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Starting From Scratch: Experimenting In A City Garden

Zinnias in a city garden

Two years ago, Gretchen and Ethan (one of our co-owners) bought a home in the city. With it came a backyard overrun with Japanese knotweed and a dilapidated barn.

In this short timeframe they’ve turned their nightmare backyard into a vibrant city garden. Despite being warned by Gretchen before I went to interview her that “not much was in bloom,” I was thoroughly impressed with the state of the gardens – especially considering that they've only been planted and growing for a year.

raised vegetable bed in city garden
The raised bed was built this spring and is bursting with herbs and tomatoes.

The back door opens out on to a lush, green lawn with pockets of gardens all around. The raised bed to the right is filled with basil, dill, cilantro and some very aggressive tomatoes. It took a lot not to grab one off the vine and pop it into my mouth (although I’m sure that would have been welcomed).

Colorful Zinnias and just-opening Dahlias neighbor the wild and delicious-looking vegetable garden.

A family of gardeners

Their three adorable daughters fought for my attention from the beginning to show me the plants they had a part in growing. “Ethan took the girls to the old American Meadows building and they got sad that the garden I planted there six years ago was going to be left,” explains Gretchen. “So we dug up a couple plants from there and brought them over here. One is a butterfly weed.”

perennials in city garden
Adia poses next to her rescued Catmint.

Adia, the oldest, chimes in. “This is one of my catmint plants. I rescued it from my dad’s old work and [we also rescued] the butterfly weed. There are actually three little catmint plants,” she says proudly.

A small green fence keeps their excited hound dog from trampling on the young perennial garden and there are an abundance of snapdragons peeking through. “What I did last year, was I filled in with a few snapdragons and they must have self-seeded because they have completely taken over,” says Gretchen.  

snapdragons in city garden
Snapdragons poke up from the fence.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that

She describes her garden as a hodge-podge of plants she’s ordered, that employees have used for various projects and Ethan has brought home, as well as end-of-the-season surprises that she’s given new life to. “I think they were doing a video on vines so about a month ago I planted a Clematis and other vines around the fence but they are still pretty small,” she points out.

stone wall in a city garden
All of the stones in this fence came from the old foundation of the house.

Gretchen says she planted a lot of varieties that attract hummingbirds. As we walk around the L-shaped garden that abuts the fence she describes each plant, weeding as she goes. “I loved the Yarrow so much that I got two more and they are all the same. Hiding in here is a tiny blueberry plant,” she says, pushing foliage aside to show me.

Battling the weeds

But Gretchen doesn’t do all the weeding herself – she has three little gardeners that help keep the garden looking sharp. During our interview, Adia pointed out a knotweed and pulled it. Gretchen says they had their excavator dig down and remove 18” of soil when they first moved in to eradicate the Japanese knotweed problem. “It mostly worked but there are still these areas where it pops up once in awhile and it’s nasty,” she adds.

zinnias in a city garden
Gretchen added Zinnia seeds for late season color.

I love the city garden but Gretchen tells me she’s not quite happy with it yet. I think we’re all a little like that with our own spaces. “I stand here and I look at the garden I think things look really green,” she says. “It doesn’t look that colorful. Things are passed because I think I haven’t been that great about planting late summer stuff … that’s why I stuck the Zinnias in there.” The annuals give the garden plenty of color, especially in the late season.

Gardens are always changing and evolving

As with every garden that’s ever existed, it’s still a work in progress. Their next project involves creating a shade garden by the driveway. Because they haven’t gotten the chance to plant yet, I spy several crates brimming with tiny plants. “These all came as bare roots and I knew I wasn’t going to get them planted quickly, so they are actually just planted in garden dirt in the crate,” says Gretchen. “They were starting to grow in their plastic bags in the garage so I stuck them in here so I could keep them alive until I was ready to put them in the garden.”

city garden
These plants will eventually be added to the shade garden next to the driveway.

As we wrap up, Gretchen talks a little more about the whirlwind of a year with the garden. “Everything here is from the spring of 2015 or this year. It’s been a lot! I love gardening, I’m not great at it but I love doing it,” she says. “My biggest issue is I’m not very good about planning it out ahead of time and I feel like I’m learning as I go with that.”

butterfly bush in a city garden
The butterfly bush was pleasantly large for only being planted last spring.

Like many of us who work at American Meadows and are blessed with the problem of finding homes for plants in need, Gretchen admits there isn’t always rhyme or reason to their city garden. “I want to have a lot of different plants so I end up with one here, one there and one there, which is fine but it’s not quite as manicured,” she says. “It’s all about experimenting for me.”

Have you been rehab-ing a neglected garden on your property? Please tell us about it in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Starting From Scratch: Experimenting In A City Garden”

  • Crickets

    Don't be so hard on yourself; I loved reading about your garden and its organic, dynamic creation! :) I am like you, I adore being outside and gardening and learning as I go.
    We have nearly 3 acres of disturbed, compacted and mostly barren soul to cultivate. First our task was to pull the noxious/invasive weeds, leaving the few desirable natives. Now it's a perpetual, frantic race to plant desirables and to continue to weed more quickly than the weeds can go to seed. Meh. We win some, we lose some. But I get inordinately elated over every win! Who CARES if my newly planted colchicum giants from American Meadows are blooming in bare dirt, surrounded by dandelions and other weeds: AT LEAST THEY ARE BLOOMING!! :)

    Reply
  • Meri Chrysti Coury
    Meri Chrysti Coury September 17, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    Yeah, I don't plan ahead either, mostly because I don't have much money and I usually buy whatever is on sale, if I can afford it at the time. But, I love to be out in nature, and gardening does that for me! I've been "rehabbing" the yard where I live for the last five years, and I'm no where near being finished, but it is coming along nicely. I get many, many compliments on it from the neighbors!

    Reply
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