Tag Archives: landscaping

The Great Landscape Challenge of 2014 – Part 2 – Plant and Mulch

In my last post, I started a two-part story of the big summer 2014 landscaping project. This project had a lot of moving parts in it, primarily because once started, there were a bunch of related projects that “while we’re in there” may as well be taken care of.

In my previous post, I detailed the early work – tearing out the old landscaping and getting some needed foundation parging work completed while access we easy. I also rectified a problem with a gutter that could overflow in the wrong place, and reset the basement window wells. After all of that I had to make some plans for landscaping. One of the big challenges for us is that the deer in our neighborhood are particularly ravenous. This meant a lot of research and help choosing appropriate landscaping. In addition, I was particular in that the landscaping that did get put in was smaller, compact, and aside from periodic basic maintenance (raking leaves, putting in some mulch), it would not grow out of control if not continually pruned. This was a problem with the previous landscaping, as you can see in one of the “before” pictures below.


Ironically, this is nothing compared to what it looked like before the new 1997 landscaping was put in. Those shrubs were comically large by the time they were pulled out.

To finish preparing our plant beds, I had more work to do. I re-graded all of the beds, ensuring they were all sloped appropriately, building correct draining channels in the event of gutter overflows, and creating edging. I went back and forth for quite awhile over what edging to use. I originally was planning on using staked aluminum edging. While expensive, it would be very precise. In the end though, my neighbor had a large stack of bluestone he didn’t want. His house has a large bluestone retaining wall and over the years different stones had been replaced or moved. Our house already features a lot of bluestone, and I realized this would be the best edging for us. I spend a few days setting the stones across the large front planting bed and carried the edging down the side of the house – another long-term goal is to “complete” the landscaping by carrying it appropriately around the entire house, and not just the front. Doing this took care of one side, and next I will be adding a bluestone sidewalk on the other side.

Once the edging was in place, I took a swing out to a local nursery – Tioga Gardens – and talked to them about my options. They gave me a nice list of plants and shrubs that fit the bill. In the end, here are the plants we chose and why:

Hummingbird Summersweet – This is a shade loving plant that provides lots of fragrant white flowers in July. It’s right in the corner of the front of the house where it stays shaded a lot of the day. And it only grows 3-4 feet tall and about the same width. This plant is deciduous and therefore will be bare in the winter.

Tamukeyama Japanese Maple – Mary was insistent that we have a Japansese Maple in the landscaping, so this one was placed on the outside of the main planting bed. This variety of Japanese maple will grow to a height of 6-8 feet, and roughly the same width when fully grown. It can be pruned easily and shaped. It does not grow very quickly.

Wedding Ring Boxwood – Four of these in an arc form the “middle row” of the main plant bed. They are a very compact boxwood, with yellow leaf edges and green centers, giving a lot of visual interest. They only grow 2-3 feet tall and require little pruning.

Blue Fescue grass – Several of these ornamental grasses were planted last year when we were just tiding over the landscaping, but we liked them enough to keep them. As their name implies, they have a bluish green tint. Because our house is red brick, this color provides a nice contrast. They also stay low to the ground, growing only about 1-2 feet and therefore make up the front row.

Petunias – The remainder of the primary plant bed will be filled in the summer with flowers such as petunias for summer-long color.

Green Gem Boxwood – In the front of the house along the driveway we planted a pair of these boxwoods. They are an all green variety, and also keep themselves very neat and compact.

Blue Star Juniper – These were used along the driveway. Unlike the previous shrubs, these are low maintenance and keep themselves low to the ground. They will ultimately be 1-2 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide. They offer year-round blue-green color.

Blue Star Juniper on a “standard” – Mary and I saw these when browsing and were pretty excited to put them in the landscaping. The grower takes a blue star juniper and grafts it onto a straight root stalk from another plant. The juniper plant then grows into a globe. They look really cool, and we planted a pair of them alongside the kitchen door.

Astilbe – This is one of the few holdover perennials from the old landscaping. Astible produces very nice colorful flower stalks from mid to late summer. Every few years you need to dig them up, cull and separate them, but we put these into the shade corner right next to the garage.

White Mountain Shasta Daisies – We put a few of these daisy plants in the mix. They produce flowers nearly all season from spring to fall. I’m writing this at the end of October and there are still flower buds trying to come out. (the frost keeps nipping them back.) This daisy plant stays compact, is 1-2 feet tall, makes great cut flowers, and requires little maintenance.

May Night Meadow Sage – This is sage as in the same spice family. Sage produces very nice fragrant flower spikes from mid-summer through September. It has characteristics similar to the shasta daisy – it’s compact, grows 1-2 feet tall, and requires little maintenance.

Pink Sapphire Coreopsis – This plant produces nice pinkish flowers from summer into fall. It shares similar characteristics to the other two flowers.

Bearded Iris – My grandmother had tons of bearded iris in several beds. They had not been divided in many years so they weren’t flowering any longer. I have taken several dozen and placed them into the landscaping. Over the next few years they should provide a good show.

Bulb variety – We set aside some space in the landscaping – particularly at the corner of the driveway, around the lampposts, and around the new Modbox mailbox for good bulb plantings. Bulbs include Snowdrops (very, very early white flowers), Crocus (also very early), Daffodils (both early and late spring varieties), and Hyacinths (early spring flowers.) The idea for flowers is to create a variety of flowers that bloom consistently from early spring through the fall: snowdrops, crocus, daffodils, hyacinths, lilac, iris, peonies, daisies, sage, coreopsis.

