Project Update- Lyman Trumbull House


Alton, 1930s, as viewed from the American Beauty flour mill. Photo by Virginia J. Ennis.

I recently completed the first phase of the landscape installation at the Lyman Trumbull House in Alton, Illinois.  I have long held a special place in my heart for this historic riverfront town of brick streets climbing steep hills.  Alton is where abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy stood firm on freedom of the press, and where he shortly thereafter was martyred for the cause.  Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas concluded their senatorial debate tour there in 1858.  Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was born there in 1926.  It was a real pleasure working in Alton, not only because it is a wonderful town full of great old residential structures, but because it is still home for me in so many ways, nearly four decades after I was born there.

My family’s connections to this town go back at least 200 years, to before the town was founded, but mainly it served as a stopping point on their travels to richer lands further north.  It was not until 1913 that it really became home to my family.


Allen Reuben Laslie, 1913

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the economy of rural Kentucky was in shambles thanks to decades of abusing the land through the growing of tobacco.  Very few jobs were available to young men, but industrial powerhouses in the north, such as Alton, beckoned my Great Grandfather Allen Reuben Laslie and others like him to hop on a train in search of a new life.  He went to work at the glass works, met and married my Great Grandmother Bessie, and upon deciding to try his hand at farming, moved the family back to the hills of Kentucky.  This didn’t last long: a couple years later, they were back in Alton and Allen found his niche as a carpenter, building many of the new homes in the new post-war subdivisions in Upper Alton.  A few years later, his son John, my grandfather, worked his way out of the brickyard to become the most talented bricklayer in the area.  In time, my father joined him on job sites and became quite skilled in his own right.

Being presented with the opportunity to be the fourth generation to shape a portion of the built environment of this town was truly an honor.  I enjoyed my time in Alton immensely: from daily conversations with my clients and their neighbors to the regular concerts of church bells.  I truly felt home again.

I am grateful to the clients for their patience and for their labors; they started clearing the hillside and even washed up some of the old paver bricks found on site to use in the expansion of the public walk.  Thanks also go out to Lenhardt Tree Service, who not only took out all the old overgrown and unhealthy trees and shrubs, but who also came back upon my request to grind a massive stump down another few inches so I could install the step stone walkway.  I am grateful also to the material suppliers who provided quality mulch, planting specimens and hardscape elements: St. Louis Composting, Sonnenberg Landscaping Material and Supply, Joe’s Market Basket, The Greenery, A. Waldbart & Sons Nursery, Effinger Garden Center, and Home Nursery.

The project is far from complete, but the rain garden, the trees, and most of the shrubs are in place.  The berm adjacent to the public walk will in time feature a holly hedge, but considering how prone hollies are to winter burn, and considering that we would essentially be planting them in what is presently a frost pocket, we thought it best to wait.  Also yet to go in, the central “ghost stair” and most of the perennials.

Instead of writing a tome about the installation process, I’ll let the pictures and their captions tell the story.  Needless to say, it was great being in Alton again.  I enjoyed the daily exercise of working on such a steep slope (as did my hamstrings).  There were days when I felt like an archaeologist (discovering an Auburn Rubber toy car from the late 1930s) and a sculptor (pounding handfuls of clay into dams to create wells on the hillside to support the Fothergillas); it was great fun.  I look forward to going back next year for Phase II.

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Project Update- St. Charles

All plantings have been selected and a couple renderings have been drawn up, and with that, the design development phase of the St. Charles project is complete.  When the plan is implemented, this suburban property will look, and function, completely unlike anything in the area.


At the front of the property, a significant portion of the rainfall collected from the front roof will be directed toward a very large rain garden filled with Echinacea purpurea and E. pallida (Coneflower),  Iris virginica var. shrevei (Southern Blue Flag), Equisetum hymale (Horsetail), Rudbeckia missouriensis (Black Eyed Susan), Asclepius purpurea (Purple Milkweed), Hibiscus moscheutos (Rose Mallow), Liatris aspera (Rough Blazing Star), Monarda bradburiana (Wild Bergamot), Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s Root), Carex muskingumensis (Palm Sedge), Carex haydenii (Hayden’s Sedge), and Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern Sea Oats).  Not only will the rain garden utilize an untapped resource, but it will teem with life, hopefully attracting many Monarch butterflies.

