Posted on 51 Comments

If I Knew Then…

Front Garden Spring 2003 at
Front Garden ~ Spring 2003

After The Winter That Wouldn’t Die, we’re finally starting to get a taste of spring here in southeastern PA. It’s going to be a bit longer before there’s anything green and growing to appreciate, though, so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking instead. Mostly, my plans for the upcoming growing season have focused on how I can reduce some of the most resource-intensive areas so I can do a better job on the parts I really enjoy. A big part of that has been figuring out where those problem areas are, and how they got that way.

Front Garden July 2011 at
Front Garden ~ July 2011

Considering that I’d never before tackled a garden of this size from scratch, some of the decisions that I made over the last 14 years have turned out surprisingly well. I can’t say that I made any big mistakes with my plant choices, for instance. Sure, I’ve had plenty of losses, and a few things I ended up digging out (like the barberries), but there’s nothing that I regret having tried.

 Berberis × ottawensis f. purpurea 'Superba' and Catalpa bignonioides Aurea at
Berberis × ottawensis f. purpurea ‘Superba’ with golden catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’): pretty, but I couldn’t in good conscience keep the barberry because of its potential to be invasive

The main thing I’d change if I were to start over again would be to have only a half, or maybe even a third, of the gardens I have now. After having worked with only small spaces, or in other people’s gardens, the prospect of having almost unlimited space for all of the things I wanted to try was way too tempting, and I ended up getting rather carried away.

Side Garden Summer 2002 at
Side Garden and Shrubbery ~ Summer 2002
Side garden and Shrubbery September 2013 at
Side Garden and Shrubbery ~ September 2013

I was also far too entrenched in the “get rid of the grass” mindset. I still believe that to be a worthwhile pursuit, if the alternative is intensively fertilized and heavily watered turf that needs herbicides and frequent mowing to look perfect. Around here, though, our version of lawn is mowing whatever grows on its own, which is basically a mix of native and non-native grasses, clovers, and weeds. Cut it once or twice a year, you get hay or meadow, mow it every week or two, and you have what passes as pasture or turf: no watering or feeding necessary. Compared to that minimal amount of input, pretty much any sort of garden requires more time and/or money to maintain.

Manual sod cutter at
Manual (kick-type) sod cutter

Over the years, I often wished that I had invested in a power sod cutter in the beginning, but in retrospect, it was a darn good thing I didn’t. With just a manual cutter and a spade, I ended up digging up way more than I can maintain the way I’d like. I shudder to think what I’d have gotten myself into if I could have removed all that sod in just a year or two.

In the front garden, I mostly made the beds by covering the “grass” with newspapers, spreading a few inches of topsoil mix on them, and then planting annuals for a few years before transitioning to perennials.

Front Garden-to-be Summer 2002 at
Front Garden ~ Summer 2002
Front Garden Fall 2002 at
Front Garden ~ Fall 2002
Front Garden Early Summer 2006 at
Front Garden ~ Early Summer 2006
Front Garden September 2013 at
Front Garden ~ September 2013

For the side garden, I added topsoil on top of newspapers in some areas and smothered the grass in other areas with a combination of newspapers and old hay.

Side Garden June 2003 at
Side Garden ~ June 2003
Side Garden June 2004 at
Side Garden ~ June 2004
Side Garden June 2014 at
Side Garden ~ June 2014

Outside the fence, I had to take a different approach. I knew I wasn’t ready to tackle gardens out there, but I had many dozens of tiny shrubs that needed to get in the ground, so I dug individual holes for each and let them get established for several years.  Then, as time allowed, I used the manual sod cutter to clear some areas and used the sod pieces to build beds around the existing shrubs, covering the sod with newspapers and wood chips or old hay until I had enough perennials to fill in.

The Shrubbery June 2005 at
The Shrubbery ~ June 2005
Beds in progress in The Shrubbery April 2008 at
Making Beds in The Shrubbery ~ April 2008
Beds built with sod in Shrubbery April 2008 at
Making Beds in The Shrubbery ~ April 2008
Beds in The Shrubbery April 2008 at
Beds in The Shrubbery ~ April 2008
The Shrubbery March 2012 at
The Shrubbery ~ March 2012
The Shrubbery October 2014 at
The Shrubbery ~ October 2014

In the long run, it didn’t matter which way I made the beds: just that I kept making them every year, when I probably should have taken a break every other year to make sure I had a good handle on maintaining the existing ones.

The paths have also been an ongoing maintenance issue. Because of my”no grass” mentality, I had to come up with another option for the paths, and the only affordable and accessible option at the time was shredded bark.

Front and Side Garden May 2003 at
Front and Side Garden ~ May 2003
Front and Side Garden September 2013 at
Front and Side Garden ~ September 2013

In some ways, I’ve been pleased with it. It has a wonderful springy feel underfoot, and its dark color really sets off the plants in spring and early summer.

Front Garden middle path May 2014 at
Front Garden Middle Path ~ May 2014

What I hadn’t figured on was having to spend several hundred dollars every year to replace it. Once or twice, I tried skipping a year, but weeds and volunteer seedlings sprouted quickly in the loose, humus-rich conditions, and keeping up with the weeding was overwhelming.

Side Garden October 2009 at
Side Garden (in need of a good weeding) ~ October 2009
Side Garden Sept 2013 at
Side Garden ~ September 2013

Cutting off the perennial seedheads in fall, so they wouldn’t drop into the paths in winter, helped somewhat; so did making sure I spread new mulch early in spring, to smother some of the seeds before they sprouted. It’s still a big yearly commitment of time and expense, though.

At one point, I thought of all the cedar trees and brush I have here and thought hey, I could make my own mulch for free. But when I found out that this much brush…

Brush pile at Hayefield

…produced this little mulch, I knew that wasn’t a solution.

Chipped brush at Hayefield

Bark mulch washes out easily in heavy rain, too, even on just a slight slope, so it needs to be retrieved and raked out again after.

Bark mulch in front garden at Hayefield May 2012

So, my plan for this year is to turn all of the bark-mulch paths back to grass. I can’t just let them revert on their own, though, or they’ll be a forest of Joe-Pye weed, ironweed, amsonia, Verbena bonariensis, and thistles. My plan is to rake whatever loose bark is left into the beds, and then sow Prairie Nursery’s “Now-Mow Lawn” seed.

Front Garden middle path July 2013 at
Front Garden middle path ~ July 2013
Front Garden middle path 2015? at
Front Garden middle path ~ 2015?

Having green paths instead of brown ones is going to give the whole inside-the-fence area a different look, but it’ll be an interesting change.

Of course, I will need to do some mowing, but I already have a battery mower that’ll serve the purpose. And, mowing will be a lot less time-sensitive than weeding. The main issue is that I’ll have to deal with edging the beds regularly. (I did have to do that with bark paths, to keep the lines neat, but that was only every 3 years or so.)

Edging path in Front Garden May 2010 at
Edging in the Front Garden ~ May 2010

Ideally, I’d install some sort of edging strips around all of the beds before sowing the grass seed. But there won’t be time for that this spring, so that project will have to wait for another time.

A few other things I’ve learned about paths…first: curvy paths are picturesque, but straight ones are way more practical for routes you use often. I mostly think in straight lines, so I figured it would be nice to attempt a curving path between the house and the barn, just as something different.

