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“Biting Off More Than You Can Chew” in the Garden

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Lori Littleton, Master Gardener

“It looks like a park” was the way my husband described the yard surrounding the house we were bidding on. “You´ll love it, the kids will love it.” Thus began my love-hate relationship with my new yard and garden.

After we moved into our newly purchased house, I assessed the yard: huge (by my standards) and green (not a spare space to plant anything new). It left me somewhat claustrophobic and anxious. I kept thinking, “How will I know what to plant? What will grow here? Should I feel guilty for digging up a perfectly healthy plant?”

So I decided to take a new approach—the “don´t plan it, just see how it comes together” approach. I don´t know that I can recommend that approach after my experience over the last year.

In the fall after our first summer in the house I said to my husband, “The picket fence has to come out, the boxwood hedge has to come out, the juniper has to come out, the 15 (yes, 15) dwarf trees HAVE to come out.” I couldn´t see anything! In our front yard, I couldn´t see across the street; the pizza delivery guy couldn´t make it to the front door through the overgrown rose bushes!

Plus, the pruning that needed to be done! I could make a full time job out of pruning and I already have a full time job!

The backyard contained upper and lower sections divided by boxwood growing across the yard with a sweet picket gate. Beautiful hydrangeas provided a fence separating my husband´s office from the upper yard. “Out, out, out!” I told my husband. I had beautiful raised beds with glorious roses—stunning red Abe Lincolns, a sweet- smelling yellow one with no distinguishing tag to identify the variety. I said, “Once I move those roses, the beds are coming out.”

Reading this you might think I was crazy. Why mess with a good thing? Good question. As a tinkering gardener wanting to be pleased with the aesthetics of my home, I needed to make my mark. I want the house to look like the Littleton family lives there, not the multitudes of previous owners who also felt the same need to personalize their home. Now it´s up to me to make it ours.

It began with the front. We hired someone to cut down the juniper and little trees and take down the picket fence. After the crew left, I looked at my husband and said, “it looks so barren, what will we replace it with?”

Should we have taken out the out-of-place blue spruce? So close to Christmas I couldn´t—it would have been positively Scrooge-like.

The ivy, however, had to go. Ivy is not easy to get rid of. In fact, the best way to get rid of it is to pull it out. Wait for the rainy season, get out your gloves, your Motrin, and start pulling. You can also alternate by spraying Round-up (glyphosate), but hand pulling works best. Keep your hand shears close by to ensure you´re able to get down and clip what you couldn´t see. I think my ivy is going to take a few seasons to kill, but when it´s gone a lovely pea gravel area with comfortable outdoor furniture will allow us to pass the time under the beautiful valley oak in our front yard.

My neighbors aren´t so sure of what we´ve done. My husband heard some passing comments on the barren appearance, how forlorn our house looks without the picket fence.

But we pressed on, digging up and cutting down more shrubs then we thought possible in a year. After transplanting ten rose bushes and eight hydrangeas, we found ornamental strawberries growing as groundcover. Blackberries keep trying to make an appearance in our yard, but we held them at bay.

Where the boxwood was I wanted two rock steps across the length of the yard. A Master Gardener buddy loaned me a book on stones and masonry. After reviewing that book and multiple others, I knew I was in over my head.

I needed help; I needed a 12-step program for starting garden projects I couldn´t finish. So I decided to get some help, professional help. My husband called a bunch of masonry guys and begged, literally begged, for estimates. I also had to admit that I could not do multiple yard projects at one time or labor in 100-plus degree heat. After 15 months of living in our house and renovating our yard here´s what I´ve learned:

1. While your own time spent is the least expensive method of yard reconstruction, in the end it may cost you more. Admit when you need help.

2. If you´re OK with chaos, have a couple projects going on at a time. Otherwise and most importantly, develop a plan and stick to it.

3. Remember, while you may be the one agonizing over your yard, often times you are not alone. Thank those, repeatedly, who help you.

4. And above all, don´t get discouraged. Over time you will make that already-mature landscape your own. See you in the garden.

Lori Littleton graduated from the Master Gardener training program in May of this year. She shares her yard projects with a full-time job, a newly-purchased home, a husband, and two small children.