tending to the back & side gardens

Marian ParsonsAll Things Home, Gardening70 Comments

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?


tending to the back & side gardens

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70 Comments on “tending to the back & side gardens”

  1. Three years ago, we moved from a planting zone 7/8 to zone 5, from an arid climate to a wet one. It’s definitely been a learning experience in the garden. We bought a house built in 1919 – solid and well-cared for and we haven’t had any problems that many newer houses have. People seemed to build with common sense back then – like building on a slight elevation so there wouldn’t be flooding problems, but not so elevated that it would be hard to garden. We have a large, deep porch that we spend a lot of time on. A small, low-profile deck was added to the back by the previous owners, but it has taken a beating with all the rain and snow. It looks worse that the 100-year-old front porch. I think it’s going to be an area where I mostly put container plants and do potting, while we’ll spend most of our outside time on the front porch and under the wisteria arbor. One thing I really appreciate about my new state is the prevalence of porch swings.

  2. You are so fortunate to be able to DIY your deck. I need to have the patio area redone out back, and I have a handy man who helps me out and the price of putting in a 14 X 18 ft composite deck with railing was $14,000. It wasn’t a fancy design. I can hardly wait to see your design.

  3. We’re in a zone 3/4 here in ND, and I would suggest working with plants that are very hardy. Sprinkle in annuals for extra pop when needed. You’re off to a good start with the rocks being moved and adding in the hostage and sedum. Use a good nursery where they will stand behind the quality of their plants and sell only the right items for your area. We grow the white hydrangeas and they’re amazing! I’d also suggest a bridal wreath spirea, in fact, I think I’m adding one to our landscaping this year. It blooms white and heavily in early June.

    1. I definitely agree with you on the Bridal Wreath Spirea, Jennifer Erickson. It’s beautiful when it blooms and is a lovely green the rest of the year. Marian, have you thought about Forsythia or Yellow Bells as we call them? They might do well in your area.

  4. I am awaiting a callback from a landscape company as we speak. Due to a medical issue, I can’ do the gardening I love this year. I need some weeds and dead plants dug up and replaced. And i think Ill steal your aIdea of making a plan so I can share my ideas with the landscaper.

    Iwill be very interested in your composite deck. I will have to look at that sometime soon. My deck lets tons of water down on my patio and thatAll needs addressed. I live in zone 6 and have had a few winter to make it a 5. Our soil is mainly clay : so I sympathize sister.

    Fall is my preferred time to work the garden with heavy work retaining walls etc as it is cooler then mainly weeding and mulching in Spring.

    If you want a rose….there are ones that do well in partially shaded areas. Hopefully a good rose blooming fertilizer will help. My roses need a grow fertilizer in the spring and then i switch to a blooming fertilizer…..clay soil is awful.

    Good luck and keep us updated. I will enjoy seeing your work as you go

  5. I can totally relate to your deck issue. We were having work done on our carport and had to have the old deck removed to continue. It was either have them build it or leave it off and we build it later. I wish we had waited! We were brand new homeowners and this was our first major project. We loved our wood deck the first couple years and we let it dry out before staining but now, it’s a mess. It’s structurally sound but they skimped on quality boards, put boards on upside down, used lower grade lumber so we have several spots that are splitting apart, posts twisting… we wish we had waited and done composite decking instead. Our deck is only five years old and we’ll have to replace boards which we’re looking into this year. But I did find some interesting tips from the Family handyman website about decking like butt corners so they won’t separate and warp. Even composite will move with weather changes… it’ll be fun to see how everything turns out!

  6. Marian, please ask around about composite decks. My brother who is a builder says he would never use it again as it gets terribly hot. (I completely understand the attraction of low maintenance.)
    Your hydrangeas and hosta will be lovely. If you have a spot for it, you might consider a white lilac. Mine has green and white hostas underneath and is a beautiful sight from our windows.

    1. I do agree that the boards do get very hot. But maybe in your area that’s not a negative? Is the deck in full sun?

    2. I do agree that the boards do get very hot. But maybe in your area that’s not a negative? Is the deck in full sun? Also the darker the boards the hotter they get of course.

