Friday, February 29, 2008

In Search of Strawberries

First, the weather? Is crazy here. Saturday and Sunday were lovely and blissfully warm. Monday was nice.

Tuesday, we had severe storms. In addition to this picture, I have video which is amusing mainly because of my "I'm so cool" commentary, but I hate my camera's restrictive software (and Blogger, which can't deal with it, and also You Tube, although it might just be my slow desktop...ARGH!) Anyway, here's the picture:

What you can't see here is how hard the wind was blowing or the slightly reddish tinge to the clouds over the horizon. You know there's going to be a doozy of a storm when the clouds are reddish here. I think the wind picks up all the red dirt south of us and mixes it up above us. Anyway, suffice to say that River and I ate our lunch in the closet.

After the storms, it got very cold and windy and then a stomach virus visited our house, but between all of that, I've been checking out various vendors in our area for strawberries. I'm looking for a good ever-bearing berry like Quinalt, but I'm finding myself struggling against the megolith that is Bonnie Plants. Apparently, they're shipping strawberries right now to all of the Big Box stores. I checked by Lowe's the other day while I was dishwasher shopping and found myself looking at a truly gorgeous crop of "Tennessee Beauty"s. The only problem is that they aren't everbearing. Huh. A peek at the garden section of Hell-Mart revealed more BP TBs. Huh squared. Things got really frustrating when I went by a locally owned farm supply store and found..."Tennessee Beauty" inscribed on each lucious plant.

Awash in green rage and muttering things about biodiversity, I went online to dig up everything I could about Bonnie Plants, but all I could find was positive stuff about scholarships and biodegradable pots. Dang it.

The problem is that I hate that even small mom and pop places are falling prey to the "Big Guys," who can sell them good stock on the cheap because it means that lots of smaller mom and pop nurseries can't get their stuff sold. And I HATE that every single place I go in town is going to have the same strawberries, tomatoes, lettuces, etc.

Sigh. I know that there are online options and I am aquiver with the idea that my heirloom, organic seeds are winging their way to me right now, but there's something so exciting to me about the trips to the nursery, touching and tasting and smelling all the leaves.

Am I the only one who gets a sinking feeling when she sees that "Big Guy" label?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Green Thumb Sunday

Gardeners, Plant and Nature lovers can join in every Sunday, visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

Can't you almost FEEL the sap rising?

Pruning the Joseph's Coat

In lieu of messing with the soggy and soil-deficient food garden (I'm not just calling it a veggie garden, as it will have fruit and herbs in it, too), I elected to prune and tie back the "Joseph's Coat" climbing rose in the front flower bed. Once in it, I also decided to dig up the myriad of daylilies and do some general tidying, as I've decided to make this my medicinal and cosmetic herb garden (as well as repository for things like zinnias and daisies and other pretties.)

Before getting started, I snapped a "before" shot, which immediately made me get all arty.

Photography just slays me. I am perfectly capable of seeing the poetry in things, but when I try to capture it on film, it seems so flat to me. For example, seen in person, this dead weed looked like black lace in negative. But here, not so much. It's pretty, I think, but doesn't do as much for me on screen as when I saw it with my eyes.

And then there's the whole lighting thing. It's amazing the difference it can make. Here is basically the same shot of some gorgeous nandina berries; the first was taken in the early morning rainy/mist dealio, the second was taken after the sun had come up and burned off the clouds.

Maybe I need to take a photography class and thereby add yet another hobby to my already full hobby plate. I love the idea of telling a story with words. Anyway, here are more pics from the day:


"Inner Beauty"

"Runneth Over"


"Star Below"

"In a Line"


After all the art, I set to work and dug up all the daylilies. I love me some daylilies, but they line the path through my garden and love to leave smears of rusty red all over your pants when they bloom. And as they are pretty much crotch-level...I'm moving them to a bare patch of yard near the driveway. I'm hoping they'll thrive there even though it is lower light. The great thing about daylilies is that they'll grow no matter where you plop them down, although they are more finicky when it comes to blooming. If they don't bloom well, I can always move them next year.

River decided to scare us blind after the daylily digging, so any more work on the front bed was put off until today, when I tackled the rose bush. "Joseph's Coat" is a climber and technically, you aren't supposed to do a lot of pruning with those. However, this one was neglected last year and I want it to be as beautiful as it can be, so I pruned. First I bound the long stems to the fence with wire. I used 20-gauge for all but the two largest stems--those bad boys were as big around as my wrist. I have no idea the gauge of wire I used for the big ones; it was about as big around as a pipe cleaner. When the big guys were pinned to the wall, I pruned any side shoots that were smaller in diameter to a pen. Most roses send shoots off of old growth, so if you don't prune the little stems, you're going to wind up with small blossoms on spindly stems.

