Snapshots from a New Hampshire Garden: Part III

Our Garden Heroes

There is utter madness behind our methods. We are designing and planting new gardens in our mid-eighties. Then again, we ask, why not? Gardening has become the biggest whodunnit for us, a larger-than-life mystery about outdoor place-and-space that we cannot stop exploring simply because we are ageing.

It’s a loosely choreographed tale with twists of  weather and wind and derring-do of heroes and villains (sometimes we are both), a tale told of hard work and high hopes.

And full of questions, too. That’s where the mystery comes into it. Will the weak weigela make it through the winter? (It should, if I stop scraping its bark to find green.) Will the allium divisions puff out like gangbusters? (They did in Susan’s garden, where they came from.) Will the bulbs planted last fall bloom? (Where did I plant them, anyway?)

And how many uh-ohs will we have to contend with? We never put titles to these tales. We take it for granted that we will never have to purloin one of Agatha Christie’s greatest titles: And Then There Were None.

(Not a chance, because there will always be weeds.)

Oh, the eternal optimism of gardeners!

To bring you up to date on the latest chapter, we have just finished tearing out the stockade fence next to the patio, bartered the hot tub away, uprooted burning bushes and other large shrubs.

Rooting out the fence was true spectator sport, and it opened up vistas in the garden

We had cleared space for new plans and new plantings! It was exhilarating. And it had been easy. All I had to do was point my Index Finger to make things happen.

The last of the burning bushes under the front gable is hauled out

I began to like this style of gardening, though I had a niggling feeling that intentions were outrigging shovels and ideas were outracing hoes.

I needn’t have worried. There was a world of super heroes in this year’s tale, just waiting to help.

The Heroes

Many of these heroes are the enablers I spoke of  in my last post. They are, in fact,  Our Garden Heroes. They contribute inspiration and  help — and plants — and they happily keep my Index Finger in constant play.

Do we know what we are doing? Not really.

We approached new projects by committee, sifting ideas like compost and counting on instincts born of common sense and years of hard-knocks gardening. Maybe we would get things “right” sooner than later?

And we depend on Our Garden Heroes.

Mike the Sod Busting Hero

A stone path leads from the driveway to the front door. The previous fall, Susan, one of the most enthusiastic heroes had planted bulbs along it as a spring surprise for us. When they bloomed, we immediately wanted more.

Front path brightened by daffodils and tulips

To soften angles and add pizzazz to the minimalist ranch, we came up with the idea of sinuous beds winding round most of the house. 

The first leg of our garden would begin in front of the house where sunshine urged grass to grow. Very thick grass that defied removal. Mike the Sod Busting Hero patiently, methodically cut and dug to remove clod after clod, following the wide curve we had scribed with the garden hose.

We put down a tarp to hold dug sod but it was easier to collect and haul it away in wheelbarrows, thence to purgatory

Hero Mike made light of the effort by insisting that digging was good exercise.

But we just happened to catch him napping under the ash tree. Wake up, Hero Mike, You’ve got more digging to do: that new magnolia, the rhododendron, and the sad rose of sharon we pulled…

My, that front bed is a big area, we said, but we were confident we could fill it. Here we put Magnolia ‘Elizabeth,’ an eclectic mix of azaleas, spirea, mugo pine, Siberian iris, and gallardia. Mexican heather and divisions of allium millenium and liriope variegatum filled empty spaces.

The initial planting. Other perennials and annuals were added, but many loafed on the job and will not be invited back next year.

Further along the front, the bed is shaded by the maple tree. Here we would create a seating area sized to outdoor furniture that Steven had designed and built for us.

Temporary seating only! The soil, already loosened when burning bushes were pulled, needed compost and the bed needed gentle reshaping. We took turns on the single seat, while we cogitated great plantings

We would surround this area with sun-shade lovers: deutzia,  ‘Elf’ mountain laurel, andromeda, rhododendron, Annabelle hydrangea, hosta.

A contorted viburnum Carlesii I’d raised but ignored when it should have been shaped was hidden near the front door in hopes that its fragrance would sweeten our springtime.

