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.