Archives for posts with tag: landscaping

Still playing catch up, we thinned the beets and turnips today. Doing the turnips was easy: we had placed the seeds with one and a half to two inches in between them; to thin, we simply pulled out every other sprout. The remaining turnips, now spaced at three to four inches, should not need to be further thinned.

Thinning the beets required a bit more attention. Their seeds are clustered so even though we used the same initial spacing, each cluster produced multiple tightly-bunched sprouts. Rather than pull them out, which might damage the roots of those left to grow, we used clippers to cut off the extraneous stems and leaves. As it turned out, because the beet seeds did not germinate with the same success as the turnips and radishes, there was less thinning to do.

To wrap up in the garden, we harvested the first of the radishes. And we were just in time, too. Shortly after we went inside to sauté them with the beet and turnip greens, a rainstorm of nearly biblical proportions came crashing through.

These strong summer storms are very exciting and not a little alarming. They arrive with next to no warning—unlike hurricanes and tropical storms which are monitored closely as they track up the Atlantic seaboard—and can dump a huge volume of rain in a very short period. In fact, today’s storm brought a higher precipitation rate than either Hurricane Irene or Hurricane Sandy. Our road nearly washed out.

Luckily, however, the tempest had subsided after an hour or so (unlike the hurricanes which take a day or two before they run out of energy). No real damage had been done but the runoff washed around the raised beds and redistributed the cedar mulch. Still, it underscores the need for more risk analysis (see May 7, 2014).

With climate change clearly in progress, heavy rains such as the one this afternoon have been and will continue to be much more likely. The consequences remain moderate: flooding of the pool and garden area. So far, the impact to the house has been minimal although the long-term exposure to moisture—to the point of saturation—may eventually lead to rotting timbers and a leaky roof.

It is apparent that I need to assess the topography of the yard and devise surface drainage routes to relieve the low-lying areas where rainwater accumulates. The big unknown for us is what exactly to do to mitigate the flow and how much it will cost us.  Because although it is true that I can’t do anything about the weather (despite talking about it a lot), I can do something about its consequences.


So, the melting has begun.  It is going slower than I expected, mainly because it remains very cold.  Even on a day as warm as today—with a high in the 50s expected—the snow only melts at the fringes of the still-covered areas, where solar radiation heats the pavement, or roof shingles, or exposed rocks, and the heat absorbed slowly conducts its way under the snow (snowpack melts mainly from its underside).  The few warms days we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy have been bracketed by nights with temperatures in the 10s and 20s.

As the drifts recede and the heaps shrink, the world is expanding again.  A month ago at the height (literally) of the season, we were hemmed in by a thick blanket of snow and the towering moraines left by snowplows and shovels.  Our narrow dirt road, constricted at the best of times, became truly one lane; passing a car in the other direction was tricky.  Simply walking around the house was impossible.  It was not necessarily an uncomfortable constraint—the minimized outdoor world was cozy in the way that a small room can be, or as cozy as snow can be, anyway—but it was very limiting.

Now the road is back to its normal width.  The stone walls that border it are again visible, as are the rocks that have fallen from them here or there.  Mileposts, “for sale” signs, political posters—most things shorter than four feet in height—have emerged from hiding even if they are somewhat the worse for wear, having been shoved around by unknowing snowplow drivers.  Indistinct white lumps in the lawn or on the patio have morphed back into landscaping boulders, chaise longues, and charcoal grills.  In the distance, the hills have lost their understory of white and the bare trees, once standing out in sharp contrast to the snow, have faded into a uniform brown background (we have few evergreen trees around here).

In short, the accessible environment is returning to its normal state.  Time to embrace the great outdoors again!

Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

We were treated to a crashing thunderstorm this evening, a summer tradition after a long, hot day.  Up until about six o’clock, it did not feel like impending rain even though the cloud cover had increased to a deep overcast.  Then, it got suddenly darker and, boom!  The thunder commenced.

