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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Big garden ideas for small yards

Creative, nature-loving Long Islanders have refused to allow small or irregular yard spaces to limit their gardens.

Amy and Jose Leal, Valley Stream

Amy Leal and her husband, Jose, moved into
Photo Credit: Yana Paskova

Amy Leal and her husband, Jose, moved into their small attached house in Valley Stream during the summer of 2003. After spending several months working on renovations, their attention turned to the outdoors. Working with just a 20-foot-wide parcel, no backyard and a shared porch, Leal, a legal secretary, realized she had quite a challenge.

"There was a lot of grass in the front and a few hostas," she said, "and each year I took off more grass, and more grass and more grass, and the garden got bigger and bigger." Although she's the sole gardener in the house -- she rakes, mows, plants and even hauls soil when necessary -- Jose, a contractor, erected a retaining wall to alleviate a slope and created a new garden area. "The soil was not good soil when we first moved out there from Queens," Leal said. "So in the fall I dug a trench, added vegetable scraps and peelings, and covered it up to make compost right in the ground. It's really improved the soil tremendously."

And then she got to work: "The first thing I planted was peonies, which I loved growing up," Leal said, adding that she likes common plants more than exotic ones. She planted licorice in a window box, and zinnias, coleus, begonias and Montauk daisies in an area that's just 2 feet deep. Then she turned the rest of the miniature front garden into a crop-producing powerhouse.

Today, Leal grows garlic, sugar snap peas, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, 10 tomato plants and whatever other vegetables grab her attention at the garden center from year to year.

The garden produces so much that Leal is able to share with neighbors and co-workers, and she cooks and freezes tomato paste and breaded-and-fried eggplant slices for use all winter long.

It hasn't all been easy, however. "I tried to use a soaker hose, but with a small property, it winds around too much and ends up breaking," Leal said, adding that keeping everything well irrigated in hot weather can be difficult. "And I planted zucchini, and it spread all over and took up too much room." But the biggest challenge, she said, "is figuring out how to put even more plants into the small space."

Joanne Brown, Brentwood

Joanne Brown's Brentwood front yard is demure, but
Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Joanne Brown's Brentwood front yard is demure, but in it, she's created an alluring garden that exudes charm and curb appeal. The winding path to the front door leads visitors through plantings of assorted sizes, colors and textures. And sculpted evergreen shrubs lend interest and visual appeal, even during winter.

After moving into her home in 1982, Brown, 62, settled in and began planting as soon as the weather allowed. "I started all over the yard. I did a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a little here and a little there," she said, adding that her garden grew slowly because her time was limited. "I had to go to work, cook, go outside and garden, and it was kind of rough, but I made time."

Still, gardening came naturally to Brown, whose father
Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Still, gardening came naturally to Brown, whose father was a gardener. "He was always working in the yard, and we always had flowers in the house -- it was just normal to have them," she said, "and I wanted to see what my tomatoes looked like next to his tomatoes."

Today, Brown's garden is lush. There are lilies,
Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Today, Brown's garden is lush. There are lilies, hydrangeas, alyssum, a small maple, an azalea and purple, white and red coneflowers. Every spring, she plants dahlias, which she saves from year to year, and mixes in some marigolds for added color. Irises and daffodils came up last month, and now she's planting a border of cannas, a bit later than in years past because she feared a late frost.

After 32 years of gardening, she has enough data to fully compare her tomatoes to her father's. "Mine are nothing like his," she said with a chuckle. "His garden was always weed-free, too. But I do the best I can."

Connie Ring, Plainview

Connie Ring of Plainview has been gardening in
Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

Connie Ring of Plainview has been gardening in her small backyard since 2000, and she takes it very seriously, to say the least. Over the years, the retired elementary school librarian has gone on countless garden tours, attended lectures, audited horticulture courses and become somewhat of a master of illusion.

To give her 65-foot-wide yard -- which is just 15 feet deep in one area -- a larger feel, Ring, 73, added curved borders throughout the property. "Curves can fool the eye into thinking there are more places to explore beyond where the eye can see," she said.

Ring also limits the colors in each bed and tries to carry one color scheme throughout the entire space. "I use a wide range of pinks, apricots and yellows, accented with whites and purples," she said, adding that she feels it's important to create a flow in the garden. "If you plant begonias for a border, choose one color begonia and carry it throughout the border rather than using different colors mixed together," she advises. "The ribbon of single color keeps the eye moving along the whole length of the planting."