By next year, I should have the new bluestone sidewalk from the driveway around the garage to the back patio completed, which will also give us another set of beds for planting and complete the landscaping “all around” the house.

Here are pictures showing the progress including before and afters:

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The Great Landscape Challenge of 2014 – Part 1 – Rip and Parge

Going into the summer of 2014, I knew I was going to be focusing a lot of work on several exterior projects. At the beginning of the summer I took a week and attacked the cantilever insulation, and I was doing a fair amount of prep work by mid summer for the Hawaiian luau pig roast. You may also have seen a picture from last year when Mary and I did our first take on cleaning up the existing landscaping:

At that time, that was just a stopgap – I had a lot of other projects to work on, and I knew that once I really got into the landscaping it would become an exceptionally large job. Why? Because once I had the landscaping ripped out, before we spent money to put new landscaping in, I would be correcting several other exterior issues at the same time. In particular:

– The parging on the house foundation was last done about 20 years ago and beginning to flake of and needed to be repaired.

– The basement window wells needed to be adjusted and re-set. Two that had cracks needed to be re-set so the sides were back together, and all needed to be elevated a few inches to better protect the basement windows.

– The landscaping in the front of the house needed to be re-graded. It had a low spot near one of the basement window wells right below a gutter that can overflow into it. This isn’t a good combination in a heavy storm when the gutter backs up. (as can happen in the fall.)

The first part of this two part post covers the first chunks: cleaning out the existing landscaping, fixing the terrain, and parging.

To get started, I called my Uncle (Charlie) and asked if he could bring over his tractor to help me out. Fortunately he was game (we made him dinner) and out came all of the landscaping. Doing this with a tractor is infinitely easier than trying to get it out yourself. Actually, I’m pretty sure there was no way I could have got that out by myself. For the next several weeks (including during the Luau) the front of the house was at first, a disaster and then just barren:

After cleaning up the pulled landscaping and disposing of it, I moved on to taking care of the window wells. On our house we have precast concrete window wells. I think they are nicer than the metal ones, but these needed to be elevated a few inches to help keep things out of the wells:

Getting to this point took me about three weeks between all of our other commitments (like SpiedieFest), but with September quickly approaching I got back on the horse and brushed up on a new masonry skill: parging a block wall. Parging is applying a skim coating of concrete to a surface – in our case, the exposed top portion of the house’s cinderblock foundation. Parging gives the block a nice uniform appearance, as well as providing a fresh sealed top coat on the block to enhance strength and weather seal.

The parging process involved digging a trench about 4-6 inches deep around the foundation to get a finished spot below the ground line and pre-cleaning\scraping any loose existing parging away. Then you mix up an appropriate batch of mortar (I used sand topping mix, applied about 1/4 inch thick) and, on your hands and knees, apply mortar to a rectangular trowel and push it onto the foundation wall.

There is a fair bit of learning at this step – you have to learn how much mortar goes onto the trowel, how moist it should be, and the best application stroke to take to move reasonably quickly as well as ensure your coating is going to stick. Once it has dried slightly, I came back over it with a rubber float and lightly scrape the surface to “expose” the texture of the newly applied concrete. Doing this step helps cover any imperfections in your application, as well as ensure the entire wall has a uniform appearance. Of all the parts of this work, I feel the parging was the one that really had the biggest visual change:

Part two to follow with the installation of the new landscaping.

The Taming of the Forsythia

In several places on the property we have forsythia bushes. They’re very pretty in the spring…for about three weeks. The rest of the year they are either dormant or just big and green. It isn’t that we don’t like them…but left to their own devices and planted in the wrong spots, a forsythia will grow completely out of control…like the ones on the back corners of the house. Here’s a shot showing the bigger one. It’s almost 20 feet tall. It is so large that when we were kids, we built a fort in the middle of it:


I have some plans for landscaping around the house, and they don’t really include the forsythia bushes. Over the summer I tackled cleaning up our front landscaping, though there is more to do there next year as well. We will probably leave the giant one next to the road so we can enjoy the color in the spring, but the ones around the house definitely have to go – they occupy the flattest places around the house and take up an enormous amount of it. So after Mary and I got settled back in from the wedding and honeymoon, I set about at least starting on the project of chopping down the forsythia. This is a multi step process. If you’re not familiar, a forsythia is a giant mess of woody stems. If they touch the ground, they root in that location and the plant grows outward. It creates a nearly impervious thicket. To cut it down required a lot of time with the lop pruner, basically going after each individual branch. Eventually, however, I did prevail and got step one completed: the forsythia is now just a big set of stumps.


Sounds great, right? Well, besides hauling away the cut branches, that isn’t enough to actually kill a forsythia. Left alone, those stumps will grow into yet another giant forsythia bush. Digging them out will require some heavy duty labor, potentially with mechanical equipment, so I am saving that for the spring. I have a whole plan for the back that includes putting in a bluestone sidewalk around the garage (originally there was a concrete sidewalk, but it was removed in the 70s after it fell apart), removing the raised flower bed my grandparents put in in the 80s, and extending the landscaping beds around the sides and back of the house, since it will look very bare. But, I do have a plan for that, too:


(Coincidentally, I also have the landscaping plan from the last time the house was landscaped, in 1997…)

Come spring, besides expecting a baby (end of April), I will have my hands full outside finishing the landscaping as well.