Indoor inspiration outdoors

I'd had this idea for quite a while a few years ago. It's one of those random thoughts that festers for a while before it actually happens. The goal was to get rid of the grass underneath the "horsey swing," part of my daughter's play set.

The ballroom of the Chateau. It was used as a make-shift hospital during World War I.

I knew it couldn't be anything too ornate–kids would be playing on it. Since it was for the playground, at first I thought I'd do a checker board–and create some actual checkers made from painted slices of tree trunks. But size was a problem. In order to get the correct number of squares, at common sizes of available stone tile, the proportions of the space were all off. It would have required buying larger tiles than needed and two cuts per tile for 32 tiles. I didn't want to work that hard. This is the sort of stuff that keeps me awake at night throughout a winter season when I can't actually get out there and garden.

Gardens surround the Chateau.

We took a trip to the Loire Valley of France and while touring the Chateau de Chenonceau, it struck me how cool the diagonal floor tile pattern was in the ballroom–the part of the chateau that is built over the River Cher.

The maze garden of Chateau Chenonceau.

The chateau had great gardens as well. I remember particularly being impressed with the maze and the vegetable gardens. But there were many other gardens including the formal gardens of Diane de Poitiers and Catherin de Medicis (with fountains, sitting areas and 32,000 color-specific annuals planted each spring), a "green," and 70 hectares of wooded trails. You should check out their website, there's great 360-degree views of each garden. They also feature floral art displays regularly. When we were there throughout the chateau were unbelievable floral displays featuring moss-covered stones & urns.

Early on. We looked at dirt for almost two years. Some of these low grasses are slow growers.

But back to my garden. I came back determined to abandon the hopes of a checkerboard under the play set and instead figured out how many 1-foot tiles I would need if they were placed on a 45-degree angle. It worked - with minimal cutting. And a diamond pattern makes sense, I justify–it seems to be a recurring theme in my garden. There are diamond/harlequin patterns in all my lattice and even the espalier is diamond-shaped.

In the spots where there were no tiles, I planted a variety of Steppables and Jeepers Creepers brand low grasses and mosses:
  • Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum "Pink Chintz")
  • Woolly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus)
  • Pink Pussy-Toes (Antennaria dioca "Rubra")
  • Irish Moss (Sagina subulata)
  • Baby Tears (Sedum album "Chloroticum")
  • Silver Kisses (Anacyclus depressus compactum)
  • Goldmoss Stonecrop (Sedum acre)
  • Dwarf Yellow Wallflower (Erysimum kotschyanum)
Here is the checkerboard grass garden in context. In the foreground is the Harry Potter Garden, behind the checkerboard is the raised-bed vegetable potager, followed by the patio and another raised bed garden anchored by a Royal Purple Smoke Tree.

In retrospect, I should have researched these more. Some of them get annoyingly tall, specifically the Goldmoss Stonecrop (the yellow stuff in the photo at the top). If I had it all to do over, I'd plant all Irish Moss.

What garden projects are festering in your head at this time of the year?


  1. Wonderful results for your pondering! I love the look and creative design.

    What am I pondering?
    1 -- I want to plant two tall stock tanks with cannas and other tropicals that grow tall and thin. I want to use these as corner walls to our outdoor shower. I can't plant in the ground there due to underground pipes and such.

    2 -- I really want to expand the garden "out of the bowl and into the meadow" out front. I'm waiting for trees/shrubs to grow thicker on the east side so that my neighbors won't see what I'm up to. They like grass here and 2 acres of it seems too much. I want to use the shrubs there as the backdrop for flowering shrubs in a mixed privacy border.

    3 -- I want a boules court. Too much time in France, right?

    4 --I want a cutting garden, but I have rabbits, not just deer. I'm eyeing the deck around the pool and wondering if I have enough space for containers and containers and containers... and pray we have no drought.

    5 -- I'm chomping at the bit to get some seeds started indoors. I just need to wait one more month.

    6 -- I want a potager, but we'd have to install a 3 board fence per our HOA covenants and I know the deer can jump it. The HOA might let us match the fence in the cottage garden, but too $. I could buy a lot of fresh veggies from the farmers for years for the price of the fence.

    Are you sorry that you asked? I wrote a post here, didn't I? Oops!


  2. Nifty checkerboard garden. That's a great way to partially pave and partially green up the high-use space by a playset.

    What projects am I dreaming of? Oh, too many to list, since I'm starting over with a new garden this winter. Mostly I'm dreaming of structure, which is sorely lacking: fencing, a pergola over the patio, a roof over the deck for rainy-day sitting, paths, retaining wall. You know, the usual.

  3. I love the idea of the checkerboard. Child friendly and aesthetically pleasing too.
    Taking out an area of grass in our front yard and put in a flagstone "courtyard" so we can better enjoy the view of our perennial border.
    Also, convincing my husband about that spa...

  4. I love how you got the idea from a grand estate and adapted it to your own estate (says this member of the Fourth Estate). My husband is going to teach himself how to make stucco and then will stucco the walls of his Japanese teahouse. The framing is up, roof on but too many aging parent issues last summer to get anything done in the garden but maintenance. I'm going to redo some perennial borders that need attention.

  5. Cameron,
    Holy crud. You're gonna' be busy!
    1- Outdoor, plant-walled shower? I'm in!
    2- Screw the neighbors. They don't have to mow it.
    3- Boules? Little old French men will start hanging around your house.
    4- Put in a rabbit-cutting garden. That could kill two birds (or rabbits) with one stone.
    5- I've killed many a plant from seed. Good luck.
    6- Ah, but the fence is a one-time purchase and he veggies you have to buy every year for life. Okay, the logic doesn't make sense, but I encourage potagers.

