Getting back(yard) to the garden

My maternal grandmother had some of the the greenest thumbs of anyone I have ever met. Thankfully, her father and two of her brothers were doctors, and they assured her the color was nothing to worry about.

There was very little she couldn’t do when it came to plants. While she never grew much in terms of fruits or vegetables, she could have made “Mary, Mary” burn with envy in the areas of shrubs and flowers. For example, she converted the sun room off her living room into a greenhouse; as I recall, it was a leafy, almost tropical paradise. Due to the proliferation of foliage, the room developed its own micro-climate of heat and humidity. While I have no evidence that parrots, macaws, or toucans lived there, in my memories they would have felt right at home.

She loved to grow flowers. In her front garden there was something flowering from spring through fall without fail. A concrete bench was placed in the front garden where one could sit and enjoy the cool parts of the day, the sights and sounds of the birds, and the scents of whatever was in bloom at the time, at least until the mosquitoes discovered you; then it was time to go back inside. Some days you could spend as many as five whole minutes in this verdant space before retreating.

Another horticultural skill she possessed was her ability to bring mostly dead and dying plants back to health or to preserve the life of potted plants long past their expected life span. Poinsettias, either bought or received for Christmas, would be around for years. Fading orchids and African violets would pull a Wilford Brimley and return from the brink with lushness and strength that made them the envy of plants half their age. It was amazing. Only towards the end of her life did I learn her secret – scotch. True story. A dram of scotch in the soil, and likely two fingers for the gardener, worked wonders.

I often think of my grandmother and wish I had paid more attention as she worked with her plants, especially now that I am trying to transform our empty lot into a oasis of native and nonnative plants. Our bare yard, with half an acre fenced in as our backyard, sits just east of the Atlantic Seaboard fall line which puts us on the westernmost edge of the coastal plains and gives us a USDA hardiness zone of 7b/8a. With sandy soil and moderately hot and humid summers, our yard should do well with drought tolerant plants and grasses, at least in theory.

Courtesy of Google Earth

To my chagrin, this knowledge was not conferred with the deed to the house. Or, if it was included, it was lost in the paperwork that had to be signed at the closing. I am not saying it was a lot, but for two hours in 2017 the highest point east of the Mississippi River was located in an attorney’s office in Nash County, NC.

It would be easy for me to get overwhelmed by the turf war waging between weeds, the fescue seeded by the builder, our neighbor’s chemically enhanced zoysia, and fire ants. Where do my wife and I even begin?

Philosophy. Not in the metaphysical sense, for Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes were not known for their herbaceous borders, but what will be our guiding principals for transforming our yard? Will we rely on chemicals and a professional service to create an outdoor carpet of artificial green that exists nowhere in nature except the American suburbs, or will we proceed in the other direction and go full organic, working with the yard and allowing it to tell us what it needs and when it needs it? After considering both extremes, my wife and I decided to strike a balance and use a more natural approach without transforming into people who use natural deodorant and install composting toilets.

Research. I have learned through this venture that there is an abundance of information available on the internet when it comes to gardening. There are websites dedicated to every style and breed of gardener, from the plant-it-and-forget-it type to the native species purist who wants to raise everything from seed, from one-hit-wonder annuals to 20 year bloom cycles. (My natural tendency is to start from seed and primarily utilize native plants, but it is difficult to do either of these exclusively.) However, when one has determined what kind of gardening philosophy one subscribes to, then the path to research becomes a easier to follow. Rabbit trails still abound, though; writing this paragraph took me over an hour because I got caught up in learning more about ornamental grasses in eastern North Carolina. Some of the best websites I have found to begin researching are: The Old Farmer’s Almanac (, The Farmer’s Almanac (, your local cooperative extension – ours is through North Carolina State University, and general websites such as The Spruce ( In a future post I hope to spend some time rating a few websites.

One other item that should be included here is discovering/ determining where the underground utility lines, pipes running from the well or the water system, the septic layout, and anything else that may be buried in your yard, such as Jimmy Hoffa. These underground utilities will impact where and what you can plant.

Planning. So you know what kind of gardener you want to be, you have spent some time researching what best fits your style, and you know the basic layout of your property and where you cannot dig. Now comes the excruciatingly tedious task of planning the work. I am not one of those individuals who thrives on planning or who derives real pleasure from writing lists, detailing stages, determining eventualities, etc. So I handed this stage off to my wife and went back to researching pollinator friendly wildflowers. Problem solved.

It wasn’t. My wife wouldn’t let me off that easily. So we began to plan our front and back yards, the garden areas, and displays for our front and back porches. Since she is an artist with a degree in design, she was able to draw a detailed landscape graph and lay out several zones of what we wanted, where we wanted it, and how it should look in one, three, five, and ten years. We took our research and combined it with our plans to best determine the order and placement in which we would create our landscape. For example, did you know that rhododendrons (Rhododendron ferrugineum), tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), and a few other plants are allergic to black walnut trees (Juglans nigra)? They are, so it is best to place them elsewhere in the yard (Locatus awayicus).

Planting and patience. I may not be able to make detailed landscape drawings, and I may not be able to combine colors in a way that is pleasing to the eye, but I can dig a hole. Lots of holes. So many holes, in fact, that our lot started to resemble the set of that Disney movie featuring Shia LaBeouf. I can also follow directions, both those from my wife as well as on the plant’st information tag. We ordered seed and I set up starter trays (reviews to come). We watered, fertilized, and let the sun do its thing. The result: the realization that gardening requires patience and care. Some plants did not thrive or were put in the wrong location. Others are developing their root systems well and are now beginning to grow. We are adding and changing annuals and making new spaces every year, always improving and experimenting. It has become very exciting.

One thing I have learned through this process is how much I love to garden. I am proud to carry on my grandmother’s legacy and hope to be as successful as she. It is with in honor of this tradition, as well as the sense of adventure produced through my own research, that makes me thankful for getting back(yard) to the garden.

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