How I Made a Tropical Backyard Oasis in Denver on a Cheap-Ass Budget

The air is cooling, (I actually had to put on a sweater last night). Fall is upon us, and all too soon I’ll be putting the garden to bed and hauling out the snow shovel. With that in mind, I thought I’d share my yard with you before the first frost hits and I’m crying over shriveled leaves.

The backyard is ever a work-in-progress. A constant battle to create something that feels tropical in dry-as-a-rattlesnake-fart Denver. (OK, MOST of the time it is dry here, the recent crazy rains not withstanding) I think this year is the best yet for my little tropical oasis. Ready for the tour? Here we go…


This is the view coming out our backdoor. That “L” shaped thing is the pond. It was a planting bed until 3 years ago when we had a wee stinky sewer line leak. I bribed the diggers to dig out the pond, too. (It’s amazing what men will do for homemade chocolate chip cookies.) The lotus mural on the garage wall I painted to cover up a bad repair job, and I wanted some color back there in the Winter when all is plain and dark. The vines running across the garden are Virginia Creeper that has been growing on the far North side of the yard for years, trained on strings of white lights that run from the gazebo to the big tree. They just keep getting thicker every year. I tucked a little hanging Spanish Moss on them to enhance the tropical look.


To the left of the pond is this oddly leaning tree that I dolled up with bromelaids this year. (You can see the how-to on that one by clicking “Bromelaids”) And of course the coolest cheap garden lighting ever is at the base of the tree.


Our poor Ganesha fountain here has seen better days. He is the victim of an unfortunate freezing incident in which he lost 3 of his four arms and most of his legs, though his face remains intact. I think it makes him look like an ancient relic. I especially like the ball of moss growing on the tip of his trunk. We’ve found the glass flowers at various yard sales for a couple bucks a piece. I love my little pond. The water iris with it’s leaves overflowing the pond started as divisions given to us by a neighbor are now completely taking over (anyone want some Water Iris? Seriously…) We have a hardy water lily that has somehow survived 3 Colorado winters and seems quite happy. There are 2 big koi, “Ghost” and “Spot”, a big fat fancy goldfish (named “Fatty”, I don’t have much imagination for names), and what was once a mere feeder goldfish, “Tiny”, who is now quite pretty and not so tiny anymore. They are rather camera-shy, but I did manage to snap a picture of Spot, who is now over 10″ long. (He was under 4″ when we got him) All our fish came from Petsmart.



The area along the fence is dark and dank and it’s nearly impossible to grow anything there, so all the plants are in pots. That monster tree philodendron was purchased at a yard sale for $10 when he had only 5 leaves. The thing has gone crazy this summer. I have no idea how I’ll get it back in the house for Winter. Almost all the ceramic pots were alley finds, a few from the thrift store. I bring all the houseplants out into the yard in the Spring. The plants are happy and really help to fill in the yard. I scored 5 more houseplants from a nice guy on Craigslist for free this Summer as well. The dwarf bananas in the big pots I bought last year, and they were super-easy to overwinter. You just pull them out of the pot, hack off the leaves and stick them in a box or bag, leave them in the basement and forget about them till the next Spring. I did buy a few sweet potato vines and coleus this year, but everything else I over-wintered from last year. The metal pedestals were surprisingly cheap. I bought them about 4 years ago, all three were about $60. (OK I admit I got them wholesale) And you’ll note two more of those awesome cheap garden lights on the ground.

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The iron and wood seats were here when I moved in, I just painted them white. The table was another fab alley find, as were the ceramic pieces on top. One of my neighbors is a potter. She sometimes puts “off” pieces in the alley. Love that! She came to a party here and loved what I did with these. The big wood candlesticks were found dumpster diving as well. I’ve had the white candles forever, purchased years ago at Big Lots.

What makes these plants look so good? Levels! The secret to a great display. Nothing fancy here, the pots in the back are up on top of other pots turned upside down.

Here’s a view looking back at the house, and Emma, my little pug-ham, getting in on the action.

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The North side of the garden is our ever-popular Gazebo (click for more details). It was easier than it looks, and everything in it came from yard sales and thrift stores.

