Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Last year I wrote a blog about Cutting Back and listed everything that I can grow which I no longer bother to grow.  Well, this year is the same theme.  Having already finished the epic dry creek bed project, we are moving on to refurbishing the two car garage and building a deck at our side entrance.

The garage with its old shake shingles and
house wrap hides in the background
The garage is about 70 years old, has been routinely ignored in favor of all our other renovation projects and is in need of a major face lift.  I always try to leave it out of garden and landscape photos, but sometimes it sneaks in. 

"Needs to be refurbished" - ya think?
What it needs is a whole new foundation
Our side entrance has been on hold for years and has been dug up a few times in the past few, first to replace the septic system and then just last year to run city water into the house.  It presently consists of a non-glamorous set of steps, deteriorating railroad ties, an expanse of bare gravel, and a stalwart Porcelain Vine which does a lot towards covering up the air conditioner and distracting from the general lack of landscape.

The side entrance last year mid-water project
This is the year we plan to remedy all that, so the garden has been tightened up again to be low(er) maintenance.  I cut out more than half a dozen planters which are very time consuming as they require almost daily watering.   I successfully (for the first time ever) restrained myself to 5 tomato plants and no eggplants.  And that's really about it. Still, it will be a lot less daily work.  Here is a list of what is in the garden this year:

Zucchini and Yellow Squash
Out in the open the plants have to be protected
with a wire cage until they are mature enough to
be prickly and not appetizing to deer and rabbits
  • Lettuce (lots of lettuce)
  • Strawberries
  • Peas
  • Potatoes (in containers)
  • Zucchini (way too many)
  • Cucumbers
  • Tomatoes (only 5 plants)
  • Bell Peppers (in containers)
  • Bush Beans (still to come)
  • Various Herbs
Tomatoes surrounded by Nasturtium to keep
soil from splashing up onto the tomato leaves.  

Cucumbers shading the third planting of lettuce

Bell peppers in large landscape pots.
The Gro Thru grid will support the plants when
they become taller and heavy with peppers.
Right now, the strawberries are in their prime.  I pulled many runners to open up the bed, and to keep the plants away from the sides which is what caused my Strawberry Problem of 2016 where all of the plants grew through the cage making it almost impossible to remove for picking.  I am picking a couple of quarts every other day and what does not get eaten fresh goes into the freezer for Strawberry Crisp .

Peas are about ready to pick.  There are enough for nibbling but not yet for two servings at dinner.  I think probably if I feel around in the potato pots, I will find enough new potatoes for supper.

tall Wando peas

Maestro peas almost ready to pick

Potatoes in tubs
To harvest, I just dump one tub.  And I never damage
one like you might when digging
In addition to refurbishing, we also have a lot of seasonal maintenance.  The garden shed has been washed down and the doors painted.  The doors are white fiberglass, and you would not believe how much dirt they collected just from rain and atmosphere.  Within a couple of months, they would be grey with grunge.  This bronze color which matches our outdoor furniture and deck boxes will hide a lot of that.

So that's what' going on in the garden.  The weather has been beautiful, pests have been minimal, and everything is growing by leaps and bounds.  Time to start on summer projects.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Planting the Dry Creek bed

A couple of weekends ago we planted the dry creek bed project which finishes it.  I knew I wanted grassy looking plants.  Flowering at different times.  Deer resistant.  Easy to maintain.  And I also wanted it to coordinate with the tiger lilies along the front fence, and the plantings in the "Big Drain".  One thing I know about myself is that I prefer simple repetition in landscaping.  That is what makes things look tidy and well planned out.

Day lilies - these are super easy to maintain and come in a wide variety of color combinations.  I stuck with a "hot" palette of yellow, orange and red.

