Tag Archives: digging up the yard

DIY Landscape Part 4: The Arbor Day Foundation

Continued from Part 3.

Now that I had designed the part of the yard immediately next to the house, I needed to find a design for the yard portion in the front of the yard, leading up to the street. It was all dirt, and erosion was becoming an issue.


Unfortunately, I am intimidated by designing around emptiness. Its one thing to have an existing structure. It provides limitations, which help create inspiration through problem-solving (something I am good at). But what if there is no obvious problem to solve? How can I create something out of nothing? That has never been a strength of mine.

I googled “free landscape plan”, expecting to find a bunch of books or designs available by purchase. Fortunately, I found something better: a free landscape plan (“knot garden”) on the Arbor Day Foundation website. It consisted of an oval with a yoshino cherry on either end, a hydrangea in the middle, and Korean boxwood surrounded the lot in a snug little island. Just needed to replace the cherry trees with something small enough to fit my space, and I would be done!

IMG_2397Having never been to the arbor day foundation website before, I did some exploring. I discovered Arbor day sold smaller, less mature trees for pennies compared to their larger, big box counterparts. Did you know that you can buy trees from them for as little as $10???? And they are a not for profit, so what they receive is given right back to the community to “help keep America green” not that this is a big priority of mine, but Im not against it. I plan on making the Arbor Day Foundation a yearly go-to as I slowly build my landscape.

However, there is a bit of a catch to the trees you receive from arbor day: they are sent “bare-root“. Meaning you don’t get them in a pot of dirt. They don’t even look like trees. You receive them, trunks only, main roots only, bare and leafless. Or, as Tiger boy put it “Mommy, they’re naked!!” They look like dry, “naked”, lifeless sticks. My neighbor across the street thought I was nuts. “You won’t be able to enjoy them until you move out!”  I wonder when he thinks Im moving out?


They look like sticks because they are sent in a dormant stage twice a year, once in the spring, once in the fall, to reduce shock. They must be young to reduce the length of the shock and the cost of shipping. Older stock means longer shock and longer recovery times. The roots are shipped in a hydrating gel so the trees don’t dry and die in transit. Once received, they must be rehydrated in water for a few hours, then immediately placed in the ground. This should give you enough time to dig holes (if you haven’t already done so) for a handful of trees, but if you order more than 6, you may find yourself, as I did, seriously pressed for time.

I had done a lot of reading and research about the benefits of bareroot (see right sidebar in link, past the planting instructions), so I decided that, for less than $40 for 4 trees and 3 bushes, I could handle less than mature merchandise. After all, I was on a budget. I couldn’t afford $90 a tree, $60 a bush. That would have given me 8 ft trees and much larger bushes for about $550. Instant curb appeal, but at a cost I couldn’t afford. Plus, that wouldn’t even cover the cost of additional plants, and busted my $300 yearly landscaping budget.

I ordered 2 prairie fire crab apples, one Ann magnolia tree, and a blue hydrangea. After joining (for a $5 yearly membership), I received discounts along with a free red maple and two free forsythia (I did actually want the additional forsythia). The red maple I didn’t need (I have a small yard), so that was going to go to the neighbor down the street to whom I had given a box of Iris.

I knew the shipping dates for my zone, but was not given a warning about when they would be shipped (that is one of my complaints). So one day, a long, thin, cardboard box just showed up on my doorstep. Knowing I had no time to lose, I planted immediately (I wasn’t ready yet, so this required prep time with the measuring tape, which took me about 30 minutes). Then I waited.

IMG_1034And I waited. And waited. Two weeks later, the “Crabs” finally started to bud. And then tiny pink blooms burst forth. Followed eventually by very slow growth. They were very hard to see, so I grabbed this tacky garden border that came with the property, then filled it with dark mulch to keep in moisture. Eventually I bought enough mulch to create my oval shape, and sodded in the remaining bare spots with grass I was still digging up from my stone path.

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Last fall, I noticed the crabs were about twice their size. This morning I was happy to note they had leafed out beautifully. Im excited to note their progression this year, since I have read they can double in height for several years until they reach their final, mature height, which may well be 2 years from now if they continue at this rate. The trunk width will take a little longer.


