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Update on the Front Garden Project

July 6, 2016

imageThis is year two of my five-year (?) front garden project. The opportunity for my new front garden was created when I had an addition built onto the front of my house in 2014. The front garden  is a big project that involves creating a whole new landscape for the front of my property, an area of more than 4000 square feet that runs from the front of my house to the dirt road I live on and from my side property line to the driveway.

In year one (2015), I worked on a relatively small area around the new front entrance to my house, laying 220 square feet of concrete pavers to create a series of walkways and a small patio and preparing and planting four relatively small flower beds around those walkways. My plans for year two were more ambitious: preparing and planting both the Side Slope – an area that covers a fairly steep slope from the bottom of the retaining wall down to the driveway and running from the steps up the slope at one end to the corner of the retaining wall at the other end – and the Fragrant Garden, which will fill a 10’ x 20’ area under my new bedroom window. When I calculated the size of the Side Slope (almost 450 square feet), however, I realized that it would take me three months to prepare that planting alone. My revised (and more realistic plan) for this year is to prepare and plant the Side Slope and then to do as much of the soil preparation for the Fragrant Garden as possible, with the goal of putting plants in next spring.

side slope fragrant garden bones

To understand what’s involved in preparing a new area of my garden, you need to know that my neighborhood sits on a large glacial sand deposit. (A geologic survey test pit less than a mile from my house measured the sand at 45 feet deep.) The result is poor soil that contains little organic matter. I had the soil tested this spring and the results showed less than 1% organic matter, about one-tenth of the minimum recommendation for garden soil. To make matters worse, most of  the soil for my new front garden is backfill around the new addition and the retaining wall. I work the soil in 6-square-foot sections, adding about 1.5 cubic feet of organic matter (compost and dehydrated cow manure) to each 6 cubic feet of existing soil. In deference to the degenerated discs in my spine, I limit my work sessions to 2-3 hours and try to  allow 48 hours for my body to recover in between work sessions.


I created the above design for the wedge-shaped side slope during the winter and made great progress on preparing the soil during the month of June. I quickly discovered that I could add organic matter to three 6-square-foot sections in a typical 2-3 hour work session. side slope in progressDuring the last week in June, I finished preparing the soil and put in the plants for a strip at the top of the slope that runs from the corner of the retaining wall on the left to the corner of the patio border and the walkways on the right. Since July and early August are the hottest parts of the summer here and not a good time to plant, I have continued to prepare three sections of soil every other day, with the intention of putting in most of the plants in the second half of August, after all the soil is prepared.

Today, I ran into a bit of a snag as I worked my way over toward the stairway. When I reached the edge of the excavation area and encountered soil that had not been disturbed during construction, I found the work of amending the soil became more difficult and I could only complete two sections in a 2-3 hour work session. I expect to work at this slower pace for the rest of July and then to get back to the easier-to-work backfill in August. I am still on track to get plants in before the end of August, however, and hope to prepare the soil for the entire 200-square-foot Fragrant Garden by mid-October. Slow-but-steady progress is enough to keep me on track and to provide gratification as my new landscape takes shape.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2016 2:51 pm

    Wow, great work! As we say in Chicago, make no small plans! You are wise to hold off for cooler weather to do your planting.

    • July 10, 2016 8:51 pm

      Jason, I’m a great believer in taking on big projects by breaking them down into small steps (e.g., 12 square feet every other day!). It’s tempting to put off the digging, as well as the planting, for cooler weather, but I need to keep on schedule. My concession to summer heat is to get out and work in the morning rather than putting in my work stint in the late afternoon.

  2. July 7, 2016 3:55 pm

    that sandy soil sounds like what we have, which supports fynbos.

    • July 10, 2016 8:56 pm

      Diana, It’s interesting to think about how very different geologic histories can lead to similar soil conditions — my sandy soil left behind by the work of glaciers on granite and yours by the work of wind on sandstone. I have been experimenting with some “rock garden” plants, which like lean soil; but we have many fewer plants that flourish in the nutrient-poor sand (because they also have to be cold-hardy). Rather than limit myself to that small range of plants, I prefer to add organic matter and improve the structure of the soil.

  3. July 7, 2016 11:19 pm

    You don’t set yourself small challenges, Jean! What a job! However, I’m of the opinion that improving the soil is key in almost every instance so your time is well spent.

    • July 10, 2016 8:59 pm

      Kris, I think what makes it such a challenge is that I have done all the work of developing my garden here alone, with just my own two hands (and my own aching back 😐 ). But I think that also enhances the enormous pleasure I get from the results.

  4. July 8, 2016 8:26 am

    Ambitious. Good luck.

  5. July 9, 2016 9:07 am

    Your systematic approach is an inspiration, Jean. Good luck as the job progresses.

    • July 10, 2016 9:02 pm

      Thanks, Pat. Once when my mother was visiting and she offered to help me hang laundry on the clothesline, she asked, “Do you just want them up on the line, or is there a system?” I replied, “Have you forgotten which child you’re visiting?? Of course there’s a system.” 😉

  6. debsgarden permalink
    July 10, 2016 10:08 pm

    Step by step progress, and I am eager to see what the space will look like next spring! Already you have accomplished so much!

    • July 12, 2016 9:13 pm

      Deb, I’m pretty happy with my progress on this — although I’m realizing that 5 years may be too ambitious for the overall landscaping project. Six or seven years is probably more realistic. As long as I finish before I’m 75!!

  7. July 12, 2016 2:12 pm

    Hello Jean, unlike me, do be careful and take it steady, watching for health and avoiding injuries as you take on this new large border. We could only do our large borders and dig the heavy soil with the help of a tiller, you could think about buying or borrowing one to ease the soil work.

    • July 12, 2016 9:16 pm

      Sunil, When I was younger (your age??), I would have worked 6-8 hours a day on this day after day. My current back problems are probably the wages of my earlier gardening sins.
      If my soil were heavy clay, I’d be tempted to use mechanical help. But my light sandy soil can’t take much manipulation without destroying what small amount of soil structure it has, so I’ll stick with gently wielded hand tools.


  1. Front Garden Project, Year 2: The Fragrant Garden | Jean's Garden

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