My Grandma’s Garden


Yesterday we spent Easter at my Grandma’s old house.  Really it belonged to my Great-Grandparents, and the house itself is nearing it’s 100th birthday.  It’s architecture style, the way the front and backyard is lined out, tell a story of long ago; it’s both mysterious and inviting.  Many family memories have been made there, my own mother’s memories, my Grandfather’s memories of being raised as a boy there with 3 sisters, not to mention my memories of being there with my own Grandparents!  It’s a generational house, passed down again and again.

In the backyard there is a secret place, a concrete slab that is easily hidden by grass and leaves that reveals the little handprints of my Grandpa and his sisters’ when they were young.  So much history is there.


My Great Grandmother had a beautiful rose garden, she was English and they love their roses.  When she passed away, my Grandma took it over and made it her own.  I’m just not a rose bush girl… the thorns always seem to get me one way or another, no matter if I’m careful and wearing gloves, there always seems to be one thorn that is skilled in cutting through.  My favorite flowers (that look like roses) are Gardenias – the beautiful white, satiny petals, the rose-like shape, but the gentleness and friendliness of being thornless.

They are the “perfect rose” to me, perfumed with a heavenly scent, equipped with an ethereal beauty, and no danger of drawing blood.

But my family has loved roses, and they are so beautiful.


In the midst of a bustling city, very close to the heart of our downtown, it is still a strange oasis – time stops when you’re wandering in their garden.



  1. What beautiful roses, thank you for sharing! I keep wanting to start a garden but it feels so intimidating. How hard can putting seeds in the ground be?

  2. Beautiful, and thanks for the Slavis wife link. I’ll check that out. 🙂

    I’ve always had a ‘black thumb’ when it comes to plants and gardening.

  3. I’ve always been a rose gardener. I grow both hybrids and heirloom varieties. This is a habit that I witnessed in my grandfather’s gardens; one my father then emulated; and one I took up the same manner. One of my more pleasurable activities is to wander out in early evening with my Japanese rose clippers (very small snippers), a glass of white burgundy or dry riesling, and deadhead my plants.

    The heirlooms lack some of the blooming frequency and fecundity of hybrids, but because they are naturally occurring one need not spray (in the main); there are examples for all climates.. A man named Griffith Buck, who taught and labored at Iowa State University, traveled the world (as far as Siberia) collecting, then cataloging these naturally occurring plants. The bulk of the faculty ignored him, considering his work trivial. Working in obscurity for 50 years, on his own dime while living on his university wages, he’s now a hero to rose gardeners. Such roses are now called “Buck roses” and he has achieved immortality.

    If one becomes interested in rose gardening, its extremely important to begin with plans suited to the local climate. Roses can be high maintenance — perhaps one reason why they are commonly used as image and metaphor in romantic literature. And of course, roses will break your heart. You might spend decades nurturing them and have them wiped out in a very bad winter (when the frost line just goes too deep). My father lost his rose garden, after 30 years, when a guy working in the yard for him put the herbicide where the fertilizer was supposed to go, and it bothered him so much he didn’t replant.

    This is the most beautiful rose garden I have ever attended, that of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. An example:

    Sorry, I tried to copy in an image but it just displays the link.

    I’m currently starting a new rose garden, as well as raspberry garden (raspberries are a rose), and will have about 40 plants this year. Last year was its fifth year at this location, but the frost line penetrated to about 84″ as we had little snow — and wiped out all but the ones kept warm next to the house.

  4. Here is a shot I took in the Brooklyn Botanical. Really, it and the NY Botanical Garden (in far northern Manhattan) are two wonderful excursions if one is in NYC three years ago:

    Here is my DC garden, though it’s from May so the roses are not in bloom for the most part. The statue of Artemis is shrouded in climbing roses beginning in June:

    Artemis, clothed, first blooms of year. They bloomed heavily from June 1 to July 4, and again after things cooled off in the fall:

    Probably enough rose porn already, but here is an example of a Buck climber. It grew like a weed, and exploded in blossoms, but only once per year. Sorry the picture is rotated:

    I renovate old houses for fun and design stuff (gardens, furniture), and am at again in a less fashionable locale.

  5. Slavis’ suggestions are great, of course. She focuses on a functional, productive garden (for food and possibly cut flowers).

    I would add a few points, attempting to think of the outdoor space as true living space.

    1. No matter where you live, there will be seasons when it is simply more pleasant to make the outdoors an extension of your living space. This means more than building a grass carpet, putting out some jungle gym stuff for the children, or throwing up a gazebo from Home Depot. If a garden — which can certainly include a section for herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, etc. — is thought of as a ‘room’ or series of rooms, the open-air spaces then achieve both more utility and pleasing flexibility.

