Category Archives: Gardening

The Scavenged Garden: Rescuing Old Landscaping from New Construction

Scavenged Garden Title Image

This weekend I set out to do a tiny gardening project, but it quickly got carried away – in a good way!  What started out as me venturing to a house to dig up a few daffodil bulbs ended in my slowly driving home with the trunk of my station wagon open, trees spilling out the back of it.

Scavenged Garden Trunk Load Trees

But let’s back up a little.

My town of Vienna, VA is only 30 minutes from downtown Washington, DC and somehow maintains a small-town, local feel though it’s surrounded by the sprawling suburbs.    For decades our neighborhood was comprised of small brick 1950’s ranch houses, including the one we rent.  I think ours is about 1500 sq ft.  But over the 5 years we have lived here things have changed dramatically.  One by one, the ranches are being bulldozed, and large two or three-story homes are built in their places.

It’s because Vienna is a fabulous town, especially if you’re raising a family.  I should tell you all about it some other time. But I digress.

As a renter, I don’t like to spend a lot of money on landscaping, even though we have no plans of moving anytime soon.   During our first summer in this home, I created this garden out of bricks I found on the property and plant cuttings from my MIL’s garden.

Scavenged Rental Friendly Garden Shade Garden

Lately I’ve wanted to create a “scavenged” landscape by collecting plants from houses that were about to be bulldozed. This weekend our friends got permission from a builder to scavenge the house next door to them, and I popped over to “just get a few daffodil bulbs.”

Did you ever read The Secret Garden as a child? I did, and I loved the idea of discovering and uncovering (literally) an old, overgrown garden.  I found the concept so magical.

As we set about digging up hundreds of daffodils, we started to realize this was the equivalent of the Secret Garden in a way. What was once a very ornate and landscaped garden was now overgrown almost beyond hope.

An old trellis arch led into an area that was surrounded by gnarly old rose bushes that are barely visible under all the honeysuckle and weeds.  (Those rose bushes will be saved when the house is bulldozed, and I’m so glad the builder realized the charm in protecting them!)

Scavenged Garden A Secret Garden Arch


Anyhow, I could talk about the magic and history I imagined forever, but let’s get to the point.  While I was digging up a wheelbarrow-full of old Lilies, I realized there were two healthy hydrangea bushes.  My friend and I were able to dig them up and each take one.

Scavenged Garden Wheelbarrow of Lilies

The lilies I rescued!

Then I noticed there were old lilac bushes – and yep, you guessed it – we dug them up, 4 in total.  Here’s my share of the lilacs:

Scavenged Garden Lilac Tree

Two and a half hours later we were dividing the haul and loading my half into my wagon. Fortunately I had brought a large tarp, which protected my car from the dirt

and also helped to hold the plants in as I slowly drove the two miles home with my trunk partially open.

After Ryan and I unloaded the car I realized that I had bitten off more than I could chew.  However!  I’m going to work at planting the lilies and daffodils over the next week.  They’re safely living in moist dirt and tubs for now.

I can’t begin to calculate how much this many plants would cost at a nursery.  My body is aching and I have a feeling tomorrow will be even worse, but I’m pretty excited about the arm workout I got saving these plants, and the free landscaping my rented home is about to get!

Back Yard: Easy 10 Foot Planter Boxes

When I came home from taking care of my mom in Delaware, I was itching to do a good hands-on DIY project.  It may sound weird, but that’s how I unwind and gather my thoughts, and process things like stress.

My 10-foot planter box project was just what the doctor ordered, though it didn’t turn out as I’d hoped..

Long Planter Boxes4

See these sheds?  We have one on either side of the back of our yard, and since that’s our hangout area (with a hammock, firepit, etc) I thought the  sides of the sheds could use some dressing up.


Because we rent, I decided to build long planter boxes to run the length of the sheds, rather than landscaping a garden around each.  Sheds2So, my first weekend back home, I raced out to the hardware store and bought all the supplies.  This was a project I’d been thinking about for over a year, so I had it pretty well organized in my mind.

At Home Depot I looked at the planter boxes they were selling, but buying enough to run the length of two very long sheds would have been expensive.  Off to the lumber aisle I went.

I bought six rough pine 10-foot boards that were about 9 inches wide.  I bought one 6-foot board that was also 9″ wide.  I also bought a can of outdoor Spar Urethane for sealing them.  The total cost was about $100, which was more than I had wanted to spend, but seemed the cheapest way to do this.

Long Planter Boxes1

I didn’t photograph the building process, because it was simple, but here’s how I did it:

  1. Buy three boards all the same size.  These boards will be the front, back, and bottom of the planter.
  2. Join the boards using screws.  I countersunk my screws and screwed in from the outside.  It’s the easiest way and is ok if you’re painting the boxes.
  3. Measure the size of the ends, then cut a spare board into pieces that will fit to cap off the ends. Attach with screws.
  4. Drill large holes in the bottom of the planter box for drainage.
  5. Paint, then apply 2 layers of Helmsman Spar Urethane (or other outdoor waterproof sealer) to seal it up.