  7. Here are some hardy plants my mom and aunts have shared with me and have thrived in our MN yard – a variety of hostas, beautiful peonies and white lilacs, lily of the valley, ferns, hydrangeas, irises, salvia, queen anne’s lace, verigated dogwood shrub, white bleeding heart, tulips, daffodils, daisies… You may also enjoy a visit to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum!

    1. Jeanna,

      You are a Minnesota girl after my own heart. I was going to suggest many of the same plants you did~ hardy ones at that. My favorites and I think Marian might love them too are, Lily of the Valley, Ferns grow like weeds.. Bleeding Hears~white and every other color, and white lilacs. I also suggest sedum of all varieties, and anything annual to fill in for color and fun. I moved to Colorado at about the same time Marian moved to Minnesota so I am working with an entirely different type of gardening. I’ve learned much about xeriscaping!

      Happy gardening wherever you are everyone! And thank you Marian for sharing your families hard work~ I know you will have a beautiful yard…. MOSS~ lots of moss of which I spotted on your rocks. It will do well in Minnesota and is very English 🙂

      Stay well, Cynthia

  8. We recently replaced our deck with Trex and vinyl pickets and railings. What a difference! Can’t wait to see the finished project.

  9. Marion, I love hydrangeas too, but I would caution you not to plant them that close to your house. You would end up needing to dig them up in a few years. Check on how wide they get fully grown and move them half that distance away from the house. I’ve spent the last ten years digging up plants that our landscaper crowded in on us when we built.

  10. I am a Vermonter and it’s a Zone 3-5. I am currently enjoying Iris, Bleeding Heart, Peony, Poppy, Lupine, Lily of the Valley (great for your rock areas), Lilacs, and Azalea.I also grow Roses, Daisy, Tulips, Daffodil, Hydrangea, Salvia, Echinacea, Day Lilly, Black Eyed Susan, Lavender, Sedum, and Chicks and Hens. I always have cute buckets of annuals spread about my beds to add color when the flowering stops for some varieties. I know you like more whites and greens so look for different varieties! I have gorgeous yellow and white Peony’s in addition to the traditional pinks! Have fun and remember nothing is permanent! It can be moved, traded, or tossed!

    Traci Madison

  11. I live in mid-Vermont and am zone 4 also. We have an abundance of happy lilacs, hostas, hydrangeas, wild roses, irises, and daffodils (from Old House Bulbs: the Northern Lights sampler works well). We also have a herd of 15 deer that routinely walk through our yard and with Deer-Away spray, we have no problems.

  12. We live in Zone 3. If you want something low maintenance that grows in the shade, I really like the fiddlehead ferns. I started with just a few and they’ve completely filled in a large space at the back of the house. They hide the a/c unit. We replaced our wood deck with composite about five years ago. We really like having a maintenance-free deck, but it has its drawbacks. PJ is right about composite decks being hot. On warmer days, we have to wear footwear, as it’s too hot for bare feet, even for just stepping out for a minute. When it gets wet, the water sits on the surface for a long time before it dries. So, it it needs cleaning and we’re entertaining on the same day, we have to clean it quite a few hours in advance.

  13. There is something sooo satisfying about gardening work. At the beginning of quarantine (this is North Carolina) I spent the better part of two weeks weeding, edging, mulching and moving plants around — it didn’t bother me at all to be stuck at home. I finished up my pots over the weekend and now my spring gardening season is done. I’ll spend the next couple of months watering and weeding very early in the morning to avoid the heat and humidity.

  14. Wow…..that is a lot of work, and so glad you have good help.
    You can have peonies? Then have peonies.
    As far as someone going to unfollow you over what you do to your home, they were looking for a reason.
    I didn’t realize you had so much to be done….and ambitious of you to tackle it. It is going to make you happy when it’s all done!
    Thanks for taking us along with you on another journey!

  15. Our cabin in the mountains of Idaho is Zone 5 and we put in a composite deck (gray) 20 years ago, and it still looks good! Wears like iron!

  16. Hi Marian,

    I am a keen gardener from a family of gardeners & love designing gardens as it’s an extension of the creative side, just painting with living plants instead of paints. Love hydrangeas – one of my favourites – recently planted a row of ‘Strawberry Fraise’ below my farmhouse verandah here in Australia – the flowers are white & turn pink as they age – very pretty.

