* Between The Sea (the Med) and The Alps -- {Pronounce: ontruh la mair eh lay zalp}

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A blank canvas to landscape

Classic Hill 01No, I did not fall off the face of the earth since my last post.  Nor did I fall off the side of the hill I've been working on non-stop for the past two months.  I haven't even taken the time to share with you, nor done anything else productive in my life, trying to reach a reasonable stopping point, especially before winter weather strikes.  But now I finally have an empty palette to design.  I thought you might enjoy what it took to get there.

We live on the side of a mountain, our property was developed into somewhere around six levels (they aren't evenly spaced), and our house is about 2/3 of the way up from the street entrance.  Which means there's a lot of hill making our "front yard."  Pictures always make things look nicer than reality, and a lot of detail doesn't show in print pictures.  But here's what it looked like when we bought the house.

Classic Hill 02
As purchased in September, 2001

Behind the wooden fence is a flat area we had grand plans for developing, only we never got that far.  Above it is a steep hillside that really didn't have much of value on it, just a bunch of okay plants that had gotten out of bounds and turned into a weedy mess.  The driveway that went around it all was bordered with a rosemary hedge that was way overgrown.  It was too tall for such a steep location; the driveway felt like it was in a big ditch, and we couldn't see beyond it from the the house way up above!

A number of rosemaries had apparently died and been replaced with some nothing bushes, and the whole thing couldn't be trimmed down because all the branches were miles long and intermingled.  Rosemary can't be trimmed into old wood.  So I took the whole thing out.  Except for one bush, which was rather nice on its own, and we've tried to redefine it over the years for nostalgic reasons.

When we enlarged our house over the septic tank, we had to install a new one in the driveway where the original drain field had been, and a new drain field was created in this flat area.  We've put our efforts elsewhere since then, and the whole area has just become a major eyesore, to my great regret.  Finally, this year, Doc Leo borrowed a debrushing weedwhacker, and he cut down all the grass and vines and whatever that had taken over everything. `

Here's from a similar viewpoint what it looked like after he cleaned it, leaving the few things that we actually like and hope to use again in a different arrangement (the foreground is the front wall holding the flat area and not where I was working).

Classic Hill 03
Starting the unplanned project in September, 2014

This is what it looked like when I finished totally transforming the whole thing into hopefully something we can now do something with.  This is a first-time project for this area, about time after all these years!

Classic Hill 04
Fully cleaned out by November, 2014

For you city folk with nice sensible sane beautifully developed gardens you just have to weed now and then, I thought I'd show you what I felt it took to take this area back to square one.  We'd taken out the rotting original wooden fence at the top of the wall years ago, and you can't see that there's the flat area with another wall behind it.  The flat area will be developed later; for now we are only dealing with the hillside above it.

Classic Hill 05
Totally unappealing impact entry

Here is a better view of what I started with.  Apparently I had terraced some of it several years ago, but I forgot that as it's been covered with nasty weeds ever since.

The wall doesn't go all the way to the property line, so I've always intended to build a set of steps to connect the two areas in the opening.  I wonder if that was the original plan.  Otherwise, why did they do that?  At least I can make it work for me!

Classic Hill 06
A very refined compost pile
At the moment, we're using that spot for the massive compost pile we've built with the mowed or chipped weeds and brush, hoping that would help it all to break down faster.  It's all nicely layered with the various types of weeds and dirt, so maybe next spring it will be beautiful compost to put back on the hill where it all came from.

You can also see the wild cherry tree, probably seeded by birds, in a very impractical area.  It's right in the way of the proposed steps (which are expected to follow and cover the drain pipes), it doesn't make nice cherries, and it was way too shaded for a fruit tree by the neighbor's huge oak trees that half cover our property and he won't trim.

Classic Hill 07
A very unrefined hillside
The first thing I did was to improve the terracing on the right side where I'd already done some, primarily up at the top where I'd started another project this summer, to be finished maybe over the winter.  Not a very exciting job, but I didn't need things to come crashing down in any of our torrential rains, especially without the weed protection.  Then I started making some flat areas on the other half. 

First I pickaxed a section of hill (a random spot about halfway up) to get out the unwanted roots of a number of plants I didn't want to regrow.  Most of them involve being able to regrow with just a tiny bit of root, but at least whatever comes back won't be connected to a huge spider of a root system.  Then I started just pulling out dirt from above to create a flat terrace.

