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Butterflies & Smitten Sprites Inspire An Enchanted Garden Design in Time for a Wedding

A Romantic Garden Design Welcomes the Bridal Couple & Family!
Chapter 1

In the beginning it was the weeds.

In the end it was a kiss…

… I often say that every good garden design tells a story.

Well, this is a charming, romantic tale about a magical garden design brimming with its own enduring kind of fables that I hope will also inspire your own garden dreams…

Where to start this fairy tale? As Julie Andrews sang in the “Sound of Music’s” Do-Re-Mi, “Let’s start at the very beginning…”

After a volunteer garden mulching event on a hot August afternoon at our local historical society museum, I was asked by a very exuberant and pretty woman if me and my Duchess Designs team could work at her and her fiance’s home getting rid of the weeds in their yard.

The indomitable Gina and her soon-to-be husband – the very talented (and oh-so-handsome, as Mother whispered to me at the wedding) – Ted – had both attended my spring garden lecture at the Strauss Museum, in the Atlantic Highlands in the Garden State – the highest point on the East Coast.

The Loud wedding was scheduled for the end of September and the couple was aiming to get the yard cleaned up for wedding photos, the party after the reception, and the next-day nuptial brunch at their new-ish house.

The Magic and the Challenges
Under the rubric of “Every good garden design tells a story” – I’ve always experienced magic moments when designing gardens. Karma. Yet as a pragmatist, there’s no denying the seemingly insurmountable challenges. That’s what makes my job such a passion and a privilege.

Here’s this special garden design’s enchanting story.

On my way to meet Gina in her gardens for our initial walk-through, there was a butterfly who was flitting about in my car, in my driveway. Wow. How special I thought. That’s never happened before.

While I truly did try to get this beauty out before I drove out of the driveway, she wasn’t having any of it. So back up went the car windows; not wanting to be late; I headed to Gina’s. With the butterfly as a sweet co-pilot.

Looking back, it’s almost as if the butterfly was my escort.

To what would soon become apparent, Gina and Ted’s home and garden is truly a magical place – and filled with butterflies!
And I don’t mean “just” the ones that accessorize our usual garden blossoms and blooms.
Astonishingly, I learned how Gina nurtures the butterfly pupa that she locates on her plants, most often the Milkweed (Asclepia tuberosa or Butterfly Weed!) that the Monarchs nibble on.

The Blue Swallow Tails, on the other hand, “Love, love, love, parsley,” explained Gina, “Queen of the Butterfly” kingdom. (See, even our butterfly pollinator friends have their own favorite foods.

On the serious side, this is why it’s critically important to grow your area’s native plants so that you can nurture our pollinators – including bees, moths, birds, and more – on their migration paths. Otherwise, they can’t eat and won’t make the journey. Think about the magic of the plants symbiosis with their pollinators.

Here, you can see the green chrysalis – that look like mini, jade vases – that she places indoors, in what look like tiny, netted squares – that look like a laundry/dryer holder. I had never seen such a phenomena.

Me and Julie from the Duchess Designs team, were immediately bewitched with the gestation process that was like nature art on display right before our eyes; further, that as part of our job we were tasked to take the emergent adult butterflies once they left their porcelain-like chrysalis – from the netted habitat – and ever-so-gently – woo them to the outdoor garden and world beyond. Talk about transporting…

Julie in video as Butterfly Sherpa!

When butterflies are your escort and garden angels and sprites hinted to me, it’s not difficult to understand what spirits were influencing my garden designs. I was channelling the enchanted … the garden whisperers.

Later, I learned of the also enchanting, ready-for-The New York Times’ “Modern Love” romance tale of Gina and Ted. But I’m getting ahead of things.

Back to the garden work.
I don’t think Gina and Ted would mind if I share that there were indeed a lot of weeds in the yard.

There were weeds in what could be considered paths, weeds in the raised beds, weeds in the lawn.

On our initial garden design walk-around, Gina pointed with pride how they had taken my garden design suggestion from a previous garden talk at the Strauss Museum, of creating “garden rooms” and they ran with it in their sweet style. They had created several sitting areas – complete with chairs and table – dining or coffee table – sited in at least four areas throughout their yard.

