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Baby Lavender


I set out to write a diatribe on how evil weed barrier is, but Love is stronger than Hate, right, so let me write a little ode to lavender. Lavender is a fragrant sub shrub- I think it is actually what people think of when they say they want a shrub next to the patio- they want something a couple of feet high, with flowers, but mostly just green leaves. When plant people say shrub, they mean something that grows between 6 and 12 feet high- what the knights who say ni mean. knights who say ni

Anywho- I have a nice little lavender plant in a xeric bed in the back yard, but one of the other things about lavender is that is doesn’t have a very long life- my plant in the back yard is about 5 years old, and it won’t live much longer, no matter how well I treat it (sometimes it is not about killing exotic plants, different things just have different life spans) This little lavender bush will never grow taller than the house, like the oak, or form a sneak-out proof thicket in front of the window, like a rose bush (take that, sneaky teens!) It will just stay knee high, with fragrant leaves and purple flowers, much loved by bees.
Now, the reason I bring up weed barrier is that I was cleaning weeds out of the flower bed by the driveway. Previous owners had planted peonies and roses, in plastic weed barrier with lava rock on top. The bed is gorgeous in June- I probably wouldn’t have chosen those plants and that location and that quantity of lava rock, and certainly that black plastic weed barrier. I do love the garden, though.
The problem with the lava rock on top of plastic is that it doesn’t actually get rid of weeds, it just changes the way they present themselves.Over time, the lava breaks down into smaller chunks, and organic matter like leaves blows in. Weed seeds drift in and sprout. Bind weed finds a way to snake its roots up through any gap in the plastic, making it that much harder to pull out. In addition, the plastic cuts off oxygen to the soil beneath, preventing worms and other soil creatures from living there. It is awful. But, as terrible as weed barrier is, I love the little garden strip, and can’t face digging out the whole area to get rid of the plastic.
This all went through my head as I was cursing the weeds, so I figured out that I could dig it out the way the guy in the Johnny Cash song stole his Cadillac from the factory- one piece at a time.
I was working on an area with a small stump poking through the plastic- something had been planted there, and hadn’t survived. It created a 3 foot long space between peony plants, where opportunistic weeds jump in. So, I pulled the weeds, scooped the lava rocks to one side and cut and ripped out as much plastic as I could get to- there were fat worms living in the mix of crumbled lava and organic matter on top of the plastic, none at all in the dead clay beneath. That’s a problem. I added a scoop of composty soil from the back yard, dumped the lava rock back on and some wood chip mulch.
A few days later,after a trip to the nursery, I popped in a Provence lavender plant. I figure the lava will help aerate the soil, and help the clay soil drain better, which is important for Mediterranean plants like lavender. Three months later, with plenty of rain and sunshine, the baby lavender looks good, and more importantly, the few  weeds encroaching on it are easy to pull from the loose soil. Next year, I’ll clean up another chunk, pull out some more plastic, and plant something else- something herby? Any ideas?

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Resilience- you can grow that


kate hailstorm

“Hurry up, mom, it’s really cold!”

We had a hailstorm last night- after a lovely, breezy day with lots of garden puttering, I was sitting on my patio, listening to the neighbor kids scream on their trampoline. I heard thunder to the south and decided to move in. By the time I gathered up my iced tea and got the screen door shut, the rain had started, and then came the hail.
Kate decided it would be cool to go out onto the porch, then regretted it almost instantly- it was being blown under the roof. She struggled with the screen slider, and got hit in the shoulder. The stones were dime to quarter-sized, and they shredded the garden. Giant splashes came up from the pond, the iris and the peonies flopped over, ash leaves made pesto on the driveway. Looking at it through the window, I wanted to cry. I wanted brownies. I hate hail.
It poured rain for a good long time after, and we got probably another 1/2 inch, on top of the five inches we got during a very wet May. We usually get about 16 inches of moisture around here per year, so 5 inches in a month is crazy- the soil is saturated and there has been flooding downstream from us.
Now it’s the day after, and I hear a chainsaw going around the block. I take a tour of the yard with a cup of coffee.
Not actually that bad. Here’s where I get to my point about resilience.

