Tag Archives: garden

Sad Side Yard Transformation

I have truly struggled with my southwest-ish facing side yard. It’s where my two compost bins are located because the afternoon sun really heats things up and it’s a convenient trip from the kitchen to dump scraps.

My first attempt to bring some life and color to this space was a series of butterfly bushes. Epic fail. After the first year I lost one of the bushes. I replaced the lost bush, but by the end of year two all of the bushes were dead. I cut them to the ground and let the bed lay barren for a year while I thought about what I wanted to do.

My second thought was to build a hop trellis and grow some hops for my homebrew. My recent reduction in beer drinking and the subsequent stoppage of homebrewing made that an irrelevant idea. Back to the drawing board. Here is what I was left to work with:

Sad Side Yard

Why not vegetables? Since vegetables are generally annuals I would not need to worry about losing plants to the inevitable winter wind. It’s not a bed that people spend a lot of time looking at, so the aesthetic value of flowering bushes is diminished. Hmmm…..

The first challenge was removing the god damned river rock and landscape fabric. Seriously, this stuff is the worst. The rock just retains heat and provides no benefit to the plants other than keeping weeds down. The landscape fabric actually lets water run off rather than percolating into the soil and it traps dirt on top where weeds eventually take root making the landscape fabric irrelevant. Ugh.

With that dirty, dusty job done things went pretty smoothly. The dirt in the bed was fairly rich, but I still amended it with heaping handfuls on compost and coconut coir. In went three cherry tomatoes, three paste tomatoes, two sweet peppers, two hot peppers, two edamame plants, and four cauliflower starts. A thick layer of shredded cypress mulch on top finished everything off:

Happy Side Garden

What was once a barren and sad side yard has become a vibrant little garden. The picture above is a somewhat dated as the tomato and pepper plants are really taking off with the perfect mix of rain and sun we have been getting in eastern Iowa this spring.

Now imagine how much food we could grow if every house in America just converted one neglected bed alongside their home into a small vegetable garden. Amazing potential.

Friday Linkage 5/16/2014

So, every time you hear a proponent of Keystone XL talk about the safety of oil pipelines witness the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. In the wee hours of Thursday morning a pipeline burst sending tens of thousands of crude into the city streets. Yep, great safety record for those pipelines.

On to the links…

America’s Oil And Gas Industry Averaged At Least 20 Spills Per Day In 2013—Think about that average for a moment. It is stunning. There is no such thing as truly safe oil and gas drilling and transportation. It is inherently susceptible to spills and accidents.

This Is Your Country With 10 Feet Of Sea Level Rise—It looks like I am safe in eastern Iowa, but large portions of very populous cities in the U.S. are not so lucky.

Slow Exit of the Midwest’s Winter Buries Gardens in a Deep Freeze—The past winter was brutal and as those of us in the Midwest take stock in the spring it is not any prettier. At the moment I am down two trees, three butterfly bushes, and a shrub. Plus, the plants that did survive are slow to leaf out and bloom.

The Toxic Brew in Our Yards—It is a spring and summer ritual where I live to see the chemical trucks spraying lawns and leaving little signs that might as well say, “Toxic waste dump. Stay off the grass!”

How Large-Scale Solar Power Can Reduce Pressure On Farm Land—Just some interesting ideas about how to marry large scale solar with other land use. Anything that moves solar PV forward is a good thing in my book.

Pakistan’s First Solar Project Is One Of The World’s Largest—Damn, this is a big solar project. When a country like Pakistan is getting on board with solar you know that things are happening for the technology.

Germany Sets New Record, Generating 74 Percent Of Power Needs From Renewable Energy—Hot damn that is impressive. Just take a moment and think about what that would mean if every country were as committed to large scale renewables. Pretty sight indeed.

A Whale And A Cruise Ship Collided In New York Harbor—I kind of wondered about this possibility the one time I took a cruise. These boats are massive and there is no way for these boats to avoid whales if they cross paths. Ugh.

Garden Porn

It’s not fair.  The 2014 Seed Savers Exchange catalog hit my mailbox this week:

Seed Saver Catalog

Here’s the problem: spend a few minutes flipping through the catalog, jot down the seeds that look interesting, and then figure out just how many plants you want to put into the ground after the threat of frost is gone.  If you are like me you end up with something that would be on the scale on mini-farm as opposed to garden.