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Looking out of the gazebo into the yard…

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And lastly, the Golden Duck, sitting on the edge of the pond, hidden in the Water Iris. Another great alley find.


This concludes our little Backyard Oasis Tour. I hope you enjoyed it!

Big Showy Glamorous Orchid Arrangement for only $30! (Retail over $100)


It was one of those emails I live for…Orchids Half Off! Today Only (Wednesday, July 17) Whole Foods has stunning orchids for only $9.99! (if you missed it, they usually do this sale 2-3 times a year, just sign up for their weekly emails, or my facebook page and twitter will always have the announcement) Let me tell you, these are high quality orchids, not those little piddly ones you usually see at the supermarket. They even come in nice clay pots, which I’ll save for another project.

I couldn’t get orchids this nice at the floral wholesaler for less than $16-20 each! Most florists would charge $30-35 each for these beauties. I went to Whole Foods this morning and grabbed four of these stunners. I should have gotten more. Did I mention I am obsessed with orchids?

First, we’ll start with how to pick out a nice orchid. They should have strong bright green leaves free of mold, spots, and dead/brown areas. Here’s some healthy leaves:


Then, pick out a plant with a few unopened bloom “pods” on the end, it will last much longer than one with all it’s blooms fully opened. Blooms should be bright and strong, without any wilting, deformities, or spots.


OK, now that we have some nice orchids, let’s display them. For this project I picked my old chipped Haviland soup tureen. It can no longer be used for soup, but it makes a great place for plants. I grabbed some rocks to fill out the bottom of the tureen and help provide some stability and drainage, some sheet moss, heavy floral tape (this is the strong tape, not the stretchy type floral tape. You can find it at most craft stores) and three of the orchid plants. I removed the orchids from their clay pots, and took out the care tags.


The next step was getting the three plants in the tureen, which took some finagling, as they would not stand up straight. I used the heavy floral tape to  attach them to each other by their plastic containers, and ran tape across the top to steady the threesome. Then I filled in with the rocks around them.

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I know it looks messy now, but here’s where the sheet moss comes in to cover the tops and sides. Just finesse a little over the edge as well to cover the tape. Fresh green moss would be best. I used moss that was a little dried out because it’s what I had on hand.

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All done! I love it. So glamorous and classy on the dining room table, and it only cost $30! (I had the other materials on-hand) Any floral shop would charge over $100, not even including the container. And the best part, it will last at least a month. Ah, the beauty of orchids…


Orchid Care: Orchids prefer filtered light, avoid direct sunlight. They like a temperature between 65-80, and high humidity. Here in dry dry Denver, I mist the plants once a day (especially the moss on top, it will evaporate slowly and raise the humidity around the plant. Don’t mist if you are in a humid area, or the plant may rot). Water thoroughly (or take out and soak it for a bit if you prefer) when the potting medium is almost dry. Don’t let them dry out completely! And don’t let them sit in water, or the roots will rot. When the blooms are spent, cut the spike as follows: You’ll see a series of beige-ish bands (called bracts) that encircle the spike about 5″ apart . Look for where the beige bract widens and becomes kind of shield-shaped. Beneath that protective bract is an inactive bud. Cut the spike just above this bract with a sharp razor at an angle (don’t use scissors, they crush the spike). Continue to care for your orchid plant the same as when it was blooming (no direct sun, water when almost dry, 65-80 degrees) and it will flower again, especially if you use an orchid fertilizer (just follow the package directions).

What happened to the 4th orchid? That one I saved for my bedside table. The plant fit perfectly in the top of a black vintage ceramic vase I have. I used the floral tape to hold it secure in at the top, and used Spanish moss this time as a topper. It looks great in the bedroom! I love seeing flowers upon waking in the morning. What a great way to start the day!

