Exterior & Garden

The Garden: A Timeline of Neglect

2013: We had just moved in. Everything had been tended to through the spring and early summer and there wasn’t much to do! The neighbor tells us the previous owner was always out there working on things like it was her full-time job. Come on, we think. How hard can it be?

Moving Day

2014: I was pregnant with kid #3. Did I really want to be out there gardening in the heat, in my third trimester? No thanks. Brandon mowed the front, and I did the bare minimum, maintenance-wise in the garden. Plus I was gone for much of that summer! New York, France, Morocco, and most glamorous of all, Wisconsin. The house still looked pretty good out there while we focused on the inside.

Climbing Roses

2015: Here’s the thing about pregnancies. When all goes well, you have a baby at the end! Going from two kids to three was a tough transition, and I figured the garden could wait. The boxwood hedge got its terrible haircut, but not much else happened out there.

Mature Ash Tree

2016: Well look at that. The garden waited for me!

You already know that I spent a full day trimming those boxwood hedges out front. I went out and worked on them for another three hours over the weekend, putting the grand total at 11 hours. And they look amazing! Kidding. They look sparse and uneven, though to be fair, they were uneven when we bought the place. I can only claim credit for thinning the poor things out. I’m aiming to reduce the height, especially of the larger side, and it’s going to take a few years to happen. Seeing them rebound after the awful hack job they got last spring has given me more confidence in working with them.

Basically, the plan is to thin them down to allow light and air to reach the inside. Cut out the dead wood (this helps with the thinning), and the prune the tallest branches back to where I want them height to eventually be. New buds will grow from there, and I’ll have to repeat the process over several years. They should look good by, say, 2019? Oof. But ripping them out and starting over (as has been suggested to me, more than once) would take even longer. We’re trying this and it’s gonna work! I watched a few how-to videos, so I’m pretty much an expert now.

We have kept everything as it was planted, so I’m not even into the fun creative part of gardening yet. Some of the plants and pairings that are here already, I love. Boxwood hedges line the house (much less overgrown than the ones in front) with peonies behind. The side has an awesome mix of hostas, some three or four feet across. Roses climb the front porch and allium peek out in the perennial bed out front. But then there are the things that died. Bare spots where I know annuals had been planted. Little rose bushes that we were apparently supposed to cover with styrofoam hats? (I had no idea.) The swath of dirt where the kids have forged a path to the egg chair that they think of as a play house. The only thing we chose to remove was a climbing rose over an arch, leading from the front yard to the back. It was magical in bloom, but one had to be careful in passing by to avoid the thorns, and it proved too treacherous for the kids. It only exists in this photo now.

Climbing Roses Over an Arch

The garden does not look awful out there, but it definitely doesn’t look as good as it used to. But it will and hopefully even better! I’ve been out there gardening like it’s my full-time job.

And I haven’t even gotten into the side yard or the back yet.

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  • Kate
    May 30, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    Boxwoods are so great when they are maintained, but good Lord are they difficult to prune and make pretty if they’ve been neglected! I have four boxwoods in my front yard, two of which are a medium hedge-sized variety and two of which grew to more than five feet high. I started working on the huge ones when I moved in two years ago, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I need to rip them out. They’re about three feet high now, but the insides are basically bare. It will take years for new growth to enable me to trim them any further to a reasonable size. The other hedge-sized ones that I have look pretty amazing, though, after I did some major pruning last fall. I wasn’t expecting them to fill in the way they did. Good luck to you with yours!

    • Making it Lovely
      June 1, 2016 at 10:14 am

      After seeing how they bounced back from their hard pruning last year (which was kind of a gamble), I feel like mine might recover? I’m hoping so at least!

  • jannike
    May 30, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    I would rather “play” in my garden than do any other inside chore, so the housework gets neglected all summer. :) My urban garden is much smaller than yours. I’m trying not to buy new plants this year so I’ll play with dividing and transplanting, working towards a more balanced plan. I’ve learned over the last 10 years what works, now I’m starting to play with color. My newest idea is a bed of all purple flowers that bloom throughout the summer.

    • Making it Lovely
      June 1, 2016 at 10:16 am

      I think I would like to play in the garden more if it were a garden that I felt more invested in. I’m just keeping up with what was already here, not adding to it and putting my own stamp on it yet.

