Archives for posts with tag: stone work

Last Saturday, Rachel and I made an early spring visit to Stonecrop Gardens (see March 22, 2014). The Open House being celebrated that day focused on their indoor collection, which is extensive, if not encyclopedic; much more than can be described in the average 500-word blog post. In fact, at the end of the last account, having finished our snack (cookies and cocoa) we realized that we were only about halfway through the list of plants on display.

What remained to view (not counting the outdoor areas still covered by snow and ice) were the Alpine House, the End House and the Pit House. Of these, my favorite is the Pit House, and not just for the flowering bulbs and succulents that inhabit it. Architecturally, it is unlike any other greenhouse I have seen.

A long, narrow building, its floor is set into the ground by about two feet; stone steps at each end lead down to its central aisle. The tops of the planting beds along either side are at grade level so all of the soil is essentially subterranean. The gabled glass roof springs from short masonry walls that extend about two feet above grade.

The peak of the roof—this is my favorite detail—is supported by two parallel lines of steel wide flange beams that are aligned with the fronts of the planters, thereby maximizing headroom over the aisle. Structurally, the Pit House is quite elegant (and that’s the nicest thing that I, as a structural engineer, can say about it).

Despite its partial embedment in the earth and glazed roof, the Pit House is not particularly warm inside. Nonetheless, it is cozy, mainly due to its diminutive scale. It feels not unlike a child’s playhouse although clearly, serious work is going on in there.

The beds are literally overflowing with a densely-planted collection of ranunculus, fritillaria, narcissus, primula, cyclamen and helleborus, to name just a few. Although only about a third of the area of the Conservatory, the Pit House contains two-thirds the number of different plants.

We strolled leisurely from one end to the other, enjoying the colorful blossoms that sprang from the garden beds at waist level or trailed along the steel beams over our heads. We left with an infusion of spring spirit and a renewed enthusiasm to get to work in our own garden.


We spent a few hours yesterday (before heading up to Stonecrop Gardens; see March 22, 2014) and again today, cleaning up the ornamental gardens. Saturday’s session was particularly enjoyable because the temperature quickly rose into the 50s. One or two dark clouds passed by, trailing a sprinkle of light rain, but otherwise it was sunny and warm.

Today was a different story as the weather returned to a more wintery state, including a chilling wind.

We cleared away the scruffy remnants of the Russian sage, penstemon (a variety of foxglove), black-eyed Susans, Siberian irises, and hostas. In the main ornamental garden beds, Rachel pruned the hibiscus (we have three) and some young lilacs. Together, we tackled the Japanese maple, a gift from the mason (and natural gardener) who constructed our stone walls and stairs.

We’ve been putting this off for a few years now and I hope that we did not wait too long. The maple had grown taller than we wanted, more upward than outward, and was threatening to obstruct the view from the patio that overlooks it. We clipped its upper branches and the skyward pointing portions of its perimeter branches. It looks a bit awkward now (most things do immediately after pruning) but its appearance should improve once the leaves sprout.

Up front in the hosta beds, we had a bit more work to do. I’m not sure when we last weeded this area (mid-summer, perhaps?) but it was in dire need of it today, especially the bed to the left of the stone staircase that leads from our front yard up to the labyrinth. The grade is steep here and the plantings a mixed bag. We’ve been slowly making a transition to flowering bulbs and groundcovers such as sedum and lily of the valley but mostly, the plants here are unwanted—weeds, by definition—and we removed many of them.

Weeding is very satisfying—the difference between before and after can be striking—but it is also back-breaking. After two hours in the bracing cold we were worn out. The ornamental beds are now clear of old growth and we were heartened by the signs of spring—snowdrops and crocuses at long last!—that are slowly emerging.

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!

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.

Believe it or not (I’m not sure I did), we still had not replanted all of the Siberian irises after our last root-dividing session (see September 15, 2012).  There is no more room in the ornamental garden and after scouting around (again) for suitable new locations, I ended up back at the strip of weeds next to the stone wall where we replanted some irises two weeks ago.  Clearly, this was the place for them.

After two hours of labor that can be summed up by a single punctuated word—rocks!—we are finally finished with the Siberian irises.  When combined with the bearded irises, which we received from friends in exchange for a share of our Siberian ones and which we planted near the patio two weeks ago, we have done everything we need to do with irises for the next few years.

Now, if I was a more conscientious and energetic gardener, I would move on to the lilies and hostas, both of which could benefit from the same treatment we gave the irises.  But I’m not (and am feeling lazy) so they will have to wait.  Maybe next year…

At the end of the day on Labor Day (see September 3, 2012), we were left with a tarp-full of divided but unplanted Siberian irises and two large clumps of irises waiting to be separated.  We were hoping to wake up one morning and find that the remaining work had been done but two weeks later, nothing has changed.  I guess the garden elves have headed north to get an early start on the Christmas season.

We decided that if we didn’t get to it today, it would not get done before winter.  We started by scouting a location for the already-divided plants (they have been out of the ground for two weeks and we wanted to be sure to replant them before we ran out of energy).  We do not have many full-sun locations on our property and there are not that many partially sunny spots either.  After a tour of the possible locations, we selected the narrow strip of ground between the road and a stone wall that marks the edge of our property.

Nearest to the house, the area is paved with gravel; we use it as a pull-out for parking cars.  Beyond that, the border is mostly weed-covered with two or three clusters of daffodils providing a small (and brief) burst of color in spring.

