Garden Chronicles 2020: Moving Month (June, 2020)

Well!  How about a garden post?  I’m sure you know the old, worn-out phrase: the early bird catches the worm.  What I’m wondering is: what does the late bird catch?

For the past few years, we’ve actually started our garden a little too soon.  Between the kids and me, everyone just gets too excited and we’re at the garden center, sniffing around the still-mostly-bare herb and veg tables as soon as the temperature is above freezing.  (Well, not quite that soon, since we’ve known winters here that don’t really ever dip below freezing.  But you know what I mean.)

This year was completely different.  Of course the kids started clamoring to plant by mid-March – as usual.  But I held off and held off and held off, because I knew that we were moving.  We looked at the house that we would end up leasing in mid-March, and signed the lease by early April, with a planned move date for mid-June.  I just didn’t see anything good coming out of trying to establish a garden in Old Town, only to have to move it.  Plus, I knew that this was waiting for me:

That is a jungle, friends.  (Can you spot the tiny photobomber?)

Steve and I decided that the front and side yards would be his responsibility, and the back would be my domain.  Of course, the back is what needs the most work.  But I like a challenge!  And oh, what a challenge.

Here’s what I’m up against:

  • The back patio is ever-so-slightly slanted.  Just enough to be noticeable.  Why???  I’m not sure if it’s that whoever installed it didn’t do a good job leveling, or if it was level to begin with but with erosion and settling it’s become sloped, but either way – it’s weird.  (To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have signed the lease if I had realized how oddly slanted the patio is.)  It would be much better if this was just lawn, but it is what it is.
  • The space between the backyard and patio is an overgrown weedapalooza.  There are some irises and some lilies that I’m pretty sure were planted intentionally (maybe?), a bunch of pink and white flowers that might be weeds, but at least they’re pretty, and then a lot of junk.
  • The sunniest spot – best for a vegetable garden – is the side yard.  But I’m not 100% sure that it’s “ours” – so to speak.  I asked for a map of the property boundary but never got one.  And it’s one of the only spots with actual nice grass, which I’m certainly not going to tear up to install raised garden beds.
  • The space in between the patio and the neighbors’ yards is a total overgrown mess.  I was chatting with my neighbor to the back, and she mentioned that most of the houses in the neighborhood are rentals – including hers, mine, and the neighbors’ to our right – and as a result, no one has bothered to maintain the yards much.  (I might give it a go, but I’m more concerned with my own backyard right now.)

All right, so as ridiculous as all of this sounds, we’ve actually made a lot of progress.  Steve trimmed and de-vined the bushes in the front of the house and on the side, and between the two of us we dug up the worst weed offenders from the wild area just behind the house (those horrible, evil things that start out looking like dandelions but quickly grow to the size of small trees – oh, and they’re covered with spines and irritating sap, so you can’t actually touch them).  We had them in Old Town too, but I always got to them before they got too crazy.

Steve hauled my planter collection around back and I got a few things into the pots – it will be a small garden this year, but I’ve got two baby tomato plants and some basil, plus a pot of mixed herbs and some very leggy mint that made the trip from Old Town (not optimistic on that one).  I’ll be happy to get pretty much anything this year – the main goal is going to be getting the place a bit cleaned up.

Here’s hoping this spot is sunny enough for these little plant babies.  Fingers crossed…

I briefly considered ripping up that back area entirely, since it does get some decent sun, and planting either a vegetable patch or a fern garden in there.  But at the end of the day, this place is a rental, so I don’t want to do anything permanent.  I am happy to spend some time and energy making it look nice, but I’m not inclined to lay out a lot of money improving someone else’s property.  (Side note: I am so over renting.  I’m sick of landlords, sick of feeling constrained in what I can do with a place, sick of living in something that doesn’t really feel mine.  But it just makes more sense to rent for a few years, save a bunch more money, and have a decent amount socked away so that we can make a down payment on a house and still have a good nest egg left over.  I know we’re doing the smart thing, but it doesn’t make it fun.)

