Restoring a Yard

Progress on my house and backyard is stalled right now. The backyard is still partly torn up from trenching for my new underground electric service because we’re waiting for the City to re-connect my raw water line (Cody has two distinct sets of water delivery pipes, treated for in the house and raw or untreated for irrigation water).

(Backyard destruction: The photo at the top of the post is my contractor, Jeff Durham, smiling from the trench he just dug, and his son, Allen, on the left holding the sawzall for cutting tree roots. In the background are Sam and Dustin, hooking up the new electric service and meter box to my house.) 

In the house, we’re waiting for my plumber to rough in the fixtures for my en-suite bathroom. 

While I’m practicing patience–never my best talent–I’m getting started on the front yard, which is basically on the lawn-and-shade-tree landscaping plan.

There’s one skinny flower border along the fence by the garage, and an oblong bed in the middle of the other side of the lawn with a teenage spruce tree beginning to shade it. Both are over-run by lawn grasses, with numerous volunteer Russian-olive sprouts plus a few Canada thistle sprouts too, just to liven things up. 

Lots o’ lawn–boring! But what are those green lines? Read on… 

As you can imagine, I’m planning a complete yard makeover. I envision colorful landscaping that uses less water, provides more habitat for pollinators and songbirds, and is less welcoming to ambling deer and munching cottontail rabbits. No easy task, but I’m beginning to see a plan. 

Inspired by two small, triangular, rock-edged beds (also over-run by lawn) on either side of the drive where it meets the front sidewalk, I decided to plant a rock garden along the front edge of the yard between one of the new access paths (outlined in green above) and the sidewalk along the street. 

My neighbor Jane Dominick donated two wheelbarrow loads of local rock from her yard, and my friend Connie Holsinger, visionary co-founder of the Habitat Hero project, gave me a generous gift certificate to High Country Gardens.

I ordered more than two dozen native plants plus a few non-native lavender (which will serve as deer and rabbit-deterrent), piled the rock near the rock-garden-to-be, and thought for a couple of weeks. 

Yesterday afternoon, I got started laying out plants, and cutting through dead turf to plant them. I worked for a couple of hours, and then, before I had entirely worn myself out, I cleaned and stowed my tools, and went for my regular Sunday run. 

The bricks mark the edge of a new path; the rock garden extends from the path to the sidewalk, to the existing triangular bed–also newly planted, and to the driveway.

After work this evening, I took some time to admire what I had done, and to start placing rocks. I’m going to need a lot more of them, and more plants, but with plants and gardening, I can be patient.

Renovating this yard is a long project, but oh, how rewarding it will be!  

The future rock garden viewed from the other direction. The new plants are in dark circles of removed turf.

In the meantime, I am inspired by the sagebrush desert just outside town where I run. This year’s spring green-up is the best in decades, colored by the prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) and dotted by an ever-changing show of wildflowers. 

The Shoshone River and its canyon from my running route. 

I am taking notes and photos, and planning to collect seed for my rock garden. Who could resist attempting to grow these charming and beautiful native mat-plants? Not I!

Hooker’s sandwort (Areneria hookeri) with its starry flowers, all of two or three inches tall

Stemless four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), a minature blast of spring sunshine

Waxleaf penstemon (Penstemon nitidus), not a mat-plant, but oh, that blue!, growing in front of Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. Wyomingensis).

Road Trip: Postcards From Along the Way

Tonight I’m in Gardiner, Montana, just outside the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, about 800 miles from home. At this time of year, the elk wander right into town–no matter traffic and people–to graze on Gardiner’s well-watered lawns. I spotted these two cows and a calf-of-the-year a few minutes ago as I walked to the grocery store.

After two long days on the road and teaching an intense work, I’m tired. But I wanted to share some snapshots and thought from along the way, a digital version of postcards from my trip.

I left Salida last Thursday afternoon, aimed for Lafayette on the congested Front Range, a three-hour drive, to stay with friends there. They took me out to dinner at 95a Bistro to celebrate my birthday a week early–thanks Nan and Dave, and Cathy for joining us!

Friday morning, I hit the road promptly at eight-thirty, headed north to Fort Collins to pick up Lauren Springer Ogden, plantswoman and garden designer extraordinare. We were bound for Cody, Wyoming, to teach “Wildscaping 101” at Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center on Saturday. 

For the whole eight-hour drive between Fort Collins and Cody, Lauren and I were so engaged in talking about habitat gardening, horticulture, geology, kids, families, the trials of freelancing, and life in general that I completely forgot to take any photos until we drove into the Bighorn Basin, about an hour and a half south of Cody. That’s the Chugwater formation, a gorgeous ridge of rust-red sandstone rising out of the high-desert shrublands in the photo above. 

When we reached the retreat center that evening, we were welcomed warmly by Connie and Jay, the center directors, and ate a lovely dinner outside in the shade with the two of them, plus Habitat Hero gardener Stephanie, and her son Gabriel. Dragonflies zipped around the six of us in the dusk, and owls hooted in the distance. 

I woke before dawn the next morning–yesterday, though it seems longer ago–and watched sunrise color Heart Mountain, my favorite of the peaks around Cody. (It’s the twin-humped peak in the distance through the window screen in the photo above.) 

And then came breakfast, and teaching, followed by lunch with the excited and inspired workshop participants, who continued to pepper us with questions. Late in the afternoon, I drove into town and visited with friends.

That evening, a very generous friend–thanks, Anne!–treated us to dinner at The Local, an outstanding new Cody restaurant. We ate fabulous freshly prepared seafood and lingered over wine and dessert.  

The sun was setting when Lauren and I drove back to the retreat center. (The photo above is the view from the guest house.) 

This morning, we hit the road again, aimed for Chico Hot Springs to meet Dan and Andra, friends and also publishers of Rocky Mountain Gardening magazine, for lunch. We headed west through Wapiti Valley with its brooding volcanic cliffs and hoodoo-like spires, into Yellowstone National Park through the East Entrance, over Sylvan Pass and then around Yellowstone Lake, past Fishing Bridge, through Hayden Valley, past Canyon, over the divide by Bunsen Peak, down through Tower Falls, Blacktail Ponds, and into Mammoth Hot Springs before exiting the park at Gardiner, where I am tonight, and driving north along the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley to Pray and Chico Hot Springs. 

I was so busy driving that familiar route, reminiscing about the days when I worked at mapping pants and habitat in these wild and gorgeous landscapes, and pointing out familiar sights that I completely forgot to shoot any photos until we stopped for the first bison jam in Hayden Valley, where the herd in the photo above (about 50 adult bison, plus calves) was assiduously ignoring the roadside lined with gawkers. 

We reached Chico Hot Springs in time to stroll the grounds of the historic lodge/hot springs/spa complex, including a really lovely (and well-fenced to keep out the elk) kitchen garden, with luscious heritage tomatoes ripening in the greenhouses. Then Lauren treated us all to lunch by the hot springs, where we ate and talked until it was time for her to head north to Bozeman with Dan and Andra, and me to drive south to Gardiner for the night. 

Paradise Valley near Chico Hot Springs this afternoon…

After a summer of intense activity, I have absolutely nothing on my schedule for the next few days. I need to be home by Friday–my 59th birthday–but between now and then I have the rare luxury of time to wander these beloved landscapes, let my mind empty of deadlines and schedules and destinations, and think about the next book. 

I’ll also be thinking about Bless the Birds, which my agent submitted to what she calls “the first round of lucky editors” last week. Please wish me and that story of my heart whole boatloads of good luck in finding a great publisher! 

Blessings to you all, and thanks for walking this journey with me.