Lessons Learned in a Tiny Garden

There’s a space outside our house where I just love to sit and watch. It’s my little back garden. I write about it all the time (I know), but it’s really important.

This little garden space has been a work in progress for 4 years. I know I say that frequently on here, but it’s because it’s true. This is a picture taken the week we moved into the Huffaker House:


Not only was the whole place full of bindweed, it was also full of ill-selected plantings and had a horrible drainage issue. Every time it rained, water would sit at the bottom of that rock wall and we’d trek it into the house. I did my best to clean it up right away, but made some poor choices (why would I use red mulch? Oh, the things I’ve learned).


Over the four summers we’ve lived in the Huffaker House, I’ve made some tough decisions and done a lot of hard labor. I removed almost all of the plants that were originally back there, including the hostas (they were burning up, as you can see in the pic above), the lillies (destroying the rock wall), the monkey grass/liriope (I just hate it), the irises (diseased– it was a sad day), and the large sedum (had a tendency to die in the middle and look like an upside down dead spider). We dug out the soil below the rock wall, even though doing so drastically reduced my gardening space, and put in a French tile and pea gravel for drainage.

(Photo from last summer before I took out the irises.)

This is the year all that work will all pay off. And while I wait (rather impatiently, I might add), I’m thinking of some things I’ve learned from this little garden.

A tiny space can still be a lovely space.

My garden is only about 20′ long and only about 3′ deep, but I love it for all the beautiful moments it gives me. And I don’t mean in time; I mean garden moments like this:

Creeping phlox filling in the spaces in the rock wall.

People decorate their homes in “vignettes” (or so I’m told by house blogs). I like to think of my garden as full of them. I don’t have room for a mass planting (well, I do, but I’d only get one long one and I wanted to have more freedom than that, so I went “cottage,” which is short for “do whatever the hell I want and if it’s messy, it’s because it’s supposed to be that way). This little space is full of lots of varieties, colors, big hunks of stone, and little rocks. I like to find places where a color combo or a plant creeping over a rock just makes me stop and look.

Everything in its time.

A pretty garden takes a long time to develop. I think people who landscape early and then leave it forever miss an opportunity. Just like it takes years to figure out how to live in a house (hello, 3rd bedroom we’ve occupied in 4 years), it takes a while to find the right color, form, and seasonal combos in a garden. And it’s fun to play with things from year to year; you’ll never get bored and the whole thing will be so much more personal when you’re done.

3/24/2016– just a little bit more sunshine and it’s gonna explode!

Don’t try to make a space into something it’s not.

I think the previous owner tried to do this. She liked hostas, so she planted tons of them behind the house. And guess what? They blistered in the sun and looked awful by mid-June. The place gets full sunlight for about 9 hours in the summer; you can’t force plants to grow where the conditions make it impossible. Embrace the fact that you’ve got a sun garden or a shade garden, buy some books, learn what thrives in that spot, and then roll with it! Do I wish I had more shade gardening space? Oh, man, do I. But I don’t here. I’ll work on my little sun garden, and dream about the day I have a corner in a yard where I can grow astilbe and bleeding hearts and columbine and everything else that thrives in the shade. In the meantime, bring on the salvia and Russian sage!


Enjoy it while you can.

This isn’t just about the seasons coming and going each year, though it’s partly about that. It’s also about the time you have on the property as a whole. We won’t live in this house forever, but I’m going to love this garden regardless of when it’s time to leave. I’ll try not to plant things that take 5 years to put on the first bloom, but each spring, I’ll buy things to put in my garden because planning, planting, and tending are all activities that make me happy. When we leave this house, I’ll pass this space on to someone else and hope they love it as much as I do.


Learn from it.

I’ve killed plants. I’ve regretted decisions based on color and spacing. I researched why my tomatoes had blossom end rot and the disease my irises had. This is my first garden, and it has given me some confidence in plant care and garden design. I look forward to the day I have more space, because this little spot has given me lovely ideas and taught me so many things (including, frequently, what not to do).

I’ve also learned to find meaning in little things because of my tiny garden. I have plants back there that came in the mail the day my Grandma Noel passed away. I opened them right after getting the call that she was gone, and it was comforting. I enjoy those plants so much that they’ll come with me to my next spot. She’d be happy to see them growing, and they help me accept her loss.

She’d pick something other than catmint, I think, but it’s my Grandma flower, and I think she’d like that I have one.

