Starting A Garden From Scratch. Oh My!

This first appeared on my old Empress of Dirt blog in the spring of 2011 when I was about to start my new garden from scratch. If you want to see the progress one year later, go here. z

And here it is in June 2015.

What I started with in 2011.
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Where To Begin?

As spring creeps nearer, I admit I’m feeling daunted by my non-existent new garden. The yard is big (1/2 acre+), it’s well placed for sun, with productive soil (as far as I know—Update: I learned later that it’s pure sand which is a whole new set of problems), and it’s barren. Just grass, a few trees, and a lot of potential. The bird feeders I filled in December are still untouched. Will there ever be birds or squirrels? It’s a true tabula rasa.

My previous (and first) garden was an endless set of obstacles: terrible, steep slopes, very limited space, clay soil so dense I once made a little teacup and saucer from it, terrible drainage, mostly-shade topped by a wicked late afternoon sun (which is why the veggies ended up taking over the entire front yard), and so on. So much to overcome.

And so many great excuses not to try.

My first garden in 1999.

Three Steps Forward Two Steps Back

Excellent excuses and obstacles like that make any tiny success look brilliant. It took years and years of trial and error, emphasis on the error, and stubborn determination, and many, many, fine plants wasted, but I gradually made inroads.

Eventually my steps forward outnumbered that goofy garden’s insistence that we must also continually fall back. I remember one day looking over the day’s garden photos and feeling startled and elated by what I saw: a big, jungle-ish, lush garden. Did I really have a hand in this? Everything I had longed for had suddenly arrived. Though a garden is never really done. 

The same garden in 2008.
The same garden in 2008.

Mature Regrets

While the mature garden brings a lot of joy, there’s also times of regret. Big regret. Like, let-me-out-of-here regret. By last summer (2010) I had a lot of it. My little garden had become a giant menace. I was sorry for so many choices I had made. Blind choices that made the care and keeping of the garden too difficult for one woman who didn’t want to make it a full time job. Sometimes I fantasized about tearing it all out and starting over.

Back Side Garden
There was a lot of erosion in this area due to the slope, but raspberries grew very well on the other side of the path.

I placed so many great plants and vines in such dopey locations. Or let them grow without any pruning or guidance. What didn’t fade away ended up growing like massive serpents, eager to strangle anything in their reach and lurch in the most unsightly manners.

My attempts at tiering the short, steep slopes with masses of rocks I hauled in by hand–probably one or two thousand in total–were slapdash solutions at best, tumbling into heaps after heavy rainfalls, needing to be rebuilt, over and over again.

The Horrors of Invasive Plants

The long term solutions required greater knowledge and materials than I had to offer. Invasive plants like Bishop’s/Gout Weed were making a mockery of otherwise perfectly fine beds. I could not get them out, no matter how much digging and pulling I did. The list goes on and on. Could I please have a do-over?, I would say to myself. Please? 

Forgive me garden for I have planted invasives and seriously overestimated my ability and desire to manage this mess.

Goutweed / Bishop's Weed
Goutweed / Bishop’s Weed

Too Much To Handle

No matter what your garden is like, there’s probably a point in time where it just feels like too much. Like you’ve birthed a wild baby far too demanding to care for on an ongoing basis. A giant needy bundle of good intentions that wakes up and wails the moment you think you can sit down and rest. And there’s no babysitter to spell you off. Good luck explaining your vision of The Big Garden Plan to a newbie offering to help.

You either do it yourself or risk some heartbreaking errors by a well meaning assistant. And that’s when you realize just how much you’ve learned over the years: masses of intuitive information that proves overwhelming to impart to anyone else in a short span of time. It’s the knowledge that comes from hands-on experience and each person should best attend that class alone, on their own terms, in their own time.

That’s also why I declined to give the person who bought our home the requested garden tour and lessons. She hadn’t gardened before and I couldn’t begin to think how to be helpful to her in one short hour of instruction. She’s better off fumbling her way through like the rest of us have. In about ten or fifteen years she’ll understand my decision. Perhaps.

