The Retirement Garden Project

Today I’m going to tell you the story of The Retirement Garden Project.

My father is 60 years old. My mom is a couple of years behind him. Despite the fact that she is graduating from nursing school right now, at some point they are going to retire, and most likely in this house. It’s a great house, in a great area, and this is where the grandkids are going to be, so they likely will not be moving to some far-off locale. The Baby Bear step-granddaughter has given my mom a taste for the grandbabies, so certainly not going anywhere before infant versions arrive.

Cottage Garden

Cottage Garden Love

The objective of The Retirement Garden Project is to give my parents the garden of their dreams for their golden years (I’m not calling you old, mom, but eventually you will be, okay?). The front yard will be bright and cheery with fiery warm hues, with a meandering path and clearings all the way through. The back yard is to be soft and relaxing in light pastels, filled with flowery perfume. Both will be a haven for birds, bees and hummingbirds for my dad to sit out and watch. Pure heaven.

Back when we lived at the end of the alley at Lincoln & Western in Chicago, we had a Secret Garden in our back yard. There was a white picket fence and everything. Look how idyllic.

We were those random non-religious kids that went to Catholic school. It was not a good time, but it was the closest school to our house.

When we moved out here to the suburbs, there was a nice border garden already in place, and my parents were able to keep it up for the most part. They even added a big vegetable garden on the south side of the house. Over the years, though, things started to die out, the soil got depleted, the weeds and ground cover took over, and eventually, we just had a plain old yard.

Most of the problem was a lack of planning. If there is thing I have learned in my gardening research, it is that good gardens have a plan to them. A subsidiary problem, also due to lack of planning, was my mother’s kitchen sink approach to…well, cooking, decorating, gardening, wardrobe, pretty much everything. If she likes it at the moment, it goes in, despite the item not going with anything around it or it making any sense whatsoever in the bigger design. She has gotten better with the wardrobe, thanks to my sister.

Yes, this sister (on the left) guided my mother to not dressing like a Lime Day-Glo matchy matchy marshmallow. The garden was pretty then too!

The Canvas

Here’s what we’re working with. I had no idea I would be starting a blog when this project began, so I didn’t take pictures as I should have before we broke ground, so to speak. These were taken in early July of last year.

This is the front yard. All descriptions are of the photos below.

Left: In the front left corner are a few zebra grasses I transplanted that were getting choked out by groundcover elsewhere.

Right: In the front right corner is a bush of garden roses that apparently are not going anywhere because it would be way too much of a hassle. We thought it was dying until I actually started deadheading the poor thing on a regular basis, and then it EXPLODED. Around it are just some annuals we planted so the rosebush didn’t get lonely.

The Retirement Garden ProjectThe Retirement Garden Project

Left: See that line there? That’s the line between our yard and the neighbors. We have since made that all garden, dividing the yards, but leaving the swail free for drainage between the lots. All of those hostas eating the rosebud are going. They have way outgrown themselves.

Right: The beautiful rosebud used to be a giant silver maple that was destroying our pipes and flooding the basement, so down it went. The poor little rosebud seemed to have developed a fungus that was slowly killing it, so down it went last summer too.

Now there is a tall-ish stump that for some reason my parents want to put a table top on, so they can sit out in the front yard and drink or something like Mad Hatters at a freaky tea party. I think this will officially make them crazy people, and not in a good way. Thoughts?

The Retirement Garden ProjectThe Retirement Garden Project

Left: At the far left (just out of the shot, sorry) are two thin, beautiful birch trees with a giant non-flowering, invasive verbena growing around the roots. We have tried many times over the years to dig it out, but there seems to be nothing we can do about it. Thus, we will do our best to just keep it trimmed.

Right: A couple of years ago, the giant evergreen bushes in front of the picture window got ripped out because they had taken over the small area. The rest of the space was pretty much just periwinkle, which had killed everything but the Prairie Fire and Zebra grasses that were growing there. Those got dug out, transplanted and are not thriving.

The Retirement Garden ProjectThe Retirement Garden Project

Left: This is the vegetable garden, the crown jewel of the whole place, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, the three or four feet in front of the house contains all manner of grass (not the ornamental kind), weeds and daylilies. Also, a few massive peony bushes that seem to be infected with something. Those have all got to go right about now. Some of them will be getting transplanted elsewhere.

Right: Hello composter. The batch of compost had been in there for two years, but despite my parents trying “everything” and “researching,” they could not seem to make compost. Just slime. Until that point, however, they had been throwing in almost exclusively food waste. Less than a minute online, and boom. Carbon. Now it is getting rich and beautiful. Just needs a little more heat this spring and we’re good to go. You can read more about composting here.

The Retirement Garden ProjectThe Retirement Garden Project

Left: This poor, neglected side yard. It is on the north side of the house, so it can really only be a shade garden. There are some daylilies (there are 47 2×2 foot clusters in the yard total – we may just have to chuck some), black eyed susans, hostas, and a whole bunch of crap. This area may just have to get gutted.

Right: This fence has just been a nuisance since the dog died, so it got taken down. I wanted to save the wood to make some garden whimsy, but my father is a serial stuff-chucker. The wood is no more. The stones have all been removed to be used elsewhere, but soon we will have to figure out a new high-traffic solution. There is also a ton of lava rock ground in all over this area that we are going to somehow have to remove. Oy.

We are also going to build an arbor going back around the house and plant wisteria all along it to one day have a wisteria arbor. It will be gorgeous. Oh, and those hostas started out as five tiny ones. They hulked out a bit.

The Retirement Garden ProjectThe Retirement Garden Project

Left: The back yard has tons of space, but it also has a lot of shade. Bordering the neighbor’s yard is a beautiful but low-hanging lilac tree, under which nothing grows because the dirt is crap. We ‘re trying some of that invasive ground cover, a couple of hostas, and the billions of grape hyacinth bulbs we found literally all over the garden.

Right: On the left side are even more hostas. Yay. In the back along the fence grows a ton of honeysuckle. Not the nice smelling kind. It is even more non-flowering, invasive-as-hell weed plant. There will be no getting it out, and between its roots and the tree roots, this is not a great place to plant things. Therefore – daylilies. There are so many of them, and they will grow in ditches on the sides of highways, so I think they will be find back there.

The Retirement Garden ProjectThe Retirement Garden Project

Left: All around the patio is a two-foot-wide patch of garden that has gotten expanded quite a bit since these photos were taken.

Right: There used to be a chain link fence dividing our yard and the neighbors. Dad bought a Sawzall and had one of the best afternoons of his life. It will soon be a garden divider and so much prettier.

The Retirement Garden ProjectThe Retirement Garden Project

Most all of the perennials, of which there were not too many, were overgrown with grass and bare in the center, having not been divided for who knows how long. Still, there were enough to dig up, divide, and build a base for The Retirement Garden.

Tomorrow is the first day off I have had in two weeks. Papa Bear will also be off, and Baby Bear will be back at her mom’s. The weather will be freaky beautiful. We are going to destroy this project (in a good way). Also coming up this week, the current state of the garden, the detailed plans, and two batches of cupcakes with Vicky. It’s going to be an awesome week.


Vicky is part of my mom's nursing school study group. She has introduced Baby Bear to the ukulele.

Where are you in your garden process? Are you going to be planting before the “last frost date” because it’s 80 degrees in March? I haven’t decided, need some input here.