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A How-To DIY Stunning Star-Spangled 4th of July Fresh Flower Arrangement from Grocery Store Flowers, Cheap! ($16 Bucks)

A Fabulous Star-Spangled Flower Arrangement for your Fourth of July Festivities…


I love flowers. I was a floral designer for over a decade, and I think a home should never be without them. They just make you happy. I’ll use any excuse to bring them home…this week’s excuse is the Fourth of July! I created this Star-Spangled Arrangement for a mere $16 from grocery store bunches. (this arrangement would cost you about $65 (not including the vase) in a flower shop. I even managed to get a few stems free for a little bonus arrangement, but more on that later. Here’s the how-to for this one:

First, gather your “ingredients”. A vase of appropriate size, clear floral tape and a floral knife (available online or at most hobby shops), floral preservative packets (you’ll grab a few of these when you buy your flowers, they are free with purchase), and of course, your flowers. Here I am using one bunch (3 stems) of blue Hydrangea from Whole Foods, $9.99; a bunch (5 stems) of white Fuji Mums, $3 (on sale!) at Whole Foods, and a bunch (10 stems) of red Gladiolas, $2.99 (on sale!) at King Soopers (Kroger Market)


The next step is to fill your vase with water, adding one of the packets of preservative. Then you’ll need to tape your vase. This is crucial to a solid arrangement! It gives the flowers structure and makes arranging them easy. First, tape across the top of the vase about 1″ apart, then cross over the other way (either a diamond or square pattern is ok, both work just fine) Then go around the outside top of the base to hold down your tape grid, making sure your tape goes over the edges of your grid, and tapes over itself at the end. This step is very important, or your grid will come apart when you start adding your flowers.

In this arrangement, I am using the 3 stems of hydrangea as a base, instead of the usual greens. I like this technique, it is a clean, modern look, and just 2-3 hydrangea stems fill the whole base of the vase and form a great structure to work off , as you can place other stems right into the hydrangea (they are great alone as well). They may seem like an expensive choice, but because of their size, they are good bang for the buck. Hydrangea can be a little tricky, as the stems must be cut underwater. If they are not, the stems suck up air and your flower will be a wilted mess in a hurry. Measure (by eye) where to cut your flower by holding it up against your vase. Cut the stems (with a sharp floral knife at a 45 degree angle) underwater, and hold them there for a minute, then place them quickly into your vase.

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Now it’s time for the tall stuff, the gladiolas. Start by removing any spent blooms as well as the leaves at the bottom. Again, “measure” the stem by holding it up against the vase to eye-ball where to cut, cut at a 45 degree angle (you don’t have to cut these underwater)  and add to your vase. Repeat this, starting with taller at the center and shorter and pointed more outward out from the center. Turn your vase as you work to check for “rounded-ness”. Don’t be afraid to place them right into the hydrangea, just be gentle.

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When you are happy with this stage, it’s time for the white fuji mums. Nothing says “fireworks” like a fuji! Remove all or just the lower leaves (depending on your taste, some people think fuji leaves are ugly) from the stems, measure your fujis, cut and place in the vase. Watch the “levels”, you don’t want your flowers all at the same height, stagger the lengths and fill in the “holes” around the vase. And…you’re done!


A fun Red White and Blue arrangement, and everyone will be wow’d you made it yourself.


One of the things I love about Whole Foods is their top-notch customer service. If you are not happy, or they are out of something you need, they will often “sample-out”, or give you free, something equivalent. This happened for me when buying flowers for his post. They had one last bunch of white fuji’s, and it was short one stem (it had 4 instead of 5) their oh-so-nice floral lady gave that bunch gratis, and went to see if there was another bunch in back. There was! So I got my needed 5-stem bunch plus 4 extra stems free. It never hurts to ask! This is what I did with my Free bunch:

I grabbed my little vintage creamer and filled it with water and preservative. Then I clipped a couple fern fronds and jasmine stems from the yard, removed the leaves on the bottom (nothing fouls up the water faster than leaves), and added my 4 stems of fujis. They have a happy home here next to my “chalkboard chicken” in the kitchen.

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A Note on making your flowers last: The most important thing you can do to make your flowers last is change the water, daily if possible. This is where your extra preservative packets come in. Add one each time you change the water. Your flowers will thank you! Pull out any dying or dead flowers right away. You’ll notice some flowers last longer than others, and you can re-cut those and create a smaller arrangement from them. I’ll be creating many more Flower How-to posts in the future, so subscribe to the blog using one of the links to the right and you won’t miss a thing!

