Friday, September 30, 2005

Dumpster Diving

Despite the Cincinnati Enquirer’s almost daily calls, we do not subscribe to the newspaper. As members of the internet age, we read our news online. The top headlines of the NY Times are emailed to me daily. My futuristic tendencies do have one drawback: I have no newspaper for the garden.

After beginning my first lasagna bed, I became addicted to newspaper. I use it to smother grass for new beds. I’ve killed quite a bit of lawn this way. Additionally, every new plant I install is surrounded with a ring of newspaper before I add the mulch. Although it decomposes with time, the paper keeps the weeds down long enough for them to become thoroughly extinguished.

To obtain the newspaper I needed when I began the half moon bed last June, I waited for a Thursday (trash!) night and then trolled the neighborhood. After a few blocks, I found that one kind soul had loaded her newspaper into a paper shopping bag, complete with handles, before depositing it in the recycle bin. Because it was summer, I had to raid the bin in broad daylight and carry my prize home in full view of the neighbors. Mike was mortified, but I considered the paper worth the price of humiliation.

That bag of newspaper lasted through the summer, but finally began to empty during September. In an effort to stretch my supply, I started getting my groceries bagged in paper and used the paper bags in the garden. When I received plants in the mail, I recycled the brown paper that cushioned the package’s innards into the garden as well. Finally, last week, I used the last of the bags, packaging, and newspaper.

Last night was trash night again, but, thank goodness, it is now dark by 8 p.m. This time, I had only to walk to the end of my block to find a recycle bin with two paper bags full of newspapers. They were difficult to carry without handles, and I nearly dropped them on the trip back up the street, but I got them home and stowed by our kitchen door. Tonight, I have several newly planted bushes and flowers that will finally receive their newspaper ring and bark mulch. I only hope that they weren’t too exposed during last night’s temperature dip to 42 degrees.

Hopefully, I won’t have to go dumpster diving again until spring. I have enough newspaper to last me through the fall (fingers crossed!). I’ve also socked away tons of plastic food and beverage containers during the spring and summer to use for my winter sowing. However, if you see a strange lady rooting through your recycle bin, please, avert your eyes. It’s just me, humiliating myself for my garden

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Gardening to the Curb

I first became interested in “gardening to the curb” during the perusal of a GardenWeb chat on the subject. Although I can no longer find that original discussion, I recently managed to find several other conversations on gardening in that area between the sidewalk and the street, also referred to as the hell strip, the easement, or the boulevard. There is even a website devoted to gardening in this strip, the Guelph Boulevard Club. I was sold on the idea after seeing a house in “downtown” Alexandria, Kentucky where the easement had been landscaped. Just a few plants in a 3’ x 25’ area made a tremendous and gorgeous impact.

It’s a difficult spot to garden in. In the winter, the area is subject to being sprayed with salt and piled high with snow. In the summer, it can become very dry. It takes abuse from passengers exiting cars parked curbside, kids on bikes, and dogs looking for a toilet. If the area is an easement, the city can dig it up without warning to access utility lines. Some communities prohibit its members from planting anything more outrageous than sod along the curb.

However, the area has potential. If it is bounded by concrete on all four sides (curb, sidewalk, and two driveways), it is the perfect container for aggressive plants. As the first thing people see when they approach the house, attractive landscaping can dramatically enhance curb appeal. If your neighbors don’t mind, it’s often far enough from the rest of the house and landscaping to be used as an experimental bed.

It is this last quality that appeals to me. My neighbor Mary gave me 40 tulip bulbs and I was at a loss as to where to plant them, until I considered the bit of easement on either side of the driveway. Our strip contains one tree and a scrubby mix of grass and weeds, punctuated by mole hills. Anything I plant there can only be an improvement, so I feel free to try new ideas.

My only rule is that the plants be free or almost free. The $1 perennials I recently found at Moeller’s qualify as nearly free. I plan on begging a bit of Tim’s ditch lilies next spring. Perhaps the tulip bulbs will rot, the perennials will shrivel from the salt, and the sewer line will need replacement, prompting the city to destroy it all, but I won’t have invested much more than my hard work.

