Monday, August 30, 2010

I'm gonna be a guest ranter!

This week is guest ranter week at Garden Rant. AND... I am excited to have been selected as one of those ranters!  Don't know which day mine will appear, but I will post when I know.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Morning Glory, Why Are You Such a Jerk?

In my old neighborhood, I used to walk my doggie past a lovely old white farmhouse, whose white picket fence supported beautiful morning glories all through the summer. What lovely old-fashioned flowers, I thought each time I passed. In the back of my mind, I added morning glory to the list of flowers I'd like in my own yard someday.

Fast-forward to now. I've changed my mind. Be careful what you wish for.


MORNING GLORY! What are you doing? Where did you come from? And why are you trying to smother all the shrubs and flowers? Leave my yellow rose alone!

This is our fourth summer here in our little blue house, but this little minx only showed up for the first time last summer. No, I did not plant it. It appears to originate from the other side of the chainlink fence that divides our front yard from our neighbor's driveway. Not satisfied to occupy the inch of ground between the fence and the blacktop on its own property, it has decided to invade my beds and entangle itself in every other growing thing. It's certainly taken advantage of the fact that I haven't had time to give proper attention to the yard this summer.

Alas for the morning glory, its reign of terror is now being brought to an end.

Who's sorry now, Morning Glory?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Through my entire life, my dad (my gardening icon) has had a wall of pegboard in the basement or the garage, and on it invariably hang any number of these:

Look out!  They're hungry!
Each of these tools, I learned from Dad, is a bitey. Whenever I would venture near him when he was gardening, I inevitably ended up being terrorized by Bitey, who threatened to... well, bite me.

Forty-four years later, I have just recently learned that these are bypass pruners. I like "bitey" better.

My bitey. Its name is Bitey.

Killing, Part 2

I feel it is important to note that, back in 2001 as a new first-time homeowner, I had never ever ever gardened in my life. At all. Nor wanted to. I'd never even mowed a lawn! Now I found myself with a front and back yard all my own, both overgrown with weeds and vines, and no one but me to make it better.

I decided that the only way to proceed was with a clean slate. And so my intro into gardening consisted of a task that even the worst gardener can be successful at.


I began with the front yard, which was overrun with English ivy and threatening the happiness and well-being of a beautiful crape myrtle, my one tree in the front. Inexperienced as I was, I had heard stories of this invasive beastie vine, and they included the advice that the only real way to eradicate it was by hand. One trip to Home Depot later, I was armed with this formidable weapon and so set myself to my task:

And after a week or so of after-work labor in the autumn sun, I had reached my goal: complete extermination of the ivy and sweet sweet freedom for the crape myrtle. I swear I could hear Myrtle taking deep breaths and whispering "thank you" when I was done. Sure, my little square of front yard was now a grey dusty patch of moonscape (seen below the next spring, when the crocuses I buried in November began to come to life). But it was MY grey dusty patch of moonscape.


But the real challenge lay ahead, in the backyard:

This was before it got ugly.

This was no little 15-ft square. This lovely lawn stretched about 50 feet back from the townhouse. The picture above was taken on move-in day in July. By November, when my killing spree began, the weeds and vines created a 2-ft high jungle all the way across the yard. My task: kill it all, bag it up, and let the county cart it away. Extra challenge: with neighbors on both sides, I had no direct access to the back except through my house. Thus, all yard trash would either have to be dragging through my basement, upstairs and through the kitchen, and out the front door, OR (as I ended up doing) physically heaving each full bag over my (very understanding) neighbor's chain link fence, clambering over the fence myself, and then dragging each bag up the hill over my neighbor's uneven, homemade steps, through his front yard, and to the street.

And so once again, armed with my weapon of choice...

...I waged war upon my enemies. Day after day, until it was too dark to see, all week long and through a long weekend, a woman possessed. Long were my labors, stiff were my knees, filthy were my fingernails. But at long last, the goal was reached, and there was this:

Another moonscape!

Well, I didn't say it was pretty. What a lot of ugly fences, huh? But who would have guessed the yard was so big? And if this isn't a clean slate, I really don't know what is. But now, what to do with that blank canvas? If only I could tell you that the killing was over. Sigh.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Killing, Part 1: How My Gardening Odyssey Began

In 2001, the Queen of Potatoes was a single gal deciding to buy her first home all on her very own.  One very important criterion:  I wanted a yard, but I emphatically did not want responsibility for a yard.  I had never gardened, didn't want to garden. Thus, my hope was to find a sweet little townhouse with a nice little homeowners' association whose dues paid for upkeep of all the grounds.  How perfect it would be!

Not surprisingly, things did not evolve as I had hoped, but ultimately they evolved for the better. After spending Sunday after Sunday touring open houses, I found myself in love with a 50-year-old townhouse in a 50-year-old community, with no association or neighborhood rules.  One mortgage later, it was mine!

Happily ensconced in my new home, here is what this non-gardener faced for front and back yards:

For someone who had never gardened and never wanted to, I was suddenly faced with quite the challenge.  What to do, what to do? The easiest solution, of course, would have been to do nothing and just let the jungle be. But pride of ownership would simply not allow this. No, if nothing else, the mess would have to go. And so without any clear idea of what I would do to replace it, I set out to kill the weed and vine jungle. By hand.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

But why isn't basil as invasive as spearmint? Cuz I'd be okay with that.

Barbara Damrosch lives (I think) in Maine, but submits regular articles to The Washington Post's much-shrunk Home and Garden section.  This week, she has an interesting little column about the mint family.

