World events changed our perception of city living, and while I would move back to New York City in an instant, I was drawn to the tranquil setting of my grandmother's little house and the promise of country living. Around that same time, the house became available as my cousin had lived there for about 8 years was planning a move. The house was originally built for the returning WW2 GI's and was not holding up too well when we moved in. My cousin had kept up with the home repairs, but the once splendid garden my grandmother created while she lived in the little house was gradually replaced with grass — a utilitarian solution for my cousin and his large Labrador Retriever!
Once we made the move back to Illinois I began making plans to bring back the splendor of my Grandmother's garden. To tell the truth, I had drawn up plans for the garden a few years in advance, had the beds all laid out on paper, and what was going to be planted in every bed! Using photos of the house as it stood while my cousin lived there I could figure out the sun's path, where certain plantings needed to go, and what repairs needed to be made.
The yard was parched and lifeless upon our arrival. After surveying the grounds for the first year and residing the garage, I was ready to start putting in flower beds. Using an old water hose made pliable by the afternoon sun, I laid out the beds and used the hose as a guide to help me cut the large undulating flower beds. I purchased a wonderful sod cutting shovel from Lee Valley Tools, and manually removed the grass exposing the rich, worm-filled soil my Grandmother had created over the years.
Initially the perennials I ordered seemed to be small and anemic. Most came in 3" pots and after I opened the box I promptly called the nursery to complain. They assured me that within a year or two, with proper care, the plants would at least triple in size. They were correct, after a few years the plants were huge and spreading — the garden was well on its way to becoming lush once again.
Apart from the flower garden I also cut in a vegetable garden and surrounded it with knee high rabbit proof fence. The vegetable garden and all of the flowers beds were also amended with a mixture of horse manure and compost from a local organic farm. If we were to have our own land, then we were going to harvest some food from it as well. We mostly grow heirloom tomatoes, chard, lettuce of all varieties, beans, cucumbers and some squash.
Over the past 7 years, the garden has matured and taken shape. Our once sun-baked house has become a sanctuary of vines, bushes, flowers, vegetables and trees. It was a gradual project in the making as I acquired many plants from friends and relatives.The garden is more on the wild side than a manicured estate garden.
I loosely follow the principals of an English cottage garden, but must admit by the end of the season the garden more resembles a wildlife sanctuary! We do not use any pesticides, herbicides, or petroleum based fertilizers anywhere on the grounds, so while we may not be officially organic, we are moving in that direction. Mowing the ever-shrinking lawn is a chore, but after a good cutting and a slight rain, the grass is vibrant and welcoming.
In order to provide cover from the neighbors, I made an early mistake of planting sumac trees along the back fence line. Sumac trees are fast growers and provided us with more seclusion, however they are also very invasive and I am constantly cutting down little sumac suckers that pop out from the soil - up to 50 yards away! So choose your plantings wisely.
To tell you that the garden is trouble free would be a lie. There is plenty of weeding and pruning and mowing that needs to be done on a daily basis. And while there are days I wish I didn't have to clear a flower bed of weeds or prune that dogwood bush that is out of control, most of the time I enjoy being out in the garden. I consider my time outside as therapeutic, a time to think through problems, figure out solutions, and to see those problems solved within a growing season!
As many gardeners will attest, there are many trial and errors in a garden of this size. But most people at first glance cannot see the glaring problems the gardener is well aware of. As the yard matures, there is less and less work to be done. I have many perennials throughout the yard and have started putting in more hard-scape bushes into the landscape to give the garden more color and shape in the fall and winter. The birds and animals seem to enjoy this little patch of wilderness in the suburbs of Chicago.
Many thanks for the inspiration, Egdaroso!