a shrubbery!

We’ve had a burst of really unseasonable weather – but it’s been gorgeous and sunny and just what we need here in the land of overcast winters. (We know winter won’t really be over for a month or most likely more.) This has put me even more in the mood to think about the garden and what I hope to work on this year.

As you might remember from last year, here is a diagram of the yard and some ideas for pathways and such:

Firefly Cottage 2016-03-30

You’ll notice around the edges that I want to put in a hedge. This ideally will eventually surround the entire yard and will be higher in the back for increased privacy, but in the front I only want it to get about 3-4′ high. I want it to be composed of shrubs that naturally grow to about that height but not higher, because I am super not interested in trimming hedges all the time. I also like the look of a natural hedge better than one that has been groomed.

I’ve read in some books about traditional cottage gardens that they often use multiple varieties of plants to create a hedge, so having it all be the same is not necessary required. Another priority for me is to have it be evergreen – I can plant deciduous shrubs elsewhere in the yard. I’d like the hedge to look good in winter (since we have plenty of that) and support birds, which a lot of evergreen shrubs do. Ideally I can also get mostly female plants so they can act as a pollen screen or at least produce less pollen overall.

Here are some options I’m looking at – please comment with any feedback if you’ve got experience or suggestions!

Korean Boxwood
Korean Boxwood (Buxus microphylla koreana)
This one grows 3-4′ tall and wide, making it an ideal shape for a hedge plant. It also attracts bees, which I also like. It doesn’t love full sun, which might be a problem, though this site does say that ‘up north’ it should be okay. I’m also looking at the ‘Wintergreen’ variety of Korean Boxwood.

 Boxwood 'Welleri'
Boxwood ‘Welleri’ (Buxus sempervirens ‘Welleri’)
This one is right in the 3-4′ height sweet spot and spreads 5′. It should theoretically look nice in winter and is supposed to be great at providing a solid screen.

Boxwood 'Green Mountain'
Boxwood ‘Green Mountain’ (Buxus sempervirens ‘Green Mountain’)
This one is a little taller, getting 4-5′ and is supposed to do very well in cold climates.

For taller varieties, I’m looking at:

Boxwood 'Inglis'
Inglis Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Inglis’)
This one grows to 9-10′ high and 8-9′ wide. It’s supposed to be really hardy and attractive.

Juniper 'Wichita Blue'
Juniper ‘Wichita Blue’ (Juniperus scopulorum ‘Wichita’)
I love the color of this one! It gets 10-15′ high and is supposed to provide a really solid windscreen. I’d love to grow this all along the back of our yard to provide a living fence to block our view of our neighbor’s back yard AND to provide a nice backdrop for other plantings.

Have you grown an evergreen hedge? Any recommendations?


MVP: Alyssum

My MVP for this year’s garden is 100% the Sweet Alyssum I sowed from last year’s dollar store clearance seeds.

Garage as viewed from upstairs #FireflyCottage #garden

As you can see, it’s filled in a large amount of space around the garage, keeping weeds out for the most part and looking lovely at the same time. And the area on the left, where there isn’t any Alyssum? That’s because I didn’t get that area cleared out until later and didn’t seed any there. And on the right side of the garage it SUPER filled in around the hostas.

Garage surrounding garden

It’s perfect and I really hope to either save some seeds or that it will self-sow and come back next year. I love that it required pretty much zero work from me – I just scattered seeds and then kept it watered, mostly, and it thrived! I’ve struck out so far with finding end of season seeds on clearance this year, but I’m still keeping my eye out. If you see any, let me know what store!


walkways complete!

I’m back from a week away at a conference in Bozeman, and while I was gone the walkway project was completed – at least this portion of the work. As you’ll see, there’s still some things that need to be done (grass! gardens!).

Firefly Cottage

Out front, we have a lovely red stamped concrete pathway that goes all the way from the street to the front door.

Firefly Cottage

It leads right up to the front steps and the patio area up here is now slightly larger than it was with the pavers.

Firefly Cottage

On the side of the house, we went with a regular concrete (less spendy!), had the pathway moved out farther from the house and widened, and added a horseshoe-ish path going on either side of the garage to the existing slabs.

