Sunday, December 16, 2012

Transplanting a Specimen Japanese Maple

In the final days of the feeding frenzy I've come to call "The Big Haul"*, I was poking around an adjoining lot with an eye toward scavenging any interesting plants (the owners had all said that I could take what I want and we would settle up later.)  I've had my eye on a certain prostrate Japanese Maple, and as luck would have it, the owner (digger of the massive Atlas cedar and Acer Triflorum)  was prowling around on his skid steer.  The tree's large weeping canopy ruled out the option of using a tree spade and meant that any tying of the limbs was out of the question.

"If you hand dig it," he said "Ill pick it up and put it on your trailer."  Total cost: $50.

The tree had been dug about three years ago and sat in a pile of chips and earth.  Its roots dove straight down into the soil and the hand digging took about 45 minutes.  When I was sure that I had severed all the main roots, the forks arrived and a massive four foot diameter root ball emerged from the earth.  This was not what I had planned for my first run with the new forks I had made for my Kubota.

Driving home, I knew I was cutting a sort of "Sanford and Son" figure with the ten foot wide branches flapping as I tooled along at 20 mph.  The local gendarmes are known for ticketing dodgy-looking trailers, and I was a prime suspect.  Matters were made worse when I ended up in the middle of a charity "CropWalk"; the walkers seemed into the whole "big-tree-on-a-little-trailer-thing."  Step one was complete-- the tree was home in one piece.

There are two things Laura will not do: cut grass or dig holes. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and she dutifully joined me at the end of a shovel.  Her presence was a charm and, I'm not exaggerating, the ground opened up as mounds of loamy, rock-free soil came forth.  In less than 30 minutes we were ready to plant.

There was good karma all around as my first attempt with the adjustable forks worked a treat, and as the ball had a high concentration of roots, it was lighter than I had anticipated.  Because of its size, this was a directly-from-the-forks-into-the-ground endeavor -- and that means you have one shot at success.  Again, Laura's presence brought good luck and the tree slid into the hole without as much a wobble -- plumb and level without any adjustment.  This is a first for me.

Back-filling was textbook with lots of tamping the loose soil, and in less than an hour, the hose was trickling onto the new tree.  Total time out of the ground: four hours.

As with all fall planted trees, we wait and see if it survives and flourishes in the Spring -- and I'm just superstitious enough to make no predictions.  It's in the lap of the transplanting gods.

* The "Big Haul" is my adventure as a layman at the auction of a nursery business -- the subject of a future post.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Time to tidy up and put away ...

This past weekend brought unseasonably warm weather, and the perfect opportunity to tackle the autumn garden cleanup.  I've mentioned before that I like a tidy garden, so this is a job I enjoy if I'm not freezing to death.  Out came the hoe, the rake, and one of my favorite gardening tools, a Japanese weeder.

First stop: the English garden, home to hosta, hellebore, hydrangea, lavender, and liriope:

The liriope is situated behind the bench and since it was only planted this year, it hasn't covered the space yet.  It looks much better now, as does this area, where we planted 4 quarter-circles surrounding the gravel walkway and paving stones:

While Chris prepared the gladioli bulbs for over-wintering, I tackled the kitchen garden, clearing out the last of the peppers.  It's not a pretty sight:
But it's clear, and raked, and ready for spring.  I do this for the same reason I clean before going on holiday: I appreciate returning to a clean house. I'll thank myself in the spring for having done this now.

Putting my tools away, I was struck by how barren the garden becomes this time of year.  But then I walked past the last of the David Austen roses, which are still beautiful and smell so sweet.  They reminded me of what we can look forward to next year.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Designing a Japanese-Style Garden Part I

It was a visit to San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden that opened my eyes to the possibility of creating a Japanese-style garden.  Perched on a hillside in Balboa Park, the simple and spiritual space was more of an experience than a landscape. Its subtlety made me realize that I was entering pretty deep waters if I wanted to create something meaningful and not just a pastiche of Japanese elements.

Japanese aesthetics play an important role in western art and design.  Since it opened its doors to Europe and America in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan's influence can be found in everything from western furniture (Chippendale, Arts and Crafts), western cinema (The Magnificent Seven, The Good The Bad, and The Ugly) and western literature (the French craze for Japonisme plays its part in both Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and the excellent The Hare with Amber Eyes.)

Within gardens throughout the world you find many allusions to Japanese design -- from Kew Gardens impressive pagoda, to Longwood Gardens stunning waterfall tableau that is Japanese in everything but name.  More to the point, San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden, the Seattle Japanese Garden and Philadelphia's Shofuso Japanese House and Garden strive to recreate actual Japanese gardens in a western setting.

When designed by those with an understanding of Japanese history, religion, climate and landscape, the results are stunning, but in my clumsy hands, the threat of a smiling Buddha sitting amid a clump of bamboo was a real danger.  So, like so many things at Heydonbury End, the journey towards my Japanese garden begins with a bit of research.

An excellent place to start is Marc P Keane's book Japanese Garden Design.  The book strikes a nice balance between history and art, photos and text, and detail and grand themes.  Keane is an Adjunct Professor at the Kyoto University of Art and Design and treats the reader as more of a "pilgrim" rather than a "shopper".  In addition to a really first-rate discussion of the various periods and styles of Japanese gardens, Keane gets to the heart of what makes a garden truly "Japanese" -- and it is not bridges and lanterns.

