Posted on 22 Comments

At the End of Ten Years

Perennial meadow in Cottage Garden at Hayefield Aug 13 11

Unless you’re lucky enough to garden in a place well sheltered from passersby, you’ve probably had to deal with your share of “clever” comments from non-gardeners. One I get quite often is “Hey, when you’re done there, you can come and fix up my yard.” My rote response to that is “Sure, when I’m finished here, I’ll be right over.” Which is to say, of course, “Don’t hold your breath,” because we gardeners know that a garden is never really finished, at least from a maintenance perspective.

In another way, though, I could say that I’ve reached a sad milestone this year, in that I’ve filled the last incomplete space inside the fenced-in area around my house. So  in essence, the garden is now finished. There’s still plenty of work to do, and there always will be for as long as I’m here. But the garden-taking-care-of part isn’t nearly as interesting as the garden-making.

It took me seven years to finish my last place, and as soon as it was done, I moved. This time, it took me 10 years. I don’t foresee leaving here any time soon, because I still have the illusion of lots more space to fill. (I can’t help thinking that the boys’ barn and pastures would make a perfect setup for a small nursery and sales yard, but as they’re currently using them and – I hope – will continue to be around for a good long while yet, that plan is off the table for now.) At this point, I already have rather more garden than I can easily keep up with, so I’m hoping the reality of maintaining what’s already here will squash any brilliant ideas of carving out even more planting areas.

Still, I can’t regret completing this last unfinished area, because it had long been in desperate need of attention. It sat unused for about 5 years, until I was able to acquire some fruiting plants to put there. It wasn’t an ideal spot, being quite soggy in winter, and I had quite a few losses. But eventually, I got a nice little Asian pear established, and a quince and plum and several pawpaws, as well as a patch of currants and some grapes.

I’d envisioned it as a little grassy orchard area, with paths mowed into the low grass. But the meadowy plants that come up here where I stop mowing is tall and tough, competitive stuff like smooth brome grass and spreading goldenrods, which quickly tried to crowd out the fruit, so I ended up having to mow it.

The Orchard at Hayefield June 13 06

The Orchard at Hayefield – June 13, 2006

Eventually, I tried smothering part of the area with layers of sod stripped from other areas, topped with cardboard and topsoil, and planted with loads of leftover annuals.

The Orchard at Hayefield May 30 07

The Orchard – May 30, 2007

The Orchard at Hayefield September 27 07

The Orchard – September 27, 2007

The Orchard at Hayefield October 22 07

The Orchard – October 22, 2007

That worked all right for a year or two, but while I was busy with other projects, the weeds starting taking over again. The area was simply a mess, and I had no inspiration for how to fix it, so I used it as a place to dump all the hay the boys had wasted, and I occasionally let them in there to graze on the grass and weeds.

The Orchard at Hayefield March 23 10

The Orchard – March 23, 2010

Alpacas grazing in The Orchard at Hayefield April 15 10

Alpacas in The Orchard – April 15, 2010

Alpacas grazing in The Orchard at Hayefield April 15 10

Daniel and Duncan dining in The Orchard – April 15, 2010

The Orchard at Hayefield June 6 10

The Orchard – June 6, 2010

The Orchard at Hayefield July 30 10

The Orchard – July 30, 2010

New veg beds in The Orchard at Hayefield May 11 10

New veg beds in The Orchard –  2010

Last year, Mom and I finished putting in the raised beds for the vegetable-garden part of The Orchard, and we soon realized that we needed a shed down there for larger tools and tomato cages and so on. Once it was tucked into the one available space between the fruit trees and the currants, the rest of the plan starting falling into place. Mom started calling this shed “the cottage” to differentiate it from “the shed by the barn” and “the potting shed,” so by extension, the area around it became The Cottage Garden. (Not very original, but easy for both of us to remember, at least.)

Soon-to-be Cottage Garden at Hayefield April 11 11

The Orchard becomes The Cottage Garden –  early April 2011

Mom never asks for anything in return for all the help she gives me, but I know she enjoys having cut flowers for her kitchen table, so I wanted part of the new area to include space for her favorite zinnias, as well as other annuals. Since there was plenty of space by the currants, and that area was within reach of the hose for watering if needed, it was easy to decide that the area above the shed would be a cutting garden.

