How Our (Planter Box) Garden Grows

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With more than 37 linear feet of planter boxes to fill in our backyard, we didn’t want to take any chances. Although we’ve gotten much better at keeping the greenery in and around our home alive, we’ve had more than our fair share of strike outs. Our front garden, for example? It’s taken us three years to get to the point where we feel we’re doing things right. Our boxwoods are in constant need of a trim, our climbing hydrangea is reaching upwards and the sedum we planted in early spring has more than tripled in size. There’s been a strong learning curve, and our year-three garden is vastly different from year-one as a result!

But the backyard. We’ve been snapping phone photos of pretty gardens for inspiration all summer, but we didn’t want to take any chances by purchasing plants on looks alone and crossing our fingers that all would turn out well in the end. We said, wouldn’t it be nice if someone could just come here and tell us what to plant? Simply put, we needed an opinion from an honest to goodness plant lover. We needed a professional who’d be willing to talk to us, knowing we wouldn’t also need their landscaping services. Did someone like that exist?

As it turns out, yes! A few phone calls was all it took to find out it could be done. We booked a one hour design consult from Christy Webber Gardens. For $45(!), they sent Rita to our backyard to have a chat. We talked about how many hours in a day we receive full sun (a lot!), which way the back of our home faces (east), and the fun stuff, too – What did we like? How did we want it to feel? What was on our list of ‘must haves’? She told us what was possible and what worked best in our zone (5).

At the time of our meeting, we hadn’t yet built our boxes. Rita took this time over the course of the next few weeks to email us flower suggestions. Do you like these?, she’d ask. What about these? She started to get a sense of what style we gravitated towards – wild, carefree, low maintenance – and a couple weeks later, we met her at Christy Webber to choose our plants and bring them home!

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Once we had our plants, we planned for our dirt delivery. Much like our gravel, we first calculated that we’d need 4 cubic yards brought to our home, and you guys, that is so much dirt! We found E-Z Tree Recycling on the south side of Chicago, and we scheduled a multi-ton delivery of a topsoil and compost blend. If you’re wondering, more dirt than you know what to do with cost us $25 a cubic yard, and delivery was $100.

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Although we originally planned to hire help from contractors we’ve used in the past, both of our options fell through at the last minute. While I panicked, Scott did what any self-respecting homeowner does before a mountain of compost is delivered – he turned to Facebook. With only a few hours to spare, our friends Ruben and Renée came to our rescue! I still don’t know what we would have done without them. The boys came up with the idea to put a tarp in our wheelbarrow before filling with soil, which allowed them to lift and pour. It worked like a charm, and we had all the planters filled in an hour and a half! Side note: We ended up with way more soil than was necessary, which we’ve been stashing in our garage and passing along to neighbors who need it. 

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Finally, it was time to garden! We mixed in this fertilizer as we went, and another half of a wheelbarrow full was needed to top everything off. As the soil continues to settle (helped along by rain), we’ve been adding a few extra scoops as needed. We still need to cover the soil with mulch, but consistent rain and humid weather has been helping to keep the soil damp as they establish themselves.

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With the planter boxes being so structured, our goal was to have a cheerful, overflowing garden. The messier and more entangled the plants get, the better! We picked up all perennials, and the base of the plants are a minimum of 12″+ apart to give them the room they need. Here’s what we brought home:

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ECHINACEA

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LAVENDER // CERATOSTIGMA

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ORNAMENTAL ONION // STONECROP (VARIETY)

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SKY PENCIL HOLLY // BAPTISIA

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CLEMATIS // ‘PINKY WINKY’ HYDRANGEA

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RHODODENDRON (COMPACT)

We anchored the built-in bench with the small rhododendron bushes on each side, and the two pencil holly trees will flank our fireplace.

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To be completely honest, I’m on the fence about the clematis, although Scott loves it. Maybe it’s the shape of the leaves? The clematis is a fall bloomer that will get white flowers, and although that might not happen this year, I’m willing to wait it out and give it a chance. You might notice that we installed a trellis for it to climb (climb, climb!), and I’ll be sharing that DIY soon!

Any tips on making sure our garden grows?

