A little gardening between rainstorms

Because the big front bed is so big it still has some empty areas (even taking into account the eventual mature size of the existing material) and so does the bed around the house now, because I recently stormed around yanking out stuff that didn’t live up to my expectations. (That is, the smelly, messy, floppy pink Verbascums, and the lanky, weedy-looking, also floppy Rudbeckia hirta.) So the day before yesterday I hit The Plant Farm when all the stars aligned to make it the perfect day to shop for plants:

  1. It was pouring down rain. Other than one couple who didn’t stray from the cover of the cabana, I was the only non-employee present.
  2. It is September, when Plant Bucks are redeemable on all plant material, rather than just trees and shrubs.
  3. It was Plant Buck Amnesty Week, when you can use plant bucks from any nursery — and expired ones, too.
  4. The 50% table was laden with goodies that were rootbound, unpopular, or recently pruned back hard.

I had some Bucks from previous trips this year, and I also discovered a fistful of Bucks from 2004. Also, I had just purchased a hooded raincoat.

Muahahaha!

And that is how I scored almost $70 worth of plant material for just over $25 dollars.

2 Echinacea ‘Magnus’, 1 Crocosmia ‘Emily McKenzie’, 1 Corepsis ‘Elfin Gold’, 1 Corepsis ‘Rum Punch’, 1 Artemesia ‘Silver King’, 1 tricolor sage, 2 Sedum cauticola, 1 Oregano ‘Kent Beauty’, and 2 ‘Bugundy Glow’ bugleweed.

Today was supposed to be the only clear day for some time so as soon as I was sufficiently caffeinated I hustled on out there and stuck that stuff in the ground.

I put the tender green ‘Kent Beauty’ oregano alongside the new stairs in the big front bed between an ‘October Daphne’ sedum (currently a wild hot pink) and a Heuchera ‘Creme Brulee’ (currently a winey-bronzey color).

I divided both the rootbound bugleweeds and planted them randomly around the edges of the bid front bed.  This one ended up between another ‘October Daphne’, a lady’s mantle, and a ‘Bonfire’ euphorbia.  At the top of the frame you can see the tricolor sage.

Last night’s rain collected in the top of one of my ‘Melrose’ apples.

St. Francis is becoming obscured by the profusion of ‘Autumn Joy’ sedums by the front porch.

New growth on my recently moved pink coralberry beaded with rain.

My ‘Pink Champagne’ smokebush is so happy with my endless toil in the front bed that it has doubled in size over the summer!

— Amanda

What a tool!

(Hey, it was that or a hoe joke.)

I have to shamelessly plug a product today because it’s the best damn garden tool I’ve gotten my grubby mitts on in a long time.

This bad boy. I usually hear these called stirrup hoes, but the sticker on mine called it an “action hoe” (Oh . . . the jokes are coming out my ears — this is so painful!) and some folks call them hula hoes. Whatever. It’s an awesome hoe is what it is.

The stirrup is loosely attached at the ferrule so it wiggles a little. Both front and back edges of the stirrup are sharpened. This means no more whacking away as most people unfortunately do with standard-issue draw hoes (which, for weeding, should actually be used with the head as parallel to the ground as possible). Instead, you shuffle the stirrup back and forth just under the soil’s surface and it effortlessly slices through the weeds. The handle is nice and long so that you don’t have to bend (and so I can easily reach the center of my gargantuan front bed from the edges). I can also get under the drooping branches of my larger shrubs without having to lift the branches and crawl under and hand pick. Not only does it cleanly slice through my tougher weeds — like the wisteria that keeps trying to return from the dead, or the suckers my quince throws off, both of which are very woody — it also clears out all those pesky little tiny baby weed sprouts that are almost too goddamn tiny to pluck by hand.

Thanks to Matt’s foresight in getting me this hoe for Christmas I can now rid the whole 1000+ square foot front bed of weeds in 10 minutes without breaking a sweat.

— Amanda

Stairway to heaven?

