Gneiss House

Low-pressure home metamorphism

Replanting everything

After killing the yard, of course, you have to replant. (Well, unless you would prefer a weed hayfield.) Because I was ordering my plants from nurseries and farms online, this had to happen in stages for me, and in the meantime I had to do a. lot. of. weeding. But the weeds were small and easy to pull out, so it wasn’t strenuous work–just annoying and time-consuming. I accept that this is the price of replanting a yard of perennials: for a few years I will be weeding a whole lot, while the new plants get established, so I might as well get used to it!

I was really organized about this process. I actually had measured out with reasonable accuracy the dimensions of my yard, and I sketched it out to scale to calculate how many plants I would need for full coverage. The diagram was covered in lots of sophisticated mathematical calculations, like “12′ x 20′ = 20 plants.” This might not be a necessary step for everyone, but it definitely helped me plan out the yard in an organized way so that I didn’t risk overplanting (or underplanting, but I think overplanting is often a more significant risk), and once the plants arrived it was invaluable for helping me remember where to put them all. My goals were to select plants that were 1) appropriate to the sun/shade and moisture and slope conditions of the different parts of the yard, and 2) low maintenance once established (no mowing, only periodic trimming/edging, not too much watering, little weeding after the first couple years, and a full-scale cutting back either never or once a year).


My graphed yard landscaping plan! I’m a very organized person, so this was fun. That book, by the way, was very helpful.

First: the nursery reviews. First to arrive were my perennials from American Meadows. Sometimes they hold off on shipping if the plants aren’t at the right stage for shipping, but this time the plants were ready to go in the nursery and had to ship right away. Most shipped as bare roots, so I had to immediately pot them to safely wait until the yard was fully dead and ready for replanting. Those plants were most of the ones I had ordered for the perennial border around the edge of the front yard and at the tops of all the side slopes. Some of these roots have not yet broken the surface, but most of them have and look good (though a few seem to be in a bit of shock from the ridiculous amount of rain we’ve had this past month–hopefully they will recover). In my now pretty extensive experience, American Meadows plants are a little more expensive than some other nurseries, but the percentage of what you order that sprouts/germinates successfully is generally higher than most other places, too, so it works out to be reasonably priced. I also received the handful of decorative sedge grasses from Santa Rosa Gardens very promptly and in great shape. They were fine sitting on the stoop for a week, and then transplanted happily and are going strong (for one of them, even after being half mowed-over by my neighbor’s truck!).

Next came the daylilies from Smokey’s Daylily Gardens, which offers a dizzying variety of daylily options. I bought a large number of these to fill the center of my sidewalk strip around both sides of my corner lot. I purchased exclusively from their clearance sale varieties, to save on cost, and they were still all very healthy plants with (so far) quite pretty flowers. I did receive someone else’s small order by mistake, but the nursery was prompt and generous about fixing the error (because shipping them back didn’t make sense, I even got to keep the 12 extra plants! I used them to border the front steps and to add a little extra variety to the edges of the sidewalk strips). These also arrived so quickly that I was unable to plant them right away. On their customer service rep’s recommendation, I put the fans in several large mop buckets and added enough water to cover their roots until I was ready to put them in the ground. They were just at the point where the water had to be changed when I was ready to plant, but in case this happens to you: change it after ~4 days and/or whenever the water starts to get smelly/filmy looking. They all took well to the transplanting: I have not lost a single plant, out of more than 100 total. Some of which even got stepped on by neighbors and snapped off soon after I planted them, and they are still alive. It’s hard to kill a daylily!

I ordered two batches of leptinella potentilla (a hardy, fast-spreading variety of Brass Buttons) from different nurseries, in order to get a sufficient quantity. This is probably the most expensive thing I ordered, but because they are fast spreaders I went really conservative and ordered just enough to plant a separated 1/3 to 1/4 section of each 3.5″ pot at one-foot intervals around the sidewalk strip edge. The first group, from Mini Forest, arrived quickly and were bushy and happy chilling in the shade for a week or two while I got the strip ready for planting. Not all of the separated clumps were too happy about transplanting, but it looks like most of them have survived.

