July 6, 2015

The Hardscape Comes Together

Our landscaping plan. 
Double-click to see the plan
at full size
Until three weeks ago, they were lines on a piece of paper, paint on rocks, and suggestions nudged out of mulch and stones.  Today, they are real; and they make a huge difference in defining our new home and garden.

‘They’ are the hardscape.  ‘Hardscape’, for those not familiar with the language of the ‘green’ industry, is that part of a landscape that is built not from plants and trees but, rather, from stone or concrete.  Hardscape can be subtle or it can be front and center.  It can be the concrete plaza around a swimming pool or the hint of rocks in a sea of greenery.

Workmen from Dolan & Co.
installed a cobblestone border to
define the driveway perimeter
For us, the hardscape took on four elements:  a stone wall defining a change in elevation at the front of the property, a patio off our screened porch at the back of the house, a driveway, and a sidewalk from that driveway to the front door.

There are default choices for each of these items: almost all driveways are an asphalt strip from street to garage, for example.  We had a very different idea for ours.  Most people choose asphalt because it is durable.  You can tear out of it in your 4x4 and cause no damage, and a ten-ton truck can park on it with complete confidence.

The completed driveway: ecological,
tasteful, and great to look at
We don’t have a 4x4 and don’t intend to purchase one.  And, anyone tearing out of our driveway has better have flashing lights.  Trucks can idle on the street-side parking pad.  These are the joys of building a home to your own specifications.  And our wish list for our new home included an ecological component:  we wanted a driveway that a) occupied the minimum ‘footprint’ possible and b) was permeable to rainwater.
We got our wish.  The driveway allows us to back out of a side-loading two-car garage and drive into the bays in one motion.  But there is not an extra square foot of unnecessary or unused space and the 70-foot-long path from street to garage narrows quickly to just ten feet.  Cobblestones define the perimeter of the driveway and the ‘pavement’ is nothing but crushed stone.  There are big stones at the base and progressively smaller stones until you reach an inch-deep layer of half-inch stuff.  You can pour water onto it all day long and it will not puddle or run off.  Another plus is that you can hear a car pull into the driveway.

Installing the bluestone sidewalk
Oh, and it looks beautiful.

The default choice for sidewalks is concrete.  I grew up in a home with a three-foot-wide walk that ran straight as a shot from the town’s sidewalk (also concrete) to the front door.  The sidewalk was as uninviting as warm lemonade on a hot afternoon, but at least it got used.  In 21st Century New England, sidewalks to front doors are ceremonial because front doors and entry foyers have become ceremonial.  Everyone goes in through the garage or a ‘mud room’ door.  Don’t ask why; it’s just the way it is.  But we wanted a sidewalk that would invite usage by providing a walk through our garden on the way to the front entrance.

The finished sidewalk offers a
walk through the garden
For our sidewalk we chose bluestone, which meshes very well with the color of the house.  Instead of the polished stone, though, we chose ‘cleft’ stone with a slightly irregular space.  Over three days, a team of stonemasons from Dolan & Co. (who also replaced the ‘builder’s crud with loam), created a gorgeous four-foot-wide walk (with flares at either end) incorporating a Mondrian-like geometric pattern.  It’s enough to make you want to take up hopscotch.

Assembling the jigsaw puzzle that
will become the patio
Patios are all the rage these days.  They’re outdoor living rooms, dining rooms, and kitchens with pizza ovens, weatherproof sofas, and grills the size of a California King bed.  We wanted something simple: roughly round (but not round), about 14 feet across, and made of stone that could be inter-planted with moss or ferns. 

The completed patio, just add chairs
Scott Dolan sent us to a place in a nearby town with pallets of stone from everywhere. We saw what we wanted almost immediately:  irregularly-shaped pieces of Pennsylvania fieldstone in colors that changed within the same piece of stone. 

That stone was assembled into a jigsaw puzzle that left gaps a few inches wide between each piece.  The surfaces are sufficiently irregular that no one will be plonking down an outdoor sofa and loveseat on it.  But for sitting in simple chairs outside on a summer evening and admiring the outdoors with a glass of wine, it’s well-nigh perfect.

The stone wall and a perennial border
along the street side of the garden
The final piece of the hardscape is the stone wall, the plan for which started off about thirty feet long and one-to-two-feet high.  By the time I finished it, the wall ran to 70 feet and rises to a height of more than three feet for half of its length.  It is the one hardscape element that Betty and I can say we not only envisioned, but executed.

