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On its way to pristine (those are hammock posts in the middle, by the way)

I ALWAYS LOVED THE INITIAL PHASE OF RENOVATION: DEMOLITION. Smashing walls, pulling out old fixtures, ripping up nasty carpet is a whole lot of fun, makes an instant difference, and costs very little.

Recently I’ve realized that landscaping has an equivalent to that first heady phase of renovation. Last fall I had five or six big trees taken down on my Long Island property, and a number of smaller ones. The more I got rid of, the better I liked it.

I’m not done yet. This spring, I’m continuing to pare away excess plant material (including, of course, weeds). My guiding light is a section of Julie Moir Messervy’s 1998 book, The Magic Land: Designing Your Own Enchanted Garden, called ‘Abstracting the Landscape.’ Here’s what she says:

“When you abstract a landscape, you strip it down to its essentials and choose certain elements to stand out as important [for me, those include a 'pinetum' or stand of evergreens, and a quirky old cherry tree with over-arching branches]. You can create an abstracted landscape by making what exists more pristine…

When you have a beautiful piece of land, sometimes the most appropriate thing to do is simply clean it up — to abstract it by making it pure. The easiest method is to remove all dead limbs and undergrowth. This allows you to see each undulation on the ground plane, to enjoy each stone that may have tumbled there, to appreciate existing trees as individuals or as groupings.

Encouraging the growth of existing ground covers or importing new ones can help you emphasize the beauty of the land; carefully pruning your trees to rid them of deadwood or diseased branches, to limb them up off the ground or to open their canopy up to light and air, allows you to honor what exists as beautiful and to make it the backbone of your garden.”

I’m so on it. On Saturday, a hard-working, knowledgeable guy named Dong, whom I hired from an ad in the East Hampton Star, and his helper, spent five hours pitchforking and hand-pulling goutweed from areas where it had spread (that’s how I’m handling the goutweed situation, after rejecting the suggestions of a garden designer and landscaper who wanted to spray Round-Up as the most expedient solution).

While they worked, I continued to wage my private war against re-sprouting wisteria. From every green bit of wisteria growth, I followed the underground roots, ripping them up and cutting them when I could rip no more, then applying Round-Up to the cut ends with a sponge paintbrush (I’m not utterly opposed to Round-Up; I just didn’t want it sprayed widely, making my backyard uninhabitable for 2-3 days to me and who knows how long to worms, bugs, and birds). I filled 5 contractor trash bags with coils of wisteria root, while Dong filled the back of his pick-up with goutweed and its spindly white roots. Cathartic! No less satisfying than filling a dumpster with plaster, linoleum, and old appliances.

Now that I’ve established a relationship with Dong (though I’m not his first priority, I can tell), I’ve typed up a list for him. I’m envisioning us walking the property tomorrow, if he shows up, tying pink ribbons on excess saplings, raggedy shrubs, piles of brush, and fallen logs to take away.

Meanwhile, the deer are also helping remove plant material, only not the undesirable stuff. They decimated a pair of heuchera ‘Palace Purple the first night after planting (I moved them streetside, where I think they’ll be safe), and have been sampling newly planted weigela, kerria japonica, and dappled willow. They’ve eaten the buds and flowers from perennial geranium and even astilbe. Will somebody please tell me why they don’t eat goutweed and wisteria?

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Deer-ravaged heuchera

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LAST YEAR IT WAS WISTERIA VINE that was the bane of my gardening existence. The stuff was so out of control it had taken down a shed and killed trees by strangulation. Hired landscapers hacked down much of it; I pulled and cut many trash bags full; and in late fall, my daughter and I applied Round-Up to the cut ends of sprouting wisteria with surgical precision. Though we didn’t eradicate it completely, the situation is much improved.

This year it’s goutweed, or aegopodium podagraria, a super-invasive groundcover that, left to its own devices, would take over the entire backyard, that’s driving me crazy. I have huge sheets of it in several areas. I tackled one of them yesterday, on hands and knees, using a claw tool to pull up as much as I  could of the roots, feeling like a prisoner trying to dig his way out of jail with a teaspoon.