"Of the three components of design -- principles, techniques, and elements -- it is the elements that are most superficial or, let us say, the most "exposed."  Because of this exposure, the elements -- moss and twisted pines, rocks and white sand, stone lanterns and stepping stones -- are the best known and most often associated with the Japanese garden.  These stereotypical elements are not, in fact, requisite for making a garden in the Japanese way.

When trying to re-create a garden in an alien cultural or physical climate, importation of the elements alone will only succeed in making a garden 'Japanesque,' what might be called Japanese style (wa-fu) whereas, with a clearer understanding of Japanese design principles and techniques, one can create a garden with a truer Japanese spirit (wa-shin.)"

Keane's photo's and diagrams of the various types of gardens -- gardens for taking tea, gardens designed to be viewed from inside, gardens for strolling, gardens for religious purposes -- reveals a universal truth in all design. Form must follow function.

Kyoto is acknowledged as the wellspring of Japanese garden design.  In fact, gardens of the Heian period were created to mimic the topography of the new capital city.  A wealth of information about the gardens of Kyoto can be found on Bowdoin College's Japanese garden site.  The many photos of each garden, taken from different vantage points, reveal the rationale behind each element's use and position.  In addition, the site goes into great detail on the attributes of each element and presents a very helpful bibliography and glossary.

With all this information at hand, I'm starting with a relatively clean slate -- a stone wall and a flight of stairs I built earlier. . .

And a nice view of the pond.

Next step:  Hardscaping and plant selection in the Japanese style.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Perfecting the Kitchen Garden

There's a house down the road from us with an admirable kitchen garden. I first noticed it on my daily commute, shortly after we moved into our home. It seemed there was something happening every day during spring and summer, from little shoots rising out of the earth, to mature corn and tomato plants and who knows what else (after all, I could only take in so much as I drove by).  I came to appreciate the seasonal rhythm of the neighbor's garden and I thought, why not have a go at this myself?

I started with a smallish plot near the orchard:
I planted several different crops, from strawberries to tomatoes, peas & green beans to potatoes.  I considered it nothing short of a miracle when they began to sprout and, lo and behold, bore fruit (or veg, as the case may be).  To cope with the avalanche of strawberries and tomatoes, I tried my hand at canning jam, salsa, and whole tomatoes.  I loved being able to eat from my own garden well into the winter months.

Meanwhile, I continued to drive past the neighbor's garden.  My now-more-trained eye noticed how, well, tidy their garden was.  Mine was a mess; the surrounding grass and weeds were a constant battle.  We decided to relocate the kitchen garden to a sunny spot in the pasture, and did a better job clearing and marking off the beds.  We also thought that, if our first garden was good, a garden four times the size would be four times better!  Right?!

On the plus side, we had plenty of room for new crops like carrots, leeks, onions, parsnips, peppers, melons, and pumpkins.  The design was easier to maintain, rivaling our neighbors in tidiness.  On the other hand, there were too many crops.  There was no way we could eat it all, and we didn't have the ability to preserve much of it, either.  Sometime in mid- to late summer, I would throw up my hands in despair, unable to keep up with it all.  Oh, and did I mention this garden was quite some distance from the house?  Our role-model neighbors need only step outside their kitchen door to ingredients for dinner.  We had to walk clear to the outer edges of our property.

When Chris began thinking about situating a formal garden right behind our house (I'm sure he'll have more to say about that later), we decided to allocate space on the end for a new kitchen garden.  Learning from previous experience we started small, and focused on crops we were certain would make it to the family table.  Now, at the end of our first season, I'm mulling things over, still searching for the perfect kitchen garden:
  • What crops do we actually enjoy eating? (or: why grow pumpkins?)
  • How much do we need? (or: enough zucchini already!)
  • How do you design a kitchen garden that is pretty as well as functional?
These questions, and more, will be agonized over, and hopefully answered, between now and next spring!

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Rough Start, and Lessons Learned

When I look back at these early photos, I'm not sure if it was optimism or hubris that spurred us on in our efforts.  What at first glance was an empty canvas. . .

. . . quickly took on the look of a demolition zone.

But the elements that drew us to the property -- the pond, the pasture, and the varied terrain were there from the start.

The first order of business was to remove all evidence of its checkered past as some sort of archery/automatic weapons practice field and/or killing zone.  (Just this week, while planting trees, we unearthed what was identified as an AK-47 shell casing.)  This included removing a dozen or so bullet-and-arrow-riddled deer decoys as well as a hunting tower straight out of "The Most Dangerous Game"

We learned very quickly that our builder had no interest in the terrain outside of some arbitrary zone around the house, and that the backfill would be an awful mix of Wissahickon Schist, sand, and clay.  On the upside, the kind soul who ran the digger re-routed a drain pipe to miss a beautiful old sycamore that we enjoy to this day.

Major areas of conflict were also laid out pretty early in the process.  Our first encounter with the imperious, crazy-like-a-fox, dairy magnate who tried to convince us that we should pay for 1000' of fencing to hold in his cows because, "that's the way we do things around here" ended in a stalemate. 

More distressing was the notion that every Elmer Fudd within a five mile radius was put out by the new "NO HUNTING" rule imposed on what was once their prime territory.  When the first shotgun-wielding visitor came tip-toeing across our back yard, I let loose a less than impressive Bertie-Wooster-cum-Jeffery-Lebowski, "I say, this is private property, man!" protest only to have him raise his finger to his lips in a "be vewy qwuiet, I'm hunting a wascally wabbit" shushing motion.  It ended with me in a screaming contest with an armed man.

But, I had a circa 1953 International Harvester tractor and an endless supply of rocks.  I had no reason to complain.