The second group was from Farm Fresh Living, a farm affiliated with Stargazer Perennials. I had had one negative experience with Stargazer in the past (an order that never arrived, with no shipping notification issued, and then no response to many attempts to contact them over the span of weeks, and then finally a response that said the order had actually been shipped (clearly not true) but they would grudgingly return my money anyway), one that I now know mirrors similar comments in the Dave’s Garden reviews from around the same time period. But no one else was selling that leptinella variety, from what I could find, so I took a chance, hoping the business was just having a bad spell last year. This time, the plants shipped in a few weeks and I received all the shipping notifications and information very promptly! Unfortunately, probably due to overly warm shipping conditions, they arrived with a serious case of rot. I was away from home for a week and had someone else sign for the packages, open them immediately, place them in the shade, and water them so they could recover from the shock of shipping (since I didn’t know about the rot). Unfortunately, eastern PA has received about 30 inches of rain in the past month, which meant the rotting plants then proceeded to be rained on regularly for a week; by the time I got home they were fully or nearly dead (hard to tell yet). Happily, however, this time the nursery’s customer service responded to my multiple messages within a day and was very reasonable. (After my last experience, I did not hesitate to bombard them: I left them a voicemail and simultaneously emailed them in two different ways! It worked!) The plants are now out of the rain and drying out in hopes that the roots recover. So far, no luck. If they fail, it sounds like the nursery/farm may give me some of my money back in credit. Either way I will probably transplant plugs of my now-vigorous mazus reptans from the side garden down to the sidewalk strip instead of the Brass Buttons, since it’s now late in the year to try to get my hands on any more leptinella.

Finally, the lilyturfs. I ordered a large quantity of both monkeygrass (variegated liriope muscari) for the bases of the side slopes, and dwarf mondo grass for the center of the front yard, all from Mondo Grass Online. This company was really great: they worked with me to set up a timetable for shipping that matched my planting schedule, their prices were good, and they were very prompt with communication. They also shipped me 25 extra liriope sprigs and 125 extra sprigs of mondo: the “small sprigs” were free! As with the rest, I was very sparing about the spacing of the sprigs in my yard, since they will spread and I wanted to keep the cost reasonable. So the extras should help it fill in a little faster!

Then, of course, I had to weed the whole yard and dig hundreds of holes, some of it right after tilling and hoeing (read: very sore, crampy back). Incidentally, if I haven’t mentioned it before, this whole process of removing and replacing your yard is rather laborious!

Without further ado, pictures with details are below. I will update with more interesting ones later in the summer, and follow up with final results once it has all filled in more next year!


Looking across the front yard from the walkway. This area gets mostly shade, though on the left it receives part sun in the afternoon. To the right is dwarf mondo grass, which will be a low groundcover that can handle light walking. On the left is the edge of the slope, with variegated monkeygrass. And in the center and around the back right edge is the front yard border. The border contains alternating hostas (Hosta So Sweet) and solomon’s seal (Variegatum) perennials, with interspersed small astilbes (Younique Pink), foamflowers, bloodroot flowers, and mixed anemone de caen bulbs for colorful and textural accents. Mondo is a great shade ground cover, as long as conditions are reasonably moist, and can survive in zone 7 just fine. The monkeygrass is a particularly good part-shade choice for an eroding slope. The border perennials can all tolerate part to full shade. I’m a little worried that some of them were overwatered by our ridiculous month of rain and are a little stressed, but hopefully they will recover quickly. I added the brick paver divider on the far side, to add some definition and also to protect the neighbor’s yard and mine from too much unwanted plant encroachment.


Looking up at the front yard from below.


A close look at the liriope muscari planted on the slope.


I planted some of the extra daylilies next to the steps as flowering accents. Since this was an erroneous delivery, I didn’t even know what they would look like! This spot gets enough afternoon sun for them to bloom (as you can see–a lot of them started blooming just two weeks after the fans were in the ground!)


The sidewalk strip in front of the house. I added the stepping stones (oddly, none of the houses in this neighborhood have a path that extends from the front door past the sidewalk), sedge at the corners, and the row of yellow daylilies down the center. The strips both receive part to full sun, and the part sun areas receive afternoon sun, so the daylilies and a sun-loving groundcover will be happy here. I will be planting ground cover all around the edge, but due to shipping problems I haven’t been able to do that yet.


Focus on the sidewalk strip. Daylily to the left, hair sedge (carex flagellifera) in the middle, and a little bit of the brass buttons (leptinella potentilla) groundcover that shipped healthy on the right (all hardy, sun-loving plants). There isn’t enough leptinella to go very far due to the shipping problems, so I will be migrating plugs of mazus reptans from the garden to fill in the rest of the strip border (see last picture below).


This daylily variety in particular was very fast to flower in the sidewalk strip!


Closeup of the outer slope of the yard, with more liriope to help hold back the erosion. I may need to order more for a third row at the base, but I’m going to see how bushy these get before I do that. (The roots are lower on the slope than the long leaves make them look–this was just the easiest way to get them into their holes!)


