Over the last 4-5 years, I have somewhat lost the desire to deal with the back yard, short of planning my edible garden and wishing that the rest of the yard wasn’t such a shithole. My best descriptor for the overall aesthetic we had going was “the back yard looks like meth addicts are squatting in our house.” There were a lot of things that I really wanted to accomplish in the back yard, but I just didn’t have the spirit to execute on most of them. A few years ago, Craig’s parents had given us a pretty hefty handful of really fancy retaining wall blocks left over after a project in their own yard. I got started using these when I was working on the duck enclosure and then started building a small retaining wall in the area where I had previously had used small basalt boulders to form a small raised bed around the “main” deck. I got partway through before running out of blocks. Facing purchasing a bunch more retaining wall blocks at $8 apiece, plus all of the caps necessary to finish the project, things stalled. For 2.5 years. It was just a big financial commitment and those suckers are heavy (75lbs apiece). I ran out of steam.
Couple the procrastination of spending the labor and money on finishing the retaining wall block project (and it really did need to get done, the dogs were kicking gravel out into the yard over the little rocks I had put in initially) with the frustration I’ve been feeling over the dogs tearing up or killing via literal pissing contests everything we have tried to grow that hasn’t been protected by raised beds, fencing, or the sheer will of the plant to survive, it was tough to come up with a game plan. Part of what I’ve learned about myself is that I simply am not great about regular maintenance. Upon getting comfortable with that truth about myself (instead of just trying to “get better”), I’ve developed systems that have made my day-t0-day laziness easier to live with. I put up a clothes hanging rack in the laundry room, and 8 different bins, so I can hang “important” clothes and sort specific or small clothes (Craig and I each have a bin for underwear, under shirts/tank tops, socks, etc) and then we live with the day-to-day pile of clean clothes that accumulates in front of the washer. My modified hugelkultur raised beds have been lifesavers in terms of freeing me from regular watering chores while still allowing me to grow edibles. I’m switching some of my smaller raised beds to growing perennials like berries so I don’t have to plan, plant, and maintain them. So part of the yard project was trying to be realistic about what I can handle, how much effort I am willing to put in, and how I would like to use the yard.
I started a new job in January. With it came a drastically shorter commute and a lower stress level. I felt empowered to change things that I didn’t like. I started taking better care of myself, eating better, and finally got started thinking about taking care of the yard. We have a few friends coming to visit from out of town in May, and with a deadline looming ahead (the only way I ever really get anything accomplished) I decided that the yard needed to be “done” by the time they arrived. So of course the project had to be scheduled out so I was able to accomplish my goals. The biggest hurdle in even getting started on the project was getting the retaining wall blocks and caps delivered. It was an expensive delivery, and 2 days before the day the blocks arrived, our 43 year old fence blew down in a wind storm. The neighbors and us had been casually discussing splitting the cost of putting a new fence in, as our sad repairs just weren’t cutting it. This was the year that the fence actually needed to be replaced. So within the span of a few weeks, we had accomplished the scariest hurdle thus far in the plan along with dealing with the thing that we’d been avoiding for the last several years.
Having both things completed felt good, and got some really good momentum going. Part of the block buildout was rebuilding and expanding the fire pit. While pondering what exactly the area around the fire pit would look like (we knew that 2 sides would be gravel, and the other 2 were shaping up to be mulch) I decided that I just wasn’t quite ready to give up on the idea of something pretty and green and grasslike vs a wide sea of brown mulch. So I spent weeks researching all of our options. The biggest issue with grass is that it needs watering… like a lot. Stuff like clover and wooly thyme handle that issue, but just won’t stand up to the type of heavy traffic only people who own multiple large dogs would understand. Which is when I found a link to Pearls Premium (don’t worry, they aren’t compensating me at all for this, in fact, their grass seed is crazy expensive) where they claim that their seed blend grows very deep roots and grows super slow, only needing to be mowed once a month, and the root system is supposed to go like 12″ deep, so it doesn’t need to be watered nearly as often as “normal” grasses. We will see. This weekend our next door neighbor was asking me about seeding lawns and I told him that I found this special grass seed and he had read the same stuff about it. We are both anxious to see if it will live up to the hype from the website. I called the company to ask them about what they thought of my plan of excavating the current mat of glorious weeds and just topping the area up with compost before seeding. I was told that my plan should work well. I also asked about adding clover to the grass mix as clover fixes nitrogen (feeding the grass) and also stays green through drought, and attracts bees with its flowers. The man that I spoke with told me that they were actually considering adding a clover mix to their lineup for those exact reasons, but hadn’t done it yet. With his recommendation for 1-2% clover seeds by weight (to the grass seed) I felt confident in my plan. We had a few yards of compost delivered, and used it to fill in the freshly excavated lawn area and the garden beds that I had built up a bit with the retaining wall blocks. We moved a tree from a pot in the front yard to the garden bed, and planted the grass seed that weekend.