Path to barn November 2003 at
Path to barn ~ November 2003
Path to barn June 06 at
Path to barn ~ June 2006
Path to barn December 2007 at
Path to barn ~ December 2007
Path to barn October 2008 at
Path to barn ~ October 2008
Path to barn July 2012 at
Path to barn ~ July 2012
Path to barn August 2014 at
Path to barn ~ August 2014

It has been pretty, but after walking out there and back a dozen times a day for 12+ years in all sorts of weather, I often wish that I’d made it a more direct route–particularly in winter.

Path to barn March 2015 at
Path to barn ~ March 2015

Straightening this path may end up being another project to tackle this year. After all, even straight paths can be photogenic, particularly if you let some of the plants sprawl into them to soften the edges.

Front Path June 2010 at
Front Path ~ June 2009
Front path October 2009 at
Front Path at Hayefield ~ October 2009

Another thing to consider is that wiggly paths are difficult to navigate with a wheelbarrow, especially if they’re also narrow. In various parts of the garden, I’ve experimented with both straight and winding paths of different sizes: as wide as 6 feet and as narrow as about 1 foot. The 6-foot-wide middle path through the front and side garden looks fairly proportional from late summer through fall, when the plants are filled out, but too wide for the rest of the year, I think.

Front garden middle path March 2012 at
Front Garden middle path ~ March 2012
Front garden middle path August 2012 at
Front garden middle path ~ August 2012

The 1-foot paths are too narrow pretty much any time the plants along the edges are growing…

Cottage Path May 2013 at
Cottage Path ~ May 2013
Cottage Path September 2013 at
Cottage Path ~ September 2013

…and even 18-inch paths can get pretty narrow by fall: fun if you enjoy getting up close and personal with plants but daunting for visitors who are freaked out by bees and other insects.

Aster Path May 2014 at
Aster Path ~ May 2014
Aster Path September 2014 at
Aster Path ~ September 2014

If I were starting over with a blank slate, I think I’d go with about 30 inches for all of the paths. And, as much as I hate to say it, I would put more money into “proper” paved paths. When I think of how much I’ve spent on bark mulch over the years, I could have had some really nice walkways by now.

The challenge, though, is knowing which paths are worth that sort of investment. Even if you wait a year or two after moving into a new place to start a landscape plan, there’s no guarantee that the paths you plan on paper will go where you really need them to, or that those you put in at first will still be useful 10 years later. Unfortunately, once a path is in place, it tends to stay there, even if it isn’t right, because changing the route of a paved path is a big project.

The happy medium, I guess, is committing to a few well-made main paths early on, then letting the secondary ones evolve as the gardens expand. Eventually, then, you can decide which need to be upgraded, which need to be tweaked, and which maybe aren’t needed any longer, to cut down on maintenance.

Step in Side Garden August 2010 at
Step in Side Garden

One last design mistake I’ll mention: steps. I used to love the idea of steps in a garden, but now, when I look at pictures of professionally designed gardens in magazines, I often feel sorry for the poor gardeners who have to maintain those areas. I wonder how many of those designers have ever tried to get up and down a set of steps with a wheelbarrow or mower? Even the single 4-inch step I have between the front and side garden has been a real headache over the years. I ended up creating a little ramp on one side of it, but it’s still a hassle trying to go up with a loaded wheelbarrow.

So, yet another job for this year: getting rid of that step, and the set of two that I have on the path back to the veg garden area. Just thinking of how much easier it’ll be to get around for maintenance makes me very happy.

Looks like I have a lot of projects on my to-do list for this year, in the hopes of getting back to easier gardening next season. Any of you have some design mistakes you’re willing to confess to, or have you been making (or planning to make) changes in your own gardens to simplify your life? I’d be very interested to hear about them.

In the meantime, we’ll be quietly melting here. In just a week, we’ve gone from this…

Daniel and Duncan March 6 2015
We are SO bored!

…to cleared enough to get out for a ramble.

Daniel and Duncan ready for a walk
Come on, let’s go, please.
Daniel on a walk
Feels good to get out of the mud, and get our nails worn down a bit too.
Duncan on a roll
No place like a nice warm road for a good scratch…
...or a nap. (No, Duncan; *please* get up before a car comes along!)
…or a nap. (No, Duncan; *please* get up before a car comes along!)
Holy cow - look at that pothole. It's bit enough to eat an alpaca.
Holy cow – look at that pothole. It’s big enough to eat an alpaca.
Can we go home now? It’s dangerous out here.

We’ll see you on April 15 with some flowers–one way or another!

Posted on 51 Comments

51 thoughts on “If I Knew Then…

  1. Perhaps one too many alpaca (is that what they are?) photos, but otherwise an excellent, really excellent — truly perceptive and thoughtful — article. Many, many thanks for sharing your hard-earned expertise.

    Thanks for reading, Kevin.

  2. Dear Nan,

    Thanks for this post! It’s great to learn from your mistakes instead of making my own, but the truth is we’ve made many of the same mistakes, and no expert advice about growing a garden slowly and not making too many beds will ever be heeded by a passionate and inexperienced gardener!

    I love those alpaca photos, and could be amused by even more, so to each his or her own. ;) Funny how they scratch themselves out on the road – hope they’re not too skittish if a car zooms up.

    Grass: I always was arguing with the owners at the castle of Galeazza. I wanted more beds, they wanted grass. Now I see how that might have been a good thing. I was already biting off more than I could chew, and asking volunteers to chew for me, as well. First I was gardening 20 hours a week, then 40, then 60… then until exhaustion.

    After visiting great National Trust gardens in the UK and seeing how beautiful their 12-feet deep two mile long borders are, I wanted the same. One little difference between their garden and mine: They have huge budgets and a team of professional gardeners!

    One tip about grass paths: Might seem obvious, but make them as wide as your ride-on mower. If you’re using a push mower, make them one, two, or three strips wide,(overlap a little bit) but nothing is more annoying than having to mow up a path just to get a remaining 3 inches of uncut grass!

    This was one of my favourite posts ever, because you sum up so many years of hard work with great photos and FREE EXPERT ADVICE! I’m taking it, thank you!


    PS I also like the not so gorgeous starting photos. Very honest and helpful. Gardens take time, and only seeing finished ones in books and magazines can make you feel terrible when you’ve only got started and see nothing but a mess. I think your place looks amazing now, but it sure was plain at the beginning!

    You’re right, Clark: of course no dedicated gardener would listen to advice like “don’t make too many gardens.” Or rather, they’d listen but not recognize that hard-to-define point between a happy amount of gardens and too many. It’s tough to know when you get there until it’s kind of too late.

    Great suggestion, too, about relating the width of grass paths to the width of your mower. My battery-charged mower is only 14 inches wide, so I’ll be doing a lot of walking to get my new paths all mowed, but it’ll be good exercise.

  3. I love the alpaca photos! Please don’t stop with those!

    Really though, this is a great post. I just bought a house in southeastern PA last year and have been looking for advice about gardens. I too am on a no grass kick, so it’s good to hear about your decision for grass paths again. I will follow your advice!

    Thank you, Alice. I’m glad that you found the rest of the post useful too. We all have to make our own mistakes along the way, so whatever you do, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s supposed to be fun, after all, and as much about the process as the end result. Good luck to you!

