Friday, July 26, 2013

Now & then - back yard

In Philadelphia, as in many cities based on a grid system, most yards are a rectangle or square jutting back from behind one's home. So, it stood to reason that I'd assume, upon buying my home, that my yard was also a square (insert foreshadowing music here).

Before: My square yard
In the beginning, I was very careful with my flower beds, even extending string to create a line between my neighbors and I so that I wouldn't go over on to their property as I planted. I cultivated this square garden for seven years. In that time, I was able to get one of the three back beds juuuuust the way I wanted it; the others were still very much a work in progress.

Then the property behind us was finally developed, after ten years of threatening to do so, and we found out our yard wasn't a square but an odd zig zag. What was that we used to say as kids? Sike! Just kidding, Kathryn! Your yard isn't a square! The neighbors' kids are going to stand 8 feet from your back door and watch you scratch your butt!

2011 - In between. This photo is from my back door, so you can see how close the new neighbors are. Notice how my middle planting bed is completely bisected. 
After what seemed like months of stomach aches at losing half of my yard and all of that fantastic open green space, I came to terms with it all. It would give me a chance to start over. After all, if I only really liked one-third of my planting beds, I wasn't losing too much, was I?

We put up a fence, partly to block the one the developer put up for the neighbors that wasn't our taste, and partly to gain some privacy.

2011- New fence plus new and old planting beds. You can see the last remnants of the middle planting bed here. 
I was really worried that the fence would make the back yard seem very small and closed in.

I realized though that instead of the fence making the yard seem small, it defined the space and acted as an anchor for the flower beds.

2012 - Tiny new planting bed with my attempt at a curve, and tiny new red-twig dogwood
Last year I focused on assessing what had survived the move from old garden to new and added some plants here and there. Neighbor M kept asking, "You're going to dig out the bed, right?"

2012 - Tiny, straight planting bed
Yes, yes I was going to dig it out, but I had to wait until this spring to get the energy to dig up all of that sod. And when I did, in a frenzy of happiness that it was spring again, I removed about a foot and a half to two feet and created a nice, curved bed.

2013 - I'm not climbing on the roof again for an arial shot so this will have to do. Looking better, still a work in progress. 

2013 - Zig zag. Though the eating area is right next to the neighbors' playset, the fence creates a private oasis for us. 
After seeing how big everything is getting this year (particularly the red-twig dogwood!), my only regret is not digging the beds out further. There is absolutely no room left in the current beds in the back yard.

2013 - Red twig dogwood crowds out everything around it but is an excellent privacy screen. (2.5 inches of rain the night before toppled plants over.)
The only solution is to dig out a brand new planting bed in 2014, assuming I have the energy. For now, though, I like the back yard more than I ever did when it was a large, open square. Even if it's a fenced-in zig zag, I know that it's all mine, and I'm content with the way things are.

2013. A happy jumble of plants.


  1. This was fascinating -- how traumatic to see your gardens bisected and that house go in so close. But I love the moral of the story where you learn that the smaller, contained garden is better. You have enclosure, an intimate scale, and an interesting shape that is easier to design than your big flat square. Love it!
    (great roof top and aerial shots!)

  2. What a journey that turned into, huh? At least you were able to build a bridge and get over it I agree with Laurrie-you have a much more intimate space now.

    As far as enlarging the beds...well let me just say from experience that that happens little by little over time. Before you know it, you'll be cutting the lawn with a trimmer :).

  3. This was so interesting. It is really a shame to have lost all that space, but it looks great in its new incarnation. Have you thought about cutting back the red twig dogwood each spring to control its height? As I'm sure you know, it's the new growth that is red, so it should look just as good in the winter.

  4. Must have been a shock to lose that space. I agree with Sue that you will be removing slices of sod every year. Just a suggestion: grow vines up that fence, or roses if it is south or west facing! Trumpet honeysuckle is a great vine and attracts hummingbirds.

  5. I love that sweeping curve of the bed. And I admire your attitude about losing half your yard--I'd be bitter and probably couldn't turn out something half so nice.

  6. What a sad, interesting illustration of the lengths some people will go to assert ownership of land. I like what you did with yours; the curve is much more interesting than any straight line would be. Your images tell the story wonderfully.