Looking around the corner at the side slope with monkeygrass, and the rest of the sidewalk strip with its line of daylilies.


After such a wet June, I have no shortage of creeping mazus in the garden! (There are small flagstones somewhere under there!) Clearly I need to trim it back anyway, and the brass buttons order was mostly not a success, so this is where I’ll harvest plugs to plant along the border of the sidewalk strip.


Killing the lawn

Last summer I worked hard to relandscape the side yard of my corner property. I left the rest of the yard space untouched until this year, and now it is warm enough to start my attack. But the first step, unfortunately, is raining death down on all those plants so I can start over.

There are multiple reasons to get rid of turf grass lawns on a property like mine:

  1. Turf is very appropriate in spaces used for playing sports and games, but no one does that on my property, and even if they wanted to, it’s the wrong shape: steeply sloped around the sides, broken up by sidewalks and concrete pathways, too small overall. Sadly, I will not be hosting croquet parties.
  2. Turf grass does a poor long-term job of holding steep slopes in place, and I have some of those.
  3. Maintaining a turf lawn in the way widely considered aesthetically desirable requires monocultures or close to it, which are relatively ecologically sterile and require a lot of fertilizer and selective herbicide applications to maintain an even, neat-looking space that stays green for as many months of the year as possible.
  4. Multispecies lawns that include the broadleaf plants now widely considered weeds (like clover) were considered desirable until the development of selective herbicides. Those plants reduced the need for fertilizers because they fixed nutrients in the soil. They also created uneven, clumpy lawns that required at least as much mowing to be kept reasonably neat, though, so just sticking to a mixed lawn like mine is still a labor and resource-intensive option.
  5. Keeping the grass green and preventing grass dormancy and/or death requires at times a great deal of water, particularly in arid and semi-arid climates and during summer droughts. The grass thatch and dense, shallow root systems also prevent proper drainage of water into the soil, producing excess runoff during storms and reducing the efficiency of watering. While this is aided by letting the lawn get taller, because it allows the grass to develop deeper, healthier root systems and absorb the water into the soil slightly better, it’s still overall a problem even with deeper roots.
  6. Even those of us who let our lawns get taller and more mixed have to mow them once a week or maybe biweekly to avoid angry neighbors, potential HOA or township citations and fines in some places, and in general the development of a genuine hayfield, which most of us don’t really want and defeats the ostensible purpose of having a lawn anyway (i.e. to have something that looks nice and is walkable). The mowing and edging typically are done with power tools, which means a great deal of unnecessary electricity/fuel consumption and corresponding CO2 production. While there are other elements of yard maintenance that are likewise difficult to do without power tools (e.g., trimming very difficult hedges, especially if you have a day job and limited time), those jobs are infrequent (a few times per year) and relatively quick, so they don’t use much power. Expending the energy to mow your entire property weekly, or even biweekly, when you don’t even need turf is, frankly, grossly environmentally irresponsible. I instead chose to use a reel push mower and hand-pushed edger for the past year to compensate, and this unnecessary lawn was honestly just not worth all that hard physical labor.

Summary: the lawn is not worth how much work, energy, water, and money it requires for basic maintenance. There are much, much better choices than clipped grass fields for covering the ground, choices that I find more aesthetically pleasing and that require fewer energy resources, relatively little water, and much less work to maintain. But first, the turf has to go.

There are multiple ways to kill a lawn. I extensively researched recommended methods: solarization, the “lasagna” smothering method of layering paper or cardboard and mulch, physical removal of sod, and broad spectrum herbicide applications. Unfortunately, my lawn contained an exciting mixture of: cold-season grasses, warm-season grasses (including bermudagrass for sure, and possibly old zoysia grass), and various clumpy weeds and broadleaf plants. (There was no moment in its growth when it looked even vaguely attractive, except for immediately after mowing, so I would probably have wanted to kill it and start fresh even if I just wanted better turf.) The smothering method is widely reported to have poor success rates in lawns that contain large quantities of warm season grasses, which accounted for about 2/3 of my lawn plants. The solarization method only works if the area gets intense sun, and too much of my lawn was in part shade for that to be successful. Physical removal by tilling or cutting and rolling away sod is tempting, but it fails to remove a lot of dormant grass roots and typically brings dormant weeds to the surface, creating a weedy and generally not-dead space that you then have to kill, so while it can help it doesn’t work well all by itself.

This left my least favorite option: herbicides. After a lot of research, I concluded that the long-term environmental and ecological benefits of replacing the lawn really did outweigh the short-term consequences of using herbicides one time, as long as I was extremely careful about my application method.