Rental notwithstanding, I do have a lot of ideas for portable, non-permanent things I can do to liven up the space.  My assistant gardener is very eager to help.

(He probably spent half an hour “driving the tractor” – a.k.a pulling our yard wagon – in loops around the house.  Little boys, I’ll tell ya.)

So, to tie this disjointed, rambling post together, I have two main goals for this garden over the next few years:

  1. Cultivate a productive container garden; and
  2. Create a welcoming environment for birds.

Nugget and I are big bird nerds, as many of you know, and one of the things I was most looking forward to in moving out to the exurbs was the opportunity to up my bird feeder game.  In the city, I got a bunch of house sparrows and not much else – there was a gang of European starlings behind the house, but they never came to the feeder, and every so often we would get a cardinal or two.  Out here, I’ve already seen:

  • Barred owl;
  • Red-tailed hawk;
  • Wild turkey;
  • Tons of cardinals;
  • A blue jay;
  • And a bunch of robins and little greyish brown birds that I haven’t identified yet.

I have plans to set up feeder stations in the front and back yards and to combine a few different feeders to attract the widest variety of birds.  Nugget and I are stoked to add a bunch of new sightings to our life lists, and I’ve been researching bird baths, squirrel-proofing, and methods for attracting everything from tiny songbirds to majestic owls.  Turning this backyard jungle into a haven for birds is going to be my biggest outdoor project for the next few years – I can’t wait to (literally) dig in!

Are you into bird-watching?  If you are, what’s your best tip for creating a backyard bird paradise?

Garden Tasks: August 2019

After a few weeks at the end of July when work was crazy and Steve was traveling, my garden is looking distinctly neglected.  I feel badly about this, but survival mode is survival mode.  I had to get myself and the kids through the days, and the garden just wasn’t a priority.  But I’m working on turning that around in August!  Here’s what I’ve got on my to-do list for the garden this month:

  • Catch up on weeding between the patio bricks – it’s a jungle in here!
  • Pinch and prune the mint, and harvest some to begin drying it for tea and possibly smudging.
  • Revive and prune the basil plants.
  • Thin out the burnt-out sections of the chives, and prune the rosemary to keep it healthy.
  • Prune and harvest tomatoes.
  • Research fall container garden plants.
  • Pull out dead pet grass (NUGGET!) and plant more sage in its place.
  • Trim back the wild rosemary on the front walk – it’s out of control!
  • Look into planting a small juniper near the front stoop.

Well – not as long of a list as I’d thought it would be, but – yes.  Plenty to do.  Sprinkle salt for a cool breeze so I can get in a few gardening evenings this month.

Do you have a garden?  What’s on your to-do list this month?

Garden Notes 2019: U-G-L-Y, You Ain’t Got No Alibi

Happy hump day, friends!  Sorry for the late post – one of those weeks.  After being out of the office in a training conference most of last week, I feel like I’ve been on the phone for three days straight this week (which is my least favorite thing ever).  My to-do list keeps getting longer and longer and between work and parenting, I don’t have time to breathe or do anything else – including garden, as you can see.  This isn’t the only space I’ve been neglecting!

The whole garden is looking pretty burnt out and sad.  I’d like to blame the Virginia summer, but the truth is it’s no hotter this year than any other summer.  We’ve had one heat wave so far, and otherwise, just an unbroken stretch of days in the low 90s.  (And yeah, temps in the low 90s is not a heat wave here.  To get that honor, you need a few days up near 98 or breaking 100.  Otherwise – nope, normal summer.  This is Virginia.  It’s HOT.)

