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.

January Light

Like a lot of northerners, I find our low-light times of the year a tad depressing. Getting up in the dark and having the sun set before most people are out of work makes you feel like a mole. I know it could be worse than we have it in Minnesota—my husband worked for several months in Uppsala, Sweden, and when we first got there in late January, the sun rose between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and set by 3:30 p.m. Imagine dusk lurking in the background not long after lunch. Grim.

January sun stretches across the floor.

So, usually about this time of year, I start watching the sun. I know that by mid to late January, the sun will start rising by 7:30 a.m. and set after 5. More importantly, it seems higher in the sky, so that when we have a sunny day, the light in the house gets noticeably brighter and deeper.

I noticed this change of light recently, and while we are having a severe snowstorm as I write this, I know that flicker of brighter sunlight means we are not too far from the backside of winter. Our new home in St. Paul has a bay window in the living room and it faces due south. We’ve put most of our houseplants there—a Meyer lemon tree, some rosemary, a few succulent type things, some bulbs I’m forcing and my husband’s bonsai. They love the light and when it stretches across the floor I can’t help but think about seed starting and the new gardens I’ll be adding this summer. For me, that stretch of light is the start of the garden season.

From above, houseplants soak in the sun.

It’s been said many times before, but one of the biggest benefits of gardening is that it pushes you toward awareness of the natural world and its rhythms. Sure, I noticed long and short days before I took up gardening, but it was as a gardener that I started to watch the arc of the sun across the sky from winter to summer and back again, to notice where in the yard the light fell at which times of year, to feel its intensity in June and its weak power in November. As a gardener, I really started to listen to bird songs and the rustle of tree branches against each other. (Time to prune?) I started to see the differences in dirt—from the sandy soil in one garden bed to the baked clay in another—and smell more intently the herbs I grew. Nothing smells fresher than lemon balm.

As a practical Minnesotan, I know we have at least two more months  of winter at our feet, but the light of January brings its own cheer. Spring will come.

Growing Vegetables in Raised Beds (and What’s Going on With This Soil?)

One of my backyard gardens is on the site of a former garage. We removed the one-car garage last summer and replaced it with a larger building to store cars and tools. The site of the former garage is now where I grow vegetables in raised beds and am trying to grow some perennials, shrubs and vines on the extremely poor soil.

The tomato has a fruit, but it’s so small, you can tell its struggling. Photo take July 15.

Raised beds can be a terrific way to grow vegetables, but as I am finding out, your beds are only as good as the soil in them. Witness the photo at left. The bed this sad tomato was planted in was one of two that were filled with a soil mix that was labeled as being specifically for raised beds, including those with vegetables. I planted beans, parsley, tomatoes, squash and marigolds in the two beds—in late May/early June. For weeks, they have sat there. And sat there.

With the exception of marigolds, which seemed to be growing a tiny bit and are flowering, none of the plants were thriving—or even growing much. On many of them, the leaves turned yellow. Nothing has up and died yet, but they sure have been struggling. Witness the photo below, a small raised bed (with less sun than other raised beds) where I used an organic bagged soil mix and some manure. These tomatoes and basil plants were roughly the same size as the ones in the other beds when they were planted a few weeks ago, yet they are growing, producing flowers and fruit and generally doing what a plant should do. (Update: Since I wrote this post a week or so ago, these tomatoes have grown so much I’ve had to lash their trellis to the fence.)

Planted in a bagged soil mix, these tomatoes have grown so much I’ve had to tie them to the trellis. Photo taken July 15.

So what’s up? It could be the plants have gotten too much water, but given the size of the beds and the dryness of the top 3 inches of the soil, I doubt that. I checked out this article on what yellow leaves on plants means and my yellow leaves don’t perfectly match any of the pictures—though they are close on a couple of them.  A couple of weeks ago, in absolute frustration, I decided to add some more nitrogen to see if that helped. One bed got composted manure; the other got liquid fertilizer. The plants have grown more since then—one of the beans has finally latched onto the trellis I want it to climb and a few bean flowers have emerged.

I also sent a sample of the soil to the U of M Soil Testing Lab to find out exactly what kind of soil I’ve got here. (I contacted the landscaping firm that sold me the soil, but have not heard back from them.) The U turned around the soil test results quickly and I found out that while the mix had a good percentage of organic matter (12.5 percent), it had sky-high levels of potassium (that’s the K in the N-P-K ratio on most fertilizer bags.) Potassium’s main role in plant growth is to regulate how other nutrients are taken up by the plant and to regulate certain processes. Too much potassium in the soil will interfere with up-take of nutrients such as calcium and magnesium. The U recommended I add nitrogen but nothing else to the soil to improve plant growth.

One of the main reasons to grow vegetables in raised beds is that you can control the soil better. In my case, the dreadful soil that was already on the site made growing vegetables impossible without raised beds. If the beds are tall (mine are about 14 inches tall), they should be treated like a container, with regular watering and fertilizing to enrich the soil. Needless to say, come fall, I will be adding leaves, compost and manure to all my beds in hopes of getting the soil in better shape for next year.

Do you grow vegetables in raised beds? What’s your favorite soil mix?

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!