Mulch

 bark mulch

What exactly is mulch?  Well nothing much relating to gardening falls under the heading of “exactly”, but in general mulch refers to a covering applied to the surface of the soil.  It might help to think of it as a blanket.  The blanket on my bed keeps me evenly warm throughout the night.  The key word here is not warm-it is evenly.  If I am hot and then cold and then hot again, I wake up.  If I am evenly comfortable, I sleep undisturbed. 

 

Bare soil, exposed to sun and air, looses its water via evaporation quickly.  A cover layer of mulch, which might be hardwood bark mulch, bark fines, or leaf mold slows the evaporation rate considerably. Mulch not only conserves existing water in the soil, it is easy to saturate with water-either from the sky, or the hose.  Water on hard dry soil can run off before it has a chance to be absorbed.  Peat moss mixed into soil aids in the retention of water, but as a mulch it has distinctive drawbacks.  A thoroughly dry layer of peat is an excellent moisture repellant.  The perennial bed pictured above will loose water at a fairly rapid rate on a really hot July day.  Once we add more plants to this bed, we will mulch it. 

 

 Mulch discourages weeds from sprouting and growing.  If weeds do sprout through the mulch, they are easier to pull from moist soil.  Mulch applied in a very thick layer can smother plants.  A thick layer of old newspapers decomposes slowly enough such that any plant underneath will perish.  This can be handy, if you are trying to convert a grassy area to a garden.  This method of preparing a bed for planting takes a lot less muscle than digging.  What it does require is patience-time.  It’s important to distinguish thick from solid.  A pile of matted down grass clippings is missing one important component essential to decomposition. Air.  Airless decomposition smells and looks bad. It feels like a cross between slime and sludge.   

A thick layer of mulch is not necessarily better.  2-3 inches is plenty. When that layer of mulch decomposes, add another layer. Mulch piled up much higher may seen like a good labor saving idea, but this can suffocate plants-and this includes trees. 

   This tree grew into, around and through a chain link fence.  It is thriving, despite this injury.  8 inches of mulch piled up around the trunk of this tree could do far more harm than what this fence has done.  Note that there is groundcover, and a light layer of leaves at the bottom.   

 

I have never been a fan of mulch rings around trees.  I like trees set in the lawn, or in a garden bed.  Mulch rings do discourage a person operating a lawnmower or weed whip from getting too close to, or injuring the bark of a tree, but it is much more utilitarian than it is beautiful. 

 

 This tree rises gracefully out of the lawn.  This has a much more natural, and park-like look.  The other landscape beds have a lot of bark visible.  Mulch is good for plants, but it is not a substitute for plants.  Granted plants need proper spacing from their neighbors in order to promote healthy growth, but bark mulch does not a garden make.    

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 There are other materials that work as a mulch.  Gravel is one of my favorites.  Stone does decompose, but it decomposes imperceptibly.  The entire side and back yard at the shop is mulched in gravel.  Water drains through it.  The wheels of our carts run over it easily.  And it shades the ground from the drying eyes of the sun.  The willows on the back lot line are planted in what amounts to big and little rocks, mixed with sand.  The decomposed granite mulch helps to slow the evaporation of water from the gound long enough so the trees can get a drink. 

 

Seeds will germinate, and plants will grow when conditions are right for them.  The smallest bit of gravelly soil between the stones on this terrace provided the perfect conditions for a pansy seed to germinate.  A sunny spot to bloom, and cool moist soil for the roots-courtesy of the mulch provided by this stone terrace.

Up and Down

 

 

The installation of a landscape for a new house is a lengthy process, as it needs to be.  Though some disciplines cross over, there will be the excavators, the rough carpenters, the plumbers, the inspectors, the finish carpenters, the gutter people and the air conditioning techs, the kitchen designer, the pool and spa people, the painters, the stone masons-the list is long.  Coordinating a project of this size is a challenge.  There are bound to be things that don’t happen on time, or things that happen out of order.  The landscape is last of the outdoor work.  I have been on this project since last August, with a long hiatus born of relentless rain from mid-September through October.  Delays are the order of the day on a large project.

 

 But in December, after the walls and planter box were built, the stone installed on the front porch, the outside of the house finished, we were able to install the crushed granite drivecourt.  At least the front of the house would be somewhat presentable for the winter. Everone involved did a great job-it just took more time, more space, and was more messy than anyone anticipated.  

