Winter is here and my landscaping business is in its usual mid-season slumber. While I design all year long, typically early December through mid-February I take a hiatus from garden installations for three reasons: inclement weather, high soil saturation and low plant availability. I think its the right thing to do for client gardens even though it means a crazier spring for me. Scheduling issues aside, I have grown fond of winter’s lull that allows me to eat dinner with Adam every night (instead of with my computer), get into a reliable workout schedule and most of all – ponder my own garden. This year I have a new garden to develop and my approach is already shaping up to be quite different from our last garden. One major difference is I am not starting from scratch here. We built our last house and the garden was carved out of a cedar and alder forest situated in a ravine. Adam and I did most of the heavy lifting including felling trees, hauling soil, compost, gravel & rock, not to mention the masses of plants & trees that went in. I am glad this type of work is behind us – the difference between ages 31 and 41 in your joints is nothing to sniff at. The other factor is how I have changed. Nearly 10 years of designing gardens under my belt, I am much more restrained in both how I approach developing a garden and how I select plants. In the early days, I was driven by a mad plant lust and wanted to try just about anything and everything. Things failed, but many succeeded and I learned from those failures and successes. In my new garden, I am blessed with good structure and I plan to build on this using a limited plant palette of known performers hand selected for the garden’s precise cultural conditions. I have also developed patience. I used to feel that the state of my garden was a reflection of my design expertise, and as such it must always be perfect. These days, I’m comfortable sitting back and observing the garden through the seasons before I start in on major changes even if it means areas will look less than ideal for a while. I want to be sure I understand each choice made by the prior owners as they made thoughtful decisions. For instance, I am fortunate that they preserved some mature gems from the original garden (house was a 1920s rebuild & expansion). However, changes do need to be made and finally getting to my point – many of these are driven by the need to simplify care of the garden.
I enjoy pottering in the garden, but by no means do I want a garden to own me. I also have a high standard for how the garden should look. Marrying these two requires good design. My mantra – the garden design works so I don’t have to. Obviously this is an exaggeration. Every garden requires a measure of work, but the goal is to reduce maintenance anywhere I can – particularly tasks that are repetitively tedious. For instance weeding with no hope of prevailing – like crab grass in between path stones that were laid directly on unprepped soil. This new garden came stocked with just about every local weed, and some in spades. In the beds, I have mounted a relentless assault over the past 5 months through repeated deep weedings. Luckily the soil is well amended and loose so getting the weeds out is fairly easy. There are just so many of them including the ultra wicked crabgrass. The next step in this war is a very thick layer of compost that will go on the beds in early March. I will probably throw in an organic pre-emergent like corn meal. While it will take dedication over several years to control weeds in the beds, I can already see results. On the other hand, the stone path is hopeless. No matter how much I weed, I will never get all the little crabgrass root pieces out from underneath the stones without taking the path apart. At that point, the best choice would be to replace it with something lower maintenance like clean gravel that can be lined with weedcloth – which is the plan for spring. This change will allow me to focus on things that I can improve instead of a battle I’ll never win.
There are other examples of areas that need modification to reduce maintenance. Salvaged concrete was used for a patio in the interior courtyard (see below). I like the idea, the concrete is from a driveway that was removed during the house rebuild. The downside: pea gravel in between the slabs migrates all over the place and weeds & plants have gone bananas in these joints…so another constant maintenance issue. If I loved the design, I’d find a way to make it work (like sending Adam out with the flamer)…but I don’t. The patio stops abruptly just past the french doors and feels out of scale with the space. Its too small to hold furniture. The grade sits too high, only 1/2″ below the siding, inviting all manner of pests into the structure. The broken concrete with weeds growing in between does kind of scream abandoned. In another area, I’d be fine with this – I love a deconstructed wild feeling in the right place. However in an interior courtyard that should function like another room in the house (and in this house – tie the old and new wings together), it needs a different feel. I want the space to be functional, echo the interior design and I’d like to disguise the narrowness of the space with a more uniform floor & uneven patio edge. I’d also like to use the concrete pieces. With that in mind, the planned redesign includes using the concrete pieces as a border around a larger patio that has a curved edge. The new patio floor will be a 3/8″ clean crushed gravel in a soft peach hue. The largest pieces of concrete will be set as landings in the gravel at the two sets of french doors and as stepping stones through a bed from the patio to a nearby path. To soften the hardscape, Nassella tenuissima and annual succulents such as echeveria will be planted directly in the patio (cutting small openings in the weedcloth) with the gravel serving as a mulch. Existing plantings in the adjacent beds will be replaced with plants that perform year round since the courtyard is viewed from nearly every room in the house. We already have Italian piazza string lights to hang above the area and are planning a large farm table as the center piece. The space needs enclosure on one end, and we want to experiment with tall panels of Cor-ten steel that will age to a rich rust color. While this design is more complicated than the existing treatment, it will be less work since a much larger area will be covered in low maintenance permeable hardscape that will be lined with weedcloth. A few before shots of the courtyard and one hastily thrown together mock up of what it may look like…(table courtesy of West Elm).
These are the plans for the future – much work has already been done to simplify plant care. We arrived on the heels of summer, so initial work in the garden was plant removal. A few problem plants were dealt with immediately like local thugs Hypericum and Euphorbia ‘Fen’s Ruby’. Water seeking and thus potentially invasive plants were removed from the base of the Glendon septic mounds. An Acer Plamatum ‘Bloodgood’ planted about 1′ from the house was removed before it became a problem and given away as there is no spot for a tree of this size on the property. As soon as the weather cooled and rains returned, plants were shuffled around. First up, dealing with right plant, wrong place. A delicate Acer palmatum dissectum that burned in the August sun and required constant hand watering was removed from the center of the hot courtyard and placed on the northside of the house where its dark foliage will contrast against the light siding. An unhappy floppy mass of Nassella tenuissima was pulled out of a shady spot and placed in the sun. A few things out of scale here and there were removed or shuffled, and some things were regrouped in masses. Drainage issues were addressed and my usual river rock border along the house was started. The Glendon mound septic system (if you are not familiar – looks like burial mounds) is fortunately tucked in the back garden. To protect the sandy mounds against erosion and soften their unnatural forms, masses of drought tolerant grasses and perennials adapted to sandy soils such as Nassella tenuissima, Nepeta, Bouteloua gracilis, Sesleria, Achillea, Sedum and Fragaria (beach strawberry) were massed on & around the mounds to create a “controlled” meadow (e.g. a meadow look without the using the weedy seed packets). This area will require constant weeding as we cannot use compost on the mounds and they have been infiltrated with several weeds including horsetail.
This got really long but hopefully not too boring! More to come as we keep moving forward…