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(Finally!) Breaking Ground

July 30, 2011

Breaking ground for the serenity garden (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Last week, I finally broke ground to create my long-planned serenity garden. (For more about the serenity garden project, see Planning the Serenity Garden and The Plan.) I suppose, technically, I broke ground last month when I spent some time digging out a small tree-stump that was in the way. But I didn’t consider the project as truly underway until I began preparing the soil.

Because the “soil” on my property is mostly glacial sand, it requires a lot of amendment to turn it into something that will support perennials. Over the years, I have developed a strategy for preparing new flower beds in six-square-foot sections. Since this elliptical garden area is about 120 square feet, there are 20 sections. Using the results of my spring Soil Test, I developed the following “recipe” of amendments for each section:

  • 1 1/2 cups of wood ash
  • 1/3 cup of blood meal
  • 1/8 cup of bone meal
  • 1/2 cubic foot bag of composted cow manure
  • 1 5-gallon pail of organic compost

Preparing to amend the soil (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) To prepare each section, I first measure the section and outline it with my edging spade, then dig out the soil to a depth of about 10” and put it in my wheelbarrow. Mindful of concerns about damage to soil structure from tilling, I try to remove roots, stones and weeds from the soil while leaving soil clumps intact; but the truth is that there are few clumps in my sand. (Most of what look like soil clumps turn out to be clumps of roots with a little soil attached.) Once the top layer of soil has been removed, I use my garden fork to aerate the soil below. Then I shovel about 2/3 of the soil in the wheelbarrow back into the ground. Next, I add my soil amendments, with half getting mixed into the top of soil just replaced in the ground and half getting mixed into the soil in the wheelbarrow. The amended soil in the wheelbarrow is then dumped onto the top of the section (which is now about 4-6” higher than it was when I began).

It takes me about 90 minutes to complete this process for each section, and I have now completed 10 of them – so I’m halfway there! This week I also bought and planted the three shrubs that will anchor the back of this planting. Two of these, Pieris x ‘Brower’s Beauty’ and Buxus x ‘Green Mountain,’ (both cold-hardy cultivars) came from O’Donal’s, a local nursery that is known as an especially good source of trees and shrubs.  The third shrub, a native Viburnum nudum cassinoides, was a bit harder to source, but I found one available at Native Haunts, a mail-order native plants nursery in southern Maine.

From left to right: Pieris x 'Brower's Beauty,' Viburnum nudum cassinoides, and Buxus x 'Green Mountain' (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Right now, these shrubs seem small and far apart; but in another few years, they’ll be a major presence.

In the next two weeks, I expect to finish preparing the soil and putting many more plants in the serenity garden. What a thrill it is to finally have this project underway!

30 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2011 1:14 pm

    Whew! That’s _lot_ of work! But what a vision. It’s exciting to follow along with your progress.

  2. July 30, 2011 4:58 pm

    Jean, I love how conscientious you are about adding amendments. I tend to throw whatever is available in and then wonder why plants are having issues and try to fix after the fact. Your garden is going to look absolutely wonderful right from the start due to your extensive planning.

  3. July 31, 2011 12:20 am

    Jean, gardens are always essays in hope, but you give hope a good leg up with your preparations. Mixing soil amendments is such a satisfying task somehow–like cooking, only on a grander scale and without the dishes to clean up afterward. Just because of the physical demands I usually only mix soil for the raised veggie garden and potted plants, and then compromise by planting things in the main garden that prefer “rubbishy soil,” but that still leaves a lot of possibilities. Your growing options on glacial sand must be limited to white pine and, well, white pine. Congratulations on being halfway done with the amendments and on having your anchoring shrubs in place!

    • August 3, 2011 9:28 pm

      Patricia, It is a lot of work, but once I get started and get into the rhythm of the work, it goes pretty quickly. I have completed four more sections since I wrote this post, and expect to get four more done in the next two days. By next week, I’ll be ready to put in plants. 🙂

      Marguerite, It’s nice of you to make a virtue of my necessity. If I had more amenable soil, I would probably be a lot less conscientious.

