Posted on 15 Comments

It Started with a Cow

Happy the Cow

And it’s all Mom’s fault. She has a knack for finding quirky things that she knows I’ll like, and that’s how I ended up getting a cow for Christmas. Not just any cow: a 2-foot-tall recycled metal cow with kind of odd ears and a paint job guaranteed to catch the eye.

Cow hung around – or rather, leaned around, because her legs are kind of curvy and she needed support – for a few months, while I tried to figure out where she could go in the garden. The only solution I could come up with was to set her among plain green or yellow, because no other setting would work with all of her colors.

Cow pre-makeover

But she still looked out of place, so the only solution was to give her a makeover. She wanted to be purple, of all things, and that’s how I ended up picking out a can of Valdspar Sumptuous Purple spray paint on my next trip to the hardware store.

Mom usually handles any painting projects around here, so Cow went home with her to her workshop and came back seriously – and yes, sumptuously – purple. She still needed a bit of something, so it was back to the hardware store for a can of Valdspar Bumblebee Yellow. I dug out the small brushes I normally use for seed cleaning and set to work giving her some personality. An hour or so later, Cow was really looking spiffy, and she needed a new name to go with her new look. Mom always wants to name stuff “Happy” (I’m darn lucky that didn’t end up being my name), but usually, she gets outvoted. This time, I decided that Cow could henceforth be known as Happy, in Mom’s honor.

Happy the Cow at Orchard entrance

Happy and I wandered around the garden for a while, and she finally came to rest in a bed right outside the orchard, among orange, yellow, and red ‘Jewel Mix’ nasturtiums, bright orange ‘Radio’ pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), and ‘Ruby Perfection’ cabbages. Good call, Happy!

Hmmm…that color combination deserved further exploration. And so, the Happy Garden began.

How lucky that there was an available space right nearby, where I was trying to figure out a replacement for my old holding/veggie beds.

Future Happy Garden in March 2010

Here’s what the space looked like late last summer. You can see why it needed a redo.

Future Happy Garden Fall 2009

It was my last main project for this spring, and I finally got around to it in June. First task: a serious weeding.

Happy Garden in progress June 12 2010

Then, it was time to think about the layout. I would have liked to go back to the original four-rectangle pattern, but the huge winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) in the far corner nixed that idea. I’ve been meaning to move it for several years and could have managed it even now if I’d cut it back hard. But well, a robin had a nest in there, and other birds love it too, so I didn’t have the heart to disturb it. Instead, I decided to let it be the trellis for some luffa gourd seedlings that needed a home.

Happy Garden in progress June 12 2010

After that, figuring out the paths was easy. I needed a straight path into it, and along the upper side of it, to line up with the existing paths that go around the house. And I needed a diagonal path across it, to have a direct route from the barn, courtyard, and nursery area back to the toolshed and the Orchard (where the veggie beds and fruiting plants live). It didn’t take long to scrounge up a few stakes and some baling twine to lay out the paths.

Now, how to create some sort of entrance for the space? An earlier rummage through the basement had produced a few sections of Mom-made picket fence we’d kept from my previous place, and I’d used two of them to frame the entrance to the Orchard. The remaining two sections got a Happy-the-Cow-style makeover and did a fine job in framing this space too.

Happy Garden in progress June 15 2010

Then it was a bunch of one-thing-leads to another mini projects. The space slopes a bit toward the pasture, so to make the fences level, I had to build some low stone walls to create two level terraces.

Happy Garden in progress June 15 2010

Then, I dug out the paths and used that good soil to raise and level the beds within. Since all that digging turned up a fair number of stones, I used the rocks to line the new beds.

Happy Garden June 15 2010 Happy Garden June 20 2010

To get the new paths to line up with the existing ones, I also had to widen a border just outside the Happy Garden.

Happy Garden June 16 2010

Throughout all this, I was thinking about the plants, too. I had lots of rosemary, thyme, and ‘Pistou’ basil seedlings left over from a spring writing project, as well as a bunch of zinnias, ‘Jester’ purple millet, ‘White Soul’ alpine strawberries, ‘Chocolate Smoke’ nicotiana, ‘Chocolate Splash’ and ‘Chocolate Mint’ coleus, and other assorted seedlings that hadn’t fit elsewhere. I sowed several more pots of nasturtiums and some ‘Bright Lights’ cosmos, too, so I had plenty of stuff on hand to fill the space without buying any more plants.