Future perennial meadow in Cottage Garden at Hayefield April 11 11

The lower part of The Cottage Garden at Hayefield –  April 11, 2011

Inspiration for the lower part, around the trees, eluded me for several months, until I ran across Michael King’s blog and read about his concept of creating perennial meadows. It tied in closely with my original vision for the area, and I’d be able to complete it with plants I already had, so it would be an investment of time only. It would also give a fairly immediate effect but still be relatively easy to care for. Perfect!

I was also excited at the prospect of trying a new (to me) way of enjoying the perennials that have been proven performers here. I’ve used them individually in small combinations and in single-species masses; in groups as part of  herbaceous and mixed borders; and in large drifts in big naturalistic borders. And now, I could try them in “matrix plantings,” planted densely and in random patterns to create a ground-covering effect more interesting than a single-species groundcover and less formal than a traditional border, all in a relatively small space.

I can’t do justice to the details of the concept here, but if you’re interested in learning more about it, I highly recommend checking out Michael’s blog, Perennial Meadows. This summer, he’s been writing a series of posts about various aspects of this planting approach. He also has a number of e-books on the topic, with one introductory volume and others geared toward specific site conditions.

Mom in Cottage Garden at Hayefield April 11 11

The Cottage Garden in progress, with a rare sighting of camera-shy Mom –  April 11, 2011

Once I stripped off some more sod to enlarge the area (it ended up about 25 feet square), I was ready to lay out the beds. The trees aren’t evenly spaced,  so I had to divide the area into four different-sized rectangles instead of neat quarters.

I gave the area a thorough weeding but no other soil prep, because it was just at that point of wetness where a thorough digging-over would have done more harm than good. And anyway, most of the soil was in pretty good shape from my previous planting experiments.

For my five “theme” perennials, I chose what I had the most of on hand as seedlings and divisions:

  • ‘Cassian’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
  • Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
  • Aromatic aster (Symphiotrichum aromaticum)
  • Orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida)
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

For complementary plants, I raided my borders and nursery beds to find other perennials that I thought would work well as accents in small quantities:

  • ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)
  • Giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima)
  • ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora)
  • ‘Little Joe’ Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium [Eupatorium] dubium)
  • ‘Raspberry Wine’ bee balm (Monarda)
  • ‘Taurus’ mountain fleeceflower (Persicaria amplexicaulis)
  • Ironweed (Vernonia)
  • Brazilian vervain(Verbena bonariensis)
Perennial meadow in Cottage Garden at Hayefield April 15 11

Perennial meadow in progress –  April 15, 2011

The actual planting went quickly, with occasional forays into other parts of the garden to scrounge for more seedlings and divisions. To edge the beds, I raided a pile of old fence rails at the farm, and Mom cut them to fit. By the end of April, that area was basically done.

Cottage Garden at Hayefield April 30 11

View of The Cottage Garden from the house –  April 30, 2011

Perennial meadow in Cottage Garden at Hayefield April 29 11

Perennial meadow after planting–  April 30, 2011

Perennial meadow in Cottage Garden at Hayefield April 30 11

Perennial meadow after planting–  April 30, 2011

It took me quite a while to finish stripping the sod in front of the cottage and up to the soon-to-be cutting garden, but I eventually got it done too.

Cottage Garden at Hayefield May 1 11

Work begins on the cutting-garden area–  May 1, 2011

Cottage Garden at Hayefield May 12 11

The Cottage Garden in progress –  May 12, 2011

Once the new beds were in and planted and the paths were mulched, I added some pavers for stepping stones. The last step was to place some ornaments to add a bit of fun to the area, as well as a new arbor that Mom designed and built to make a new entrance to the area.

Cutting beds in Cottage Garden at Hayefield July 6 11

Cutting beds and arbor in The Cottage Garden –  July 6, 2011

Bed in Cottage Garden at Hayefield July 13 11

A bit of whimsy –  July 13, 2011

View of Cottage Garden from house at Hayefield June 27 11

View of The Cottage Garden from the porch–  June 27, 2011

Unfortunately, the near-daily rains suddenly stopped by the end of May, and since I hadn’t been able to mulch the meadow squares, I did have to water and weed them several times during our unusually hot and dry summer. By mid-August, though, the rain started again, and both the cutting garden and the meadow squares have filled out quickly in the last few weeks.