      Stacy, LOL, there’s a reason Maine is called “the Pine Tree State.” Actually, there are a few other things that grow in my acid sand, but most of them require sun. There was almost nothing (except for a few anemic raspberry and blackberry canes and some tree saplings) growing in this mostly shady spot under the trees.

  4. July 31, 2011 7:16 am

    I am so impressed at the way you do everything properly, giving your plants a really good start in life. Such hard work, but worth it for the resulting health. I wish I could say I am always as meticulous, but I often fall prey to my own impatience.

  5. July 31, 2011 7:26 am

    Jean, I am absolutely fascinated with this project and am reading with much interest! What a lot of hard work and planning you are putting in to this garden. I don’t know many of the plants in your plan, so it will be really interesting to see what it all looks like, but the soil amendments you are making is obviously the ‘real work’ for you.

    I’m glad you are enjoying the satisfaction of it all. Looking forward to updates as they happen!

    • August 3, 2011 9:41 pm

      Janet, I tend to be a methodical, systematic kind of person, which is probably how I came to develop this style of gardening. But I’ve also gotten lots of reinforcement for this kind of preparation in seeing what a big difference it makes in my far-from-ideal gardening conditions.

      Diane, You are right; this is the real work of gardening for me. About 1/3 of the plants that are going into this flower bed are already growing in other parts of my garden; another 1/3 are plants that I have grown elsewhere (e.g., in my Gettysburg garden); and the remaining 1/3 are plants that are new to me, too. I’m excited to see what it actually looks like, too! (I’m sure I’ll have to do some revision and some moving around of plants in the next year or two.)

  6. July 31, 2011 7:52 am

    Your Summer toil is admirable! Inspirational! I try to think “native” when I plant near my wooded area too – nice to think the shrubs may last beyond ourselves! The viburnums are great! And you have WIlliam Cullina right there in Maine to inspire – have you read his “Understanding Perennials?”

  7. patientgardener permalink
    July 31, 2011 3:08 pm

    Gosh that is a huge job. I spent 3 hours sieving compost this weekend and feel I should be a lot thinner(though I’m not!). I look forward to seeing your progress with the border

    • August 3, 2011 9:48 pm

      Jayne, I probably wouldn’t be doing this kind of heavy gardening work in summer if I lived under the “heat dome.” Fortunately, Maine only had three days of it. Recently, we’ve been blessed with overnight lows in the 50s and daytime highs in the 70s — perfect gardening weather. I’m a little nervous about how the viburnum will do here, because it likes moist conditions, which I can’t easily provide.

      Helen, When I first started serious gardening here (about a dozen years ago), I would sometimes put in a full day at this kind of digging; but now that I’m older (and wiser? or maybe just more decrepit!), I limit myself to about 3 hours at a time. Alas, the work makes me very hungry, so I’m not getting any thinner either. 😦

  8. July 31, 2011 5:27 pm

    I can see … something coming … but it is such fun to admire the results, without doing the heavy labour. Tomorrow, I’ll be watering and planting. We have also acquired a large new – what shall we do here – section.

  9. July 31, 2011 8:31 pm

    It’s looking great, Jean. Your hard work is going to pay off beautifully.

  10. sequoiagardens permalink
    August 1, 2011 7:06 am

    That is hard work, Jean! But easier in sandy soil than in stone or clay. Luckily my soil is relatively easy to work too – at least those parts where we are gardening these days. I am looking forward to watching the Serenity Garden develop.

    • August 3, 2011 9:53 pm

      Diana, In some ways, I enjoy the results all the more because I’ve put in the hard work. I’m hoping to get to planting next week.

      Grace, I’m very much looking forward to the payoff!

      Jack, You are absolutely right about the ease of working in sandy soil. I never could understand why people made such a big fuss about how much work it was to dig holes for plants until I started gardening in Gettysburg, which has clay soil. Working in sandy soil is — well, sort of like a day at the beach. 😐

  11. August 1, 2011 8:48 am

    I am sure it will be beautiful and I look forward to seeing it come to life. You have started with a well thought out foundation and plan for a successful garden. Also, you have motivated me to get going in the garden. It’s too bad the weather is so hot. I will have to wait until the weather cools off in the fall. 🙂

  12. August 1, 2011 4:52 pm

    Congratulations on getting the bones of this project underway.

