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From Blank Slate to Colorful Canvas

The Story of a 'Garden State' Gardener

Marty Oostveen
Marty Oostveen's beautiful garden is forever changing, and for her, as well as for her friends and neighbors, it is a constant source of inspiration and delight.
New Jersey Gardener Marty Oostveen began planting her garden in the summer of 1997. She had just moved into a new house, and though the front yard was already landscaped with the standard builder's package, the backyard was literally a blank slate. The soil had been raked and seeded with grass, but with summer temperatures in the 90s and weeks without rain, the grass seed hadn't germinated. "The grass never had a chance to develop in the compacted, baked red clay," said Marty. "But I was actually happy the seed never took. I imagined a back yard full of shrubs, a few trees and lots and lots of flowers."

Marty realized early on that the yard needed some decent topsoil if she wanted her plants to thrive. "That fall, we added 26 cubic yards of topsoil to the backyard, which measures 95 feet wide and about 35 feet deep. Whenever I could, I tried to incorporate the added topsoil into the heavy clay," she says. Marty bought a few plants every other week or so, and managed to find some good bargains that first fall.

Over the several next years the garden really started to take shape. Marty planted lots of perennials, and dug and divided plants frequently. Friends and fellow gardeners gave plants and cuttings, which found a home in her garden. "I have many fond memories of the garden I grew up in," says Marty, "it was in a small village in the Netherlands. I have planted some of the same plants in my garden. A corkscrew hazelnut, a prominent feature in my parent's garden, can be seen from my kitchen window." Marty's peonies are very similar to the ones that grew in her grandmother's garden. "Pink tulips and Dutch irises were the very first flowers I grew as a kid," she remembers. "Now they bloom every spring in our front yard."

Gazing globe in Marty Oostveen's garden
Marty Oostveen's yard has very little lawn and many lush gardens.
In the fall, Marty takes cuttings of favorite annuals to keep over the winter. In the early spring, she starts other annuals from seed. "Except for our Japanese maple, I don't think there is a plant in my garden that hasn't been moved at least once, if not twice," says Marty. Her backyard oasis is still surrounded by lawns on all sides, though slowly but surely, her neighbors are adding plants to their yards as well. "The neighbors enjoy the view of our garden from their deck," she says. "And whenever they give parties, there are always some defecting guests asking us for a garden tour. In the summer I fill vase after vase with flowers and provide friends and co-workers with colorful bouquets."

Marty's garden is attracting a greater variety of wildlife and birds each year. A few years ago, the first mockingbirds took up residence in the area. "That was the summer we learned that the immature male mockingbird will sing throughout the night to establish his territory," says Marty. "If you sleep with the windows open, and the mockingbird stakes out your garden for his territory, you will end up with sleepless nights." The Carolina wren, a small and rather unassuming bird, has an equally good set of lungs. Marty enjoyed its song, while it was trying to attract a mate. "The wrens also love aphids," remarks Marty. "This small bird kept my garden aphid-free while it raised its young in the Japanese maple." Every spring she plants parsley for the beautiful caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly. As the caterpillars happily munch away, Marty knows she's playing a valuable role in their reproductive cycle. Many other types of butterflies flit about her garden as well, making it a magical place.

Marty is also pleased to have a number of praying mantis patrolling her garden. "I am always careful in fall not to disturb the egg casings, which can be found throughout the garden," she says. Since she tends her garden organically, Marty finds that many problems solve themselves with a little help from Mother Nature. When the aphids arrive, the wrens and the lady bugs follow shortly thereafter. To control Japanese beetles, Marty uses Milky Spore. While the bacteria works on the grubs underground, she checks the garden for adult beetles and puts them in a small container of water with a squirt of dishwashing liquid.

Weeds are also controlled organically. Every other year, Marty applies about 7 cubic yards of hardwood mulch around her plants to keep weeds from sprouting. This generous layer of mulch also keeps the soil cooler in summer, preserves moisture, and protects plants from heaving out of the ground during the winter months. When summer is at its hottest, Marty waters her plants with soaker hoses. These hoses are put in place in early spring, so plants can grow over them, and disguise them. They can be found throughout the garden. When needed, she connects a regular hose, and just lets the water run for a while without any further attention. "Soaker hoses make watering more economical as there is no water loss due to evaporation, and it is so much simpler," she says.

"I have spent many happy hours in my garden," Marty says. "In spring and summer, I have a cup of tea in the garden before going off to work. In the evenings, I deadhead, water, weed, or just enjoy the garden. When friends come over, we sit in the gazebo until late in the evening, while our surroundings are lit by candlelight." Marty's beautiful garden is forever changing, and for her, as well as for her friends and neighbors, it is a constant source of inspiration and delight.

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