Direct hit!

Direct hit!

The water lily leaves have holes in them, but none of the fish are belly up in the pond, the iris are still flopped over, but they were pretty much finished blooming anyway. The few peonies that had opened are shattered, but the rest that are still in bud look fine.The new baby peach tree seems fine, with just a few torn leaves. The giant ash trees took most of the brunt of the storm, most of what was in their shelter is okay, and no large branches fell down. Tomatoes were in walls of water, which protected them from damage. The traditional, “grandma’s garden” types of plants show damage, but they should bounce back.

Supposed to keep the tomatoes warm at night, also protects against balls of ice falling from the sky, apparently.

Supposed to keep the tomatoes warm at night, also protects against balls of ice falling from the sky, apparently.

Now, I planted a garden bed last year, in full sun, no shelter from big trees, of mostly native and dry-land plants. How did these baby plants do? They look fine. I can’t tell they were in a storm at all, other than the fact that there are some shredded leaves that were blown onto them. These native plains plants have evolved to get hailed on periodically, go without rain, shrug it off and grow anyway.
I got my collection from the Garden in a Box program from the city- sometimes you can get rebates. The garden was designed by Lauren Springer, and cost less than what I would have paid at a nursery. The water department wants people to plant them to minimize the amount of turf that people feel obliged to water. The side benefit is that they are resilient to other weather events, too.

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We happen to live in a hail zone, with frequent thunderstorms, and infrequent (fingers crossed) tornadoes. Maybe your extreme weather events include blizzards, or floods, deep freezes, droughts (I’m looking at you, most of American Southwest). Why not plant things that thrive in the weather that you have? Plant things that have evolved, or have been bred, in a climate like yours, that don’t take additional irrigation once they have been established. For my homies along the Front Range, Lauren Springer has books ( go to the library, I don’t make any money off this, not that you shouldn’t buy the book, but libraries are good, too) or David Salman runs a Santa Fe nursery called High Country Gardens. His catalog is an education in itself. Bounce back after sever weather. Resilience. You can Grow that.

On the 4th of the month, C.L. Fornari challenges garden bloggers to share encouraging words about what is growable. Search for other You Can Grow That posts!

A Memorial. You can grow that.


I was out for a run this morning (zombies weren’t even chasing me- I was running for pleasure) and all over the neighborhood tulips are blooming. My heart bounced up at all of them, but especially the red ones.

They look pink in this shot, but I assure you, the tulips are red.

They look pink in this shot, but I assure you, the tulips are red.

My dad was not what you’d call a keen gardener.  I remember planting radishes with him when I was very little, and he took great pride in his lawn, but he certainly wasn’t where I inherited my love of plants. He did work hard on his red tulips, though.  He planted them beside the front door, and after they bloomed and the foliage faded, he would dig them up, and separate out the daughter bulbs, or offsets, from the ones that had bloomed, then save them on screens he had built until fall, when he would plant them again. I can only ever remember him having red tulips- not sure why.

My dad died about 11 years ago. Kate barely remembers him, and Will only knows him from stories and pictures.  The spring after he died, we planted a Burr Oak tree in the back yard, and it has thrived- it so represents him- strong and tall. He was an oak.  Additionally, that fall, I ordered and planted 100 red tulips, which I put under the oak.  That next spring, they bloomed strongly and vividly- a blanket of red under the little oak. I didn’t follow my daddy’s example, and dig them up and sort them. I never do- I try to select varieties that naturalize, and just let nature take its course.

Nature’s course with tulips is that the bulbs form offsets every year, and they don’t send up flowers until they are big enough. They may come back after a couple of years, but if they aren’t divided, they tend to peter out. Last year, there were one or two flowers, this year I don’t see any.

