Welcome to our Half Acre Eden*. This short essay was written in preparation for our first Gratitude Day open house in July 2010. It will give you some background about where we came from, and where we are going.
Bonnie & Margaret
The Back Story….
We found this house through a friend; it was not advertised. We saw it on a blustery March day and fell in love. Then I went back to the States. We bought the house and moved in mid-July, 2006. All we knew about the yard was that it was fenced and substantial with an ancient-seeming Yew and low-growing juniper presiding over the back quarter. The deed says =/- ½ acre.
I had lived rurally, high on a hill top for 25 years before coming here. This is where I raised my kids and developed Golden Yarrow Landscape Design & Garden Mentoring. During those years I worked with clients of all walks of life: some in the city, others in the country; some with complex yards, others with simple needs; some who loved gardening, others who didn’t. I developed an eclectic style of design to serve the specific people who called. The style of garden you find here reflects our personal tastes.
This is what we found…..
A beach….. My first response to gardening here at Wildwood Ave was elation: there were no significant rocks! There was no heavy clay. I could sink my garden fork into the soil and it didn’t bounce back. Ah, the joys of loose, sandy soil. A neighbour who knew our house and land since his grandparents’ time said that commercial strawberries had been grown here, proof of the soil’s fertility. Over time, I learned that there are challenges to ANY soil.
New foundation plantings hugged the east, south and west sides of the house. There was evidence of spring bulbs: tulips, certainly, and daffodils.
A small weeping birch sat in the middle of the flat, rectangular yard.
Two overgrown weed patches, one planted with sad looking tomatoes struggled along. Neighbours told of previous years’ largess in this tomato patch. The soil had been tilled. It was fertile.
Behind the backyard cottage we found a huge area of *goutweed* (a.k.a. Bishop’s Weed or Aegopodium podagraria), a highly invasive plant sold as a ground cover. It reproduces by seed AND underground runners. There were/are also intransigent stands of hackberry, Manitoba maple, choke cherry, mulberry, and buckthorn.
Irregularly-shaped native stone, primarily rounded and of all sizes surrounded some of the existing beds. We also found pavers, medium-sized granite blocks, and old bricks. We collected them and attempted an inventory.
We share a love of gardening, but have different styles.
We have little money for this project and a desire for beauty, diversity, and food crops.
We have more time than capital, within the limits of our comings and goings.
This is what we did…..
As soon as we owned the house, we made nursery beds for the plants we were moving. We used the easiest possible technique: creating cardboard & compost beds. We had cardboard from moving. A friend connected us with our first compost delivery. The delivery truck sinking to its hubcaps in the middle of the yard was a harbinger of coming challenges.
With the nursery beds made, the plants found new, if temporary homes. Some of these homes were not as temporary as we had hoped. Some of the overcrowding, especially around the hot tub, is a result of our pace in expanding the original nursery beds.
That first week I also cleared out a former vegetable garden (a 12 foot square in front of the backyard cottage), making it into a heart-shaped raised bed with smaller beds surrounding it, an off-season valentine to welcome Margaret to our new home. Then I left for the States.
Margaret began “sheet mulching” (layering cardboard and mulch) the areas of goutweed under the juniper and behind the backyard cottage. This project has taken four full growing seasons. In the process, she has created a garden bed with the deepest, most rich soil on the property. She also works the fence lines, removing weed trees, including small Chinese Elms (much to our chagrin, the large ones remain!), hackberry, and buckthorn. As she takes out or cuts off each stem, she paints the cut edge with plain white vinegar as a deterrent to future growth.
We removed the weeping birch.
As I have come and gone and finally stayed, we continue clearing and expanding beds, and creating new ones.
This is what worked…..
Each garden bed works well. We grow a significant portion of our summer vegetables and have lots of beans, berries, winter squashes, potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables to store for winter. We eat salad greens from April through November. Our garlic carries us throughout the year from fresh thinnings to scapes, to braids for the winter.
Margaret added raspberries in 2007 and we began picking in 2008. The fruit trees and seedless purple grapes came in 2009. We expect our first peaches and pears this fall. The wild black caps were here when we arrived and we gorge ourselves yearly while promising to remove this patch or that. We’ll see!
Garden season 2010 saw the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream, asparagus! The hitch with asparagus is setting aside substantial, sunny, perennial space. Margaret realised that we could plant asparagus individually, as a contrasting texture in the ornamental and mixed beds. Now they are tiny. Soon they will be a delicious feathery presence among the flowers
We continue working on privacy. Clearing the fence-lines to eliminate, or control invasive species and weed trees, has been a double edged sword. The fences are a blessing both to us…..and our dog(s). However, as we clear away the invasive species, we have exposed the fences to view. Along the Springbank Drive side of the yard, we have begun adding understory trees and a shrub border. This on-going project adds the challenge that we are shading in our southern exposure, cutting down on sunny growing spaces. The new island bed in the centre of the yard adds new southern exposure.