The finished seating area created from assorted pavers. In hot dry weather the hose becomes a garden artifact, but it would be practically invisible if I tucked it against pavers or brick

I am galloping too far ahead of my story. Before we go further, I must introduce. . .

Bob the Brick-Laying Hero

We admit to being scroungers. We did a search of the garden and found a couple hundred vintage gray concrete bricks and modern red bricks, many sunk three deep into the edges of old flower beds, barely visible under invading grass.

Pavers, too, emerged from unexpected spots. Buried treasure indeed! We dug and hauled until we had enough piles for Bob the Bricklaying Hero to create his own brand of garden magic.

Makeshift foam pad planted under knees, with patience and experience hard-earned in our former southern garden, Hero Bob methodically began work on a two-brick-high edger.

In this wintry photo a double tier of bricks edges a bed in North Carolina. Bottom brick is the foundation and is flush with ground level

There is usually no need to cement the levels to each other, as they seem to stay in place unless an absent-minded gardener trips over them. A special adhesive is available and is quite reliable as long as bricks are not persistently wet.

Bob the Brick Laying Hero began by creating a level channel at the edge of the front border that Mike the Sod Busting Hero had so carefully cleared.

Deepening and leveling the channel before the brick is laid

The Lady with the Index Finger insisted that the drab-gray concrete bricks should be top layer because they reflected the vintage of the house. Everybody, including Hero Bob, thought this was a wacky idea, but eventually he acquiesced (most likely to keep peace with the Lady) and laid a long measure of drab–grays 

Tacky. Tacky. Tacky. Objections came thick and uninhibited. The pale bricks looked plain wore out. Vintage, schmintage! Garden history, it was decreed, should be hidden underneath modern-day red brick.

With quiet equanimity, Hero Bob, on hands and knees, redid the edging from scratch. He was, pun intended, a brick about the redo.

In fact, in response to the Lady’s now humble suggestions, he created a second level in the bed, this from a surprise discovery of patio stone in the back corner of the yard.

A low stone “wall” within the bed  creates a level terrace to eliminate the slope between front path and lawn

Almost finished bed. Pavers were placed underneath to create a solid base

The stone edger complements these fall bloomers that came with the house and prompted an instant love affair between asters and me


View of bed showing stone upper level and brick lower level that abuts the lawn. Grass is trimmed with a weed whacker when necessary. Stokes aster ‘Peachy’s Pick’ and gallardia ‘Arizona Sun‘ provide mid-summer color

During much of the summer we could find Hero Bob on hands and knees, troweling narrow corridors through soil and leveling brick. Not just brick. He also used the pavers we found to create the shaded front seating area that was pictured above.

The front gable bed, a shady spot for gathering. Brick-and-paver channel for runoff from downspout can be seen in lower left of photo.

Late summer view. The particularly lush look comes from potted plants still waiting for a home

The final pattern for the front bed

The front-bed project turned into a Round-the-house Saga because we could never find a pleasing stopping point. (Kind of like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, without music.) Hero Bob just continued on and on as the days went by.

Of course, he ran out of brick, so this happy no-cost project became a hard-cold-cash project. Since the landscape supply place was only five minutes away, popping over to fill the trunk with 75 bricks at a clip became a routine gardening drill.

We will now stop for an Intermission in our Round-the-House Saga, a little diversion to introduce you to. . . 

The Armillary

In our North Carolina garden the armillary and its base were centered on a nexus of woodland paths and surrounded by white stepping stones, created and poured by Bob, and inlaid with numbers and zodiac signs cut from stained glass. It was a delightful meeting point.

A quiet moment before the senior prom and festivities. Photo by Pamela Hadden

But pure white stepping stones don’t remain pure white under a steady rain of woodland detritus.

Photo by Susan taken in early spring, before final clean-up and bleaching of stones, an annual chore.

Consider that a lesson learned. This time the armillary and its stones would be surrounded by a formal circle of white rock edged in brick and set in the center of the spacious back lawn out from under trees. The stones would spend winters in the garage.

