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In the garden: Rebuilding the front yard after the destruction

So here is the current state of play:

The gas company's earth moving equipment rolled through on its tracks between the two dotted black lines, giving the filbert tree a miss, as I requested, but wrecking the rock garden and taking a dump of asphalt backing out. So I shoveled out the asphalt, raked out the pebbles, and filled in the whole with the remnants of a yard of good soil I had left over in the driveway from last year. Then I restored the little white fence, to tell the town that I am a respecter of property lines.

So now I have some bare earth and, at the right, sand from the plows during the long and awful winter. (Lots of people in the town are complaining about how much sand there is, but at least there's no more salt!) What to do?

The sun (yellow arrow from West) is from late morning onward, very good for my location. The sidewalk is as you see; as ever, I wish to present a changing prospect to the pedestrian: Things should change their aspect and relations as the pedestrian changes their position. So that is one design goal....

Staring from top left, (1) (green) I have to reconstitute the rock garden. The portion you can't see, at left, has violets and columbines growing in it, and I might transplant other violets in from elsewhere. Mostly I've filled it up with pansies, although I had columbines to vary the height. I might do the same again, but I have to go dig up some rocks or stones for the border from somewhere; the very nice outcroppings that once were are underground, I think, from the gas company digging and drilling.

Next (2) (yellow) we have a sandy area. Oddly, under the sand is perfectly respectable, wormy, sheet-mulched soil. I think I'm going to leave that sand as is, as an experiment, and move some Black-Eyed Susans into that area. These will grow very tall. I'll put the low-to-the-ground bulbs in front of them, at an angle.

For (3) (red) I'm going to seed with wild-flowers because I have a bag of that seed left from last year. I assume it's still good. After they've started, I'll seed around them with clover. I might, now that I think of it, put some zinnias along the fence on the inside. Bees love them.

Finallly (4) (white) I'll seed the front area with clover.

* * *

I'm not sure if this meets the design goal or not. I'm not a masses of color kinda guy; I'm more about individual plants that are pleasing to look at in relation to what's around them. (My patch is so small that makes sense.) I like watching plants grow and be happy. But will this arrangement create enough visual interest as a pedestrian walks by? I don't know. Constraints: I don't like work, and this year have even less money than usual. So ideas like "Oh! A water feature!" are out. Also, because of the winter and the plows, this area is brutal; I put a nice echinacea plant in last year and it's dead. So much for that perennial!

Readers, gardeners, thoughts? I've got to get this going soon, since Memorial Day will shortly be upon us (although if it's still too fucking cold, I might delay 'til June 1).

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nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

Oooh, Oooh! (raising hand) I think I may have something useful for you.

Re: sand.

Sand+clay=concrete. However, sand+clay+organic matter=sandy clay loam or, IOW, perfection. Additionally, IIRC, the Northeast has more alkaline soils, and your PH may be a little high for some of the things you are mentioning which prefer a more neutral PH.

All of which brings us to the soil test. You will want to do two different kinds: one for organic matter and one for PH.

The test for organic matter involves taking a 6-8 inch slice of your soil horizon (from underneath your sheet mulch layer) and putting it into a big clear jar of some form. Put in some water and shake it up. Once it all settles out, what does it look like? What kind of layers do you have? If it looks squelchy then you should have lots of organic matter in your soil...if it looks sticky/mucky then you may have too much clay. The ideal is somewhere in between. Your soil should be water retentive, but still drain well enough to allow the roots to breathe.

The test for PH can be done with an inexpensive, simple kit that you can get from any store which carries garden supplies. Just a little card dipped in your water from the organic test should do it. You want to aim for a neutral PH if possible, as that is where most plants on the spectrum do best.

Alternatively, one can do a full spectrum soil test from your agricultural extension for cheap (prolly around 6-8 dollars) which will show you nearly all of your soils' chemical qualities at a glance, and will also tell you what you must do to achieve the crop of your choice. They will ask you what you generally want to plant, and tailor the soil test to your specifications.

Your soil is actually more important than anything growing in it at this point, thus making any work done on it now both labor saving and cost effective over time.

I strongly suspect that you have compacted inorganic soil with a high PH. This is a fairly typical scenario and one easily addressed in so small an area. The addition of organic matter and sand (the layers of mulch and sand that you mention) to your soil through the action of a good overdig and rototilling should do wonders for your perk test/aeration and give your soil microorganisms a real boost; after all, THEY are the crop you are really after right now. The addition of garden sulphur during your rototilling (which is really cheap) in the quantities specified in a full spectrum test should amend the PH.

