Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Shrinking the lawn

A big part of our landscaping plan involves shrinking the lawn. I've estimated our final goal to be about 260 fewer square feet of lawn. Which doesn't seem like much, but that's about the entire footprint of the lawn of our old property in downtown Ipswich. Our new 1400 square feet of lawn is far more than we need, our two kids under the age of four spend most of their outdoor time digging in the mud, not playing on the lawn.

Why shrink the lawn? We'll never water the lawn so it's not like we're wasting water on it. We'll never use conventional fertilizers on it either. The most I ever put on a lawn is compost. And when we do mow we have an old fashioned push mower, so we're not even burning fossil fuels to maintain it. But lawns aren't really useful to any creatures but humans. Somehow a beautiful dandelion-free lawn has become something to strive for. If our house wasn't here the natural landscape would be a shady woodland riverbank, not a 1400 square foot lawn, and that would be fine with me.

The sod we've inherited, installed last summer for the house sale, is obviously not drought tolerant and is already showing stress from not being watered. This dry area to the right has already been ripped out and foam flowers and coral bells are awaiting planting.

The best way to visualize the future footprint of the lawn is to lay out a garden hose or bricks along the line you're going to remove. I did this to the right and below and brought the edge in by about two feet all the way around the the lawn. Then you simply pull up the grass. Luckily, because the lawn was only lightly watered last summer, and the roots were therefore very very shallow, the lawn came up easily.

Now, where there was once a monoculture of grass, there's great blue lobelia, penstemon, false indigo and blanket flower in the sunny areas. And in the partial shade a nice blanket of bearberry and foam flower will hopefully spread over the newly exposed loam. Butterflies and hummingbirds have already been feeding on the plants, if that's not worth a smaller lawn I don't know what is.

For some great lawn ideas visit the Greenscapes website, they'll help you with better mowing, better seeding, and of course lots of ideas on things to plant instead of grass.

Monday, May 21, 2012

That darn plastic!

 One of the most time consuming parts of our property's native landscaping project is the removal of an estimated 2400 square feet of plastic sheeting and about 4000 square feet of plastic landscape cloth we have inherited. I could leave it in place, but if my goal is to have the new perennials and ground cover fill in nicely then the plastic and landscape cloth must be removed. Its weed-blocking days are over. Plus, having 2400 square feet of impervious plastic under the soil is a terrible thing for a river bank property. In a heavy downpour the run off will go straight into the river and not soak into the soil, adding to flash floods and droughts.

This 750 square foot section of the back yard to the right is a giant square of mulch under which is a thick plastic tarp. In some areas the tarp is buried under 10 inches of mulch, in other areas it's poking right out of the ground (above). And in other areas there's fuzzy landscape cloth over the tarp. I'm leaving this section until later in the summer having learned how much work the plastic removal is.

Last week I removed a small ten by four foot section of double-layered landscape cloth from an area along my neighbor's driveway. You can see the disturbed mulch below and the pile of landscape cloth I removed. Roots from the nearby oak tree had woven themselves right through the cloth attaching it to the mulch and making removing it extremely difficult. This small section took me over an hour.


After the cloth was removed I enlarged the planting area by removing about 40 square feet of lawn along this bed (future post about lawn shrinking coming). I edged the whole area with bricks dug out from an old walkway in back which we're removing. Then I rewarded myself this weekend by planting this area out with a shade garden of foam flower, coral bells, soloman's seal, bearberry, leather wood ferns, white snakeroot and a lovely variegated hosta that was already here and I divided.

 The almost-finished area is to the right. Once I move the old yew stumps sitting by the oak, and add mulch I will declare it done! I'm looking forward to seeing the foam flower and bearberry spread and fill everything out. In future years I hope this will be a beautiful and lush section of yard.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Black gold

At the Slow the Flow grant workshop in March a very inspiring organic gardener spoke on compost and organic lawns. His name is Javier Gil and he grew up in Spain where he said everyone was an organic gardener but no one knew it, it's just how they did things there. It wasn't until he moved to the States that he saw home owners drag out their giant jugs of Round Up and spray everything that wasn't a blade of grass. He was confused and couldn't figure out why people were doing this over here. What was wrong with a few weeds? And why weren't people using compost?

At his J. Gil Organic Landscaping business not only does he use organic practices but he teaches his clients them as well. "In conventional landscaping you treat the plant," he tells the workshop, "in organic landscaping you treat the soil. Healthy soil, healthy plants." And to get healthy soil you need compost. A lot of compost. It's one of the only tools he uses.

I got lucky this fall in that the Town of Ipswich started a pilot curb-side compost program. For less than $2 a week your kitchen scraps get picked up from the handy little green bin the town provides, and you get access to the compost in return. Knowing I had big landscaping plans over the next few years, and knowing we eat a lot of veggies and produce a lot of food trash, our family of four signed up immediately. When we got the info on the program I learned you can throw a whole chicken in your bin! You can even compost left over cupcakes! Not that I can imagine ever having left over cupcakes, but you could send them off with your compost if you did. In backyard composting usually one sticks to vegetable matter, eggs shells and coffee grinds.

The program isn't free, but I can be certain that we've used at least enough of the return compost to make back our investment. Plus the program has shrunk our garbage output by at least 25 pounds a week. A win-win for everyone. And the stuff is wonderful: no seeds, no smell, and only the occasional apple or banana label someone forgot to take off their peel.

