Secret Garden Overhaul Part I

The first time I saw the house it was the beginning of spring and the overgrown garden was in full bloom. Pink camellias, azaleas, Japanese laurels, holly, morning glory, and dainty purple blooms of vinca covered the garden. Ivy crept across the brick walls and spilled out onto the crumbling brick path. Neglected for the past seven years, I had to duck and weave to avoid being hit in the face with leaves and branches. It didn’t matter. Walking through the rusted wrought iron gates, I couldn’t even tell I was in the city. Church bells tolled softly in the distance. I believe I used the phrase “secret garden” not once but several times. Cut to one year later, after six months of landscaping, all I can do is shake my head and laugh. Secret garden? Ugh…so dumb and naive.

My appreciation and respect for gardening has grown immensely. I’ve learned it’s not as easy as buying a plant, digging a hole and putting it in the ground. You have to consider zones, types of soil and PH levels. Is it a full sun, part sun, or shade loving plant? It is a high maintenance plant? Will you spend hours pruning, or picking slugs off of it? Then there is the garden layout and design. There is so much to consider before buying plants!

I didn’t know much about gardening. So I checked out books and a gardening DVD from the library. The gardener in the video walked through several gardens and was giving tips and recommendations for certain plants, flowers etc. The very last garden he walked through was absolutely gorgeous, and I thought, “I want my garden to look just like that.” He speculated the owner probably spent a good three to four hours a day maintaining the garden. Um…what?! The more I learn it’s become obvious why gardening seems to be a popular hobby for the retired.

So I had to be honest with myself and address unrealistic expectations. Easier said than done. Shopping at a nursery and starring at the dozens of colorful and beautiful flowers its so easy to talk yourself into anything. I would love to be the gardener in that video, spending several hours a day toiling away in a beautiful and high maintenance garden. Will I ever be that gardener? No.

I planned out the garden and decided on low maintenance perennials. I figured, with my limited gardening skills, these would have the best chance of surviving. I also liked that they would come back every year and I would only have to fertilize and handle basic maintenance.

The other consideration was sunlight. I loved that the trees provided privacy from my neighbors, but it created a lot of shade in the garden. Only one area gets full sun, and only for a few hours. Therefore, I would have to find part or full shade loving perennials that flowered.

Overhauling the entire garden was going to be quite an undertaking and I decided to tackle it one section at a time. It was hard to tell what the original garden design looked like. Ivy, vinca and other vines were growing into the majority of the shrubs and smothering them. So first and foremost, the ground covering needed to go.


Once the ground covering was ripped out, and I discovered that only three feet of the brick border was still somewhat intact. Luckily, the back portion of the garden was filled with bricks which I dug out to rebuild the brick border.

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I planted three azalea bushes. I picked bushes on the smaller side to give them room to grow into the space, plus let’s be honest they were cheaper. Next, I cut and laid down weed barrier fabric and mulched. Weed barrier fabric is not cheap, but its sooo worth the money! It has saved me hours in weeding.

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This corner section had been taken over by some sort of grass, and mosquitoes loved it. I hated it. So it was removed along with the interesting small section of wood fence, and rotting bird house.


I planted two blue hydrangeas, put down barrier fabric, mulched and rebuilt the brick border. I left the Japanese Maple, and other small tree. I think its a Crepe Myrtle, but I’m not 100% sure. Regardless, it provides shade for my hydrangeas and the butterflies and bees seem to like it.

Eventually, the hydrangeas will grow large enough and help hide the odd empty space between the brick wall and my neighbor’s fence.


I cleared this entire area, including the large Japanese Laurel. It was in an odd spot, and the fact that it wasn’t centered in the flower bed annoyed me. Plus I already had so many of them in the garden, did I really need another one?


This area of the garden only gets a few hours of morning light, so I chose perennials that thrive in part shade. I tried to get a decent picture, but either it was too sunny or dark. So here is a little bit of both lol.


I planted pink and white mountain laurels, tree peonies and wisteria that I am attempting to train to grow across the fence. I learned that this is where patience comes into play. I could have gotten larger more mature shrubs, but it would have cost a lot more money. I decided to wait and see how they grow into the space next year before adding more.

Tree peonies can take up to two years to bloom, but when they do the beautiful plate sized flowers are worth the wait. Ditto for the wisteria.

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By the time I started working on the area by the gardening shed it was the end of July and very hot and humid. I was pretty much over landscaping at this point, but it was an overgrown mess and I couldn’t bring myself to leave it the way it was. I cleaned it up a bit, ripped out the ground covering, put down mulch and rebuilt the flower bed border.


Among the vines and overgrowth, I discovered a small camellia tree and decided to leave it there. Its amazing to watch how quickly new growth appears now that its getting some sun.

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I also decided to leave the shrub that was directly under the dining room window. It has large sharp spikes hidden among the leaves, and is the perfect deterrent for uninvited guests. I just trimmed and cleaned it up a bit.

The tree stump needs to be removed, but I’m putting that off until the spring. I have no plans to plant anything there this year so I’m going to leave it alone.


I planted a hosta in the small square flower bed next to the shed. That particular spot gets virtually no sun, so its doing quite well and has even sprouted a few flowers.


The bushes that separated my yard from my neighbor’s were dying from neglect. Like everything else, ivy and vines were smothering it. This picture was taken in early March, but as spring progressed, the situation wasn’t improving.


I wasn’t sure if they could be saved, but replacing them was not in the budget. I ripped out the ivy and vines, trimmed, fertilized and watered. They have improved slightly, but I’m still not happy with it. It doesn’t help that my neighbor allows ivy to grow into the bushes from his side. I can’t do anything about that, so I think this is as good as its going to get.


I’ve been toying with the idea of ripping out these bushes and putting up a fence. It would provide better privacy, and I could plant more appropriate shrubs in its place. Next spring of course. Clearly I’m going to be busy next spring.

Its odd, this is the only spot in the entire garden that gets full sun and Japanese Laurels are planted there! Japanese Laurel is a shade loving plant, and the leaves turn brown in the sun. I think red roses would look nice. Any suggestions?


I discovered that the light post was purely decorative, but I liked it anyway and decided to keep it. Well that…and its cemented into the ground so its staying put for the moment. I gave it a good cleaning and painted it black to match the rest of the wrought iron in the garden.

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I found extra fencing in the basement and decided to incorporate it. It got a good sanding and a coat of black Rust-Oleum paint.


The existing wrought iron outside needed a little more work, and also got a fresh coat of paint. This also included the fencing on the second floor terrace.



This post only focuses on the front half of the garden. There was so much that was done, I’m splitting it up into several posts. Part II will focus on the back half of the garden, which looked even worse if you can believe it. You can see a portion of the overgrown jungle in the picture above. If you think this before photo is bad, wait until you see the after! Part II coming soon!