With the solar power system complete, Louise wants to get started on landscaping around the house and the driveway.
Earlier in the week we used a landscape rake on the tractor to pull mulch away from the house. The mulch was added when the house was built, to break rain falling from the roof (we don't have gutters), but this proved to be not a good choice, so we bought 13 tons of gravel several months ago. With the mulch removed, Mike made 15-20 trips with the tractor to bring some of the gravel and dump it next to the house, and Louise spread it out to reach a rock border (we have plenty of rocks!).
Today Mike spread more gravel in one section near the front deck, and placed large rocks along a steep slope to the basement shop door. Later we'll add gravel between these rocks.
We used our power auger to bore sets of 20"-deep holes close-together for four rhododendron bushes along the front walkway. Surrounding each set of holes, we made a circle of shallower holes to enable the plant roots to spread. Finally, we used the auger to mix composted manure with the pulverized soil.
We used the power auger to drill 10 major holes plus numerous small holes in the central deck area (below) and along the side-door deck walkway. When we were done, Louise planted shrubs in most of the large holes. One remaining extra-large hole in the center is for a magnolia tree to be added next spring. The small holes were made to loosen the clay soil for various bulbs.
Yesterday and today, Mike spent eight hours with the tractor moving six tons of gravel from a pile in the driveway loop to portions of the driveway that have worn thin. He also moved the remaining four tons in the pile to a new location that is out of the way and less visible.
Yesterday and today, Mike used the tractor to till the earth in the center of the driveway loop. There are hundreds of buried rocks! Louise removed these as the tiller unearthed them, so Mike could make more tilling passes. Ultimately we tilled about 4" deep, then mixed composted manure in five areas where bulbs will be planted. Finally, Mike used the tractor to move four large and three small boulders to attractive locations in this landscape area.
Louise planted some bushes in the area in front of the bridge deck, and some bulbs in front of the kitchen bay deck.
Later we used the power auger to bore holes for three trees inside the driveway loop, and to break-up the soil a foot deep for bulbs in the same area.
Louise planted three decorative trees and some bushes in the center of the driveway loop.
Yesterday Mike used the tractor to remove loose soil where 500 bulbs are to be planted, saving Louise hours of shoveling. Today Louise spread the bulbs and raked the soil over them.
This morning Mike used the tractor to move soil from the observatory area to the bulb area in the driveway loop, since what he scraped off yesterday wasn't enough to cover all of the bulbs.
Later we hooked the trailer to the pickup truck and drove 50 miles to buy 50 bales of pine-needle mulch. It is sitting, still loaded in the vehicles in the driveway, until Louise is ready to spread it on the freshly-planted areas.
Over the past few days, Louise finished planting in the driveway loop, covered the bulbs with the soil Mike scraped away, and began spreading mulch. Today she finished spreading the pine-needle mulch, and added the final stones to the rock border. This area is complete!
Update – four years later we decided the rock border hadn't met our expectations, so we replaced it.
With the driveway loop finished, we started on the entrance. We used a chain on the tractor bucket to yank small trees out of the ground, then Mike put the tiller on the tractor and used it to remove weeds and till the soil.
Later we used the power auger to make deep holes for trees and bushes, and Louise got to work planting and spreading bulbs in areas where Mike removed the loose soil with the tractor. With this done, she spread pine-straw mulch. We need a few more bales of mulch, and the entrance landscaping will be complete.
A smaller area to the left of the driveway is similarly landscaped.
The three-light post lamp seen in this photo is a recent addition; the lights are low-voltage LEDs. When we were installing the solar power system, we dug a trench from a nearby driveway post (left background) to the lamp location, and laid conduit in it. Later we poured a concrete footer, installed and wired the post lamp, and added a custom house number plaque.
Bulbs planted at the driveway loop (top) and at the entrance (bottom) have sprouted and grown through the mulch. The plants are even blooming.
Today Mike used the tractor to till a bed in the front yard for swamp irises. This is at the bottom of a slope from the driveway, and will catch water for these moisture-loving flowers. While we were there, we excavated a shallow channel to direct other water from the slope into the forest, away from our basement patio below.
The channel will be filled with gravel of various sizes to allow easy water flow.