The one thing I still needed was some sort of focal point for the space, and once again, Mom  came through for me. She and I took a day off to drive out to some of our favorite places in Lancaster County, and we ended up in The Old Village Store, a cool old hardware-and-antiques store across from the Bird-in-Hand Farmers Market. She began directing my attention to interesting bottles, which was a new development that could not pass unremarked, and it took me mere minutes to get her to ‘fess up. Turns out that she’d also ordered a bottle tree from Gardener’s Supply for me for Christmas, but that it was back-ordered until July.

Happy Garden June 19 2010

I knew right way that it would be a perfect focal point for the Happy Garden. Mom and I had great fun poking around The Old Village Store and a couple of thrift shops on the way home, and we scored a number of colorful bottles with neat shapes. Happily, the bottle tree frame arrived within the week, earlier than expected, so it got “planted” in a prime spot in the garden and adorned with some of our finds.

Bottle tree in Happy Garden

A friend also shared some bottles, my favorite of which is this green fish.

Fish bottle

The two bottle colors I’d really hoped to find were orange and purple, but no luck. By coincidence, though, I found purple “frosted glass” and orange “stained glass” Krylon spray paint at a local discount store.

Frosted purple bottle Stained glass bottle

I had some bottles left over, so I used them to top pieces of rebar I’d stuck into the raised beds in the Orchard as hose guides.

Glass-topped hose guides in Orchard

The Happy Garden was pretty much finished, but the space still needed a few finishing touches. Another trip to the basement turned up a few more pieces of glass, along with a small metal-mesh horse, some rusty metal pots, a mini-Adirondack chair, and some kid-sized gardening tools that I’d bought a few years ago but never found a place for.

Horse in Happy Garden

Kids tools in Happy Garden

Painted Pots and chair in Happy Garden

After a quick session of spray painting, I added them to the garden. Mom and I mulched the paths, and space was essentially done, except for watering. And now, I get to watch it fill in.

Happy Garden June 27 2010

Happy Garden June 27 2010

While all this was going on, I was working on two more projects: experimenting with my PlantCam, and learning how to put together slide shows on my computer.


The PlantCam is a digital camera that’s designed for time-lapse photography: you can set it at various intervals (1 minute, 5 minute, 15 minute, etc.), then leave it in place for however long you want.

Plant Cam setup for Happy Garden

I set it up to shoot during the days I was doing most of the work on the Happy Garden (with some appearances from Mom, too). The quality of the photos isn’t great, and the color isn’t either, but the results are kind of funny.

I used Windows Movie Maker to put the PlantCam images together, with a few regular-camera shots at the beginning, and figured out how to post it to YouTube. If you’re interested, you can find it here.

Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra

Posted on 15 Comments

15 thoughts on “It Started with a Cow

  1. Love the Cow!

    Thanks, Susie!

  2. Fantastic post Nan. Thank you for putting all this together, seeing how it developed from a Christmas present is great. It really is a happy garden and a happy post, I think it will make you smile all year round. I don’t think I would have the nerve to create something like that in my garden but perhaps if I had a bigger garden… I think I need to go back and read this all again – I have a small narrow area with compost bins, water butt and some new cane fruit, just the area for a ‘happy’ makeover – um, I thinking!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)
    PS this is how my thought process went as I wrote this comment, from I couldn’t to perhaps I could!

    Sure you could, Sylvia. A small area is just right, I think; a larger space with a lot of little “things” could be way too busy-looking. I never imagined that I’d do a stuff-based area; I prefer to focus on plants and keep the ornaments to a minimum. However, I’m finding that visitors are responding far more enthusiastically to the new area, even though the plants there are barely visible, than most do to the more intricate color-based garden out front.

  3. Oh Nan, it is all fabulous, but I have to say the most fab thing of all is your mom!!!! As *the mom* in my family, I bet she is amused at the shots of her bending over with the time lapse camera, I know I would be, but she looks adorable! You are both so lucky to have that special relationship. And the garden and art are pure delight. Kudos to you both. :-)

    Unfortunately, the bending-over shots are all me, I think. Mom, when she was there, was mostly kneeling along one side or another to weed or touch up some of the paint. She hates having her picture taken and kept asking me if I had the time-lapse camera on, and I kept trying to distract her. Um…sorry, Mom.

    1. Thanks for clearing that up, Nan. Smart mom to kneel rather than bend at the waist, saves the back. The paint jobs are a wonder, as is that cute fence. What treasures you must have in your basement! :-)

      It’s hard to tell Mom and me apart, as our work clothes look pretty much alike. I can’t get her to wear a hat, though, and I won’t go out without one.

  4. Nan,

    What a fun post. It was interesting to see how the ‘Happy Garden’ evolved and changed each time you added something new. BTW, your basement sounds like a treasure trove! Isn’t spray paint an absolute wonder for the garden? This spring I spray painted two old broken and faded plastic adirondack chairs a bright blue and now they are a focal point of my garden.

