Monday, October 31, 2011

Little Victories

One of several buckets of compost
this year!
I like to know that what I’m doing is correct.  If I think I’m doing something wrong, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll freeze in my tracks and do nothing.  This applies to most areas in my life but it was especially true in my life as an inexperienced gardener.

Not knowing when to prune the azaleas (or if you prune them at all) meant that they didn’t get pruned.  Not knowing when to plant cool season vegetable seeds meant that I bought my carrots from the grocery store.  And not knowing when my compost was done meant I just kept adding to it and made it so that it never was, in fact, finished composting.

But I’ve been learning more about these types of things over the years and gaining confidence as a reuslt.  It’s always a little surprising to me when I actually learn something that is halfway technical - a botanical name, for instance.  But what is more surprising than eventually learning a few impressive sounding names and when to perform specific chores was the realization that as far as hobbies go, gardening is pretty forgiving and it doesn’t matter if I do everything right.  The expert advice may say to plant your Japanese maple in the fall, but if you decide to plant in spring, everything should eventually work out.  I like this about gardening.  It keeps it relaxing to me and makes it more than just a scientific experiment with a strict set of rules that need to be followed.    

I like that I can buy the wrong plant for the wrong space and that my penance for the mistake might be nothing more serious than having to dig up that plant and put it somewhere else or give it away to someone who has the perfect spot for it.  How many other hobbies do you know where you can turn a mistake into a gift? 

Compost ready to be spread.

Although I’m upfront about my lack of a scientific background I have fallen in love with the very scientific act of composting.  I am pretty sure that composting is the only thing in the world that could make me interested in learning about carbon to nitrogen ratios.  It’s amazing how you can fill a bin with shredded leaves and lawn clippings and come back in a couple days to a steaming pile that has shrunk in half. 

Just how hot is your pile, anyway?

And I’ve finally gotten it down “to a science”.  I’ve finally gotten in tune with the way my garden produces debris and I’ve finally made it work for me.  This is my little victory.  I finally timed it so that I could harvest my compost bin in its entirety before the leaves of autumn began to fall. 

Spread out nice and neat - at least until the leaves fell.

That means that I have not only been able to add to my yard buckets and buckets of beautiful worm poop and whatever else makes up compost, but I’ve freed up all the space in my bin for my garden’s busiest composting months just in time. 

And if I do it right, all this should be ready for a new harvest when spring, at the opposite edge of time’s orbit, finally circles back around. 

This is a newly renovated section and that space between the Japanese maples is begging for a few
more plants.  I apologize for the over exposure.  This photo was taken with my phone at midday.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

If You Build It, I Will Plant It

My mom and her husband flew down to visit my daughter and put up with me for the weekend so I wasn't able to blog about anything while they were here.  It's not that I was too busy to blog, of course, it's just that I had to keep up the ruse that I don't have a blog called "Me So Thorny" so my sweet, sheltered, good-natured mother wouldn't discover it and become more disappointed with me.  Besides the title, I may have written a thing or two over the course of this blog's existence that weren't intended for motherly consumption. 

So there was no showing off of the blog, but I did get to show my mom around the yard so she could see what I've done with the place since she was last here.  I guess I passed her test because she wants me to come up with a design she can use for a narrow space between the L-shaped walkway that leads up to her house and the 6-foot privacy wall that borders it.  Although I'm not a professional garden designer, I decided I could still give her the family and friends rate on my services as long as she agreed to fly me down to her place in Florida and feed me for as long as the installation took.  I doubt she'll hire me.

I think we'll reach a compromise though - I'll make a few suggestions and she'll keep my name in the will.  Although my price demands won't be met, I have to admit that I was, and I remain, happy to help.  It's nice when people recognize your talents (or at least your interests) and want you to share that with them. 

Which leads me to the real point of this post.  Several months ago I ran across this planter box/trellis combo at a nursery and loved the design but not the price tag. 

I've tried to zoom in and read the price tag for the sake of accuracy but I still can't tell if it says $389 or $589.  Either way, it's a lot plus $89 more than I wanted to spend so I never pulled the trigger.  And because I chose to take Greek and Latin roots as my high school elective instead of Wood Shop, I never acquired the requisite skills to build such a contraption. 

But the other day a friend of mine, Jordan, posted a picture on Facebook of a wooden bed frame he wanted to build.  It was a pretty cool bed frame and it occurred to me that if he could build something with some artistry to it and that was also sturdy enough to sleep on every night he could probably build something that would look good in the yard and still be sturdy enough to hold some potting soil.  So I sent him the picture above and asked him if he could replicate it.  He said yes and he quoted me a price I liked and the next thing I knew I had commissioned my first piece of anything.  

Like many woodworkers, Jordan is a perfectionist.  I suppose that trait is a necessity given the high cost of both lumber and the reattachment of phalanges.  As part of his preparation for this project he decided that it would be a good idea to go to the nursery where I originally found this design and take a closer look.  Being the honest guy he is, he reported back to me that the original unit was still there and they had marked it down to $299.  "But," he said, "it's really weathered and it's a lot smaller than I thought it would be.  My price quote was for a much bigger unit.  What do you want to do?"