  4. It’s great to hear about all your trials and tribulations. You made me feel better about my decisions. I have a large country garden with mature trees and made way too many gardens as well but I left the grass. There is always something new to try so another garden kept creeping in. Put rocks around the gardens, landscape cloth with shavings(bought my hubby a chipper) or short wood fences to keep my ducks out which sometimes doesn’t work!! Maybe now I’m glad that I didn’t seek professional help in creating the gardens as its easy to get around with the wheel barrel!! Good thing I like winter as I still have 6 feet of snow on my gardens and getting more today and this week! Lots of native evergreens around the property and huge deciduous trees with the “Ansel Adams” look.
    Love the boys as I am an animal girl. I have two rescued dogs, a rabbit, two ducks, 4 turkeys, and a coop full of colourful chickens(my winter eye candy)!
    Thanks for the post and your thoughts as always, Sue

    I envy you your trees, Sue, but my goodness, 6+ feet of snow? It’s really hard on the critters too, isn’t it? While you like winter, I can imagine that you’ll all be grateful when some milder weather comes your way–though in between snow and summer is mud season!

  5. I love how much you think about your gardens. It makes me feel less obsessive here. I had grass paths for years, but we have Bermuda almost all over the state, and it was a problem getting into the beds. I replaced them with free gravel from a job site, but it’s river rock, and it slides. Plus, it’s a great seed starter. So, I spray with a natural weed discourager when things get hot here. I was nodding my head when you wrote the part about how the garden should be smaller. I’m feeling that way here too. Much smaller, and yet…I’d love an asparagus bed again. Maybe not. Maybe yes? Thanks for a great post. I don’t have mine up yet.

    Oh, Dee–you’re so right: where Bermuda and other spreading turfgrasses are concerned, the maintenance level would be much higher for grass paths. I love the sound of gravel, and the good drainage, but yes, seeds love to sprout in it. And, depending on how shifty it is, pushing even an empty wheelbarrow over it can be exhausting. I’d say yes to the asparagus bed–but then, I’m not the one who would have to take care of it. Mine has been overrun with rudbeckia, and it’s hard to dig it out without hurting the asparagus too.

  6. Nan, another wonderful, thought-provoking post as usual. ((Sigh)). Paths are always a dilemma aren’t they? I suppose if one has money to burn there are a lot of permanent options, but for me, when I was starting my gardens I was more apt to spend money on plants, seeds, soil, mulch, etc. Somehow the hardscaping always took a back seat. I’ve marveled at old gardens in Europe and how they appeared to be so well thought out with walls, paths and other parts of the hard design flowing so nicely into one another, and how they planned the “whole” acreage so it’s very cohesive. Again, I guess it’s different when you have the money necessary for all the grand plans. I wonder if they had to add deer fencing into their budgets? LOL!

    I’ve been in a path predicament in my backyard for a while, but it’s the opposite of what you’re doing, where you’re changing your paths to grass, I want to remove some of the grass paths. They look great when edged, but I feel like I could use some more variety back there as opposed to all grass…..lawn and paths. I only want to remove one path and do something creative and decorative. I don’t know,….mosaic?! Gee, sounds great, but a lot of work and I’m not sure how it would hold up in winter. I think in areas like ours we really have to think about winter when it comes to paths. Will they be full of mud during the thaw? Will they heave in winter? Do they need to be shoveled? Winter is a season that must be thought about (at least in snowy areas) when it comes to garden choices/plans.

    One of my biggest gardening mistakes was installing a Japanese maple garden down near our driveway. It’s gorgeous for three seasons, but when there’s this much snow during winter, it’s hard enough trying to keep them somewhat clear and free from breakage, but trying to figure out where to throw snow in that area is challenging because it’s a large garden and prime area to dump snow. Probably not the best choice for a collection of that sort. Perennials would have been better.

    I think you’ve done a great job with your path plans and how your garden is laid out. And the bark mulch paths seem to “fit” your garden. But I can’t imagine how much precious time you must spend each spring maintaining the paths, at a time when there are so many other garden chores to be done. Although I have to put another plug in for Jakoti shears because spring clean up is a breeze with them! No gardener should be without them. But I digress……..

    Maybe you should make yourself a promise now, that the extra time you have in the garden after your paths are changed to grass will not be spent adding more beds! LOL! As much as I can’t get enough of your garden bed photos, and would love to see what other creative beds you would dream up, I get it when it comes to adding and adding and adding. After a few years I fell deeply in love with shrubs and how easy, interesting and beautiful they are. Helps make large garden areas so much more manageable. The power of the shrub is big in my gardens!

    Thanks once again for taking so much time to put together a post full of so many photos and thoughts. It’s always enjoyable to read your posts.

    I really appreciate you sharing your insights, Susan. It’s true that you don’t often hear about the practical issues related to garden paths in areas that get more than a few inches of snow at a time. Trying to shovel a plant-lined path–especially a narrow, curvy one–makes a tiresome task into a real chore. And then, oh yes, the heaving, and the mud issue, too.

    How interesting that you regret the Japanese maple garden. It sounds so lovely, but your explanation of the associated problems makes a lot of sense: another of those cases where they’re obvious now but not necessarily something you could have foreseen. When one is in a planting frenzy, the idea of leaving space for feet-high piles of shoveled snow simply does not enter into one’s glorious garden vision.

    I think I can swear to “no new gardens” for a while. Though making new beds is one of my favorite projects, I’d really like to rework many of my existing ones as time allows.

    So glad to hear that you still love your Jakoti shears. I’ll be using mine to shear the boys soon!

  7. There is so much in this post that parallels my own experiences over many years of gardening. Following your blog, I’ve often wondered if by year’s end you are exhausted and hoping winter will come soon. I used to have 4 acres to tend, and now have a quarter-acre which is so much more manageable and enjoyable.

    The methods which have helped to make gardening less labor-intensive: 1) edging around every bed. This was my number one change to the property we purchased. It goes in quickly (simple black plastic edging from hardware store), disappears under the burgeoning flowers, can be mowed over, and once in place never needs another thought. 2) paving that can be mowed over – that is, large stone squares with grass between and around. There is nothing that is easier maintenance than this, and it’s both functional and pretty. 3) more trees and shrubs and groundcover, fewer perennials. Who knew this could be so pretty and satisfying? Subrule a) nothing that requires heavy pruning or coppicing. Just say no. 4) no re-seeding grasses. In my area, miscanthus is yes, sea oats is no. 5) minimize bark mulch for paths. As you’ve found, it turns into compost very quickly and invites the very denizens that it was supposed to keep out. I use it for pathways only in conjuction with pavers in very shaded areas, or around large pavers in a defined (edged) path. 6) no perennials that spread vigorously via rhizomes, unless ground cover and only ground cover is desired. Okay, I break this rule but only for the very most worthwhile plants and only a few (2 clumps of coreopsis come to mind). After having dug up vast regions of ivy, pachysandra, evening primrose, bishop’s weed, and gooseneck loosestrife, (all planted by prior owners) I am never doing that to myself again.

    I’ll be interested to see what you come up with to minimize your labor. It’s an on-going quest, isn’t it.

    Love your blog! Always inspiring.

    Those are all excellent suggestions, Kate! Clearly, you’ve spent a lot of time learning those lessons and coming up with your rules. I imagine you worked out many of them while laboriously removing all of those aggressive spreaders.

    Your advice about the edging strips has not fallen on deaf ears. I think I will make the effort to put in some plastic edging around the beds in front, at least, before I sow the grass seed. Thanks for that nudge!

  8. It is fun seeing the before and after pictures of your garden beds and paths. As I get older I have come to some of your same conclusions about the width of paths. I don’t have near the amount of garden that you have but in my little world I wouldn’t like steps in a garden. I like the garden paths just wide enough that two people can walk side by side and chat while strolling through. 30″ sounds just right. I too have some wider and more narrow paths. The narrow paths are more for maintenance. The wider paths have just evolved that way. I love seeing your garden helpers too. What a wonderful world you have created.