After getting rid of the skinny ones, I bent the tops of the largest stems sideways so that they could be placed on or through the little flower arbor dealy that Will fastened to the top of our fence last year. The idea is that we fasten another one to the other side this year and the large stems will grow between the two to form an arch. That's the theory, anyway.

When that was all settled, I took a few stems with potential and bent them sideways the other way. These stems were lower to the ground, so they were fastened to the actual fence. Climbers send out new stems for blossoms from horizontally-lying stems. If you want strong growth from a climber, you have to make sure that some stems are horizontal; otherwise, you're going to get sort of a viney thing going. I felt kind of sorry for these stems as I had to bend them fiercely and prune them pretty severely because I wanted to limit their growth to new vertical growth which I'll weave into the stems already lying near the top of the fence. I felt less sorry when I spotted this puppy. It's hard to tell, but this is a TRIPLE-HEADED thorn. Crazy.

When all was said and done, the front bed looked pretty much like this:

Pretty tame and definitely easier to walk through (less chance of getting whacked by thorns upside the head.) I need to get rid of some turf grass that I decided would make a lovely walk way (because I'm an idiot), and then I'll be ready to plant once the soil warms up. The great thing about this location is that while it gets less sun than the food garden, it's sheltered from the west winds by the fence and the north winds by the house and the soil tends to retain water much better.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go put peroxide on my scratches!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Rain. Lots and Lots of Rain.

I am CRAVING sinking my fingers into some dirt, cutting up some potatoes, separating some onions, gently squooshing the roots of broccoli and lettuce sets.


It keeps raining. And while we need the rain and I know the earth is just soaking it in and loving every minute of it, it's bringing me down. I think I'll head over to Baker Creek and snag some seeds for the warmer weather.

Then I might do some sewing to try to whittle down my massive piles of fabric.

Tomorrow, I'm planning on shoring up the out of control rosebush on our front gate (it's a Joseph's Coat and it blooms really early and beautifully, but it clearly plans to take over the world.) and transplant the daylilies in the front flower bed. I love my daylilies, but they smear purple and red pollen all over you when you brush past them and as they line my walkway...poor planning. I'm going to take out the yarrow, as well and plant the whole space with zinnias and daisies for cutting. I think. We'll see as it warms up and the flowers start popping up at local nurseries.

Rain. Lots and lots of rain...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Finishing the Frames!

Saturday, the whole family got up early to clean up a local park in preparation for Earth Day. I'm spearheading our community's first celebration and this was our first event. I was so proud of how hard Jeffrey worked--and how patient River was with hanging out in the Moby as I crashed through bushes and briars. Anyway, after a quick nap, we got back to work on the garden in order to finish up before the storms of the approaching cold front reached us.

River really wanted to be out in the yard (she's already an outside kind of gal), but I needed to help Jeffrey haul off some pine straw and brush from the yard. So...looks like we're having a bumper crop of toddlers this year!

I told Will it might be a good idea to leave one of the frames empty so I could get some gardening done outside of naptime!

One of the areas Jeffrey and I cleared up was what I am optimistically calling my "transplant bed." Basically, it's a triangle of dirt where I stuck a bunch of rosemary and lavendar that had layered and formed roots. To my surprise, a lot of the rosemary looks like this:

(In case you can't tell, it's green with some new growth.)

Unfortunately, a good bit of the lavender looks like this:

(In case you can't tell,'s sticks.)

I'm hoping that come spring, the lavender will surprise me and green up.

In any case, by mid-afternoon Sunday, we had this:

Woohoo! Alright! Break it down! I can't wait to fill up all these beauties. I'm actually surprised that the garden "feels" bigger when it's laid out like this. Maybe this is the gardening equivalent of the lists and timers it takes for me to keep my home straight!

I have run into one problem so far with the beds: settling. I knew my nice fluffy topsoil/water saver compost mix would settle a bit and I thought I had prepared for it by mounding the dirt an inch or two above the container's rim before I planted it with my herbs. Not enough. When I went to check on it after the thunderstorms on Sunday, I found that it had settled at least five inches, bringing the level of the dirt down three inches below the rim of the frame. Like this:

Bummer. I'll probably have to add more soil to this bed, although I think I'll wait til it warms up a bit before traumatizing the poor babies again.