Yesterday Louise planted swamp irises in the newly-tilled bed, and Mike used our landscape rake on the tractor to scarify the yard surrounding the house. Then Louise spread rye grass seed evrywhere, and Mike added white clover seed to a small area in front of the solar panels. We hope the white clover takes hold, but the rye grass will die-out by summer. Hopefully, by then it will have put down roots to reduce erosion until we figure out what kind of ground cover will thive in the yard. We don't want grass that must be regularly mowed.
It rained overnight, and it appears the new drainage channel is doing its job (this photo). When the ground dries again, we'll spread large river rocks in it, to present a finished appearance and prevent eroding the channel. The ton of rocks we bought are still in the pickup truck and trailer because we ran out of time yesterday.
With the ground finally dry, Louise laid a landscape fabric liner in the channel. We backed the pickup truck down and unloaded its stone, then eased the trailer down behind the tractor. (The tractor's three-point trailer hitch let us tilt the trailer for easier unloading.) We spread the rocks evenly, but one ton wasn't enough – we need more. The drainage channel looked like this at the end of the day.
Mike took the trailer to the nursery and bought another half ton of large river rocks. As before, we used the tractor to back the trailer down the slope to the channel, then spread the remaining rocks. We placed a dozen larger rocks at the channel outlet to minimize erosion, then used the tractor to transplant one large boulder from the rip-rap above the shop patio to a decorative location 80% of the way along the channel outlet.
Louise trimmed the landscape fabric close to the river rocks, and we declared this task done. The piles of dirt on the slope in the background will be moved another time.
After waiting nearly two months, Louise got a call from the nursery that her magnolia tree was in. She got it this morning, and discovered it is much larger and heavier (easily 350 pounds) than expected. Mike attached the boom pole to the tractor, and used it, a chain, and a strap to lift the tree from the pickup truck, maneuver it to the area between the driveway loop and the deck, and lower it into the hole Louise dug. The tree is significant – about 10' tall.
After we finished the deck, we built a small platform to hold our barbeque grill. We placed this in the driveway loop near the side door walkway, but didn't like how much it intruded on parking space, so we decided to relocate the platform outside the driveway loop, overhanging the yard.
Today we tackled this project. We bored two holes with the earth auger, then used the boom pole on the tractor to support the platform while we measured 4x4 legs, leveled the platform, and attached the legs with lag bolts.
In early May, we built three A-frame trellises for clematis plants near the deck. This photo shows two of these trellises flanking the tall magnolia tree we planted on April 24. The third trellis is in the distance to the right, between the kitchen bay deck and the side door walkway. The trellises have Nylon fishing line for the plants to climb strung between the uprights.
Two of the clematis plants have climbed halfway up their trellises, but the one in the middle is a little slow, only now beginning to show signs of life.
A satellite TV dish in the diveway loop connects to a cable emerging from underground through a gray PVC serice head. We buried four cables when the house was built, and the three spares are coiled up around the PVC pipe.
We wanted to hide the pipe, and prevent the cables from deteriorating in the blazing sun, so we bought a fake rock to cover them. This artificial rock is intended to cover sprinkler system valve boxes. It came colored a bland uniform brown, so Louise enhanced it by brushing on white and orange artist acrylic paint to highlight the edges and darken the crevices.
Here are before and after photos of the area. The rock looks very good, and we hope the painted colors will hold up in the sun and rain.
A steep slope connects our front yard with a concrete slab outside the workshop and yard equipment room. When the house was built, our contractor dumped some rip-rap (large rocks) on the slope, but it wasn't enough to prevent erosion.
The solution is to add more rip-rap, then fill the space between the rocks with soil, and plant ground cover. Over the past five days, we used the tractor and our muscles to relocate half a dozen large rocks, and then bought 1,000 pounds of rip-rap from a local stone yard.
Even though 1,000 pounds sounds like a lot, we got only 25 rocks! Two days later we bought another 1,000 pounds of "gabion" rip-rap at a landscaping business. This time got many more smaller rocks, and unloaded them from the trailer by hand, one-by-one.
Here is the slope with all the rip-rap in place.
