Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The saddest part of my garden

Alison who blogs as Bonney Lassie recently encouraged bloggers to "tell the truth" about the ugly bits in their gardens instead of showing only the pretty parts. Stepping up to the challenge, I'm providing a close look at my back slope.  I've shown it on occasion, usually in long shots that disguise just how crappy it looks.  Most people who visit my garden never see it at all as it's hidden behind the hedge that lines the main level of the back garden.

At a glance, you might think this gravel path on the northeast side of the house ends at the fence in the background


But, if you walk to the end of that gravel path, make a sharp pivot and look down you'd see this:

All the area to the right of the bay laurel hedge on the left is part of my garden.  My husband and I didn't even know it was there until we discovered it during the course of the final inspection prior to the close of escrow.


The concrete block stairway wasn't there when we purchased the property.  There was just a dirt path, a slippery dirt path.  After I fell a few times, my husband decided we needed to create a safer way of moving through the space.  He hauled in forty-one 50-pound concrete blocks to construct the stairway.

Our property was once part of rock quarry and large rocks can still be found here and there.  My husband had to work around many of these as he set the concrete blocks in place.


I had a lot of plans for the garden when we took possession of the property but the back slope wasn't even on my radar at first.  However, almost from the time we moved in, one thing kept drawing us down to the bottom of the slope.

The lemon tree close to the southeast property line bears fruit nearly continuously.  The only events to halt fruit production were two extreme heatwaves, both of which caused the tree to drop all its fruit nearly overnight.  In each case it took the tree several months to recover but recover it did.


I gradually found myself making small changes in the area.  While I turned a blind eye to the ivy and honeysuckle-covered upper portion of the slope from the beginning, I took tentative steps to plant the lower section after clearing out the weeds that covered the area.  Even though I knew it was foolish from the start, I used the extensive collection of wood and rubber tree rings left by the previous owner to hold the soil in place as I began to add plants.

This photo from February 2015 shows the tree rings I used to hold the soil and my new plants in place

As you might expect, the tree rings have decayed over time.  I've pulled out about three-quarters of them already.


While some of the plants I originally installed rooted well, others did not and, as I begin to fill in the empty areas, another solution is required to prevent further erosion of the soil.  I'm considering erosion control tubes filled with soil or compost but my husband favors a more permanent solution in the form of concrete blocks.   Not only are those are heavy and awkward to carry down that steep stairway, my concern is that they may distract from the plants themselves.  The debate is ongoing.

The bigger issue now is what to do with the upper slope.  Ignoring it was easier when it was the mostly uniform green mass you see in the 2015 photo but extreme heatwaves in 2016 and again in July of this year took a serious toll.

It's not as obvious when viewed from above

as it is when viewed from below.  Earlier this year, I started cutting back the dead ivy and honeysuckle vines but I gave that up when the heat soared, covering the area I'd cleared with cardboard in the hope of preventing weeds and ivy from growing  there.

The slope hadn't yet recovered from the 2016 heatwave when our temperature soared to 110F in July, making things even worse


With one bad knee, this area is far too steep for me to manage myself.  I think I might be able to clear an area of about 5 feet all along the edge of the slope as I started doing earlier this year but there's no way I can eradicate all the ivy and honeysuckle up to the top of the slope.  I've considered hiring a team to remove the troublesome vines but then I'd still have to grapple with the problem of terracing the slope in some fashion to allow replanting and, ivy being ivy, I'm concerned that weeding out new shoots will be a perpetual problem.  If I can clear a workable area along the stairway, I may try planting soft succulents like Agave attenuata and shade-tolerant grasses but I still have to solve the erosion problem.

The area below the stairway was also affected by the heatwaves.  Some plants died outright while others just looked like hell.

From left to right: Euphorbia 'Dean's Hybrid', Pelargonium 'White Lady', and a dead Ribes viburnfolium


I started work on cleaning up the area in late September as our summer heat abated but then I had a run-in with what I believe were fire ants and I was gun-shy about working in the area for awhile.  Prior to the last rainstorm, I went to work down there again, mainly in tidying things up.  I pruned the fig tree; cut back the Centranthus, Euphorbia, and Pelargonium; dug out the dead Ribes and replaced it with a manzanita (Arctostaphylos bakeri 'Louis Edmunds'); pruned the other two Ribes, the bush anemone (Carpenteria californica), and the groundcover lantana; planted Aeonium haworthii 'Kiwi Verde' cuttings and Santolina plugs; and sowed California poppy seeds.  It looks neater, if also very bare.

