Sunday, September 16, 2007

Next Year's Kitchen Garden

It's been my plan for some time to revamp the garden that surrounds our pool to create a Kitchen Garden. The flower beds have gotten away from from me -- year by year, the Bermuda grass has gotten more ingrained until I feel like I'm fighting a losing battle every time I set foot in that garden.

This spring, we tore out a small deck and added our new beautiful back porch, which was finished in July. To complete the project we are ripping out the wooden fence that is 6" from the concrete pool decking and replacing it with hurricane fencing set back about 12'. We've never liked the fact that there is no room to grow anything inside the pool fence, and we're about to change that.

I'm the gardener in the family, and my husband is the engineer and builder. So, he's designing the fence and the water flow, and I'm designing the new garden. My basic plan is to move the plants I want to save and then Round-up the area repeatedly until every sprig of Bermuda has been eliminated. Then we'll lay out beds that I can reach across to weed and put in paths between them. There will be room for my garden bench and flowers to attract my beloved hummingbirds. We'll have mostly vegetables, but two beds will be for strawberries. I'm moving those out of The Berry Patch so that they can be easily covered with netting while they're bearing. We'll also have a few flowers and herbs mixed in, and I'm planning to put hardy kiwi on part of the fence. I can hardly wait.

And I have begun preliminary work. Love says the old fence will be coming down in about three weeks, so it's time to start moving plants. Thankfully, the weather has cooled enough to make working long weekend hours in the gardens pleasant and to be kinder to the plants that are uprooted from their longtime homes. So, yesterday I moved a stand of Siberian irises to The Cottage Garden beneath our bedroom window. Today I moved 24 volunteer maples out of the vegetable patch and into The Woodlot. Right now, I'm pretty tired. Tomorrow, it's back to work at my second home (the library), but I plan to get in an hour or so in the garden after hours. Next spring, The Kitchen Garden will exist in the backyard, not just in my mind!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Working the Woodlot

First of all, The Woodlot is not a true woodlot, i.e. a few acres devoted to growing a sustainable source of firewood for a home. The Woodlot is what we call the section (1/2 acre?) of our place that we are naturalizing -- trying to return what has been a yard for the last 25 years to a small slice of woods with trees, an understory, and small woodland plants. We'd like to see it become a refuge for small wild animals, although we know that it is pretty small for that purpose and that its location next to a country road probably doesn't make it an ideal candidate.

We started this project 2 1/2 years ago. My husband and I had talked almost from the day we bought the place in 1994 about establishing woods between us and the road, but there always seemed to be another project that was more pressing. Then, the couple that owned the 7 acres across the road from us decided to build a mini-storage facility, complete with lights, traffic, and ugly buildings. Because we had no county zoning laws at the time, our phone calls and visits to planning commission meetings were to no avail. So we decided it was time to start those woods.

Fortunately, we were not starting completely from scratch. In 1995, I had set out 2 maples and 2 oaks directly in front of our house, set back enough from the road to avoid the right-of-way. Those trees are pretty tall now and help block the ugly view from the front of our house. At the same time, I had set out a cypress in the southwest corner of the yard, 4 sawtooth oaks along the south fenceline, and a wild pecan between the house and the sawtooth oaks. Those trees, along with 4 maples along the drive that were established young trees when we arrived here form the backbone of The Woodlot.

The first thing we did was to stop mowing the area we designated to naturalize. We marked off an L-shaped area that parallels the country road in front of our place and our south fenceline. We also began setting out young trees -- mostly maples, sawtooth oaks, pecans, and cedars -- that volunteered in our gardens and under our existing trees. The first summer we placed those trees primarily along the inner perimeter of The Woodlot. We watered and weeded around the trees and probably got 3/4's of the trees through the first hot and very dry summer.

That fall, we gathered acorns and tree and bush seeds whenever we went for walks. We planted them. Some came up, but not many.

The second summer, we mowed a path about ten feet from the yard along the county road leg of the Woodlot and a second path along the south fenceline. These grass paths allowed us to set out trees further into the lot and to water those during the dry summer months.

This spring break, my mother came to visit and I showed her the trees which had been coming up and growing throughout The Woodlot, promising a house-high stand of trees much sooner than we had anticipated. While I had been encouraged, I was beginning to become concerned about the large number of these trees and how fast they were growing. My mother was unable to identify the tree, but advised me to get rid of it while I still could. She said anything that grows that fast and spreads that easily is bound to be a weed tree. The next week, I cut down one of the small specimens and carried it to work, where I showed it to several biology teachers and agriculture teachers at a faculty meeting. They identified it as a Callery pear, the root stock for the ubiquitous Bradford pear and the result of the supposedly sterile Bradford pear producing seed from shoots from the original stock. I'm not sure I have that explanation completely right, but basically the Bradford pear is making seed that the birds are spreading and the resulting Callery pears are taking over in our region wherever they can gain a foothold.