My herb corner, pictured above, has been a mixed bag.  The lavender is doing decently well, although it’s a little droopy with the heat today.  I picked up some chamomile and golden sage at the farmers’ market to replace the lettuce that bolted last month; neither one is sprouting particularly quickly, but they’re not dying either.  And Nugget insisted that we get a pot of pet grass.  The farmers’ market ladies helpfully explained that our cats would enjoy eating it.  I said we don’t have cats, while Nugget wailed “I waaaaaaaaaant it, Mommy!” from deep inside his plush dinosaur costume.  Yeah, we’re that family.  So I bought the pet grass, solicited a promise from Nugget that he’d take care of it, he didn’t take care of it, and it promptly died.

Also dead: one of my blueberry bushes.  I came home from Washington to find one blueberry bush glossy green and thriving, and the other completely brown and crinkly.  My mom just shrugged.  I yanked it; haven’t decided what I’ll plant here instead.  Beans, maybe?  Or a climbing squash that I can harvest in the fall, if I can find one small enough?

The mint is still prolific, but is looking a little leggy and needs pruned like whoa.  It’s on my list for this weekend, if it can make it that long.  Sprinkle some salt for me.

As usual, the mixed herb pot seems to be doing best.  The chives are looking a little burnt out, but there’s plenty of green in there.  The rosemary is hanging in – that’s one hardy herb, and good for all kinds of home uses – and the lemon thyme has spread out and made some sort of carpet in the rest of the pot.  I didn’t know it would do that, but I can’t say I hate it.

Definitely a neglected space.  I feel badly about that, but I can only do as much as I can do.  Steve has been out of town for most of the past week and he just got back, so maybe with someone else to pick up the slack around here I can catch my breath, beat my to-do list senseless, and get this garden back under control.  One thing’s for sure: my August task list is going to be a long one.

Do you have a garden?  How’s it doing?


Garden Tasks: July 2019

July!  I hope all of my American friends had a fun and safe Fourth yesterday.  I’ll have a recap coming soon, but we’re still deep in holiday weekend fun, so since it would be premature to show you Independence Day pics, I’ll share my to-do list for the garden this month instead.  So here we are – the hottest part of summer.  As for me personally, I love the heat.  My garden, maybe not so much?  All the more reason to keep on top of things.  Here’s what I have planned for the month.

  • Feed the plants at the beginning and middle of the month.
  • Stay on my squirrel spray and weeding.
  • Harvest as things become ripe.
  • Daily pruning and pinching to keep the fruits fruiting and the herbs from bolting.
  • Pull the bolted lettuce and start over with… I don’t know, more herbs, probably.
  • Start researching fall planting and consider whether I want to start any cool-weather plants this year.
  • Make dried mint and thyme.

A small list for a small garden, right?  There really isn’t a whole lot to do, except stay ahead of the sun and the pests, and try to get to the ripe stuff for harvesting.  I’d love to have more space, and more scope for exploration, but for now – constrained by both square footage and time – this is what I’ve got to do.  And one nice thing is: since it doesn’t take all that long to pull a few weeds and water the plants, I can spend more time relaxing with my feet up and a glass of lemonade in hand.  And that’s the point, right?

What’s on your garden to-do list for July?

Garden Notes 2019: Birds and Bolting

Look at this!  Leaves, leaves everywhere.  Whether they’re actually productive is an open question, but hey!  Leaves!

So far, the tomato plants seem to be pretty much untouched – touch wood and spritz a few extra pumps of squirrel repellant for good measure.  But something’s been digging in both tomato pots.  I found two identical depressions, one in each pot, in about the same spot – nowhere near the tomato plants themselves.  Weird.  My first inclination was to blame the squirrels, but…

There are other possible culprits.

The tomatoes are ripening gradually.  I’m getting more than I got last year, although the leaves still seem really small to me.  It hasn’t been as good as the legendary tomato haul of 2017, but what is?

The rest of the garden is a bit of a mixed bag.  The raspberries are pretty much over.  It was fun picking them, although the bush hasn’t produced all that much.  I wonder if it’d do better in the ground?  Unfortunately that’s not an option – at least, not as long as I’m an urban gardener.  We’re staying here one more year, so I’ll have to consider whether I want to plant berries again next year or wait until I have actual ground to put them in.  As for the rest of the plants, the mint is pretty prolific; I think I’m going to be drying a bunch for tea this year.  The basil is doing decently well, and my next door neighbor, Zoya, gave me some lemon balm to plant too.  I put it in with the tomatoes and basil last weekend, so we’ll see.