I’m ready to experiment. My results might be nice enough to get me into the boulevard club or inspire my neighbors to try something similar. Finally, the thought of being greeted by forty tulip blooms as I turn into the driveway this spring makes me smile.

*If you are considering gardening along the curb, be sure to call your utilities hotline before you dig.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Margie's Kentucky Garden

My husband calls me a faux extrovert. I can pretend to be outgoing, but I’m really rather shy. After learning that my coworker, Margie, was an avid gardener, it took me four months to approach her. Although frightened by her big hair, I managed to awkwardly blurt out “I want to see your garden!” in our very first conversation. One would think my mother taught me no manners at all.

Margie is a Kentuckian, so I suppose she’s used to people speaking their mind. She forgave my lack of tact and invited me to her Longaberger open house, not to buy baskets, but to view the grounds. I arrived at the end of the event and felt like a complete goon as I bypassed the party and headed for the yard, camera in hand. My sense of awkwardness quickly passed as I became absorbed with the scene.

Margie has surrounded two sides of the house with a bright and cheery flower border. Beneath the deck, she has a shady retreat, complete with a porch swing and an envy-inducing potting bench. In the enormous back lawn, she created four different garden: a perennial bed, a scented garden, a remembrance garden, and a secret, shade, garden (pictured left). The gardens, scattered across the lawn like jewels on a velvet cloth, are absolute treasures.

A garden, like an art museum, must be explored at a slow stroll, with frequent stops. Because I tend to become overwhelmed and hurried, I have to make a deliberate effort to "stop and smell the roses." I start by trying to identify every plant I see. Once I am really studying the scene, I begin to notice the subtleties that make a garden so enjoyable: the juxtaposition of contrasting colors, the clever use of garden art, and the lushness of an overflowing container. As my appreciation for the display grows, so does my envy. I want that and that and that and that and that. I contented myself with taking only pictures.

Margie joined me as soon as her hostess duties would allow. She was quite tolerant of me constantly asking: “What is that?” She shared her successes, her failures, and her future plans. Hearing the narrative behind each garden made the experience that much richer. We concluded the tour by paging through her scrapbook. I exclaimed over the before and after photos. Over the period of nine years she had gone from nothing but grass to paradise.

As I left, Margie sweetened the afternoon by offering bits of her perennials when the weather cools down. Then she ordered me to host the next garden tour, causing me to bashfully demur till next summer at least. While I am brave enough to show my carefully edited pictures to the internet, I am not yet confident enough in my garden’s merits to invite someone to drive 40 minutes to see it. I suppose my garden is a bit shy like me. We could both do with a dose of Kentucky brashness.

Margie’s Garden Photoset

P.S. Can someone explain the Longaberger basket phenomenon to me?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Now, With More Photo Sets!

Since purchasing my digital camera last spring, I’ve uploaded about 400 photos to my Flickr account. My Yard and Garden set has reached 125 photos. (The other 275 snapshots are mostly of my cats.) With so many photos, and fourteen different planting areas, the set has become unwieldy. It takes me forever to find a picture. When a coworker asked to see photos of my garden, I was embarrassed to forward her the link to my large and largely unedited set. Finally, the shame was enough for me to create a separate set for each of my gardens.

The sidebar, to the right, now holds a link to each garden area. Some of the sets are populated by only a single photo, but I’ll remedy that. Eventually, shots of the same area over a period of time will be filed sequentially so that I can crow over how my garden has grown. If you want to look at pictures of dead daisies and ugly bugs, they can still be found in the original set.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Cat Crops

I’m no farmer. I don’t even grow vegetables. However, I do grow cat crops – not cash crops, but cat crops.

I have a large, square, green pot devoted to kitty treats. In the summer, it hosts catnip. My cats adore the stuff. The mint responds well to pinching, so I often bring an entire sprig into the house. I tear a few leaves off to rub on the scratching posts and a few to feed Mr. Tibbs. (He seems to have an unlimited capacity for consuming catnip leaves.) I usually leave the remainder of the sprig on the floor, where Zoro can bat at it and Mimi can grind it into the wood with the side of her face. I will try cutting and drying the catnip shortly before the first frost.

