Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Best (Outdoor) Room in the House!

We've been enjoying our deck with it's sun-filtering canopy and wind softening side curtains, bubbling fountain, and raised beds and pots.

When we added a few pots and raised beds last year, it was the beginning of a transformation that converted a rarely used, unattractive deck into a warm and welcoming haven that has become one of our favorite "rooms".

Prior to last year,  we primarily used our deck for cooking on the barbecue grill.  The color of the floor boards and style of the railings were uninspiring.

Although we had comfortable furniture, the deck was a vision in gray and tan, totally lacking in aesthetic appeal.  It was not a place we enjoyed spending time.  The umbrella over the table provided little relief from the broiling sun that bakes the deck for most of the day and the settee, although comfortable, wasn't at all inviting when temperature and humidity soared into the 90's.  As far as we were concerned, it was wasted space.

We tried to dress it up with some potted annuals - mostly petunias and fuchsias - but we spent more time tending them than we did relaxing on the deck.  I also grew the climbing rose, "New Dawn" in a pot, hoping it would grow along the rails and posts on the upper section of the deck immediately off the kitchen (the area in the above photograph).

I was hoping for the same lush growth we have on the fence behind the herb garden.  That was not the best idea - it's a very thorny rose and that made it very unpleasant if you were seated next to it and it was hard to move to a more protected area for the winter.

Growing a rose this size in a pot did not yield the same results that we see with the New Dawns we have growing in the garden.  The canes barely extended to reach along one six foot section.  Since it's growth was definitely restricted by the pot, we didn't get the effect  we were hoping for.

Late last summer I transplanted it into the garden where it is much happier and this spring, I planted some hollyhocks along the rails.  We have not given up on potted roses on the deck, but I am finding that miniatures make a much better option for containers and work well with the lavender we have growing there as well.

Frustrated because the rabbits and dogs had eaten most of our tomatoes the previous two summers and impressed with the success some friends of ours had growing them on their patio in large buckets, I decided to give container gardening a serious try.

We found huge, inexpensive, decorative planters on sale at K-mart and there were window boxes to match.  I grabbed a couple of the long window boxes, thinking I would set them along the railing with some herbs.

Then I spotted some inexpensive kits for raised beds made from a composite material.  There were only two left and since the boxes were damaged, they were heavily discounted.  An idea was born and in the space of a morning, a deck garden had begun to take shape.

Two raised bed kits gave us a bed that was 4 feet wide by 12 feet long for vegetables.
We planted sun worshipers like basil and colorful petunias in window boxes along the railing behind the table.
Even the dogs began to spend more time on the deck, especially when the early evening shade gave a respite from the sun.
We added hanging pots of annuals for bright color.  I wanted to create the feeling of a conservatory and so over the course of the summer we watched for sales and markdowns and soon a hydrangea tree and some lilac shrubs took up residence on the deck.

This spring, we added both a lemon tree and a fig tree and we'll be enjoying our favorite recipes this fall as both trees are weighted down with ripening fruit.

Our first year with raised beds was successful beyond our expectations but it was also a learning experience.  I learned that four foot wide raised beds might be great in the garden, but against the side of the deck, they were impossible to maintain.  Reaching the plants in the back meant I had to step into them, and very quickly the dogs decided they wanted to play in them too.

The first beds we planted weren't deep enough and it was difficult to keep them from drying out. Add to that a 2 month drought and it was a daily struggle to sustain our vegetables and herbs.  And they took up so much space it was difficult to arrange the furniture in a way that maximized our ability to entertain and enjoy the space.

This year we rebuilt all of the raised beds to make them narrower but deeper and easier to tend, and to make better use of the living space on the deck.

By making the raised beds only half as wide but twice as long (which required the addition of several boards from additional kits), we were able to extend them along the entire length of both the upper and lower levels of the deck, replacing the window boxes which had provided precious little actual gardening space.

We kept roughly the same amount of total planting area but with the beds and open space laid out in a more user friendly arrangement, the deck is much better suited to gardening and entertaining.

And instead of just flowers on the upper deck and vegetables in the raised beds, this year we planted a true kitchen garden that includes an eclectic mix of annuals, perennials, herbs, vegetables, and even some house plants in all of the pots and beds.

