Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Building in a Rain Forest

Was it just me or was the entire internet having a brain freeze all day?

I walked by this six foot tall clump of grass for three weeks thinking this is a big giant weed that got in the meadow some how and needs to be yanked. It's like a giant reed or cane grass. What is it doing here in North Carolina. Then I spotted its spots as the fresh growth pushed ever higher.

Holy crap this is Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus', somebody planted this on purpose. I think it missed its spring or fall haircut. It sure has a jungley effect as I walk under it.

It has rained every single day I have been up here except one I think. Often just a passing shower, but always accompanied by thunder and twice by hail. If our saprolite soils and steep slopes didn't drain very well this place would be a swamp. As it is, the layer of humus created from leaf litter and tree fall never dries out. It is a sponge. The tree themselves hold substantial amounts of water in their canopies for quite some time after it rains. It is easier to get wet under the trees when the rain stops than when it first starts.

I walk by the remnants of Betsy's former house every day too. The fireplace and foundation walls are all that remain. I want to know the story behind the person who used to live up here. I want to know if something other than death caused her to leave.

It was a very small and simple house, built with the stones from the land and wood from the forest that has long since decomposed. I doubt that this simple house was connected to any thing we take for granted, like water and electric or sewers.

Now I am here with bigger machines, moving the earth, to build a slightly bigger but much more complicated cabin and eventually a small house. After waiting for two weeks it seems, a machine arrived to move the earth again. Well of course it rained and the clay that fills my saprolite gets sticky quick. The machine that was here to redistribute the earth that was piled up for a pad for the cabin came to a stop.

We didn't like this cabin pad. It created a severe steep slope that was unpleasant to look at and would have been a bitch to plant, stabilize and maintain. There was also the fear that an inspector might suggest that a retaining wall would be needed to hold this slope in place. A retaining wall could cost more than the cabin.

So we have waited for the machines to return to spread this pile of soil across the entire length of the ridge line and get it back to as close as we can to the existing natural grade. The cabin was always intended to be built on a post and pier foundation. Level ground was not required. I will now just have a little more head room under the cabin for storage or possibly an illegal rental unit.

This petite little scooping machine was all that was available. Our main man and his machines got some good steady work with a big contractor, so he sent his assistant with this cute little blue thing. It moves dirt.

Here we are getting back in line with the natural grade.

I walk through the meadow several times a day going from the resident gardeners house to my house site. In the last three days the Spicebush Swallowtails must have had a major hatching. What was a couple has turned into dozens that float above the meadow.

The sun came out briefly and they started to land along the top of my drive and in the gravel along the edge of the road, sipping something. Salts I suppose. That is the only time they have been still enough for me to get a picture of them.

The False Solomon's Seal, Smilacina racemosa, grows in dense patches in the shady understory of the forest. It has foliage that makes it stand out from the mishmash of so many plants that take a common form in leaf and habit. There are too many heart shaped leaves on small ground hugging plants for me to be able to distinguish them all separately yet. There are so many clumping perennials with several three to four foot tall stems with linear leaves that the flower are my best bet at this point for learning who they are.

There are parts of this rain forest where next to nothing grows beneath the trees. The Hemlocks are not always generous with the space at their feet. The ridge line below my future house's pad drops a good 60 feet down to the stream over an 80 foot run. It is steep. It is north facing and it is covered in dying Hemlocks. I will garden here. So I have been cutting foot paths into this slope to make it easier to walk on. I want to know who is here and who may be able to live here in the future.

The trouble is the trees are dying. When they are dead more of them will start to fall. Then they will squash the things I may have planted. How does one plan for or plant in a dying section of forest? How does one plan to replace the trees? Now it might not be such a problem if they were not 80 to 100 feet tall, but they are. It might not be such a problem if I were rich, but I'm not. Maybe just short things with good sturdy root crowns to start.

The Hemlocks may prove to be the devil in their dying.


bev said...


I don't know if you are aquainted with Colston Burrell (garden author, lecturer, etc.) but I have been to his garden and his site is quite similar to yours (although not as steep), in the foothills of the Blue Ridge near Charlottesville, Va. All I know is he teaches at the University of Va., owns a garden design (or something similar) company and is quite friendly. Perhaps he would have some suggestions about the trees as he told us he has similar issues......

At any rate, I am very jealous of your rain. Here in Md. on the coastal plain it has not rained in almost 3 months except for a single 15 minute thunderstorm. There is a silver lining in every cloud.

chuck b. said...

I don't know about the whole internet, but San Francisco and the north peninsula had several short power outages in quick succession on the 24th that disabled a number of big internet servers for major websites. Perhaps you were surfing in the wake of that.

Now I'm going to go read the post.

chuck b. said...

Gardening on a north facing slope, under hemlocks? I hope you're loving that Smilacina racemosa!

We have it in abundance in California too. I have the smaller, more finely textured S. stellata in my garden (under the spicebush in fact), but it doesn't do do very well.

Hemlocks are vexing.

lisa said...

That outside fireplace (used to be inside?) is really cool...are you going to leave it?

Christopher C. NC said...

Bev I googled Colston Burrell and found him, unfortunately he does not have a web presence where I could ask what he is doing about his Hemlocks.

The Woodscaping course I took gave us reams of paper work, ID books and phamplets full of info on NC trees. I would have no problem choosing the right trees to replant for that specific site. It is the squashing factor from falling giants that is really the big dilemma.

Chuck I have both the regular Solomon's Seal and the False one here. They both make nice thick patches. I am even using the plant as a starting point for the design of my front gate. I'm just not sure if I want it that busy with all the leaves. (The Gate) I do want the dangling balls.

Lisa, the fireplace was inside Betsy's house as the back wall. It is all that remains. I do want to preserve it and it may need some attention soon before it falls down. Maybe I can find some historical preservationist volunteers.