Let purpose guide your progress.

Last year, I really concentrated on pollinator-friendly plants. I had bees, butterflies, and even a hummingbird moth flitting from one bloom to the next all summer long, and The Boy loved it. He’d come home and spend hours chasing butterflies through the yard, always coming back to the garden when he lost one to find another. I loved how interested he was in the little creatures living in my garden, and I loved knowing that I was helping an insect population that’s in dire need of pesticide-free food sources. It was the best thing to watch them moving from one flower to another!

Last June.

Those are the lessons I’m letting my garden teach me this spring.

You know the best part? You can find lessons in any hobby or space. For me it’s gardening, but what my garden is really about is building and reflecting. It’s a tiny little spot, but it means so much as I learn from and about it. Do you have something or somewhere like that?




Doing DIY Projects with a Toddler in the House



What is the #1 obstacle when it comes to getting work done in our house?

This beautiful boy:


The Boy was born in  2013, and out of necessity, we took a pretty long break from DIY. Pete did the mowing, and I did regular house stuff, but all progress on the house really stopped for a while. I felt like I missed a whole summer! And another one, really, because he was only 12 months old the next summer. But I think we’ve finally figured out how to get at least some work done on the house while The Boy is around.

Over the last few years, we’ve learned how to work with/around our toddler, so here are some tricks and tips I’ve been meaning to share on the subject:

Accept that you will get less done. But less is still better than nothing. This has taken a while to learn, and I’m not always 100% zen about it. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t sit still. Last time Peter suggested that I sit down, I sat for about 45 seconds before realizing I’d forgotten to do something, and I was off again. However, we have learned that often, getting something done means that one of us will be on baby duty, and one of us will be working.

The working person often feels guilty about getting to do their own thing, but we’ve talked about it, and we just have to let that go. We’re not always great at this, and it’s difficult not to keep an internal ledger of who has had what time to do what. But we’re both more content at the end of the day if we’ve gotten to cross something off our list. So first, realize you will not do all the things. You will only do some of the things. And then accept that that’s okay.

And also recognize that time with the toddler doesn’t suck, either. Even if you’re watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang again.


Baby duty doesn’t have to be completely fruitless. This really only applies to certain tasks, and it lends itself more to summertime tasks, but if you can get the kid outside, and don’t mind working at a slower pace when it is of paramount importance that you go excitedly inspect a bug your kid just found, you can do jobs that don’t involve power tools. I often get him outside and keep one eye on him while gardening or painting. Unfortunately, my other eye is often on the dog, so I feel like I’m being tugged in three directions, but overall, I’d say I actually work at least a third of the time Peter is working. I let The Boy pick out a couple of toys to take outside, and then I just constantly remind him to stay near me.


Oh, to have a totally fenced in-yard. I’d be unstoppable.

Get Kid involved if possible. Trick him into thinking he’s involved if involvement isn’t actually possible. We try to let The Boy join in on (or at least mimic) what we’re doing. Under close supervision, he’s allowed to have a shovel…


…or an Allen key…


…or to help at the lumber yard…


…or to climb the (short) ladder, throw sticks on the brush fire, ride on the mower wagon, and hit things with a rubber mallet.

He wants to help us, and I would rather cultivate that desire than squash it. Sometimes we have to take a tool away or tell him something is “not a toy”. Sometimes this provokes screaming, but lots of times, it just sends him on to the next thing that is okay for him to do.

I grew up in a “teamwork” household. We lived in a converted corncrib on 10 acres and there was a lot to do. My mom, in particular, made it clear that living on a nice property and all the fun that involved came part-and-parcel with a lot of work. It was important that the family was a team working toward the common goals of making life enjoyable, protecting and growing my parents’ investment in their home and property, and lots of times, learning and having fun in the process.

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The corncrib.



My childhood gave me a work ethic and a love of doing things myself. I’d hate it if The Boy stopped wanting to help because he was repeatedly told that what we were doing was adult work. I don’t want his first reaction to the phrase “we have work to do” to be to go sit on the couch, and I don’t want it to be a groan, either (though I’m sure I’ll hear them eventually). I want him to, if not excitedly, at least cheerfully go find his work gloves and ask how he can help. So, while he’s little, if that means that at least one of us is carefully watching to make sure he’s only playing with the appropriate tools and not undoing the work we’ve already done, then so be it.

