Don't be fooled. Inside this thin coating of sweetness is a fiery core of total insanity.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Tell The Truth Tuesday -- The Gravel Garden

Hold onto your hats!

With apologies to anyone living in wildfire-stricken areas of California, my gravel garden is a disaster area. I have a lot of ugly to show you. I seldom, if ever, show pictures of it anymore, or of anything growing or flowering in it, because I have ignored and neglected it for at least the last three years. I haven't watered, or pulled a single weed, or trimmed or cut back a plant in all that time. Originally conceived as a screen between me and the neighbors to my left, the bed rather quickly succumbed to weeds, as it became choked with weed seeds blown in from the neighbor's yard. The bed was mulched in gravel, which was really hard to dig in, and as a result, any amount of time spent trying to dig out weeds always resulted in hands covered in blisters. I gave up, and devoted myself to other areas, while occasionally wracking my brains about what to do about it.

This bed, which I call the Gravel Garden, was originally nothing but a pristine gravel parking area when we first moved in 9 years ago. You can see an End of the Month View post from 2013 about the Gravel Garden here. And if you're interested in reading about its evolution and construction, you can see posts about that here, here and here.

It doesn't look that bad from here, because the enormous Arbutus unedo 'Compacta' hides a multitude of sins

It has turned into a handsome shrub, but I wonder if I should trim up the bottom to reveal some of the beauty of its lower branches, which have red, peely bark

That even more enormous mass on the right is a Ceanothus which has completely taken over the space -- note the weeds below, which used to be gravel -- and still is, below the weeds

Expanse of weeds, formerly pristine gravel -- the bare patch is where we had a pile of gravel which we used up last year building paths

Culvert full of weeds -- no matter how much I top up the soil here, it keeps compacting down

Weed-infested plants -- Yucca rostrata on left, Euphorbia at center, Dasylirion wheeleri at right

Another smaller Yucca rostrata hiding in the weeds near the Dasylirion

Beschorneria also hiding in the weeds

I used to be able to fit through a gap here to reach the area behind the culvert to work, but not any longer -- the Ceanothus is a monster

Weeds at the base of the Ceanothus

There's a struggling Agave parryi in there

Opuntia, Sedum Angelina and weeds

at the back of the bed is a stock tank with a dead Tetrapanax -- Impossible to reach now

Teucrium with crinkly leaves and the bare branches of a gold-leaf Caryopteris -- both deserve rescuing after surviving so well with no summer water for three years in a row

I need to figure out what to do with this big empty pot -- like the culvert the soil keeps compacting down no matter how much I add to it

Weed-choked patch of black mondo grass

Weeds, weeds, weeds

The other stock tank and guess what? Weeds

Black bamboo growing in the stock tank, flanked by a patch of Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' on the left and Stipa gigantea on the right

Another Stipa gigantea and weeds

Japanese snowbell has thrived here, flowering profusely every spring despite no summer water -- I'd like to move it to a spot where it will get better summer care

The other culvert planter, which has Alliums in it that I've tried digging but many still prove elusive

Another thriving Teucrium

Weed-choked Hesperaloe

Weeds and sleeping Alliums

Stipa gigantea

Beyond the culvert, piles of junk below an enormous English laurel

There was once a 'Fat Albert' blue spruce here, but it became engulfed by the English laurel and died on one entire side, and had to be cut down last year

'Fat Albert' stump and weeds

At least with all those dandelions it's full of pretty yellow flowers in the spring

I'd like to empty the stock tanks and move them out of this bed completely to a spot where they're more accessible and usable. I've come to the conclusion that my original plan to leave a path through the bed is untenable.

My current plan for this area is to pull out and save the plants that have survived neglect, because they deserve it, cut down the enormous Ceanothus because working around it is impossible, and turn the bed into a prairie/meadow style planting. That would require either tilling in the gravel mulch or sifting it out. I need to figure out what to do with all the gravel area in front of the bed as well. Weeds just want to grow there. I suppose I could dose it twice a year with Roundup. Or I could put in lots of paving stones, and some deliberate plants. Weeds will always grow where the plants aren't.

One drawback of all of that is that a meadow provides no screening from the neighbors, but as you can see from the pictures, what's there now isn't providing a lot of screening either.

One of my biggest problems with working in this area is that the neighbors on this side have acquired a large, black, aggressive, barky dog that reacts to me every time I walk through this area, even just to throw away trash. He has even barked at and rushed us when we've gone out to get our mail. You may have noticed the flimsy black wrought iron fence in one of the photos above, which is pretty much useless. On my best days I tolerate dogs (although Peter's Poms are cute), but on my worst days I'm terrified of them.

I suppose if I can manage to empty out the bed maybe we could then hire someone to install a big, sturdy fence between us and the neighbor.

This is probably my worst garden area, and also my biggest challenge. I still have lots of little messes to share in the future. So, do you have more ugliness to show us? Tell us about your garden problems in a post.


  1. Oy, that is a challenging area, but lots of potential. A big dog means a fence might be the right solution.

    Weeds are Nature's way of punishing gardeners who whose gardens are not in a severe drought.

