Susan NovoGradac has a lot of land - 38 acres to be exact. And 10 of those acres are mowed yard.
She was looking for a way to break up the vast, flat view. She was looking for a way to cut down on grass-trimming time.
She found her answer in the berm.
For the uninitiated, berms are essentially dirt mounds. When a gardener gets a hold of one, it becomes a landscaped berm, covered in everything from flowers to shrubs to grasses. NovoGradac seems to have perfected the art, creating an oasis of more than a dozen rolling mini-hills interwoven with meandering paths, gigantic boulders and tantalizing flora.
And her panoramic view is still sensational.
"I think because my brother lives in Colorado and I'd come back here and long for the mountains, I wanted something that gave me the feel of not being on such flat lands," NovoGradac says. "Here I am looking out the windows at the snow-covered berms, and it is so beautiful that I truly would not want to be anywhere else at this moment."
There are a few secrets to building berms. Possibly the most important is that, under no circumstance, should a gardener plop a symmetrical lump in the middle of a landscape. Wavy, irregular edges around a berm better imitate nature.
Start by outlining where you want to place the berm using flour, a hose or a rope. Next, dig up all the grass and throw it into the compost pile. A good height for a berm is 18-24 inches; much higher than that, and the mound could end up looking like an obstacle. For stability, a berm should be 3 feet wide for every 2 feet in height. Save money by using inferior sub soil at the base then adding 8-12 inches of high-quality top soil. As you build your berm, continually tamp and stomp on the earth to reduce settling later.
The history of the berm is less about aromatic sweet peas and manipulating the horizon line in your backyard than it is the smell of gunsmoke. Berms have served to protect young men and women in combat. Squat earthen walls, generally adjacent to a ditch, create a barrier between military vehicles and incoming artillery.
The berm has certainly come a long way. It's now seen as often in commercial gardens as the Knockout rose. But individual gardeners still seem reluctant to construct them.
Susan NovoGradac first began by incorporating a tree here and there into a berm in order to make mowing easier. After 12 years at her home, just outside of Tonganoxie, she has created at least one new berm annually, and her time on the mower is now a breeze.
It takes more than merely plopping a truckload of dirt in the yard. If your yard is completely flat, for instance, you can keep your berm from looking too artificial by placing it near your home, where it will become a natural transition between the massive structure and your yard. Or if you have a few trees that you would like to tie together visually, build the berm around those trees. These techniques will help anchor the berm and keep it from looking like a floating island in a sea of grass. It's also important to shape the berm with gentle slopes, sweeps and curves.
Berm soil generally will be drier because the natural flow of gravity pulls water away. So plant accordingly, with flora that prefer dry ground at the top and water-lovers at the base. It's also a good idea to form shallow concave basins at the base of each plant so water doesn't run off immediately.
Erosion can be an issue with berms, so it's best to think ahead during the construction phase. Try planting ground covers and ornamental grasses, and laying down mulch. Another strategy is to create a retaining wall with rocks or bricks around the base of the berm for a firmer foundation. Large craggy boulders and dry stream beds add to the overall aesthetic of a berm. A dry stream bed also will play a critical role in directing any water runoff. First run a hose over the berm and see where the water naturally flows, then create your dry stream bed there.
It's really not that difficult. You can even conquer the construction in the winter and then plant flora in the spring. The added layers in your garden will be a joy for a lifetime.