I'm hoping the Centranthus, Santolina and the small artichoke plants that survived July's heatwave will fill in the bare areas.  There are self-seeded pink evening primroses there too that, given enough rain, may also come back.


In addition to the ivy on the upper slope, the ivy along the property line still needs to be cut back and I have the perennial problem of controlling the Bignonia capreolata vine I inherited.

Ivy creeps up from the neighbor's area (immediately behind the Pittosporum 'Silver Magic' we planted to mark the boundary line after the giant Yucca elephantipes was removed a few years ago).  I cut it back a couple times a year but I should probably tackle it on a bi-monthly basis.

That huge green mound is the Bignonia, which drapes over all 3 properties that meet at this corner.  Given its mammoth trunk, it's possible that the plant was installed decades ago, perhaps before the land was divided into 3 lots.  (The original owner of our place sold off pieces of the property on both sides of ours, leaving us a very odd 6-sided lot.)


I'm not at all sure what I can accomplish in remaking this part of the garden but it's too much space to simply forfeit.  And it does have  it's positive aspects.

The Aeonium arboreum and Agave attentuata I planted in the area have done well, although the Agaves were burned in the July heatwave.  The artichoke I planted a few years ago always comes back and always bears chokes, leading me to plant several more, only 3 of which survived the past very dry summer.  Centranthus (lower left) is virtually a weed here but it's pretty pink and white blooms give the area color in late spring.  The bay laurel hedge is dense and screens most of my neighbor's chain-link fence (even if its suckers are an issue).  The calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica, lower right) reappear reliably once the rains start and, while they didn't flower well this year, I'm hoping for a better performance in 2019.


Well, that's it for the ugliest area of my garden.  Any suggestions?  What would you do to handle soil erosion?


All material © 2012-2018 by Kris Peterson for Late to the Garden Party

26 comments:

  1. This is a huge area to try to tame and I can completely understand your frustration with it. If your husband is willing to do the heavy work moving more concrete blocks to shore up the soil, I would let him. I'm in favor of a more permanent solution. I don't know enough about what grows well there to offer plant suggestions.

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    1. My husband seems willing but how he'll feel if we have to move 100+ concrete blocks (even 30lb ones like the one I moved to support the new manzanita), I'm not sure. A LOT of time has passed since the stairway construction and he may have forgotten just how hard that was.

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  2. I admire your tenacity! Yours problem area looks incredibly challenging. Have you tried woven straw mats to help with erosion? They hold the soil in place and help keep things cool while allowing plantings to take hold. Once the colour fades they just look like mulch.

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    1. I don't have the favorable impression of those woven mats that you do, luv2garden. Our next door neighbor's garden crew installed them on the slope on their side of our property line several months ago and it already looks bad (at least from our side). However, the problem could lie with the installer rather than the product.

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  3. First of all, congrats to your husband and his willingness/capability to carry those hefty blocks. Second of all, the ugly parts of my garden are much, much worse.

    Not having experience gardening in your climate, I am afraid to make a suggestion, but as you pull out the ivy, won't the soil begin eroding on the steeper slope, making it diffcult for individual plants to root? Perhaps that is why a climber was chosen to begin with. But, as you do not care for the ivy and bignonia, I am assuming that you do not like climbers at all? So honeysuckle would be a 'no'? Thinking of a few sloping gardens near me, I have also seen cypress trees, teucrium and rosemary postratus used for erosion control. But, again, our climates and soils are different. Good luck!

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    1. I definitely can't leave the ground bare, LoLM. I'd just prefer having plants that aren't as unruly and invasive - or prone to burning out during our now persistent heatwaves - as the ivy and honeysuckle. A neighbor across the street cleared his slope of ivy and planted zillions of rosemary plugs (or rather a crew he hired did). Rosemary might do the job for me too, although my east-facing slope gets less sun than his southeast-facing slope. I probably need to do more research on suitable plants but grasses like Sesleria and some of the softer agaves appeal to me as possibilities. I've used Aeonium on my partially shaded west-facing slope, which has worked for me but it's not as steep as this one.

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  4. That slope has definitely been the thorn in your side for a while. Terracing seems a viable solution, but the fact that it is rather inaccessible makes it a logistics problem for getting paving blocks to the site. You have my sympathies!

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    1. Accessibility is a BIG problem and one I should have underscored in my post. It's pretty much impossible to get any heavy equipment into the back slope, which means any crew I hired would have to do the work by hand.