The same pot will host multiple crops of wheatgrass over the winter. I bought ten pounds of organic wheatgrass seed last year. Every six to eight weeks, I’ll soak about 1/4 cup of seed overnight and then plant it in the pot. It germinates almost immediately. I have to keep the pot out of reach until the roots have established themselves or else Cleo will pull out the shoot, seed, and accompanying dirt in her eagerness for the treat. Once the grass is established, she does a good job of trimming the “lawn.” Mimi wasn’t interested in the grass last winter, but developed a taste for fresh shoots this summer. I’m sure Zoro and Tibbs will also be partaking.

The pot was $20 and I feel like I am forever buying potting soil, but it is all worth it to know that I’m treating my kitties to nutritious, organic greens.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Working in a Coal Mine

I don’t know much about dirt. I passed Geology 101 with flying colors, but don’t recall a bit of it. I do know that my thick, pasty, cheesy clay is not the best for plant growth.

As I’ve begun to double-dig my new rose bed, I’ve found that the soil under the back lawn is a bit different than the front bed gumbo. There is no topsoil to speak of. Instead, the top layer is a lighter version of the front bed clay. Perhaps the years of supporting a lawn have tempered it. Beneath this 8-inch orange layer is a brown layer. This is mostly clay, with chunks of coal and terracotta. The next layer is a repeat of the first.

Before I moved to Ohio, I assumed that the burning of coal for energy was defunct in the U.S. I thought we had all moved on to cleaner energy sources like running water, wind, sun, and nuclear fuel. (Although whether nuclear plants are cleaner than coal is a subject of debate.) I was a bit dismayed to learn that our local electricity comes from a coal-burning plant. Perhaps we are not out of the dark ages yet.

We don’t just burn coal here; we mine it. The Powhatan No. 6 Mine in Alledonia, Ohio is listed among the major U.S. Coal Mines. From what little I understand of coal extraction in Ohio, the coal usually exists as bands of rock about three feet thick. This leaves me a little puzzled by my clay layer with coal chunks, not to mention the bright orange pieces of what look like soft terracotta.

Ignorant geologic ramblings aside, I wonder how my plants will do in this odd soil. From my internet gleanings, I gather that coal is acidic, but I could find nothing else on cultivating in a coal mine. I’m seriously considering testing the soil before planting the roses to determine what sort of amendments (if any) I should add to alter the pH. If the soil is completely untenable, perhaps I could sort out the coal and burn it to offset our horrendous winter utilities bill.

Monday, September 12, 2005

2005 CCC Garden Awards

The end of the growing season marks the time for the 2005 Cincinnati Cape Cod gardening awards, in which I present awards to my plants. The categories are entirely whimsical and subject to change each year.

Most Resilient
The most resilient plant has to be my redbud seedling I received, free, from the National Arbor Day Foundation. I received 10 trees, but had only eight pots, so two lucky sticks were planted directly into the lawn. The redbud was still a naked twig when Mike gave the lawn its inaugural mowing of the season. I guess the huge ring of mulch around the seedling wasn’t enough of a clue for him to steer around the tree. He mowed it down. Ever hopeful, I planted a tomato cage around the stump and waited. It has rebounded beautifully.

Best from Seed
This is a tie. I’ve written previously of my amazing butterfly weed that bloomed from seed the first year. I’d also like to recognize the fantastic growth I’ve gotten from lemon seeds I started last winter during the Great Citrus Experiment.

Ugliest Post-Bloom Appearance
This award does not go to an herbaceous plant, but a woody one. Yes, daffodils and tulips and even lilies look ragged after they’ve finished blooming. However, the foliage does eventually disappear or brown enough that you can safely cut it away. With my Miss Kim lilac, though, I’ve had to look at its nasty, parched-looking leaves all summer. I was heartened to notice that the Miss Kims at the Friendship Park don’t look any better. At least its ugly appearance isn’t my fault (or the park landscapers and I are doing the same thing wrong).
My snowball bush gets an honorable mention in this category. It seemed to bloom too heavily for its own structure to bear and now looks positively bedraggled. Next year I’ll be lightening the load by cutting many blossoms to bring indoors. (By the way, if you click on the link for the snowball bush picture, you can see my neighbor's fake plant in the background.)