The completed hardscape; the start
of a landscape.  Please excuse the
giant pile of mulch.
In the last few days, we’ve started planting all the perennials and small shrubs that have waited patiently in pots for too long.  We work mostly in the early morning (a 5:30 start time is not unusual), drawing the approving notices of the walkers who like the ambience of our street.  We’ve rewarded them with a colorful shrub and perennial bed right up against the street.

The plants that were in these pots are
now in the ground
The garden is finally taking shape.

July 1, 2015

Green Is the New Orange

My wife, Betty, is walking on air this afternoon.  I mean, clicking-her-heels-three-times-in-the-air happy.  Turning-somersaults-with-glee pleased.

The orange fence is down.

The orange fence first went up in mid-
September 2014 as our foundation
was being prepared.  Double-click
any photo to see an enlargement.
The fence appeared in mid-September of last year as workmen began preparing the site of our new home for its foundation.  We had gone through a two-month permitting process that ended with the issuing of an Order of Conditions, or OC by our town’s Conservation Commission.

The OC is a lengthy document that spells out what the builder, landscaper, and homeowner much do to preserve the area beyond the immediate house.  Because our home would abut wetlands, the OC was quite specific about preventing the construction process from encroaching on those wetlands.

A silt barrier
Specifically, the OC called for the placement of a 300-foot-long silt barrier to keep construction debris and landscaping materials from spilling over into land that we own, but cannot alter. The silt barrier, in turn, is a continuous tube of straw-stuffed plastic netting.  It does an excellent job of keeping Bad Stuff on one side of a line while keeping the other side of the line pristine.

To mark that silt barrier for all to see and respect, the OC requested that we put up a four-foot-high orange fence.
For those of you reading this who know Betty - and especially those of you who have seen her do her superb container gardening demonstrations – you know that she dislikes orange.

No, dislike is too mild a word to describe her feelings on the subject. ‘Hate’ is not too strong a word.  ‘Abhor’ is just about right.  We have no orange flowers in our garden.  Orange is anathema.  Why?  Betty says the color orange stops the eye in a garden.  That's the way it is.

The orange fence disappeared under
the snows of winter, only to return
with the spring melt
And so, every time we visited the construction site as the house rose from the ground, Betty would avert her eyes.  Then, winter came and, for a while, the fence was buried.  But in March it reappeared; a specter of bad taste, a blot on an otherwise beautiful piece of property.

We moved into our new home in April, but the fence remained.  Every time Betty looked out our back windows, the fence was there, shouting out its unwanted presence.  Why did it stay?  Because the OC specified that final grading for landscaping must be ‘substantially complete’ and hardscape items like our patio and driveway must be in place.

A Jack-in-the-Pulpit planted at the
woodland edge is just one of dozens
of natives we added
With the bringing in of loam in May and the construction of the patio and driveway in June, we neared our compliance goal.  We purchased dozens of native and woodland shrubs and other plants to blend our property into the woodlands beyond.  Betty tagged each plant so there was no question that it added to our standing as Stewards of the Land.

This afternoon, Leslee Willitts, our town’s Conservation Commissioner, came to pay a call.  She is a wonderful and knowledgeable lady who shares Betty’s scorched-earth policy on the subject of invasive plants. 

She and Betty walked the property for roughly half an hour, pausing to look at plants, discuss drainage and water barrels, and admire the new oxydendrum.  Interestingly, Leslee’s eyes went well beyond the silt barrier to see what was growing in the woodlands and wetlands beyond.

At the end of the tour Betty asked, as casually as she could muster, whether the orange fence could come down.

“Oh, sure,” Leslee said.  “You don’t need that now.”

Ready for the dump
To her credit, Betty waited until the Conservation Commissioner’s car was out of sight before starting to rip out the fence.  But in less than twenty minutes it was in a pile in our driveway, ready to go to the transfer station.  The workmen completing our driveway offered to take it away for us. 

There is still one step remaining before the OC is lifted.  The engineering firm that surveyed the land last year and drew up the construction plan must now do a final ‘as-built’ plan showing that we adhered to the letter of the Conservation Commission’s orders.  It will be a joy to write that final check for the report. 

Almost as much of a pleasure as ripping out that fence.

June 23, 2015

The Pine Street Status Report

A year ago this month a dilapidated, 70-year-old-house surrounded by end-of-life pines, burning bush, and swallowwort was torn down.  In the town where I live, such demolitions are the precursor to the building of a grand house, typically four thousand square feet (or more) in size.  Surrounding the foundation of that house will be a fringe of evergreen shrubs and, beyond that, a perfect green lawn with a handful of ‘usual suspect’ trees.  The care and maintenance of the property will left to a landscaping company that will deliver on its promise of a verdant, manicured lawn and a mailbox surrounded by annuals.