 The stone on the lower portion of the walls of the house were inspiration for the wing walls on either side of the drive, and a stone planter box on the lot line.  On the ground level, the drivecourt is surrounded by stone.  A drivecourt was necessity; no parking is permitted in the cul de sac, and the street parking is chopped up by a substantial number of driveways.  The idea was to make this utilitarian space as visually pleasing as possible.

 

A large stone planter box is home to 5 katsuras, which will be underplanted with boxwood in the spring.  This will provide evergreen screening on the ground plane from the downstairs windows of the neighboring house.  Some Himalayan white-barked birch will be planted in the spring to the left of the stone box.  A short hedge of arborvitae will be planted on the lot line to the right of the box.

The view from upstairs is equally as important.  The living areas upstairs will be as private as that narrow space between the lot line, and the corner of the garage allows.  As the espaliers grow, they will create a green wall that takes up relatively little width. This is an old neighborhood, where the homes are quite close together.  Addressing visual issues downstairs and upstairs is important. 

We were there on Friday, trying out some pots and furniture for the garden.  A pair of these concrete boxes with diamond panels and iron rings will flank the front step.  A small vintage English teak bench looks great on the porch.  Settling these details before early spring gives me hope we will finish the project well before the onset of summer.

We had installed the iron fencing and gates, and the pergolas a few weeks ago.  The winter weather has been so mild, we were unexpectedly able to get this part of the project finished. The property perimeter fencing was chosen especially for the privacy it provides.  The iron fence running from the property line to the house will insure good views into this part of the garden, and provide a safe outdoor space for a beloved dog. 

Upstairs, the second floor balcony terraces are done.  I can see that the  12  6″ caliper columnar red maples planted last September will provide great screening  from the house next door during the summer, at a time when privacy matters most. Evergreens provide great screening on the ground level.  They tend to be too narrow at the top to screen an upstairs view.  If they are large enough to screen a view 20 feet off the ground, the width of those trees on the ground floor is considerable.  Lacking the luxury of ground level space, these columnar trees will do a great job where they need to.  The Belgian wattle fencing will handle the job on the ground floor.  

The lakeside was a muddy mess for a long time, but we were finally able to get in there and grade, and set the major lawn panel and its crushed granite frame.  A pair of steel pergolas almost 40 feet long each were slated to be installed off each end of the house, and frame the lawn panel on the ground floor. 

 This picture was also taken in early December.  The major grading, the majority of the evergreen planting, and this lawn panel got done-I was pleased to have this much finished.  But this lakeside rear yard is still quite exposed to the neighboring homes on the cul de sac side.  The screening issues were complicated by the fact that nothing over 4′ tall could be planted in the space between the cul de sac curb and the house.  This restriction would enable everyone who lives on the street to still have a view of the lake.

Restrictions are an invitation for good solutions.  The pergola, outside the setback line, is 10 feet tall, and will never be any taller than 10 feet.  This means no view of the lake will ever be obstructed.  Both of the pergolas have a great look from upstairs.  Who wouldn’t  like to wake up to this view?   Once it is planted with climbing roses and clematis, there will be that much more to see from here, and some shade to sit in downstairs.

The pergola on the opposite side will be planted in a like matter.  Venus dogwoods will be plated to the outside of each of the pergola, in an effort to screen both neighboring houses from view.  

The views from the third floor cupola clearly reveal a foreground space dominated by the pergolas, the midground gardens yet to come, and the far view which is the lake. A widow’s walk, or deck enclosed with railings on the roof, is an Italianate architectural feature popular in American houses built near the sea in the 19th century.  This widow’s walk is a completely enclosed all weather room.

 The room is ringed with windows to take advantage of all of the views.  The opportunity for a bird’s eye view of the landscape and the lake in every sort of weather, and all of the seasons-very special indeed.

Both the house and the gardens show a lot of progress. It won’t be long now, to the finish.

Garden Designers Roundtable: Stone

 

Designing, planting and tending a landscape or garden is an avocation, a profession, a passion -and a nemesis of the most unpredictable and formidable sort.  The pure joy that a great garden has to give back has a substantial responsibility that comes along with it.  The landscape could be described as the responsibility for the health and happiness for a flock of living things. A lot of marbles have to be kept on the table-all at the same time.  Every plant that dies on my watch-I take it very personally.  Plants die routinely, and with astonishing regularity-in spite of knowledge and experience.