Best In-Place Surprise
Terese Bugnet wins, hands down. This rose is a prolific bloomer and sweetly scented. Best of all, it came with the house.

Most Popular with the Bugs
This is a bit hard to judge without an actual bug per minute count. My butterfly bush and sage receive constant insect attention. However, my blue mist shrub was attracting bees, moths, and butterflies even as I was planting it in the ground. Therefore, it wins the popularity award.

Most Misplaced
I made many errors when placing plants in the ground, but most of them were aesthetic. The only plant that truly suffered from misplacement was the sweet woodruff that I planted in full sun. I discovered my mistake not long after I put it in the ground in March. After allowing the sweet woodruff to bake until August, I mercifully moved it to a mostly shaded position near Cleo's bench. It survived the summer, but just.

Most Impressive Growth
They call trumpet vine an invasive for a reason. I planted a 6-inch stick in the spring and now have a 15-foot monster. Will it bloom next summer? Anecdotal evidence is inconclusive. It may bloom next year or it may not bloom for five.

Most Vigorous Cloner
I purchased 3 ostrich ferns from Trader’s World in June. They evidently like their shady spot (but with good sky light) and my regular watering. At last count, I have eight ferns. I may distribute them around the yard next spring.

Well, like most award presentations, this has gone on far too long. What nominees do you have from your garden?

Friday, September 09, 2005

I Hate My Wheelbarrow

I don’t like my wheelbarrow. When I caught the gardening bug last spring, I bought the middle-of-the-line, plastic-tray model. I scoffed at the Home Depot's offer to assemble it (and the extra $20 bucks). I put my own wheelbarrow together on a brisk, but sunny day in March.

Ever since its assembly, it has schemed to fall apart on me. Despite my best wrenching, the blasted nuts are eternally working free of the bolts. At first, the shiny metal nut would catch my eye and I’d reattach it. However, either the nuts or my eyes have dimmed, because I’ve completely lost two of them. Now, when I lift the wheelbarrow handles, half of the wheel assembly dangles free. I can buy more nuts, but the situation is just annoying. I can’t help wondering whether a Home Depot-assembled wheelbarrow would have remained intact.

I also find a wheelbarrow rather tippy. When fully loaded with dirt, it takes skill and strength to keep it from capsizing as I run it over our bumpy side yard. I’ve found myself lustily eyeing gardening carts. Still, I must admit that, tippy as it may be, maneuvering a wheelbarrow through a tight spot is probably easier than a cart.

Finally, I’m not sure if plastic is the ideal material for the tray of a wheelbarrow. I’ve had no problems yet, but it buckles alarmingly when fully loaded and I’m always worried that one day I’ll put the hoe right through the plastic. Metal seems more durable, but I suppose it is heavier.

I spent fifty bucks on this piece of crap, so I suppose I’ll simply replace the nuts (and ask my husband to tighten them) and wait for it to fall apart. Still, I can’t help but like the wheelbarrow when its cargo is Mr. Tibbs.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Plastic Plants

Believe it or not, I’m a little gardening crazy. Garden chatter invades my casual conversations. Even at work, my mind often strays down the garden path. In a recent exchange, as usual, I steered the talk towards gardening.

“Oh,” my coworker said, “We’ve been so busy this year that we haven’t had time to plant flowers. We usually plant something, for a little color, but not this year.”

I knew, right then, that I would not be having future gardening conversations with this woman. I don’t consider plugging a few annuals in the ground gardening.

Call me a perennial snob, but the yearly adorning of yards with impatiens, marigolds, and petunias, is more decorating than gardening. Most annuals are the living equivalent of garden gnomes and lawn flamingos. The short-lived plants require little more care than if they had been made of plastic themselves. I’ll admit, annuals do have a place in the garden. Sown seeds can yield plants that will mask the unsightly remains of spring ephemerals. Due to the difficulty of overwintering containers, annuals are the ideal plantings for window boxes and decorative pots. However, brightening up the front border by planting pastel impatiens under the evergreen foundation plantings is not gardening.