What makes goutweed so pernicious is that it spreads three ways. First, by underground rhizomes, or horizontally running roots a few inches under the surface. It also puts down taproots, like dandelion, and it seeds in late season, below.

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It’s practically unkillable, according to contributors to the forum on Dave’s Garden, a very useful site for all things plant-related. “Aegopodium laughs at Round-Up,” one person wrote, and indeed, mine did (see the pitiful results of my spritzing, below).

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Once I’ve removed all I can of the root (it can re-sprout from any tiny piece you may miss), I cover the bare soil with cardboard and old rugs, below (porous landscape fabric isn’t good enough, apparently). Soon I’ll put a thick layer of leaves or wood chips on top. And if anything dares to re-sprout, which I’m sure it will, I’ll hit it again with the more concentrated form of Round-Up. Sadly, when it comes to aegopodium, organic solutions just don’t cut it.

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I’m pretty sure that both the wisteria and the goutweed were originally planted as ornamentals, perhaps thirty years ago — the goutweed possibly as the prettier, variegated bishop’s weed, which then reverted to all-green and ran amok during years of neglect.

Weed-killing is a nasty business, but it’s got to be done — if you want a garden, that is, and I do. Lucky I don’t have a day job.

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My front beds have gone from bare to ongepotchket (‘Slapped together without form, excessively decorated,’ according to one Yiddish dictionary) in a month. No, not true, but I see how easily it could happen…I can’t stop planting!

EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO, I had just moved to my new home in Springs (East Hampton), N.Y. I had no heat. No refrigerator. No driveway — just a sea of mud. And a backyard that was impenetrable, due to overgrown wisteria and weeds, with a fallen-down shed in the middle of it. I was cold, scared, and lonely; I didn’t know many people in the area. The weather was foul, and I prayed for a bit of sunshine to put a more comforting spin on things.

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Greener than brown…

These days, I’m warm and toasty, with a fully functioning kitchen, a new roof, and a yard that’s at least partly under control. To be sure, there’s a ways to go: I still need a new bathroom, a deck, and a paint job. But I love living here. It’s home. I have wonderful new friends and neighbors. I no longer choke on the word “Hamptons.” I’ve even caught myself saying “up-island,” as in “Whenever I go up-island, I stop at IKEA [Costco, Home Depot...]” (Up-island is a term we East Enders use to refer to parts of Long Island closer to…what’s the name of that city again? Right, New York.)

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Still rock-hunting for those edges…only the best will do.

Today, in fact, I went up-island, to visit my cousin Barbara and pick up her birthday present to me: five big bags of compost — a most welcome gift. Yes, it was teeming, but that didn’t stop us from dividing some of her astilbe, epimedium, and liriope, which I hauled back in my trusty Honda. Tomorrow I’ll plant it, rain or shine. My front-yard beds have gone from bare to practically stuffed in about a month.

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Moving on to containers…

A very satisfying day. While the Long Island Expressway is still soul-numbing (I listened to a new Anne Tyler book, Noah’s Compass, on CD — also somewhat numbing), I didn’t mind the rain. As a civilian, I would have preferred pleasanter weather. But as a gardener, I’m thrilled that Nature is doing the watering.

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New favorite: an old concrete birdbath planted with sedum and scaevola, an annual.

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SO TODAY I’M OUT IN THE GARDEN, following a nice morning rain, yanking out white-flowering, foot-tall garlic mustard before it seeds, and I uncover this fellow, above, with the pretty yellow markings. I’m not much for wildlife photography — deer and wild turkeys tend to move off by the time I get my camera focused — but in this case, I was able to run all the way into the house for the camera and find him right where I left him.

The warm weather has brought out tons of weeds, most of whose names I don’t know. Wisteria, bane of last year, is in evidence, but much reduced. There’s going to be some intensive hand-labor around here in the weed department.