Part of the 30 cubic yards of mulch
we've put down.  That's Magnolia
'Elizabeth' in the center.
Our new home has not followed that script.  It is just 400 square feet larger than the 1700-square-foot house it replaced.  It is that size because we moved out of a so-called ‘starter castle’ when its size no longer suited our needs (if it ever did) or our lifestyle.  In our new home, we actually use every room.

But if the new house that rose from the debris of the old one pleased our neighbors, it is the landscaping now taking shape that is drawing stares. 

My contribution is a stone wall that
will be the backdrop for a perennial
I’ve already chronicled the transformation of the ‘builder’s crud’ on the site into a suitable gardening medium (here and here).  Now, we’re starting to populate the roughly half acre of ‘usable’ (i.e., not wetlands) property with plants, trees and shrubs.  Ours is a street filled with walkers, and the number of ‘thumbs up’ we get from passers-by is gratifying.

The biggest hurdle people have is the notion that there will be no lawn.  What isn’t planted is mulched – a beautiful, dark brown wood mulch that holds in the moisture and keeps the weeds at bay.  Once down, it is zero-maintenance.  The mulch, in turn, will improve the soil; adding organics as it breaks down.  We’ve spread thirty cubic yards so far with an additional fifteen waiting in the wings.

Construction of the sidewalk, patio
and driveway start tomorrow.  Until
they're finished, most of the
perennials will stay in pots.
Already visible are the paths within the mulched area that divide the garden into distinct planting zones.  Eventually, those paths will be pea gravel; for now, they’re just beaten-down soil.  Each zone, in turn, is anchored by a native specimen tree.  The oxydendrum, amalanchier, and cornus florida have now been joined by a Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ (already truncated to ‘Liz’ in honor of one of my fictional sleuths), a blue-green concolor fir, and a cladrastis kentuckea – the same Yellowwood I described from the West Roxbury Garden Tour. 

We found the latter tree at Weston Nurseries where it had sat unsold because no one was certain of its name and, therefore, of its growing habits.  Betty took one look at the now-past wisteria-like racemes and squeezed my hand so tightly it nearly broke a bone.  We planted it this morning.

The shrubs are going in according to a scheme that Betty is devising as she walks the property.  Perhaps thirty shrubs are now in place, scattered in various beds as she determines that they ‘look right’.  It is a small fraction of the eventual population.

Next week, this will look quite
Perennials are mostly being held in abeyance for the construction of the sidewalk, patio, and driveway.  We’ve installed a few of the peonies and amsonia, but there is an army of heuchera, tiarella, and hosta awaiting the ‘all clear’ signal on the construction front (which commences tomorrow and will last about a week).

My own contribution to this effort is the building of a stone wall.  It is roughly fifty feet long and rises to a maximum height of about three feet.  Every stone came from the property; a remnant of that ‘builder’s crud’ we removed.  It will soon be the backdrop of a perennial border.

June 15, 2015

The Summer Garden Tour

In 1848, a farmhouse was built in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a farming community a few miles outside of Boston.  Around the time of the farmhouse’ construction, a black walnut tree was planted twenty feet or so from the home’s front door.

The black walnut tree
That tree would see a lot of history.  West Roxbury would secede from Roxbury in 1851 and West Roxbury would be annexed by Boston in 1874.  With the annexation would come new roads and streetcar lines.  The farm would be subdivided and re-subdivided until it consisted of only a grand house and a barn (converted to a garage) on a short street called Grayfield Avenue.

The black walnut, though, remained.  It grew until it both towered over and covered the house and, indeed the entire front of the property.  Successive owners came to realize they were stewards of a piece of Boston history.

Christie Dustman does an impromptu
horticultural lecture at a garden on
the West Roxbury Garden Tour
I was unaware of that tree’s existence, let alone its history, until this past weekend when I went on the West Roxbury Garden Tour; a fundraising event sponsored by the Evening Garden Club of West Roxbury.  Because I had a ticket for the tour, I had the opportunity to chat with David Godkin, the home’s owner for the past quarter century, who went on at length about the tree’s maintenance.  I learned that black walnuts are finicky trees, given to dropping branches (and walnuts).  A tree of its size and age requires cables to stabilize branches.  I suspect being a steward of a piece of history is an expensive proposition.

The house on Grayfield Avenue was just one of ten properties on view that weekend and, indeed, the West Roxbury Garden Tour was one of several in the Boston area competing for attention.  Betty and I also journeyed to the South Shore town of Pembroke for a garden tour the next day (more about that in a few moments).