It strikes me that grief is like that- early on, a blanket of red, and as time passes, the feeling fades, only to be brought up again, with a reminder, or a dream, or a pun. (One of my colleagues recently broke her arm in 3 places. I laughed and told her to stay out of them places. No one in the teacher’s lounge laughed, but Daddy would have.)

Now, I’m not saying that oaks and red tulips are a universal memorial, but if you are grieving someone, think about what they loved, and what you can plant to help their memory stay with you, so that when you smell lilacs, or see daffodils, or pass by a lily, you remember.  You can grow that.

(If you are curious about why no blogging recently, nothing’s wrong, just very busy with they day job, family stuff, and of course, exercise and coffee. I’ve got some ideas of things to write about, and I will, as I have time.)

Water Garden- you can grow that!


My happy place.

My happy place.

Pretty much every morning, I go out to my patio, set my coffee on the table, put my feet up on the big terra cotta pot, and watch the sky reflected on the surface of the pond.

To be clear, this is a horse tank, 100 gallons of galvanized metal with a lily plant and a few goldfish swimming around munching the mosquito larvae. There is no fountain, no water filter, no waterfall, just a flat surface.  If I had to move to a place with a smaller yard, a small pond would be the number one thing I would have- and I would keep it tall, above ground, rather than in the ground. Having it up high makes it easier to maintain, and the structure makes it feel like it takes up more space in the landscape.

This is the third iteration of a pond in our yard- I started with a 20 gallon tub, then sprang for a whiskey barrel, then a couple of years ago I picked up a 100 gallon trough at the farm supply store- I call it a hillbilly goldfish pond. The dull metal works with my aesthetic, if I wanted to be fancier, I would side it with stone, or cedar or something. Or maybe not, that seems like a lot of work.

The beauty of the larger pond is that it is less work than the smaller ones- the additional water acts as a buffer for temperature swings. You also don’t have as many issues with ammonia build up from fish waste.   I bought five very cheap goldfish at the beginning of the year, a couple of them died early on, and the others have gotten very good at hiding- I see the ripples of them moving around beneath the surface, but haven’t seen a tell tale orange fish in about a month. Will says he saw one being eaten by a preying mantis. I asked him why he didn’t film it, and he looked at me like I was crazy.  It is crazy to ask a kid to stop watching an insect eating a fish, run inside, find his camera, replace the batteries, then run back outside.  The circle of life.

About once a week, I use a bucket to scoop out some water and dump it onto the patio pots- they appreciate the “nutrient rich” water- it winds up being a very dilute fertilizer. Then I turn on the hose and top up the tank. The water lily, water hyacinths and other plants use up other nutrients- the more surface of the water is covered with plants, the less algae growth there is.

Anyway, I cannot recommend more highly the idea of getting a big tank of some sort, putting in water, and a couple of cheap feeder goldfish. Add a plant or two, and place a cinder block so the fish have somewhere to hide, then make a cup of coffee. It is so worthwhile to have a water garden. And you can grow that.

Jello molds- not just for jello


There are tons of copper jell-o molds at the thrift stores I frequent. I never ever make jell-o, and if I did, I wouldn’t do it in a fancy mold shaped like a lobster, or a star, or a crown. I love these molds though. I covet them. The cost around a dollar each- I guess the age of making jello shaped like a fish is over, and people don’t even want them hanging on their walls anymore. Now they can be mine…all mine!!!!

Mostly jello molds, but there's a kitty cat cake pan in there, too.

Mostly jello molds, but there’s a kitty cat cake pan in there, too.

Several years ago, in pre-blog life, I used some as molds for concrete stepping stones. They weren’t super-successful. For example, my favorite shape was a curved fish, but in popping it out of the mold, it broke. I also probably pulled the stones out earlier than I should have- the longer concrete cures, the harder it is, so popping them out early meant they were fragile.
We had a half bucket of concrete mix left, though, so last week while the boy was at STEM summer school, Kate and I got messy.

