Archive for September, 2010

Rock Wall Redo

In a previous post I explained the history of our house and its previous owners. One of the nice things the original owners created was a tiered rock wall with flowerbeds along the stairs to our front door. I’m sure it was beautiful at the time but the second owners completely neglected it. When we bought the house it looked like this:


Well not exactly…there were some small trees growing in there that we cut down right when we bought the house. As you can see over 35 years the dirt made its way through the rocks and mounded on the tier below it. It became impossible to keep mulch there because every time it rained it would spill over the side. Originally, we tried to fix the area by just digging down the flower beds but we ran into another problem. There was still an angled pile of dirt between the driveway and the rock wall for weeds to grow in. I tried growing Vinca Minor (aka. Periwinkle) a hardy groundcover there but between the winter plowing and occasional salting it didn’t do too well. After digging out the beds last year:

Notice how small the rocks look…


Flannel Man (FM) insisted on tearing out the rock wall and redoing it this year. We started by digging out the hard compacted dirt between the rock wall and the driveway. Then we took apart the rock wall piece by piece. What seemed to be a straight forward task of course became a much more difficult one when we realized many of the boulders were much larger than they appeared. We wouldn’t have been able to move some of them if we hadn’t dug out the area in front of them.

After we had moved all of the rocks we dug down where the rock wall had been and added gravel. After having done many projects involving gravel we’ve found that the cheapest place to get it is straight from our local quarry. You need to have a trailer though as they load the gravel with some big machinery that doesn’t have enough finesse to load a pick-up truck. This time we got ¾” limestone with fill which basically means it has both rocks and sand. It is the recommended base for patios and other hardscape since it compacts down very well. We also added landscaping fabric behind the wall to help keep soil from coming through the gaps.

Because this is a natural stone (aka. field stone) wall we didn’t need a drain pipe nor did we need to bury the bottom layer of rocks for a base. A cut stone or cement block wall should have 1” of buried wall for every foot of exposed wall height.

Since the new wall was going to be taller than the old one we had to come up with some more boulders. At stone yards we’ve seen medium sized boulders for $100-150 a pop since the price is based on weight. $150 for a rock! And not even a pretty colored one, those are more. Instead we turned to a great local source, farmers. Living in farm country we know that every farmer has at least one pile of rocks they hit when plowing their fields. So we visited a friend’s farm who said he “had a few rocks.” After driving through a long, muddy field (4 wheel drive trucks really come in handy in the country) we saw his 8’ tall 40’ long rock pile. We were in rock pile heaven! So we dug through the pile picking out our favorite rocks which sometimes meant moving ten rocks to get to one but hey they were free. We got about 20 rocks which would have cost us $2500 at the stone yard.

Here’s what the finished 40’ x 3’ wall looked like:

For a few of the really heavy rocks that we couldn’t move back into the wall we had to have our neighbor move with his tractor. One of them became a step for the transition between the end of the rock wall and the lawn. The other two are now in our woods.


**Public Service Announcement**
Note the beautiful tulips in the background of the picture above. This is the time of year to plant your bulbs for next year. Last fall I bought a bag of 50 tulip bulbs and planted them on either side of our driveway for some nice spring color. Not all of them came up as I found out that squirrels love to eat them and a few others came up in the ditch (now I know I didn’t plant those there!) because the squirrels moved them but overall it was a success. For $13 from Costco I’m happy with the results.

**Back to the rock wall**


We also dug down the upper two tiers of rock wall in a similar fashion to even everything out. To edge the flower bed we ended up using a composite material because we thought the brick border that we used on other flower beds would look strange next to natural rocks. Then to finish of the space between the rock wall and driveway we added flagstone with polymeric sand. This makes the space easy to plow and walk on plus the rock wall has become a make shift seating area. Here’s what the finished product looks like:

Most of the flowers were done blooming at this point but they will put on quite a show next year. I’ll follow up with a separate post on the polymeric sand for those of you who are interested.

Now that the rock wall is done we’ve moved onto another flagstone project that is still in the works. More on that later.


