Gravel In The Garden

I have no idea what type of stone this antique English millstone was carved from, but I can attest to the fact that our skid steer could barely lift it. I averted my eyes when I saw the front tires of our loader leave the ground. Stone is incredibly dense, and heavy. If this millstone is granite, you can be sure that the carving process for this solid mass of stone was lengthy and exhausting. Stone is a treasured material in the landscape, as it is a natural material that takes just about forever to degrade. Its surfaces age beautifully. Crushed stone, including crushed granite, is a material much easier to handle and place, and is commonly known as gravel. These small shards of stone have endless applications in the garden, not the least of which involve the base and the top layer for a driveway. A giant granite millstone takes a machine and many people to move. Crushed granite can be dumped and  shoveled around wherever you need a hard surface. We have been shoveling.

Our decomposed granite display space and driveway is 24 years old. It has been subject to all manner of insults over the years, not the least of which is a near daily dose of heavy trucks going in and out. Add to that dirt spills from countless container plantings. Our graveled spaces were due for replacement.  How so? Decomposed granite comes with fines. As in granite dust. Those fines help to interlock the very small shards of granite, and harden up the surface.  But over the years, the foot and vehicular traffic drive the small granite pieces down, and bring up the soil and fines from underneath. Our gravel had become a dust fest on dry days, and a mud fest on wet ones.  It was time to replace it. As in dig out the old soil and sand contaminated gravel, and replace it with new stone.

The linden trees adjacent to the building are 24 years old. There would be roots to respect. Buried under our degraded gravel were the electrical lines for the lighting in the trees. This meant that all of the old gravel had to be loosened and dug out by hand, one pick axe and flat shovel full at a time. This was a big job, requiring both of my crews. The photograph above clearly illustrates the new gravel, some 4 inches deep, on the right, and the degraded gravel driveway on the left due for excavation and some new stone.

Our original driveway, circa 1995, was concrete. We removed all of that, save a two track of concrete to the rear. We eventually removed all of the rest of that concrete, and replaced it with a large scale crushed granite. Those large stones proved difficult to navigate, even in sneakers. They made leveling a pot on a pedestal time consuming. Big rocks are not so easy to navigate or manipulate. Little rock is much more forgiving. Our next go around, we switched to decomposed granite, 3/8ths of an inch and down with fines.  This gravel looked like sand when it went down. This miniature gravel with fines put up with our traffic for a good many years. As usual, the more moderate decision – an in between sized crushed stone –  would have been better choice.  Not too large, and not too small. The 3/8 inch and down granite gravel eventually succumbed to our traffic. I am happy to say, we are getting our chance at installing a granite gravel of moderate size this week.

I have known for a long time that our gravel needed to be taken up, and replaced. Late last week a decision was made to go ahead. We are in between jobs. The weather has cooled off. It was time to jump on this project. I am so pleased with the first signs of the results. Though it has taken lots of work to remove every object from the surface to be redone, putting it all back together has been a pleasure. Luckily, we have a home for that dirt laden gravel at our landscape yard. So we excavate and stockpile the old gravel out front, unload and install the new gravel, pick up the old and dump it at our yard-on our way for the next load of fresh gravel. How do we know when it is level? It is our best guess. Based on many years of experience engineering flat spaces. We’ll know we are close to dead on when the driveway drains properly. The mini gravel had become so compacted that water sat on top.  It took hours to trickle water the trees. It is worth it to breach that compacted layer, so water readily gets to the tree roots.

Everything in the landscape needs refreshing. Perennials need dividing. Shrubs need pruning. Soil needs a routine shot of compost. The work of the landscape is never really done. A landscape or garden is either going backward, or going forward. There is no neutral in a garden.  Fortunately a job of this magnitude only comes around once in a blue moon, but the transformation is satisfying.

I would guess we have a week left for the finish.  We excavate down to the original base layer. On this side of the drive, the lion’s share of the gravel exchange is done by machine.  But all of the spreading and grading is done by hand.

The center portion of the driveway will be done last. It is hard to spot in this picture, but the crown of the drive is too high. That crown never gets driven over. Water now drains towards the front door. In a very heavy and fast paced rain, water goes under the door and inside. A new permeable gravel driveway will correct that problem.

The new gravel at the shop has a fresh and pleasing texture. It is too big to be tracked inside. It will take a while to interlock and compact, but the crushed granite will eventually provide a stable walking and placement surface. Thinking some gravel will do for a drive, terrace or walkway?  My advice is to evaluate the size of the stone that would be appropriate for your project.

