Side Yard Garden Project

Side Yard Garden Project

This page is about my quest to turn to create a beautiful cottage-style garden in our side yard. This project is early in its life, so this page will not be very interesting right now. Fortunately, it’s close to spring and there should be much better blooms this year, so I can at least start getting good pictures!

The Situation

When we first moved into our house the yard had not been well taken care of in years. In fact, it was the winter and it had not even been mowed the previous season. W spent the first winter with a basically inaccessible yard full of knee high grass. (Incidentally, once a lawn is ever allowed to do that it takes a couple of years for the thick straws to soften again.)

invasive elms in side yard
The previously wild corner of the yard

Beyond that, a section of the yard had gone to wilderness with annoying invasive elm trees (which send out long roots that put up suckers.) I thinned out the elms over time and built my vegetable garden early garden early in our residency. However, I did not make big progress or plans on other things until we bought the house almost two years ago after having rented for 3 1/2 years. Finally, I had the certainty of ownership which allows you to make big future plans. Time to clear out the junk and start doing something with the yard.

Our yard, in general, presents a lot of challenges. For one thing, it is not that big. Our side yard is only a city lot. Beyond that, the soil slopes down and becomes shallow. Probably around a quarter of the open space in our yard is not what would be considered arable land. Our house is on a rocky bluff overlooking the river, with the windward side completely exposed. This makes placing anything challenging because it has to withstand strong and persistent wind. (The fortunate thing about this is that it really fleshes out the “Man vs Nature” aspect of my personal narrative, which would otherwise be lacking.)

Further, water from the road runs through our yard on the course to the river. This created swampiness much of the year, making it nearly impassible. And the grass would die from sogginess in the winter then dry out rapidly in the summer due to the shallow soil. I’m not one of these anti-lawn extremists, so just getting rid for its own sake had never been a major thought.

After considering these factors,  I resolved to make it all a perennial garden.

Drone photo of my house
A drone photo of my house from late summer 2016. Photo courtesy of Jerry McCollum, who generously took pictures for me to help with garden planning.

I am not really the design type, which has made this a challenge- I can’t just envision and draw something out. After much thought I determined that it can just be filled in over time. I’m just going to add stuff over time, and then decide later if it needs to be reorganized. Plants can always be moved.

Plans and Progress

As of winter 2017 I have made some progress on my perennial garden but not a lot. Parts of it are at least starting to look like something. I did much better fall of 2016 than fall of 2017. However, this coming year I’m motivated, and intend to do big planting in the spring and start at least one more fall bulb bed.

Overall this will be a process of carving out sod, digging a drainage trench, placing paths, acquiring decorations, building hugelkultur beds, and basically making all of it a beautiful outdoor living space. With the small size, it will be important to use all land wisely.

I had at least a little bit of a head start on this project, because I had already mulched out the grass along the side of the house with newspaper. Besides that, there was nothing but my vegetable garden and a huge mess. A blank slate and me with only a jumble of ideas.

The elms coming down

The very first thing I did was clear those terrible elm trees. I used them to make my main hugelkultur bed- a wonderful tribute to my joy at getting rid of those awful trees. This northern corner that was previously wilderness is not fully part of the perennial garden. The goals for this area are to build this adorable potting shed, a small chicken coop, and a small garage/shop (big enough to fit a car in to work on it!). Hopefully the potting shed and chicken coop can happen soon, the garage is a very long term goal.

The next thing to do was drain the lawn. A truly ridiculous amount of water flows through this lawn. Obviously, the water that made it bad for lawn was also a problem for a perennial garden. To do this I began by digging a channel to direct the water. I went with the natural flow where possible, then I carved little holding pond out of bedrock.

side yard pond
The pond, much of which as dug out of bedrock. It had a very quick impact on surrounding vegetation. Also I had scraped but not yet primed that section oft he house when this was taken.

