensions. From there, I would revise the layout and reassess the plants.

The formal garden at Rosenborg Castle gardens in Copenhagen. My garden will not look like this.

With our new house, I paid to have a one-time consultation with a garden designer (something I recommend most gardeners do before starting a larger project) and she reinforced some of the ideas I had and gave me some good suggestions for bed shapes and plant materials. I’m using those ideas to plan my back gardens on my own. Next year, we will re-do some of the sidewalks and stairs in our front, which have drainage issues, and at that point, I’ll probably hire a designer to give shape to the front. For now, I’m on my own.

Before getting too deeply into garden planning, you have to to ask the big questions. Here are some  I’ve been asking myself over the past year, and a few of the answers I’ve come up with.

Here’s the dream: a secluded spot and a nice chair. This was taken in Toronto during a Garden Bloggers Fling in 2015.

How will the landscape be used? Our yard basically has three sections and I see them as having three purposes. The front faces the street and I want it to be welcoming and to fit in with the other landscapes on the block, many of which have big trees and more defined spaces than we have. I don’t see us using that space for sitting outside much, though I’m open to adding a front patio area in the future. For now, I’m adding and subtracting plants from the existing bed and we are putting our bird feeder (and probably a bird bath) on the east-front side of the house. This was a purely practical decision. There’s a small window in the house that I can use to watch the birds, and as my husband says, “where do you want the bird poop?”

The backyard has two sections, a patio area that faces what will be a mostly edible garden, in raised beds, with some native plants around the beds. This is a spot for entertaining or having morning coffee. It needs some soft screening from the alley and neighbors and a big table with an umbrella. The raised beds are in and planted. The third section is between the house and the garage. It is screened on three sides by buildings and, because we are very close to our neighbors back entry, needs more screening on the fourth side. My hope is to fill this with lots of plants and turn it into a quiet garden for reflection.

The Grand Allee in Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. My garden will not look like this.

How will you get from space to space? We did some work on the paths last year, adding a brick path from the patio to the back gate. We walk that path several times a day and are very happy with how it turned out. We need to create a path from the back steps into the quiet garden and that will likely be done in grass with a brick edging. That’s on my to-do list for later this summer. A path from front yard to back on the east side is also needed and will be done in the future. On the west side, we have a narrow sidewalk and no option to do much about that.

What about water? There are two questions here, really. How will you get hoses from point A to point B to water plants, but more importantly, how will water flow be handled. We have a slightly soggy area in the quiet garden and I need to adjust both the outflow from our sump pump (which runs only during major wet periods, such as last month) and a downspout. This may take some engineering, but I don’t want people to be tripping over hoses and downspouts, so it need attention.

Cool little statue in a formal garden in Toronto. Likely will not be in my garden.

What’s your style? Several years ago, I read a very good garden design book that recommended people name their garden to help them get a feel for their style. Facetiously, I suggested “mole manor” as the name for our former yard, which had its share of critter issues. I have no idea what I would call this garden—Farm in the City? Urban Refuge? Howdy, Neighbor? I’m stumped. Our house is a 1939 bungalow, so something on the cottage-y end of design might work. I also like to use native plants, when possible. This is a question I’m still pondering.

What questions would you ask before designing a new garden?

The Before Pictures

Here’s what our yard looks like today. Keep in mind, these photos were take in early April—one of the least attractive months in Minnesota.

The front yard is pretty plain. We may change the entry area so this is on the back burner for at least a year.
The front side yard needs a lot of work and I may turn this into a space with all shrubs and perennials and a path to the back gate. That poor arborvitae has already been moved to a safer spot. It looks so bad because it’s right next to a vent that shoots hot, damp air out all winter. My bad. I didn’t think about what that vent was for when I planted the shrub last fall.
Out the back door we have a nice patio. This area is now fenced in. The spot between the patio and alley is going to be an area for edibles mostly. I’d like to put a nice vine or climbing rose on the garage, but am not sure the area gets enough sun.
Another view of the patio and garage. Figuring out what to do with yard unmentionables, such as recycling cans and hoses from the sump pump (behind the can) will be one of our first tasks.
New trees in what will likely be a shrub and perennial border. This shows the entrance to the secluded part of the garden — at least it will be secluded when things fill in better!