I guess what all of this boils down to is that working on your house or apartment or hobby or part-time side business is important, and having a kid doesn’t mean you need to or have to stop doing that work. It means you modify the way you go about that work. It means you do your work more slowly. It can mean frustration and boredom, sometimes, but in the best of cases, it means you pass on the how’s and why’s of that work to your kids and it teaches them important lessons.

We’ve only been doing this parenting thing for 2.5 years, and we have so much more to learn. We’ll have to figure out new ways to accomplish what we want to accomplish. But hopefully, our kid will learn with us as we figure it all out and he’ll become a lifelong lover of doing it right.

House Goals: SPRING 2016

I generally don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I just never stick with them, and I don’t find the new year particularly inspiring. I’m much better at setting some goals come March, when the weather starts turning nicer. I find THAT inspiring!

It’s a good time to start thinking about some goals for our home this spring. I started this post a few weeks ago, but we’ve made some decisions since then, so there are some edits in here.

  • Decide about adding a half bath upstairs and install it. Or don’t.   We’ve decided we’re putting in a bathroom upstairs.

Our house has only one bathroom. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely bathroom, but there’s only one of them.


It didn’t bother us when we bought it, but I think over the last four years, we’ve come to realize it’s a bit of a danger for resale. We’ve thought about four or five ways we could add a tiny half bath on the second level, and I think we’ve settled on the one that would work the best and be most cost efficient while preserving all available closet spaces.


No worries, the picture is just the upstairs landing, not the new location of the bathroom. After some conversations with the lady who sold us our house discussing the return on investment, we’ve decided it’ll be worth it, both for the resale value and quickness of sale when it’s time. We had the plumber out early this week to discuss it, and all systems will be go starting this coming weekend. Pete gets to build a wall and rip out a floor, lucky guy.

  • Finish all of the outdoor spaces. Repaint the porches.

The house has four porches. The back and south porches are mostly done. The north porch needs paint (or at least a good power washing). The front porch needed a whole lot of help, since we discovered some dry rot and other issues last summer. Peter finished rebuilding the front porch railings last weekend! It’s now painted (and ready to post about soon, I guess).


  • Power wash and generally beautify the outside of the house.

We haven’t kept up with yearly power washing, and it shows. It’s time to clean this baby up, touch up paint all over, and generally make her look like new.

power washing
Hello, original house color…funny seeing you here.

There’s a good possibility some of the trim will need repainted.

And I want to finish up my gardens. I’m looking forward to a really lovely year in the garden, since so much of what I planted in the last few years will reach maturity. Last year was a good year…


…but this year will be better. I’m working on a post about planning and planting a perennial garden and ways to ensure nice color combinations and seasonal variety.

And one thing I really love about this time of year is that housework doesn’t only happen on the weekends; we mulched and mowed a bit last night after work. The Boy ran around, didn’t watch a moment of TV all evening, and drove his father nuts about riding on the lawn mower got to ride on the lawn mower a lot.

Pile o’ mulch.
Watching and waiting for his Daddy to pick him up on the mower.
Done for the night.

I love that we can come home and spend a couple more hours out in the sunshine, and I love falling into bed completely exhausted afterward! I love spring!

So those are our springtime goals at the Huffaker House. Most of them are outdoor projects, which I love, but there is also a major change coming to the basic layout of the house in the new bathroom. It might sound like a lot of work, but honestly, there’s not much else I’d rather do. I might be messed up, but I really love working on our house, and I love knowing that we’re taking care of this old lady.



The One Where I Start Learning to Sew

Anybody remember my first post?

For two years, I had another blog where I chronicled my young son’s life and anything we were doing to our home, a 1900 East Tennessee vernacular cottage thing (Pete reminds me it wasn’t designed and it doesn’t have a regular style– girls, don’t marry an architectural historian if you don’t want to know the difference between style and form, or if, like me, you can’t remember it after you’re repeatedly told the difference. Do marry one if you like talking about those things and also have a good vacuum for sawdust purposes).

I abandoned that blog for two reasons. The first was that I started thinking that as The Boy grew into his own personality, he deserved the chance to choose what information was shared about him and what wasn’t. I chose to ditch the updates on his childhood and the pictures of his face.

Pictures of The Boy usually look like this now. Pete doesn’t get the luxury of my protecting his identity.