The Hydrangea . . . well, its lagging. I’ve read in several places it may or may not do well planted bare root. It’s a fickle plant. But I haven’t given up on it yet. It sent up a six inch leafy stem last year, but did nothing else. This year, so far, I have seen some green, but I think I removed the mulch too soon, because we had another frost come in last week, and the green has turned yellow. I haven’t given up hope, though. There’s still plenty of time for this little baby to catch up.


The Magnolia, on the other hand, didn’t make it.  It took me a month to decide that it was, in fact, dead. The broken twig test confirmed it-no green at the break. The Arbor day Foundation does have a return policy but I didn’t want to pay half the price of shipping + the plant (even though shipping was free with my original order), and wasn’t sure that a young sapling was a good idea with such poor soil (Missouri is notorious for a lot of hard clay soil).


Instead, I decided to go on ahead and order another Magnolia (different kind) through fastgrowingtrees.com. I had a strong feeling the clay soil was the problem, and hoped a more mature tree would be able to tough it out better than a young bare-root. I simply didn’t have the budget to buy new top soil for my entire yard.

Through Arbor day, I had ordered an Ann Magnolia. Through fast-growing-trees, I chose the Jane (I don’t think they had Ann). Jane had purplish flowers, which would contrast well with our house once we painted it a buttery yellow (my husbands choice, not mine). It was my most expensive plant so far-$80. And it ate up a lot of my budget.

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But Jane is making it. She did shed more than half her leaves in the initial transplant shock period, but snapped out of it with regular watering within about a month (older specimen, longer recovery). This spring she had a few purple blooms, and is sending out some nice leaf buds as we speak. I wish I had paid more attention to her growth, because a few of the reviews had mentioned that she didn’t grow very quickly, and I think that may be true. There seems to be little, if any, discernible growth-something I want to track this year.


As for the Forsythia? One of them is being “heeled in” (placed in a random spot until I can move it to its final home), and the other one I accidentally stepped on while mowing the yard. It broke deep in the ground, and never recovered. I called it a loss, but Im getting two more for free with this years order, so with three forsythias to heel in, I think Im good in the forsythia department. If I get two more next year, they may be gifted out.

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These pictures are from last year, and this little guy is already more than twice that tall. However, he only has the two branches and is truly in the awkward teenager stage of forsythia growth. I really hope he branches out more this year. Puberty does not look well on him.

See part 5 for more.

DIY Landscape Part 3: Design

Continued from part 2.

Now that the boxwoods were in, I realized it was time for a landscaping plan. Since it had been raining all week I had no excuse not to fetch some graph paper and get measuring. Luckily for me, I had a pretty good idea what I wanted and my first draft was my final copy. I already knew I wanted to implement nature’s strategy-the use of curved lines.


Have you noticed that there are no straight lines in nature? I wanted a natural looking cottage garden, well tended, well thought out, and full of winding paths. What I didn’t want was a fussy, manicured, high maintenance fiasco.

A stone path was a must. Especially since I had dug up so many stones, already and they were decidedly large enough to serve as borders and pavers. The poorly thought out boxwood placement left me with a large gap between the garage door and the boxwood. I decided a small magnolia would be just perfect that gap. It would create the necessary vertical interest without outgrowing the design. Something no higher or wider than 15 ft.


Unfortunately, the necessary distance between the magnolia and the structure cut significantly into my 9 ft width (measured from the distance between the house and where the fence stopped, and confirmed by a brief talk with my neighbor so I wouldn’t upset him by digging up his yard). To give it the space necessary, my path (at least at the base of the tree), would have to be at the end of my 9 ft allowance. This inspired what became a grand curve that started at the garage door, went around the magnolia, and bent back up, ending in front of the boxwood. Some landscapes design themselves.
I laid out my future intentions with the bricks and stones I had dug up, and a few I had hauled from behind the Forsythia bush (they were under a bunch of rotten firewood, and a lot of other rubbish). A few of the larger pavers were gifted to me since I had quite a few boxy stones, but very few flat ones of the necessary size.