The other conclusion I reached was that despite the strong negative feelings of some of my very nice and caring and environmentally-minded friends (however pseudoscientific some of those feelings often seem to be when it comes to GMOs), and despite my personal reservations about their unethical business practices, I was probably not going to find a better product for this purpose than one by Monsanto. By “better” I mean more affordable, more controllably and reliably produced, and personally safer to prepare and apply. My only remaining reservation was really about giving even my miniscule financial support to an ethically questionable company. I do, however, think that my $8.45 contribution and one-time use is a fraction of a fraction of a drop in the buckets of both their profits and the global applications of their products (though admittedly, some of that profit comes from me whenever I buy almost anything at a supermarket. Yet another reason to have a vegetable garden!).*

So, from one environmentalist to another, here is how to conservatively apply an herbicide to your lawn so you can kill it and move on to more pleasant pastures, as safely as possible and with as little impact as possible.

  1. Wait until your grass is as happy and healthy as it’s going to get. Wait until it’s well out of dormancy, let it go unmowed for at least a couple weeks, wait for seedheads to form, and either water or wait for a good healthy rain followed by some warm days. You want healthy, leafy, seedy grass and weeds.
  2. Wait until the weather forecast indicates no rain is expected for several days. You won’t want it to wash off your plants before they have a chance to absorb it, and you also probably don’t want to dump an active herbicide into the local water drainage if it is likely to interact with any plants in the drainage system before being diluted up to ineffectiveness. The product needs to be fixed to a surface (i.e. inside plants) by the time it rains so there is little to no runoff impact.
  3. Choose a day with low winds. You don’t want the herbicide mobilized as a mist, because then it’s more likely to touch desirable plants and hurt them, or end up in ineffective places from which it can be washed off later, like pavement.
  4. Prepare the herbicide in the potency and quantity recommended, in a sealable spray container for safe and easy application. I used this product because it is a premeasured dry granule, which means it’s easy to handle safely. I also used this 1-gallon sprayer tank. Read the directions and precautions for whatever products you choose to try, and follow them carefully. I also made an effort to notify my adjacent neighbor that I would be killing the lawn, and to assure him I would aim to leave a 6-12″ buffer zone between our properties in case of stray spray.
  5. This herbicide works by interrupting certain cell and amino bonding activities in plants, disrupting their metabolism (so it’s not like you’re spraying acid all over your lawn–this is a plant poison that works in a very specific and rather slow way). These are biochemical reactions unique to plants, so it is no more than an irritant to animals and insects. It will, however, affect any plant that absorbs the product, and plants only absorb it through direct contact with their leaves, after which it takes 1-2 weeks to reach the roots and kill the whole plant. Use plastic bags or other guards to protect any plants you care about. I covered my new little jasmine vines with plastic bags during the application to keep them safe.
  6. Avoiding application to hard, paved surfaces, and the leaves of any desirable plants, spray the herbicide over the lawn so all plants are visibly wetted but not dripping. Proper density of application means you won’t need to apply it over and over in the future to finish the job, and also that you won’t create runoff of the product: it will basically all be absorbed by the plants and not go anywhere else.
  7. Post a small sign or two at the boundaries of your property announcing that the lawn has been treated, so anyone with pets or children knows to use caution and can avoid touching anything irritating. Remove the signs after the next rain storm.
  8. Wait for everything to be good and dead, typically after 1-2 weeks, and then do a pretty thorough but relatively shallow tilling to remove dead material and break up root systems. Typical recommendations for this step are to use a heavy duty metal rake or dethatching rake to remove the dead material and dig up the surface of the lawn a bit; it helps to then go back with a hoe or shovel and get out some of the grass roots. Unfortunately, I found this step to be such backbreaking physical labor that I was unable to do it as effectively as I had hoped. Even just pulling out grass roots also brought up dormant weed bulbs, and avoiding that consequence was the whole reason I had avoided power tillers. So this is the stage at which I mixed my methods: I rented a small rototiller and used it to shallowly till most of the yard. I still had to hand-till parts of the steeper slopes and around sign posts and the sidewalk edge, but the rototiller was really a lifesaver for getting the job done, and I recommend it if you are working with very much surface area. It was still difficult work, even with the tiny rototiller I used (the only rental available that was safe for solo operation, and also a good choice since it did not till too deep). This step took me basically a full week of daily work, plus a lot of painkillers for my back and arms.
  9. Wait for the plants to begin recovering, and then look for new grass, weed sprouts, and other green growth. Depending on how effective your first application was and how many dormant plants you surfaced, the new growth might be widespread. Kill all new and surviving growth, either by manually pulling them (if regrowth is limited) or possibly retreating with a second round of herbicide (if pervasive). Because my regrowth was overall pretty limited and I had time constraints made difficult by travel plans and impending bad weather, I opted for manual removal in the second round. The weeding required was extensive but not strenuous.
  10. Loosen the soil enough for planting. Possibly add some topsoil and/or fertilizer to return nutrients to the soil (I only used fertilizer). Replant!

