Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Gardening Honeymoon by guest blogger Jeanette Ankoma-Sey

Honeymoon, noun: period of enthusiasm or goodwill.

As a gardener and designer, when we moved into our first home I had mixed feelings about starting my garden with my husband. It was August of 2007; it was a 100 sizzling degrees and when we pulled up to the corner unit we were surprised at the size of the yard that came with this tiny 1950's duplex. Yes, we knew the size and had walked the yard before we bought the house.  Living in an apartment with a shady balcony for 5 plus years, we always thought just a little more space would be nice, just a little bit more . . . So we committed to 4500 square feet of southern exposure (think zone 8b) and a wickedly sloping yard that begged for screening, greening, living. I warned my husband about the undertaking and ultimately we had no idea where to start with getting some green (and blues, oranges, pinks, purples) in our yard.

We are still miles away from having my yard the way I dream it could be. I envision a terraced heaven with a space to do yoga in the privacy of my lawn, amongst plenty of planted beds and garden rooms of sweet sounds, sights, tastes, and smells. Miles away I say.... BUT here is how we and a few clever plant/designer friends have fared with the budget garden challenge.

The gift of giving and the generosity of others

The first gifts we received when we moved were actuall
y plants (no surprise there!) from our close friend. We have continually allowed ourselves to trial and enjoy his plant collection in our clay cut outs that first spring. Success! We never had a house or garden warming party but people who know us know we have a sick lust for the garden, so their gifts are always in line with something that truly makes us and gardens.

We have friends who are always very generous in providing seeds and cuttings that have helped grow our garden. They call it pruning, I call it propagating.  Friends, with and without their own greenswards, have on occasion generously offered to help dig and build with us on a nice spring or fall day. I never refuse good help and quality time with friends.

Spare Change

I joke that I am a master of the underground gardening scene in the DC area scoping almost every plant size, farmers market, and garden sale in the area. So come each April, we use our set aside pennies by season to buy plants by the handful.  We have been known to sometimes drive over state lines to find great sales close to the DC area too, a family outing with a plant purchase result. I am cheap, so small inputs with rapid results, good design smarts, and temporary fixes have helped to soften the barren slope in small steps. Some people dine out, some people collect art, our discretionary 'pennies' go to the art of plants...

Have a plan

We still do not have a plan or design laid out to make our yard a reality but instead have strategically planted according to the conditions of the yard as observed and as they have presented themselves. I am probably wasting time while having fun, but I am sure a plan would help get your spending priorities in place. For now we are enjoying still discovering what our new land has to offer, how the sun works, the wind, who wakes up first, who simmers last, what feels good.

One girlfriend spent the last 15 years designing and installing gardens for family and friends. She, strategically, planted her favorite plants in both her parents yards. As she too recently became a first time homeowner last spring, she was able to go back and help her parents both thin out their gardens,while in reality she was claiming back her plants of the last decade that she never had a place to put. Sharing the beauty of plants for her family has made her transition into her garden home very easy and clever. She has also been the recipient of several divisions from our growing garden.  A nice way to rejuvenate our garden while offering the leftovers to a friend in need.

As eager as we were eager to transform our humble slope, something else has unexpectedly happened that likely will happen to you. We have found that our small garden creations have become a source of enjoyment and fascination for our neighbors. It became more apparent last year at Halloween that our yard has been noticed. Several trick-or-treating families, some of which we do not know, mentioned something about our garden and how they have enjoyed seeing it from season to season, as they brought their children to the door for candy.  The evolution of our garden has been a very easy and fun way to meet neighbors and friends.  Now, while I desperately would still like to screen my home and have a space so I too can have family and friends over and not feel like we are part of the show on stage, I am sure I will miss waving neighbors, chain-link chats, giving cut flowers and fruits to kids and strolling lovebirds in the warm summer nights. So as much as a garden and yard is for my family and for me, I realize in a way it has become something for everyone too.  A way to share my passion with those around me. Once our 'real' yard project begins I will be mindful to keep some windows of beauty so that the neighbors enjoy as well.

So Thomas and family, enjoy the garden honeymoon. Yes, the itch to shrub up, screen out, and dig up will be there, and listen to it, but enjoy the slow but steady process. Enjoy seeing what those before you had, or didn't have, like the random bulbs that will start sneaking up soon, and love it. Also, know that many folks will be generous to pass on plants if you like them always. And some may even need a yard to host their plants while they may soon undergo a major, depressing yet exciting, garden renovation.
I love honeymoons, so much so we even had two!

Jeanette Ankoma-Sey is a D.C. based landscape architect and a planting designer extraordinaire. She specializes in landscapes that provide sustenance, children's gardens, and school and botanical gardens.  She teaches planting design at the George Washington University's Landscape Design Program.


  1. Tanatalising ... we would love just a glimpse of what those neighbours enjoyed.

  2. Jeanette! What a pleasant surprise! Introduce us to Thomas and we'll bring him some honeymoon plants too :)

  3. I second the request for photos. Living in the Twin Cities (4A) zone envy can become overwhelming this time of year.

    I love all the ways you've found to get plants. Acquiring plants through family and friends is less expensive but also builds community. We were able to 'help' our neighbors the year after we bought our house, by removing most of the plants in their yard, so they could re-landscape it. Then we planted up our yard with them. Perfectly good plants-- they were just tired of them.

    I think as landscape architects we get spoiled- working on projects with other people's money- it seems like nothing to plop in 25 B&B trees somewhere- but then I go to the garden center for something for my yard and realize that one of those trees is going to cost me half a paycheck. It's a tough reality check.

    I'm grateful for the people who planted trees 50 and 100 years ago. We are tapping a 36" maple for syrup (on our city lot) for the first time this year and am realizing that if I planted a maple this year, I probably would not be able to tap in in my lifetime. But I think I'll plant a sugar maple somewhere this year anyway.

    If interested in maple syruping photos, see

  4. You have the nicest friends, Thomas!

  5. I am sometimes overjoyed when someone admired the design of my garden. And it is nice to see how beautiful the landscape of your garden is. At first, I had so many problems on how to get rid of those mess of my garden, until I found the answer to my question.

  6. Jeanette! how nice to hear your voice


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