Front Garden Veggies and Perennials
This girl is crazy for daisies.

Letting Go

It seems funny now that I waited so many years for that silly garden to grow and by the time I was saying goodbye to it, I couldn’t get it to settle down. Our move was timed in such a way that I could not dig up anything I wanted to bring–and believe me, I tried. In order to stage the garden for sale, I had to simply bring in masses of mulch to hide the sins of my past, and hope to goodness a new perspective owner might not look too closely or know any better. Or the snow would cover it, which, thankfully, it did.

Double raspberry
Double raspberry

How to Grow and Transplant Raspberries

Trying Not To Look Back But Looking Back Anyways

I do not wish to dwell on what I left behind, happy to let go of the bad but longing for the good, but I find certain plants awakening me in the night. I can see their emerging buds and shoots. I can smell those certain gorgeous smells. I remember their persistence, despite poor light or elbowing neighbors. And the massive beauty of double delphiniums and oversized raspberries.

That garden took years to attract any natural visitors and by last summer it was filled with birds, butterflies, bees–at least six different types–and hummingbirds and bats; raccoons and squirrels and chipmunks. Zillions of insects. Toads. Moles. And quaint single visit guests like PeeBee. Cats. And an escaped pet parrot I once briefly spotted taking a pit stop on our sundeck.

Double delphinium
Double delphinium

I think of those walks around the garden in my gum boots on very early spring days. How is it the garden knows to come alive when by ordinary measures like temperature and snowfall, nothing has really changed? Can a little more light without any additional warmth really do all that?  The old growth I leave for the winter birds provides a warm cover for everything new. So many treasures left behind.

Will I ever find delphiniums again that grow that perfect combination of blue and purple, reach eight feet high, and forgive such a lack of sun? Will another peach tree offer such a bouquet of spring beauty as well as the most perfect tasting fruit I have ever devoured? Will my new raspberry canes also provide double fruits as big as my thumbs?

Probably not. But I know equally fine things will find their way here.

Ready For New Mistakes

I promised myself a while ago, if i ever had a chance at creating a new garden, I would not make the mistakes of the past. I will make fresh and interesting new ones instead though it would be naive to think I could move forward without some annoyances tagging along.

Early days of first garden
Early days of first garden

The entire root cause of my previous fumbles can be traced back to a lack of patience. Nothing stirs me (ok, husband and babies excluded) like a gorgeous garden. I get verklempt. Every single piece of anything important in the universe has its stirrings there. And when I first started my garden, I wanted it immediately. STAT. Pronto. Yesterday.

I will not diss the learning process. In fact, I know I had to experience it. The garden took me in and so long as I showed up and paid attention, I was shown what I needed to know. Piece by piece. What worked and why. What would not do. What had to be moved. What needed a little more or a little less. And what would forgive my errant ways and what would simply vanish.

But insta-beauty? Was not to be. It takes time. And I know now to plan for how it will be, not for how it is. When they tell you a tree will be twenty feet around, believe them.

When they say a shrub will need ten feet around, believe them.

When they say a vine will take over the planet, believe them.

When they say gout weed is a menace to society, believe them. And plan accordingly. And know too that all things must pass. The good and the bad. The boring and the spectacular. So long as there is birth, there will be death. And renewal will come from this.

Helpful Advice That Gave Me The Nudge I Needed

I’ve mentioned before that it does seem ironic that my willingness to be patient has increased in direct proportion to the more limited amount of time I have on earth, statistically speaking. But I’m determined to do it better this time. With patience.