Storms usually pass by us at a distance of two miles or more (based on the delay between lightning flash and thunder clap) but this one was closer, a mile perhaps.  Consequently, the thunder was very loud and literally shook the windowpanes.  It was dramatic and very exciting.

Like a typical storm, the light and audio show carried on for 15 to 30 minutes before the rain began.  And when it finally started, it was as if the rain were trying to make up for lost time.  It intensified from a light sprinkle to a raging downpour in an instant and then dumped a huge amount of water in a short time.  Deluge is the word that comes to mind.

Such intensity cannot last, however, and soon the rain slowed to a steady fall, eventually tapering to a mist and finally trailing off.  By eight o’clock, the storm was over and the clouds cleared out.  Judging by the rise in the level of the swimming pool, an inch of rain fell in about two hours.  While the storm itself was not unusual (they inevitably occur after heat spells), such a high rate of rainfall is rare.

The good news is that we will not have to water the garden for a few days.  The not-so-good news is that the rain fell much faster than it could drain away from the garden.  When we went down to the pool for a late night swim—and garden inspection—we found that the mulch had been redistributed by the flowing waters.  One of the only downsides to cedar chips is that they float.

The surface runoff did not cause any damage and no mulch or debris ended up in the pool, whose perimeter is higher than the surrounding areas.  As we have learned too many times before, a benefit of raised planters is that the vegetable plants they contain are elevated well above potential floodwaters.  No threat there (not this time, anyway).

We do have squash and cucumber plants on the ground this year, though, and they are a bit more exposed.  Fortunately, the squash plants were completely undisturbed; apparently, the water drained through the fence and out onto the lawn.  There was some impact to the cucumbers (they are located along the fence) but the soaker hose that waters them acted as a barrier; the plants look to be okay.  Still, the mounds of soil and mulch will have to be replaced.

Luckily, storms of such intensity occur infrequently.  Nonetheless, we will have to take another look at possible drainage improvements.

I’ve found that the best way to assess the impact of the removal of trees is not to do it at all, at least not consciously.

If, after a tree has been trimmed or felled, I do not notice anything different, then usually I conclude that removing it was the right thing to do.  This has happened in the past when a tree was removed while we were away.  When we returned, we did not immediately realize that the work had been done.

Alternatively, if I do become aware of the change, it becomes a question of how I become aware of it.  For example, if I get the feeling that something is missing, that there is an unnatural gap in the treescape, it can mean that the removal was too extreme or not well chosen.  Luckily, this has not happened to us very often and fortunately, when it has happened, the surrounding trees eventually grew in to fill the void.

If, however, I get a feeling of openness—sunlight or airiness where there was none before—or notice a new and exciting view, previously obscured, then we probably made the right choice.  This was the case today.

With the two trees gone, the garden remains in the sun until after 6 o’clock, an extension of the growing day of at least three hours.  As an added bonus, we can now see a vignette of the surrounding mountains, framed by the remaining trees.

We finally arranged for our tree guy, Jerry, to come by with one of his helpers to remove the two maples that shade our garden in the late afternoon (see February 6, 2013).  We had meant to get this done before the trees sprouted their leaves (it would have made less of a mess) but didn’t get around to it.  Now that the garden is in full swing, though, we need the extra solar exposure.

When Jerry removes a tree near the house, he follows a very careful and elaborate procedure.  First, he cuts off the outer branches, then he tops the tree, and brings the trunk down section by section.  Sometimes, as a final step, he removes the stump by grinding.  The stump-grinding equipment is truck-mounted so accessibility is an issue; consequently, we have several stumps on our property.

Jerry chips all but the largest branches and takes the rest away.  When we have needed firewood, he has cut the trunk into appropriate lengths and left it for me to split and stack (see, for example, February 5, 2012).  Tree removal is a very labor-intensive activity but when Jerry and his crew are done, the only signs of their having been there are tire tracks and a scattering of sawdust.