Sun's out, guns out- look at those muscles!

Sun’s out, guns out- look at those muscles!

I had read on the internet (gardenweb has great information about concrete garden ornaments of all kinds) that adding latex paint as part of the liquid to concrete can extend the working time, and strengthen the finished product. I poured in some of the “Amethyst Frost” paint left from the last time we painted Kate’s room into the mix. It totally doesn’t change the color- the concrete is still grey.

Kate was much more persnickety about greasing her molds with petroleum jelly, so the ones she worked on came out much better than mine. We also got some marble gems at the dollar store, and she was in charge of placement. I would have gone crazy and carpeted the stones with marbles, but she was very reserved.

With the curved fish and a sea horse mold, I attempted to reinforce the concrete with mesh from an onion bag.  The delicate parts broke anyway, so I glued them with 9001 high strength adhesive. Once they are in place, there won’t be a lot of stress on them, so they should be okay.

I waited several days to pop them out of the molds, kept them covered with plastic, and misted them with water every time I remembered to, all on advice from the garden web forum people.

Cat+ craft project, quick, somebody pin me!

Cat+ craft project, quick, somebody pin me!

All in all, I am very pleased with the results- we have some good-looking stepping stone/border edging pieces. You should recognize that you cannot use the molds for food again- the vaseline helps the concrete to release, but there are still bits of gravel stuck to the inside. The molds are about a dollar each at thrift stores (rest assured, Mom, that I didn’t use the copper mold you gave me, with the flower design- it is still hanging on the wall in the kitchen). I have an idea for what I’m going to use the copper molds for now…watch this space.

Enough planning! I think…


We have an old swing set in the south west corner of the yard, which has mostly become a terrifying haven for yellow jackets. Kate used to use it as an obstacle course, after the swings fell off. She would clamber up the slide, and swing across the top bar, then climb down next to the fence. As the kids have gotten older, wasps have moved in- try swinging hand over hand across the top bar while wasps fly out- it might be more challenge than you are up for.
Pure laziness has prevented me from doing anything about it- Not really, because I have certainly done other projects, like taking out our juniper bushes,  and radically pruning our old apple tree, and tearing out the basement bathroom. But it will be a pretty big project. As I said, it is set into the ground, and digging out the concrete, then moving the chunks of concrete doesn’t sound like much fun. Although, I haven’t actually dug down to see- I am guessing it is concrete, but maybe they are just stakes? We can hope, right?
So my process so far has been to think about it, and ask questions,. Like, is it worth more as a swing set, or as scrap metal? Is there anyone who would haul this thing away for free? Can we just come to a détente with the wasps? I sit in my Adirondack chair and gaze at the swing set and make plans.
My plan for several years was to take out the swings and replace it with some other kind of structure- a tea house, or a pergola, not quite a gazebo, but some kind of trellis and shade structure, with flagstone paving, and lawn chairs, and at one point I even wanted a sky chair, which is like a hammocky swinging chair. At first I wanted a couple of sky chairs, then I visualized teenagers swinging as hard as they could and then crashing into each other.   So then I just wanted one, so that I could be out there all by myself, swinging alone, with no one crashing into anyone.
As time passed, though, I have wanted less structure, and more plants. I wanted plants that could feed me.
That southwest corner of the yard is roughly 20 by 20 feet (a shade over 6 by 6 meters) with mostly just weedy grass. The neighbor has a willow that shades it on the south side, and I have a small burr oak that borders it on the East. There is a rose bush against the West fence, which adds to the adventures in lawnmowing- you have to get around the slide, the rocking horse thingy, avoid getting tangled up in the thorns, then set the swing in motion and mow underneath it. With the swings there, it is 400 square feet of pain in the neck. Without them, it could be an orchard, with peaches and maybe a blueberry bush.
So, my first small step, is to get rid of this big honking metal contraption. The neighbor kid who mows the lawn  If we get it done on a cool weekend, maybe we can avoid getting stung by the wasps.
For the 12 years we have lived here, we haven’t used fertilizer or herbicide on the grass under here- oops, I just remembered, we did use it on the thistles once- some spray stuff…but otherwise we have left the grass clippings to mulch the soil, and left it alone. You know, thistles are a national symbol of Scotland, so maybe my problem isn’t too many thistles, maybe the problem is not enough Scotsmen…not enough scotsmen