So, I've been fighting the Callery pear ever since. I can't spend ALL my time snipping off trees and treating their stubs with Round-Up, but I've spent a lot of time doing it. I stopped counting at 150 trees. And I'll be doing it a lot more.

And I've declared war on the Johnson grass, but that's another story.

This spring, I created more mowed paths to allow further access for planting, watering, and weeding. The paths also provide a great place for my daughter to play. I then set out 2 named elderberry bushes, 2 Chinese Chestnuts, 1 white mulberry, and 1 highbush cranberry. I've watered those as needed this summer, and they have come through the heat well. I'd like The Woodlot to be multi-purpose, providing food for us and the animals, as well as creating a wonderful slice of woods for us to enjoy.

Today, I went to the farmer's market to buy tomatoes (but there were none), and I came home with a pawpaw tree and a French mulberry, which I set out this afternoon. (The weather was glorious for gardening.) The gentleman who sold me the pawpaw predicted 5 years before it will bear fruit. The French mulberry, which I learned is also called a beautybush here, won't produce edible berries, of course, but I look forward to the beautiful purple berries each fall.
I also set out a sweet bay magnolia that I bought on sale this summer and kept in the pot while I waited for cool weather.

I had more to set out, but the rains finally came and chased me indoors. So, right now, I'm writing, my daughter is reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the 6th time, the cats are taking their much needed late-afternoon nap, the dog is waiting for someone to throw the tennis ball some more, and my husband is studying. It's a great Saturday!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The flowers on my desk

Today I have flowers on my desk at work -- zinnias clipped this morning from the cottage garden on the south end of my house. I don't often take flowers to work, but whenever I do, I see lots more smiles during the day. Even a simple daffodil in a glass jar can make a teenager or a history teacher smile. Somehow, that simple act of sharing my garden at my workplace makes it a better day. And the green glass vase: it's an old medicine bottle I dug out of my mother's "storeroom" in Louisiana last summer.

So, make tomorrow "take a flower to work day." I'm setting a goal right now to take fresh flowers to work once a week until winter comes.

Monday, September 3, 2007

My daughter, the food snob

I'm growing lots of things these days: canteloupe, okra, zinnias, tomatoes, basil, corn, gourds, watermelon, raspberries, cucumbers, and.... a food snob.

My sweet daughter has become a food snob. I got the first clue of her transformation back in June when our congregation had a reception to welcome our new priest. "Aren't you going to try the blueberries?" I asked her. "You love blueberries."

I caught a glimpse of the teenager-to-be as she all but rolled her eyes. "Momma, those blueberries didn't come from around here, and I'm not about to eat ones that were shipped in!"

She was right, of course. The Easter freeze wiped out the entire blueberry crop for our region. Caught in an early full bloom by a late 3-day freeze, not a berry escaped. I tasted the berries: the usual insipid taste of the grocery-store berry, nothing like the warm berry eaten while standing in the berry patch.

Inside, I cheered. My preteen daughter values the food I grow. She recognizes the taste and freshness of food straight from the back yard. Last week she glared at the canteloupes in the produce section of the local grocery store: "Yuk! Why would anyone want to buy a canteloupe when they could grow their own?" Way to go, Garden Gurl!!!


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bookshelf: Grassroots Gardening by Donna Schaper

This week I've been reading Grassroots Gardening: Rituals for Sustaining Activism by Donna Schaper. Schaper is a minister and urban gardener who gardens for cheap entertainment, to maintain good health, and to bring communities together. She also gardens because she must: a day without gardening is a bad day.

My favorite quote from the book: "I see no point in living in a world where you can get a bad tomato 24 hours a day." Amen!

What the book has me thinking about: As a society, we've forgotten about "waste not, want not." As a society, we are wasteful. We waste people, we waste resources, we waste ourselves. We let kids slip through the cracks and into lives of crime, illiteracy, and poverty. We'd rather hire a crew to care for our lawns while we pay to go to an air-conditioned health club. We sit (and allow our children to sit) in front of computers, televisions, and video games for way too many hours while our lives slip by, when we could be creating: creating strong families, creating beautiful gardens, creating educated minds.