I mean no offense towards my coworker; she’s a delightful lady and busy with her 10 (TEN) kids. It’s just that, in the grip of a full-blown obsession, I want nothing more than to chat endlessly with those like me. I’m lucky to have found coworkers (like Patrick) and neighbors (like Tim) that put up with my single-mindedness. Speaking of neighbors, I definitely won’t be exchanging gardening ideas with the lady who lives next door. She decorates her front porch with a big, fake plant – the ultimate plastic perennial.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


We moved into our house last October. Whether the leaves had fallen and herbaceous plants had gone to sleep for the winter, I have no idea. We were focused on the interior of the house. I didn’t start poking around the yard until late winter. By that time, the leafless state of the shrubs and trees had rendered them unidentifiable. The perennials had retreated beneath the earth. I may as well have had a yard full of flora from Mars. I recognized nothing.

In the spring, each emerging plant was a delightful mystery. Some things I recognized immediately, others I found in my Denny McKeowen guide, and the real stumpers required assistance from the internet. My garden journal is full of references to “mystery plants.”

I found one such mystery plant growing on the left side of the front steps. I had to remove some of it when I constructed the raised beds for the climbing hydrangea, but I transplanted the surplus to the right side of the steps. (I have a passion for symmetry.) All season, it grew wildly but did not flower. I was beginning to suspect I had nurtured another weed. As the summer progressed it became lankier and “weedier” looking. Finally, a bloom in early July enabled me to identify it as some sort of aster. The scattered blooms promised a flush of purple in the autumn.

Two months later, the plants are uglier than ever. The rangy stems have flopped open in a circle, leaving the plants’ bases and the earth below exposed. The flowering continues to be far too sporadic to redeem their untidy habit. I may be able to restrain myself from chopping them to bits, but they will definitely be moved to a less conspicuous location by next summer.

Now, the question: what shall I replace them with? The space on the right is 24” x 24” and the space on the left is 24” x 18”. I would like the plant to fit mostly within the space and be two to three feet high. I’d like something that flowers for most of the summer, with blooms in red, yellow, or orange. Fragrance would be nice, but is not a necessity.

I considered miniature roses (you can see the prolific bloom of the miniature in a container on the front steps), but I fear that would be a bit too small. Knockout roses are too big. Daylilies are nice. I like the height, foliage, and flowers, but they begin looking tatty by mid-summer.

Leafing through Gardening in Ohio, I found three possible flowering shrubs of the appropriate size: Goldencup St. Johnswort (yellow flowers, mid June – August, no scent), Summersweet (white to rose flowers, late June – Aug, fragrant), and Virginia Sweetspire (white flowers, May, fragrant). Virginia Sweetspire blooms a bit too early. The fragrance and bloom time of Summersweet are perfect, but white flowers wouldn’t show up well in the proposed location. The Goldencup St. Johnswort is a definite possibility, despite its lack of scent.

I’ll continue my research, but any suggestions are welcome. The asters have to go. I liked them so much better when they were a mystery.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

We Kilt the Durn Bees

Mowing our lawn became a dangerous chore this summer. The first time Mike came in with a swollen ankle, I thought a snake had bit him. I found two or three puncture marks on his ankle and the flesh was hot and swollen. He had an elephant ankle for four or five days afterward. He didn’t know what had happened; he hadn’t seen a snake, a spider, or any insect.

The second time Mike was attacked, he was mowing the back yard and I was trimming trees on the side. I heard the mower stop and Mike ran over to me. He pulled up his shirt to reveal puffy bites beneath one arm, very near his armpit. Again, we were mystified. As I handed his shirt back to him, a striped insect fell onto my hand. I yelped and flung it away. I suspected it was a bee, but couldn’t be sure in my panic.

The next week, Mike tried to mow again. This time, he saw them: yellow jackets swarmed his lower legs, biting and stinging. He retreated to the house, I applied After Bite, and he swore to never mow the backyard again.

Being the red-blooded American I am, I was not about to allow our environment to dictate our behavior. The back yard is our domain, not a bee’s. I set out to find the nest. Mike had been stung when he was near the fallen tree and the north corner of the yard, so I concentrated my search there. I found nothing. I consulted with my coworkers and searched again, looking along the fence posts and poking my head into my neighbor’s brush pile. The nest remained hidden. I gave up. We just wouldn’t mow the back yard ever again.

