Help! I need landscaping advice.

cape_breton_gardener(5a)July 12, 2007

As crazy as this sounds, I have no backyard. My husband and I recently purchased his family home, which for some reason is positioned directly in the corner of the property line. We own a 1/4 acre lot, all of which is directly in front of us and to our right.

As if that's not difficult enough to try to figure out how to landscape, we live atop a hill. It's not a huge hill, but enough that it's challenging to lay out beds without adding retaining walls.

I need help with landscaping ideas. I was just scanning the photos of other peoples landscapes in here, and I am so envious and discouraged. Not having a backyard really impedes on creating an intimate, private retreat. I feel like we are completely on display for all passer-byes to see.

There are no mature trees on the property. Everything was well over 100 yrs old and someone convinced his mother to cut everything down a few years ago. Not only does that mean no shade, it means no privacy.

The far right side of my property butts against my neighbors driveway. I want to create a wind block (we live by the ocean and the winter winds here are brutal), and a privacy screen. Knowing that trees can take a long time to mature, any suggestions for mixing evergreens and shrubs to act as a backdrop for beds? I want something that will grow full and fast and is durable enough to hold its own against snow being plowed against it.

I know this is a long post, but I am really at a loss and wanted to give as much information as I can to get the most responses.

I literally have a blank slate to work with here, and would certainly appreciate any feedback. My ultimate goal is to add privacy to our yard, and create a cottage type garden environment that welcomes us into the yard to relax on an old swing or a hammock.

I'm all ears (or in this case, would it be "all eyes"?, so hit me with your best shots guys and gals.

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Judy_B_ON(Ontario 5B)

For fast privacy I think you really need to investigate fencing. An attractive, wooden fence between you and your neighbour's driveway would be a good start. Depending upon the fence laws in your town, a shorter picket style fence across the front, maybe with an arbour defining the entrance walkway would be useful.

With a slope, adding retaining walls would also allow you to increase privacy. You could build a patio with seating, outdoor table near the house with a lattice privacy wall on one level, then have a stair or two to the next level with your swing, then a stair or two to the next level with flower beds, veggies or trees or whatever.

Trees and shrubs take a long time to grow tall enough to screen wind and views, fences are immediate and then you plant trees in beds along the fence.

If you are new to landscaping, and given how important the hardscape is to the future garden, you should consider hiring a landscape designer to help.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2007 at 9:51PM
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You certainly have a great deal of landscaping to do and the first thing is to prepare your plan on paper. Block off the winds as you mentioned. I agree with Judy. You need a fence to help break the wind. The fence though will have a few gaps in between planks so the wind continues to blow through. The reason behind this is that if wind hits the fence directly, it will then direct itself upwards and then curl down into your yard, which will damage any plantings you have behind the fence. You will still need hedges to help address any sea sprays. The hedges would also help prevent sea sprays from contaminating your yard. In Ontario the evergreen "Emerald' cedars have gone rather cheap these season for huge plants priced as low as $24 - 29. You might find similar bargains in your area. Anyway, look for a nice dark green, evergreen type foliaged hedging. Avoid junipers or spruce types, pines as these ages, the lower branches will die out leaving your garden exposed once again.

You have already began to address view points which is the right direction. A trick I use is to get a picture frame to 'frame the view'. A window does the trick too. And then I set about mentally putting the tall trees and shrubs. Take photos of your yard from your viewpoint and draw the trees where you'd like to place them. Set in your focal point. Keep in mind too the viewpoints of your neighbors. You would like to create a visual 'block' to prevent them into looking directly into your property. Never mind the type of plant. Concentrate on shape. The English gardens of the 1700s especially works well in creating large vistas. Large expanse of space are left in the centre and the sides are filled with trees that have large wide crowns. Once you have the basic idea in mind, set about searching for the idea tree based on shape. Then on colour and then on foliage. Trees will take an absolute long time to grow into the right size and therefore you need to be patient. Instead fill in the gaps with 'temporary plantings'. Tall plants like tall grasses, shrubs, things of the sort.

As for the slope. If it's gentle slope, can you create winding foot paths using gravel, mulch or stepping stones. At the top level you can create a cottage garden backed by a couple of shrubs and trees or tall posts with flowering vines. Let the footpath take you to the 'second level, behind the shrubs and create a little shade garden there, and so on until you get to the lowest part of your property. There you can create a 'secret garden. Line it with evergreen shrubs. create a pond, etc....


