After The Winter That Wouldn’t Die, we’re finally starting to get a taste of spring here in southeastern PA. It’s going to be a bit longer before there’s anything green and growing to appreciate, though, so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking instead. Mostly, my plans for the upcoming growing season have focused on how I can reduce some of the most resource-intensive areas so I can do a better job on the parts I really enjoy. A big part of that has been figuring out where those problem areas are, and how they got that way.
Considering that I’d never before tackled a garden of this size from scratch, some of the decisions that I made over the last 14 years have turned out surprisingly well. I can’t say that I made any big mistakes with my plant choices, for instance. Sure, I’ve had plenty of losses, and a few things I ended up digging out (like the barberries), but there’s nothing that I regret having tried.
The main thing I’d change if I were to start over again would be to have only a half, or maybe even a third, of the gardens I have now. After having worked with only small spaces, or in other people’s gardens, the prospect of having almost unlimited space for all of the things I wanted to try was way too tempting, and I ended up getting rather carried away.
I was also far too entrenched in the “get rid of the grass” mindset. I still believe that to be a worthwhile pursuit, if the alternative is intensively fertilized and heavily watered turf that needs herbicides and frequent mowing to look perfect. Around here, though, our version of lawn is mowing whatever grows on its own, which is basically a mix of native and non-native grasses, clovers, and weeds. Cut it once or twice a year, you get hay or meadow, mow it every week or two, and you have what passes as pasture or turf: no watering or feeding necessary. Compared to that minimal amount of input, pretty much any sort of garden requires more time and/or money to maintain.
Over the years, I often wished that I had invested in a power sod cutter in the beginning, but in retrospect, it was a darn good thing I didn’t. With just a manual cutter and a spade, I ended up digging up way more than I can maintain the way I’d like. I shudder to think what I’d have gotten myself into if I could have removed all that sod in just a year or two.
In the front garden, I mostly made the beds by covering the “grass” with newspapers, spreading a few inches of topsoil mix on them, and then planting annuals for a few years before transitioning to perennials.
For the side garden, I added topsoil on top of newspapers in some areas and smothered the grass in other areas with a combination of newspapers and old hay.
Outside the fence, I had to take a different approach. I knew I wasn’t ready to tackle gardens out there, but I had many dozens of tiny shrubs that needed to get in the ground, so I dug individual holes for each and let them get established for several years. Then, as time allowed, I used the manual sod cutter to clear some areas and used the sod pieces to build beds around the existing shrubs, covering the sod with newspapers and wood chips or old hay until I had enough perennials to fill in.
In the long run, it didn’t matter which way I made the beds: just that I kept making them every year, when I probably should have taken a break every other year to make sure I had a good handle on maintaining the existing ones.
The paths have also been an ongoing maintenance issue. Because of my”no grass” mentality, I had to come up with another option for the paths, and the only affordable and accessible option at the time was shredded bark.
In some ways, I’ve been pleased with it. It has a wonderful springy feel underfoot, and its dark color really sets off the plants in spring and early summer.
What I hadn’t figured on was having to spend several hundred dollars every year to replace it. Once or twice, I tried skipping a year, but weeds and volunteer seedlings sprouted quickly in the loose, humus-rich conditions, and keeping up with the weeding was overwhelming.
Cutting off the perennial seedheads in fall, so they wouldn’t drop into the paths in winter, helped somewhat; so did making sure I spread new mulch early in spring, to smother some of the seeds before they sprouted. It’s still a big yearly commitment of time and expense, though.
At one point, I thought of all the cedar trees and brush I have here and thought hey, I could make my own mulch for free. But when I found out that this much brush…
…produced this little mulch, I knew that wasn’t a solution.
Bark mulch washes out easily in heavy rain, too, even on just a slight slope, so it needs to be retrieved and raked out again after.