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  5. What a challenging area. It seems like the only permanent solution would be to hire a landscape architect to rip everything out, grade it, terrace it and install appropriate hardscape, which I'm sure would cost a small fortune. And even then, how do you deal with plants creeping in from the neighbors? Still you two have made some valiant efforts !

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    1. I'm fairly certain it would cost a chunk of change to terrace the area, Kathy, especially as it isn't readily accessible and the work therefore would have to be done mostly by hand. Nonetheless, I was seriously considering it - until we opted to pursue a major renovation of our kitchen plus an earthquake retrofit. I think I have to sit on the option of hiring landscape professionals for awhile.

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  6. I wish I could help you. It looks like you have a hot mess on this slope. I wouldn't want to garden with those awful ants either. The little you have done here has made a difference. Best of luck with this challenge.

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    1. I didn't even know SoCal had fire ants, Lisa! I never actually saw them - I just felt the stings (20+) and discovered that they looked just like those shown on-line. My husband looked for the nest and couldn't find it but I suspect I stepped into in when I waded into knee-deep ivy when trying to cut back that out-of-control Bignonia.

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  7. I'll be following your solutions...our property is built on a slope, too--not as dramatic as yours, but enough that I'm starting to have erosion issues in some spots. It can be really challenging, for sure. Everything you do, however, turns out great, so I'm sure it will be under control with panache.

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    1. It's always been my dream to hire professionals to tackle this particular area, Beth, as I think its challenges may exceed my DIY skills and even those of my more intrepid husband. However, I believe this is a gobs of money project and I haven't yet been able to swallow that. Now, with a major kitchen remodel and other home improvement efforts in the final planning stages, landscaping has been pushed to the back burner.

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  8. Oh dear, Kris - the messy part of your garden has nothing on mine... LOL! Mind you, I don't have a slope, so I really have no excuse. I saw Alison's post too, and also thought I need to post a "reality check-post". I have still to do it, though... As for plants for stablilizing slopes - someone once told me that Lonicera pileata is great for erosion control. Per GPP's website, it's hardy to Zone 9, which makes me think that SoCal is both too hot and too dry for it. You can read more here: https://www.greatplantpicks.org/plantlists/view/933

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    1. Thanks for the input, Anna! I'm still calling my zone 10b but some agencies have shown it as zone 11 (!), which I can't bring myself to accept. I need to do more research before I go gung-ho replanting the upper slope but I'm currently thinking I may try just replanting that small 5'x5' area I've already cleared (currently covered in a layer of cardboard, compost and newspapers) as a test to see what works and what doesn't.

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  9. My vote is to hire someone to clear the ivy and honeysuckle and terrace the slope so you can have the joy of planting it and watching it fill in. On the other hand you could simply close the gate and ignore the space but as you said, it's too much space to forfeit when there are so many great plants that grow in your area.

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    1. My husband and I stubbornly seek to tackle most projects on our own but this one may be an exception, money permitting.

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  10. That's definitely a project that cries out to be outsourced -- save your knees!

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    1. I don't know, Denise, I think the universe may be telling me it's time to fix the knee but being side-lined for 4-6 months is daunting to contemplate.

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  11. What a challenge, Kris! I think the concrete blocks are a good idea, and if placed horizontally, which I realise would require some digging, they’d make useful spots for you to stand I whilst gardening. I can only suggest doing multiple plantings of super hardy plants and fill the area up to cover the slope. Would Gazanias have enough root mass to do that job? I’ve seen them survive temps of 40 degrees and drought here. They also multiply like mad. Good luck with this project!

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  12. Yes, carrying the blocks down into the area is only half the challenge - digging them in (especially in the upper area) will require as much or more effort. I love Gazinias but I'm not sure they'll hold a slope as steep as I've got in the upper area and I think they may want more sun that the east-facing slope provides. I transplanted some Gazania seedlings in the lower area earlier in the year - they're still there but not flowering.

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  13. Our front slope is trivial, but a double layer of concrete retaining blocks (done by the brick pavers when we renovated) has made that part of the garden simple. Somewhere safe and stable to stand. Aim at some terraces instead of a wall of sad blocks.
    Camps Bay was a 45 degree slope and we used retaining walls and strategic blocks there. Then choosing plants becomes a pleasure.

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    1. I do so want to terrace that slope, Diana. I'm only reluctant to pay the hefty price to so it.

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