My Garden: An Essay

It all started with one plant…

My Garden Project. My all-encompassing Garden Project. Fool’s errand? Maybe. Breathtakingly beautiful end result? Hopefully. Lots of screwing around? For sure.

I live with my paramour, Dee Dee, and my dogs, Tony and Clarabelle, in an area in the Midwest called Michiana – Michiana Shores, specifically – which, as its name implies, straddles the border between Southwestern Michigan and Northeastern Indiana. It’s a beautiful area, and our home is a beautiful place on a nice parcel of wooded land. It takes only a couple of minutes to walk from our door to Lake Michigan. In terms of gardening, it’s in hardiness zone 6A. Pretty cool backdrop for an ornamental garden, I thought, once the notion of actually creating a garden took root, so to speak, in my brain.

In April of 2020, Dee Dee and I decided we wanted to “add some color” to our privacy fence-enclosed back yard. What was there at the time was green and sort of jungle-like, and pretty shady. Really shady, actually, thanks to some dying ornamental trees which were huge and dominating, plus some inconveniently positioned and overgrown invasive vines and bushes. We also did, and still do, receive ambient shade from the surrounding woods and the actual privacy fence itself. So “some color” in this shady place was the initial objective, and the drive behind what was to become My Garden Project.

The circumstances surrounding my initial acquistion of “some color” were unexpected. In mid April, while shopping for heartburn relief pills at a local big box store, Dee Dee and I spotted a display of miniature rose bushes. They were indoors, next to women’s shoes, I think. We thought such a plant would satisfy our quest for “some color” for the backyard. (Notice, at this point, we’re still thinking of our fenced-in and shady space as “the backyard” rather than “the garden”). Since color was the objective, our ultimate selection was surprising. A little white miniature rose bush in a four-inch pot caught our attention. The flowers were white, with a really light peach-colored tint. Even though I thought bright colors were the objective, this little plant was beautiful We loved it. We took it home. One plant. From here on in, it was off to the races.

Note to the reader: At this point, I will clarify the increasing use of the words “my”, “me”, “I” and other first person references, in association with this garden project, throughout this narrative. This is because, that although ultimately this garden is for both Dee Dee’s and my enjoyment, it is unmistakably MY project. I was provided with a verbal disclaimer by Dee Dee at the very inception of this project in which it was stated that she would in no way whatsoever participate in its physical implementation. Occasional consulting, yes. Actual doing, no. I consented to this disclaimer. So, although the actual garden is ours, the responsibility for its successful completion and maintenance – and all associated turmoil – is solely my own. Hence “my”, “me”, “I”, etc.

Gardening and the corresponding design and construction of the overall setting (landscaping, hardscaping, etc.) for the flora and, in my case, the fauna as well, is hard work. It’s definitely been hard work for me. But lots of people do it, and do it successfully. And they don’t complain about it. Which I guess I’m sort of doing. Plus, they don’t brag about it. Like I’m also pretty much doing. In my pitiful defense though, I think there are a few interesting highlights and “lowlights” (definitely lots of lowlights) about this project of mine that might stand out and pique your interests as readers. There are definitely those elements of my little story that seem to stand out to those closest to Dee Dee and me – specifics about My Garden Project that elicit comment and evoke pity, perhaps, from those head-scratching friends and family who’ve watched this arboreal folly unfold from the beginning. Since I did start this project back in late April/early May of 2020 (about a year before I started this site), I think it’s a good idea to catch all of you up on my efforts of the last year so you’ll have some background on my posts going forward – and I think touching on each of these things (I’ve listed five) that sort of stands out about my project is a good way to do that.

I’m new to gardening. Although the whole idea of gardening (cool plants, great landscaping, water features, etc., etc.) has intrigued me for as long as I can remember, I’ve never actually attempted any gardening of any kind before April of 2020. Inexperience has guided my hand from that point forward. My ignorance of the whole art and science of gardening was, and still is, sublime. The mistakes I have made are stupendous – legendary, even. Let me tell you, a would-be gardener like me can read article after article and watch video after video about successful gardening in order to learn how to plant a hardy Hibiscus so it doesn’t die. But that same would-be gardener still doesn’t know how to stick a damned hardy Hibiscus in the ground so it doesn’t die until he or she personally tries to do it. And kills the s.o.b. I’ve killed more than a few s.o.b.’s of the kingdom plantae variety this past year. My research was pretty good and the advice I got from those articles and videos was excellent. And the folks who gave that advice are pros – successful and brilliant experts with years and years of experience. And that’s just it. I am a non-pro with no expertise and no experience. I’m making real time mistakes and learning as I go. So, even though I could probably record a year-long gag reel with my gardening mistakes laid end-to-end, I actually learned a lot from those mistakes. And I’m still learning because I keep making mistakes. I’m making a lot less of them, but I’m definitely still making mistakes. I’ll relay those mistakes to you as I post along, and, maybe, you’ll get a laugh out of them and hopefully see them as cautionary tales. In any event, I’m pretty sure they’ll be mistakes you’ll definitely want to avoid in your own gardening endeavors. In this way, I’m hoping that chronicling abysmal mistakes will be as effective (and entertaining) at informing others as relaying examples of gorgeous, thriving, and blooming successes.

