Gardener : Gardens I have created : Gravel pit

The Evolution of a Gravel Pit

Ipswich Massachusetts 1977-1988

[the gravel pit untouched]

Exposing one's first attempt at gardening is not the most conventional way of showcasing ability, but then most people's first garden doesn't include a gravel pit. In fact there are probably few people, professional or amateur, who have a gravel pit in their past. In any case, the story's a good one, the process educational, and the outcome not half-bad: proof positive that truly ugly sites can become incredibly beautiful and unique gardens.

On a complicated site, qualities are often exposed during the process that can't be foreseen. Keep in mind that these qualities, which are often the soul and essence of a rewarding garden, are often ignored or obliterated because they don't fit into a preplanned design. Therefore, complete foresight in a garden's design is not always the best approach.

I was thrown into gardening like a non-swimmer off a boat: sink or swim; make a garden, or look at the pit. However, look at it we did, in various stages, for many years. It was a big project for a weekend gardener. On visits, my mother sorted the scrap lumber into neat piles, in a desperate attempt to make progress. (In later years she picked glass, spark plugs and the occasional bedspring out of the lawn -- the result of several loads of unscreened loam.) Poison ivy, bittersweet and the largest poke-weed specimens I've ever seen grew in profusion all over the pit. The view was bleak but I don't remember being overly concerned about the outcome.

[spaceship house on a gravel pad]

Some thought the house, which looked like a spaceship, was worse than the gravel pit. In 1977, for a twenty-something, it was a great find. Five acres of land on Heartbreak Road in Ipswich, two miles from Cranes Beach, was affordable only because the house was unconventional, unfinished and sitting in a gravel pit. But it was the neatest house I've ever lived in: part greenhouse, part tree house, with an oak spiral staircase and sun shining in all the way to the north wall in the winter. Its awkward appearance mellowed with age, more decks, and a lean-to greenhouse, not to mention a lawn in front and surrounding gardens. That it had neither attic, basement nor any closets to speak of mattered little then. Ah, youth.

[filling in with brush]

With so much to do in the house, progress on the gravel pit was slow. At first, the only cleared land on the entire property was the flat gravel expanse between the house and the pit. The surrounding land, where it wasn't swamp, was populated by oak, birch, alder and honeysuckle in a sea of poison ivy. I know it sounds like a land scam but it did have its own charm -- except the poison ivy.

[terraced sandbox]

As we cleared more land, we filled in the pit with the residue of brush, stumps and leaves. The concept of a shredder was unknown until this part of the project was complete. We jumped on the brush in an attempt to pack it down. Eventually we pulled sand down from the overhang to cover the brush. Once a gravel pit, now it was an oversized, vertical sand box. Happily there were several stone walls in the swamp (overgrown with poison ivy) that provided means for terracing. When this stage was completed we had nice rows of stones punctuated by flattish terraces.

I planted alternating red tulips and grape hyacinths, like soldiers, on every level. Hey, we all have to start somewhere! The lawn was growing, we had a great corn crop and two lilac bushes were planted to mark the end of the drive and beginning of the lawn. The winter before, the lawn was plowed like the parking lot it had previously been. Those two little lilacs eventually grew together to screen the main garden from the drive, thus fulfilling that great design credo of creating a sense of mystery.

[early terracing of Ipswich gravel pit]

A perennial garden was taking shape at the base of the terraces. I knew an edge defining the lawn from the garden was needed, so I continued the rock theme. I even mortared the rocks together thinking that would prevent the lawn mower from jostling them out of alignment. Of course that made matters worse. Not only was it difficult to mow, but the grass grew under, over, and sometimes through the stones and into the garden. It didn't take me long to realize that lining things up in a row was not good design. Thankfully, the laws of nature rescued me from having to correct every such error. Manual edging with a tool is my preference now.

All that organic matter under the sand and stone terracing began to decay. The stones settled into a more natural arrangement and any bulbs I missed in my first transplanting frenzy shifted out of alignment. Some came up in places that were quite remarkable and completely unplantable by human hands. The stone edging was soon to disappear as well.