Siberian Irises - also easy to maintain.  It seems like the universal color for Siberian Irisies is blue.  If you buy a mix, over time, the other colors will dwindle and the blue will take over.  But I have at least 4 different shades of blue/lavender in the landscape right now.  We already had clumps of irises planted along the driveway on the one side of the spruce row.  I had leftovers "stored" in an out of the way edge which I dug up and re-potted.  I am now over run by blue Caesar's Brother irises and on the lookout for white or yellow plants.  There were some available last year, but so far this year my search has come up short.

Blue Oat Grass

Fountain Grass Fireworks
I saw gorgeous, mature plants potted up and selling for an awful amount this spring, and was happy to find  the baby version in 4 inch pots.
Fountain Grass Cherry Sparkler
To coordinate with the all red Fireworks

Now the trouble with planting this area is that it is several inches of stone over stabilization mat = no soil.  Also we do not want the soil filtering through the rocks and out of the planting area.  The solution I came up with was large, 2 gallon peat pots.  These will contain the soil until a root ball develops and then slowly break down into soil, allowing the plant to expand naturally.

I began buying plants as soon as the greenhouses opened in April.  I potted them up as I got them and set them in the garden where I could water them easily allowing them to become established so when I planted them in the creek bed they would not require daily watering and maintenance, and also so that when they were watered, the soil would not be loose and spill over the edge of the pot and wash away into our stones.

 Each pot had to be dug down into the landscape.  This meant moving a lot of rocks, cutting the mat and digging down into the base layer.  The base layer varies from gravel, to clay, to regular top soil full of tree roots.  I thought about taking photos of this process, but I thought maybe I wouldn't want to remember this part.  And I was right. After 5 hours, I was tired of chipping away at the sides with a hand tool.  When I closed my eyes, all I saw were empty holes.  I wore out two pairs of gloves.  We removed two and a half tractor loads full of fill dirt. Then I had to replace the rocks around the plant and top it all off with gravel. I placed fist sized rocks inside the top of the pot to disguise the edge. I was quite happy with the results of our efforts.

Towards the end of this five hour session, Tim had lost patience and was wondering aloud why we go to all this effort because no one ever seems to notice.  I appreciate the end product. But sometimes it does seem a little excessive.   Shortly, one of the neighbors who also has a very tidy, nicely landscaped place, slowed down while driving by and pronounced this project "award winning". Which was much appreciated.

And then just last night, we got a knock on our door at 8:45 pm on the edge of dusk.  Another neighbor had guests in from Cuba and she wanted to walk through the vegetable garden and then out the creek bed.  Now 8:45 is a bit late to go knocking on neighbor's doors, but of course I was flattered because you don't get guests from Cuba very often.

This is a lot of creek, and just a little grass, but when
you stroll down through you can better appreciate each planting.
Another aspect of the Dry Creek Bed I haven't covered is the replacement of two spruce trees.  One died about three years ago and was not replaced, and the one next to it was looking pretty bad so we removed it.  I hate planting large evergreen trees.  They are heavy and prickly and I hate them.  Although the new trees are several years behind the first planting, I pruned and shaped the older trees, and they look like they all belong together.

The tree on the very end is an old but slower growing tree,
 and the second and third trees are the replacements.

I was scrolling through the blog the other day and came across two entries from 2012 when we first began to work on this side yard in earnest :

The Side Yard
The Tree We Planted Twice

Before and After

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Container Gardening - combination pots

We interrupt this season's search for the perfect petunia for an absolutely brilliant tip on potting up combination pots.  I have three whiskey barrels and a couple other large containers to plant in my landscaping and it's not a process I've ever really enjoyed because of all the planning and placement and respacing and adding and subtracting of soil.  It always ends up being a bit of a messy business, especially if you are working with spreading plants that are mature and filling out.

  • Just take spare empty pots the size of the ones you are removing the plants from.  
  • Place them in the larger container the way you want them.  
  • Fill the potting soil around them and firm it up.  
  • Remove the small pots one by one and replace with the plant itself.
How easy is that?  Now I'm looking forward to potting up all those containers!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Salad Bowl Gardens

I've seen photos of this idea on the web for a couple of years now.  And it seemed a nice idea for someone in the city who only had a balcony or a doorstep on which to garden.  Not really practical of course when you are in the habit of growing bushels of lettuce....