  • Cherie
    May 30, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Question: Do you really want to spend that much time pruning boxwoods as long as you are in that house? Rejuvenating shrubs is an art, and as you noted, takes a long time. Newly planted dwarf boxwoods have much more vigor going forward than old, much pruned shrubs. Newly planted dwarf boxwoods can be left to grow “au naturale” and NEVER need much pruning.

    There are other ‘dwarf’ shrubs that stay roughly the same size, and can look so much softer because they aren’t pruned into unnatural shapes. Pruning causes all that dead wood inside a shrub. Check out your Cooperative Extension office for pubs on plants that do well there, then think about a softer look in your plantings. That softer “unpruned” look matches so well the softer look of roses, hostas and many other plants. Sometimes changing one’s unquestioned “rules” about landscaping can become a wonderful new way to landscape and an easier way to garden. Not “lazier’, just “easier”.

    Didn’t mean to lecture!

    Cherie (yes I am a Master Gardener)

    • Em
      May 31, 2016 at 8:23 am

      I was about to offer similar sentiments. I’d replace the current boxwood. They may never come back the way you want them to and all that sweat equity will be for nothing. Replacing them will cost much less than the time you’ve already put into them.

      • kate
        May 31, 2016 at 6:10 pm

        Dwarf boxwood or even one of the dwarf lilac breeds could be a much easier long-term fit. And what about clematis or honeysuckle (a native/non-invasive varietal) over your arch?

        I’ve fallen head-first into gardening recently and can’t get enough. Our rental has one south-facing bed and one shades north-facing bed against the garage, plus many overgrown rhododendrons. I cut 6 feet off a Rhody at our weekend place last year after they froze in the winter of 2014-15 and this spring it’s flowering like crazy and filling in lushly so now I’m primed to prune the rental ones this fall.

        • Making it Lovely
          June 1, 2016 at 10:17 am

          We have both clematis and honeysuckle growing here already. I’m thinking climbing hydrangea though for the arch.

    • Making it Lovely
      June 1, 2016 at 10:20 am

      I think the boxwoods are about 4′ high right now, and I’d like to get them down to about 3′. I figured that if it’s going to take several years to renew them, vs. several years for new boxwoods to grow to that size, I’d rather enjoy plants that are too large vs. too small in the meantime. I thought, too, that once they were the right size, it would be easier to maintain them annually, vs. the catching up I’m doing now after ignoring them for so long. No?

      • Em
        June 1, 2016 at 1:20 pm

        It would be easier to start fresh, especially since they might never renew. Starting fresh would require much less time to maintain than you’ve already put in…just minor pruning as it grows. I’d go with dwarf boxwood and keep them smaller. Or you could even bypass boxwood all together and do something else – hostas look amazing when lining a pathway and are super low maintenance. Or liriope or pachysandra. If you put “walkway lining plants” into google images, there are some really great, low maintenance examples!

      • Cherie
        June 1, 2016 at 4:56 pm

        Methinks you didn’t “get” what I and others have said. Placing new, vigorous, young plants that genetically are the size you want them makes a prettier landscape and gives you more leisure to enjoy your landscape. “right plant right place” is the mantra to follow. Also, all the waste goes to landfills; even one landscape without much waste can make a difference. Take a couple of classes through your cooperative extension, and you can get the scientific info I am trying to share.

        If said boxwoods are as tall as you say, they are the regular size. Putting in new dwarf ones won’t give you an instant landscape, but dealing with worn out old shrubs is a no brainer. Shrubs get old, just as everything on this earth. Pruning leaves away stresses plants in a major way, because leaves (i.e., photosynthesis) is the food for the plant. Without the food it requires (the normal compliment of leaves), it becomes less and less vigorous. The only plants that stay the size you want are ones that are genetically already that size.

        • Penny
          June 2, 2016 at 4:40 pm

          Well said Cherie! That makes so much sense.

  • LostRoses
    May 30, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    Try the rose “Zepherine Drouhin” over your arch. No thorns! Also pink like the one you took out.

  • Em
    May 31, 2016 at 8:26 am

    If your hostas are 3 to 4 feet across, it may be time to divide them. They divide beautifully and it helps re-energize the plant. I’ve noticed that they will often stop blooming when they get that large.

    • Making it Lovely
      June 1, 2016 at 10:23 am

      Yep, I’ll be dividing them up this year. I’ve done it before, at the old house, always with good results. I’m excited about working on a few other areas around the house and putting some of the more interesting hostas there!