It wasn't long before I was introduced to the New England Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society. Through their open garden visits, lectures, and plant sales my concept of rock garden stretched beyond anything I had ever imagined. I also became a member of the North Shore Garden Club, a group of incredibly knowledgeable gardeners, whose gardens were among some of the oldest and most renowned on the North Shore. There weren't many gardening books available back then, either showing gardens or talking about how to make them. The opportunity to see these mature gardens, exchange plants, and help with garden tours, provided inspiration that was pivotal in my development and interest in garden design. As the rocks began to settle into a more natural configuration, my plant palate expanded.

[rocks settling and plants naturalizing]

Through NARGS I was exposed to countless species beyond the Thyme, Phlox subulata and Basket-of-Gold available at a local garden center. Arabis, Aubrietia, Saponaria and Antennaria cascaded over the rocks and nestled into nooks and crannies. I also realized that this was not a garden about small rock garden plant treasures, which were lost in the overall scale of the garden, if not overrun by larger plants. The garden was viewed mainly from the lawn below or from the path along the top.

It took me years to realize that I could be in complete control of how my garden looked, if I so chose. At first I was thrilled just to get plants to grow and did little to direct their growth. If a plant self-seeded, I felt obligated to let every seedling survive.

[overgrown and out of control]

But I began to notice that some plants had disappeared or were in the process of being overrun by more aggressive neighbors. I was becoming dissatisfied with my haphazard plantings. When visiting other gardens, I began to look more closely at what the plants were and how they were arranged.

[dense top and sides]

For several years the majority of effort was focused on the center section of the gravel pit. But the whole half circle of land on either side of the pit needed attention. Trees, brush and the ubiquitous covering of bittersweet and poison ivy ran wild. It was hard to overlook the discrepancy between what the middle portion was becoming and what the surrounding area remained.

In summary, there was no overall plan to begin with. I was a complete novice but anything would have been an improvement. The whole venture was on-site training and as such provided great incentive to acquire knowledge and skills.

[woodland at sides and top thinned]

I became a member of the Sedgwick Garden Committee at Long Hill, soon after it became a property of Trustees of Reservation. This exquisite woodland garden, with a superb collection of trees and shrubs acquired through a long association between the Sedgwick's and Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, was a perfect resource. The Long Hill lecture series, along with regular symposiums sponsored by the Arnold Arboretum, provided a variety of course material which I soaked up like a sponge.

[gardens following the contour]

I applied everything I was learning to this garden, changing or redoing areas as my knowledge grew. I began to view the property as a whole instead of in isolated segments. My plant palate was acquiring a sophistication that outstripped the local garden centers, so I began to propagate my own collection from seed and cuttings. I was amazed to realize that my ugly gravel pit had the potential to be a great garden. The more I revealed its true contours, the more interesting it became.

[side view with edge of vegetable garden]

Despite very little topsoil above the gravel, the lawn prospered and became a green carpet for the gardens to surround. The meandering contour of the gravel pit provided many different plant habitats as well as a great path to walk on above and around the gardens. The rock wall on the other side of the lawn has its own story.

[view across the vegetable garden]

The vegetable garden, started at the very beginning in raised beds at the edge of the original gravel pad, had to stay put in order to get enough sun. I did surround it with a border of herbs and perennials to mitigate its more utilitarian aspects and make it look more like a design choice than mistake. It also began to function more and more as a propagation bed for the perennial and rock garden plants I was growing from seed.

[a later glimpse of the house]

You've probably been wondering about that ugly house and how it could ever look presentable. Well, in its own way, I think it finally did. The pine siding bleached to a pleasing gray. More decks and a lean-to greenhouse were added. The lawn helped a great deal, as did window boxes, posts with hanging plants and a trellised wisteria and clematis.

[from top of pit across to rock wall]

The year that the design process was completed, we bought an old farm in Worthington, a hill town between Northampton and Pittsfield Massachusetts. I never got to watch the Ipswich garden mature, but those eleven years spent turning the property from an eyesore to an asset were my training in garden design. I got to start all over in Worthington, and again when I moved to Conway.

No training is as valuable as hands-on experience. Physically creating and living with a garden presents innumerable puzzles to solve. The learning process never ends.