Garden Anywhere

As good luck would have it, this week I read Garden Anywhere: How to Grow Gorgeous Container Gardens, Herb Gardens, Kitchen Gardens, and More–Without Spending a Fortune by Aly Fowler. It gave me just the nudge I was needing to strengthen my convictions about my big second chance. While the focus of the book leans toward getting started in gardening no matter your situation, it was Alys’s introduction that really grabbed me and reeled me in. I’ll put it here in full because I liked it so much:

The slow track
My best claim to authority is that I love gardening, that I am passionate about plants, and that I love dirt and the world around me. But there was a time when this passion drove me elsewhere. One day I found myself sitting at a computer and I lost the plot. Literally lost it, the place where I should have been–out in the dirt growing instead of writing about how others should do it. I’d become someone that would sooner talk about plants than grow them and it needed to be the other way around.


It’s an uneasy feeling knowing you’re not where you should be. I had a dream job making TV shows about gardening; this was supposed to be where it was at, but it wasn’t. To cut this story short, I changed jobs and went back outside. I met some guys I truly love working with, found a place where I could grow and cook, and slowed right down. I joined up as a fully fledged member of the slow movement. I ate slow, traveled slow, gardened slow, and even slowed down my bank account. Once I stopped separating my work from my identity, it all fell into place.

This much I’ve learned. Gardening is something you do, not something you buy. You don’t have to spend money to have a great garden. Slow gardening, like slow food , is taking time to savor. It’s the process, not the sudden transformation, that matters. When you build a little, dig a bit, plant a little, harvest often, and, more important, don’t try to do it all at once, nature works with you.

If you find the right plant for the right place, your hardest job is done. Don’t try and make a Mediterranean garden if you live somewhere sodden; don’t aim for the tropical, if you live somewhere cold. Life has enough pressures without bringing them into the garden. Learn to garden for wildlife as much for yourself, make compost and leaf piles and let nature look after your waste. If you do all this, relax a little, then do a bit more, you’ll find you’ve slowed down enough to really enjoy your garden, whatever it is.” — Alys Fowler-Garden Anywhere

Perennials at the old garden
Perennials at the old garden

Good Advice Is All In The Timing

The garden is something you do, not something you buy.’ That’s just what I needed to hear. You can’t push the river, even if you try. Things will grow in their own time and their own way.

Her advice throughout the book continues this theme. Work slowly: use found items. I instinctively did that the first time around. I didn’t have money for any fancy pants garden bling even if I wanted it, so I started making my own from trash. It was a great way to be in the garden even when there was little to tend to yet.

This part really nudged me:

“Slow gardening, like slow food, is taking time to savour. It’s the process, not the sudden transformation, that matters. When you build a little, dig a bit, plant a little, harvest often, and more important, don’t try to do it all at once, nature works with you.” 

And that’s the only time nature works with you. Watch a neglected garden and you will see the natural agenda at work. Work with it, and you’ll each get your way.

Sparrows playing on the fence
Sparrows playing on the fence

Alys advises, Never take on the whole garden at once, (Melissa!). Start from the back door and work outward. (If I had a dollar for every garden I’ve seen where the first and only great border was created way far away at the back of the yard instead of close to the house and patio where it could be enjoyed….) And don’t rip up all the lawn at once. Follow the same approach when buying plants: take it easy–it’s not a race.

Design-wise: never show the whole space at once. Create some mystery and engagement. Make it that you have walk all the way through and experience surprise focal points along the way.

I like this idea for two reasons: first, I thought of it on my own before I read the book, and two, because it exactly describes what I’m after: a garden that must be explored to be enjoyed.

The thrust of the book reinforced something else I’ve long known: that gardening is not a means to an end or a fixture, but an ongoing process with a wonderful blend of fresh, delicious snacks and meditation with nature all whirled into one.

Seed starting
Seed starting

My garden was officially started this week with the planting of some early seeds indoors. Despite the urge to somehow get six years of growth into one, I will simply start at the beginning. Seed by seed. Plant by plant. Working from the back door outward. And quietly cheer when the birds, bees, and butterflies eventually show up and join in.

And Here We Began

What I started with in 2011.

You can see how the new garden is doing one year later here.


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