Garden Progress, Part 2

Pink and yellow dahlias in a vase.
Growing dahlias were one of the highlights of our garden in 2021.

It’s late fall in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., and while September and October were marked by mild, summer-like temperatures, it seems like someone flipped a switch around Halloween. Now it’s definitely feeling like fall, with slightly below-average temperatures to match! The trees in the yard have now lost most of their leaves and I’ve spent the last couple of weekends winding down the garden for the year.

I’ve planted a few fall crops (I’m testing collard and Brussel sprouts and I’ve gotten my winter-blooming hellebores and garlic – which will be ready for harvest next year) in the ground. I’m also taking time to reflect on some of the successes we had in our yard and garden the whole year through.

It’s been five years since we’ve been in our house and this year, I really started to see some of the payoff from the many seeds, bulbs, bare roots, saplings, tubers and seedlings I’ve planted up to this point. I talked about some of these early plantings–lilies, daylilies, hydrangeas among these–in a previous post.

Fun with Containers

Our deck is one of the sunniest places on the property, so one of the first places we tried to grow things was in containers there, especially fruit trees and bushes. I like the idea of growing fruits on the deck because I think (I hope) it will reduce the chances that the deer will snack on them. This year, our experiments started to pay off. We got a few blueberries, two figs and 10 lemons! We also marked some good growth on our honeyberry bush (the birds got to the only two fruits it produced first, though), two native Nanking cherries – which I ordered from Edible Landscaping in Virginia – and two paw paw trees.

Fruits we’re growing in containers on the deck include (from left) blueberries, honeyberries and figs.

New Growth and Changes Over the Years

Sarah Bernhardt peonies are white with delicate pops of hot pink.
Sarah Bernhardt peonies from a flowering bush I bought from Lowe’s mid-season.

Not everything I planted a couple years ago has stood the test of time. Though my Nantucket Blue hydrangeas have come back a little bit bigger each year, I had an Everlasting Amethyst variety that failed to thrive. I had to pull it up this spring. In its place, I planted two peonies, part of a three-pack I ordered in the spring. I put the last one in the backyard. The peony in the backyard got some great foliage, but never flowered. But the two in the front yielded a few very pretty blooms in pink and white. I also picked up a more mature peony from Lowe’s pretty late in peony season – late June. It was a Sarah Bernhardt variety. I must admit, I was mostly sold by the many flower buds that were on the plant in the nursery! I got lots of cut flowers from it but, unlike the ones I planted from bare root, it didn’t stay green for very long after I planted it. I’m hopeful that it will come back next year, though.

Likewise, my luck with lilies in my front yard has been hit or miss. We definitely have some very hungry burrowing animals (voles, maybe) in our front yard! But the more recent plantings I’ve added – peonies, roses and, most recently, rhododendron in the shady spot in front of our porch – show promise.

I’ve also made strides in establishing a backyard garden that is beautiful and satisfying to tend. We have a ton of trees in our backyard which provide lots of shade. We wanted to bring in more sunlight and grow flowers and food.

This year, we consulted several landscape designers and arborists to help us consider solutions that would make the backyard a bit more hospitable to new plants (meaning – we needed more sun to reach the ground!). Ultimately, we removed six tall, skinny trees, all of which had a growth pattern that leaned toward our house. We also trimmed four other trees to further increase the light that was coming into the yard. After the trees came down, we got a great surprise – a stream-side garden of super-fragrant Narcissus, about 15 daylilies and a couple ferns, seemingly planted long ago by one of the previous owners of the property!

We also decided to put a playset out back for the boys to enjoy (courtesy of my mom – thanks Nana!), to give them something to do outside. At that point, we were more than a year into “homeschooling” and were pretty desperate to give them a place to run off energy. In the process of building the playset, we realized we’d need to take down another small tree (trunk was about 6 inches in diameter). We cut that tree in half and used it as a border for the garden space in the back of the yard that I’d started cultivating the previous fall. You can see the changes in the tree line in the photos below. The first two were taken in the spring and the second two just days ago.

I also wanted to try my hand at growing some vegetables. So we put together a 4′ x 8′ raised bed from Greene’s Fence in the sunniest spot we could find. Early in the pandemic (around April 2020), I also impulse-bought a seed sheet for raised bed gardens. And I wasn’t the only one. The company I ordered from, called SeedSheet, was on extreme backorder and my seed sheet didn’t come in until late August 2020, well after the optimal time to plant. But it was such a cool product. You get to customize the type of vegetables, herbs and flowers you want to grow – we chose arugula, dinosaur kale, zucchini, tomatoes, mustard greens and one other crop that I can’t remember – all embedded in a weed-blocking landscape fabric that allows the plant to thrive. I was excited to put it outside this year, and rolled it out on top of the soil-filled raised bed in May.

The raised bed and the back garden area. We used a tree that we’d taken down to frame out the garden borders. Later in the summer, I moved the borders to give me more space in the garden.

The next step was adding playground mulch around the swing set and our newly discovered secret garden. This was a clutch move as it helped us keep the weeds under control and made the forest floor in the back much more pleasant and predictable to walk on. The mulch significantly reduced the amount of mud that came in on the boys boots!

I had a lot of fun choosing plants for the back garden. We have so many trees and there’s a ton of leaf matter that’s fallen over the years turned into compost, so the soil is super rich. Below the topsoil, we’ve got a sandy loam soil that drains well. We’ve also got a pretty high water table given the stream, which allows thirsty plants to thrive even if we forget to water for a day or two. I planted all kinds of things back there in 2020 and 2021. A lot of plants did great.

My dahlias especially thrived. A pink-tipped white variety (don’t recall the name) that I planted in 2020 actually over-wintered and came back this year. The common recommendation is to dig up tubers in zone 7 after the first frost and replant them the following year. As a dahlia novice last year, I totally skipped doing that (figuring it’d basically just be an annual). To my surprise, they came back full force. I also got pink Milena and yellow Kelvin Floodlight dinnerplate dahlias. Man, were they both SPECTACULAR! I did end up digging them up this year, right before Thanksgiving. Though I was dreading the task at first, I ended up really enjoying it and I’m pumped to divide them and have more dahlias for next year.

The Our Lady of Guadalupe rose in full bloom.

I planted six bareroot roses; four of them did great. The successful varieties were Queen of Sweden, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Champagne Wish, Julia Child and Peace roses. All except the Peace rose rebloomed several times between spring and early fall and all emitted beautiful fragrance.

I planted a couple dozen lily bulbs, mostly Asiatic. Sadly, I don’t have any pretty photos to share. While we were on vacation for a couple days in June, our local deer came through and ate about half of the lily buds. They also ate ALL of the buds on the daylilies. I was so excited to see what they looked like because they were among the surprise garden that grew up after we took the trees down. Ah well, more to look forward to uncovering next year!

Overall, I’ve found a lot of joy and discovery – about our property, our soil and the ecosystem – through working in the garden and yard. Each time I see new leaves, plant a bulb or pull weeds, I get excited at all the possibilities of what I can grow right outside my door. I’m really looking forward to more experimenting, successes and lessons, and to seeing what new inspiration presents in the days, months and years to come.

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