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A Do-It-Yourselfer’s Garden
by Peggy Hill       #Design   #Garden Profile   #Hardscaping

The garden is a mixture of formal and fun elements. The checkerboard, composed of white marble stones and mondo grass anchored in the center by a dogwood tree, playfully contrasts with the formality of the boxwood parterre.

Most people spend their first weekend in a new home unpacking and settling in, but not Jane Brown. When she and her three boys – ages 8, 14, and 16 – moved into their home in 1999, they spent their first weekend replacing boring, foundation plants. In the weeks before her move, Jane made no decisions on draperies or interior paint colors. Instead, she purchased a myriad of azaleas, hydrangeas, and crapemyrtles. Her first priority was getting them planted. She says, “I think the neighbors thought we were crazy, and they felt sorry for my boys. They kept bringing us food!”  

Soon after moving in, Jane fell in love with her current husband, Mike. After marrying in 2001, their first garden project was building a shed to house Mike’s enormous collection of tools, spare parts, and building materials. They finished it in just three months. Mike is an engineer, and they both laugh at what’s in the well-organized shed. “The neighbors know that if they need a sprinkler head or a piece of PVC pipe, they don’t have to go to Lowe’s. They just call Mike.”  

At that time, the backyard was a disaster. Poor planning when the subdivision was developed resulted in a large holding pond in Jane and her neighbor’s backyards. Two-thirds of the backyard was a swamp full of marsh grasses, scrawny trees, mosquitoes, snakes, beer cans, milk jugs, and whatever other debris washed down from nearby Green Mountain. Somehow, Jane saw potential. Together, the newlyweds embarked on a quest to correct the drainage issues. Although it took several years, their persistence paid off. The city placed large culverts for drainage; the swamp vanished, and they had a blank canvas in their new backyard.  

As pretty as the white-blooming Begonia and ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas (H. paniculata ‘Limelight’) are, it’s the arbor that commands the backyard. Covered in vines it frames the angel statue perfectly.

All of Mike’s tools and their do-it-yourself attitude were about to come in handy as they dug into their next project, creating a backyard oasis. The plan called for deep, raised beds along the perimeter of the yard. Jane carefully stacked each and every one of the 12 tons of rock, while Mike installed irrigation and lighting. When it came time to lay sod, Jane kept it to a minimum. She says, “I knew that I would be going to the local nurseries and falling in love with homeless shrubs and flowers. We left large beds empty for my garden to grow, and over the years, we slowly filled them.”  

The garden was taking shape, but it lacked a strong focal point, and they thought their angel statue needed a frame. The arbor, added in 2006, solved both problems. They worked together on the design. Jane searched Pinterest, other online resources, and gardening magazines, and Mike turned their ideas into reality. What he built was exactly what the garden needed. When you have a busy garden with a lot going on, you want one thing that grabs your attention the moment you enter the space, one thing that is grander than anything else. That’s Jane’s arbor.  

Like any good do-it-yourselfers, Jane and Mike will never be “finished” working on the garden. Last year they expanded the deck, which now includes a stone fireplace and a pizza oven. Mike knows that in the spring of every year, Jane gets restless. She starts looking at gardening magazines, and he knows that soon she will be saying something like, “Honey, how hard would it be to build me a potting shed?”

The newly expanded deck has plenty of room for entertaining.

How to Build an Arbor
By Mike Brown 


Eight 6”x6”x12’ treated posts 
Twelve 2”x8”x10’ treated boards 
Eighteen 15’ 7” long x 3/8” diameter painted steel rods 
Nine 9’ x 3/8” diameter painted steel rods 
250 feet of #12 insulated copper wire
2 pounds of 3” deck screws 
2 pounds 2½” deck screws



• Set two rows of four posts on 9-foot centers into holes backfilled with concrete. (Editor's note- Check our local building codes for the proper depth of support posts.)

• Cut posts so that all of the tops are level and 9 feet above ground.

• Attach a set of boards horizontally along the outside tops of the post rows with 3-inch deck screws.

• Using 2½-inch deck screws, attach another set of 2”x8” boards face to face with the first set but between the posts in each row, creating 3-inch wide beams along the tops of the rows of posts on the outside. There are no boards connecting the two rows.

