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  • Writer's pictureJoy Yagid


Updated: Apr 29

Words and Photographs by Joy Yagid

How four homeowners created beloved gardens

Emily Kehe worked with local gardening professionals to help create her secret garden.

As winter fades into spring, it’s natural to start dreaming of your garden. This year, you may be itching to do something more than the usual to-do list. Maybe you just need a little inspiration. Let’s explore some options from working with a small backyard to creating a yard that requires very little water.

A Secret Garden

Emily Kehe had little gardening experience before moving to Maplewood in 2015. Her first house was a blank slate with a lot of yard. “I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Kehe says. “Most of what I planted died. After a couple years, I was able to create some decent garden beds.”

For her next house, she wanted more land but found a great house on a very small lot. “So it wasn’t my dream, at all,” she says. The secluded backyard was tiny and totally lacked any color or interest. It had very large garden beds and very little grass, which was not ideal for her family.

Panicle hydrangeas border Emily Kehe’s home.

During the pandemic, transforming the yard into a lush secret garden became her project. She had her work cut out for her. It was full of boxwoods, other shrubs, hostas and grasses, which gave it a very formal feel. “I wanted it to feel a bit more natural and random,” she says.

Kehe found her inspiration on Pinterest and other sites. She ripped out the hostas and boxwoods and created enough lawn for a swingset for the kids. For the remaining space, her biggest challenge was not knowing what she was doing. She worked with local gardening professionals to learn about what she could do with the space with its soil conditions and the amount of sunlight. With this, she created her secret garden.

“I love that it feels lush and established,” she says. “I got lucky and have really good soil, so everything is thriving. I have definitely had some things fail and die, but for the most part I’ve been successful.” She tore out the ivy that covered a lattice and planted climbing hydrangea, which also helps with privacy. She used a similar color scheme to keep the space relaxing.

“I love when people walk back here and are surprised by the space,” she says. “It feels special and not typical for this area. We turned our tiny backyard into a place I love to hang out and entertain. There is still so much to do but I am happy with this little corner of our world!”

A Native Pollinator Meadow

Jessica Miller learned about native plants and was inspired to create a wildflower meadow in her front yard.

Jessica Miller moved to South Orange in March 2020. The house and yard needed a good deal of TLC. There was ivy growing up the side of the house and the whole backyard was covered in leaves. Miller had no idea what the yard looked like until that spring.

The yard was a blank slate, even if it was filled with English ivy and goutweed. She and her husband wanted it to be low maintenance and ecologically friendly.

“I grew up in a city. I lived my whole adult life in a city. So I just started planting,” she said. “I was commuting every day so the only place that was open when I got home was Home Depot. I just go and buy what I thought was pretty and planted it … all the plants that my mom liked.” Miller learned about native plants at an event given by the Native Plant Society of NJ with Dr. Randi Eckel, an entomologist and owner of Toadshade Wildflower Farm in Frenchtown. She solarized the yard, a process of laying down clear plastic and letting the sun heat up the soil and kill the plants. In the spring, she took up the plastic and laid down a native wildflower mix as her first step to creating a meadow in her front yard.

Why a meadow? Miller grew up in the Midwest. Her childhood memories of prairies “felt like home to me.” She wanted to give that experience to her children, even if it was only as a front yard.

“I definitely like to see the wildlife interactions,” she says. Her curious kids go outside to observe the bees up close, “which is really cool because a fed bee is not looking to sting you. And also our native bees, they don’t keep hives, so they’re not defending a hive.”

A Leveled-Up Rock Garden

Scott Horne moved to his home in South Orange in November 1996 after many years of looking at the beautiful houses and neighborhoods and dreaming.

“I had little to no gardening experience when I moved to South Orange, just basic lawn mowing, etc., from when I was a kid. Plus, I grew up in a hotter, more arid part of the country, so I wasn’t familiar with what would grow here and how to maintain it.” Horne wanted a space with a private area to relax but didn’t want a large yard to maintain. He got exactly what he wanted and more. Horne’s backyard is an exposed side of a cliff.

