Tag Archives: yard

Five Trees in the Ground

My goal for the year was to plant an additional five trees in my yard.  Before spring the yard contained thirteen trees (1 elm, 1 sycamore, 1 maple, 3 yellow poplars, 3 Norway spruce, and 4 red oaks).  Over the years I have drawn out several plans to add to my trees.

However, the nursery stock this year was harsh.  I rarely saw a shade tree worth a second look and the conifers were wicked expensive.  Early in the season I was able to find a pair of Norway spruce for about $65 each.  This was an easy choice since I had a spot picked out:


Both trees really took to being planted and put on a thrush of new growth within weeks.  The weather this summer has been amenable to trees as well with well-spaced moisture and not too many blistering hot days.  Even the days that were hot lacked the combination of heat and sun that really seems to knock the stuffing out of plants.

Hopefully before the end of fall I can trim around the trees like the maple in the foreground of the picture above.  The surrounding mulched bed will not be planted with perennials like the maple.  Over the years the branches will spread to encompass the entirety of the mulched bed.  Also, this is just the start of what I have planned for this side of my yard.  See the disastrous “sport” court in the neighbors’ back yard?  Yeah, I do not want to see it either.  Next year is going to be a heavy year for trees.

Just this weekend I ran across a store doing a fall sale of container grown conifers for just $15 each.  Normally, I am not a fan of Colorado blue spruce as the species is over planted in eastern Iowa.  I could not turn down relatively good looking trees at a low, low price.  I picked up three and got to work finishing another planting bed where I am trying to take out all of the turf grass:


This part of my lawn is almost entirely sand.  The only soil, so to speak, is what came on the rolls of sod that were laid down and what I have added when planting trees.  The area has little soil fertility and retains very little moisture.  It is like a thin layer of soil, compacted, and sitting on a jelly roll pan.  If you pour out a bucket of water you can watch it flow downhill without really penetrating the soil.  While the rest of the yard can handle a period of drought—mowing the grass extra high and allowing clover to spread helps—this little corner dries out and dies.  I had considered top dressing the lawn in this area, but felt that it was a better use of space to plant trees and perennials, edge the area, amend the soil, and deeply mulch.  I will get to the edging, amending, and mulching next year.  I promise.

The only downside of all of this planting is that I have used up the contents of one of my compost bins.  There is some compost left and a few things that did not break down over the years, like the muslin bags used to steep grains during my homebrewing days, which will go into a mixture to improve soil health in the areas where I remove turf.  The other bin is fairly full, so in a year or so I should have a lot of nutrient dense compost to amend my sandy soil.

Friday Linkage 10/26/2018

It is eleven days until election day.  I will start every post for next eleven days with the same message.

This week has seen a terrorist send pipe bombs to the same people that Donald Trump demonizes via tweets and whatever air time the media will allow him these days.  Coincidence?  I am fairly confident in saying that the odds the terrorist owns a MAGA hat are good.

I understand that it is hyperbole, to some extent, in claiming that this is the most important election in history.  However, I do believe that this may be the most important election in my lifetime.  At least until 2020.

On to the links…

The Most Important Science Policy Issue in Every State—I can almost guarantee you that whatever state you live in that the Republican candidate for national office is on the wrong side of this issue.

The Midterms Have the Power to Usher in an Era of Climate Action—Vote in eleven days to make this a reality.

Why Conservatives Keep Gaslighting the Nation about Climate Change—It is not really a secret.  People care about climate change and want action.  Republicans are bought and paid for by the fossil fuel lobby, so Republicans listen to their paymasters.

By 2035, the ‘Great Fuel Switch’ will Mark the End of the Age of Oil and Gas—The question is not if such a switch will happen, but how do we accelerate the timeline?

Zinke is Latest Trump Cabinet Member to have Abused Travel Privileges—Scandals that would have had Sean Hannity palpitating and salivating at during the Obama years are just another day in D.C. when the cheese puff is in charge.  Imagine what the investigations will be like when Democrats take control of the House of Representatives.

In Response to Trump Administration Efforts, Oregon Moves to Ban Offshore Drilling—What this fight not be about state’s rights, but the power of the federal government to determine oil and gas policy.  Remember, Republicans love state’s rights as long as it is about suppressing the votes of minorities, banning abortion, and generally being shitty to regular people.

14-Year-Long Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico Verges on Becoming One of the Worst in U.S. History—If someone back up a tractor trailer and dumped 500 barrels of sludge a day into a river that person would go to jail.  However, because this was done by a corporation there is no recourse for the lasting environmental damage.  The next time someone tells you about the great safety and environmental record of America’s gas and oil industry send them this link.

This Is The Deadly Ocean Plastic Pollution You Never Hear About—Ban plastic straws all you want, it is not a bad idea but it is kind of small potatoes, because abandoned fishing nets are a much bigger problem.

