January 18, 2023
Happy 2023! I’m back from a holiday blogging hiatus, but the last three weeks I’ve spent nothing but baking, wrapping presents, hanging out with family, and putting away holiday decorations. I stayed out. A lot. Tear things up.
In fact the cooler months are my favorite season to make structural changes to the garden. This winter I decided to do it again — again! – Circle Garden. I know many readers will find this funny, but I chose to bring back the stock tank this time, as a planter.
Three years ago—three! Can you believe it? — I wanted a change and broke out my iconic stock-tank pond. The announcement nearly broke the garden internet, at least among Digging readers. But never looked back. I wanted to try something different in that space with an eye towards creating a low maintenance garden. Ha! Are there such things?
The next iteration was more classically Southern. I echoed the existing ‘Winter Gem’ boxwood balls with an inner circle of ‘Micron’ yaupon holly, a focal-point whale’s tongue raised in a peacock-blue container. But it never came together for more than a few weeks in spring (when annuals like tall verbena bloom) and fall (when compact perennials like purple skullcap blend beautifully with foxtail ferns). For long stretches of summer and winter, the varying levels of sun and shade during the day just make it look uncomfortable and unbalanced.
Excitingly, a border of ‘Southern Star Blue’ Dwarf Ruellia has seeded madly in the stone strip of Sunburst Path. Despite its expansive nature, it still dries up miserably in the hottest part of summer. It had to go. And so was the inner circle.
This Christian_Douglas_Design garden in Northern California is exactly what I envisioned with a circular corten planter bed and background arbor. Dreamy, isn’t it? But it wasn’t in my budget to do a job with expensive materials and labor to make it happen. Instead my husband offered to help me with a DIY version. Which is more satisfying anyway.
Out came the shovels, and we dug up the plants, gave them some, and used a potlifter (a simple hauling harness; you can find it online) to move the big agave pot. Then we dug mounds of dirt and moved them to the tarps around the circle. We dug until we reached the packed layer of decomposed granite that supported the old stock-tank pond.
Instead of an expensive circle of corten steel, I decided that a galvanized stock tank would do the trick — plus it would coordinate with my other galvanized pots and shed roof like the old pond tank. My old tank is gone, so I need another one. (Three years ago, I tried to sell my old tank, but when I didn’t get any takers, I gave up. Ouch!)
I couldn’t stand to pay full price for a new 8-foot (actually measures 7.5 feet) tank, so I scoured the Facebook Marketplace for a used tank. I saw a lot of listings for secondhand cowboy pools, but I didn’t need or want to pay for the pump accessories and I didn’t want a hole in the side. Finally I found a tank about an hour away — someone dreamed of a cowboy pool but changed their mind — and I got it for a song. We brought it home in our truck and got it in the right place. Back in the arms of the baby!
Immediately the tank breathed new life into the circle garden — and it hadn’t even been planted yet. Just like the old pond tank, it makes the space look bigger, it creates a significant focal point, and it adds significant height, even at just 2 feet tall. We took turns standing in the tank, swinging our old pickaxes, and digging dozens of gaping holes in the bottom of the tank for drainage. We also remove the stopper that plugs up the tank to hold the water. Good drainage is key for plants.
Once we were sure the tank was level on its compacted digi base, we dumped soil off the tarps and into the tank. A cubic yard fills about a third of it.
While waiting for it to come around the other weekend, I pulled my rebar bottle bush up the hill from the bottom of the garden and into the tank. It looked promising for a fun focal point.
The following Saturday, and the following day, my husband picked up a load of Lightning Mix from Whittlesey Landscape Supply. We hauled it by the wheelbarrow load to the backyard and dumped it in an old sturdy metal pet slop tank. I couldn’t have done it all by myself and really appreciate my husband taking on this project with me.
It took about 3.25 cubic yards, but eventually the tank was full. It will settle in the coming months and I plan to top it with an inch or two of decomposed granite. I cleaned the bottles and refoliated the bottle bush, and I used leftover rocks to better edge the sloping planting bed. That pesky Ruelia is out too. I dug yellow spider lily bulbs and purple skullcaps among golden yuccas. I hope for a good show next fall!
The variegated whale’s tongue agave was struggling to get out of its large pot and I had to look at some of the lower leaves that were damaged. It should recover quickly this summer. My original idea for serene simplicity — a field of agave and silver ponyfoot — may have gone out the window when I added bottle bushes. One evening, near dark, I’m out there digging up the soil by hand and burying dozens of freshly split rain lilies and oxblood lily bulbs, not unlike acorns that squirrels are hoarding for the winter. Visions of spring, summer and fall colors dance in my head. What a joy to be back in the garden again, dreaming of changing seasons — no more sweat!
Next, the rotten side fence is being replaced (this is where my gardening budget had to go, alas), the metal arch will be moved elsewhere (there’s too much going on), and I’ll repaint the shed (maybe changing the color) in the tank, I Debating using sedge or shaggy zoysia as a grassy groundcover to camouflage the bulbous foliage and add grassy movement. If the bulbs don’t pan out, I can always go back to Ponyfoot and pick up the agave idea. One thing is certain: the garden is always a work in progress. And I’ve never been afraid of a shovel.
So what about you? Are you digging into any garden projects this winter?
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