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July 11th, 2012

It Starts with the Soil

In my last post, I explained how my back yard had been allowed to languish for years while the plant matter overtook it. My landlords and I spent days (over a period of weeks) removing trees and shrubs and weeds, using chain saws and stump grinders and elbow grease. (To see photos of the Great Cleanout in progress, check out my “Back Yard Makeover” board on Pinterest.) But that was just one of the first steps in its transformation. Next we had to get the soil in shape for planting.

Bringing in heavy machinery to regrade the yard had been ruled out because of cost, but the design I came up with nevertheless required some extensive recontouring. I proposed repurposing the concrete wall blocks that were being used to line the ornamental bed as edging for the new vegetable garden. This helped correct an awkward junction with the neighbor’s property, since the retaining blocks helped stop soil from washing down into their driveway. But it necessitated bringing in a chain saw to muscle out a stump that was in the path of the wall blocks. After about a day’s hard labor—did I mention that this area of the yard also concealed buried rocks and bricks?—the veggie garden now has a nice clean edge. I knew we could have allowed the garden and the lawn simply to butt into each other, but I also knew it would bother me whenever I looked at it. In the future, I’d like to add another layer of blocks so that the veggie garden is level, since right now it slopes on each side. But I’ll have to save up to buy the blocks. In the meantime, at least it is segregated from the lawn on the side that faces the house.

Our next task was removing some of the soil in the long, thin planting bed to make space for the lawn to flow onto and off of the sidewalk. But where to put the soil? We could have carted it away, but it came in handy to solve another problem with this yard: the drastic changes in grade from one part of the yard to another. As we dug out parts of the ornamental bed, we used the soil to fill in the lowest points of the yard that had tended to get waterlogged, as well as to soften the grades in the areas where the slopes were steepest.

Which left us with another problem: Large patches of bare soil that had to be covered with grass. At this point, my landlords were probably thinking they should have just bulldozed everything and put down sod. But they had to cover those bare patches, so after comparing prices of sod vs. seed, they decided to sow seed and cover it with grass seed mat. And that probably would have worked brilliantly, if I hadn’t given them this piece of advice: Put down a layer of compost before sowing the grass seed. They diligently followed this advice, spending a day screening a truckload of municipal compost and applying it to the bare patches, and then sowed the seed. And then they faithfully watered twice a day for the next few weeks. The municipal compost proved to be full of seeds for yellow nutsedge, the pernicious weed commonly known as water grass or nutgrass, which simply adores being watered twice daily. It is now threatening to overpower the new turfgrass. Sigh. Sometimes it ain’t easy being green! I am hoping that this weed becomes less of a problem once we cut back on the watering regimen, but we may be dealing with it for some time now that is has gained a foothold. I am looking into using dry molasses to control it organically. If any of you have had success with this, please let me know in the comments below. And stay tuned!

Once the contours of the yard were established and the outlines of the lawn filled in, one of the largest tasks remained: Preparing the soil of the main ornamental bed for planting. As I mentioned in my previous post, this bed had been given little attention for the past two decades or so, and was therefore full of stumps surrounded by colonies of weeds, chief among them Canada thistle and field bindweed. We knew this when we started. What we didn’t know was how much else was hiding underground. My house was built in 1910, before the advent of indoor plumbing in the neighborhood. I suspect that what remained of the privy was buried in part of the garden. What’s more, municipal waste disposal didn’t exist either, and part of the yard had apparently been used for burning/burying household trash. As I began to dig the bed, I uncovered bricks, large rocks, broken glass, car parts, and children’s marbles, among other things. Some had probably been dumped into the outhouse when it was retired. This was obviously going to take longer than I had thought. I realized the whole bed would have to be double-dug if the plants were going to have a fighting chance. The soil itself was fine—a perfect texture, the consistency of chocolate cake—but it was just so full of stuff! Here’s what a patch of it looked like before screening:

Garden soil before screening—very chunky

Garden soil—a.k.a. “the debris field”—before screening. Very chunky!

And here’s a small patch about 3 feet square, after about 2 hours of double-digging and screening:

Garden soil after screening—very smooth!

Garden soil after screening—very smooth!

This is when my landlords began working to earn their Merit Badges for Gardening Under Duress. Since I fold like a cheap lawn chair when temps hit the 90s, I was out of commission for at least a week during this last heat wave, so they stepped in and double-dug the entire bed. I suspect my landlady’s son has earned enough good will points to last him the whole summer, if not the year. He helped her on some of the hottest days this year—or ever—for our area. Whew! I kept reminding them that this only needed to be done once, but I still felt guilty.

Well, not too guilty. I wasn’t exactly idle while all of this was going on. I was choosing the plants for the new garden.

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not work; that’s the fun part!”