    Hi there, Lisa! You make an excellent point about maintenance paths: they can quite narrow, since they’re only for the gardener and not used frequently. In fact, they’re a valuable tool for making garden maintenance easier. I try to keep one behind each of my borders, rather than planting right up to the fence or wall, to minimize having to step on the soil around the plants.

  9. Thank you, Nan, for your trip down memory lane and the lessons you learned that will benefit all of us. I know it took a lot of time to find all those pictures and pull this post together!

    Thank *you*, Carol, for taking the time to visit today. I can’t wait to rejoin the Bloom Day crowd next month!

  10. i enjoyed reading this. seems a garden is always evolving. love your alpacas! they have such expressions :))

    At the moment, they’re staring in my window and expressing that they are ready for their midday snack, so I’d better get moving. We all thank you for checking in, Christine, and hope you enjoy the rest of your weekend!

  11. I concur with Kevin (but not about the alpaca photos – they are are great- made me smile this morning)– but really thank you so much for this very informative and helpful article. Your photo sequences are especially helpful ( and beautiful). Your farm and gardens are so lovely, it is fascinating to see how you got to where you are and to hear about the design and function changes you will make based on hard earned experience. This is one of the most valuable articles I’ve read. Thanks again so much for being so generous with your knowledge and experience.


    I appreciate that, Clara. I really enjoy compiling these sorts of posts. Even more, though, I’m enjoying the comments from readers!

    1. Strictly tongue-in-cheek, that “alpaca comment” of mine — who am I to question photos of our dear ones, but am glad I got it right with the sort of animal, as that was worrying me a bit.

      Most people don’t have a clue (I’ve had people ask if they are goats, or sheep, or even emus), so believe me, I’m very impressed at your guess. Well done you!

  12. My biggest mistake was not planning for privacy when I started my borders beginning some 20 years ago. I live in a typical suburban development and the houses are fairly close together. How I wish I had the vision to plant some strategically placed trees that by now would provide me with the backyard privacy I crave. I’ve been slowly replacing perennials with shrubs to cut down on some of the maintenance but I don’t think I’ll be here long enough to watch newly planted trees grow to maturity. Also still impatiently waiting for spring to arrive here in Chester County, PA.

    I can completely understand your regret, Bernadette, but wow, that would be a hard thing to anticipate when you’re making a new garden. You’ll know that’s a priority when you make your next garden, anyway. In the meantime, I hope you see signs of spring soon. At least today’s wind is helping to dry yesterday’s soaking rain.

  13. Love All the photos! I am in the bark mulch path phase but have already noted that it will be a problem as I expand. I love how steps look and have thought about it but I hadn’t gotten far enough along to make that mistake so thank you for the warning! I have found that the native “grass” in the yard has some really great participants and once a week with the riding mower is less labor intensive than weeding, lol! I suggest a riding mower, keeping some curves as they are easier to mow (big ones not tight ones), and noting that with grass as your path you will be edging at least twice a year. The no-mow might not be a spreader but other things will blow in over time. My own worst mistakes all involve lovely invasives( Barberry, Miscanthus sinensus, Chameleon Plant, and Butterfly Bush. I was sure I could keep them under control, lol! Now I’m forced to police and weed the forest around my house. I’ve even practiced what I might say to get my neighbors to let me dig the invaders out of their yards. Of course for you if you just let the plants swallow the path you’ll have a great excuse not to weed or mulch ;)

    I’d really love to be there for the conversation with your neighbors, Kimberly!

    Unfortunately I don’t have a riding mower, and anyway, I don’t think I could get one in through the existing gates. If I do get that far, though, you’re right that I’d have to change the corners into curves. I’m considering that, in the long run, it might be easiest to gradually turn the whole area back into grass and start over. Or, yeah, I could just let it all go and say it’s naturalistic….

  14. I loved seeing your before and after photos. They really tell a tale and boy, what work you’ve put into it! I appreciate what you’ve learned and I’m now thinking about my own garden. One thing I think I would have done differently, though I’m not sure exactly what I would do, is make the four 8×8-foot raised beds a little smaller. It’s a bit too difficult to get into the middle of them to weed or plant. Originally they were to be smaller but I decided I didn’t want a bunch of small beds – too cluttered. But I still want that much planting space. I’m planning a major do-over of those beds in the fall, so maybe I can come up with a solution by then.

    Hmmm…I wonder if you could add some boards or timbers across the middles to give you a place to step? I like the thought of big raised beds, though; that’s a very tempting idea. (No, no, no new gardens!)

  15. Excellent post Nan! Many things resonated with me; I also sometimes wonder if I bit off too much to maintain. I plan not to add anything this year… only replace and reevaluate what I can do to simplify.

    Good for you, Chris! That “too much” point is really a moving target, though: what’s easily manageable one year may be overwhelming if you’re unusually busy or physically out of commission the next. Ah well, if we try to be too practical, gardening wouldn’t be any fun at all, right?

  16. The greatest change I might have made in the initial installation of our garden would have been springing for a serious deer fence early on, rather than waiting twenty years and making do with time consuming and less effective efforts. We also came to the same decision as you, Nan, and replaced our mulch path with stone and gravel.
    Thanks again for your garden reflections.

    That’s a fantastic point about the deer fence, Bruce: one I think many of us can relate to. It would be a huge expense at first but more than pay for itself in plants saved and aggravation avoided!

  17. Biggest lesson for everybody is ‘don’t go big or go home’. i love fascinating time-lapse of gardens, and this has to be one of the best. With so much garden space, do you have volunteer or family help? If not, can you please bottle and sell your special Koolaid?

    Mom helps with the mowing outside the fence (she’s quite a sight zipping around on her tractor), but otherwise, I’ve made my beds and now have to maintain them. You can imagine that I’m pretty tired of it all by the end of the growing season, but right now, I’m rested up and raring to get back out there. Happy spring to you and your garden, Patrick!

  18. Enter more pictures of the alpaca. Love them. It was good to hear of your trials & errors. We all have them. Never never plant Houttuynia cordata chameleon plant. It has ruined my flower bed. I have been on a 2 year campaign to eradicate it, but I expect it will take another 2 years. I have removed all my barberry also.
    I was at the book store last week and picked up a garden magazine and saw you and the boys. Good job!

    Good heavens – I can’t imagine what magazine that was, Cathy. The boys thank you for your vote, by the way, though I think they’d rather I didn’t photograph them; it seems to annoy them. (I guess I can relate to that!)

    Thanks too for sharing about the Houttuynia. It is soooo pretty and tempting in a pot, but so far I have avoided falling for it–and I will make sure that I continue to pass it by.

  19. Nan, enjoyed your thoughtful blog post. I am always fascinated by the process behind the creation, both cognitive and physical. I was interested to see how you started your beds. My soil is such heavy clay it demands breaking up and amending before I can plant.

    LOVED the alpaca pix and phooey on those who did not. Life is about more than just the garden and I think the boys are an important part of the character of Hayfield. I am curious however about the orange “scarves” they are wearing. Neck warmers?

    My garden is mostly large island beds surrounded by grass so no paving woes. I am gradually edging each bed with a low stone edge or wall. I use minimal round up around the edges in midsummer to kill the Bermuda grass when it gets ahead of me and hand weed it otherwise. Hubby zooms around the beds with the zero radius turn mower to keep the “lawn” in shape. We have 4.5 acres of old farm land so it’s basically an old field and not an emerald sward. However it serves the purpose and requires no watering or fertilization.