Firefly Cottage

We also had all the downspouts buried (in the yard [dirt] you can see the green pop-ups where they’ll drain when it’s raining) while we were at it.

Firefly Cottage

This horseshoe-ish shape means that when we have folks over, they can park on the slab in front of the garage and have a walkway to get to the house instead of having to traverse the alley (which is dirt) or the grass. The areas between the garage and the horseshoe will be gardens rather than grass.

Firefly Cottage

We also have a much better walkway to the back gate. The gate was moved over along with the walkway, so it’s all farther away from the side of the house – before it was so close you felt like you were going to run into the house with your elbow if you weren’t careful. And the window well back here was a huge hazard! No longer!

Firefly Cottage

That window well is now well back from the pathway, hooray! I’ll also be planting in this area between the walkway and the house. I need to decide what to plant there. I don’t want anything that will climb up the house (remember all the horrible tenacious vines that we cleared off the house? Remnants of the roots are still clinging to the brick!) or be too bushy – but I do want perennials that pretty much take care of themselves once established. Any suggestions?

Firefly Cottage

Great news! Despite being dug up/disturbed over the winter when we had the basement/exterior drainage system installed, and being disturbed again during this project, the roses are thriving! I had expected them to die, but they’re looking amazing. I’m so pleased!

Firefly Cottage


yard progress

Friday morning I picked up four fruit trees that I had ordered through the Isabella Conservation District‘s annual tree sale:
– Methley plum
– Blake’s Pride pear
– Harrow Sweet pear
– Canadian Harmony peach

I was super excited to get these – the conservation district offers them at a really affordable price, and this means we’ll have that much more fresh fruit to enjoy (I hope!). They also only sell varieties that should do well in this climate. The trees spent the day and night in our garage – for bareroot trees a cool place out of the sun is usually a safe space to keep them if you only need to do so for a short time before planting.

Saturday morning we got out bright and early and started digging holes! We are also having some repairs to the outside of our home done, and the masons were out on the scaffolding working on the chimney while we were out planting. It’s nice to be getting so many things accomplished!

First off, we started with this Harrow Sweet Pear tree:

Harrow Sweet Pear Tree

Harrow Sweet Pears are supposed to be more productive than some other varieties, and the fruit should be slightly sweeter than, say, a Bartlett. The skin is less tasty than some other varieties, but I have an aversion to the texture of pear peel anyway, so I’ll for sure be peeling them regardless. This variety is supposed to be resistant to fire blight as well. It stores well and is recommended for baking, cooking, canning and freezing, so I’m excited about it!

Then we planted a Blake’s Pride Pear not too far away (so they can easily pollinate):

Blake's Pride Pear Tree

This pear is also supposed to be productive and is recommended for fresh eating, canning, and baking. It’s also resistant to fire blight and should ripen in September, about a month before the Harrow Sweet Pears. It is known for being juicy and having a smooth, buttery texture.

A little bit further toward the front of the yard, we planted this Canadian Harmony Peach tree:

Canadian Harmony Peach Tree

This peach should produce in mid to late August and is supposed to have a pleasing texture. The fruit are known to be on the larger side and should keep well. It is recommended for cooking, baking, canning, and freezing.

Finally, we planted this Methley Plum tree out front:

Methley Plum Tree

This fruit should ripen even earlier, somewhere from May to July. It is juicy, mildly sweet, and is good for fresh eating as well as making jelly. It should also be a good producer, though it will probably be a few growing seasons before we get a solid crop. The label that came on it says Italian Prune, but I’m not sure what the difference is between that and a Methley Plum. Anyone know more about this?

Sunday we tackled another big project: cutting back the lilacs. I had thought to do this last year but then wimped out. Both of these shrubs had been left to grow to enormous size – easily 20′ or more, and had a ton of dead limbs and a lot of insect damage. Here’s the bigger one last year near the end of May:

Lilac toward the back of the property

As you can see, there was quite a number of suckers and new growth underneath, but those bits didn’t get much if any sunshine so they didn’t really have a chance. I decided that the big limbs would have to go in the interest of encouraging the plant to be a manageable-sized shrub again.

