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Obsessive Compulsive Gardening Disorder

April 27, 2016

Duo Construction_003

Like 17th Century New England farmers, the older I get, the more I realize you don’t shape the landscape, the landscape shapes you. Interlocking rocks, old growth forests, and questionable soil quality tend to get in the way of grandiose visions – even on a 1.87 acre glacial moraine salt marsh bound site that’s always bathed in shade. The gardens I created and “maintain” speak consistent truths to people whose frenzied lives allow only desperate actions with good intensions.

Sometimes life forces circumspection, even when there is precious little perspective in the flow of that life. Megalomania is a never-ending hunger for validation via the here and now. When I was asked to have the site I had worked on for 30 years be part of a Garden Tour, it held a mirror up to what I had done.

With the exception of the south landscape, the first garden, done in 1986, the rest of the work was done by almost exclusively by one person (me) in a flow of effort that had no plan, finish line or, really appreciation other than any given piece being “done”.

The crude diagram below was produced for the 300 tourists. There will be notes and photos added in the next installments, but suffice to say, the numbers are the individual places of creation, with several having such epic fails that holistic new efforts ensued, and the “V”‘s (“volunteers’) are places where native plants were encouraged to dominance, and the letters are individual features that deserve explanation.

In the end, about 24 efforts were made in about 20 places:

garden map

Unlike the rest of my life as an architect, these kamikaze attacks on a vicious landscape were completely reactive – evolving as things died or prospered, or as inspiration forced my hands to action. Unlike parenthood and marriage where the stakes were extreme, if a few hundred plants died due to my incompetence, the guilt and impact was fleeting.

But even in a flailing assault with little perspective, whose reward is more in the effort that the outcome, I divined attitudes and an ethos for my own Obsessive Compulsive Gardening Disorder that has resulted in a place that mostly delights more than frustrates, sustains more than drains, and seems to make sense of the natural world’s complete disinterest in my existence:

• Let it grow, Let it grow, Let it grow – Volunteers are often nurtured, versus removed.

• Weeding happens at whim, so I used French Intensive bed deep cultivation to allow for dense pack plantings over deep beds – 20”-24”, with filter fabric below, to inhibit bottom up bottom up competition, no elbow room for undesirables (edict violated for Garden Tour).

• Watering happens at droughts so the plants have to deal with it.

• Annuals are to be avoided – why keep replanting?

• “Invasives” work – but I put them where salt will stop them on one side and I mow the other.

• Pruning is essential and must be done correctly –our 28-year-old rhododendrons are neither hedges nor trees.

• Nature is the editor of any design – If it feels good, let it grow. An entire wave of ferns has swept over areas that were carefully planted, and remnant wild oats have consumed the north border.

• No Fertilizers after planting: instead, Buckwheat Hulls used about 24 times in 28 years to create soil (edict violated for Garden Tour).

• Edge. An aggressive 10” to 12” deep edging is done on every raised bed every other year.

• Full rake out once a year before major growth: thank God for the Bow Flex.

• Mow your own lawn – it forces inspection – and mow in all leaves not blown away – mulching was necessary given our “topsoil”.

5/8/16 addendum: Pachysandra is not an option: it is the gardening equivalent of sweat pants: Pachysandra = Giving Up.


When we discovered this piece of glacial moraine, we found a 12 ft high matt of impenetrable survivalist material covering our entire site (see “EXIST.” on the map) : its presence is why the site went unsold for 2 years. The first two or three months of clearing our site in 1983 and installing a septic system gave rise to fully false expectations that this glacial moraine landscape could be subdued (or at least controlled). Our first effort was our lawn – $400.00 worth of topsoil-ish clay was applied, hardened and broken up and shoots came up just in time for a House Beautiful photo shoot in 1985.