One item on the unbelievably long list of steps to revamp the front yard was “stairs through front bed”.  Before the front bed was brought back under cultivation folks tramped willy-nilly through it, oblivious to the fact that expensive shrubs and perennials slumbered under the knee-high grass and weeds.  No amount of shrieking at the menfolk could stop them.  Now I have proper stairs: a clearly delineated path through the ever-more-beautiful garden that has been transformed from the bane of my life to my pride and joy.  Anybody tries to blaze their own trail now gets pummeled with whatever I have handy — firewood, BB gun, shovel, rolling pin.  Be ye warned!

On Saturday night I laid out the path from the front door through the yard and bed.  I used the really-long-measuring-tape-and-knotted-string trick for folks who shy away from the Pythagorean theorem to ensure that my very long rectangle was both “square” (that is, had four 90-degree corners) and perpendicular to the house.  Overhead the sun was going down rather spectacularly.

Cue the choir.

Yesterday I got the treads carved out, the scrap wood 4 x 4 risers cut and placed, and the landscape fabric pinned down.  By that time it was past noon and well over 80 degrees.  I wanted desperately to be done but I couldn’t manage it.  I went inside, drank 2 quarts of instant lemonade, consumed an entire honeydew melon, and took a 2 hour nap.

This morning I finished the project.  I installed little side blocks to keep the gently mounded soil on either side of the treads from falling back in, redistributed all the displaced soil, planted the four new plants I had been holding back because I wanted them near these stairs, and filled the treads with bark mulch.

Eventually the front yard will be stripped of grass and a grid of raised beds will go down in its place.  Open ground will be covered with more landscaping fabric and wood chips.  I opted for wood chips because as nice as pea gravel and decomposed granite look in gardening magazines they can be expensive, they are heavy, and they travel (pea gravel especially refuses to stay put).  Bark mulch and wood chips are gloriously free and abundant when one is married to a logger and lives next door to a would-be arborist.  They don’t pack as well as, say, crushed rock, but they do eventually compress.  They need replacing and topping off, but, again: free and plentiful.  Also, they retain moisture and are soft and quiet to walk on.  I passed on the idea of pavers and/or bricks because I think the garden should be in keeping with the style of the house.  My house is very plain and simple.  A formal garden, no matter how well designed and maintained, would be terribly at odds with my plain Jane home.  But I think a potager, softened at the edges with a cottagey sort of garden would be just right.

— Amanda

Weird weeds and other garden updates

The weather has been a double-edged sword lately: on the one hand the alternating (unbearable) heat and (torrential) rain have made my garden go apeshit, but on the other hand it is miserable weather for working in the yard — always either disgustingly muggy or actively pouring.  If the forecast holds, though, I should be able to get back out there this weekend and mow and weed and whatnot.

It’s been almost exactly a month since the big front bed got its deep topdressing of topsoil.  (Read about that adventure here.) The weeds are finally poking through.  Mostly (and not surprisingly) it’s grass and ferns that are busting clods, but I also have two of these.  Know what it is?  A RADISH.  Seriously.  I’m not mad (and I’m totally going to eat them) but . . . WTF?

My super-cool new plant find, Digiplexus “Illumination Flame’ (a cross between a foxglove and its lesser-known cousin Isoplexis) is blooming.  There’s a cinnamon-colored heuchera at its feet for some analogous color.  (Holy crap, Mrs. Schatz, I actually retained some of that color theory from art class!)

My bold decision to rid the yard of roses (see here) is paying off.  I have seen not one teeny weeny spot on the leaves of our apple trees.  But we do have something unusual: apples!  About a dozen on each tree.  About damn time.

We planted a peach tree last year, intending to espalier it.  We’ve never gotten around to it because “having the extra money for lumber and hardware” and “Matt having some free time to take me to the lumberyard” have not favorably aligned.  In the meantime the little tree seems perfectly happy.  In fact, it’s actually producing!  There are about five little bitty fuzzy wuzzy baby peaches on the tree.  This one, the biggest, is only about the size of a walnut.  Looooook at it. LOOK AT IT.  Isn’t it friggin’ adorable?  It’s like a little hamster butt or something.

