Thursday, May 28, 2009

Crows and coffee

This morning as I got into my car to go to work, I saw a big crow zoom out of the silver maple and up over the roof of our house. I just barely caught a glimpse of something small and blue held in its beak - probably a robin's egg. I have a lot of respect for the intelligence and adaptability of crows, but I would like them better if they weren't egg-robbers and baby-bird-eaters.

I brought a plastic jar to work, put it near the sink, and posted a sign over it: "Be Green, Recycle Your Coffee Grounds Here". I'm delighted that the coffee-making folks of the lab are obliging me! The idea is to collect coffee grounds for the compost pile. Whyfore, other than to rescue them from the landfill? Having finished a graduate school degree wherein I learned a fair amount about ecological stoichiometry, I'm not sure if it's ironic or simply fitting that I now find myself thinking about carbon:nitrogen ratios when I think about composting. A compost pile made solely of materials with a high C:N ratio - think dry leaves and sawdust - will break down very slowly, and if it's used before it is well broken down, it will actually strip nitrogen from the soil to which it's added. A compost heap with a lot of high-nitrogen materials will heat up nicely, but will be stinky. Since our backyard provides abundant leaves every fall, we have a surplus of high-carbon stuff; coffee grounds have a C:N ratio of 20:1, which helps to balance out the dry leaves' ratio of 60:1. The 'ideal' compost heap has something like a 30:1 ratio. I'm nerdy enough to have looked this up, but not nerdy enough to try to calculate the exact ratios of my compost bins. I'm more of the "guesstimate, see how it works out" philosophy.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bloodroot and basil, and The Battle of the Back Fence

This year, I've already done much more gardening than last year. Not hard to beat "zero" though, really.

It started in mid-April when the weather suddenly warmed up. I visited one of the few local native plant nurseries, Redbud Native Plant Nursery. I bought some more shade-loving plants for the native plant patch near the shed:


wood aster, Jacob's ladder, phlox. I didn't get decent pictures of all of them, though.

And a few more for sunnier spots: a giant hyssop, golden star, spiderwort

bleeding heart

dutchman's breeches

Turk's cap lily.

So far: the bloodroot didn't bloom, but its leaves stayed green until just recently - it looks like it's starting to go into its summer dormancy. The Jacob's ladder seems to be growing quite well, and had lots of pretty light lavendar flowers. Some of them appear to have been pollinated - looks like I'll have some seeds to sow for next season. The bleeding heart is still blooming wonderfully, as is one of the golden star plants - the other seems unhappy, though I'm not sure why. The Turk's cap lily has grown from 3 inches tall to about 2 1/2 feet - hopefully it will bloom later this summer. The spiderwort started blooming last week - what a pretty purple! Since I planted it in my yard, I've noticed that along the train tracks I ride to work every day, there are thousands of spiderwort plants... too bad I didn't notice that last year, or I would have collected seeds.

Around the same time, on a trip to Lowe's to buy some gardening tools, I also bought two of these cuties - 'Starry Night' violas.
They've grown quite a bit since this photo taken shortly after they were planted; that was about 6 weeks ago, and they've now got about twice as many flowers as in this shot. They're much more vibrantly purple than the photo would suggest.

On Mother's Day my mom and I went to Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve. I restrained myself from buying anything at their plant sale, but on our way back we stopped at a nursery and I ended up buying two kinds of bee balm, Monarda fistulosa and Monarda didyma cultivars. I also bought an "obedient plant," Physostegia. Every time I think about its name, I wonder if I can train it to do dishes for me. My mom also brought me some plants from her garden: a cute native woodland wildflower called foamflower (Tiarellia), and some Jack-in-the-Pulpits and lily of the valley.

A week ago, my mom and I both took a day off and tackled a big project in the yard - I've dubbed it The Battle of the Back Fence. We have an old chain link fence separating our backyard from those of our rear neighbors. It does not, however, actually enclose anything, so the only purpose it serves, in my opinion, is to serve as a trellis for poison ivy and a hindrance to me reaching the poison ivy that grows behind it. We suited up in long sleeves, long pants, two layers of gloves, and we started cutting back brush (mostly Norway maple saplings and brambles) and pulling out poison ivy. We created quite a large brush pile, and filled several trash bags with poison ivy. Then, we started taking down the chain link fence - a task complicated by the fact that in places, tree saplings were growing through the chain link so that the fence wires had to be cut around them.
My plans for this area involve keeping it trimmed and poison ivy free for a year or so, and then planting some native shrubs and perennials where the fence used to be. Maybe a rain garden/mini-wetland in the back corner, where it gets very damp every spring.