    Some people might envy a gardener with an out-of-control Ceanothus. For example a gardener whose Ceanothus attempts die of thirst before they ever bloom. People like that.

    My truth is smaller this week, my problem either laziness or disorganization. At least I'm consistent. ;^)

  2. Oh my, you've got such happy and healthy looking weeds. Good for you for supporting biodiversity in your garden:) That area is challenging but you'll certainly come up with something fabulous. Ceanothus can take quite a bit of pruning so you could always cut it back and keep it. My poms were relieved to know that you think they're cute. My ugly truth today is that the kids at school shared a cold with me and last night I decided to sleep instead of doing a blog post for today.

  3. Wow.
    I read the older posts and love the design. As much as I like gravel paths I never could figured out how one keeps them weed free; gravel wise, you may have to start over. The arbutus would definitely benefit from pruning to expose it's dark branches. If the "Japanese snowbell has thrived here...despite no summer water", why not leave it in place (you already have so much to do). But first and foremost, build a fence to give you peace of mind. Its hard to relax and enjoy gardening with a scary barking beast in close proximity!

  4. So wow, you've got some weeds! I am amazed that the Yucca, Hesperaloe, Agave and Beschorneria are all doing so well without good air circulation. I'm also surprised you don't have a forest of Japanese snowbell babies sprouting up underneath that tree, has it bloomed? I have to pull hundreds of seedlings from underneath my (hated) trees every spring.

    I do agree a fence, or maybe a perimeter planting of bamboo, seems to be the answer. Gardening while being barked at is no fun. I do wonder if a prairie/meadow style planting wouldn't be even harder to maintain without weeds taking over?

  5. From Linda, who blogs at Each Little World (she has been having trouble commenting): I am going to agree that it is a problem area and I think a fence — wood or something that blocks the view and gives you a planting backdrop — would be worth the expense. Also I am guessing you don't have weed barrier fabric under the gravel which would help control the weeks. But I love that bluish pot and your gabion pedestals. We leave most of our pots empty as art object which is also an option you might consider.

    You can find her Tell The Truth Tuesday post here:

  6. That is a lot of work for only you! This area needs a work party. Aren't there some strapping students from a local community college ag/hort dept that could get credit for helping? Gravel is an invitation for weeds, and yet weedcloth under gravel is hideous. It ain't easy, is it? But there are some wonderful plants here, for sure, and I agree the design is lovely. Damn weeds.

  7. Well, I guess the benefit of drought is far fewer weeds. I think your plan to do a meadow thing is a good one - grasses and other prairie-style plants should help choke out, or at least hide, the weeds that spring up with such glee following your frequent rain. I like dogs but I'd be terrified by a big, aggressive one that lunged at me too - a fence is definitely in order, possibly reinforced by some tall shrubs or small trees. As to the Ceanothus, they tell you here that they don't like water but that's clearly not true given the size of yours!

  8. Oh my Alison, this is challenging I must say. I know only too well how it feels to become overwhelmed by the weeds. Once I decided to just try to concentrate efforts on one small area ata time I found I actually started to enjoy weeding-I don't bend over anymore either. I have a large kneeling pad and I sit down on it in the garden. Sitting on the ground in the garden is really quite enjoyable to me.Kind of hanging out with the plants . In your gravel garden case , I would be tempted to build a raised bed or a series of them and fill it up with soil right on top of the gravel, and then install your meadow. After building the fence of course.

    Here is my disaster du jour

  9. I think a privacy fence is a good idea. I would also hit it with Round up, or, more environmentally friendly, lots of vinegar. Gravel is seed bed friendly, for whatever blows in. Once cleaned up, you would probably need to use Preen or another pre-emergent to keep it clean. Regular upkeep is the only way to maintain it.

  10. I remember when you put in those gabion baskets with the pots between them. They are still lovely. You seem to have a lot of prickly plants in between the weed. ow! I like the idea of a wooden fence. I have gravel too and every time you pull up a weed it exposes more dirt for weeds to grow in. Luckily I have a hubby who is vigilant in eradicating the weeds every time he sees one. I just have to every now and then get more gravel to top it all up!

  11. Your culvert planters are so ingenious that I've already forgotten about everything else :-)

  12. Your laurel can be cut back to almost nothing, they will sprout again easily. I think a fence is definitely the answer, so that the dog can't see you. My new next door neighbours have 3 huge dogs and 4 cats, at least I have a hedge and then 2 fences between us, but what really annoys me is that the 4 cats use my garden as their toilet! I have a few gravel areas which my late husband used to weed for me, now I have to spray it once a year to keep it weed free, these are the only areas where I use chemicals, don't like using chemicals but needs must.

  13. I have tried carrying doggy treats with me for neighbor dogs (the one across the alley, specifically). First I throw them, then they eat out of my hand. They also get a lot friendlier. Not sure if that will work with your problem dog, but might be worth a try.

  14. So that's where my horrid neighbors and their aggressive dog moved. I'm sorry you have to deal with that. Fences make good neighbors. I would be tempted to lay newspapers and cardboard and smother the area with mulch.


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