A Landscape For A Gardener : Part 2: The Dirt

DSC_5410By the final months of 2013, the sidewalk was nearing completion, the driveway base got poured, the curving front courtyard wall and pillars for the cast iron fence were complete. The iron work-yet to come. At least we were past the point of contractors parking in the front yard.  It is next to impossible to convey to an electrician that the weight of his vehicle damages the structure and drainage capacity of  soil.  We just breathe a sigh of relief when they are finished and gone.  The ground that has been driven over for years had become much like a parking lot, only paved with dirt.  To make matters worse, our area is noted for its heavy clay soil.  This project involved lots of hand digging to reintroduce oxygen to the soil, and the addition of compost to leaven the clay.

June 24 2014 (36)The soil would need grading to the levels established by the house, drive, walk and terraces. This part of the landscape installation takes the most time.  Once the soil is graded, a good rain will tell if there are any non-draining areas.  Once plants are in the ground, they cover over any water that may be sitting on top of the soil. It is vastly easier to spot drainage problems in this stage.  Eventually the iron fencing got installed, all but one panel.  We needed access to the yard with a machine, and tools.  The new blue stone sidewalk was for foot traffic only-and certainly not our feet.

June 24 2014 (37)It is such a relief to get to the dirt stage. I like moving soil around, marking bed lines, and preparing beds to be planted. It is a sure sign of progress.  On the subject of soil for woody plants, I am a member of the do not disturb camp.  Years ago I would dig holes for every tree and shrub at least 3 times bigger than the size of the root ball.  Once the shrub was planted, I would back fill the hole with soil concocted in the wheelbarrow.  Topsoil, sand peat moss, compost, and worm castings were blended to make the soil of my dreams.

June 24 2014 (35)Years later, a study from Michigan State disputed the wisdom of planting a tree in soil which was anything other than existing soil.  Once the roots reached the end of the heavenly soil, the shock of the native soil could set the tree back for years.  This only makes sense.  A root ball needs to be set on firm ground-not new soil.  This makes sense too.  New soil is full of air.  A tree that sinks below grade is a tree that will have problems.  I choose plants that thrive not only in my hardiness zone, but in my soil.  I caution clients who insist on having rhododendrons.  They look great in full bloom at nurseries here in the spring, but I am quite sure none of those plants are Michigan grown.  Though there are neighborhoods nearby with giant and thriving rhododendrons, that is not the norm.

The Plants (25)Last fall, we did purchase 8 large katsura espaliers for this project. When it became clear that there would be no movement on the landscape until this spring, we heeled those trees in at our nursery yard.  We did plant them while we were grading and preparing beds.  The root balls measured almost 40 inches across, meaning the trees were very heavy, and difficult to handle. I was interested to make the move before they began to leaf out, in the interest of less stress for both the trees and my crew over the transplant.  This particular spot on the lot line was well above the grade of the neighboring property.  A very low retaining wall, not visible in this picture, was built to keep the soil in place.  The large solid balls of the katsuras proved to be a help maintaining the grade we needed.

June 24 2014 (34)Once the grade was established, all of the beds to be landscaped were edged in aluminum edger strip. This insures the integrity of the bed lines, and more importantly, it keeps the lawn grass out of the borders.  A landscape within reasonable maintenance limits is a landscape every client appreciates.  Edging beds is not only a skill, it is a whomping lot of work.  A landscape bed with sloppy edges has a sloppy look.  Crisp edges and mowed grass can make the most weed stricken garden look better.  An existing Japanese maple that had survived the construction was protected from the grade change with a stone well.

June 24 2014 (33)Areas which would be planted with perennial material are treated differently than those for trees and shrubs. A tree which is properly sited for zone, existing soil and light will, given a little care, take hold and thrive. There will be no deadheading, or dividing.  With any luck, that thriving will go on for many years.    If you count out horseradish, and some of the big growing grasses, most perennials do not put down roots that deep.  But I do like 16 inches of decent well drained soil, if I can get it. A garden grown on sand is easily to establish, and the devil to keep year after year.  The gardens to be planted on this heavy clay soil may take some doing.  More than likely, we will loose some plants.  But once established, and top dressed every year with compost or ground hardwood bark, a garden in heavy soil will have a long and happy life.