Of course there were other projects between the blocks and the grass – most notably, sifting through all of the gravel that hadn’t made it into the designated gravel area prior to the lawn going in. The last thing that I wanted was a bunch of rocks in our new lawn. When the fence got replaced, the contractor regraded and used the old basalt boulders that I had replaced and built a small retaining wall. Part of the reason the old fence was doing so poorly was that over time, the hill between the houses had eroded and was piled up against the fence. The retaining wall combined with planting some very drought tolerant plants should help prevent that from happening this time. Please pretend that my sad tomato cage and paracord “fence” isn’t there. Hopefully once things fill in, we can remove the barriers, but I want to at least dissuade the dogs from running through that zone until everything is thriving.
The final couple parts of the puzzle were a handful of dwarf fruit trees and all of the mulch. Over the course of 2 weekends, with the help of both Craig and my incredible tireless mother, we moved 13 yards of animal friendly hog fuel which was had for the extremely low price of $16.50/yd, about half what a standard beauty bark type mulch runs around here. It should be able to stand up to the dogs better than smaller mulch, and also keep some of the chicken digging in check. We also picked up the fruit trees that I was hoping for. We now have a columnar mountain rose apple; a dwarf chehalis apple tree; a dwarf apple tree with 4 different varieties grafted onto it- jonagold, honey crisp, akane, & beni shogun fuji; a frost peach(curl resistant); and a harko nectarine. Hopefully we start getting fruit in the next few years. Otherwise, it’s just been filling in beds with inexpensive perennials and annuals to make things look a little less barren while we wait for things to grow, fill in, and settle. As our barrier needs decrease (the grass is taking up every bit of temporary fencing we own right now), I will start adding in some perennials that will hopefully survive the dogs peeing on them, and see about getting something like a big piece of columnar basalt and try to make that the target. I’ve read stories of it working in the past. Who knows.
The chickens are also pretty irritated by the developments. Tons of weeds and grass meant lots of bugs to forage and me not really caring if they damaged anything in the yard. With the veggie beds going and grass just really starting to sprout, I haven’t trusted them in the yard, so they’ve been on “house arrest” in their enclosure and are not thrilled with me.
It’s kind of nice to occasionally go through what we’ve been up to for the last year. It helps give perspective.
Or – Astounding Alliteration Achievement.
Our rose is blooming. I generally don’t like rosebushes, because they’re finicky, prone to disease, pointy, and don’t look all that good when they’re not covered in flowers. Oh, and most roses don’t smell like much. Most Junes, my dad & stepmother will spend a week or so camping when school lets out. This happens to be when many of the flowers in their yard are blooming, the strawberries are ripening, and the carrots are just getting ready to eat. Because they’re not around to enjoy it, Kim often asks me to come by and cut as many flowers as I can, pick and eat strawberries, and collect some of the magical sweet little carrots. Naturally, I oblige. They have an awesome yard.
A few years ago, I caught the tail end of blooming season for one of the roses. It was situated in the back of the yard and getting a lot of shade, so not doing as well as it could have. On my lunch break, I headed over to their house and cut the last bloom that was on it, and tossed it into my car with a myriad of others and headed back to work. The entire inside of the car became so heavily perfumed that I nearly had to roll a window down. It was epic, unlike any rose I’ve ever experienced. So I begged Kim for a cutting of the rose. The next year, I wasn’t working and they paid me to do some yard work, and she had me take the entire bush home. I am pleased to report that it survived the winter and is doing quite well.
And it’s fucking coated in flowers. This is my second bouquet to come into the house this year. I’m going to try to take cuttings and make babies from this bad boy. It is the greatest rose ever. I have no idea what it’s called, but it has a strong fragrance, so I’m assuming it’s an old cultivar, definitely not bred for disease resistance.
Anyone have any idea what it might be called? The blooms are huge, and look peony-ish with the swirls of petals.
It took me 4 tries to type 2013. For some reason that year just doesn’t flow naturally from my brain to my fingertips.
As you have undoubtedly (because of course you certainly follow every entry in my blog…. right?) seen, our kitchen garden has undergone a few changes this year. We added a second layer to our biggest raised beds and rebuilt the trellis(exactly as it had been) on our “cool season” bed in March prior to getting it planted.
The tomato bed, however, has experienced the most changes. In the past, it had a trellis layout identical to that of the other bed- that is, a 2×4 frame and eye hooks with thin rope strung up on the 4′ width on the north side of the bed. It’s effective, but last year I tried something new in terms of how to support my tomatoes, and loved it. I ran a single strand of rope from top to bottom of the trellis area, and carefully twisted the main stem of the tomato up and around the rope for support. This allowed for a smaller footprint as the vines stayed mostly vertical, and easier to pick tomatoes. The problem with this method is that my trellis support just wasn’t big enough for as many plants as I wanted to grow! I could only reasonably fit 3 plants on the 4′ span of the trellis. When I tore off the old trellis to add layer #2 of the raised beds this spring, I took the opportunity to rotate the trellis 90° so it could run the 10′ length of the bed, thus accommodate more plants!