* That’s my only comment on the company. I don’t want to moderate that debate on this blog and will delete comments trying to stir up an argument.

Some photos of the process:


Looking out at the front yard from the front porch, a few minutes after the first herbicide application. I put down some marker paint on the right to make it easy to avoid spraying my neighbor’s lawn.


Front yard, seen from across the street immediately after the first herbicide treatment.


Sidewalk strip and slope along the side yard, also immediately after application.


One week later. Most of the grass had died but it had not yet affected all the plant roots.


Also one week later.


Front yard after one week.


After removing dead grass and lightly tilling the whole yard.


Front yard after tilling. Most of the grass you can see is detached, dead grass that I left as straw.


After tilling, we had a heavy rain storm that exposed the weed bulbs that had been brought to the surface. This made it really easy for me to go around and pick them up (though there were a LOT of them).


Immediately after the heavy rain, dormant weeds exposed by tilling sprouted. The densest patches looked like this, but across most of the yard it was much more sparse. It was time consuming but very easy to just pluck these out by hand.

How to install a salvaged wrought iron fence

So, I mentioned a few posts back that over the summer I was lucky enough to acquire a wrought iron fence from craigslist. It was about 80 feet of three-foot-high fence, not including gates; I later managed to find two of those separately on craigslist, too. They didn’t match the design but it’s a simple enough fence that they look good with it anyway.

The fence had been installed previously on a slight incline, so most of the sections were also slightly inclined. It had been removed by cutting the sections apart from each other at the posts, and then by cutting the posts off at the base. I had ten ~8-foot sections, with effectively no posts to mount them.


Closeup of one of the gates I found, in front of the stack of fence sections.


Two and a half sections that I actually didn’t end up using.

To get the parts I needed to actually install this fence, I wandered around hardware stores, chatted with store employees, measured things over and over, and shopped online for many, many hours (two recommended parts sites are here and here. The Metals Depot site was particularly great for pricing and raw materials).

My township restricts residents of corner lots from installing fencing forward of the front edge of the house, and in my neighborhood, the road right-of-ways extend beyond the sidewalk a few feet into our yards. I had full freedom to extend the fence as far back on the property as I wanted, but I decided to stop it at the edge of the driveway, beyond which the yard is much narrower. After acquiring the township permit and marking the measured fence dimensions with marking paint, I confirmed with the state’s dig service that there were no buried lines to worry about.

Once I knew where I wanted it, I installed the fence over the course of several months using the following method:

