Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “North Four Corners News”

North Four Corners News ♦ June 2023

Front Yard to Native Garden Reclamation Project

By Deborah Simon

We’d known for awhile that the silver maple in our front yard was in sad shape.  In the fall of 2021, the arborists (three different ones) all said the same thing so, in mid-February on a beautiful sunny day, a crew spent many hours taking it down.  It was a sad day; this is the tree that my sisters and I climbed and that had shaded the house for as long as I can remember.  We now have to shut the drapes in the afternoon to keep the living room cooler.

The large silver maple tree dominated the front yard.

We spent a lot of time discussing what to do with this 16 square foot area of yard.  We knew we didn’t want grass.  I’ve always loved the native gardens in the neighborhood and, while they were the inspiration, we had no experience with sun-loving plants since our entire yard prior to this was always in shade.  In addition, while the idea of gardening is very appealing, the reality was not, so it had to be low-maintenance once installed.  We knew that we wanted deer-resistant, native pollinators, but where to start!

Robin Loube (Cavalier) suggested we contact landscape designer Patricia Ceglia.  We met with Patty in late March.  I was a bit concerned that she wouldn’t be interested in such a small project.

Removing the dying silver maple tree gave the Simons a sunny yard for the first time.  The home backs up against the Northwest Branch Park.

Mom and I aren’t very formal, so we requested plant choices that would provide a variety of colors and textures.  The layout had to be “organic,“ as if they had just come up.  No straight lines.  We also have an established bed of azaleas and a path between the front walk and driveway we wanted to keep.  Whatever the design, the azaleas would be the backdrop and, therefore, we didn’t want anything that would grow too high.

A few weeks later she sent us a plan that had a birdbath with a circular path around it.  We nixed the birdbath and path but, after googling the list of plants and visiting a couple of nurseries, we realized that she had picked the perfect variety of perennials.

The landscape designer’s original plan, with central birdbath.

The plot of land was difficult.  The arborist had removed enough of the huge stump to get it below grade, but hadn’t been able to remove it entirely due to a gas line that runs across one side.  The tree roots had grown very close to the surface, so there wasn’t a lot of dirt to plant in; many roots would either have to be removed or worked around.

Finding a landscaper to prepare the area and plant was going to be important.  Mom had talked to a couple of landscape companies earlier in the year when we were looking for someone to mow our lawn, so we had one name.  But, luckily, I work for a commercial landscape company.  They were kind enough to order the perennials and send a crew over to do the install.  We just had to wait until time could be found when we didn’t need them for our customers.

In June, four landscapers spent about three hours late on a Friday afternoon prepping the area, removing the wood chips (from the stump grinding) that had been spread in February so that while we were waiting it didn’t look terrible.  They cleared the area down about four to six inches, removing as many of the smaller roots as they could.  On Saturday they laid about four cubic yards of top soil mixed with soil conditioner, then we started laying out the plants.  We used Patty’s plan as a guide, but made adjustments to fill in the area where she had the birdbath/path.  Once everything was in the ground, they covered the soil with pine fines.  We didn’t plant everything from the list because some will not be available until later and we’re not sure if we want to add a ground cover.

Plants are set into position above the amended soil.

The entire project took four guys nine to ten hours to complete.  Most of that time was spent preparing the garden; putting the plants in the ground took roughly an hour.  The biggest challenge for the crew was not planting everything in neat rows.  As you can imagine, commercial customers like everything to be very tidy, in perfect grid patterns.

My job was to water daily for a couple of weeks; then I cut back to every other day for a bit longer.  At that point, the deer hadn’t nibbled anything, although I had seen hoof prints cutting across the front edge.  We kept our fingers crossed!

By September we’d had most of a season, but still didn’t know how things would winter.  Everything grew nicely and we’ve discovered that catmint (not on the original list, but subbed in for the Rose Mallow) fills in very quickly, as does the Bee Balm.  To our delight, the garden also attracts a large number of bees, insects, butterflies, and humming birds — exactly what we had hoped for!  Currently we’re finding caterpillars on the butterfly weed.

Last summer, the yard — overseen by a metal ostrich — was in full bloom.

Now that we’ve seen how things grow, we’ll probably make some adjustments and move/group the plants a bit differently.  This year we will definitely add the rose mallow and columbine (need a bit of larger scale on the right hand side of the garden) and are now convinced we don’t need ground cover.  What we didn’t realize until everything was flowering is that Patty had organized the colors so they move from left to right with yellows and reds to purples along the right.

We also moved a metal ostrich, made from garden tools, we had behind the azaleas looking into the living room out to overlook the garden.  Fits in beautifully.

Butterfly weed seeds.

May 2023 update:  everything has come in faster and fuller than expected.  Already the garden is buzzing with bees, small butterflies, and the occasional hummingbird.  The false indigo that never bloomed last year is beautiful. We moved half the catmint and one grass to the southwest corner of the house.  I have been pruning the catmint and bee balm back from overwhelming the surrounding plants.  We added six columbine and two rose mallow this spring.

The biggest issue is the very front patch along the sidewalk.  We lost a couple of the butterfly weeds, I suspect to dogs (including my own) peeing there.  We need to figure out what to plant along there that will survive and help hold the mulch in place.  I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a maintenance-free garden, but this is close!

[Simon lives on Lombardy Road.  We bet you’ll be able to spot her house!]   ■

List of Plants

We may add additional plants, but that will depend a bit on how everything fills in throughout the summer:

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