Bzzzz January 10th, 2008

In this part of Maryland , near the bay, the soil is hardpan clay.

Despite the fact that clay soil is chock full of good nutrients, the ground is so mean and unyielding that planting in unimproved soil requires a man with a strong back and pickax or industrial-strength equipment. I learned this the hard way.

After years as career-vagabonds our family moved into our newly built home in August 2000 to set down permanent roots. Since it was too late in the year to do much in the way of productive gardening (and we were still swallowing hard and clipping coupons after the expenses of building a house on 20+ acres) I spent a full winter devoted to reading gardening books, seed catalogs and surfing the Internet.


I had big ideas and set some basic priorities.

1. First plant things that are going to take a long time to grow, such as trees and bushes. These will also help to define the structure of the garden.

2. Focus on the hardscaping that will make up the rest of the “bones” of the long-term garden.

The problem with both of these priorities is—you guessed it—money. So, we started out a bit at a time.

Right after we moved in I was considering planting a few trees myself so I optimistically experimented with a shovel in my new clay soil.

I located a promising looking spot and wedged the shovel into a promising looking crack. Taking a deep breath I heaved onto the shovel with all my weight.

“Well, that didn’t work.”

So, I wiggled the shovel deeper into the crack and jumped onto the shovel with BOTH feet. After a few tries at this two-footed digging approach my body was vibrating from the impact. On the last try I toppled over, having lost my balance.

Defeated, I put up the shovel and yielded the job to two strong men from a local nursery. I had them plant two unimpressive 8’ Zelkovas in the back yard between where the deck and Colonial garden would eventually be. And, because I love the romance of a magnolia in bloom, I had them plant a southern magnolia in front of the house.

Our garden budget for the year was spent.

As the summer of 2001 rolled in I couldn’t wait to get started on the garden. It was a huge task and my experience with the soil told me I would need help. So early that April I enlisted my husband, his pickax and my son.

Finally, with help, surely I can get this done in no time, right?

We all marched outside, positive attitudes in place, shiny brand new tools in hand and started hacking away at the hardpan clay. Harry whaled away at the soil with the pickax. I chopped the boulders with a shovel. Ben hoed the boulders into grapefruit-sized chunks. Each sized-person designated to the appropriate task.

It was slow…very slow…going. Excruciating.

We toiled at this for two full weekends. I sang all the working-outside, hard toil work songs I could think of…”Old Man River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Bye-and-Bye,” “Late Comes the Day.”

Four days came and went before we admitted defeat. You can’t call us easy quitters.

In desperation, we consulted a local farmer who was advising us on our new hayfield. He knew just what to do to get the garden prepared, he told me. After consulting with me on the basic dimensions he told me he would be back in a couple of days to upturn the soil with his disking machine.

Yippee! Finally, the solution. The answer to my prayers. In just two days I would have wonderfully turned soil and could start planting! I was giddy with excitement.

Two days later I returned home from some errands to discover that a bomb had exploded in our back yard. Well, not a bomb. But it looked like a bomb had exploded in our back yard.

HUMONGOUS clods of earth were everywhere. I’m talking BOULDERS of clay the size of bowling balls…armchairs…SPORTSCARS!

It was a complete disaster. This wasn’t the neatly tilled soil I had envisioned!! This looked more like a war zone.

Knowing the attitudes and aptitudes of the men in my house, I again asked around. A friend the gym where I work out insisted that his dad and crew were the men for the jobs.

“They’re professionals. They do this type of stuff all the time.”

So they came a’callin’ to see about my little garden problem.

There were three of them. They walked around. They mumbled, as only older Maryland men can mumble with a wad a chew in their mouthes. They shook their heads.

The dad told me he’d be in touch about what do to.

Well, you guessed it. I never heard from them again. My friend at the gym only told me his dad had laughed and laughed and laughed. Said he wouldn’t touch that project for a goldmine.

So again, Harry, Ben and I trudged back outside with our hoes. The trek wasn’t nearly so optimistic this time because we were already quite familiar with the unpleasant task in store.

Why didn’t we use a tiller? Two reasons:

1. I was in the throes of reading Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer in which she claims NEVER to use machinery to dig beds. The only acceptable method is double-digging. I figured if Barbara can do it, so can we. I am no wimp.

2. The tiller probably wouldn’t work anyway with all the hardpan boulders.

So again, we set to hacking up clay boulders with our hoes. Just for fun, once we had the soil in nice baseball sized chunks, I ordered up about 10 tons of leaf mulch. And bought 10 blocks of peat moss.

I spent parts of every single day loading up the wheelbarrow and spreading the leaf mulch, working it slowly in with a hoe. And other parts of other days hosing down and gently kneading the peat moss into something that could be worked into the soil.