This gravel driveway has a base layer of 21AA crushed limestone, and a 3″ top layer of the same medium crushed granite we are using at the shop. The drive is a firm surface that shows no evidence of vehicular traffic, yet is is permeable to rain.

gravel driveway

exposed aggregate concrete drive with graveled edges

For those who would rather not deal with the maintenance of gravel, an exposed aggregate concrete surface provides the look of without the maintenance required of a paving material that moves. Aggregate concrete is a several part process that requires a highly skilled installation.

This driveway was beautifully done, and should provide many years of maintenance free service.

gravel terrace with exposed aggregate detail

decomposed granite terrace contained by aluminum edger strip

flagstone walkway with decomposed granite joints

concrete paver squares set in decomposed granite

limestone pavers with medium crushed granite

dramatic, the difference. Interested further in rock sizes?  The link below has pictures and descriptions.

stone and gravel sizes

 

A Blast From The Past

Anyone familiar with my garden knows I am a fan of evergreen plants. That makes sense. I live in a gardening zone notorious for its lengthy off season. Not only are our winters long, but our early spring and late fall can also be cold and anything but green. So I grow yews, and arborvitae, and of course, boxwood. A landscape that has something to say all year round is a good landscape. I would say the signs of spring probably presented themselves seriously a week ago or so.  The maples in the tree lawn are dusted with their chartreuse blooms. The grass began greening up. The hydrangeas in the foreground of the picture about are just beginning to leaf out. My large concrete pots are more visually important now than they will be at any other time during the season. They are beautiful, just so. unplanted. But the front yard landscape at this moment is really all about the boxwood. It is green and robust in much the same way it has been all winter.

The boxwood is quick to shed its winter coloration, as are the arborvitae, yews, and the old spruce in the background of the above picture.  I never tire of any of the evergreens, as the weather from one event to the next changes their appearance. The surfaces of the evergreens shimmering with rain drops in the spring is as beautiful as those same surfaces hatted by leaves in the fall, and snow in the winter. They are a crucial part of my landscape.

The role they play is never easier to see than it is now.  I can walk between the pruned and leafless hydrangeas, and see what a prominent role they play in the landscape. And I can even more appreciate the longevity of that service. Most of my boxwood at least 15 years old.

But cultivating evergreens in very cold climates comes with a price. The street side of my boxwood paints a different picture.  Extremely cold and windy winters can damage them. It is important to water evergreens well before winter. Once the ground freezes, the roots will have no opportunity to absorb water again until spring. Needled evergreens present very little surface area to the elements. That structure helps them to naturally conserve moisture over the winter. Though boxwood leaves are small, they are much more broad and thin compared to evergreen needles.  Extremely cold and windy weather can can quickly desiccate the leaves. If you have ever had a cut boxwood wreath on your front door for the holidays, you are aware of how incredibly long cut boxwood branches stay green. The same is true for cut evergreen boughs, or Christmas trees. This damage I am seeing now occurred months ago. The return of the warmer weather is revealing the result of terribly cold weather we had the end of January.

The polar vortex which occurred in January of 2019 is again part of the conversation. The intense cold that gripped a significant portion of the northern midsection of the US set records for cold and wind chills in a number places. I do know what I was doing then. I stayed at home, and only let the dogs out for a few minutes at a time. It was the coldest recorded winter temperature event for Chicago in 25 years.

From Wikipedia   “In late January 2019, a severe cold wave caused by a weakened jet stream around the Arctic polar vortex[3] hit the Midwestern United States and Eastern Canada, killing at least 22 people.[1][2] It came after a winter storm brought up to 13 inches (33 cm) of snow in some regions from January 27–29, and brought the coldest temperatures in over 20 years to most locations in the affected region, including some all-time record lows.[1][4] In early February, the polar vortex moved west,[5] and became locked over Western Canada and the Western United States.[6] As a result, February 2019 was among the coldest and snowiest on record in these regions. In early March, the cold once again shifted east, breaking records in many areas.[7] In mid-March, the cold wave finally retreated, but combined with above-average temperatures, precipitation, and a deep snowpack, widespread flooding ensued in the Central US.” Yes, it was a vicious weather event.

The impact of that extremely cold weather is beginning to be seen. I was faint with surprise when I saw the entire top of this picea mucrunata was dead. If you look up the phrase  “top of my spruce is dead”, most articles cite winter winds and extreme cold first. I see no eveidence of disease or insect damage. Could the polar vortex be to blame?

