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.