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  • Ellen from Ask Away Blog - September 2, 2016 - 7:09 AM

    OMG I love your yard! Great job on everything!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 2, 2016 - 8:02 AM

      Thanks, Ellen! Sometimes we forget how bad it was just 3 months ago. Crazy.ReplyCancel

  • Mrs Mike - September 2, 2016 - 7:42 AM

    My daughter took two years of horticulture and has an amazing green thumb. We also have a very sunny front yard (blazing sunlight!) and at her suggestion, we installed a drip irrigation system. This allows the plants to get continuous moisture (ahem, and keeps me from forgetting to water on a routine basis) which helps the plants thrive. HTH!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 2, 2016 - 8:01 AM

      That’s a great suggestion and something we’re still considering! Thank you!ReplyCancel

  • Carol - September 2, 2016 - 8:14 AM

    It looks incredible! I agree, Kim, that clematis is not my favorite. I much prefer morning glories – plus you get the fun of watching them open and close! Growing up, our next door neighbor had a telephone pole support wire in the middle of her backyard, which could have been such an eyesore, but she had morning glories climbing all the way to the top. So maybe my love is actually nostalgia.ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 2, 2016 - 9:08 AM

      You’re right about morning glories – so fun! I told Scott I’d give these until next year to change my mind. I think blooming clematis is so pretty, so we will see…! On a side note, now I’m wondering if we shouldn’t plant morning glories on the hideous phone pole in our alley.ReplyCancel

      • Katie - September 2, 2016 - 1:25 PM

        No offense to Carol above, morning glory can be pretty…but I’d plant it with extreme caution. They are very invasive and will choke out anything else growing around them. They also have a habit of growing somewhere you did not place them, and putting out a ton of seeds. I live out west where it is considered a Noxius Weed. My childhood memories are of my mother battling the morning glory coming from our neighbors yard from destroying her garden. Now that I have my own garden, I am unfortunately continuing that tradition.

        http://your.kingcounty.gov/dnrp/library/water-and-land/weeds/Brochures/Bindweed_factsheet.pdfReplyCancel

        • alex - September 13, 2016 - 8:32 PM

          that being said, they would totally be great on the telephone pole, because they are verrrrry resilient. wouldn’t place them in the beds because of the aforementioned reason, but they sure brighten up a spot in a chicago alley!ReplyCancel

  • Dave - September 2, 2016 - 9:53 AM

    Do I detect a huge bicep muscle on Scott’s right arm?ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 2, 2016 - 9:57 AM

      That’s what he gets after loading endless wheelbarrows of brick pavers, gravel and dirt! You should see mine. (Yeah, right.)ReplyCancel

  • Claire - September 2, 2016 - 9:57 AM

    Try Neptune’s Harvest Organic Fertilizer. It’s especially good for plants that are trying to establish new roots. It’s cheaper on amazon too.ReplyCancel

  • Kathryn - September 2, 2016 - 11:00 AM

    We have planter boxes similar to yours in Chicago and often the perennials don’t make it. If you don’t want to replace every year I suggest insulating the outside and topping with a heavy straw mulch over the winter.ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 2, 2016 - 11:09 AM

      Thanks for the tip! We did double insulate the interior walls of the planters. We’re crossing all our fingers that will help.ReplyCancel

  • Carswell - September 2, 2016 - 11:10 AM

    The backyard looks great!

    Just an FYI about ornamental onions/alliums of any kind – they are notorious spreaders and self seeders. I am on a concerted effort to get them out of my garden beds because they keep seeding themselves all through my pea gravel which seems to be a particularly hospitable environment for them. I am very sorry I planted them in the first place even though I love the globe shaped blooms.

    I really like clematis once it gets going – and there’s a huge variety of shapes and colour of blooms. It looks like yours has a great start – give it a bit of time – it may grow on you (pardon the pun). They are very low maintenance plants – I only thin mine out a bit from year to year if I can get to them before they start leafing out. When they get really unruly I cut them back to about 10 inches or so and let them start again – they can grow a lot in one season – as you can see.ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 2, 2016 - 2:24 PM

      Oooh… good to know about the ornamental onion! We’ll keep an eye on it. And thank you for the pointers on the clematis! We need the advice!ReplyCancel

      • Pauline Dunlop - September 4, 2016 - 4:32 PM

        I too love clematis, particularly Montana for its strong growth. Hybrids can be very pretty too but I find they’re not strong enough and flowers die back too quickly. Mind you, I’m in Scotland UK, so my summers are only as warm as your spring (if we’re lucky) :-)ReplyCancel

  • hannah - September 2, 2016 - 12:28 PM

    eager for the trellis DIY! the house next door finally installed their privacy fence and i’ve been trying to figure out what i’m going to nail to it to let plants climb/hide some of the raw board :-DReplyCancel

  • Julie - September 2, 2016 - 1:51 PM

    The garden is stunning! I love gardens that mimic life: a little tangled, but full of color and texture.