Have a flower question? Ask me in the “Leave a Reply” sections and I’ll be happy to answer it.

Use What You Have, Get What You Can…A Free Garden Make-over, Before & After (+ 2-Month Update)

2-Month UPDATE! (see original post below)

The Garden Make-over in the front of the house is now two months old, and it’s filling in nicely. About a month after I posted this, a friend gave me some hardy strawberry plants and a few Datura from her overgrown garden, which I added into the front planting. The day-lilies haven’t grown much, but they are alive and well and I am confident they will come in great and bloom next year. The chicks-n-hens, fool-proof little darlings of the garden that they are, are getting bigger and sending out lots of babies already. Most of the plants that I divided and re-planted are doing well (I did lose one or two vinca transplants). I admit to spending $8 on some pansies to add a little color, and I may get a few more (on sale at Home Depot for $1.99 a 4-pack!) but to date that is all I have spent on the ground planting. The biggest delight has been the  Nicotiana sylvestris that I got for the pots by the front gate. They’ve gotten HUGE! 3-4 feet tall and flowering like crazy. I did pay $7.50 each for these 2 plants (4″ pots when I bought them) at Country Gardens, but they have been worth every penny. Only $7.50 to fill a big pot? Awesome. They grew FAST and filled in the pot in less than a month, then they just got crazy tall. I am collecting seeds to start more for next year. (you can see the Nicotiana in the before and after picks below.) And, I added a nice little birdhouse I snagged for $2 at a yard sale to the top of the tree stump to the left.


Front Yard Project – Today, 2 Months Later


Front Yard Project – When First Completed 2 Months Ago

Here are a few more images of the front:

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I do hope to add some more color soon, maybe more pansies, and some ornamental kale or cabbage for the Fall would be nice…


Here is the Original Post:


Front Yard Project – After

I’ve been itching to fix up the front part of our yard (as you can see in the picture below, it was a MESS!), but was waiting to have some extra funds, which just isn’t happening, so I got creative!


Front Yard – Before (yikes!)

I started with the pruning. The tree on the left was overgrown, and the poor forsythia bush on the right was half-dead and in desperate need of a heavy chopping. Then I pulled out all the weeds, thinned the overgrown plants, and divided the existing vinca to spread them out. Next came the digging…


Thinned out, weeded, and ready to dig…

As you can see here, the terracing had been started (on the left) but never finished. So I took my trusty shovel and and finished the digging, then I relocated some big rocks from other parts of the yard to finish off the terracing. I had a big stack of terra cotta saucers (another free alley find) in the garden shed that I’d been looking for a use for, and decided to add them as a decorative element on the bottom row. Next came the planting…


Almost there, time to plant!

I had been scouring Freecycle and Craigslist for free plants (both great sources of usable freebies!) and was lucky enough to find a super nice lady giving away a bunch of day lily divisions and a couple rudbeckia as well (those went to another part of the yard). The day lilies are perfect for this part of the yard, as they do well with any soil and are drought-tolerant for our arid Colorado climate. So I took all the day lilies and the divisions of vinca I dug up earlier, as well as some extra chicks and hens from the back part of the front yard (they’ve been growing like crazy this year!) and replanted them. It’s looking good! It will look great once the plants grow and fill in. So using entirely what I had, and some gifted plants through Freecycle, I have a new yard, free! The whole project took about 5 hours. I do hope to come across some flowering plants to add in this area, or perhaps a really good sale on some pretty annuals. I will update this post as I find new goodies and add to the yard.


Front Yard Project – Completed

Do check out Freecycle, the Free listings on Craigslist, and even posts on Facebook and Twitter as sources for free garden plants. People do a lot of dividing in the garden this time of year, and most want to find good home for their plants. Happy hunting!

Did you do a gardening project over the weekend? I’d love to see it! Tell me about it in the comments section.

