Preface: Sam is the hero of this project. My dear, you’re simply the best!
If was a very long and difficult winter in Boston. We had five feet of snow in our yard, four in our driveway, and 6-inch ice dams on our roof. It seemed crazy to think that we’d ever see our yard again.But it’s almost May now, and spring is slowly starting to arrive. We can finally see our brown grass again! And all that attention we were directing towards shoveling we’re now excited to unleash on our yard, which is in need of as much creativity and love as the inside of the house. (Though fair warning: Naomi has owned her home for two years longer, and actually knows what she’s doing when it comes to lawn and garden care…we’re the bumbling new homeowners making things up and learning the hard way. Proceed with caution.)
Our main focus is on the back yard, since the front doesn’t have room for much more than a few bushes and is largely under control for now.
Today I thought I’d talk about one of the major backyard issues we’ve got, and then the projects we’re tackling to address it. We’ll call this the problem of “the fourth side.”
Essentially, our back yard is enclosed by the house and tall white privacy fencing on every side, except that the fence stops part of the way down the fourth side and leaves the yard totally open to our neighbors. As I’ve described it before, it’s like living in a diorama. Here’s a drawing to show you what I mean: the fence is in red, and you can see the open edge of the dreaded Fourth Side along the right side of the yard.
If we had no fencing whatsoever it wouldn’t feel so strange, but as-is it feels really unbalanced with the tall white fencing on most sides and then this open exposure directly facing our neighbors. And there’s the saddest part: this gate just hanging out, waiting.
We were totally baffled by the situation, but then found out that there was a complicated backstory involving some disagreements between neighbors. I won’t go into it all right now, but the good news was that it seems like our neighbors along The Fourth Side are totally in favor of a fence or something else there.
We’ve hemmed and hawed over what to do — installing a new fence to match what we currently have was an attractive option, but would be expensive and would face the rock and tree issue so it wouldn’t be DIY-able. The other main option we came up with was to plant a hedge, which would be a nice natural complement to the fence and add some much-needed greenery to our yard. However, it would take years to grow in fully. After pondering it the whole winter, we finally decided to go the hedge route. Not only is it easier and less expensive, but ultimately we think it will create a nicer feel than completing boxing in our small back yard with the tall white fencing. Plus our friend who is a landscape architect said she voted for the hedge approach, so that sealed the deal. We’re all about freeloading on the expert advice of our talented friends.
Early spring and fall are the best times to plant hedges and we didn’t want to wait, so over the past week, a hedge we built! I researched a lot of options, and decided that I wanted lilacs to be involved since it’s my absolute favorite flower and the idea of having lilacs blooming in my yard in spring sounds like heaven.
Sam’s mom, Beth, came up a week ago to help us whip our yard into shape (she’s a master gardener), and I left her and Sam to make a landscaping plan while I went for my 20-mile run. I have no green thumb whatsoever, so I’ve put Sam in charge of the whole outside except when I swoop in to make executive decrees. I’m a control freak about the house, but our dynamic seems to be working.
I’ll share more very soon about the other projects that Sam and Beth worked on outside, but most relevant to this project is that they picked out what plants to use for the hedge and Beth gave Sam advice for the process. I have the best mother-in-law in the land, so don’t even try to compete.They decided on a hedge composed of a few lilacs and then a bunch of arborvitae, which are an evergreen that will look nice all year long (which is good for us, since Boston is winter for more than half the year).
Before we were anywhere close to planting, Sam needed to prepare the soil for the hedge, which was a huge undertaking. After his mom visited last weekend, he took a few vacation days and spent hours and hours working on this. Before digging, he used stakes to mark where each plant would go. We decided to do a lilac on each end, with arborvitae in the center. The arborvitae need 3 feet between them while the lilacs need to be planted 6 feet from one another. Since that’s for when lilacs are planted next to each other (so essentially, 3 feet for each of them), we estimated that between the lilacs and arborvitae we only needed to leave 4.5 feet (3 feet for the lilac, 1.5 feet for the arborvitae).
Next Sam spent hours removing the sod along hedge line. I was home one of the days with a terrible case of food poisoning, and as I lay dozing in bed I heard the shovel hitting rock over and over for hours. He’s a champion.Unfortunately, while digging he discovered that we couldn’t go as far toward the shed as we’d planned because there was some pretty solid rock that wouldn’t be good for planting (we live on ledge, apparently). He adjusted the stakes accordingly, shortening the hedge by removing one of the arborvitae we’d planned on.
Once he had the sod, rocks, and roots removed from the hedge line, it was time to plant! On Sunday we headed to our local garden center, picked out our plants, and loaded them up. We needed 6 arborvitae along with our 2 lilacs, and selected ones that were about 4 feet already. They had more fully grown ones, but we’ve heard that younger is better. They should grow pretty quickly — about 6 inches a year or more in width, and 6-9 inches in height. The lilacs are currently much smaller (~2 feet), but they will grow to be quite large eventually — 6 feet high or more everntually. Into the subaru they all went!To plant both lilacs and arborvitae, we dug holes where Sam had marked with the stakes, about twice the width of each root ball and a depth such that the root ball would be mostly covered once we filled in with soil. The arborvitae root balls were wrapped in burlap, so we were sure to remove that before planting. (By which I mean, we had planted two without removing burlap when I asked, “wait, shouldn’t we be removing this?” so we dug them up and tried again. We’re gardening geniuses, you should definitely be taking advice from us.) Then we filled back in around the root balls with a mix of soil and miracle grow potting mix, patting it down firmly.
We repeated for all 8 plants, and we had ourselves a hedge! Glorious!
It was exciting, though our enthusiasm was tempered when we realized that the pile of sod and rocks had not miraculously disappeared. Next week I’ll talk about the solution we attempted, though the jury’s still out on whether it will work (hint: it involves compost and a rock pile of shame). But for now, I’ll fast forward straight to the part where we spread a layer of mulch (after Sam made a trip to Lowes to get more mulch, because it would have been too convenient for us to do that when we were out at the garden center earlier) and gave everything a very thorough watering. And at last, we could finally bask in the glory of our new hedge!
It doesn’t go all the way across the property boundary because of the aforementioned ledge issues, but my plan is to build a long raised planter there to finish off the space that I think will tie in nicely and won’t look like too much of a gap once the lilac on the far end starts to grow. The hedge covers the part of our yard that is most exposed to our neighbors, so we’re very pleased (with ourselves)! And while we were worried our neighbors might be offended that we’re trying to hide from them, they actually came outside to thank us while we were working — I guess they want to hide from us, too. (They seem to be relieved to see us tackling The Fourth Side issue!)
As far as caring for the hedge goes, we will need to water it thoroughly each week for the first year. Per advice from Naomi, we’ll set up a drip house along the length of the hedge to make this easier and make sure it gets the kind of slow penetrating watering it needs to really flourish. (And we’ll make sure the hose is under the mulch — ideally we would have set it up before mulching!) Next year, we’ll water regularly as well, and then in subsequent years we can water more sparingly as-needed depending on how much rain we get.
In terms of cost, we spent just under $300 for all 8 plants. Certainly not cheap, but so much less expensive than a new fence! Knocking this big project off the list feels so good, and means that we can turn our attention to some of the other issues in the yard. The above photos gives some pretty good hints about the biggest issues and an exciting project already completed. More on that to come soon!