April 28, 2014

Clover and Violets and Squill, Oh My!

I still have my copy
from high school
“God bless the lawn mower, he thought. Who was the fool who made January first New Year’s Day? No, they should set a man to watch the grasses across a million Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa lawns and, on that morning when it was long enough for cutting… there should be a great swelling symphony of lawn mowers… People should throw grass spray at each other on the day that really represents the Beginning.”

In Ray Bradbury’s wonderful autobiographical novel, Dandelion Wine, a character opines that it is the year’s first mowing of the lawn that ought to represent the changing of the year, rather than some arbitrary day set down by the Romans two millennia ago. Sadly, it’s one of those impractical sentiments that doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny (were such a law enacted today, it would be 2014 in Georgia two months earlier than in Massachusetts, and California and Florida might be stuck in some twilight zone in which the year never changes).

In mid-April, we limed the lawn.
Soaking rains washed the lime into
the grass' roots.
Those obstacles aside, I have a soft spot for Bradbury’s view because, to me, there’s nothing like that first mowing to demonstrate that spring is unequivocally here to stay. Crocus and daffodils can be reduced to mush by a hard freeze. A late snow can turn the emergent leaves on a tree or shrub a dispiriting black. But when the grass – scratched into life with a spring rake and a dose of lime – gets to be three inches high, it means the new season has truly arrived.  The lime, by the way, is purely of the inexpensive crushed variety.  The notion of paying a premium for crushed limestone that has been clumped together with wood glue ("So that it won't blow in the wind") is anathema to both common sense and Yankee ingenuity.

I mow around the Scilla
We had our first mowing of the year this week. Instead of the typical quadrangles or up-and-down pattern of our neighbors (and their lawn services), we follow the sinuous contours of our perennial beds. It takes longer to mow such a pattern but the effect can be seen for a week afterwards: long swirls of repeating curves with the grass bent ever so slightly one way, then another in a yin-yang pattern that pleases the eye, especially from a second-story window.

Because our lawn is mixed with clover, we cannot (and choose not to) use the broad-leaf weed control products that are found on most lawns. Instead, as I mow, I am constantly on dandelion patrol. I carry a screwdriver in my back pocket and, when I find the tell-tale spiky leaves flat to the ground, I pounce and dig out the offending plant, root and all. I found perhaps two dozen dandelions that first mowing. They won’t be the last. Around here, dandelions rarely make it as far as a flower and never get to a seed head.

Dandelions are pulled out by hand
Taraxacum officinale, the botanical name for the dandelion (the common name is an Anglicization of the French dente-de-lion, or lion's tooth, so called because of the jagged shape of the leaf), is not allowed in the lawn. Yet, in addition to clover (encouraged and even overseeded), we tolerate violets (white and purple) so long as they don’t spread conspicuously, and we actively make room for an early spring wildflower, scilla siberica, which is attempting to colonize one corner of our lawn. Our tolerance for the scilla is such that I mow around the stems in order to ensure that adequate nutrition gets to the bulb for next spring’s bloom.

We converted to a cordless electric mower four years ago. It was as much a statement about my dislike of changing oil (and figuring out what to do with the gunk) as it was of ‘going green’. One overnight charge givers us the requisite power to mow the roughly 5,000 square feet of lawn than remain of the 10,000 square feet we inherited when we purchased this property in 1999.. The new mower makes a cheerful ‘hum’ rather than the clatter of its gasoline-powered cousin. I find I don’t miss the old one at all.

April 20, 2014

Uncovering the Rock Garden

We first viewed our home in Medfield fifteen years ago in February. A thick blanket of snow covered everything in sight and all was peaceful. All the snow had melted when we moved in on April 1, 1999. We realized the grim humor of an April Fools Day closing when we walked around to the back of the property that morning. The melting snow and intervening rains had gouged a series of Grand-Canyon-sized gullies, carrying everything in sight down the hill behind our property toward the pond we abutted.

One of the rock gardens,
looking down toward
Danielson Pond.
Thus began a civil engineering project that lasted five years and still requires periodic refinements. Several new downspouts were added to the inadequate number that had been installed with the house. A total of seven underground French drains were attached to those downspouts, allowing water to be carried a minimum of fifty feet from the house. Rock-lined trenches extended those drains into the surrounding woodlands.

The fifteen degree slope behind the house was deemed inherently unstable. After rejecting one contractor’s suggestion of a retaining wall, we set out to find a less ecologically intrusive solution. We wanted something that would hold the soil in place yet not interfere with our view of Danielson Pond. More important than just a view, Danielson Pond is part of a conservation district and watershed from which the town draws its drinking water.  Our goal was zero emissions - fertilizer, soil, plants - into that watershed.  We also wanted something that would provide visual interest from our back windows, deck and porch. We wanted something that would be low maintenance. We settled on a rock garden. And, as Meat Loaf opined, two out of three ain’t bad.

In its May and June glory,
the rock garden is awash
in color.
I was thinking of that history this weekend as we uncovered the rock garden from its winter slumber. There were just three, fair-sized rocks when we started. The rest – hundreds of one-, two-, and three-hundred pound stones - had to be brought in. There was little usable soil. Today it is rich and black with compost. The five gardens are interconnected by steps and paths, none of which existed fifteen years ago. The rock garden today is ninety feet long and forty feet deep at its apex. It contains more than a thousand bulbs, several dozen shrubs and more types of ground covers than I care to count.  We have added specimen trees: there is now a mature Cornelian cherry (cornus mas) anchoring one end of the garden, a blooming Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), and numerous rhododendron. 

These Siberian iris were in
bloom under the oak leaves.
Rock gardens attract oak leaves like a giant organic magnet. The top layer of leaves can be removed, gingerly, with a rake. The underlying leaves need to be removed by hand so as not to damage the plants, mosses, ground covers, low shrubs and emerging perennials that are showing green. Betty and I began on Saturday morning at nine. By three in the afternoon we had completed about seventy percent of the job. The balance was completed Sunday afternoon. Before it was over, I carried off three dozens bins of leaves to add to our overflowing compost piles.

The result of this labor is striking. On the Friday before we began uncovering the rock garden, the back of the property was a solid, undulating mass of brown. Even the basic contours of the garden were masked by the carpet of matted leaves. This morning, the rock garden is plainly visible, the intricate walls and terraces still in place despite a winter of frost heaves.  There were even surprises: blooming under the leaves were miniature iris and blue and yellow primrose.

An overview of rock gardens 1 and 2.
There is as of yet not a lot of green (the accompanying photos are from last May and June). A few of the ground covers retained their color over the winter but the true explosion of yellows, blues, and reds will come in May. And, this weekend was just the first of several forays into the rock garden.   Ferns have become too aggressive in one bed. And, there is a creeping ajuga that needs to be eradicated before it makes the leap from ‘nuisance’ to ‘serious problem’.
But those are issues for another weekend. For now, there is the contentment of a spring chore crossed off.