My plan is to mow it very short after the swings come out, then mulch the hell out of it with wood chips.
I have been reading about tilling to convert areas to garden. I am conflicted. I know that tilling shoots a lot of oxygen into the soil, which gives soil bacteria a huge surge in growth, and releases a lot of plant nutrients. However, the trees I am going to plant will be tiny- they will not need the nutrition released by all that bacteria, and it will burn off into the atmosphere, or wash off in the rain. Also, rototillers are loud. I don’t like loud stuff.
I have also read a lot about using big sheets of cardboard or newspaper to sheet mulch. I have used cardboard in the past to smother weeds, but I have read more recently about how sheets of weed barrier have an adverse effect on soil chemistry, preventing oxygen from getting to organisms. I will have to research more about it. I know that wood chips alone will not prevent grass from growing up through them, and the work of converting a big area to garden would be lessened if I didn’t have to hand weed around everything. I’ll have to think about it more.
No. Enough thinking. Let’s do something.

Perfect vs. good enough


“The perfect is the enemy of the good” is something I tell my students all the time. I usually tell it to kids who are struggling with getting started writing, frozen by the blank page. They think that they should be perfect, not realizing that writing takes practice, and the way to get better is to just start, and work on the

Alice was super-interested in the quilt-sandwich making process.

Alice was super-interested in the quilt-sandwich making process.

piece of writing until it is good enough.

Or until they run out of time, whichever comes first.
Is there some sort of quote about “the teacher teaches what she most needs to learn”? Because perfection and procrastination and the art of the “good enough” are perpetual problems for me.
Case in point, the Hattie Hill Quilt Top.

Way back last summer, I was talking with my mom about quilting, and mentioned how I really hate the “sitting at the sewing machine, putting together a puzzle” part of quilting, but really enjoy the “sitting by the window, hand-quilting” part.  She said that her friends who quilted were the opposite, and from what I have seen online, that may be true of many quilters. They put together the puzzle, then ship it off to be machine quilted.

My mom also mentioned a top made by my Great grandmother, Hattie Hill Hutchcraft Neal. After she had died, my grandmother had helped clean out her house, this would be in 1942. She found a completed quilt top, that had been pieced but not quilted. She thought to herself, “it’s a shame to let that work go to waste, maybe I’ll quilt it someday.”

More than 30 years later, my mom finds the top. It is during the quilting revival, when people were taking up quilting for the bicentennial, and watching Little House on the Prairie, and wearing long ruffled denim skirts.  My mom thought to herself, “it’s a shame to let that work go to waste, maybe I’ll quilt it someday.”

So my mom offered it to me, seeing as how I had kind of taken up quilting, and based on the track record of both my mom and my grandmother, I have 30 years before I hand it off to Kate and let her worry about it.

IMG_0549

However, I am instead slowly working on it.  I found some vintagey-looking fabric in a dark blue floral.  I have a big hoop, and am slowly outlining the dresden plate appliques, then echoing their shapes with wavy lines. My stitches are not tiny and even and perfect, the way the stitches are on the other Hattie Hill quilt I have, but they are good enough.