My Lettuce Mid-June 2015
And then, on one of my annual agri-tourism/reconnaissance missions,  I spotted salad bowls at the local mega-greenhouse.  And I wanted one!  Really badly.  No, do not pick up two dollars worth of lettuce for ten bucks.  No.  Put it down.  Even if it is really pretty and lush and colorful.  I already have fourteen lettuce plants at home which, within a week or so, will be supplying us with all the lettuce we can eat for the next month.  And I have another thirty six or more seedlings waiting in the wings.

Now, if you have neglected to seed or plant lettuce yet this year, this may be a fun way to start your summer garden.  But if, like me, you have dozens of plants waiting for you at home, I suggest you grab a pot and plant up an assortment of colorful lettuces now so if you do run across these expensive little works of art, you will be able to resist too.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Leave no stone unturned - The Dry Creek Bed

We have a lot of mulched areas in our landscape.  Frankly, we are tired of mulch.  Right now, we're into rocks.

It all started last year with the Big Drain.  Well, actually, it probably began long before that.  We've always used boulders as landscape accents.  We prefer gravel over lawn.  We always have a lot of rocks on hand.  Big rocks, little rocks, flat rocks, round rocks, pretty rocks, and ugly, muddy rocks.  Rocks covered with snow and frozen together...

There are a lot of inspirational pictures of dry creek beds on the Internet, but very few instructions or plans.  This is a pretty good one.  So I will give you a step by step how we did it.  We started with 4 loads of rock. 
  1. #2 stone.  One big truck load.  This was for the french drain as shown in my last post.
  2. Straight (unwashed) bank run. Two loads. It would probably be a lot easier if you bought pretty, washed river rock of sorted sizes.  But we work on a budget.  So we got plain, muddy, mixed up stone scooped straight from the creek bank.  That will give you the entire spectrum of rock types to work with.
  3. One big truck load of boulders.  From basketball size up to steamer trunk size for decorating.

When you are ready to decorate your french drain and turn it into a dry creek bed, first you must organize your rocks.
Tim laid out a bucket load of assorted rocks at intervals along the creek bed.

We had half a dozen really big rocks that we had to move with a sling.  Very handy tool.  Once you get it UNDER the boulder.

Step two is to arrange clumps of  rocks along the sides of the creek bed.  In a natural creek, large rocks will get caught up in bunches and then the smaller rocks will flow around them, catching in a pile around them.  We wanted our creek bed to meander in a fairly uniform serpentine.

Step three.  Dump a bucket load of muddy, ugly rocks on top of your pretty, carefully arranged rocks.  Take a deep breath and try not to look discouraged.

Yuck.  Thanks a lot.

Really yuck.  Since this is unwashed stone, five minutes with a garden hose will improve the look of things a lot.  Rinse the top layer of rocks, get down there on your knees and start sorting.  One at a time.  You can push things around with a bow rake, but really, this is a lot of hands on work.

It's really pretty simple.  You just toss stuff around and dig down until you uncover your pretty rocks.  Flat, broken, ugly or otherwise atypical rocks get tossed downstream to fill in the bottom of the creek.  Large flat stones get moved to the center of the stream. Larger irregular rocks become new, smaller focal points.  Pretty rocks colored or interesting shaped rocks get set aside so they end up on top.  Rinse.  Repeat.

This photo shows the area after the second bucket of ugly muddy rocks have been dumped and distributed.

Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.

I'd say that looks like a pretty natural creek bed.

The entire creek bed took three days of rock moving.  We estimate that including the #2 stone in the french drain below, we shoveled, moved, washed and sorted about fifty tons of rock.  On day three, Tennessee Ernie Ford kept looping through my brain: You load 16 tons and whadda ya get?  Another day older and deeper in debt...

