Gardening Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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 and 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 at Garden #1, a neighbor’s barking-and-peeing-prone German Shepherd at Garden #2, and a birdfeeder-thieving squirrel named MacGyver at 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 geologic 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. Clay that turns into the La Brea Tar Pits when wet, and into a good imitation of an old cracked cement patio when dry. And it’s impossible to dig in it with either a trowel or a shovel without 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, partly because I’m 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…
….which 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. Recently I stuck a half dozen Geranium macrorrhizum between the oak roots and wished 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 was left with three areas that became even worse (rock-wise) to garden in than they were before.

This is 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. More of this 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 12″ 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, which was hardly an improvement:
Here’s the thing with the driveway: It was supposed to be replaced last September (2019.) The 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 ever find a decent one! It will actually like this crappy/sandy/rocky dryish so-called soil.

The north ends of the portico and front-walkway beds abut the driveway, so nothing can be done about those spots until the driveway destruction/reconstruction is done.  However….

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, on and near the surface, 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 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.

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? More than 2 hours, 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 pulled. Yes, pulled: There’s no way I want to constantly ruin the edge on my 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!

  7 comments for “Gardening Between a Rock and a Hard Place

  1. May 10, 2020 at 7:33 pm

    Hey, I just used that title (almost) yesterday.
    Anyway, the La Brea Tarpits are HORRID. The Beverly Hills Oilfield lives under the entire neighborhood, and comes to the surface in weird places. Some of the old homes are landscapes as they might have been in the East, with nice large symmetrical lawns. The expansiveness of some of the lawns is interrupted by a seemingly random colony of agapanthus, that was added to conceal a tiny bubbling pit of oil or tar that will not go away. Some of such pits are contained within a circle of brick without landscaping that actually does more to draw attention to it than conceal it. Those that come up under homes can smell slightly badly. They sometimes stop bubbling randomly, but new ones can appear too, sometimes after an earthquake. One never knows. I never minded rocks, although I might if they were so abundant and granitic instead of soft sandstone.

    • May 12, 2020 at 8:29 am

      Bubbling sub-surface tar is certainly not the kind of challenge that’s ever included in typical “Gardening On/In….” books and articles! I never imagined that there were homes built on that area; fascinating! So, the bubbling pits don’t instantly kill anything that happens to be growing, or planted, directly above them?

      • May 12, 2020 at 12:10 pm

        It is probably not written about because it is such a rare problem, and those who live in the region do not enjoy their own gardening. The tar or oil or whatever it is does not kill plants around it. Even at La Brea Tar Pits, the landscaping extends down to the edges of the oily ponds and tar, although; although now that you mention it, the lawns always seem to be rather brown. The site is actually nicely landscaped. No one can explain why so many people migrated to Los Angeles early in its history, and why it became such a massive city in such an inhospitable location. Although the weather is nice, there was not originally enough water for such a big city. There are SO many more places in America that would have been better for such a big city. It was not quite desert, but not quite chaparral either. The scenery was ghastly a long time ago, with sort of desert scrub and stinky tar pits (which were even nastier before oil started getting pumped out of the ground). I can not imagine early settlers, after seeing the rest of the much prettier parts of California, arriving in the Los Angeles region, and deciding to stay. What is even stranger is that some of the most desirable neighborhoods were developed right around the worst part of the region! Perhaps early developers thought that since the place was so undesirable anyway, that no one would mind if they built the second most populous city on top of it.

  2. May 14, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    Wow. So I grew up in Roslyn Heights on Long Island which is kind of on the edge of the North Shore. My parents’ home was sold decades ago, but I remember pretty nice soil from when I was growing up (I was in charge of the vegetable garden). I fully empathize with your travails – sounds frustrating and painful. If there were justice in the world you would be in line for some kind of gardening sainthood to make up for all this suffering. Where we live now I count myself lucky that our soil is generally quite good, though you can find clay in spots and contractors do sometimes bring the subsoil up on top.

    • May 15, 2020 at 10:05 am

      You’re right about Roslyn Heights being on the edge of the North Shore; your parents were closer to the Expressway than I am. Dix Hills is like Roslyn Heights soil-wise, in that they have better soil there than here. Did you know that one of the best specialist nurseries on Long Island began in Roslyn Heights, back in the day? 😀 Phil and Harriet Waldman originally began their nursery in Roslyn Heights, hence the name (Roslyn Nursery) which they kept when they later moved to a bigger piece of land in the southernmost part of Dix Hills, just south of the LIE. That was was my go-to place for years and I was devastated when they closed during the summer of 2006. Harriet and Phil eventually retired to Florida.

      • May 17, 2020 at 10:00 pm

        You’re not talking about Hicks Nursery, are you? I remember making expeditions there with my dad.

        • May 17, 2020 at 10:13 pm

          Nope, Roslyn Nursery. 🙂 It was located on Burr Road, just off Wyandanch Avenue in the southernmost part of Dix Hills (south of the Expressway.) But Hicks Nursery, on Jericho Turnpike in Nassau County, is still there — still just as large but more “commercial”. Unlike Roslyn Nursery who propagated many of their plants on site, Hicks’ stock is 100% brought in from commercial growers like Monrovia, Proven Winners, Iseli, Northern Grown, etc.; the balled and burlapped trees come in from the wholesale growers on the East End, mainly. To be honest, though, the square footage at Hicks is probably 50% non-plant items (hard goods, patio furniture, home decor, cast stone ornaments and fountains, etc., even a food court of sorts.) Martin Viette, who was always their Nassau County competition, closed in 2017 and sold the place: I have not been to the new place, but Viette’s was always out of my price range anyhow, LOL. Everything was either too big, too expensive, or both. Roslyn Nursery, on the other hand, was an underappreciated gem. Nothing fancy, no hard goods for sale, unpaved parking lot….just plants. Often those that nobody else was selling locally, too. 🙂

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