Garden Steps, Mulching and more Mulching

With our fence newly installed, and convenient access limited to the steps up to the front door, it seemed that we would like steps to the south of the sunken driveway, onto the south side of the property. Otherwise we’d either have to climb the berm (not so bad) or walk all the way around the house to get to the south side. Neither are the end of the world, but for convenience sake, especially when moving things to that part of the property, steps seemed like the right answer.

I’ve never made steps before, mind you, but it seemed relatively straightforward (cue ridiculous dramatic music). I decided to do a combination of flat pavers for the treads, and stones for the risers. I figured this would give it a natural look and we could have lovely ground covers growing between the stone risers to help with erosion and keep it looking nice. I also had to consider my neighbor’s front garden, which is a very lovely rock garden on a slight incline. Since that part of our property runs seamlessly into theirs, I wanted it to *look* seamless.

So I set to work with the shovel (and now wish I had taken more photos of the process – the things you don’t do when you haven’t yet started your gardening blog yet!). I carved out what I thought was a good rise for each step, and after redoing it 4 or 5 times until it no longer felt awkward, I set the flat pavers into some paving sand, and filled in with dirt and gravel. After planting some interesting, very low, steppable ground covers, it was a functional, imperfect stair case!

Between the top of these stairs and the house was a no-man’s land, and the extension for our front down spout. Not exactly the greatest first impression, or what I wanted to see each time I came home. I decided that we’d create a border bed along the driveway retaining wall, a border bed in the corner created between the end of the porch and the house, and a gravel path from the top of the steps to the fence. And somehow, we’d hide the downspout extension. Living in Oregon, there’s no avoiding the downspout extension, and this one was approx 16′ long.

So, I dug a trench in which to put the downspout extension, trying my best to keep it angled the correct way for drainage. I put some gravel in the trench, then the downspout, then some gravel on top. I made approximately one million trips (potential exaggeration) to Home Depot for pea gravel, and started filling in the path. We also made a trip to a local stone yard, and got a couple of small boulders to mix it up a bit. The neighbor’s kids made fun of me for always unloading gravel from the car and hauling it up the new steps. So, rather than just submit to their taunting (which was harmless, they’re 4 and 6), I enlisted them to help me create a brick border for the gravel path. You might think it bad form to have a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old hauling bricks for you, but I tell you they seriously enjoyed it! We gave them water and orange juice to keep them hydrated and energetic! I also got permission from their parents.

I had mistakenly thought it wouldn’t take much gravel to fill in this path, so doing it with single 50lb bags seemed the way to go. In retrospect, getting someone to deliver a load of gravel to our driveway would have been much easier and probably less expensive. But not having learned my lesson one that yet (maybe there’s something wrong with me?) I set out to mulch!

When you don’t have many plants in the ground you have lots of exposed dirt. And in the summer time, it’s going to lose tons of moisture. So, knowing we’d be facing summer droughts, and knowing I didn’t want to spend the time or money to water continuously, I decided to mulch. We also have clay soil. In some parts of the property there is a nice layer of loam on top of it, but no matter where you dig down, you reach it. And from what I’ve read, amendments like gypsum are a hit-or-miss, but tilling in organic material seriously helps. It not only helps your plants have a nice medium to grow in, but it also helps drainage, and keeps the soil from getting overly dry and crusty like clay gets when baked in the summer sun. So, I made approximately one million trips (another potential exaggeration) to Home Depot for bags of mulch and started laying down a 2-3″ layer of it everywhere I had tilled, planted, and had exposed soil.

Here are some things I’ve since learned about mulch:

  • This is another opportunity to buy local, and have it delivered. More environmentally friendly, and easier on the wallet.
  • It comes in lots of different colors, so if you buy it in stages, you need to be prepared for this.
  • Some of the colors it comes in are unnatural, and this should be outlawed.
  • Bark dust leaves these tiny, annoying splinters on all of your exposed skin.
  • Bark dust also breaks down the fastest, requiring you to mulch more frequently.
  • Be careful what kind of mulch you get or it might throw your soil’s PH out of balance.

Don’t get me wrong, I still spent countless hours out there watering over the summer. Since I planted such small things, and since they get full afternoon sun, it was a necessary use of my time. In retrospect, I suppose I could have invested in some sort of drip system, or hell, even a sprinkler attached to the end of a hose, but I probably wouldn’t have met as many of my new neighbors or had as much time to contemplate my new garden.

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