The South Garden Transformed

The old lawn is gone. The site is cleared and prepped for change. New planting beds emerge and steel stakes carve out new pathways through the landscape. We’re ready for construction!  Hardscape usually comes first, and this time is no exception. To define the path, Quercus brought in long runs of 1/4″ thick steel that were welded to 1/2″ rebar sunk into the earth.


Lupe welds the steel runners to the rebar defining the pathway.

A solid path requires a solid footing. After excavating the planned path down about 6 inches, the ground was compacted and flattened using a plate compactor.

The metal path edges are precisely trimmed to join the transition area that joins the north/south path with the east/west path.

The metal path edges are precisely trimmed to meet the transition area that joins the north/south path with the east/west path.

With the paths defined, a layer of crushed rock – the substrate, goes down and is tamped firmly into place to support the big pavers. Deciding how the pavers should be placed is much like assembling a big jig saw puzzle.

Now for the fun part.

Now the fun begins. The Quercus team considers how to put this puzzle together.

Large pavers help create a wide path and are heavy work. The pavers are placed and their edges trimmed when needed, to find the perfect fit.

Lupe carefully considers his next move.

Lupe carefully considers his next move.

Once the pavers are spread across the paths, a fine crushed rock is carefully tamped into place between the pavers, and then swept to create the finished look.

Finishing sand

The final touch: With the new plantings in place, the water system installed and the lighting set, the finishing gravel  is carefully tamped between the pavers and swept clean to a fine finish.

Lisa of Banyon Tree Design designed this part of the garden to withstand the dry season, as well as create a variety of heights, textures and colors. Our plant color selection included soft oranges, yellows, purples and blues as well as plenty of the green stuff.

Flower power

Flower power: From top left, clockwise: Siberian Iris, Tricolor Geranium with Begonia Torch flowers, French Lavender and Paprika Rose.

We already had a mature rosemary, so Lisa added several more of those, some cat mint, coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, day lilies, a couple of dwarf pines, blue oat grass, paprika yarrow, gaura “whirling butterflies”, yucca, cape fuschia, salvia “Neon Dancer”, Santa Barbara daisies (which looks great with Mexican Feather Grass) and a number of varieties of sedum to create a profusion of color and texture in the raised bed. To populate the outside edges of the new path, varieties of tall grasses, a weeping cedruskousa dogwood, digger’s speedwell, boxleaf honeysuckle “Baggenses Gold” and Mahonia “Charity” as well as plantings that echo those in the raised bed were selected all to withstand the dry conditions of high ground coupled with the summer season, and to look great while doing it.

The last step was planting the ground covers directly into the path. Irish Moss and steppable Elfin and Woolly Thyme are easy to plant with their shallow root systems. I dug out little hollows right into the gravel, and just laid them in.

Softening the hardscape: Transitioning the hard to the soft, ground covers bring texture and color blending the paths into the beds. Clockwise from top left: Irish Moss, Steppable wooly thyme with Sedum angelina poking through, and the ground covers creeping into the hardscape.

Softening the hardscape: Transitioning the hard to the soft, ground covers bring texture and color blending the paths into the beds. Clockwise from top left: Irish Moss, Elfin Thyme with Sedum angelina poking through, the ground covers creeping into the hardscape, and Woolly Thyme.

Even with an irrigation system tending to most of the watering needs, with all of the new plantings, we will need to keep a keen eye on things for signs of trouble.

The hardscape is in place, the planting done, mowing the lawn now a distant memory. Summer is coming.

South garden finished

The path less taken:  Time to sit, enjoy the view and contemplate, what comes next.




Get Along Old Lawn

Let’s face it, unless you want to play croquet or practice your golf putt in your yard, and you have a lot of money to spend on maintenance and water, you really should get rid of your lawn.

Looking west across the parched lawn.

Looking west across the parched lawn.

Boules and grass

A boules court this is not.


