Garden spotlight: English heritage inspires compact and efficient planting in Pontiac

Linda Dunsmuir says she loves playing in the dirt. She does plenty of that in her garden, which features several different container planters situated in an area that has weed barrier and pea rock to keep space neat and tidy.

The Dunsmuirs garden takes up a 30 by 30 feet space in their yard.

In 2018, after growing vegetables in their Pontiac garden for 20 years, Brian and Linda Dunsmuir began planning a renovation for the space. The couple came up with a three-phase approach that allowed Linda to continue gardening while the renovation process was underway. The first phase was completed in 2019, and the second phase was completed early this year. The couple is working on the last phase for next year’s garden.

This photo is taken of the “phase one” part of the garden renovation project the Dunsmuirs began last year. This section includes eight 3-by-4-foot galvanized boxes and three tires that are planted with vegetables.

This photo shows a completed “phase two” section of the garden, which includes two 3-by-4-foot boxes, like those in the phase one section, two L-shaped boxes and two tires.

Linda says she’s found ways to grow vegetables that take up less space than traditional methods. Here, she’s staked up a zucchini plant, making the required growing area less than that of a traditional sprawling plant. She said this method also helps airflow.

This garden “allotment plot,” a communal area to grow vegetables, belongs to Linda’s cousin Donald Leask, who lives in Scotland. “This is how we were raised to garden, with small, efficient space,” she said.

Brian and Linda’s “grands,” Mia and Alex, have been good garden helpers for years. This photo was taken during a summer harvest in a past year before the Dunsmuirs’ garden renovation.

Linda says one of her least favorite jobs in the garden is keeping up with the constant watering it requires during the hot, dry summer months. Linda’s grandson Alex is happy to help out, though.

Finn Wade, one of several children Linda babysits during the summer, has grown up in Linda’s garden. Now 7, Finn still frequents it with the other children, often looking for what trouble and mayhem has been left behind by Linda’s “sneaky gnomes.”

Although the Dunsmuirs’ garden is compact, it produces large harvests. Linda said she harvested this 5.8-pound sweet potato, the largest she’d ever grown, from her “phase one” renovation area last year.

Editor’s note: The Dunsmuirs moved to the United States from England in 1976. They stayed briefly in Koshkonong but spent the majority of their time in Mansfield, where their kids went to school. They moved permanently to their home in Pontiac 26 years ago.



Linda  Dunsmuir (and husband Brian), Pontiac 


Garden size and format: 

We had a garden space for 20 years that was fenced with 6-foot chicken wire and electric wire around top and bottom so that it was deer, raccoon, squirrel and rabbit proof. 

The beds were made from cedar trees we had cleared from our property. After 20 years, they were beginning to show their age, and many wee critters were beginning to find their way into them and create havoc with my vegetables. So Brian and I discussed a remodel, and he came up with this new plan to be built in three phases, allowing me to continue to use my garden during the process. The entire garden space is 30 by 30 feet.  

2019: Last year, we started phase one of the project. Brian terraced and leveled half of the garden space and added fill dirt and concrete block retaining walls. 

I added some galvanized metal boxes purchased online from Tractor Supply Company. We filled the galvanized boxes with “super dirt” from Kelly Thomas Landscape & Nursery in Mountain Home, Arkansas. Then I put a weed-block barrier down around the boxes and covered that with pea gravel. 

It was a push to get it planted as we were already into the growing season, but I managed some root veggies, a tomato or two and some peppers. 

The boxes in phase one are 3 by 4 feet in size, and there are eight of them, along with three tires.

2020: We did phase two this year, rebuilding half of the other side of the space. 

Again Brian leveled with fill dirt and terraced the area with concrete retaining blocks. This time, however, we purchased a few different-shaped galvanized boxes. There are two 3-by-4-foot boxes, like those in the phase one section, two L-shaped boxes and two tires. 

We were finished early enough this year that I was able to get in a spring planting of garlic, onions, spinach, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, beets and onions. 

Future plans: We are leaving the last quarter of the garden space free of raised beds. We put down a really thick layer of mulch that we’d been saving from when the electric company came through and cleared the power lines. It will be the area for the phase-three build next year. 

Brian is done with his construction, so phase three is all on me. 

This area was left for easy access to my raised beds in the event I need more dirt, gravel or other garden materials. 

I plan on using it to grow a straw-bale garden, which will be easily removed and will give me much-needed compost and mulch for my raised beds the following year. 

I’m also toying with the idea of spreading wildflower seeds onto the mulch to attract early pollinators and good bugs to my garden space. 

The openings in the concrete blocks Brian used to terrace each area will eventually be planted with herbs and flowers. I already have some planted with my strawberries.

Every inch of space is utilized. If there is a dead area, I add a tire, paint it and plant in it. 

