Throwback Thursday: My Second Garden

My sort-of-success in pulling out video stills of my first garden inspired me to try the same for my second garden, which I created from a blank slate over a span of three years. Because I no longer had a video camera, the only record I have is some snapshots taken with an under-one-megapixel camera and which were later converted into a DVD slideshow….from which these captures were taken. [End of disclaimer/apology for embarassingly bad photo quality!]

The property was just a tad more than 1/8 acre (100 ft wide and 66 ft deep) and situated on a corner. The house was a small ranch built in 1950, about 950 sq ft plus a small one-car garage, being offered for sale by an elderly widow. Two huge Magnolia soulangeana dominated the front yard; according to the seller the larger one had been planted to celebrate their first anniversary in the house, and the other tree when their child was born a year or two later. I bought the house in late summer and so didn’t see them bloom for about six months….and they were spectacular! Encircling the property was a chainlink fence, probably also dating from the 1950s by its condition – and yes, the grass really was dead-brown.

The photo below was taken not long after purchasing it in August 1998. Many of the photos below have captions that I added during the transfer to the DVD slideshow.
front 1


The Side Border

b1My original plan was to have a mixed border anchored by fragrant roses. This bed was 30 ft long and about 3 ft wide, running along the south property line abutting my neighbor’s driveway. I should mention that I was operating on a ridiculously small budget, which meant that to buy anything at full price was a “splurge”; there was a chain store at the time named Frank’s Nursery and Crafts (imagine a JoAnn’s of today but with plants as well) that always had a 30%-50%-off table of plants that were past their blooming prime. This was a franchise and every store manager ordered whatever plants he/she wished; some stores had better markdown rates but others had more unusual plant varieties at a smaller discount. I’d make a circuit of the various stores to see what had been freshly put on clearance and saved quite a bit of money on nice plants. Unfortunately the company went out of business by the early 2000s. 😦


b2Looking pretty good, only about three months later! I ended up with only two roses: Therese Bugnet and a yellow hybrid tea whose name I forget other than that it was more trouble than the eventual flowers were worth!


b3Of course by the following spring (2000) the border was overflowing and needed to be widened! That’s a small cotinus (‘Royal Purple’ if memory serves) at the near end.


b4Oh dear, look at that, full again already….LOL


b5Disaster struck the following spring in the form of my next-door neighbor getting a variance to more than double the size of their house, with most of the new square footage built over what had been their driveway. I wonder who in the Town they paid off in order to get approval for the huge monstrosity that they ended up erecting? Needless to say, the structure (two stories plus a high roof) completely eliminated my nice southern exposure and threw almost the entire side yard into perpetual shade. The side of the new addition was a mere 4 ft from the property line (which is legal in that township).


The Front Border

fb1afb1bAt the same time that I started digging the south border (spring 1999) I also decided that something must be done about the front yard. I’d already had someone remove the chainlink fence across the front because I couldn’t stand looking at it a moment longer. So I dug out both borders pretty much at the same time (March/April 1999). I was much younger and still had a healthy back (both statuses long gone by now!).

See the mulch piles? I thought I’d lucked out when some people around the corner had trees cut down and put up a sign “free wood mulch”. About three weeks later, carpenter ants were everywhere! They’d apparantly been infesting the trees (probably why the homeowner got rid of them) and of course I was terrified they’d migrate the short distance to my house. I spent an entire day shoveling the mulch into black plastic trash bags but now what do to with them? Luckily that neighborhood was served by a motorized trash pickup of 64-gallon containers with a 250-lb load limit, and so in less than three weeks (thanks to the twice-weekly pickup) the mulch was gone. I’m sure the carpenter ant population had a jolly time in the local landfill!


fb2I invested in a black aluminum arch, planning to eventually have roses and clematis climbing up it. In the meanwhile I planted seeds of a Japanese morning glory which took off like the proverbial rocket. Most of the plants in the front border were shrubs and perennials but I did augment with some annuals, either from seed or flats on sale.


fb3Naturally by the following summer (2000) I needed a little more room. A pretty sage grown entirely for its lovely foliage was the low mound of Salvia ‘Beggarten’; just past that is a dwarf pennisetum (tender here but it did survive one winter). You can see one of the magnolias in the background.


fb4Well, of course I needed more room by the border’s third summer! Besides, I had to compensate for the ruination (sunwise) of the south border from the construction of “Trump Towers” next door. And that silly pointy curvy edge (what was I thinking??) was a nuisance to mow around.


fb5Snapdragons and petunias filled the new space nicely, didn’t they?


The Secret Garden

Once I had the front borders up and running, so to speak, I decided to do something with the one and only private part of the property that I had.


sg1I started by buying another arch (Smith & Hawken, on sale, free shipping, yay!) and envisioned letting a combination of honeysuckle and Clematis jackmanii duke it out on this one.


sg2a A double whammy: north wall, and shaded on the other three sides by shrubbery. At least they were all deciduous, but still…


sg2bThe opposite site of the garden got more light, but even with a south exposure the house and shrubbery only allowed about a half day of full sun at best.


sg3This was definitely ferns-and-hostas country but I found some phlox on sale and thought “what the heck, a few blooms are better than none!” Someone advertised “free hostas, dig your own” in a local paper and so I came, I saw, and I dug. They were big clumps, and that was when my back first began to not-so-gently inquire what the hell I thought I was doing? This photo was taken in 2000, the year after the border was dug.


sg4Spring on the opposite side of the Secret Garden was cheerful even though I didn’t have as many bulbs as I would have liked. Nor was I able to plant them in groups as I wanted to, because the soil in front of the shrubs was absolutely filled with roots. There was no way I could get any tool even an inch into the dirt until coming out at least as far as the “military review row” distance shown in this photo.


sg5The opposite end of the same side.


sg6A month later, all is serene, peaceful and green.


sg9I didn’t know it at the time but this ended up being my last photograph of the Secret Garden. A few months later my life circumstances suddenly changed dramatically and I had to sell the house as quickly as possible. In all the chaos I completely forgot to take a “final portfolio” of the garden areas. For some reason this photo ended up with a misty, dreamlike effect which for a Secret Garden I think is surely the most appropriate anyway!



