The Evolution of a Garden

One rose. It was the only plant the former owners of my Michigan home asked to take with them when I moved in around May 2005. The rose had once belonged to his mother and now it was moving halfway across the country to find a new place in their Idaho garden. That left precisely zero flowering plants in my new landscape. It was a blank slate with an underlay of prolific groundcovers thriving under a canopy of tall trees.

I didn’t notice the rhododendrons until June when they all burst into glorious shades of vivid red, deep purple and lavender blush. That was when I truly fell in love with my garden. It’s been a 16 year long love affair ever since.

Have you ever looked at a beautiful, lush garden and wondered how it got that way? What does it take to grow a mature garden? Let me tell you my story and share some lessons I’ve learned along the way.


The Beginning – 2007

In the beginning, there were trees and groundcover. Lots and lots of groundcover blanketing nearly every inch of my shady zone 6a property. English ivy dominated, though Japanese pachysandra has proven more durable through the years. Both completely carpeted the forest floor beneath a tall canopy of red oak and white pine trees.

The native soil here is pure white beach sand which I am told runs 80 feet deep under my home. It’s not surprising since the sand dune-lined shore of Lake Michigan lies just three houses to the West. Having grown up gardening in heavy, pot-throwing clay, I was stunned at the amazing drainage my new garden soil offered but didn’t realize back then that soil nutrients were nearly completely lacking.

I went to work at a local greenhouse which inevitably resulted in me bringing home a few plants to try in my new landscape. The first time I tried to dig a hole, I realized how tough groundcover is—this was not

going to be easy. I became very discouraged and decided to just live with the groundcover for a little while. Who needed flowers anyway?

My mistake: Giving up too soon. Where there’s a will, there’s a way! That’s what my momma always told me, but I had forgotten those wise words. Next time, I’ll look harder for solutions to problems that pop up before it’s too late.

2 Susans house 2015_web

Getting Started – 2015

Several years later, I decided I couldn’t live without flowers. I was going to have to find a way to grow a garden on a sand dune under the heavy shade of tall trees in a bed of groundcover. I set out to take my chances and find a solution.

Like many gardeners who are just getting started, I began by widening the existing main garden bed and shrinking my lawn. Soon after, several Colorado blue spruce trees that had cast deep shade on that bed succumbed to needle cast disease (Rhizosphaera), which allowed a few more hours of valuable sunshine to reach the space. I began to plug in a number of plants that prefer part sun like coral bells, hydrangeas and coleus to see how they would grow and took notes on what worked and didn’t.

My mistake: Failing to set a long term goal for my front garden bed. Blame it on my youth and inexperience. I wish I would have planted more evergreens and shrubs with winter structure as a backdrop when I began. Next time, I will start with a vision and work each year towards completing it.

3 Susans house 2018_web

Approaching Completion – 2018

Within just a few years, I had amassed a gorgeous tapestry of plants for my main garden bed. Those years were filled with routine trips to garden centers in spring, summer and fall, lots of transplanting to find just the right spot for each plant, and more trial and error than the average Joe.

I figured out which kinds of plants grew well in my sandy, shady garden and collected more like them to fill the bed. Hellebores, foamflowers, hostas and sedges returned with gusto each year. Colorful annuals like coleus, begonias and cannas provided pops of color when the perennials cycled out of bloom. Relatively fast-growing, hydrangeas, viburnums and sweetshrubs created a new backdrop in the absence of the spruces. I updated my automatic sprinkler system to ensure all of my new plants were well- watered. I was thrilled at the results of my efforts!

My mistake: Not sharing my garden with more people. Looking back at these photos, my garden really was an amazing place that could have been enjoyed by more people. Though I did host a few garden tours and my neighbors enjoyed the view, I could have been more proactive in sharing my garden with others. I want everyone to know what is possible when faced with challenging growing conditions.

4 Susans house 2021_web

Minor Setbacks – 2021

2021 presented a number of gardening challenges beginning the day the snow melted. My landscape looked like the runway system at LaGuardia airport! Voles had been having a field day all winter long under a thick canopy of snow and my lawns and garden beds were much worse for the wear. Many bulbs in my front garden bed, including at least 150 fragrant hyacinths, plus a number of my favorite coral bells and hostas were demolished. Voles had eaten them from the roots all the way up to the crown.

