Sunbreak Wine Cellars - Shifting the Landscape
T-10 Years – Exploration (1993)
When we moved in to our home, it was extremely difficult to get from the top to the bottom of the hill. Not only was the hill steep, but the grass was so long that many features of the hill were hidden. In order to make any good decisions, we had to understand what we were starting with, what we wanted to save, and where we could make improvements. Consequently, I started to clear the yard of undergrowth. With basic tools including a weed whacker, clippers, hedge trimmer, and elbow grease coupled with time (weekends), I made great progress during our first summer. Here is what I found that we could work with:
On the other hand, I also found more nuisance plants than I had expected, a few spots where the yard had experienced some erosion over the years, and an obsolete sprinkler system. We had one area that was fairly damp – our neighbors to the north have a natural spring and this was cause for concern. (A few years after we moved in, we discovered that our southern neighbor had a broken sewer pipe that had been leaking into our property.) And, I found one small bald-faced hornet nest and two yellow jacket nests – one with the weed whacker. I never realized how fast I could run going downhill!!
At the time, it was clear that we wanted to retain the rock steps and the rock walls as they formed the paths on which we could navigate the hillside. We also wanted to keep the worthwhile plants to make sure that we had enough plants with deep roots in order to retain the soil on the hill. Ultimately, with a little modification, we used these terraces as the bed for the grapevines.
T-9 Years – Starting At The Top (1994)
With a summer of experience gleaned from the initial exploration and ground-clearing, we began to think of how we could make the very top of our yard child-safe so that our children had a space to play. We also had some unusable spaces near the patio next to the house that needed to be reorganized. Finally, we knew that we needed a safe way to get down to the rest of the hill – at least, some way that could safely use to get to the old rock steps.
With these thoughts in mind, we worked with a landscape architect (Tom Berger at The Berger Associates) to develop a phased plan that we could implement over several years. Our goals were to (1) maintain the steep yardscape yet (2) make the hill people-friendly with places to walk, or sit, or whatever (3) doing the best we could to create a low-maintenance garden.
The landscape plan we got from Tom was enormously helpful. We got some advice on key features that we needed to add (a deck, stairs, a landing) and on planting advice that would leverage the natural features of the hill like the terraces. This was a living plan; we would work on part of it, live with it for a year or three, then revisit the plan and make modifications based on how the previous work felt to us.
So, we launched Phase 1. We jackhammered out the dangerous raised cement patio that was in front of the living room and sunroom and we ripped out the spiky little iron fence that separated the flowerbeds from the rest of the patio. We extended the patio, moved the boxwoods to go around the beds, replaced the sprinkler system and improved drainage all around, and we rebuilt the iron railing at the patio’s edge to meet current code. And, we put in the first major child friendly feature – a ‘gravel pit’. The gravel pit that was easily accessible from the small lawn that we put in. This gave us a safe space right up top where our kids could play relatively unsupervised. We chose pea gravel (not sand) because it can be played with much like sand but it doesn’t stick to feet in the same way as sand, it won’t get tracked into the house like sand, and it won’t strip the finish from the floors like sandpaper.
The impact upon our future vineyard was minimal. The plan developed by The Berger Associates emphasized retention of the ‘natural’ features that we had found such as the stone work holding up the small terraces and paths that we would use later.
T-8 Years – Scaling the Hill (1995)
Two years later, in 1995, we were ready for the next step. We needed more ‘people’ space at the top of the hill. The plan developed by Berger Associates had called for a deck immediately under our patio. We talked with Tom again, modified the architectural plans a bit and added a few details. In addition to the deck, we decided to add two new flights of wooden stairs that we could use to navigate down the hill. The first flight of stairs started at the new wood deck and led downwards to a small landing that jutted out about five feet over the hill. From there, we used an existing path that led to the north. We reinforced the path with a wood beam and filled the path with crushed gravel to level it. At the end of the path, the second flight of stairs replaced a really narrow set of rock steps. The led to a second existing path. I dug out the last set of stone steps and widened them to give us access to the large flat play space that is halfway down the backyard.
Now, we had a steps and paths that were level and consistent and wide enough to feel comfortable. I spent a month in the summer clearing the old trail that led down to the bottom of the hill. Three years after moving into our house, we had finally achieved our goal of being able to get down the hill easily!!
As part of this phase, we also planted fifteen Japanese katsura trees that led in an arc from the northeast corner of the upper hill downward to the southeast. We added some small variegated dogwoods to delineate the upper path and, for decoration, three butterfly bushes at the landing at the bottom of the stairs. We added these plants, at least in part, because we needed some more root systems in the hill to reduce any future erosion.
The impact on our future vineyard site was also small in this phase. Although we lost about 10-15 feet of potentially usable space on one of the terraces to the deck and stairs, we gained a structure that could anchor a portion of the grape trellis. This would save us several feet at the end of each row that would ordinarily hold the end-posts and their supports. We also gained two hose bibs that we could use to irrigate any plantings.
T-5 Years – Serendipity Strikes
In the summer of 1998, the house immediately to our south was sold. The new owners asked if they could use the lower section of our lot to bring materials up as they reworked their foundation. We agreed subject to the condition that, upon completion of their work, they would return our yard to its original condition or better; to that end, we agreed on an initial re-planting budget and a set of guidelines. The following week, we found a ‘road’ that wound the lower portion of the hill in our backyard, filled with large quarry spalls and earthmovers of various sorts ferrying material up. Several small trees were in the middle of the road and much of the underbrush had disappeared. We dusted off our long-range landscaping plan to see what else we might be able to accomplish.
We focused on the flat space at the middle of our back yard. This space is roughly 25-30 feet wide and 40-50 feet long. It is forty vertical feet from our house at the top of the hill and another forty vertical feet from the street at the bottom of the hill. We could enlarge it a little with a small retaining wall. A year earlier, when we had talked with our landscaper about this, he declined the opportunity because it meant that his crew had to hand-carry all of the working materials up or down this hill. With the bulldozers, we could take advantage of the opportunity!
We moved enough 6x6 timbers to build a wall that was 6-feet tall and 40-45 feet wide plus leave enough structural mass into the hill that the wall would be stable. We also added a fence along the top that would keep stray soccer balls from dropping to the street below. The wall was built in two stages – each about three feet tall with a planting bed about 3-feet wide between. We ultimately planted raspberry canes in this space that could grow up and along the fence. With the rest of the repair and replanting budget, around the rest of the yard, we mostly focused on small plants that would set good root systems -- rhododendrons, Portuguese laurels, bay laurels, sword ferns and some hydrangeas for the color. We also added two dogwood trees and nine blueberry bushes with different ripening dates.
Following this, our neighbors asked if they could remove a stubby old pine tree that had been topped at least twice. In its place, they added a second set of large planting boxes alongside their house using a pattern similar to the landscaping details that we had been using. They added five or six katsura trees in these boxes in what will ultimately become a semi-transparent screen of greenery.
This was the first improvement that might impact our vineyard. The katsuras, once they grow, will ultimately provide some shade that will flow over the vineyard in the middle of the day. Still, they are relatively small trees and they won’t shade the entire spot where our vineyard is planted.
Read about the rest of the background behind our vineyard. This description will be updated as we achieve each next level. (The current chapter is listed in red.)