To create the appearance of depth, Ring
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Alejandra Villa



To create the appearance of depth, Ring installed an arbor diagonally at the juncture of two stockade fences at the corner of the yard. "I put a blue chair under it because blue implies distance." Another trick she picked up from a visit to Winterthur Garden in Winterthur, Delaware, is setting a mirror up against a fence behind a border of plants. "It reflects plants from across the yard, and you can't tell where it ends."

Because her space is limited, Ring said she focuses mostly on one season -- summer. "When I first started, I tried to plant for every season," she said. "It did not work well because spring, summer and fall plants all have different needs. The garden is still lovely in the offseasons, but thrives in the summer because I have chosen plants that require the temperatures and day lengths of that season," she added.

When selecting plants, Ring pays close attention to foliage (she favors hosta), and said she learned the hard way to value native plantings, especially echinacea and black-eyed Susan. To create the illusion of more space, Ring looks up to vertical interest.

"Trees, tall plants, arbors, trellises and hanging baskets create the illusion of space by commanding the eye to take in more planes," she explained. And she created the illusion of water by installing a "stone river" made of pebbles and rocks that looks like a dry river bed. "It sometimes even fools me!" she said.

Mark and Louise Roberti, Plainview

Mark and Louise Roberti of Plainview almost literally
Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

Mark and Louise Roberti of Plainview almost literally manage to live off the fat o' the land, growing about 40 different crops in a meager space of just 22 feet by 4 feet. Their annual harvest typically includes asparagus, beets, blueberries, bok choy, broccoli raab, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, escarole, figs, garlic, kale, lettuce, peas, peppers, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, string beans, Swiss chard, tomatoes, zucchini and a nice selection of herbs.

Mark, 54, a mechanical engineer, grew up with
Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

Mark, 54, a mechanical engineer, grew up with homegrown produce, but he and Louise, 56, a teacher's aide, didn't have time for much gardening while raising a family. They dabbled in carrots and sporadic other plantings, but it wasn't until the last of their three children moved out about five years ago that they found time to garden in earnest.

"I was looking for a book on raised gardening and saw a Mel Bartholomew book called 'All New Square Foot Gardening,' and I bought it, and Louise and I started a garden," Mark said. Today, they plant in homemade soil composed of vermiculite, peat moss and compost, and make their own compost in a tumbler. "Our garbage has gone down to practically nothing because we save everything for composting," Mark said.

The couple save their seeds from year to
Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

The couple save their seeds from year to year and start them in the basement every spring. "This way, you know where it's coming from. It's organic, natural and it's fresh," Mark said. And Louise makes pickles, dries herbs, preserves fig jam and tomato sauce, and flash-freezes string beans, so they enjoy their crops all year long.

Do they intend to keep it up? "My father is my inspiration," Mark said. "He's 85 now and in assisted living, and he's still gardening there."

Annette Monzert, Lynbrook

Annette Monzert of Lynbrook has lived in her
Photo Credit: Yana Paskova

Annette Monzert of Lynbrook has lived in her English Tudor home since 1976, but didn't begin gardening until she retired from teaching elementary school in 2002.

"Ever since I was a little girl, my father would always show me little marigold seeds and take me into the garden," she said. "We were Italian, and we always had tomatoes in the garden, so it was a big influence on me."

Monzert, 68, does most of the gardening herself,
Photo Credit: Yana Paskova

Monzert, 68, does most of the gardening herself, but said she and her husband, Chris, 62, share responsibility. "We agree on what goes where, and he does the lawn and the heavy labor."

Chris also designed and built the porch, a potting shed, a gazebo and an antique brick path that meanders through the yard. And he installed a pond. "He buys little fish, and they turn into big fish, and it's been fun watching them," she said.

Keeping with the style of the house, Monzert aims to keep an English country garden feel about the property. "It's kind of wild but with some kind of organization," she said. "We travel quite a bit and have been influenced by what we've seen around the world."

The garden introduces daffodils, crocuses and lilacs in
Photo Credit: Yana Paskova

The garden introduces daffodils, crocuses and lilacs in the spring, and then ushers in rose of Sharon, butterfly bush, coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, live forever sedum and giant red, white and pink hardy hibiscus. And all of this fits into a 45-by-50-foot backyard -- and that includes the garage.

Photo Credit: Yana Paskova

"In a small garden, you have to really make the most of every square foot," Monzert said. "What we've done is make separate little areas with the pond, the gazebo, a woodland garden in the back where there's shade, perennials in the sun, a vegetable garden against the back of the house and an herb area. Then we fill in around them with annuals."

When spring rolls around, the first thing Monzert does is weed. "Then I go to the nursery to see what they have and I buy too much," she said. "It's like going to the supermarket when you're hungry."

