Entries in Plough down sillion (12)


Yard Version 6.0

It will be seven years in June since we moved to the country from Manhattan. In 2002, I began what has since become a yearly occurrence: a quest to remake our yard in rather dramatic fashion. In my Garden Journal, I still have a copy of the first ambitious proposal I wrote early that spring after having read several gardening and landscaping books over the winter.

I should note here that I had very little practical knowledge of these matters other than what I gained while 'helping' my grandmother in her yard when I was ten or so. We'd never had a yard of our own, having lived in Manhattan for the first eleven years of our married life. Patrick, who did a lot of lawn mowing and other yard chores for his parents when he was a kid, was far more experienced than I was.

My vision was big, but we started small, with a 4x4-foot garden plot in the sunniest area of the yard. Back then, most of the yard was in the deep, dense shadow of a line of 40-foot-high Norway maples. Grass wouldn't even grow under them, due to the lack of light and the fact that Norway maples' roots are so shallow that they compete with lawn for water. For me, having grown up in the relatively treeless Central Valley of California, cutting down a mature tree was well nigh a sin, so I tried to work with what we had.

Please, never plant Norway maples. They are horribly invasive, for one thing. But another, more selfish and practical reason not to is that they have a bad habit of choking themselves with their own perversely circular-growing roots. They are also prone to a really gross blight called Black Spot. Between these two factors, we've had to remove six huge maples altogether; only one of them remains. The good thing is that we still have two huge oak trees, a mountain ash, and a Japanese maple standing. Another good thing is that we have at least three years' worth of great firewood stacked along the fence. But the best thing is that we now have plenty of sun in our yard--and a lot more flexibility as to what we do with it.

Between 2003 and 2006, I experimented with raised bed 'lasagna' gardening, with varying degrees of success depending on how much time and energy I had to spare in any given season. (I had Daniel in May 2004; that was not a great year for the yard.) Raised beds are a terrific solution for anyone dealing with rocky, clayey soil. You should see the piles of rocks we've unearthed over the years in this whole yard-remaking process; I now know exactly why my ancestors all left New England and moved West just as soon as they could.

In those years I also started a perennial border along a 100-foot section of fence that borders our busy road, planting about 25 feet per year. This border has been a reasonable success, despite the near-constant battle with ground ivy, one of the most evil weeds known to man. The roses, irises, peonies, and lilies have been well worth the trouble, though.

We even planted a few dwarf fruit trees a few years ago. Last year was the first that we literally harvested the fruits of our labors; my kids are still talking about those three or four blissful days of fresh peach indulgence, and they look forward to more this season. We hope for a few cherries and apples to boot.

Via this blog, I officially declared last year "The Year of the Garden." We had just finished the second (and final!) major renovation of our little house, and I was excited to turn my attention and energy once again to the yard. I decided to scuttle all of my amateur garden designs and pay a professional to help me. Because the front yard was at that time the sunniest area we owned, our designer drew up a plan for us that put all of the vegetable beds and fruit trees there. So we did.

Alas, last year, a well-organized cell of ninja deer caught onto what we were doing; we hadn't had much of a problem with them until then. Within a couple of nights, they laid waste to most of my carefully nurtured seedlings, disdaining only the squash and the African Jelly Melons. One lone Charentais melon plant survived by hiding among its spiny, exotic cousins; we harvested exactly two (admittedly delicious) melons last year.

Since I can't camp on the porch every night with shotgun across my knees, I knew we had to make major changes once again. As I write, workers are fencing off the now-sunny side yard with seven-foot-high deer fencing; other workers are grinding out the massive stumps of the once-proud maples. In a couple of hours, a pal of ours will be here to consult with me about grading and leveling the new garden and play yard areas.

In the next few weeks, we're moving the raised vegetable beds and all of the fruit trees, as well as the entire perennial border. We'll plant evergreens along the road fence for year-round privacy and a row of Lombardy poplars along the lane for a little taste of France. (Yes, we know that poplars can be problematic, but we're willing to gamble in order to fulfill an aesthetic dream of Patrick's.) We'll aerate, top-dress, amend, and overseed the lawn area while we're at it.

I've made long lists of what to buy, what to move, what to plant, and how to phase it all in and coordinate it. The long-suffering Patrick is, as usual, footing the entire bill. The whole process is as complicated as choreography, but when it's done? I think (hope, pray) it will be great.

"We fail forward to success," as Mary Kay used to say. If that's the case, our yard and I are due any season now. Let's hope that Version 6.0 will be our break-out year. Is it all worth the pain, work, money, and aggravation? If you could smell the lilacs I just cut (pictured at the top of this post), I think you'd agree that, yes, it is.


Ask Not What Your Earth Can Do For You...

This post is brought to you by the hellebores and muscari in my yard.

Today is Earth Day. I'm not going to preach to you, since half of you are in the 'choir,' and the other half don't care to be. Instead I'm going to give you some practical (and hopefully non-controversial) ways, big and small, that you can commemorate this world holiday. I'm sure that even the busiest among us can fit one of these into our schedules in the next several hours.

1. Clean up a local public area with your family. Members of our church did this on Saturday; many families, including ours, went out with safety vests and garbage bags and picked up hundreds of pounds of trash along a popular bike path near the chapel.

2. Buy reusable grocery bags and keep them in your car so that you remember to use them.

3. Figure out your local walkshed and enjoy using it instead of driving at least once a week. Thinking about moving? Figure out your potential new neighborhood's Walk Score. Our neighborhood is only average, getting 52 points out of 100. (Our old neighborhood in Manhattan scores a whopping 98.) That said, nearly everything I need on a weekly, nonexceptional basis--namely, the grocery store and the library--is within a half mile of home.