I did not know that all my favorite herbs are relatives. (Although I can believe it with my unstopable oregano.  Are you trying to grow herbs for the first time?  Try mint or oregano.)  But then why does my basil not come back year after year and spread determinedly around the garden like my spearmint?  C'mon, basil, step up!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Heritage Harvest Festival

Now this looks like fun, AND it's at Monticello, so win-win!

Susan Harris comes to the rescue!

I just found her article on Sustainable and Urban Gardening that identifies common weeds (well, common for our DC metro area). So that succulent little thing is purslane. Now, how do I know when to pick it and how do I cook it up?

Our Vegetable Garden, Part 2

Was Year 2 in the vegetable garden more successful? Oh my, yes. Friends, it can be done!

Yeah, we're good.

Big advantage: Mulch Boy joined the good fight, channeling his grandfather, who maintained a giant kitchen garden for years and years. Year 1 revealed that the bed on the side of the house was THE ideal spot. MB not only re-forked the existing beds down to 18" (!), he expanded the ideal spot to three times its original size. And big strong man that he is, he did this all in a matter of hours over a weekend, as opposed to my week-long struggle of the year before.

The other big innovation: planting almost everything from seed! Guess what's way cheaper than plants. Seeds! At less than $2 a packet, seeds allowed us to be really ambitious and try growing a bunch of stuff for cheap. And at less than $2 a packet, any failures would be a lot less painful. Especially since I harbored a deep-down scepticism about seeds really working. Yes, I know it's ridiculous, but I really couldn't believe I could make it work. It seemed way too easy: put little seeds in ground, cover up with a little dirt, add water, enjoy vegetables. But my dad (gardener extraordinaire) swore to me that the plants you grow from seed would be stronger and healthier than the ones you bought elsewhere and that had to suffer from the stress of transplanting.

Let the picture above speak for itself. We had the craziest, most fabulous garden ever, much to our surprise and delight. Oh sure, there were failures (the peppers died from bad placement, the lettuce and spinach went to seed almost immediately, and I remain The Girl Who Could Not Grow Zucchini). But we had tons of tomatoes, bush beans, carrots, beets, and potatoes. Yes, potatoes, people! The surprise crop started from seed potatoes from the garden center. We ate taters for months and they were amazing. The green beans produces for months, too, and the carrots actually overwintered in the garden, and we were able to dig out a bunch this spring. Really!

The highs we've got from this experience: watching those little plants pop through the ground and actually grow and knowing "we did this." And oh, walking out to your own little patch to dig up or pick your own so-tasty produce for dinner? Just amazingly satisfying.

I know the experienced gardeners may be rolling their eyes at our exciting "discoveries." But these two inexperienced farmers are really excited at our success, and having a terrific time.

Who We Are: Our Vegetable Garden, Part 1

We are (very) amateur vegetable gardeners. I've been trying to grow food in a very limited way for about 8 years, usually buying a tomato plant or two from the garden center, digging a hole and plunking them in the hard clay-y ground, and ending up with one tomato to show for it.

Help us!

Two years ago I decided to get ambitious and build a big ol' garden the right way to see if it really would make a difference. People have successfully grown food for thousands of years--have they all been smarter than me? Surely not! But since winging it on my own wasn't buying me any success, and as one of the few people who actually reads instruction manuals, I turned to the written word for help. My main guide: The Vegetable Gardener's Bible.

Step 1: Locate your beds in a sunny location. Our first challenge: our little north-facing house is surrounded by beautiful 100-ft trees. The sun comes and goes all day, and finding a location that gets enough sunshine throughout the day is a challenge. I chose three spots that seemed good candidates: one against the back porch (c. 3' x 8'), one against the privancy fence in the back yard on the east side of the yard (c. 3' x 6'), and one on the west side of the house in front, where our next-door neighbor said the sun shines most of the day (c. 4' x 6').

Step 2: Dig your beds deep. So I took Forky (my gardening fork) and laboriously broke up and turned the earth in my three beds to a depth of about 12"--no small task for a 42-yo, out-of-shape weakling. I think it took me about a week to complete the job, racing home from work each day, putting on my grubbies, and sweating furiously in the delightful Northern Virginia heat and humidity.

So was it worth it? I will reveal myself to be a giant dork when I say that the first time I planted in one of those beds, it was an amazing experience. No hacking away at the clay to build a hole big enough for my little plants or the onion sets. (This was also the first year I dared to attempt to grow from seed. I decided on pole beans, peas, and scallions.) Instead, I could literally scoop the soil out by hand and gently put the little guys in the ground. So soft! So airy! It was amazing! I was sold, even before anything actually grew. So note to all those who wonder whether all that digging effort is worth the effort. In a word, YES.

Did we end up with a wonderfully successful garden that year? Um... no. But it was partially successful, and that was enough to inspire me to try again next year. We had lots of onions, which we mostly ate immmature as scallions--delicious grilled!--but they never seemed to mature well beyond that. We got a bean or two and no peas, but those plants (from seed!) got clobbered by torrential spring rains and I blamed nature on the failure. (Thanks a lot, nature.) The tomatoes tanked again, and I somehow continued to be the one human being on the planet incapable of successfully growing zucchini (zucchini!). But we DID have a successful cucumber crop and made lots of pickles. And that was enough to spur my ambition for year 2., when Mulch Boy joined the good fight.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Sour Grapes... Well, Cherries

We have two sour cherry trees in our yard--a great surprise to us our first summer in our little house. After three years, we've still never managed to be ready with a plan when they ripen. Next year, I'm going to have to go visit the Laughing Duck Gardens blog for idears.