I am hoping with this setup I can have a four-season garden. It should be fairly simple to add a hoop cover to a couple of the beds to protect my vegetables from any harsh weather that is thrown at us this winter. I have already started getting my cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, onions, carrots, radishes and turnips ready for fall harvest. 


How long have you been gardening, and what inspires your garden? 

I have been gardening as long as I can remember. I love to play in the dirt. I think it’s part of my English heritage. 

Back home, my family all have amazing gardens. “Across the pond,” a garden is not all vegetables. It’s more like what you’d call a yard over here. Having lots of flowers is important, and if you ever visit Great Britain, the first thing you’ll notice is how green it is and how almost every house has flowers everywhere. 

Most of my family members have their vegetable gardens in “allotments,” a communal area with their own plot to tend and plant in. 

My father-in-law’s was easily accessible, as the allotment was right at the end of his garden. He didn’t climb the fence, though. He had to walk down the road a bit to get to it, but it was nice to be able to pass the tools and spoils back over the fence. 

My Nan and Granddad had a fairly big and unique backyard. It was quite long, so we had space to grow our vegetables at home. Past the garden, we had a couple of pig styes and doghouses. My granddad thought it was important for me to learn every aspect of taking care of myself. I learned at an early age how to garden, hunt my meat and raise whatever I needed to feed myself. 


Favorite things to grow:  

Brian and I Iove root vegetables. We eat a lot of turnips, rutabagas (we call them Swede), radishes and carrots. We also love Brussels sprouts and cabbage. 


How do you use it after it’s grown? 

Root vegetables don’t need a lot of aftercare for storage; just keep them cool. I freeze our Brussels sprouts and green beans for later. I turn tomatoes into soup, juice, salsa, spaghetti sauce and also freeze some whole for making stews and meat pies in the winter. 

I’ve just started experimenting with pickling and canning. I’ve never really done any of that before. I’m all about easy but realizing not everything needs to go in a freezer. 


Tips or tricks: 

Don’t get in a hurry to plant zucchini. Hold off until the good bugs have started to hatch. It helps keep down the number of stink bugs that attack the plant. 

Also, stake them and prune heavily as they grow. It allows for airflow and an easy way to monitor for stink bug eggs, which can be removed each morning with duct tape. With the plants being staked, it also gives you more planting room. 

I also always put a couple of Tums in the ground below my tomatoes. It adds just enough calcium and magnesium to give them a good start. 

My raised beds make it easy for crop rotation and continual replacing as vegetables are done producing. 


Favorite/least favorite part of gardening: 

I love the early morning smell of my garden. 

I enjoy the hunt for those pesky bugs. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction foiling their reproduction by removing their eggs. 

Eating fresh veggies straight from the plant as I harvest has to be the best thing ever. 

I also just love to watch my grandkids help with planting and harvesting – and especially watching them pick a peapod and exclaim, “Yuck! I don’t eat those!” Then they try it and discover just how sweet they are, and before I know it they’ve eaten my entire day’s harvest. 

My least favorite part is all the extra watering the garden needs when it starts getting really hot. Our next project is to come up with a more efficient watering system. 


Interesting stories from the garden: 

Years ago, my twin granddaughters spent entire summers with me, so my garden planning revolved around them. I’d plant pole green beans to make a teepee so they could play in it. 

I’d get so frustrated living out here in the country when all the wildlife seemed to think I was planting for them. Now the “Fort Nanny Compound” Brian has constructed has the 6-foot-tall fence and electric wire at top and bottom. I also have a 10-foot-wide gate at the bottom end, allowing access with heavy equipment, and a “man gate” for me to just pop in and out through. 

My youngest grand now loves to check on my vegetables when he is here. He gets a kick out of all the extra security we have. I tell him stories of Peter Rabbit and Alvin the chipmunk, Wiley squirrel and Bandit the raccoon trying to access it. He will often text me back and forth asking for updates on their escapades trying to steal my vegetables. It keeps my mind sharp coming up with new stories, and lets me stay engaged with him when he is not here. 

I mind [babysit] several of the local children a couple of days a week through the summer, and I have “sneaky gnomes” scattered around my property. They love to arrive and see what mischief the gnomes have gotten up to in my garden and around the house. 

I have them help in the garden “cleaning up” the gnomes’ messes. They are getting older, and I am sure they really don’t believe my sneaky gnomes can do all I say they do, but they enjoy playing along anyway. 

Right now we are experimenting with propagating some redbud seedlings and avocado seeds. Getting the younger generation enthusiastic about working with their hands is important. They need to know how to grow their own food and keep this earth healthy. It’s such a simple and easy thing to do. To them, it’s just playtime, so they don’t even realize what they’re learning, but hopefully they will remember when they are adults. After all, it worked for me.

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