Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism


Catching up

It’s been a while since 2013! Here, I’ll give some updates on the eastern PA house status and renovations; and in my next post I’ll introduce my new residence far, far away.

Following the killing of the lawn and installation of new plants, we had two extremely harsh, cold, long winters in eastern Pennsylvania, with a very wet summer in between (for most of which I was traveling and out of town). The results:

  • The magnolia tree is still the prettiest tree in the neighborhood, and this year we finally got a good bloom.
The best tree.

The best tree.

  • The side yard meadow has matured, with light oversowing every spring to encourage annual flower growth. it is now mostly Dutch white clover, which is drought resistant and a good lawn alternative. The only real disadvantages are 1) how aggressively it grows over the stone path and into the flower and vegetable beds, requiring trimming back and pulling every couple weeks in the warm months; and 2) how unattractive it looks in late summer after the flowering is past. The mounds of sheep fescue from the original lawn alternative seed mix have mostly consolidated onto the sunny slopes, where they need their seedheads cut off in early summer to avoid looking ratty and messy, and really no other maintenance. I plant all the pansies I can find on sale in the early fall to get a fall and subsequent spring bloom out of them, and have finally gotten some sparse crocuses to take without squirrels eating them. And the vegetable garden beds are full of self-sowing herbs and abundant strawberries all summer long. The rosebush and hedges require a little trimming, up to once a month, but otherwise this is very low maintenance and a great success. Neighborhood children even sneak into the yard to enjoy it, so possibly it has been slightly too successful!
Roman chamomile among the Dutch clover in the side yard, with dog.

Roman chamomile among the Dutch clover in the side yard, with dog.

Mature clover yard, with stone path, sitting area, and a vegetable bed between uses in the foreground. Cat for scale.

Mature clover yard, with stone path, sitting area, and a vegetable bed between uses in the foreground. Cat for scale.

  • The perennial gardens near the back driveway, all seriously overplanted by the previous homeowner, are a bit of a handful and require trimming back several times a summer. While I was traveling I was forced to hire a landscaper to get this under control. It does look nice if I keep it groomed, though. Don’t overplant, folks!
  • While the tulips and daylilies down the sidewalk strips were successful and received a lot of neighborly compliments, creeping mazus as a groundcover was only a partial success. It took root easily and quickly from cuttings and plugs (which I scavenged from the side yard garden, where it has been very happy), but was slower to spread in shadier spots, and then suffered from a lasting and stubborn case of root rot. Utility work that removed and then repacked topsoil in another area killed more of it. Without a healthy ground cover consistently in place, weed growth has been substantial. So I removed the dead areas of mazus, added topsoil to an area that was a little below curb level so it was slow to dry out after heavy rains, and replanted a lot of the strip, with plans to aerate after rainstorms this summer. If it fails to take (again), something else will be necessary going forward.
Tulips and creeping mazus in year 2, prior to root rot setting in and killing most of the mazus.

Tulips and creeping mazus in year 2, prior to root rot setting in and killing most of the mazus.

  • Nothing consistent has taken root on the slope just above the sidewalk on the side yard, except where there was out-of-control, mold-encouraging lamb’s ear, all of which I removed last summer. Liriope muscari was too slow to take to help with erosion, the mazus was patchy at best, and weeds were plentiful. I have now planted sprigs of variegated liriope spicata silver dragon (a little less aggressive than solid liriope spicata, though aggressive may turn out to be necessary here). That will hopefully handle the range of full sun to part-shade and acidic soil on a slope well enough to finally take.
  • The front yard slope, despite some weed growth, is doing reasonably well. The perennials have all survived and crocuses took there very successfully, which will look great in coming years.
  • Despite being rather slow to spread, dwarf mondo grass should have been able to succeed in zone 7. Unfortunately, the unusually harsh winters killed off easily half the plugs each year (the second time after an expensive second planting attempt), and the entire front yard was being overtaken by the ubiquitous and nuisance star-of-bethlehem weeds. My attempts to dig them out and poison the weeds were completely unsuccessful and just made a mess of the yard, so short of burning the yard down to nothing I am forced to live with them. Other ground covers are very unlikely to succeed in a part- to full-shade spot of acidic clay soil, and I watch my adjacent neighbor with the same conditions struggle to get any grass to take every year. To top it off, the same utility work that killed one end of the sidewalk strip did even more damage to the front yard, killing a section of the bordering perennials after two years of getting established.
The ground had barely become visible after months of burial under snow and ice, when the local utility company, doing routine work, destroyed half the perennials in the far border and filled them back in with bare dirt. I may have cried.

The ground had barely become visible after months of burial under snow and ice, when the local utility company, doing routine work, destroyed half the perennials in the far border and filled them back in with bare dirt. I may have cried.

Come spring, the yard was bare mud and some weeds. I did a round of weed removal (except the star-of-bethlehem, which seems un-killable).

Come spring, the yard was bare mud and some weeds. I did a round of weed removal (except the star-of-bethlehem, green here, which is next to un-killable).

After leveling with topsoil, I arranged some flagstones and local schist rocks that were no longer in use in the side yard, to make a path, centerpiece, and sitting area.

After leveling with topsoil, I arranged some flagstones and local schist rocks that were no longer in use in the side yard, to make a path, centerpiece, and sitting area.

It is clear that very few ground covers will succeed in the conditions in this spot: part to full shade, with acidic, clay soil. So I risked neighborly disapproval and installed two varieties of garden moss, sheet moss and fern moss:

Newly installed bench and garden moss.

Newly installed bench and garden moss.

I purchased all of the moss from Moss and Stone Gardens; it came partially dried, and I watered it and then broke it into moderately small (but not fragmented pieces) and pinned them down with moss (florist) pins so they were in contact with the bare soil. The moss now needs very regular watering to fully attach, so it can survive droughts, and to slowly spread to fill the gaps. I also filled in the surrounding border and interspersed among the moss a variety of taller perennials: several varieties of hostas and ferns, a couple foxgloves on the west-facing edge, a few astilbes. My hope is for this to be a zen-garden-inspired, relaxing place to sit.

That’s it for yard updates! Inside the house, I did some minor repairs for upkeep: I cut and nailed down some replacement floor boards where some of the original ones were badly damaged, which included buying a battery- and gas-powered Hitachi finishing nailer. I love my finishing nailer very much. I also just gave all the hardwood floors a fresh coat of polyurethane, which was easy and made them look instantly newer again. The house is now rented out and will hopefully be relatively self-sufficient, with minimal yardwork and upkeep for years to come!

Next up: moving to a house in eastern Nebraska!

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