    But, what stood out to me most from your photos was how shallow the garden beds are. I would suggest that you increase the depth of many of your garden beds, especially the side bed with the hostas, as in relation to the size of the house the bed looks stingy in depth, it’s not in balance, sort of like a ruffle without enough fabric or a crown moulding not deep enough for the cabinet size. 🙂 You can also see how the air con unit sits out wider than the bed breaking the flow, this would blend better in a wider garden bed. If you lay your garden hose out as a pretend wider garden edge to get a feel for how wide to extend them (I’d go at least 4ft) I think you will see how a wider depth will change the whole feel of your garden landscape.

    Wider beds anchor your home into the landscape better & give more room for your plants to grow without competition from the lawn for water & nutrients. I think if you approach your garden design like you would a painting project you will create a better balance. Hope you don’t mind my input.

    On a different note, I always find it unusual that in many places in the US you don’t have backyard side fences between your house & the neighbours. How do you keep your dog/s from wandering or have any backyard privacy is what springs to mind? Here in Australia every house in suburbia has a 5-6ft high solid fence, but here on the farm I don’t need that, we just have 4ft high wire paddock fencing as our neighbours are a distance away & the gardens provide privacy. However I can see that no fences does have a nice aesthetic with all the backyards flowing which makes the space look larger & more park like. 🙂 Happy gardening!

    1. Julie comments on the same thing I noticed! It’s the same here in Canada, as she described Australia—fences which are 5-6 ft. tall on every side of the house.

    2. Thanks so much for the input and maybe I’ll widen the beds next year. I’m getting pooped on hard garden projects this year. 🙂 I agree that it looks better.

      As far as the fence, some neighbors have fences, but our neighborhood only allows iron fences, so they are still see-through and are incredibly expensive to install. It would be thousands of dollars to fence in our yard. I just keep Sebastian on a leash or with me and will let him off the leash to play.

      1. Yes gardening can be tiring both physically & at times mentally – deciding on what to plant can sometimes make me stagnate! But widening he garden beds when you can will make an amazing difference & a good excuse to shop for more plants!

        Fencing can be expensive – even our farm fencing costs thousands per paddock & that’s if you do it yourself. I love DIY but not that kind! 🙂 Plus we live in a hilly area at the foothills of the Great Dividing Range (it’s what we call mountains over here, equivalent to ant hills in the US/ Canada – LOL), so tramping up & down the hills dragging fencing wire through fence pickets & clipping off wire netting is a real slog!

        It’s good that Sebastian is a house pup, but would be nice to be able to let him out in the back yard for unsupervised playtime. I have 3 Groodles (what you call Goldendoodles over there – but we can’t use that name here – the ‘doodle’ part here is a nick name for a male appendage – telling people you had a goldendoodle would give you some funny looks!! 😀 ), they love to run in our acreage but one we adopted likes to go under the fences & then all 3 have gone off on an adventure which can be dangerous for them. So hubby put the electric fence on the bottom rung – only on low & that has solved the problem – the dogs just keep away from the fence now. 🙂

        1. Yes, we would love a fence! We had a quote for our last yard, which is about the same size, and it was going to be over $7,000 for a wood fence. I can’t imagine how much an iron one of that size would cost. We just take him on lots of walks, which I enjoy, anyway, play with him in the yard while we’re with him, and take him on hikes, etc. We could get an invisible fence, but those just prevent him from getting out and wouldn’t protect him from other dogs. (I’ve heard some horror stories of dogs being attacked in their own yard.)

      1. My first thought when I saw this post was the beds needed to be widened. They appear out of scale with the house. Also, they are not deep enough for hydrangea. They will outgrow the beds and you will have more work moving them. Perhaps plant some flowers and hold off on the shrubs until you have enough room. I have been gardening for 50 years and have learned some of these lessons the hard way. Your home is lovely with fabulous ideas. I put a composite deck in 4 years ago and love it. Can’t wait to see your final design. I am sure it will be great.

  17. I love the new flowers! I have one thought about the deck – see if you can check out locally if others have similar composite decks. We live in an area with both and the composite deteriorates also, and can’t easily be refinished. Since you’re not afraid of staining/painting/sanding, a wood deck might be better. Zillow and sites like that sometimes show the worn out Trex…eeek!