There’s Hop McConnel Speckled Corn, Jacob’s Cattle beans, Paris Market carrots, Two Inch Strawberry popcorn, and the list can go on for an entire page if I let it.  It’s not fair.  I want to spend my entire summer in a garden that encompasses my entire yard.  I want that garden filled with exotic varieties of plants that would surprise even the most intrepid gardener.  It really is garden porn.

For those of you who do not know, Seed Savers Exchange is an organization based in Decorah, Iowa that is dedicated to preserving open pollinated and heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties.  In Decorah the organization has a “heritage farm” that has a preservation garden, heirloom orchard, and even a rare herd of cattle grazing.  It is amazing how much gardening knowledge and biodiversity that Seed Savers is preserving in an era when that knowledge is being lost or consolidated into the hands of a few mega corporations.

I really encourage everyone to check them out or a similar organization closer to your home.  Be warned, however, that you may find yourself with one too many seed packets for your garden and spend the first few weeks of spring wondering how you can get around the city ordinance against front yard vegetable gardens.

The Hydrangeas were Positively Buzzing

With all of the bad news about the fate of bees in our modern world, it’s nice to see some pollinators just getting a chance to enjoy themselves for once without having to bear the weight of our food system on their shoulders:

Hydrangea Bees

In the front yard of my home I have three “White Diamonds” hydrangea bushes planted that seem to be like magnets for pollinators of all kinds.  I take great care to not treat any of the plants in my yard with pesticides or other chemicals that may make their way into the food chain of the pollinators because these little buzzers do not need any additional impediments.

The three bushes were almost buzzing with all of the activity the other day.  Dozens of bees, by my count, were flitting from bloom to bloom doing their thing.  It was a nice respite from the constant drumbeat of bad news.

Speaking of bad news about bees, I hope that the recent cover story in Time will bring some much needed national attention to the plight of pollinators.  For years I have watched as progressive publications and websites have talked about colony collapse disorder and neonicotinoid compounds with almost no audience at the national mainstream level.  It’s a mean scene.

It got me thinking about ways to help outside of making my yard and gardens a hospitable place for pollinators.  In the article in Time, it states some numbers about the decline of hives in the U.S. that are startling.  In 1946 there were an estimated 5.8 million bee colonies.  The estimated number of bee colonies in the U.S. is approximately 2.5 million at present.  This decline is generally attributed to the threat of foreign competition rather than any systemic health issue in the bee community.

So, if part of the problem is that the market for domestic honey is being impinged by cheap foreign honey it seems like a solution would be to support local honey suppliers.  I am not a big user of honey, but I think that I could work up a beer recipe that would utilize local honey.  Anything to help the bees.

DIY Mason Bee Homes

Mason Bee House Closeup

Pollinators are in trouble.  Colony collapse disorder has devastated bee populations.  Our national love affair with pesticides and insecticides has been a veritable holocaust for beneficial insects.  As a homeowner, part-time gardener, and all-around concerned person I felt it was my responsibility, perhaps duty, to build a habitat that was inviting to these insects that do so much for us humans.

The easiest thing that people can do to help out is to stop indiscriminately applying chemicals to our landscape.  Just because your lawn may be inhabited by ants and grubs is not license to conduct chemical warfare.  As a matter of principle, we should cease applying chemicals on our landscapes entirely because it is so wasteful.

Next, you can create inviting landscapes through the use of desirable plants.  I am a sucker for butterfly bushes and other showy perennials that butterflies and bees seem to love.  These plants tend to be drought tolerant and suited for my eastern Iowa climate, so all the better.

Lastly, I decided to create some homes for mason bees.  Mason bee is a generic name for a genus of bees (Osmia) that contains hundreds of different species.  In North America, according to Wikipedia, there are over 130 species.  Mason bees, unlike the more well-known European honeybee, are solitary and do not sting unless physically provoked.

One way to encourage mason bees to inhabit your yard is to make a “house” for these garden helpers.  You can search the internet and find hundreds of variations of mason bee house construction from painfully simple to bizarrely extravagant.  I am going to hew closer to the simple side of the spectrum with my construction because I prefer that aesthetic in my garden.

I started with a scavenged piece of 4×4 dimensional “white” wood lumber.  One key thing to remember when constructing your mason bee house is to avoid treated lumber at all costs.  You do not want to create an environment that actively kills the mason bees seeking to build a home in your yard.  I suppose you could use cedar or some other fancier wood to construct a house, but I liked the idea of using a scrap piece of wood.  My guess is that this was originally spruce or fir because of the smell when cutting the blocks and the lack of sap, which seems to be so prevalent on pine lumber.