The lettuces, sadly, have bolted.  Zoya and I tasted them and they’re sappy and bitter – blech.  I think I’m going to pull them up and replant the pots with more herbs.  How have I managed to ruin lettuce?  Don’t answer that question.

As for the blueberries, they’re pretty much over too.  I got a few, mostly plucked on my way in or out of the house, but the birds took most of them.  Obviously, I should have netted them off.  I knew this.  But darnit, birds!  There are TWO bird feeders full of delicious Audubon birdseed on the other side of the house.  Go eat that!

On the other side of the garden gate, the lavender is growing nicely.  I keep the pot right by the gate for luck and blessings upon the house.

I checked pretty much everything off my June to-do list last weekend – went around weeding the patio bricks, fed the plants, pruned and rearranged, while Nugget and Zoya played construction site.

Speaking of Zoya, I’ve got some new additions to my garden – both gifts from her garden next door.  A pot of mixed succulents, and a trumpet jade I’m hoping will take root.  Best neighbor ever.

The other item on my garden agenda for June was to celebrate Litha with a candle-lighting in the garden at sunset.  I made some herb chains, cleansed and blessed some water, and did a blessing for the garden last Friday – midsummer.

I also did a meditation and tuned into some of the nature energy swirling around.  It was peaceful and empowering, except for the part when a woman started screaming obscenities at her boyfriend (she wasn’t impressed with his parking skills).  Ah, life in the city garden.  (Happy – belated – Litha, by the way!)

And that’s June in my garden!  Some successes and some failures, as always.  But I’m learning, little by little.  How’s your garden looking these days?

The Spring List 2019: Final Accounting

I’m on record as not loving spring.  Mud, allergies, sheets of rain – meh.  Give me the hazy hot days of summer, thank you very much.  But for better or for worse, spring is one fourth of the seasons of the year, so I do try to make the best of it with all the spring activities (at least, when I can breathe).  I think we did spring right this year – daffodil picking, hiking the bluebell trail, enjoying the blossoms in the neighborhood.  I didn’t check every item off my list (read on) but I did enough that I can say this was not a lost season.  In spring, that’s really all I’m looking for.

  • A MUST: hike the Bluebell Loop Trail at Bull Run during peak week.  Done!  This is indeed a must, and we’ve made a point of getting to Bull Run to hike the bluebell trail every spring for the past three years.  I had a brief moment of panic when the park reported on Facebook that a freak storm had destroyed all the bluebells, but then I realized that it was April 1st, and I could breathe again.
  • Help Peanut and Nugget hunt for eggs in the churchyard after a joyous Easter service.  Hmmm – I’m calling this one-third done.  We did go to church on Easter, and Nugget did hunt for eggs in the courtyard, but I didn’t get to enjoy watching him because I was dragging his sister home as she finished off a massive temper tantrum that started toward the end of the service.  Keeping it real, folks.

  • Host my mother-in-law, my parents and our dear family friends on successive weekends in April.  Done!  Grandma visited Easter weekend (she missed the above excitement, because she was already on her flight back to Florida, lucky duck) and the following weekend my parents and our family friends stopped by for an overnight on their way back north after spending a month on Hilton Head Island (must be nice, amirite).  It was such a treat to see all those beloved faces two weekends in a row.

  • Stock up on the gear that Steve and I will need for our kayaking trip to the San Juan Islands this summer.  My REI dividends just arrived and will be put to good use!  Done!  We set up a date night and booked a gear fitting appointment, and came home laden with shopping bags.  The dividends were indeed put to good use, and I’m hoping that we also get lots of good use out of our purchases over the years.  (Steve came home with the Nemo sleeping bag he’s testing out in the picture above – can’t you tell how happy and contented he is?  It’s stuffed with real down, so wasn’t for me, but I ended up with a cozy Marmot sleeping bag stuffed with recycled synthetic down and am snug as a bug.)