    Hi Debbie! The problem is that experiences like this make me reluctant to throw anything away. I think I found all the good stuff, though, so a thorough clean-out would probably be a good idea about now.

  5. Hi Nan,

    That was a fun post to read, and the finished product and the plant cam pics are great! You and your Mom make a great team, and I found myself wondering about all the “stuff” you found in your basement, and what I might pull out of mine to create interest in the garden. Think I’ll start rummaging here and at the junk shops. Thanks for the inspiration!

    All the best,

    Glad you stopped by, Scott. Oh yeah – thrift shops are great for finding cool bottles!

  6. Nan, I LOVE so many things about this… the Happy cow, the paint redo, the nasturtium/cabbage/calendula combinations, and on and on! Great job! But seriously, you’re making me tired. I haven’t even accomplished 1/10th of what you’ve done this year, and yet I’m exhausted just thinking about all that work that you and your mom accomplished! Thank your Mom for giving you that kind of energy, along with her kudos for the awesome paint job on Happy!!!

    ps. If you’re really going through that basement and cleaning stuff out.. I envy your neighborhood trash-pickers on trash day! As an earlier poster noted, I’m sure it’s a treasure trove down there. :)

    Keep in mind that I’m back to writing full time (or at least I’m *supposed* to be writing). It was hard to resist working outside instead when the weather was cooperating.

    I will admit that Mom and I have been known to stop and pick up cool stuff that other people have thrown away. For anyone who plans on driving by to check out my own trash, however, I promise you won’t find anything good. Right now, my basement “junk” is mostly empty pots that need to be sorted and stacked.

  7. What a nice happy garden:) I love your story about how the Cow ended up with the final colors and it fits perfect in the bed.

    Good to have you visit, Lisbeth. I’m glad that you enjoyed Happy’s tale.

  8. I can see why you named this garden Happy after the cow. It is a joy. It will be great when it fills in. I can’t imagine working so hard in the garden with long sleeves and long pants on this time of year. It shows how different our weather must be. I enjoyed the video with the flower cam photos. What fun it would be to put that on a night blooming cereus as it unfolds. I like bright colors in the garden. Your bottle tree and accompaning stakes are nice additions to the garden.

    I don’t much like sunshine, so you’d see me dressed like that any time I’m outside. And if it’s hot too, I’m indoors!

    You’re right that the PlantCam would be great for capturing opening flowers. I’m tempted to try it on germinating seedlings too.

  9. What a fun story (and results). I love the whimsy and all the colors of the garden. The PlantCam is interesting!

    Good thing you don’t live in North Carolina with our sunshine and heat. Today ended our 21-days of 90-101 degree weather without rain (in my garden). This is the first time that I’ve had cabin fever in the summer. It was brutal and I actually had to haul and drag garden hose around to my drought-tolerant plants.

    It’s been pretty bad here too, Cameron. We did get 4 inches of rain for the month of June, but it all came in just a few hours on the 13th, so most of it ran off. I HATE watering, especially ornamentals, but I’m dragging hoses too now.

  10. A very happy result from all that work! Love the cow, the fence, the bottle tree (of course), and the fun colors. Hey, the plants look pretty nice too.

    Hi Pam! I’d showed Mom pictures of your bottle tree, which is what gave her the idea to get me one. So, thanks for that!

  11. Nancy,

    What a wonderful, fun garden. I absolutely love the polka dotted fence.


    Hey there, Kathy – thanks! Painting the fence was a lot of fun.

  12. Love reading how one object led to a whole garden re-do. I’ve had similar experiences – much to my husband’s dismay. Striking use of purple and the kids’ gardening tools. I may have to get a few cans of purple spray paint.

    Thanks for visiting, Joene. Yes, it’s both exciting and alarming how one small thing can lead to much bigger projects.

  13. Nan, You (and your mom!) have done a wonderful job creating this Happy Garden!! Love the story behind the cow – but there’s no way I could ever go to the basement and find all those treasures . . . INCLUDING the great mesh horse!!

    You make me proud of gardeners! :-) Have a Happy Day – both of you! :-)

    Thanks, Shady. Mom and I do make a terrific team.

  14. Love the garden layout. The colors make it lots of fun,even the fence. The plant cam is new to me…sure you’ll have great results. Would love to start from the beginning…knowing what I know now.

    I hear you, Patsi. That’s one reason I’ve been doing a lot of renovation recently. Taking everything out of an area and starting over makes for some exciting possibilities.

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