Designing the Right Yard for Your Needs

Owning a home is a long-term commitment, but families change over time. Although the backyard may have been the perfect outdoor space for your toddler, it may no longer work for your teen. When deciding what to change to better suit your family’s needs, take into consideration some of the below tips to ensure the perfect space for the entire family.


The most important aspect to keep in mind before starting a backyard project is your family’s safety. Before you plant anything, learn what types of plants and yard decorations work best for your family. Prickly bushes and plants such as cacti and roses may be nice to look at but can be dangerous for pets and children. Plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons and hosta contain toxins that can make animals ill. Rhubarb leaves and asparagus ferns have an oil or sap that can cause allergic dermatitis, and certain parts of the stalks of both plants are mildly poisonous when ingested.

Besides choosing non-poisonous plants, if you hire a landscaper, it is important to find a company that uses organic pesticides to minimize the risk of poisoning or skin irritation to children and animals. Sterilized commercial mulch or heat-sanitized mulch is a safer choice than the homemade version since bacteria and viruses thrive in composting materials.

If you property does not have one already, consider adding a privacy fence. A 6-foot fence can keep your pets and young children safe, but be sure to check with your local zoning and community regulations (HOA) before starting the project to ensure there aren’t any current codes or restrictions on building a fence.  That’s something good to check on before you purchase your new home.


Once the appropriate landscaping is done, consider adding a backyard play set for your younger children. Whether you are erecting a backyard play set, a traditional swing set or a clubhouse, make sure it is far enough away from the adult area so kids can run and play as loud as they want, but place it where it can be seen from both the inside and outside of the house.


Once those children have outgrown the play set, they may request space to play sports or hang out with friends. Establish an area where they can practice their basketball skills or include room to toss a baseball or football around. Remember that a well-lit and open area will give teens additional space to socialize while still under your supervision.

Hosting a Barbeque

No matter the age of your children, barbeque areas are essential if you like to entertain. Plan for it to be close to the house, specifically the kitchen in case an ingredient needs to be retrieved from inside quickly. A table and seating area are also necessary for guests to sit and talk while the food is grilled. Depending on the household, a picnic table could be a good choice for easy clean-up when children are present. Or if the household is looking for a more comfortable outdoor area, consider transforming part of the yard into an inviting space. Big comfortable chairs, accent tables, potted plants and other decorative elements can transform a patio or deck into an outdoor living room.

Don’t forget to provide shade from the hot sun or additional heat from the cold elements. An oversized umbrella can keep guests comfortable on a sunny day, and a space heater can keep them toasty on a slightly chilly night.

Ease Of Care

Some homeowners either don’t have time or don’t want to be constantly working in their yard. Pruning, watering, thinning and dividing plants can eat up valuable time, so avoid putting in large flower beds that require a lot of maintenance if you don’t want to be constantly working on the yard. Avoid planting fruit trees, but consider adding perennials, which will grow back next year.

If avoiding weeding is a priority, non-pesticide treated mulch such as clean straw, crushed gravel or peat moss can be attractive and functional. Weeds are less likely to grow under thick layers of mulch, which means less gardening work for you. Xeriscaping is another alternative, especially if you live in a hot or low-moisture climate. This type of landscaping not only has little maintenance, but it uses less water, which is easier on your pocketbook and the planet.

Designing a backyard can be fun for everyone in the family. Keep in mind when identifying your wants and needs that some landscaping takes more planning and time to properly put together than others. Sketching a layout on paper before breaking ground or purchasing materials will help you better understand the overall concept, and it could even help you decide to consult with a landscape professional if the project is too time consuming to tackle yourself.

Whatever route you take, keep everyone’s ideas and interests in mind when planning the backyard of your dreams.

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Cold Spring

I started a fire in the wood stove this evening. It is May 16. This might be the latest in the year I have had a fire going. It is not that cold out, in the fifties. But it is chilly and damp and my wife requested it.