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Here, you can see my children helping me lay out a brick path indicating the border between my yard and my neighbors yard. I tied the string to the fence on one end, and to a stick in the middle of the yard on the other. They enjoyed digging “just inside the guide line.” Naturally I cleaned up their efforts later after they had abandoned their efforts for other forms of play.

I began to notice that my neighbor would “check up” on me at regular intervals. For that matter, so was everyone else. Here I was, digging up my yard by hand, no less, and neighbors would walk by, pause, stare, and move on. A few would slow down in their cars to have a look. And I can imagine what they were thinking, “She’s digging up her yard . . . why not just rent bulldozer? What is she going to do with all that exposed dirt? She’s letting her children have shovels!? They’ll kill each other! What a nutcase!”

All this imaginary thinking did make me realize I had a bit of a problem on my hand-the exposed dirt. Spring rains were causing the soil to erode into my neighbors yard. He never said anything about it, but I got the impression he wasn’t too happy with an extra two inches of mud piling up right at the mutually determined border.

Also, my sons were reveling in the vast and spacious muddy grounds that presented themselves after a downpour. I needed a solution, and I needed one now.

Click here for Part 4.


DIY Landscape Part 1: Where it all began

We’ve been getting a lot of rain and flurries this week. Third week of march, and easily the coldest one in almost two months. I’ve been able to work in my garden since February, and this week is killing me!

IMG_2380So today I thought I’d share with you my first landscaping attempts at our new home-the side yard by our attached garage. Here is the finished product, about a year later. We are still early into spring, so things are just starting to bloom. But already it looks more promising than what we started with.

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IMG_0909This is the almost blank canvas I started with. Note the steep elevation (the area with exposed ground)? That actually rises about 18” from the valley between the two yards. Dragon boy was small enough that he would fall down rolling when running across that part of the yard. And I had injured my achilles the year before, so I wasn’t really in the marker for another injury. It wasn’t just a safety risk for myself and my kids, it was a liability.

IMG_0396So I decided to dig it up and smooth it over-by hand. My next door neighbor, an elderly, retired real estate appraiser, chuckled at my attempts. “You’ll never get it done!” He said. My husband also had his doubts. But how could I fail when I had a pair of eager, shovel wielding troublemakers at my disposal?

When you have to landscape with young children in tow, its best to think ahead of time how you are going to occupy them and still get something done. Hubby agreed to buy them some shovels, so we headed off to Lowe’s. While they had a lot of “kiddy” products, they were made of a cheap, flimsy material, and my boys (like all other boys) are not gentle. So we got them each their own short handled “Tru Tough” shovel, spending only $10 apiece. Unlike the child shovels, these ones were well worth the investment..

IMG_1001I spent a good portion of last february-may digging the yard and dumping the excess dirt on the opposite side of the house by the gas meter. We had discovered through the winter that the epoxy job in the basement wasn’t holding, and needed more backfill on that side. It only seemed logical to take our excess soil from the garage side yard and move it clear around to the other side of the house. And while the neighbors on this side of the house raised their eyebrows a bit, no one laughed at me-at least not to my face!

IMG_0394 Past the house into the front part of the yard we found ourselves coming upon a mass of roots that extended at least ten feet past the house and well into the hump still left in the yard. They were never attached to anything above the ground, and lay perpendicular to the nearest tree (in the appraisers yard), so their origins remain a mystery. But boy were they a pain to work with! Had to buy another pair of loppers to deal with them.


In addition to roots, we discovered our ground was also filled with hidden treasure-but not the pleasant kind. More like bits of natural stone mixed with rubble. Pieces of whole and broken bricks, broken cement, and a few sharp, rusty, oddly shaped metal objects (including nails). I even found two partially deteriorated leather dog collars and a rusty lock. Maybe there was a dog run on this side of the house at one time? Who knows. This house was trying to tell me its story, and so far that story was full of rubble and neglect.

I planned on changing that.

See part 2 for the continuation.