Stories from middle America

Arbors and pergolas have been around for centuries. Some clever fellow noticed that if you put a couple of vertical posts in the ground, then throw some cross beams on top, it makes a structure. The real “aha” moment came when said fellow tacked lattice to the sides and trained some climbing vines up and over the structure. Eureka! An outdoor shaded area in the garden with pretty living walls and ceilings cascading with greenery.

Recently I traveled to New Mexico and visited my family. While there, my mother asked me to take a look at an old, rusted metal arbor that was left on their property. She thought we might want to use it in our yard somewhere, and she was right.

The found arbor before:

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 11.55.55 AM

And after with a few coats of black outdoor spray paint and some tightening of bolts:

backyard arbor

It is going to mark the entrance to the vegetable garden. Repurposing for the win!

Now the question is, what vine do we grow on it? We already have the roses growing in the pots flanking the arbor and have climbing roses on a trellis not far away. I’m leaning toward not adding more roses, but a different variety with a white bloom might work. Clematis is growing on the chicken wire–yes, chicken wire–along the side yard, so that’s not an option here. Then, we also need a vine that isn’t toxic to dogs just in case Lisey decides to take a little nibble. We already planted boxwood before we knew that it was somewhat toxic to dogs. Even though she pretty much steers clear of them, we figured the remaining garden design should host nothing but non-toxic plants to keep her risks at a minimum. (The clematis is blocked by a gate so Lisey isn’t getting into those vines.)

I’ve narrowed down our options to Jasmine:


Via (The white flowering vine. But, those purple flowers are clematis like what we have.)

Or white climbing roses:

white climbing roses


It feels like the area needs white and either of these options would work. Do you have another idea? If so, please let me know!

Next up on our never-ending house project to-do list is building a medium sized brick patio in our backyard. If I was perfectly honest we wouldn’t necessarily want to build the patio because it’s a ton of labor. Considering a patio project is only one of several things we’d like to update around these parts, we need to save in our budget, bite the bullet, and do the work ourselves. The first mission now is to convince myself, and certainly Christopher since he’ll do half (ok, 80%) of the digging, of the merits of completing a task and then getting to enjoy it. Otherwise we’ll get annoyed with the process and want to scrap the whole thing. It might have to be my mantra.

future patio area

The patio will go here. It’s behind our garage just off our deck. Say goodbye to that ugly, spotty grass!

The plan is to use two layers of rectangular cement pavers as an outer border and then lay bricks, some salvaged and some new, in a basket weave pattern. I really like the look of grass growing up in between the bricks because it feels more loose and relaxed. Since we don’t plan to mortar anything, grass would also help to act as the glue to keep the bricks more stable.

brick patio with grass

Via. Basket weave pattern bricks.

By using these inexpensive pavers as a border, we’ll cut down on both labor time and materials cost. Plus, the two outside rows will add some interest to the design, and since the pavers are heavier, they’ll keep the bricks in place well.

brick patio

Via . The brick is in a herringbone pattern, but the border idea is the inspiration from this image.

brick patio with border

Via. Again, not a basket weave pattern and those are stone pavers (not cement). But the double row of rectangular pavers is the look we’re going for.

I have wanted to plant some purple alliums in our yard for a while. They remind me of Dr. Seuss with their tall stems and round bulbs of flowers. We’ll have a narrow area between our house and the patio where they could fit nicely.



Hopefully we can get started on digging next week and have a functioning patio by the middle of summer!

Or, at least that’s the goal; a retreat, a backyard oasis. We are far from that right now, but we are slowly making progress. Our house is not huge, about 1,800 square feet, which is more than enough room for two people, a dog, and a cat. When we start inviting people over it’s another story. Since it’s an older home and that square footage is spread among three floors, the main floor can then feel pretty cramped.

The hidden gem of our house is that we have a huge backyard and it can easily accommodate as many people as we’d like. The catch is that it has looked like this for years with only a small vegetable garden at the very back. To be fair, we started with even less since the previous owner had literally planted nothing. No shed, nada.

yard before

But all of that is about to change (or has already changed a bit–baby steps, you guys, because it certainly takes time).

First, we had a little deck built off our dining room and added some French doors where there were previously only windows a couple of years ago. That allowed more light in and traffic to actually flow from our main living and dining area to the backyard, as opposed to what was side door-only access previously.

It looked like this at the beginning stages:

old deck

Then after staining the deck gray last summer it began to look like this:

gray deck

Then, we did this:


Which now has some seating and makes for a pretty and relaxing spot in the yard. (Can’t wait for the climbing roses to bloom.)