So, your only appreciable cost at this point might be the rototiller rental, and even that can be avoided if you can borrow one through friends or Craigslist or something. Double digging beds really sucks in clay soils however small they may be, so I would strongly recommend finding a rototiller. Twenty minutes (max) vs. hours...and then days in bed getting over the soreness. Really no contest, there.

It is all in the process. Once the soils are amenable to what you like, the design will then fall into place naturally. My usual suggestion in this scenario is to plant nitrogen fixers until you get a better idea of what you like, and your passerby could not fail to be enchanted by a big ol' fragrant, colorful bed of sweet peas. The bush form sweet pea seed you can get on eBay for about a buck, and Memorial day is on the horizon.

Try 'em out and see what you think!

Submitted by lambert on

and not only because that would cost money. I'm with the permaculture people who believe in never damaging soil structure, not even by stepping on it.

However, that's an excellent idea about the glass jar; I'll try it and post a picture. How long does it take to settle out? I might do it for a more important area.

I have lots and lots of tiny little patches with different histories. Area (2) (yellow) (sand) was sheetmulched last year and I'm surprised how dark and friable (and wormy) that soil is, underneath the sand/newspaper layer. (I was so proud of all the leaf mulching I did last year, only to have it all covered with sand!)

Areas (3) and (4) have never been sheet mulched, but I've systematically removed grass and grown clover. However, it was both compacted and churned up by the gas company earth mover, so suspected yellow colored clay is what I've got, yuck. Yellow colored clay, dead roots from a tree I cut down, and pebbles. Ick. If finances permit, I might just bring some new soil in. Isn't there a finger squeeze test for clay? No waiting, no glass jar?

It also occurs to me to sheet mulch (3) and (4), but I don't see how to scatter the flower seeds on it. A friend in the south puts soil on top of the straw, but that feels to me like mixing food on your plate. Is that irrational?

Adding... I don't do crops. My goals are to have as much pleasure as possible for as little work as possible (I don't like work, so I like "no till"), to learn (to help control my area's food destiny in case of crisis), to give away vegetables to my friends, and to manage public perceptions in the town. People like to see what I do and comment.

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

There is a lot to be said for permaculture methods, however, not all soils start equally. Yours looks like a pretty typical roadside and, therefore, has years of damage already baked into the cake that permacultural methods may not ameliorate within a reasonable timeframe. IOW, your soil structure is probably already blown.

Our yard, for example, was swept for fifty years; we have no topsoil, it all washed down the hill to our Neighbor's houses. What we have is rock and clay subsoils. Further, we have old pecan trees whose immense root structure limits our ability to redress the problem in the way I described. So, I have spent prolly ten years years adding over four feet of sheet mulch (tree grindings from a local service) to the soil. Yes, it is now black, wormy and crumbly at the surface, but three inches down nothing has changed. Every year that hard pan dries out and everything dies; first from the overlying organic muck from the heavy rains in spring that immediately drain down the hill, and then in the concrete that is left behind. We have no real soil horizon here, and that is inherently limiting to what can be done with the land. Just adding new soil would have the same effect. There is a reason why it takes a century for nature to produce one inch of topsoil and its' related soil horizons. The only alternative to a century plus of burrowing moles/rabbits/armadillos and worm action is rototilling. But, if you do it right, you only have to do it once.

Lasagne gardening has its' merits, but one seldom gets sufficient depth in the absence of good substrates, as with my lawn, which makes perennials quite impossible...or, at least, not really practical. You might look up Hugelculture if that is what you like; it will give you the depth necessary to allow the plants full growth and yet not suffer from the impacted/compacted nature of your soil. This is a more permanent soil-on-straw concept. I use that a lot and it works well, particularly on slopes where it can drain properly. It also gives you a natural border which would obviate finding rocks to line your beds with. No, there is nothing irrational about mixing things up, you just have to know how to do it. Think cake that is not properly mixed. That is all soil really is, a properly mixed cake; if nothing rises, there is a reason.

It was a smart idea for you to plant clover; a nitrogen fixer with deep tap roots which help to break up the soil, few things are better for soils regeneration...or bees.

If you've got clay, you know it. The test you speak of is also to determine organic content. If, when the soil is wet, you can make a ball of it and it falls apart, you have a loam. The point of the water test is to determine what the proportions of your soil constituents are. To much of anything is bad, so to speak, and you will see it in the layers. Shouldn't take long for it to settle out, just leave the jar on the porch overnight and you will have your answer in the morning.

