Welcome to my blog about the challenges of a tiny city garden. And when I say tiny, I’m not kidding. My back yard after subtracting my patio space, measures 14 feet by 34 feet. Those of us in the neighborhood joke about our “postage-stamp” sized yards.
This post is an introduction to my yard’s DIY-friendly transformation that took place over two summers. Posts to follow will track the current year from spring to fall, and will show how I use every inch of my tiny yard and the amazing changes it goes through. I hope you’ll stick with this post until the end because the metamorphosis is quite beautiful.
I have been an avid gardener ever since I planted my first garden over 30 years ago. I was hooked with the bite of my first tomato. I moved to my current home three years ago and have transformed my yard in the past two growing seasons into an oasis. And its a productive oasis if there is such a thing, and it yields enough in the way of veggies to keep me (and some neighbors) happy throughout the growing season. This year I was still harvesting lettuce, chives and onions in December because of the unusually mild winter we had here in Central Illinois.
After I moved here, I tore out the existing deck one board at a time. It probably measured about 10 feet by 10 feet so it wasn’t that big of a deal really. I didn’t like the idea that when I looked out my sliding patio door, all I saw was a railing blocking my view to the yard.
I single-handedly wheelbarrowed in 5 tons of dirt because my yard sloped too much, and I constructed a small retaining wall to hold the dirt in place. I carried many a retaining wall block and must admit I hope I never have another project like that again! The back three feet of my yard that runs along my fence is like a waterway when it rains and all the water from our block runs through our yards there, making it unusable–unless I want to start an alligator habitat. In a 14 foot yard, three feet is a good chunk of yard. This was even more motivation to bring in dirt and raise up the area. I left about six inches between my fence and the retaining wall so the water that runs through the backyards on my block can still make its way to the street. I didn’t think my neighbors would appreciate my turning their yards into swamps.
Here are some before pictures of my yard. Pretty run-of-the-mill.
The first thing I did was put up a privacy fence. Next I had my darling son, Brandon, pour a concrete slab for my hot tub and a slab for my little shed that holds my gardening necessities. Since my shed isn’t the most attractive item to look at, I took my fence past the side of my house so that it’s tucked back in a corner. Thanks to those handy-dandy, flexible, connectable downspouts, I re-routed mine thru a spot in the fence I cut out (and put back on with hinges–just in case), and it now empties near a tree who loves the extra water. Here you can see the beginnings of my dirt hauling extravaganza for my retaining wall. Baby steps!
Next I had Harper Masonry pour a raised, stamped concrete patio after my son did all the prep work and framing. Harper Masonry (HarperMasonry1@yahoo.com) services the Central Illinois area and does incredible work. I would highly recommend them if you live in the area, and are in need of concrete work, brickwork, block or stone.
Once that was finished, I helped build a pergola-type cover over my patio that didn’t turn out to be the most attractive structure, but it’s functional, and my Boston Ivy is well on its way to covering it. A lot of people don’t like ivy creeping up the sides of their house, but I love it. I understand all the negatives, but I plan to confine it to my patio cover only. I dug up my Boston Ivy from my old house and brought it with me. Here’s my patio cover. Bare with me, it’ll be beautiful in another year when it’s covered in green.
Next on the agenda was making different levels to the yard with some 4 x 4 posts used as a retaining wall for different planting areas. I then added some stepping stone squares that I ran from the patio to my gate and then made a path to my shed.
Every yard needs a water feature so I dug a postage-stamp sized pond to go in my postage-stamp sized yard. My other son, Ross, ran power to the pond area for a light and a pump. (There sure are times when children come in handy!) The pond needs some revamping this year as you can see by the photo, but that’ll be another post. Keep in mind, this photo was taken in the spring and the pond has been sitting with dirty water all winter. That’s my dog, Buster, on the right. He likes to “play” with the fish. They like to come up and nibble on his feet when they dangle over the edge and into the water.
I planted my Junipers so that they’re what you see when you look directly out my sliding glass door. They’re centered appropriately and fully visible from all my main living areas. It’s beautiful at night. Especially when the pond lights are on. And of course the pond is also visible from my main living areas as it’s located in front of my lighted Junipers. I made certain to include evergreens in my landscaping for year-round privacy (once they’ve grown tall enough), and so my landscaping won’t “disappear” in the winter.
I brought plants with me from my old house when I moved, and was given plants by my friends so I only bought a few anchor bushes, some of which I planted for privacy. Those would include Japanese Skypencil Holly, Buckthorn, Upright Junipers, Lilac, Japanese Maple, Cypress and Boxwood. None of these grow very wide, and some will grow up to block the view of my neighbor’s windows (someday!). In the mean time, I grow sunflowers to help obscure the view in the summertime. Grow, Junipers, grow!!
I purposely chose plants that Japanese Beetles stay away from since I landscaped my yard after their hideous invasion here in Illinois. My backyard leans a bit towards the Japanese Garden style, a preference of my daughter, Sophie, who loves everything Japan. Plants that are typically grown in a Japanese garden are not desired by Japanese beetles. How ironic. I want that zen-like tranquility in my back yard so there’s nothing too flashy as far as color other than a couple of patio pots with flowers. I would never have guessed that a green-only yard would be so soothing. I save the colorful flowers for my postage-stamp front yard because I do enjoy having cut flowers to bring inside in the spring and summer.