On Sunday, I planted a witch hazel along our northwest fence line. I stepped back to admire my work and imagine the future sweeping border. Nestled in the west corner, framed by the border’s curve, I plan to install a pond. I was pacing the future pond area, noting the ground’s contours, when the gaudy colors of a yellow jacket caught my eye. It swooped low and landed on a dirt runway outside of a hole in the ground. As I watched, the striped 747s launched and landed with regularity. I had found the nest.

I raced into the house and dragged Mike out into the yard. He agreed that this was our target. We carefully inspected the area to be sure there were no other entrances and planned our attack. We would spray the nest after sundown dressed in our best beekeeper-inspired outfits. We would each be armed with a can of insecticide. Mike would cover the nest entrance while I was on the lookout for any patrols.

It was fully dark when we launched our offensive. I wore jeans tucked into socks, a hooded sweatshirt, and a scarf. My face was uncovered, but I figured I could run if I had to. Mike found my outfit silly, but did change from shorts to long pants and covered his feet with socks. He wore his jacket unzipped. I had thoughtfully marked the hole with a piece of bark, so the nest was easy to spot with only the light of our flashlight. Mike lit the entrance and began to spray, using only half of the can’s 20-foot range. A moth flew by, and mistaking it for a yellow jacket, I sprayed the air wildly. After twenty seconds of uneventful spraying, Mike asked me how much longer he should spray.

“The whole can!” I insisted.

He continued spraying a bit longer, but, after noting that the ground was soaked and the “runway” was now a puddle of insecticide, then stopped. We returned to the house. After the anticlimactic moment, my get-up seemed even more ridiculous. I had expected, and prepared Mike for, hordes of angry yellow jackets vigorously defending their nests. Instead, we had just sprayed a hole in the ground. With no bodies to count, we had no idea if it worked.

Monday morning, I checked the hole for comings and goings and saw nary an insect. Mike mowed that afternoon without incident. I suppose we have won, but it feels a bit hollow without an outright battle. We still have a can and a half of insecticide. Perhaps the neighbors have a hornet nest we can destroy.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Bloomin Disappointment

The first gardening book I purchased was Gardening in Ohio, by Denny McKeowen. During the spring, I pored over its pages nightly in an effort to thoroughly educate myself on my new obsession. I believe I've memorized sections of Denny's educational, yet witty, prose. Quite serendipitously, I purchased a gardening journal also authored by Denny. I took the advice found in both books very seriously. He became a sort of gardening hero figure to me.

While researching where to by an Yves Piaget rose, I discovered that Denny McKeowen has a nursery right here in Cincinnati, Bloomin Garden Centre. I excitedly planned a trip for the next weekend. I imagined acres of greenhouses and rows of plants. As we are nearing the end of the season, I also anticipated great deals. Today, I found none of that. The selection was disappointingly small and the prices were too high. He does seem to carry most of the plants he recommends in Gardening in Ohio, but I've found them elsewhere for less. In fact, I found little to recommend the nursery other than the large number of helpful staff. I didn't buy a thing. I drove home a little disgusted that I had wasted the gas needed to drive to a greenhouse 12 miles away, just to end up buying my plants at the Funke's, right down the street.

The problem with hero worship is that it never lasts once you begin scrutinizing the object of admiration. With the books, a garden center, a landscaping business, and a radio show, Denny seems less the helpful neighbor and more the remote king of a gardening empire. I suppose I shouldn't have put him on a pedestal to begin with. His garden center stinks, but his book is great. In reality, most idols end up having clay feet.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Butterfly Buddies

My winter sowing had its successes and its failures. After researching the lifecycle of perennials a bit more, I did not expect even my successes to bloom the first year. I know I won’t see my first columbine bloom until next spring, assuming my fragile seedlings make it through the winter. My hardy hibiscus are a vigorous twelve inches tall, but did not flower. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of my butterfly weeds did bloom. The plant is floppy and the flower head is small, but it brought me a great deal of satisfaction to see a perennial bloom from seed the first year. I was also tickled by the contrast of the orange butterfly weed next to the purple butterfly bush. It looks as if I have a colorful butterfly garden in the making. I will be sowing butterfly weed again this winter to increase my supply of bright orange flowers.