Lilac toward the front of the property

This one, which is closer to the front of the yard, is smaller, but was still gigantically tall. It had an even higher percentage of not-good limbs.

The city is coming through to chip brush during this week and next, so we figured it was time to just rip the band-aid off and cut these down (since we knew it would generate quite a bit of chip-able material). It’s so difficult to do this sort of thing just when new green leaves are appearing, but it had to be done! If nothing else I wanted to get rid of the dead wood home that was hosting so many destructive insects.

Cut to a few hours later after lots of work with the bow saw and sawzall:

Lilacs cut back so they can become shrubs again


Lilacs cut back so they can become shrubs again


Fruits of our labor: lots of branches to be chipped

Lots of work! We were definitely feeling our muscles after that! It’s a good ache, though, knowing that we accomplished a lot. We also noticed on Sunday that there were already tiny buds emerging on three of the fruit trees we planted just the day before (the plum came just as one trunk – no limbs – so it did not)! All the water we gave them combined with the glorious sun on Saturday must have agreed with them. The Burning Bush and apple trees are also budding and leafing out. Yay! We also noticed that there are Grape Hyacinth ALL OVER and that we have some tulips that are almost ready to bloom (more pics on flickr). I’m excited to be finding things that are already established.

I also noticed this growing by the garage:

Probably a weed?

It’s so robust I assume it must be a weed – anyone recognize it?

The last bit of yard work we did was to hang up two new mason bee houses (a steal at Aldi!):

Mason bee house

Mason bee house

They’re so cute! I don’t know that I love the cord that they came with for hanging, but for now it’s easy so I’ll go with it. Hopefully they will provide homes for some pollinators!


garden! garden! garden!

We have reached the time of year where I really don’t want to do anything else but be in the garden or be planning for the garden.

Firefly Cottage pathways

We are hoping to have some new pathways installed pretty soon – these will replace the existing pathways that are in various states of disrepair. The front walkway (marked in red above) is, right now, made of pavers that aren’t super well-installed, or at least their installation has degraded over time. They’re fairly uneven side to side, and the steps that are about halfway up to the house are really wonky. We’ve put in more soil underneath to support them, but it seems to wash out pretty quickly. We’d like to do a stamped concrete for this front path – something that will go well with the brick of the house. Stamped concrete is pricey, though, so we will likely not do it for everything. The paths marked in blue above we’ll do in regular poured concrete to save some bucks. I’m not sure if we could have the regular non-stamped concrete the same color as the stamped or if that would jack up the cost? If we could keep it the same color but without the added cost of stamping, that’d be great – but if necessary we’ll just go with regular concrete for the blue paths. All of these are currently already concrete or stone (along the side of the house it’s a mixture of really old stone and newer poured concrete – not all of which is at the same level anymore, so it’s really kind of a hazard). We want them all to be uniform and to be at least 3′ wide.

Firefly Cottage - lavender along front path

I’d then like to plant lavender along both sides of the front path. I had it growing along the front walkway at our house downstate, and it was really lovely to have the scent wafting like a greeting as you walked toward the front door.

Firefly Cottage - perimeter hedge

I’d also like to install a hedge around the edge of the yard. It will help give us some definition and in some areas, more privacy. Along the front of the yard, I’m thinking of something that will grow to be about 3′ tall, and I’ll likely use a combination of a few types of evergreens to accomplish this. Cottage gardens often used four or five types of plants to form a hedge, so this will be in keeping with that style. Along the sides, I’m open to using a taller evergreen, but I’d like to keep it to something that will grow no taller than 8′ or so. Definitely on the alley side I’d like to do a taller hedge, but I’m still deciding about the street side of the yard. I may go for a combination, with the front part of that street side being the same rough height as the front hedge, and moving to taller further back? I’m not decided on this yet, nor have I figured out which varieties I want to use. I’m interested in using mostly female plants if possible, so that there will be plenty of berries and flowers for birds and pollinators and so those female plants can act as a pollen filter. I also haven’t decided yet what should happen on the back part of the yard along the alley and along the property line with the neighbors behind us. We have talked about expanding the fenced-in area to go further back toward the neighbors, so I’ll probably try to decide that before figuring out the plant situation there.