Top 5 Houseplants for Plant-Slaughtering Black Thumbs

Top 5 Easiest Houseplants for Plant-Slaughtering Black Thumbs

Before embarking on my life as an full-time artist (and now blogger as well), I spent over a decade as a floral designer and event planner with ample experience caring for scores of plants (and admittedly, slaughtering a few). Through all the trial and error, I’ve come up with my list of the Top 5 Easiest Houseplants for Plant-Slaughtering Black Thumbs. (with an extra bonus 10 list at the end)

Before we get to the list, a few happy-plant notes. All plants, no matter how easy, need some care. Here’s a few simple plant-care tips: There are 3 main things to remember:  Light, Water & Drainage. First, read the care tag on your new plant. It will tell you how the plant likes its water, and whether it likes low, medium or bright light. Sunny window? Get a bright-light plant. Dimly lit basement? Get a low-light plant. Watering. The #1 cause of premature plant-death is under- or over-watering. In general, the easiest way to tell if your plant needs to be watered is to get dirty. Stick your finger in it, a good couple inches down. If you feel moisture, don’t water. If it feels dry, water it. You’ll want to check most plants twice a week, especially in dry climates. Write it down on your calendar so you’ll remember. (That’s what I’d do) This brings us to Drainage. Plants don’t like sopping wet feet. There needs to be a layer of drainage material on the bottom under the soil in addition to drainage holes in the pot. It can be a layer of small rocks, pieces of broke pottery, or the industry standard, perlite (a small white volcanic rock). Drainage is a must if you want a happy healthy plant. Keep them looking good by removing yellowed or dead leaves with scissors, rotate your plant occasionally for even growth, and if you want a Gold Star for plant care, fertilize according to the plant’s care tag instructions. Lastly, the temperature needs to be between 60-85. Keeping houseplants outside in the winter is a no-no.

So without further ado, here is the Top Five List, in order of easiest to ever so slightly challenging:

bamboo  1. Lucky Bamboo & Curly Willow. OK, these are not your typical potted plants, but it doesn’t get much easier than this. Just keep either the lucky bamboo or curly willow in a container of water (a nice vase or bowl) no dirt needed. Change out the water every week or so, that’s it. The willow branches will want a bit more light, but both are pretty forgiving when it comes to amount of light. (I’ve had lucky bamboo in my very low light bathroom for over 6 months now and it’s just fine) You can find both at your local florist, and sometimes at the grocery store floral section. Just make sure the curly willow branches are not dried out. Once in water they will quickly start to grow roots and leaves. I’ve also shoved these into a pot with moist soil and they grow just as well.
Snake_plant2. Snake Plant (or Mother-in-law’s tongue) This plant is nearly indestructible. It has a cool, almost architectural look, and even helps clean the air. This plant can live in almost any light (I’ve seen them live in a windowless office under florescent lights) They like soil on the dry side with excellent drainage (you will still need to actually water it at least once a week)
jade plant3. Jade Plant & Aloe Vera (and most succulents). As with most succulents, they store water, so are quite forgiving (though again, you will have to actually water them) They like bright light and excellent drainage. (TOXIC to pets)
CAST IRON PLANT4. Cast-Iron Plant (Aspidistra).  As the name suggests, this one is tough. It does well in low light with evenly moist (not wet!) soil, so you’ll probably need to water twice a week, but always check the soil first.
peacelily5. Peace Lily. This is one of my favorites. A full, pretty, fast growing plant with large white flowers (if you fertilize a couple times a year) and a good air cleaner. Does well in low light and likes even moisture. If you miss a watering you’ll know it soon, as the leaves will start to droop.

BONUS 10 LIST: These plants are are all on the easy-care list as well, though use caution as some of them are poisonous to pets and children. Pothos & philodendron (pretty, any light, dryish soil, Poisonous), Spider Plant (med-bright light, even moisture), Dieffenbachia & Chinese Evergreen (low-med light, even moisture, Poisonous), Dracaena (med-bright light, on the drier side, Poisonous) Ponytail Palm (bright light, easy on water), Grape Ivy (pretty, hanging, even soil med-bright light). Anthurium (bright pretty, long-lasting flowers, med light, even moisture), and Tradescantia/Wandering Jew (one of my favorites: very pretty, hanging, med-bright light, even moist soil)

I’ll be happy to answer any plant questions you have, just write them in the comment section below.

#plants #houseplants #plantcare