  1. Buy plain steel rebar of the same dimensions as the existing posts (1″x1″ square). I purchased them wholesale online–much cheaper than, say, Home Depot, which didn’t have enough posts for me anyway. The one caution I have about using steel is that it’s more flexible than iron, so it might feel a little flimsy when it’s in the ground. It is actually very strong, though–some flexibility is okay.
  2. Paint the new posts black, just well enough to keep them from rusting during installation and through the first winter.
  3. Measure fence section intervals and dig post holes with post hole digger. For a 32″ fence, the goal was to get 18-24″ deep, with deeper holes higher priority at the corners. Where the ground was really clay-rich, digging was extremely difficult, though, and there were also a lot of big stones in my yard fill that were very hard to remove. An iron digging bar was probably one of the best investments I made for this project: it loosened the soil faster than anything else during the post hole digging, and it came in handy later when I had to pound a few extra posts directly into cold ground to finish the last pieces of the job.
  4. Mount painted steel posts in the post holes, using the last of the leftover gravel and concrete. This took a few bags of concrete overall, some good measuring technique, a plumb bob to ensure the posts were vertical, and some bricks to brace the posts for a few days while they dried (to be on the safe side). Once I got the hang of it, I was able to mount most of these on my own with no help. The trick was to place the post exactly where I wanted it (I was a little off for some of these, so the fence is a little uneven, but it’s not really a structural problem so much as a minor aesthetic one), hold it with one hand while dumping some gravel in the hole to brace the post, then pouring cement until the hole was mostly full. I found it easiest to mix up about half a bag of cement at a time, using a watering can while stirring to get to the right consistency, and then to scoop it into the hole using a big plastic scoop. I’d make sure the cement was wet enough to fill in crevices pretty well after pouring. That way I could use the plumb bob and adjust the post orientation to get it just right, then the cement would flow with it to hold it in place, then I’d carefully brace with bricks until it dried a few days later. After they were all dry I filled them back up with dirt left from hole excavation. Note that I always had to spray down the wheelbarrow and plastic scoop really well with the hose as soon as I was done so they didn’t permanently have cement stuck to them.
  5. Purchase large steel bolts long enough to extend through a coupled pair of an old iron post alongside a new steel post. For strength and appropriate length, I ended up settling on 3/8″ wide, 3.5″ long carriage bolts, despite the square part for wood.
  6. Line up each fence section in its appropriate location and mark both its height on the new post and exactly where it needed to be trimmed to fit perfectly between mounted posts. This takes several people: wrought iron is heavy, and you need a free hand to make the marks.
  7. Trim the edges of the fence sections to marked lengths so they fit perfectly. Because of mounting on a slope, in one area we also cut a section into multiple pieces to step it down the slope (I had installed extra posts in that area to make this possible). Trimming and cutting were done with an angle grinder. (Always wear safety goggles with full coverage when cutting metal with an angle grinder!)
  8. Drill 3/8″ bolt holes through new and old fence posts at appropriate heights to ensure fence stability. I put two bolts through each post pair for strength and stability. This was the hardest part of the job: the holes needed to be lined up very well for the plan to work, and the drilling was physically difficult, even with cobalt bits, which dulled quickly. It took weeks and several helping hands. To ensure the holes lined up reasonably well and for stability during mounting, the top sets of holes were drilled first. It is easier and safer to stabilize a section from the top down.
  9. Drill additional bolt holes through new fence posts in places where a neighboring section did not have an old post (each section had an old post on only one side, due to how they had been cut). Each of these locations would get two holes (one top, one bottom), and each hole would receive a bolt, some of which needed to be trimmed with the angle grinder to fit the fence geometry. The neighboring section would be balanced on top of the two bolts using the top and bottom horizontal fence bars (and tightened up later: more stable than you might think!).
  10. Mount all sections. This had to be done in sequence: to make sure the drill holes were lined up, all bottom holes were drilled after a section was mounted and bolts tightened up at the top. It took several weeks of working (around my full time job!) to finish mounting the sections. Use the angle grinder to trim down the new steel fence posts to match the height of the old iron ones. I then hammered in simple, black plastic caps designed to fit the steel fence posts.
  11. Where sections were balanced on bolts because there was no old post to pair with a new one, U-bolts were added to stabilize and tighten the joins and make sure nothing could accidentally knock the fence down. All of the U-bolts were purchased wholesale for cheap (after some intense online shopping). This is probably the most amateurish-looking part of the final product, though it’s helped considerably by a black paint job. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a way to bolt these areas with something that makes a slightly snugger fit, so it is less noticeable.

By then it was so cold that I could no longer do the finishing touches. So once the weather is warmer, here is the plan:

  1. Install the gate latches. They could not be placed until the rest of the fence was in place and gates mounted, because the latch has to be carefully positioned. One of the gate latches also requires mounting a piece in the ground, and I’d like to do it with concrete. It’s been either too cold or too wet for concrete (if not both), so this is on hold.
  2. Paint the bolts black. I did a quick and dirty job of this so it was nicer to look at for the winter, but I’ll be redoing it once it’s warm enough for paint to properly set.
  3. Remove all rust and repaint the whole fence black, too. It’s really in reasonably good shape for a salvage iron fence, but there are rusty areas and it needs touch-ups and a fresh coat to look done.
  4. Finish edging around the bottom of the fence, so there aren’t big gaps and holes. I have started this process but cannot finish until the weather is warmer and the ground has thawed for real.
  5. Reposition the stones I used to shore up the slope, because many of them had to be moved during the installation of the fence.
  6. Plant/replant areas that were disturbed by the fence installation.
  7. Finish the whole side yard project: remove the little strips of grass from the slope that are difficult to mow and replace them with plantings that are easier to maintain.

In the meantime, it looks pretty good, if I may say so!


It snowed right after I finished most of the installation. So pretty in the snow!


Once the path and garden beds were more or less in place, it was time to plant! It was pretty late in the season (and very hot), so my goals were to get some of the things I planned established for next year, and to help reduce erosion as much as possible.

I planted plugs of creeping mazus along the stone path. Mazus will spread well to fill in between the stones, making a lush, low, walkable carpet. It also has pretty blue flowers! It does prefer some moisture, so if we have a midsummer drought I’m not sure how well it will do, but last summer it held up pretty well during some dry weeks, so I am hopeful.