Duo Home Ext_002



1.The First Garden. Designed by Mary Zahl,planted 1986 along the south edge, involving a fair number of flowering trees, – it has had a huge evolution over 28 years : things like a non-Dutch-Elm-Diseased Elm has rendered the east end of the bed root concrete, 2 planted Blue Spruce along with numerous other “traditional” hopefuls died over the years. – but a sprig of a pine (A) from a beloved Adirondack location has exploded to 35 feet to the west. One remnant Azalea (B) and a few tree Rhododendrons (B) cling to life amid the raging ferns and Hostas and towering trees, and the 29 year old relocated Boxwoods from the House Beautiful shoot prosper.

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2.Clarence Thomas Garden. Dug out and cultivated listening to the weekend of AnitaHill Hearings on headphones, the Iris’s are only vestiges, the Bridal wreath and Azalea have engulfed the bed, and newer roses fight for south sun.


3.The Shade Garden. Triple deep, 10-foot high stacks of un-split Gloria-felled tree trunks stood at the west end of the cleared land for about ten years until I rolled them further west and imported a truckload of clay sold as “soil” 2 feet deep to support deep shade loving plants(Ginger, ferns, Hydrangea, Sweet William), all of which have grown wonderfully – this counts as 2 gardens as it was significantly expanded and revised three years ago where grass would not grow (C). The west layer of this effort inserted was into the existing moraine, uses Creeping Hydrangeas (D) which use the old trunk pieces as a “structure” to grow upon (along with some plastic rod tepees) – in for at least 15 years, they bloomed for the first time last year.

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(actually 5) The Dot Garden. In one specific area where our lawn was always wet I created a round raised bed about 15 years ago, with nice bagged soil, manure and peat moss – and stuck in Bleeding Hearts, Tiger Lilies, and Sweet William to soak up the ground water.

5 (actually 6) Tree Peonie Outpost. My staff gave me one in 1995, and I created a garden around it – Lenten Rose, a variety of failed efforts (“Wild Woods Orchids”, poppies, yuccas, and others) now replaced with rampaging Wild Oats.

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(actually 7) The Ornamental Grasses Buffer. About 20 years ago, about 100 native grasses in 8 species were planted at the edge of the salt marsh and the culvert being cleared under Route one 10 years ago scorched earth about 90 of them. This area has had “augmentations” – my son’s 4th Grade 4”-high pine is now 18-feet tall (E), (below)
a dwarf bamboo, and the salt-strangled grasses were replaced with loose strife (F) (don’t hate me – the bamboo was salt poisoned and the invasives were legally purchased and have remained at bay – bounded by salted north, and mowed south for over 20 years) but replacement Swamp Iris faded away…


(actually 8) The Crescent Garden. After about a decade of mowing our lawn, I noticed one area that seemed to get sun for more than two hours a day. I took a risk and over an entire summer created a 28-foot long, 10-foot-wide raised bed using OK trucked in soil and lots of organics using the French intensive Bed/ filter-fabric’ed bottom noted earlier, to form an amoeba-like “crescent” that followed the mowing patterns I used when keeping the grass at bay. Huge lilies died after 5 years, but other attempts have flourished and have been augmented – this year’s experiment: Phlox.


(actually 9) House Side – In its 4th incarnation – counted as by me as 3 gardens over 29 years, this hell hole has no water. The death of many efforts – including the heinous overgrowth of relocated foundation plantings from the House Beautiful shoot – meant severe reinterpretations – this year with Bob Kuchta’s – all the astilbe’s are now dead – note the leftover epimedium and creeping hydrangea survivors of a previous effort and the blizzard felled lilac to the north (G) (left) is encouraged in its resurrection sucker-life.


9 (actually 12) The Mistake Garden. Creeping Hydrangea were ordered as part of creating the Shade Garden, but a duplicate shipment of those plants was received. When I called to ask how to return them, I was told “just keep them” I used bagged topsoil to fill in the spaces between the interlocking boulders at the north side of our home stuck in the 8 extra plants and, over four or five years, saw that the two to three hours of sunlight each day allowed these “mistakes” to totally outperform their “legitimate” westerly cousins.


