Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Two Years and Counting: Lessons Learned

Our wonderful landscape designer, Lisa Strange, reminded me last week that it has been two years since we completed our Extreme Yard Makeover. Lisa stopped by our yard to see how everything looked and I thought back about all the work we put into the landscape transformation and what I've learned from the experience. Here are my Top Five Lessons Learned:

1. There is no such thing as a garden that takes care of itself.

I had an unrealistic view that our grass-free landscape, once completed, would just truck along without any assistance from us. Hah! I know now that all landscapes need care and maintenance to thrive. Plants grow, mulch breaks down, leaves fall, drought happens.  Plants need water, pruning, dividing, mulching, and occasionally some non-toxic pest control to look their best. Like a marriage, you can't just plant a garden and forget about it. You must nurture it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
Our back yard May 2012

Our back yard May 2010

But I am happy to report that our original goal for the yard makeover -- Mo' Fishing! Less Mowing! --  has been achieved. Ditching the grass; choosing tough, Florida-tested plants; and installing easy-care shell and gravel pathways has dramatically reduced the amount of time we spend on "yard work." We now spend most of our weekends having fun. Truthfully, even working in our new and vastly improved yard is fun!

2. Garden projects will always take longer, be more difficult and cost more money than you expect.

I coerced my husband into the Extreme Yard Makeover by telling him that it would only take us a couple of months, and would be relatively easy and cheap.  Part of that was true -- much of it was not. I didn't lie. I just didn't know what "lie" ahead!!

Getting rid of the grass was easy. But then came the hard part. We had to rent a small Bobcat to smooth out the "moguls" in our front yard (Rick did have a good time with that "Big Boy Toy!"). We had to remove literally every existing plant in our yard, most of which had been planted in the wrong place to begin with, or were just butt-ugly things like those horrid queen palms we dug up. If you have ever tried to remove a palm root ball (or any tree) by hand, you know what we went through! We hauled in truckloads of mulch and shell and gravel and had to cart it, one wheelbarrow at a time, to its final destination.
Rick driving the Bobcat

We discovered that having large trees all around means that you have large roots underneath. We could easily work around our live oak roots, but the elm trees in the back had a sprawling network of vein-like roots that apparently cover every square foot of our property.  They made planting anything an expletive-laced exercise in frustration. Example: It took two weeks for us to clear and completely plant the front yard, with our huge live oak. It took more than two months to clear and plant our back yard, even with our beloved tree shovel (see Lesson #3). I did, however, have some serious muscles in my upper arms by the time we were done.

Plants themselves are expensive, although I was fortunate to acquire many freebies (see Lesson #4). Our small trees, the two East Palatka hollies, Weeping Yaupon holly, and Majestic Beauty Hawthorne, cost $75 each. Coonties are $15-$20 each and we have about 15 of them. Evergreen Liriope is a bargain, at about $2 each, but we have about 40 of those! However, there is no doubt in my mind that the front-end investment is more than justified. We use hardly any water on this landscape, and most of the water we use comes from our rain barrels. I know folks in high-end developments with in-ground irrigation systems and large, grass-dominated landscapes who spend $50-$100 or more every month just to water their grass! Our water bill averages $5-$6 a month.
Our weeping yaupon holly
 right after planting

We don't have to pay a lawn service to mow, fertilize or apply pesticides to our new yard, or spend our free time doing that ourselves. We gave away our lawn mower!

And most of the plants we chose are "lifers" -- they'll be with us for years, or even decades. 

Grass is definitely the cheapest landscape choice in the short run - that's why developers love to thrown down sod on new homesites-- but the most expensive in the long run. Plus, IMHO, grass is just plain boring.

3. Good garden tools are worth their weight in gold.

Rick with our new wheelbarrow
and the "Super Shovel"
We started the yard makeover with a cheap shovel, a hoe, a rake and a rusty wheelbarrow with one wheel about to fall off. It did, in fact, fall off about two weeks into the project. By the time we finished, we owned a good wheelbarrow, an axe, a pickax, a posthole digger, a good tree saw, and -- my favorite garden tool ever -- an $80 tree shovel that will slice through just about anything short of concrete.

