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Simple Fixes to Make your Yard Look like Grandma’s

Updated on April 7, 2015

When I was a kid, I looked forward to going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in the summer more than I looked forward to Christmas – Almost. The house smelled of Grandpa’s cherry pipe tobacco and Grandma’s Estee Lauder talcum powder. Outside the big kitchen window stood guard an ancient maple tree, beneath it a birdbath surrounded by a rose garden. The boxwood hedge defining the property was dense and as old as the trees, while some boxwood hugged the house, shaped into cones, spheres, and cubes by Grandpa. In between were early spring pansies and daffodils. In the summer I enjoyed green beans, peonies, and hydrangea. All was good sitting in the garden shade on a cool patch of soft grass, sipping an iced tea, ready for a nap.

#10 Gazing Ball

Grandma’s neighbor had an emerald green glass gazing ball on a 3’ pedestal next to a big tree sharing shade with both properties. It reminded me of a Christmas ornament and brought up warm memories of Christmases past: I could sit on the lawn and stare at that thing for hours. Better than a meditation stone, it WAS now that I think of it, my meditation statue. Gazing balls are a cheap but delicate decoration that are known to attract narcissistic cardinals and occasional blue jays. We have a new silver one sitting on a 6” pedestal under a Philodendron, next to the bird bath. Cost $20 from Walmart, though I really wanted a green one (Note that gazing balls don’t necessarily come with pedestals or stands). The first one was smashed by a jealous cardinal, but it was getting old anyway and starting to lose its sheen in the Florida elements. Be careful not to allow water inside so that you can enjoy it for at least two summer seasons.

My Gazing Ball

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#9 Birdbath

Birdbaths come in all shapes and sizes, but I enjoy my old-fashioned greying/white concrete pedestal and open-flower concrete bowl. Birdbaths are guaranteed to attract the likes of purple grackles and robins but I’ve seen our cardinals use it, too. Some of the birds like to use it to clean their seeds, others bathe, and, yes, we do have to clean it weekly as some enjoy it as a toilet. It’s really important to keep the water clean, especially in the summer, as green algae builds up here in Florida, but, more importantly, we have to prevent mosquitoes from laying eggs. There’s an inexpensive enzyme product, safe for birds, that you can put in the bath to prevent mosquito infestation: Mosquito Dunks. This product kills the larvae before they can mature.

It really is fun to enjoy lunch on our patio and watch the birds splash around, then look at themselves in the gazing ball, but we also have a hawk who enjoys watching the smaller birds – Be prepared to enjoy all of nature’s trophic (feeding) levels, and you might even see squirrels, raccoons, and other birds of prey enjoying a backyard lunch, too.

My Birdbath before cleaning

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#8 A Place to Sit

Grandma and Grandpa used to drag out old wooden folding chairs for late-morning or early-evening viewing. I hadn’t seen them for years, but this season I saw them popping up at places as diverse as Walmart! At our old house in an older established Orlando neighborhood, we adopted a heavy-as-hell concrete table and matching benches from a neighbor who didn’t want to go through the trouble of moving them again. We enlisted the help of half-a-dozen other neighbors and finally got the 6 pieces slowly moved into place under our Loquat tree. Unfortunately, our Rottweiler-shepherd mix, Ladybug, figured out that if she could get onto a bench, she could reach the loquats when in season. Funny to watch, not fun to clean up! By the way, while the loquat can be a messy tree, the sour fruit is delicious – Just remember to spit out the seeds.

#7 Herbs and Vegetables

Grandma’s idea of herbs and spices were salt and pepper. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, she included cinnamon and nutmeg, but those were exceptions to the rule! These were Pennsylvania folk, but that didn’t mean Grandma didn’t know about the medicinal effects of plants like aloe. Grandma was smart in that she also had an arsenal of biological controls including luring ladybugs to her yard to dispatch aphids from her rose garden, and she never touched a snake. Without using much more than soapy water, grandma had pest-free green beans, out-of-control zucchini, and gigantic eggplants and tomatoes. She’d plant marigolds in between the vegetables as a pest decoy (and they’re toxic to nematodes) as well as to add nitrogen back into the soil when they finished their duty. Planting a little victory garden, for ME means victory over nature (even if it means chicken wire around my tomatoes and dinky mushy strawberries).

