Down the garden path: Last summer’s major project

I’ve been eyeing the strip by our path along the south side of the house for years, and this summer, so suddenly I took even by myself by surprise, I tackled it. This strip was one of the later ones to be rehabilitated; two years ago when I first said I was going after it, #1 Son hooted, "You really think you can get all that clover and stuff out?"

To which I respond, O ye of little faith!

Here’s what it looked like in June, facing west:

South path 1  

Nothing fantastic, but a lot better than clover and stuff. That's the edge of our patio at the top of the photo, and you can just see the bottom of the water butt on the right.

I never amended the earth, composted or anything, though I did lay a tiny soaker hose. But really, in a sun-starved yard, this is prime real-estate, and after thinning the strawberries next door, I need a place to put the extras, and here's this strip that gets all that sun. One load came over in the wheelbarrow where it stayed while I tried to figure out where to put them. It was maybe a week later that I decided not to put them anywhere:

Strb wheelbarrow

But there were others, which I'd ignominiously dumped into a tarp.

Strawb

These needed a home. But when I mentioned the idea of putting a strawberry bed next to the south path, husband Steve's response was conspicuously lacking in enthusiasm. Though he loves the berries, he generally thinks the plants more trouble than they're worth. You get a few berries and then you have to look at those not-so-lovely-plants all the rest of the summer, he said.

He's certainly looked at his share of strawberry plants, having spent many a Saturday planting them from the back of a tractor. His dad had a strawberry farm when he was a teenager, and kept all three kids working on it. I asked his mother once if her sons helped at all around the house, and she said, No, their dad worked them so hard on the farm, she didn't feel she could ask more of them. Yet all three ended up good cooks and willing dishwashers, which is one of my fundamental criteria for guy-worthiness. Seems to suggest that if you raise kids to be good people, they'll be good people, and the details will sort themselves out.

Since Steve is not just worthy, but one of the best, I wanted the new plot to please him too. We spend a lot of time on the patio in the summer, and this bed is in plain view from it. The revised plan, then, was to put the strawberry bed in the center of the plot, but to surround it with flowers that would give us something to look at other than strawberry plants.

The area south of the path is of even more recent vintage than the flowers north of it. For the first few years of our tenure, it continued undisturbed, the home of some scrappy grass, a few dandelions, and plenty of creeping bellflower, with an unhappy cedar and a few thin lilac bushes to mark the edge of our property.

Eventually the cedar came down, augmenting my reputation as Tree Killer Extraordinaire in my family, but giving the lilac enough sun to put forth a bloom or two each spring. Two years ago I trimmed it and cleared most of the grass and weeds out of the area closest to the path, replacing them with walkable ground-cover. We'd put several such groundcovers–various thymes, mostly–along one of the garden paths, and as it spread into the vegetable area, I'd dig it up and transplant it to its new home by the south path.

Last summer I tackled the bellflower that infested the strip under the lilacs, but I didn't try to plant anything else afterwards. That made it easy to spot new shoots from the bits of root I'd missed. By this spring, there were only a few little ones left; the area was clear enough to plant.

Rochelle & Joran The first job, then, was to dig up the ground-cover that grew where I wanted to put the new path and move it back, further south, where the bellflower used to be. Our first afternoon got us maybe halfway through that task. Of course, it helps when you have helpers, and I had two, a friend and her baby:

I only got this photo when I insisted she quit working for a moment. Until then, I managed a number of excellent shots of her butt, but little else. She had her revenge, though, as I found when it was time to download the pictures to the computer: Oh, how cruel!

Kate's butt

I hadn’t planned to include this, but under the circumstances:

Rochelle's butt

Joran seems a mite suspicious of me here, but he shortly returned to the water butt, which he found great fun.