Perennial meadow in Cottage Garden at Hayefield June 4 11

Perennial meadow –  June 4, 2011

Perennial meadow in Cottage Garden at Hayefield July 13 11

Perennial meadow –  July 13, 2011

Perennial meadow in Cottage Garden at Hayefield Aug 13 11

Perennial meadow –  August 13, 2011

Perennial meadow in Cottage Garden at Hayefield Aug 24 11

Perennial meadow –  August 24, 2011

Cutting beds in Cottage Garden at Hayefield Aug 11 11

Cutting beds –  August 11, 2011

Because of the close spacing of the perennials, the mini-meadows look pretty good for a first-year planting, I think, and I’m really pleased with the results. In fact, I can’t help but think of them as giant holding beds that could supply lots of divisions for an even larger perennial-meadow project in a couple of years. But that’s a moot point, of course, because I won’t be creating any new gardens here from now on.

Cottage garden at Hayefield Aug 27 11


Perennial meadow detail at Hayefield Aug 24 11

Perennial meadow detail –  August 24, 2011

A final note, for those of you who are members of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society: You might have noticed that their Upcoming Events listing includes “PHS Garden Visit: Barto to Pennsburg” on Sunday, September 25. Hayefield will be open that day as part of the tour, as will several other gardens. I have no clue exactly who else is on the tour – the whole event seems to be a pretty well-kept secret – but if you’re interested, I imagine you could call or e-mail the folks at PHS and ask. The event details, such as they are, are available on their web site (click here).

Posted on 22 Comments

22 thoughts on “At the End of Ten Years

  1. This has to be the best postings I’ve seen in quite some time. You rarely see people document their progress so well. I truly enjoyed watching the development of a truly inspiring garden. I hope you can find some time to savor it.

    Wow, that was quick, Patrick. I’m so glad you found it of interest. I definitely have had plenty of opportunity to enjoy the new space, walking through the meadow beds and gathering flowers for Mom from the cutting beds.

  2. Nan, seeing the evolution of the cottage garden, fruit tree grove, and meadow is truly amazing. Rarely does one get to appreciate the stages and effort that someone has gone through in developing a garden into what we see today…. and I most appreciated reading the thought process you went through as well.

    We can well appreciate what it means to “finish” a garden. Steve and I were talking this morning about that very thing as we looked out over the garden… reading your post tonight is almost an echo of that conversation! We built our 32nd bed — and probably our last — this summer. We have some beds that need some more work and a little TLC, but our gardens are pretty much done in terms of design. There is a bit of a let down associated with that. There will always be work to do, but both of us have enjoyed the design aspect of it all and we are going to miss it a lot.

    I fantasized about perhaps trying to acquire another quarter of an acre of land from the trust that owns the parcel abutting ours but Steve flatly refused to even consider it. He’s more interested in getting another home and starting fresh with a blank palette. He played on my lifelong wish for a large old Victorian…. but we don’t buy lottery tickets so I don’t see one in my future LOL.

    I so enjoyed this post… I read it through once quickly and then went back to look at the pix again. Thanks for taking the time to put it together!

    Oh no – would you really consider starting again, after all you’ve put into your place? Hmmm…it occurs to me that “finished” gardens may seem like a success to others, even if they’re a bit of a let-down to their keepers. While there’s still empty space, there’s always the illusion that the next garden will be brilliant. Once it’s all filled, the garden pretty much is what it is.

    1. Practically speaking, it isn’t realistic for us to think about moving at this point in our lives, although that is something we are definitely considering for retiremenwt. Our two youngest still have two years of college left, and I have a lot of medical issues that we have to consider as well.

      One of the considerations for us in moving is wondering what would happen to our garden. Our son Jake, who is currently a second year law student, has told us repeatedly and often that after he graduates and gets established in a job, he would like to buy our home from us when we retire. The gardens were built as a tribute to Steve’s parents and Jake, who is very sentimental like his Mom, was very close to his Zayda (grandfather) and wants to be sure that the garden stays in the family.