    Bookmark   July 16, 2007 at 11:41AM
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bonniepunch(USDAz4 AgCanz5a)

I agree that a fence is what you'll want for now against the wind off the water. I'm from NS and I know how bad it can get :-) Are you actually right on the water or are you across the street, or even further away? If you really want some trees or shrubs there, I'd still recommend a fence to protect them until they're established. As far as what to plant... For the windy bit, I'd say go native. Shorter shrubs like Sheep Laurel (assuming you have no livestock in the neighbourhood), Rhododendron canadense, or wild rose (Rosa virginiana) might be good plants that will put up with the location. Inland, spruces normally have problems with the lower branches dying off when they get large, but they tend to get a bit stunted along the coast and they don't look bad until they're quite old (usually). And they're very well adapted to the local conditions - they're the most common tree you see growing along the coast. Cedars tend to dry out and rarely do well in a windy spot like you have.

For your hill, you're going to have to decide how much time or money you want to throw at it. Terracing it a little bit is what you'll eventually need to do if you want to create some hideaways or a place for a patio table. It doesn't have to be a big job - you can make small arcs of stone walls against the hill here and there, to create deeper pockets for some shrubs and small trees to take hold in. If you can come to live with the open look, it sounds like a great place for a rock/alpine style garden.

I'll bet you have a bazillion rocks on your property and nearby that would be very useful for building retaining walls. If you can't do the labour yourself, maybe you have some local teens willing to earn some spare cash (pay them well, it's hard work :-))?

Be careful about removing any vegetation that's currently on the hill - you'll have problems with erosion if you strip it all away and plunk petunias and pansies there!

No matter what you do, keep your expectations realistic - a 1/4 acre isn't something that turns into a show stopping garden in one summer :-). It will take a year at least to build the 'bones' of the garden, and several more after that to fill it in - and that's assuming you have the cash to buy what you want when you want. If you've got a small budget, it'll take a bit longer to evolve into what you have in mind. But it can be more rewarding if you shape and grow it slowly - you'll find that every inch of that hill will have it's own character and you get to know it better.


    Bookmark   July 16, 2007 at 4:30PM
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These are all GREAT suggestions, and I truly appreciate all the input. I have given thought to a fence, as Judy originally suggested, and understand that there should be some slats in it to direct the wind. (Thanks for that pointer Ianna) That would be the quickest fix to adding privacy and a wind block.

Bonnie is absolutely right when she said rocks are easy to come by where I live, and thank goodness I have a 16 year old son with lots of friends who wouldn't mind making some spare money. That will help to create retaining walls that I can fill in, creating different tiers.

I already started sketching everything out on paper, and so far I have two tiers designed. The "picture frame" suggestion was a great one. I never thought of that, and I am going to use that before I have the first rock placed.

I know I have to start with the "bones" of the project, and hardscaping is both rewarding and expensive. So I have a "five year" plan in mind. Last year we cleared overgrown shrubs and weeds, added a deck and put in a driveway. This year looks like it is going to be a fence and the beginning of my different levels. Along the way, I'm sure the beds will start to transform and take shape and eventually I'll have the garden/yard I want.

Keep the ideas coming ladies, please. These are all wonderful and I am incorporating your suggestions. It can be a little overwhelming starting from scratch like this, so it's nice to know I can come here for advice and guidance from other gardeners.

Thanks so much!

    Bookmark   July 20, 2007 at 7:40AM
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You're very welcome. With Bonnie's input, I just realized that your landscape may be akin to Ireland's weather & patterns (sans the cold). They've used stone fences & lines of trees to diffuse the winds and seaspray. Recently there was a magazine article featuring Irish cottage gardens and so what a delight it was to read the gardens there. You have lots of possibilities before you and truly I am excited for your future endeavours.


    Bookmark   July 20, 2007 at 9:40AM
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bonniepunch(USDAz4 AgCanz5a)

ianna - didn't you just start over with a blank slate? What did you do about making new beds? Did you double dig or amend on the top of the existing soil (raised bed style)? How has it worked out?