  18. I have a composite deck installed over a year ago and maintenance is very easy. I also had a cable railing installed and that was one of my best decisions because it brought the view of my backyard and channel right up to the deck and house. I learned that I shouldn’t trim my hydrangea if I want it to bloom the next year. Hope all will go well with your landscaping and deck plans.

  19. Can’t help you with plants. I’m in zone 6. We have been in our house several years and just starting to tackle the yard which is very hard clay. We lived on the other side of the county and had very fertile soil. Miss those gardens. Glad your shoulder held out. I think I’m going to have to have surgery on mine and not looking forward to it.

  20. I have been gardening in Colorado for 20 plus years, which can be a punishing climate. Annabelle hydrangea would be a good choice, but you really need to put them farther out from the house than what your current holes are showing. Also peonies, lavender, bleeding hearts would be hardy choices. Having a plan really helps, but I am not above putting a big old rock for some hard scape if I have too many fails in an area! Good luck.

  21. You have a good start. My 23 year old house was buildt on a parking lot from a very old and historic motel that was one of the first on old Route 66. I’m convinced that the builder broke up the concrete drive and poured 6″ of clay “dirt” on the top and left it be dealt with by the homeowner. I know this by the size of the huge rocks I’ve had to dig out after taking down 5-6 very tall pine trees.. and then grinding out the stumps.

    Next the old fence had to come down and was replaced by myself and a couple buddies with a 6 foot vinyl. It was absuluely necessary due to the busy street behind the house and my dog who would never stay in the yard.

    After that I dug out hundreds and hundreds of Iris bulbs as that was apparently the flower of choice of the original owners. But wose than that Lily of the Valley that was planed and then purposly covered with rock. Don’t ever plant Lily of the Valley!!! It is INCREDIBLY INVASIVE just like like mint. One section of the yard had such a large bed of the stuff I covered it with black plastic trash bags that I anchord with 2×4’s all last summer and sufficated it. That was the only way to be rid of it. The stuff doesn’t even respond to weed killer. So, after months and months of backbreaking work for 2 seasons, I have finally been able to plant new beds with hosta, daisies, hydrangea and several clematis. I have a yard full of weeds which I’m working on, but at least it’s green…

    Some of your other readers have discussed composite wood for your deck. They are correct-if your base structure is sound, the surface boards can be replaced with the composite. It really isn’t that hard. If you and Jeff can build shelves and a cubbord you can handle this. Just straight cuts and screw down the planks.

    Don’t give up. I stripped the sod for 3 beds and was certain to make sure they were 4 feet wide. So glad I did. I then planted Crepe Myrtle and some other shrubs in each bed and it looks so nice. I also added some Serviceberry trees. I love them-they were covered with white flowers in April, now they are getting red berries on them and in the fall, they will be scarlet red. Not sure how they would work in your plant zone, tho. I get such satisfaction from improving my yard and you will too after you get your projects finished. Best of luck! And it’s a good idea to have a plan to work from when you shop for plants.

  22. The first thought I had was that deck looks dangerous. 🙂 Glad it’s on the list to be replaced so that you and the family will be safe! . The only experience I’ve had around Trek style decking was not good, it only took a few weeks for it to start sagging so now the homeowners have to pull it all out and redo all the supports. Food for thought. And it’s no one’s business what you want to change in YOUR home.

    1. I wonder if the homeowner added the new joists the composite decking requires? It would be so sad to spend all that money just to have it start sagging so soon. 🙁 We’re redoing our deck this year, and as we went back and forth between wood and composite, wood won out. Partly due to cost of materials, partly because of having to add those extra joists. We have a wraparound porch around three sides of our house and a good-sized back deck, and those costs add up fast!

  23. I’m one of your neighbors (La Crosse WI) and to garden in the Midwest really shows the strength of us midwesters. Gardening is really a challenge but when you see the plants come up in early spring it’s really worth it. I am doing some natives in my yard along with my other plants as I want to help the birds, butterflies, etc . I am also growing some plants successfully from zone 5 which makes me proud. When I’m in my garden all time and worries disappear. Its a great antidote to stress and thinking all the time about décor and what we have or don’t have. I truly believe we are closer to God when in the garden. Start slow so you don’t get too discouraged and enjoy the physical workout.