A garden tour is an invitation
to poke around
Garden tours are a wonderful thing.  They are invitations to poke around and ask questions.  Docents (or, better yet, the home’s owners) provide the unabridged answers.  Sometimes, you don’t even have to ask questions.  At a second property on the West Roxbury tour, Christie Dustman, who had designed the garden (a professional, in this case) was offering a hands-on seminar about the things that made the garden special.  She used a knife to slice off a branch from a hedge and challenged a crowd to identify the unusual shrub used (it was a longstalk holly, ilex pedunculosa).  She also showed how the growth of ornamental pines were managed by manually truncating the ‘candles’ produced by the pines each year.

The century-old Kentucky
Most people go to garden tours to see flowers; we kept encountering glorious trees that stole the show.  In addition to the black walnut, a home on Montview Avenue featured a century old cladrastis Kentuckea – the Kentucky Yellowwood.  Yellowwoods are magnificent, tall trees anytime of the year, but in late May and early June, they produce a prodigious display of white flowers that stops you in your tracks.  Moreover, while the tree can produce flowers every year, the display is stronger in alternating years.  The yellowwood gracing the home was just past its peak flowering cycle, but the shape of the tree – massive and gnarled yet still as grand and proud as any tree in its prime – was a ‘teachable moment’ in horticulture.

West Roxbury featured gardens on small lots; a quarter acre is considered ‘huge’ within the Boston city limits.  On Sunday we ventured out to Pembroke where the Mattakeesett Garden Club was hosting its second annual tour.  Pembroke is 30 miles from the center of Boston and lots can range into multiple acres. 
An antique house on Brick Kiln Road was the site of both history and an expansive, meandering garden that showed care, imagination, and proof that vegetables can be an integral part of landscaping.  There were no fewer than half a dozen sites where vegetables had been tucked into unsuspecting sites, including adjacent to a swimming pool.  But perhaps the biggest surprise came when the homeowner insisted on showing us the interior of a shed.
The shed, as it turned out, was older than the house and was originally part of a shipyard that once sat on the property (itself on the meandering and historic North River).  Inside the shed was a piece of shipbuilding history – an intact lathe from the eighteenth century that was used to turn out the intricate wooden parts for the sailing ships built at the shipyard.  It was the most unexpected encounter I’ve ever had on a garden tour, and one that will stay with me for a very long time.
Garden tours are fun events; a great way to spend an afternoon with a mix of adventure and education.  They’re also important ways that garden club raise funds for civic beautification and educational programs.  Over the next month in eastern Massachusetts and on Cape Cod, there are garden tours in Sharon, Kingston, Dennis, Salem, Gloucester, and Osterville.  (I suspect that a Google search would produce an avalanche of tours in every state).  You can get full information on the Massachusetts tours at http://gcfm.org/Calendar-News/Calendar.aspx. 

Of special note, in the Berkshires, the Lenox Garden Club will hold its biennial “Hidden Treasurers of the Berkshires” tour on July 11.  I wrote their last tour here.  This is the Queen Mother of garden tours and while it is "only" six gardens, they are always spectacular.  This year's tour takes place in and around Stockbridge.  You can get information about and tickets for the tour at http://www.lenoxgardenclub.net.
If I were to pick one “don’t miss tour” though, it would be the July 11 Generous Gardeners tour of Annisquam.  Located on a peninsula within the town of Gloucester on Cape Ann, Annisquam is a stunningly beautiful village that meets everyone’s vision of the idealized New England coastal town.  Generous Gardeners, in turn, is an amazing philanthropic organization that exists to raise money for worthwhile horticultural projects.  You can get full details about the tour at http://www.gloucestergardentour.org/.

June 3, 2015

Three Down, Eight or Nine to Go....

For the past few weeks, there has seldom been a day when there has not been a copy of William Cullina’s ‘Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines’ or the American Horticultural Society’s ‘Northeast Smartgarden Regional Guide’ open on Betty’s desk.  Alongside those two tomes have been catalogs from several area nurseries.

It isn’t that Betty is expecting to find some heretofore unknown specimen of maple or oak lurking within those books.  Rather, she is looking for roughly a dozen very special trees. Specifically, native trees that will serve as the anchors for a brand new landscape.  The books are akin to audition tapes; a means of winnowing hundreds of candidates down to a few finalists.

Our oxydendrum will have flowers
on distinctive white panticles
We are starting with a blank canvas at our new home.  In the past two weeks we have carted away hundreds of cubic yards of rock and dirt officially classified by the University of Massachusetts Soil Laboratory as incapable of supporting plant life, and replaced it with eighteen inches of organics-rich screened loam.  We topped that loam with several inches of mulch, which now awaits a garden.

