Some people have all the luck. Their gardens grow in rich loamy soil with terrific drainage on a nice level site. The flower beds are perfectly situated to capture the glory of the morning sun and are protected from the scorching heat of the afternoon sun by pleasant dappled shade. Yes, some people have all the luck. Then, there's the Heffners.
Mike and Donna Heffner have none of these idyllic characteristics in their garden. The two of them battle a steep slope, deep shade and too much or too little drainage in the back garden. Their front flower beds bake in the constant exposure of southern sun. To top it off, a tree house in the backyard invites their youngest son, neighborhood boys and a few dogs to traipse through their garden in search of high adventure. Despite these obstacles, they have managed to create a beautiful garden spot in their west Lawrence home.
The one thing they do have in their favor is a mixed blessing. The Heffners' rocky terrain is snake heaven. ``If I'm up in the rocky area, I make noise so they know I'm around,'' Donna admitted. ``I know they are not going to hurt me,'' she said. ``But emotionally that doesn't matter. I scream.'' So gardening among the rocks every spring becomes a series of close encounters for her, much to the amusement for her neighbors who know the number of snakes she has seen by the counting number of times she screams. ``I'm getting better (about not screaming) though,'' she claimed.
Over hill, over dale
The main flower beds of the Heffner garden are planted along the back of their house, growing up a now-tamed hillside that spans the width of the backyard. A split rail fence determines the left border and a solid wood fence marks the back boundary. A 5-foot retaining wall constructed of large boulders holds back the elevated hillside and forms the near edge of the garden. A comfortable outdoor sitting area extends from the bottom of the retaining wall to the back of the house.
To reach the back garden, visitors walk up the grassy incline to the left of their house until they come to a mulched walkway. The path winds its way into the cool shaded hillside garden and changes to a stone and gravel footpath as it continues up the sloping ground and curls around the width of the back gardens before it descends along stone steps on the other side.
Trying to find plants that would grow on the hillside has been challenging. ``We've battled that hill for years,'' Donna said. And over the years, hostas, ferns, coral bells, columbine and hardy geraniums have been planted and are now a mainstay of the area. At the rear a small wildflower garden and a strawberry patch promise plenty of beauty and tasty treats as they mature. Stocky begonias and delicate deep blue lobelia fill in where perennials leave off.
``We're trying to get it so the garden is all perennials,'' Mike said. ``But we planted about 200 annuals this year.'' In other places impatiens brighten the darker parts of their garden and verbena, petunias, and moss rose soften the sunnier spots.
``We've not really been big on bulbs,'' Mike admitted. ``But we've put out a few this year and they looked really nice.'' They have also placed a bat house high on a tree and in an effort to attract the flying mammals. ``Someone said to go to the stadium and get bat droppings,'' Donna said of one method to entice bats to their area. Their hope is that the bats will control the insect population in the heavily shaded area.
Deep in the woods
The flower beds on the hillside are generously mulched and terraced by stones to divert water running down the slope. Poppies, blue salvia, bishop's weed and yellow primrose grow near the front edge where sunlight reaches.
The span of garden extending from the back fence is home to shade-loving plants and an ample spread of periwinkle groundcover. An overhead tree canopy plunges the area into almost continual shade. A woodland garden emerges. The remains of slowly decaying tree stumps and moss covered rocks make visitors feel as though they have stepped into a miniature old forest. Exposed roots of large trees rising from the ground create natural nooks that cradle the hostas planted within them. Hundreds of small rocks lying on top of the ground and several large ones that remain partly hidden within it give the illusion that the area has been left in a natural state. Lily of the valley, natural groundcover and volunteer plants add to the peacefulness of this green area.
`Hard at play'
Without warning a tree house arises from the center of this garden area. The barren ground underneath it is evidence that busy children have been hard at play. Yet, the tree house does not detract from the area, nor has it been completed. ``We have to finish Ted's tree house,'' Donna noted. ``He wants it up another level.''
The beautiful view from the tree house toward the Heffners' house disguises a few problems. Some of the boulders in the retaining wall are beginning to show signs of disintegrating; large cracks are visible.
``We've always had a problem with this area,'' Mike admitted. He is considering repairing the cracks with mortar. Even though the rocks face the sitting area, any repair work should be easy to camouflage. A number of plants already grow on the front of the rocks. ``Last year we threw some sedum down,'' he said. ``Now, the area is covered. (Sedum) is a wonderful plant. It grows everywhere.''
Indeed it does. The light blue green succulent has taken a strong foothold among the crevices of the large boulders and around the stone and gravel paths. ``It is deep into the wooded area,'' Mike said. ``I'm not even sure how it got there.''
Creeping phlox grows along the top of the boulders. ``Every bit of phlox came from Donna's mom,'' Mike said. ``Now we've gotten it everywhere.'' They have generously distributed several starts of the pink flowered spring bloomer to most of their neighbors.
Many of the other plants in the Heffner garden were donations from friends or lucky finds. Hostas, ferns and yellow primroses came from longtime friends. The iris plants were retrieved from a vacant lot about to undergo construction. Some of the daylilies and sweet William were on site when they moved in more than a dozen years ago.
Mike acknowledged that gardening on the site has not been easy. ``Working with the slope and the shade are the hardest thing,'' he said. ``The thing I like with the flower beds is that the mowing now takes 20 minutes.''
The only grass that grows in the Heffner property is in the front yard, which is also on a slope. Creeping juniper bushes supply the green backdrop for the small flower bed adjacent to the house. Color is provided by the moss rose, yarrow, petunias and ageratum. The tall pink spires of loosestrife, geranium and snapdragons join forces at the mailbox.
``It looks a little ragged later on in the summer,'' Mike admitted. To that comment Donna added, ``It's because we're a little ragged by then.''
The two of them work around busy schedules. Mike is the owner of Free State Mortgage, and Donna is the librarian at Prairie Park School.
``In the fall is my busy time with school starting,'' she said. They are also involved with the summer activities of their two sons, Ted, 9, and Matt, 21.
The Heffners have spent several years getting their garden to this point. ``Now we can enjoy what we've done over the years,'' Donna said. Mike agreed, saying ``Once we get it cleaned up in the spring, we can enjoy it all summer.'' See, what did I tell you? Some people have all the luck.
-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at gardenspot