Scott Horne’s back yard is an exposed side of a cliff. He found plants that could survive and flourish with the thin soil and hillside erosion.

“I like a more natural setting. I grew up in the country in a rocky area, so the rocky hillside spoke to me. I’m also drawn to mid-century design and architecture, including the landscape and plantings.”

Horne also loves the challenges. “The rocks are beautiful but can be hard to work around. There is a lot of shade, which makes it pleasant in the summer. But it is harder to find plants that can survive and flourish with the poor thin soil, hillside erosion and, of course, the deer.”

Horne did much of the work himself. He learned from members of the SOMA gardening Facebook group. He also worked with Miguel Aguilar and landscape designer, Sarah Cavanaugh, who guided him with plant choices. In January, he loves the vibrant orange blooms on the witch hazel she recommended. “They are a harbinger of spring and always bring joy!”

“I live in one of the most densely populated areas in the country,” he says. “When I walk out onto my patio, I have a secluded place to relax and enjoy nature.”

A grassless yard

What if you moved into a house that had only pebbles for the front yard? Alison Weir did just that by buying her South Orange home from a sculptor who used the property to display his work on pedestals. The backyard is reminiscent of a Zen garden, employing xeriscaping – a type of landscaping that reduces the need for irrigation. Quietly bubbling fountains and flag stone paths with plenty of texture from the pines, flowers and other plants create layers of greens with pops of color.

Alison Weir moved to her present home in 2020. “I loved it immediately,” she says. “I envisioned filling it with native perennials and a simple fountain and lots of bird feeders. It has a beautiful simplicity to it.”

Weir grew up in Bergen County in a home with simple gardens. Her mom had a flower arranging business. Upon moving to Maplewood in 1992, her parents helped with the garden and various projects. “Gardening is an ever-changing landscape that is all about trial and error,” she says. “Every spring is an opportunity for risk-taking and learning and creative expression.”

Her vision of her perfect garden has changed. At first it was a safe yard for her kids, then it was a shady oasis with huge trees. In 2020, she moved to her current house. “I loved it immediately,” she says. “I envisioned filling it with native perennials and a simple fountain and lots of bird feeders. It has a beautiful simplicity to it.”

Weir has found a few surprises in her yard. “I learned that there are weird bits of pavers or bricks or macadam in places,” she says. “If I find a place where I wanted to plant but can’t, that’s where I’ll place a decorative ceramic pot instead.”

She immediately started planting. She continues to do so every spring, revising and replanting where needed. She also worked with Karen Shelby for designing part of the backyard garden. But this wasn’t without challenges. “Beneath the pea gravel, there is a weed barrier cloth. Beneath that, there is highly compacted soil.”

She’s also found a few surprises. “I learned that there are weird bits of pavers or bricks or macadam in places,” she says. “If I find a place where I wanted to plant but can’t, that’s where I’ll place a decorative ceramic pot instead.”

On what she loves best about her garden, Weir says, “I love the quiet beauty of my backyard garden. I look forward to seeing if the dozens of bulbs planted out front this fall will show up this spring! I love my raised beds and the opportunity for changing things up each year. I love not mowing grass. I love my pollinator beds and the fact that I have many, many bird visitors.”

Although the homeowners faced their own challenges, they embraced their spaces and made them their own. Emily Kehe found her secret garden at the end of a long path. Jessica Miller brought back memories of her childhood with a native front yard meadow. Scott Horne created a peaceful oasis on the side of a cliff. And Alison Weir took a most unusual space and made it into a Zen garden. May their creativity, hard work, and a bit of help from local professionals inspire you to create a garden you will love.

Joy Yagid is a professional photographer and an ever-learning gardener. She lives in Maplewood with her family and two very large cats.

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