Above the slope are various plants and a dry stream bed filled with rounded river rocks to divert rain water away from the slope. Most of the original rocks we spread several years ago are now covered by mud, so we bought 2,000 pounds of new stone, and replenished the bed. It looks good and, with grass finally established in the front yard, we expect very little mud will wash into it.
We spread 17 cubic feet of planting soil on the slope with the rip-rap, and Louise brushed it off the rocks, and between them. Then she planted morning glories to hold the soil in place.
We are heartened to see that even before we spread the planting soil, the rip-rap did a good job of holding back erosion during some heavy rain this past week.
After several years of talking about removing a dead tree alongside the driveway about 200' from the house, we finally had it cut down. A fellow doing tree work in the neighborhood rang the doorbell, and asked if we needed anything done. He guoted an attractrive price, so we said go ahead. The tree was dead, hollow, and largely rotted.
The next day the workers came back and spent six hours removing brush and debris from a 15' swath along both sides of our driveway, a labor-intensive chore we'd been avoiding.
We've consolidated multiple years of straw bale gardening here to avoid mingling it with the regular landscaping updates.
We are intrigued with a method of growing vegetables called Straw Bale Gardening, which uses bales of straw instead of dirt to grow plants.
Yesterday we bought six straw bales, three metal fence posts, a couple of 2x4s, potting soil, and grass fertilizer. Today we set up the "garden." The fence posts will hold galvanized wire to form a trellis for plants to climb, and the 2x4s at the top prevent the posts from collapsing inward from the weight of climbing plants.
Louise sprinkled fertilizer, then we turned on the soaker hose for an hour to begin conditioning the straw to support plant growth.
In addition to finishing the gravel-and-soil landscaping in the front yard, Louise planted our straw bale garden that has been composting for a month (can you say late start?).
Two days ago we installed a dozen 10' lengths of ¾" steel electrical conduit "posts" to support plastic fencing to keep deer away from our garden. Mike bored holes in our rocky ground with a planting auger in a battery-powered drill, and then pounded each post the remaining 4"-6" to have 18" buried, leaving 8½' to support the 7½' fencing.
Today we installed the fencing, attaching it to the posts with cable ties. We attached one end of the fencing to a 13th post at one end to act as a gate (the shorter of the doubled posts toward the right side of this photo).
Plants are growing in our straw bale garden. Not evident in this photo are several blossoms on the tomato plant at the left end, and the cucumber plant at the right end .
The 2016 straw bale garden was only moderately successful, so this year we chose a location that gets more sun, and will have three rows of six bales, instead of one row, to spread out the plants.
Today we drove the truck and trailer to Lowe's and bought 18 straw bales. We also bought six 7' steel fence posts to support the wire trellis for plants to climb.
We positioned the bales, and began the initial conditioning where we sprinkle lawn fertilizer and soak it with water so it sinks into the straw to begin the decomposition process.
We drove nine 7' steel fence posts into the ground along the three rows of bales. Next we'll run several rows of galvanized wire between the posts to give the plants something to climb.
Yesterday we laid a soaker hose on each row of bales, and today Louise planted an assortment of seeds and beding plants in the bales. She spread potting soil for the seeds, and made holes in the bales for the plants.
We continued the work Mike started yesterday &endash; boring holes in the earth and driving 10' lengths of steel conduit for fence posts. Then we unrolled the 93' of plastic deer fence we bought and used last year, and cable-tied it to the posts. The fencing between the two righthand posts in this photo can be swung open for access into the garden.
Our straw bale garden has been growing happily, and we've harvested tomatoes squash, green beans, and hot peppers. We're hoping for strawberries and lots more tomatoes in coming weeks.
March came in like a lion, with a huge storm that hit the East coast and Northeast. Here in Central Virginia, we had only strong winds. Yesterday one tree toppled over, missing our solar panel array by one foot.
Today we cleaned up the debris. Mike sawed the tunk into manageable pieces, then we both loaded these into the tractor bucket for multiple trips to dump them in the woods behind the solar panels. We finished in about three hours.
Only a few days ago Mike replaced the carburator in the chain saw because it wouldn't run. Today was its first test, and it worked flawlessly.
Mike used the tractor to shove the tree base down-slope into the woods. The cut-up trunk sections can be seen to the left.