Flowers bloom in Debbie Serang's front yard garden on Thursday, April 9, 2020 in Winston-Salem.

Like many other gardeners, I’ve had the opportunity the last couple of weeks to clean and organize items in my garage and garden shed. In the process, I’ve discovered a heap of items that I’ve collected for creative projects that I’ve woefully failed to ever execute. So, with a heavy heart, I parted with much of my used junk.

Others though have an innate ability to collect and execute. Winston-Salem gardener Debbie Serang is a doer and has a habit of seeing extraordinary value in others’ discarded items. She has built an incredible garden space with repurposed materials and has created a functional and whimsical escape around her Horace Mann home.

Serang is no stranger to getting things done. She has designed several homes she’s lived in, including her current house, doing much of the work herself. Her garden is an extension of her home — reflecting her own blood, sweat and tears coupled with an eclectic mix of creatively repurposed materials.

“Everything out here is re-used, I re-use everything,” Serang said. “A lot of my plants are just propagated from volunteers.”

Until Septembe 2013, Serang’s home and garden was a tiny, 50-foot-wide vacant lot. She made sure to design the home to fit in with the other homes on the street, which were mainly all built in the 1920s. The front, side and backyards are all designed sustainably, working with the slope of the land, the influx of stormwater and solar heat sinks.

A black wrought-iron gate surrounds the front garden, which is a clever mixture of stone, wood and winding paths. Serang has a chosen a great mixture of ornamental evergreen and deciduous trees for this area, including a blue cedar, Teddy Bear magnolia, and weeping and upright cherries. These small trees will get big enough to frame the house nicely, but not overpower the small space.

Stormwater from the neighboring lot pushes a heavy flow of water through the front yard, so Serang designed a dry creek bed and small foot bridge to channel the water. Many of the larger stones used to build this creek bed Serang collected from her travels, as she has an affinity for rocks. Nearby the footbridge, an intricate fairy garden is nestled into stone and plants, which Serang’s grandchildren love.

Serang has continual color in her front garden, with a profusion of perennial color bursting at any time of the season. Daffodils were still in bloom on the day I visited, as well as tulips, candy tuft, columbine and phlox. Peonies will follow soon, and then an onslaught of summer color.

A clematis has been given a trellis in the front yard, which Serang rescued from an inhospitable area at the end of the street. The salvaged clematis is just one of the many examples of redirected energy in this garden.

Serang has built and created most all of the elements of her home and garden with her own hands. She attributes her carpentry, design and landscaping skills with her childhood, as she taught herself to do many things.

“I was the oldest of six, and I grew up with a limited amount of supervision,” Serang said. “So you just figure it out because nobody’s looking. I built a lot of things.”

A narrow driveway lined with redbuds leads to the rear of the property and has just as much charm as the gardens themselves. A two-inch pattern was cut into the concrete drive and planted with a chartreuse sedum, giving permeability to the surface and creating an inviting draw into the back yard. Cut at just the right angle, these tiny planted troughs allow car tires to roll over without crushing the sedum.

The driveway area is a south-facing heat sink, which Serang uses to her advantage. Between the house and the driveway, she has planted two figs, which are protected well from harsh winter temperatures. They also serve as curtains for windows, providing privacy, shade, and fresh fruit. Serang can open her kitchen window and literally pick figs right from the tree. A lady-banks rose also grows in this area and has been gracefully trained into the shape of a heart on the side of the enclosed porch.

The driveway and backyard are contained by a wooden fence — a long line that that draws you to the back of the property. The eye tends to gravitate straight to the back of the garden, where a funky wall of playful re-purposed material beckons visitors. Although not central to the small property, this whimsical art wall is the heart of Serang’s garden.

A swimming combination of circular mixed materials, this fence serves as an outlet for Serang’s creative drive. Bicycle wheels, tires, gears and chains are a central theme, which all have a cylindrical shape.

“It’s a lot of super random things,” Serang said. “It’s just stuff people gave me or some stuff I found. I get stuff from Goodwill, along the street, and the Krankies sign was thrown away. I love it when somebody looks at it for a while and says ‘Oh, I remember those things!’ It’s stuff that you haven’t seen for a while. I want it to look a little — not disturbing — but a little unexpected, a little wacky.”

Hubcaps, kitchen colanders, wash pans, chicken feeders, bottlecaps, billiard balls, Bundt pans, fan covers, bed springs and tuna cans all work together to create a visual drug. Many of the materials appear in increments of four, representing Serang’s four children.

“The fence itself was such a habitual dead-end. I had planted a couple of eucalyptus trees back here, but that year we got a killer winter and it took them out. So I wanted something that would be more interesting than looking at that dead end wall.”

There are many edibles in the back garden, including a small veggie plot packed with herbs, seasonal cool and warm weather crops and edible flowers. A vigorous thorn-less blackberry covers an arbor leading into the back garden, fruit which Serang said pairs nicely with nasturtiums.

In addition to the art she’s created in her garden, there are also other pieces represented. Metal flowers, welded stakes, and concreate statuary are scattered amongst a trove of plants. A welded sign stands near Serang’s art wall which reads, ‘If people stand in a circle long enough, they will begin to dance.’ Such fitting words for such a jovial environment.

Serang lives to create, to find an outlet for her drive to use those things which might otherwise be throw away. Her garden is a direct reflection of this mentality.

“I have to make something every day. I sew or I paint or I draw or I write stories or I plant in my yard or I cook. Always it has to be a new combination of something. That’s just how it is. It’s very, very fun.”

Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at or, with “gardening” in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101

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