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Yard Version 6.0

It will be seven years in June since we moved to the country from Manhattan. In 2002, I began what has since become a yearly occurrence: a quest to remake our yard in rather dramatic fashion. In my Garden Journal, I still have a copy of the first ambitious proposal I wrote early that spring after having read several gardening and landscaping books over the winter.

I should note here that I had very little practical knowledge of these matters other than what I gained while 'helping' my grandmother in her yard when I was ten or so. We'd never had a yard of our own, having lived in Manhattan for the first eleven years of our married life. Patrick, who did a lot of lawn mowing and other yard chores for his parents when he was a kid, was far more experienced than I was.

My vision was big, but we started small, with a 4x4-foot garden plot in the sunniest area of the yard. Back then, most of the yard was in the deep, dense shadow of a line of 40-foot-high Norway maples. Grass wouldn't even grow under them, due to the lack of light and the fact that Norway maples' roots are so shallow that they compete with lawn for water. For me, having grown up in the relatively treeless Central Valley of California, cutting down a mature tree was well nigh a sin, so I tried to work with what we had.

Please, never plant Norway maples. They are horribly invasive, for one thing. But another, more selfish and practical reason not to is that they have a bad habit of choking themselves with their own perversely circular-growing roots. They are also prone to a really gross blight called Black Spot. Between these two factors, we've had to remove six huge maples altogether; only one of them remains. The good thing is that we still have two huge oak trees, a mountain ash, and a Japanese maple standing. Another good thing is that we have at least three years' worth of great firewood stacked along the fence. But the best thing is that we now have plenty of sun in our yard--and a lot more flexibility as to what we do with it.

Between 2003 and 2006, I experimented with raised bed 'lasagna' gardening, with varying degrees of success depending on how much time and energy I had to spare in any given season. (I had Daniel in May 2004; that was not a great year for the yard.) Raised beds are a terrific solution for anyone dealing with rocky, clayey soil. You should see the piles of rocks we've unearthed over the years in this whole yard-remaking process; I now know exactly why my ancestors all left New England and moved West just as soon as they could.

In those years I also started a perennial border along a 100-foot section of fence that borders our busy road, planting about 25 feet per year. This border has been a reasonable success, despite the near-constant battle with ground ivy, one of the most evil weeds known to man. The roses, irises, peonies, and lilies have been well worth the trouble, though.

We even planted a few dwarf fruit trees a few years ago. Last year was the first that we literally harvested the fruits of our labors; my kids are still talking about those three or four blissful days of fresh peach indulgence, and they look forward to more this season. We hope for a few cherries and apples to boot.

Via this blog, I officially declared last year "The Year of the Garden." We had just finished the second (and final!) major renovation of our little house, and I was excited to turn my attention and energy once again to the yard. I decided to scuttle all of my amateur garden designs and pay a professional to help me. Because the front yard was at that time the sunniest area we owned, our designer drew up a plan for us that put all of the vegetable beds and fruit trees there. So we did.

Alas, last year, a well-organized cell of ninja deer caught onto what we were doing; we hadn't had much of a problem with them until then. Within a couple of nights, they laid waste to most of my carefully nurtured seedlings, disdaining only the squash and the African Jelly Melons. One lone Charentais melon plant survived by hiding among its spiny, exotic cousins; we harvested exactly two (admittedly delicious) melons last year.

Since I can't camp on the porch every night with shotgun across my knees, I knew we had to make major changes once again. As I write, workers are fencing off the now-sunny side yard with seven-foot-high deer fencing; other workers are grinding out the massive stumps of the once-proud maples. In a couple of hours, a pal of ours will be here to consult with me about grading and leveling the new garden and play yard areas.

In the next few weeks, we're moving the raised vegetable beds and all of the fruit trees, as well as the entire perennial border. We'll plant evergreens along the road fence for year-round privacy and a row of Lombardy poplars along the lane for a little taste of France. (Yes, we know that poplars can be problematic, but we're willing to gamble in order to fulfill an aesthetic dream of Patrick's.) We'll aerate, top-dress, amend, and overseed the lawn area while we're at it.

I've made long lists of what to buy, what to move, what to plant, and how to phase it all in and coordinate it. The long-suffering Patrick is, as usual, footing the entire bill. The whole process is as complicated as choreography, but when it's done? I think (hope, pray) it will be great.

"We fail forward to success," as Mary Kay used to say. If that's the case, our yard and I are due any season now. Let's hope that Version 6.0 will be our break-out year. Is it all worth the pain, work, money, and aggravation? If you could smell the lilacs I just cut (pictured at the top of this post), I think you'd agree that, yes, it is.

Reader Comments (10)

Sounds divine! I'm in the stage of hoping to get rid of all the overgrown nasty weeds in the backyard this year so that NEXT summer we can actually plant fun stuff and get a garden going. Hope 6.0 turns out awesome!

April 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette Lyon

Will we get pictures upon completion? If those flowers are any indication, it must look close to Eden out there in your yard.

April 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLilacspecs

How lovely!

I'm currently experiencing that rather heady sensation of having my own yard for the first time. The previous owners put a lot into it, and I'm lost as to what to do. But every time I go out there I poke at it a bit. And I smile.

April 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly

What a fun way to spend money! It sounds like you may have figured out the winning solution on all accounts. I can't wait to see pictures!

April 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJenna Consolo

one of my first posts was titled "We Grow Deer". We've given up on growing plants, other than in containers on our balcony. Your garden sounds amazing.

April 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJen of A2eatwrite

we may have to do some raised gardens in our backyard, the clay is horrible. I would love to see a picture of your 100 foot perrenial border, that sounds very much like what I want to do in our backyard!

April 30, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterpainted maypole

I'm jealous of the fun you are having! My husband is the gardener in our house, but I am always the "assistant" gardener (meaning "Drag this here," "Put that there," "Pull this weed" etc.) It's worth it for the beautiful results. Owning your own piece of earth is very satisfying.

May 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSydneyMin

aaah any idea's to turn a 20square meter city yeard (with walls around it) a fabulous place that gives rest and beauty and room?

May 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGoofball

So jealous, yet can't wait to see it. Last time I was in your yard, I hooked up my 34' motor home to your receptacle. I bet it wouldn't fit so well now...

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteranjmae

Your lilacs are so pretty! I have such fondness for the Japanese maple in your yard; thank goodness it survived all the incarnations.

May 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercity mouse

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