Dwarf Conifers for the Shade

So I’ll admit the front beds are a bit underwhelming but it’s the unique conifers that will someday define the space.  Conifers are low maintenance, do well in poor soil, can handle our cold Zone 4 winters, and look good all year round when other plants go dormant so of course I wanted them in our new front flower beds.  The only problems were that we had limited space and not enough sun.

Living in the woods is beautiful but with all the shade it has made my gardening effort much more difficult!  Conifers love sun but there a some odd balls that can handle shade you just need to do your research.  Surprisingly, the hardest time of the year for these conifers is winter.  The deciduous trees have lost their leaves and the ground is covered in snow which increases the amount of light they get and they can easily burn (aka. browned needles).

The style of our house limited how tall the plants in our front beds should be.  A long, short ranch with tall arborvitae on each corner just makes the house look shorter.  Plus our windows are less than 4′  off the ground and we someday plan to turn the screened in porch into a covered porch with railings so we were limited in height.  Also our front door is accessed from a sidewalk that runs along the side of the house which creates one of the beds which is 6′ wide and 30′ long.  My solution to this was to buy some slow growing conifers called dwarf conifers.  Which just means that they grow between 1-6″ a year.  For example a”mother” variety may be 40′ tall but the dwarf variety will only be 20′ tall in the same time…not really what you think of when you see the word “dwarf.”  Conifers never stop growing so unless they are in the middle of a field they will always outgrow a space but at least with dwarf conifers it will take them a few more years to outgrow a space.

After doing all this research I thought I’d let you know which plants I ended up buying.  As you walk up to the house the first conifer you see is this guy:

Tsuga canadensis ‘Frostie’

Canadian Hemlocks are one of the best conifers for partial shade (besides arborvitae which are just considered deer food in the country).  ‘Frostie’ gets to be approximately 4′ wide and 3′ tall in 10 years creating a mop head like mound.  It is known for holding it’s white color longer than other varieties and having a faint pink color in the winter.  Similar varieties include ‘Moon Frost’ and ‘Gentsch White.’


Tsuga canadensis ‘Jeddeloh’

This Canaden Hemlock creates a birds nest shape with light green growth turning to dark green.  It’s approximate 10 year size is 3′ tall and 4′ wide creating multiple “nests.”  It’s overlapping fan shaped branches create an interesting layered effect.  This variety was actually discovered as a seedling in a German cemetery in 1950 and raised by Jeddeloh Nurseries in Oldenburg.  Similar varieties include ‘Bennett’ and ‘Gracilis.’


Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘White Pygmy’

The Cypress family has some of my favorite irregular shaped and colored conifers but unfortunately Chamaecyparis obtusa do not do well in our area and can die unexpectedly.  However the Chamaecyparis pisifera family (this is why scientific names are important!) can handle our area though they have a more limited range of options.  But when I saw this little guy at a local nursery and there was only one left I just had to buy him!  It had a much whiter color when I bought it a few months ago but being true to it’s name still has a hint of white.  It’s such a cute little ball that visitors are always stopping to touch it’s feathery texture.  In 10 years it should be approximately 1.5′ around.


Abies koreana ‘Starker’s Dwarf’

OK, so this Korean Fir was a splurge.  It cost significantly more than the other conifers (besides our big blue conifer).  I’m not exactly sure why but I think it’s because it is a rarer variety which is why it was difficult finding information on this variety. It’s unique texture won me over though; I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It has short, flat needles that are stiff but blunt on the end so they don’t prick you.  The needles are widely spaced and have a fun white underside.  It creates a nice contrast with the nearby ‘White Pygmy.’  In 10 years it will be approximately 2.5′ wide and 3′ tall.  Similar but not nearly as cool as ‘Starker’s Dwarf’ is ‘Cis.’


Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’

This Japanese Yew has the best yellow color for shade.  It’s new growth is school bus yellow in the spring which fades to lime green in the fall.  Like most yews it is a vigorous grower but since this is a dwarf variety it should be more manageable.  Because of this I went with only a 1 gallon plant instead of the 3 gallon and saved my money for the other conifers.  In 10 years it should be approximately 3′ tall and 6′ wide.  ‘Dwarf Bright Gold’ is a very similar variety but is said to be slightly less yellow.


Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica ‘Glauca Compacta’ aka. ‘Arizonica Compacta’

This big guy is our focal point!  Because this is the end of 60′ of flower beds we needed something with some height to catch the eye and add a pop of color.  This corner of the yard drops off to a step slope so we used that to our advantage and created a short retaining wall that extends the flower bed past the side of the house so this area would receive more sun.  This Cork Bark Fir needs more sun than the other conifers so hopefully it’s 4 hours of direct morning light and 1-2 hours of afternoon light will be enough.  It is supposed to be one of the more shade tolerant blue conifers which normally need full sun.  This plant has dense growth with silvery blue needles and light green new growth in the spring.  Mature trees have purple colored cones and the trunk is a creamy white color.  Its is a slow growing pyramidal conifer that stays relatively narrow at approximately 4′ wide and 6′ tall in 10 years.  This one is could be 10 years old already (which is why it cost so much) looking at the growth each year.  As shown below it only grew 1.5″ last year but it may have already been in burlap at that time.

Well that’s all of them.  Did you have any idea conifers could be so interesting?  I had no idea a year ago.
You can find more information here, here, and here.

Front Flower Bed Transformations

Boy we had a busy Labor Day weekend! Last week the weather suddenly went from hot and dry to cold and rainy. The temperature dropped 15 degrees in two days! Of course that meant I could officially plant my fall shrubs. So we dropped everything and went to buy the dwarf conifers I began researching back in January. I originally wanted to plant them in the spring but we didn’t have the flower beds prepared and planting shrubs in the fall is easier since they don’t need to be watered through the dry summer.

When we bought the house the front flower beds looked like this:

I don’t have pictures of them in the summer but the weeds would get to be 3′ tall! The north flower bed had fabric and rocks laid down at one point but no edging. Because the yard was higher the area was filled with dirt over time where weeds could grow. The south flower bed (between the sidewalk and house) was also too high but luckily didn’t have any fabric or rocks. It was a serious mess. So the following spring we dug out the top 6″ of the flower bed and removed the weeds. Having never gardened in my life I wanted something quick and easy. The only plants I kept were hostas so I broke them up so I had enough to fill the space. Then we laid down fabric and rocks. I planned to add additional plants later.

When I look at this picture I think it was the most boring flower bed ever! Seriously, rows of hostas…and not just any hosta the most boring, typical, everyone has them hosta. Then add some predictable river rock and you have a 30′ x 6′ flower bed no one will ever notice! Luckily we never got to the north flower bed because I couldn’t decide on what type of edging I wanted. I’ve just never liked that black plastic stuff everyone uses. So we just lived with the weeds and pulled the tall ones when they began to block the windows.

Fast forward to a few months later and we decided to finally dig out the also messy rock wall flower bed and I realized that I’m going to have learn something about plants unless I want flower beds full of hostas. So I started reading up about gardening online and at the library. Then one night I saw a flyer for a Garden Club meeting at the library where they meet. I was super intimidated but I went to the next meeting where I didn’t know anyone. Turns out they were some of the nicest ladies I’ve ever met! Granted they were all my mother or grandmother’s age but the generational gap didn’t seem to matter when we were talking plants.

In August we finally got to installing a brick edging and retaining wall for the north flower bed. Next we tore out the boring hosta bed spending a weekend on our hands and knees picking up thousands of rocks by hand. Fun! Last weekend we picked up mulch from our county waste site ($5 for a trailer full), bought all of my dwarf conifers from two different nurseries, and picked up some mulch. And here’s how it looks now:

Don’t mind the dirt embedded into the sidewalk and the multi-colored mulch. I know it looks pretty sparse right now but I plan to fill in with more perennials next year and the conifers will fill in slowly. I think it’s a good base of unique plants that will look good all year round even covered with snow. So what do you think?

This is the story of two twenty something newlyweds who are learning to adjust to life in their first house, a 1973 fixer-upper.
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