Other areas near the street will be xeriscapes, landscapes designed to survive long periods with no water except for what Nature provides.  Around a couple Rhus glabra (Smooth Sumac), one will find Potentilla fruticosa, Amsonia hubrichtii (Threadleaf Bluestar), Callirhoe bushii (Poppy Mallow), Artemisia ludoviciana (Wild Sage), Vernonia altissima (Ironweed), Sedum spectabile (Stonecrop), Eryngium yuccifolium (Rattlesnake Master), Andropogon garardii (Big Bluestem Grass) and Schizachirium scoparium (Little Bluestem).

At the center of the front yard, beneath and near the existing Oak, a (mostly) native woodland and medical garden will be featured.  Here one will find Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey Tea), Matteucia struthiopteris (Virginia Bluebells), Aegopodium podagraria (Bishop’s Weed), Polystichum acrosthichoides (Christmas Fern), Tanecetum parthenium (Feverfew), Stachys officinalis (Wood Betony), Scutellaria galericulata (Skullcap), Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal), Valeriana officinalis (Valerian), Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort), Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm), Agastache foeniculum (Anise Hyssop), Achillea millefolium (Yarrow), Thapsus verbascum (Mullein), and several other species.


The rear of the property features a very large and bridged rain garden with many of the same species as in front, but also including Typha latifolia (Cattail).  A pergola will be constructed on the back of the residence, extending its shade for a salad greens garden.  Behind an low urbanite wall at the west end of the property, the children will be able to plant a Three Sisters polyculture (corn, squash, and pole beans) on the edge of their very own garden area.  Here they will be able to enjoy their play structure under the shade providing branches of a pair of Pinus strobus (Eastern White Pine) and a Carpinus caroliniana (American Hornbeam), which in time may be coppiced for poles to build garden structures.

At the rear of the property a series of wood chip paths and ramps will lead one past a grape cordon and bermed bed (no stooping to plant!) for annual vegetables to a hillside edible forest garden, complete with two varieties of Pyrus communis (Pear), one variety of Prunus persica (Peach), three columnar varieties of Malus domestica (Apple), Rubus idaeus (Raspberry), Rubus fruticosus (Blackberry), shortbush Vaccinium (Blueberry) varieties, Lonicera caerulea (Coralberry), Rheum rhabarbarum (Rhubarb), Asparagus officinalis (Asparagus), and many other species.  There will also be sets of logs inoculated with Pleurotus ostreatus (Oyster Mushrooms) and Lentinula edodes (Shiitake Mushrooms).

This Autumn, work will commence on the hillside food forest.  With the owner at my side, we plan on doing all of the grading of the swales and paths, the installation of a very thick blanket of leaf/ compost mulch, the creation of the composting bins, and the installation of the wood chip trails, log stair and a few of the fruit producing specimens.  As the oncoming El Nino promises to make our winter very harsh, we’ll probably leave it at that for the year.  Photos will be posted as we make progress.


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Project Update- Lyman Trumbull House


Work has commenced on the implementation of the master plan for the Lyman Trumbull House!  Almost all of the old trees and shrubs from the front of the property are being removed as they are a) inappropriate to our climate (Blue Spruce), b) damaged by previous storms (Foster Holly), or c) just plain ugly and too difficult to maintain (Yew hedges).  Soon, I’ll arrive on site to commence with the site excavation and grading.  More updates will follow, but in the meantime, take a gander at the big Spruce coming down (video courtesy of my client).  Good riddance!

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2014 Garden Report #5

DSCN9690I have hesitated to write another garden report as of late because of the fact that a huge section of the garden, namely the “Three Sisters” portion, lies in utter ruin thanks to a small gang of marauding squirrels.  I had planted 80 corn plants and yielded a total of 10 ears.  Needless to say, this event, plus the recent drought, have been terribly demoralizing.

But there is some good news to report.  We’re still harvesting zucchini and yellow crookneck, okra, kale, rutabagas, turnips and beans.  The peppers are finally coming into their own.  And the tomatoes are rolling in faster and faster now.  Very soon, I’ll be canning sauce.

The photo above gives an idea of the kind of diversity I wanted to see when I originally planned the garden last winter.  On either side of the image are red cherries, black cherries (my favorite), and a copious Ildi grape tomatoes (my better half’s favorite).  The sauce tomatoes, Goldman’s Italian-American and Striped Roman are at top, and at bottom are the slicers: Cherokee Purple (my other favorite), Yellow Mortgage Lifter and Green Zebra.  Somewhere in there you’ll also find a rogue Beefsteak.  That is nine out of eleven varieties; still waiting on the two Brandywine varieties.  We’ve had some lovely Caprese salads as of late.