I discovered there were an equal number of spots where chunky, big wood chips were dominating – not as the desired mulch but rather as the garden bed itself.

I later came to learn that a tree was taken down by a local company but they didn’t remove roots nor process the wood fine enough for the chips to be used as a beneficial mulch. It would’ve taken a very, very, very long time to decompose enough to do any good. I was also concerned if there were any pathogens, diseases, or chemicals in the chips – not to mention all that nitrogen-sucking that the big wood chips would be doing – along with their effect on the soil’s pH. Lastly, if chips are too big or thick, they generate a lot of heat – bad for herbaceous plants and more.

Indeed, Gina told me that after the tree was first brought down, they were worried about the smoking pile that was just left there on the property – so with an upcoming business trip scheduled for the morning after – the two of them wheelbarrowed the chips to their various spots in the yard till the wee hours of the morning in order to safeguard she didn’t return to a fire!

At the time of the garden design introduction, the wood chip beds prevented any pretty garden beds from ever flourishing there any time in the near future. Likewise, there were a lot of stones and pebbles – an outsized quantity considering the locale.

There were more than a few challenges, I think you can readily understand.
But with the butterflies, the Duchess team, the love of Gina and Ted – I knew we were going to be just fine.

To start, I needed to outline and in most cases, rather “carve out” distinctive garden beds.

On the street side, the lawn had crept up right to the plants, leaving no breathing room. I used a rototiller to take up the crabgrass there and delineate what would soon be: natural garden beds.

Here, I had already transplanted a boxwood from another part of the garden and built up the bed stone border and soil but it’s a close-enough “before” photo.

Looking around on our walk-through, and taking lots of “before” photos I use to help determine design solutions, this was another of those wood chip bed challenges.

The Driveway ~ Parking Court
The asphalt or macadam driveway led from the street, straight into the backyard gardens and patio, and right up to the mudroom door. It encroached on the couples’ prized backyard garden lifestyle living space.

In my mind, the driveway itself was a heat pocket that also greatly impacted the raised bed that was fronted by a tiered layer of stone that was sitting on top of the asphalt along one side of the property at the fence line.

In addition, there was the matter of the gates as part of the stockade fencing.

Gina said she really disliked having to get out of the car every time they returned home in order to open the fence gates that allowed their cars to be parked there “inside.” Didn’t blame her. Plus those gates, even when opened, looked to make driving through them a bit of a squeezy dodge at best.

In the big picture, part of a good garden design is the ability to allow natural egress, respecting clients’ and users’ patterns and lifestyle transport; AKA – getting from one place to another in a natural way. How many times have you seen a designed path — say in a park or in a yard — only to find that folks have beaten down the turf to create their own, easier path to a sited destination? The people decide! Design your pathways and walks accordingly.

The Hot Tub

(And not in a good way.) There was also another kind of eyesore that was preventing a good use of space – mainly, a never-used hot tub that came with the house. It was located directly across from Gina & Ted’s outdoor dining patio area on the ground level and was a top-down ahem, uncomfortable view from their elevated deck dining area off the kitchen on the elevated terrace. (No one really wants to see a plastic-topped outdated hot tub in the garden… That no one wants to get in… More than a little ewww?!)

On the plus side – (always looking for the happiness) we did find a cute plastic giraffe in the hot tub debris that now has a kind of survivor’s place of honor in the garden. (smile)

I immediately thought a lovely, romantic fountain would be ever-so-perfect in that spot.

But first there was the sticky wicket of getting rid of the hot tub. Not as easy as one might imagine. These tubs are super heavy. They possess foam that is no doubt, toxic. Plus there’s all the issues about trash in landfill since China and other locales are not taking our stuff.

I called Joe, handyman extraordinaire. Joe proved his mettle. It took two days of breaking down and hauling away. But it was a clean removal in the end.

The New Garden Designs Begins to Reveal Itself
The garden karma had become too evident. There was no denying it.
I opened up my design prowess to the space, and to Gina and Ted’s love, and to romance as inspiration.

Soon, I knew, the designs would reveal itself to me. There was no doubt in my mind. It would speak to me in a timely and organic way.
Normally, a garden design is no less inspired but I work from a plan. A designed rendering.
Yet, here, it was different. It was a daily meditation.