The garden is being designed to combine beauty with ecological sensitivity and low maintenance.  “Ecological sensitivity” translates to a strong emphasis on native trees and shrubs that will support the local population of birds and insects.  “Low maintenance” means exactly that: a garden that, once in place, doesn’t require long hours of maintenance to keep it looking attractive. 

This is amalanchier
'Autumn Brilliance'
The trees are the anchors.  There will likely be eleven or twelve of them.  On a recent weekday, we rode with senior horticulturalist Henry Schmidt of Weston Nurseries around their ‘back lot’, looking for the trees on Betty’s list.  The first tree we spotted was an oxydendrum, sometimes called a sourwood tree.  It’s a tree native to the northeast that is seldom seen, and that’s a shame.  An oxydendrum produces white flowers on long, distinctive panticles in midsummer; those panticles remain in place even as the leaves turn a vivid red in fall.  The tree before us was a magnificent specimen, standing nearly twelve feet tall.

Deep in the tree holding area, Henry stopped in from of a group of cornus florida.  Flowering dogwoods can be found everywhere in New England, but most of the dogwoods we see are the Asian kousa varieties, and Massachusetts is considered the northern limit of the native variety. Betty specified one that was not only native but with pink bracts or petals. We found a perfect specimen, more than ten feet tall, and it was duly tagged.  The third tree on the list was an amelanchier, or shadbush.  We spotted a multi-stemmed clumping version of this beautiful ornamental tree that feeds early pollinators, then the birds, and finally turns a rainbow of colors in the autumn. 

Two days later, we returned to the nursery with a borrowed pickup truck and our three purchases were effortlessly loaded by a guy driving a nifty machine that functioned like a giant hand.  The ‘hand’ picked up the tree, tilted it just so, and placed it in the truck.  We got them home.  So far, so good.

Here are first trees planted, our
oxydendrum and cornus florida
The problem was getting them off of the truck.  In the past, we’ve purchased much smaller trees.  If their root balls were wrapped in burlap, the width of the ball was usually a foot to eighteen inches.  These three trees, by contrast, had root balls two feet wide or even larger.  Moreover, they were wet.  I tried lifting one.  It would not budge.

After ten minutes of flailing and grunting, Betty grudgingly allowed me to go across the street to where our neighbors – a family roughly half our age – were entertaining some muscle-bound friends.  It turns out they had been watching our travails and were discussing whether to offer their assistance unprompted.  They were pleased to be asked to pitch in.  Even so, it took three of us to get the trees to their planned planting sites.  Had it not been for their intercession, those trees would likely still be on the truck.

Digging holes for the trees was another revelation.  Current theory says that you should dig “a saucer, not a teacup”.  Once upon a time, you dug a hole slightly larger than the root ball, lowered the tree into the hole, and filled the hole with enriched soil and water.  The problem with that practice was that the tree roots would get to the edge of that rich soil, encounter the lesser-quality surrounding stuff, and decide to stay put; resulting in a stunted tree with a poor root system.

Hence the saucer, which provides the tree with ample room to stretch out its roots.  The problem is that it require removing two to three times as much soil as the “saucer” technique.  The hole for each tree required up to an hour of digging, despite all that new loam.

But the trees are in.  They all stand up straight and face in the correct direction.  My one piece of advice to all assistant tree planters reading this is to always make certain that the Chief Tree Planter has specifically signed off on the tree direction, even at the risk of annoying the Chief Tree Planter by asking that unseemly question, “Are you sure?”  The alternative is trying to wrestle a tree’s root ball in a morass of mud; an exercise that can result in the uttering of many Bad Words.

And, did I mention that out expedition produced three trees?  And that there are eight or nine more to be located?  It’s going to be a long June….

May 27, 2015

Just Add Plants

Our new home respects the
wetlands that make up
two-thirds of the property
The evening before the beginning of The Great Replacement, Betty and I walked our property with Scott Dolan, a Medfield-based landscaper.  Using orange paint we marked the placement of a patio, sidewalk and stone wall. We discussed grade levels and ideal pitch; and how to ensure that we did not injure the wetlands behind our home.

We also marked where crushed rock drains would obviate the need for gutters in front of the house, and where a berm would be created to provide a measure of privacy from the street.  At the end of an hour, we all understood the exact scope of the work ahead of us.

Below the builder's crud
on the surface was more
of the same
Then, on Wednesday, May 20, a convoy of trucks, bulldozers and backhoes descended on 26 Pine Street and began The Great Replacement.  The goal: make a little over 10,000 square feet of land suitable for creating a garden.

Our new garden is being created from a blank slate.  The house that previously stood on the site was beyond repair; we had it torn down.  There was no garden.  The lot was densely wooded with end-of-life white pines.  Underneath those pines were a morass of invasive burning bush.  Surrounding the burning bush were sweeps of horrific black swallowwort. 

