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I am now convinced that the adage “You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone” must have been originally coined by a gardener – specifically, a gardener who relocated from a site having decent soil to one with soil that is…well, let’s just use ‘challenging’ as the euphemism.

My gardening life began about 40+ years ago, near the south shore of Long Island and in a succession of three houses that all came pretty close to the Holy Grail of garden soil: friable, slightly sandy loam, with a pH close enough to neutral to make it not worth quibbling about. Sometimes I’d toss a handful of Holly-Tone around an ericaceous plant or hydrangea, but it was no big deal if I forgot; the plants were fine. The soil was eminently diggable, and well-drained except in the odd low-lying spot that could be easily fixed with a shovelful or two of bagged topsoil.  I’d dig a hole anywhere, pop in a plant/shrub, water it, speak some encouraging words, and it would grow. The plants were happy, I was happy, and only once in those four decades did I ever encounter poison ivy – which is how I learned what it was. I didn’t even have a rabbit problem, for heaven’s sake! My only real gripes were a lawn-watering-centric then-husband [Garden #1], the neighbor’s barking-and-peeing-prone German Shepherd [Garden #2], and a bird-feeder-thieving squirrel named Macgyver [Garden #3.] In short: I had no idea how good I really had it.

Then I moved here, to the Money Pit, in late 2014.

Here on Long Island we have five distinct types of soil, ranging from pure sand at the south shore beaches to almost pure rocks/stones with a little sand mixed in (at the north shore beaches.) That leaves three ‘soil zones’ for most people: the aforementioned sandy loam in the south-shore mainland communities where I lived; a somewhat heavier and more acidic, but still diggable rich loam in the center of the island; and clay which gets progressively stonier/rockier the further north one goes. We’re talking about a span of no more than 23 miles (37 km) between those south and north beaches, by the way.

Because I was moving to a place north of the center ‘spine’ (where a glacier stopped about 11,000 years ago and formed a terminal moraine) I knew that the soil here would be more acid and also not quite as light and friable as what I’d been used to. What I didn’t know was that the soil on my half acre apparently also grows a bumper crop of inanimate objects. I learned this the hard way the first time I went to dig a hole for a newly purchased shrub, and came smack up against what felt like the edge of the Rock of Gibraltar.

The soil here is not only clay, it is rocky clay. Stony clay. Pebbly clay. Dense clay. Heavy clay. And in the non-raised planting beds, it is orange clay. Clay that turns into the La Brea Tar Pits when wet, and into a fair imitation of an old cracked cement patio when dry. And it’s impossible to dig in it with either a trowel or a shovel with hitting lots and lots of geologic detritus. Billions of them, I swear (and often, at them.)

This means everything involving digging or weeding takes at least twice as long as it used to when I was gardening in Eden but didn’t properly appreciate what I had. (Actually it takes at least three times as long, but I’m also not as young as I used to be.) Every single trowelful of soil contains a half dozen or more stones or rocks that need to be picked out and cast aside. Can’t dig fast, either, because there’s always a rock lurking somewhere to send a painful jolt up one’s arm(s.) Putting in any new plants always creates “cairns” of stones like these…
… that need to be disposed of somewhere afterward. I’ve taken to dumping the smaller ones into any of the several hollow oak stumps.
Of course, when the stumps totally disintegrate I’ll be left with a big pile of stones again but hey, it works for now.

 

These are examples of what the typical soil looks like in most of the ground level beds. There are several beds that are worse.  One is a mixture of pure orange clay and the roots from a cut-down triple-trunk oak. I plan to stick a bunch of Geranium macrorrhizum into it wherever possible, and wish them luck. They’ll need it.

The double whammy of the new cesspool installation in July 2018 and the underground stream dam in early 2019 brought a huge amount of subsoil (and rocks) to the surface during the excavation. Whatever topsoil (ha!) was originally there, got buried by the processes but to be honest, it wasn’t all that much better. As a result, I’m left with three areas that are now even worse – rockwise – to garden in than they were before.

The south end of the front foundation planting after everything got ripped out in late 2018. There was once a porch here. The biggest rocks could be raked out but there are still a bajillion smaller ones that just keep coming up no matter how far down one digs.

The north end is actually worse because that’s where they had to dig up one-third of that area to install the new cesspool line. So, there’s even more subsoil/rocks here. I was amazed to see that little group of winter aconite survived the destruction!

But yes, this is the surface now. A second third of the area got dug up later on for the underground dam.