If anybody can identify the weedy groundcover, below, please tell me. And how to get rid of it.

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Last night, I made a list of garden chores for the week:

  • Pull garlic mustard.
  • Plant grasses from Steph (my friend brought over three hefty miscanthus clumps, which went in today).
  • Plant four nandina ‘Gulfstream’ (heavenly bamboo) and two ilex glabra (a type of holly) from Costco; they were $13 each and very healthy-looking. Which I did – but before doing it, I had to move 5 rhamnus frangula (alder buckthorn) bought last year from White Flower Farm at great expense and still only a few inches tall. Bah. They’re not going to serve as screening between myself and my next-door neighbors, so I put them in a sunny spot in the far reaches of the backyard, where I can forget about them instead of being aggravated every time I open the front door and see how pitifully small they are.
  • Plant remaining things from upstate — threadleaf coreopsis, 1 kerria japonica, 1 viburnum. All done this afternoon. Check!

But the list went on, with things un-done.

  • Move chelone (turtlehead) and Japanese silver ferns up front.
  • Pull crabgrass and other weeds from “lawn” area.
  • Shear grass in “lawn” area. I use the term advisedly — it’s increasingly more weeds and less turfgrass. Notice I don’t say “mow.” I don’t have a mower.
  • Cut down browning, unattractive juniper.
  • Lop Rose of Sharon scattered about the property (that which I didn’t get around to earlier in the season).
  • Pick up branches and winter storm damage throughout.
  • Plant more flowering trees.
  • Get a handle on nameless invasive weedy groundcover.
  • Collect more rocks for path edging.
  • Mulch.

Suddenly I sat up in bed with my list and scribbled one last item:

  • “Call help?!?”

I’ve got a flyer here for “Spring Yard Clean-Up Specials.” That’s what I need: a spring clean-up special.

My garden labors today were eased by the example of a woman my friend Caren and I met last night on our evening constitutional down to Maidstone Beach. We were admiring the plantings in front of a tidy cottage — they reminded me of my own baby beds, with many of the same things I’ve planted, edged with similar rocks — when a woman came forth with a watering can. We complimented her handiwork and got a tour. She’s fully exploited everything deer-proof — irises, peonies, weigela, ferns, grasses, and on and on; set things on pedestals made of found stone; positioned everything in the right place so all is thriving and green; made the yard welcoming to birds with a bird bath and feeders.

Her name is Lois, and she must be well into her 70’s. Lois has something I don’t have, but am trying to cultivate: patience. She’s planted a wisp of red barberry here, a tiny fern there, and she’s clearly OK with waiting for it all to happen in its own good time. Whereas I want the lush, billowing effect immediately, if not sooner. Here’s Lois, not worrying that the garden better happen quickly because she may not have that much time left to enjoy it, but enjoying it as it is right now.

With Lois as inspiration, my four hours in the garden today were more relaxed than usual. I’m doing it. It’s happening. In its own time.

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I’M HOME FROM RANCHO LA PUERTA and not too happy about that. The sun is shining here in East Hampton, N.Y., and things have greened up slightly. The daffodils are still in force; my scrawny magnolia is in what passes for full bloom. But the goutweed is also back in full force, and the expanses of brown dirt seem enormous. I prefer to remain at Rancho for a while longer, at least in my head. I’m thinking back on the past week of sun-soaked floral abundance and wondering how I can transpose all I saw and learned there, in some small way, to my Northeastern half-acre.

Last Thursday at Rancho, I took the Landscape Garden Walk with Enrique Ceballos, below, the person most responsible — after Sarah Livia Brightwood, daughter of the Ranch’s founders and a landscape architect — for the phenomenal landscaping of the Ranch’s eight exuberantly cultivated acres. A former botany professor, he has been involved with the Ranch since 1988 and knows everything there is to know about its horticultural bounty.

