The Handmade Garden

A retired school teacher is the queen of DIY landscaping
The Handmade Garden

Barb Whelan’s many passions are showcased throughout her well-tended Bonita property, from a great love for windmills and estate-sale finds to a commitment to growing her own veggies and herbs.

Garden of the YearBest Use Of Decor. This sprawling Bonita landscape is filled with delights at every turn, most in the form of antique decor that homeowner Barb Whelan has artfully repurposed as planters, lighting, butterfly feeders and more.


Barb Whelan and her husband Don have lived in their Bonita home for 46 years, raising their two daughters and thoroughly enjoying the entire property that’s just under three-quarters of an acre.

Though Barb has always gardened and grown her own vegetables, it wasn’t until she retired from teaching elementary school in 2003 that she truly had the time to devote herself to shaping her landscape.

The Handmade Garden

Possibly the trendiest chicken coop ever, the Chick Inn features a perch Barb made by combining a wagon wheel and an umbrella stand, cushy nesting slots along a back wall covered in quirky vintage chicken signs and a chandelier.

Five years ago, she and a close friend got into the Waterwise Movement together and simultaneously undertook transforming their yards to reduce water consumption. Where sprawling lawns and vegetable beds once grew on Barb’s property, now only a single stretch of grass remains—preserved for her grandsons to play on. Succulents and other native plants now thrive on the remainder of the land, and Barb’s veggies flourish in raised containers.

This dramatic transformation, which Barb designed and accomplished herself, won her the Sweetwater Authority Waterwise contest in 2013. Since her win, she continues to outdo herself by cultivating new spaces in her garden.

“Gardening is wonderful for people in so many different ways,” Barb says. “It’s great exercise, very relaxing and—for me, anyways—a perfect outlet for artistic expression.”

Besides maintaining her landscape, Barb loves finding vintage wonders at estate sales to repurpose in her yard.

“I love bringing new life to people’s old belongings and giving them a fresh purpose,” Barb enthuses. “I got an old chandelier from an estate sale down the street and put solar lights in it and then placed it in the tree above the bench in my Cymbidium orchid garden, so now there’s lovely lighting there at night.”

Barb prides herself on the gathering spaces and vignettes she’s created with her eclectic scores. In fact, one of her fondest memories includes an impromptu concert in her Zen garden over the holidays, when family and friends clustered together there to play guitar and sing by the solar lantern light.

The Handmade Garden

The Whelan’s flock of 12 bantam chickens provide them with plenty of fresh eggs and droppings for their compost pile and keep Barb company while they wander the property as she gardens.

It’s no surprise the Zen garden inspired a kumbaya moment; the space is inventive and inviting. A ring of tree stumps, topped with salvaged tractor seats as well as a collection of colorful and stackable cushions ring the sand circle and creative rock sculptures.

Barb created this space for just $15, employing stones from a friends’ old patio—and dyeing them a warmer reddish-brown using ironite fertilizer—and easy-to-apply polymeric sand instead of concrete.

This stone floor transitions into a serpentine path that winds throughout the extensive garden. It wends past beds of succulents and vintage fixtures and meets a central island where a crepe myrtle springs from the earth. The base of the tree is covered with seashells that Barb collected on a family trip to the British Virgin Islands.

The Handmade Garden

The front patio is home to her collection of plants found at estate sales, proudly displayed on shelving that she made.

The path ends in the larger of her two butterfly gardens. After their success with the Waterwise Movement, Barb and her friend embraced the Monarch Movement together. They went to the Butterfly Farms in Solana Beach (Barb recommends visiting the farm before beginning a butterfly garden) where they found educational materials and host plants for sale.

Barb built butterfly shelters, placed fruit feeders and planted milkweed, popcorn cassia, rue, passion vines and Bladderpod to invite a variety of butterflies into her garden. She also added her art—an antique wine rack she filled with colored bottles and part of a windmill (she is an avid windmill collector) where the passion vine now clings.

The Handmade Garden

The Zen garden that Barb painstakingly created is the perfect gathering spot for family functions or a quiet moment of solitary reflection.

A friend’s son found and installed the tall windmill near the chicken coop, home to the Whelan’s 12 bantam chickens.

The red coop, aptly named The Chick Inn, features a large central perch that Barb fashioned from a wagon wheel and an umbrella stand, quirky vintage chicken signs and a chandelier.

Just across the way are Barb’s mint, basil, sage and thyme herbs; a secondary (monarch-only) butterfly garden; and veggies, that include onions, carrots, spinach, tomatoes and more, which grow in bathtubs and in the first wheelbarrow she ever owned.

Behind the edibles, Barb planted a collection of tall and cascading succulents in a birdcage she placed atop a dried-up fountain. A giant Matilija poppy bush, a California native that produces huge white flowers with crepe paper-like petals, blossoms around it. And beyond that, a wooden walkway leads to an orchard where lime, lemon, apricot and plum trees grow.

Heading back toward the house, Barb created a retaining wall out of logs. “I saw it on Pinterest and loved the look of it,” she says. “My neighbor cut all the wood into the various sizes for me, and I put the rest together to create an upper and lower pathway. I have found that you should be sure to create attractive and serviceable paths through your garden so that maintenance is easy without risking damage to your plants.”

Barb’s garden culminates in a large natives-only bed bordering the street on which her home resides. Sprinkled amidst the flora are totems she’s crafted from various objects—some found, some repurposed and all artfully done.

The Handmade Garden

Barb crafted a stylish wall that hides her compost pile by hinging two palettes together and decorating them with plants, a bee habitat and antique tools.

Categories: Garden Planner, Gardening

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