The garden space was whispering a tale of romance, beauty, hope, and love… I accepted the challenge. And the honor, as charged.

The Fundamental ~ Foundation Hard Work Starts
We needed to create a garden composition in front of a streetscape fence that hugged the house. There wasn’t a tree or any colorful, seasonal, perennial plants there.

However, there were a lot of gorgeous sunflowers dotting the property. The giant ones!

So much so, in fact, that neighbors came to admire and visit – as did the Garden State’s official bird, the yellow goldfinch. These brilliant canary-yellow birds flitted to and fro while feasting on the happy, smiling flowers and seeds. Joy! Magic!

Children would stop on their way from school located a block away to admire not only the sunflowers but also the wildflowers in the three raised beds there along the sidewalk. I know, it’s a challenge to see the raised beds here in this photo, as there’s a lot of “growth” hugging the raised gardens.
Alas, those beds, too, were being overrun with weeds. And lawn.

So, that’s where me and the Duchess Designs team started with earnest.
We weeded out the raised garden beds and the front-door walk beds.
We got flower stakes to tie up some of the leggy plants there – giving a bit more structure to the look.
Then we weeded the near-hidden walks in the backyard pleasure garden areas.

This is the gazebo garden “before” its wedding makeover – compare to title photo!
Julie re-laying the pebbles & rocks to create “Stone Art”

The Stone Art Pathways distinguish the journey through the Garden Rooms

Like a Sleeping Beauty, we discovered we could embrace these paths and create true charm. Julie was replacing the many stones found around and in the nearby garden beds; thereby creating organic patterns and designs.

Artistically – and spiritually – the re-design seemed to call out to Julie. It was as if her stone art talent was also being ignited. We later learned that her grandfather had been a kind of stone artist ~ and her father is a mason! So, it seemed the garden was, again, reaching out to us – telling us stories…

Sensual Fountain Romance
The next big change after removing that scary hot tub was to replace it with a romantic, calming, soothing, tiered water fountain whose look and tinkling sounds would offer truly sensual delight, along with some pretty water plants – and fish — all to transport Gina and Ted, their family, and their many, many friends.

First step, I did scouting at one of my favorite local resources out in the Garden State: Brocks Farms Garden Center. I identified about half a dozen fountains and sent images to Gina and Ted.

Tips When Buying a Fountain
I encouraged the Louds – and anyone choosing a fountain of any size – to:

  • Listen to the fountain in operation;
  • Select a model that allows you to regulate the water speed and flow. Some folks like that rushing sound, others prefer a soft, near-trickle. 
  • And for a specimen attraction in the garden, I prefer fountains that can accommodate fish and water plants. These are no doubt more sizable than pocket or tabletop models but long-term, more accommodating for all-season garden pleasure. And for attracting pollinators and a certain, kind, wildlife, including salamanders, dragonflies, and I dare hope, turtles and frogs. Alas, we don’t see too many of these friends any more. 
  • Be certain that all parts of the fountain work, and that you have all the necessary equipment before you leave the establishment. We learned a lesson or two by being too quick to trust all was in order… However, we got it all going – on the third try. Ha. 

That weekend, Gina and Ted went on-site and chose a perfect water-feature fountain: three tiers, with a lovely trickling sound. Ahhhhh.

Not long after the weeding, we pruned up the limbs of Russian Olive trees (Elaegnus angustifolia) that stood as sentinels on either side of that forlorn hot tub. They were taking over. The Russian Olive is an invasive tree in our location and zone but they were already there.

(If you like the look of a Russian Olive and its somewhat feathered or dainty leaves, please plant our native Silverberry Elaegnus commutata).

Next, we next took the gates off the fence – and immediately I could see we could repurpose the gates as a pretty and very usable compost cabana!

Darin, the talented Master Gardener who contributes to the design construction and horticulture of Duchess Designs’ gardens, built the Compost Cabana from the fence gates, sizing it down to what I thought would make a better design – that of a lower and more horizontally bigger footprint of a compost.