  24. Some additional thoughts; weed block will still get weeds, they just grow on top, so at least they’re easy to pull out, it doesn’t decompose and eventually sticks up and gets ratty and has to be removed. I much prefer thick layers of newspaper, which is about as effective as the plastic weed block, and decomposes over time. It’s easier to replace when needed, just rake the mulch back and lay the papers. If Minnesota is a “land grant” state, each county should have an Extension Office, those folks are a bounty of information. Failing that just do the google research thing on your planting specific zone, study each side of your house to know how much sun it gets vs shade and install plants that thrive in that kind of sun or shade. Drive around your area and see what is thriving for ideas. A micro-irrigation system is wonderful for watering, it’s easy even for beginners, can be put on a timer, Is environmentally responsible and Voila! Your plants will be watered efficiently without you. Be aware that retaining wall blocks are great, but the first course should be installed upon a level bed of sand and buried about 2/3 of its height deep, so dig a trench the appropriate size and pack that sand! 🙂 Most people don’t do that and then wonder why their retaining walls aren’t stable or level. I will never use gravel again, you’ve already discovered how difficult it is to pull weeds and maintain it, a good 4 inch layer of pine bark is so much better, can be renewed as needed. But please don’t use cypress, pine is a by-product material and old growth cypress stands have almost been clear cut to feed the landscaping industry. Cypress trees are very important ecologically. Gardening is hard work but ever so rewarding!

    1. It is more difficult to get newspapers these days so I bought a large roll of contractor’s paper. Good for the yard, crafts and the kids can paint on it!

  25. Hello….
    The whole time I was reading this all I could think about was your shoulder!!! Please don’t over do…you will pay for it later!!! Love your ideas and your calming “white flower” selections. I would think that would be needed also without the fences to separate the yards. I have to agree with widening those garden beds…(something I am sure you don’t want to think about doing). Not only for the sake of the air conditioner ( which was a GREAT point) but also because your house is a two-story. Landscaping is to surround and support the beauty of the home. Enhance the foundation to give it a base. The smaller/skinnier beds make the house look like it’s on high heels!..(? ) Actually, you could put all your existing plants out as far to the edge of what is the bedding edge now. Making them be as far away from the house as possible. You could “string and stake out” where you want to end up being out. Then!!! Once a week you could set a timer or a length that you want to be out there. If you picked 4 feet to work on it….in a month you would have 16 feet done!!! It is the method I use for overwhelming not so fun projects. And as you get closer to the finish line it goes faster too! You might even feel like doing a foot or two after dinner some night!!! This way the BIG project of moving the plants out…again….is not looming over the whole project. Also, much harder to move established plants with roots. Remember, you are just cutting out the grass and overturning the soil. I would get rid of that black plastic edge stuff. A good edge cutter is all you need to separate the lawn from the grass. With mulch around the plant bases.
    AND!!! Since you have such a talented woodworking husband….(sorry Jeff)….I think a big improvement would be to get rid of the plastic white lattice. Your climate is too severe for that to ever hold up. I live in the northern mountains of Arizona with four FULL seasons. When I bought this home they had put that plastic lattice around everything…it looked terrible. One storm it was flying all around the yard. I had it replaced with wood fence pickets, points sawed off. Looks great, very strong and more “finished”.
    I hope you don’t mind my ideas which may be a “grrrrr” now….but will really save you a lot of time and effort down the road. It would be getting it done without really dedicating whole weekends to the job….so you can do the pretty/fun inside stuff.

    1. I love the idea of breaking a dreaded chore into doable time segments. I have left too many jobs undone because the whole thing was too daunting.

  26. I am gardening in zone 4 also. You have made a great start! A garden and yard seem to change and grow just as their owners do. It has taken a bit for me to find hardy varieties of the plants I like, but thankfully more and more are available all of the time. My personal favorite is iris because my grandmother had a beautiful heirloom iris garden. If concerned with excessive spreading, iris grow beautifully in containers. Their spiky leaves provide such visually pleasing contrast to the rounded bushes of hydrangeas too. I also love Lily of the valley. If they are planted in a small, well edged area or container they won’t take over. It is cold enough where I am they aren’t as invasive here as they are elsewhere. Another favorite of mine for both color and texture is lamb’s ear. The silvery green foliage adds a special little something extra when surrounded by the deep greens of other plants. White yarrow also adds interesting texture with its fern like leaves. It is another plant that can take over in some climates, but not where I am.