We excavated down 18 inches,
removing more than 900 cubic yards
of detritus...
More than forty pines became board lumber and mulch; the invasive detritus was stripped away.  A barrier was erected between the buildable portion of the property and an acre-plus of wetlands behind it.  A home rose on the site. 

Material from the digging of the basement, coupled with other fill, was used to form the open area around the house.  But the already rocky fill was continually compressed by trucks and cranes.  Over the winter, it hardened into something with the consistency of concrete. Our attempts to dig even small holes were exercises in frustration.  What was needed was a major-league do-over.  Hence Scott Dolan and his armada of yellow Caterpillar equipment. 

... replacing it with screened loam. 
Note the laser depth measurement tool
It takes a very good landscaper to accept a project like ours, much less to do it with enthusiasm.  For somebody in the business, the real money in landscaping is in creating extravagant ‘hardscapes’ that dazzle visitors and homeowners alike and, after that, in the continuing maintenance of lawns and shrubs.  Our project, on the other hand, was a one-time, low-margin deal.  But it was a monumental undertaking:  scrape out the top eighteen inches of crud on those 10,000 square feet, haul it away, and replace it with a like amount of screened loam. 

* * * * *

At the same time, we prepped for
the installation of a sidewalk...
Though the work was being done by Scott’s crew, I was on hand that first morning to rescue large rocks for the to-be-built stone wall, darting in between each scoop to pick up ones of a usable size and shape.  Each scoop revealed what we already suspected: beneath the ‘builder’s crud’ on the surface of our new home’s land was more crud.  The mix was more than 50% rock to soil.

What was interesting, though, was that further down – below the original grade – was a mixture of soil and river gravel.  At one time, our property had likely been part of a river bed.  Once the crud was gone, we would have great drainage.

We also created
a drainage network
Using laser-guided measuring tools, backhoes removed those useless top eighteen inches.  A lineup of trucks hauled it away to a construction project in another town that needed fill (just as much of our ‘crud’ had its origins from another excavation).

Even as the digging-out process continued in the front of the property, trucks began bringing in screened loam to the back.  Our loam came from a farm in a nearby town that has been sold and will soon begin to sprout homes.  We spot checked the loam as it came in:  it was rock-free and rich in organics.  This was the beginning of a great garden.

We topped the newly installed loam
with several inches of dark brown mulch
It took three days to replace those top eighteen inches.  A portion of that third day was devoted to making the property ready for a sidewalk, a patio, and a proper porous stone driveway (there will be no asphalt on the site).  A re-processed concrete material forms the base of the patio and sidewalk.  It was tamped into a hard-pack surface.  At dusk on Friday, Scott’s part of the job was done.

Now, all we have to do is
add several thousand plants...
Betty’s and my part of the job was just beginning.  On Saturday morning, a massive truck delivered twenty cubic yards of dark brown mulch.  As this is written we are still spreading it over the new loam.  The purpose is to prevent the soil from blowing and to retain the soil's moisture.  Twenty yards will not be sufficient to cover all the areas.

Also on Saturday, we went window shopping (or its open-air equivalent) for stone for the sidewalk and patio.  I had gone into the process with a fairly narrow view of what would be acceptable for those two elements of our hardscape.  My eyes were opened to a world of possibilities, including cleft Pennsylvania fieldstone, Sekonnet round stone, and a host of names that overwhelmed me with new choices.  All I can say is that ‘bluestone’ has a lot of competition.

On Sunday, we started shopping for trees and shrubs.  But that’s another story. 

May 4, 2015

One Potato, Two Potato...

The landscaper didn’t bother to reach down and pick up a handful of dirt to assess its merits.  Not that he could have.  Instead, he just tried unsuccessfully to loosen a clod with his heel.  After three attempts he shook his head.

At our new home all we have
is 'builder's crud' - rock and
more rock
“I see this all the time,” he said.  “Builder’s crud.  There’s nothing you can do with it.”

Fifty feet away from where we were standing was a silent testament to the truth of his statement: a large pile of stones and a few square feet of brownish-gray ground where, a week earlier, I had used our ancient, wheezing rototiller.  Every few feet the rototiller would go ‘clunk’ as it struck more ‘potatoes’, as Rocks Of A Certain Size are known in the parlance of the landscaping industry.  Three hours with my EconoHorse convinced me this was not a do-it-yourself project.

He was not the first landscaper we contacted and he would not be the last.  We spoke with four in all, each one delivering the same message:  we have a very expensive problem on our hands.

