Updates – Yard Edition

And, here we are again! I am sincerely sorry about the lack of updates. Being a mother and being a student is like working a full-time job and then punching in at a part-time job in the evenings. But, it’s winter break right now, and I finally feel like I’ve caught my breath again.

So, here are some things that happened since my last write. I have quite a few updates, so I’m planning on breaking them up into several different posts. Stay tuned, my dumplings.

Harvest totals

My harvest totals were a bit low this year. This being my fourth growing season, I’ve learned a few things about the general environment of my garden; what grows well, what doesn’t grow well, and why. In terms of what does well, tomatillos are an easy, prolific plant. I’ve grown them now for two years in a row, and I’m to the point where I find tomatillo salsa (salsa verde) preferable to tomato salsa. I use this recipe. The only downside of it is that it’s not acidic enough to can without a pressure canner. My dad also made a batch this summer and adapted it for water-bath canning, so I’ll have to give that a try next year. A word of caution with tomatillos: they take up a lot of space. They’re a floppy, leggy plant, and they often send up volunteers the next summer that don’t produce nearly as well. Now that I’m aware of this, I’ll be more diligent about pulling up the volunteers. Some of them nearly took over the potato patch this year. Other plants that did well were greens (kale, chard, and spinach), and root crops (beets and carrots). This is two years in a row that those particular crops have performed well, which tells me my soil health and texture is improving.

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My garlic harvest was wonderful. My dad gave me some bulbs from a grower local to his area, and they produced the most beautiful, uniform offspring. It’s like stock-photo garlic. I don’t know the variety, but the gentlemen he bought it from is an Irishman by the name of Flaherty, so for the time being, Flaherty garlic is now my staple garlic. I seeded just a small row of some of the other heirloom varieties in the fall. We use garlic in basically every meal we eat, and although it’s fairly inexpensive to purchase at the grocery store, there really is no comparison between the two in terms of flavor and fragrance. I’m glad to have a big bag of it down in the basement.

I also grew pumpkins again this summer, after taking a break last year. I know they’re more ornamental than practical, but I like growing them. There’s something absurd about a giant orange pumpkin just hanging out in the vines. I grow ‘Cinderalla’ pumpkins, which are a French heirloom. This year, I had three large squash set, and three smaller ones. They decorated the front porch. If I had been a bit more diligent, I could have boiled some of them down for pumpkin mash, but, well, babies. Next year I’m growing another variety in addition to ‘Cinderalla’, so perhaps I’ll set some aside for boiling down.

The final thing that performed well was a new addition: broomcorn. I’ve had an old packet of seeds sitting around for a few years, and finally got around to planting them when the weather started staying warm. Corn is a tough thing for me to grow (more on that later), but broomcorn really did great. Now, granted, it’s another purely ornamental thing, but I enjoyed the bright brooms that it produced.

Not everything grew well, though. It was a bad summer for rabbit damage. They mowed down my corn, edamame, and beans. I tried to be diligent about spraying my pepper spray, but it was hard to keep up with it, mostly because I didn’t want to be handling it when I was out in the yard with Finn. I suppose it’s nothing a good fence won’t solve, though. I’ve tried growing popcorn for three years now, and I’m determined to make it happen someday.

After an amazing onion harvest last year, this year was awful. I’m almost certain it had to do with soil texture. I rotate my crops, and the particular triangle I planted them in this year really needed some amendments. The ground was hard, and didn’t hold water evenly. Next summer, I’ll put the onions in one of the areas I’ve been amending with green manure and compost. I really, really enjoyed having onions in storage all winter, and I would like to make that a regular thing. I’ve always had trouble with tomatoes, though. I have several theories on this. The first is that my timing is off in terms of seeding dates. I’ve been starting them around the first weekend in May, because I don’t want them to get leggy under the grown lights before its warm enough to put them outside. However, they’re never quite big enough around planting time, and so I’ve been transplanting them mid-June. This year, I’ll try earlier seed dates. My other theory (one I’m hoping is NOT true) has to do with the giant black walnut tree in our neighbor’s yard. Its crown just barely reaches the far southeastern edge of my garden. Black Walnuts have allopathic properties; that is, they secret a chemical called juglione which is toxic to plants in the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers). If any of the fruit, leaves, or roots come into contact with these particular plants, it can either kill them entirely or inhibit their health. Obviously, I can’t do anything about my neighbor’s tree, so I’m crossing my fingers that this isn’t the case. I will say that I have better success with cherry/grape tomatoes than large fruits, and I also have no issues growing potatoes, so that gives me a bit of hope.