    Warmer weather here today and early narcissus blooming already. Going out to clean up!

    Kate Patrick

    Hi Kate! The smothering approach really helped for bed-making in the beginning: particularly out front, where the soil had been heavily compacted by construction equipment during the building process.

    Funny that you guessed “neck warmers” for the boys. Lots of people stop and ask us that, but no, their necks are already plenty warm. The wraps are for visibility: cars drive fast even on these country roads, and the boys blend right in, so Mom made these safety-orange scarves for them. Though I don’t take them cross-country if there’s any sort of hunting season open, I also think it’s good that they have the extra protection when we’re on the roads at those times. Most hunters around here are quite responsible, but we also get people come up from the city who think it’s ok to hunt anywhere they choose to and aren’t as careful about sensible hunting practices.

  20. Nan:
    Loved this post — including each and every photo of the boys! While I garden in a tiny space by comparison (city lot in the Pacific Northwest), I have been on a quest to eradicate lawn for the past five-plus years; I started with my front yard, which is now primarily perennial beds (also growing vegetables), with a few shrubs and small evergreens, some ground covers like herniaria and elfin thyme, and grass paths. Even though I garden on such a small scale, I still experience the same issues in maintaining my beds and paths as you do, and am trying to come up with better, lower-maintenance solutions. I’ve also had a sheet-mulching operation underway in my back yard the past couple years, planning to build many more beds; thus far, at least (I haven’t completed and planted them yet), I’ve created more maintenance issues than I had with the lawn, rather than less! I guess my ideas sometimes run too far ahead of my ability to produce the requisite physical labors! Though-provoking post – thank you.

    We’re all pretty much the same with this garden-making madness, aren’t we? One of the reasons I left my old (small) garden was because it was “finished”; in other words, I’d gotten rid of all of the grass. Now I think it would be nice to have a small place again, where I could pay more attention to the individual plants and keep things tidier overall. But as you point out, there are maintenance issues even in small spaces. Ah well; gardening keeps us from getting into other sorts of trouble, right? I wish you a rewarding growing season, Patty!

  21. Nan …I love your wonderful informative blog! This was one of the most helpful articles I’ve seen. Although my garden is on a much.. much smaller scale (a singe lot in a small town) I too have been busy trying to eradicate all of the grass areas which have to be mowed only to find that I may have increased my workload by adding so many ( and growing) planting beds (all of my back yard and lots of the front and side yards)! We made the terrible mistake of bring in truckloads of soil (from my brother-in-law’s farm ditch) …which means that we also brought in every imaginable kind of weed seed that farmers have to deal with ..and brome seed (to boot). YIKES what a mess… can you say hemp weed! Well, to make a really long story short …it’s an ongoing battle some 35 plus years later… and since my husband passed I’m waging it alone.
    Last year I built wooden walkways for the sloping backyard using 3 -8′ long treated 4×4 posts for the stringers and composite decking (36″ wide) for the cross pieces and I love the results (of course each section weights a ton so I had to have help moving them into place. These won’t wash away like the bark mulch I had in the past. I’m also toying with the idea of pining these composite boards to the ground (with 12″ long aluminum spikes.. which I got from a friend) for around my front flower beds, to create a mowing strip for the lawn I still have. Have you or any of your readers tried this before and if so what were the results of laying these composite boards right on the ground?
    I loved reading about and seeing all of the pictures (especially of your alpacas) keep posting!

    Ohhh, Margie – I feel your pain. Smooth brome is a common component of hayfields (both current and former) around here, and it is one of the main weeds I have to deal with, particularly in the beds outside of the fence, where the brome quickly creeps back in from the mowed parts around them. Your idea of using composite boards for flat mowing strips is very intriguing. I may have to try that!

  22. Loved this post–one of your most helpful ever. I’ve been planning to enlarge my flower beds this spring but now I’m having second thoughts…Maybe I’ll just enlarge them a little, and mostly put in small shrubs! Clark’s idea about making the grass paths exactly 2 or 3 times the width of one’s mower was great–I’m going to do that for sure. Thanks for sharing from all your experience. The before and after shots were so instructive!

    Yes, that was a super tip from Clark. He’s done more than his share of garden-making in his time, for sure, so he knows his stuff. Have lots of fun with your flower beds, whatever you decide. Based on some of the advice from other folks who have commented, adding shrubs sounds like a really good way to go.

  23. I was pleased to see the photos of your “boys” – I’m sure they’re enjoying the warmer weather in your area and it was good to see them getting out and about.

    Before we moved to our current property of just over 1/2 acre 4 years ago, I always said I wanted 2 acres of land. Perhaps my 20-year younger self would have loved that much space but I’m finding it hard enough to cope with what I’ve got. It probably would have been a good idea to start with a master plan too but, after years of working with a truly tiny garden, I jumped in with only half-formed ideas of what I wanted but, as it also takes time to understand the needs of your new space, I’m happy enough that I allowed projects to define themselves. The path problem has affected me too but paths have evolved as a by-product of other changes. The first major change in my garden came about as a result of our removal of a 60-foot Eucalyptus tree following a complaint by a neighbor that it blocked her view. (I didn’t know that our city had one of the most rigorous view conservation ordinances in the country until after we’d moved.) That led to a string of other changes, including the creation of a flagstone path framed with creeping thyme. That worked out well and so, when we removed out front lawn last year in response to our deepening drought, we extended that path through the front garden. Elsewhere, I’ve used gravel dug from our own property (which was a rock quarry in the 1940s) to create paths but weeding is a hassle and I’ve avoided weed cloth because it impact the soil’s absorption of rain. I currently have a grass (weed) path in the back garden but that’s temporary – I’m leaning toward a combination of decomposed granite and flagstone there (when I get the energy to face another lawn removal project).

    Whatever you do with your garden, Nan, I know it will be wonderful and I look forward to seeing how things progress.

    That’s it, Kris: ideally, one would start with a master plan, but how can you know what you’re going to want 5 or 10 years later when you’re just getting started? That goes double for folks starting their very first garden. I actually hired a landscape designer as soon as this house was finished, and it was a beautiful plan. Unfortunately, I deviated from it right away when I added the fence out front (which I realized I needed for the dogs I had at the time), and everything else evolved around those essentially arbitrary lines, so there’s almost no relation between that plan and what’s here now. Still, I don’t regret the time I spent thinking about what I wanted to include in the master plan, and it did help when I decided to add the barn and other outbuildings.

    Good thing you avoided the weed cloth for another reason: it makes for horrible weeding later on, when seeds blow in and then root down through it. I’d heard warnings about that before I used some but I did it anyway, and I’ve regretted it every year since.

  24. One of the most helpful, instructive, and beautiful entries, whether blog or magazine article, I’ve ever read. Thank you.

    Wow, Robert; thank *you* for saying that. I thought it was about time to do something other than a “here’s this plant and here’s that plant” post, but I didn’t expect the kind of response this one has gotten. I guess we can all relate to design mistakes. All the best to you!

  25. Wish i could downsize my hips more than my garden!
    Lovely how gardens change with their tenders.
    Thanks for your thoughtful posts and of course the lovely boys.

    If downsizing yourself is the goal, Paula, then maybe “upsizing” your garden is the way to go!

  26. Love the alpaca pics! And I enjoyed reading your post about the evolution of your garden and what you’d do differently now. I’m still in the process of making my garden, which I started 6 years ago, so I don’t really know what I’d change yet. I’m with you on going smaller rather than larger though. My current garden is larger than my last, but I’ve planted it with more evergreens and shrubs, rather than tons of perennials, so it’s not more work. But it’s more than I’ll want to do in another 10 years, I’m sure.

