About Me: Betsy Linn
I work from home, and I’m the mother of three gorgeous children, Ethan, Amelia, and Daniel. I’m a Texan girl, so moving to the Mid-Atlantic was both inspiring—because I could finally grow all the plants I’d seen on TV!—and frustrating because I didn’t understand the location. Learning new plant materials is a lot like learning another language, or at least another vocabulary, since the grammar of good design stays the same.
I garden for joy and beauty, but I try to be reasonably responsible about my choices. I have divided my plot into a number of different areas, each of which requires a different approach and has a different theme. I am a bit of a Darwinian survivalist gardener. I give every plant a fair shake, and if it requires more that occasional watering and once-a-year fertilizing, then it usually ends up being what is euphemistically called shovel pruned pretty rapidly. Because my space is so large compared to the average lot (which is more often somewhere between a tenth to a quarter acre), I need plants that are reliable and low maintenance. I do a lot of the work myself, but not all of it. I’ll install a walking path but not a driveway!
I used to try to do things The Cheapest Way Possible, which led to some successes but a lot more failures. Now I’m budget-conscious but with much looser purse strings! By doing things in half measures, I had to redo a lot, and often the result was far more sad and weedy than what I was envisioning. No more sad and weedy. It’s time for success.
I’m not a homesteader, urban or otherwise: there is nothing “simple” about trying to live off the land, and juggling a preschooler, fulltime employment, and homeschooling are more than enough complications for me before trying to raise all my own food and sew my own clothes. Reading about other people enacting my Little House in the Big Wood fantasy is fun, but I have no desire to step down that path.
About My Property: Beech Hill
I live in zone 7a just outside of Annapolis, Maryland, on a couple of acres of primarily old growth forest that are a mixture of forest and, well, swamp. Our property backs up to a nature area/preserve, through which a creek (around here, these are mostly called “branches”)/river runs on its way to the bay. Like all similar properties in Maryland and Virginia, our place has three distinct habitats. Up on the ridge where the house sits is the North Atlantic Coastal Plain Hardwood Forest, on the massive slope and lower elevation dry area is the Southern Atlantic Coastal Plain Mesic Hardwood Forest, and in the floodplain is the North Atlantic Coastal Plain Basin Swamp and Wet Hardwood Forest. That’s a lot of habitats in my relatively tiny corner of the world! Washington, DC, calls the second the Mixed Oak-Beech Forest, which describes much of my land quite perfectly.
My house is a midcentury modern split level (not split entry), which from the beginning rode the line between truly modern and more traditional design in the choices made inside. I still ride that line. In all honesty, it’s the least expensive place to be! I love 19th and 18th century houses and details, but they’re not something I’m willing to do the upkeep on. My life is too hectic for that kind of maintenance! The five of us live here full time, but the grandparents are all nearing retirement, so I have every expectation that we will be having house guests for three to eight months of the year soon, so I’m preparing for that. As it is, the house has taken quite a bit of creative planning to get it to function for all of our needs. We’ve been in perma-remodeling mode for years out of necessity, but with luck, that will come to an end this year, and maybe we can do the additions that I’ve been craving and stop doing repair-based remodeling.
We live on a wedge-shaped piece of land at the end of a sub-suburban (if there is such a thing!) cul-de-sac. All of the homes here are on an acre or more, and they are all custom builds, dating from very soon after World War II to the 21st century. The neighborhood has two empty lots even now, so it’s still not full! This means that every conceivable style from the past half century and change is represented in the neighborhood, from bungalow ranches to five-over-four-and-a-door colonials to several attempts at Mediterranean and Mission inspiration to 1970s geometric with shed roofs to Victorian farmhouses to even one that is trying very hard to belong to the French quarter in New Orleans. Some houses are so completely screened from the street that you have to know they’re there. Others are quintessential suburban yards. Others are forested. And others have a half acre or more of vegetable gardens.
About My Gardens
I would like, quite simply, to have everything. I want every kind of garden that ever existed, from Japanese to a rock garden to formal parterres. But of course, this is neither realistic nor entirely sane. So instead, I’ve divided the gardens into multiple zones, keeping in mind the growing conditions of my lot. These are my beds and zones right now.