The same approach would not be practical for today’s project.  The trees in question are just outside the border between our pool area and the surrounding woods, a transitional zone between order and chaos.  They are over 100 feet from the road and their bases are on a steep slope.  The trees could be cut down in the same way but removing the branches and wood would require an unjustifiable amount of effort.

So instead, we will leave the downed trees in place.  And if we are going to do that, there is no reason to cut them into pieces.  Bringing them down in one fell swoop (each, for a total of two fell swoops) is more appropriate.  (I had hypothesized that felling trees was the literal origin of the saying, “one fell swoop,” but my research revealed otherwise.  Fell can mean cruel or fierce while swoop in this context refers to the sudden dive of a bird of prey.  Given the sound a tree makes when it is felled, I like my story better.)

Felling a tree with a single cut at the base is much more difficult than it might at first seem, especially if the direction in which the tree will fall is of concern.  In fact, it can’t be done reliably with only one cut.  If the saw is not properly aligned with the direction the tree wants to fall (due to the location of its center of gravity), the weight of the tree will close the kerf as the tree starts to lean and that will bind the blade.  Unfortunately, I have to admit that I know this from firsthand experience.

Most often, three cuts are needed.  The first two cuts are made on the fall side of the tree to remove a wedge of the trunk.  This forms a hinge about which the falling tree will rotate.  The third cut is made on the side opposite the wedge and if all of the cuts have been done properly, the tree will start to fall due to gravity before the final cut makes it all the way through the trunk.

Geometry cannot be ignored, however, and even if the cuts are made correctly, the tree still might want to fall in another direction.  Based on Jerry’s assessment, this is the case with our trees, both of which are leaning slightly uphill, towards the pool.  Obviously, this is not the direction we want the trees to fall.  To counteract the trees’ gravitational tendencies, Jerry attached a rope near the top of each one to pull them in the direction he wanted them to fall.

Getting the ropes into the trees took a certain amount of finesse.  For the first tree, Jerry knotted the rope to a length of lightweight line—string, almost—at the end of which was a small beanbag slightly bigger than a Hacky Sack.  He carefully launched the beanbag up and into the tree with an underhand motion, aiming for a branch high on the trunk.  It took two tries but the second toss sailed through the crotch and dropped back to the ground.

Using the lightweight line, Jerry hoisted the main rope up to the top of the tree and back down.  Then, he formed a loop (tree work requires as much knotting skill as sailing, it appears) and cinched the rope around the tree trunk.  His helper took the free end downhill (the direction we want the tree to fall) until the rope formed about a 45-degree angle with the horizontal.  There, he anchored the rope to another tree trunk.

Using an in-line winch called a come-along, the helper took out the slack in the rope and then applied some tension.  At this point, Jerry starting cutting the notch on the fall side of the tree.  After confirming that the rope was taut enough to prevent the tree from shifting in the uphill direction, he completed the notch.

Then, the dramatic part began.  The helper continued to winch up the rope while Jerry commenced the final cut.  As the helper cranked up the tension, we could hear the tree trunk creaking and see it starting to list downhill.  When the tree was leaning by about 15 degrees from the vertical, there was a loud crack as the trunk gave way.  Both Jerry and his helper moved back and with a loud thwump, the tree fell to the ground, precisely where Jerry had intended it.  Quite a spectacle!

The second tree had several branches extending almost horizontally from the trunk.  Jerry judged that these outriggers would interfere with a clean fall so he decided to cut them off.  He strapped on a lineman’s belt and climbing spikes and scrambled nimbly up the tree, pulling two ropes with him.

When he got near the top of the tree, he tied himself off with one—his safety line—and looped the other over a branch to use a belay line for the cut branches.  I have described this process before (see October 31, 2011) and it is particularly elegant when Jerry rappels between locations, his chainsaw and pruning blade dangling from his belt.

After trimming and dropping the protruding branches, Jerry returned to earth.  He freed himself from his safety line, knotted a loop in it and cinched it up to use as the tension rope.  His helper again marched the end of the rope downhill and, following the same procedure as before, he and Jerry brought down the second tree, felling it almost exactly parallel to and on top of the first tree.

