Pilgrim’s Progress

Every newcomer gets the same schpiel. There was nothing here when we moved in, except mature trees.  It’s hard to internalize the work, plants and time altering this homeplace. Time and an eroded memory made me start to question what progress indeed has been.  There has certainly been a lot of back and forth in this dance, but how much ground has really been covered?

I stumbled across some pictures of my little arboretum, taken about the time it was purchased, early May, 2000.  The house was purchased more for the possibilities and the amenities than curb appeal.



West side




Stick built in 1960, one of the first in this new country estate plat outside of Dayton.  Cedar and brick, definitely mid century modern, but also with some hollas out to Frank Lloyd and the early century brotherhood.  A project house, inside and out.

Outside there were oaks, locusts, linden and silver maples.  Apparently the folks from whom we purchased had been told to boost the curb appeal.  Curb appeal translated into purchasing eight very small boxwoods and plopping them around the drip line of the house.  One of the first changes I inflicted was moving those boxwoods into a hedge on the east side of the house.  About the time they reached maturity, they were heavily infested with white fly and mites.  I have learned to hate boxwood and will never willingly have them in my landscape.

What a difference a decade (or so) has made.

This space became my outlet, my sanctuary.  Two sides of my roughly acre lot have mixed plantings, 200′ x 6′. (I learned Great Dixter’s beds are 200X20, I need to catch up).  Beds now surround the house and all the trees.  A particularly wooded area with an ancient crab apple, now sorely in decline, has been embraced with shade lovers.  A lot of sweat, trial and error, time and ………. dollars.  “Estate” trees, code for self seeding volunteers, redbuds were moved to the west side along the drive, alternating with limelight hydrangeas.  Fast growers, the redbuds have created quite a screen.  Giving weight and age to a blank slate. The west side of the house almost unrecognizable compared to it’s year 2000 genesis.


The year Hurricane Ike exacted vengeance on Ohio, a 50 foot scraggly white pine was lost, luckily taking nothing else with it.   In its wake, an opportunity to “spruce’ up this island bed in the front of the house. While it took a couple iterations to get it right, it’s now filled with mahogany leaved paper birch, witchhazels and grasses.


The borders I added on two long sides of the property were achieved with massive amounts of chopped fall leaves and layers of cardboard.  The plantings are mixed.  Lilacs, roses of sharon, nine bark creating the backbone; shrubs and sub shrubs like caryopteris, mock orange, daphne and roses filling in at their feet. This doesn’t comprise all the plants but these are the repeaters that I use throughout the beds.


Terraces were built in back, since the house had been built on a “hump” on a sloping plot.  Impossible to mow safely, the hump had to be eliminated.   The base of the terrace is over 120′ feet long.  Built from those easy construct-a-wall cement “locking” blocks, pushed a cart load at a time by me. Each block weighing about 22 pounds, I could haul nine of them at a time.  Built after work and on weekends, it took quite a few months to complete.

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The terraces had to have plants capable of transitioning from “bright” shade to six hours of brutal western sun exposure.  The shade part was easy: hosta, a few spring bulbs, hellebores, jack in the pulpit, ferns.  But as it moves west, becomes exceedingly more difficult.  Some sedums worked, a couple of fairy roses held on, tall phlox pretty much overran everything.  I am still trying to work out a mix.

I’ve added trees.  Beyond being a tree-hugger, I am tree lover.  Given a space big enough, I believe I could populate it with every tree I encountered!  To date I’ve added three beautiful columnar red birches called “Obelisk”, variegated dogwoods, a couple of columnar hornbeams and some big leaf magnolias.  Future trees will have to be in pots; as I age the pots I create are becoming more and more of an issue.  Glutton for punishment, I bought tiny japanese maples late last year, so I’m not out of the “woods” yet!

A couple of years ago, I turned to the house.  Window boxes were installed.  Five, each five feet long and roughly a foot wide.  Transformative!

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This year was a banner year in many ways.  After five years of searching for a me place,  I decided to stay in the one I already created.  During those years I had held back on doing much in the garden beyond maintenance.  With the decision to stay, came the decision to take on two areas that had long been a burr in my saddle.  They were begging for a facelift and I had ignored their pleas.  So, I ordered three dump truck loads of leaves from the township, which delivered them free!  Leaves and cardboard were spread, deep enough to retard the grass underneath.  As my neighbors chased every leaf from their lawns with leaf blowers, I cheered the arrival of dump trucks full of them.


Front walk wall












Since visiting Yew Dell Gardens near Louisville several years ago, I have been madly in love with paper bark maples.  Rarely seen in any landscape, especially a suburban one.  Smaller trees, with great fall color.  The real attraction is exfoliating bark, colorful and crazy and marvelous.  This year I attended a local garden show and like a bolt from heaven two vendors had two different types. There were dwarf brooms possibly attaining 5-10 feet and then a “normal” one topping out at about 20′.  All of them came home with me,  the dwarf brooms becoming specimens in my new curbside bed along with grasses shared from other spots in the garden.  I went crazy with bulbs, a friend shared poppy starts and I found some amazing scratch and dent roses for $2 each.


Progress, progress indeed!