I left roughly a third of my back yard open for a vegetable garden, and since the area is small, I decided to sink some posts, string up some metal fencing and grow my veggies up. This is quite the space-saver! And since I took the wire fencing up a foot or so past my privacy fence, it gives me some added privacy once the vines are up and growing. I use these fences for green beans and cucumbers, but I may be changing that this year because my fence shades my vines and they don’t produce like they should. More about that in a later post.
And no matter how much planning I do for spacing out my veggies in my little garden plot, I always seem to end up planting overflow crops in my side yard which faces south. Most women have no control in the shoe store. I have no control with garden seeds and transplants. Since I’m on a corner, there’s no house to block the sun there and it’s a prime growing spot–at least until my birch trees grow and shade the area. I’m also a firm believer in planting edibles in with other landscaping plants. Strawberry plants and many herbs are beautiful and look great anywhere you plant them. Here’s my garden plot.
Since I have heavy clay soil, I have added a lot of organic matter. My neighbor warned me about how awful the soil is here, and I’m thinking, “How bad can it be–really. “Oh Lordy Mama it can be bad. I moved here in the summer of 2009, and got out my trusty spade to do some digging shortly after I moved in. I may as well have tried to dig a hole in the sidewalk. I put all my weight on the shovel and jumped. Nothing. I’ve never seen any soil so awful. And it’s full of rocks due to the fact that my subdivision was built where a gravel pit used to be. Not the fertile midwest black earth you often hear about, that’s for sure. That’s another reason I brought in dirt to raise up my yard. The neighbor who told me about the crummy soil uses raised beds as a way around that, and with great success.
So to amend the soil, I get aged horse manure from my brother, Mike. What a honey he is! He tries to humor me, but I can almost hear him laughing as I pull my car up to his house in the boonies with my 5 gallon buckets and their oh-so-necessary lids. He’s laughing because no one in their right mind hauls horse poo in 5 gallon buckets in a tiny economy car. No one but me.
I’m hoping my garden is going to really shine this year because I found an ad in our local paper for $2 bags of rabbit manure, and I’m going to give that a try. My research tells me it’s the best of all the manures. Even better than my brother’s horse manure! It’s very high in nitrogen and won’t burn your plants. I’m hoping for a bumper crop this year as a result of my furry little friends. If you’re just getting started in gardening, don’t forget that even if you have nice black soil, your plants are still going to need food, aka Thumper, Foghorn Leghorn, Daisy or Black Beauty poo. No Lassie or Garfield poo or any other carnivore poo or you may end up very sick!
I also steal leaves from the neighbors in the fall for my garden. It works out well because they don’t have to rake, and I get free compost. I have a leaf vacuum that mulches the leaves for me. Perfect! I also went to Walmart and bought lots of worms my first year, and now my yard is a worm factory! I love those slimy little lovelies adding rich castings to my soil and doing their natural aeration routine.
If you have an interest in vermicomposting (composting indoors with worms) refer to my post, “Indoor Composting With Worms“.
I also do what the experts say not to do, which is to throw kitchen scraps–egg shells, coffee grounds, veggie/fruit scraps–directly into my garden soil. You can see all the egg shells in one of the prior photos if you look closely. I do this only after the growing season is finished. I turn all of it under a couple of times before the ground freezes and again after the ground thaws in the spring. Experts advise against this as they say it draws insects, but I haven’t had any issues.
Last year those totally disgusting Tomato Hornworm Caterpillars ate everyone’s tomatoes. Those distasteful little bugars could eat an entire plant in a day or two, and they’re nearly impossible to see. They grow huge–monstrous–and are slow-moving, but you can look right past them when they’re right in front of your face. I was a soldier waging war against the vile intruders by taking a POW door to door to my neighbors and telling them to smash any that they saw on their plants. My method of destruction was to lift up a stepping stone, place my prisoner underneath it, and I’m sure you can figure out the rest.
Outside of those vile creatures, “recycling” my way hasn’t caused any problems specific to me. I’ll continue on about my merry way, and hope the experts aren’t always right. My soil really needs the help, it’s saving landfill space, and my worm buddies love the scraps. The proper way to go would be to create a compost pile, but my yard is so tiny that I just can’t squeeze one in. I did try a couple years ago to make a compost bin out of a Rubbermaid container as instructed on the internet, but had problems turning the compost and didn’t try it again.
So that brings you up to date in my back yard. The following are pictures from only two years worth of growth. Keep in mind that the yard seems to have exploded with plants but many of the fast growers in these photos are annual vines and garden produce that make it look so lush. So here are pictures that are from before planting anything, from the first planting in 2010 and then the 2011 growing season. My point here is to show what can be done in just two years to a simple back yard. All of the planting, hauling, designing and digging were done myself since I’m always on a budget. And of course always keep in mind that this type of backyard redesign will increase the value of your home, and make it more desirable to prospective buyers. That’s just an added bonus!
Here’s view number one before, 2010 and 2011.
Here’s another view from before planting, 2010 and then 2011
Same view from before planting, 2010 and 2011
Before planting in 2010, after planting 2011
Full yard view before planting, after planting 2010 and 2011
It’s a jungle out there!
Although I have made some changes in my front yard and side yard, I don’t have as many progression photos of those areas, but will take some this growing season. My next post will begin with a very “dead” spring yard, and I’ll show you how dramatically a yard can change in just one growing season. Specifically, my next post will tell you when and how to plant early crops when the weather is still cool–yummies like lettuce and spinach. It’s time! Also, I can tell you what I’ve learned about planting garlic in zone 5. I found out by accident how to grow it, and right now everything’s coming up garlic in my yard!