    No way – has it really been 6 years already? It seems like you just moved a year or two ago. Of course, with your design savvy, it’s no wonder that your current garden looks so polished already, Pam.

  27. Thank you for sharing your experience with planning paths. I garden on three acres of shaded rugged terrain with mountain laurel, trees and rocks, so grass paths aren’t an option, but I have enough deadfall to chip my own mulch. Level paths make pushing wheelbarrows and pulling carts easier, but think of the money we save on gym memberships. Admire your beautiful garden and wealth of plant knowledge, and always look forward to seeing your boys.

    You’re right about that, Nancy: no gym membership needed! I kept reminding myself of that every time I had to shovel snow this winter. At least when you expend energy during the growing season, you have something to show for it.

  28. I’m about to start my fourth gardening season here, and I tell myself I want to put in one more bed. I’ve already gotten you-can’t-keep-up-with-what-you’ve-got looks from my family, so maybe I should reconsider. I never did keep the garden at the old place well-maintained, but I always blamed that on my kids being little. Last year I blamed it on spending so much time teaching a teenager how to drive, and no driver’s ed necessary this year. But I am mindful of getting older, and I know a small garden well-maintained is better than a big garden poorly maintained. Trees, shrubs, bulbs, and groundcovers–that’s my mantra.

    Living in a rural area as you do, I totally agree that “lawn” is less time consuming than a garden bed. It just gets mowed. Furthermore, it doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what’s a weed and what’s a keeper plant, so someone else can do that job.

    Like everyone else, I enjoyed seeing the before and after shots of your gardens, and I’m relieved to find out you are human after all and have trouble keeping up with all of it.

    We have some rather steep slopes and I’ve been fantasizing about putting in steps. Easier on the visitors’ knees. But that’s a big project and may never happen. At any rate there would always be a ramp left for wheelbarrows, lawn mowers, and the like.

    Oh goodness: it’s 4 years for you now? Where did the time go, anyway? At least you can use your family as an excuse for stuff. I can’t think of many ways to pin my mistakes on the boys–or Mom, either, except that maybe she has enabled a bit by helping out on occasion. Yes, I can see that steps could be really useful on sites like yours. But I don’t have that excuse either; poor me!

  29. I really love the before/during/after pics… I photo my garden obsessively, especially when I’m developing a new area. It’s amazing to compare year by year, and gives me a sense of accomplishment (although sometimes it’s more like, “WHAT was I thinking!”)

    I wanted to share a great path surface I’ve discovered after using lots of other material. There’s a family owned sawmill near me that sells sawdust (not ground bark) by the truckload. I put a 3″ layer on my kitchen garden paths, and after a few rains it packed down tight and smooth, weathering to a pleasant brownish grey color. And because the mill processes mainly pine and hemlock, there seems to be enough resin or something in it to act as a weed suppressant. I top it up only every third year, and maybe because it’s packed tight with few air spaces, it doesn’t really compost the way larger particles would. Looks great, affordable and really pleasant to walk on in bare feet!

    Oh, now, that *does* sound like a great solution; how very interesting. I can imagine how nice it would feel underfoot. Thank you so much for sharing that tip. I may have to see if I can find a similar source around here.

  30. I love the alpacha pictures, they are soo cute and there eyes looks so nice! How can you refuse to give them what they want!?
    As you I have finally realised our garden here on Gotland are too large for me. So I have finally – after 40 years of gardening on my own – told my husband he has to help me out. In Stockholm our garden was a small one, so there were no need for help from him and I were younger then. Since only a couple of years back hes helping me, without me telling him!
    But there are things I cant aloud him to do, for example clean the garden beds from leafs and weed – he dont recognise the differents from perennials!?
    One thing I´m happy about is that we never made any paths, insted we have grass – with the terrible weed Bellis – all over the place. But I have learned to accept the bad lawn. We are living in the middle of a small forest and not in a village, so I dont have to be too fussy.
    I have also realised I cant cope with all garden beds with small perennials, so I´m planting more and more bushes and small trees with only LARGE perennials between. But no and then I still gets carried away and dig up a new garden bed – in spite I know its not what I really want to do! But its the nature of a real garden fan!!
    LOVE/Susie in Sweden

    Greetings, Susie! Ah, yes: it’s wonderful to have help, but then they must be trained and supervised. As Kathy pointed out, mowing is something pretty much anyone can do, but weeding is tricky. It’s lovely that you two can share the outdoor time, anyway. I hope spring comes to you soon, with mild weather and no late frosts.

  31. Hi Nan, I really enjoy this post! I love using what I have on hand. This year after edging the gardens, I ‘m thinking about putting the sod (grass side down) around the perennials,also using the sod over newspapers. What do you think? I absolutely love Daniel and Duncan!!!!!

    Hey there, Geri! Mmmm…I’m not sure about putting the sod around perennials (even green side down). Depends on what kind of grass you have, I guess: if there’s any sort of creeping stuff in there, it will likely right itself and spread. If you’re going to have a lot of little sod pieces from edging, I think it might be better to pile them in an out-of-the-way spot, cover them with a tarp, and let them break down until fall before using the soil that’s left.

    Now, using upside-down sod over newspapers to make a *new* bed can work fine, though I’d make sure you cover it with a good layer of some other mulch so the seed in the exposed soil isn’t encouraged to sprout. I hope that all makes sense.

    1. Thank you,Nan!

      You’re most welcome. Good luck with whatever you decide to get into this year!

  32. There is nothing like personal experience to teach you big lessons. Great post Nan. Lots of information and insight. I love my ‘Freedom Lawn’ here. As you say, a lawn can be much less labor intensive than garden beds.

    “Freedom Lawn – that’s brilliant, Layanee!

  33. Great stuff Nan. Practical, pragmatic and gardenwise.I know I am near the limit of how many beds I can practically maintain. But I see possibilities everywhere. Hope this find you and your parents well. Love driving by the homestead.

    Hi Drew! Great to hear from you. Yes, we’re all well, thanks; hope you and yours are too. Maybe the boys and I will see you again when we’re out rambling. Have a great spring!

  34. My biggest challenge is my paths as well. I have a smaller yard, so I removed all the grass from the backyard, but I have put in stepping stones with groundcover and perennials running right up to them. So no wheelbarrow goes through, but I usually just leave all the leaves in place to compost where they are anyway. I have had other gardens where some of the plants were invasive, so number one rule now is to never plant anything that can get out of control. Lily of the valley is underneath my Japanese fantail willow, they can fight it out. I dread getting out the lawnmower for my snowman lawn in the front. It takes me 10 minutes to mow, but I despise it, even with my quiet electric mower. At the cottage we are slowly removing all the grass as well. Hostas are maintenance free, I don’t get crazy about cleaning up the leaves, they make great weed suppressing compost in place. Again we are using stepping stones and a lot of ground cover plants. If I had acres to play with there would be a lot of shrubs and trees and groundcover between.

    I appreciate you sharing your experience, Lisa. Groundcovers are a tricky issue. When you have a big space to fill, “nice” groundcovers can get expensive, so it’s very tempting to use vigorous spreaders, but then they create their own problems. It’s always something….

  35. This could be a big trend, Nan! Last fall I bore down on the project of recovering my big rectangular mostly perennial garden (which was my father’s vegetable plot until the early 1990s). One of my first decisions was to let the main vertical and horizontal paths become grass, which they’d already pretty much done during the many seasons I hadn’t renewed bark mulch. A friend who visited then (and is a professional landscaper) said she’d made the same change in her garden.

