June 14, 2010

The Xeric Garden Hits its Stride

It would be easy to claim, with perfect 20/20 hindsight, that the Xeric Garden was always part of our master landscaping plan.  It would, however, be a fib.  The xeric garden began as a disgusted response to a six-foot by ten-foot patch of weeds where no grass would grow.  Betty hoed up the weeds and planted some catmint (nepeta) in the spot, flanked by some Joe Pye weed (eupatorium) that thrived in an equally inhospitable nearby spot.  The two cultivars grew happily despite searing, all-day sun and benign neglect.

Let's step back a pace or two.  Every lot that has a sidewalk also has an easement between the street and that sidewalk.  It may be two feet wide in an urban setting or it may be eight feet wide in a less dense suburb.  Most often, that easement is planted with grass, often augmented by utility poles (hence the 'easement' desciption).

The easement hides two irrevocable truths.  The first is that underneath a veneer of topsoil is all the crud that the builder needed to dispose of, whether five years ago or a hundred.  The second is that - at least in New England - the easement will collect snow pushed up from the street by plows during the winter, and that the snow will be laden with snow-melting chemical laid down in the early stages of the snow storm.  Those two truths combine to make easements inhospitable to anything except stuff highly tolerant of abuse - meaning weeds. 

Which is what led to that first experiment five years ago.  For the first five or six years we lived on Wild Holly Lane, we did everything possible to grow grass in the easement.  We seeded, transplanted, sodded and pampered the area, all to no avail.  In hindsight, it made no sense because, fifteen feet away, we were ripping out grass to continually expand our street-side shrub bed. 

When the first rectangular patch worked, we added a second, flanking bed, which also thrived.  That's when Betty came up with the idea of ripping out all 960 square feet of our easement and planting a Xeric garden - a bed of perennials that would thrive in an abused area and require no watering beyond what was needed to establish the area. 

It took two years to accomplish because the process involved not only ripping out the weeds, but the depleted topsoil as well.  The entire site was dug down to a depth of fifteen inches, from which was removed rocks of every imaginable size, cans, lengths of cable, plastic bottles, chunks of concrete and even remains of workmen's lunches.  What remained was primarily sand.  We then filled the trench with a mixture of compost and chopped leaves which we mixed with the sand.  A contractor with a backhoe could have accomplished all this in a day.  With just a shovel, it took a good bit longer.

The six accompanying photos (double-click on them to get a full-screen view) show the Xeric garden as it looked this morning, June 14.  I've walked around the beds (plural because it is bisected by the driveway) clockwise starting from the east.  In the top photo, the yellow flowering shrub is genista, which has a roughly three-week bloom in JuneThe grasses will send up plumes in August.  The daffodil greens in the foreground will be cut down in July as they yellow; the entire bed is heavily planted in spring bulbs.  The second photo picks up the bed at the nepeta in full bloom.  It is about to be severely trimmed back to give the variegated eupatorium between the two clusters time to grow and bloom in August.  In the foreground is one of the dozen or so sedem plantings that will enliven the fall, and just starting to grow is a bed of agastache that will start blooming in late August and still have its azure blue flower stalks into October.  Beyond the catmint is more eupatorium which, if the deer leave it alone, will bloom in August.

The third photo looks back east from the far end of the garden.  There is more genista, a baptisia 'Carolina Moonlight' that bloomed back in May, and a soft yellow achillea that just went into bloom last week and will be a highlight of the bed for the next month.  Hidden by the genista are a variety of perennials, including yellow gallardia which, once it starts blooming, doesn't stop until there's a hard freeze.  The fourth photo looks east across the driveway with yet another genista in the foreground, showing the sweep of the Xeric bed beyond.  As soon as this particular genista has finished blooming, it will be trimmed back to allow a Himalayan indigo to get more light for a late July-August bloom.

The fifth photo shows a quickly spreading and prolifically flowering delosperma, blue rug junipers and short grasses.  This is the most abused part of the bed as this is where snow from the driveway is deposited and where ice may endure until mid-April.  The sixth and final photo shows the plots of thyme that are now well established and growing quite well along - and into - the sidewalk.  There's a plan to extend the thyme border.

The Xeric garden attracts bees and butterflies, as well as lots of walkers.  Alas, none of our neighbors have evinced an interest in following our lead to creating a prettier - and more ecologically prudent - easement.

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