Saturday, April 23, 2011

Adventures in Landscaping

After losing a tree to wind and rain this fall, our yard is more bare than when we bought our house a year ago.  Since plants take a long time to grow, I decided that we must get our landscaping started this year.  So, in my normal neurotic fashion, I assembled a giant pile of books and combed the internet obsessively for the last few months.  I even attended a great event put on by the Master Gardeners of Delaware County.  It was a great series of lectures which included a wonderful talk about the "bone structure" of your landscape. After cobbling together a plan, we finally took the plunge this week and began our new adventure into landscaping.

Since I always try to keep mother nature in mind, I found myself most influenced by sustainable gardening and edible gardening.  My plan is to create a landscape that will thrive on what nature provides and will be as self-sufficient as possible.  This means that I am looking for native plants or plants that are adapted to our Eastern Pennsylvania climate.  I also really love the idea of growing food, so I am using as many edible plants as possible.  Some other influences are a desire to invite wildlife (birds, butterflies) and a desire to create a magical space for our future children.  Also, in keeping with the enviro-friendly aspect, I did some research into landscaping for energy efficiency.  

So here's the stage one plan (i.e. giving our land some bones):

In the front yard I am taking out our small ornamental allergy factory and putting in an apple tree.

Along the side of our house we are creating a natural fence of berry bushes, as well as adding a cherry tree.  These will help with that energy efficiency issue in that it will give our house some shade and a break from the wind (and boy do we get a lot of wind). We will have a blueberry, 2 raspberries, 2 blackberries, 2 elderberries, a balaton cherry tree, and two nanny berries.

Now, I have never been so proud of a pile of dirt before in my life, but after renting a rototiller, unloading 3,000 pounds of mushroom compost, and distributing 3,000 pounds of mulch, that is the most beautiful pile of dirt I have ever seen!

It even forms an exclamation mark! (Although the dot is just the leftover mulch that will be distributed to the trees that are coming, so it won't be so exciting forever.)

We did come up with some ingenious ways to spread the dirt around.  We picked up the compost in a rented truck.  To distribute it, we backed up over the tilled row and scooped out some, then pulled forward five feet and scooped out more and kept doing that until it was all unloaded.  A quick raking to spread it out and it was done.  That saved considerable time and effort.  We were able to pretty much just push it off the back of the truck rather than scoop it all by hand--with shovels of course!  The mulch was delivered and dumped in one pile.  To make spreading it around easier, I grabbed a rubbermaid tote and we scooped the mulch up with the tote and then dumped it in piles along the row, spreading it with a rake as we went.  Who needs a wheelbarrow when you've got a tote?  It was quick and easy.  We also put a layer of weed cloth down over the compost before laying the mulch, so our future weeding duties should be kept to a minimum.

Here is a really poorly done mock-up of our projected front yard:

The back yard is still being debated, but we have purchased a sugar maple for the southwest corner of the house and a river birch for the southern side.  These will arrive Monday afternoon.  We chose the river birch because our land slopes downward and creates some very moist soil on the southern side (hence the fallen tree last fall).  A river birch will soak up the extra water during heavy rains, but will also tolerate the dryness between rains in the summer.  I also chose it because it will provide some shade to the house in the summer, but is not too dense to block the radiant heat of the sun in the winter.  This balance of shade and sun on the southern side was a key factor for energy efficiency.  I read that the loss of the sun's heat in the winter would negate the savings from the shade in the summer, so it is important to choose something that will let a lot of sun through in the winter.  The southwest corner is where you can go for some serious shade tree action.  

The rest of our back yard is a slope down to a weird squarish section of lawn next to our driveway.  I want to eventually terrace the hillside into raised beds/steps and use that area for vegetable gardening.  The squarish area will eventually be a space for future kiddos.  I want to plant a weeping mulberry for a magical, natural playhouse (complete with yummy fruit snacks!) and plant something that will create some narrow shade/privacy screen (not sure what yet).  Eventually I imagine there will be a small play structure and/or sandbox down there.

I am also planting some red osier dogwoods to serve as a natural fence between our townhouse neighbor's yard and ours.

Here is a current picture and a projected mock-up:



(Note: maple, dogwood, and river birch tree pics are from and weeping mulberry is from

Of course, it will take years for the trees to grow to those sizes, but that is the general end result that is in mind.  You also have to imagine that those are terraces and they will be full of veggie plantings.  I can just picture pumpkins and strawberries cascading down the hillside and lots of tomato plants, carrots, radishes, and more!  We're really trying to make the most of the small amount of land that we have.

Well, those are the plans for the bones of our property.  The fill-in will take place over time...the general idea being to grab plants that will work around the bones, be native and/or edibles, etc.