  • Related: get into eco-touring shape with regular gym-going during the week and weekend paddling as soon as the boathouse opens.  Done!  I’ve been hitting the gym a few days a week, running on other days, and we’ve made it out for two mornings of paddling, including a windy day on the Anacostia last weekend – that was a workout indeed.  I don’t know if I’ll ever feel really in eco-touring shape, but I’m doing my best.
  • Read Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell.  Didn’t.  Darn library deadlines.

  • Clear the winter detritus off the back patio, stock up on herbs, veggies and fruit (!!!) and get my container garden started for the season.  Done!  The garden is planted and is producing already – wahoo!  Check in with me throughout the summer for gardening updates.
  • Get my dad’s old camera fixed and cleaned, and start shooting film.  Another one I’m calling one-third done.  I took the camera in for an estimate and it took the store three weeks to get back to me – frustrating – and then the estimate was so expensive I’m now not sure I want to go forward.  I really want to get the camera fixed, and I really want to shoot film, so I might see if they will do a payment plan.  Otherwise, this item may appear again on the fall list.  After all the gear we needed for our upcoming trip, I’m just not in the mood to make another big purchase right now.
  • Listen to the new Decemberists limited edition EP, Traveling On, on my record player by an open window.  Haven’t done this as of press time, but I still might.  My windows are open most nights right now.  So… maybe Saturday night?

  • Take a photography walk with my dSLR through my neighborhood once the blossoms are out.  Three-quarters done?  I didn’t bust out the dSLR, but I did take a photography walk and captured the redbud blossoms – my favorite! – blooming all over Old Town.  Get a load of that purple!  I probably could have gotten better snaps with my actual camera, but the iPhone worked fine.

Not too shabby!  Like I said, not being a major spring lover, I had to motivate myself a little bit to do these things, and obviously not all of them got done.  But I did feel like I had a nice season.  Even at its best, for me, spring is just the opening act – I’m a summer girl at heart.  The mercury is rising every day, and so is my mood, and Litha is still ahead of us – check in with me on Friday for my summer list!

Garden Tasks: June 2019

The garden is bursting into bloom now – a nice thing about living in a relatively warm area; we have a lovely long growing season.  (Remind me that I’ve said this in another month or so, when I’m moaning about the sun burning all of my plants to a crisp.)  Having a small patio garden, I am never going to have an especially long task list, but here’s what I’ve got on the agenda for June:

  • Stay on top of watering daily – except for the days when we have those summer thunderstorms!
  • On the same note, spray my squirrel repellant every chance I get.
  • Make a final decision about whether I’m going to use squirrel netting to keep pests away from my blueberries and tomatoes, and if I decide to go for it, get the supplies and get set up.
  • Replace my bird feeder (AGAIN) – the birds just aren’t interested in the one I got, so I’m going back to the previous model.
  • Keep up with weeding the front walk and in between the bricks on the back patio.
  • Dig up the lavender (which didn’t take) and plant a few more perennials in the front flower bed – chamomile, maybe?
  • Check for ripe produce, and HARVEST!

What’s on your garden to-do list for June?

Garden Notes 2019: Bursting Into Bloom

The garden grows!  I think we’re officially into summer garden territory now.  We’ve got:

  • Greenery growing with wild abandon;
  • Yellowing leaves that need to be pruned… already (damn you, Virginia sun!); and
  • Beach toys everywhere.

We also have one missing stair railing – whoops!  After a substantial amount of nagging, our landlords finally made arrangements to have that fixed.  Hoping to have a fully-functional staircase again soon.  Anyway!  The garden!

