To Lawn or Not to Lawn?

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THAT IS THE QUESTION uppermost in my landscaping mind right now. Last year my thinking was anti-lawn, pro-groundcover and other plantings. I’ve tried to minimize turfgrass up to now (I don’t own a mower, or want to), but found that, in many cases, sprinkling grass seed was the cheapest, quickest way to get green. But now, the second of two garden-professional friends (one a writer/editor, one a designer) has nixed the notion of an island bed in the middle of the yard. They’re both in favor of a continuous greensward with plantings around it.

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A wider view of the yard as it looked in mid-April. The existing free-form island bed is an accidental central feature. The other brownish areas are where I’ve sprinkled wood chips to hold weeds down while I decide what else to do.

True, the existing island bed has virtually nothing growing in it at the moment. The spot is not as sunny as I originally thought and I haven’t focused on planting there. And design-wise, it never did make much sense. The free-form island bed in the center of my ‘shy’ half-acre is there only because previous occupants of my house, a cottage in Springs, Long Island, which I bought in May ’09, had created a huge compost heap in the middle of the yard for reasons known only to themselves.

That first fall, it seemed easier to re-shape it and re-conceive it as a flower bed than to move it entirely. The raised bed also served the purpose of concealing a concrete octagon about 3 feet wide — the cap over my septic tank — which is several inches above ground level.

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This concrete octagon, which covers the opening to the septic tank, is now buried under a few inches of soil in the existing island bed.

My garden-designer friend suggested re-grading the property, so that the level of the entire lawn would match the level of the septic tank cover, which as it stands is not a desirable design feature. That would involve a truck with some cubic yards of topsoil, men with rakes and perhaps power tools, a proper re-seeding of the area, and money. It’s not a bad solution; I just wasn’t thinking of doing any significant earth-moving back there this season.

Then my neighbor from across the road, who has lived in this arty, woodsy hamlet full-time for 30+ years, came by and, as we sipped tea on the back deck, gave me her take on the re-grading idea. “That’s very south of the highway,” she said, the big, high-maintenance lawn being a feature of prime Hamptons real estate, which this is not.

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I told her I had realized I could shovel and/or rake out the soil in the existing bed and deposit it along the western property line, above, an open, sunny area in which nothing is presently growing except some mullein, below. I could plant herbs there, and flowers (deer-resistant, of course). Maybe even tomatoes. But that leaves the problem of the concrete cap.

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Perhaps the cap could be re-set to sit on level with the present lawn? If not, said my across-the-road, neighbor, how about using it as a pedestal for a birdbath, or a tub of annuals. That, she pointed out, would be “very Springs.”

Thoughts?

Pull, Plant, Move, Weed, Shear, Lop…it’s May

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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.

GARDEN VOYEUR: The Barefoot Contessa’s Garden

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TAKE A PEEK behind the massive privet hedge at the Barefoot Contessa’s East Hampton garden. I did that on Wednesday. It was open to the public for a few hours as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, to benefit the organization’s work in preserving exceptional private gardens (usually of people who have died) that would otherwise be lost.

I generally find these Open Days fairly intimate affairs. Rarely crowded, they often feature eccentric and highly original gardens. Many times the gardeners are older women who have earned their stooped backs, cracked hands, and vast horticultural knowledge by dint of years of effort. Usually the homeowner/gardener is present to greet visitors and answer questions.

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This garden is different. It’s the home of Ina Garten, the celebrity cookbook author and TV personality also known as the Barefoot Contessa. I’ve never seen the show or read her books, or even tasted her famous brownies, but I did enough research to discover that she was born in Brooklyn [applause] and is self-made, having worked up from modest beginnings to this impressive, sprawling estate. Her husband Jeffrey is the former dean of the Yale school of management.

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It is a striking example of what can be done when money is no object. Here’s the description from the Open Days directory:

This garden features design work by Edwina von Gal implemented about fifteen years ago at Ina’s house, and new garden areas designed by Joseph W. Tyree at the barn Ina designed and built on an adjoining piece of property two years ago. Edwina’s original design at the house is arranged in squares like a kitchen garden, but is planted with perennials, annuals, roses, vegetables, and herbs. It includes a crabapple orchard and rose and hydrangea gardens, and is designed to feel like a traditional East Hampton garden. Joseph’s work at the new barn is set up into three distinct areas: the lawn, a walled garden, and a Lagerstroemia walk. The lawn connects the house by a series of low, broad, stone steps to the barn’s main terrace which is bordered by a low hedge and shaded by two great Linden trees. The sun-filled walled garden is planted with beds of lavender and herbs and has fragrant roses trained on the walls. The lagerstroemia walk is planted with only the white ‘Natchez’ variety of Lagerstroemia, boxwood, hydrangeas, and perennials and wraps around the walled garden and barn.

A short distance off Main Street, the garden is so insulated by hedges and 40′ tall cypresses it could be somewhere in the Tuscan hills. It is undeniably beautiful, yet it feels somewhat impersonal and not particularly imaginative. Maybe I’m just being a grouch, or suffering a case of sour grapes, when you consider the dramatic contrast to my own humble weed patch.

Ina Garten is a fabulously successful entrepreneur, and by all accounts a delightful person, but she’s not a gardener. Even when you can hire the best to do it for you, somehow it’s not the same.