Schaper goes out of her way to package her coffee grounds and egg shells and drop them off at a community compost collection point. She carries her "compost to Union Station." And she marvels at how few of her fellow New Yorkers do the same. Can you image how much waste could be diverted out of New York City's garbage every day and how rich the community gardens could be? It boggles my mind.

Now, I'm a composter and a bit of a shameless scavenger. I'm the mom who hauls the banana peels home from the Girl Scout camp-out for my roses. I bring home the coffee grounds when there's a meeting in my library. I sometimes bag my apple core from lunch to take home for composting. But Schaper has inspired me to new heights of hauling it home. I've begun packing an empty plastic container in my lunch bag each day to collect the leavings from my lunch, just so that I'm not tempted to trash it because I'm in a hurry or don't want to waste a zippered plastic bag. Waste not, want not!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cantelopes and Okra

Yesterday's lunch was a celebration of the rain that awoke us in the early morning hours. Two inches of rain in August -- everyone feels better now. I was tempted to do a rain dance as I listened to the rain pound our roof -- not a dance to summon rain, but one of thanksgiving. Walking through the gardens in the mid-morning, my daughter and I could hear the plants around us giving a sigh of relief. The dog was frolicing more than usual. The lawn was turning greener before our very eyes. The cats, well the cats didn't really care.

Soon I was wading into the vegetable garden to pick five ripe canteloupes. (My commitment to daily gardening kind of fell through this first week of school, the hardest week in the year for teachers.) Some were beginning to split -- perhaps all the water after being dry? -- so I cut them up for lunch and sent one next door to Pearl, our octogenarian neighbor. The okra was begging to be cut, so we had fried okra to go with the cantelope, as well as tomatoes and cucumbers. Lunch was fit for a king!


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Packin' Water

My mother grew up during the Great Depression and came of age during the rationing of World War II. I grew up on a cotton and soybean farm, a farm where Daddy used modern farming techniques to farm hundreds of acres, much like most of my friends' fathers did. But my mother was different. She had the requisite vegetable garden, but she also milked a cow twice a day and churned butter and gathered eggs and butchered chickens from her own chicken yard. My friends thought I lived some kind of Little House on the Prarie existence. I thought the cows and chickens were OK, but I couldn't wait to escape the frugality. So what do I find myself doing thirty years later? I'm packin' water.

Mother always saved her dishwater during the dry months and watered flowers and trees. (She also reused plastic wrap and marshmallow bags, but that's another story.) I thought she was nuts. Why didn't she just water with a hose like other people? Well, she did, but she never wasted the dishwater, either. She has told me many times how that the only two trees in our yard to survive the drout of 1955 were the two that she packed water to. (I've also never understood why she "packed" water to trees. Everything else she just carries.)

So what am I doing now when the summers get dry? I'm saving that dish water to water trees in our "woodlot." I've also been known to save my bath water. My husband thinks I'm crazy, but he loves me. My daughter (who's not yet old enough to think I'm crazy), thinks it's great fun to haul the water down the paths in her red wagon and water trees. And I now know that Mother wasn't nuts. But her home extended beyond the walls of her house, just like mine does. And at age 83, she's still gardening for life.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Why I'm Gardening for Life

I've been gardening for 20 years, but this year everything has shifted for me. Gardening has become a way of aligning my choices with my values. I'm now gardening for Life.

Whose life?
The life of the planet -- It's a small contribution, but I'm redesigning my gardens to minimize my family's dependence on foods that aren't locally grown.

The life of the animals we share the planet with -- My husband and I made the decision to naturalize a segment of our 2 1/2 acres two years ago, to buffer our home from the increasing traffic on the county road in front of our home, to give the area wildlife a breather, and to decrease the emissions from our lawn-mowing. It's more work than I expected. Keeping the invasive species in check so that a balanced woodland of native species can grow is proving to take lots of time and effort.

The life of my community -- I'm sharing from my garden more than before, with my neighbors and friends, to strengthen those vital community relationships. I'm asking more questions of my octagenarian neighbor with years of gardening and life wisdom.

The life of my family -- The fruits and vegetables I grow are fresher, tastier, and lots more fun. My daughter loves to help harvest, and that time spent outside is so much better for her than "screentime." Christmas gifts from the garden -- this year wild grape jelly -- help her understand that gift-giving (and life) is about more than buying and consuming.

My life -- I've made daily gardening a priority. Why drive to a gym to exercise in an air-conditioned room when I can get fresh air, exercise, solitude, an outlet for creativity, time for prayer, closeness to the earth, and a mental health boost while I work to benefit my planet, its animals, my community, my family, and myself? It's a win-win situation.

So, this blog will be about gardening as a way of Life, with occasional forays into other areas.