The herb garden is also running amok.  L to R (and then up and over and L to R some more) I have thyme, basil, tarragon, oregano, parsley, rosemary, dill, marjoram, sage, and chives.  In the other half (not pictured) the sweet woodruff is growing exponentially and my frost-damaged lavender is making a late comeback. (The tisane herbs, spearmint and lemon balm, are prepping for yard domination.) This is my favorite part of the garden, you may be surprised to learn.  Plain as it is, I think it’s just as pretty as anything ornamental out front, and when its growing I get to put fresh herbs in breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which makes every damn thing taste gourmet.

— Amanda

I can die now

In the spring of 2006, when Matt first drove me past the house I am now sitting in, my first thought (honestly) was “Holy crap!  Look at the size of that garden bed!”  Between the roadside parking strip and the level front lawn was a sloped, gently curved, absolutely huuuuuge bed edged in large river rocks.  The landscaping in it (urine-scented conical conifers, weedy Sweet Williams, and two unkempt rhododendrons) was a bust.  But the bed was rife with potential. 506 square feet — more than half the square footage of the house itself!

With the help of friends, I yanked out all the unhappy, ugly little euonymous along the driveway and shoveled out yards and yards and yards of dyed-red pine chips from the beds against the house.  (The very thought of which makes my hands itch.  Man, those things gave you slivers when you looked at them wrong!) And I even managed, eventually, to rip out almost all of the thick black visqueen that the previous owners had lined the front bed with.  I guess they thought it was landscape fabric.  But it starved most of what they had planted and forced the hardier survivors to send roots out on top of the plastic, under the 6″ deep mulch layer.  It was a disaster all around.

And until this spring I never did manage to get the bid front bed under control.  There were weddings, surgeries, employment nightmares . . . and the project just got more and more daunting as the weeds grew thicker, taller, and more aggressive.

This year I was out of excuses and not in the mood to make any more.  My surgery was in 2007.  I quit smoking 3 or 4 years ago.  I have no job outside the home.  I have no good reason not to weed that damn flowerbed.

So I did.

Matt helped . . . in his way.  He used the front bed as a testing ground for Candy, his “new” old backhoe.

Candy’s little bucket scooped through 6 years of neglect like butter.
On the left: the results of Matt’s “weeding” with Candy.  On the right: the results of my hand, hoe, and shovel weeding.

Every day that it wasn’t raining and I wasn’t in the woods with Matt (save one day to visit with my folks) I was out there from breakfast to lunch — and often, later — shoveling, hoeing, pruning, and yanking.  My joints feel like they’re full of hot rust.  My sciatica makes my eyes pop out of my head every time I bend over.  I have blisters on my pinkie fingers, even.  But I’m so happy.

Yesterday morning I officially pulled the very last weed.  Matt and I met in town for lunch and it was all I could talk about.  He was hauling gravel and sand all day so he said that, since it was literally on the way home, he might swing by the pit and get me a load of screened fill to level off the big depressions where the weird scallops used to be.  He did — but what he showed up with was actually some very nice topsoil.  As soon as I started spreading that stuff people started coming out of their houses to watch.  (And not just because I’m a dab hand with a shovel.)  People slowed down as they drove by, and rolled down their windows to call out “It looks beautiful!”

To my credit, I replied generously with “Thank you!” and “It sure does!” instead of my internal dialogue of “Suck it, bitches!  My garden kicks ass!”

And now, what you have so patiently waited for: the pictures.

BEFORE: 2006, just after we moved in.
AFTER: Yesterday morning.
AFTER THAT: This morning, with all the lovely topsoil spread.

And now, what I have so patiently waited for: my first trip to The Plant Farm to start filling in all the empty space I’ve created!