The Street Garden
The front part of my lot is the tip of the pie, less than 50 feet wide, and is one of the few genuinely sunny parts of the property. There are no sidewalks or sewers here, and people sometimes nose the ends of their cars over some of the plants of the garden when they park on the street. The front layer of the garden, then, needs to be spectacular from the street and to take the loads from the snowplow without flinching. My goals for this area are continuous blooms from late February or, at the latest, early March until after Thanksgiving. And, because I’m so very not picky, I also demand that the garden attracts butterflies, too, and smells great, because there’s nothing so magical as stepping out into a perfumed garden dancing with butterflies. The palette of the bed is yellow, purple, and magenta pink.
The second layer is a wintergreen boxwood hedge—or it will be eventually. Right now, it’s really wintergreen boxwood gumballs. This will provide structure in the garden and be a spectacular backdrop for the messier perennials.
The layer behind this are snowball viburnums, though I’ve snuck in three pink knockout roses in an intermediate layer and hope to train them vertically. These knit the season between bulbs and irises and alliums neatly together. They are planted up against the 6’ aluminum fence (looks like wrought iron but modern materials) that surrounds the front part of my yard to keep the deer out. They don’t keep the kids in, unfortunately. My little ones can squeeze between the bars, which have too much flex! Oh, well.
The final layer is my green wall. I got talked into trying out some green giant arborvitae there, and I hope they do well, though I’m worried that it might be a little shady for them. When we moved in, there were some conifers that had started their lives as little gumdrops that had ended up becoming massive. Though unplanned, they made our yard into a vast secret garden, almost cathedral-like, that took visitors’ breath away even when the place was sad and scraggly. This allowed me to steal the views of the neighbors’ trees without seeing the messy power lines, the street, or even their houses. I had to have the conifers removed because they were old and sick, but I’m hoping to recreate that feeling in a more deliberate way. We will see in time if this works. If it doesn’t, some of the dwarf southern magnolias will probably be my next attempt!
On the mailbox corner across the driveway from the main front garden, there is a little messy apron of edging because my mail carrier kept pitching my boxes into the flowers. It is weed heaven, so I’m hoping to eventually pour something in cement to keep everything in place. The boxwood and snowball layers are exactly the same there, but there is no green screen layer since I steal sunlight from the neighbors’ lot through the fence in that direction, and it also isn’t needed to block the view of the street from the house. I benefit a lot from her decision to massacre all her trees!
The Drive Beds
My driveway almost hugs one corner of my lot. It ranges from a minimum of five feet from the property line at the corner to twelve feet as the pie-shaped low widens before almost going up to the lot line itself as the drive widens into the parking area. From the end of the front bed area and the driveway gate, it is about a hundred feet to where the side bed all but disappears. This area has a kind of informal allée feel to it because a row of trees was preserved down its entire length, with some on each side. These are 50 to 100-foot trees that are between one hundred and three hundred years old, so their natural imprecision must be taken as part of their charm. When I moved in, the left (property line) side of the drive was nothing but overgrown forsythia and daffodils and a patch of English bluebells. Now there is a space for some Hicks yews (coming in the fall, I hope!) up against the fence, then some foxglove, and then a big mess of ferns, hostas, peonies, astilbes, and oriental lilies, and also the daffodils and the English bluebells, the last of which I spread across the area from its original patch. I’m working at mirroring the same plantings on the other side. I also planted alternating crabapples along the back of one of the beds to reinforce the sense of it being an allee. I really need some heuchera (now that I know what survives), some Honorine Jobert anemones, and some reblooming daylilies to finish the beds and fill my dead seasons. The color scheme is yellow and white during early spring and pink and white, shading into magenta, for the rest of the seasons.
In addition, the is a little raised terrace area across from the green screen that is actually full sunlight, even though it’s hidden in a nook. My color scheme for that little peculiar corner is red and orange, simply because those are colors that I have no place for elsewhere in the front!
My Front Foundation Plantings
These are horrible. Don’t look at them. They’re heavily horrible because I’m hoping to slap a three-season porch on the front of my house and don’t want to commit to anything there that isn’t going to be able to be there permanently. I’m also hoping to convert that garage into a living room. We have a two-living area home, but what would have been the den was split between my office (which I use daily) and a playroom for the kids, and I would dearly love to have a living area without a TV in it for quiet activities. If that happens, then a big blank wall will become a big window, so planting anything in front of it feels just a little fruitless. Even the part of the house that wouldn’t be much affected by the construction needs some grading work, and grading and gardens don’t mix well. That area is currently mostly my plant nursery.