Lawn east view

The view east: Slightly less parched, but summer is coming.

Here in the northwest it generally doesn’t rain much between late spring and early fall, and lawns quickly turn brown and dry up until the fall rains begin. In fact, it’s a badge of shame for eco-minded Puget Sounders, where water is metered and scarce at times, to have a lush green lawn in the middle of the dry season. For most of us, during those beautiful summer days, when you’d really like to invite friends over to sit in your garden and enjoy it, that ugly brown patch is just not ready for company. After a few years of living with it, and realizing that we couldn’t keep it green with a reasonable level of watering given our high location and sandy soil, we decided to get rid of it, and replace it with something that would be beautiful all year.

But first there were some decisions to make.

The lawn plan view

The lawn took a considerable footprint of the entire garden property. This would be no small task.

How much of the existing landscape around the borders of the lawn should we keep? How could we work the grotto in to the new design? How would we access the newly landscaped areas? What sort of micro-climate were we really dealing with and how should we choose plants that would thrive? What palate of color appealed most to us? Unless you already possess a fair amount of knowledge and experience that equips you to deal with these tough questions, a professional designer is well worth the money. Back when we decided to embark on the landscaping journey, we asked Lisa from Banyon Tree, to also produce a Phase 2 design that would involve replacing the lawn with a new landscaped space on the south side of the house. The first year of landscape transformation involved the new studio and courtyard garden, as well as the grotto area – an idea that we came up with and created on our own (see my previous post). The second year we were ready for more.

So on a nice spring day, the grass was mowed one last time and we promptly sold the mower on CraigsList.

Mark mows

One last pass before getting rid of the mower once and for all.

No more mowing the lawn for us. Then, the first shovel full of dirt and turf, along with one of many dandelions we regularly did battle with, came out and we were on our way.

First shovel

Aggressive dandelion eradication. This time we mean business!

We thought taking the turf up would be an easy chore, something we could do ourselves. Mark spent as much of one whole day as he could physically tolerate, and got about 20% of it done.

Removing the grass begins.

Removing the grass begins.

He quickly came to the conclusion that if we wanted it done fast, and well, it was time to bring Quercus back in. They made short work of it – it was done in a day. Max and the Quercus crew mounded soil from the lawn excavation onto what would become the new planting bed that stands in the center of the former lawn. Then they measured and staked off the new hard scape – a path of big pavers that would circumnavigate the new planting bed on three sides. The fourth side would consist of the original concrete path.

Like an empty canvas, a bare patch of earth -is there anything more simultaneously exciting and daunting to a gardener? There’s so much to look forward to as we begin the next chapter of landscaping. We’re going to be learning about drought tolerant plants more suitable to the sunny south side of the property. So get along old lawn, we’re moving on. If you’ve still got a lawn, summer’s coming – you just might want to move on, too.

Lawn gone

The lawn is gone and the next phase of the garden transformation begins.

The Grotto

With a full time profession and a big garden project underway, it can sometimes feel as though there’s little time for anything else in your life. Somehow, as many bloggers would agree, time just gets away from you. But we’re back now and ready to continue writing about our garden projects.

Above, a view of the entire planned garden transformation, including the “Courtyard Garden,” the “South Garden” and driveway renovation. The highlighted area, that we later called “The Grotto,” was at the planning stage, a dense, seemingly impenetrable, mass of foliage.

Above, a view of the entire planned garden transformation, including the “Courtyard Garden,” to the east of the house, the “South Garden” and driveway renovation. The highlighted area, that we now call “The Grotto,” was at the planning stage; a dense, seemingly impenetrable, mass of foliage.

The original garden design never envisioned that we would do more with the area immediately south of the new courtyard garden than rip up all of the insidious ivy that had taken up residence there and clear out some of the dead branches on the Pieris japonica to reveal more of the attractive shape of its trunks.

