The huge oak that was the centerpiece of our Chappaquiddick front yard died from a gall wasp infestation a couple of years ago. The house was sited to be near this tree that was magnificent, even in its youth. It shaded our house and yard for 40 summers, and it held our children and friends’ children in its branches for the photos that show them growing older year by year. It was a hard loss to accept, but as a 17th century Japanese poet wrote: “The barn’s burnt down… now I can see the moon.” With the oak gone, our yard has entered a period of slow but exhilarating transformation.
The biggest change was the amount of sunlight filling the yard. Some plants seemed happy with this, like the lilacs and shad that had been shaded for years by the oak’s long reach. Much more sun fell on the vegetables growing in the fenced garden, but large patches of the grass and moss that made up our lawn started dying. It didn’t take long for things to look pretty shabby. I was still mourning the oak when a visit to Island gardener Pat Brown’s yard last summer got me thinking more creatively about ours. His front yard is filled with vegetables, flowers, fruit trees, and vines, making a pleasant and riotously vibrant jungle of vegetation between the driveway and the front steps. I realized that while I like a bit of lawn, vegetables are much more interesting, and I’d rather grow food.
Since we didn’t want to fence in the whole yard — to deal with the deer, and occasional goat escapees — I decided to try to plant things they don’t like to eat. I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as a deer-proof plant, but from my years of gardening, I know there are some things they’re less likely to eat, for example, wild arugula, garlic, some herbs, and maybe raspberries. The challenge, though, was how to turn our sandy, rock-hard soil full of oak tree roots into a bed loose and fertile enough to plant anything.
Last July, I laid cardboard on the mostly dead grass next to the front wall of the house, between the chicken patio — so named because our chickens like to sun themselves there — and the front steps. I covered the cardboard with layers of hay from goat bedding and seaweed. Then I lay boards across it to keep the chickens from strewing it everywhere in their search for worms. By October, the soil was soft enough to dig up, and I transplanted herbs from my fenced garden. I surrounded each plant with old bricks to keep the chickens from digging it up. The chickens scratch up everything in between, weeding and fertilizing as they go.
Some plants in the old flower bed outside the fenced garden always get eaten by deer or rabbits, while others, like daffodils, are never bothered. In the fall, I moved the vulnerable plants inside the garden, and transferred a couple hundred daffodils to the edges of the yard, where I figured they could fend for themselves. In the newly freed up bed, I transplanted some raspberries suckers from the canes I’d dug into a vegetable bed “temporarily” – about four years ago. I’m not sure if raspberries are on the deer’s list of likely edibles, but I’ll find out! Next to that bed, I laid some more layers of cardboard, hay, and seaweed, topped by dead oak branches for chicken protection, for future expansion. I cleaned out another old flower bed, added some compost, and planted garlic there. Next to it I added some more “lasagna” layers to widen it, too, after the cardboard and hay rots.
During this period of transformation, I heard about hugelkulture, a kind of raised bed made by piling up logs and other woody debris, and adding a layer of soil on top into which the plants are added. Permaculturists use it because its woody debris holds water and slowly releases nutrients over many years as the wood rots. It’s a good way to clean up the yard as well as add a growing bed without the work of digging. A good article on the Web is found at: http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/many-benefits-hugelkultur.
I think it’s best to let the hugelkutlture pile settle for at least a few months, but I didn’t bother. Our yard had several piles of rotting logs from trees we’d taken down, and a pile of old fire wood from before we converted to a pellet stove. In the fall, I piled some of these up, added some goat bedding, dried stalks from the garden, and topped it with little dirt here and there. Into it I transplanted some gooseberries suckers, which are nice and thorny and so maybe deer-proof, a few poke and dandelion roots — weeds that I like to eat — and a couple of flowering bushes.
Unfortunately, our yard’s biggest crop in recent years has been voles. Last summer they ate every single green bean I planted, many tomatoes, potatoes, etc. Well, it seems that while I thought I’d built a hugelkulture mound, the voles were busy converting it into a vole condo. Tunnels appeared everywhere, and by spring, all the plants but the gooseberries were gone. Gardening is nothing if not full of disappointment and constant learning experiences!
In the spring, when I was ready to plant another hugelkulture bed that I’d made around the base of the big oak stump, I decided the plants needed to be vole-proof as well as deer and goat-proof. I have a small arugula business, so I was glad to have an extra area to put these plants that seem to be eaten only by humans. I transplanted about 50 from where they had seeded themselves in my fenced garden. They look happy enough so far.
Grass has its uses, such as at the edges of the yard where it can be mowed to limit the sassafras, honeysuckle, and bittersweet vines always invading from the surrounding woods. It’s also nice to walk on from one place to another, and to look at — where it’s growing really well. When I spent summers on Chappy as a kid, I don’t remember people having lawns. There was a little grass around the houses that got mowed at the beginning of the summer. Flower beds were rare, too. People were more interested in being at the beach or out on the water than taking care of a yard. That was before landscapers were doing the work. I like grass, but I see no reason to work at growing it where it clearly has decided it doesn’t want to grow — there are so many more interesting plants than grass!