Feb 27: Soggy day to move dirt

Originally published on Butterfly Mind.

Once I decided to kill more grass, I called my mulch guy to ask if they delivered top soil. He said yes. I got excited, and I asked him for three cubic yards, as soon as possible. That was two weeks ago. A snow storm was on its way at the time, and his dirt was still wet from the last snow. “I’ll call you when the weather is okay to deliver,” he told me.

Thursday afternoon, I was on a run on our second consecutive warm, sunny day — the first sunny days in what seemed like weeks. My phone rang when I was about 10 minutes from home. It was my mulch guy, so I stopped to walk, and panting, I answered the phone. Maybe he could deliver that day!

“Hi! I’m calling about your top soil, the weather finally is clear – ” he said.

“YES!” pant pant. Very excited. Grinning.

“We’re about to get another six days of rain -“

“Can you deliver it today?!” I said. In my excitement, I kept interrupting him.

“Yes. Today is the only day. I’ll be there in 30 minutes. You want it at the top of the hill, yes? I’ll meet you there.”

He delivered it in the late afternoon. I covered it with a tarp as the sky clouded over. With six more days of rain on the way, I wondered when I’d get a chance to spread it. If only I could get the cardboard down and the dirt on top of it, the rainy days would be perfect to water it in and get the cardboard good and soggy so that it will start breaking down at least a little bit before I want to start planting. With potted seedlings, I can dig through the cardboard for their roots to get into the earth. I’m worried about sowing seeds though; if the cardboard is still too stiff and new, and I sow seeds in the dirt on top of the cardboard, their new roots won’t be able to penetrate it. The sooner I can get the cardboard over the grass to kill it, and under the dirt and rain to start breaking down, the better chance my seeds will have.

Planting plans: flat-leaf parsley, basil, milkweed, Mexican sunflower, and jalapeños I can start indoors then transplant the seedlings. Zinnias, chives, cilantro, and dill I will want to sow directly in the bed.

Yesterday, I couldn’t stand not taking advantage of the coming wet weather. So despite gross gray skies, rain, and a constant drizzle, I decided to go ahead and lay down the load of cardboard I’d collected from a nearby recycling dropoff. The soil was sodden and heavy, and I’m lucky I didn’t throw my back out as I shoveled, wheeled, dumped, and spread. It was pretty grueling work, and I was glad when I was done. Today, I sip coffee at the window and watch with glee as rain soaks my work.

I need maybe one more load of cardboard to finish off the area for my bed. Hopefully by the time I get to that final load, the soil will be drier. And spring will be that much closer by then!

Cardboard over the grass I want to kill
My wet dirt
Halfway there
The deck on the right is where I sit in spring, summer, and fall to watch the garden
Done! For today. This took about 2.5 hours. One more session should do it. Except I need more cardboard.

Feb 5: Killing grass is how I get through winter

Originally published on Butterfly Mind.

At the end of every summer, I think, cool, the garden is good. It looks great. I will leave it as it is; I won’t obsess during winter or move a bunch of stuff around in the spring.

Then January comes. I order seed catalogs. I pace. I look out the windows. This year, I started a journal — with drawings! — to help me see the garden’s beauty even when the colors are just a dozen shades of brown.

As I looked at seed catalogs and paced and looked out the windows, I thought, you know, I really want a big swath of Mexican sunflowers. And a giant patch of zinnias for the butterflies. And I really want more milkweed, too, and dill.

But all the beds are already full.

So I paced and looked out the windows more. I looked for a place a bed could go. A place with sun and that I could reach with the hose and that was somewhat level so the tall Mexican sunflowers wouldn’t flop down the hill when they could no longer bear up under their own weight.

There’s a big section of one flower bed that gets too much shade in summer for me to grow the things I want in it, but I realized if I pull it down a bit, I can create some space that gets more sun, is less steep, and would be a perfect place for a big flower patch.

We still had a bunch of cardboard boxes left over from Christmas, so on a warmish day (for January — it was maybe 45 ℉), I set the lawn mower on its lowest setting to shear the grass close to the ground in the area I want to transform into a bed. I broke down the cardboard boxes, spread them out, and weighed them down with bags of topsoil.

