Trail-building

The Brit is tired of mowing around the raised beds. Taking down the netting, cutting the grass up against the wood and putting back the nets is just too time-consuming, he says. He is the chief mower, so there’s not much I can say. The compromise is a mulch path (instead of stone — think of what could happen if one of those ends up in the mower). So we spent part of the weekend in the hot sun ripping out some of the turf, adding top soil, tamping it down, covering it with landscape fabric as a weed barrier and then topping it with mulch. Took hours and we are only halfway done.
Here’s our work:

In the middle of the job (that's our rhubarb on steroids in the background)
In the middle of the job (that's our rhubarb on steroids in the background)
Done! (for this weekend)
Done! (for this weekend)
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Purple for Memorial Day

Welcome!
Welcome!
Lots of verbascum
Lots of verbascum

A month ago, the garden was heavily yellow with daffodils. Now it is purple, with the catmint and alliums (globe and spaceship) in bloom, even a few Siberian irises that survived days unplanted last fall. We also have pale verbascum, which somehow to me seems very “cottage garden”. Some white breaks it up — the first daisies and the last of the irises. And of course plenty of green foliage as other perennials gather strength for their part of the show. A few blanket flowers are emerging, an early sign of the red and yellow that will follow.
The front of the bed, by the driveway, is absolutely packed. The end of the walk has room for recent plantings to expand and for many of the zinnias that we have grown from seed.

Some color from the kitchen window
Some color from the kitchen window

In a bed at the back of the backyard is our first peony flower (!) and some pink foxglove (digitalis). Another bed is heavy with hostas, only slightly munched by the deer. There’s a blue-tinged giant-leafed one, a hefty clump of small blueish heart-shaped ones, a bit of Guacamole from a friend, other bright greens from another friend and some of the variegated that we have plenty of. Not yet packed, but if the deer do stay away, expect more next year.

Tomatoes by the Fourth of July?
Tomatoes by the Fourth of July?

And then the vegetables … one of the Silvery Fir tomatoes growing in pots has three flowers!! (The other is slower, which I’ll attribute to a deer nosh). We’ve had lots of lettuce greens (may be time to start a new crop where some are), the “Easter egg” radishes are popping out of the ground

Fresh from the garden
Fresh from the garden

and the broccoli raab needs eating before it bolts. Beans and peas are in the ground, more to come. Raspberry stalks are flowering, some strawberries are visible and slowly starting to ripen (I will beat you this time, Mr. Squirrel!). Our rhubarb on steroids has given us enough for two rounds of crumble-baking. Yum!

Meet R2D2

You vote: R2D2 or a dalek?
You vote: R2D2 or a dalek?

This is the newest member of our compost family (we also have three three-feet square mesh and frame bins in the back, hidden by forsythia). It come from friends for whom this was surplus (I think they have eight in use.) The Brit thinks it should be called a dalek, but I don’t know Dr. Who.
We have filled it with half-finished compost from the back and hope that the heat-absorbing black plastic plus the full-sun spot will quickly turn everything into crumbly goodness.
Then it’ll be time for another batch.

Quick vegetable-garden how-to

You’ve probably read somewhere that vegetable seed sales are up 30% this year and it’s not just Michelle Obama who is starting a vegetable garden. After seeing us build our fifth raised bed, our next-door neighbors joined in with two, and we’ve offered advice to others (check out the link on the left to the crazy husband blog). So here’s our quick version:
– build raised beds. They work. Go to the lumber store/Lowe’s/Home Depot and get two 12-foot x one foot boards. Have them cut into an eight-foot piece and a four-foot piece. Screw them together (we’ve used deck screws, which admittedly aren’t cheap). We’ve added blocks at the corner, but I’m not sure they’re needed. Our first beds also had a bar across the bottom for stability, but we’ve since dropped that, even as the beds have gotten bigger.
– protect yourself from critters. We have deer as well as rabbits, chipmunks, a groundhog and squirrels. So we used old metal wiring (some of it found at a garage sale), scraps of wiring and even broken deer netting to line the bottom as a way of keeping them from digging their way in from underneath. We also tried thick white plastic sheeting the first year. Maybe you don’t need to do this step, but if you do, it’s OK to be cheap. We also added four-foot poles at the corners (generally 2x2s), nails to serve as hooks at the top and bottom and then strung deer netting (comes in seven-foot-high rolls). It’s not 100%, but good enough. One thought for this year is to staple the netting at the bottom of the strawberry bed so the squirrel can’t slip in that way.
– we had soil delivered; you might have a truck and save yourself the delivery charge or buy it by the bag. A cubic yard (27 square feet) is a lot! It’ll come close enough to filling one eight-by-four bed.
– grow plants close together so there’s less room for weeds (and therefore less work for you). We are converts to the square-foot gardening method (your library probably has the book: Square-Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew) and the idea of successive plantings. Our other favorite book is The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith. Among its many tips are what plants go with what (or don’t go). He’s also a big proponent of raised beds. They’ll both tell you to water deep and only if you don’t get an inch of rain that week. (Rain gauges are cheap.) Mulch too (with compost).
– start small. Be realistic about what you can do. (See Square-Foot Gardening.)