I’ll be trimming back both the lilacs this spring. Both are on the street side – the front one, which is white, is sort of covered by the hedge in this drawing. That one appeared to be almost dead last year, so I’m not sure if it will survive anyway. Both of the lilacs are super way taller than they should be and have a lot of dead limbs, so I’m going to try to trim them down significantly. That’s enough for this post! I’m still working on the plans for the gardens within the yard, so that’ll be coming soon!


garden pathways – where should they go?

I’m finally getting a start on planning for the eventual grand gardens that will surround Firefly Cottage! I say grand because my plan seems so huge at this point – I want pretty much the entire yard to be gardens with only a relatively small amount of mow-requiring grass in the fenced-in back yard for the dogs (though I do hope to mix in White Dutch Clover and/or other dog-friendly greens in that area).

Right now my first thought is to figure out where we want paths and then design the gardens to fit between and around those paths. Please excuse my rudimentary sketches here – I’m doing these quickly since they don’t need to be beautiful at this stage in the planning.

Firefly Cottage plan with paths

(Feel free to click through for an embiggen-able version – you’ll be able to see that there are a few former trees labeled as FKA. These trees are gone but there’s still evidence of where they were in the form of wood chips and underground roots, so I want to keep them on here for now.) This is my first thought for pathways. We definitely want to connect the slabs on either side of the garage with the main garage-to-house path – we walk that way all the time (at least we do when it’s not so snowy). We also want to connect the garage-to-house path with the compost bins, since we make regular trips back there all year round. Our mail carrier tends to walk through our yard from the east (this diagram faces north – the front of the house faces south), over our front steps, and to the front sidewalk diagonally through the yard, so I’d like a path that works for that, since I will not want anyone walking on top of the gardens once they’re planted.

I’m not 100% sure that these are the best routes for these paths to take, but at least it’s a start! What other pathways do you see that might be ideal? What would you do if it were your yard? If you want to take a stab at doing a better job than I have, here‘s the original sketch without my blue paths on it yet (or email me and I can send you the high-res version!).


future apples

After having had several large trees removed, we are now finally on the path to re-forming the yard. We started by planting two apple trees, one Fuji and one Braeburn.

Fuji Apple tree at Firefly Cottage

At this stage, they’re not much to look at yet, but they hold a lot of promise.

Braeburn Apple tree at Firefly Cottage

This one, the Braeburn, was a gift from K’s mother, and we planted it in honor of his grandmother who recently passed away. We had a nice gathering of relatives for the planting and it was really lovely despite being a bit brisk outside.

I’ve been reading up on how to properly prune and shape an apple tree, mostly using the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree. I’m excited to be able to shape the trees for maximum health and for easy access to fruit even on the higher branches. Eventually I’d love to add some pears to our yard, and maybe even other additional fruit trees!


rosey days

Our weather continues to be uncharacteristic. Thanks, Michigan! Thanks, global climate change! It’s probably not that unusual but it seems odd to have temps in the mid-70s in early November. Also after having had a couple of hard frosts already. But whatever! I’ll take it.

Shrub Rose still going strong at Firefly Cottage

Our little shrub rose is still going strong. It has rebloomed so many times since we moved in, I keep being surprised that it continues to form more buds.

Shrub Rose still going strong at Firefly Cottage

I hope it keeps at it and comes back again next spring.


window well wondering

We have several window wells that have been supporting an overjoyed crop of weeds all summer, and I’ve finally started to make time to clear them out. In doing so, it occurred to me that window wells are supposed to provide drainage, and being full of top soil, ostensibly with plants and roots in it, is not an exceptionally great plan for encouraging water to leave the area. We also noticed that one of the window wells in particular would fill with water whenever we had a particularly heavy rain. NOT COOL.

Window wells

So we started digging out that especially watery well, and came up with a lot of really lovely top soil, which we’ve been transferring to the planting beds and using to fill in some low spots in the lawn.

From what I’ve read, window wells on a house of this vintage may or may not have a drainage system underneath, and if there IS a drainage system, it may or may not be functional after 75 years. We know there’s a weeper that goes around the perimeter of the house, so it might make sense that each window well had a drain leading to that weeper, but it’s equally possible that the weeper is completely separate and there’s no window well drainage system whatsoever.