I soon learned how Gina and Ted are especially dedicated to not only the environment but also to recycling and repurposing materials. Be still my heart, I thought. These folks are my tribe!
I always look to repurpose materials and use them in a new and advantageous way. Including plants.
The repurposing became a guiding principle in this illustrious garden design. See how many times we practice this here in this design project …

Not long after, Gina and Ted came back home from “away” business travels. Gina was adorable in her delight at the already transformative look, repeating “Oh my God, you guys!” like it was a mantra, holding her cheeks and exclaiming. She loved the pruned up Russian Olive look and the cleaned up garden weeds and walks.
It was so affirming!

She directed me/Duchess Designs – to keep going. Keep reclaiming and designing for a new look.

In time for the wedding. Clock ticking…

The Vexing Fence

Initially, we had determined that the old, decaying fence that bordered the back garden area would be removed; replaced by a cherry laurel plant border.

The worn stockade fence is what used to be called a “good neighbor fence” meaning it was to look good on both sides (ahh such good neighbor etiquette is surely needed now…)
With regard to this fence – both sides were undoubtedly, rather severely compromised.

Initially, we thought we’d take out the entire line of the old decaying stockade fence.
We of course discussed with the neighbor and he agreed to the plan.
But after further discussion on his border side he determined that not only didn’t he want to accept or accommodate the new green living fence – aka a plant border – he fessed up that he’d been using the existing fence as the needed fence that his pool insurance dictates! He felt obligated to put up his own fence just in case.

Therefore, we had to rethink the design solution. Especially since the neighbor went with a chain link fence as a border! Noooo. We couldn’t allow a too-institutional fencing to alter our romantic garden design concept.

I thought we could keep most of the fence, paint it, and where we had some landscape footprint, we could plant that green, living fence border. So we kept the stockade fence as a barrier to the chain link he was now installing. Further, I chose a fabulous color: a green that not only covered and altered the darkened stockade fence, but also that matched the incredible lichen that was happily living there in a lot of spots!
Here again – it was a marriage made in heaven.
More good karma.

Fence Makover: Julie (L) and Me – voguing a la Rosie the Riveter fashion (!) Painting the Fence

I painted the driveway fence too – being mindful to be respectful of the fashionable, living lichen there.

Later, Bill spray painted the back fence interiors in time for the wedding for a more coordinated green exterior design. The fence in that area was more structurally sound, too.

Next up was that heat pocket of a driveway.

Having already test-driven the efficacy of the composite tiles produced in Sweden, secured from Wayfair and used in our own Grillscape garden design – I felt super confident to recommend this beautiful alternative to a traditional driveway. Not only is it a glamorous, elegant look, but it’s environmentally better because water can percolate through it – unlike toxic asphalt. I truly believe that folks should get a tax credit for investing in a green solution that benefits their communities.

This was removal of a toxic, unightly driveway standard of yore that more folks need to rid themselves of. There is no redeeming value to asphalt. That’s why it costs so much to remove it and have it hauled away.

I encourage all who care about their exterior design and their environment to rid themselves of this non-essential chemical – especially if you have children, pets, and care about your water, grading, and drainage.
What do you think about this environmental, green solution?

For the Loud design, once it was determined what the tile pattern and color would be – I ordered.
Then it was time to get the raised bed on the driveway taken off. Pronto.

Me and Julie – and later, Darin – that super talented master gardener, project manager, that makes so many of my designs into reality – got to it.
The day we worked together to remove the raised driveway bed was a miserable, rainy, and for most folks, a depressing day. Yet we needed to complete the task.
The chemical asphalt driveway was scheduled to be removed and we needed to get that edible bed dismantled so the next phase could continue on time.

Further, we saved the bed’s good soil to re-distribute to other garden beds. It was a lot. A lot of soil. A lot of wheelbarrows trucking to other garden beds in the yard. Into the dusk on a summer night. Darin and I were committed. Silent and determined. (It was too ugly to take photos of that evening but you get the idea here from the first takeaway with Julie.) We all did it!

Then, it was time for the asphalt to be taken away. I ordered the dumpster. I ordered the bobcat and the excavator.

The early morning of the scheduled asphalt removal, the client called me to say the team was there already. Yikes. The mason and his team got there before the scheduled time and they were breaking up the asphalt with their picks when I got there! Double yikes.

Gina provided me with an elegant, early morning breakfast worthy of a garden duchess and a kind of lovely English-garden-tour early morning treat – and one I most certainly appreciated. So pretty.

