Dig first, think second

Exceptionally mild December temperatures have encouraged me to jump into a project that was just a thought until the first spade of sod was dug a week ago. The lower rear lawn has long been a disappointment, an overly damp weed patch for several years. Occasionally, I get to thinking about doing something here, but finally decided the only way to get going was to start digging, and work out the details from there.

Of course, this is far from the recommended process in starting or adding to a garden. Put something on paper is the recommended first step, and somewhere on the list should be to think about it, rather than just plunging in spade first. But, I’m not much of a thinker when it comes to the garden, and drawing a design requires thought. This seems to work out alright, and with this project the plan developed with every spade of lawn that was dug.

With plantings surrounding this patch of lawn I had to figure the size of the planting area, but also access. It would not work just to kill all the grass and plant. A path was needed, but how wide and of what material? At first, I thought the perimeter path might remain the skimpy mix of lawn and weeds, but then reconsidered, knowing that as a primary path this would quickly deteriorate into sloppy, slick mud.

As I dug that first evening in fading sunlight, the ideas started to come. A general shape to the planting area was figured, and then refigured the following afternoon as edges for the bed were dug and soil mounded to raise the planting level. In recent years I’ve had to dig drainage trenches through the rear lawn and garden, so deep bed edges were dug to move water that flows over the lawn after heavy rains.

A leftover stash of granite pavers was the answer for the path, a little overkill as it is much more formal than wobbly stone paths much closer to the house. These were laid flat on the thin lawn, and if it ever rains again I’ll do bit of light stomping to settle them into the damp ground. Generally, I don’t care much about proper design, if I like it it’s good, but I thought the transition from basalt paving to granite was a bit stark, so several granite columns were dug in as a sort of gateway to this area of the garden.

A polished granite bench, again a bit much for this garden, was placed at an edge of the path, and small boulders were placed to help raise the ground level for planting, but also to add some raised areas to plant succulents. I’ve tried and failed with Lewisia in the past, but the garden has always been too damp. I’ll fill the gaps between stones with gravel, and expect this should be ideal.

When I started I hardly had a clue what to plant, but I figured there were a few Japanese maples that have been growing in pots, and there are a couple I’ve been wanting to purchase but with no place to put them. A yellow stemmed ‘Bihou’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’, below) was extracted from its pot and planted, and an off color Japanese Umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) was obtained from a discard pile. A witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) that was too shaded to flower was moved from the side garden, and a yellow leafed hydrangea was dug and moved from a spot that was too damp for it to be happy. Two peonies that have become two shaded were dug and planted in this sunny space.

This is a start, and nothing more will be planted until spring when the garden centers begin to restock. At the far side I’ll be planting a columnar, red leafed beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Red Obelisk’) to grow tall and narrow, and of course as a contrast to the yellow stemmed ‘Bihou’. A variety of fillers will be needed while small trees grow, but there’s no need to worry about that until spring. I have a few ideas, but mostly I’ll purchase whatever catches my eye.

This is the largest expansion of the garden in years, and of course I went about it backwards. For now, the granite path and boulders stand out far too much, but once there are a few plants this will fade. I figure that after the spring planting I’ll work out what to do with the grass. I don’t plan to mow, and probably I’ll work out a variety of creepers to cover the lawn and the spaces between pavers. Mazus reptans already occupies a swath of lawn that has become pathway, and it spreads rapidly in damp ground.

While the end result is far off, I am happy to be rid of most of the lower rear lawn. As always, I look forward to spring, but with more anticipation with this work in progress.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Judy Bishop says:

    I love what you did here! Can’t wait to see what happens in the spring🤗

    1. Dave says:

      I am always impatient for spring, but now am more anxious to get planting.

  2. Carole Gertel says:

    Dave, great job. I was chuckling to myself thinking that I design space in my head, rarely do I put it on paper, just run out to the area and start digging away! Btw, you’re right, the granite looks stark now, but will gray with time.

    1. Dave says:

      Today you wouldn’t think it, but soon enough this newly dug bed will be overgrown. Plants will grow to obstruct the paths, and whatever is planted between will grow over path stones. I could be wrong, but I think this is what gardens are supposed to do.

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