I looked at my tomato plants a little while ago while picking some lettuce. They look sick. They are not that big yet but the lower branches are turning brown and just the top part is still green. I do not know if it is the cool wet weather that is making them suffer or what. I guess we will find out. My green beans have come up and the sweet corn is peeking through. So we need some sunshine to make things grow.

It has been a good stretch for the potatoes, cabbage, second planting of lettuce, radishes, and spinach. I do not think it is supposed to get real warm very soon so maybe that salad stuff will do good. It would be nice to have a nice bunch of spinach. My first planting did not come up very well and I am only able to pick a few leaves every couple of days for a salad.

I have been thinking about getting a small freezer. I have not looked at them but think it would make a nice addition and allow us to preserve or store more of our garden produce. Our electricity is absurdly costly. We are on Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative and the monthly cost is high compared to most places, even rural places. I think now it costs $30 a month just to be a customer. They decided a few months ago to charge every one who has a security light a couple of bucks a month just because you have one. Security lights are those lights on a pole out in the yard or by the garage that come on automatically when it gets dark. One of the first things we did 30 years ago when we moved into this house on the farm was have the security light removed. If I want light outside I will turn my own light on. They are one of those things people accept without even thinking about it, and it seems, the monthly charge was something the accepted without even thinking about it.

Well let’s hope it gets sunny and a little warmer.

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Beginning to Reclaim My Garden

I have been working so much at the Old School Museum and also on my porch at home that my garden is going to the weeds. It doesn’t help that it rains about every two or three days. It rained again last night. When I went to be there was nothing close on the radar. But, it was storming again during the night. Anyway, I finally got my tomato cages up and did some weeding. It is tough because like on Sunday I got out to work on the porch windows about 9 AM and by 3 PM I was just worn out from the heat. It is really warm this evening so after fixing supper for everyone and going into our old store/office to haul a load of stuff home I thought I might go out and just run the mower over some of the weeds that have grown up. But, it is just too hot and it has been too long of a day.

I used out battery powered string trimmer and hacked stuff out, then mulched around the tomatoes and then put the cages up. I uncovered 5 pepper plants also and got those mulched. Then I went down the rows of cabbage and just cut down all the grass and weeds. That little string trimmer is very handy in the garden. It is part of a set of Ryobi tools Janis bought a year or so ago. We have used them a lot. Maybe it would be nice if we just could go a week or two without any rain. That hardly seems possible.

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Sweet Corn Recovered

Sweet corn recovered from storm winds

Remember the sweet corn that was blown down. Well, it stood back up pretty nicely. Some of it is a little bent at the ground but it will stand just fine and produce as if nothing had happened. 

If you look inside the top of the corn plants you can see the tassel just getting ready to emerge. This part produces the pollen that falls on the silks that come out of the ear. I won’t be long now. 

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Corn Storm Damage

Sweet corn after a storm and heavy rain

This happens about every year. Some time during the growth of my sweet corn it gets blown over by a thunderstorm. Below in the pic is what it looked like yesterday evening. We had a big storm come through yesterday afternoon and sheets of rain were blowing from the west and the wind was swirling around. So the corn wound up partially blown over. This happens in part because the ground is so saturated with water it cannot support the plant. It is better this happens at this stage of growth because it will pretty much stand back up when the sun comes out. In fact, this evening it has pretty much stood back up because we had some sun for a while this afternoon. That is all it takes. But, it could very possibly happen again. It is worse when there are ears on the plants. Then they do not stand back up very well. 

We have had a continuous parade of storms the past week. Every day or night some big rain rolls through. It is very wet. The past weekend it was very humid. While working on the porch construction it was just hot and humid and my clothes were soaked. My garden is full of weeds and grass, some of which is starting to put seeds on. We need a couple of weeks with no more rain. I can not even get out and mulch my tomatoes. I think everything would benefit from some dry weather rather than more rain. Things are growing. We had broccoli tonight from the garden. The green beans are blooming. The potatoes don’t look so hot though. Not sure how they will turn out. 