#6 Flowers and Flowering Shrubs

Red and pink flowers attract the hummingbirds. Yellow flowers attract butterflies. Bees seem especially attracted to my purple Ruellia. If you live in Florida or Southern California, orange blossoms scent the entire neighborhood to announce the start of spring. Jasmine heavily perfumes the yard as well as offer some privacy as some species grow to cover fences. Other jasmine varieties offer groundcover for otherwise too-shady areas. Hydrangeas, like the one grandma had on one shady, damp corner of the yard, can change color with soil pH – Blue in acidic soil, pink in basic soil. Our next door neighbor was tired of replacing his daylilies and hawthorn plants being used as a perennial salad bar by the neighborhood deer. The idea of a salad bar gave him another idea: Plant lettuce and cabbage in his front yard to draw them away from the flowers. The deer avoided the greens and went straight for the newly-planted flowers. Now he has flowering “Crown of Thorns” and I tell you, they do avoid that!

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#5 Stepping Stones or other Statuary

Tacky as it may seem to many of us, my in-laws have a collection of garden gnomes, stone turtles, cement frogs, you name it, they’ve got a statue for it. Every size seems represented in their massive garden system: Some only a few inches square by a few inches tall, others the size of a grown man. You’d think the garden would look “too busy” or “childish”, but it really does look nice. My mother-in-law incorporated her British sense of gardening proportion, and really designed a stunning retreat stretching around the entire property. A few weeks ago, my husband was talking with a neighbor about her kids carving initials and little drawings into the concrete sidewalk across the street. He mentioned to her that instead, the kids could make concrete stepping stones, complete with handprints and embedded stone decorations for her. Brought back memories of long-ago Christmases making gifts for grandma and grandpa to put in the garden.

#4 Green Green Grass

Remember running through the grass barefoot? If you lived in the Northeast or Midwest U.S., you probably felt cool, soft grass giving way under your feet as you cut across yards trying to avoid the hot asphalt of the street or hard concrete of sidewalks. Sometimes, I’d be unfortunate enough to sit on the ground a tad too early for the morning dew to have evaporated, but I didn’t care. The grass felt as good under my bare legs (I wore shorts about 3 months out of the year) as it did underfoot. And the smell. The wonderful grassy grass smell of morning. Or after late afternoon/early evening mowing. I live in Florida, now, and I wince when I walk across the warm, crunchy, prickly St. Augustine variety of what our state department of Agriculture calls “grass”. I occasionally get a whiff of the grass being mown if I’m lucky enough to be home when my neighbor’s lawn service comes by, but my “guys” do their job when we’re doing ours.

#3 Privacy

My in-laws are lucky enough to have found a place with an empty lot, no signs of being developed soon, next door. Their house, like ours, is angled just so that you can’t see the neighbor’s house next door. The saying “Fences make good neighbors” was our mantra when we lived next door to a family who ran an illegal daycare out of their home. Not only was it loud, but it was dangerous, as they had scrap metal and a dilapidated rusting aluminum shed abutting our property. Like I mentioned earlier, grandma and grandpa had a hedge, dense as a brick wall! Fall on it, and you’ll either bounce off, or you’ll be hospitalized for a week getting stiches for the hundreds of scratches you’ll endure. We kids used to play “Track & Field Hurdles” over the 2’ hedge on one side of the house, but we didn’t dare approach the 3’ hedge up front. The back hedge was most magnificent: How did grandpa ever keep up with that 6’ behemoth, I wonder?

#2 Tree(s)

Let’s face it – Birds love trees, squirrels love trees, we all love trees. I can’t name one person – not one – who doesn’t love a tree. Mature trees can produce 260 lbs of oxygen per year! The water vapor transpiring from trees (as much as 40,000 gal/day from an oak) can lower surrounding air temperatures by as much as 5 to 8 ⁰F! The shade trees provide is a no-brainer. Trees (and shrubs) can add up to 14% value to your home. Hang a bird feeder or suet or peanut butter on your tree, and count the minutes ‘til you see birds or squirrels. Or raccoons, chipmunks, etc. My favorite tree offering is the sound the leaves make when the breeze picks up. Brings me back to ocean vacations or camping in the woods. I’m listening to my trees talk to me right now. They’re whispering, “Hurry up with that article and give us our spring feeding and mulching, lady!”

#1 Water

Not everyone’s as fortunate as I am to live on a little pond. Here, I watch the wading birds glide in like pterodactyls every morning, slowing walking the perimeter of the pond, patiently poking around for some fish, frog, or dragonfly. I see the faster dragonflies skim across the water, while an occasional deer makes an appearance. Once we had an alligator, and, I’M NOT KIDDING, a deer with a nearby fawn was kicking at it when he got close to shore! When we lived in the older neighborhood, closer to the city, we couldn’t afford waterfront property, but we had our birdbath. In the FRONT yard, in a corner garden by the kitchen window where we’d sit for what seemed like hours, watching lizards get eaten by snakes, birds splashing while feral cats looked on – ah – Reminded me of the good old days when I’d sit next to Grandma, icy glass of tea in hand, quietly watching the grackles and robins go about their business like it was nobody else’s business.

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