Victoria Moses, Sea Cliff

Victoria Moses, 49, of Sea Cliff can thank
Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

Victoria Moses, 49, of Sea Cliff can thank Dutch elm disease for the beautiful garden she shares with her husband, Michael, 55. A giant American elm on the property succumbed to the plague five years ago, and its absence "completely changed the yard," she said. "Suddenly we had all this sun, so we began planning a garden," focusing first on edibles because "a beefsteak tomato is $2 at the farm stand, and the price of vegetables drives me nuts."

The couple installed raised beds constructed with four two-by-fours and planted cherry tomatoes, but "they took over the yard," Victoria said. They planted zucchini, too, but it "took over the yard," as well. "And the peppers got crowded out by the tomatoes."

Learning to select plants that better suit their
Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

Learning to select plants that better suit their space restrictions, the couple now plant Early Girl and yellow tomatoes, basil, sage, sugar snap peas, lettuce and bush beans. "Now we mostly put in whatever can grow up and not out," said Moses, who owns an antiques consignment shop and also runs tag sales.

The garden, which is fertilized only with manure,
Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

The garden, which is fertilized only with manure, "produces so much and saves us a lot of money," Moses said, "plus it tastes like something. If you get a tomato out of the grocery store, it tastes like nothing."

The yard boasts a hardy collection of ornamentals, which includes butterfly bush, bridal veil, lily of the valley and black-eyed Susans. Flowering shrubs like forsythia and rhododendron entertain in spring, and hollies provide winter interest. Michael, who favors trees, planted crape myrtles, evergreen magnolia, a burning bush euonymus, stewartia and dogwood, lending bones to the space.

Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

"I hate annuals because I hate replanting, so I have lots of daylilies and lots of bulbs," Moses said. "If it constantly reproduces, you can divide it and share," she said, adding that she's able to trade plants -- and share tomatoes -- with her neighbors all summer long. And she especially enjoys the whimsy of two garden gnomes that hold shovels and guard the yard while a statue of Pan plays to concrete bunnies.

"It's not a very big yard," Moses said, "but it feeds all the neighbors."

Michael Moses holds a bowl of freshly picked
Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

Michael Moses holds a bowl of freshly picked yellow tomatoes and bush beans grown in the garden he shares with his wife Victoria Moses in Sea Cliff, Aug. 16, 2014. The family eats everything produced by the garden and what is not used is given to family and lucky neighbors.

Kevin Winther, Long Beach

Kevin Winther of Long Beach has no garden
Photo Credit: Yana Paskova

Kevin Winther of Long Beach has no garden to call his own nor any exposed soil within view, but he just might be the most tenacious gardener on Long Island: He's growing tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, zucchini and cucumbers in a raised bed in a gravel lot adjacent to the parking spaces behind his condo complex.

Winther, a music teacher at Jackson Main Elementary School in Hempstead, previously had attempted to grow a few vegetables in a corner of that lot but had difficulty because the soil was sandy and the site inhospitable. Before long, superstorm Sandy destroyed that humble patch, and his garden endeavors were halted. Then last year, as he was flipping through an advertisement for garden supplies, Winther saw a photo of raised-bed planting boxes, and a lightbulb went off: "I thought I could do that," he said.

So he joined forces with nine of his
Photo Credit: Yana Paskova

So he joined forces with nine of his neighbors, and the group chipped in for materials. Then Winther got to work. "I got 1-by-12 cedar and cut it with a table saw to make my own boards, then surrounded it with corrugated steel for a decorative look around the sides," he said. "It was fun."

By Memorial Day, the group had purchased starter plants for the raised beds. "They were really pricey, though," Winther said. "When we got to the register, we got sticker shock, and that was an incentive to grow our own from seeds this year."

Throughout the season, the neighbors took turns tending the plants and watering them, and "everyone just took what they wanted," Winther said.

To save space and keep the plants from sprawling, one of the neighbors trained the zucchini to climb down a chain over the side of the box, which "worked out really well," Winther said. "Our tomatoes took off like crazy, and there were a lot of peppers. We even got together a couple of times to can sauce because we grew more than we could eat."

This year, the group started three flats of
Photo Credit: Yana Paskova

This year, the group started three flats of seeds in a garage in late March, and Winther installed grow lights over them. They're planning to transplant them outdoors later this month and are hoping for an abundant harvest.

"I've always heard that food from a home garden tastes better than anything else, and it really was a shocker," Winther said. "I didn't realize I hadn't actually been eating tomatoes my whole life!"

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