My Picket Fence Garden

Some of my clients just want an audience. I know how they feel. When I lived at South Turkey Creek, my garden was beautiful, but it was for the benefit of one–me. We lived off an old logging road, off a secondary road that was so far out a friend of mine brought milk and bread when she visited. Our home wasn’t visible from the road, and my garden was only seen by those who drove down our driveway, and they had to get through a locked farm gate.

So, I get it when someone calls for an appointment and I drive up and think, they do not need my help, but I am getting the camera out because oh my gosh. Sometimes, it’s a legit question, or they need another eye on the garden because it feels “off”. But when my sole contribution to the hour is to suggest white wood’s aster for fall shade areas, I know they mostly wanted garden company and someone to appreciate their creation. Don’t we all? If we create it, don’t we want someone to see that creation?

That’s how I feel about my picket fence garden on the west side of my current house, where I moved to from South Turkey Creek. I finally have an audience.

My picket fence runs parallel to the sidewalk and the street and has a small planting space on either side of the fence, a pathway, and a row of azaleas against the house. My house sits at a four-way stop and while I live in a small town, it is a short-cut for many, so there are lots of drivebys for the garden, plus all the walkers, runners, moms with baby joggers, couples in the late evenings, dog walkers, bicyclists, pretty much the whole dang town. I love it. I break every garden coaching rule in the book and do as my friend Carol says: “We can be subtle all winter, in summer lets break out some color.”

In the horticultural world, there’s a bit of snobbery around plants. Some plants are considered “tacky” others are considered “acceptable” in the garden because, well, only horticulturists know them. The more obscure, the better. Example: My gladiolus, which just finished blooming, would be scorned by many of my more plant-knowledgable friends. But my mountain mint (Pycanthemum muticum) which is planted next to my Astilboides tabularis is adored.  Lest you think I am exempt from this snobbery, I promise I am not.

But now that I have an audience, I don’t care about horticulturally correct plants. I’m going for the fame, and I am shameless about it. I garden when my neighbors are walking or driving home from work. Why? Because that’s when they all stop to say how beautiful it all is.  Aggie knows the drill. She stands next to me, looking adorable while I weed, and people stop and say, “I love your flowers. Thank you so much for doing this.” One guy yelled from his car that my garden made his day especially since his kids were such brats (yes, his kids were in the car). It’s enough to make up for all those years when I gardened in oblivion. What I know about most people is that they don’t work in beautiful gardens like I do. They work in cubicles. They work in hospitals, convenience stores, office buildings, classrooms, patrol cars, firetrucks, insurance offices, stores, and restaurants. They don’t drive up to beautiful homes with magazine-worthy gardens and stroll around the landscape.

Echinacea? They love it. Orange daylilies? They’re so pretty.

I throw so much color at that fence I expect to explode and the more color I plant, the more people stop. I’m not trying to teach them anything about ornamental gardening. I am creating a 35′ length of sidewalk for them to enjoy during snippets of their day. Nothing brings me more pleasure because this world is hard. And gardens bring joy.

I am asked all the time if I ever envy the gardens of my clients. No, I don’t. I mean they’re lovely, unbelievable works of art that I wish everyone could see and enjoy, but everyone gets to see my picket fence garden. They only have to drive by or walk the dog. They can smell the roses, stoop over to examine the salvia, exclaim over 4′ tall allium, wonder what a passion flower is or just stand there enjoying. I change it up every year. I add and subtract and see what works, but there are no rules of design or even maintenance. I don’t worry about the weeds overly much because they don’t notice them. They just see the dinner-plate dahlias and swoon. It’s nice to toss out everything I know and just plant what I think will make people happy. Some years I plant vegetables, some years elephant ears, but every year I plant sunflowers because they all love those.

The best part of sharing this garden with all my neighbors? They tell me stories of the gardens they remember. Maybe an aunt’s, or a grandmother, or their father, but they love to tell me and I love to listen. They don’t know the names of the most basic flowers, but they remember those flowers from loved one’s gardens. And for reasons only the gardeners know, those stories almost always bring tears. I like to think they’re healing tears.




My Back Porch


B.B. Barns, my place of employment, has a container specialist. Her job is designing and installing containers for clients. Of course, everyone wants that job because it sounds so cool (it is). I’m the garden coach. I help people with their landscapes, everything from what is in it (plant identification) to how to take care of it (a lot of pruning lessons) to plant diagnostics (Japanese beetles or voles almost always) to small designs (limited to the front foundation or perennial borders mostly). I don’t help with containers. Instead, I ask our container designer for tips. She really is the best.

