Friday, April 22, 2011

The Spring Garden

The Garden View, 2009

Our yard is definitely a spring yard. It doesn’t go anywhere the rest of the year, of course. But apparently the things we’re most predisposed to plant are things that peak in the spring and early summer. The rest of the summer the gardens settle into a verdant green with stray punctuation from day lilies, hydrangeas, potted plants and impatiens. There’s a flurry of color again in the fall when the leaves turn and then winter drags us through months of brown and gray. But it’s spring when the place really shows.

It wasn’t always that way here. When we moved into this house thirteen years ago the back yard was a heavily shaded expanse of clay and leaves. There wasn’t enough sun for so much as a patch of turf or, I learned, much of anything else. You’d have thought that years of accumulated leaves would have composted into something useful. But all they did was compact on top of the clay in strata so thick and densely packed that it took me the better part of a winter to get them ground up and out of the way so that I could see what there was in the way of soil to work with underneath.

The picture below gives you an idea of what we found when we got here and what we were able to do with it after the first two planting seasons.

Before (1998) and After (2001)

The shock of what we found here was even more striking because we’d moved from a yard that was a veritable Garden of Eden. It was sunny. The soil was rich and drained well. Just about anything we planted there flourished. We spent seven years at that house, each year replacing more and more of the lawn with floral gardens.

The history of gardening at our current house has been more a series of fits and starts. I planted several hundred hostas and bluebells the first fall we were here, only to watch voles eat them and tug their foliage down into the ground the next spring. I had to learn how to look for shade loving plants, though even that became a challenge because of the unforgiving clay soil. I’d get all excited in one year and plant a lot of stuff and then become discouraged the next year when everything either died, failed to thrive or disappeared altogether thanks to the local wildlife.

If there’s one thing gardening teaches, though, it’s patience and perseverance.

In the Garden, 2009

Over the years we’ve brought in truckloads of topsoil and various sludge-based soil enhancers. It took ten years to get the worst of the drainage problems resolved. Hurricanes and winter storms have cleared trees that blocked the sun, but that we’d been legally prohibited from removing due to our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay. Every leaf that falls gets ground up and composted. I’ve become that guy who rides around the neighborhood in the fall when everyone else is putting out their leaves and brings all their bags of leaves home to grind up and compost in our yard. We’ve finally learned what kinds of plants the local wildlife will leave alone.

Now we just have to get the seasons right. Give me another thirteen years and I might finally get the seasons balanced horticulturally.

By the way, the photo at the top of this post is one I’ve shown before. It’s the view from the west side of our house looking northward into the back yard. This past winter’s snowstorms destroyed the arbor in the foreground and some of the bushes around it. We were recently able to find another, sturdier arbor to replace it. The bushes have been cut back. In another year I hope this view will be fully restored.

This Week in the Garden, 2011


  1. Your yard looks really pretty, Chris! I'm convinced that gardens evolve over a lifetime. At least that's what I'm telling myself, from our experience. Wonderful photos. And I like your walkway in the final photo! Is that old clay pots or bits of stone? Love it.

  2. I'm all too familiar with that tidewater soil, Chris. My wife and I fought for three years to get grass growing in my mom's front yard. We must have hauled and spread a dozen pickup loads of top soil and half a ton of grass seed before we finally succeeded. Now that we live on the other side of the state my youngest brother likes to brag about "his" lawn!