Of course the time to think about safeguarding evergreens from winter damage is in the fall. I have never seen damage on the boxwood cultivar “Winter Gem”. I plant it extensively now. I rarely plant “Green Velvet” anymore, which is the cultivar I have at home. Thankfully it rarely gets any damage, as I live in a neighborhood where the wind is broken by multiple buildings that surround my landscape, and the sun is tempered by large trees. I have never seen winter damage on boxwood that has been sprayed to the dripping point with VaporGard in the fall. A dry day when the daytime temperature is above 50 produces optimum coverage. Later in the fall, a windbreak of burlap can help. I would have never thought to protect my spruce, but maybe I should. A last bit about the boxwood.  Given the extreme cold we have had in the past years, the price of boxwood has skyrocketed. Replacing my damaged boxwood will be very expensive. Hopefully I will remember this day come the fall.

On a positive note, the below freezing temperatures and snow forecast for this past weekend never materialized. I am pleased to report my magnolia stellata is still in full bloom.

How Long Will It Last?

How long will it last? This question applies to no end of various and not necessarily garden related situations. To follow are just a few of those topics. How long will these things last? A moss basket, a new refrigerator, a manicure, a bad cold, the flowers on the hellebores, a fancy bar of soap, a pair of boots, a power outage, the rain, the bloom on the coneflowers, a headache, – you get the idea. The duration of any situation is of interest to everyone. Sometimes a brief duration or quick finish is perfect. Other times, a finish taking years to achieve is a treasured goal. Gardeners do make decisions based on longevity. Why wouldn’t they? It is an individual decision. Peonies and asparagus are very long lived-foxglove not so long. For those gardeners who would not do without foxgloves, the investment in the short term is worthwhile, despite their ephemeral nature. I know gardeners who plant oak trees that are 10 inches tall. They are in it for the long run. Those gardeners who plant peonies and asparagus also understand the long view. Those of us who plant seasonal containers know their time is exactly that-one season.

An investment in container plantings is considerable-both in materials, and time. That interest represents a love for a season that is but 3 months long, but incredibly satisfying. Some gardeners plants lots of containers-others avoid that planting and maintenance in the same way they would avoid trouble. In my opinion, they are missing out on one of the best parts of summer gardening. But every gardener in charge gets to choose how they wish to garden. I support individual expression-it makes the gardening world interesting.  But for those of you who planted containers for summer, I have a little advice. Though our summer season is fading, I do believe that containers well maintained throughout the summer are good to represent on into the fall.  A late spell of very warm weather has kept my container plantings happy. To the last, they look great. How long my summer containers last is not strictly weather driven. How long they will last is not a question that has an obvious or definitive answer. Seasonal containers that get great care from the start have a much better chance to thrive long into the fall.

Dead heading annual flowers is part of what keeps annual plants blooming into the fall season.  Annual plants bloom, and move on to setting seed. If the dead flower heads are removed, annual plants will set more flower buds. Their mission is to set seed. Your mission is a summer full of flowers. A duel-how I love drama in the garden! Cutting off dead flower heads is a tedious job, but the time it takes means more flowers, and an extended blooming season. This argyranthemum “Pure White Butterfly, or marguerite, will bloom heavily all season long, provided it has some encouragement.

Cutting the flower head off at the top is not enough. The stem needs removing as well.  Once a stem has budded, bloomed, and matured, that stem will not bloom again. Leaving the stem means the plant will put energy into curing the that stem-energy that could better be spent on flower production.

I save my dead heading work for a time when I have time to do a thorough job of it. A month ago I fixed a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning, and went to work. I had no plans. No place to be. This was a perfect time to focus, and cut away dead blooms and stems. I was interested that this container that I had planted in the spring would bloom on into the fall.

The petunias that had been planted as a skirt in May got a serious shearing. The short spring flowering white daisies that faced down the white marguerites got replaced with the foliage plant commonly called “icicles”. All of this thorough chop, and tune up took place a month ago.

The 20th of September, my daisies look fresh and vigorous. They are thriving, given the care they have had all summer long. I would not advise planting marguerites in your summer containers if you are not able to keep up with their blooming cycle. But if you have a soft spot for daisies, this one will soldier on with a little regular help from you.

September 21, this basket that was planted the beginning of May looks good to me. The big idea is simple. Whatever you put in to a garden, what comes out will surely delight you.