The Children’s Garden
On the opposite side of the front yard from the driveway is another part of the property that is visually isolated by a line of lovely old trees. I have wanted for far too many years to turn this into a children’s garden, with several sections. The first two, the Water Garden and the Fairy Garden, will be more or less finished this year or else. Beyond that, I hope to make the Clubhouse Garden and the Music Garden, but these will happen in future years. This area is in partial to full shade.
Also in the front are the porch containers. These have annuals in them that get changed out two to four time a year.
The Front Lawn
The rest of the space is currently the Front Lawn. I have future plans for it, but the next thing that needs to happen is really to have the parking courtyard and drive to the back corner of the backyard installed. The parking courtyard is needed because apparently I am the only person in the entirety of the United States who can back out of my driveway. The oil guys can’t do it. Contractors can’t do it. My family can’t do it. FedEx and UPS don’t even try. This feature will be a turn-around for everyone as well as a design feature and will get people out of my flowerbeds and off my lawn.
For the short term, I’m thinking of having both installed in decomposed granite. The drive will stay decomposed granite. It’s water permeable and will keep me from getting slapped with additional impermeable surface fines, uh, I mean, taxes. Eventually, the parking courtyard needs to be of the same material as the drive…whatever that will be, since it will be replaced at the same time. The concrete drive that is there is sixty years old now and is very much showing its age! I’m considering a number of things. I’d really like to get a rebate for replacing the impermeable concrete with a permeable surface, but that would require very, very precise timing.
I also have future plans for a Japanese garden and a Rill Garden in the front, with only a small Lawn Pane remaining, well, lawn. Shhh. They are very secret. And very far in the future!
Milady’s Vegetable Garden
There are vegetable gardens made for hard working people, who save money for their family by growing their food. This is not going to be one of them. This is a vegetable garden for a spoiled woman who wants to play at vegetable gardening. It will run parallel to the fence down the side and back yards. There is going to be a buffer of three feet between the fence and the raised beds, then raised beds run along the length. On the other side of the raised beds will be the decomposed granite drive. There is roughly 180 feet along which I might put the beds. With each bed being just over 9’ long and 3’ apart, I have space for up to 15 of these raised beds, depending on how far under the shade I go. (Shade is good for summer leafy green crops, so all is not lost there.) I plan on making them only 3’ wide, since I have short arms, and I was always in danger of falling nose-first into 4’ beds.
This arrangement puts the raised beds squarely in my setback, where there definitely is no septic field. My septic field has been in place for 50 years with no problems, and so I’m hoping that it will give me 50 more. But there is no guarantee of that, and anyway, growing vegetables over the septic is a big no-no. Though not all of this space is full sun, it’s really the best place for vegetables, given those constraints.
The Cutting Garden
Ever since she has been young enough to toddle about, my darling daughter Amelia and I have been waging a quiet battle over the flowers in the garden. She firmly believes that flowers are made to be picked. I panic a little every time one of my flowers from a perennial or shrub planted for viewing in the garden gets picked. I do love flowers in the house, though, so my solution has been to create a cutting garden. I’ve had the idea for several years but couldn’t decide where it should go, so only now have I gotten around to actually starting it.
The Cutting Garden is nothing but a deep border that will be on the other side of the back drive from the Vegetable Garden.
The Back Yard
Other than these areas, for now, the back yard is just mowed and called good! I have future hopes but no solid plans.
The Woodland Hill Path and Hill Shed
The Forest Hill Path is just that: A long, steep hill that makes up a big chunk of the property. There’s a good path down it, and the Hill Shed is on it. This year’s plans consist merely of cutting back the overgrowth on the path, controlling the poison ivy, and getting a new roof and trim on the Hill Shed.
Eventually, I’d love to do a native garden on the long walk down the hill. The path is several hundred feet long, and the views are spectacular.
The Lower Woodland Path
The Lower Path travels back across my property at a lower elevation. I’m entirely ignoring it now.
The Bottomland is my nemesis and the source of all mosquitos. Within the past five years, though, a system of streams has developed, and it drains much faster, with babbling brooks replacing the swampy morass. I love the change, and I’m trying to give it a helping hand on my land and the surrounding properties (with the appropriate permissions, of course) by clearing out any dams that form and trenching out cul de sacs of water. Hopefully, people will be able to stop spraying so heavily for mosquitoes as the smelly, stagnant water stops forming. There’s a delicate balance between mosquito control and ecology, but I’m just giving Mother Nature a little helping hand in a process that’s already underway, and this is far better for the ecosystem than the sprays that are so toxic to other water invertebrates. Doing nothing simply isn’t an option here for public health reasons.