When we bought our stone cottage in the near dead of winter, the backyard’s long-neglected seasonal perennial jungle was half-composted into the frozen ground. When we moved in at the end of January, the snow was a lovely duvet fluffed over what would emerge come spring. And emerge it did.
My mother advised us to “let everything come up. You have to see what you have and then you can be selective.” Kim and I, minimalists to the core, were frightened at the prospects. We were already sneering at the single aliums and wayward tulips that squirrels had probably plopped into the ground cover and iris clumps with a snicker.
Neighbourhood informants let us know that the previous owners had “really let the place go.” Really? If you’ve read any of the posts on our home, you’ll nod with two simple words: dog fur. Finding dog fur in the freezer and halfway up the Hunter Douglas blinds was a dummy indicator of what the backyard would reveal. “Oh yeah, they never even took the storm windows off.” We soon found out why–the screens stored in the shed had provided snacks for the squirrels. Half of the screens were eaten with holes gaping enough to kick a soccer ball through.
I’ve already mentioned the appalling state of the shed–which had at some point become the black walnut warehouse for all squirrels living in this postal code. The aftermath–of us, below.
The planter boxes behind the house were a soupy mess that smelled like swamp and cat shit. The grass was a patchy ruffian mess and we couldn’t wait to scale the walnut tree to hack down the broken duct-taped swing from our view.
The dog fur inside had a parallel dog shit bingo equivalent outside. We found an old rad, piles of laminate flooring, cracked rain barrels (“Oh, you can keep the rain barrels!”) and other hunks of junk that we turfed into a rented Bagster.
But, back to the gardens. We let everything came up as suggested, knowing we would have to tame the herd sooner than later. We did everything you shouldn’t do. I’m sure our master gardener neighbour, Liz, was shaking our head as we yanked yard bags full of growth out. And it was just that–growth. Kim and I, as Capricorn and Virgo stalwarts, rearranged “families” of bachelor buttons, lungworts and peonies. We couldn’t wait until fall when you are supposed to transplant. No, by midday July, humidex full force, we had to smarten the garden up. We split hostas, knowing they were great space hoggers. We removed lonely singles and posted a slew of photos on Facebook, begging botany-blessed friends to help us out with the likes of Siberian Squill, Pasque flowers, Leper’s lilies and Jerusalem Sage (thank you Kay, Connie, Tanja and Beth!).
Kim was well-versed in hostas while I was more experienced in serious grass cutting. I’ve mowed so many acres in my life. If all the hectares were added together, I have probably cut a swatch across Canada by now. In sharp contrast I can whip through our patch in 20 minutes flat versus 5 hours and 6 acres on the John Deere.
This year’s backyard theme has been less about demolition and damage control. The shed is tidier than the White House with everything in its place. The storm windows are off and the screens resurrected. The swing is down (thanks to a quick $20 handshake to local city guys cutting down stuff on the street who I begged to help us out). We’ve added 75 bags of black earth, probably just as many bags of black mulch, fixed the floating fence panels that were going to be flat after one more westerly gust and planted six cedars. The Saab has become an unexpected workhorse, reliably shifting from a sporty coupe into a semi-tractor with a load of 40 retaining wall stones in the trunk.
Being asked to partake in the Galt Horticultural Society’s annual Open Garden Tour certainly put us on full tilt mode–once the perma frost began to thaw. We were thrilled that our dodgy transplanting techniques took root–the hellebore and turtleheads look bone meal happy! Our tulips, aliums and day lilies came up waist-high this year…despite us plucking leaves with mild sunburn and the slightest wilty posture. Our bear’s breeches and its four offspring have become legendary Chia Pets. The peonies have gone bananas, and despite popular belief and suggestion–we have trained them to grow in shady conditions as well. A rosehip that we clipped to Edward Scissorhand specs has bounced back from near-dead–and stumped a few avids who wondered why kind of rose standard we had.
On Monday we had over a hundred esteemed members of the Society cruising through our gardens. We picked their brains and learned that we had a mock orange tree (and, members, can you believe the blooms rocketed out the day after the tour?).
It was reassuring to get an official pat on the back from the experts who praised us for our commitment and eagerness to maintain the perennial zoo. They were probably more amazed at our progress from the daffodil level of identification.
What we’ve appreciated the most this season has been our opportunity to make our creative footprint. Yes, every gardener edits a space to their liking and leanings (which explains our African daisies, fingerpaint coleus and lavender plantings). But, a garden is truly like snooping in someone’s medicine cabinet. It’s as revealing as a shopping cart’s contents.
We needed to make the backyard our own and we plugged along finding purpose for found and free objects. The Weston bread baking tray became a herb planter.
A window frame that my mom had intended for a stained glass project was resurrected to frame the poppies. Kim put her brick-laying skills to the test to complete the unfinished patio stones beside the shed with the pile we had dug up last year in the gardens (especially because after a dozen stores, we couldn’t find patio stones that matched the size we had).
The post from the front veranda of our home that was found behind the shed became the post for our travel signs. The signs were painted on scraps of barnboard from my childhood kitchen walls.
The wine box planters were derived from a wooden wine box Kim and I found two summers ago walking through Kensington Market in Toronto. We put together the arbour that Kim had moved garage to garage without assembling over the years due to not having adequate or appropriate space.
The birdcage was found buried at a creepy but awesome junkyard off Highway 24 near Brantford. We begged the owners to sell us a bike buried by twenty years of stuff in their metal graveyard behind the house.
Everything just came together. Lost, found, repurposed. We hammered a collection of bottle openers on to the shed and let the cracked mirror live a longer life outside (the only item broken in our move). The planter boxes were dismantled in favour of a cedar deck that Kim designed (thanks to the biceps of our backyard interns Dixon and Tommy).
The firepit went in immediately, because, it has always been around a fire that Kim and I have nursed glasses of wine and talked about our schemes and dreams–most often until dawn.
And, now we are sitting in the very dream that surprised us both. Living in a stone cottage built in 1860 on the banks of the Grand River in Galt. And hosting a hundred members of the Galt Horticultural Society in our backyard.
And now, for the parting before and after shot, for those who find themselves in a similar state of weeds, neglect, bewilderment and overwhelmedness:
Late spring 2013, sans composter
Late spring 2014. Fence repaired, cedars planted, mulched, tamed, etc.
Spring 2013. Planter boxes removed, deck plans in the works. Tommy drinking beer and selecting tunes.
Funny how this photo is applicable before and after. Recreational reading and cocktailing in the sun, my default status.