So, my plan for this year is to turn all of the bark-mulch paths back to grass. I can’t just let them revert on their own, though, or they’ll be a forest of Joe-Pye weed, ironweed, amsonia, Verbena bonariensis, and thistles. My plan is to rake whatever loose bark is left into the beds, and then sow Prairie Nursery’s “Now-Mow Lawn” seed.
Having green paths instead of brown ones is going to give the whole inside-the-fence area a different look, but it’ll be an interesting change.
Of course, I will need to do some mowing, but I already have a battery mower that’ll serve the purpose. And, mowing will be a lot less time-sensitive than weeding. The main issue is that I’ll have to deal with edging the beds regularly. (I did have to do that with bark paths, to keep the lines neat, but that was only every 3 years or so.)
Ideally, I’d install some sort of edging strips around all of the beds before sowing the grass seed. But there won’t be time for that this spring, so that project will have to wait for another time.
A few other things I’ve learned about paths…first: curvy paths are picturesque, but straight ones are way more practical for routes you use often. I mostly think in straight lines, so I figured it would be nice to attempt a curving path between the house and the barn, just as something different.
It has been pretty, but after walking out there and back a dozen times a day for 12+ years in all sorts of weather, I often wish that I’d made it a more direct route–particularly in winter.
Straightening this path may end up being another project to tackle this year. After all, even straight paths can be photogenic, particularly if you let some of the plants sprawl into them to soften the edges.
Another thing to consider is that wiggly paths are difficult to navigate with a wheelbarrow, especially if they’re also narrow. In various parts of the garden, I’ve experimented with both straight and winding paths of different sizes: as wide as 6 feet and as narrow as about 1 foot. The 6-foot-wide middle path through the front and side garden looks fairly proportional from late summer through fall, when the plants are filled out, but too wide for the rest of the year, I think.
The 1-foot paths are too narrow pretty much any time the plants along the edges are growing…
…and even 18-inch paths can get pretty narrow by fall: fun if you enjoy getting up close and personal with plants but daunting for visitors who are freaked out by bees and other insects.
If I were starting over with a blank slate, I think I’d go with about 30 inches for all of the paths. And, as much as I hate to say it, I would put more money into “proper” paved paths. When I think of how much I’ve spent on bark mulch over the years, I could have had some really nice walkways by now.
The challenge, though, is knowing which paths are worth that sort of investment. Even if you wait a year or two after moving into a new place to start a landscape plan, there’s no guarantee that the paths you plan on paper will go where you really need them to, or that those you put in at first will still be useful 10 years later. Unfortunately, once a path is in place, it tends to stay there, even if it isn’t right, because changing the route of a paved path is a big project.
The happy medium, I guess, is committing to a few well-made main paths early on, then letting the secondary ones evolve as the gardens expand. Eventually, then, you can decide which need to be upgraded, which need to be tweaked, and which maybe aren’t needed any longer, to cut down on maintenance.
One last design mistake I’ll mention: steps. I used to love the idea of steps in a garden, but now, when I look at pictures of professionally designed gardens in magazines, I often feel sorry for the poor gardeners who have to maintain those areas. I wonder how many of those designers have ever tried to get up and down a set of steps with a wheelbarrow or mower? Even the single 4-inch step I have between the front and side garden has been a real headache over the years. I ended up creating a little ramp on one side of it, but it’s still a hassle trying to go up with a loaded wheelbarrow.
So, yet another job for this year: getting rid of that step, and the set of two that I have on the path back to the veg garden area. Just thinking of how much easier it’ll be to get around for maintenance makes me very happy.
Looks like I have a lot of projects on my to-do list for this year, in the hopes of getting back to easier gardening next season. Any of you have some design mistakes you’re willing to confess to, or have you been making (or planning to make) changes in your own gardens to simplify your life? I’d be very interested to hear about them.
In the meantime, we’ll be quietly melting here. In just a week, we’ve gone from this…
…to cleared enough to get out for a ramble.
We’ll see you on April 15 with some flowers–one way or another!