    A fun side benefit of planting some of the more aggressive plants in containers is the ability to rearrange the look of the yard whenever I want a change. Sort of like an outdoors version of rearranging the furniture or switching out accessories to create a whole new outfit with what I already own.

  27. What kind of soap do you put on hydrangeas to keep deer away? Please tell me what I need to do. They’ve already feasted on all of mine except one.

    1. We lived in an orchard town in PA and they would hand mini-hotel soaps from all of the apple trees. The “human” smell would keep deer away, so I thought I would just do that. It can be any kind of soap, but this was economical for them, because locals would collect them while traveling and donate them.

  28. Hi there! Love your painting classes. I have been a gardener for many years and we’re in zone 6/7. Just a note about hydrangeas (I have many!); mine grow best on the northern side of my house. I have a giant, wide bed full of them and they are a sight in summer. I grow Anabelle’s and Limelights by our pool area facing west but they are well protected by large cherry trees from the sun. When you plant them add loads of compost to your soil. This will give them a great start. I too dress mine with compost every spring and they are doing so well. am currently propagating cuttings from those as they are my favorites. You might slip in some beautiful iris which bloom between the spring bulbs and summer flowers. I always try to have something blooming all season. Good luck!

  29. I would agree with the comment above to NOT plant Lillyof the Valley unless in a container. I love it’s little white bells and the beautiful fragrance, but it really is VERY INVASIVE. I made the mistake of planting it with some other perineals and within 3 years it has taken over and choked out my Coneflowers, Shasta Daisies, Brown- eyed Susans. It took 3 full 8 hour days digging it out. Really tough work! The roots go extremely deep and trail so you have to make sure you get it all out. I moved it to our back woods and it can spread out there! Ha. I agree with bleeding heart, so pretty with their little pink hearts dangling and of course peonies, so beautiful. I live in Michigan. Just a note of caution, unless you want to spend lots of hours gardening, I would be careful how many beds you put in, as to keep things looking neat and tidy, attention to them is needed on a regular basis. In my zeal when we built our house, 23 years ago, I put in several large beds going around our house and a vegetable garden and it was a lot of work. I enjoyed it then, but now I am learning, (especially as I am getting older and want to do other things like go to the beach,bike ride, and travel ) that less is best.

  30. I love reading your blog! It is a happy place to visit when I need a break.
    If your deck is 15-ish years old there is a good chance that your posts are rotting in the ground. Our deck was about that old when we had some siding issues and decided to replace the deck when we fixed the siding. When our deck was taken apart the workers called me to look out the window and one of the guys just reached out and gently pushed on the support causing it to snap off. Our new deck does not have the posts set in the ground but on cement supports.

  31. Looking good! Glad the whole family pitched in. Just an opinion on the composite deck. My husband has worked in the building industry his entire life, he does not recommend composite decks. They need a lot of maintenance and look crappy after a few years. I live in the Northeast and have always had wood decks. We are religious about staining the every year. Our first deck lasted over 21 years, the joists were still rock solid. Just my 2 cents, Good luck!

  32. I have lived in Zone 4 for 60+ years and sigh when I think of how much easier a zone 5 or 6 would be. We had a stained wood deck for 20+ years and the only time it looked good was immediately after it was stained. Painted deck floors simply are not sustainable in our tough weather. We put in a composite deck 6 years ago and love it to death. One can shovel it off easily and it doesn’t scratch from the shovel. It isn’t any warmer on the feet than our previously stained deck was and it is easily cleaned.

    Your house’s garden beds are quite shallow for the large shrubs you like. Hydrangeas grow like teenage boys; tall and spread out and not knowing where to put their limbs; I don’t think 6 feet from the wall is too much for hydrangeas or spireas. If you want to slowly prepare your beds, lay down cardboard over the grass and cover it with mulch. In a year all the lawn will be dead underneath and easier to remove to extend the beds. Only use contractor grade plastic edging; anything else will buckle and heave up in a few years, as you have noted. Fiddle-head ferns are great and multiply nicely in a shady area that doesn’t get much traffic. They do spread slowly but not as enthusiastically as lilies of the valley.