So until I can get large sections of the garden replanted for Fall, this will be the last garden report, unless certain individual items of produce are especially worthy of a post.

And as always, I move forward.  It’s a little hard to sulk with the juice of a ripe Cherokee Purple streaming down one’s chin.

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Anatomy of a Patio

It seems as if I have overlooked posting about the huge patio project I built during the Spring; let’s remedy that, shall we?  I have posted pictures of paver patio/ walk installations in the past, but I don’t recall actually describing how a durable one is built.  Projects such as this one, constructed at a residence in Fairview Heights, Illinois where I installed works previously, are a major investment of time and capital.  Too often I’ve seen folks skip one or more of the various steps in installing pavers for themselves or others; this, in my humble opinion, is throwing lots of money away, as in time, the project will have to be rebuilt.  To save those looking to build their own the headaches and frustrations of a “do-over,” I am sharing the installation instructions I give to all clients who intend to build their own.  Pictures of the Fairview Project and a description of some of the special challenges I faced in installing it follow:

All walks and patios shall be constructed as follows: excavate and grade area appropriately to drain (slope ¼” per 1’-0”) to a depth of the thickness of the pavers plus five (5) inches; fill area with Grade 8 (CA-6) rock in two 2″ layers; wet down and compact each layer of rock until firm and smooth; verify grades to guarantee drainage slope(s) and re-compact as required; upon reaching the appropriate thickness of rock and verifying grades, install 1″ of sand for leveling purposes and trowel smooth; set up string lines as required to monitor grades during flagstone or paver installation; install pavers in selected pattern, continuously verifying grades and levels; install (only) buttressed plastic edging system per manufacturer’s recommendations around the perimeter of the patio where not contained by walls or other structural elements; sweep sand/ polymeric sand into paver joints. Polymeric sand is rather expensive, but it is highly recommended for patios.  Install polymeric sand per manufacturer’s instructions.

Do not excavate trenches with rain in the forecast. All trenches must be filled with a minimum of 2” of rock prior to the arrival of rain. Do not walk on patios until all steps above are complete and pavers are locked in place.

Digging out this project was a challenge as much of the soil was hardpan clay; the deeper I dug, the harder it got.  As is often the case in more contemporary subdivisions, developers scrape off the topsoil and sell it, leaving only the subsoil upon which they expect you to establish a lawn.  You might ask, “Why didn’t you use and excavator?”  Good question.  Not only do I actually enjoy digging out these projects by hand, it was necessary in this case as a shallowly buried telecom cable ran through the site.

The other major challenge was the large depression in the soil directly beneath the back sliding door.  Of the thirteen tons of rock installed in the trench, at least two tons were required just to fill the hole.  Multiple 2″ layers were compacted over and over until the rock was up to the appropriate grade.

Many custom paver cuts were required as well.  It took me three days just to make and install all the cut pieces.  Those around the columns and fence posts at the condensing unit were especially challenging, but mocking up the bricks a course or two out from where they would be installed, and scribing cut lines at a uniform distance from the surface they would abut, helped the work go faster and saved a lot of frustration.

Herringbone patterns are a challenge in themselves.  It takes a little while to start the pattern such that it is square with the soldier course border.  However, once the pattern is established, the rest of the field goes down fairly quickly.  Taking your time when starting the pattern is essential, though; if you rush it, you may have to take up the bricks in that section and start over if they don’t properly align with the edges.

I enjoyed working on this project and I look forward to future opportunities to build others.  The finished product gives me a great deal of satisfaction, knowing that every detail was closely observed, and that by installing it properly, it will stand the test of time.

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Project Update- Lyman Trumbull House

trumbull.prelim.smallNot long ago, I completed the preliminary design for the Lyman Trumbull House property in Alton, Illinois.  Since then, I’ve worked to develop both the front and back of the property.  Only the southern portion of the property and the formal lawn to the north of the house remain to be developed.  In my next update on this project, I’ll post additional plans and sketches of those two areas.

