Let’s talk about something I’ve been largely avoiding since we moved into our house almost three years ago… the yard. We did do a massive amount of work on the front gardens a couple of years ago, because I didn’t enjoy being greeted by a weedy mess each time I came home. The youth group at our church was hiring out labor for a fundraiser and we took that opportunity to get this job done and support them in the process.
The greatest challenge for me was gardening in rock. I had never worked with landscaping like this. How do I plant my annuals in a layer of rock and landscaping fabric? I just had no idea. So, we removed buckets and buckets of rock and pulled up the landscape fabric…
With a clean slate, I put in some new plants and mulched. It’s still a work in progress as I’m figuring out what will grow well in this area and give me the look I want, but it’s been so much easier to tend.
We also ripped out a huge bush and transplanted some peonies in order to replace them with Annabelle hydrangeas and a low boxwood hedge…
Jeff did some gutter work, too, so the water would be routed into a swale along the side of the house instead of the front yard.
We are planning to remove that bush at the corner and replace it with a small flowering tree planted a little further away from the house. That’s a big job, so we’ll most likely save it for a year or two down the road.
What we wanted to work on this year was the beds on the sides and back of the house. They are just a mess. The landscaping fabric is ripped and deteriorated, meaning that the beds get overwhelmed by weeds each summer. The rocks and soil have eroded on the slopes on both sides of the house. Under the deck has been a dumping ground. And, the majority of the plants are just not my taste. They have more of a tropical feel with bright pink and orange flowers when I prefer a more European-feeling garden with whites and greens.
Now, I do want to step in here in defense of the homeowners that lived in this house before us. Our neighbors have told us that they spent a lot of time working in the yard and tending to it. One neighbor told me that the gentleman of the house would carefully water each plant with a ladle. There was also a flower garden in the back corner and fruit trees planted in the yard, so there was clearly a love for things that grow. The house was vacant for over a year before we moved in, though, and that definitely took its toll on the beds around the house and the flower garden that was shaded by overgrown trees and claimed by weeds. Also, the landscaping was original to the house, so it is over 15 years old. We’re seeing many of our neighbors dealing with some of the same issues we are due to the age of the rocks, landscape fabrics, and plants that are overgrown.
Anyway, as someone who is not a natural gardener, this yard overwhelmed me. There was so much hard work that needed to be done just to get it cleaned up and sustainable, so the weeds wouldn’t take over the beds if I forget to pull them a couple of days in a row. I inflated the job in my own head, though, and figured it was something we would have to hire out. After looking over other projects we hope to complete this year, I knew we wouldn’t want to allocate some of the home budget to hire out a big landscaping job and it really wasn’t the priority, anyway. I took a long walk around the yard, looking at the problem areas with fresh eyes. Yes, it would be hard work, but if our family pulled together, we could get it done over a few days, especially if I simplified some of my ideas.
Marshall and I spent one evening weeding and that was the spark that ignited this project. I definitely had a moment when I realized that my boys are in middle school and their help can make a huge impact! We can do this!
So, I put together a plan for cleaning up, sprucing up, and planting for the future. It’s a simple plan, but I think it’ll look beautiful over the years as things grow.
First off, we needed to deal with the dumping ground under the deck.
This is where we dumped all of the rock removed from the front beds. It’s also where random pieces of wood, wire, rock, and stone end up and where a bunch of trash blown by the wind has collected. I am a tidy person and this mess drove me crazy. I just avoided it as much as possible, which is a shame, because we have a lovely yard!
So, the pile of rocks needed to be moved, and this area needed a good, old-fashioned picking-up. (We’ll talk about the deck in a few minutes.)
At the time these pictures were taken, I had already filled and hauled out four contractor bags filled with brush and weeds and one filled with trash!
Once one bag was full, I gathered all of the trash into a pile. I couldn’t believe how much trash was hanging out in the garden beds and under the deck! There is just no excuse for that!
The plan was to use the rock as fill behind the retaining wall and other areas that needed to be built up. I would then put down new plastic sheeting to prevent the weeds from coming up around the mini-split unit (which heats and cools my studio above) and finish it all with a nice, thick layer of mulch. Since I’m not planning on planting annuals around the sides and back of the house, I’m going to put sheeting and mulch directly over the rocks. Ideally, I’d like to remove all of the rock, but that is a massive, back-breaking job and it’s just not worth it to me.