Groundcovers and wildflower meadow, a month or two after getting them in. The clumps of green mats interspersed and close to the path are mazus. The rest are some pansies (which are hardy and should survive at least one more season–they’re not really single-season annuals) and the wildflower mix.

On the slopes I added a few things: some lavender plants, some transplanted lilies, and some perennial seeds (aster and dianthus, if I remember right). Hard to tell if all of those took, but I’ll know for sure next year.

Otherwise I used a lawn-alternative wildflower meadow mix from American Meadows. Unfortunately, it was too late and too hot for it to germinate quickly, but I had the advantage of bare, untouched ground with few weeds. Some of the seeds were washed out of higher or more gravelly areas before they germinated, so the cover is a little patchy, and I will be oversowing this coming spring to even that out. This year the perennials weren’t ready to bloom, but I had a nice show with sweet alyssum, creeping daisy, and roman chamomile flowers.


Early plantings.

In the keyhole gardens, I got some preliminary vegetables and herbs going, because why not? The herb seeds I scattered around took off like weeds, and they haven’t died back during our mild winter this year so I’ll have to do some transplanting in the spring! The rosemary took well and I had a nice late crop of peas, plus some tiny and delicious late carrots!




The right keyhole had a transplanted lily that I saved and some herbs this year. Those onions got in too late to produce much.


The left keyhole has the rosemary in the middle, with some herbs around the sides.


Transplanted chives and sage from my previous residences off to the right. The gravel bed is a trench I dug to help control drainage from the house gutters. Previously it was falling right over the house foundation, and I added a drain extender to move it away from the house. Once the area is better planted I hope the rest of the runoff will stop eroding and washing out the new path so much.


Mazus on the path in the foreground; lots of snap peas (I switched to dwarf peas for next spring!); and lots and lots of cilantro.


These were in too late to produce a large crop, but after a few frosts, the tiny carrots I grew were delicious.


A pleasant surprise: the parsley attracted a lot of beautiful black swallowtail caterpillars! I had so much parsley that I could certainly afford to let them eat some. This is an early stage caterpillar.


And here’s a late stage black swallowtail caterpillar, probably days from making a chrysalis. This guy was seriously chomping down on that leaf.

Yard attack 2: Bricks and stones

Through the magic of craigslist, I was able to acquire nearly a third of a pallet of flagstone, about twenty largish blocks of local schist, and ten 8-foot sections of minimally rusted, salvaged, wrought iron fencing. I accumulated other pieces of stone for the yard from waste piles at work (a perk of being a geologist), and liberated brick pavers from now-unnecessary borders around my yard. I also obtained an iron and wood outdoor bench off craigslist, and repainted it red, and purchased an iron bistro table, patio umbrella, and solar lighting. Once most of the gravel had finally been removed and I had loosened some of the packed soil, I began installing stone paths and garden beds:


Bench and new stone path, with small pile of remaining gravel to the left.


Main flagstone path immediately after installation. Patio area to the left still contains gravel.


Primary stone path, viewed from the back of the yard.


Main stone path continuing toward the back steps and driveway. While the majority of the side yard was rather sterile and filled with gravel by the previous homeowner, this area is so densely planted that it’s like trying to manage a (beautiful) waist-deep jungle.


Rear steps down to the driveway. These replaced unstable, unopened bags of gravel.


Final stone path installation in what used to be the patio area, with new raised double keyhole garden beds.


Raised, double keyhole garden beds


New patio area, with new iron bistro set, patio umbrella, and solar lighting.


Looking back at the yard from the rear driveway area, after full stone path and garden bed installation.


Stones installed to shore up the eroding slope


Stone installation to shore up eroding slope, following tree removal.

Yard attack 1: Trees and shrubs

Being a corner lot, my house has two yards: a small front yard facing roughly west, and a larger south-facing side one. Both are up a slope from the sidewalk. The front yard has a lawn, but the side yard only has a little bit of lawn around the edges, on parts of the slope. The back has a wide brick driveway with a one-car garage and a separate entrance into the basement.

When I bought the house, the side yard contained a cedar tree, some shrubs and hedges, a few garden beds, and a whole lot of gravel. It was set up as a wide gravel patio, with a pea-size gravel walkway through the whole yard and leading to a set of steps down to the driveway in the back. The gravel areas and several of the garden beds were underlain with matting and bounded by cheap plastic edging, some of it held down with rusted metal stakes. The rear steps were made of unopened bags of gravel.

Listing photo of the side yard, including a couple thousand pounds of gravel.

