A Landscape Piece

The gentle snow of early March emphasizes our crab apple’s arching limbs, the dogwood’s gracefully spreading branches, and the ash’s stiff uprightness.

Most of the raspberry canes have been pruned, daffodil shoots are poking through the pine needles, and big buds on the Royal azaleas and magnolias promise more beauty to come. Cornus mas shows bits of its yellow blossoms, and the swelling buds of the soft maples and weeping willows produce a lovely red and chartreuse haze above the swamp.

In just a few weeks, we’ll turn compost and minerals into our garden bed and plant early greens and some peas. Soon, dandelions and other wild greens will be ready to eat.
Now is the time to begin thinking about what you will do with your yard this year.
It may be good to start by taking a walk in the woods. You will see that, left alone, the ecology of our region produces beautiful landscapes.

On your walk, feel the presence of large trees; imagine how wonderful their shade will feel next summer. Come upon a wild azalea, laurel or blueberry in the woods. Look at the always different beauty of exposed rocks wearing lichens and mosses— their patina of age. Enjoy the bright green Christmas ferns against the tan carpet of leaves slowly but continuously composting to enrich the soil. Experience the pleasure of a small clearing with grasses and wildflowers in the center and berry bushes at the edge.

Pay attention to scale and the relationships between plants. Notice also the way sunlight shapes the environment, encouraging dense growth in cleared areas while pulling the landscape toward a tall forest with a shady floor.

Back in your yard, get oriented: Find out which direction is east, and from there clockwise, south, west and north. Then plan to shade your house from the hot summer sun by planting trees to the east and west and close-in and limbed-up on the south. Evergreens on the northwest side protect against the coldest winter winds.

Create a garden in the sunniest spot to produce food and flowers. Start small, but leave plenty of room for expansion. Once you taste the food you grow, you’ll want more of it. Place a compost system convenient to your kitchen and garden for converting their wastes into fertility.
We all need a handy and attractive place to dry clothes in the sun. We also benefit from some screening from our neighbors and the road for privacy. A shaded outdoor table for summer meals, and a covered open space enhance the pleasures of the garden.

Once these areas are outlined, plan paths to connect them, and see what’s left. You’ll probably want the minimum possible lawn, since there are so many outdoor activities more pleasant than mowing one. Aside from what’s necessary for the kids to play on, grass is most useful as a passage and connector. It’s nice to have a lawn small enough to be mowed by hand.

Other gardens, trees or shrubs should fill the remaining spaces. If you can’t plant right away, sow some oats soon, or buckwheat after the last frost to hold and enrich the soil. Raspberries, blackberries or blueberries are good choices for low-maintenance, multi- purpose plants. They have provided delicious fruit for the inhabitants of this region for thousands of years. Other plants can be chosen that are appropriate for the available light and space. Viburnums, junipers and bush honeysuckle invite birds into your yard, and Buddleias, milkweed and Echinacea attract butterflies.

Although the specifics will vary for each yard, the relationship with the sun remains the same. Your garden may be in front or in back. On a small lot, the evergreens might be hollies
or rhododendrons, while a larger yard may have white pines or spruces. Be sure to think about the effect trees to your north will have on your neighbor’s sunlight.

Wood chips make soft, cheap and mud-free paths which slowly become fertile soil. Stones make beautiful and long lasting walls, benches, terraces and other features. I would avoid plastic as much as possible. It gets uglier all the time and doesn’t decompose.

The most pleasant landscapes are those managed with as few powered machines as possible. Hand tools are kinder to our bodies, minds, senses, pocketbooks and neighbors. Avoid chemical fertilizers and toxic substances. The real secret to a healthy and beautiful garden is a healthy soil, full of life.

by Bill Duesing