How My Plantings and I Grew Together

Photo by Barbara Ballinger

I had never seriously gardened before I bought my home in Rhinebeck. Yes, I had selected rose bushes and hydrangeas to plant in former yards, and suggested to my then-husband how a colorful grouping of statuesque tulips could encircle one large tree in honor of our younger daughter’s April birth 33 years ago. However, I had never thought of developing a garden from scratch, since I prided myself on being a city gal.

After buying my most recent house as a single on a very visible, well traveled street in my village, I knew that the barren site needed to be spruced up. It wasn’t just to enhance the 1797 home and its Victorian-era front porch and curlicue trim, but to help beautify my street and area. Choosing to live where I did made me an instant member of a community. I needed to do my part to give back.

Fortunately, I also knew from writing hundreds of garden articles and one garden book with a landscape professional, The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, that a master plan for the entire site is essential. It helps to create a cohesive whole and one that flourishes in its climate and because of its topography. Yet, I knew almost zilch about the amount of sunlight, type of soil, what plants already existed (since it was still winter when I made my purchase), which plantings are native to the area, what wildlife lurked nearby that might pose a serious challenge, and changing light as tree canopies grow lush. Again, planning was crucial.

So, I asked for recommendations about hiring a professional and ended up selecting a Appleseed Permaculture, a knowledgeable young couple who touted their expertise in edible landscapes—both for people and wildlife. I liked that idea, but would end up “eating” those words—or at least the wildlife would.

After walking the property and hearing about what plants I knew and liked—hostas, hydrangeas, ferns, lilacs, and also about my preferred color scheme of white, blue and purple, the couple I hired drew up a master plan of multiple pages that dictated what would be planted in the front, back, and the sides. They also promised to stay within my budget.

Installation wouldn’t happen all at once since the cost of plant materials and especially mature trees can be sky high. We started on the front for the public view the first full season sprinkling the space with lots of hostas and hydrangeas. We then tackled part of the back with more of the same and finally the sides. After a trip to Buffalo’s residential garden walk, the largest in the country, and to London’s Kew Gardens, I decided to plant ferns in multiple groupings along one side adjacent to a gravel driveway.

And as each season returned, I learned that what my garden book co-author knew was true: the first year plants sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap!

After writing about so many vegetable gardens and seeing what Michelle Obama accomplished at the White House, I asked a contractor to install raised redwood planters in one empty patch, along with a slate border for herbs to thrive, and a gravel floor. He suggested a water pump to make maintenance easier.

Then something magical happened. I became smitten with my garden, starting a new tradition of grabbing my coffee each morning and walking out to the planters to see what vegetables and fruits had emerged—strawberries, mint, parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, beets, and more. I removed what was ripe to take back to the kitchen and transformed them into fruit compotes for one former date, simmered spaghetti sauce for the freezer, stirred several ingredients into zesty gazpacho, and put away pickles for dinner parties.

I also learned it’s okay to change my plans midstream, as both the garden and I evolved simultaneously. The pond I was going to add for it’s soothing sounds, along with some koi fish and a small waterfall, was eliminated after several friends told me how costly it is to build properly and how much maintenance it requires. I crossed it off the list. “Buy a CD with the sound of music to enjoy the gurgling,” one friend suggested.

I also installed a gravel terrace for a fire pit as a place to sit with friends and maybe roast s’mores. The gravel was selected because the fieldstone I initially wanted is too costly. I rationalized that walking on gravel offers a nice crunchy sound. After seeing built-in planters on a friend’s deck in Salem, Massachusetts, I asked the contractor to install those on my back porch where my elderly mom likes to sit, read and enjoy outdoor views. I planned to fill them with a colorful array of annuals. I also added one birdhouse and painted the door of my backyard shed bright red so I could see that splash of color from my kitchen.

And last summer my garden team planted a small area below the back porch with more sedum and colorful perennials. They also began installing more shade plants along the rear hill under large maple trees. On my own I added hydrangeas along the front by the picket fence and grapevines along the side fence in memory of my writing partner’s late husband who was in the wine business.

I also learned that after plants leap and fill in, it’s time to transplant some to bare spots so they’re not too crowded. Just like people, these living things don’t like to be smooshed together. I also found that blueberries don’t do well in my soil but that pear trees thrive. For some vertical height, I added four trees of two different varieties so they propagate.

Feeling that my green thumb was growing, I planted two large pots in front with a changing display according to the seasons and filled in the window boxes on the rear shed with annuals for pops of color, getting plants from The Phantom Gardener in town, the garden center at Adams Fairacre Farms, and Northern Dutchess Botanical Gardens. I would never describe myself as a garden expert but have definitely learned more about what I like and where to find good materials nearby—and become a tad obsessive when I spy new possibilities—those great colorful cone flowers, for instance. I also painted the shed’s faux windows with two favorite paintings: Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh and a Parisian bridge scene by Claude Monet.

I have found that the wildlife can be terribly aggressive: squirrels eat my pumpkins come Halloween, deer wander into my yard and jump over the fence if hungry enough despite the traffic and people in the village, and a groundhog loved hiding under my shed and venturing out to the vegetable patch like Peter Rabbit. I have found a way to curtail the deer munching on hostas and daffodils with a good green spray recommended by the folks at Phantom Gardener, which I repeat several times during the season.

As I continue with garden season number seven, I am filling planters and pots with annuals and deciding if I add a meditation garden behind the shed with a small fountain for much needed relaxation from stress. However, I have waved the white flag, surrendering to the wildlife! After all, they were here first.

I am enjoying the return of more of my perennials like mint and strawberries. But this year I am buying vegetables and most fruits at my village’s wonderful farmers’ market. A stroll into town and seeing what others have grown will represent another good sharing experience and a big advantage of living in a small, welcoming community.

About Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is co-author with Margaret Crane of Suddenly Single after 50: The Girlfriends Guide to Navigating Loss, Restoring Hope, and Rebuilding your Life (Rowman & Littlefield) and the weekly blog, LifeLessonsat50plus.com. She now blogs regularly for Upstater.com.

Read more from Barbara Ballinger

Read On, Reader...