 

 

 

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Spring Pruning

pear espaliered arbors (4)Every plant in the landscape will better realize its potential if it is kept properly pruned. A shrub that is kept pruned will respond by being densely twiggy-a strong branch structure is essential to good health. Plants that are pruned in such a way that every branch gets its fair share of light and air is a healthy plant. Every tree, shrub and perennial has its individual requirements.  I prune the hydrangeas after the buds swell in late March or April. I prune out the dead wood, and branches that cross over each other.  Branches that rub against each other may damage the bark – damaged bark is an invitation to insects and disease.  I prune each branch individually, so every shoot has its own light and air space. The forsythias and lilacs need to be pruned right after they flower, in a very natural and loose way that mimics their natural shape.

pear espaliered arbors (5)Very few plants tolerate close formal or shaped clipping. Boxwood and yews tolerate this better than other species. This results in a proliferation of growth at the ends of the branches.  Eventually the light and air is excluded from the interior of the shrub. I see lots of deciduous shrubs that have been sheared, resulting in a thin layer of green at the top, and bare branches below. Those shrubs will eventually have to be hard pruned in order to renovate them, or removed altogether. It is important to keep in mind that a pruning cut is a call to grow, and will produce a reaction.  The breaking of multiple new shoots is not uncommon from a single pruning cut.

pear espaliered arbors (6)Pruning to keep a shrub within the bounds of a confined space will fail sooner or later.  Planting shrubs or trees that will gracefully fit a space when mature is good planning. A tree planted within 3 feet of a sidewalk is a bad idea, unless that tree is a very dwarf or grafted form.  I prune most plants in the spring, although there are exceptions.  I prune maples late in the summer, and grapes in the winter. The roses and clematis have their own special routine. I prune boxwood after the first flush, so I don’t have to prune again later.  Pruning too late in the season is risky, and may expose a treasured plant to winter injury.

pear espaliered arbors (3)For those people who just love to prune, an espaliered tree is a perfect plant.  Espaliers are any tree pruned to lay flat, in two dimensions, against a wall. Trees pruned in this fashion, with proper support early on, make beautiful living free standing fences.  Some espaliers are pruned to assume a particular shape. They need a a sure and regular hand willing to prune. Some gardeners prune them to follow the shape of the arms, as trained.  Others prune them so all of the spaces between the arms fill in with a solid structure of branches. These pairs of keiffer pear espaliers have been grown, and pruned to assume an arch shape. Once a pear arbor is purchased, we fabricate a steel arbor matching the shape of the espalier which bolts together at the top.  The arms of the pear trees and tied to the steel arbor, which is installed on the underside of the trees, to maintain the shape.  We were fortunate enough to obtain 8 pear arbors.  All of them are gone now, and each required a little something different in terms of the steel support. An espalier pear arbor in full bloom is astonishing. It is a treasure, loaded with fruit, later in the summer.

pear espaliers (1)These espaliers had some pruning over this past winter that made me cringe.  The lower arms had the bark chewed off the arms, and shoots were clipped off by a very sharp set of teeth.  This malicious destruction of property-rabbits.  Cuts to a branch on a tree or shrub at a sharp angle indicates rabbit damage. We have never had this kind of devastating damage to our espaliers over the winter before.

pear espaliers (2)Nature has plenty of pruning agents which may or may not be to your liking.  Terrific wind storms, or ice storms can bring down dead or weak branches in trees and shrubs. Fierce weather can be an agent of pruning.  Keeping trees and shrubs properly pruned is your best defense against damage from natural causes. The rabbit damage to our espalier collection was considerable.  Only 12 of our trees were spared.  Next fall, we plan to put up a galvanized metal fence to protect the trees.

pear espaliered arbors (7)In the meantime, the pear trees responded to the rabbit pruning in exactly the same fashion as they have always responded to pruning.  They pushed out new growth. I was astonished to see buds emerging from old thick wood-although I should not have been. The will to live is very strong. Lots of life is lurking underneath that bark. The trees responded to this severe pruning by sending forth new shoots.  Should you ever fear that your pruning may damage a plant irreparably, take these pictures to heart.

pear tree sproutingThe scars of the rabbit damage to the bark will always be there. But the bare lower branches are already beginning to re leaf.

kieffer pear espalierPlants are amazingly tolerant of bad pruning.  What they don’t like is no pruning at all.  The best way to learn is to read, and then do.  The resulting shape and health of your shrubs will tell you if the job you have done is good, or needs a different direction. What a relief to see the new growths on these espaliers.