Is it spring at your home yet? We shoveled snow just last week… So the gardening season is still far away for us. I am actually starting seeds this week, and I will make sure to show you the plant babies when they come up. To get rid of the cabin fever, I want to revisit a feel-good gardening project we completed last fall, which was actually a five-year evolution of our north side yard.
2017-2018: The new fence and side yards
The ranch house has two small side yards – one on the south side of the house, and the other on the north side. Both side yards were lawn space when we bought the house in 2017:
The south side yard
The north side yard
When we built the fence in 2018, we decided to incorporate most of the south side yard to the back. So we could hide the trailer and trash cans from the street view:
When it came to the north side of the house, we decided to move the fence line forward to match the south side. This meant that most of the north side yard would be connected to the backyard as well.
The six-foot privacy fence helped to create this 20′ x 15′ space. It is hidden from majority of the property. You have to walk around the house in order to see the space in its entirety.
My initial plan was to make this side yard a “secret garden”. But at that time, we just started landscaping the front yard and there were much bigger fishes to fry (here and here). So this place waited.
2019 fall: Sheet mulching and planting ground cover
The next Spring, we mulched the entire northern slope of the backyard with wood chips. Edible perennials like hazelnut trees and raspberries were planted, the former of which you could see in the picture above. We kept the lawn grass on the north side yard, but very soon, the lawn grass started dying. The fix-foot tall privacy fence blocked the afternoon sun to this side yard. And being on the north side of the house, this space became too shady for grass to grow.
Gone the grass, came the weeds. I knew I had to do something ASAP here. I decided to plant vinca minor as a ground cover. Vinca minor, aka periwinkle, grows vigorous in our area. It is one of the very few groundcovers that can out compete perennial weeds and it is evergreen. By planting it along the property line, I hoped to stop the weeds coming from our northern neighbors’ yard.
The periwinkle were little plugs I took from a gardener friend. They quickly grew into a dense mat with small purple flowers popping up all season long. I love them.
I did not have enough periwinkle to cover the whole side yard, so I decided to sheet mulch the rest of the space. The steel edging separating mulch from the lawn was removed, and I laid down cardboard directly on the grass and weeds:
The steel edging did not go to waste! It was installed along the side of the house to prevent the foundation drainage rocks from falling into the future garden. I took this opportunity to expand the rock area a bit wider:
Then put cardboard against the new edging and weighted them down with scrap wood:
Then just tiled away.
For sheet mulching, adding cardboard is only the first step. It is recommended to mulch over the cardboard with wood chips or compost, so light will not reach the ground through the gaps between the cardboard. We did not have time to apply mulch that fall, so we weighted the cardboard down with rocks, scrape wood, and Roxie.
Of course I did not mulch over the periwinkle. They continue to grow even in winter months and I could see that they would eventually climb the hill and cover the entire slope.
Here is how the side yard looked before and after the cardboard layer. Although the cardboard was not pretty to look at, I did feel better knowing that the weeds were under control.
2020-2021: A secret pumpkin patch
With the unexpected disruption of our lives in 2020, we were not able to plant this side yard for a while. To not let the space sit empty, I put in pumpkins and butternut squash here. Boy did they grow! These vining plants completely covered the cardboard by mid summer, and we got hundreds of pumpkin and squashes in the fall:
We repeated pumpkins here again in 2021 and got great results again. The side yard was the perfect spot for a pumpkin patch – the vines did not look too hot before harvest, but we could hardly see it from most of the backyard.
If you think the fall sight was bad, the winter view was worse. Lazy me left all the vines in the ground to decompose after harvest. Although the dead vines functioned like a mulch layer, it was terrible to look at. This was NOT the secret garden I had in mind. Oops.
2022 Fall – Finally planting!
Fast forward to the Fall of 2022, after finishing the major renovations inside of the house, it was time to make over this little side yard! My plan was still to make this space a secret garden. With the fence/house on all three sides, I would be adding screening evergreens and climbing plants on the perimeters and fill the center with perennials.
To prepare for the planting, I racked out pumpkin vines and cardboard pieces that had not decomposed after two seasons, and added the grass clippings I saved over the summer. This not only helped the ground to retain moisture, but would also add organic matter into the soil when it decomposes.
We also decided to remove the old lilac. It was intermingled with the old chain link fence and we had to cut it down to the ground during the fence removal. The poor lilac has not looked healthy since and never flowered again:
Lilacs are famous for its deep root system. I called for help:
When we started this project, Charlie just joined the pack. He was following us everywhere.
Here is Charlie again, pulling on the lilac roots. Too bad he did not do it when the root was still in the ground. 🙂
After removing the old lilac, Slav (and Charlie) weeded along the fence and applied mulch between the periwinkles.
Planting arborvitae along the fence
Then, it was time to plant! I first added six “North pole” arborvitaes the same as the ones we planted in the front yard for privacy. I spaced them 3 feet apart, which should cover 19′ of the fence when they grow up.
The first one was planted 3′ from the corner (where the yellow marker was). The periwinkle should eventually cover the ground around the arborvitae.
Here were the little ones, planted!
They looked so good and fresh.
Completing ground planting with shade-loving plants
To fill the ground I got a starter connection of shade-loving plants mostly hostas and ferns. They were most bareroot so I used flags to indicate where they were planted:
The hostas were spaced apart based on their mature sizes. After a couple years, we should not be able to see the ground in between.
I used an old straw bale to mark the future path. I made it curvey and narrow, so the path would not be obvious from distance.
Here is how the path ends. I planted a bigger arborvitae at the corner as an anchor.
Finishing the shade garden with mulch
No landscaping project is complete without drip irrigation and mulch. I used up all the drip tubings I had to install a drip system for the side yard. Not an inch more! Of course Charlie was around to help. What a sweet boy!
The last step was mulch. Now the shade garden was planted!
2017-2022: A five year evolution
Over five seasons, this side yard endured many changes. From the lawn grass:
To a weedy ground:
To its pumpkin patch glory:
To sheet mulch:
And finally to the shade garden today!
Like many people, we focused on other areas that “mattered more” and let this space wait. But after five years, it eventually got the attention it deserves. And I am looking forward to the 2023 Spring mainly because of this garden. Please treat the picture below, which I took in early 2019 as the “before”, and I hope to update you the pretty “after” a few months from now! Stay tuned, friends!