The Second to Last Frontier

SO WHILE I WAIT for things to move along on the new old house I hope to purchase, I’m gardening at my old old house in East Hampton, N.Y., which I plan to rent out rather than sell. (I don’t know how people ever sell a piece of property; I get so attached.) Until yesterday, it was hideously hot and humid, and I’m covered with super-itchy chigger bites, all in unreachable or unmentionable places.

BEFORE stepping stones and rock border, above (same general area in May)

However, I have a manifest destiny to fulfill: there are still two enormous areas of my backyard (1,500 square feet each?) that are overrun with weeds and invasive groundcover (<–) and I want them cleaned up and prettified before this season is through. The past few days, I’ve been focusing on an area to the side of my back deck, top, extending toward the rear of the property. Here are some of the steps I’ve taken to tame it and prepare new planting beds:

  • Partially outlined a desired bed in large Delaware rocks bought from a local stoneyard
  • Lay down a few bluestone steppingstones leading from the deck to the back lawn, which had the effect of instantly defining future beds on either side of this simple path
  • Hand-weeded enormous areas alongside the rock edging and toward the sideline of the property. The lot next door is unoccupied and woodsy, and I believe that’s where the chiggers hang out. My primary weedy nemesis looks like large wild violet; very common, at least on my property, but I don’t know what it’s called. There’s also a lot of invasive groundcover, mainly vinca, in need of drastic thinning.
  • After clearing an area, I lay down newspaper (New York Times, East Hampton Star), getting distracted by the occasional obituary, to suppress future weeds, like they say in the books.
  • Spread compost on top of the newspaper to hold it down
  • Took photos to document the process for y’all

I’m only partway into the project. Later on, I’ll be dividing and moving perennials and grasses from my other beds into this area. It will occupy me at least through August, along with my 45th high school reunion (no! can’t be!), an assignment for This Old House magazine, my weekly interview column for the website Curbed Hamptons, swimming in the bay, and socializing.

The area where I’ve been working is close to the house and what passes for sunny on my lot, and I look forward to seeing things thrive there that struggled elsewhere. But it is not the last frontier. That’ll be the area way in back, where I’m thinking ‘woodland garden,’ with rhodies and azaleas, if I ever get a deer fence. I’m of two minds about that now, what with the investment the new place will require.

Meanwhile, I go on, for the love of gardening and some inner imperative I feel to make order out of chaos and do my little bit to beautify the world.

Mulch Mountain


THERE’S A NEW TOPOGRAPHICAL FEATURE on my Springs, L.I., property that isn’t making me happy. It’s a hill made of mulch — 5 cubic yards of it. That’s a lot. It sits in my driveway, waiting to be deployed as a weed suppressor, giving off a slight barnyard scent. And the thing of it is: I didn’t even want the stuff.


In bloom this week: astilbes — a good crop, since Deer-Out

It was wood chips I asked for. I wanted a rustic look among the shrubs in front. I didn’t envision this fancy Hamptons-looking black mulch. But Dong, my garden helper, did. “Everybody want this,” he kept saying. “Better for weeds.” And so he showed up with a dump-truck full, bought just for me.



We often have communication problems. I don’t speak Dong’s language, Vietnamese, and his English is… just this side of unintelligible. We do all right face-to-face, with gestures, but static-y cell phones add to the problem. Then there’s his reluctance to admit he doesn’t understand.


Evening primroses starting up; they’ve spread since last year

I do like him, though. He’s knowledgeable about gardening, hard-working, and fairly reliable.


Seed heads of alliums, which I like almost as much as last month’s flowers

And there he was with a truckload of mulch. What was I going to do? Ask him to take it back, like an undercooked burger? I’ve never been that assertive with workmen. Men of any kind, really. Or hairdressers, of any gender. So I said, OK, go ahead, dump it <sigh>.



It took me two hours of shoveling last night to get perhaps one-fifth — no, that’s too rosy an assessment — one-eighth of the way through the pile. I’m determined that all day tomorrow will be devoted to mulch-spreading.


Foxgloves! Well, one foxglove

Oh well, not a tragedy. Other aspects of being in the country this week are making me happy, including the many more things in bloom than last year (thanks partly to Deer-Out) and a general sense that my garden is under control — as long as I don’t let down my guard.


Houseplants on holiday

The Aegopodium Avenger


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.


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).


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.


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.

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


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.


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.

Philadelphia Garden Clean-Up


YOU CAN TELL JUST BY LOOKING at this 20’x25′ backyard with its battered brick wall, which is attached to the rear unit of the double-trinity house I own in the Old Kensington section of Philadelphia, that the garden is a source of great pleasure for the person who lives there.

It wasn’t me who put in the colorful annuals or hung the wind chimes; it was a tenant who enjoys the garden to the fullest.


This is how the garden looked when I bought the house in 2007:


And here’s how it looked during clean-up:


It took me just a couple of days to clean up this neglected disaster area shortly after I bought the building. Here’s what I did:

  • Pulled and bagged up weeds, which were three feet high and everywhere
  • Gathered and disposed of broken chairs and other garbage
  • Created a simple framework of planting beds, outlined in salvaged brick and terracotta tile, all found in the backyard, on three sides of a squarish patio
  • Laid down landscape fabric in the patio area to prevent the weeds from coming back
  • Ordered a load of pea gravel delivered. It was dumped on the sidewalk in front and then carted by wheelbarrow through the alley to the backyard (that was the largest expense, about $120)
  • Provided some planters with hostas and the French blue chairs
  • Brought in few bags of compost to get the beds started

A pink-flowering hibiscus tree in a far corner was the sole existing plant; the tenant filled in the beds with  marigolds and coleus. Voila! A garden at its most basic, but no less enjoyed for that.


View looking down from top floor