I love the fact that salad greens, vegetables, and the herbs that I cook with the most are a few steps from my cutting board.

Perhaps the most dramatic and important change we made last year was the addition of a canopy.

Near the end of the season, we found a simple to erect "pop-up" canopy that we added over the upper section to shade the table.

 It took one brief thunderstorm to realize that bolting it to the deck was critical.  The canopy top is held on with Velcro and when high winds or rain are expected, we simply lift the corners and undo the Velcro and let the cover sag between the struts to prevent damage from wind and a heavy collection of water.

We also found some heavily discounted cushions in an attractive blue and green print that matched the color of the house. The new cushions completely changed the color palette to one that was more to our liking.

This spring, on a whim, I added swagged scarves to the canopy and the effect was amazing.

I used 22 foot  nylon window scarves that I draped loosely and secured with plastic cable ties. They are easy to install in spring and come down with a snip of the tie in fall.

Casual dining has a luxurious feel under the draped canopy and a paper and bamboo lantern fitted with an electric bulb attachment adds just enough light for dining after dark.

A lantern is suspended from the center of the canopy. The white cord is secured to the struts with white cable ties and is relatively unnoticeable.  The on/off switch is tucked in the draped curtains that cascade along theh poles for easy access.
The area lends itself to both fancy teas with china and casual cook-outs with paper plates.
The beds provide zinnias and cosmos for cutting, herbs such as basil and rosemary, and an assortment of vegetables that changes with the seasons. Hollyhocks are planted along the back and are just beginning to mature and set buds.
The Meyer lemon is full of buds and small lemons.
Squash, cucumbers, peppers, and lettuce share the space with  marigolds and petunias, geraniums, and some house plants. Earlier in the season we had sugar snap peas.
The hydrangea, Meyer lemon, and a lilac create a verdant corner.
The wider beds have a much greater visual impact than the narrow window boxes and we were able to plant more herbs and vegetables for a true kitchen garden.
We've added annuals to most of the large pots for extra color as well.
These lilacs bloomed later than the shrubs in the garden and added dramatic color to the deck in June.
The hollyhocks in the background have had a major growth spurt over the past couple of weeks and are now towering over the zinnias. I hope they will bloom this year and next year as well. The goal was to have them form a tall, thick border in front of the railing.
Our first year with a fig tree promises to be a tasty one!

We've added hanging pots in every nook and cranny. Here, they form a lovely backdrop for the cherub fountain.
Early in the season we had an enthusiastic crop of sugar snap peas that climbed over and through the deck railing.
The narrower raised beds allow the furniture to be placed in an arrangement that promotes socializing and conversation, with ample room to walk by. And yes, that is a second grill. The grill on the upper level is used for most meals and foods that everyone in the family can enjoy. This grill is used for fish and mushrooms so a family member with severe allergies to both can avoid contamination of her food with things that cause life threatening reactions.

Our Katie enjoys an afternoon nap on the settee.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review: Weeds of the Northeast

Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva, Joseph C. Neal, and Joseph M. DiTomaso is one of those reference books that never goes out of date. My copy, which I only purchased a few months ago, is already well-thumbed.

I have yet to find a book about weeds that is as comprehensive and as inclusive as this one.  And while it focuses on weeds that are primarily found in the northeast quadrant of the country (north to Canada, south to Virginia, and west to Wisconsin), my guess is that it would be helpful for many other areas of North America as well.

The book is designed in such a way that identification of weeds can be accomplished relatively easily.  There are identification tables that differentiate similar weeds based on characteristics and multiple pictures showing each of the plants included at multiple stages of their life cycle.

I find myself walking through the gardens with the book in hand, quickly identifying things that have eluded my efforts to properly name them for years. Of course, one woman's wildflower is another woman's weed, and so my lone cautionary note is that not everything in the book needs to be pulled up and relegated to the compost pile.

While Virginia Creeper is classified as a "weed" for the purposes of this book, we have it happily growing over a chain link fence where the dark green leaves cover the unattractive metal fencing and the berries attract wood thrushes, warblers, and woodpeckers.