      When the two youngest headed for college, I didn’t experience that “empty nest” feeling. (In fact, I welcomed the peace and quiet!) But when I was putting the finishing touches on the last garden bed, I felt a surprising sense of wistfulness and emptiness.

      We reached a major milestone this summer with the completion of our briar patch this spring and the last bed above the steps near the water garden last month. To be totally honest, with 32 beds, things are constantly evolving so there is no shortage of work here, no shortage of opportunities for things that need changing and improving.

      That said, I think that we are entering a new phase in the garden and I’m sure that we’ll still find many opportunities to be creative in other ways — we just have to work through it for a couple of seasons. Right this minute, our foliage garden and white garden need some serious attention and the weeds are starting to look like something out of Jurassic Park again LOL. And this year, for the first time we entered some of our roses in competition (and did quite well). Like our garden, we have to evolve as well.

      So yes, I do see another home in our future, but not until we are well into retirement and that is still quite a few years off. We’ve told Jake that we definitely will help him keep up the gardens here… it would be hard to simply walk away and leave it in a stranger’s hands!

      It would be great to know that your garden might pass on to someone who would value it. It was tough to go back to see my last garden a few years and a few owners later to see that pretty much everything was gone, and that the few plants left were sadly neglected. I have every expectation that the same will happen here, but by that time, I’m hoping that I won’t care.

  3. Love the posting and your comment; Probably, because it´s excatly how I´m gardening. When I´m finished with one project I always says it´s enough, but then…..
    So nowadays I know there will be more and more to take care of, but finally – after 30 yers – my husband Ron have realized that he has to help me. Which of course have resulted in more fun things in the garden.

    How lucky you are to have a captive helper, Susie. Mom has become quite a splendid weeder over the years, but the thought of letting anyone else “help” gives me chills.

  4. Designing is the most fun of a garden. Your design will bring you so much pleasure in reaping what you sow here. The Boys are so charming nibbling away in your new garden. I bet they think they are on a great adventure when there. It is good to see Mom too. I was beginning to think she was a figament of your imagination. ;)

    Heh – she’s very real, but she *hates* having her picture taken, so I have to be very sneaky about it. And yes, the boys thought that they were really getting away with something when I let them in that area to graze. Obviously, with such a rudimentary fence, I never left them unsupervised, even though they’d still have been fenced in if they’d gotten under that single strand of tape. I can only imagine what they’d have done to the rest of the garden, though.

  5. I read a quote once “It is more fun to make a garden than it is to have one.” I agree, it’s so much fun designing a new space, selecting plants, watching it mature. Altering existing beds can be more frustrating – what to do with all the overgrown plants that need to be removed?

    I enjoyed reading your thought process and watching the garden unfold. You are lucky to have such a handy, helpful mother!

    “…what to do with all the overgrown plants that need to be removed?” Great point, Brenda! Having excess plants is the main reason I ended up starting a nursery at my old place. I’m probably good for another two or three years, until it’s time to renovate some of the older borders, but then I’m going to have a whole lot of divisions and no new garden to put them in. On the other hand, that’s one advantage of the meadow areas outside the fence: I can pop stuff in there and be happy if the plants survive but not be upset if they don’t.

  6. Nan, what a wonderful post. I love everything you have done and wish I could get out for the open day at Hayfield. It is all so inspiring. We have 40 acres so I don’t think I will ever be done. The winter armchair plans always take longer to execute and then maintain than I imagine but I too love the design stage the best. I am starting a new veggie garden this fall and with all your beautiful ideas I now have to expand my original plans. Meadows, cutting gardens, fruit. It is hard to remember when I am in the throws of all the planning I am a one woman operation here but the planning is so fruitful and joyful. Thank you, I will be using your post as a spring board.

    Also, just purchased your Tried and True Perennials. If we ever meet you will have writers cramp from all the books I will be asking you to sign!!! Thanks you for everything you do for gardening, Oh and if you do decide to start another nursery I will be on the road as soon as you give the word.

    I wish you a wonderful time with your new veggie-garden project, Heidi. I find that mine takes up nearly as much time as all of the rest of the plantings, but I enjoy puttering around in there very much – perhaps because it’s much more of a challenge than the ornamentals.