Currently, I am still watching what the water does. I decided to fill in the channel with locally harvested river rocks. Unfortunately, I overlooked something: the tremendous surface area of small rocks means it requires a high volume of water to even fill the channel at all, whereas it had flowed rapidly and freely previously. (I implore you to remember this if you ever build a decorative water channel.) At some point I need to go back through and remove rocks, leaving only the largest ones, which is a real pain in the ass.

I remain undecided about the final plans for the pond. It is quite small, and I am fine with it being somewhat seasonal. I believe I do want to seal it, but I haven’t decided the best, most natural way.  It drains reasonably quickly once the soil is dry. Further, the land is on a slope, which lowers the holding capacity. I think I intend to put a small wall around the lower side, and put a small soil shelf in the upper most part, for growing pond plants. I’m considering getting a solar powered pump and filter that will be used to make a mini decorative “waterfall”, possibly a river scene in an old wheel barrow. I bought rain barrels, that I have yet to install, that will be used to help keep the pond full through the summer, as it seems ridiculous to consistently hose fill it.

vegetable garden with shredded leaves
My larger vegetable bed in Fall 2017, covered with many bags of shredded leaves. This will remain central to garden design.

I also had to make a decision about how to manage the soil while the perennial garden is developed. I decided to spread all sorts of cover seed and just let it go to pasture, only mowing on the highest setting a few times a season. That didn’t produce much for results last year, but I think with the clover established it will look far better this year, and provide a nice little patch of habitat for my bees. I also think a mix of plants will be much easier to carve out than grass sod, and of course there are the nitrogen fixing benefits of legumes.

Beyond this, and my hugel beds, the main thing I have accomplished in the side yard is carving out some bulb beds and planting a few shrubs. In 2016 I planted around 200 bulbs in a few small beds. None of them were that exciting of bulbs, but it was a good start. They did not grow large last year, or have the longevity I would have wanted. It seems every damn year here there is a heatwave that kills the bulbs only to be followed by a month of cool weather.

straw mulched vegetable garden
Freshly carved, mulched, and planted bulb beds in fall of 2016.

I mulched the new beds heavily with straw. I don’t think that was the right decision, because it made it difficult for water to penetrate the soil while the top stayed dry and didn’t form an appropriate seed bed. This was not a problem for the bulbs as such, but nothing else would grow there. This led to a very depressing summer garden, as the bulbs died back and there was barely anything else. There was barely even good pollinator watching within my yard. This shouldn’t be a problem next year, as I finally had finished compost with which to cover the straw (also making for a much better appearance.)

This year I will need to actually do good spring planting. I have to get some of the great late summer perennials so I actually have color through the season. I will also hopefully have money to start buying garden decorations so this thing can fill out.

Keyhole Garden Design Custom Decor Awesome Keyhole Garden Design Home Design Awesome Fancy To Keyhole Garden Design Home Design
An example of a keyhole garden. I intend to make a hugelkultur keyhole garden with a much wider center.

I’ve already built a hugelkultur bed that will be for a peach tree, which can be planted this year. That is going to be right by the bed I am making for heirloom bulbs. The ground slopes in this area, and I intend to construct a retaining wall to make a bigger bed. I think the visual contour created by a retaining wall next to a natural slope will look much better than it does now, and make a far better looking garden space.

small snowdrop in side yard garden
A sad little snowdrop in early 2017. The first new flower of the perennial garden.

My current, biggest ambition is to create an outdoor living space with a metal fire pit/cage. My plan is to create a keyhole hugelkultur garden that has a center around 10 feet in diameter and could comfortably sit four people. I will make a floor with whatever sort of pavers I use to make paths. It should be glorious to sit within the hugel garden as it is covered in flowers and vegetation and blocked from the wind.


This will become much better throughout this spring when established bulbs can grow! Check back for pictures as the season goes on.

For the time being, here is a link to my facebook album, I dont know if I will keep updating this one or not as its on my personal page.

For post on this subject check out the Side Yard Garden Project category.

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