And yes, the landscape in Cape Breton is quite similar to what you'd find in Ireland - but it's a lot colder and foggier! I grew up in Halifax, but my family is from Cape Breton and we spent huge amounts of our spare time there. Nova Scotia coast is one big rock pile :-)

betty - some more thoughts... One thing that's often done when you make a brand new bed is a technique called "double digging". Depending on what you plan on putting in there that's a great idea or a time waster (generally it's worth it in the long run, especially if you plan to plant trees or shrubs). I would advise against it for you - I assume you don't have a lot of soil on that hill, and if you do it, you'll be severing a lot of older roots that will be adding to the stability of the soil already there. I would leave the existing soil alone and build on top of it - you can mix in as much compost as you can get to the soil that you put behind the retaining walls. The worms will work it down into the existing soil in a couple of years on their own. Most companies that deliver soil by the truckload can also deliver compost.

Or, if you have any neighbours with animals, perhaps you could ask for some composted manure (or just ask for the manure and compost it on your own). Watch for weeds in pasture fed animals though - my grandfather's sheep poop made the best fertilizer, but it also made for a lot of weeding :-)

I'll probably be going to the local Botanical Garden this weekend (if it ever stops raining). I'll take some photos of the alpine section to give you some ideas of how they worked with hills and rocks (they had to make it since that type of terrain is rare here in Montreal - but it's still nice).


    Bookmark   July 20, 2007 at 11:28AM
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Bonnie, is the soil in your area made of clay or sand? I have clay--- hard pack clay. That was the first thing I had to deal with when I started my garden beds. I did a variety of things to get going. One might say I was obsessed. I tried all the techniques to set up new beds in a hurry. I came away knowing for certain, that the double digging technique is a necessary first step - one that was advocated to by Geoff Hamilton (a garden great). These are my experiences so far....

With the front yard, I somewhat cheated and hired a landscaper to install stone pavings for the walkway. In this case I had him remove all the lawn grass and topdress it with triple mix topsoil. I had not instructed him to rototill it into the ground (but on hindsight I should have). I took several shortcuts with this job because I had several potted plants that needed to go into the ground. Already I was delayed by more than a month in planting the perennials. So instead of tilling all the topsoil into the hardpack clay layer, I spot tilled it. whereever I planned to place my perennials I dug a big enough hole and basically tilled the topdressing, manure, bonemeal into the area. Unfortunately this front bed had a slope and so several bouts rainy weather resulted with soil erosion. I was constantly having to clean the sidewalks. So to remedy the problem, I addressed the area which was most vulnerable and installed a plastic lawn edger, slightly raised to prevent the water from entering the beds. Weedcloth was added to keep topsoil in place. Horizontal trenches throughout the bed to slow the flow of water. I used coconut coir to help slow water and act as mulch too. I then planted perennials with deep root capabilites to help break the flow and also to help hold the soil. Only then did I start planting the annuals to fill out the empty spaces. I would say, this front yard bed is now very pleasing.

The backyard is another dilemma. Most recent as of today. I created 4 garden beds there. One by the backfence. Here I piled on upturned grass sods which were taken from other bed site. I left the grass here to rot and mixed it with topsoil and compost. It's largely made of clay and broken down with compost. At first it was a really ugly looking pile but now that the sods have broken down, planted with shade lovign plants, the area looks great and thriving

The bed by the side of the fence, I dug the sod (used in the backfence bed) and clay out entirely and filled it with compost, topsoil, rotted manure. I used a newspaper layer to kill off the remaining grass. _-- result -- NOT TOO GOOD. Plants were stunted. It might as well be Sahara desert located in the middle of a jungle.

The bed that lies next to this bed, was double dug. I got lazy and simply left much of hte clay in place, broke it up and added my topsoil, compost, manure nd builder's sand mix. The results were great.

These 2 beds are constantly being affected by water that is coming from my neighbors yard and this is the problem I am now facing. I may need to raise the beds instead and somehow try to see what I can do to prevent the neighbor's water from flooding my area. Despite that, the bed with the 50%clay matter & 50% organic matter works wonderfully, while the other bed with 95% organic matter is not. Plants have suffered. Almost no earthworms in that area which means something is definitely not healthy about it. I can only speculate that there are some trace nutrients I wasn't able to address when putting in the topsoil - or perhaps that the topsoil is of poor quality. Or that the rain managed to wash away any trace nutrients.

So the lesson in my story... Clay is good and double digging continues to be my preferred technique. Use topsoil from good garden centres, don't cheapen on it.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2007 at 2:04PM
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bonniepunch(USDAz4 AgCanz5a)

ianna - my gut feeling was that double digging was the wrong thing for the OP to do because of the likelihood of erosion. You having this problem with your sloped front bed confirms my feelings. I definitely think she needs to make her beds more along the style of a raised bed.

(It's good to know how it worked for you - I have a friend who is an aspiring green thumb and she bought a house in the 'burbs without any garden beds at all. She has the heavy clay that is so common here in southern Ontario and Quebec, so I'll recommend she till to a reasonable depth (she'll never double dig!) rather then make a raised bed on top of her existing soil. She wants perennials so she'll need that extra root room.)

It's been 17 years since I lived in NS, so I have a hard time remembering exactly what the soil was like, but I do not recall it being heavy clay. I remember needing a pickaxe for digging rocks out by the wheelbarrow full, but the soil around my parent's place in Halifax and my grandparent's place in Cape Breton was pretty easy to work. It's probably mostly sandy or loamy.

If you lay down newspaper and build a bed on top of the existing soil, the worms will eventually work it in. Under ideal conditions it should take a only couple of years, but who has ideal conditions? :-) This will happen faster in sandy or loamy soil then in silty or clay soil just because it can be hard for the worms to make their way through heavy clay. Clay is in some ways better for plants because of all the plant nutrients it has versus sandy soils, but it sure is hard to work with! Last year or the year before peatpod made a raised bed in her yard without digging or tilling, and she planted cannas there (she almost certainly has clay soil). That's a great plant for a bed like that. It has very strong invasive roots and is tolerant of just about all soil types - it'll help break up the clay and allow the worms to move through it more easily. Annuals will also generally do fine in that sort of bed, but for perennials, especially deep rooted ones...


    Bookmark   July 20, 2007 at 2:56PM
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Hi Bonnie, In order to better understand soil erosion, one has to consider the quality of the existing soil at the very top. Softer soil (like new topsoil) is especially vulnerable to being washed away. In my yard, I have hard pack clay soil which is incidentally the quality that has produced much of Toronto's great bricks. You can imagine just how resistent this kind of soil is to being washed away - so in my case, double digging does help slow down the rush of water and also helps water to seep down into the ground. One problem with a firm clay layer is that water which follows the path of least resistance, will rush off, not leaving enough moisture in the ground for existing plants. This is the reason why double digging does work.

However is steep sloped areas, the most effective controls are to terrace the gardens (like raised beds with stone edgings) and also to utilize erosion control fabrics. These fabrics are frequently used along highways to lessen the incidents of mud and rock slides. In addition grass seeds are sprayed onto hillsides because their roots will grab those loose soil. These are however rather costly to install and I don't know if these are readily found in garden centres. I do think these are sold in hill farm areas. Weed fabrics that eventually rot should be just as effective. I have a very cheap type that can allow plants roots to penetrate it (hence it's not a very effective weed control - duh).

I agree with your recommendation to your friend regarding rototiling. That helps especially in hardpack clay areas. She has to add topsoil heavy in compost to improve the area.

As for my back garden bed. The problem area is that there is no existing worms even beneath the layer of newspapers. The rest of the area is experiencing a worm population explosion and the only thing I can think of is that it lacks the necessary nutrients (rotting plant matters) for these worms to exist. It tells me more that I am facing not just an erosion problem but also a lack of nutrient problems. I will also have to remove the layer of newspapers (anyway, the grass has been effectively killed off) since it prevented deep rooted plants from reaching the surface where clay & water is available. I will have to rework good clay into the area and will be ordering topsoil from my regular supplier soon. in the last batch, my husband & I bought the garden soil from an untested source. Their product didn't have much clay component. I'll go back to my regular supplier. On the hand, sandy and rocky soil is very difficult to work with, because it lacks nutrients. It requires more than just composted materials but also such things are bone meals, crushed seas shells, etc..

I do recall peatpod's front yard, and I agree it's one that caters to annuals - not too much the perennials with deep root requirements. I recall it was raised high - no slope and tehrefore able to stay steady. I agree cannas do help retain that sort of landscape. I have them in the front yard. In fact, I've added annuals to my front yard to assist with erosion control. It will take far longer for my perennials to develope a good root system. So in the meantime the annuals are doing that job. When it's time to remove these things, I plan to leave the roots in the ground, until it's ready for planting again in the following season.

I guess the bottomlne is that I'm always learning something new each time I work a new bed.


    Bookmark   July 23, 2007 at 10:22AM
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