    For example, one could have a patio on which to work, clusters of chairs and a table or two on which to entertain, a pattern of circulation (again, when entertaining, people will cluster and move about). The eye should see one place, then see another place, then another. People will circulate.

    Garden ‘rooms’ also allow one to track the sun. I used to start my day in the dark on my brick patio next to the house, close to the kitchen, have lunch in the sun in a second patio constructed 100 feet away, play in the sandbox etc with my son in late afternoon, finish the day back at my work table in the dark on the patio.

    2. Know where the sun is at all times of day. Different plants need different amounts of sun, obviously. In hotter climes it’s imperative that shade be available in late afternoon and evening, if one has friends over.

    3. Think about when everything blooms. For example, in the mid-atlantic, the crocuses and tulips are emerging in late February through April. The dogwoods, redbuds and magnolias, obviously emerge then too. I would double-crop, so to speak, my beds with tulips and roses, cutting the tulips back to soil level when they were finished and waiting for the roses to begin in late May. In late May the lilacs and their perfume dominate and by mid-june the space is dominated by green and the highlights of then-flowering roses.

    4. Decide if you prefer geometrically structured spaces, or the random walk of the classic English ‘natural’ garden.

    5. For goodness sakes, use natural stone and old brick (if brick is your thing), if possible.

    6. Think of your borders and boundaries as being *layers* and *backdrops* or *foreground.*

  6. Your suggestions and advice are wonderful! Especially the part about making it so that you can do life outside or have an outdoor living space! That is so true BV! We are outside this minute in our backyard, we use it everyday after Quiet time/Nap time. Your suggestions are excellent for planning a yard and garden that you’ll love for years and years to come – and so practical. We’re only renting a house right now, so we don’t want to spend very much on landscaping, but at the same time, we want the ambiance of having a beautiful outdoor living space, so we kind of go between those two of buying plants, doing a veggie garden, but not really investing in much planting around the house. We’ll probably be staying here a couple of more years, then buying a house and the one thing we’ll be really looking for is a good workable backyard, for all the landscaping possibilities! That sounds so beautiful about the garden “rooms” and how you planned your day using them, playing with your son in the sandbox in the late afternoons. So beautiful.

  7. The pictures are beautiful! Your gardens are lovely, I’m seriously so impressed BV. The Brooklyn Botanical shot really speaks to me, the woman and the boy, surrounded by such beauty. I love the statue of Artemis and how the garden is designed.

    And I can’t believe you renovate old houses!!! That is particularly hard work that you must love in order to really fulfill it and see it out! My parents are “renovating” my Great-grandparents house, the one that’s about to hit it’s 100th birthday. It’s gorgeous on the inside, really, but the foundation I’m afraid is going to need to be redone before really fixing the cracks in the plaster (which at least there aren’t many, but once the foundation is redone I think there will be more).

  8. “Your gardens are lovely, I’m seriously so impressed BV.”

    +100. Absolutely breathtaking. Thanks for sharing those, BV! 🙂

  9. When son#2 was an infant I bought a simple tent-like thing about the size of a crib, with netting on two sides and drop-down shading fabric on the walls and ceiling. He napped in it.

    If you decide you want perennials, you can move them. Just dig them up and put them in the ground at a new place. I did that with my roses. Or you can plant them in large pots. I put my potted roses on garden trailers, and moved them around during the day to get more sun.

    Examples here. Again, early May, so you can just see the roses have started to grow again (they like warm soil):

    Sandboxes get used by pets and animals as toilets, so I constructed his with joined, treated and painted, 2×12’s in an 8×8 square. This allows one to take some marine plywood and cover them when playtime is over:

    Covers, with my tomato beds to the rear (I’m big on beds and borders for fruits and vegetable work).

    One suggestion I have for constructing these little seating areas is just bed the brick or stone in sand, not cement. Much cheaper, faster, and as they age and the soil moves a little, I think they’re more interesting:

  10. It can be a lot of work. The house by the garden shots was built in 1786 and had a lot of papered over problems. I removed 200 years of paint and varnish, rewired it, relined three chimneys, and (among everything else) had to tuck point the entire structure.

    For the latter I hired a historical building engineer, and we researched 18th century mortar, because modern pre-mix is too hard for soft brick. (Water can’t escape the soft brick and hence causes spalling — massive flaking and self-destruction — of the brick.

    The prior owner, being a moron, hired a contractor who tuck pointed the whole place with portland cement, and there was more spalling damage in 10 years than in the prior 200. It all had to be ground out, and we reinstalled a hand-mix of the original, colonial formula. Nasty job.)

    The woman in the Botanical Garden is my daughter.

