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.

Fascinating Foliage

I don’t know about you, but when it’s cold out, I tend to pull in on myself—shoulders go up, chin comes down—it’s as if I’m trying to make myself smaller in order to  stay warmer. I thought of that recently as I’ve been observing the fascinating foliage on the P.J.M. rhododendron near my front door.

As the season changes, the rhododendron has been telling me how cold it is outside each morning. On chilly days — say in the teens or 20s — the leaves of the rhododendron are turned down and rolled in, sort of like a tube. If the weather is warmer—high 30s or 40s—the foliage is in its usual flat shape.

It was 18 degrees the morning I took this picture.

Rhododendrons are broad-leaf evergreens. Unlike deciduous shrubs, they do not lose their leaves over the winter. The buds for next year’s flowers and the leaves hold on through most of the winter. According to the University of Minnesota, the curling action is a way to hold onto water during the dry, cold parts of the year.  Sometimes curling is caused by disease, but that often happens during the growing season and this rhodie looked fine all summer long.

Rhododendron at 25 degrees

We’ve had a wet fall and this is a long-established shrub, so I don’t think it is struggling for water either. It’s perhaps just upset about the suddenly cold weather we’ve had! Are the leaves on your rhododendrons curling too?

Rhododendron at 40 degrees

Opening Weekend for Gardeners

For instant spring, plant some pansies. Garden centers are full of them now.

Imagine if the hunter or fisherperson in your household was told that the opening weekend had been moved back two, maybe three weeks? Anxiety? Disappointment? Lots of pent-up energy? Yes, to all that, as we gardeners well know having endured one of the most protracted ends to winter that I can recall. But, this weekend is it! The weather promises to be pleasant and warm. So, here’s what I plan to do:

  • Clean up the gardens you can reach easily. You don’t want to be tramping around the yard too much (something I’ve been guilty of already this year). And you absolutely do not want to rake — let the soil firm up and dry out. But, if you can reach a bed from the sidewalk or other terra firma, clean up spent perennials and uncover any of those plants that want to grow.
  • Buy some pansies! If you think you have been anxious to get out in the garden, imagine how nursery and garden center owners feel. Many garden centers will be open for the first time this weekend. Visit them, enjoy the beautiful plants they have in their greenhouses and buy some pansies to pot up for instant spring.
  • Plant a little lettuce. I’ve started some lettuce indoors and those plants have been moved to pots and put on the front porch. But it should be warm enough now to  plant out lettuce or even start some from seed. Hold off on tomatoes or any warm weather crops.
  • Prune Annabelle hydrangeas and other plants that bloom on new growth. Hold off on pruning lilacs and other spring-flowering shrubs until after they bloom.
  • Build a raised bed. Easiest garden project ever. I’ve built several and have a new one in the garage ready to go out to the vegetable area in the next week or so. (If you want to get really fancy, check out my brother-in-law’s deck garden.) You can fill your bed with compost and soil to create a fabulous environment for vegetables. If you are not sure what to grow, check out Chiot’s Run’s 5-by-5 Challenge, which gives you suggestions and planting tips to grow a simple 5-by-5 foot vegetable garden.

What will you be doing this beautiful weekend?


Urban Yard, Prairie Plants

For many reasons, both aesthetic and environmental, some gardeners prefer to use native plants in their yards. In the North, that means plants of the prairie—grasses and wildflowers. The problem is, that not everyone’s neighbors appreciate prairie plants (fortunately, mine do!), and some gardeners—accommodating souls that they are—want to avoid conflict.

Enter Lynn Steiner, former editor of Northern Gardener and an expert on using native plants in all kinds of landscapes. In the current issue of Northern Gardener, which will be on newsstands through October, Lynn offers practical tips on how to use prairie plants in city yards. For instance, if you incorporate straight lines in your landscape, then your use of native plants will look more intentional. She also provides a comprehensive list of plants, both species plants and named cultivars, that work beautifully in urban and suburban settings. Those interested in converting their yards to more prairie landscaping may also want to check out Lynn’s new book, Prairie Style Gardens: Capturing the Essence of the American Prairie Wherever You Live, which will be released by Timber Press in October.

In addition to Lynn’s story, this issue includes an article by Northfield nurseryman Leif Knecht on tips for planting trees and shrubs to ensure healthy roots. I have practiced Leif’s “slash and shred” method of prepping potted plants for planting for many years, and it is one of those “tough love” techniques that really works. Leif also discusses new advances in plastic nursery pots that prevent plants from getting root-bound.

This is a great issue with many more ideas for fall gardening, plus a delightful profile of a fantastic Minneapolis garden. Check it out.

New Northern Gardener Available

The January/February 2010 issue of Northern Gardener is on newsstands and heading toward mailboxes now. This issue should get readers as excited about their 2010 gardens as any of the many garden catalogs arriving this week. (I have 12 catalogs in my to-read pile at the moment and expect another deluge next week.)

