A garden for mom

A few years back (in 2006 actually, the year I did so many garden projects) I decided to redo my mom's garden for her. This would be a big change for me because it was quite a small area.

Let's take a look at what I did and how it turned out.


The area is between her house and the driveway, and is about 4' wide and roughly 20' long. I can't find any images of the space before I got to work, but it's the house I grew up in and I remember a few different flowers in this area: snapdragons, candy tufts, tulips, and tiger lilies. The snapdragons and candy tufts were predominant though, and decades later I think only the snapdragons remained.

Since I was used to having a whole yard to plant in, being restricted to a smallish, defined area was kind of a relief -- it seemed easier. Constraints are sometimes nice to have.

My strategy was to use as many plants as I had already, so I dug shasta daisies, Liatris spicata (gayfeather), an Artemesia, some creeping Jenny. I had several plants already in pots too, including some grasses, a rudbeckia, an Agastache, and small Russian sage. I did purchase a few plants too, but I chose mainly common, inexpensive ones. I wasn't sure how much effort my mom would be putting into the garden, and since I also wasn't too familiar with the growing conditions either I didn't want to add anything that was too pricey and have it die after a year.

I knew I wanted to add something structural to the garden too, so I chose a concrete birdbath. I then laid out the plants on my driveway before heading over to actually plant these:

I forgot to mention that my mom lives in the Chicago area, so I'd have to plan carefully. If I forgot something (like a favorite tool) it would be 300 miles away in my garage.

If I remember right we drove up there the weekend before Mother's Day -- or maybe it was actually Mother's Day weekend. In St. Louis, Mother's Day is pretty much to nurseries what the day after Thanksgiving is to the shopping malls -- it's packed with people. The weather is usually warm, it's past our last frost date, and spring is definitely here.

In the Chicago area, this was not the case. Not that I went to any nurseries (although I did go to a garden center to pick up some bags of compost and mulch) but the weather was not ideal. It was cold, grey, and drizzling. Delaying this project a couple of weeks was not an option, so I just started working. First step was to remove the existing plants and see what could be salvaged. It turns out that there were several plants that were worth keeping: several "hen and chicks", a couple of different sedums, some lillies (not the ones I remembered from my youth), snapdragons (of course), and a nice heuchera that was planted the year before.

The most expensive part of the project was a copper trellis I created to go against the brick wall. I knew that having some vertical green would be important to making this space as attractive as it could be.

Once the plants were removed I dug several bags of compost into the soil. While I was digging, I realized a few things. First, this was tired soil. It probably had not been improved ever in 40+ years. The only organic matter ever added to it was the root systems from the flowering annuals (snapdragons) every year, and maybe a few leaves here and there. Apparently that was enough, as the soil was not completely lifeless. Amazing.

The second thing I realized was that this was not the clay soil that I have. Either this area of Illinois is lucky enough to have a nice thick layer of topsoil, or the builders put it here (in this planting bed). In either case, it was a joy to dig in.

The third thing I realized was that my  mom would not have any trouble with moles or deer. Rabbits might be a problem, but they can only get at this bed from the driveway, and I didn't see any rabbits around when I was there. This may end up being a completely unmolested garden!

So here's the final product just after planting and mulching:

My  mom loves garden figures and has a large collection of them, so I had to incorporate them into the new garden design:

One thing I've always hated about garden makeover shows is that they do a final shot of the yard or garden and the people are always so impressed. I look at the new plants and think "that looks like a bunch of new plants" -- the plants are small, and there is a lot of space between everything. When planting a perennial garden you have to consider the mature plants -- the second, third, or even fourth years after planting. The first year looks pretty sad. That's what we have now: small plants with too much space.

I guess it still looks better than before, so I can understand why people are excited about the small plants on those shows.

Two years later (2008), things have really filled in. Not all of the plants survived (which is to be expected), but the ones that have are doing well:

We always have trouble finding the right vine for that trellis. Maybe a clematis is the answer this year?

This past year (2010), you can see that it has really filled in:

In fact, my mom thinks there's too much in there, and she can't see her garden figures anymore. Even though I love packed gardens I understand that point, and suggested to her that she clear out a couple of areas -- maybe remove a bunch of the creeping Jenny -- and group a few figures in each area. She thought it was a good idea, so hopefully she'll be able to do that this spring. I'll probably go up there one weekend this spring (when it's warm!) and clean things up for her.

I wouldn't say I got everything right in this design, but she's gotten compliments from strangers that were walking by so I think she's really enjoyed it. She's definitely glad to have all of the snapdragons gone though. Snapdragons are nice, but after 30+ years it was time for a change.

I didn't tell her that I replanted a couple of the snapdragons in the new design (although I'm sure she noticed). I couldn't completely ignore the history of the garden, could I?

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Gerhard Bock (Succulents and More)  – (January 11, 2011 at 10:13 AM)  

I think you did a great job. The flowers you planted look really good together. Like you, I prefer a dense planting, especially up against the house.

LaRee  – (January 11, 2011 at 1:26 PM)  

I really appreciate the historical aspect you kept in your mothers garden. I hope my flower beds will look half that nice someday. I do that too, we moved into a home and the oldest part is actually adobe 15-18 inches thick, the walls have been built around to be more modern and usable. Out digging in the yard we find old bottles, keys and things and its very fascinating to me. Not real old, just the type of things my grandma would have used. When people come over they want to trash it all but I have an idea in mind for it all.

Alan  – (January 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM)  

LaRee -- I love finding "relics" in the yard too! I still find some bath tiles when digging once in a while (40 years old), and I once found a kitchen table knife stuck point down in the ground. =)

Christine @ The Gardening Blog  – (March 25, 2012 at 1:16 PM)  

I just stumbled on this post now - I think you did an amazing job. I love the colours, foliage combinations the way the flowers all work together. Lovely!

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