« Well, damn. | Main | Not much to tell, right now... »

February 06, 2005

Some general information on Suburban Dirt, and phase I of the whole mess...

Since I'm probably not going to be disturbing the livestock much with anything I say here, and consequently needn't worry about annoying anybody to the point they'll develop into a malicious stalker and try to get me fired from my job if they can track me down via the Internets, I'll be a little more candid than I would if I were writing a journal about my personal thoughts and opinions about anything other than gardening, especially about where I live. You can never be too careful these days, but I very much doubt I have anything controversial or revolutionary to say about gardening -- this is, primarily, for my own benefit anyway. To some extent, it's to remind me how much different things really are. When you make incremental changes, it's hard to remember what it looked like at the beginning.

The property on which I'm trying to garden is in a small city called Kettering, about seven miles south of Dayton, Ohio. Southwestern Ohio is smack in the middle of gardening zone 6, which seems to include most deciduous trees and flowering plants, both annual and perennial, and virtually every non-blooming shrub known to mankind. In other words, it's not a half-bad place to garden, weather-wise.

Southwestern Ohio was at the bottom of a prehistoric ocean, on the edge of a glacier that apparently got as far south as the Ohio River before it melted, so the soil is rocky, a little on the alkaline side, and has a moderately thick skin of limestone-based clay a couple of feet down. It's a struggle to maintain a good quality and level of topsoil, and many of the trees that were planted here before they started chopping to build this subdivision, in the early fifties, were top-rooters like softwood maples and soft evergreens -- you can't dig more than four inches without running into a network of roots from something, around here. Especially in this yard which, as I noted, originally had nine trees in it -- five of which are(were) softwood maples (now only one is); all of which turned the surface of the landscape in this yard into a thin skin of topsoil spread over a screen of maple roots.

The front of the house, apparently, had suffered little effort to keep it in any kind of shape. There were four ancient yew hedges in front of the kitchen window when we moved in, and they'd been cared for so poorly you couldn't prune all of them into the same shape and size as the others because some had been let go so long that the skin of greenery on the outside (if you know yew hedges, you know what I'm talking about) was too thin -- pruning them to match the others resulted in a bunch of brown sticks. I've always hated the way box-shaped yew hedges looked in front of a house anyway, I wanted those bastards out of there at the earliest possible moment. It took almost two years.

Here are a couple of shots of the front of the house before we got going:



We moved in up here in 1999, and it took nearly two years of hemming and hawing, researching and planning before we got our hands dirty (and damned near broke our backs -- never remove a fifty-year-old yew hedge planting yourself; hire someone, trust me on this; my back still bothers me).

We'd already bought the new plants before we started the project -- the corkscrew hazelnut and the weeping cherry stood in the driveway for a while before there was anyplace to put them.

This was, by the way, a weekend's work -- we destroyed many tools, including two spades, an anvil pruner and a brand-new electric chainsaw, just removing the yews. Just didn't think it would be as difficult as it was -- we've never been fooled that way since about removing old plants, and we usually equip ourselves by renting something to perform the work, now. We're both over forty, there's no sense hurting ourselves more than we already hurt because we both were stupid about this kind of stuff when we were younger.

Anyway, here's what that same spot looked like two days later:


That was the gardening for 2001 -- we both were completely purged of any temptation to do anything outside in the yard for at least six months, after that. The next spring, I threw in some pinks here and there, and we tried to plant a garden in the back yard -- we dug up grass, put up stakes and a fence, and tried our hand at lettuce, tomatoes and peppers. The rabbits, who figured out how to circumvent the fencing about five minutes after we put it up, ate really well that year. We got some tiny, bitter radishes and one salad of some tart baby lettuce and a handful of Roma tomatoes long about the middle of October. We took down the fence and threw down grass seed and hay, and started looking into container gardening for the next summer -- there was no way in hell we were going to waste the money and effort on trying to grow anything on the ground in our yard. Too many rabbits.

The decision to dig a new flowerbed is never undertaken lightly. Planting one new thing, like a shrub or tree, usually isn't a major problem -- once you've removed the upper layer roots, you hit clay, but that only takes persistence to remove enough to plant something. Originally, I'd just planned to throw the cedar and the flowering almond in next to the driveway and be done with it; possibly put a flowerbed in somewhere else in the yard (though where I thought I'd put it other than where it ended up is a mystery to me).

The flowerbed next to the driveway, which now is about twelve feet long and eight feet deep at its extents, took three years to dig, in phases. The first dig was a single two-foot diameter hole in the late summer of '02, to set the flowering almond (rip, flowering almond). The following shot is not long afterward, when we put in the weeping atlas cedar (possibly also rip, Harrison -- sorry!), which required digging a slightly bigger hole.

Farther down, toward the sidewalk, you also will see my first abortive attempt (the second, which was marginally more successful, is on the back slope) to start a bulb planting bed. I think that was the first inkling the yard was possessed by ancient evil powers, since just digging a six inch wide, six inch deep, three foot long trench to plant some bulbs took two days.

There were tulips and crocuses in there, but they never really did very well (not enough sun, which was kind of a mantra around here until the trees were taken out). I moved them up into the flowerbed, once I dug it out, but most of them didn't recover from being relocated.

Little flower gardening got done that year, though I think that was the fall I socked all the grape hyacinths and the giant allium in out front. I didn't realize a few things about the allium -- it gets about four feet tall, so when the bumblebees come to visit the blooms (oh, and boy, do they!) they wind up flying around your head and neck when you walk past the plants. Where had I planted them? A few at the edge of the front stoop and just outside the garage. So any time we came and went from the house, in other words, we walked through a cloud of bumblebees. Nice.

Two of the reasons the gardening got held up in 2002 were Squeek and Max, the dog and number four cat, who arrived at the end of August. We had planned for Max, but not for Squeek -- she appeared out of thin air on the patio of a restaurant while Tony and I were trying to drink ourselves into a sense of calm about bringing home a dog. She got lucky -- the other three cats were so rattled by having a dog in the house, they hardly seemed to notice she was there until she got big and confident enough to be an annoyance to them, and by then they all acted like she'd always been there.

Well, things went okay with the animal adoptions, so I guess it proved gardening ain't the only thing worth doing. At least the grape hyacinths took well, and bloomed the next spring.

I'll get into 2003 and expanding the flowerbed later.

Posted by Melinda at February 6, 2005 03:44 PM


Post a comment

Remember Me?