Classic Hill 08
Getting started taming
Classic Hill 09
Deepening a shallow peak

Dirt is rather hard to photograph, and all these early photos are done with my tablet camera while my real one was off being repaired. 

But you can see here how I got started, and then how it looked several days later. (I thought this job was never going to end, and it seems I was almost right!)  I don't know how to support a really steep hill, so my method is to create a bunch of wide wet compacted flat dirt terraces.  For now, they make steps to go up and down, then later when it's planted up, perhaps I can figure out how to place strategic rocks and barriers and mulch it all like crazy.

Classic Hill 10
A sense of order forming

Our driveway is very steep, which can't be helped.  But we think it was designed totally wrong, most of which can't be changed now.  I've had plans to reshape the sides, which I've worked on over the years.  But the quality was also really poor, and all it's done since we've been here is break up.  We haven't redone it because I haven't finished figuring out just where it should go to be the most practical.  Another story for another time. 

At the moment, it's edged by a fairly nice plant called bergenia but which has gotten totally out of hand over the million years it's probably been there.  I've left it because that's what's holding the edge of the driveway.  You can see here how far I've now gotten with terracing.

So here's what I'm dealing with on this half of the hillside.  While there is hardly any dirt up at the top to hold the driveway, there is way too much dirt at the bottom, running over the top of the wall.  This apparently must have been the case years ago, as the original owners started just setting loose rocks at the top of the solid wall.  A number of them got shoved off immediately once I almost fell off the wall not realizing that!  Now I'm removing all the remaining loose ones, taking it back to the nice clean line it was originally built with.

Classic Hill 11
Trying to envision any potential for beauty

Although I'd trimmed them way back when I started this project, there is a whole row of huge oleanders that created this huge wall that emphasized the steep hillside rather than enhancing it.  I've dreamed for years of ripping them out. 

Classic Hill 12
Renewing ancient plants
And while I like the bergenia, which makes really nice pink flowers in late winter/early spring, I think this is just a bit too much of the same thing.  Not to mention all the weedy grass roots and other nasty stuff thickly mixed in.

However, I've discovered that it will root quite easily; and over the years, I've planted pieces all over the property.  I didn't want to just rip all this out and toss it, so I've been cutting off the tips to replant as I've dug it up.  Here is a small portion of what I cut off to keep and all the ancient roots of the rest of the plant to discard.  This is only a tiny section!

Classic Hill 13
Emptying a rock pit
When I started cleaning out behind the wall so that I could add some nice compost and plant something that would be pretty, I discovered that apparently this part of the wall was just a holder for probably all the rocks in the original ground in building the house.  If you dump dirt and rocks on an incline, all the rocks, especially the biggest ones, will roll to the bottom.  Duh.  Apparently they were never removed nor dirt added for any plants.

So, we began the tedious task of removing enough of them to make a plantable area.  You can't dig or pick compacted rocks.  But you can't plant anything on top of them, either.  Bucket by bucket, we took a lot of them up to the top as a support base where we were also trying to build out the depth of the hill.

Because the top of the two halves of the hill come together at a curve, as I was working the two halves independently, I ended up with a big empty V I specifically didn't want.  This all got filled in with a lot of the rocks from behind the wall and a lot of the excess dirt on top of the wall, one bucketful at a time.

Classic Hill 15
Picking rocks one by one
Classic Hill 14
Putting the Doc to work!

Classic Hill 16
Classic Hill 17
Rocks, hard dirt, roots, more rocks

Here is the attempt to make a flat spot behind the wall on the other half.  Just how does one tame such terrain? 

I turned over with the pickaxe every square inch of this hill to remove all the deep weed roots and the excess and huge rocks in anticipation of having something decent for future development as I was creating hopefully erosion proof terraces.

Classic Hill 18
Bye bye, ancient oleander

One by one, we took out the oleanders.  Their bases were so infested with the huge nasty roots that don't just pull up, it's no wonder I was never able to keep things nice back when I was trying.  I didn't remember there was a pyracantha right there, it was mostly covered by an oleander, but I'm leaving it until the berries are gone.  Then I'll transplant it.