In a perfect world, I would have been able to wait a few weeks before planting, but I needed to get the herbs in ASAP as the garden was being reworked. I'm hoping to get a load of topsoil today before the rain and storms tomorrow and Friday. (Hi. The spring rains are super early this year and it makes me freaked out about the rest of the spring and storms to come. Argh.) This will give it some time to get settled--I need to get my greens and peas and broccoli in the ground.

Speaking of putting things in the ground, here's a bit of garden oddity that I don't know what to do with.

This year, we got a Carolina Sapphire for a Christmas tree. It's a type of cypress and it is just beautiful: blue-green and fragrant. Anyway, I make our wreaths from the cuttings of our tree and we had to lop more off than usual this year. I stuck the cuttings in a bucket of water and used a bunch of them, but the rest stayed in the bucket. With the flurry of the holidays and bowl season and back to school, I sort of forgot about the cuttings until the reworking, when I realized that the cuttings were still green and supple. Huh. I lifted one out and was surprised to find little bumps on it that might actually be the beginnings of roots. Now I'm stuck. I don't want to disrupt these guys if they are trying to become trees. BUT-it's getting close to mosquito season around here and I don't need buckets of water sitting around my yard. Should I dip them in rooting compound and stick them in the transplant bed? Toss them on the compost pile? Leave them in the bucket a little longer? Decisions, decisions...advice needed, please!

Yesterday was the first day it was warm and dry enough for us to work outside again, and it was still a bit too blustery. Will pulled up the stump of an ornamental plum and planted a magnolia in its stead. (His combo birthday/Valentine's Day present.) We also let the kids wander in the yard a bit.

Wouldn't it be nice if all of us could receive and give help on the Walk of Life with such joy?

Friday, February 15, 2008

The First Bed

On the fourth day, we got a big ol' truckload full of topsoil from a local garden center. I didn't take a lot of pictures, because it was on a Monday and Will picked the soil up on the way home from work, so we were boogying to get the frame filled before dark.

First, we placed two of the frames parallel to the house to form the entryway of the garden. We had planned to run the frames perpendicular to the house to take advantage of the path of the sun through our yard. (Our front door faces almost directly east.) However, our miscalculations (say it with me: math is hard!) meant that a perpendicular presentation would put us climbing over the rosemary bush (which we elected not to move) to get the rest of the garden. And while I basically climbed in it to get the full shot of Herb Bed One, it wasn't too happy with me about the whole thing. Also, we'd have to put some of the frames into the yard which would mean more tilling and Will giving up a precious strip of his grass. (Sigh.) I'm a bit worried about what this means for corn planting and shadows, but I'll try to put my corn on the north end of the farthest north beds and see what happens.

About the frames: we (again, I mean Will) built them from untreated two by tens. We chose untreated wood because even if they don't last as long, we won't run the risk of seasoning our peas with arsenic and other unsavory chemicals. The jury is out about this: there are some who say that the chemicals that leach from treated wood used in garden beds bind with the soil and therefore are less apt to be absorbed into the plants. I opted not to take a chance. It's true that my frames won't last as long, but if this experiment works, I'll probably replace them with stone or cement blocks, anyway. The Vegetable Gardener's Bible suggests using two by twelves, but I couldn't justify the almost three dollar difference in price for another two inches. We (Will) built and/or is building four eight feet by three feet frames and three six feet by three feet frames.

After laying the frames on the tilled soil, I used a spading fork (which looks a lot like an eating fork--don't use a regular pitchfork to do this) to further loosen the subsoil, which around here is basically hard red clay. I went about 8 inches down past the four or so inches of tilled soil and I was careful not to step on the soil inside the frame. I just rocked the tines back and forth to loosen the clay...I did not turn it over. Then I handed over the spading fork to Will and went to go get the topsoil.

Will's fullsized pickup was able to carry enough topsoil to fill one and a half eight by three frames. It cost about $16 for this load. We're actually going to get a bigger load delivered on Saturday or Monday. More fuel and cost efficient. We elected not to use a mix of potting soil and topsoil. I didn't want anything non-organic (in the carbon-based sense, not chemical-laden sense) in my dirt, and some planting soil has styrofoam balls in it. Plus, it was ten dollars more expensive. I filled the frame with topsoil all the way to the top. Then I added an entire bag of some water saver chips. This is basically coarse compost. I'm going to be adding my own compost to the beds as the weather gets warmer...the composting is going slowly now. I mounded the whole messy wodge of dirt an inch or so higher than the top edge of the bed. The soil will settle and I'd be displacing some of it with plants.