I cut blocks that were approximately 8” tall and had a 10 degree slope cut on one end for the attachment of a board to act as a protective overhang:

Mason Bee Blanks

Again, I utilized a scrap piece of 1×6 pine dimensional lumber to construct the overhangs.  I simply nailed the overhang to the block with a trio of small nails.

Somewhere in my research, please let me know if anyone has a source, I read that a 5/16” hole is the perfect diameter for mason bees.  I do not know if this is true, but I am going to roll with the idea this time and see what happens.  Lacking a drill press, it took some time to drill all of the holes necessary for the house.

I was going to have more holes per block.  However, I quickly discovered that it would have weakened the wood block considerable.  So, I cut the number of holes in half and staggered them across the face of the block to create the environment for my soon-to-be garden friends.

Scavenging through my parts box and a friends bin of leftover plumbing supplies from many remodels of pre-World War II houses in eastern Iowa produced the perfect mounting system.  I kind of wanted a more industrial look to the houses than a simple wood stake would provide.  A pipe flange screwed to the bottom of the mason bee house and a two foot long piece of threaded black pipe were an ideal solution:

Mason Bee Flange

My hope is that over time the pipe rusts to a nice patina and I can easily reuse the pipe/flange combo by simply unscrewing it from the bottom of the house.

Amidst the butterfly bushes on my west facing garden bed these little houses look perfectly at home:

Mason Bee House Garden

The Fruit is Coming!

My tomatoes are starting to bear some fruit.  The Patio tomato was the first to tart fruiting out:

Patio Tomato FirstNext, the Tiny Tim tomato started to produce some beautiful clusters of green fruit:

Tiny Tim FirstIf I can just keep the dreaded hornworms away from my crop this year, I think I will be in the fruit so to speak.  Even my blueberries–victim of some grazing deer over the winter–have fruited out some:

Blueberry First ClusterFew things are as pleasurable as seeing plants you tend produce food that you can actually eat.  It’s a small miracle, at best, but I will take it.

 

 

 

Good Use for Old Newspaper

If you workplace is anything like mine then people are still attached to getting their daily news on dead trees.  Every morning stacks of newspapers are dropped off for distribution.  I do not know what the business model of the Wall Street Journal is but those guys drop off at least one extra stack of newspapers every day.  How do I know?  Because the stack is moved beside the large recycling bins without ever getting cut from its binding.

What a waste!  Now, you could argue that even printing the Wall Street Journal was a waste considering it is part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and I will stand you that opinion.  I thought there had to be a better use for these dead trees besides straight up recycling.

Enter the compost pile.  A lot of people who compost will have no trouble ensuring the right mix of carbon and nitrogen in their pile—the sacred mix of brown and green that you hear compost cognoscenti speak about—but I lack some of the best sources of carbon rich material, namely fallen leaves.  Living in a house that is less than five years old means that my trees are also less than five years old and do not drop a lot of leaf litter.

Newspaper is carbon rich, but you do not want to just throw sheets of the latest business gossip into you pile because the material will become a matted and soggy mess.  I use the paper shredder that we have in the home office to turn sheet after sheet of newspaper into perfect little crosscut confetti that is perfect for mixing into the pile:

Compost Newspaper Shredded

You have to be careful to really mix the newspaper in because I can form balls of mushy pulp even in a finely shredded form.  The stuff will break down eventually, but the process will be slowed considerably.  This is true, however, for just about anything in your compost pile.  The larger the pieces, the longer the wait for rot.

By the way, those are torn up pieces of pizza boxes mixed in with the paper.  The greasy cardboard is not acceptable for our curbside recycling, so I separate the panels that are not greasy–usually the top of the box–and tear up the rest for composting.  Although most compost guides tell you not to compost oils and dairy I have never had a problem with rodents or other animals getting into my bin for those tasty morsels.

I have two compost bins set up in my yard.  My plan is to fill one up and have it “percolate” for a period of time so that I can have a bin full of rich compost for revitalizing my yard’s soil come spring.  The picture above is from the bin that I am going to let sit all summer and rot.  The alternating bin will be the active dump for the year.  Come spring 2014 my hope is that I can sift the compost from the one bin and use it as the active dump while the previous season’s active dump “percolates.”

One of the amazing things about the compost pile is how much the freeze/thaw cycle breaks down the material.  Before the winter, this bin was probably two-thirds or more filled with primarily kitchen waste.  It was less than half full when I mixed in a bucket of shredded newspaper.  Nature is amazing.