    Good thing Ton isn’t here he’d be ripping me a new one for chatting up the married chicks. I promise not to go all girly-man on you for at least a month now. BV out! (Pre-face plant photo, obviously. Don’t tell anyone about the cigar.)

  11. That is more than a lot of work! You are dedicated for sure! Even researching the 18th century mortar shows how rigorous you were in getting it right. Impressive, seriously. And I wondered if that was your daughter 🙂 ❤ how beautiful.

  12. So. Impressed.

    The photos are beautiful! The tent-like crib sounds exactly like what we were thinking of getting for the baby since we’re outside so often, so glad to hear it worked for you. The sandbox idea is wonderful, too.

    That is so fascinating to just bed the brick in sand… I would never have thought of that – we would’ve tried cement. But with sand it can be redone if we ever needed it to be! Thank you so much for these great suggestions, BV. Love it!

  13. 11 parts mortar, 1 part lime is the colonial formula. We did add 1 part portland cement for bonding.

  14. I’m seriously impressed too.
    I’m going to copy and paste some of this stuff and put it into a ‘collected wisdom’ file for homes and gardens. We’re renting right now, but someday…

    You have a beautiful family, BV…and pre-splat face…but I’ll bet post-splat has character 🙂

  15. Technically, if you set in sand, do a level of crushed stone/gravel, then place and level the sand, then set the brick. The gravel enhances draining, and I’d say it’s important. After setting the bricks, sweep more sand between the bricks as the ‘mortar.’ In the mid-atlantic and farther south this would be extremely stable. I think where I am now (north central prairie, it would be less so.

    When I rebuilt this screen porch from a rotting wooden structure to an open masonry structure, we used no cement, except on the vertical risers/foundation and on the set bricks. It’s as flat and stable as a pool table.

    The original porch. Tongue and groove flooring had started to rot, and also I didn’t like being enclosed. Insects and flies are not a problem there, so instead of rebuilding we ripped it all out. (If I had rebuilt with ‘boards’ I would have used composite instead of real wood, but I hate that stuff.)

    Ripped out:

    The original walks around the house were herringbone, so we duplicated that pattern. The white board is just a level. The white board is just a level.

    End product:

    Incidentally, those garden trollies I showed earlier are also useful when you have people over and want to load up a 20 gallon, galvanize watering tub with ice and drinks.

    At my current project I use 6x6x48″ cut limestone for borders, as the village is very modest, and the simple house is a stucco-over ceramic block, craftsman four-square, circa 1916. (Ceramic block is what silos were constructed with 100 years ago. I don’t even go down the basement during tornados.) Everything is rectilinear and I think this simple limestone (sometimes called Anamosa stone out here, for it was originally quarried near Anamosa, Iowa) is appropriate.

    Here again they are just set in leveled sand, a few inches below the surface. Each piece weighs maybe 90 pounds, so you can stack them dry a couple levels, or just smear some masonry glue between the pieces if you’re concerned. This year I’m going to tear out the back porch and build a stone-walled replacement, filling the center with dirt for stability. Because it will be four feet high I’ll cheat and use the glue.

    The stone where I am is about $350 a pallet. I think I get about 80 linear feet per pallet, but it may only be 64, or 1600 pounds. Anyway my F250 handles a pallet without issue. You will need to rent a brick saw for about $50 per day.

    The spirea alba (widow’s lace) is shaggy because I was waiting for the blooms to pass. If you look at the Korean dwarf lilac along the walk, you’ll see I erred and planted them too close together.

    I guess that’s enough for now. In my defense of these long posts you two said you were interested. I could go on at length on the rehab/design process. The really interesting stuff, to me, is the indoor work.

    I aged five years last summer, but I’m very proud of son #1, who is an extreme sports guy and writer in Bozeman. He rode his bike 5000 miles last summer, Tahoe to Seattle to Maine, with only 20 pounds of gear including cameras and computer. (He wrote dispatches, took photos, for a New York hipster mag.) My left shoulder disappears downward in this shot because it had just been reconstructed with titanium. As noted, he was sleeping in the dirt for two months, and man, when I met up with him in North Dakota, you could smell him from 10 feet away.

    Enjoy the day.

  16. That’s an impressive project, BV. WOW!
    My day has been made better just reading about this stuff and seeing these images. I love beautiful things.
    And that “post-splat” photo of you is applause worthy. It makes me jump up and down and squeal in delight! You look EVEN better now.
    Your son looks a little scruffy after the long ride, but he’s a hottie, just like his dad.

  17. Wow! Ya’ll are handsome men, seriously, beautiful family…. Thank you for all the tips, I’ll read more later when I have time to really sit down (babies keep you on your toes!!!) Love the old house stuff, it really is fascinating that you recreate the woodwork and furniture, too.

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