A portable fire pit lay where we wanted to put the armillary, which relieved Sod-Busting Mike from the task of excavating grass. Since we did not envision sitting around a campfire singing kumbaya and eating s’mores any time soon, this was pure serendipity.

The fire pit, centered on the spacious lawn, with little grass around it. The wheelbarrow in the background is another garden artifact

Figuring pleasing proportions of a circular bed in a spacious lawn was not so easy. First time the circle looked dwarfish, like a dot lost in space. Second time, in an expanded bed, the zodiac stepping stones looked like they were floating in space.

After the front bricklaying fiasco, Hero Bob preferred not to lay brick a third time. The Lady scrounged for ideas and uncovered more surplus gray patio stones. An arrangement of these stones would punctuate the sea of white rock, and maybe add some subtle interest.

The ever present chair and wheelbarrow!

Once we were happy with proportions, Hero Bob leveled and smoothed the bed and laid a double tier of bricks.  Ground cloth was then put down, followed by stepping stones and finally washed stone

Finished at last.

The circle stayed reasonably tidy even through fall, as there were no trees nearby and leaves tended to blow away.

A closer look at one of the three zodiac stones. The other five stones are roman numerals

The most formal focal point in our garden, highlighting a handsome background of trees and shrubs

The North Side of the House

Now it was time for Hero Bob to return to the Round-the-House Saga, rounding the corner from front to side bed, adding flourishes to the flow and creating yet another garden bed more generous than expected. He was not fooling around this time.

The wide curvaceous bed, fall photo taken after most plants have gone to sleep. Note brick and paver outflow from drain gutter

Before we go any further, let’s take a step back and look at early spring preparations for this bed..

Brandon the excavator and his mechanical dragon had dumped a generous pile of top soil here that had to be spread before any bricks were laid.

The pile seemed monstrous at the time, but once raked out, it became a thick layer of great soil that did not require ground cloth to prevent weeds except under the eaves.

Now, every good gardener knows you should carefully record shifting pockets of sun and shade over time. But it is northern cold up here in winter, so I stuck my head out the door  when the spirit moved me and observed.

No surprise, the north side of the house seemed to be in perpetual shade. I saw just what I expected to see.

What fun! I could plant the usual shady characters here, plants that had complained in our North Carolina garden: tiarella, lamium, heuchera, foxglove, brunnera, bleeding heart. 

Surprise! Come springtime, I noticed a luminous  glow sliding over the bed from the east. Eastern sun, quite the bonus, I thought, rather smugly.

I smiled too soon. Later in the day, harsh bright light pushed in from the west. A generous chunk of this shady bed was sunny for several hours each day. Oops!

Deep dark shade close to the house vs full hot sun further away, an interesting and unexpected contrast

Fortunately, moisture-holding top soil compensated for my mistakes in siting. Back to the drawing board next spring.

An early fall view of the side bed, plants surprisingly tolerant of the extremes of exposure. With almost two weeks of 90 degree temps with little or no rain during summer, the hose became another artifact in the garden, like the wheelbarrow

Jeff the Handy Man Hero

There is a lovely stone patio at the back of the house. Until we pulled up the fence and arborvitae privatizing it on one side, we did not realize that an uncomfortable slope between lawn and patio had to be resolved if we wanted full access to the patio.

Removing large shrubs and a stockade fence from this area created the need for path and landscaping

Ten or fifteen years ago we would have tackled a project like this with gusto. Now, we mostly thought about what should be done. But who could we ask to take on this project?

Jeff, the Handyman Hero, who paints houses and builds rooms and bookshelves and finishes furniture and fixes sinks, that’s who. He is, above all, very good at improvising. 

Having, thankfully, been released from doing actual work we now could spend our time discussing, measuring, discussing, measuring, and, for good measure, discussing and measuring again. And, best of all, watching.

Discussions terminated, Hero Jeff figured the materials, purchased them, and hauled four by four pressure treated posts from the back yard to use as stabilizers along the sides of the path.