Long Planter Boxes2 As you can see from the photos, the ground around the sheds is rough with weeds and twigs and dirt – no nice clean grass growing there right now.  I am hoping that it will be nice and grassy by next spring.  Long Planter Boxes3

Now that the project is complete, I have to say it doesn’t have the “wow” factor that I was hoping for.  Considering it cost about $200, I don’t think this project was worth it. It might have been better to get two awesome flowering trees in large pots, or something like that.

Plus, there’s other projects that would have been more deserving of that chunk of change.   But what’s done is done, so I’ll enjoy the planter boxes and my shade gardens as much as I can.

I do think that planter boxes are a great way to add some color and life to an outdoor space, but they’re only cost effective in small doses, and probably are best suited for small spaces.

Fired Up to Create a Backyard Escape

Do you have a specific part of your home that you avoid sharing on your blog? 

I know I do . . . and it’s the outer limits of our backyard, between our two sheds.   Only our closest friends, who come over in the nice weather for backyard bonfires, have been privy to the view – and that’s because the embarrassment helps fuel our fires.  Literally.

You can’t see the mess here, because this was taken before it got bad, but this is our backyard.

Since we rented this house 2.5 years ago we’ve had a slew of crazy storms that regularly bring down massive branches from the towering trees in our backyard.  It always makes me sad, because I love the yard, with its thick, multi-layered canopy of leaves. Even though the yard is small, encircled by a ratty chain link fence, I can sit out back, and truly feel like I am escaping from the hustle and bustle of the mega suburbs around me.

Whenever I had a really bad day (few and far between, thankfully) I would come home and go straight out to the backyard with my journal.  I’d set up Ryan’s portable hammock or my lounge chair, lay back, and start to write, but without fail I’d end up setting the pages aside and just staring up at the trees.  I recently stared at the trees a lot as I was pondering what to do about my shop.

So when Ryan and I found ourselves with several Crate and Barrel gift cards after our wedding, we knew just what to do with them:  buy a large, 2-person hammock to hang in the backyard.

The only problem?  Our massive pile of downed branches stood exactly between the only two trees that could hold the hammock.

Frankly, the brush pile was out of control.  It looked more like a beaver dam:

Massive Brush Pile

This was the state of the brush in 2011. This year it was even bigger, but I forgot to photograph it. The swing set and other junk is long gone.

What choice did we have other than to clean up the back of the yard?  I never thought I’d say this, but I set about organizing our downed tree branches.

After breaking down all the good, strong branches into piles by thickness (kindling and then small, medium, and large firewood) I realized that we had more “firewood” than we’d ever use.  I hauled 3 10×10 tarp-loads to the curb for the city to pick up.

Remaining Brush Backyard Hammock

That left us with a smaller pile of debris that I burned in the fire pit every night after work for about 2 weeks.  It went slower than expected, but at least the ground under the hammock is clean.

And I’ve had an excuse to play with fire. A lot.  :)

Burning Brush Firepit Backyard

As you can see above and below, the whole endeavor has been supervised by my four-footed family.

Doctor the Cat Helping Backyard Cleanup

The brush is finally cleared out, and now we’re laying a bed of mulch and turning the whole space into a little backyard oasis.

There’s still a lot of work to do, but that’s not stopping me from enjoying the hammock.

PS:  IF you’re new, check out how we cleaned up the “front” of our back yard, aka our porch, last summer.

The Accidental Strawberry Crop

Did you know that you can literally taste the difference between store-bought strawberries that are shipped across the country to your grocery store, and strawberries that are allowed to ripen on the vine, then plucked fresh to eat moments later?

I would know.  I’ve done tests – in my own back yard! 

We’re overrun with accidental strawberries right now.  In the last  10 days I’ve picked 3 quarts of the berries  . . . and all because of the two tiny bushes I planted in our square foot garden when we moved in two years ago.

This was our brand new garden back in 2010:

Starting a Square Foot Garden

That lone little strawberry plant has since spread out through the planting bed, creating four large plants and pretty much turning the box into nothing but an accidental strawberry garden.

Have I done anything to care for it in the last two years?  Nope, not at all . . .  because the first year the strawberry plan refused to grow and I pretty much gave up on it.  I’m serious. . . it did not expand in size at all.

Clearly size is no longer an issue.

Ryan and I are enjoying the effects of this accidental crop, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ve got company.  Every time I check on the garden (what – I’m not going to neglect it now that it’s doing something for us! :)  I find half-eaten berries either on the plant or scattered on the ground around the box.

Clearly the neighborhood squirrels – or foxes – have a sweet tooth.  I know for a fact that the foxes go straight past the garden on their nightly route.

How do I know this?  Because it’s right under our bedroom window. . . and the shriek of the foxes has torn me frightfully from my slumber many a time.

But I digress.

All of our berries have been surprisingly tasty, though they range in shape and size from “little and wonky” (Bent in a C shape with the stem growing out of the wrong end) to “large and uniform” (aka standard strawberry shape, as seen below).  Surprisingly, though, many of the more “normal” looking berries are growing from the offshoot plants and not the initial bush that I planted.

That has me wondering if my initial plant was a little “off” to start with.

But enough rambling . . . I’ve got another quart of berries to pick!