Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Along the Garden Wall

Swedish rock wall
I love a garden wall!

Officially this house project is the third garden I will be creating from scratch. Even though neither of the other properties involved house construction, they were still "blank canvases" consisting of nothing but grass and a few tired rhododendrons around the edges.

With each design, I find myself drawn toward a more formal aesthetic and the use of geometry--straight lines and circles essentially--to provide structure to the garden. One of my favorite ways to express that geometry and to delineate spaces within a garden is with the use of hedges and rock walls.

A rock wall we built at our previous house; here during construction...

...and after five years!
Besides serving as edges and shapers of the land, rock walls and stone patios are also great for soaking up whatever amount of sun we get and radiating that warmth back out in the late afternoon and evening after a sunny morning--a feature dearly appreciated by plants and humans here in the damp and chilly Northwest!

So naturally I have some rock walls in mind for this garden. And without the carpentry skills to help move the interior finishing along, gardening is also providing a productive outlet for some of my pent-up energy and impatience about getting the house completed. I decided to start the garden with the east property edge.

East property edge during demolition
Our property is separated from the neighbor to the east by a 4 to 5 foot tall concrete rubble wall; their property being at the higher elevation.

Although the legal setback is just 5 feet, we left about 10 feet of space between our house and the actual east property line in order to preserve some existing arborvitae trees.

The wall, the trees, and the shade cast by the house itself make this space fairly dark--and therefore perfect for a shade garden! 

East edge during foundation phase
East edge after house construction.

Because this space is so visible from the kitchen and dining room, it is important to me that it be attractive and lushly planted. This will be a challenge. Even though there are many plants that can survive--and even thrive--in the shade, our space is also bone dry as the arborvitae trees tend to suck up all the available moisture in the ground around them.

So far we have put down landscape cloth to inhibit weed growth and topped it with sand. We also placed a "threshold" stone at the start of the path by the future patio. Soon we'll add a layer--1-2 inches--of crushed rock and then roll the whole path to create a level and somewhat hard surface.

Landscape paper is laid and the wall started--I used the
long board to keep a straight edge to the wall.

Cobblestones against the foundation help make a neat edge and prevent
rainsplash and mud from getting on the siding.

To ensure the plants will survive, I'm planning on irrigating them for at least a year or until they are well established. Then I'll see about weaning them from the soaker hose and going cold turkey with just rainwater.

To define the garden edge, I've created a low cobblestone wall. Even though the height difference is just 12 inches at the highest point and eventually tapers to nothing, the wall provides definition to the space and also creates that long visual line that I'm striving for.


I want to capitalize on the shape and size of the space--a full 135' from street to alley--with features that emphasize its linear quality. Plant-wise I'm interested in keeping to a palette of green and white, primarily focusing on leaves and a few small flowers.

I'm starting with green and white hostas, lily of the valley, some black widow geranium, and various groundcovers including epimedium, Corsican mint, baby's tears, and creeping Jenny.

Corsican Mint

Although not all of these are shade lovers, the space does get enough sun mid morning to meet the needs of the others.

The Corsican mint has already doubled in size and the hostas seem very happy.

A clump of Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley close-up--isn't it exquisite?

Unfortunately there isn't space to plant trees on both sides to create an allee. I'll have to be content with a lop-sided design with trees on only one side.

The end of the path closest to the street dissolves into what will eventually be a small patio off the dining room. For this area--which actually gets a lot of sun--I am expanding the plant palette in the garden bed to shades of blue and purple as well, and choosing plants that have a fragrance we can enjoy while sitting outside. So far I've included lavender, delphinium, foxglove, veronica, common mint, and little violets.

I really like the way these colors complement the paint color we chose for the exterior of the house too.

This bed adjacent to the patio is also the perfect location to place our angel statue where she can stand out against the backdrop of the ivy-covered wall.

In addition to providing a view from the dining room and from the patio, the path also needs to serve as a walkway for my mom to come to the front of the house to pick up her mail. (Mail carriers will not deliver off the alley for an accessory dwelling unit.)

Midway along the length of the path, we are planning to build a small raised deck that she can access from her bedroom. Beyond the deck, the path will continue to the rear of the property.

Since this area is beyond the arborvitae and receives at least 2-3 hours of morning sun, the deck will be a nice place for her to read the morning paper and have coffee in the warmer months. I'm envisioning a chair or chaise lounge and small table as furnishings.

More space than Mom will have,
but isn't it lovely? From www.frontgate.com
In the winter and/or rainy weather, it should also be attractive to look out onto even if she isn't actually sitting outdoors. It will also be very important to somehow manage the slope so that Mom can easily and safely walk there. This means no (or at least few) steps and a stable walking surface.

Sensibly this path has edges to keep the gravel
from traveling, and also steppingstones for surer footing.

No formal edging on this path, but the wild edge of plants may be enough to keep the gravel in its place. 

At the back of the property, the space opens up into what will eventually be Mom's "front yard" off the alley. The long view from front to back suggests the opportunity for some kind of terminus--maybe a bench or a small garden sculpture? I'm not sure quite what I'll do there yet...

Classic focal point at Sissinghurst
Anyway, it is fun getting my hands back into the soil. I remember a former neighbor who used to quote Voltaire when he saw me out digging in the dirt, saying "We must cultivate our own garden."

Some may translate that as "We must tend to our own garden" or, in other words, we must mind our own business! But I prefer to think of it as a metaphor for cultivating our own happiness in this world.

What have you cultivated lately?

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