Rock Garden Reflections

The rock gardens here at EEC Forest Stewardship are in another year of established production and looking good- though grass seed continues to fight for a place along side strawberry, nodding onion, time, horseradish, and succulents. These beds are in the zone one area right against the house. They receive regular watering and host some wonderful herbs and pollination species, as well as medicine. When they were first established, these beds were thin and patchy, but now, we’re having to thin them to keep competition down so all the plants desired thrive. Overall, I would say these beds are a success. But there are some downsides to rockery design, and grass is the most challenging. You might notice cardboard boxes in some of these photos. I’ve been so frustrated with the grass invasion that I’m putting down a thick mulch, and planning the next evolution of this space. When the beds were first established, gravel paths were put down all around the area. Over time, the fertility form the beds and watering has invited many invaders to join. For a few years I kept up a successful layer of strawberry around the base of each bed, but the grasses have won in the end.
Even with the tight fit of all the herbs and planned species I’ve worked to fill in patchy space, the grass still finds a way up through the other plants, poking out just long enough to get a seed head developed for another assault. Happy to say the established plants are also growing enthusiastically, and we’ve split many new starts out of the lavender, time, and mints. Still, the weeding of grasses continued to be high maintenance, which is no good for a lazy gardener like me.

This spring, I wrote about taking up the sod around these beds in an attempt to get ahead of the fertility spill. It was an ok plan, and produced a lot of good topsoil for a nearby berm, but the grass still persisted, and now I’m laying cardboard which I plan to seed over with wildflowers this fall. Once I took up the grass sod, a few places where the gravel was still present underneath, other “weeds” like lambs quarters (Chenopodium album) and Catsear (Hypochaeris radicata) are showing up, and I’m much happier to host these edible species, which are much easier to manage in the garden.

Along with the rock garden, we have a few containers in the space with more controlled growing space for evergreen mint and some self seeding pansies with strawberries. There is also a real exotic we’re experimenting with an olive tree which was gifted to us. We do need to establish a second one for pollination, but it has put out fruit before on its own. This shrub of a tree is slow in growing, and I think we should transplant it to a better place soon, though it has thrived in the rocky clay soil we initially sunk it into. The black containers also shelter the olive during the colder winter months, when reflected warmth from the sun banks into the dark material and reflects into the soil around it. When we have week long freezing temperatures in winter, the olive does suffer- not sure it will make it in the long run.

Earlier this summer we worked to take out a lot of sod which has developed around the edges of these great fertility banks. I stacked the sod along another bed across the driveway in need of more good soil for future plantings. It was a lot of work, and after moving several wheelbarrow loads, I tried a second approach and did a major cardboard mulch cover. I plan to move the top layer of debris next spring. Grass is a daunting competitor, but does turn into great fertility after breaking down- it’s roots aerate the soil, the thatch is a perfect carbon additive, and remember- the problem is the solution. I’m just not always clear on what that solution is. Sounds like a life long learning journey. Boxes stacked up in the front garden are not aesthetically pleasing, but we’ve never stood on good looks as our end all be all here at EEC. However, the rock garden area is out main centerpiece of small gardening demonstration systems, so it would be nice to get it looking more approachable to our clients who want to take a closer look.

In reflecting on the rock gardens, there are some already well established challenges in these systems which continue to prove true-

  1. grass will get in, making weeding hard, and if left unchecked, will eventually take over
  2. rocks harbor slugs, so its hard to direct seed anything into a rock garden, but they also give great shelter to predator bugs, which help defend the plantings- once established
  3. any established beds in a garden are high maintenance- weeding, watering, replanting, you have to input a lot to get a great looking product

The rock gardens here at EEC Forest Stewardship are a planned temporary arrangement outside our 73′ trailer. We’re thinking of them as long term fertility banks where we can build soil and keep useful herbs and other plants near the main living space. When the trailer outlives it’s time here, we’ll have to take it down, and disassemble the rock garden to do so. At that time, we’ll use a large earth mover to transport our good soil to new beds in another location on the landscape. The rocks will move too- though we may opt to use them in a new rockery formation. Rocks are not good at keeping grass out- and since grass is usually around, we’d rather make more effective barriers for our gardens in future. However, an herb spiral built of rocks will continue to be a feature at EEC- demonstrating micro-climates, easy construction, and a useful place to put rocks you pull out of other places on the landscape. Gratitude to the stones and all they do for us.

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