Landscape in Progress
Christina writes: After we undertook lengthy repairs and renovations to our house in May–December 2007, Wayne and I vowed that as soon as we – and our finances – recovered, we would improve our lawns and gardens. Earlier this year we decided that the time finally had come; and as it obviously was going to involve more work than we could do ourselves to deal with our approximately one-third of an acre, we sought out a local landscaper, Steep Acres Farm in Williamstown. We also wanted expert advice on what plants are most suitable for our particular property, which has an awkward, angular shape and in some places gets little sunlight. Dan Gangemi and his men have been responsible for most of the new work described in this post: preparing the ground, the actual planting, and mulching. Dan also went to a garden centre with us so that we could discuss at first hand which plants we liked, and he invited us to his home to see his own gardens. Since the start of May, work has been completed in beds to the south and east of our house. The remainder, mainly to the north, will follow in July, though restoration of our lawns (which suffered badly during building work) has not yet begun and may go on for an extended time. Landscaping, like everything in Nature, is always a work in progress.
Wayne and I had already done a lot of landscape work in front of the house since I moved here in late 1995. Previously, for a variety of reasons, not much had been done with a former flower bed run wild, bounded at one end by two ancient black locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia), two lilacs, and a viburnum. About 1997, I began to dig out this old bed inch by inch, as the roots of weeds formed a solid carpet and the soil, typically for New England, contained many stones. By 2002 I reached the nearer locust, discovering peonies and phlox among the weeds. Year by year, we bought perennials to fill the growing area, and Wayne helped me plant them. During this period we also cleared the ground under and north of the lilacs and planted periwinkle (Vinca minor) as ground cover with dwarf hosta (plantain lily) interspersed. I also cleared a small area west of the lilacs where most years I have planted annuals for colour, but more recently have divided the area between daylilies and annuals.
From 2003 to 2007, book contracts and renovations meant that I could spend little time working in the garden, and that little was devoted to maintaining the cultivated area. The ground directly adjacent to the locusts was left in its wild state, not entirely unattractive since it was filled mainly with variegated bishop’s weed, though by late summer this had usually turned brown. But since bishop’s weed is exceptionally hardy and invasive, I constantly had to remove it as it tried to grow out of bounds, as it were. In 2008 I began to tackle this area too, and in 2010 finally removed the last of the wild growth and hope that in future less weeding will be needed.
In the years to 2002 we also dug narrow beds in front of our house, on either side of the doorsteps, and planted potentilla (cinquefoil) shrubs which unfortunately became straggly and overgrown. (A pre-renovation photo of this area, in autumn, may be seen here.) We weren’t sad to have these dug up and replaced temporarily with lawn when we had perimeter drains laid. Another part of our renovations gave us a new bluestone path to the front door, which created an opportunity to create a new planting bed between the path and the house, built up around an existing clump of white birch (Betula papyrifera). We were attracted by this idea, especially as grass did not grow well in the shade of the tree, and Wayne was eager to reduce the amount of grass he has to mow. We wanted the area to be mainly shrubs, preferably flowering, combined with some perennials. Our first selection of plants, however, even allowing for growth, took up only a fraction of the space, which proved larger than we thought; and in addition, we had an empty narrow bed on the opposite side of the front door (see here, in process of planting, and here). We have covered these now, except for a few more daylilies, after making a series of visits to local nurseries – throughout Berkshire County in Massachusetts and across the border into Vermont – each time filling our little car to capacity. (The spatial skills needed to fit boxes of books in a car also apply to flowers and shrubs!)
During the early years we also undertook some work east of our house, where fir trees mark the boundary with our neighbours’ land. Grass gave way to weeds under the trees, and at the southern end bishop’s weed was again prolific. We planted a rhododendron and some azaleas under trees to the south, but they never seemed happy. We also excavated a curving bed where we grew tomatoes and marigolds to the south and pachysandra ground cover to the north. Since we had to move the rhododendron and azaleas in 2007 to allow the operation of machinery, we replanted them where we had grown the tomatoes, and they seem much happier in that position. (They benefit as well from more light after two small scrub trees were removed.) We have now had Steep Acres remove a narrow, curved tongue of lawn adjacent to this bed, extending the area we can plant and visually connecting it with a flower bed our neighbours keep.
A few years ago these same neighbours cleared a wide shady area on their side of the trees and planted it with hosta. I was very impressed with this, and last year cleared part of our narrower area and bought a variety of hosta for it. Last month, I worked on this a little more, then gratefully handed over the rest of the work to our landscaping crew, who cleared a strip of ground as far as our northern boundary. In the space between the hosta and the pachysandra we now have more azaleas and rhododendrons, and intend to plant more next spring when the nurseries will have a wider choice than they do at present. North of the hostas are now more hostas, including those that had been under the lilacs (replaced there with more periwinkle), as well as a series of other shade-loving plants (see here). There are still a few gaps in this bed which we will fill soon. At the extreme north-east corner of our land is now a large hemlock tree which helps to hide our neighbours’ compost pile.
Our house appears to have a large lawn in front of it, but in fact the property line with our neighbours to the east cuts across it diagonally – sometimes the division is clear when the grass is higher on one side or the other, but aesthetically it is one lawn. Our neighbours have just planted a new river birch tree in their section, anticipating that in a few years it will have grown enough to provide a significant accent, at which point an ageing fir tree is to felled. We have just added three young semi-dwarf apple trees on our part of the lawn (Fuji, Gala, and Honeycrisp; see here), carefully placed so as not to interfere with the drain that runs beneath our lawn and keeps our basement dry. Wayne wanted to have apple trees, since he remembers fondly an ancient specimen – said to be the last remnant of a large orchard – which was in the front lawn when he and his parents bought the house, but blew down in a freak snowstorm in October 1988. He promises that the blossoms next spring will be beautiful.
Images, from top: Our most advanced flower bed, with a variety of perennials, black locust trees, lilacs, and viburnum; our new bed immediately in front of the house, anchored by a white birch and holly bushes; shrubs, flowers, and pachysandra in the newly extended bed on our property line to the east.