The January/February issue highlights landscaping challenges, with Meleah Maynard’s article on “Landscaping Trouble Spots,” and Don Engebretson’s informative piece on how to use rocks, stones and other hardscaping materials. In addition to those pieces, the magazine features a profile of the Red Wing garden of Mark and Deb Wasmund, loaded with walls, benches, mosaic art, and other sculptural objects. The cover image of purple hyssop spikes was taken by Northfield photographer Tom Roster, who did a great job of capturing the varied elements in the Wasmund garden. In addition to the usual columns and other useful information, this issue includes a “Garden Calendar” for Minnesota gardeners. Wondering when to plant annual seeds indoors or when to trim your fruit trees? We’ve got you covered with information from University of Minnesota Master Gardeners.


Courtesy of Jung Seeds
Courtesy of Jung Seeds

A second part of our recent spruce-up was the removal of some old alpine currant shrubs that were dying. The shrubs formed a hedge around an area below our back deck, an area that I use mostly for storage of garden equipment. Not wanting to leave this exposed, I planted it this past weekend with nine plants of hedge cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lucidus), a plant that will grow about 4 feet wide and up to 8 feet tall. We’ll probably keep ours around 5 to 6 feet tall by shaving the tops. The cotoneaster should be an improvement over alpine currant for two reasons. First, it is less prone to disease and general keeling over. Second, has a blue berry that birds love, so it should be more attractive to wildlife. It also has a pretty reddish fall color. Right now, my hedge looks skimpy, but the photo at left is what it should look like in a year or two.

A Place to Sit

The new patio after a recent snowfall.

We recently ripped out the foundation plantings around the front of our house and replaced them with a tiered area with a 8-foot circular brick patio surrounded by shrubs, grasses, and small trees. This is an idea that had been percolating in my head for a couple of years as a result of a sense that the best place to sit outdoors at our house, especially in the early evening, was not the place in the back.  The evolution of this project points to a number of issues related to home siting and what makes people comfortable.

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a book on architecture called A Pattern Language. The authors note that people feel extremely comfortable in older towns — specifically those built in the Middle Ages. These old towns followed similar design principles, including the relationship between people and the street and ways to orient a home. They condensed these ideas to 257 rules, many of which speak to some very basic elements of human nature. Why do people like nooks and window seats, for example? Rule Nos. 179 and 180: Alcoves and window seats. Why do we feel more vibrant in rooms with windows on more than one wall? Rule No. 159: Light on two sides. Why have basement bedrooms for teenagers become so popular? Rule No. 154: A teenager’s cottage.

If you are considering building a house, read this book first. You probably won’t want to follow all the rules — the authors are against most bedrooms — but it will alert you to some typical problems with newer home design.

Several of the rules relate to the connection between the house, the garden and the street. People enjoy front porches because they provide a way to see the street, to interact with your neighbors, while still remaining close to your home and protected. (Rule No. 140). Adding a porch was out of the questions for us: it would have destroyed the lines of our home and cost too much. But the patio was an easier fix and would give us many of the benefits of a front porch.

IMG_6723While I had the vision of what we wanted, I wanted to make sure it would look right with our home and that it would drain properly. (As someone who spent many hours shop-vac-ing the basement of a previous home — trust me on this one, water trumps aesthetics every time.) To make sure the plan would work, I called in Kristen from Knecht’s who had helped me a year or so ago in designing my other front-yard garden. She came up with the idea of repeating the boulders we have on the hilly sides of our house around the front to create a tier. We agreed that an 8-foot patio was plenty of room for a small table and a couple of chairs. Around that, we planted some of my favorite plants: sedum, baptisia (this came out of another garden in our yard), weigela, coreopsis and a hydrangea tree. For a little seculsion, Kristin recommended Karl Foerster grass, which I know is a beautiful and reliable plant that grows about 4 feet tall, just enough to provide a sense of seclusion. Some groundcovers such sweet woodruff and creeping thyme will give texture to the space around the patio, and a nice smaller evergreen — Tannenbaum mugo pine — anchors one edge of the tier. Stepping stones connect the upper and lower tiers and seem to beckon people to come up for a chat.

Knecht’s did the installation for us — moving boulders is beyond my skill level — and finished the job in just a few days. I’m very happy with the look and a couple of my neighbors have commented that they like it, too. For now, the patio is empty, though I’m thinking we might be able to put a Christmas tree out there when the season arrives, and next summer we’ll create a comfortable place to sit out there.

I’m hoping it won’t feel too exposed, but I followed as many of the pattern language rules as possible including having a wall to the back of the sitting area, terracing the levels, and creating a half-high wall (with plants rather than bricks) to offer a sense of seclusion.