Right in the middle, for some strange reason, the wall changes levels, becoming shorter at the highest length of the hill.  Go figure.  Although I have more building rocks, I like the nice clean line it has already, and I don't know how to add more rocks and keep that line.  So I'll just deal.

Classic Hill 19
Let's find more rocks and roots!
Once the last oleander was out, I then picked all around the roots we'd just cut, preparing the ground as much as I could for future planting.  I could then also continue trying to make my little terraces.  They were just randomly placed, as I don't want to end up with a terraced look once there are plants, but I did try to match up all the various sections as I joined them so it would have some kind of unity.  I hope that helps me figure out how to plant anything later, as it's not very obvious now just how to create a smooth look.

Classic Hill 20
Incredible root pile
Classic Hill 21
Doubly incredible
Although I don't have a good picture of all the rocks I ended up collecting down on the flat that I didn't manage to bury in the terracing, I do have some of the piles of roots.  We tried to burn the first set, as there was no way I wanted this stuff in my compost pile!  The second set turned out to be just as many.  Now you can see why I felt I had to completely turn over all the dirt until I didn't find any more of the roots.

Classic Hill 22
Tools of engagement
Classic Hill 23
Casualties of war
These were my basic friends almost every single day, all day long, for two months.  I would pick the area as deep as the blade of the pickaxe (unless I needed to go deeper), I would rake the basic unwanted stuff (rocks, roots), I used my little digger stick to work around the rocks while creating the flats, then formed the edges pulling the dirt with the hand rake.  I cleaned the terrace below of the fallen dirt and rocks with the metal dustpan, which was also useful for loading the bucket with more dirt and rocks to be moved elsewhere.  The bucket was just the right size to keep from overfilling to be too heavy.  I was not too happy when my expensive rake didn't like raking rocks, and my gloves didn't end up keeping my hands very clean!

Finally, I got it done!  Unfortunately, it took too long to have time to transplant a number of things I have all over the property elsewhere, so I think most of that will have to wait for the early spring.  However, we've had a fabulous fall, so at least the weather was quite pleasant day after day, which isn't always the case here this time of year.

Classic Hill 24
Oh, wow

So here's how it turned out.  This is the view from the corner of the driveway looking towards the whole slope of the hill.  It's just a narrow bit on this end, so I didn't terrace it.  You can see the single rosemary at the top, which kind of makes the gateway to the main hillside. 

Classic Hill 25
So much new potential

The middle section is darker because it's wetter and newer than the far side which has now dried out.  The rosemary will stay, the pyracantha will go away, although I intend to plant something else that will hopefully hide the change in wall height.

While it all looks neat and tidy now, as opposed to the weedy overgrown mess I started with, it's also so pitifully bare and open to erosion.  I can't wait to try landscaping it, I have a lot of plants to work with, but I don't know how to go about it!  As with everything else I do on this property, I'll somehow manage by trial and error, so check back later to see how I did.

Although I don't recommend this method, lugging buckets of dirt and rocks for several months is a great way to build up upper torso and shoulder muscles and tighten those flabby abs.  I kept reminding myself of that with every bucket I climbed up the terraces with, hoping I didn't smash the edges with the weight.

Classic Hill 26
Sad driveway edge
After all my setbacks around here, this has been an exciting, if not hard, project to be working on.  And now, dreaming of next spring!  Can I create the nebulous vision in my head?

Next time, I will show you how I tried to finish the top edge with the horribly funky falling apart driveway edge.  At least, I finally managed to fill in a big hole in the embankment keeping it impossible to widen the driveway, something I've dreamed of for years and didn't know how to accomplish.


  1. hoping the rain is not creating too much of a problem... well done barb ! looks great.

    1. Well, we did not survive unscathed, but it could have been much worse (and has been in past projects). These massive rains always come immediately after I do a dirt project before anything can settle, it seems!

  2. You are amazing! I am totally in awe. This is a huge project and it looks wonderful now! I don't know how you do these things! But congratulations on another beautiful job!

    1. Normal people would hire huge machines, I did it all by hand. Thanks for the encouragement. I can't wait to plant it up so it actually looks like something!

  3. I forgot how icky the outside was when you bought the place. I hesitate to read these stories as they always make me feel a) tired and b) like such a lazy person.


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