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My overall consensus is that my soil still has a long way to go. I may have to pay for another load of compost/topsoil this spring, or look into spreading some gypsum. I think my nutrient balance is fine, but the heavy clay is difficult to work with.

Maintenance stuff

I did another ladybug release this summer. This is my third year in a row. I always have good success with them, and they keep the aphids at bay. We had an unusually warm fall, and curiously, I saw a good many ladybugs clustering along the south side of the house and garage. I don’t know if this means that they’re establishing themselves in our yard, or if it was weather-related.

I also did a weird, mad-scientist-type-experiment. I ordered some beneficial nematodes and sprayed the garden/yard with them. Basically, I got this sponge full of faint, grey powder, which I had to immerse in water. The powder turned into a sort of thin sludge. Those are the nematodes. They’re invisible to the naked eye. Once rehydrated, you distribute them via garden sprayer in the soil at the base of your plants. They burrow down, where they start feasting on the larvae of pest bugs. It’s really weird. But I do have to admit, I had very few pest problems this summer. Also, the little monsters are good for keeping flea populations down in your yard. We had a horrific flea outbreak last fall, just before Finn was born, and so I’m all for doing anything to keep that under control. In a neighborhood where dogs and squirrels run amok, fighting fleas in the yard is difficult. However, both the dog and the cat haven’t had a single flea on them for months. I don’t know if the nematodes have anything to do with this, but it certainly didn’t hurt anything to send them out into the gardens.

We had an excellent compost yield this fall. Enough to put a thick layer on one of the large triangles, and a thin layer over another. Compost is so beautiful. So loamy, and fragrant, and dark.

Finally, I continued on my quest of planting for pollinators. One of the easiest ways to do this is by bordering your gardens with marigolds and nasturtiums. These plants do double-duty; the bees love the bright red flowers, and they help repel pests. Guys, I had monarch butterflies in my garden this summer. I can’t remember the last time I saw a monarch butterfly. We had honeybees, bumblebees, and hummingbirds, too. The presence of so many pollinator is a sure sign that our yard’s environment is really improving.

Fence it in

Jason dug all the posts for my fence. Gah. I love that man. I love that he loves digging holes, and making fence plans. What a guy. The posts are untreated cedar. It’s quite pricey, but it lasts a long time without needing to be treated for weatherization. And it smells like the Garden of Eden. Hopefully this summer we’ll begin to set the actual fencing in place.

Ornamental gardens

Having been inspired by my first semester in hort school, I decided that our front yard needed some help. I dug up the mailbox garden and put in two quarter-circle plots on either side of the front walk, where it connects to the sidewalk. There’s some flowering bulbs out there, waiting for spring, as well as some hollyhocks and some vining plants.

I also re-dug the front foundation gardens and set the borders on a curve, lining them with some landscaping rocks I found on a vacant lot (which may or may not have been up for grabs. I’m still not sure). After re-doing the borders, I added some ornamental grasses, native perennials, and some flowering herbs. I did most of the work in the fall, so I’ll be interested to see what makes it through the winter. If all goes well, our front yard will look much better in the future.

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Finally, I attacked the south garden. It was time. The rosebushes were getting leggy and sickly, the bishop weed was completely out of control, and what healthy perennials were managing to survive just weren’t worth it. I pulled almost everything up, leaving the healthy parts of the rosebushes, the clematis, and the honeysuckle vine. In place of the old plants, I transplanted my two lavender bushes, and purchased some ‘Elijah Blue’ grass, as well as some creeping thyme for the border. Further down, away from the concrete, I put in an ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea. It was a sad, tiny thing, on fall clearance, so we’ll see if it even survives the winter. The bishop weed is very difficult to eradicate. Since the initial clean-up, I’ve gone through four or five times already and dug up more rhizomes. I know it will be probably a good year or two before its completely gone, but I think it’s worth the effort. Bishop weed is invasive, not to mention unattractive. If everything survives, the south garden will be much more orderly and well-maintained.

Overall, it’s been the year of major design changes in the yard. We’ve lived here for enough growing seasons that I know what looks good and what is just ugly, easy-to-grow filler plant material. Next summer, I’m going to continue establishing perennials in the front gardens, keeping the south garden clear, and potentially starting a rain garden in the gully between our house and the next property to the north. As usual, there’s never a dull moment in our yard.

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