Something that is especially disturbing about the big heavy rains is the amount of erosion they cause. I know I have said before the agriculture is inherently destructive and row crops are probably the worst. Modern agriculture puts profit ahead of everything so everybody looks the other way and they plant on about any surface the machinery will roll over without falling over. So we have all these fields that are not flat and you wind up with what looks like the pic below. And it is only June. There are months to go in this crop year. 

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Dirt Weed Killer

I use the dirt itself to kill weeds. Look at the first picture on the left and you will see a row of sweet corn with small grass growing in among the corn plants. I have run the tiller between the rows and loosened the soil and chopped up the weeds and grass growing there. So I go down the rows with a hoe and pull the dirt in around the corn plants to cover the small weeds growing there. It works pretty well. The broadleaf weeds and grass have to be fairly small and the corn has to be a few inches high. But you can hill the soil up around the corn. it likes the whole process.

I started doing this a long time ago after driving a cultivating field corn with a tractor. At the time I think I did 6 rows at a time. You go rather slowly with a cultivator behind the tractor that is a series of small shovels. They are spaced on a bar to work the soil between the rows right up to the plants. They also move the soil into and around the corn plants as you go along on the tractor. You adjust your speed and depth of the cultivator to make sure you do not bury the corn. Also you have to pay close attention to make sure the cultivator does not just dig out the corn as you go along so it is an arduous job to do all day long. Farmers don’t do any cultivating now. At least the ones around here don’t. They rely entirely on chemicals to kill weeds. But, that is a whole other story and I do not want to get started on that.

This method of cultivation will work with green beans, okra, onions, or anything big enough to have some dirt piled up around it. It does not work well for young carrots because they are too small. I usually crawl along on the ground and pick the weeds out of those.

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I discovered some deer visited the garden sometime in the last couple of days. In fact, it may have been last night. They nibbled off some of the green beans. Then, strolled around a bit and left. I was lucky they did not eat the whole row of beans, or my cabbage plants. They walked right down the cabbage row for a ways. Rabbits probably would have eaten the whole mess. They probably were not that hungry because everything is lush right now from all the rain. But, they may become a problem. they nibble the leaves off the top and move on to the next. You can see in the pic below the next leaves growing out and the plant will survive and continue to grow but it will be stunted. 

The telltale track of deer. The two lobed elliptical shaped indentations. If you are missing some plants and you have these tracks in the dirt you know what it is. 

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Rain in the Garden

I went out to look around after last nights big rain.

I mentioned it yesterday in a post that it was supposed to rain some more and it did. I have heard as much as 5 inches fell in this county last night. It was just a steady rain for hours. There are small lakes in a lot of fields in the area and the creeks are busting out. We noticed our young plum tree in the front yard. In the pic below you can see how the top branches are just drooped over. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it is because there is so much water in the branches and leaves that they just could not support the weight. This tree should have been pruned this past late winter but I did not get it done because I have been so involved in work on the house. 

I also mentioned earlier about my tomatoes looking sick. I have about 9 various tomato plants of the common variety you can buy anywhere and they look sick. I have three heirloom tomatoes, Cherokee Red, that look much better. Check out the pic below of my sorry looking tomato. It must be the cool wet weather. But I have never had them just turn yellow and die back like this. 

It is a sad thing to see. Along with the big rains comes tremendous field erosion. Below is a pic of the corner of the field right where we turn into our yard. This corner washes out like this and the farmer goes over it with and implement and levels it up and another rain does this again to it. There are numerous places like this on this farm and lots of other farms as well. There is only one solution to the problem and that is to stop farming it. Nothing else will correct the problem. Agriculture in inherently destructive. Little work has been done to alleviate that destruction. When I first moved here and worked on this farm most of the fields had grass waterways where the water collected and drained off. It did slow down the erosion. The grass waterways have been removed and replaced with these little dam like dirt structures with a drain pipe and tile line. This allows the ground that had grass to produce a money product instead of protect the field. There are lots of factors and influences involved here that had brought us to the current situation and it is too involved to get into here. Suffice it to say that it is the same situation as so many other industries that are after short term profit with disregard for the consequences. 

