By Pamela Doan
After taking down multiple mature trees to open my landscape to more sunlight, I have made a big mess of my yard. It’s going to take years to recover. The deep ruts left by equipment are being colonized by Japanese stiltgrass at an alarming rate and one area is completely bare from the fire that started when a branch brushed what turned out to be a live electrical wire crossing my yard.
Mountains of wood chips hulk beside the garage and piled logs tower nearby and might become firewood — someday. The rainy weather has given the invasive weeds a boost and before long the barberry, mugwort, garlic mustard and multiflora rose will dominate if quick action isn’t taken.
I could make it easier. I could hire people with machines to clean up. I could ask a lawn service to give me lush, weed-free grass. I could have all the wood hauled away. I could pay a landscape designer to decide what plants to install.
However, I won’t be doing that, because I love figuring it all out. I don’t love making mistakes, e.g., wrong plant, wrong place, but part of the joy of gardening is learning about plants. Even after doing the research to understand their needs, characteristics and habits, looking at photos and making choices, it’s never the same as the experience of observing them in a landscape. Something gets too big, too bushy, not big enough, or after a few years doesn’t play well with its neighbors. And yes, sometimes, a plant dies because I don’t take care of it correctly or the wildlife find it too tempting.
My way to atone for taking down mature trees is to make use of each part of them to give back to the landscape. We used six- to 10-foot sections of trunks to create planting beds and privacy barriers along the road front. These will be enhanced with some of the wood chips and other organic materials topped with soil. As it breaks down, the wood will nourish the plants with nitrogen. The rich material will have good drainage and be a vessel to retain water; the log is a basically a mulch container.
The practice is called hugelkultur, a permaculture approach, and while I was familiar with it, I’d never tried it. Bryan Quinn from OneNature in Beacon, the landscape designer we consulted with about where to site our many projects and which trees to remove, suggested it.
Briefly, the practice is about using woody materials and other organic matter to create mounds. Instead of discarding branches, logs, woodchips and leaves, use them as resources. I have maple, a hardwood, as my structure and it will last for years as it breaks down.
The arborists left logs behind that are too big for us to move far, so I’ve decided to make them into a planting bed. The shape isn’t quite a circle and isn’t quite a triangle, but it will do. I’ll fill the bed with the same layering method I use for my vegetable raised beds. The bottom layer will be newspaper to smother the weeds. I’ll add a couple inches of wood chips and some smaller branches. The rest of the layers will be compost and shredded leaves, two materials that I have on hand.
I’ll be able to fill in with plants around the outside of the bed and have a 10- by 8-foot area to fill in. My costs will be plant seed and transplants. It’s getting late enough in the season that I can find a lot of perennials on sale. This feature is at the end of my driveway and will be a focal point for first views of the house but it’s also visible from my front windows. For me, gardening is as much about the process as it is about the result.