    Like another reader and his sawdust, I’ve found that coarse cypress bark mulch, applied thickly to narrow paths, will remain useful for much longer than bark, so I’m using it for the smaller walkways. [Speaking of width; I urge you not to take your six-foot path in too far — five feet will seem barely enough when your garden’s at peak. 30 inches is too small for two people unless both of them are six years old; 4 feet is a bare minimum if you want to have side-by-side strolls.]

    Removing clumps of tall fescue that had moved into the beds during my almost-decade of neglect was the worst job, but the new sharp edges of the paths and beds made it easier to get motivated. The clean shapes also were a soothing picture during the many parts of this winter when all I could do was look out at the garden from the house.

    My s.o., who is the mower here, is stoked to be able to take the riding mower down the big paths now that their dimensions are clear and they’re free of obstructions. I’d allowed several big clumps of Siberian iris and some Dianthus to spread into the long vertical path under the pergola, and while the effect was visually romantic, it made getting all the way down the path with a mower impossible, with the result that that section became unmanageably wild.

    Another theme of the garden’s renovation is more shrubs, mostly locally native ones. That’s the layer that’s missing throughout the property, which has lots of trees and two intensively planted perennial borders. There are already a lot of birds and insects and other life in the garden due to diverse planting (almost always something in bloom) and no use of sprays or chemical fertilizers for two decades, but I’m sure native shrubs will boost biodiversity significantly. Most, though, are going to arrive in little quart pots, and I’ll be reproaching myself for not having put them in a long time ago…

    That *is* interesting, Nell (about more people getting back to some grass). As you say, adding more shrubs seems to be another often-mentioned idea. They’ve mostly been overlooked as other trends have come and gone, but it sounds like they may be due for a comeback, especially among those of us who are getting older!

  36. I can’t thank you enough for the before and after pictures. In particular, the images of the shrubbery in its early days and now will be very helpful as I plant the shrublets next month — both in maintaining realism about how much room they’ll eventually occupy and in maintaining patience and optimism despite their teeny-ness starting out.

    Yeah, my tiny shrubs looked silly at first. But one thing I learned from a lot of garden-visiting early on was that many gardeners don’t allow enough space for their shrubs to mature, so their mixed borders get very crowded 5 or 10 years later. Not all of my spacings worked as I’d anticipated, of course, but overall I’m pleased with how that area has turned out. I wish the same for you, Nell!

  37. Your newsletter always brings me so much joy! I kept on scrolling down looking for the alpacas and then bingo! I love them <3 Thank you for brightening up a dreary Monday.

    I’m very happy to hear that, Nada, and so are Daniel and Duncan. We hope you have a cheerier rest-of-the-week!

  38. Hi There,
    Always well written and informative.
    Thanks for taking the time to share.

    All our paths are grass. It’s soft, warm and inviting.
    We really like the tongue and groove bricks made for edging. They are only around a buck a piece. They are dug in and about 1 1/4″ above grade height or grass level. It helps from the grass path growing over them. You can easily run the mower over the top of them w/o harm. You’ll also have 4″ on the inside of the bed, to hold mulch in.
    If we do use plastic edging, we anchor it every 5′ w/ 10″ spikes horizontally, to prevent frost heave. There is a low-profile plastic edging, not sure I can mention vendors here. It is near invisible. Looks similar to steel edging. It also comes in 150′ lengths, easier to work with.
    The norm will have that large circle top. It will be very obtrusive in your “natural” gardens. Please spend the money for good commercial grade. The average will be brittle and worn out in a few years.
    Good commercial edging, w/ 10″ spikes, is near the same price as the brick edging I speak of; something to consider. There are low and high grades of commercial edging. You can get the brick edging in a soft red blend, so it doesn’t scream. It also adds crispness, structure and elegance.
    You could also just do a spade cut edge w/o any edging material. If there isn’t soil on the bedside, the grass roots will dry on the ends and act as a natural prune. This will help considerably w/ their travelling tendencies.

    We have had a terrible year w/ voles and mice. Make sure to cut your paths short before winter; 2 1/4″- 2 3/4″ max height for winter. Otherwise, it’s an invitation and warm nest for them to winter in. Any dense mat screams mice trouble.
    For mice control we lay out pvc piping in approximately 12″-24″ lengths. Any diameter will work, but prefer 1 1/2″-2″. The bait goes inside. Most all outdoor baits work well. The gardens get a pipe approximately every 20′ or so. More in dense areas and places w/ boulders, large rock crevices and creeping conifers.

    Basically all lawn mixes on the market today, will only grow to 8″ or so.
    We have had good luck w/ an approximate blend of 30% bluegrass varieties, 60% perennial rye varieties and 10% creeping red fescue. It has proven to be very durable, handles drought well and recovers quickly from scuffs and bruises.
    Where the path gets most worn, you can cut in flagstone here and there, if needed. The flagstone also adds some structure and invitation to the garden. As you know, the flagstone will look more natural in a staggered outlay.
    I would till in your mulch paths w/ existing soil at least 8″ deep.. This will help w/ compaction from your travels. Compaction is a grass paths worst nightmare. Also fill in low spots or depressions to avoid ice buildup over the winter.
    The grass paths will also make your garden beds “pop”. The colors and textures will be more vivid and pronounced.

    I tried to post some pictures…no luck, must be restricted.
    Notify me if you want pictures.

    Take Care, Rick

    Thank you, Rick–you’ve given me a whole lot to think about as far as the edgings. It was very generous of you to take the time to share your insights. Sorry about the trouble you had with the links; they work when I add them to my responses, but submitted comments with links seem to get screened heavily by WordPress.

    1. Hi Rick, I’d be very interested to learn about the edging you were talking about. Really like the info about the vole control. We still have a lot of snow, so there’s no telling how much damage they’ve done. Lots of great info. Thank you.

      I’ve sent you Rick’s contact info, Susan. And here are some of the links that didn’t make it through on his original comment, for anyone else who is interested in options for garden edgings:

  39. Nan, just wanted to say thanks for this fantastic, informative post. I always make sure to spend time checking your new posts, but this one was particularly honest, helpful, and illustrative. Yours is a true gardener’s garden, designed not only to be aesthetically pleasing, but also to be tended by the homeowner. I really appreciate you explaining the choices you have made that were based on money, labor, and practicality, not just on pure design. Thanks!

    Very kind of you, Mary. It’s really helpful to step back and reflect every once in a while before plowing ahead (so to speak) with new plantings each year.

  40. Hi Nan, A lovely post as usual and great to see how your garden has developed over the years. Even though there have been a few mistakes made. It looks and sounds like you have lots of work to do. Still it is all positive and you have the freedom to do things your own way. The biggest mistake we made in our garden was my asking my non gardening friend, who I share house and garden with, to plant 15 shrubs! I wasn’t available when he planted them. He just dug holes and put them in. 12 years later and the small shrubs have grown huge but, my friend will not allow me to dig them up, even thought the garden would be improved by their removal. So I am quite envious of you, being able to make any changes, without having to consult anyone. On a final note I do have loppers and secateurs, so I am able to cut the shrubs back lol.

    Oh dear! Well, at least you can’t blame yourself for that, Allan. I can’t pin my mistakes on anyone but myself. Hope you and the dogs are enjoying some springlike weather.