I am an anal overkill specialist. This differentiating factor about My Garden Project is pretty closely related to the factor I just discussed in the paragraph above. In fact, I wonder if alot of the mistakes I reference in the last paragraph have as much to do with this aberrant personality trait as they do with plain old simple inexperience. If the experts say to use two cups, I’ve gotta use two-and-a-half. Or even three. If the experts say one or two inches, I usually use three or four. Or five. So ok, some of my failures are my own doing. But I also think some of my “over-the-topped-ness” has led to some good things. Like an actually pretty attractive garden space being implemented so far, and a lot of work being accomplished in a fairly short period of time. The key for me is knowing when to dial back the overdoing, and when not to. I’m actually getting pretty good at striking that balance. At least in the garden. What percentage of my gardening mistakes have happened because of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies and what percentage can be chalked up to just being a novice? How many of my modest successes can be attributed to my particular personality pecadilloes and how many happen because of good, old-fashioned hard work? I can’t give you a clear cut answer. This site is not about psychoanalysis. It’s about gardening. And I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m just a regular guy. A renaissance garden guy. And I’m hoping that you’ll follow along as I post and take in some of the obvious features, and not so obvious subtleties, of my garden and my gardening journey. And maybe you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions about the impact that my personality has made on my gardening. Or maybe you couldn’t care less about the way my brain works and you’re just here because this is where your key words landed you in your search. In any event, it could work out that you’ll be in for some entertaining reading, and, that you end up getting some useful gardening info out of the deal to boot.

The project involves more than gardening alone. There are a lot of plants which have been purchased and planted in my evolving garden over this last year. And more continue to be purchased and planted. The sheer number is actually pretty staggering. But the selection, planting, and tending of beautiful growing flora is only part of the whole project. It’s a large part – the main part – but only one part. The plantings need a setting. And that setting, I figured, would be critical. When I first started this whole thing, I envisioned an environment of limestone walls, limestone planters, limestone waterfalls, and limestone walkways. And a frog and koi pond surrounded by – you guessed it – limestone. And I dreamed of all of this limestone set among a thriving, growing, overflowing world of green and multi-colored perennials and bushes. Many of these limestone features have been completed, and the installation of many more is underway. There is also a wide-plank deck built to accommodate a hot tub. The deck, although refinished/refurbished just this year, and the hot tub, although currently absent from the scene, are features carried over from the backyard’s previous itieration. In any event, things like hot tubs, ponds, and waterfalls need electrical power. So, I installed all new electrical distribution underground, in heavy-wall rigid steel conduit, routed to strategically located power sources – all done according to standards surpassing the requirements set forth in the National Electrical Code and local building codes. (Incidentally, this component of My Garden Project dovetails into another separate, but undeniably related project – the re-wiring of our house and the building of an addition. This, of course, is subject matter for future posts). Limestone planters and waterfalls need to stand the test of time and withstand shifts in the ground due to the freezing/thawing cycles common in the Midwest. So, all limestone elevations are set on concrete footings, poured deep and wide into the frost line. And those individual limestone pieces are mortared together. That’s right – no dry stacking. The stone features are mortared and stacked to look natural and organic, but are in place permanently and indelibly. Is this methodology another result of my idiosyncratic psychology? Could be. But I’ll tell you what, it looks pretty cool and is definitely here to stay. And there’s alot more to this project than just all of these limestone features. This bad boy is a work in progress. Some stuff is done, some I’m in the middle of doing, and some is still in the planning stages. So let’s see… There’s a new wood privacy fence. There’s a heavy timber arbor for flowering vines. There’s more limestone. And garden arches, and lattice structures (also for flowering vines). And that frog and koi pond. And more limestone. You’ll read posts and see how-to pictures/videos of these undertakings throughout this site. So, the whole thing here is not just about the plants, but about all of the landscaping and hardscaping, and electrical, structural, and mechanical design and implementation that goes along with it, too. I’m gonna tell you and show you how I did (and am currently doing) all of it. And I hope that the posts and pics and videos will all be interesting and helpful.

I’m flying solo on the whole project.* Yep. I’m doing the whole thing myself. That pretty much says it all. The design, the digging, the shlepping, the concrete mixing, the concrete pouring, the stone laying and mortar mixing, the planting, the electrical work, the carpentry, the planting, the pruning – all of it – is being done by yours truly. With the exception of my two Bunyanesque (Paul, not John) friends, Eric and Zen, who have been helping me with some really heavy stuff that I could never manhandle alone, and the hiring of a couple of tree removal services to remove some big, dead, and dying trees and bushes, I’m the only personnel on site. So, if there’s anything cool about this project, I can take pretty much all of the credit for it. But I’m also the goat if it turns out crappy.