Likewise, Johnny Jump-ups are a staple in many of our beds and our two trumpet vines provide late summer color where they've been trained to grow.

That said, the information about each plant's growth habits, propagation, and root system has made it easier to eradicate weeds that are not welcome in our perennial beds and has helped us to effectively control those that we've chosen to cultivate and enjoy as "wildflowers".

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Janie and Tom's City Garden

Our friends, Janie and Tom, have built an amazing garden oasis on the southeastern-most tip of the town of Winthrop.

Winthrop is an ocean-side community built on a 1.6 square mile peninsula that marks the entrance to Boston Harbor. A densely populated community, many of the homes have been built along steep, narrow, roads on hillsides that descend to Crystal Cove and the Sound.

View down the hill from their steps, to the Soun
Winthrop is a blend of all the best things associated with San Francisco, Rye, Ogunquit, and Hampton without the arcades, commercialism, and mobs of tourists.

Situated just across the harbor from Logan International Airport, jumbo jets thunder overhead as they fly out over the ocean from the airport. I love it.

The homes are mostly spacious, year round residences occupying very small lots with postage stamp yards.

On these tiny house lots, the only way to gain additional living space was to build up, and a lot of the homeowners have added second and third stories to their homes over the years. And like Janie's and Tom's, most of the yards we saw were carefully and creatively landscaped to make the most of the limited space available.

Tom and Janie's home is built almost on the street, with a narrow side yard and steps from the sidewalk to the entrance.

In the tiny side yard, they've created a wonderful garden with a strong Japanese influence dominated by a Japanese pine that shades a wonderful dry river bed of white stones dotted with light blue stones that give the illusion of water.

Janie commented that they originally wanted to put in an actual water feature but the piping would have been so complicated, they decided to go with the "faux" look. She found the blue stones that give it the true "feel" of water at the Christmas Tree Shop.

Although their waterless water feature has been there for years, I found it ironic that only days before visiting them, Debra Lee Baldwin posted a Garden Designer's Roundtable: The Suggestion of Water on Gardening Gone Wild, one of my favorite gardening web sites.

Built into a hill, Janie and Tom's back yard is a walled garden, the wall being a retaining wall supporting the yard and home beyond theirs.

What they've done with this very small area is truly astounding. Not a single square inch has escaped Janie's artistic eye and Tom's creative use of everything and anything that appeals to him. They've managed to fit a generous patio, water garden, raised vegetable and herb beds, perennials, and many touches of whimsy into less than 200 square feet of garden space and created a welcoming, fun place to relax with friends.

The patio is faced with pavers and is roomy enough for dinner. Shaded by a huge pear tree, a portable umbrella is tucked out of the way but handy enough when additional shade is needed.
The water garden is tucked into a corner but the sound of running water is audible throughout the area, helping to block out the sounds of the neighborhood. Tom's urn, leaning against the garden wall caught my eye.

The back wall of the main garden area has grapes, vegetables, herbs and perennials spanning its length.
A small jog on the left, behind a neighbor's garage, is filled with raised beds full of vegetables and herbs. A bench tucked into a corner (out of view) provides a  quiet place to escape to with a good book.

The back side of a neighbor's garage provides support for tall perennials and a place to display charming flea market and vacation finds and even a bonsai tree.


Every knickknack and decorative  piece tells a story and we spent an enjoyable afternoon hearing how and where each was acquired. This wall separates their yard from the next home up the hill from theirs.


An amazingly unique planter, I love the way the plant forms the "hair".

An adorable pup has mistaken her pot of annuals for a fire hydrant!

Like me, Janie has filled her beds with a mix of annuals, perennials, and vegetables - a true kitchen garden.

In the front of their home, Tom and Janie used blocks and pavers to build a curved stairway and a narrow flower bed that extend from the street to their porch. Pots of plants are thriving and add softness and color to the hardscape.


Tom and Janie did all the work in their yard themselves and decorated it with treasures acquired during their travels, as gifts, and from flea market finds. The haven they've created is rich with memories and whimsical touches that reflects their taste and personalities and is the perfect place to entertain or simply spend a relaxing afternoon.