I did it!
After years of sinking money into things that don’t show – chimney liner, new oil tank, electrical upgrades, insulation, etc. etc. etc. – I finally got to do something I want.
The entire yard on the east-southeast side of my yard is lawn no more.
Never again will I have to tip the heavy picnic table to mow underneath or pull with all my strength to lurch it upright again.
When I’m inspired to snip herbs while cooking, no more wimping out because I don’t feel like getting my feet wet.
I had been killing grass bit by bit by smothering with cardboard weighed down with old boards.
But I couldn’t figure out how big my new bluestone and gravel terrace should be.
I didn’t want some massive suburban-looking intrusion. It needed to sit lightly on the land and connect to the flow around the house.
How to resolve a sloping edge? Protect the roots of the apple tree? Where to gracefully draw the line between lawn, stone, gravel and garden beds?
I could wallow in indecision for years over those questions – and believe me, I did.
Funny thing, the turning point was when friends ordered a put-it-together-yourself portable sauna earlier this summer.
It arrived packed in BIG cardboard panels. Panels too big to take to recycling in their compact cars. They fit – just barely – into the back of my workhorse minivan, seats folded down.
Laying down BIG pieces of cardboard helped me visualize and get the proportions right. And they didn’t flap around in the wind as they smothered turf over the summer.
The fun began once the cardboard decomposed. Once I carted the remains off to the composting leaf pile, I had a clean soil slate.
Drawing the line(s)
Shuffling my feet in the soil, I walked from the back door into the new space, marking what would be the center of a steppingstone path.
It’s exactly where I want to walk.
Drawing in the air with my hands, I followed the outer curve of the bed outside the back door to see where it wanted to go.
How would the edge of the bed find its way around the corner? How would it intersect with existing stonework and relate to the new curved steppingstone path?
How would it change the shape of the lawn?
Given free rein, I’ve found that most stone masons make it all about the stone, begrudgingly allowing a little space for plants – if you really insist.
Most gardeners make it all about plants and scrimp on path width and places to just be.
I wanted plants and space and good footing. But I couldn’t just draw it on paper for someone else to install.
I had to feel it with my whole body.
I danced those edges into being – and flagged them with little wire flags when I got it right.
And now it’s decided and done – and it feels great.
A likeminded ecological gardener with garden sense and stone sense (and muscles) was willing to start with what I knew should be done and figure out the rest once there was something real to relate to.
Set in Stone
The interval between big bluestone steppingstones marks my stride, not that of a long-legged he-man. (I already made that mistake elsewhere).
Visually, the space between stones is as important as the stones themselves.
We intentionally kept spaces wide enough to plant thyme (where it’s sunny), ajuga and shade-loving sedges under the picnic table.
These plants will outcompete weeds, soften stone, dissolve edges and smell good when you step on them – which I intend to do, frequently and on purpose.
I love the bumpity bump rhythm of the path connecting to the front yard. Bumps and dips, designed to slow and divert water sheeting off the mountainside, fit my stride too.
And I love the crunch crunch crunch of quarter inch gravel underfoot on my new terrace.
Maybe the deer won’t like it so much, as I’ve read.
So far, so good – I’m not seeing tracks in the snow. I’m not holding my breath, but wouldn’t it be nice to have one unravaged spot?
Soil dug out to level the space is still piled up. First it was too wet to work into beds, then it froze.
What to Plant?
I’m savoring the thrill of empty beds to plant – on flat ground, with stable footing.
Maybe a skinny tree to shade the greenhouse window in summer?
It’s a sun-baked habitat, perfect for herbs and prairie plants, much visited by birds.
Rosa virginiana and switchgrass? California poppies and nigella seeded into the gravel?
Maybe some of the gaudy single dahlias I just ordered from White Flower Farm, in pots, so I can try different combinations?
A Place to Be
Most of all, I’m savoring the anticipation of gathering with friends. Even socially distanced, there’s room to just be.
The space is a sunshiny place to sit in winter.
On summer afternoons and into the evening, this area is sheltered and shaded, with a view of the sunset reflecting in the pond below.
Someday it will be safe to pack together shoulder to shoulder at the picnic table under the apple tree, broken as it now is.
We will once again swap stories and swat mosquitos under a chandelier hanging from a branch, candle wax dripping into wine glasses.
I’ll never take that for granted again.