Described this way, it seems like it would take a long time to perform all of these steps.  But after only an hour and a half, Jerry and his helper were packing their gear up and heading to their next project.

When I woke up this morning, my first thought was, I’m getting too old for this stuff.

Of course, this is not really true.  But I was tired and sore, especially in my hands and forearms, and I have to say that it is becoming increasingly difficult over time to muster the energy needed for intensely physical tasks such as sod removal.

We briefly considered taking the day off but then asked ourselves, if not today then when?  It would be much better to dive back in and get the job done now.  So, we headed back out to work around the west planter.

It was sunnier today and much warmer than yesterday.  We don’t always realize it, but the weather makes a big difference.  We had to work slower than yesterday and take breaks more frequently.

We managed to persevere, however, and after a couple of hours had removed the sod up to the west edge of the planter.  As we progressed from east to west, the grass petered out and weeds predominated.  Also, the soil became rockier and rockier.  Consequently, by the time we finished, the sod no longer came away in rolls.  Chunks the size of the spade’s blade were the largest we could pull up.

After the drudgery of digging, placing the mulch was enjoyable in comparison and by the early afternoon, we were done.  Well, mostly done.  At some point in the next few weeks, we will have to continue the sod removal to the west to make room for the squashes.  I’m not looking forward to the work but I am looking forward to being truly done with it.

And that’s a very good thing because eventually, we will be too old for this.

Having made a decision with which we are completely comfortable, we jumped right in to our paving project.  So, after a hearty breakfast this morning, we got started with the sod removal.  Auspiciously, the weather this weekend is forecast to be some of the nicest of the season so far.

We’ve done this before (see January 7, 2012 and January 8, 2012, for our most recent experiences) and I have a clear script for what is needed.  The first step was measuring out the perimeter of the area to be removed and cutting it with a spade.

Next, I divided the sod into manageable strips.  One foot wide by four feet long is about as large as I can lift.  Even if I could lift larger pieces, it would be difficult to prevent them from falling apart.  I expect that sod farms have specialized equipment for handling bigger and longer rolls of sod; all I have is a spade and a wheelbarrow.

Getting the first strip of sod out is a bit like serving the first piece from a pie.  I had to gradually work the spade under one edge until I got enough leverage to pry it up (and like that first slice of pie, it got broken up at the edge).  At that point, Rachel could start rolling the strip (this is a two-person activity).  She continued rolling as I jabbed the spade underneath it horizontally to free it from the ground.

The only part of this process I like is the compact roll of sod that results (a four foot strip of sod makes a cylinder about one foot in diameter).  I muscled it into the wheelbarrow and when we had repeated the operation, carted the sod to a storage area.  I may use some of it to fill in gaps in the lawn but if we do not get to it (very likely), the sod will eventually dissolve in the rain.

After half an hour, we had cleared away eight square feet of grass (and not a few weeds and rocks).  But now that we were warmed up, our pace increased and by lunch time, we had removed the sod from three sides of the east planter (a total of 68 sq. ft.).  The temperature had also warmed up, however, and we decided to stop there.

We broke for lunch and when we resumed work, I used a steel rake to scrape the exposed soil level and shoveled out the excess (along with many more rocks).  Then, I dumped in several bags of brown cedar mulch.  I used the rake to smooth it out and to complete the operation, Rachel compacted it with a cast iron tamper.

I know that some people would have recommended that we put down a weed barrier between the soil and the mulch to prevent the inevitable return of dandelions, purslane and all of the other undesirable plants (not to mention the grass) and we did consider it.  But in my experience, these barriers are ineffective, especially at the joints, and often bunch up and become exposed.  When the weeds come back, we will pull them out.

We are very satisfied with the look of the mulch and love its soft feel under the feet.  We know that it will fade over time and that some will eventually blow away (and into the pool).  Fortunately, it can be easily be replenished.  And, if we later decide the mulch isn’t working, we can shovel it out and use it in the ornamental gardens.