Harry and Ben had long since abandoned this enterprise.

All of the sweaty, dirty work, alone, reminded me of the early days when Harry was at sea and I was home alone with a small child. We lived in Florida, where the summer heat was hideous. I decided one summer when Harry was gone, in a fit of pique, that I could do the lawn better than the service that had been caring for the lawn for several years. After work, while Ben was still in day care, I would rush to mow the lawn. When I got to the edges of the pond where we lived, a fairly steep slope that required considerable effort, I was exhausted and almost always dissolved into weepy tears that mixed with the sweat. I don’t know, even now, if it was sadness, loneliness, exhaustion or frustration–maybe all of these–but that same feeling was revisited when working in 10 tons of leaf much into my new garden. Perhaps working the soil works the soul?

To be continued…

On another note:

I am feeling somewhat better. I finally gave in and raided the medicine cabinet for all the cold medicine I could find. I am afraid of what’s in it, but that nasty green stuff that you swill out of a little cup allows you to sleep, at least. I even made it to the gym today and got some work done. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Posted In: Gardening


Bzzzz January 5th, 2008

Those busy folks over at Gardening Gone Wild are hosting another of their Garden Blogger’s Design Workshops–this time on arbors and pergolas.

These types of garden design features are among my favorites because, for me, gardening isn’t just about the plants, it’s about style, form and flow.

I fret over the outdoor design and arrangement as much as I do inside my home. In fact, the reason that I have been relatively slow to develop all this property is my concern for making sure the design is juuuuusssst right. I have to scratch my head and think really, really hard before I decide what to do.

The other reason I’ve been fairly slow to develop the larger landscape is that my big ideas often have big price tags. Which gets me to the topic of arbors…


The garden gate and arbor serve as an entrance to the Colonial garden. Fence, gate and arbor are from Walpole Woodworkers.

The ideal garden that lives inside my head was inspired by growing up in Virginia, where there are countless beautiful historic homes, most with gardens, and historic meccas such as Colonial Williamsburg. Our Colonial ancestors designed their gardens for beauty as well as function. Gardens were not just places to grow vegetables in tight little rows, but were extended rooms of the house, with paths, seating and tables that created outdoor rooms for family and guests to enjoy. Most often they mixed flowers, vegetables and herbs in a pleasing mix of form and function.

Once Harry and I finally put down permanent roots here in Maryland, I decided on a Colonial kitchen themed garden to try and make my dream garden a reality. The white picket fence provides a well-defined “room” for the garden and also extends the architectural interest of our white house as you approach down the long and winding driveway. But I knew that just a picket fence without some sort of vertical interest would look more like a pool enclosure than a true garden, so we added vertical interest with the arbor and gate. The view through the gate is to a bench at the end, which draws the eye and invites the visitor down the path.

Growing over the arbor on one side is a well-established clematis that blooms in late summer. On the other side is a wisteria that blooms in early spring. By mid-summer, the clematis and wisteria have twined together to cover the arbor gate.

I still worry about whether remove or drastically trim back the wisteria because of its Herculean vines. I haven’t done so yet because they actually are climbing up a white plastic chain that I installed so that the vines would have something to attach to. They twine on the sturdy arbor structure but not on the fence itself. The whack or no-whack decision will come in the spring.

Did I tell you that it takes me a long time to decide what to do in the garden?

wisteria may 25 07.jpg

Wisteria twines over the arbor. White plastic chains make excellent supports for small vines to cling to–and are soon masked by all the green.

We have added two other permanent vertical points of interest in the garden as well–a tuteur with a henryi clematis and a small Hakuro-Nishiki willow tree that is surrounded by boxwood and, if the squirrels allow, will be filled with purple tulips in the spring. (A nine-month view of the garden can be seen here.) In summertime, the cucumbers climb on bamboo teepees and the tomatoes on Texas Tomato Cages, adding more height to the garden.

henryi clematis may 25 07.jpg

Clematis henryi on a tuteur

One of the joys of working in a garden with such a well-defined structure is that it makes maintenance somewhat easier. Because I have raised beds I don’t have to tidy bed edges here. Also, the beds are small enough that I can reach in with my long arms to pull weeds or plant. When I need a rest, the bench is right there and provides a perfect location to plot my next big project.

Future big-ticket projects include extending our back patio into a path that leads to the garden. I plan to border the path with lavender and a wild array of useful herbs. Then there’s the chicken coop, the garden shed, the mosaic tile entryway, the container garden, the outdoor shower.

The list goes on and on and on…

Until it’s all done, I have a nice place to sit and plan my next, very slow, move.

Posted In: Gardening


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