I still remember my husband's sticker shock when I came home with the $80 shovel. Then he used it. Never heard a peep out of him after that. 

4. Gardeners are the most generous and helpful people on earth.

My plant-loving friends, neighbors and colleagues took a keen interest in our yard makeover. Free seeds, cuttings and starter pots of plants came pouring in. Many were not in Lisa's landscape plan, but many were. I received a chickasaw plum seedling and several home-grown coonties from my colleague Carlos -- saving me a bunch of money, since coonties are expensive. Virginia provided, and continues to provide, all sorts of native wildflower seeds. She also gave me a stunning bird's nest anthurium that is a focal point of our backyard. Suzanne gave me a cardboard palm that she had carried with her in a pot from one new home to another for 15 years. I planted it in the front yard, and it has taken off.
Thank you sign I posted by little coontie
 plants Carlos gave me.

5. Landscape designers and garden coaches are very good investments.

I knew I needed professional help with our yard makeover. I realized I had many every mistake in the gardening book. Both Rick and I agreed that, if were going to go to all this trouble and work, we wanted to do it right this time. We have never regretted hiring Lisa to develop a landscape plan for us. She came up with a design that looks good (instead of the haphazard mess I left behind) and that fits our needs and lifestyle. She chose lots of native plants, at our request, and also lots of inexpensive, Florida-friendly plants (like the liriope) that helped keep our costs down.

Our landscape plan
Having expert assistance in developing a landscape plan will probably cost less than you think, and save you from wasting money on plants not suited to your site conditions or location. Whether you want to make small changes or wholesale do-overs like we did, landscape designers and gardening coaches can help you plant the "right plant in the right place" and achieve success.

So, these are a few of the lessons I've learned from my yard makeover. What are the most important lessons you've learned as a gardener?


  1. Love the way your yard has filled in with a garden instead of a lawn. Always inspirational to visit here.

  2. Thank you, NanaK! Likewise with your Garden Path blog. I love sharing my garden and learning from others. Our plants are looking very happy thanks to the nearly 4 inches of rain they received in the last week. Hope it keeps on coming!

  3. I like what you've said about landscaping, “Like a marriage, you can’t just plant a garden and forget about it. You must nurture it”. Landscaping is not just a one-time engagement. You have to devote yourself to what you have started. It has to be taken care of because it needs daily maintenance to keep clean, safe, healthy, and attractive.

    ^Shona Martinez

  4. Thanks so much, Shona. It is so true. Anything worth doing requires work. But gardening is truly a labor of love, isn't it? I used to hate "yard work." But now that I have a GARDEN instead of just a YARD, I find that I love spending time with my plants. I love to see how they change with the seasons and grow over time, and there's always some interesting critter to observe.

  5. I would love to use a gardening coach. I love the hands-on physical labor part of gardening, I just have trouble with creating the vision. Lisa did a fabulous job on your yard and I'm sure you are lovin' it!

  6. We also lacked vision, Daisy, and any sense of landscape design! Lisa was a huge help to us, and I learned so much from working with her. I highly recommend hiring a gardening coach or landscape designer -- they are a bargain in the long run, especially if you are able and willing to contribute your own "sweat equity" to the cause.

  7. Anyhow, I am blown away by your concept here! it really motivates me. Landscape is important, not just as scenery but because it links culture with nature, and the past with the present. It has many values, not all of them tangible (such as sense of place); and it matters to people – it is people who create and value landscape. Thanks.

  8. Thank you for your insightful comments, Michael. I agree with everything you have said, especially about landscapes providing a sense of place. I think that is especially important in Florida, where so many residents (including myself) have come from some other state or nation. We have to learn to embrace and celebrate what is unique and special about Florida, and to garden in harmony with this beautiful place.