 

Some plants die from old age-every living thing has a lifespan.  Some things die from a particularly fierce winter, or relentless rain, or extraordinary heat.  Some things die from lack of water-of these deaths,  I am particularly ashamed.  Some things die from poor siting, or a a site whose ecology changes drastically-as in the loss of an old mature tree.  The living community that describes my garden is ephemeral-fleeting.  No tree, shrub, perennial, or garden experience comes with a lifetime guarantee.  Should you decide to garden, the disappointments are part and parcel of the experience.  Fortunately, a landscape has other elements that live longer.

Some elements in my landscape shrug off the water, the winter, the heat; the stone in my garden is the next best thing to indestructible.  Stone persists in my landscape in spite of my neglect, poor science, or ignorance.  What can I count on to be there every day, as best as I could count on anything?  The stone stairs to my rose garden have been there as long as I have had my garden.  I would guess it will still be there, when I celebrate my 100th birthday.

Stone in the landscape roughly refers to what we call hardscape.  Stone beautifully populates those places to be, that soil to be retained,  those spaces to entertain, and those walks with a natural material that provides an enduring hard surface.   Stone is eminently capable of expressing your need for a change of grade.  Stone provides paths and walks that enables travel from one space to another.  Stone provides a beautiful and durable surface for a terrace.  Compacted decomposed granite- shards 3/8 inch in diameter and smaller- makes level and hard surfaces that survive in driveways and garden paths, year after year. I so like balancing those living, and therefore fragile elements in a landscape with a crispy defined highly textural natural material that endures.

I am not a geologist-I am a gardener.  But I can say with great conviction that the stone readily available to me regionally is always my stone of choice.  Regional stone that is native to Michigan will look like it belongs in a Michigan garden.  Stone native to the East coast, or west coast I can appreciate, but a sense of authenticity of place is important in making a landscape visually believable. No doubt an entire library exists which describes the color, texture and use of stone world wide.  But I am primarily interested in stone that naturally occurs in my region of the country. In addition to bluestone and granite,  Indiana limestone, and Valders stone from Wisconsin are favorites. 

The fountain in my back yard is finished in Valders stone. The step down in submerged in water the entire season. This very high density dolomitic limestone is prized for its low water absorption.  This makes it ideal for applications in or around water. Indiana limestone, also known as Bedford limestone, is principally comprised of calcium carbonate.  The decomposition of marine animals at the bottom of the inland sea that covered the Midwest for countless centuries created limestone.  The limestone quarried near Bloomington Indiana is acknowledged to be the highest quality limestone in the United States. It readily absorbs water; the limestone caps on my retaining walls have aged beautifully.

Should you need a hard and enduring surface or wall, natural and native stone will endow your garden with a sense of permanence.  The formation of stone takes generations, and it will take generations to decompose.  Do not be shy about inviting a natural element into your garden with proven longevity.  It provides a quiet and appropriately natural foil for your plants.

 

I was a rock collector, as a kid.   Every type of rock, every shape, every surface-I was enchanted.  Nothing has much changed; I have a big love for all manner of rock.  Stone carpeting the ground, stacked up like a wall, hand carved into a cistern, or half buried in a rock garden-I value it all.   The stone slabs carpeting this conservatory floor-I have never seen anything remotely like it before.  It has an exotic, architectural, and other-worldly look.

Stone cold, set in stone, stone faced, hard as stone -these are all phrases that describe a certain attitude that withstands the elements, the vagaries of nature, and popular sentiment.  Stone comes with an aura of history about it.  The eldest plant in my garden I estimate to be about 80 years old-a trifling age, compared to my stone. Relationships in a composition might be more important than the one, or the other. How an ephemral element interacts with a permanent element-always interesting. That great age one associates with natural stone has much to do with the creation of,  and value,  of stone garden ornament. 

Stone ornament for the garden is a centuries old art and practice.  A material which is virtually impervious and certainly accepting of the weather makes an ideal medium for sculpture, urns, finals, cisterns, plinths, and benches. Many antique pieces provides homes to thriving colonies of moss and lichens. Before Michaelangelo’s David was a sculpture, it was an ancient block of marble from the earth.  Antique containers and urns hand carved from a single piece of stone are rare, and very costly.  Dry cast limestone is a dry mix of cement, sand, mineral pigments and crushed natural stone, which is forced into molds, and vibrated under pressure until it fills the mold evenly.  This method of manufacture makes stone garden ornament more readily available and affordable.