One thing I will say is that days of lifting rocks the size of beach balls will jump start your spring weight loss!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The World Will Always Need Ditch Diggers

The world will always need ditch diggers.  Or so they say.  More on that later...

The mild February weather got us an early start on our spring projects.  Now, gardening has begun, not early, but promptly on time.  All (most) of the leaves and branches from our unusually high winds have been rounded up from the garden and landscaping.

The beds we will use this year have been uncovered, and fertilizer applied to the landscaping.  We 're trying Milorganite.  The University of Georgia published a study which suggests that Milorganite will repel deer and rabbits for up to 5 weeks.  So that went around all my crocuses, and sprouting day lillies as well as into our ground cover before it grows thick and impenetrable,

The original location of the apple tree
When we first planted this apple tree (above), we did not have the large patio where the cold frame sits, and we had a different lawn mower.  When we upgraded from the regular zero turn mower to the larger diesel version, the mower deck is now just a little to wide to fit easily between the patio and the mulch around the tree.  So we chose what now seems like the perfect place for an apple tree.  I don't know why we didn't put it there to begin with.

It was wet, it was mucky, and it was heavy.  But we were able to dig a trench around the tree, loosen the soil underneath, and then my Dad showed up at the perfect time to lend moral support as we wriggled a tarp underneath the root ball and heaved the heavy, awkward, muddy, soggy tree out of its hole.  After that it wasn't too much trouble to drag the tree around to the new spot where I had a hole already prepped.

We now have a large, round, empty  hole in the lawn.
Now it is just a matter of firming up the empty hole.  We started with crushed 2 stone.  After that gets rained on a bit, we will add top soil.

Now about that ditch...

The tree filled our Friday work day.  Saturday was uncovering the garden and working on The Ditch.  The Ditch is a french drain which drains the back roof of the big garage, our very very wet side yard which stands in inches of water every time we get a lot of rain, and the neighbor's side yard and driveway.  The original design was a pipe bedded in washed 2 stone, covered with stabilization road mat and then shredded bark mulch.  The stabilization mat was to keep the mulch from filtering down into the gravel, but as it turned out, the mulch was not to be the problem.  Because the one side is a significant slope, all the soil under the stabilization mat washed down the slope from around the trees, and packed full the 2 stone surrounding the pipe.  This resulted in slow draining and in the fall when we were cleaning up leaves, the mulch on top was unbelievably, wet, ankle deep and mucky.

The new plan is a dry creek bed arrangement with all stone and zero mulch.  And the soil all underneath the mat.  It just wouldn't be fair to show you a finished creek bed and talk about how fun it was to arrange rocks and pick out the plants if I didn't show you all the back breaking work that goes into a landscape like that.

In February, Tim shoveled out all of the old mulch.  40 tractor bucket loads.  And this weekend, we recruited neighbor Mike's help and we dug up the ditch and his lawn on the other side of the fence.  This is all handwork as we try to save the pipe and maintain the grade.  The muddy 2 stone is going to the neighbor's new barn area as fill.  Not easy digging.  It took about three and a half hours to do a little more than half.  The far end is yet to be done.

We removed each section of pipe and ran water down it until it was coming out correctly into the roadside ditch.  Then we reversed the original arrangement and put the stabilization mat UNDER the drain pipe, and new washed 2 stone on top.

The next step will be to turn this big pile of unwashed, uncrushed, straight bank run into a realistic looking creek bed.  Then we'll add some edges of ground cover, some grasses, but no mulch.  There is a lot of rock moving to be done between then and now.

Unwashed Bank Run
 In other gardening news: today I got my first planting of peas in.  I also direct seeded (with last year's left over seed) lettuce down each side of the peas because I just couldn't resist.  I will still start lettuce in pots in the cold frame.  And I set out the freshly painted toad house.

The Toad House got a face lift over the winter