Just yesterday, we planted some arborvitae all along our south fence to address the worn wood and to eventually give us more privacy.

arbor vitae

And, planted a dwarf flowering almond tree in a huge ceramic pot.

almond tree

Everything still needs plenty of work, but it’s a start. Happy weekend!


The weather has finally turned for the better here in the Midwest. For those unaware, it snowed one week ago. On May 1st. Insanity.

So with that, the time has come to finally get the vegetable and herb garden going–whether using seeds started inside, or direct seeding right in your garden.

As for what we grow? It’s an ongoing (and slow) process, seeing as how we only have a few months out of each year to see what works and what doesn’t. But every year, we build our repertoire a little more. Some work right away. Some we give up on quickly.  And some, I keep trying year after year, hoping for different results. I think that’s actually insanity, isn’t it?

Herbs are pretty easy, and you can count on a lot of them coming back each year. And there is no substitute for them when cooking, trust me. We plant all of ours in different pots, sized appropriately as to which ones we use more than others. We also try to be purists with our garden, but when it comes to herbs in the summer, we usually just buy small plants and transfer them outside because we’re too impatient.


Basil is our favorite and always gets the largest pot. Unfortunately, it’s an annual so it has to be replanted each year. We use the Genovese-type, but this year we’re going to add a “Dolce Vita” blend to the pot and see what happens.

Tarragon is one that we don’t use as often, but came back on its own this year for a pleasant surprise. We had thyme in the same pot with it last summer, but we use more of it now, so it’ll get its own this time around.

Rosemary is a necessity if you like Mediterranean dishes, or, like us, make hummus all the time. It’s nearly impossible to grow from seed, though, so I’d recommend just buying a plant.

Lavendermint, and sage are three that we use less of, but are handy to have around.

Our garlic chives are back for the third! straight year, and require nearly no upkeep, so they’re a must-have.

We’re planting dill for the first time, so hopefully that goes well, because I love it in almost everything.

Now. As for the garden itself. One thing to remember if you’re planting in the same spots or beds each year is to rotate your crops. The same tomato plant put in the same place, year after year, will leach the nutrients it needs from the soil away until there aren’t any left for next year. The chances of disease are also much greater if you don’t move things around. There are some good tips here on how to properly rotate.


S: strawberries. P: Padron peppers B: bell peppers. J: jalapeño peppers. C: cucumber. R: radish. L: lettuce/greens. T: tomatoes.

SC: scallions.

We love salads, so we dedicate two beds’ worth of space to greens.

I’m trying Romaine lettuce (Ridgeline variety) again this year, even though I haven’t had much luck with head lettuce. The same goes for Bibb, or butter lettuce.

My parents brought several packets of Mâche back from Europe recently (with all the instructions in French and German) so we’ll be trying that out for the first time this year.

Next to that will be plenty of arugula, because I can’t get enough of that peppery flavor. And it grows like a weed.

We’ll also be trying spinach, and my personal favorite, a mesclun of the variety–and this is for real–“Sassy Salad”. How could I resist that? It’s just so sassy.


We planted strawberries in one of the beds last summer, so it gets one all to itself again this year.

The remaining three, where the real rotating is done, are our regular vegetables.

Sun Gold cherry tomatoes are a must-plant again, and every year for the rest of my life, probably. Five Star Grape and Yellow Mini will also be coming back this year. All three are amazing in salads and bring some great color to dishes. After trying and failing with several full-size heirlooms over the last two years, this time around, I’ve settled on San Marzano, supposedly the best sauce/Roma-type tomato on the planet. Official San Marzano pasta sauce is ten bucks a jar, so here’s hoping they take.


We’re planting a basic pickling cucumber, for, well, pickling (as long as Lisey doesn’t eat them all). Scallions are the only root vegetable we’ll be planting this year, as we just rarely have success growing them in the beds. Cherry Belle Radish will get put in as well (which is a 24-day to ripe plant, so do it).

For peppers, the same jalapeño we’ve grown for the last three years is getting planted again. It’s Ferry-Morse, which is somewhat surprising, but the flavor is incredible and the heat level is just right. We’re also going to try bell peppers for the first time. Once we decide if we want red, yellow, or orange. Maybe all three. Possibly the thing I’m most excited to plant this year are Padron peppers, the Spanish heirloom.


We had them while in Barcelona last summer, coated in olive oil, roasted on a plancha and sprinkled with sea salt and paprika. They were amazing. Can’t wait to be able to do that at home.

We’ll keep you informed throughout the summer how everything’s going.

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