But once in a blue moon, a client will ask me, “What about my porch?” They mean, of course, what should I do to make my porch more inviting?

I’m not our container specialist, but I do know the number one reason a porch doesn’t typically “work.” She told me.

Bigger, I say.


Bigger. The scale is off. You’ve got a million dollar porch with a bunch of tiny plants from Lowe’s on even tinier plant stands. Pretend you’re in Florida.

I don’t know why, but the minute I say pretend you’re in Florida, folks know what I mean. Big plants, big pillows, big pots, even if your furniture is small. Forget tiny plant stands filled with 6″ pots of bromeliads. Get giant elephant ears potted in giant pots and placed behind your furniture. Just do everything bigger. When none of the plants or furniture come above the 3.5′ porch railing, and the ceilings are 10′ high, the scale is off.

Stand back and look at your porch. The first thing you’ll notice is all the blank air above the railing and how dwarfed the furniture looks. Now imagine big tall plants behind the furniture. Or imagine those hanging Boston ferns hanging much lower (instead of almost touching the ceiling) and filling up the airspace. See? That’s what’s missing.

My neighbors have a plantain style porch with at least 18′ ceilings, wicker furniture and dinkiest black, rod iron plant stands covered in tiny pots of geraniums. Small pots of ivy line the porch railing. I am tempted, every time I walk Aggie by their house and they are sitting on their porch, to holler, “Go bigger!” I’m betting she knows something is off because even when you don’t “know,” you “know.”

My own back porch is the reason I haven’t moved from this house, though my children keep having children so the probability is high that I’ll move if I ever want all my grandchildren in my house at the same time. Although, yesterday I contemplated turning the screen porch into a sleeping porch, as much for me as for them. I think they would love sleeping out there at night surrounded by a canopy of cherry trees and that would solve the space issue.

I use my porch year round. As noted, it is screened and quiet even though my house sits on a corner lot at a four-way stop. I am purposeful about how I decorate it because it’s my favorite place to be. Aggie likes it too, and we’ve spent hours at night sitting in the dark letting the air and the quiet calm us down before bed-time or my favorite, drinking early morning coffee before the world starts moving.

I don’t know if it means the same thing in other parts of the country, but in the South the word porch and sit are synonyms. I’m old enough to remember the phrase “sit a spell,” and I don’t mind if I do. But, the best thing about any porch is how they ease anxiety in an anxiety-ridden world. What is it about a space where permission is given to do nothing but sit, and rocking chairs and gliders calm jangled nerves of adults and fussy babies? It’s magic, of course. Porches are magic spaces, at least mine is.

My fish pillow, of which I am very proud, is almost the same size as the glider. It’s the prominent feature of the porch. Right beside the glider is a metal and wood plant stand (I don’t love but it is budget friendly at the moment) with 10″ Kimberly Queen ferns that provide privacy from the road. On the other side of the porch, but large enough to reach both sides is my elephant ears plant. It provides privacy, vertical height, and interest.

Aggie listens to my back porch musings while dreaming of a ceiling fan above her. Her favorite season is winter.

I use Kimberly Queen ferns over Boston ferns because I love their upright habit (instead of drooping) and they’re drought tolerant. I go weeks forgetting to water them and they don’t mind. I use them on the porch where I want privacy and green, and in containerrs in the garden where I can’t plant because of tree roots.

For the vertical space, I love my elephant ears but I also like hanging baskets. This is a new cachepot with a philodendron.

View from my back steps. I love that the last owner put the canvas porch awning on the outside to shield the sun. It’s functional but helps create an intimate space.

My garden is right out the back door, so I keep garden tools in a little basket by the kitchen door. Also, handy is a hammer (saving trips to the garage where tools are kept) and a bottle of mosquito repellent by I MUST GARDEN. I live in a rain forest, so bug spray (all natural) is crucial.

Nothing on my porch is expensive. Here’s the place where I say expensive doesn’t matter, and honestly, it doesn’t in the big picture of life, but it is nice. I know because I sit on it at work and expensive is very comfortable (my fish pillow is my splurge). Still, bottom line: You can make plastic Adirondack chairs cozy and comfortable with the right cushions from Amazon.

Sunday porch time.

Extra touches: An old Smith and Hawken metal flower vase that I still use, a canister full of bird seed, and another splurge, a Guy Wolff terra cotta pot.


I leave the porch door open and it makes my house feel bigger and open. View from the living room.

Final thought: Be sure to add lanterns with candles in them. You’ll be so glad you did.