The stone in my garden is beginning to settle in.  Plants have decided to take up residence in its crevices, and on its surface.  I like how this makes me feel. This Belgian bluestone table with antique hand-carved corbel bases would indeed be lovely in a garden. Any gardener who has ever carried rocks around their garden, or had their fingers pinched setting a stepping stone knows that stone does not give.  I like a material in my garden with this attitude.

I wrote this essay in a special capacity.  I was so pleased that The Garden Designers Roundtable invited me to guest post with their group for the month of May.  The Roundtable is a group of garden and landscape designers who write regularly on topics related to landscape design.  This blog is a great read.  www.gdrt.blogspot.com.  Interested in an ongoing discussion of plants, gardens, landscapes and design?    www.facebook.com/GardenDesignersRoundtable.

To read all of the posts on the May discussion of stone in the landscape, click on the links below.  Enjoy!

Sunny Wieler : Stone Art Blog : West Cork, Ireland

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA

Jenny Peterson : J Peterson Garden Design : Austin TX

Rochelle Greayer : Studio G : Boston, MA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Tara Dillard : Vanishing Threshold : Atlanta, GA

 

A Modern Landscape


I am sure every city in every state in this nation has those larger than life, extraordinarily talented people who produced design that endures.  My city has many examples of residences conceived and built by Harold Turner. This master builder, responsible for the construction of many buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, went on to build a number of residences in my city whose beauty still shines so many decades later.  I am not an architectural historian, nor am I well versed in the life of Harold Turner, but I knew my client had purchased a home of architectural and historical significance.  My part of this-study that building, the grades, the views,  the spaces-and make a move in concert.            

The living room of the house faces the rear of the property.  Floor to ceiling windows ask for the outside to work seamlessly with the inside, and provide year round interesting views. A wide open L shape, each wing of which is some 30 feet by 14 feet,  describes on the ground plane a pair intersecting glass walls.  Terraces at either ends of the wings suggests a landscape which permits leisurely travel from one end to the other. 

The strict geometry of this rear profile of this Turner house filled my head with curves.  How so?  The glass prow is so strong, why would I interpret or dilute that gesture?  Repeating the geometry he established for the house-what need would there be?  It seemed to me that a simple but sculptural landscape that made much of the view the design of the house made possible was in order.  

This landscape plane was entirely grass when I first came to visit. A default design.  This space had no need of a mower-it had need of a landscape of interest that would look good in any given season.  The journey from the library side of this house, to the master bedroom side of this house-it seemed to me that a path would figure large in the landscape design. The stone retaining wall casually stacked and irregular in shape seemed out of keeping with the palette of materials established by the house.  An initial hedge of Green Velvet boxwood screens that stone from view, and encloses the space.   

Decomposed granite is a favorite material of mine.  I mulch plants, I build driveways, I compose entire landscapes around that material that brings the parks in Paris to mind.  A walkway all about generous curves seemed a good companion for this house. My client does like to entertain; the wide walk makes for places for guests to visit, and good circulation.  The granite is a quietly versatile material that echoes the surface of the existing concrete aggregate.  Used in conjunction with steel or aluminum edging, it can cleanly outline interesting shapes.


There is always the danger that a small space will become a corridor to somewhere else-a visual racetrack, if you will.  Planting another series of boxwood, set perpendicular to the house and boxwood hedge, will slow down the traffic.  Unlike the boxwood in the hedge, these plants are placed in the bed, and in the gravel individually.  Individually placed plants read as individual sculptural elements.   

Seven sets of three plants each are placed such that the gravel walk space opens and closes.  Pachysandra fills the empty spaces in the beds; when grown in, their mass will reinforce the pattern of the walk.     

There will be decisions to be made about the pruning.  The hedge could be boxed-the individual boxwoods pruned as spheres. Or vice versa.  The boxwoods set in gravel could alternately be pruned as squares and spheres.  The distinction that is drawn between the inidivdual plants and the hedging plants will be an important part of how the landscape reads visually.  We will see what direction my client is inclined to take.  Beyond this decision, the maintenance will be minimal.