4. Buy and eat locally grown food. Find out where the nearest farmer's market is. Join a CSA. Patronize producers of grass-fed Real Milk. You'll make new connections in your community, and your taste buds, your waistline, and your local farmers will all thank you.

5. Read the fantastic book Food, Not Lawns, by H.C. Flores. Then plant a garden, even if it's just a couple of tomato plants in a bucket on your patio.

6. Read Michael Pollan's essay "Why Bother" from last week's New York Times Magazine.

7. Check out the funny, informative, and inspiring blog of Colin Beavan, a.k.a. No Impact Man. Colin is Walking the Walk, my friends; it's pretty great to witness.

8. Subscribe to Grist, the free online environmental news and commentary site.

9. Don't just recycle it; take steps to reduce the junk coming into your mailbox. Pay $1 to the DMA's Mail Preference Service to get off undesirable mailing lists. The Big Three credit bureaus have an opt-out function for the deluge of credit card applications many of us receive on a daily basis. Join Green Dimes! This service is terrific.

10. Just say 'no' to more stuff. Set at least a 24-hour 'time-out' period in which you consider whether you really need that new (fill in the blank). Use your library more. Share yard tools with your neighbors. Downsize your wardrobe and donate your excess to a responsible charity. To quote Emme, a prominent simple lifestyle blogger, "Living simply does not have to mean sacrifice or hardship. It means focusing on the things that are important to us and in our lives." Amen, sister.



My dear friend (and very talented, very published writer) Annette Lyon requested today's topic. Annette, these 'Gertrude Jekyll' roses from my garden are for you.


Hot Dirt, Summer in the Country

Yesterday I went to check on the summer squash, shown here with a 12-inch ruler and a fat, yellow cucumber. How did I miss this monster? It looks remarkably like the Doomsday Machine in a Star Trek episode--the device Daniel calls 'the robot pyoom-pyoom.' It will be morphing into many dozen squash muffins in the near future.
Here's Daniel with his water pyoom-pyoom. 'Pyoom-pyoom' is his word for anything--from muskets to phasers--that fires high-velocity projectiles.

James, Hope, and Tess console themselves in Christian's absence (he's at Scout Camp this week) with some focused and sustained sprinkler running. Good times.
I wish I could insert a fragrance link. Aren't my Stargazer Lilies beautiful? Note how the close focus keeps all the weeds out of the image. Also note how I took and posted zero photos of Christian and me planting 12 trees and 18 bushes last Saturday. There's nothing like digging through rocky clay in 90-degree weather with 90% humidity to give you heat exhaustion, I tell you. The process hasn't been pretty, but my permaculture garden is on its way.


As Keen as Mustard

I've encountered this phrase in nearly every D.E. Stevenson novel I've ever read; after the first two, I would look for it and get a zing of satisfaction when it appeared. The vivid simile is meant to convey enthusiasm. Examples of usage:

I'm as keen as mustard for our garden plans to get underway. All of our trees and shrubs from Edible Landsaping arrived yesterday; it was like Christmas opening up all of the boxes. Here's what I took out:

Thornless Blackberries
Alpine Strawberries
Cherries (sweet and sour!)

I planted the Sea Buckthorns and a Cherry from an earlier shipment a couple of weeks ago, and we already have one length of the fence lined with rasperries. Our original Summer Yard Boy had to quit after one Saturday's worth of work; he was injured at his weekday job. But we have a replacement crew arriving home from college later this week. They'll be able to plant all these worthy items and do a ton of weeding and wood splitting besides. It's so exciting!

I'm as keen as mustard about our Needlework Group. We met yesterday at my house and had a great time. We are quite loose in our interpretation of the term 'needlework.' One woman graded papers, three did beadwork, two knitted, and one cut and ironed squares for quilting. We had great conversation and a kitchen island's worth of yummy food. Here's what I worked on (Knitty's spring surprise Arietta, in yarn I bought in Paris):

I'm as keen as mustard about the salad I made for the Group. It's long been one of my favorites; for some reason I associate it with gatherings of women. It works well for baby showers and meetings of the Relief Society, and it came to mind yesterday as I was wondering what to prepare for lunch. Adriana posted a similar recipe recently, but this one is different and delicious enough to warrant publication.

Confetti Salad
2 cans black beans, rinsed and well drained
3 cans white shoepeg corn, drained
1 red onion, diced
1 orange or red bell pepper, diced
1 medium zucchini or yellow summer squash, diced
1 small can sliced black olives
2 ripe avocados, diced
The juice of 6 limes
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper

Put the first seven ingredients in a large bowl. Put the remaining ingredients in the blender and give them a whirl. Pour the dressing over the salad and mix it well. Refrigerate for at least an hour so that the flavors can marry. Stir it up again before serving.

It's a very colorful salad; I wish I had taken a photo of it yesterday before the ladies genteelly gobbled it down. Of course, it is exponentially better with fresh corn, but we'll have to wait until later in the summer for that. It's also better if you cook the beans yourself, but it's awfully good just the way I've written it.

I'm as keen as mustard about Allene's homemade Lemon Meringue Pie. She brought it yesterday, and there was one piece left over, so I've just had it for breakfast. A little slice of heaven.

What? Put your eyebrows down. Pie is a perfectly appropriate breakfast food. Eggs, citrus, butter, and graham crackers, along with probably less sugar than is in most cereals: what could be better?

Finally, I'm as keen as mustard to finish this manuscript, so I'll sign off for now. Enjoy your day!