The Gravel Garden

 

Beside our house, next to a wooden deck that is rarely used, is a juniper planted when the house was built in 1969. Or to put it more accurately, beside the house and next to the deck are the remains of one.

For the last few years, the juniper has been slowly dying. The photo below shows how it looked five years ago, shortly after I had pruned out an enormous amount of dead wood. To my eye it looked then a bit like a bonsai version of Tom Thomson’s Jack Pine, minus the pretty colours. (For non-Canadians this reference may not make sense. But if you imagine a romantically scrawny tree with drooping branches firmly planted on a rocky shore, with lake and mountains behind, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I mean.)

 

 

After a first pruning, the shrub was looking vaguely like a large bonsai.
Ignore the clumps of festuca glauca on the ground — they are dead. As are a few more branches in the juniper itself. Did I miss them when I was pruning or did the  branches continued to die after I finished?. In either case, the juniper here looks vaguely Japanese, as does Thomson’s painting.

 

 

If the juniper looked like an overgrown bonsai five years ago, it looks like a stripped down version today.

 

The branches of the juniper provide a framework for a Zen-like garden.
The branches of the juniper now provide a framework for my version of a  Zen  garden.

 

 

Those of you who read my blog regularly may see a pattern emerging in the garden at Glen Villa. More and more, I am moving towards a pared-down look, removing whatever feels extraneous. It’s as if the convolutions and complexities in my life are demanding an environment where excess is stripped away. I see this in the Lower Garden where I straightened the edges of the borders; I see it in the design of the deer fences in the Asian Meadow and The Upper Field. It’s clearly present in the newly-designed gabion wall by the parking area in front of the house. It’s even present in the planter boxes on the dining room deck, which have gone from exuberant blossoms to calm green boxwood.

 

 

The boxwood needs to grow more before I can  trim it again into the square-edged shape I'm looking for. I'll heel these shrubs in somewhere else -- they would not survive the winter in such shallow soil.
The boxwood needs to grow more before I can trim it again into the square-edged shape I’m going for. Over the winter I’ll heel these shrubs in somewhere else — they would not survive in this planter, one of two that sits on the dining room deck.

 

 

The Gravel Garden is only the most recent example of this movement towards clarity. Nonetheless, like many things that happen in the garden at Glen Villa, it happened almost by accident. This year when I did my first major walk-around to assess the work that needed to be done, I noticed that once again the juniper was full of dead wood. In late June I started pruning.

 

2015-2
This is what was left after I finished pruning — a few branches with bits of green and more bits turning brown. Plus a mess of unrelated green bits growing out of the gravel..

 

 

When I finished, so little green remained that I decided to go all the way. I dug out the fern and the other bits and pieces that were cluttering the space and ended up with a framework of bare branches. Within that frame I added some plants I thought would strengthen the Zen-like quality I am going for: a standard dwarf white pine (Pinus strobus nana), three mugo pines (Pinus mugo ‘Short Needles’)  and a dwarf Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris ‘Jeremy’).

Each of these pines is slow-growing. Each is a different shade of green, and each has needles with a different texture. Placing them took some time — moving any one of them involved adjusting all the rest.

 

The mulch is light grey gravel, so this area is now called the Gravel Garden.
The mulch is light grey gravel, so this area is now called the Gravel Garden. This photo points out a flaw I hadn’t noticed before: the way the ground slopes off beside the deck. Ideally it would be level with the deck and then drop down in line with the step, then drop down again to ground level.

 

The little patches of green around the mugo and Scots pines were growing there and I decided to keep them. They didn’t survive the pruning and digging, though, so I pulled them out. Without them, the area looked a little bare even for a pared-down aesthetic, so I added some dark-leafed Dazzleberry sedum (Sedum ‘Razzleberry’) that will bloom a ripe red early next season.

Here is how the Gravel Garden looks today.

 

This photo shows a larger section of the area.
This photo of a larger section of the area shows how the gravelled section extends beyond The Gravel Garden.

 

 

Assessing the Results:

 

1. Plant choices: The pines planted at the end of June are doing well, with no signs of growth. That is a good thing  — I deliberately chose slow-growing shrubs that will remain small and I am trusting they will live up to their billing.

I’m not sure about the sedum. The foliage colour is gloomier than I expected and the plants are growing rapidly. I think they will become too big and throw the area out of balance. But winters here are tough on plants, even those as hardy as sedum. So before trimming or removing them, I will wait to see what winter brings.

2. The layout: In a minimally planted area, the balance between elements has to be exactly right. Anything unnecessary has to go. While the sedum is temporarily on reprieve, weeds are not. I have to keep the gravel weed-free and the edge between the gravel and the grass absolutely straight. That means adding a metal strip to mark the division. Does the metal strip become a design element or is it incidental? I don’t know — and that’s because of another question I’m asking myself.  Where does The Gravel Garden end?

As you can see in the photo above, The Gravel Garden extends beyond the deck that forms one part of its boundary. Gravel extends even farther, in front of the steps off the deck and around the corner of the stone wall. Wooden posts integral to the architecture of the house are prominent features. Do they define a possible end point? Does the gravelled area currently unplanted become part of The Gravel Garden or do I keep it separate? If I extend the plantings, where do I stop?

3. Raking and rocks: Raking patterns in the gravel around the mugo pines appeals to me. It adds to the design without adding another element. If it is to be effective, though, the patterns need to be distinct. The area isn’t often used so foot traffic won’t disturb them. Will other things?

Adding several large rocks is a possibility.  Rocks and raked gravel are common elements in Zen gardens and I like the idea of making a connection to this broader tradition. Finding the right rocks and the perfect position for them may mean re-adjusting the location of the plants. I’m willing to consider this next year, once I see the effects of the winter.

4. Regular assessments: In writing this post, I examined the area more closely than before. Doing this led me to consider the gravelled area around the corner from The Gravel Garden.

 

The stone wall in this photo backs onto the wooden deck. The gravel seen here connects to the Gravel Garden. So is this the place to put one more plant and several beautiful craggy rocks?
The stone wall in this photo backs onto the wooden deck. The gravel seen here connects to the Gravel Garden.

 

This space had not figured in my thoughts before now, but since it is connected to The Gravel Garden, it should have. Making it part of the overall design opens up new possibilities. Perhaps this is the place to put one perfect shrub and several craggy rocks. Perhaps not.

Designers: I need your input.