I have a small yard so I try to get things that fit the scale of my garden.  But, and these are big buts, I had already struck a deal with him and I wanted to honor that deal especially since he'd already put forth some effort and you can't just tell another guy that you want the smaller thing no matter what it is.  If you have any choice in the matter, things like trucks, barbecues, gigabytes on your iPad, TV screens, and Subway sandwiches all have to be as big as possible if you want to save face.  Of course, you have to be careful you don't go too big because that just encourages Napoleon Complex jokes.  You see, being a modern man requires the balance of a funambulist. 

Naturally, I yelled "build it, build it, build it!" in response to Jordan's question.  A day later I had a message from him saying he was done.  When he said he had something bigger in mind, he wasn't kidding.

This mammoth creation stands 6'4" tall and is nearly as wide.  I have no idea how much it weighs, but I can tell you that once I decide where to put it, I won't be moving it again.

I learned a couple things in this process: 1. It's more fun and more rewarding to pay your friends for their talents than it is to pay a store (although I still want to support my local garden centers!).  2. Buying large pieces of anything require some extra thought.  You know, simple questions like "where will it go?" should have a readily-apparent answer.  3. If you're going to have house guests for the weekend, make sure they have a good back so they can help you unload heavy objects and 4. bigger may not always be better but it is more fun.  [Insert "that's what she said" joke here.]  

Now the fun part: what should I put in my new planter box?  I'm in zone 9A and it'll probably end up in full sun.  I'm leaning towards something like Chilean Jasmine or an espaliered apple tree but I'd love to hear your suggestions.   

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More Grace Please

I dozed off last night at 7:15 and why shouldn’t I?  It was raining, it was cold, and it was really dark.  Besides, we had turned off Monday Night Football so my daughter could watch an episode of The Berenstain Bears and, try as I might, I just can’t maintain interest in the "Mystery of Stinky Cow Milk" since the mystery is missing after 5 or 6 viewings.  So I fell asleep.  Two months ago I would have been outside doing something in the yard instead of drooling in my chair.   

A season's worth of rampant growth and this salvia is out of control and you can't even see the other plants.

Because I work pretty standard hours, most of my gardening takes place on the weekends or, during the summer months, after work.  So when the nights are dark and the weekends are packed with other things that need to be done, it presents scheduling challenges for me as a gardener.  What I have done lately in the yard can only be described as the bare minimum - maintaining a “someone probably still lives here” appearance.  In other words, I’ve mowed the lawn, picked up buckets of dog poop, and recycled about a dozen fliers advertising landscaping services (I think they have been targeting my house since it looks like I could use their help). 

These Kangaroo Paw blooms last forever - or until mid-October, whichever comes first.

During my lunch break today I went home and had a look around the yard since the sun had finally come out and I have missed connecting with my yard.  What I saw depressed me though.  Everything looks gross.  Crepe myrtle blossoms that once looked great on the tree are now slippery booger-looking things on my pathway.  Our rainy season finally arrived but I failed to adjust the drip irrigation timer so everything that hates wet feet is looking worse for wear.  Most of the plants that were in their glory this summer now look spent and gangly.  It's almost as if it never looked good . . . 

This is just too messy for me.

There are plenty of lessons I can learn from this experience.  I could remember to adjust the sprinkler systems earlier next year.  I could schedule a vacation day next October to devote to fall clean up chores.  I could change my pathway to something easier to sweep and keep clean since it’s apparent that the stepping stone look I thought I loved is not actually compatible with my personality . . . or, I could take the advice of Deborah Silver who recently wrote this bit of gardening wisdom:

I do not have the means or space to mount and maintain a garden that is lovely every moment of the entire season.  I have to make choices.  I like a late and a later season garden . . . This has every bit as much to do with my availability, as their form and flowers. There are very few garden plants I do not like.  I would have them all, if I could.           

But there are those plants that get special care and attention, as their time to be corresponds with my time to give. The big late blooming perennials-they occupy a special place in my gardening heart.  As for your garden, I would make this suggestion.  Choose the season that delights you the most-and go for broke.  If you want to grow great vegetables, organize your gardening efforts accordingly, and make plans for rocking pots of basil.  If you have a summer house elsewhere, make spring your season.  If you are a working person, plan for a glorious garden when you are the least busy.

Trying to be all things at all times sounds way too much like a competition.  A great garden that engages and satisfies an individual gardener is all about enabling a certain quality of life.  Those astonishingly beautiful pictures you see of gardens in magazines-they are all about a specific moment chosen by a gardener.  Choose your moment.

If Oprah and I were friends, I’d confide in her that reading the paragraphs above provided me with my “Aha! Moment” as a gardener.  As much as I would love to have a perfect looking garden in October it is, apparently, the time of year when I have the least to give my garden.  So I’m going to give myself a little more grace and I’m going to try to be happy with giving what I can. 

My Aha! Moment needs a light bulb above my head, but all I have is this lantern.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I Have the Green Thumb

I may not be the most talented or successful gardener in the world, but at least in my household, I'm the one with the green thumb.  If you needed any proof here it is:

My wife received these lovely flowers for a job well done at the office:

Like many bouquets, it came with plant food.  Wanting the blooms to last as long as possible, my wife added the plant food to the water.


Don't those look nice?  Except . . . what is that?  There's something floating in the vase.  Um, yeah . . .  Whatever is floating in the water, and this is just an educated guess, but I think it should probably not be there.

I really wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt here.  Maybe the packet was supposed to dissolve and allow the fertilizer to seep out at a slower pace? 

Unfortunately, I can see from the directions that you are, in fact, supposed to open the packet and poor the fertilizer into the water. 

Oh well, at least she tried.