Sculpting the Earth

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THAT’S A POETIC way of saying “moving dirt around,” which is what my daughter Zoë and I have been doing these past two mild afternoons.

This property came with a compost heap, misguidedly located smack in the middle of the backyard: a rectangular pile of dirt and twigs, 20 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 3 feet high, cutting the yard in half for no good reason.

My friend Nancy came up with the idea of turning the pile into a flower bed, as it’s (a) presumably decent soil, and (b) in an open, fairly sunny area, where it should be easy enough to grow catmint, ladies mantel, lamb’s ear, and other (deer-resistant) cottage garden favorites. But it was the wrong shape and in the wrong place (though not far from the ‘right’ place).


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There was also the matter of an exposed septic-tank cover nearby — a concrete octagon, above, that sat about 8″ above ground on cinder blocks, through the holes of which unpleasant odors would occasionally waft.

Eric Ernst, who cut down several large trees for me in September, suggested burying the septic cover with soil and having that be the highest elevation point, then gently tapering the soil down from there.

I liked the idea of covering the smell-emitting holes. But the prospect of shoveling all that dirt into a different, more graceful shape seemed back-breaking, and I kept putting it off. However, once begun, like so many things dreaded and long postponed, it was easier and went much faster than anticipated.
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First, I used a hose to suggest the desired shape, very roughly, as the hose wouldn’t bend the way I wanted it to and kept shifting around. Then, with two shovels, we started removing dirt from where we didn’t want it and throwing it (or wheeling it in a wheelbarrow, which wasn’t necessarily easier) where we did, pulling out the roots of wild rose and wisteria vine as we went.

Zoë took some logs that had been stacked for firewood and used them to outline the new bed. Now we have the makings of a free-form, vaguely peanut-shaped island bed, at least 25′ long at its longest point and perhaps 8′ at its narrowest, with the suggestions of paths around it on either side.

Then we smoothed the mounds of dirt, which are slightly undulating rather than flat within the free-form shape, with a metal rake. The final step was a dozen or so trips to my pile of chopped leaves in the woods. We tossed armfuls of leaves on top of the soil, where it will decompose further over the winter and and help create a ready-for-planting bed by spring.

It’s all still very preliminary. I don’t know what kind of paving material will surround it, or perhaps it will be groundcover. But it’s another step toward creating a gardenscape where once was chaos.

Below: A few seasons from now, perhaps?
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About cara

I blog for fun here at casaCARA, and write about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites. My recently published posts and articles can be found here: https://casacara.wordpress.com/recent-articles/
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4 Responses to Sculpting the Earth

  1. Terry Kearns says:

    I know your lawn will be proud of you. I have a designer friend who can make a hose into the Mona Lisa. When I try, it’s not so good. He not only recognizes good shapes and proportions, he has the hose handling technique to get it done. And inches matter to him.

  2. sara says:

    love it! if you have a woodstove – i always make a freeform shape with rock border to dump ashes over winter months. ferns and moss love it come spring!!

  3. Nancy says:

    What a great transformation! Again you do back breaking work but reap a big reward. Kudos to you and Zoe!

  4. What a beautiful result! I love the organic shape you used for the bed.

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