The path area and the rock adjacent to it. The dark strips in the foreground are called “beasts,” a term for heavy plastic strips designed to hold stone and rock in place

Somehow Hero Jeff managed to sort the stones into a pleasing pattern that worked the first time without a lot of discussing and measuring.

The finished path with a four by four pressure treated step created from our garden cache. After weathering, the step will be stained to blend with the stone

This is a sunny area, so we planted spigelia, monarda, coreopsis, cosmos, grape tomatoes, lavender, nasturtium and maiden pinks.

Plants thrived in the existing soil with helpings of top soil

This is the first time I have gardened with a winning combination of good soil,  moist but well drained, stolen from mountains pulverized by glaciers, under days of full sun that kept plants blooming. 

Feet can be the best tools. Setting the beast in place to create a pleasing junction between stone, rock and mulch. Ace Hardware should give us credit for featuring their wheelbarrows in our garden

At last, a finished piece of the backyard. Well, sort of . . .

We dug a couple of boxwoods, held them in pots for much of the summer, for planting here. Crazy green nasturtium, center right, grows in the rich soil but does not bloom. An old panicle hydrangea blooms in the background

Another view. The tall shrub is European Snowball, or Guelder Rose,, (viburnum opulus) that came with the garden. Later in the season we cut it back severely because of persistent insect damage to the leaves. We have high hopes for next spring

Meanwhile Bob the Bricklaying Hero has been slowly working his way around the flower borders.

Preparing the edge for brick that will meet the still unfinished path

Adding Spice to the House

No matter that we were going full swing on our Round-the-Garden Saga. That did not stop us from starting yet another project. Why not add some visual interest to the house, too? Let’s give people something to look at as they drive by our corner or walk their dogs.

Yellow! That was the color we chose for the three gables, bright yellow with hints of earthtones in the paint mix — this choice after countless trips to the hardware store for paint swatches and unlimited hours of discussion and hand-wringing before, and especially after we saw the bright first coat. Were we becoming a circus house?

Hero Jeff painting the gable on the south end of the house

In the middle of our most crushing hand-wringing episodes, a couple we’d never met happened to be out for a stroll (and they didn’t even have a dog). They made a point of stopping to tell us they really liked the new color. That cinched it. We asked Hero Jeff  to paint the second coat.

Hero Jeff also painted the window frames and garage door black and added black shutters, simple fixes that did not break the bank. (Especially since he gave us three sets of shutters he had in storage.)

Paint job and shutters on the front gable in a late fall picture

Black trim against the new beds, early fall

It’s pretty tricky adding shutters to windows on a brick house. Question: How do you attach plastic shutters to brick? Answer: By gluing strips of wood to the brick and drilling holes in the shutters, then screwing the shutters to the wood.

It’s even more of a mindbender when the plastic shutters expand and bow out from brick that heats up in blazing afternoon sun. Hero Jeff improvised by enlarging the holes in the shutters to allow for expansion. The fix worked.

Stone Grubber and Dirt Digger Heroes

I never thought I’d call our children and spouses Heroes, but Heroes they are.

There was a hazy sort of project planned for the back. It was possibly the most involved and the most necessary, and that is probably why it remained hazy for a good part of the season.

During summer afternoons the sun blazes across the patio and we wear caps and dark glasses and huddle beneath umbrellas and pretend to enjoy the ambience while we squint at each other and play musical chairs in time to the sun’s dance.

Happy hour? Nope. Moving day to escape bright summer sun

We needed plants, big ones, even a tree, to defuse the light, and we needed to get them in quickly if we were going to see results we could enjoy.

For a change, my lust for plants turned out to be a blessing, particularly those viburnums I’d bought earlier in the season at chunky prices because they looked so healthy, and the big aronia Susan had found for me.

Viburnums in pots, displaced during most of the summer, would finally have a home

That sunny spread south of the patio would be just the home for them, a home for native shrubs and perennials jostling like good friends and attracting all sorts of birds.

