rental backyard: stepping stones & spring plantings (part 10)

deck pier pads as path pavers, lined with transplanted bleeding hearts

Two weekends ago when Portland was experiencing a climate-changed taste of summer, Jeff and I spent all of that Saturday and half of Sunday either gardening in the backyard or shopping for plants at nurseries.

We'd pulled down the half-upright side-yard fence a few weeks before, which Jeff then cut up and stacked as wood for the new-to-us stainless steel washing-machine-drum fire pit that he'd ripped out of a broken washing machine last month. (He also readied another enameled one for my future tiny house deck since we had two free broken washing machines on hand, one from his mom, the other off Craigslist. The remaining washing-machine parts were handed over to a metal scrapper.)

pavers with washing-machine-drum firepit

With the fence down, we could finally access the backyard again, mostly in stasis since December, with the addition of a few upstart weeds pushing through the deep layer of pine needles I'd mulched last year's plantings in. The transplanted lilac bush was leafing out but not flowering again this year. The three discount ferns were still alive, though one is less robust than the other two. The ivy that used to climb the old fence is slug-eaten and barely hanging on. We'd thought the hostas had died completely until I started raking up the pine-needle mulch and found all four of them poking up like spears a few inches above the soil, pale from lack of light.

last-summer's discount ferns

sprouting hostas and straggly ivy

resurrected hostas

The secondhand pier pads were standing eight inches above ground waiting to be spaced and dug in as stepping stones, which Jeff did, bless his back. Their uneven placement and imperfectly round nature are part of their charm. Mostly they'll just keep us from getting so muddy back there. I helped a little with the stone placement but mostly did the planting. (This was after heading up past Oregon City the weekend before to collect the last of the 150-pounds-each pier pads from a Craigslist guy named Gary, who'd kindly been saving them all winter for us.)

rescued white bulb flower
For new plants, we rescued another hosta, some free bluebells, and another pretty white bulb flower I don't yet know the name of from a backyard in Gladstone about to be re-landscaped. The bluebells didn't handle transplanting well, so I'm not sure how they'll fare since now they're all limp and face-planted on the soil, despite hand watering and recent rain.

pier-pad pavers with Irish moss

After much debating at various garden centers, I bought two Lenten Rose hellebores (Helleborus orientalis) for the north-side fence, forty dollars' worth of steppable Irish moss (Sagina subulata) to carpet like grass that won't need tending between the pavers, and another random fern. Under the tree in between the ferns, I sewed a box of thrift-store impatiens seeds, so hopefully those will sprout to offer a boost of color in that shady corner this summer. We also moved my cancer-gift hydrangea to the north side of the deck, so it wouldn't get crushed by Jeff's meat smoker.

Lenten Rose hellebore

As for the hanging baskets Jeff drilled up for me on the new fence posts, I bought 12 small fuchsia starts on sale, which may have been a mistake since they can apparently be fussy about water and heat. If they do croak, I'll replace them with one of these other hanging-basket plant options. The four simple wrought-iron baskets I'd found at Goodwill last year for five dollars each, and the wrought-iron hooks Jeff found at Goodwill this winter, new in package for a dollar each. (We'll probably fight over the ensemble when I move out.)

hanging basket with fuchsia starts

But one of the best additions to the backyard was absolutely free. In the side yard next to the old-neighbor-lady's driveway, growing along the former fence was a line of bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) that was lovely and green and blooming pale-pink until summer hit, when it became a struggle to keep the plants watered. With the fence down, I wasn't sure the bleeding heart—a forest plant—would survive a summer of full sun, so I moved them, clump by clump, to the backyard along the neighbor's garage in full shade, where fortunately they survived transplanting and are thriving.

transplanted bleeding hearts

We still need to clean up the deck, including some container repotting, and find a load of cedar chips for free off Craigslist for the sunny side yard path south of the gate and for the northeast backyard beneath Jeff's patio table in the corner under the shade tree. I'll probably plant something like sweet alyssum by the side-yard path where the bleeding heart used to be. And I may add more inexpensive or free plants along the back fence, as I find them.

Who knew gardening could be such fun when it's more than just weeding? The basic key, in my minimal experience, is watching sunlight patterns and choosing easy, hardy perennials and evergreens that succeed in that type of light, whether full sun or shade. For example, though I'd love to have some berries growing back there, or sunflower heads popping up above the fence, or jasmine climbing an arbor, none of those plants would get enough light in our north-facing backyard. There's no getting around the nuclear, life-giving power of the sun—unless you're talking indoor electric grow lights. And so I had a hard time returning to work the following Monday, my head and heart still in our backyard garden where I've since spotted a fat possum licking itself like a cat.

Some might call us crazy for investing such time and effort—and any money at all—into a short-term rental property, but this is called being present and living in the now. The yard looks far better than its former incarnation as a patch of dirt and weeds, it's now well suited for relaxing and entertaining, and it's good practice for whatever permacultured landscaping projects may come along later. So I'm grateful for this little rented patch of earth in which to experiment.

Missed the earlier posts in the Rental Backyard series documenting our backyard fix-up? Check out . . .

Part 1: The Tangled Mess
Part 2: Down to Dirt
Part 3: New Old Deck
Part 4: The Old Fence
Part 5: The New Fence
Part 6: Clean Slate
Part 7: Discount Plantings
Part 8: Temporary Fire Pit
Part 9: Winter Hiatus

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