US Corporate Renewable Energy Procurement Hits Record Levels—It is hard to comprehend how big many corporations are, but they exert the same influence as most nation states are able to bring to bear.  If these corporations move to renewable energy, it is by default that the countries that they are based in will move to renewable energy.

The True People of the Amazon Help Save the World—Save the forests, save the world.

As Climate Change Worsens, Trees may be the Key to Saving our Future—The geography is different, but the story is the same.  Save the forests, save the world.

The Battle to Curb our Appetite for Concrete—Concrete is an emissions disaster.

Could We Grow All the Food We Need in Our Yards?—It may sound like the premise for a dystopian young adult novel, but the question remains.  Just how much food could we grow in the space occupied by our lawns?

Dig for Victory: 16 Posters from When our Food was Fighting—It is no secret that I love war time homefront posters.  These show you that maybe “victory is in the kitchen” via the 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.

I Spoke to Soon about the Yard

Just as I thought my yard was rounding into shape before the heat of July and August arrived, we got hit with a derecho. What is a derecho? Basically, it’s about as nasty as a rainstorm gets in the Midwest United States without it being a full-on tornado. We are talking about winds in excess of 80 miles per hour and a lot of rain. Like inches of rain in the matter of a few hours. Combined with our already saturated soil and you get some nice flash flooding. My backyard looked like a swamp.

The aftermath was pretty ugly. My yard and home escaped major damage unlike some of my neighbors who completely lost trees or saw wooden playsets crumpled on the ground like bonfire piles:

Playground Down

My newly plants London planetree was on its side having bobbed out of its hole like a cork as the water level rose higher than the surrounding grass for much of the evening. This morning I was able to secure it back into place, but I am guessing that the stress might make its survival suspect. Here’s to hoping.

Even more concern to me is the damage to established trees. My autumn blaze maple, replanted from the front yard and thriving in its new location, now has a pretty nice bend:

Bent Maple

The tree might grow straight again, but it might require some staking to regain its formally upright habit. There is some damage to the bark. Hopefully nothing is ultimately fatal. I would hate to lose another tree especially one as large and vigorous as this particular maple.

The red oaks and Norway spruces that guard the property line to the north seem relatively unscathed, but like the maple some of the oaks seem to have a different bent than prior to the storm:

Bent Oak

As things dry out and the sun shines there is a good chance that the trees will straighten on their own. If this is climate change I am on record as thinking it sucks.

Finally, the Yard Recovers

This past winter was brutal and the plants in the yard paid the price. The final tally included a dawn redwood, all the butterfly bushes, a rudbeckia, and thanks to some unidentified animal using its bark as a chew toy one yellow poplar/tulip tree. One of the lilac bushes near the compost bins was also severely denuded when spring came around making me wonder if it was going to be added to the casualty list.

The easiest replacement was the yellow poplar/tulip tree. It’s a great tree for the landscape, not over planted like a lot of maples, and with two other yellow poplars in that part of the yard it forms a nice triple planting.

The problem is that that I have lost a couple of season’s worth of growth and the replacement looks a little undersized:

Tulip Tree Replant

Little guy is included for height reference and to witness the joy of gardening.  I am hoping that the difference in height will be less noticeable as the trees mature.

The loss of the dawn redwood vexed me. I love that species of tree and I was really hoping that it would add a lot of interest to the yard because it was such an unusual specimen. Remember, I live in a neighborhood where people plant autumn blaze maples and Bradford pears. I would estimate that three-quarters or more of the trees are of those two types. God forbid that there is ever a Dutch elm disease-like outbreak that targets autumn blaze maples because neighborhoods in eastern Iowa would be deforested in no time.

However, I was concerned that the harsh winter—although somewhat more in line with what pre-climate change winters were like on occasion—was the culprit in killing the dawn redwood. I did not want to replace the tree every few seasons because the mercury dipped into the negative teens.

The solution presented itself in a London planetree:

London Planetree

This particular tree is believed to be a hybrid of a plane tree and a sycamore. Possessing the traits of the sycamore was of interest because sycamores are native to my neck of the woods. Plus, as a tree that is adapted to bottomlands it would stand up well to the intermittent standing water that collects during heavy spring rains. Or the rains that have inundated us here in June. The London planetree is a vigorous growing species and it is highly tolerant of difficult urban conditions like heat and pollution. Neither are a major concern in my suburban backyard, but it is comforting to know that this is a hardy tree.

The butterfly bushes are not going to be replaced because that spot in the garden is going to be reserved for hops come spring 2015. I have the plans for a trellis in the workshop and should put something in the ground by early fall.

Oh, and the lilac? It’s making a fairly remarkable recovery:

Lilac Reborn

And the grass? Do not even get me started on the grass. With no fertilizer, lots of rain, and lots of sun when there is no rain the grass is growing like a weed. How so? I need to mow every four days to keep it from looking too shaggy. Granted, part of that is because I mow my lawn at the highest setting. But still…

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.

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.