    As a side note, be cautious with your pups and the rhododendron. I am not as familiar with the other items in your garden, but rhododendron is considered toxic if chewed on. Make sure they keep their distance :)ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 2, 2016 - 2:23 PM

      Thanks, Julie! Luckily our dogs have never shown interest in any of our plants. I guess they don’t taste enough like peanut butter. :)ReplyCancel

  • Amanda - September 3, 2016 - 8:44 PM

    I love your garden you created! I would of definitely needed to reserve one of those boxes for vegetables; potatoes, carrots, lettuce, oh my! I can’t wait to have a garden (both in flowers & food) in my future yard. (We are Apartment dwellers currently)ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 4, 2016 - 10:30 PM

      Thanks, Amanda! We considered veggies in the one closest to our stairs, but maybe another year. We love the idea in theory, but honestly, we probably couldn’t keep up with it!ReplyCancel

    • Ryan - September 6, 2016 - 4:35 PM

      I can’t keep up with annuals or vegetables even on my patio either but I’ve found that perennial herbs look nice, tend to need little water (at least the ones I pick out) and have the potential to be used in cooking which gives me a little more motivation to keep them alive. Try thyme (so many varieties), mint, basil, oregano, rosemary (have to bring inside over the winter), and chives. Trader Joe’s sells little pots and variety pots of herbs that can be a great start. And if they die? I just get more. I’ve killed my mint every year until this summer from not watering it enough.ReplyCancel

  • Kathleen Conery - September 4, 2016 - 1:32 PM

    If this is similar to our fall blooming clematis you might end up loving it! Ours is a MASS of small white flowers that have a sweet jasmine like scent. The only regret is that they don’t last as long as I wish they would.
    About morning glory… the article referenced above is for a relative of the purple flowered vine. Bindweed (convolvulus) is a perennial and is worse than awful to control. It spreads by underground growth and the tiniest piece of root will grow a new plant. But I doubt that any self-respecting nursery would sell that. The other plant (ipomoea) is an annual, but it’s a prolific self-seeder which is why it comes back every year. It is aggressive so you’d need to work at controlling it. You could remove seed pods before they drop or spread a corn gluten meal based herbicide that stops the seeds before they sprout. Or pull vines over and over.ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 6, 2016 - 12:15 PM

      Thank you SO much for the info, Kathleen! We need friends like you (and all you commenters!) to come over and talk to us about plants.ReplyCancel

  • Ann L. - September 6, 2016 - 11:18 AM

    I laughed at what seems to have been an unintentional pun about “being on the fence” about clematis! As Carswell said, it will grow on you. :)ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 6, 2016 - 11:21 AM

      Haha, good catch! And thank you for your follow up pun. :DReplyCancel

  • Trude - September 6, 2016 - 3:13 PM

    It looks absolutely beautiful! And look at those happy pup faces. :)ReplyCancel

  • Katie - September 7, 2016 - 7:07 AM

    Don’t forget about bulbs. The pop of color and life they give the garden really makes me happy every time I see them when so many other things are still hunkering down for the winter.ReplyCancel

    • JULIE - September 15, 2016 - 1:03 PM

      Bulbs is a great suggestion Katie! I was thinking the same thing. They are so great to have at the cold dreary start to spring in Chicago. And they are as easy as (okay easier than) perennials. Plant them once in the fall and in the spring you have pretty blooms that die back just as many of your other plants start to fill in year after year.ReplyCancel

  • MB - September 12, 2016 - 12:43 PM

    Looks awesome! My best tip for new/learning gardeners is a soil moisture meter. Nothing fancy, like $8 from Amazon. Just shove it in a few different spots before you make the daily water or not water decision. Takes a lot of the guess work out.ReplyCancel

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