The last time I brought a carload of yew branches to the town transfer station with my kids I also squeezed in two empty 20 gallon plastic tubs and my kid's beach buckets. I threw the branches and leaves in their piles and headed over to the giant compost heap that gets delivered from Brick Ends Farm in Hamilton where our kitchen scraps end up and turn into black gold over the course of a year. I filled up the two tubs and my kids filled up their beach buckets. I brought home very very dirty kids and then we hit the garden and they got even more dirty.

Every single plant I'm planting as part of my native garden makeover is being planted in a base of this compost. So far everything looks amazing. This spinach to the left was planted in pure compost, I ran out of potting soil, it's the most healthy and greenest spinach I have ever grown. And it tastes just as good as it looks.

I really lucked out with the timing of this curbside compost program, a big thank you to the Town of Ipswich for going forward with it. So far the program has been a big success, with almost 200 households participating, and will be continued into next year. I have to say at little smile creeps onto my face every time I pass a house on pick-up day with a green compost tub sitting by their curb. I hope their gardens are as happy as mine.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

0.3 acres, ancient yew shrubs, a lot of buried plastic and the PIE Slow the Flow Grant

This past October my husband and I realized a dream of buying a riverfront home. Our little 0.30 acres (see right) of Ipswich, MA sits alongside the often lazy Ipswich River, which meanders its way from its headwaters in Burlington and Wilmington, MA all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, spilling out its flow just north of Crane Beach into the Plum Island Estuary (PIE). PIE drains a 600 square kilometer area and is part of the larger Great Marsh, the largest continuous salt marsh in New England.

A very large part of this estuary is protected by the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and local land trust. But that can't protect everything that goes into the rivers and streams that feed the wildlife refuge and salt marshes (i.e fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum runoff). Parker River NWR announced this spring a grant program to "give impetus and incentive to property owners within the Plum Island Sound watershed to implement organic green landscaping projects in order to improve water quality and quantity of the Plum Island Estuary." They dubbed the grant "Slow the Flow".

The Ipswich River Watershed Association posted info about this grant a week before my husband and I were to appear before the Ipswich Conservation Commission to present an application to remove the old yew shrubs, relandscape with natives, and more importantly remove the 2500 square feet of plastic sheeting that I discovered the former owner's landscaper had laid down years before under about six inches of mulch to prevent weeds. It's now poking out in many places ( see left).

Being right next to the river and having plastic cover most of your yard is not a good thing. We want the watershed to hold onto runoff, not have it all dump into the river and go out to sea.  Large paved surfaces in more developed towns upstream are adding to the major flooding Ipswich has experienced in recent years. The sooner I could rip out that impervious plastic the better I would feel about myself and our owning this property.

The Conservation Commission easily granted us permission for the shrub removal, addition of a native wildlife garden (where there is otherwise just bare mulch), a vegetable garden, shrinking the lawn and installing a safety fence in a small area of the backyard so my two very young children didn't end up in the river. The next day I immediately started digging. If you can imagine my goal of native cottage and woodland gardens, with colorful perennials and ferns, and you look below to see what I had to start with you can see why I started digging right away. My vision is pretty much the antithesis of this picture.

Even with Conservation's approval in hand I thought it would be a long shot to get this grant. It could mean a matching award towards all the ferns, jack-in-the-pulpits, foam flowers, cardinal flowers, fothergillas and blueberries I had been dreaming about all winter. In the four months we had owned the house we had spent a lot of money on insulation (it had almost none) and other energy upgrades which were a priority, not leaving much in my dream garden budget. The grant would allow more of all these plants and larger specimens too. Instead of planting over four or five years I could afford to fill in the bare areas this year. I attended the workshop in March, listened to many great lectures on research going on in PIE that I wasn't aware about, and native gardening tips that I were aware about but was happy to hear again. I sent my application in on April 18th and crossed my fingers.

In the meantime my husband ripped out all the yews (as much as I despise destroying any plant, I couldn't find a home for the yews and they sadly ended up at the local leaf dump). For a few weeks it looked like a tornado hit the house. I made many promises to neighbors that "it will look better some day, I promise!" As the new green color went on the clapboard, the doors were redressed in a bright blue and the stucco lightened I think the neighbors began to believe me. And while awaiting word on the Slow the Flow grant I kept busy filling in the otherwise empty and desert-like strip of mulch along the road (foreground to the left), and the now-empty space by the front door, with blanket flowers, liatris, black eyed susans, columbines, coneflowers, ferns, and day lilies I started in my greenhouse - and a pussy willow my three-year-old picked out at a local nursery.

On rainy days my girls helped me make mosaic bird baths that are to become focal points in each of the garden areas. Although I keep finding their plastic toy lizards in them, they're also very good at making sure the bird baths are supplied with water from the two rainbarrels I just installed. I have had eleven neighbors stop to tell me just this week that "WOW, what a difference!" or ask "May I come back and write down what these plants are?"

And then I came home last Thursday night to an email stating I got the grant! I could not have been more thrilled. Some women indulge themselves buying shoes, or jewelery or clothes. I buy plants. You can never have too many books or flowers I always say. So this weekend's plan is to hit the local nurseries and next week's plan is a trip with my older daughter to Garden in the Woods, home of the New England Wildflower Society and the mecca of native woodland plants.

A big thank you to the team at Parker River NWR for awarding me this grant and beginning what I know is going to be a rewarding and beautiful journey for our family and our new home. I will post pics every week on my progress and look forward to sharing the results.