Garden path two views

Two views of the area bordering “The Grotto”: On the left, looking west, the grotto is deep in foliage, and on the right, looking east, the thinning begins, but little is yet revealed.

The more we worked at it though, the more we liked the view through it into the south garden. We hacked a pathway through it and decided we would add pavers to connect with the south garden. Another trip to Marenakos.

At the rock shop.

Kathryn selects just the right pavers for “The Grotto.”

It’s a good thing we had way to much topsoil – it was available when needed for this add-on project. Max brought us some plants that he selected to thrive in shade, some ferns and hosta, more black mondo grass, and some lovely evergreen liriope that looks like a grass but has a purplish-pink flower (it’s actually a relative of the mondo, and they’re both tubers).

After all except the ground-cover plants were in, Max and his crew returned to put in a drip irrigation system. It might come as a surprise that in this climate widely known for rain, we decided we needed one. For one thing, our property is situated almost at the top of a high ridge. The substrata is sand (a happy thing to find when digging the water/sewer line to the new studio, but far from ideal for holding mositure), for another, summer can be extremely dry here in the Puget Sound area. Feeding plants a slow, steady drip of water is far more likely to yield healthy specimens than continuous wet/dry cycles. Plus it works when you’re off at work, set it, and forget it. The system was laid on the top soil, a network of 1/2” black tubing with ¼” short feeder tubes that deliver water right to the plants. We can add new feeders on the system ourselves, or remove existing ones. Once we finished that we were ready for mulch.

A matrix of vinyl drip-lines, set on a timer, delivers a slow feed of water to each specific plant.

A matrix of vinyl drip-lines, set on a timer, delivers a slow feed of water to each specific plant.

The Sawdust supply guys delivered a load of mulch on the Friday before Thanksgiving. November is the rainiest month in the northwest so we worked quickly to get all that mulch spread before the weekend was over, and it was slated to rain. In some areas we could bring in the wheelbarrow, but others were more delicate and could only be accessed with a bucket and needed to be spread by hand, instead of with a rake. Mulch is pretty easy to work with because it’s so much lighter than topsoil and it gives your garden a nice rich, dark background that the plants look pretty against while it delivers nutrition at the same time. We’ll need to add mulch every year to ensure a healthy, thriving garden.

Grotto details.

Grotto details.

Thanksgiving weekend was spent planting the ground cover. You can’t plant ground cover first and then mulch for obvious reasons.  To finish we planted baby’s tears around the steppers. And With that completed it will be spring before we will be doing much more than routine maintenance in the yard. Gone now is our beautiful fall weather, it’s wet and windy, the leaves have nearly all fallen, and we will be laying aside our gardening tools until the coming spring, when we’ll begin the next re-landscaping phase in the south garden. And it’ll be nice to have a break from it!

The standing Buddha silently greets visitors who follow the path from the “Courtyard Garden,” through “The Grotto” and on the next phase of the garden transformation – “The South Garden.”

The standing Buddha now silently greets visitors who follow the path from the “Courtyard Garden,” through “The Grotto” and on the next phase of the garden transformation – “The South Garden.”

Let the Planting Begin

Kathryn plots the course

Kathryn prepares for planting day.

The first shipment of plants arrived in the back of Max’s pickup truck. We lined them up for inspection, like so many little soldiers, and examined them against the plant list, and against expectations.

Max checks through the inventory of plants.

A plant in a six inch or gallon size pot doesn’t generally match the mature specimens seen either in other gardens or in on line photos. In fact, some of these infants are unrecognizable from their adult counterparts.

Ready to plant.

A perfect morning to begin the planting.

The first to be planted was not one of the new plants however, it was the one we’ve had the longest in anticipation of a new garden – a present from friends on Bainbridge Island it’s a lovely purple Cotinus, Smoke Tree, variety unknown.

Planting the Smoke Tree

Mark plants the Smoke Tree, the first of many plants to be added to the new garden.