• To support the rods used for the top of the arbor, drill eighteen 3⁄8" diameter holes 4 inches deep into the top of the beams, six between each pair of posts.

• Using eighteen 15’ 7” long rods, mark each rod at the center and 39 inches either side of the center. Place one end of each rod into matching holes in each beam to create the semi-circular top of the arbor.

• To tie the centers of the 18 semi-circular rods together, attach three 9-foot-long rods, to the previously marked centers of the semi-circular rods with wire, overlapping the ends of these rods and tying the ends together.

• Using two sets of three 9-foot-long rods, tie the semi-circular rods together at the 39-inch offset marks.

• Run wire diagonally between the intersections of the rods and the ends of the rods at the beams to provide diagonal support to the top of the arbor.

• Add trim to the top and bottom of posts.

Photo Gallery

The Chinese snowball viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum) on the left of the photo is one of Jane’s favorites. It goes crazy in spring when it’s covered with fat, white blooms. Behind the viburnum are Endless Summer (‘Bailmer’) hydrangeas, variegated lacecap hydrangeas that bloom white and blue, and the taller shrubs are oakleaf hydrangeas. The bed running along the front fence looks different every year. Jane plants pansies and cabbages in fall. Then in spring, she replants it with whatever catches her eye at the nursery.

When it comes to DIY skills, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. This dragonfly was a Mother’s Day present that Jane’s son, Matthew, fashioned from bedposts for the body, ceiling fan blades for wings, and tub drains for eyes. Not to be outdone, Mike used his engineering skills to create longer-lasting dragonflies for Jane out of wooden posts for the body, painted aluminum for wings, and cabinet knobs for eyes.

The width of the beds surrounding the backyard varies. Here in the corner, it’s broad enough to accommodate a bench and a planting of oakleaf hydrangeas and it still has room for an edging of Hosta and creeping phlox (P. stolonifera).

Is there anything better than spending time in the garden with your children and grandchildren? Jane and Mike don’t think so. Here they sit between son, Matthew Odle, on the right and daughter-in-law, Amanda Odle; son, David Odle; and grandson, Sebastian on the left. Jane holds Missy, the family dog.

Formal elements, such as the statues flanking this swing, the conical shaped dwarf Alberta spruces (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) planted just behind them and the ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood (Buxus ‘Green Velvet’) in Grecian stone pots, blend easily with more casual elements, such as the oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) and dogwood trees (Cornus spp.). This arbor was another of the couple’s do-it-yourself projects.


A version of this article appeared in Alabama Gardener Volume 15 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Andrew Lecher.


Posted: 07/27/16   RSS | Print


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Kate838 - 08/17/2016

Some elements of this unusual garden are striking with their originality. There are varieties of items that are made from the scrap materials. That is impressive.

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jhorner - 03/16/2017

I would like to ask Peggy Hill about the gravel walkway in the Do-it-Yourselfer’s Garden article.  I am planning a walkway very similar and this looks like exactly what I am looking for.  Can you tell me what type of gravel (perhaps type of stone and gradation or max aggregate size, how thick,  and what was used for the edging.  Thank you very much.  I enjoyed the article very much.
John Horner

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Jbrown - 03/17/2017

Hey John!  I am the homeowner and Peggy Hill asked me to reply to your question.  I am happy to share with you what we did.  We designed the walkway by laying out water hoses, or you could use landscape spray paint, but the hoses made it easy to move around and find just the path that we wanted.  Then we prepped the ground to make it as smooth as possible. Next, we used metal edging as the border.  Then we placed landscape cloth on the pathways secured with landscape cloth pins and we used a lot of them and it was worth it.  The gravel that we used came from Lowe’s as did all of our supplies, and we bought it in bags.  That made it easier to move around the yard but buying in bulk would be cheaper.  The gravel was American Countryside River Rock in .5 cubic foot bags.  We would have loved to have done a brick or flag stone walkway but the price was prohibitive.  Having said that, the river rock has worked out well for us.  Please let me know if you have any more questions.  We live in Huntsville, by the way.  Good luck!

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Jbrown - 03/17/2017

Hey John.  I forgot to mention that the depth that we used was about 1.5 inches.  Any deeper than that makes it difficult to walk on and almost impossible to roll a wheelbarrow over it.  Hope this helps.

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