This post is sponsored by Troy-Bilt, maker of great equipment to whip your yard into shape and supporters of neighbors helping neighbors. As usual, all thoughts are my own.
Isn’t it funny how we limit our gardens to the little square of land we own? Obviously there’s a reason for this, but if the only thing stopping us from blurring those lines is who owns what, then maybe it’s not so hard to change that situation.
And that’s exactly what we’re doing with a new garden project this year. Our driveway is separated from the neighbors’ driveway by about 30 feet and much of that lot line is bordered by mature cedar trees pruned up to about 7 feet by the deer. But close to our garage there is an open area, in part because some dead trees were cleared last year.
It’s a bit jarring to have this random open area on an otherwise nicely wooded lot line, and weeds love a bit of open ground, so it gets a bit scruffier looking every day.
So I came up with the idea of small garden there. Maybe not even a garden, per se, but a bit of planting to make it look a little prettier and keep the weeds from taking over. And when I asked the neighbors what they thought of the idea, they were all in with the idea of planting both sides of the lot line for a combined garden area.
This project is not an easy plop-in-plants kind of garden. There are significant challenges to account for.
The first is that much of it is in shade, dappled on the neighbors’ side and pretty much full shade on our side. That’s because this area is dominated by an enormous Norway spruce, which also means we’re talking about dry shade, an additional complicating factor. But there’s a hopeful sign: those weeds. Rather than view the weeds as another obstacle, I see them as a beacon of hope, because if weeds will grow in an area, there’s a plant that will grow there too.
There’s also an unusual soil challenge here. We have an insanely active squirrel population here and they love sitting in this tree and shredding pinecones, which means that the base of the tree is covered in more than a foot of shredded pinecones. I know how weird this sounds, but I’ve been digging them out for a couple weeks now and they just keep coming. There’s also a lot of needles built up in the area, so I need to dig out a bit so we can get to actual soil.
I’ve been slowly working my way through the layers with a rake and shovel and then I’ll follow it up with this light (key factor) but powerful leaf blower to deal with the bottom layer.
The plant palette has additional requirements as well. In addition to being tolerant of shade and dry soil, the plants in this area will need to be low maintenance. None of us are looking for more maintenance, so a once-a-year cutback is about as much work as we’re up for over the long haul.
They also need to be deer resistant, because this can be a deer thoroughfare. And, most importantly, at least from my perspective, is that they need to be low growing, because we happen to enjoy a nice little view of a slice of Lake Michigan through our neighbor’s yard and we don’t want to do anything to interfere with that. Neither set of neighbors is trying to hide what’s next door, just make it a bit prettier.
As you might imagine, that narrows the list of plants down considerably, but I’ve found a good selection that I think will do well.
Aruncus ‘Chantilly Lace’ (aka goatsbeard): Although some goatsbeards can grow quite tall, which is a rather lovely addition to most shade borders, ‘Chantilly Lace’ stays about 30 inches tall. It has frothy white flowers that continue to look good after they are spent, but can be removed for neatness.
Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulfureum’: Epimediums are a go-to plant for dry shade and also happen to be a favorite of mine. ‘Sulfureum’ tends to spread pretty easily, which is exactly what I’m hoping for. The small yellow flowers are pretty but the foliage is equally attractive.
Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Bevan’s Variety’: If you know me, you probably knew this one was coming. This is perhaps my No. 1 go-to groundcover for every condition. I have it growing under the nearby cedar trees and although it doesn’t grow with the same vigor it does in sunnier, wetter spots, it does grow.
Carex flauca ‘Blue Zinger’: This sedge has taken a bit of a hit to its reputation lately because some places have stopped selling it because of its propensity to spread aggressively. I used it in the new garden last year and was a little concerned but I reached out to Roy Diblik, who occasionally uses it in his designs, and he said he’s not too worried about it spreading uncontrollably in shady spots. My hope is that the challenging location will keep it in check while still allowing it to fill in nicely.
Lamium ‘Ghost’: Lamium is another tough-as-nails groundcover that can be a bit too happy in some areas but I think will be kept in check in this area. Because of its nearly white foliage it can be a little hard to work into a design, but it definitely brightens up dark spots.
Gallium odoratum (sweet woodruff): Conveniently there is already sweet woodruff growing in this year. I think it’s a great groundcover, although its seed heads tend to stick in the dogs’ fur a bit like burrs (although not as difficult to remove). I’ll supplement what’s growing there with bits of it from elsewhere in the garden. It is one of the most effective weed suppressants I’ve found.
First off, the overriding plan is to not let this become a huge project. I am no stranger to big, labor-intensive projects but we all have only so much room in our lives for those. I believe that creating this little piece of shared beauty doesn’t have to be a weekend consuming project.
As I’ve mentioned, the first step is to manage the needle/pinecone situation and expose some actual soil. I’ve already pulled many of the weeds there, primarily small wild raspberries and a bit of garlic mustard weed. Any other weeds that are unearthed will need to be pulled or rooted out with a hoe.
This same neighbor also has a lovely pile of decaying leaves, so I’ll bring in a bit of that leaf mold to serve as a mulch that will break down to add some goodness to the soil and help with moisture retention. If the leaves need a bit more breaking down I can use this chipper shredder vac to chop them up smaller so they break down more quickly and make an even better mulch.
After that it’s all about the planting. My plan is to lay out the plants with the neighbors to make sure we all like it and of course, leave a bit of room for a path so we can walk through for visits.
There is a bit of work after the fact here. It will be crucial to water these plants regularly this year so they are well established. If we can get them off to a good start this year, hopefully they won’t need much attention in the future.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
To be honest I love this idea and the ability to blur the lot line a bit, not to mention it feels good to work together with the neighbors.
So what do you think? Would you work with a neighbor to share a little bit of beauty?
I’ll update the whole process and the end result (at least for this year) in an upcoming YouTube video, so stay tuned there for more.