Landscaping in Slow Motion

Native grasses outside the kitchen, just beyond the rock wall.

Most of the landscaping around here came with the place. Contracting crews working on the house in 2002-03 were flustered that we were such sticklers about maintaining a tight construction envelope around the site, but I’m glad every day we were so insistent. On the south side of the house, native grassland begins about fourteen feet from the windows, just beyond a retaining wall.

After the foundation was back-filled, though, the area between the house’s exterior and that retaining wall became part of the built environment. Outside the kitchen, most of the space is taken up by a deck and flagstone patio, but toward the west, near the front door, it begged for landscaping.

Even before we moved into the house, I harbored fantasies about what this area would look like: visitors approaching via the outdoor front steps would—in summer, at any rate—be greeted by a tidy oasis of emerald ground covers punctuated by a stone footpath. I’d plant a narrow herb garden at the base of the retaining wall, mixing flowers into the greenery. I pictured having a couple of feature plants in the bed, too, something dramatic to strike the eye, something worth a little extra care and attention.

Turkish veronica (blue) and woolly groundsel (yellow) next to the sandstone footpath.

Nowadays, mats of Turkish veronica and creeping thyme cover most of the gravelly soil. The veronica blooms early, vibrant blue. Seeds from native woolly groundsel took root a few years ago, and it turns out that groundsel flowers at the same time as the veronica, in vibrant yellow. The color combination isn’t anything I planned, but I’m quite taken with the accidental duet. I planted native iris seeds in the channel that draws water from the downspout away from the house, and in a wet year the pale blue petals banner in the wind. As the weather gets hotter, pink and rose take over from yellow and blue, with creeping thyme and scattered tufts of dianthus speckling the space like girly confetti. By late summer, the little “yard” settles into a patchwork in shades of green.

One tough poppy, flanked by more groundsel.

The herb garden is still more of a work in progress. A solitary poppy plant features prominently for a couple of weeks in June, its oversized orange petals swooning melodramatically. I have a sage plant slowly maturing to ornamental size, some chives, and a culinary thyme plant that’s entering its third season. This spring, I launched my fourth or fifth attempt at oregano, and my third try at tarragon. I decided early on to confine mints to planters made of terra-cotta chimney flue liners so they wouldn’t take over the herb bed, but it turns out this arrangement allows the roots to freeze in winter, so I bring home new plants from the nursery each year and they never get very big. The lone survivor of my feature plant ambitions is a “Miss Kim” lilac hunkered in the western corner. It’s a dwarf plant but even at that this one is of small stature. Still, after living inside a cage of wire mesh for several years, it’s now grown large enough to survive browsing from rabbits or deer, although it sputters fitfully when it comes to flowering.

These modest measures of success have taken fourteen years.

Part of this time was taken up with completing the hardscaping, in the form of rock work. Over the course of years, my husband and I devoted weekends to facing the cinderblock retaining wall—and the foundation around the perimeter of the house—with native moss rock. We gathered stone from the ridge beyond the horse pasture, and then sorted, placed, mortared, grouted, and cleaned.

Planting began in earnest more than ten years ago, and I’m not sure how to characterize the long course of my efforts on this front. I’d like to think that “patience” or “persistence”  is the right word, but in truth I’ve felt neither of those. Mostly the experience as been one of exasperation and frustration interspersed with the occasional fit of rage.

Dianthus taking the limelight as veronica and groundsel begin to bow out.

I knew that gardening at this altitude, in this climate, at a location still claimed as home territory by a variety of wildlife species, was going to be a challenge, but I had no clue how hard it would be. Deer are a familiar scourge to gardeners across the nation and I’ve taken my knocks from their appetites, but rodents have been more devastating by far.

The tales of woe inflicted by chipmunks, ground squirrels, big-footed meadow mice, rock squirrels, bushy-tailed wood rats, pack rats, deer mice, and pocket gophers would fill volumes. They have eaten, cut down, consumed the roots of, beheaded, and pulled out dozens and dozens (and dozens) of plants of all types: native transplants and nursery stock, annuals and perennials, succulents and cacti, herbs and flowers, ground covers and shrubs. Suffice it to say that even though orange is not my favorite hue, that poppy plant has earned my respect: it’s a survivor.

I have sprayed and dusted and caged and trapped and stomped and hollered. I have not kept calm, but I have carried on, and the payoff for the misery and expense and aggravation and despondency is a pleasure well out of proportion to the modest aesthetics of the space. I’ll sometimes sit out on the front steps with a cup of tea in the morning, listening to the bees bumbling and drawing in the spicy clove scent of the dianthus, able now, finally, to appreciate the contrast between the flat little expanse of domesticated ground and the grassland growing so effortlessly beyond the rockwork on the wall.

Morning on the front steps: the groundcover “lawn” and footpath lead to the patio and kitchen deck in the background, where tall black pots host scented geraniums. The rock wall is on the right, with native grasslands beyond; the rockwork on the left is some of the last we completed on the house, in 2009.

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5 Responses to Landscaping in Slow Motion

  1. It definitely blends in very well. I hope you will have a colorful view all summer long.

  2. This sounds like a lot of work and effort, but it looks lovely. I wonder what would happen if you simply allowed the natives to take over and only pull out invasives?

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Letting the natives make their way back in while keeping weeds in check is definitely an easier and lower-stress way to go, Tania. That’s pretty much how I’ve “landscaped” most of the areas around the house and barn. The process takes a few years (although not ten…) and the results are hugely satisfying. I’m fond of the “yard,” I guess, because of the contrast with the grassy background–and it isn’t so formal that it looks out of place.

  3. I love this essay, which also makes me feel a little better about my own pathetic efforts at growing some of these same plants, and some that are adapted to my lower elevation. My herb garden is ambitious this year, but experience suggests I’ll be grumbling about how few plants survive next spring. Your words help.

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Thanks for the kind words about the words, Linda. It’s weird how hard it is to hold in my brain that gardening, like so many things in life, is a process and not a one-and-done affair. We’ve had a crash in the rodent population so far this year, so I rolled the dice and planted some new herbs, so if there’s a lesson to be learned about NOT making myself crazy, I clearly haven’t absorbed it.

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