    As to starting another nursery…well, as much as part of me wants to, I hope that’s a temptation I can resist. The growing and organizing part is great fun, but actually having to sell the plants is a nightmare. Plus, it’s probably the only way I could make less money than by writing!

  7. Good grief – what a transformation! From orchard, to beds, to junk heap, to alpaca field, and finally to this gorgeous creation!

    Any chance of cloning Mom? I could do with one or two Moms around here, speed weeding and building beautiful arches etc.

    Keep up the great work Nan. I LOVE this blog.

    Nice try, Kerry, but she’s one of a kind, and she’s mine! It’s a good thing she doesn’t read this, or I’d be in big trouble when she found out that I snapped her picture during one of her shed-painting sessions.

  8. Nan,

    Another wonderful and informative chapter. Your gift of sharing spoils us. Appreciated your thoughts about the nursery business. Will Mom be signing autographs?


    She’ll be here to help on the day of the tour, but *promise* you won’t tell her about the picture, or I’ll be in the doghouse!

  9. Nan, I am really pleased to see your perennial meadow looking so good in just its first season. Even in such a small space you have managed to divide it up an allow access to its midst which is what makes this idea so different from the traditional border that we tend to look at from the outside. I am envious of your flowering pennisetum grasses, here in Holland, my ‘Cassians’ have not even started to show signs of flowering yet. In comparison ‘Hameln’ is much earlier with us and thereby far more useful. Although different in character, P. massaicum ‘Red Buttons’ is even more useful having been in flower since the beginning of July and coming through last winter without any problems.
    Your garden is far from finished, you will always find space to try out new things, its part of what makes us real gardeners; keep up the good work.

    Thanks so much , Michael, both for the comments and for the inspiration. Your idea of having paths being an integral part of the concept is one of the aspects that really sold me on the idea, and it made mini-meadows a perfect solution for this site. I haven’t yet tried ‘Red Buttons’; I’ll have to check it out. I wonder, though, how much potential it will have to self-sow, since it flowers so early. Just last year, I noticed that ‘Cassian’ has been seeding into my “natural” meadow areas outside the fence.

  10. You are right: a garden is never finished. You won’t have only maintenance left though, changing and moving or replacing plants could be fun too. I still have circa 8 years to reach your ten in my garden, so I have plenty of time to think about it.

    Thanks for the link on Michael King’s blog, it looks really interesting, as much as your mini meadows!
    I enjoyed the paparazzi shot at your mom BTW!

    Hi there, Alberto. I hope find Michael’s ideas as inspiring as I did. Maybe some perennial meadow areas are in your future!

  11. Nan, thank you for taking us along on your new garden journey. I always learn so much and I enjoy following your design process. The perennial meadow looks so carefree and natural (although I know better). You’ve created another beautiful garden.

    Thanks, Marie. The perennial meadows are definitely more flowery than the “natural” meadow outside the fence, but – so far, at least – it has been very easy to care for.

  12. Wonderful to see the area evolve under your care to its present state of beauty. Only gardeners appreciate how much work that must have been. “How many Advil and hot baths to do that?” I thought.

    Heh – isn’t it amazing how quickly we forget the ridiculous amount of effort it takes to carve out a new garden with nothing but hand labor? I admit that I’ll be happy to let my manual sod cutter sit idle for a couple of years, at least – that’s really hard work!

  13. It really looks good now. Nice and neat even without the rain to water it. The cutting bed picture looks awesome! Do you have issues with rabbits among those raised beds? I’m tempted to remove our wire fencing and use something more like your split rail but the rabbits here would be able to enter the garden very easily. I’d probably still need the wire inside the fence areas.

    Thanks, Dave. I’ve been having some problems with rabbits for the first time this year, I think because I’m letting the outside meadow grow up closer to the fence, which gives them more cover. Until now, it seems that the hawks and foxes were doing a good job controlling them.

  14. I really enjoyed this post. Often, I get down about how slow the progress on my garden has been. Your photos are always so beautiful and everthing looks just right. It is very reassurring to see that a gardener as talented as you also feels slow progress, sometimes struggles for inspiration, and has plants die. In short, this post was great because it showed your progress/process, not just the results. Thanks for the good read!