  13. August 1, 2011 6:01 pm

    It is so rewarding when a project gets underway. It’s always a great sense of accomplishment when the project is completed, too, but the process along the way is just as fun. Don’t work TOO hard and hurt yourself. Happy diggin’ in the dirt 🙂

    • August 3, 2011 10:14 pm

      Amy, I can’t believe how hot it’s been where you are. We complain here about temps in the 90s! I hope the weather breaks soon for you so that you can get outside and enjoy your garden again.

      Thanks, Joene, I’m really happy to see this finally coming together.

      Toni, My back has given me strict instructions that I’m only allowed to do two sections at a time.

  14. August 1, 2011 7:46 pm

    I like the organized approach you are taking to give your plantings the best conditions to grow. I know it’s a lot of work and it all takes time to grow and fullfill the potential, but the payoff will be great. I look forward to seeing your completed serenity garden!

  15. August 1, 2011 8:14 pm

    Your commitment to your garden is admirable. I am sure your plants and your garden as a whole are much healthier and more sustainable because you take the time to take this step.

  16. August 1, 2011 9:39 pm

    Hi Jean, The hardest work in your garden will soon be behind you and the rewards will be great. My hats off to you. I will look forward to photos in the years to come of your serenity garden.

    • August 4, 2011 11:04 pm

      Deb, “Organized” is my middle name! (It’s the borderline OCD thing.)

      Michelle, If I didn’t take time to do this, I probably wouldn’t have many plants in my garden at all; left alone, my acid sand will really only support blueberries, blackberries, sweetfern, and club moss — and those all require sun.

      Karen, Each day, as I get closer to getting this soil preparation finished, I get more excited about this new garden area. Next week, I get to buy and put in plants (the fun part!).

  17. August 2, 2011 12:04 pm

    Very exciting!! Can’t wait to see the bed as it fills in, looks like a lot of work but I’m sure will be well worth it in the end.

  18. August 2, 2011 9:55 pm

    Dear Jean, I love before-and-after stories and even more exciting when you can see the project actually in progress … look forward to the results. Well done. P. x

  19. August 3, 2011 7:48 am

    Very exciting! How dedicated of you to amend that soil just so before planting … it would take me much restraint to resist planting right away. Beautiful choices so far. Can’t wait to see more.

    • August 4, 2011 11:08 pm

      Rebecca, I think the hard work now just makes the result that much more gratifying.

      Pam, I love before-and-after stories, too. It’s too bad I didn’t take any pictures of my property before I started putting in the gardens; the fence border was the first flower bed that I documented, and this area is the first that I will really have before and after photos for.

      Kathy, If you got the results I did from planting without amending, it would help you to develop restraint!

  20. August 3, 2011 9:21 am

    I love how you carefully amend the soil in small steps…a wonderful way to do it. The bushes will be so lovely and full sooner than you think. I learned the hard way to plan, slow down and take your time with gardens. I an enjoying fixing the mistakes made in haste now. Can’t wait to see how the garden progresses. i imagine it is already serenity to have it started.

  21. August 4, 2011 3:01 pm

    I admire your methodical approach, as always. Your plants will be so happy.

  22. August 4, 2011 3:35 pm

    How exciting! Although it takes extra effort and planning to ensure good soil fertility, I know your plants will reward you in return. It will be fun to refer back to this post as the garden fills in over the coming seasons, and I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.

    • August 4, 2011 11:12 pm

      Donna, Slow and methodical is my standard working style. Once in high school, I scored in the 14th percentile on a standardized test of “speed and accuracy.” They explained that I was very accurate.

      Carolyn, I wanted to let you know how happy I was with Native Haunts. He sent me the plant UPS, and it arrived the next day — and the price was only about half what I would pay at a bigger retail nursery. I don’t know if you can get UPS shipments to the island, but this might be a great source of plants for your native plant garden there.

      Clare, Watch for another post in about a week or so as I get plants into my newly amended soil.

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