— Amanda

The war of the roses

Sunday mornings in my neighborhood are nice and quiet.  We have two major types here: the folks who don’t get up until noon on Sunday and the folks who aren’t back from church until noon.  And then there’s me, up at dawn, mind reeling with To Do lists.

This Sunday morning I sneaked out of the house after breakfast and a couple of rushed cups of coffee, armed with a shovel and my pruners.

I was going to dig up every rose in the yard and I wanted to do it before any of my neighbors could protest.

Lemme splain.  Every rose I had (note the past tense) in my yard was troublesome in some way or another. The one that spontaneously generated in the front bed behind the “Unique” rhododendron put out three spindly canes a year, which usually died in August or September without putting out a single flower.  At the other end of the same bed was a prostrate climber with nothing to climb.  It, too, was a poor grower and I don’t think it ever flowered.  In the foundation planting, beside the front porch, was a scraggly climber that grew back from the rootstock of a tea rose that was snapped in a windstorm in 2007.  It seemed most susceptible to the local blight of black rose spot, which seemed to make it a poor choice for rootstock.

And then there was Audrey and The Monster.  On the  sunniest side of the house there were two rose bushes that bloomed prolifically: vase-ready bunches of fist-sized or bigger classic roses in bubblegum pink.  So, yay, right?  Nope.  Every winter I cut these bastards down to nubbins and every spring they threw up canes that reached well over the roof and tangled in the neighbor’s trees.  When there was wind their thorns raked paint off the siding and tore holes in the window screens.  Their roots pushed up and exposed the the drainage pipe that leads the runoff from the gutters down to the street.  They were undaunted by bad cases of black spot and seemed determined to throw around as many diseased leaves as possible to infect the other Rosa family members in the yard (including the apples, which are only just getting established).  About the time they started to bloom the black spot would start taking their leaves and they would shed deep drifts that, no matter if I raked the beds daily, would smother any newly transplanted perennials at their feet.

Audrey, the smaller of the two, went down without much fight.  I snipped her down to nothing and yanked her out of the ground without even digging a hole.  The Monster took hours to untangle from the field wire arbor it had collapsed and filled three heaping wheelbarrows with cane trimmings.  When I stuck the shovel in the ground to pop the rootwad out the handle snapped neatly in two.  Matt said it was a sign.  I agreed: a sign that I was smart to have two shovels.

The root was oval-shaped and this is the narrower end so you don’t get a real sense of the true diameter of the thing, but still: there’s my perfectly normal-sized lady hand reaching only about 1/3 of the way around the one root of The Monster.

I dug a hole big enough to plant a small fruit tree and saw no end to The Monster’s roots.  A single root, as thick as one of Matt’s prodigious biceps, snaked under the drainage pipe and disappeared under the house.  I didn’t want to disturb the foundation or the pipe so I dug just a little deeper and sawed through the root.

I don’t hate roses.  I just hated the ones I had.  I would like to plant replacements, but I would like some well-behaved, predictable, disease-resistant varieties.  Preferably something I can prune without a ladder and which actually blooms now and then.  I particularly like the sumptuous, overly romantic, uber-frilly old English types; “Abraham Darby” and whatnot.  Go big or go home, right?

— Amanda

Growing celery from . . . celery

We use a lot of celery.  I use the leafy bits in stock and the stems in a fine dice in some of my favorite dishes, like Coq à la Bière and osso buco.  We also like in on our salads.  But we don’t often need large pieces, which makes this method of growing “free” celery in the kitchen window great for us, because it apparently doesn’t yield the thick, robust stems outdoor celery does — the kind that lend themselves to slathering in peanut butter.  I think, though, that this plant will eventually put out growth that we could harvest for crudités.

I got this idea from Pinterest.  Specifically, from this post on 17 Apart.

Here’s my celery “butt” after a week or two in plain water in the kitchen window:

And here it is planted in compost in a “new” pot from the thrift store:

Come summer I might move it outside.

— Amanda