  • J
    May 31, 2016 at 9:42 am

    After years of having time-intensive gardens, I’ve transitioned to easy-to-maintain garden plantings over the last decade. One good weekend in the spring, one in the fall (maybe) and the yard looks great. Pretty, though not as breathtaking as the old garden, but I really enjoy having the free time to enjoy my yard.

  • Bleubook
    May 31, 2016 at 9:53 am

    I feel you. We moved into our house 2 years ago this July 4th. We inherited an “established” landscape…overgrown woody bushes lining the porch, a 3-story holly that killed everything in its vicinity, ferns had taken over any remaining areas, and glorious fields of creeping charlie and crabgrass. The first year we yanked out several bushes that were beyond saving, along with the holly. I also tamed the ferns to a manageable lush border along our front walk. Then I started planting and pruning what was left. 2 years later it is really starting to come into its own. The lilac had some blooms and will be even more lovely next year. my peonies are glorious. The lawn is actually mostly grass now, or at least, weeds that appear grass-like. I was able to tidy up another old holly by “legging it up” and pruning it into a sort of a tree-shape. (It’s not my preferred look, but it was better than ripping it out.) I simplified the garden, and focused on white flowers with different blooming seasons, as well as some evergreens like camellias. In another year or 2 I will be better to assess my success. Gardening is all I do now…

    • Making it Lovely
      June 1, 2016 at 10:25 am

      Ha! I’d settle for weeds that look grass-like. ;) It’s satisfying, taming the garden, isn’t it? It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I do enjoy getting out there and shaping things up.

  • Beth Fioritto
    May 31, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    Really fun post to read! I always love the interior decor posts of Making it Lovely but as a fellow gardening newbie I can empathize with this post (and the hint of snark leaking through in your writing). :-) My own internet DIYing has included (unsuccessfully) killing my lawn, and mixing moss and beer in a blender. Don’t ask. Love your blog!

  • amy
    May 31, 2016 at 8:40 pm

    I think that gardening is just one of those things – if you aren’t 100% into it and out there working all the time because you love it (like the previous owners) then it is probably better to simplify some of the plantings to be lower maintenance. Do you really need those boxwoods there? I would tear them out and extend the lawn towards the walkway. Then concentrate on some other areas.

    I consolidated and took out a lot of what was going on in my yard – so now it is a quick “deep clean” for my landscaper every month or so and then I can have fun with an occasional pruning and planting. Anywhere you can simplify would make things so much easier and more fun to maintain.

    • Making it Lovely
      June 1, 2016 at 11:32 am

      I agree on simplifying. I do love boxwoods though…

  • jane
    June 1, 2016 at 10:03 am

    This is a little off-topic, but the discussion does seem to be about time spent on various tasks, so here goes. I remember a post from you, when E was a baby, about your daily schedule. I am wondering if you would write a new similar post. I am always curious about how successful people get so much done in a day/week/year. The focus doesn’t have to be on the kids, since I would like to respect their privacy, (although they must make your day a little more complicated!). I would like to know how you make a plan and get things done. :)

  • Heather Stansfield
    June 1, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    We have (what I am pretty sure are) boxwoods that line the front/side of our house (we have a corner lot). The previous owners let them grow to about seven feet tall and they extended pretty far out over the sidewalk. Because they are the only protection we have from the street, we didn’t want to rip them out and replace them, but we trimmed them WAAAAAYYY back (like we cut off four feet of height and thinned them pretty extensively of lots of dead growth in the middle). They have come back with a vengeance over the last two summers, and they’re much easier to maintain – we lopped the tops off last year just to even them out and did some slight thinning, but that’s it. We’ll probably do the same again this year.

    So basically, if you are starting to lean towards replacing them, maybe just keep doing the trim work first just to see what happens? What could it hurt, other than a slight delay in what you’d plant to replace them. You might be pleased with the results!

  • Paula
    June 2, 2016 at 9:49 am

    Your landscape is lovely! I’m in a similar situation with my 15 year old boxwoods. After 2 extremely cold Michigan winters, my beautiful boxwoods have large, gaping dead spots. I planted them and have an attachment to them (and there are so many), so I hadn’t given any thought to replacing them. I’m glad that your boxwoods are rebounding, and to see Heather’s reply. I’m going to go deeper into pruning.

  • Amie M
    June 2, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    The smell of your garden must be amazing! Peonies, roses, oh my!

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