    ~Adam in Indiana

    Hi Adam! It was fun to put this post together and review the progress. It’s such a relief to have finally found a solution that looks good *and* should be easy to take of – whew!

  15. I remember feeling similarly sad when we filled up our previous garden. I have this annoying habit of buying plants, but I’d run out of room to plant them! I’ve definitely solved that problem here, but here I seem to have gone to the opposite extreme, and wonder if it will ever come together the way I see it in my mind’s eye. This post gives me hope, that someday the blank spaces will fill in. I understand though, when you enjoy having your hands in the dirt, a finished garden doesn’t always seem as exciting as one that needs to be planted. I do hope you can enjoy your accomplishment though, your gardens are beautiful.

    Thanks so much for your comment. For now, at least, I definitely am enjoying having things “done.” This new area, especially, makes me very happy!

  16. Labor Day marked our 6th anniversary for the day we moved into our house, a new build with nothing but scraped ground around us (you know the look).

    Reading about your ten years gives me inspiration and hope. I’ve had to do so much experimenting (and do-overs) between the deer, drought, rabbits and voles!

    I continued to keep lists of plants that you grow that match my conditions and look back at your posts for inspiration.

    Congratulations on your ten years!

    Labor Day is a very appropriate beginning for a garden, Freda. I thought I was doing pretty good here by the sixth year, but it’s been just the last two years that things have really come together. I bet you’ll be making some surprising leaps in progress on your own garden in the next few years. Things go much quicker when you finally know what’s likely to work, and when you have lots of perennials on hand that you can divide to fill new areas.

  17. I am in awe!! Gorgeous gardens and I love alpacas! Thank you so much for sharing this with us!!

    How nice, Lisa! The boys and I thank you for reading and leaving us a note.

  18. What a great post, Nan! That’s amazing growth for a single season! I love that you raid your own, existing, beds for new plantings.

    Sadly, my little plot of earth is far smaller than yours…after only 3 years I’m already facing the fact that the only remaining ground for me is the front and side “hell-strips”! Of course, I’m faced with the task now of re-thinking parts of the garden that are oldest…seeing plants crowd each other out, or suffering from lack of sun, etc. It’s good to know other gardeners have the same pains I do…even those who garden on on much grander scale! I end up giving away lots of plants that I have to admit just aren’t happy with the conditions in my garden (I feel so guilty if I have to toss things).

    I echo the comments of a lot of those above, I love seeing the transformation of your spaces, especially as you re-evaluate your original intentions and adapt to your growing knowledge and awareness of your site. I find it hard to keep a realistic idea of my conditions during different parts of the year…I hope after ten years, I’ll also have a grip on things…here’s to hoping :-)

    Thanks, Scott! Once you fill all your space, you could do what one of my good friends did when she lived in a condo: sneak out at dusk or dawn and plant stuff in neighbors’ gardens! Stealth gardening at its finest.

  19. I chuckled when reading your first paragraph… Don’t hold your breathe… a garden is never finished… that sounds like what i would say! Thankfully gardens always bring joy to the gardener… at least mine do.

    My gardens do make me happy too, Carolyn. We’ll see what happens next year with my resolve to create no new ones!

  20. Ten years. Now, I don’t feel so bad, having only been in this place for the last six. It is slow going sometimes.


    Hi Gloria! At Year Six, I still had a lot of unfinished spaces here; it’s just been the last year or two that things have finally seemed to come together. But really, the process of gardening is more fun than having a “finished” garden.

  21. Hope the tour went well! I’m “done” in 4 years, I really am. The area I laid out is full, and the money is gone. But also, we may be moving next summer if / when I find a professorship. It’s bittersweet, and I’ve been soaking in each day, riding it down to the last glimmer of light, touching and visiting every bloom like a butterfly or bee. Live in the now, Nan, let the garden take you into the next season like a close friend guiding you through an art gallery or a maze.

    Thanks, Benjamin. At the rate you were planting, I figured that it wouldn’t take you long to fill your space. I look forward to seeing how you develop your next garden, wherever that may be.

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