A Winter Project – Preparing for Spring

by Clair Eisele 

Winter can be a tough time for those of us who love to be outside in our gardens.  

The ground is cold and hard, most of the plants are dormant and aren’t showing any foliage, and there aren’t any pollinators out to prove our efforts.  But, despite the cold and the lack of (visible) flora and fauna, winter can be an excellent time to focus on infrastructure and design. This winter, at Beech Hollow, one of our projects has been reworking our Shade Beds.

The_“shade bed” is what we call the garden we have designated for parent stock plants that require more shade than the plants in our “sun beds.”  The shade bed is an area roughly 3,900 sq ft that is nestled under a canopy of loblolly pines, oaks, elms, and sweet gum trees, near the main driveway and across from the parking area of the farm.  The previous design was 4 row beds and 2 “keyhole” beds (circular, round, raised beds) that are home to many shade-loving, Georgia native plants. This design held up for many years and throughout the seasons we were able to see which plants were doing well and which ones should be moved.

But Pandra had bigger plans for the shade beds.  As an artist and a bit of a design and history buff, she wanted to transform the shade beds into a place where she, her employees, and BHF patrons could enjoy a peaceful garden landscape that displayed the diverse beauty of Georgia native plants.  And, of course, somewhere that would entice the native pollinators, as well.

It started with an idea based loosely off Chinese and Japanese garden landscaping, in which a space can be transformed with plants from a flat, tidy, farmlike setting, to a lush, more natural setting, using plants as borders and attention grabbers.  After a few different layouts were scribbled on paper and measurements were made and remade, we put our tools where our thoughts were and set forth to bring the ideas to life.

First we used our magnificent rogue hoes to clear the blackberries/Rubus armenicus, greenbriars/Smilex bona-nox, Carolina Jessamine/Gelsemium sempervirens, violets/Viola labradorica, and other invasive, unwanted “volunteers” from between the existing beds.  We also removed many small saplings of Loblolly Pine/Pinus taeda, Sweetgum/Liquidambar styraciflua, and oak, to make room for native species. Next, we laid down hoses and used landscape marking paint to layout a new meandering path that starts and ends at the main entrance.  From there we scraped the new path to remove weeds and move the nice, loamy, topsoil from the pathway to the new bed space (no point in letting all that viable topsoil go to waste under a path!). Since our new beds were not built yet, we left portions of the old beds that were filled with dormant root systems in place until we could safely transplant them.   Then it was time to start on the new beds!

We ordered 20 cubic yards of pine mulch that had been sitting for over 6 months (when using mulch to build soil it cannot be too fresh or it could be too hot to plant in).  We used brown paper (the kind found in rolls in the paint department) and tacked it down in 2 or more layers over all of the new bed space, then spread a thick layer (4-6 inches) of mulch on top.  We wanted to let the mulch sit for another 6 weeks for a couple of reasons; 1 – moving it from the pile and spreading it over the beds would create more heat, and 2 – we wanted it to be fully involved in the decomposition process and on its way to creating more soil when we did plant.

While waiting on the mulch to settle and do it’s thang, we turned our focus back to the path.  There were many large roots from the surrounding pines that protruded out of the ground and created tripping hazards, to level the ground we brought in bucket loads of granite sand and tamped it down to make a much smoother, safer path.  Once the sand was tamped (talk about a shoulder workout!) we laid horticulture cloth with landscaping staples to keep it in place. We scavenged our surrounding woods for fallen hardwoods and used these to line the path, creating a noticeable, but natural looking border.  

In a particularly low-lying spot, that naturally collects rainwater, we dug what we are calling a bog.  We hope that we will be able to maintain it, but judging by the water content that accumulates there now, it will probably end up being more of a pond.  Either way, the Shoal Lilies/ Hymenocallis coronaria and Jack in the Pulpit/Arisaema triphyllum will love it!

After our winter break, it was time to start transplanting and planting!  We carefully transplanted some Micheaux Lilies from the old beds/new path to an uphill location (they needed more drainage than they were getting before).  We moved large patches of red columbine/Aquilegia canadensis, and blue mist flower/Conoclinium coelestinum, as many Cornel Aster/Doellingeria infirma as we could find, Dwarf Iris, Iris verna, Rain Lilies/Zephyranthes atamasca, and a few Maple-leaf Viburnums/Viburnum acerifolium, just to name a few.  So far, we have added false indigo/Amorpha nitens, Bladdernut/Staphylea trifolia, Carolina phlox/Phlox caroliniana, Doll’s Eyes/Actaea pachypoda, and Relict Trillium, Trillium reliquum. We still have lots of transplanting and new planting to do, but this is a good start.

After some research and discussion we decided to use slate pathway to finish the trail.  We added a thin layer of sand on top of the hort cloth and then about 2-3 inches of the slate pathway mix.  This is a much stronger, longer lasting, and more aesthetically pleasing pathway than the hort cloth alone. Plus, it adds another couple of heavy layers to help keep the weeds from growing up through the path. We will continue adding to our new design by transplanting existing plants, introducing new ones, continuing to build the bog/pond, and by adding seating areas and bird baths to entice the local birds, bees, and patrons that we encourage to visit Beech Hollow.  Ephemeral, or  early blooming woodland, flowers in pictures from top down: Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, buds of Alum Root, Heuchera americana, Jacobs ladder, Polemonium reptans, about to unfurl, Rain Lily, Zephyranthes atamasco, and Relict Trillium, Trillium reliquum.