Now came the fun part: planting!

I filled the first bed with all of my culinary herbs: marjoram (oregano's wild cousin), sorrel (Jeffrey eats the sour stuff like lettuce, although I'm still searching for a recipe I can use it to cook with), thyme, bay (moving a plant from a pot in my front flower bed), chives, and bronze fennel. I actually might take the fennel out. I've never used it, although I think it is gorgeous and every year the swallowtail zebra caterpillars come out and munch on it, giving us lots of entertainment. I also transplanted my poor leeks again. Bless their hearts. Daddy gave them to me, thinking they were garlic. I let them get killed down to nothing in one drought after basically just sticking them in the ground in a very clay-y section of the garden. I moved them last year in the middle of the season to a different spot, at which point in time they died back to nothing. They came up again a few weeks ago, so I'm hoping they'll revive themselves for the summer. I think they make a pretty divider between the cooking herbs and the tea herbs, which are right now limited to a lemon balm that was basically forced into submission by my insane lavender last year and the catnip that refuses to die. It's the fifth or sixth generation of catnip I brought to The Manor from The Lovenest, our tiny little first house. I also plopped the volunteer lettuces in.

To the culinaries, I'll add basil, dill, cumin, parsley, garlic, horseradish, and cutting celery. I also might throw in some Greek or Cuban oregano (although I'm put off by the fatness of the leaf--anybody use this stuff for cooking?) and some lovage. I'd like to put in some orange mint, but it's sometimes hard to find. I like this mint in spaghetti sauce and it's not as invasive as some of the other mints. I'm going to get some Vietnamese coriander, as well, but it's crazy-invasive, so I'm going to stick it in the ground next to our garden hose, as it also likes damp soil. This is a great plant for warm climates--it has the taste of coriander (cilantro, whatever) with a peppery aftertaste AND it's a perennial. It goes wonderfully in all of the recipes that call for cilantro. Any other suggestions? (And keep in mind that although the raised-bed method allows for a good deal of stuffing in of plants, I'll be using the bed opposite this one for more herbs as well as lettuces, so I'm open to a LOT of suggestions.)

For the teas, I'm putting in chamomile and anise hyssop. I might sink a pot or two of apple or chocolate mint, but I'm wary of the invasiveness of it. I welcome any suggestions for good tea plants. I have lemon balm, as I said, but I really don't care for the taste of it--it seems sort of soapy to me. I do like to grind the leaves in the disposal to freshen it up, though, and I think it's a pretty plant.
I left the lavender in the wheelbarrow for now. I'm planning a medicinal/cosmetic herb bed for another section of the yard which will contain the lavender AND soapwort, meadowsweet, calendula, echinacea, feverfew, and maybe some elacampane.

Today I'll be buying some seeds online (it's too late to start seeds indoors here, probably, but I'm hoping that with my new and improved kickass soil, I'll have better luck with direct sowing than in the past) and checking out the lettuces available at our local nurseries. I'm feeling very excited about the garden this year.

Isn't it pretty so far?

Reworking the Garden, Day Three

After a break for geocaching, we got back to work on the garden. Jeffrey and I raked pinestraw out of the entire thing to be put on the burn pile. It's true that pine straw will compost and a LOT of it gets put in the bin. However, pine straw has a tough outer "shell" that causes it to break down more slowly. Also, it is an "acid" and can get your pH all wonky if you have too much in your garden. Tomatoes love it...sweet peas, not so much. So I have to be careful with it. Mountain mint loves pine straw, too. Although, actually, mountain mint would probably love the cold, hard floor of a troll dungeon. This stuff grows ANYWHERE. (And is lovely with its purple stems and leaf-undersides. I like to pull it up just to sniff it for a little pick me up--it's powerful stuff.)

After removing my herb garden to Jeffrey's wagon and one of the wheel barrows
(and finding and taking a ridiculously long time getting a good shot of some volunteer leaf lettuces)

we set about tilling. (And by "we," I mean Will.) We're tilling the garden despite using raised beds for a few reasons. First, it will smooth out the lumps caused by my raised herb patch and lettuce bed. Second, it will give us a clean slate to work with and plan for. Third, it will break up the topsoil to make placing our frames easier AND to allow us to scoop dirt from the paths between the frames to place in the frames. Yay, tilling! Hey, know what gets caught in tillers besides pine straw? Rocks.