Obviously, you have never seen my spreadsheets:

PlantSpreadsheetIn my next post, I’ll explain the method behind my obsessive-compulsive madness!

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July 5th, 2012

Making Way for the New

nancy-80x80There are two types of gardeners: those who believe that once a plant has taken root in the garden it should never be removed, and those who believe that some plants need to be sacrificed for the greater good. I fall into the second group. My favorite term for this comes from landscape designer and TV host Gary Alan, who likes to describe a shrub that has outlived its usefulness in a landscape as having “paid its rent.” We donate outgrown clothing to charity, we donate books we’ve read to book drives, and we recycle old magazines. Why would we want to keep every plant we’ve ever acquired? Let some retire gracefully to that Great Compost Pile in the Sky.

I had a great experience with this recently at my house. I rent an apartment in a duplex that changed ownership last year. The previous owners were of the let-it-grow-wherever-it-lands camp. The new owners, however, want a landscape that is attractive but also easy to maintain. So began the Great Cleanout.

My front yard is the size of a postage stamp (well, a big one, anyway; about 9 by 12 feet). But a lace-cap hydrangea had been planted about a foot away from the front steps and porch railing. That’s at least 2 feet too close, since that shrub would have needed a good 6-f00t-wide space to flourish. So, over the decades, the poor thing had been topped-and-sided until it was little more than several thick trunks and some struggling branches that produced few flowers. When allowed to leaf out fully, it loomed over the entrance like a specter. When cut back, it just looked sad. Next to it were three small conifers that had branches only on the front side, since the porch overhang blocked light and water from reaching the back side. In front of the shrubs was a patch of mostly bare soil with an occasional annual, which the weeds loved to colonize, and in front of that was a narrow strip of grass.

The overall effect was not welcoming. And it was not low-maintenance, since the shrub needed frequent pruning, the bare patch needed weeding, and the strip of lawn needed mowing and edging. So they all came out. In their place, the new owners planted a dwarf golden hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Aurea’), two small boxwoods, a drift rose, and a few clumps of yellow Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’). Surrounded with shredded bark mulch—goodbye, lawn!—they offer many different colors and textures while requiring very little maintenance (apart from regular watering until they get established). They will also offer color and texture through the winter, when the landscape can look a bit grim. Even once they reach maturity, they will not outgrow the space or need excessive pruning. Here’s the drift rose, which will eventually cover most of the surrounding mulch:

Colorful and easy-care

Colorful and easy-care

If my front yard is a postage stamp, my back yard is a whole roll of them. It’s only about 18 feet wide but more than 80 feet long. Most of the neighbors’ yards are equally long and skinny. The ribbony effect has typically been exaggerated with long, straight sidewalks and planting beds sidelined to the edges of each yard to make room for strips of turfgrass:

DSC00642

My neighbors' yards

I’ve always wanted to break up those strips, so when my new landlords asked me for input on what to do with my back yard, I jumped at the chance.

The yard had a planting bed that ran almost the whole length of it and then looped across the back end, creating two separate islands of turf. Anyone who mowed the lawn had to mow one patch of grass and then truck the mower about 70 feet to the other end of the yard to access the rest of the lawn. In this bed were many trees and shrubs that had outgrown the space, most of which never should have been planted there to begin with. Among them were a white pine—directly under the power line, of course!—three apple trees, a Douglas fir, a black cherry tree, a lilac, a forsythia, and a euonymus. These last five had been planted within a 15-foot space. The black cherry was removed a few years ago after it dropped one too many fruits on the neighbors’ flowerbed, but the rest struggled on until this spring. Here’s the fir, lilac, and forsythia, around which the euonymus was entwined:

Gasping for air

Gasping for air

Properly spaced, these four plants would have required about 78 to 88 feet. (At maturity, the Douglas fir alone may reach 60 feet across). They were not happy, and poor pruning over the years had not made them any happier. “Bring on the chainsaw,” I said! And—presto—all of the trees and shrubs in the back yard were gone:

After deforestation

After deforestation

Here’s a rough diagram of the old layout:

backgardenBEF

Another factor complicating the backyard landscape was that the elevations aren’t level. the ground slopes considerably between the house and the back of the lot, dropping off several feet in one short space. It would be hard to justify the expense of hiring heavy equipment to come regrade the whole lot, so we had to work with what was there.

I drew up a new plan for the space:

Back yard, after: More curves, and a logical flow for the lawn mower.

Back yard, after: More curves, and a logical flow for the lawn mower.

I would have liked even more curves in this design, and I suspect I’ll work more in as the landscape matures. But this design gave us several distinct areas in the yard: A living-dining area, an herb garden, a “beauty” garden, a lawn, and a veggie garden. And I figured my landlords and I could do most of the work ourselves.

As it turned out, this plan will take more work than I thought to implement. More on that in my next post.

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