By the end of that first day, we had this:

Path after day 1

Next day, having dug up and re-set the rest of the ground cover, I raked the new path site smooth, raked pebbles onto it from the old path, then set to digging up the bricks that lined it. When I shut down operations at the end of the second day, it looked like this:

S. path aft. day 2, w

Roots and hoe That line of bricks moved more than once, and in the end it took Steve's eye (and hand!) to find the right curve for the new path. Once I'd gotten the pebbles up (most of them) I faced the task of loosening the dirt beneath, dirt compacted by many years of foot-traffic. Oh joy. The right hoe made that an easier task than expected—but the roots made it a harder one. What were roots like this doing here? Beats me.

My best bet is the nearest spruce, whose trunk is 20 feet away. (You can see it best behind my friend, in either photo above.) I sawed some and chopped others, using the hoe on the little ones and an axe on the big fellas. I won't go into that in detail. Suffice it to say that that I got all the exercise I needed right there in that little spot, for quite a while.

The top inch or so of pebbly soil went onto the screen over the wheelbarrow; after screening, the pebbles went onto the new path, the soil back into the plot.

Pine duff Then it was time to lift the existing plants and work on the soil in the whole new plot, now six feet wide instead of about two. Since strawberries like acidic soil, I added lots of pine duff from the front “yard” as my primary organic amendment.

Slow-release fertilizers, cocoanut coil, and compost also went in. The soil for a foot down got this treatment, and let me say that “stirring” amendments into dirt can be quite an aerobic activity.

When the soil seemed light and even, it was time to plant. Most of the old plants along with a few new ones lined the new path, and finally the strawberries, the cause of all this trouble, could be put in place. I laid a few stones along the north side, so I’d be able to get at all the berries I’m hoping will grow.

Yesterday I mulched the strawberries with more pine duff. I still don't quite like the line of the path, the area to the south needs more work, there's a pile of dirt just out of sight at the top of the photo–but enough already.

Path, done

This project got interrupted more than once, sometimes for weeks at a time, so the mild weather we’ve been having recently has been a welcome chance for some of the late-comers to root. The earlier occupants already seem quite at home, and I have high hopes. If the dang things don’t give me lots of strawberries, I will retire to a nunnery.

7 Responses to Down the garden path: Last summer’s major project

  1. Those pesky tree roots grow into everything. As much as I love the trees-not the roots in the garden I guess I should not complain. Good luck with the new layout. Looks great. The baby is adorable.

  2. LOL…love all the hiney shots!!! Your hubby is right about strawberry plants. I hope yours are better looking than mine! Great post!

  3. I love garden construction! Especially when strawberries are involved.
    I remember that my grandfather used to have a patch in Alabama–I thought it was so exotic. Nobody I knew growing up in New Mexico grew strawberries…

  4. Pine duff? What a great phrase. Like plum duff but pricklier. Delighted to see a bit of hard labour around Bozeman.

  5. Straberries – yum. I suspect Steve had more than enough of his share of strawberries as a child, hence his reluctance now?
    Good to see you’ve been hard at work.

  6. Hi, Tina, and welcome to the fray. Is it roots from pine and such that you’re dealing with also? The baby is indeed adorable.
    Welcome to you also, inadvertantgardener! Glad you enjoyed the hiney shots. (Well put, by the way.)
    I know you do, Susan. I’d like it more if I had more time, and if I were as good at it as you are!
    So you find the term “pine duff” amuzing, James? Well, trust you to hone in on the essentials. Brace yourself for a whole post on the subject. As for hard labor–so sorry,
    labour–, bring that hat of yours to Montana, and we’ll teach you what it means. (Hey, with the hat, you’ll blend right in.)
    Actually, VP, Steve loves strawberries–it’s just the plants he can live without. But about my “hard work”–are you in collusion with James? Why does everyone seem to enjoy the idea of my sweating to death?
    –Kate

  7. Wow, Kate, that is quite a project! I hope it yields a bountiful crop as a result of all your hard work. I love strawberries and have fond memories of going to the U-Pick fields with my grandparents (as a child). I’ve never grown them myself tho so I will take your word on the amt of work versus what you reap. Keep us posted!

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