This Year’s Down Yard Projects

I got a lot accomplished during my two-day Stonington gardening frenzy this past weekend. Mother Nature was a great help in the effort. It had rained for a few days before I arrived, so the ground was soft and perfect for weed extraction. During my visit, however, it was sunny and cool—ideal conditions for some heavy duty planting and general yard work.

Yard work and gardening have a sequence. The winter storms had knocked down a lot of branches, so the first step in the process was to pick up the debris and deposit it in our compost heap. That gathering effort also allowed me to survey the plants to see how they fared. I’m pleased to report that our major perennial plants all survived. I’m also pleased to report that the lupines and ferns I’ve been cultivating in the weedy, between the rocks areas of the down yard came through the winter in thriving fashion. You can see some of the lupines in the photo above and the photo below. The lupines and the ferns should minimize our weeding obligations and give us some pretty lupine blooms besides.

The next step was weeding. Last fall I had dug out and edged some new beds in the down yard, and the Borgish weeds had invaded in force. After removing them, I planted some orange and yellow marigolds and a nice flower I discovered last year called a verbena. The marigolds grew well here last summer, produce a lot of flowers, and also, according to local lore at least, have a smell that helps to repel deer. The red verbena are hardy, have a bold color, and should spread. I added a white geranium, shown in the photo at the top of this post, and a red geranium, shown in the photo below, for a bit of contrast.

The goal this year is to make the down yard for interesting, visually, and to use flower color to accent more of the rocks. It’s a risk, because the rocky soil is not great for planting. I used lots of potting soil while planting in a bid to compensate. I also repositioned many of the abundant rocks in the yard to better delineate planting areas. I’m pleased with the results so far, but we’ll get a better sense of how the experiment is working when I return later this summer for more weeding, watering, and mulching.

The Steps Project

I am calling my last big yard work initiative of the season the Steps Project. It’s been an interesting, challenging, “dirt under the fingernails” bit of work that combines archaeology, tricky balance, digging, pulling, and lots of roots.

The Steps Project began when our 80-year-old neighbor visited our down yard as part of our earlier tree-cutting work. He’s lived in this neighborhood since he was a kid, and he recalled the hillside being a treeless expanse with stones that the kids used as steps to come up and down on their walk to and from school. Steps in that location would be a good thing because the hillside slopes at close to a 45-degree grade, and getting up and down on a dewy morning can be a slippery proposition. But the steps he recalled were long gone, covered now by a thatch of moss and weeds.

Obviously, stepping stones don’t just vanish; they were under there somewhere. And I think having a kind of stairway to get from top to bottom of the slope would be useful. So the archaeology part of my Steps Project involves figuring out where the stones are buried. When I find them, I cut through the thatch, pull out the moss and weeds, and then cut or pull out the tree roots that grew over and around the rocks. Then I use a brush to clear off the dirt and other debris so the rocks—now exposed for the first time in decades—can dry out in the sunshine. The balance part of the project comes in because I’m doing all of that while trying to hold myself steady on the slope and not taking overly aggressive actions that might send me toppling down the hillside.

Yesterday I finished with the last two “steps,” and now I’ve got a rocky, ersatz set of stairs on the side border of the down yard that you can see in the photos accompanying this post, from the above and below perspectives. Of course, the steps aren’t perfectly aligned like a staircase, and you have to zigzag and take different length steps to get up and down, but they are definitely a safer way up and down. And they are kind of fun, too. In fact, I feel like one of the kids in my neighbor’s old gang when I use them.

This Weekend’s Project

I like having a good weekend project. I think having a project to work on, sprinkled in with some fun stuff, makes the weekend seem longer. And if it’s an outdoor project that allows you to see the visible fruits of your labors on Sunday night, so much the better.

Fortunately—or unfortunately depending on your perspective—our down yard provides an endless supply of such projects. One ongoing problem area is found at the base of the big granite outcropping in the middle of the yard. It quickly becomes weed-infested, because it can’t be mowed with all of the big rocks, and it also floods after a heavy rain, due to the rocks just below the surface. The flooding makes it impossible to grow pretty much anything, except weeds and a hearty fern plant I’ve been cultivating. So this weekend’s project was to weed out the area between the rocks, dig out as many rocks as possible to increase drainage, and level out the soil to expose more of the big rocks and reduce pooling of rainwater. The last step would be to cover the area with a dark mulch to highlight the colors of the ferns and rocks and (hopefully) discourage rampant weed growth while giving the ferns a chance to flourish.

Fortunately, the weather fully cooperated with my plans. I pulled out bucket after bucket of weeds, dug out countless rocks, broke up the soil, leveled out the sloping, and then mulched until I ran out of mulch. I also got sunburned on the back of my neck. There’s still work to be done, but I’m happy with how it looks—so far. The acid test will come when we get a good rain and get a chance to see how the area drains, and whether all of that mulch gets washed out.

If that happens, it will just mean another weekend project.