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Project: Building a Garden Under the Fir Tree

Last Updated: 12/30/06


After building the attractive new front walk the ugliness of the lawn under the fir tree became even more apparent.  Grass just refuses to grow under a fir tree unless you install an irrigation system.  The small garden around the fir tree was no longer adequate so I decided to bring in a bunch of dirt and build a bigger garden around the base of the tree.


In the following photo you can see what the grass looks like under the fir tree.  It's patchy and dry and has a really hard time growing. Compare that to the grass on the right, which is nice and green.  This photo was taken July 4th and it hadn't even been all that hot yet but the grass still looks really dry and unhappy.  Every year the grass looks great in springtime and I think "I'll just keep it well-watered this year and it will be happy" but between my lack of enthusiasm for watering and the fir tree sucking up all the water, this is what we get.

More fun for Alex, a dump truck in our front yard!  I didn't really have a well-formulated plan at this point.  I ordered 12 yards of dirt to make a new planting bed around the tree but hadn't really given it much thought beyond that.  This is still July 4th.

Here's Alex's new sandbox:

After having the dirt delivered, I proceeded to remove all the rocks from the original garden under the tree (on the left in the photo above), and also some of the plants that I felt were worthy of saving.  Then I shoveled and wheelbarrowed the dirt around so that it made a large pile around the tree. 

I can't believe that I didn't take any pictures of the dirt at the various stages, but I can't find any photos for this project taken between July 5th and Aug. 21st, so I must not have.  I have a couple of incidental dirt photos as a result of the tree removal project, when I had some limbs removed from the fir tree in the front yard.  So the following photo shows how I have the dirt moved into a big pile around the tree.

I still wasn't sure how I wanted to "contain" the dirt because simply having a pile around the tree wasn't going to work, long-term.  I needed some way to make sure the dirt stayed in its own bed and did not migrate into the lawn (and the lawn was prevented from migrating into the dirt).  I considered building a small retaining wall around the dirt and then recalled how much "fun" it had been to lay the stones around my front garden bed, so I decided to bite the bullet and hire a landscaping company to build the little wall.

So here they are building the wall.  You can get a better idea of my dirt pile now.  There's more dirt now than the 12 yards I piled around the tree because the landscapers dug a trench for the retaining wall.

My yard is on a bit of a slope so to keep the garden level all the way around, the wall will be shorter on the road side than on the house side.  They built the wall four blocks high (plus capstones) on the lowest corner and two blocks high (plus capstones) on the highest corner.  The following picture shows the wall at the stage before adding the capstones.

After they had finished the job and gone away I kept looking at the wall from every angle around the yard and road, thinking "it's just too big!  It's too much!  It's too ostentatious!" so I had them come back and take off one layer. They had to remove the capstones to do this, then reinstall the capstones.  The next photo shows the completed wall after removal of the "extra" layer.  So now it's three blocks high (plus capstones) on the low corner and one block high (plus capstones) on the high corner.

Now I have to get to work planting stuff!  I bought compost and peat moss and conditioned the soil and then went to town planting stuff.  Here you can see the bags of compost and peat moss and a bunch of the plants I've chosen.

I also had to landscape around the outside edges of the wall on the road, walkway, and driveway sides.  I didn't want to have the wall come all the way to the edge of the driveway because I thought people might be afraid to open their car doors.  On the road side I needed to leave three feet between the wall and the curb in case the city decides to put a sidewalk in.  I decided I would put down wood chips in these areas.  That was by far an "easier-said-than-done" choice, at least on the road side.  That turf between the wall and the curb is really hard.  I bought a pick especially for the job of removing the turf and it helped a lot but it was still a really big job.

On the walkway side I wanted to have plants between the wall and the walkway, and at the corner of the new garden where it meets the existing front garden I had to integrate the new with the old.  To do so I extended the row of small landscape stones and put in a couple of stepping stones, then added a few plants that will cover the ground and the stepping stones and soften all the edges.

Here is the walkway/retaining wall interface. I've planted an ivy and two vinca minor plants in hopes that they will do their viney thing and spread and make it pretty.  [This picture was taken a lot later than the rest of them, as you can tell by the presence of the weeds in the garden.]

In the next photo you can see I've planted all the plants and arranged the stones that came out of the old flower bed.  Now I'm working at removing all that turf between the wall and the road. 

Here all the turf is finally removed and the area is smoothed out, and I've laid down landscape fabric in preparation for the wood chips.  The landscape fabric will be laid along the driveway side too.  I've installed small landscape stones at the far end of the "sidewalk" to give it a defined edge where the sidewalk meets the lawn.

And here is the finished product!  It looks a lot different than that ratty old lawn, doesn't it?  I still think it's too big and overpowers the rest of the yard, but I'm getting used to it.  My neighbours have all said it looks good.  Now I just have to get out and weed it!


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