As you can see, I have my work cut out for me and not much space to work in! Any suggestions on what to do?

Welcome to My (New) Northern Garden

After 17 years in one house and nearly 30 years in lovely Northfield, Minnesota, I’ve moved. My husband is now semi-retired and for a variety of reasons, we decided to move to St. Paul. Last May, we sold our house (and garden!) and moved to a bungalow in the city.

The last sunset I saw in my Northfield garden. This hill is one reason we looked for a smaller, flatter lot! I do miss the ponds, though.

Our new garden is smaller and flatter than our previous garden—both attributes I was seeking—and it is pretty much a blank slate. It is a work in progress, and I’m hoping to use this blog as a journal of our new garden as well as a place to share information on gardening in the North.

In our first year in the house, we did some of the big projects, mostly removing an old one-car garage, building a two-car garage and extending the brick patio that came with the house to connect to the new garage and the alley. We’ve added fences, too. In terms of plants, we removed one tree (roots threatening the foundation) and planted five more, plus a few shrubs. I’ve swapped out some perennials I don’t like (mostly daylilies and hostas) for a few I do, and I have likely ordered way too many plants for this coming season.

I know it takes at least three years to make a garden, and I’m counting this as year one.  My plan is to focus this year on designing and planting the two back garden spaces (more on those in later blog posts) and then figuring out the front next year.

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted to this blog, and many people say blogging is dead. But I’m not convinced. People still want more in-depth information than an Instagram photo or tweet can provide. The original purpose of blogs was to serve as a shared journal — and that’s what I hope this blog will be for the next few years—a shared journal of my adventures in my new northern garden. Thanks for stopping by!

 

 

Sneak Peak at Spring Garden Trends

Citrus green, bright pink and clean white make for a pretty spring table.
Citrus green, bright pink and clean white make for a pretty spring table.

Yesterday I attended an event for bloggers at Bachman’s Spring Idea House in Minneapolis and got a sneak peak at what will be in stores this spring. It was great fun to meet several fashion, lifestyle and photography bloggers, as well as seeing the colors and ideas for home and garden decor in action.

In a word: think “fresh.” Also, “pink.”

Karen Bachman Thull led us through the house, a 1920s beauty that was built by Arthur Bachman Sr., a son of one of Bachman’s founders.  Three times a year, Bachman’s re-designs the rooms in the house — furniture, paint, the whole she-bang — and opens the house to the public. This year, the house is open every day until April 19. It’s $5 to tour the house and, if you are someone who enjoys decor or is just hungry for spring, it’s well-worth a visit.

Lots of the decor was done in a fresh, bright combination of citrus green, bright pink and white. The combination works great in containers, in table decorations and in the furniture in the airy sunroom and living room of the house. Karen noted that this combination is dynamite as long as you do not add another color. If you put in a blue, a purple, an orange — it falls apart. The look goes from fresh to garish in a minute. I have a pair of bright green containers and plan to try this combination in them this summer.

This self-watering planter holds herbs in pots.
This self-watering planter holds herbs in pots.

Another garden trend worth noting is the improved vertical gardening trend. I’ve been a bit cool on most vertical gardening systems because they require so much watering — some of them are basically gutters mounted on a frame. Bachman’s is selling a couple of self-watering systems now. A sweet window box containing herbs was on display in the idea house kitchen and a massive, multi-part living wall of foliage was in the yoga room upstairs. The wall you see in the photo below contains six of the wall garden systems. Fully loaded with plants and water, each system weighs about 60 pounds. The way the systems work is that each plant is in a pot. A wicking device inside the system pulls water from the troughs to the plants.