The leaves will turn a nice bright orange as fall goes along. In the spring the leaves will re-emerge along with a delicate, spidery flower that lends the tree its name. This little guy has a long way to go before he starts smoking, but at least he’s finally in the ground.

Next I planted five Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’, Lenten Rose. The nice thing about Hellebore is that they bloom in the winter, when not much else is going on in the garden, plus they have a lovely, long standing flower, a nice whiteish-pink bloom. These shade lovers are also deer resistant, which isn’t a factor for us, but is a common problem in many Puget Sound locations.

Plant details

Flats of Babys Tears, Brass Buttons, Sweet Flag and Ferns ready for planting.

Next in are a few Hosta ‘Halcyon’– the most slug resistant variety, some Iris Siberica ‘Siberian Irises’; a Phygelius ‘Devil’s Tears’ Cape Fuschsia; and Agastache ‘Acapulco’; a variety of Sedum -‘Matrona’ which doesn’t look like anything right now, and a mix of grasses: Acorus Gramineus ‘Ogon’ (a golden variegated Sweet Flag with great color); Briza media, Quaking Grass; Carex Testacea Orange Sedge and the fabulous Stipa Gigantea Giant Feather Grass, the latter not yet close to stately stature it will acheive. Grasses are great for adding texture to your garden; they’re hearty as all get out and drought resistant, too. While I put in these plants Mark planted the Juniperus scopulorum “Skyrocket” juniper, the Buxus Sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ Dwarf Boxwoods that continue the existing low hedge up to the new path, and a number Taxus Baccata “Fastigiata” Irish Yew.

Glass balls re-set into garden.

The Japanese glass floats re-set into the new plant beds.

The design calls for placing the Japanese glass floats in a pattern that suggests water flowing from the dish rock. Before we planted much in the glass float area, the floats needed to be set in. So in the midst of planting the above, we took a break and washed, dried, and replaced the floats in the landscape so we could plant around them with confidence. They look great!

And speaking of placement, I left an unplanted space in the southwest bed because a tree was designated for that spot, and we’d need unfettered access to it. When Lisa designed this bed, she did not specify a tree so we checked with Max for recommendations.  We want one with a canopy that won’t spread much or get too tall, 20’ to 25’ high is plenty, just tall enough to block the view from the neighbor’s bedroom window. Max gave us a few recommendations, I won’t go through the list here (ping me if you’re interested) and from that we selected the Stewartia pseudocamilia Japanese Stewartia, so named because its spring flowers resemble a camellia. We also like its conical shape, fall color, and its perfect size. It’s a slow grower, so an 8-foot specimen like the one we got is going to take a while to reach maximum height.

Tree in hole.

The Japanese Stewartia settles into its new home.

When the tree arrived Mark dug a giant hole for it, cut off the burlap, and with a bit of a struggle (an 8 foot tree probably weighs well over100 pounds) and the help of a hand truck, the tree was in and I finished planting the bed with some Helictotrichon sempervirens,Blue Oat Grass; Lavandula x Intermedia ‘Grosso’, Fat Spike Lavender; Monarda didyma ‘Rasberry Wine’ Bee Balm; and some little Erythronium, Dog Tooth Lilies that are nothing but a nubbin right now. Along with the Stewartia came a whole flat of fabulous looking Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens, Black Mondo Grass. A selection of ground covers – Soleirolia soleirolii, Baby’s Tears; Sedum ‘Angelina’; and Leptinella ‘Platt’s Black’, Brass Buttons will be planted once we have put a layer of mulch down over the planted areas.