We planted a fall blooming clematis against the hot tub surround. It thrived. When that it got in the way I began training it over the deck railing. It forms a very dense screen getting in the way of seeing the gardens. Come fall, I will attempt to move it to the back fence line where it can grow to its heart’s content.
In the fall of 2009 we hired someone to remove three Norway Maples on the western fence line and several trees at the far back, eliminating future weeding and opening up to afternoon sun.
I have been working with the rock, beginning with rebuilding the retaining wall for the small bed to the north of the gate where you entered. The unsightly drainage pipe in that bed became a dry stream bed that funnels into an iron birdbath. This project began with several substantial rocks already in place that serve as a foundation.
I started a low retaining wall for the front bed. This is quite a challenge. I am familiar with working with shale that splits pretty much along a grain. Balancing rounded rocks has been frustrating. But the beauty of natural rock is inspiring and I persevere. Warning: don’t sit on the wall in front of the house! It isn’t (yet) sturdy.
We seeded part of the front gravelled-drive with grass to make a softer, but drivable entrance to the gardens. We are unclear how far this project will go.
We give ourselves the gift of Beauty, a value that offers a sense of peace and spaciousness that allows us to live into our potential. Beauty encourages creativity and connection with the cycles of life, aligning us with the natural world.
How has it gone…..
Our first compost was Triple Mix. Coming from a farming area, I was used to richer compost and sought out farmers. With the second farmer we hit the jackpot. In spring 2009 we received 10 yards of composted cow manure rich with red wriggler worms. We got 5 more yards last week. I use compost enrich beds that are already planted and to create new beds.
The tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, all heavy feeders, think they are in heaven. The broccoli wishes the soil was a bit leaner. The flowers, trees and shrubs are uniformly happy.
The unplanted areas, notably the expanded original nursery beds on the south side of the deck, baked and shrank in the sun. Had we created these beds earlier in the season and gotten them planted, we might have avoided this situation. As the cardboard and sod underneath breaks down, it is becoming useable.
Removing the Norway Maples opened up the western side of the yard. One unforeseen impact is that the backyard cottage is hotter than anticipated. We rescued a tiny corkscrew hazel and planted it to hold the space where we expect to move a magnolia from Margaret’s former home.
I experimented with a colony of native bunchberry (Cornus Canadensis) in front of the house. Using our standard technique of layering the area with card board covered with four inches of compost, I planted the bunchberry in late spring 2009.
All seemed well, for a while. In the heat of summer, it faded quickly. Margaret rescue-watered. About one third of the original planting survived. We re-composted and re-planted. About a quarter survived. About 1/3 of those plants came through last winter.
Working on the bed, I discovered the reason for the failure. The area is riddled with a tight mat of grass roots. We think this is from the sod laid by the city when the road was re-paved in 2008. This is only the second time in nearly 30 years of using the sheet mulching technique that it failed.
Meanwhile, impatiens grows in the space while we decide our next steps.
The vegetable garden behind the studio occupies the area formerly filled with goutweed that had been sheet mulched. It is also the area where we had several weed trees removed. In 2008 we planted tomatoes, and in 2009 winter squash, in piles of compost on top of the mulch. They did great. This year Margaret dug up the area, finding deep rich soil and relatively little goutweed. We thought we were winning! We planted tomatoes, basil, potatoes, beans, and leeks. We lost five tomatoes, perhaps to jugalens from black walnut roots. The rest of this garden seems fine. The question remains, it this area sunny enough to support vegetables?
In the country I lived with many types of wild life: bear, deer, foxes, rabbits, porcupines, racoons, skunks, and more. But the city four-legged have expanded our need for creative protection. The chicken wire cages are our attempt to foil the rabbits, chipmunks, and squirrels.
.Still to come…..
The island bed in the middle of the back yard will extend to fill most of that space, significantly cutting down on mowing.
The south and west fence lines will fill in using primarily low-growing (5 or 8 ft.) understory trees and shrubs to create a background for the yard.
A strawberry patch will be added.
We will continue working towards eliminating invasive species: buckthorn, hackberry, garlic mustard, goutweed, nightshade, etc. And further develop the shade garden along the north fence line. This may become a sitting area.
Margaret’s magnolia will move to the western fence line, filling in the area left by the Norway Maples, recreating shade for the backyard cottage.
An arbour of white grapes is proposed over the deck for shaded afternoon sitting space.
In front of the house: we hope to finish the retaining wall along the road, and decide what will live in the front bed. We will add native understory trees to the front island. We will create a bed along the east boundary held in place with a third rock wall. We want to take out the Chinese Elms but it is currently cost prohibitive.
* Inspiration for our name comes from Gene Lodgson’s, Two Acre Eden, Rodale Press. 1971 & 1980.