Window wells

The interwebs seem to think that if there is a drainage system, it would be located something like two feet down from the bottom of the window. We dug out the one well that was collecting water during strong rains and GUESS WHAT there was an assortment of layers of bricks amid the layers of top soil. One of these layers was packed in very tightly and I’m sure that it was blocking water from draining through, so NO WONDER. We’ve now got it dug out approximately two feet and there’s no sign of any drainage pipes or ducts, so we’re guessing there isn’t a formal system in place.

So now we need to (A) decide that we’ve dug sufficiently deep to accept that there’s nothing to find and (B) fill in with crushed stone. Onward and upward!

Related: I’ve been continuing to pull landscaping rocks out of the planting beds (too bad we couldn’t repurpose these stones for the window wells! But my impression is that round rocks are not as good for drainage as crushed stone). Here’s one of the front beds with rocks removed and window well top soil filled in on the left hand half:

More rocks removed, soil added

I also pulled more stones out of the beds in the back yard:

More rocks removed

There are two window wells in the back that need to be dug out, so that soil will go to fill in the top bed here. Pulling these stones out is tedious work, but made all the easier by podcasts. I worked for four hours last weekend and barely noticed the time passing!


plotting the property

Having moved into a new home, as you can imagine I am champing at the bit to start gardening! We’ve had a few house projects in the way first, though, including getting a new roof put on the house and garage (more on that coming soon!). That’s been going on for the last few weeks and has not been kind to the existing plantings near the house.

ANYWAY, I did a bunch of measuring with K and made a rough plan of the property.

Firefly Cottage property plan

This is pretty accurate as far as measurements go, though not 100%. Each square represents approximately 2.5 feet and as you can see, we have a lot of yard. We also have a lot of large trees (the large circles represent the approximate size of the canopy for each tree – my freehand circles are AWFUL, so just imagine them as more natural), some of which need to come down due to old age/rot/potential danger. However, that’s an expensive project that will probably have to wait a little while, especially since we’d have the replace the dead trees with live ones for posterity, and as I was looking to purchase the tree from here, along with the costs of removing the dead ones – we’ll have to wait for now. The candidates for removal are the two box elders, the spruce in the back, and the maple in the front corner. Each of them has issues according to the arborists we had out for quotes and much as my instinct is to save and appreciate old trees, when they start to look like they’re suffering awfully and/or present a danger to the house and people in or near it, then it’s time for them to go. When we take those out I would like to plant some replacement trees – ideally productive ones such as fruit or nut trees. I still have a lot of research to do on that. Suggestions for relatively low-maintenance yet productive trees welcome!

Since the yard is so large, I’ve been coming up with a system for planning so that I can approach it in a logical manner and be able to do a bit each year – certainly I will not be able to do everything at once.

So my thought is this: figure out where I want the paths to be and then figure out the plantings around those pathways. I want to go for a cottage garden aesthetic, with wide stone paths (stepping stones set into the earth and surrounded by walk-on-ables that don’t require mowing) and then flower beds with a lot of variety happening surrounding the paths. Also some raised beds somewhere for edibles. We will always have some turf in the fenced-in area of the back yard so Coraline (and hopefully another dog when things are more settled and we can afford it) has a place to run and play, but I’d like to minimize the amount of mowing elsewhere. Eventually we’d like to expand the fenced-in area toward the back (we are limited by ordinance and can’t extend it any further toward the street on the east side of the house) and possibly toward the west, but I don’t want to get too close to the garage, so we might just push that back wall of the fence back toward the property line. We’ve got about 30 feet more we could go back there, which would expand the fenced-in area quite a lot.

So far I know that I want a pathway from either side of the garage to the existing walkway between the garage and the back of the house, like so:

Firefly Cottage property plan

And now that we’ve got the ugly old falling-apart shed down, there is actually the possibility of doing this!

Shed be gone!

I need to move some daylilies out of the way, but that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve got plenty of other places that they can go. We still need to get rid of the last of the old firewood pile, but hopefully we’ll get that taken care of shortly.

So now I need to figure out what other pathways make sense. Any thoughts? Suggestions welcome!