This dramatic wall of foliage includes six self-watering systems and a whole lot of plants!
This dramatic wall of foliage includes six self-watering systems and a whole lot of plants!

Karen told me that the kitchen system would only need to be refilled about once a month. If you want to try vertical gardening, self watering is the way to go.

The house also features several forced branches of spring blooms. I think more northern gardeners should try forcing branches in the spring — it’s a great way to bring color into the house. Other garden trends noted in the house are increased interest in terrariums and air plants.

I also really loved this arrangement of snow boots outside the house. Everything is a container this spring!

These boots were made for planting.
These boots were made for planting.

 

Fall Container Idea

Fall container completed in less than 20 minutes.
Fall container completed in less than 20 minutes.

A week or so ago, while I visiting my daughter in Chicago, I happened upon a fun idea for a simple fall container. The container (shown below) was on display at the Morton Arboretum in suburban Chicago. The container itself was large, wide and made of terracotta. It was filled with an assortment of gourds and squashes. Simple, and very pretty.

The inspiration for my fall container
The inspiration for my fall container

I knew that was an idea I could easily replicate at home, and I had just the container to do it with. A couple of years ago, I bought a small, metal horse trough to use as a planter. I ended up making it into a small water feature this year, which I had emptied out a few weeks ago.

At the Northfield Farmers’ Market last Friday, I found an assortment of squashes. One of the sellers was also selling bouquets made of ornamental cabbage and kale. Cute! I bought one and decided to use it as an accent in the container. The kale and ornamental cabbages are basically cut flowers, so I needed to keep them in water. To set up the container and keep the squashes elevated, I flipped a couple of pots over and set them in the trough. Then I filled a couple of tall canning jars with water and placed one in the back of the container and one in the front.

Pots elevate the gourds and a jar of water keeps the kale fresh.
Pots elevate the gourds and a jar of water keeps the kale fresh.

I put the kale in the water jar in the back and three of the cabbage in the water jar in front. The squash were balanced on the upside down pots. It looked nice, but I had one more cabbage and a pumpkin left. I put the cabbage in another jar of water set inside a colorful container and set the pumpkin down in front of the trough. Voila! Instant fall container.

Once I had everything bought, putting the container together took less than 20 minutes.

I’ve tried a couple of fall container ideas before including planting a pumpkin here and here. What’s your favorite fall container idea?

Fall container in less than 20 minutes!
Love the texture in this arrangement.

Beauty in the Vegetable Garden

During these last cold days of winter (hope, hope, hope!), I’ve been taking refuge in the garden photos I took last summer. Among the images are many from vegetable gardens that are truly beautiful spaces as well as nourishing.

mixed lettuce bowlMy vegetable garden usually has the shabby chic look (or maybe just shabby), but I’ve found that lettuces planted in pots or window boxes can be very attractive, especially those with rose-tipped, ruffly foliage. But a couple of the gardens I visited last summer took vegetable gardening beauty well beyond that.

vertical cabbageThe vegetable garden at Squire House Gardens in Afton, for example, was lush, colorful and full of texture on the warm August afternoon when I stopped by. Planting green and purple cabbages together created a round contrast. Big ripe peppers hung from plants, like green ornaments, ready for plucking. A tall trellis covered in green beans created a produce wall at the back of the garden. The gardeners included a water feature and garden art, too, which encourage visitors to linger. Even the asparagus plants, long past their picking prime, added soft texture with their mature fronds.

Amy archwayEarlier in the summer, I visited the garden of Amy Andrychowicz, proprietor at the Get Busy Gardening blog. You can read all about Amy’s garden in the March/April issue of Northern Gardener, which will be out in about two weeks, but suffice it to say, she has a way with vegetables. The big arch covered with squash is like a grand entry to the garden, and she mixes annuals, such as nasturtiums among the vegetables to add color and encourage pollination. It’s a lovely garden and I was delighted to be able to write about it for Northern Gardener.

For more photos of vegetable garden prettiness, see the gallery below. What will you be planting in your vegetable garden this year?