March 1, 2012

Gardening Backwards

Joene of Joene's Garden sponsors Gardening OOPs on the first of each month, where we reveal the mistakes we make in the garden, so you won't make the same ones.  Or at least so you can sympathize.

One of the biggest gardening oops I routinely make is doing things backwards.  I visualize the space, find great plants, put in the plants and then spend the next several seasons trying to add hardscape around them.

That's the wrong way.

The right way to build a gravel garden would be to first dig up the sod, and place random boulders for interest into the dug space.  Then, and only then, fill around them with pea stone so they are naturally half buried.  Then, and only then, add soil at the edges to make borders above the level of the gravel.  Then, after the machines are gone, you can plant.  There is an order to these things.

Instead, I started with garden borders dug out of the lawn, and planted them fairly densely before deciding to add pea stone.
First there were gardens all planted up, surrounding a lawn space, with only narrow entrances in and out of the central area.

Then I wanted a gravel garden here.  Access for wheelbarrows and machines was difficult, and getting the depth of the stone layer to sit below the existing garden soil level was tricky.  It took extra digging.


It got done, and the plants looked nice all around the new gravel area.  But hey, how about some ice-age boulders strewn about?  For interest when the plants die back.

This winter I added large rocks.  Because they were dropped in after the space was completed, they could not be partially sunk.  They look randomly plopped, not natural.  And I think there are too few.

Everything was harder than it needed to be by doing this backwards.  The poor guy who placed the big rock for me this winter   . . .  he could not drive his machine into the restricted area, it wouldn't maneuver in the gravel anyway, and he ended up carrying and wrestling the big stone into place by hand.  It is not buried as it should be.  I can work the smaller rocks a little more into the gravel.  I think I need to add soil behind them, to raise the garden level so it looks like the rocks and the garden border are one.

Come spring and summer, plants will spill over the edges and foliage will mingle with the rocks and the perimeter will look better than ok.  I can experiment with placement of the small rocks to make it less artificial.  I know I need to get more.

But what an oops it is to build your gardens backwards.  It's just a lot harder to do.

Post script: 
The picture below is from my friend Jane's gravel garden last summer.  This is what I am going for, and I have clearly not achieved it.  

My random rocks are too puny, too few.  I'm working on it, I have her space as a model, but I'm not getting it yet.  

They're dumb rocks, dammit, how hard can it be to get this look?



24 comments:

  1. It doesn't seem like it should be so difficult. Maybe next time you should rake back the gravel before you place a rock then your rocks would be partially submerged. It will look great when you are finished.

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    1. Thanks, Lisa. I did rake the gravel away as much as I could before dropping the big rock in, but it wasn't enough depth to make it look buried! But I'll get there with more tweaking : )

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  2. You are so right Laurrie. The first step is always install the hardscape, even the gravel, and especially large rocks. The garden still looks lovely even though you did it a little backwards. And the rocks are a bit out of scale, needing some larger. Still nice, you will get it like you want it, seeing you know where to head.

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    1. Donna, thanks for the encouragement. I do know what I want it to eventually look like --- I can get it there, I'm sure.

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  3. Don't be so hard on yourself, Laurrie. Some of us learn by doing before we can visualize things on paper enough to follow a 'preferred' method of construction. I have no doubt that you will eventually alter this garden to your liking. Sometimes it takes years ... as my GOOPs post shows.

    Thanks for playing in the GOOPs sandbox.

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    1. Joene, I do have fun playing in the GOOPs sandbox! I have so much material (goofs) to work with.

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  4. Hi Laurrie, What's a gardener do, hindsight is always 20/20. This may be a crazy idea, but why not simply shift the boundary line between the pea gravel and the garden. Leave the pea gravel as is and bury the rocks in the front gravel facing side of flowerbed. Add some creeping ground covers into any little odd empty spots in the front of the new line of buried rocks. (It would look artificial if you make a solid line of rocks along the edge of the gravel.) This way you won't have to build up the flowerbed as much. You would have to move a few shrubs back however and widen the flowerbed a bit if you wanted to keep it to its present size.

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    1. Jennifer, you make some very good suggestions. I already know I need to widen the narrow strip border, and I plan to move some of the plants anyway, so re-burying the rocks as you suggest is possible.

      I did put in plugs of creeping thyme which will do a lot to blur the boundaries... it spreads pretty fast. Thanks for your design eye and thoughts here!

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  5. Laurrie, You may be after something different, and you'll get it. But, you'll never achieve perfection – in your own mind. If you do, what will you do then?

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    1. Lee, I am so far from achieving perfection that I will always have projects underway. But every once in a while I look at something I have created and I say "that looks nice." It's a good feeling then. Really good.

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  6. Laurrie, I must say I prefer I prefer your stone placement - just a few nicely sited are all you need - and once you've added some special plants, the area should be very beautiful.

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    1. Cyndy, thanks. I moved them around a little, and I am actually starting to like the look of the few rocks spread about. Plants will definitely help.

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  7. Is it bad that I always look forward to your GOOPSes? They always crack me up (and I think your gravel garden looks amazing).

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    1. Heather, I am here to provide amusement for you and others! No end in sight to the mishaps in the garden, that's for sure.

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  8. If I only had hindsight first, I'd never have any oops at all. I thought it looked great the first time. I never realized it was a GOOPS. :o)

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    1. Tammy, it was mostly an oops because I made the work so hard for myself. The extra digging, the difficulty getting the boulders in... it all could have been done so much easier. But I'm glad people think it looks good!

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  9. I think your finished garden looks beautiful, Laurrie! Maybe the big rocks will sink a little over time...if not, once the garden springs to life, you won't even notice that they're not as buried as you'd like.

    This is definitely my biggest mistake, too. I always start with annuals and perennials when I decide to plant a new flower bed. Belatedly, I realize a few shrubs to anchor those plants would be nice:)

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    1. Rose, Thanks. I actually am happy with the new garden's look overall, from a distance, but the edges are what are bothering me. I'll get there!

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  10. Laurrie, I think I've been making the same mistake - actually take that back - I HAVE been making the exact same mistake in my garden. I go out and buy plants first and then wonder where the heck to put them because I have no garden beds! Even though I know it's wrong I still do it, not sure I'll ever learn.

    p.s. I actually really love your gravel area and saved a photo to my inspiration folder. There's a section of grass I would love to remove and I think this is just the ticket.

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    1. Marguerite, I am so flattered that my mistakes are your inspirations! I hope you do a similar gravel garden and post it. You have the space to do a really nice one.... just remember, dig it out first, and THEN plant it up!

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  11. Gardening wouldn't be what it is without doing things the hard way. ;)

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    1. Sweetbay, we do make it all so hard... and it seems so easy the way nature does it!

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  12. All those rocks in the above picture of your garden look like overkill! Simplify and your large boulder will make a stronger statement. Soften with some thyme, sedum or small ground cover nestled around the rock. Live with it one season before you start making changes. Then allow the inspiration to come.

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    1. Sharon, I am starting to agree. I don't need more. I have moved the rocks aside, and let the one large rock sit by itself under the inkberry hollies, with just a couple smaller ones to its right. I like it. I will really like it when the groundcovers spread.

      Allowing inspiration to come is way harder than endlessly muscling and moving things around in the garden!

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