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We Hired a Landscaping Crew
And they're all losing their hair.
Last fall, John and I set the goal of making the yard around our house beautiful. While that doesn’t seem like an outrageous goal, when you live in an area that’s blistering hot all summer and covered by snow the other half of the year, finding plants hardy enough to just survive can be a challenge.
What to Plant?
I started researching in winter when the snow was still on the ground. I choose a number of drought-tolerant plants that could also tolerate extreme cold (-20F) and then I started to narrow my list based on what I could find at local nurseries. The difference between what grows at 1,000ft and what grows at our 3,500ft elevation is vast.
Finally, I settled on Russian sage, red feather reed grass, catmint, sedum, and mock orange with a few “experiments” thrown into the mix. The photos above show what they *may* look like grown.
We had to buy the plants early before they sold out at the nursery, even though we still had some snow on the ground. So, from the start, the pressure was on to establish growing beds in which to plant them before they began to suffer in their tiny pots.
Before buying the plants, I drew out a loose landscape design, taking note of where our existing trees were located (trees we planted last year, as well as our small orchard). I noted where shade would fall as the trees grew. I sketched the firepit we built last year. I drew paths to the barn, the garden, the greenhouses, an the firepit… and then I erased it all. Several times.
I have no idea what I’m doing.
I’m not a landscape designer and I don’t pretend to be one. My number one drive in planting anything was just to break up the monotony of brown summer dirt with just a bit of green… just a bit of color, a bit of life. Summer can be so barren and harsh here.
Of course, it’s beautiful, too (in it’s way) but it can be dry. Bone dry.
That said, John and I finally came up with a plan based on what we have to work with. We have a natural hill around the eastside of our yard. At the bottom of that hill is some of the rockiest, hardest and most unkind dirt you’ve ever stuck a shovel in. So it made sense to make that the perennial bed… Right?
It’s a fine line between Dreamer and Masochist.
For context, here’s the hill on a green, wet day in spring. The bare patch along the foot of the hill is now the perennial bed.
Since very little grows in that area already, we created a bed by covering the ground with bark mulch. We didn’t dig, we didn’t weed, we didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do. We just piled on the mulch, dug some holes for the Russian Sage and Red Feather Grass and planted them.
Guess what? They liked it.
Two months in, I’m happy to report that the sage and grass are both growing well. They’re extremely hardy and forgiving.
Working backwards, we created the pathway after we created the perennial bed and mulch. Again, no professionals around here…
After laying about 300 linear feet of edging on both sides of the pathway, we filled the pathway with pea-gravel. The pathway goes from the front gate, around the house almost to the front door. Aside from looking tidy, it doubles as fire protection.
We also created an experimental bed by the patio, just outside the kitchen. There, I’m growing herbs for cooking, medicines and teas. We didn’t dig that out either, but we did put down a lot of cardboard on which we layered compost, peat and top soil.
So far, so good.
That bed is filled with German chamomile, sage, basil and peppers, echinacea, rosemary, English lavender, lemon balm, nicotiana, aloe and some Earl Grey larkspur which, it turns out, should definitely not be used for making Earl Gray tea! It’s highly poisonous, but it will be beautiful when it blooms.
This is Earl Grey Larkspur:
Around the other side of the house, we planted some clematis, a few Golden current and Blueberry bushes, and some more lavender and Russian sage.
Our land looks very different now to how it looked just a few years ago. It’s still the same, but more cared for. We’re not trying to make it into something it was never meant to be; this is high desert - dry and harsh - and always will be. It’s beautiful, rugged, and full of color year round (just not the color green).
Instead we have all shades of brown, rusts, greys, and purples… and we’re working with that, not against it.
To give you an idea of how things were just a few years ago, here’s a picture of the house and yard when we first moved in:
Perhaps now you understand my urgency.
Since our trips to the nursery, I’ve been surprised to learn that a lot of the plants we bought actually grow here naturally. We have Flax and wild Chamomile, Service berry, Field mustard, Yarrow, Mullein, Aster daisies, Salvia, Nootka roses and so many more plants that I’m still learning about.
I realize it may sound silly, but I think the land around us may be reciprocating the love we are giving it. I have never seen so much fruit on our apple trees and our cheery tree is overflowing. The wildflowers on our “dry hill” are flourishing, too - on the same year that I’m learning their names and their uses.
Maybe it’s my imagination; maybe it’s not.
Now, About that Landscaping Crew…
A few months ago, we added to our fencing to push the cattle back a bit farther from the house. It’s been nice living without the cows so close, but their absence also means a lot of high grass in a fire prone area. Not wise.
Despite John’s tenacious mowing, we found ourselves needing a bit of help keeping up with the grass…
Enter our new landscaping crew:
I’ve mentioned before that we have been seriously considering getting sheep, and yet we had so many questions. Neither of us had ever raised sheep or even been around sheep. Winters here are harsh - would they even survive? How many would we need? There were so many unknowns and we take every life we bring onto our land very seriously. We didn’t want to make a mistake.
As luck would have it, we had friends over for dinner about a month ago and we were discussing their sheep - their 30 sheep. Our friends had a problem - they were running out of grass for grazing. In the midst of conversation, our friend stopped mid-sentence and said, “Hey, you guys have plenty of grass…”.
Indeed we do.
The very next day, we became their sheep’s summer camp and the sheep became our new landscape crew. The arrangement symbiotic: they are helping us keep our grass down as well as giving us a crash course in shepherding (with our friends as a safety net), and we’re helping them out, too. Plus, we’re getting a ram for the freezer this fall.
The herd is made up of two breeds of hair sheep, Dorper and Katahdin, which don’t need shearing because they lose their hair naturally. A few of them are pregnant (that should be interesting…), and some are in the process of becoming pregnant. There are about five really tiny babies who will almost come over to us, but most of them are really shy. They just don’t know us yet. Except Meryl. She’s not shy.
Meryl Sheep, as she’s called, is their leader. She’s a bit bossy and she’s also very pregnant so she’s been slowing down. We’re watching her for signs of labor, probably more excited about it than she is.
We’re getting to know them all, like any good camp counselors would, at least until they go back home in the fall. Meanwhile, we’ll keep making the place pretty for them.