Listing photo of the side yard, including a couple thousand pounds of gravel.

gravel gravel gravel

gravel gravel gravel

There were a number of problems with the whole design. While it’s good that the yard slopes slightly away from the house and then steeply down to the sidewalk, xeriscaping matting and gravel fill are designed to funnel water off the surface of your yard and directly into plant beds that need the moisture. It’s not a good idea to just funnel all rainwater off the slope and into the road: none of the water can be absorbed by the soil to keep the soil healthy. All of the water is wasted. Not to mention that this area gets 44 inches of rain a year, so a design intended for semi-arid climates is poorly placed here: some moisture inevitably tends to get trapped, making your whole yard a mosquito breeding ground. It’s also a particularly bad idea to place matting under the soil on a steep incline, particularly with added mulch layers, as the previous homeowner had done around the edges of my side yard: then there is nothing to hold the soil in place, and it will tend to wash away or fall off in large, cohesive sections. Sloping yards in moist climates already typically have problems with creep and erosion, and this yard was no exception—several shrubs and perennials around the side of the yard were displaying classic signs of creep, and the mats were demonstrably making the soil erosion substantially worse.

The old holly bush was a severe victim of slope creep and was not doing well

The old holly bush was a severe victim of slope creep and was not doing well. Also note the white specks in the soil in the middle of the picture: poor, pea gravel victims of people trying to walk down the path.

The soil and mulch under these hedges was placed on top of the fabric matting, and would slide off the mats in sections whenever there was a heavy rain storm.

The soil and mulch under these hedges was placed on top of the fabric matting, and would slide off the mats in sections whenever there was a heavy rain storm.

The gravel itself was a headache. It didn’t stay put, and pea gravel is an especially bad idea for areas where people will be walking—you sink in while you’re trying to walk, it gets stuck in your shoes, and you end up kicking it out of the contained area just by walking. Gravel is great for color contrast and drainage in planted beds, and for temporary fill for drainage and short-term weed control, but it is not very sensible as a permanent fill in a patio area.

So here was the plan:

  1. Cut down the cedar tree, which blocked the southerly sunlight year-round from the central part of the yard and made the yard feel very small and enclosed due to its size and placement;
  2. Cut down two shrubs that were doing poorly because of slope creep;
  3. Remove the gravel, the edging, and all of the matting;
  4. Shore up the slopes with interspersed stones;
  5. Install a nice pathway through the yard;
  6. Plant to permanently establish both a stable slope and a green, healthy yard; ideally something much lower maintenance and more eco-friendly than a classic turf lawn;
  7. Establish and plant vegetable and herb garden;
  8. Establish pleasant outdoor seating areas;
  9. Fence the yard for my dog to play in, within township restrictions for fenced corner lots.

This was the plan for the warmer months of the year, which were upon us soon after I closed on the house, finished the floors, and moved in.

Gravel removal came first. After it was clear that no one was going to pay for pea gravel, even large quantities of it where I did some of the work bagging it, I started listing it on craigslist for free. It took no fewer than 7-8 people and a couple months of steady removal to get rid of most of it. It was frustrating, pretty backbreaking work: shoveling the gravel into containers and bags, raking it into piles, sifting it from the sand and pulverized-gravel dust. Although the craigslisters did a lot of their own removal, I probably shoveled and raked up half of it myself before it was all gone. The matting underneath was mostly rotten and ripped into tiny pieces when I tried to pull it out. The stakes holding down the matting and edging were in some cases extremely deep and difficult to get out. I did most of this work in the sunshine, during a very, very hot early summer. Finally, when just small amounts of gravel mixed with sand were left, I pulled the craigslist ads and shoveled most of what was left into my garden beds so I could finally remove the last of the fabric from underneath. The soil beneath was clay-rich and had been packed down hard by the weight of the overlying gravel.


After about half of the gravel was removed from the pea-size gravel path, but before tree removal. The cedar is in the back on the right.

Then, with the help of my extremely helpful parents and a borrowed gas chain saw, we accomplished steps 1 and 2: removing the tree and unhealthy shrubs. Due to thick, low branches that had never been managed or pruned, the cedar tree was difficult to see well when I hatched my brilliant plan, so I was unaware that it contained four trunks. But with a gas chain saw, a smaller electric chain saw, trimmers, and loppers, the three of us got the whole job done–on a nearly 100ºF, humid, sunny, brutal day. And we cut and tied up all the branches for township pickup. I gave the cedar trunks to some coworkers who love woodworking, and happily sent the rest of the mess to our town’s compost pile. Hooray!

Next time: Installing paths, gardens, and greenery!