December 15th, 2006

north border after
2006-12-16. One thing about digging holes is that after you fill them in again, there’s little evidence of all the work you’ve gone through. In this case, the “before” picture below looks better than this “after” picture.

“On page 123 there was a cross-section drawing of how to prepare a rose bed. Instruction: excavate the entire bed to a depth of two feet. I shall pause here to allow time for reeling around and protesting.” –Midge Ellis Keeble, “Tottering in My Garden”

“Unless one is willing to take the trouble properly to prepare the ground, there is no use in expecting success in gardening. I have but on rule: stake out the bed, and then dig out the entire space two feet in depth. Often stones will be found requiring the strength and labor of several men, with crowbars and levers, to remove them; often there will be rocks that require blasting.” — Helena Rutherfurd Ely, “A Woman’s Hardy Garden”

With the weather back up in the 70s this week, I’m trying to get all my December gardening chores done, especially transplanting the three ‘New Dawn’ roses that I grew from cuttings.

I find digging a hole of any depth in my heavy clay difficult. Lacking a cadre of men with pick-axes and blasting equipment, I’ve developed a compromise plan: I dig down one foot and build up one foot. For these roses, I had AJM construct three additional 4×4 foot planter boxes.

planter boxes

I’m planting two of the roses in the, optimistically named, north border. The north of my back yard is fenced with a short chain-link fence and looks directly into the shared yard of a rental duplex. Given these intimate conditions, I prefer neighbors who aren’t much interested in yard work because they spend all their time indoors. The latest renter, however, likes to sit on his back patio and talk all afternoon into his cell phone. His presence (and the fact that he and his girlfriend share afternoon delight with the windows open–he’s apparently very good) has kept me from spending much time in the back lately but this week I decided I had to get this job done. My presence right at the fence line drove him indoors.

north border before

To provide a bit of privacy I’ve let the nandina grow wildly out of hand. My idea, inspired by English hedgerows, was to create a mixed hedge by planting other plants among the nandina and then as the new plants grew bigger cutting back more and more of the nandina. Unfortunately, almost everything I’ve planted has died mostly because I never water the nandina and so I forget to water anything else on that side of the yard. Even the Podranea ricasoliana which has eaten the north side of my garage, failed to cascade gracefully over the chain link fence where I wanted it to do. To block some of the holes in the view, I built a woven wood fence out of pieces of the rotting fence that we took down. I attached it to the chain link fence with cable ties. I’m pleased to report that it’s still holding up well.

Before I could dig, I had to prune back the nandina. I know that it looks better when it’s trimmed viciously but some of it was six feet tall and did a pretty good job of blocking the duplex from sight. I hated opening up holes in the border that will take years to fill in. But it had to be done. The north border is also ridden with bindweed, thorny smilax (I think), and some poison ivy. I’ve spent the better part of three afternoons hacking at roots and digging out a bit of soil and hacking at more roots.

One encouraging note is that there is about 3 inches of leaf mold mulching the nandina. I dump whatever leaves I don’t have room for in the compost here and it’s built up nicely. I read once that the earthworms would mix the top dressing in but I see no evidence of that. The layers of dirt here are clearly stratified. The next 8 inches are pretty good soil: not too many rocks and not many lumps of clay. I can tell I’ve dug here before, twice. Below the friable dir. is black clay.

Another book I read suggested using landscape fabric to line the holes in order to keep tree roots from overrunning bulbs and annuals. When I read this ten years ago, I thought it was ridiculously unnatural. I’ve been humbled. I cannot spend every year redigging every bed. The tree roots suck all the moisture and nutrients out of the soil. Beds where I’ve generously mixed in copious amounts of sifted compost or aged horse manure look like they’ve never been cultivated. Implementing this advice was more difficult than I imagined. Did I dig down deeply enough? Won’t the roots just come in from the side. And should I cut a hole for the rose’s roots–will it ever get that big? will a hole allow the noxious roots to invade?

After I filled in the planter with dirt, sifted compost and Dillo Dirt (aka people poop), I transplanted one of the little roses. It didn’t have much of a root system…or perhaps I ripped out all the roots when I dug it out. Well, it grew originally with no roots at all from a cutting. Maybe it will take. I don’t really understand how Susan Harris can dig up established plants and move them around on whim. I bow before her in awe. In my yard, if something takes to a place, it’s pretty much stuck there forever.

by M Sinclair Stevens

5 Responses to post “Holes”

  1. From Kathy (New York):

    If you are lining the hole with landscape fabric, doesn’t that mean the sides and the bottom, before you put the soil back in? But I still think landscape fabric is no match for tree roots. Sheet metal would be a better, but hardly convenient or aesthetic choice. When I lived in Maryland we had clay, but I bet Susan’s clay is no match for yours, and she probably waters more.

  2. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    What about primrose jasmine to screen your neighbor? Maybe Southern wax myrtle? You’d have to water it, but it does grow fast, it’s evergreen, and it smells good when crushed. A lot of people in central Austin resort to bamboo for a quick screen, but that can come back to haunt you. How about loquat? Just thinking aloud.

  3. From KAT (California):

    Ho ho holes!

  4. From ML:

    You sound so much like me: gardening on a tight budget so that you have to do all digging, etc., yourself. That’s always been wonderfully satisfying to me, when I realize that the journey’s the object in gardening – being outside, enjoying the peace of green space, etc.

    But recently I bowed to age and threw money at thinning my daylily beds, hiring a man to come in with a huge rototiller and dig new space to move them to.

    I just realized I’m going to go over three paragraphs here to explain it all, so I probably should make it a blog entry. So, see later!

    Meanwhile, it’s good to see someone after my own heart, unable to stay still in her garden!

    The only time I’ve hired anyone in the garden is to cut large tree limbs. Even if I felt I could justify the expense, I would not be happy with someone else tramping through my garden. Like you, for me it’s about the gardening not the garden–although sometimes I’m envious of people who have real-looking gardens. We’ve put out garden chairs and benches = but I’ve never been able to just sit in one. When I’m outside I have to have my hands in the dirt. Someday (probably soon) I’m going to have to have help–or move to a place with a much smaller yard. — mss

  5. From Annie in Austin:

    The raised box idea looks like a good one – my containers are one way to get drainage and better soil, but your boxes might need less frequent watering.

    Good luck with the shrubs and trees for privacy on the perimeters. Three of the four yards that border mine have pools, and life here would be unbearable without 6-foot privacy fences. Of course being a highly territorial schnauzer-type person, in addition to the wooden fence, I need an evergreen border, too!

    I wonder if your Podranea ricasoliana/ Pink trumpet vine would serve you better if you trained it on an obelisk-type structure inside the lot line? You’d get a shape similar to that of the canopy of an evergreen ornamental tree, useful as a visual barrier for the crucial 3-to-7 foot height, but it would be tall right away, instead of in 6-8 years.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose