Every month Gardening Gone Wild features a design workshop on some subject or other. Garden bloggers are invited to share their ideas, write posts on the subject. They have carefully catalogued past workshops, and these posts can be a wonderful resource if you are thinking about a particular problem in your own garden. This month the Garden Blogger’s Design Workshop subject is “Covering the Ground.”
When Jim and I moved into this house, all there was was a bunch of ground that was covered with grass. Literally. Oh, there were elm trees around the house, there was a barn out back and a garden shed, but in essence this was a ranch house plopped into the middle of a hay field that the residents started mowing. (You can see some before and after photos at this post.) Being the sort of people we are, this state of events was not allowed to persist for long.
I’d like to focus on one particular area of the property which we have changed from a wasteland into a veritable Eden. This started out life as a particularly stressed part of the property, seeing as how it was overly shaded by our own elms and the trees on the neighbor’s property, and yet it was also very hot and dry because it sat on the west side of the house. The soil was particularly poor, as it was a spot where the ancient septic tank was emplaced, a fact that we were not aware of until it made itself known this winter. (Just a side note here, I believe that when you put things into the ground you should probably make a map of that that you can pass on to future owners so they don’t get to experience that sort of surprise. . .)
When we purchased the place, the side yard looked like this.
About ten years later, we really had done nothing to that area except to mow off the sad weeds that infested it grew there. Oh, down in the corner where it was shady I had started planting hostas and making stone edged beds, but there was nothing special happening. Then we had the big ice storm
We narrowly escaped having about half that tree go straight through the roof and into the back bedroom, master bedroom and bathroom. We realized that that elm tree was far too close to the house, and needed to “begone from there.” Instead of just having it taken down, we decided that it would make a splendid den tree for the wood peckers and other cavity nesters if we allowed it to rot gently. So we had it trimmed back severely and girdled it so it would die. Soon after that we discovered that the shade loving hostas in the corner were suffering severely from the loss of its shade, which was compounded by the fact that every other tree in the neighborhood had also lost 75% of its canopy. So Jim built a new pergola to shade the Hosta Dell.
We had already decided that we needed to do “something” back in that corner to make it more special, and since it had a rather barren aspect due to the poor dirt, and it also had a rather sharp slope down to the Hosta Dell, we would do some sort of rock garden back there. The flat area near the house was designated as the proper spot for a Japanese Rock Garden. At the same time we were studying up on the art of creating a Japanese rock garden, we also studied how to install a scree slope rock garden. One of the books I checked out from the library was “Landscaping with Stone” by Pat Sagui. I was also inspired by a rock garden I saw at the Minnesota State Arboretum.
I really liked the way it looked like a natural bluff, and aspired to create something similar at the Havens.
After a certain amount of studying, I began inventorying my rock collections, and having learned from previous messes snafus experiences, I actually made a plan for what I was going to do. We moved rock over to the building site, and I began planning out the flagstone path that would give me access to the garden, and eventually be the path to the front yard, assuming we ever get the proposed gate built.
The first thing I realized was that I needed to expand the Hosta Dell so the edges would line up with the gate. So I did that, and I laid out hoses to indicate the edge of the Scree Slope and began laying the flagstones.
I have found that when I am laying a stone path in an area where the underlying soil has not been disturbed, it is not really necessary to do all the excavating and sand underlayment of the rocks that the garden designers tell you you should do. So far, I have not had trouble with my rocks heaving or settling. I also have done so much of this sort of flagstone work that I pretty much figure out the step location by eye and intuition, but I do not recommend this method for a beginner. When working with such large flat pieces as this, where I am laying them in their natural state, I do not try to plan out a “regular” stairway either. This is like doing a big jigsaw puzzle where there are no guarantees that all the pieces are there and they will fit together. It helps to have a large supply and variety of rocks. A flagstone that is thicker requires a deeper hole to be laid into, sometimes you have to pull them out and replace them several times before you get the level exactly right.
Take lots of breaks, drink plenty of fluids, and don’t try to do too much at once. If a rock is too big to move by yourself, GET HELP!
After a week, the flagstone steps were really starting to take shape, and the “jigsaw puzzle” was getting worked out. You can also see that the terracing for the potential levels of the scree slope is starting to take shape. I have a certain amount of ADD, and so I tend to work on gardens in a rather “braided” fashion, rather than linear. It is certainly all right to finish a path and then start shaping beds afterwards, than doing it all at the same time as I was doing.
One month later, it looked like this.
You can see that the upper “ridge” of the scree slope has yet to be finished. But the terracing is mostly done, and I have begun filling in behind the big terrace rocks with the rubble for the scree slope. Later on, once we had plenty of rubble in there (for drainage), we filled in with soil. The soil we used we manufactured using dirt from piles around the place, the ground and mulched branches from the ice storm damage, compost from the compost bins, and purchased sand.
After the terraces were shaped, rubbled and back filled, we bought a yard of multicolored river gravel from a landscape company in the area, and wheelbarrowed it around the house to use as a gravel mulch for the scree slope. I allowed the gravel to flow down in between the flagstones as well. This is how it looked after that operation.
I spent the winter dreaming, and planning, and ordering from High Country Gardens. I ordered quite a variety of plants for the rock garden, and I was blessed by the generosity of several garden friends as well when I planted the Rock/Scree slope garden. I decided to plant thyme in between my flagstones, as a nice filler/ground cover. I used Thymus ‘Pink Chintz’ and Thymus lanuginusus (Wooly Thyme) from them, and then I fell prey to impulse purchasing and bought a gallon pot with a Thymus microphylla from my local garden center. This is the flagstone path a couple of weeks after I planted the babies.
To provide variety of texture and some color contrast, I planted Creeping jenny in the flagstones that make the “dam” of the Rain Garden.
I’m actually starting to think that this was probably not such a good idea. If I had major traffic on this path, it might keep the creeping jenny in check, as it is I have to go out there almost weekly and beat it back just so I can see some of my beautiful rocks. Additionally, it believes that it should colonize the entire Hosta Dell and also the Rain Garden, and I have to be vigilant about pulling it out of places I don’t want it. It may be a little too good at being a ground cover.
Now, I have to say that the thymes also are perhaps a little too good at being ground cover as well. But they are little easier to keep in check than the creeping jenny as they don’t grow so fast. However, I would say that someone who wished to create a large area of low maintenance ground cover could not really go wrong using creeping thymes. They perform well and stand up to traffic nicely.
This is the Rock Garden in August, 10 months after I laid the first flagstone.
Turning around and looking the other way at the section of path to the west of the Rain Garden (and the Rain Garden itself).
At this point, I was rejoicing at how well the creeping jenny was filling in. This was before it showed its true colors as a thug plant.
This is the same area photographed yesterday.
And just because I’m so proud of the new garden, a pulled back view.
It is hard to believe that this garden was a barren slope of dead weeds and grass only 18 months ago, isn’t it? A testimony to what sweat equity, patience, and a passion for accumulating rocks can provide.