It is also, of course, very rocky.  In fact, it is literally between a rock (wall) and a hard place (the road).  As I started to dig, my shovel was met with the usual clang of resistance.  The rocks were densely packed but luckily, they were not wedged in too tightly.  As I removed each one, I tossed it onto the top of the stone wall.  Two hundred years ago, this is how the wall was originally constructed.

After a half hour of digging, we had cleared an area about 10 feet in length and 18 inches wide.  Despite its rockiness and less-than-ideal location, the soil here is dark and rich.  Apparently, many years of weed growth have not depleted the soil of its organic matter.

Rachel quickly set the divided irises into the excavation and we covered them with loose soil.  As a final step, I sprinkled the ground with a general-purpose fertilizer (to be on the safe side) and watered it in with two cans-full from the hose (which did not quite reach this remote spot).

Next, we moved back to the ornamental garden and the two clumps of irises that remained to be divided.  After our Labor Day experience we knew what had to be done and started right in (we feared that if we stopped to rest, we might lose momentum).  I won’t repeat the details here but we did learn a few important lessons.

First, digging in the garden—even shallow digging—is best done shortly after a rainfall.  When we worked on Labor Day, it had not rained for a week.  The ground was hard and dry and that made the digging difficult and dusty.  Today, after a light rain yesterday, the soil was softer and more cohesive.  Digging still required a lot of effort but it took significantly less hacking with the shovel to get the irises free.

Second, once the clump of irises has been pulled up, trimming their leaves all at once makes separating the roots a lot easier.  On Labor Day, Rachel clipped each divided rhizome individually, a time-consuming last step.  This time around, we used a hedge trimmer to trim all of the irises at once.  Essentially, we gave each clump, still intact, a haircut.

Third, and most significantly, this has to done much more often.  One of the two clumps we divided today was so tightly compacted and so jammed full of rocks and soil that it was next to impossible to split into pieces.  I managed to break the small gardening fork while trying to pry the roots apart and I can understand why some people would be tempted to use a hatchet or axe for the job.  I have heard that some gardeners do this yearly—my hat is off to them—but every two or three years seems like a reasonable interval.

Of course, that last lesson will be the hardest to follow up on.  In two or three years, the irises may not be as compacted as they were today but I will be that much older and less enthusiastic about taking on this onerous chore.

To commemorate Labor Day, we often take on a project that is, well, laborious.  It is not always planned in advance—we do most of our intensive outdoor work on weekends anyway—although we rarely celebrate Labor Day in the traditional way by relaxing and doing nothing.  This year’s back-breaking task:  dividing the Siberian irises.

Why would we want to do this?  Good question.  The irises were a gift from a local stonemason, Mario, who did a lot of work for us about seven years ago.  Part of his work included the formation of our ornamental gardens and when he was done, we had a lot of space to fill.  In addition to being a talented stone worker, Mario has a dark green thumb.  To help get our new gardens started, he brought us many cuttings from his own garden (which is like what you would see at an Italian villa), including the irises, a Japanese maple and sedum (to plant in the crevices of the stone walls he built).

It took a few years for the irises to establish themselves but for the last three years, they have been producing a dense display of purple and white flowers each spring.  The irises are very effective at naturalizing themselves and after seven years have densely filled the areas where we planted them.  However, as their root systems become more and more compacted, they will flower less abundantly.  Typically, Siberian irises form rings of active plants with dead roots at the centers.  Ours were beginning to display this characteristic.

But digging them up, dividing their rhizomes and replanting them ensures that the irises continue to flower profusely.Separating the plants also means that we can spread them out over a larger area (expanding the border that follows the south edge of our main garden, for instance) and transplant them to new locations (along the road, perhaps).  Further, we’ll have enough split rhizomes to share them with our friends in town to whom we promised the plants last year.  We let that season pass before we could get to them so we are overdue.

The task is decidedly labor-intensive and required several steps.  First, we dug up the irises.  Their rhizomes and roots are densely intertwined and form clumps about two feet in diameter.  Removing them is almost as difficult as removing sod but their stems and leaves allowed Rachel to pull up on the irises while I broke the roots free with a shovel.  It took about half an hour of picking and tugging to break each mass free and lug it out of the garden bed.

Next, I broke up the root masses using a small gardening fork and my bare hands.  (Actually, I wore work gloves.)  If we had not let the irises go so long—two to three years is the recommended interval—this part might have required less effort.  But after seven years, the root masses were practically solid.  I used the fork to knock out the trapped soil and rocks and create handholds.  Then, I just grabbed on and pulled.

Slowly and with not a little frustration, I broke small groups of rhizomes free and passed them over to Rachel.  Using shears, she cut off the excess roots and dead portions of the rhizomes, clipped the leaves to a length of about six inches, and stacked the now divided plants neatly on a tarp.  We filled two shopping bags full of irises and delivered them to our friends in the village.

The final step was replanting.  We returned about half of the irises to their starting place and reburying them in the loosened soil was the easiest task of the day.  We spaced them six to eight inches apart and consequently, the area is much less densely-planted than it was when we started.  Given past experience, though, it should fill back in over the next few years.

The remaining half—and the two clumps of irises that we have not yet divided—will have to go somewhere else.  But that is for another labor day (one with a lower case L).