    If you need plants, neighbors who are dividing their perennials are an excellent source and often advertise on Facebook groups or neighborhood posts. The great thing about perennials is that they just keep on giving! I have grown increasingly fond of smaller decorative trees that have been bred for Zone 4; the redbud is so beautiful and holds its blossoms far longer than crabapples, lilac trees are narrower and taller but beautiful with their white blossoms, weeping spruces are just amazing and have a smaller footprint than their bigger cousins (blue and green spruce). I wish you the best of luck in gardening; it is a long term vision and not a sprint.

    1. This is such a helpful comment! Thank you for taking the time to share all of your wisdom. And yes, I like the idea of slowly expending the beds with cardboard and mulch. Brilliant! I’ll try that along the hydrangea hedge this year. I already have an edger in my cart to order, so I can pull up those plastic edges and create some nice clean edges further from the house.

  33. I can be of no help here as I’ve lived most of my life in Zone 9 or higher and very few people have decks. Mostly we have paved or tiled patios. But I will happily watch and learn, especially about the hydrangeas , as I love them, but can’t grow them here.

  34. My brother replaced a wood front porch with composite materials in western Pennsylvania and the heat it held was his complaint. There are drawbacks to every material as well as the difficulties that come with different climates. My parents live two blocks from the beach in Florida and there are things you have to maintain, then replace much more often than in inland locales. You must have touched a nerve with your blog post for that person who decided to unfriend your blog because you were talking about “replacing a perfectly good deck”. First you’ve shown that it isn’t perfectly good. Second, you are a tremendously energetic person who gets a lot of stuff done. And you let us in on it. I follow you because I like to see what you do. I am NOT a very energetic person but I’m certainly not offended because you are.

  35. I’m an avid gardener in west Central Minnesota, so I identify with your plant selections. Way to go on planting hydrangeas!
    When your looking for plants that do well in zone 4, I highly recommend this book:
    Perennials for Every Purpose by Larry Hodgson. He lives in Quebec and the plants he describes do well in Minnesota! Great chapters on picking the perfect perennials, photos and descriptions of spring bloomers, summer bloomers, shade, sun, etc.

  36. Lots of comments–we all seem to love a garden. I have a small composite balcony deck on the east side and it is too hot to walk on. A full outdoor rug helps. My brother has a west-facing deck in upstate NY that gets brutal weather. He replaced the original deck with epay wood and it is spectacular and really holding up well. I am an avid gardener and in CO have very different gardening challenges, but I do understand brutal winters, gardening for ease of maintenance and planting what you love and enjoying the evolution and changes. Good luck!

  37. We live in Western North Carolina. It rains a bit and the sun can come out making our porch boards a target. Our house is only 5 years old and the stain on the boards is peeling. The porch is in good repair but I feel your pain about wanting it to be safe and clean.
    I am excited to see what you come up with. I love my porches! It’s another area dear to my heart. We want to work on the area under the porch that leads into our basement. It would be a lovely art area!
    Keep at it. It is looking great outside.

  38. Isn’t it odd how we can look past certain areas for months, or even years and then one day… “This has got to go!” I do it often but the reward when you finally tackle those projects is priceless.

  39. that’s a lot of yard to care for. You have made it very nice indeed! Your patio table and chairs match 2 of my vintage arm chairs I have only deck as well as my lounge chair. I love the vintage sets because they have held up all these decades.
    Good luck with the yard. It never seems to be done.

  40. Marian,
    If you deck is 15-20 years there is a good chance it has some rot especially with your climate. We live in central VA and had our deck replaced about 10 years ago and our house is now 28 years old. We added a screen porch as well when we had our deck replaced. Although our deck is wood it has held up beautiful and we found the best wood stain product was Ben Moore Arbor coat. Its not cheap but the stain holds up nicely. We do clean it every year and that does help with the life of the stain.

    As far as composite decks go, I personally cant speak on the pros and cons but I do know that Trex decking is much more expensive than traditional wood although the trade off is less maintenance. I would talk to other neighbors who have it to get their feedback. I too have heard it can be hot during the warmer months which some of your readers posted about.

  41. I live in Canada, zone 3-4, so I know the challenges of gardening in a cold climate. I love the same colours as you do (I’m currently rereading your book and love your blog!!) so here’s what I recommend:
    – I’ve had good luck with Annabelle Hydrangea. Just prune it back hard to the ground in early spring
    – my favourite hosta is Halcyon. It has lovely, thick bluish leaves and is slug resistant
    – salvias do very well for me and I love the deep blue flowered spikes. There are white and pink varieties too, but the blue are my favourite. If you cut off the dead blooms it will often bloom again.

