And Now to the Backyard…

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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

Instant Hedge NOT

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IMPATIENT PEOPLE (like myself) should not try to landscape on a budget. Last Friday, hoping to create a hedge in an afternoon, I drove an hour west to Stables, a garden center in East Moriches, L.I., where I bought eight ilex crenata ‘Steeds,’ a type of holly, for $15 apiece. I was hoping to use these shrubs to block the view of cars in my beautiful new parking court.

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The shrubs looked much bigger in the garden center. But they were in containers, not balled and burlapped, so I could fit them all in the back of my Honda, lying on their sides, and plant them myself. As soon as I got them home and placed them where I wanted them, top, I could see this wasn’t going to work out quite the way I planned.

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Nor was the planting as easy as I naively hoped (when will I ever learn?) It took me many┬á hours over two days to dig the requisite trenches on either side of the gravel walkway from parking court to house — one about 7 feet long and the other 11 feet. Most of that area had been part of a driveway for 50 years, so the dirt was compacted, hard as concrete, and I had to go at it with a pickax. My neighbor from across the street came over to sympathize.

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I dug generous sized holes, did what I could to improve the “soil” with bagged compost, and placed the eight 4′ tall plants where I wanted them. I had bought two more than the garden center recommended for the available linear footage; they said to space them 3′ apart to allow for growth, but no way was I going to see that much air in between. Then I filled in the holes, built up little watering ‘moats’ around each one, and topped it all off with wood chips to give it a finished look.

I was going by what Julie Moir Messervy, a garden writer, said in her book The Magic Land about how it’s done in Japan: “We planted shrubs so that their branches would just touch, allowing them to grow together as a mass, while pruning them at least once a year to keep them in check.”

A good weekend’s work. But oh dear, I can still see the car, above. These ilex (I’m becoming something of an ilex specialist, since they’re evergreen, deer-resistant, and cheap — I now have several varieties) will grow to 6 feet in height and widen, but will I still be around? That’s no way to think, I keep telling myself. Meanwhile, every little bit of green helps.