The problem is that, at our new home, we want a garden, not a lawn.  If all we wanted was a lawn, ‘builder’s crud’ would be fine as a base.  Just add six inches of top soil and spray on grass seed.  If we wanted a lawn with a few trees, we need only whack a hole through the rocks with a pickax and add a little compost.

Digging a simple foot-deep
trench to lay an electrical
line produced this much rock
When we explained that there would be no grass on the property, the landscapers’ mouths would form a little ‘oh’.  That’s when kicking the ground would begin.

The solution was a variant on this:  dig out the top eighteen inches of crud.  Truck it off or use it to create berms, walls, and other topographical features on the property.  Next, bring in two feet of good, screened loam, plus peat moss, plus compost.  Top it off with mulch. Then, plant anything you want.

How much loam will it take to create this garden?  Let’s do the math:  Let’s say the property has 120 front feet and all but ten feet of that width (the driveway) will be garden.  The house is set back 75 feet from the street.  So, the front garden is 8,250 square feet.  Multiply that by two feet of loam for a requirement of 16,500 cubic feet of loam.  Translate that into cubic yards: 611.

Our garden on Wild Holly
Lane was beautiful, but
required a lot of work
And that’s the front part of the property. There’s also the back and the side, though it is a little less daunting in size.  Does anyone want to venture a guess as to the cost of a cubic yard of screened loam?

As one of the landscapers delicately put it, “the cost of my crew for three or four days will be a minor component of this job.”

So, why are we doing this?  The reason is simple.  Over a period of sixteen years, Betty created a stunningly beautiful garden at our home on Wild Holly Lane.  We opened it for the Garden Conservancy among other charitable organizations, and the Wall Street Journal did a very nice piece on it.  But the garden ultimately became a maintenance burden.  The new garden will retain the beauty of Wild Holly Lane while making low maintenance a key factor in the choice of plant material and overall design.  It will emphasize (though not be limited to) native plants, and will put into practice all of the things that Betty has emphasized in her garden talks and writing.

My job will continue to be to move rocks and dig holes.  The ‘builder’s crud’, I’m leaving to the experts with their heavy machinery.

April 8, 2015

Tabula Rasa

What on earth have I gotten myself into?

Back at our old home, the snow is quickly melting off the lawn and gardens, revealing grass that awaits only a light raking to spring to new life.  Daffodils, warmed by the house’s foundation, are heading up for a mid-April bloom.  The buds, too, are swelling on hundreds of mature flowering trees and shrubs.

The house is finished, but now it
needs a garden....
This morning, I gazed out the window of our new home where, also, the snow is receding.  But what is revealed is… mud.  Nothing but mud.  Gray mud that last fall was compressed into the consistency of concrete by trucks, trailers and cranes parked for weeks at a time.

This is the site of our new garden. 

 Let us backtrack a few months.  Last year we found the ideal location for the home we plan to reside in until we are carried out, feet first.  It was a wonderful site but sitting on it was a dilapidated house.  Around that house was a forest of aging pines, a thicket of invasive barberry and burning bush, plus a lush garden of poisonous black swallowwort.

We had the house torn down and a wide area of trees and undergrowth removed.  Betty began planning a low-maintenance garden.  Then winter set in and our gardening plans were played in abeyance.

Now, we are ready to begin turning that tabula rasa into a garden, or at least begin gardening when the ground thaws.

To turn that concrete-like dirt into gardening soil we have a rototiller.  AARP just sent it a membership application.  We purchased our Troy-Bilt EconoHorse in 1980 and used it happily for ten years.  Then we moved and then moved again, taking along our rototiller because it had served us so well and we expected that one day we would use it again.  The last time either one of us can definitively remember using it was during the Clinton administration.

Our circa 1980 rototiller
Two weeks ago we hauled our rototiller to the place that has kept our snow blower running for a decade and asked whether the EconoHorse could be saved or should it be put down.  A group of employees gathered around it and gazed, awestruck that such a machine could still exist and not have been reduced to rust.  A technician gave a tentative pull on the engine and said there was hope. 

Three days ago our aging rototiller came home, renewed with a host of sparkling new belts, hoses, and other parts, and ready to do its best.

But while the machine is the same, the man behind that TroyBilt is not the same guy who, in 1980, created a 50 by 200 foot garden in a single weekend of sweaty, muscular grit and determination.  That was more than half a lifetime ago.  He is 35 years older and those muscles, while they have exactly atrophied, aren’t what they were once upon a time.

And, tilling that dirt is just the first step toward turning it into soil.  There needs to be truckloads of compost worked into it plus whatever else a soil test tells us it needs.  Then, there are dozens of shrubs to plant, grasses and perennials to place, and paths to create.