My idea is that if I start now, I can create a physical barrier between the grass and the sun to kill it. Meanwhile, I’ll cover the cardboard with topsoil to weigh it down. The topsoil will also provide dirt to scatter seeds directly into come May when it’s time to sow zinnia seeds. I’m hopeful the next three months of snow and rain will soften the cardboard enough that by the time June gets here and the zinnias are sending down roots, they won’t hit an impenetrable barrier.

First row of cardboard and dirt – Jan 24

This is all very much a fly by the seat of my pants idea, by the way. I’m pretty sure it will work.

However, I fear it will only work if I get started, like, now. As soon I exhausted our cardboard supply, I plotted when I could put more down. I had time off scheduled today, and I thought, awesome, I’ll do it then!

And then this happened.

Hello snow. Jan 31.

Which means the area I wanted to work in today looks like this.

Guess I won’t be working in the garden.

Now, instead of laying more cardboard down, I’ve decided I should extend the bed even further, all the way around the raised bed, because why not? I can put in some sugar snap peas.

I couldn’t work out there today, but after a coworker inspired me with his compost delivery, I did put in an order with my mulch supplier for dirt to be delivered next week or the week after, depending on the weather. That gives me two weeks to scrounge up more cardboard, and hopefully not come up with more ideas of where to kill lawn. I don’t know how my back will handle shoveling this much more mulch in spring.

May 17: fertilized, sowed seeds, and got a new bird bath

The weather this weekend was glorious, and I celebrated in the garden. I hate fertilizing, so I did that first to get it out of the way. Then I played with plants. I divided black eyed Susans that were encroaching on other plants, and I moved the divided clumps to the back bed where they can spread as much as they want. I sowed zinnia, cosmos, and blanketflower seeds, and I finished filling our raised bed. When I was finished with all of that, I tied on a handmade mask my friend Pam made, drove over to our local nursery during a time of day I thought it wouldn’t be crowded, and picked out a new bird bath.

I’m happy for winter to be over.

Front yard

Front bed with new bird bath

Back yard

The back bed starting to grow; I sowed seeds on the far right. It’s shaded in the morning, but hopefully gets enough afternoon sun for the full-sun seeds I sowed. The tree inside our yard, to the right of my chair, is the tree in the closeup below.
This tree was in our back yard when we moved in and has grown quickly. I think it might be a black cherry. The flowers smell sweet like candy. It is heavenly to sit under and inhale deeply.
They’re hard to see, but this is supposed to be a photo of goldfinches at the feeder. One is perched on the strap holding the feeder.
Our raised bed! I put four tomatoes and an habañero plant in today, plus some green onions I’ve been keeping in a glass of water to encourage roots. We’ll see if they do anything next year.

April 28: plants by mail

I’ve wanted a passionflower the past two years, but I always manage to miss the very brief window our garden center has them, if they get any in at all. I also wanted a couple more perennial milkweeds, specifically in orange, which is also always a crapshoot.

With the pandemic raging, and our local nursery not knowing what they’ll get or when, and because we’re sheltering in place, I decided to try ordering plants by mail. I wasn’t sure where to begin because I’ve never ordered plants by mail, and I really didn’t know what I should look for in a seller (or how to find a reputable one). Some Google searches turned up a few options, and I was able to find both passionflower and milkweed at Burpee online. I ordered in early April, and they said the plants would be ready to send April 27.

I had no idea in what condition they would arrive. This was all new to me! They arrived in a cardboard box. They were potted in soil and had a sophisticated cardboard contraption to hold the pots in place. The box was stamped with arrows indicating THIS SIDE UP, but of course the soil was spilled all over the place in the box.

Plants by mail
A peek inside the box — how do I get the plants out?

It was damp inside the box, and the plants looked like they’d been through the ringer, but they were intact and green. They were very small given how much they cost. I’d have been able to get plants 3 times that size at the nursery for half the price, but as I mentioned, that would have been dependent on the nursery actually having them. And also, pandemic.

Liberating the plants without injuring them
The pots underneath the pot holder

I had to destroy the box to get them out (I couldn’t figure out how to get the cup-holder like contraption out without tearing off the sides of the box), but the plants were alive, with leaves attached to stems and stems attached to roots.

Plants by mail freed from the box!
Passionflower (1) and Milkweed (2) plant tags

I put them straight into the ground and watered them in. I have my fingers crossed the rabbits don’t eat these. If they do, I’ll put up fencing.