Lastly, the crops thing is really just jargon. My last "crop" for a soil test was a Magnolia Grandiflora in an area I thought would be too alkaline due to the brick terrace that I had previously built nearby. Not really something anyone rational would care to eat. That magnolia, however, is growing spectacularly and the blooms on it right now are giving me immense pleasure. All of my native magnolias, including the bigleafs, are in bloom right now and my yard smells like heaven. That is a "crop" I can live with. Disseminating info like this is what got me into the MG program, and, believe it or not, what you describe is very close to its' mission statement.

Yay! I need to write down my new hours! (well, minutes, anyway)

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

O.K., upon re reading that, I really do need to not even try to emphasize things in italics. That did not work well...even all caps would have been better....

Submitted by lambert on

... I just realized the earth mover did a ton of roto-tilling for me! I think that this area, being as you said roadside, isn't worth a lot of investment, because of what happens to it in the winter as an after-effect of plowing. Two feet of organic matter would be wasted on it, because I'm unlikely to grow vegetables on it anyhow.

In zones 1 and 2 on the picture I've got perennials -- the filberts are doing fine, as are the Black Eyed Susans. So there, the soil must be OK. (Other fun fact: That stump is from a hideous Norway Maple, which made the whole area a dead zone for years, and as I understand it actually emits some sort of toxin that destroys rival plants. Cutting the damn thing down was one of the best things I ever did.)

But I think I'll try the jar test on a vegetable growing area; during my absence, the sunniest spot next to the house was used for parking, and I haven't done a lot of work on that soil, so it probably has all the compaction issues you're talking about, but it's worth investing in because it's farther in from the street.

UPDATE Because of heating with wood, I have wood scraps, and have an experimental Hugel bed in another little patch. If I can buy another couple yards of soiil -- I really do work on a tiny scale -- I was thinking of dumping some soil on top (need to check the Hugel diagram) and then putting some tomatoes on it.

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

I have spent the last three days comfortably ensconced on the bed playing computer as my normal responsibilities lay in abeyance; tapping their toes. While my butt may or may not be hurting right now, this has been a real joy overall. Rain has been my official excuse, though, and I am sticking to it! My check list from last year is so far behind that I am not making a new one this year...and this is before talking about anything, whatsoever, to do with my own property. The County just bush hogged my own road frontage yesterday as the blue grass had reached chest high...and it didn't even bother me that they scalped the underlying centipede. Again.

So, FWIW, chillax, I am in no position to critique your methods.

The main thing is that you have some fun with it. It is all a learning experience. I truly believe that the suggestions made as regard your soil, even the part next to the road, would ultimately save you time, effort and money, but there is nothing there that cannot be played with over the course of time...We started out with a prairie of centipede and now have an Eastern climax forest in spite of being situated in an old house on even more worn out cotton land, and it was all done by taking little bites out of the turf for less than the cost of maintaining a lawn mower, just as you are doing.

It will happen for you sooner than you think.

Submitted by lambert on

It's so bad up here the church ladies have postponed the plant sale 'til the week after Memorial Day, and Memorial Day is the traditional slash mandatory day to get stuff in the ground.....

I'm not rejecting your thinking as much as transplanting it. I have a very limited amount of time and I'm going to apply your ideas elsewhere in areas that are more important.

Meanwhile, hoping some of last years clover and wildflower seeds germinate....

Submitted by hipparchia on

how deep is this sand? from the photo it doesn't look like you have very much to contend with. could you just stir a little compost into it?

looks like black-eyed susan is a good choice. if it's really really sand sand sand, here are some other pollinator attractors for sandy soils:

Submitted by lambert on

But it's definitely a lot of sand by inland Maine standards!

I have bee balm already (hummingbirds love it) but not that kind. I like the idea of Fragrant hyssop, because one of the ideas of that area is that it should smell nice when people walk by on the sidewalk.

Submitted by hipparchia on

But it's definitely a lot of sand by inland Maine standards!

I know.

I'm thinking it's not really a lot of sand from the plants' point of view though. I'm with you in that I don't think I'd go to all the work of turning it into your existing soil, but if there's not that much of it, just mix in some nice organic matter, or maybe spread it out over a wider area of your yard so that you have only a thin layer of sand everywhere.

otoh, if this is likely to happen every year, maybe planting a group of sand-loving plants there is the longer-term solution.

I have bee balm already (hummingbirds love it)

I saw the photo you posted a while back. I have hummingbird envy. and bee balm envy too, since I like the red that you have better than the pink spotted that we have here.