The other reason I ditched my old blog was that I wanted to narrow the focus of my writing adventure. I have a deep love for home design and changing my environment, but I was frustrated with a) my options for decor and household items, especially as I noticed how repetitious the blogosphere was in terms of the same materials, colors, brands, etc., b) the cost of those options when I could see how simply they were constructed, c) the fact that when I bought these things, I propped up an unsustainable consumer culture that did nothing to support artists and makers, and d)  my own inability to do anything about a or b and sometimes c. Throw in a healthy jealousy of my husband, who it seems can make or fix anything, and I decided I wasn’t going to take it anymore.

I started a blog about doing things for myself. But, big hang-up, I didn’t know how to sew. I have a groovy 1963 Singer that I inherited from my Great Aunt Virginia, but I didn’t know how to use it.


It’s in the back of my messy car. Don’t judge.

I like to think of this old lady as a combination of a sewing machine, an acid trip, and an episode of the Brady Bunch all rolled up in one. She’s seen a lot of clothing and housewares in her day, but has been neglected since Virginia passed when I was in college.

Once upon a time (as in, the early months in Tennessee when I had a lot of time on my hands), I got it in my head that I’d teach myself to sew. I bought a couple books and started reading, but ultimately got too intimidated by the sharp thing in my machine. Last fall, I started thinking again and thought a class would be a better setting for me. I’ve looked in the area, but there aren’t a lot of sewing classes that fit my needs (mostly scheduling and fear of strangers watching me learn new things). But there is Miss Barbara.


Miss Barbara is the costumer at Theatre-at-Tusculum, where I frequently do community theater. She’s wonderful and amazing and used to teach sewing through UT Extension. She made me the most beautiful doll costume for our production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang– I actually had to buy it because I couldn’t part with it. How the woman clothes 80+ people (2-3 costumes each) every single fall and never says a cross word, I will never know. She’s just as sweet as they come.

I can use it when I take The Boy trick-or-treating, right?

I asked Miss Barbara last fall, as she was doing my hair for a show, whether she ever takes private students. She said she never had, but that she’d also been asked by a castmate and she’d like to help us.

We didn’t talk much more about it, but then last month I saw that she was offering a beginning sewing workshop through ARTS Outreach at Tusculum! I pounced on it. I emailed her and then, just to be sure, I also called ARTS Outreach. The call may have hinted of desperation, I’m not sure.

All that to say that my first class was Tuesday night and it was so fun! We learned to thread our machines, basic operation, and then to do some basic seams. So here are some pictures of that…


That’s about as far as we got the other night; we did a simple seam, a French seam, and a flat felled seam. We’ll learn more next Tuesday, and I’m so excited!

Life Returns to East Tennessee

It’s been a few weeks! To be honest, I’m not sure if the break had more to do with exhaustion from finally finishing the master bedroom or with a general end-of-winter malaise that I feel every year about this time. I looked on Facebook. I start complaining about the weather and begging for spring about the middle of February. Every. Year.

But there are signs that life is returning to East Tennessee and for that, I am eternally grateful. Spring is my favorite season in this state. It’s really lovely, and it comes, mercifully, earlier than in the Midwest.

First, Pete’s been making a lot of progress on the front porch. We tore out the old posts and rails last summer after discovering some dry rot. We don’t think the previous owner used treated lumber when he built the front porch, and in the humidity of Tennessee, that’s a big no-no. It looked awful all winter, like the house had lost its smile. But it’s starting to come together. I’ll post more about that soon.


The Boy likes to help haul materials.


In the meantime, I got busy readying the garden for mulching next weekend. I wanted to get at some weeds (why are they always the first things that start showing life this time of year?). I’m sure my Grandma would have told me to cool it on the weeding, but I couldn’t wait! It was nice to get some (very bright) sun!


I love this time of year because I can start finding out what made it through the winter and guessing what I planted where.


I like to leave the twigs and branches from the previous year, even on plants that will start from the ground each spring. It keeps me from accidentally digging something important up in the spring when, surprise, I jump the gun on cleaning out the garden. Above, some catmint peaking out from the dirt…


…and some coral bells putting out some sweet new leaves. I know there are more frost days ahead, and I don’t want my babies to get too ahead of themselves because they’ll get bitten by a hard chill…but it’s hard not to keep dreaming about the day when it looks like this again…


…only better, because 4 springs of weeding and planting and dreaming and tending will have a BIG payoff this year. I can feel it!