The house was bought by a single working mom with a young son. I knew in my heart that she probably would have no time to care for a garden, and I was right: When I drove past the house a couple of years later the front beds were completely overgrown with weeds. Another drive-by about seven years after selling revealed that the Secret Garden area was no more: the oldfashioned shrubs had all been ripped out and replaced by a high stockade fence. And now, thanks to Google Street View, we see that things have apparantly come full circle (except for a chainlink fence) within 15 years. Well, maybe not entirely: almost all of the foundation plantings are now gone as well, for some reason. But….the magnolia’s still there….

front 3

Ah, well. To give a gardening twist to the classic Latin phrase: Sic transit gloria hortum!

  16 comments for “Throwback Thursday: My Second Garden

  1. July 9, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    You kept an excellent record–I wish I’d done the same. I’m sorry that these many years later, your efforts at creating beauty were not sustained. I guess that last phrase sums it up well.

    • July 9, 2015 at 5:17 pm

      One of my dear friends sold a gorgeous garden back in the 1980s but hesitated to take any of the shrubs with her because “the new people will expect them to be there.” It turned out that the New People stripped the ENTIRE property a month after purchase, in order to put in a swimming pool and bocce court! My friend was sick over it, wishing she’d taken all the plants. Of course the buyers gushed over how lovely the garden was, early on, so she had no idea of their Evil Plans. 😦

  2. July 9, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    Don’t you hate those property line to property line monsters that deprive their neighbors of sun? The same thing happened to my brother-in-law. And you had done such a great job with that border! I often daydream about a former house where both front and back were bathed in glorious full sun. If only I knew then what I know now!

    • July 9, 2015 at 5:21 pm

      I still wonder how they got that variance through. The resulting house was easily twice the size of any others on the street, so it looked rather like a boarding house, LOL. I should Google-street that one as well, didn’t think of it when writing this post….

      • July 10, 2015 at 12:54 pm

        Well, in Chicago it’s basically up to the alderman. In Evanston, which is right on the border of Chicago and where I live, you need the approval of a zoning commission. I hear they can be a pain to deal with but that may be why you don’t see many houses here torn down and replaced with mcmansions.

        • July 10, 2015 at 6:26 pm

          The town does have a zoning board, and they are supposed to send a “notice of public hearing” to anyone whose property line abuts the one seeking a variance — but I know I never received it. My first clue about it was the bulldozers. :-/

  3. July 9, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    It’s hard to go back, isn’t it?

    • July 9, 2015 at 6:25 pm

      I think it would have been even worse if I’d spent even more years on it; I did have further intentions that included a “woodland” planting under the larger magnolia (which I had started on but not finished) and a reworking of my little herb garden strip into a cutting garden.

  4. July 9, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    Such a beautiful garden you had created. It’s always bitter-sweet to look back at previous properties. I’ve been known to occasionally go and inspect trees that I have planted, sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised, many times heart-broken.
    That little secret garden area is utterly delightful. It’s a shame that it was removed…

    • July 9, 2015 at 6:22 pm

      The secret garden also had another secret: a trio of feral kittens discovered it and would often come to play or nap in the grassy area in the late afternoon. Two were pure black and one had a small white spot on the chest and one white paw. They probably felt safe there from dogs or other animals. I loved to watch them from the window; they were adorable, but so wild that the merest attempt to approach the area in person would send them dashing away.

  5. July 10, 2015 at 3:22 am

    It is nice to have a record of what we did. But it is sad to see our hard work in ruins when we go back. I have had this experience 3 times now, putting my heart and soul into a garden and then seen it fall into chaos when I’ ve left. Gardens are the most ephemeral of art forms. Now I look upon previous gardens as practise runs for this one. Each garden we make is a sort of horticultural training.

  6. July 10, 2015 at 8:30 am

    Enjoyable stroll down memory lane. 🙂

  7. July 11, 2015 at 5:12 am

    Amazing documentation. Shame about the regression, but it at least it is still green, not tarmac or concrete (as so often seems to happen to gardens here).

    • July 11, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      Some of the towns here are now restricting the amount of non-permeable surface on lots (other than what the house sits on) to a maximum of 25%. Supposedly this is to minimize runoff, because our entire water supply comes from underground (aquifer) and thus water has to “percolate down” from the surface to keep things in balance. This only applies to new construction or additional/large driveways though, as it’s fairly recent.

  8. July 13, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    I think before and afters are some of the most interesting posts, especially when they involves so much thought and care and then really blossom.
    Shame about the postscript. I’ve also checked back on a few former gardens and it’s never been good news for the plants I’ve left behind. Trees sometimes carry on, but the gardens almost always vanish… and it happens so depressingly fast!
    Streetview is pretty cool though. I’ve been able to re-visit a few gardens which I never thought I would… a few have been surprising!

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