For now, though, I’ll focus on the front and the back.  The front of the house is probably one of Alton’s most iconic scenes; a stately Georgian villa perched atop an earthen plinth.  Despite it’s classical nature, the site lacks a coherent order, which will in time be established by reinforcing the existing axis along the front walk to the porch as well as a new axis where the original stair from the street up to the porch once existed.  The latter axis will be strengthened via the incorporation of a “Ghost Stair,” a series of planters loosely resembling steps.  In the north-south direction, hedges of Buxus (Boxwood)and Ilex (Holly) will establish layers parallel to the street and house to give a little depth to what otherwise is a fairly shallow front yard.  Between the outer hedge and the slope and “Ghost Stair”, a basin will be dug to collect rainwater from the house and use it to irrigate a strip of ground filled with all white flowers: Hibiscus moschuetos (Rose Mallow), Physostegia virginiana (Obedient Plant), Spirea alba (Meadowsweet), Echinacea pallida (Coneflower), etc.  A groundcover of Mentha spp. (Mint) will spread quickly to choke out weeds, sweeten the air, and stabilize moisture levels within the basin.  A new step stone walk will further strengthen the existing axis and will provide access around to the formal lawn on the north of the house.  A walk through this area in time will surround one with various ferns, hostas, white Astilbe (False Spirea), and Polygonatum spp. (Jacob’s Ladder).  Strategically placed urns will provide a touch of formality and provide for sumptuous annual displays.


The back of the property is a kitchen garden composed of two parts: a formal parterre on an existing terrace where herbs and salad greens will be grown, and a potager of raised beds ample enough in size to allow the owner to grow a copious amount of vegetables.  Fruit trees, berries, and medicinal herbs round out the plant list for this area:  an espalier Shiro plum, an espalier plumcot, three varieties of columnar apple, a quince, raspberries, blueberries, horehound, bee balm, etc.  Rain water will be collected from the back porch roof as well as a portion of the garage roof and stored in rain barrels which will allow the owner to water the gardens when needed via either watering can or soaker hose.  The new freestanding arbor between the northeast corner of the house and the garage, enshrouded with white Wisteria, will recall a time when a grape arbor once stood in this location, help visually to unite the two independent structures, establish a more formal gateway from the driveway to the back yard, and provide a focal point at the top of the long stepped existing brick walk.


More drawings and updates for this project are coming soon.  Also coming soon: updates on other projects and the vegetable garden.  Until then…

Posted in Permaculture, Planning & Land Use, Self-Reliance | 2 Comments

Project Update- Creve Coeur

The final drawings for the Creve Coeur project were sent out the other day.  Throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall, the owners plan on transforming the 2,400 square foot lawn into a rain garden complete with a bridge and pergola, and featuring around 40 native species.  Rainwater from the southwest downspout of the house will be diverted to rain barrels; what’s  left after they take their share flows a few feet through a buried drain tile over to an herb spiral, where it is discharged into a trench to flow into a rain garden of Carex haydenii (Hayden’s Sedge), Physostegia virginiana (White Obedient Plant), Matteuccia struthiopteris (Ostrich Fern) and Equisetum hymale (Horsetail).

The rain garden itself, a mulch filled basin running the length of and covering over 20% of the site, can contain up to 3,400 gallons of rain.  It should never need to hold that much water (roughly equivalent to a 10″ rain event), but if for some reason (read: climate change) it needs to, it can.  And should rains of biblical proportions fall on the Saint Louis area, all overflow will be discharged out onto the driveway and down the slope on the side of the house toward the owners’ fruit trees and eventually to the stream.

The existing topography, modified slightly, will be enough to keep the water moving from the west end of the rain garden to the east, even in a 1″ rain event, and all the species planted therein should have access to moisture.

Part II of this project would involve demolishing the existing asphalt driveway and parking area and replacing it with a pervious paving system.  Once that is complete, almost all the water falling on the front of the property will have been captured to recharge ground water and hopefully, mitigate the chances of flooding on the stream to the north.

To the design itself, planters with hedged Buxus divide the parking area from the rain garden, and the primary access to the front door from the parking area is via a bridge over it.  Both the east and west sides of the rain garden are accessed from the bridge via a pathway which wraps around the basin and leads to sitting areas under the existing Ginkgo and a new pergola covered with white Wisteria.

The planters will be built of concrete masonry units and coated with surfacing cement, and the bridge, benches, pergola and all other wood features will be stained dark gray or nearly black.  All of the plants selected will flower white, however accents of color and texture will appear here and there throughout the year as the sedges turn golden in Autumn, and the bark of the Cornus sericia (Red Twig Dogwood) blazes against the snow in Winter.

I much enjoyed working on this project and look forward to posting progress photos during construction and after completion.  In the meantime, here are three views of the site with vignette sketches of what will be.

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