June 24 2014 (24)Establishing the proper grade in the back yard took some finesse. Of course, matching the new grade to the old would be ideal.  But the new house and walks have created drainage issues which never existed before.  The most likely spot for water to pool is dead ahead.  The contractor had run several large storm drains to exactly this spot.  The last part of the grading would be to lower the grade from the stone walk yet to come to the pond.  The big idea here was to plan for surface water to have an unobstructed path to the pond.  What could be better than keeping the level of the pond up with rain water?

DSC_2107We were ready for plants.


There is no other word for it-my world is drenched.  We have had steady rain 4 days out of every seven the last few weeks. We may have as much as 2 inches of rain before this day is over. No doubt this is wreaking havoc with the fall landscaping season.  Too wet to plough describes the situation  perfectly.  Soil that is sopping wet is too wet to work-unless your idea is to make clay pots. Clay mixed with water, and wedged until there is not one molecule of air left inside-perfect for making pots, but  terrible for planting.  The property has been driven over by all manner of trucks and equipment necessary to the building phase.

The compaction of soil by machines makes for a most inhospitable home for plants.  The roots of plants need oxygen.  Just walking on drenched soil is enough to squeeze all of the air out of it.  In the spring, I am really careful not to walk the garden until the winter snow and ice has drained out of the soil.  Any plant placed in heavy wet soil that has been compacted by footsteps or machinery will have a tougher time getting established.

That said, I have a project that needs a lot from me before the season closes for the winter.  As with many projects in a garden, the waiting can take just as much time as the work.  This project may be on hold for 3 or 4 days.  Judging from the look of the rain soaked land,  friable soil is a good many days away.

I need to finish grade this property before I can even think about planting. Sculpting soil, whether with a bulldozer or a grading rake is the foundation upon which the landscape will be built. It is very tough to sculpt soup.  Our first move with this new landscape-planting 12 six inch caliper Bowhall maples.  We bulldozed 2o yards of mud out of the area, to get down to dryer and more stable soil.  Setting big trees at the proper grade is critical to their survival.

 It does not matter if it is a big or a small landscape project, any installation needs to be staged.  This comes first, this comes next, this comes in the middle-and that comes last.  These giant trees needed lots of working space, and a big machine to get them planted.  There is one more tree to go in the ground.  Once it is planted, we will be able to work our way out from this end of the yard to the street.

I need for Scott from Albaugh Masonry to cover all of the porches and terraces with bluestone-he will need to move stone via loader to wherever he needs it.  He did get a large planter box blocked up; we have already planted it with five katsura espaliers.  The box will be finished in the same stone as the exterior of the house.  He has also blocked in some short walls with pillars that will be capped in limestone.  This will give the drivecourt a sense of enclosure.    I am used to this-a new house landscape means that my work comes last-in whatever days are leftover. The finishing touches on this part of the landscape I do not expect to accomplish until spring. 

I do hope for a much drier and companionable November.  I may get that-I may not.  We have had years when the ground froze solid in mid November-this makes me wince, just to write about it.  So many things in the landscape revolve around a situation over which I have no control. 

       Steady fall rains are not all bad.  My dogwoods set their flower buds in the fall-regular rain encourages a heavy spring yield. All three of my kousas are loaded with buds now.

Evergreens photosynthesize all winter long, on what energy they have on reserve from the fall.  Before the ground freezes, any evergreen greatly benefits from regular rain-even if that rain comes from the end of your hose.  Rain-whether there is lots, or a little, or enough, or none-the garden revolves around it.  I am happy to report that all of my tulips are in the ground, and getting a thorough soaking.  Were I to step on this gound now, I am sure I would be over my ankles in mud.  I am hoping for drier weather, soon.