    I'm not sorry I asked. You can post here any time.

    I've been keeping up with your new place. Starting over with a blank slate is as exciting as having a mature garden. Get carried away with structure/bones. Remember to always dream bigger than your budget. I've found that it doesn't make for good gardens, but it makes for good dreams.

    Eliminating grass? That's my favorite sport. HGTV should do a series just on THAT topic. Never give up on the spa. It's the best money we've ever said goodbye to.

    Mrs.Wis/Each Little World,
    Thank you. My estate is looking rather grand now, having stolen ideas from around the world. Would it save you time if you just taught your aging parent to stucco?

  6. Very cool planting! I've also seen squares interplanted with mosses in a little Japanese garden, so the idea mixing the geometry with the plants seems to span continents. But the diagonal placement is tres European.

    My main yard project is coming up with what kind of small tree to plant in this small space I have for it. With so many contenders and space for only one palnt, the decision-making could take years!

  7. This is absolutely fabulous. NOW I want just fits my sense of whimsy and joy. Wait til I show it to my longsuffering spouse, also known as the guy who does the heavy lifting....heh heh heh. I thank you, but he probably won't. :-)

  8. lostlandscape,
    Sounds like the size of the space you have will narrow down your tree options. But make the right decision - you have to live with it for a loooong time.

    Feel free to steal the idea (and improve upon it) but don't blame me for your husband's silent contempt.

  9. This looks great and while the taller plants might distract from the ground level, they look very nice in this shot and I can only imagine being a kid and jumping from one square to the next! I am dreaming of the 'Garden of Death Plants' or as I have to rename it according to Amy Stewart's next book 'The Wicked Plant Garden'.

  10. Jim, this looks great. I love the fact that you gave a designer twist to an often ignored spot - kid's play area - and still kept it practical with your toughie plant selection. I hear you on the ground covers. I wasn't paying attention and got it into my head that lime thyme stays low so specified it between stepping stones in several gardens before I figured out my mistake. I'd like to say I've learned my lesson, but who am I kidding? It will happen again.

  11. Very nice job, Jim. What a nice way to showcase your stepables. It must make it easier to maintain with the stepping stones. I like the knee wall in the back. It realy complements the garden.

    I just purchased a large pressure cooker for canning, so I'm pondering expanding my vegetable garden.

  12. Layanee,
    It does look good, but form follows function and the form of the tall plants just don't work for me. Unfortunate, these are the plants that grow the fastest. I Like teh Garden of Death Plants" Demands attention.

    Giving a designer twist to a kid's play area, honestly was not my driving force. Being lazy and having less lawn to mow was my motivator. At one point this was the only spot I had to mow and it took me longer to get out the electric mower and extension cord than time to mow it. I, myself, am not sure if I learn more from my successes or my failures. I guess failures maybe. I have more of those.

    It does showcase the stepables, but I can't remember the names of any of them, and that question comes up often. I was only bale to list them because I still have the tags. The knee wall is the raised-bed vegetable potager. As a kid, I used to help my grandma can. I can only think of one friend my age that cans. Why do they call it canning when it's done in bottles?

  13. Nice! I visited Chenonceau last May and I remember that checkerboard floor in the hall over the Cher (we pretended we were running to the "free" side to escape the Nazis!)

    Right now, I'm planning an expanded veggie garden and drawing up plans for a back alley raised bed.

  14. Hello: I love this idea, and the way you presented it. It is refreshing to see a grand idea from a chateau in France so unpretentiously adapted to the space under a child's swingset. Inspiration comes in all sizes. Keep up the good work. Marty

  15. Heavy Petal,
    Another Chenonceau visitor! Didn't you love the potager vegetable garden? Looking at my checkerboard garden certainly wouldn't make you think of Chenanceau, but it does for me.

    Back alley raised bed sounds like a worthwhile project. "Back Alley" sounds quite nefarious though, like you're doing something illegal. Sounds like a dangerous dangerous garden.

    Marty Ross,
    Thank you for the kind words. Many aspects of my garden are stolen (inspired, I like to think) from gardens I've visited. Since I can't (normally) take a plant, I take ideas.

  16. Wonderful! I love it! As a landscape architect, I have used that trick myself, underneath an arbor attached to a house. The client wanted an outdoor area where their party guests could overflow into an outdoor room where an outside bar could serve them. I put down bluestone slate squares in a diagonal pattern interchanged with grass. It was not used often, but when it was, it was perfect! Enjoy!

  17. The checkerboard garden looks great, I don't know many of those plants though. (apart from thyme and sedum)

    I love the idea in your previous post about dry stacking pavers to create a feature - maybe thats a project thats on the cards for a garden sometime in the near future...

  18. Pam,
    Thanks for adding this to your post on Grass Patterns (

    I think a checkerboard pattern is a very simple (and cheap!) way of adding clever design.

    The dry-stacked pavers is brilliant. I have to figure out how to do my own original piece (and where I'd put it!).

  19. I have always admired your steppables, even the ones with the higher growth. It is unexpected as is the idea to use it at a child's play area. Unexpected is good. I have so much geometry in my yard, what is a little more. I have been thinking for a while about putting steppables back in my back yard. Mine had both thyme and alyssum.

  20. I came back determined to abandon the hopes of a checkerboard under the play set and instead figured out how many 1-foot tiles I would need if they were placed on a 45-degree angle.wall paneling


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