A couple of tips about planting for the uninitiated, you’ll need a spade, extra top soil in a bucket or in the wheelbarrow, a trowel, garden shears, a box knife, a rake, and your gloves. You’ll use the box knife to cut through stubborn root bound plants. Don’t be shy about this; you want your plant to establish new roots which it will do more quickly if you get rid of some of the tough old ones. Another great garden tool is one of those new fangled garden rakes (we picked up one at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show last February) that have a sliding mechanism to vary the spread of the tines so you can get in some pretty tight areas with your rake. Tighten the tines and turn the rake over it acts like a cross between a shovel and a pitch fork. When you’re ready to plant, dig a nice size hole, mix some top soil into it, press the plant firmly down into it so it makes good contact with the bottom, and shovel your soil in around. Fill in completely, pausing every few plantings to smooth with the rake. If you encounter troublesome roots while you’re digging your hole, use your shears to cut those off. And I know it sounds silly to say this, but don’t forget to water when you’re all done for the day. You don’t want to hunker down with your favorite cocktail and your feet up only to realize you have to go back outside and turn on the sprinkler.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October when I wrote this, we also cleaned up the vegetable garden, picked the last of the tomatoes and readied for colder weather. Raking up the leaves from the seven maple trees that are planted on all sides of our property keeps us busy with the rake and the compost bin from October until the end of November. The sun umbrellas were taken down and Mark hoofed them up to the attic until next May.

Max has also delivered a variety of shade-loving plants for “The Grotto”, which I’ll talk about in a subsequent post. More about ground covers soon, too. This post is long enough!

New plantings.

A composite photograph of the newly planted beds.

Dirt! We Actually Dig Some!

As the lovely days of Indian summer linger into October, Max has finished up the lighting and we’re getting ready to plant.

We’re pretty excited about this next phase, I think all gardeners agree that planting is what they most anticipate about a garden project and we’re ready to get our hands dirty! Before planting though, we needed to amend our sandy soil by adding at least two inches of a rich mixture of soil, manure and sawdust. As we plant, we will mix the soil with the lower layers of sand, but otherwise it’s top dressing. Max recommended Sawdust Supply Co. Inc. located nearby, in the SODO area of Seattle.

Dave of Sawdust Supply Co. dumps a mighty load.

We measured the beds and calculated the amount we needed at 3.5 yards then rounded up to 4. Dave from Sawdust Supply trucked it over and dumped it in our driveway. The intimidating pile arrived on a Friday and we spent at least eight hours over the weekend shoveling the stuff into the wheelbarrow and dumping it out all over the place, then raking it smooth. Then Mark chipped away at it a bit each day until the pile was gone.

Before and after views of the topsoil that was moved, shovel by shovel, on to the garden beds.

Turns out we bought way more than two inches of depth, so we added up to four inches in some areas and are stockpiling some of it to add to the vegetable garden after we’ve finished harvesting. It won’t go to waste!

Mark empties the first of many wheelbarrow loads of soil.

…many loads later.

On a road trip to northern Oregon over last weekend, we visited a nursery out of Portland with plant list in hand. On the one hand, the weather is about perfect for planting (cool at night, sunny and warm in the day time, with some rain) however, the nurseries are paring down their inventories and the availability of varietals on the planting list is slim. Many plants that will populate our landscape I haven’t actually seen, except via web photos. Nevertheless, I trust that Lisa has done a good job with selection, and Max will deliver healthy specimens. With soil amendment done, I will start writing about plants. We expect plant delivery any day now!

Kathryn holds the the magic medium.


Back from vacation, here’s a look at what was done to tackle the hardscape in our garden design.

Max’s crew put the pavers down where Mark took out that section of the old wood decking.

Before and after views showing the framing of the wooden patio and the pavers that were replaced to finish this portion of the East garden.

After the guys from Quercus demolished the old concrete path, they laid a new one that is more centered on the expanded space, using some of the leftover pavers that came out when the new deck on the studio was built. Creating its curvy shape required plenty of custom stone cutting.

The pavers are expertly trimmed to fit into a serpentine form.

As usual, they did beautiful work.

Lupe carefully shapes the trimmed pavers to fit into the new path.

The last of the old concrete path needed to be trimmed off to complete the demolition. Lupe finished that during this past week.

Trimming the concrete.