First, we ditch the swingset…


IMG_0530There are about 8 inches of snow out my back window right now, and it is still coming down. Fortunately, I dumped the compost bucket before the storm started, so I don’t have to wade through it for a couple more days. I’ll go out for groceries, later, but mostly, this is a day for looking out the window and daydreaming. About peaches.
I have been reading “The Holistic Orchard” by Michael Phillips- I keep dipping into it, then re-reading, then thinking about how to blog it, and about how to apply it in real life. It is a lot to think about. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in having fruit trees.
I already have a couple of apples- an ancient tree of unknown variety, and a dwarf golden delicious. My hope is that with pruning advice from this book, I can get the ancient tree under control, and get some delicious, golden apples from the other.
I am also interested in adding peaches to the menagerie, in the corner of the yard that has been the home to our swing set. The swing set is set into the ground with concrete, which was thrilling when the kids were little, they could swing breathtakingly high, without tipping the whole thing over.  Cousins would cry. Little brothers would cry, too, come to think of it.  Nobody really got hurt, though.  BIMG_0529eing rooted into the ground made it really hard to mow around, and in the last couple of summers, wasps have made their nests in the tubes, which is thrilling and breathtaking in its own right.

So, the first big step to putting peaches there will be to get rid of the swingset- not today, though. It’s snowing.

Is it Spring yet?


Melt, snow! Sigh...

Melt, snow! Sigh…

There’s this guy I work with, who starting with the very first day of school, will ask: Is it Summer yet?

It makes me wonder about his career choice- if he is so miserable working at a school, maybe he should try something else? Maybe he would be just as miserable elsewhere, some people are like that.

I try not to be like that, carpe diem, and be here now and all that, but since the solstice, and the days getting incrementally longer, I keep thinking about plans for spring.

We are going to get rid of the old swing set that people never swing on anymore, and for years I had thought about having a little seating area back there-but now I think plants instead.  A peach tree, or two. I have been reading up on “holistic orchards”  which advocate the middle road of preventive care, rather than chemical sprays at one extreme, or laissez faire at the other. (Guess which extreme I am at?) I wonder if the preventative maintenance would get me more fruit for a little more work?

On sunny afternoons this winter I’ll go out and putter- mostly just sweeping leaves off the patio and looking up at the trees. I also do a lot of staring out the window by my desk.

Garden design is hard work.

 

Martial Arts belt display


White through Green, with room for more.

White through Green, with room for more.

My kids have been doing Tai Kwan Do for about a year and a half, and our policy for dealing with old belts has pretty much been just leaving them on the floor, or whipping them around occasionally for the cat to play with. Maybe not the best plan, but it has worked so far, and has the benefit of being really easy.

Our Dojang has a display on the wall with the belts of our school’s founder, W.T. Alexander, and it is a big board, with the belts tied on. I wanted some middle ground between the pile of belts on the floor, and the enormous wall display, but I had no ideas.
Until I saw a sample display of a lucite tube, with a dark wood base and cap, with the belts rolled into disks and stacked in the order they had been earned. The display was for sale for 50 bucks.
Being the insanely frugal person I am, I thought to myself that I could do that for nothing. And I did try- I have a clear glass cylindrical vase, that has been laying around for years. I usually put lilacs in it. I rolled up Kate’s white belt, it fit perfectly. Excellent. Then I attempted her yellow striped belt, which I couldn’t make fit at all, It is just slightly thicker, so the disk as it is rolled up is just too big. I tried forcing it, and then visualized slicing my hand open and bleeding all over.  A trip to the emergency room isn’t frugal at all, so I changed plans.
Now, glassware happened to be 50% off at Hobby Lobby, so I scouted it out while on a trip for thread.
Since I was only buying thread, I had ridden my bike over- one of my goals this spring and summer is to bike for short errands where I won’t be carrying much stuff. So, of course, I found the vases I was looking for. I considered very carefully. Hmmm…2 glass vases, 6 inches in diameter and 18 inches tall, in my panniers, over the railroad tracks… I decided to come back later.
I went back later and brought them home, rounded up both kids’ belts, rolled them up and inserted them. I’m pretty psyched. Total cost of the two vases was $32, and I still have my big vase for lilacs. Every body wins.

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