Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Bicycle Path/Arroyo for the Garden

The Big Walu and I ride our bikes every day--to work, to the little neighborhood store, and just for fun. In fact, I suspect we use them a lot more than we use our cars, which sit in the driveway most of the time gathering dust. And therein lies a problem: the cars are in the way when we want to wheel our steeds out of  their storage place in the shop. Space between the driveway and my front garden has been tight, and so we've had  an unfortunate tendency to take the easy way out by "borrowing" some of our neighbor Nancy's lawn during egress. Nancy has never complained (and she never would), but it is a poor way to treat a neighbor and so it has to stop.

Last spring, I was showing the problem to my friend and colleague, Jason Hodges, who happens to be a landscape architect. Jason causally suggested building a dry arroyo in the garden that could double as a bike path. It was a brilliant idea, and so over the past few days, I've been busy at work implementing it.

This is the "before" view, showing the narrow space between the drive and a decorative split rail fence. 

The river rock has been delivered, and I am starting to put down several layers of newspaper (for weed suppression) in the area I've dug out for the decomposed granite I will use as the bed of the arroyo:

The decomposed granite arrived in a very fancy red dump truck:

Decomposed granite, or "DG," is the same mix used on many walking/running and cycling paths. In time it should pack down nicely and provide a firm base over which our bikes can roll.

Here is the same view of the "before" picture, now showing the "after:"

And the view we see as we wheel our bikes out:

I've always had a soft spot for arroyos (pronounced uh-roy'-o), which are what we call dry stream beds in this part of the world. Arroyos fill with water only when we've had either several days of rain or a really good thunderstorm, and then usually only for a day or two. The rest of the time, they are bone dry and make excellent an way to explore the desert on foot. I grew up in New Mexico, and some of my favorite childhood memories are from wandering up and down arroyos on the outskirts of our small town looking for rocks and arrowheads (probably the start of my career as a geologist).

Building the bike path brought back a lot of those memories, particularly as I worked on the edges of the arroyo, trying to distribute the river rocks so that they would look as though they'd traveled there naturally as part of the stream processes. My Masters and PhD are in geology, and I confess to a little unease as I did this, since these particular rocks--granite, sandstone, and limestone--would probably not be found in the same stream bed together. But you have to work with what you find at the stone yard, so I swallowed my misgivings and tried to imagine where the water would carry each of the components and deposit them. I also left some of the plants spilling over into the stream bed itself, as if they had established themselves there between floods. Spreading the rock, trying to think like a stream, re-living the memories--an exhausting but pleasurable day.

I'll leave you with a few detail shots:

That last photo is a nice shot of how good the buffalo grass/blue grama mix looks when it gets a little is the "prairie" that meets my "arroyo."

P.S. Nancy came over when it was all done and said she liked it.

P.S.S. Another friend named Nancy--a biologist colleague--sent me this email after seeing the photos of the bicycle path/arroyo. It's something interesting to think about:

I like the arroyo!  I was envisioning a bunch of tumbled boulders and wondered how you’d steer your bikes along it.  I guess I was thinking too literally.  ;-)
It also made me think about curves in nature, since one of the edges is curved and the other (by the driveway) is straight.  I tell my students in landscape ecology that nature doesn’t use straight lines, but people do because it’s more efficient (less fenceline to use, easier to steer a plow or combine, easier to survey property lines, etc.) and it represents a way of taming the wilderness—these straight lines are proof that humans are controlling this land now (which is a comforting thought to some).  In my yard, I have deliberately put in straight lines in order to feel like I have some modicum of control.  It’s absurd, but there it is.  I wonder if the “clean lines” of modern design—as opposed to older baroque, arabesque, or rococo design—represent an increasing gap between humans and nature. 


  1. The Ant said: This is beautiful. It make me want to drive by and see it. What a clever and solution.

  2. Hi there, Ant! I take it you live in LBB (especially since your earlier comment about the AJ)--introduce yourself! Tell us about your garden...

  3. Fantastic solution, Susan. You did a great job of giving it naturalistic curves and blending materials. No more squeezing by the fence as you take your bikes down the drive.

  4. What a great idea, and a beautiful implementation of it! I especially love the sinuous curves and the way some of the plants spill over the river rock edging, softening the transition between the bike path/arroyo and the rest of the yard. Lovely work!

  5. That looks fantastic and the problem is solved. What a brilliant idea!

  6. I think that looks great! Usually I see home projects and think, well, ok. But I really like this! Perfect SW look--geologically correct or not.

  7. The Ant said: I garden inspite of also being a dog lover. So much of my garden is fenced off. I love xeric plants and try to use them as often as possible. I also have a lot of shade so some adjustments have to be made for that. I recently retired (part-time now) from TTU. I love herbs and have a raise bed for them and cook with them. I have another gardening buddy and she is the real deal. Maybe she will leave a message.

  8. Pam--Thanks! I'm really pleased with it.

    Susan--I loved having an excuse for leaving some of the plants in the path; I do think it makes it look more natural.

    Jan and Benjamin--thanks, y'all!

    Seeker--hey, shouldn't you be doing something else right about now? When is the baby due? Isn't it this week?

    Ant--dry shade is tough. Maybe even the toughest garden problem I know...Invite the buddy to leave a comment sometime. And congrats on the semi-retirement.

  9. That looks great! I'll be curious how weedy the DG will get over time. I had DG installed professionally, where they use a machine to compress it, and I still get weeds and grass after the rain... First year was great, though. Have fun!

  10. TM---I'm expecting weeds. I've put down gravel in other places around the garden and always get the weeds, but they are easy to pull up since the base in which they're rooted is looser than soil. And occasional weeding versus mowing? For me, mowing loses every time. ;-)

  11. Wow! It looks really really good. I love the brown color of the DG. I bet Nancy is happy too:)

  12. You are stunningly indefatigable. I contemplate such a project for two years, minimum, and then implement it over two or three seasons, also minimum. You seem to have that down to two weeks contemplation and two days implementation. Wow.

  13. Gorgeous and inspirational. We're working on a much less fancy and more woodland-ish rain garden in our side yard, and it's a whole lotta work. Yours looks great.

  14. Tina--Thanks!

    Kate--Welcome back. You were missed over her in blogland. And I felt pretty defatigable after the project was done.

    Casey--Yes, I've seen the picture of your "rain garden." Have y'all dried out yet?

  15. Hey. Great blog and wonderful arroyo! I'm happy to have found your play space through Pam's "Digging."

    In regard to your straight lines vs. curves thoughts (and those of your friend). It's funny, I myself just redesigned my front hardscape to have very hard straight forms. I'm extremely attracted to curvy landscapes and the natural look - so much so that there are times that I simply must hike out in the wilderness just to be away from so many straight lines in the city (especially Texas cities).

    But then, I'm also very attracted to the clean linear modern aesthetic. I wonder if it's less about controlling nature and more about some inherent beauty associated with the interplay of clean straight lines with crazy shabby nature in all it's glory.

    Sometimes the lines highlight the naturalness of things even more. I find that to be the case, for example, visiting Judd's Chinati Foundation, where the linear cement boxes make me appreciate the grassland and distant mountains even more.

    Anyhoo, thoughts...

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