This is a view of the back of the retaining wall that needed to be filled…
Oh, and this black rubber edging is popping up everywhere! I’m sure it looked nice at one point, but the freezing and thawing likely pushed it up over the years.
This is a problem area that has suffered some significant erosion and also needed to be built up…
I’m removing all of these lilies from the side of the house and replacing them with a hydrangea hedge. I’ll plant the hydrangeas in the same holes, so I don’t have to remove the rocks and old landscape fabric. I can’t wait to see a whole hedge of white hydrangeas peeking up in my studio windows!
And I’m also pulling up the lilies and bushes from the back and replacing them with more hydrangeas! I am going to try to save the rose bush closest to the deck. I already pruned it and ordered some rose fertilizer to help it out. It just might be too shaded now that the trees have grown in the yard.
I did a lot of work myself over a few evenings…pulling weeds, digging up bushes and perennials, raking out the gravel, and carrying buckets to dump behind the wall. It was slow and muddy work. Over the weekend, though, our whole family worked together and we got the entire clean-up job finished in just over an hour! I felt such affection for Jeff and the boys for all of the hard work they did for me.
We raked out the pile of rocks and spread it all under the deck (which was previously just dirt) and used it to fill in behind the retaining wall…
We got all of the bushes and perennials removed from the back, too. Jeff and Calvin pushed the biggest and heaviest bush up the hill in a wheelbarrow and felt like champions after doing it. Marshall and I cheered them along and we all threw our arms up and yelled when they made it.
We also hauled rocks from the border of the old flower garden to prevent erosion on the other side of the house and I transplanted some hostas…
Here is how the retaining wall looks all filled in! We got a few bags of topsoil to top it off and just need to spread them around…
We pulled a couple of retaining wall stones from under the deck and used them to fix this problem area…
I’m going to buy a couple more retaining wall stones to build it up even more. Rocks and dirt just slide down that little slope when we have heavy rain.
We also used some of the garden rocks to fill in this little area and I transplanted some sedum to tuck inside…
We used more rock dug out of the garden to make a little landing under the steps. It’s not ideal, but we’ll be replacing the deck in the near future anyway, so we didn’t want to spend too much time on it. I transplanted more hosta and sedum to fill in the area that usually gets overgrown by weeds.
We had a heavy rain that night and it washed most of the dirt off the stones and gravel and it’s looking so much better already!
I have looked like this most evenings, but it’s felt so good to work hard and get a lot accomplished. And I have been so pleased with how well my shoulder has done! I was worried that all of the digging and hauling might be too much for it, but it has done great.
After our hardest day of work, I puttered around and transplanted hostas and sedum while everyone else washed off the dirt of the day. I grabbed a notebook and decided to sketch out a plan and my ideas. This was an important step for me, so I could make decisions on what I wanted to purchase and plant before going to a garden center. I always get overwhelmed when I’m there and usually buy plants I don’t need or that don’t really work into a cohesive plan.
I put together a list of plants to buy, ones to transplant, and an action list… powerwash the lattice, paint the cement pad under the deck, hang cafe lights, buy a hose for the back, etc.
I can’t wait to share the plan with you along with how it all turned out!
Before I sign off, I wanted to circle back to the deck. When I first moved in, I showed the deck on Instagram Stories and mentioned that it would need to be replaced soon. I received a comment something like, “This is too much for me! I am unfollowing you because you want to replace a perfectly good deck.” I don’t know why, but that comment stuck with me. I remember feeling so defensive… “If you could see this deck in person, you would understand. I can physically move the steps if I push on them hard and the railings rock when you lean on them. I’m not being critical or picky or looking for things to redo. This deck is on the brink of being dangerous.“
If you scroll back, you can see this deck is in poor shape. Not only does it have cosmetic issues (a terrible paint job that is peeling off), but the stairs are crooked and many of the boards and railings are rotting. The other day, a board crunched under my foot and I was certain my leg was going through! Jeff assured me that it’s just a rotted spot on the board and the joists are fine. No one is going to fall through.
So, we’ve started looking into composite deck material and the possibility of DIYing the project. Jeff has worked on a few decks over the years, so he’s pretty confident he can do it as long as the supports and joists are sound. Because of the deterioration of the deck over the past year, we are bumping it up the priority list and might be working on it as early as this summer.
I tell you one thing I’ve learned after living in Minnesota for almost three years… gardening in zone 4 is tough! And anything that is outside (sidewalks, decks, plants) are going to take a beating each winter. Everything has to be very hardy!
Do any zone 3-4 gardeners have any advice?