Like I wrote at the beginning of this essay, what have I gotten myself into?

We do these things out of love.  We also do these things because we want to prove to ourselves that we still possess the stamina to carry out a major project that is long on physical effort.  Mostly, we do these things because we want to be able to say that we had a hand in creating something beautiful.  But, all the same, get ready to pass the Advil.

February 10, 2015

It's Winter, and I'm Content

Let me admit this at the outset:  I did not see snow until I was twenty years old.  In fact, on that first occasion, in December 1969, I drove 200 miles from Gainesville, Florida to Augusta, Georgia for the sole purpose of seeing genuine flakes of the stuff falling from the sky.

February 1960.  No snow.  That's me
standing in the center.
My Florida upbringing notwithstanding, I have seen a lot of snow since.  A little over two years after that first encounter, I was ensconced in what I genuinely believed was the Snow Capital of the World: Schenectady, New York.  There, it is said, the snow never melts.  Instead, by June, enough soot collects on the top of the snow to support grass and flowers for a few months.

I have been in one snow mecca or another ever since, including a total of 25 years in the Boston area.  In short, despite a late start, I believe I have paid my snow dues. 

This latest round of snow - Marcus -
brings the 30-day snow total to
more than 60 inches
My wife, Betty, on the other hand, is from the upstate New York snow belt.  She has childhood tales of reaching out her second floor window to make snowballs from the lake-effect-fueled drifts.  Her definition of a ‘white Christmas’ is that it must actually be snowing on the morning of December 25.  I bow to the truth that she was shoveling snow as a child while I refused to go in swimming because the ocean temperatures at Miami Beach had dipped to a nippy 75 degrees.

For nine months of the year, our disparate upbringings have no bearing on our life together.  But when the snow starts falling heavily, my wife reverts to the fervent belief that I came to New England on the back of a mango truck sometime in the last few months.  When it comes to snow removal at our home, she is the boss and I am there mostly for comic relief.

Betty is the master of the snow blower
There is one final element of this story that needs to be told:  for the past fifteen years we have lived in a home with a winding, 220-foor-long driveway.  At the top of that driveway is a three-car garage that – likely as an architectural version of a practical joke – faces the street rather than ‘loading’ from the side.  All snow needs to be pulled away from the garage; not pushed past it.  Add an area for backing in, and you are talking about a little over 3000 square feet of asphalt that must be cleared each and every snowfall. 

And, there is a ‘part two’ of that final element:  along the driveway and close to the house are glorious beds of plants and trees that should never have excessive snow piled on them.  Plus a sidewalk.  And some pathways that lead to things like our compost bin and side door into the garage. 

A truck wielding a snow plow is impractical (those front-facing garage doors leave no ‘terminus’ to push the stuff).  Thus, there are no easy solutions when you are serious about not damaging a garden.  This is ‘retail’ snow removal, not ‘wholesale’.

All of this is manageable if the snowfall amounts to a few inches.  Using a ‘pusher’, I move the snow beyond what we call the ‘no throw’ zone, and we then shovel or use a snow blower to throw the stuff onto the lawn or into the woods.  Piece of cake.

My job is to keep the edges crisp
and even
The relentless series of storms that have encompassed New England for the past month had dropped more than 70 inches of the white stuff on our town.  That volume of snow calls for extraordinary measures and Betty devises the battle plan because she is the one who designed these gardens.  And so she commands the Ariens snow blower with its 20-inch-high maw and wide augur.  My job… is to clean up the edges and do any heavy lifting required.

I will be the first to admit that she does an extraordinary job of it.  The remnants of storms Juno, Linus and, now, Marcus, have been dealt with not just efficiently, but with an eye to managing snow melt if and when things warm up.  I will also acknowledge that I could not have done nearly as well.

In the meantime, though, my work on the edges is crisp and even.  I do have my pride.

Snow removal is supposed to be ‘guy’ stuff.  Our next-door neighbor has a tractor-cum-snow blower that is the envy of every guy on the street.  He can clear his driveway (with its side-loading garage) in half an hour, then do wheelies out in the street. 

It takes us considerably longer but, tomorrow morning, our driveway will be down to black pavement while all of our neighbors drive on a thin coat of ice.  Moreover, our mailbox is readily accessible to our carrier despite being ground zero for an entire street’s worth of snow.

No, I didn’t just arrive here from the land of the tropics.  Sometimes, though, you have to acknowledge that someone else has a ‘better idea’ of how to do these things.  Is it a product of being snow-belt born and bred?  I don’t know. 

I just do what I’m told.  But, in the back of my mind, I known darn good and well that I can husk a coconut ten times as fast as Betty any day of the week.