Tomato pants are growing!  This one is looking a little spindly, which always seems to be the way with this pot.  What the what?  I didn’t snap a picture of my other tomato pot, but it’s looking better.  Both are showing signs of a few little green tomatoes, which is promising.  I’m being militant about the squirrel spray – these are my tomatoes!  The basil is looking pretty good, too – hoping this experiment of planting it together with the tomatoes works.  Otherwise I may end up back at the garden center buying another pot (twist my arm).

The mint is doing fabulously well!  This is spearmint, and a very happy spearmint it is, too.  Also – do you see what I see?

RASPBERRIES!  In POTS!  ON MY PATIO!  Happy dance, happy dance, happy dance.  This one wasn’t quite ripe yet, but there were two ripe ones when I checked on the plants after a weekend away.  Nugget and I enjoyed one each, and they were delicious.

Lettuces are doing well.  All three are butter lettuce, but the ones I planted in the larger pots have really flourished, and the one in the smaller pot is a bit stunted.  It might not be too late, though – in fact, maybe I will meander over to the garden center and get something a little bigger for this one, and move one of the basils into the smaller pot.  Hmmmmm.  Also: the lavender hasn’t flowered yet; I’m looking forward to smelling Provence on my patio this summer.

The herb pot is doing well, too.  Does anyone know if chive blossoms are edible?  Also, this lemon thyme turned out to be more of a creeper than a shrub, but I think it makes the pot look lovely (and you should smell it, y’all).

Finally – the blueberry pots are thriving!  I bought two varietals to see which was the better producer.  It seems the pot on the right is definitely going to be the star – too bad I’ve forgotten which varietal it is.  None of the berries are ripe yet.  I’m a little worried that they’ll be picked off by the neighborhood birds, but I’m watching the pots like a hawk (<–see what I did there?) and chasing away any critters who get too close to my precious berry bushes.

Here’s to another summer in the garden!

Have you planted your garden yet?  Planters or plots?  How’s it doing?


Garden Tasks: May 2019

The weather is warmer, the spring rains are nourishing the little plant babies (and washing the pollen away, a nice and welcomed side-effect) and the garden is starting to grow!  More to come in a full update in a couple of weeks, but the tomato plants are getting taller and sturdier, the blueberry bushes are showing berries already, and I’m tied in knots trying to decide which squirrel-repelling techniques to employ.  (Spray all day?  Cage the plants?  Water dish on the other side of the patio?  All of the above?)  May is a month for doing lots of upkeep, but not too much harvesting – yet.  Here’s what I’ve got on deck for the month (and some of the tasks are already completed, but who doesn’t like putting an already-done item on a to-do list just for the satisfaction of checking it off?):

  • Plant the rest of my lavender, and the daffodil bulbs I picked up at Burnside Farms, in the front garden.
  • Stay on top of weeding between the bricks on the back patio.  Take the weeds to the compost tent at the weekly market day instead of just throwing them in the trash.
  • Start harvesting lettuce leaves and herbs as they’re ready.
  • Prune dead leaves (how, already?) from the raspberry bush.
  • Make a decision about whether the buttercrunch lettuce is staying in its current pots or moving somewhere else.  If somewhere else, figure out where that somewhere else is and then make it happen.
  • Keep researching squirrel repulsion and (maybe?) come up with a plan.
  • Bury my Beltane offering in the flower patch.

What are you up to in the garden this month?

Poetry Friday: The Seven of Pentacles, by Marge Piercy

The Seven of Pentacles

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after
the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

My garden is planted – not in the ground, but in pots, again.  I’ll be tending it over the rest of spring and throughout the long, hot northern Virginia summer.  And I’ve planted hopes in here along with the tomatoes, herbs, butter lettuce, berries.  Hopes for a bountiful harvest – both of fruits and vegetables and of memories as I tend these pots with my littles.  Hopes of faces puckered with the juicy tang of a fresh cherry tomato, of the wonders of blueberries growing right on our patio, of blessings blooming in this home all year round as I’ve bribed the goddess with the lavender by my garden gate.  And of bountiful harvests of food and connection to you, my friends.