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Garage Lumber

My garage is full!

My garage is so full of lumber, windows, trim, clapboard siding, and assorted building materials I cannot hardly even walk into it. I have places to step while crawling over stuff. It is one of my storage places for all the stuff I salvage from other places. I have quite a bit of stuff in a large machine shed over at my mother-in-laws place also. I salvage it all to use it. We have an old house and we have rebuilt parts of it and added on to it and we use as much recycled lumber as possible. I am building a new solar collecting front porch right now. I am building soffits on it to look somewhat like the original soffits on the house. I cannot duplicate what is there because I cannot get the old moldings used back then. The earliest part of the house is about 150 years old. 

I also have a nice pile of bricks which I should have taken a picture of but did not. They do not have to be inside like the lumber. I intend to rebuild the old fireplace in the living room this summer. It will be a big job. I have built one fireplace in the dining room that works great so am looking forward to this job.

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It is supposed to rain today but the sun is shining this morning although it is cool and breezy. It was supposed to frost on Saturday evening but I think it only got down to about 37 degrees. I had covered some of my tomatoes and peppers but it turned out it was not necessary. It was real windy Friday evening and into the night. I came out Saturday morning to find most of my paper and straw mulch on my potatoes had blown off. It was a mess so I spent Saturday morning redoing it all. Below is a picture of the finished job. I have used this brown paper before to mulch my potatoes and it works well. I was not going to spend the money on the stuff this year but we had this covering a newly refinished floor at the Old School Museum where I work part time. We removed it all and I brought it home. Problem was I did not have it all weighted down enough. So when I redid it all I shoveled dirt onto a lot of the edges to hole it down. Once it rains on it it will be pretty well stuck down. The problem with putting dirt on it is you invariably are putting some weed seeds on top of the mulch and they will sprout and grow thus making the mulch effort somewhat pointless. But it beats cultivating the entire row and all that space in between the rows. I only had two bales of straw on hand and the farmer I get hay and straw from was most likely working in his fields when I first did this so I wasn’t going to bother him for a couple of more bales of straw. 

I have been very diligent in putting up and keeping up my chicken wire barrier around my spring garden. If I don’t the rabbits will just eat it all off. One evening there were two rabbits just hanging around out there probably wishing they could just get over that fence. They probably could just jump over if they thought of it but they don’t. They will go under it though if there is an opening so one must maintain a vigil to make sure there is no where they can get under it. I use metal fence posts, bricks, and pieces of firewood to make sure it is held down. I bend the fence in a sort of arc with about 3 of 4 inches laying flat on the ground and the rest kind of arched back over and then stake it with various small electric fence posts. I use one inch mesh wire. Anything bigger and the little baby rabbits will go right through it. The wire I use is 2 feet tall so it actually is not that high once it is staked. It does the job though against rabbits. It is worthless against deer or other animals like ground hogs. So far I have not had any trouble with them.

I got my tomatoes and peppers set out. I bought 3 heirloom tomatoes at the Organic food store where I shop. They are Cherokee Red or Purple. I have never raised this variety before but have purchased the tomatoes at the farmers market in Springfield so I am looking forward to having these to eat. Then I planted some of the common varieties so we can can tomatoes this summer. Our canned tomatoes from last summer lasted until about February or so. I also planted some green beans and sweet corn. Neither has come up yet but if it starts raining, and the forecast is for rain for the next 4 or 5 days they should come up just fine. I thought I had some okra seeds on hand but I didn’t so I have not planted any of that yet and I am waiting to plant cucumbers and squash. The later the better for those. If you wait until about June or so to plant those then you do not have the bug problems that ruin those crops every year.

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