    Good luck! You’ve done a great job.

  42. Just a suggestion….. instead of plastic sheeting which will hold water, consider using contractor grade landscape fabric which will block weeds and allow the water to soak through instead of puddling.

  43. I grew up and live now in Florida where gardening is a challenge, heat and humidity limit a lot of flowering plants that I love. However, for a decade, many years ago, I lived in a Chicago suburb, I loved gardening there. I planted peonies, hydrangeas, and bulbs, lots and lots of bulbs. It was such a joy to see your tulips and daffodils peeking up through the snow. Somehow, my peonies always made it through the hardest Chicago winter, as did most of the cornflowers. Two years ago, I bought a hydrangea and it has survived! It looks dead each winter (what we call a winter in Florida) but come spring comes alive again. I would suggest the Anabelle (I think that’s the name) hydrangea for your planting.

  44. I enjoyed reading this and congratulate you on your work. I am an avid gardener and since the virus and subsequent stay at home orders, I have spent many, many more hours than usual working in the yard. I am going to echo what several others have said, and that is, your beds are too narrow. That is not your fault. But your entire property will look better if you enlarge them, and you can do this gradually if you want. They will serve as a proper anchor for your house. And your hydrangeas will quickly outgrow that narrow strip and bulge over into the yard and get hit with the lawnmower. Plus, it just won’t look good. Now, while you are enlarging anyway, I beseech you, please GET RID of all of the straight lines. Either use a can of spray paint or lay out a garden hose in a curved shape to give you an idea, and make this your new bed shape; this will serve to complement the straight, angular lines of your house and give your property a “wow” factor. Next, please, don’t use black plastic or landscape cloth. You will regret it. Remember all of the stuff you pulled up in front? As one of the other folks said, use cardboard and newspaper. It’s free, natural, and not a waste of resources. Arrange it in the shape you want. Put mulch on top. Done! This is especially useful in areas where you will not be planting anything for awhile. It will take a year for it to deteriorate, and in the meanwhile, has smothered out weeds. We should all cut down on our plastic usage anyway.
    Lastly, in the areas on the side where you have erosion: you are on the right track. May I suggest that you stagger rocks or stones at several intervals, like a mini terrace, then plant some nice groundcover. This will provide interest, spill over your rocks, and control erosion all at once. If I lived near you, I would come over and help you do this myself. I was so excited when you worked on the front, and am equally so now; thanks for sharing this and very best wishes to you. Nothing feeds the soul like gardening.

    1. Thank you so much for all of the amazing suggestions! We are going to work on expanding the beds next year and then I’ll look into adding curves. I thought the same thing, but I’m not sure how to do it so it looks good and not like random curves! One step at a time!

  45. Our neighbors had an elevated deck like you. When they went to replace the deck boards with composite decking it required a lot more support. They had to add more joists and posts. You’ll want to check into this as you don’t want the deck to fail due to lack of support. Great job on the cleanup and gardening. ❤️

  46. I knew when I was going to need some professional help. By that I mean, help with the plan. Experience I did not have. That was 30 years ago. I am happy to tell you it worked. I could not afford to have the landscape planted, so a researched a landscape specialist to draw the plans. He suggested everything. Bed sizes and shapes, hiding AC, plants that would flourish in my area, amendments to add to the soil (really important), removal of weeds. It was well worth the price. I never had to replace a plant, It was awesome. We can’t be experts on everything. Good Luck!

  47. I’m lived in Minnesota my whole life and have gardened most of my very adult life. Most of that time was spent in zone 3-4, Duluth. Now at retirement, have moved further north to zone 3 in clay soil. Starting all over again. Love all those English cottage garden perennials, which do so well; with my Annabelle’s, planted lace cap hydrangea in front lending support to those floppy big balls. Use Japanese spurge in our driveway turnaround, large hosta varieties on the north side along the rock bed drainage creek, lots of lilacs, lots of peonies (queen of the garden). I find gardening to be artistry-when to go, when to stop, the palette (soft or loud), and then always respectful of Mother Nature. It’s a process, enjoy.

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