  41. Wonderful, thought provoking post, Nan. And, it certainly engendered a lot of thought provoking feedback. Gardeners are obviously great thinkers! Thanks very much.
    Barbara Dashwood
    Victoria, BC

    Good to hear from you, Barbara. Yes, the comments and suggestions have been truly helpful for me, and for others too, I’m sure. I’d wish you a good spring, but you’re probably almost to summer by now. We don’t even have snowdrops open yet.

  42. Thank you for an honest, thought provoking post about this needed subject, especially for “some” people who may be getting a bit older . . . (that would be me, not you). I also saw the magazine with you in it; I think it was a publication focused on perennials, maybe put out by bhg? Funny they wouldn’t let you know you were in it! Happy spring!

    Hah – I’m getting older too, Donna, trust me. Thanks for that additional info about the article. I remember now that they were reprinting some really old pictures of my place for some reason. I never got a copy of the magazine, though; oh well. Happy spring to you, too!

  43. What a good post, and funny too! Most of the humor comes from reading about you mentioning all the same mistakes I seem to be making. I’m tired of the money for mulch, might have a few too many beds (although I’ll never admit it), going to grass paths, and have a nice chipper which sits unused in the garage. No alpacas though, but that makes sense since it’s not a mistake!
    I think it was last spring that I sat down in the spring and for maybe the first time ever thought that gardening *might* be a lot of work. But then I saw some new tulips opening and I quickly forgot.
    Your pictures are a reminder to always keep a nice record of the whole garden to see how it changes. Individual flowers are pretty but the big picture is so much more interesting to me.
    I might go with a gravel patio and a small gravel path, that will be my newest mistake :) I like the grass for barefoot purposes, woodchips aren’t quite the same, but smooth gravel seems like a good alternative. I’m looking into flame weeders, I think that might make weeding gravel a whole lot more fun… as long as I don’t light up the whole garden!
    Someone else mentioned using composite decking for edging, that’s my plan for the patio edges, I’d like to try it on end since it will bend enough that way to get around curves.
    Hmmmm. I really want this snow to melt so we can get out there!

    Hi Frank! Yeah, I was just starting to forget about the work and get distracted by the prospect of emerging flowers. However, they are now covered again, by 6 inches of heavy new snow. So much for the arrival of spring; hmmph. Funny that you mention the flame weeder: I bought one three years ago to use on my gravel driveway and still haven’t gotten up the nerve to try it. If you go ahead with some gravel areas, I’ll wait for you to try the flame weeder, and then maybe I’ll try it too. Happy melting!

  44. That’s a fine-looking dog in the path: Front and Side Garden ~ May 2003.

    You have a good eye, Tom; thank you for noticing her. That’s my much-loved and much-missed Sheltie girl, Guinevere. She loved to be photographed as much as the boys dislike it.

  45. Thanks so much for a great post, Nan. If all of us wrote an “If I Knew Then…” paragraph or two we’d learn so much from one another. I had lunch with a gardener friend yesterday and we discussed your post (how helpful it was and some of the great ideas you had) and then we both shared the things we would have done differently. For me the list included: don’t grow Vinca (anywhere), remove and replace shrubs that the previous owner sited incorrectly early on, don’t place a fenced-in raised bed veggie garden in front of another garden bed (the sunniest spot I have) so it’s awkward to weed and mulch the bed behind and so on.
    I love the no-mow grass idea- please keep us posted on how that’s working for you. I’d love to try it for paths as well. We can get mulch from the local recycling center on the cheap, but we cart it from there to our home in the trunk of the car (lined with a tarp) and it takes forever to mulch our garden beds and paths.

    Hi Marge! I bet we could all do a series of posts on our various mistakes. Even with years of experience, it can be tough to foresee how some of our decisions are going to turn out. I’ve certainly learned a lot from the comments readers have left, though they’ve made life more complicated in a way: I was so focused on not having to deal with the mulch that I didn’t give adequate thought to the issue of edging the beds. It’s always something, you know. Well, anyway, happy first full day of spring to you, and to your gardening friend too!

  46. “Mistakes we have made” is a great post. I only have one half acre and have made more than most. In fact, I think I could make a few movies. How about: “The wisteria that ate my house”. When I finally rescued the homestead, that thing made it to the top of my TV antenna. Replaced the wisteria with sun shield screening over the pergola-best thing ever. Not to mention the robin that always built its nest in the wisteria directly over my table. Another: “The silver maples that made me curse-quite often”. That mess started in March with the red flowers, then the helicopters, then the sticks and finally the leaves. That was my every Saturday chore to go to the roof with the leaf blower to clean the gutters and every heavy down poor to unplug the down spouts. Not to mention their roots grow on top of the soil. When I first moved in 30 years ago and had family in, someone asked if I purchased root insurance? If you have a young silver maple, give it to someone you hate. Mine are all gone now. Started with five. They are still haunting me though. From the old decaying roots grow some kind of fungus that pops from the ground like stalagmites only slimier. “Washington Hawthorns have thorns”. That one is self-explanatory. “Purchase a one dollar plant and dig a million dollar hole” is one I really blundered. I lined my backyard for privacy by pimple planting from the sale rack and late fall sales at my box stores. And when I said a one dollar plant that is usually what I paid. My plants always started a few inches above the surface and when I finally did remove the sod between them, my plants were a few inches below the surface. Made my holes way too deep and they settled. I actually had to elevate about 50 plants when finalizing my edging. That was a lot of work! My wife told me at our age I need to be looking at the $10 plants with some size. LOL. I think of it like a treasure hunt and plant rescue at the same time. “That is not what I thought it was” would be another interesting but actually fun movie. Plant tags from box stores are never correct. I can purchase the correct species, except the blueberry that turned into a crabapple, but the cultivar’s size and color are a mystery. I think a post from Thomas Rainer that encourages us to go and fail should be our war cry.

    Oh my, Greg, I think we can all relate to many of your own mistakes. We have lots of old silver maples at the farm and they are a constant bother, for all of the reasons you mentioned. The super-abundant and absolutely unwanted seedlings are a nightmare, especially when they get into the compost pile (and, as you say, in gutters). The thorny-plant issue also deserves special mention. Those plants are unpleasant to dangerous to work around, and the trimmings are practically toxic waste: trying to get rid of them safely is a challenge even here. Ah well. I got my first hour of gardening in this evening, and I must stay I’m already starting to shift my focus from mistakes to “ooh, pretty flowers!”. May spring arrive for you soon too.

  47. Excellent to see the evolution of your garden over the years. It’s a magnificent labor of love. With all that space, no wonder you let your imagination run fancy-free.

    Clearly, dwelling on mistakes is something all of us can relate to. May it not stop us from making new ones, though, as we continue to enjoy our delightful obsession!

  48. It was a pleasure reading this post. It has given me a pause for thought as I am about to embark on a new garden design for the home I purchased last May. The entire yard, front and back will be graded, the front walk blown up (figuratively speaking), the drive will be graded and stone added. As well a picket fence and arbour will be added around the property.

    I have my design ideas on paper and in my head, but I have a feeling things will change a little after reading your post. For the most part the hardscape will be completed this year and I can develop the individual beds slowly. Mainly because the budget has also been blown up. I am certain I will have my hind sights too!

    How exciting: a new garden! It’s inevitable that one’s “starter garden” will have plenty of mistakes, and even the second and later ones will have some, being living, evolving things and all. But it’s so much easier to tackle a new one when you have some experience and vision to draw from, isn’t it? I have no doubt that your new place will look fantastic, whatever you decide to do. I wish you the joy of seeing quick progress with the hardscaping but also the pleasure of savoring the actual garden-making!

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