10 (actually 13) Loose Strife – mowed to the south, salt-killed to the north, 20 years held at bay and augmented.


The east side, wilder, weirder and actually has vestiges of what we overcame to create our place on this temporal plane. Here are the efforts at managing a brutal patch of earth: 


11) (actually 14) E-Mailed Ferns.  Itching to do something in a newly cleared space, I found a source for large, oriental ferns from Seattle.  Upon planting, they spread relatively slowly, but seemed quite healthy until the onslaught of the newly liberated tidal salt water (see above) managed to kill 70% of them, leaving a clump nestled between two rocks now quite a “nest”.


12) (actually 15) Choir Boy Gulch  – using 12 year old choir boy labor 10 years ago, an odd tide accepting inlet has been lovingly infested with Swamp Iris – 2 varieties: invasive and passive – the passive ones have withered, the invasive have rocked it


13) (actually 16) The Remediation Garden.  In creating the Barn of Fun, the excavator decided that the silt fence designed to keep disturbed soil out of the salt marsh should actually be put through the salt marsh.  Not surprisingly, the Wetlands Officer required me to remediate this condition with a natural gardenscape of indigenous plans which have largely worked.


14) (actually 17) The Hosta Highway: getting a new 2/3 acre for a septic system for the Barn of Fun meant the septic line had to rip threw the interlocking rocks, roots and overgrowth matt – creating a place for 400 $1 hostas in Memorial Day Weekend 200o. the last few years have seen a wane of hostas and a rematting of roots – We  deposit spent Xmas Trees at (H)

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15) (actually 18) The North Forty.  This new septic field easterly plateau was dubbed “The North Forty” due to relative remoteness. With great protest from my family, we spent the better part of a weekend scratching at the fairly uneven (but level) ground to sew grass seed that actually took – instant meadow!  Apple and pear trees (labeled on map) were planted that never bear fruit. Wild flowers are mowed around as are odd fern-ish things (V) and something that looks like creeping strawberries – we have had several daisy crescendo’s, but sadly not this year. This counts as 2 gardens as I attempted to create a vegetable bed (I) at a central, almost sunny spot by using bags of manure and bales of peat moss over the last 5 years: only a tough asparagus plant survived (from the 12 planted) tomatoes died laughing at me but Moonflower from seed do grow – as does the blackberry push – which feeds the birds.


16) (Actually 20) Epimedium!   A miraculous discovery – this Chinese plant can tolerate poor soil, no sun, and little water, thus it is perfect for my inhospitable landscape.  I created a large patch of it in the darkest, driest portion of the property.


17) (actually 21) Parking Lot Border.  Soil had to be trucked in, and hostas began, but a mysterious toxic patch (J) next to the shed seems to kill almost everything and Epimedium has been brought into service.


Failures.  Poppies attempted survival for four or five years, but they finally gave up the ghost.  Aguga (a technically “invasive” plant) worked for several years, but now only appears randomly (and mowed around).  “Creeping mint” lasted about a month.  Three “Wild Woodland Orchids”, at about $100 each, were marginally successful for two or three years and then simply faded away.  Ours may be the only site in all of Connecticut where the state bush, the Mountain Laurel, is unceremoniously killed by the site’s inhospitality. I tried to create two small vegetable gardens (you could count them as Garden 18 (actually 22), in memoriam, amongst the small interlocking rocks, two areas of about four feet wide by eight feet long where all the existing roots and “soil” were lifted up, the organic material sieved out, and new very rich soil created only to have sun-deprived strawberryless strawberries and one dinner’s worth of potatoes the first year, then one or two pumpkins that ended up being eaten by animals. These beds have been given over to some nice volunteers.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2016 6:43 am

    Wonderful! Now let’s see the house…I ilke closets and storage rooms, please oh and kitchens too.


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