Part of their proposed home, looking pretty reasonable except the homeland extends to the end of the house. Nothing halfway about this project

But what a rooty home! Part of the area was already cleared because we’d pulled up some large shrubs that would have needed constant manicuring.

We found good soil under the mammoth shrubs we removed  — and no grass!

But otherwise, this was the healthiest patch of turf on the property, with iron roots that stretched out forever. Hero Jeff tried to rototill the grass, but the machine bounced off the sod and bounced back up at him.

Hero Bob tried cutting out squares of grass and pulling out rock and weeds, a job for the ages. Squares of cardboard only stalled the rangy growth instead of smothering it. There seemed no beating this tough, wiry grass that intended to defend its stake in the yard.

The Lady finally used her Index Finger to Roundup the stubborn patch. Yes, I confess to succumbing to the pre-mixed formula strategically positioned on an impulse-buy display in the hardware store. Shame on me, but I am too old to spend forever in a battle over grass that I would lose anyway.

Now we could think about the final shape of the bed and possible paths.

Tentative shape showing full expanse

Paths through the area evolved after the usual exorbitant number of hours of discussion. One proposed (ugly and awkward) path, below,  took us from garage door to patio.

The dark circle indicates a tree. We used black spray paint to define areas only because we did not have white paint

We nixed this one without discussion. A stone path from garage to patio already existed! But we did decide on two other paths: a short one from the patio to the backyard, and a longer one from the garage to the backyard.

Short path edged with the beast goes directly from patio to backyard. Stones will be sunk into rock when we get around to it

Graceful and satisfactory, the path below curves out from the garage to the back yard.

Hero Bob has raked and shaped it and will edge it with the beast. We’ll use “borrowed” stepping stones from Steven and Lisa to complete it next season

Now it was time for our Family Heroes, the stone-grubbers and dirt-diggers to arrive for a working weekend.

Stone Grubbing Heroes Susan and Lisa work at removing weedy stones from around the patio

Meanwhile Dirt Digging Heroes Ellen and Steven are digging holes for plants.

Deciding where these shrubs should be placed needed careful thought, since they would eventually grow tall and bushy, and we did not want them to block views of the garden beyond.

Hey, these two Heroes are having too good a time

It probably helps that we fed them well.

We soaked the plants before filling the superb holes dug by these heroes.

There is just one more hero left to thank.

Susan the Steadfast Hero

She is always there. Answering questions, making suggestions, ferrying me to nurseries. After gardening in New Hampshire for twenty or more years she knows what works and what does not.

In her Garden

She has experimented and won and lost. She gives me the benefit of these long years of experience, unstintingly. She sees the big picture but she is practical about details. She reins me in and she spurs me on. Her quick mind sees possibilities where I have not noticed.

Exploring leaf texture at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris

She is quick at digging and planting, and weeding, too. And willing! That counts for something, doesn’t it?

Oh, and she’s made a list of plants from her garden that she will give me next spring. What more could a gardener want? 

Waiting for mom to catch up during a garden visit on the go

For all this and more, I thank you, Hero Susan.

And a hearty thanks to our sod-busting, brick-laying, stone-grubbing, dirt-digging and general all-round pitching-in heroes

The days grow cooler. Work is done for the season. Next spring will bring more challenges.

The tale is not finished, but we have enjoyed the first chapters.

And now, as we look out at piles of snow, we are waiting for the land to shift from monochrome to kodachrome.

Our yellow gable becomes a singing canary on gray days

PS The back bed still looks good after emerging from several inches of snow

This entry was posted in Armillary as a Feature, Brick edgers, Building stone path, Creating a Garden, garden maintenance, New Hampshire garden, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Snapshots from a New Hampshire Garden: Part III

  1. Linda says:

    I am so amazed at the artistry and the progress you have made in the short time you have lived in NH that I am at a loss for words. I love that you’ve shared the journey through both the written word and photos and I look forward to the day I can visit you and your gardens. You always make me smile.

  2. As always, your comments are so welcome and upbeat. Let’s hope we can bridge the miles and see each other soon.

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