I don’t usually favor an expedient solution over one which I consider to be better, even if it is not as easy or quick to effect.  Although I’ve come to embrace the idea of good enough, I still feel that sometimes it means only just good enough or, put another way, not as good as it could be.  My parents always told me that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right.  I took the idea to heart and have lived that way most of my life.

But sometimes what I think might be best, my concept of it, can blind me to other possibilities that could be just as good or even, possibly, better.  As an example, I decided last year that the best way to pave around the planters would be to use some slate and bluestone that was leftover from another project.  My reasoning was that the stone would provide a flat, stable working surface that would be attractive (the coloring would match the pool) and easy to care for.  It would also be putting to good use materials that are currently just taking up space.

And those are still good reasons.  But there are other factors that I did not take into account.  I know from experience that the stone cannot simply be placed on the ground; it is best set onto a layer of sand.  Also, keeping the stones level, especially across joints, is difficult and preventing them from rocking almost impossible.  And unless we were willing to accept irregular edges and large gaps between the stones (we weren’t), we would have to cut them to fit.  This would require that we rent a stone saw and learn how to use it.

In short, there would be more to the project than I had originally thought and as a result, nothing got done.  It turns out that even though the final result might have been the best, the process involved would be far from ideal.  In other words, getting there would have been none of the fun.  Knowing this led to procrastination and delay.

So we reconsidered our options and concluded that ease of installation was more important than the finished product.  And what could be easier than cedar mulch?  It’s a material that we almost always have on hand (we use it to cover the ornamental gardens), it is inexpensive and it comes in convenient 40-pound bags.  Once the ground has been prepared, laying it down is a breeze (well, relatively speaking anyway).

This is not to say that considerable effort will not be involved.  Preparing the ground sounds easy but it means removing sod, probably the most physically demanding gardening activity I know.  On the positive side, we have done plenty of it before and know exactly what to expect.

And best of all, we can get started right away and be finished by the end of the weekend.

There was a nicely-written article in Sunday’s New York Times about using deadlines to motivate work and prevent procrastination (“Need Motivation? Declare a Deadline.”). It’s an interesting—and chilling—topic for me. I don’t think anybody really likes deadlines and most people probably dread them but very little would get done without them. If we had to rely entirely on our wishful thinking about what we’d like to accomplish, we’d have next to nothing to show for it.

I’ve been trying to minimize my exposure to deadlines but I recognize setting them as a motivational tool. And I’m pretty good about meeting self-imposed deadlines, especially when the work involved is important and/or urgent. If it really needs to be done, I’ll usually get it done.

But I’m pretty good at dragging my feet, too. Sometimes, this is because the task at hand is unpleasant and I simply do not want to do it. For example, we are in the process of updating to a new computer. Many people would enjoy this (increased processing speed, more memory, better apps, etc.) but I do not (I find it very disruptive). Consequently, the process has taken a long, long time (and not a little nudging by Rachel). There’s no urgency here, though, so there’s no problem.

Most often, however, my stonewalling is evidence of some internal doubt, an intuitive hesitation brought on by a feeling—not always conscious—that the chosen action might not be the right one. It can be easy to come to a decision based on overwhelming rational criteria but nearly impossible to act on it if I know in my heart that it will not serve.

This can occur when faced with the big decisions in life—career choices, buying a home, raising children—but crops up with the more mundane as well. Last year, for example, I resolved to pave around the planters with the surplus stone we have on hand (see June 10, 2012). I allowed myself until the end of the summer to get it done but despite my apparent (and public) commitment to the idea, the task is still undone.

Reconsidering, I think that what I had proposed to do would have required too much effort to achieve a result that we were not sure was what we wanted. Instead, I will take some very good advice from the Times article, and opt for something that I can actually accomplish even if it is not necessarily the best I can do. In other words, I’ll choose something that is good enough (at least for now) and make getting it done the priority.