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It wasn’t really much of a walk; we joked about that afterwards. We began under the gazebo in the central area, near the main guest lounge, and because the plantings are so intensive, and the large group so enthusiastic and inquisitive, we barely moved from our starting point in the allotted hour, yet there was plenty to see. We walked perhaps 50 feet in all, as Enrique gave us some background on the climate (double the normal rainfall in the past year, which is why this spring is so green), the alkaline soil, and the highly eco-conscious philosophy of Rancho La Puerta’s garden maintenance program (I saw only one sprinkler going the whole week; of course, the water is all reclaimed and recycled).

“This is a landscape with no chemicals,” Enrique stressed. No pesticides: insects are welcome (some prey on others, he pointed out, so why kill the helpful ones?) No herbicides: hand-weeding is preferred. No slug-icides, either: the birds take care of that.

The aesthetic intent, he said, is to create “an abstraction of the chapparal inside the garden,” with contours and rhythms that echo the shapes of the surrounding terrain. I now know that chapparal is the native eco-system in the foothills of Mt. Kuchumaa, considered sacred by the area’s original inhabitants;  the mountain dominates the Ranch’s longer vistas, partly because the design is intended to do just that.

The Ranch uses either native plants or “eco-equivalents” – plants from similar climatic conditions, particularly the Mediterranean region, which are not native but thrive and grow like natives. A ubiquitous example is rosemary, which I never walked past without picking a sprig and holding it to my nose. It was introduced to Baja by Franciscan monks from Italy, Enrique told us.

Some of the highlights of our “walk”:

  • AGAVES – 80% of which are from Mexico, we learned. They bloom once, spectacularly, and then die, in a 7-year life span. There are eight different agave species at the Ranch.
  • ALOES – these are eco-equivalents from Africa. The coral aloes, below at right (with orange gazanias to the left of them), now in bloom throughout the property, are outstanding. I couldn’t get enough of looking at them.
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  • MONTEZUMA PINES – pale green and feathery
  • EUCALYPTUS TREES – Enrique called them a “big weed, aggressive and flammable.” He is not a fan of eucalyptus.
  • GAZANIAS (African daisies) – orange flowers, below, with delicate magenta undersides and juicy succulent stems, they are used in big drifts for sheets of color.
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  • EUPHORBIA – not the type we have here, but recognizable, with chartreuse flowers
  • NANDINA (Heavenly Bamboo) – now bursting with red berries, below
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  • FRENCH LAVENDER – not part of this walk, but used to great effect, below, along with tall Italian cypresses and more of that fabulous coral aloe, around the circular fountain in the Villas Luna area
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  • CALIFORNIA PEPPER TREE – huge and venerable, resembling weeping willow, on the lawn near the dining hall, below
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  • ROCK ROSE, or cistus – a marvelous, rather funny-looking pink flower, below, with red triangles inside
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  • SALVIA (sage) – there are 25-28 species, native and non-native, all well suited to the Ranch’s conditions
  • ARTEMISIAS – semi-desert plants which do very well at the Ranch
  • DATE PALMS from the Mideast, QUEEN PALMS from Africa, others from California
  • ICE PLANTS – wonderful architectural feature, used everywhere for big drifts of color (such as the pink ‘river’ in photo at top)
  • ECHEVERIA (Hens & Chicks), below – gigantic, compared to our Northeastern varieties
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  • TRUMPET VINES – invasive elsewhere but here, said Enrique, all that’s necessary to control them is to cut their water supply
  • WISTERIA, now having their moment on pergolas throughout the Ranch, originally from China
  • STAR JASMINE – many different types on arbors
  • PYROCANTHA – red-berried and not native, but successful
  • ROSES – many species throughout – the most magnificent, to me, are the yellow ‘Lady Banks’ on the pergola near the Montana gym, below
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You can see why we didn’t get far. The above list represents just a fraction of the Ranch’s plantings. And I understand the wildflowers in the upper altitudes of Mt. Kuchumaa, reached only on the 5.5 mile Coyote hike (which I chickened out of, preferring to save some energy for Bar Method, swimming, and African dance) are beyond belief.

For more on Rancho La Puerta, go here, and see my two previous posts below.

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