On a serious note, I decided to do this whole project myself because of the very personal nature of the subject matter. All of the design and construction of the garden space is ultimately intended for the happiness and well-being of the fauna and flora that do, and will, live here. The miracle of life is the centerpiece of this project and the reason for the creation of my garden. It is the theme. It is everything. The beauty, majesty, and preciousness of all of these living things is so acutely evident to me when I am standing in this place that I am overwhelmed always when I am here. The resonance of life surrounds me when I’m in my garden and this exultant pulse thrums through my core. My heartbeat joins with this quiet crescendo. I am enraptured. Overcome. I know, I know… it sounds melodramatic to the nth degree. It’s just a garden, right? But I feel this way and I can’t help it. No one else, I believe, should have been the one to create this haven for these living gifts. It is, I believe, my role as shepherd, as ambassador, for the inhabitants of this garden. This had to be done on this Earth by my hand alone.

*Since first publishing this page, there have been two updates to my “flying solo” methodology. The first update concerns the addition of my friend, Carlos, to the garden project’s “aiding and abetting group” of personal friends. He’s not as big as Eric and Zen, but he sure is smart, strong, and hardworking. The second update pertains to my decision to use an outstanding fence contractor to install my new fence system. These are noteworthy updates that have positively impacted my garden project’s trajectory – I’m lucky to have good friends, and I’m lucky to have retained the services of this excellent fence company.

It’s actually a whole bunch of gardens. When I first started this project, I had a basic idea of how I wanted the garden space to look and feel. Vague idea is probably more accurate. Dee Dee and I knew, for sure, that we wanted color. But we knew we wanted some other things, too. We knew we wanted green. We knew we wanted lush and vegetative. We knew we wanted perennials, bushes, and shrubs. We knew we wanted a cottage garden feel (sans edible/harvestable vegetables) so we knew we wanted stone somewhere in there, too. With this very basic and very vague overall notion in place in my brain, plus the one little rose bush we bought at the very start (along with antacids) already in the fold, we started looking around at plants. We visited nurseries, in person and online. Lots and lots of nurseries. And we looked at literally thousands of plants. Many plant love affairs happened. And I started buying plants. Tons and tons of plants. The acquisition of all of these plants happened before any sketch of the space was ever made or even one shovelful of dirt was turned. And, as that famous (and similarly troubled) Dane once said, “Aye, there’s the rub.” I fell so hard and so fast for all of these showy, gorgeous stunners that I acquired dozens and dozens and dozens of them before I had any idea of what the hell I was going to do with them. (Incidentally, we do currently have literally hundreds of plants – a thousand? – growing in our garden – I’m gonna count ’em and let you know exactly how many in an upcoming post). At this point, there was a sea of potted plants surging against my shore of total cluelessness. With all of those potted plants waiting, I had to figure something out, and I had to do it fast. Since I had in my possession so many plants of varying appearance and characteristic, I needed to get them into my garden in a practical, eye-catching, and comparatively expeditious manner. These plants, after all, were the garden. It was at this point that the idea struck me to create a bunch of individual garden features, each populated with certain plants arranged according to various criteria. For example, I created a Rose Garden feature – a dedicated section of ground with only several varieties of Rose bush, underplanted with low-growing and fast spreading Voodoo Sedum groundcover. And a feature with Daylilies, Oriental Lilies, and Asiatic Lilies with a rich green groundcover of Blue Star Creeper. And a feature with raspberry-colored Hydrangeas, Red Dianthus, Purple Rhododendrons, and small and miniature Hostas. Etc., etc., etc. These features each occupy a specific area of ground and they occurr throughout the whole garden. Some are mounded, some are in stacked and mortared limestone planters/retaining walls, some are set against the back of the house, etc. All are found throughout the entire garden. There is no lawn or grassy area. The sections are (and will be) delineated by limestone paths and planters/retaining walls meandering among them throughout the entire garden. Some are arranged by type/cultivar, some by appearance, some by their sunlight or shade preferences, and so forth. I really have taken great pains to ensure that this proliferation of different planting features did not devolve into a mishmash of incongruent colors and divergent appearance. Various sections connect with others, for example, via garden arches covered in flowering vines. They draw the viewer’s attention across purling waters and stolid arbors. As my knowledge has grown and my inexperience lessened, I have carefully purchased and planted types, colors, and forms that reference and compliment each other and carry an eye-pleasing continuity and flow. And I have designed, measured, and engineered their placement and planting so that they grow and fill out in completely un-engineered and dense and verdant fashion. This is gonna sound overly dramatic again (and pretty self-congratulatory), but there is definitely a vibe here – a synergy engineered by Man but taken hold of by Nature.

Ok. I’ve reached the end of my ramblings. Finally. And now you’ve read about the things that I think are noteworthy about My Garden Project. I’ve tried to fill you in with this background info so my posts and pictures make some sense. I hope I haven’t bored you too badly. I thank you for your patience and for your indulgence. At this point, there’s really not much more along these lines for me to say. The best way, I believe, for you to catch my drift is to read my posts and check out my pictures and videos. I’ve got a thousand adventures and a thousand misadventures to share with you. And even though I’ve probably got a thousand plants too, it really did all start with just one. Happy Reading and, of course, Happy Gardening!!!

John G. Stamos (2021)

My garden project, my

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