I fiddled around with ideas for creating raised vegetable beds this year, but realized that I didn't have enough free time/energy/money for that. I'm hoping to get the beds built by fall, to use next spring. For this year, my edible gardening consists mostly of containers on the deck - basil, rosemary, sage, dill, cilantro, and two kinds of tomatoes. I also dug up some wild grape vines growing in several spots in the yard where they are most definitely not wanted (such as under the rhododendrons), and transplanted them next to the deck where, with any luck, they'll cover the deck, feed the birds, and give us a few wild grapes to eat, too.

And, for Jenny - a photo of the wild ginger where you can see a flower, to the left of most of the leaves.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Need to find a Gardeners Anonymous chapter.

Hi, my name is Irene and I'm a gardening addict.

* I spend money on gardening that I should use for other things.
* I often garden alone.
* I frequently overdo it and suffer the consequences the day after.
* When I'm at work, I think about plants, and if possible I do some gardening as soon as I get home.
* I'm often outside gardening first thing in the morning.

However, for the 12 step program to work, the first step is realizing that you have a problem... I figure that this particular addiction is better for me than, say, playing video games (although more expensive, at least initially!), and certainly yields more tangible benefits.

If you're one of the three people reading this blog, be prepared to hear a lot about plants. Whenever I actually get around to posting, that is.

I plan to start blogging about my gardening projects, in part for the sake of keeping track of what I did, what worked, what didn't, and so on.

We moved into our house 2 and a half years ago, in January 2007. Having bought the house without knowing anything about the yard except its size, its trees, and the deck in the back, the first year I was mostly interested in observing. What would come up where? How would the sunlight fall? What color would the azaleas bloom?

But of course I wasn't content to just observe. I also undertook two small projects, both of which turned out to be... educational.

First, I bought some native plants at the Bartram's Garden plant sale, and planted them in a shady spot in the back yard, near the shed, along with some hostas that had been growing by the mailbox, but were getting choked by grass. I'm not sure I remember all of what I planted, but I think the list looked something like... wild ginger, crested iris, Meehan's mint, shooting star, Goldie's fern, Jack-in-the-pulpit. I remember thinking that since these were native plants, they should be carefree and grow happily where I planted them - especially since I took care to amend the soil with some store-bought stuff. However... what I failed to understand is that the soil in my yard (especially in that spot) is heavy orange clay - nothing like the rich, humus-y mature deciduous forest soil that most of those species prefer. I also didn't water them much during the second half of the summer; I was in my first trimester of pregnancy by then, and feeling quite miserable enough without venturing out into the heat and humidity. Here's a photo of this area, taken a week ago.

The best success thus far has been the wild ginger. From a start of just one 2-leaved plant, it has started to spread, and it bloomed this year. The flowers are easy to miss; they're low to the ground, and purplish-brown.

The hostas aren't happy - I think it's actually too much shade even for them, and maybe not enough drainage, plus they're getting eaten by slugs. The Meehan's mint and shooting star have vanished without a trace, sadly. The little iris shoots are spreading, but I think they're not getting enough light to bloom. Although it's hard to make out in this photo, the Goldie's fern has survived and is sending up some new leaves, and a lonely, pathetic-looking Jack-in-the-pulpit is coming up.

The other project I started that first summer was a vegetable garden. I picked a (fairly) sunny spot, dug up the grass, worked some packaged garden soil into the clay, and planted some tomatoes, bell peppers, and strawberries. The tomatoes got nibbled by deer, the bell peppers produced a grand total of one pepper, and the strawberries were underwhelming both in quantity and quality. Here, too, I think that the clay soil was the main culprit - I didn't add nearly enough organic matter.

The year after that, I didn't do any gardening at all - newborn Annika was keeping me very busy. So this year, I have a year's worth of pent-up gardening energy. It's getting late tonight, but in my next post, I'll describe what I've done so far this year.