Boo, rocks!

In any case, by the end of day three, we had tilled most of the garden and Will had built three more frames. We were almost ready to start filling and planting! Woohoo!

In celebration, I tried to get arty with the catnip and lavendar in the wheel barrow. Our cat loves catnip and I was tickled to realize as I dug up the billions of volunteers that it really does smell like CK1. Also, it's hard to be arty with it. Which didn't tickle me that much, really. Note the everpresent pine straw.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Reworking the Garden, Day Two

After a day of rain,

we got back to the garden. Will continued to work on the frames with Jeffrey helping. I pulled up tomato stakes and old pepper and eggplant vines and transplanted the poor blueberries again. It will be a miracle if they produce. I plan on trimming them back hard next year (they've already got buds for this year) and seeing what happens.

This picture has nothing to do with the garden, but I like the joy and trepidation that are mixed in his little body.

By the end of the second day, I had cleared all the trash and plants from the garden and was ready for tilling. We put a couple of the frames in the garden to judge size and placement. This was followed by much cursing on my part as I realized that...uh...math is hard!

I also snagged this photo of blooms on my rosemary. I love my new camera even if I hate the software it comes with. My rosemary bush is almost ten years old and is a monster if I don't keep it ruthlessly pruned. I use rosemary quite a bit in cooking (it's also, incidentally, a nice all-purpose herb for rituals.) Legend has it that while on the way to Bethlehem, Mary laid her cloak on a rosemary bush when she and Joseph stopped for a rest, turning the flowers blue.

Reworking the Garden, Day One

This is how my garden looked a couple of weeks ago as the year dragged itself toward spring.

In other words, like crap. The old compost heap container was a rotten, fireant-infested spider's paradise. The new compost bin was fine, but also ant-infested. The gardenia bush, which I adore, was overgrown and disease- and bug-ridden. The blueberry bush which I had rescued from the shady dog pen (former owners of this house? C-R-A-Z-Y.) was spindly and sad. I had yet to pull up the old tomato, pepper, or eggplant vines. The ground was littered with various oranges, banana peels, and other bits of stuff I had thrown out because I was too lazy or cold to go to the compost bin. And...there was lots of various trash abounding. Only the herb patch looked as an herb patch should.

Here's a shot of the gardenia bush. It is patentedly unfair for me to post this picture of my husband on the internet, because it might be the most unflattering picture of him ever taken in the history of pictures. But I wanted to show how big the bush was and he's 5'9" or so and there was NO way I was getting in front of the camera so...yeah.

About a month ago, I stumbled on The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Edward C. Smith. I ordered it online and realized upon reading it that it could CHANGE MY LIFE. Or at least my gardening habits.

Basically, the idea is that raised beds and organic techniques equal higher yields for your garden. And given that I want to actually, you know, eat stuff from my garden this year, I was all about his method. The soil in my garden is wonderful in a small section and horrible in the rest of it with a few smatterings of good throughout. Not optimal for gardening, so we decided to build some frames and bring in topsoil to add to the beds we made. It would be an investment (around $300 so far), but it would also be a permanent solution to the unsightly and poorly yielding garden that made Will want to kill me every summer. With Imbolc showing us all kinds of possibilities, we got started.

After fetching the lumber (and, come to find out, vastly miscalculating the amount we would need, basically because we vastly mismeasured the garden--math is hard!), we set to work.

Will built the frames in his "workshop" while Jeffrey helped.

Meanwhile, I hacked at the gardenia bush. I felt a bit like an axe murderer (clipper murderer?) as I did so, but the truth is that without any intervention, my beautiful shrub is going to die. I was literally stuck in a whitefly carcass snowfall as I pruned. So gross. I hope that I haven't killed it and that in the spring it will come forth beautifully again. When I say hacked at, I mean it:

I also took down the old compost container and a rickety chicken wire fence that at no point in time supported the peas or cucumbers like I wanted it to. It did, however, serve as an excellent way for me to worry about my children poking their eyes out.

I also found the time to take this picture of a bird's nest I removed from the gardenia bush. The birds had long since departed--the thing was starting to fall apart. What smooshes me is the care with which Mama Bird built she tenderly wound the soft thready things around the center to make a cozy spot for her babies. Nature has so much to teach us.

At the end of Day One, the garden looked like this:

I was well-satisfied and felt like we had done a lot of good work. It was a lovely way to spend a day with the family: we all got a bunch of exercise and fresh air. Day Two would have to wait out a cold front...