Lupe trims the former concrete entry into the courtyard.

On our last trip out to Marenakos Rock Center in Issaquah, we picked out a dish rock and some stepping stones that will be features in the new bed where the old path was. The steppers also provide access to the space. The dish rock is a column of basalt that has a natural well at the crown. The well can be filled with water to provide a small reflective pool, or a birdbath. It has already attracted a Flicker and a Junco, and I am hoping that it will continue to attract birds in the future. We had seen these rocks at Marenakos last winter and asked Lisa to include one in the design. We were looking for a rock that was the right height and circumference, for the location – about 30” high and 18” to 20” in diameter. We found one that was just right, thanks to the large inventory on hand. Mark tagged the dish rock as sold, and Lupe picked it up, delivered it and placed it in the landscape.

Dish rock tagged for pick up and ready for delivery.

Marenakos also has a vast variety of stones for steppers. For the path, we picked steppers that are cut from a basalt column so they compliment the shape of the dish rock and the grey matches the rest of the pavers. We placed them as the plan indicated, also following Max’s idea that they should be “proud”, meaning they sit up out of the landscape slightly instead of flush or tamped down into it. I hope I don’t trip over them.

Finally Max came in and sited the lighting and the lights were placed. He installed both up and down lighting. After living with it for a while, we decided against the down lighting, so he will be coming back to take that away and finish a few areas that require additional lighting. When Max finishes the lighting, the hardscape in the courtyard garden will be done except for the irrigation system, which will be installed when the plants are in.

Before and after views of the East courtyard garden showing the shift in the path location, the dish rock, the new steppers and some of the lighting.

In my next post, I’m going to write about soil amendment! Woot!

Japanese Glass Floats

My dad was a fisheries biologist in Alaska.

Always an avid sportsman, Bob Simon, shows off an Alaskan bounty of Coho salmon in this c. 1957 photograph, Chignik, Alaska.

Early on during the 16 years that we lived in Kodiak, where I was born, dad flew around in small planes, tracking salmon migration and watching over the seine fishing fleet. From time to time, he’d come across glass Japanese net floats that had found there way across the Pacific to some remote stretch of beach on Kodiak Island. The floats were a staple in the sea-faring décor of my childhood home.

Mark had picked up several of his own glass floats during a 1967 sailing trip from Honolulu to Los Angeles when he was 15 years old.

Before leaving Honolulu the crew of the Cal 48 Malaguena bought a net specifically for collecting Japanese glass floats on the open ocean. Mark, partially obscured, is at the helm in the photo on the right.

During the three-week ocean passage following the Transpacific Yacht Race, over 50 balls were collected and split among the crew of six. Mark has carried one, the first one that he had collected, around with him since then.

Mark’s Uncle Slim and photographer Tom Tucker proudly display the largest ball of the haul. As a foot note, this photograph was taken by Mark with Tom’s camera and may well have been the first photograph that Mark had ever taken. It was Tucker’s work, seen in this post, that inspired Mark to pursue photography.

After my dad passed away and we downsized Mom into a condo, I ended up with most of the floats. Using them outside in Juneau’s brutal winters was never an option, so mostly we stored them. Once we bought this house, Mark came up with the idea to partially bury them into the landscape in a pattern reminiscent of a bubbling stream.

Spring and winter views of the glass balls as they were in the courtyard garden.

At first I was afraid that they’d break. But I had to admit, I didn’t know what else to do with them. It takes some pretty big boxes, carefully packed, to store them. I couldn’t get rid of them either; they are a strong tie to my Kodiak roots. But as it turned out, they looked great in the landscape and hold up quite well. A word of warning though, we learned not to water near them on a hot summer day.  Mark’s float shattered when the sun heated glass popped like a broken light bulb when it was then hit with cold water from the hose.

We plan to incorporate glass floats into the new landscape, and I’m excited for their grand reentry, in the new courtyard garden.