Soon, though, the reality of garden design construction held sway. Thank goodness Gina had a scheduled business trip. Ha.
As this day was to be devoted to sheer construction.
It got ugly fast.
The noise; the pounding; the scraping.
We had machines and technology on our side.
Still, it took a lot. Of pounding, scratching, scraping.

The asphalt layers removed; steel edging installed; later added sidewalk expansion joints to meet the new driveway

At the end of that long day (there was a lot of high drama that I’ll spare you) but the black, chemical stuff was gone,

While the driveway was in its holding stage – we scheduled the plumber to trench in the lines for the new fountain.

On to the new and better.

We chose a terrific design and color – to complement the house. A kind of greyish blue.
I determined that a subtle, grey-blue tile would be so fabulous – especially as the driveway led right to the gardens and to the house and its complementary color and the new door look.

Wayfair offers a variety of Bergo patterns and colors from which to choose. And note that each tile can withstand up to 12,000 pounds per tile.

The Tiles are delivered in boxes; ready to be installed 

The designed composite material needs to sit on top of layers: I use a three-quarter inch stone base – approximately 6 -7 inches and a layer of decomposed granite (DG), approximately 2-3 inches. All smoothed out to accept the tiles that snap into each other like a kind of jigsaw puzzle.

In terms of design, the Bergo tile can be cut. Just as we did in my Grillscape garden.
There, it was a bit more challenging as I wanted more of a hexagon shaped space there that I believed would take better advantage of the bay and city-scape views that we have.

With my team spreading the tons of stone and DG super-fast – even in the extreme heat – we got the base in.

Then it was laying in the tiles. They interlock in a specific way so it’s important to follow a precise pattern flow. And it was key to get it to lay properly for grading and drainage as well as to line up against the new garden beds bordering the driveway.

Bill demonstrates his custom-cutting prowess, making the Tiles fit the design space. Check out that “flower hat” ~ Gina made for the entire Duchess team! 

Here again, in the driveway, we repurposed.
Remember the raised edible garden bed sitting atop the asphalt that was fronted with a kind of composite constructed stone?

Once the soil bed was emptied, we took those brick-like stones and used them to create borders on either side of the garden paths; creating garden beds. (Are you keeping track of all the repurposing? Smile… )

At Gina and Ted’s we needed to cut tiles to accommodate the driveway edging along the newly-created garden beds that were now bordered by the stone composite “bricks” as well as the black powder steel edging that we laid in as border in some of the newly designed beds.
I love the steel edge’s clean, classic border – it works in a vast variety of garden designs; it resists frost heave and is easy to maintain.

The Mud Room Doors

At Gina and Ted’s we were painting the mud room doors too, as I believed that red color that was there was too – well – too radical or strident and not peaceful or serene enough for the new exterior design.
So while I tried a few different colors, in the end it was the serene blue that was the hands-down winner that ahem, “married” well with the driveway tiles.

Gina also had some very cool doors that she wanted to do something with. I asked if I could think about that.

It later soon came to me that if she agreed, I could distress them in the same blue color as the mud room doors and we could position them along the house as a lovely, stylish screen for the area that will eventually be a place for the Japanese soaking tub – behind the newly created bed bordering the fashionable driveway.

Now that the foundation was in place, it was time to start adding the plants!

Next chapter posting will be on the construction phase, including ripping out the old and artfully replacing and adding in the new.

All in time for the wedding.

Sneak preview before chapter two:

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"Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

 I adore plants. Plants are my muse ~ they are my paramour… I’m a garden artist; a nature lover, & horticulturist. I’m an author & writer. My passion for culture & beauty, along with my trait curiosity, brings you an authentic celebration of life. I’m a storyteller ~ weaving the artful gifts of horticulture, garden design, tablescape decor, floral design, cocktail culture, garden-to-glass recipes & their glamorous garnishes, homegrown edibles, food & drink; & cooking, to bring you my flair & what I’ve been told is an avid elan ~ as well as the stories from those who inspire me ~ to pursue an elegant, enduring, & joyful, entertaining lifestyle. It’s an honor & a privilege to do what you love.

Join me to celebrate a romantic, garden-infused, entertaining lifestyle filled with artful design, sparkling dinner parties, peerless martinis, and copious magnums of champagne!





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