 

Ah yes, the driveway…such as it is. This is how it looked at the curb end; a jumble of hostas and invasive variegated ribbon grass amidst a plethora of white rocks and stones. Bits of old landscape fabric poked up through this joyful scene here and there. Digging and spraying finally got rid of the ribbon grass (I hope) and it looked as though the stones could just be raked away. Nope.  Those stones and rocks form a layer at least 2 feet deep. At least, that’s when the hired guys said they had to stop digging, so I went to Plan B, otherwise known as “Just call it mulch.” So, the un-diggable, root-infested base of the oak trunks went from this
to this:
Here’s the thing with the driveway: It was supposed to be replaced last September (2019.) Contractor ran into delays and then ran into some serious health problems, so it was put off until this April (2020.) However, the COVID-19 restrictions don’t allow this type of work to be done yet (and the contractor of course is having labor problems as well as health ones.) Now I have no idea when it will actually be done. If not in June, then maybe September or October. Who knows???? But because they will have to rip out the old driveway (causing more destruction and excavation), nothing more can be done here until afterward. I do plan to put a Cupressus arizonica ‘Blue Ice’ at the curb end…if I can find one next year! It will actually like this crappy/sandy/rocky dryish so-called soil.

The north foundation end shown earlier abuts the driveway also, which means nothing can be done to that now either.

Here’s that same general area during  the underground dam installation. See that pile of rocky sand? That came up from about the 5-foot level. Guess where it ended up afterward?

Right here, in all its stony glory.

So in this area we have, instead of dense stony clay…. very sandy clay that is about 50% pebbles and 25% stones and rocks but still grows weeds, and some moss, marvelously. Again… the new driveway edge (Belgium blocks) will have to be run along here also, thus creating more excavation that will bring yet more more subsoil, pebbles, stones and rocks to the surface.

It’s depressing. However, I did come up with a use for quite a few of the larger rocks to hopefully solve a problem of a different nature.

This gutter downspout is on the south side of the south portico’s roof support column. It has to point in this direction because (a) pointing it north would wash out half of the foundation planting bed, (b) pointing it west would direct water toward the basement walls [a huge no-no], and (c) pointing it east toward the street would look horrible. So here the rainwater flow surges across the paved walkway and ends up in part of another bed, where it digs a narrow trench from the force of the flow. There used to be a spiraea there which I had dug out last year because I really hate spiraeas; there’s also poison ivy (what else is new) and the remnants of an old sprinkler system. But last fall I put a swamp cypress, Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Minaret’ there, in a 2-gallon pot in that now-empty spot. It died, because the downspout water flow kept washing the soil away with every heavy rain. I plan to put a Salix magnifica here eventually, but needed somehow to break the destructive water flow from the downspout.

Those larger rocks that had accumulated in a pile from being dug out of various planting beds now have a useful purpose: Serving as a breakwater.

The gutter’s water will still end up in this bed, but hopefully its velocity will be slowed enough so that the water pools instead of carves. New soil will be added this summer when I will hopefully be able to get the willow. There was already that lame excuse for a low “rock wall “toward the back (not put there by me, but to remove it would entail having to pay someone several hundred dollars to rip out the entire bed; I’d rather spend it on plants!) and so the breakwater won’t ultimately look as bad as it might otherwise have. Eventually there will be moisture-loving perennials added as well, which should help matters. This corner gets sun almost all day, so there will be a few plants to choose from! Perhaps a Rodgersia.

The constant dealing with pebbles, stones and rocks can be frustrating. Recently I had to plant 25 Japanese painted ferns in 3” pots – a job that would have taken me perhaps a half hour in the Nirvana-esque soil that I once gardened in while not realizing how incredibly lucky I was to have it. Timeframe here? An hour and a half, most of which was taken up by having to dig each hole carefully (so as not to damage either the trowel or my wrist), pick out all but the smallest stones from each trowelful, and add a bit more soil to compensate for all the rocks that were removed from that space, even after the new plant was added.

And finally, don’t even get me started on how long it takes to weed rocky clay – the soil here holds on to weeds for dear life, even after the weed is finally pulled. Yes, pulled: There’s no way I want to constantly ruin the edge on my Sneeboer diamond hoe by dragging it through a layer of abrasive rocks. So, hand-weeding it is. I did find the perfect hand tool for dealing with this Soil from Hell up close and personal, though!

This is the Von Lindern Cultivator from Sneeboer, and it is just as tough and fierce and “go ahead, make my day” as it looks. It may not exactly laugh at rocks, but it definitely sneers at them. If you have hard dense clay, this could become your best friend. I only wish they made it in a long-handled version as well!