Finally, is it worth it? We obviously think so. Will you save money? Some of it depends on how much money you pour into the beds and garden design and of course if you last beyond one season. I haven’t read The $64 tomato by William Alexander and find the idea ludicrous. (His web site has pictures and a blog; I wonder if the cost of the fancy sundial contributed to the $64.) I also found the grumbling by one columnist difficult to take. (His wife wants a vegetable bed. This will cost money. Oh no! He remembered when his wife planted flowers and what that cost. Oh no!) Heirloom tomatoes cost $2.50 a pound at the farmers market, and that’s what we grow. I don’t know how many pounds of tomatoes we had last year, but if my new bed cost $100 (I think that’s high), I’m pretty confident I will have at least 40 pounds of tomatoes from the 12 plants that will go in there. (Plus I’m learning to save seeds so even the seeds are free. Otherwise a packet will last you several seasons.) We had more salad greens (not iceberg lettuce but the “expensive” stuff) than we would otherwise eat. (seeds — cheap. And have lasted several years.) The rosemary plant at the Master Gardeners’ plant sale cost $2.50. One packet will cost you that much at the supermarket. This lasts all season (and if we had arrived early enough to snare an Arp variety, more than one season). And where am I going to find purple green beans (one of this year’s experiments)?
Obviously you are eating wonderfully fresh food by growing it yourself and you have a great reason to spend lots of time outside. You’re super-busy? Read Square-Foot Gardening and you will realize that you should start small and that it doesn’t take a lot of time. (Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark is a fun book, but he was also a bit extreme.)
What’s your take?

No more perennials!

At least until fall, when the front beds will expand again.
It’s only early May and the flower beds look packed. We struggled to find spots big enough for the seven perennials we bought at our local Master Gardeners’ plant sale last Saturday. This one grows to three feet wide? Lucky to get 18 inches. Yes, I confess we bought without knowing exactly where they would go (aside from plant No. 8, a clematis that went in within hours, and two herbs), but we thought this was quite an improvement from the 19 plants we remember buying last year. Plus, some rate as all-stars in Jeff Cox’s “Perennials All-Stars,” a great tip of a book from a friend. (An example: Moerheim Beauty Helenium, also known as sneezeweed, in the great fall colors of red, orange and gold. I am thinking of it as a perennial mum.) No Jack-in-the-pulpit, unfortunately.
Annuals get squeezed in tomorrow, and then I suspect there will barely be a spare inch. All of this makes us wonder what the beds will look like come June. (Or when we try to add the annuals that are still being babied under the lights in the basement. Or are still in seed packets, like the wave petunia. Are we nuts?) That deep-red Niobe clematis I wanted to look for will definitely have to wait until next year.
All in all, though, we’re quite impressed with beds that began with tiny (but great-quality) plants from Bluestone Perennials and some contributions from a sister in 2006 and just keep growing. Plus, packed beds mean less space for weeds and therefore less weeding.
Also tomorrow — more tomatoes go in. Yay!! Some look ‘strapping,’ according to the Brit.
First harvest of the garden lettuce — yum.

Rain, rain go away

Ever since the heat wave broke six days ago, it feels like it has been either raining or threatening to rain. Very depressing. We could be in England.
Yes, I know it makes it easier to weed when it’s not raining (especially all those tree volunteers and mock strawberries in the lawn). And of course it’s good for the plants in the ground, but there are still a lot that aren’t there yet! All the annuals we’ve been growing under the lights (read that as mostly zinnias), the cannas that need to be replanted, the finds at the Master Gardeners’ plant sale (even if there were no Jack in the pulpits) and of course most of the tomatoes. The iris flower heads are bulging, but with little sun, still no flowers. As for the coreopsis in the ‘death zone,’ it’s threatening to overwhelm everything around it. (If someone wants a cutting, speak up!)
I was a bit cocky last week. Highs have pretty much been in the 50s since then (Wednesday we’re supposed to get back to the mid-60s), so I’ve used the cold frame to help protect the three tomatoes I planted in the beds. I know they’d all be much bigger if I’d left them indoors. A lesson for next year: be patient!
Another lesson: don’t lose focus on the seeds you’ve just planted. Quite a few in this last batch of seeds (not tomatoes!) didn’t make it. I’m sure it didn’t help that we didn’t go down to the basement to check on them and keep them moist.