One transplanted milkweed (foreground) and two milkweed by mail (middle and flagged)
Passionflower by mail

March 21: back hill is ready for mulch

My garden vacation begins in less than a week. On Friday we will have two trucks of mulch delivered. Today was gorgeous: blue sky, sunshine, and enough warmth that I could garden and turn the compost.

I finally cut back the remaining ornamental grasses and perennials today. I moved a bunch of stuff around — echinacea, sedums, rue, little bluestem grasses, bee balm — and planted about 20 liatris bulbs. I moved stuff around to group them better. The middle bed is predominantly echinacea and sedum now, it’s going to be so pretty in late summer.

I sat in the sun with a cup of coffee and my journal after I watered the compost. As I sat under white puffy clouds in a blue sky, sun warm on my skin and air fresh in my nose, it was hard to believe a pandemic is raging. It is a beautiful day. I sipped my coffee and listened to a lawnmower buzz, a woodpecker chock-chock-chock, neighbor voices carry on the air, and birds too-whit too-whit and twee-twee-twee-twee-twee.

Other than some seeds I’ll sow later, the back bed is ready for mulch. I’ve got a lot to do out front: cut back the grasses and perennials, prune the rose bushes, figure out how I want to arrange everything. I hope I can all get it done on my garden vacation! I can’t wait to put all that mulch down, and see the garden transform into a rich, thriving space. I can’t wait to watch the garden grow.

February 16: cutting back, mowing leaves, and compost

I’ve got my gardening vacation on the calendar — first week in April — but there’s so much to do, I don’t think I can get it all done in one week.

It was sunny and 50 degrees today, so I started early with the cutting back and the turning compost and the getting ready for spring.

In fall, Brian raked and then spread the leaves at the top of the hill. I mowed them today to shred them for the compost pile and to spread on the hill to help prevent erosion.
I made compost! The pile on the right is ready to go. The pile on the left is my working pile. It should be ready in about a year.
The bulbs our mail carrier gave me two years ago (she’s also a gardener) have finally made flowers! The first flowers of the 2020.

Sep 7: State of the Garden, plus new goldenrod and mums

I wanted to spruce up the garden since many of the summer flowers are starting to fade.

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New goldenrod and mature red mums

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Little bluestem grass and Mexican feathergrass

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New mums and goldenrod

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Monarch caterpillar

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New goldenrod

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Swallowtail caterpillars on rue

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Monarch caterpillar with aphids and milkweed seeds

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Left and middle back beds

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Right back bed

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Front bed

Aug 17: cleaning out spent flowers

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August deadheading

It’s been hot and dry here for weeks. Since I put in mostly natives and drought-tolerant plants, I haven’t watered. That’s been fine for a lot of the flowers out in the garden, but not all of them. The New England asters didn’t make it, and the black-eyed Susans started browning before their time. Now I know.

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Big brown blob of dead asters in front of the switchgrass

I went straight out into the garden this morning to get to work before the sun got too high. It took about four hours to snip the brown flowers off the indigo salvia, black-eyed Susans, white coneflowers, roses, butterfly bush, zinnias, shasta daisies, and echinacea. I stopped a lot to take pictures of butterflies.

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Painted Lady on Miss Ruby butterfly bush

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Monarch on zinnia

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Swallowtail on zinnia

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Blanketflower (Gaillardia)

 

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Back bed before I ripped out the marigolds

I decided I hated the tall marigolds I planted from seed, so I ripped those out. Which meant, of course, that I had to replace them. One of my favorite things to watch in the garden is goldfinches bobbing on Echinacea cones in the fall, so I bought more Echinacea to replace the marigolds. I waited until the sun was low in the evening to put them in the ground to hopefully minimize the stress of planting them. I’ll need to remember to water them a lot over the next few days since there is still no rain in the forecast. The ground was rock and dust when I dug in. There was no moisture anywhere.

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New Echinacea plants (Echinacea p. ‘Magnus’)

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Echinacea and wind dancer grass (Eragrostis elliottii ‘Wind Dancer’)

Now I want to move a bunch of stuff around, but I know I need to wait. I don’t want to kill everything moving it around in this heat. Plus, the caterpillars are on their way, and I don’t want to mess up their ability to eat and pupate.