I set to work immediately setting traps and spreading vole repellent throughout all of my garden beds and lawn areas. Fortunately, within a few weeks I didn’t see any more vole action. Fingers crossed they will stay away this winter.

Setback #2 came in mid-spring just as planting season arrived—my knee gave out. My digging knee! Having never hired a landscaper for my garden before, it didn’t occur to me to ask for help until I physically could not dig a hole anymore. I put out a plea for assistance and thank goodness, a local Master Gardener swooped in to save the day. She did an amazing job planting and transplanting several large shrubs and edging all of my garden beds.

Finally, like many of you, time was my biggest challenge this year. There simply wasn’t enough of it. I worked too much, played too little, and my garden showed it. I did what I needed to get by, but the end result wasn’t as beautiful as I had hoped. I resolved to do better next year.

My mistake: Not taking the time to smell the roses. Life is too short not to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Get out into the garden while you can!

5 Susans new property

And then it happened

I found the property of my dreams and signed on to build a new home and garden in 2022. Just when I had finally achieved the results I was hoping for with my garden, I decided to move. I am starting over again with a blank slate.

Many plants will make the move with me but most importantly, all of the lessons I have learned from growing this garden will come along and act as my guide as I dream up a brand new garden. I imagine it will take a decade or more to achieve my vision, but all great things take time and I know I will get there. The learning never stops when you’re a gardener.

6 Words of Wisdom for Growing a Garden:

  1. Gardening is a process, not an event. Enjoy the journey.
  2. Start with a plan and do one small thing every day to work towards your goal.
  3. Be realistic. Grow a garden that fits your lifestyle, your schedule and your budget.
  4. Don’t give up! When faced with setbacks in your garden, keep going.
  5. Celebrate your successes. Enjoy the fruits of your labor, literally. Take time to smell the roses.Take lots of pictures to track how your garden matures through the seasons and over time.
  6. Share your garden with your friends and loved ones. There’s nothing sweeter than sharing the bounty.

6 thoughts on “The Evolution of a Garden”

  1. Thank you for your story. I could just imagine each step you describe. I’m amazed so much could grow in what seemed like very difficult conditions. Good luck on the next adventure!

  2. I started my 9th garden, a year ago, after moving to the Hood Canal, WA area ( Zone 8a) and I am so inspired by the planning and process of a new garden once again. I brought 25 mature rhododendrons, that I had propagated in 2010 and about 100 perennials. This fall I planted 350 bulbs. Then this August my dear sweet spouse, of 45 years and who was my biggest garden fan, passed suddenly. Fortunately, I have my faith, family and friends in this new garden that will be ever changing to give me inspiration.

  3. I, too, am starting over for the third and last time. We just moved to a home with much potential but no gardens. I’ve been gardening for 30 yrs. I never want to live where I can’t have a garden. I’m spending this winter dreaming of what I need to get started. I’m planning fences and shrubs at this point. I brought along 50..yes 50 pots of plants from my prior home. They are all stored in gallon pots in the barn. I’m praying they survive til spring! That’s fifty holes to dig without a single purchase. I’m trying to be realistic and plan to enjoy this journey one last time…I’m 63, getting too old to do this again but would hate my life without flowers. I’m experimenting and researching how to start shrubs from cuttings this winter. Life is a journey. Don’t give up, never stop dreaming, never stop sharing with others the love of gardening. You can offer them the greatest hobby ever!

  4. Susan,

    Thank you for sharing your gardening journey. As you start your next chapter please consider joining a garden club if you have not. I know there are many along the Lake MI shore. The benefits are many -a gardener’s support system with many to share your garden with, friends who will help when your knee gives out and people who share a love of learning and gardening as much as you do.

    1. Greetings!
      I live in Robinson Township area of Grand Haven, 3 years new to this area. I would appreciate suggestions on where I may locate a local garden club!
      Thanks to you all!

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