The other major change to the tomato bed is the tunnel cover design. In the past I used the standard design of loops of pvc pipe over the bed and draped sheets of visqueen over them. It works beautifully, but simply put, the tomatoes really need the provided heat longer than they are able to be contained by the hoop house. This year I constructed an elaborate pvc framework that’s also supported by the long trellis frame, which should allow my tomatoes to grow up to 6′ tall before it comes time to remove the plastic.
We headed to the Snohomish County Master Gardeners’ annual plant sale on Saturday to go get some tomatoes, as the beginning of May is when us PNW gardeners can start putting out warmer season plants. I was thrilled to see that they had a list of all of the expected varieties on their website, as it would give me some time to obsessively research which varieties I want to plant (In the PNW, our growing season isn’t long enough to choose plants willy-nilly. They have to produce early!). I spent at least a few hours doing web searches of each variety and keeping a list with the names of the cultivar and a few other pieces of pertinent information. Then as I scrolled down to the end of the page, I found that they had a downloadable spreadsheet with all of that information on every cultivar, so way to waste hours of your life, Laurel. Grrrr. Anyway, we went to the plant sale, and it was crazy. I felt like I was on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The aisles were crowded and everyone was going for the coveted varieties. There was even some shoving! Craig avoided the fray, opting instead to “guard” the box of tomatoes that I had already collected. I would venture out, grab as many plants as I could reasonable carry, run back to the box, dump them, and go back out for more! I wanted to be sure to get a few varieties that I had had success with in the past. I ended up getting a little caught up in the pandemonium and bought a few more plants than I had intended to. The problem you see, is that they all look so exciting. It’s too difficult to just pick 7. Additionally, I got a couple early-season jalapeno plants and some pretty Japanese style eggplants called Hansel and Gretel for this bed.
Due to my total inability to purchase or do anything in moderation, I bought 10 tomato plants. 2 of them stay small enough that they should survive in containers, but I was able to jam 8 into this bed, 7 along the trellis, and one at the end in a cage.
The varieties that I chose, going from the one in the cage, then left to right are:
Julia Child (!!!)
The two that will be going into pots are Glacier, and Oregon Spring, both able to withstand cooler temps and stay fairly small.
I have to say that I am quite pleased with my design and engineering skills with regards to how this cold frame system went together. It seems sturdy enough, though we have yet to experience any serious wind since it went up, so time will tell. I used horseshoe clamps around T-shaped PVC connectors to stick it to the bed, then it’s all pressed-together with Ts and Elbows and whatnot.
I tented it with 6 mil visqueen sheeting from Ace Hardware. A 25′ long, 10′ wide roll cost about $29. I usually hold the visqueen on my beds with plastic clippy things that I picked up at the hardware store a few years back for around $1 each, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to hold the plastic to the 2×4 with that method, so I had to get creative.
And creative I got! I picked up some binder clips and screwed them into the wood. They hold the plastic to the frame as well as down to the bottom of the beds, so they’re not flapping around constantly! I’m pretty much a genius.
Now the bed can be effectively sealed, but it’s still easy to unbutton and access everything inside!
Next up, I need to install the eye hooks and run a few strands of rope for each plant.
OR “lol, look what I did to myself!”
We took out a bunch of junipers in our front yard. Like… a lot of them. If I remember correctly, there were 9 stumps in phase 1, where we took out the bank that obscured the yard/house from the front. We did phase 1 in September of 2011.
Then we trucked in like 10 yards of really nice compost to rebuild the berm and reseed our lawn, then threw in some drought-tolerant perennials.
And it sat like that over the winter. The new soil we brought in did an effective job of mulching the area and preventing weeds from coming through. Since I’m cheap and didn’t want to invest in mulch when the job was only half done, I planted pumpkins. They make a great (albeit water-needy) mulch, and the added benefit is that at the end of the growing season, you get pumpkins.
|Yes, I’m aware my neighbors have a sickle. I’m still not sure why.|
Then in late-August, early-September of 2012, we embarked on phase 2 of the juniper removal process, wherein we removed all of the junipers and their stumps from the steep embankment between our and our neighbor’s front yards as the first portion. The second portion of phase 2 involved building a dry stream bed/waterfall type thing to help prevent excessive erosion from our neighbor’s downspouts draining directly toward the corner of our foundation. It was a pretty intensive project that involved buying probably $200 worth of rocks, rummaging through every part of my yard (including raiding the nice stony area under an outdoor faucet) for as many largish sized rocks as I could locate, digging a huge hole to act as a swale, and embedding the bigger rocks (one may call them boulders) into the hillside, and trying to make it look less man-made than it actually is.
When I was buying my plants to put in, I got like… a BUNCH of bulbs. I’ve never planted bulbs before, but I found some really neat looking purple and white tulips and some white daffodils at Costco, plus a bunch of allium bulbs, so I went a little nuts. Shortly after acquiring all of my plants, getting them in the ground, and waiting for the weather to cool down enough to plant bulbs, my appendix bit the dust. After spending a couple days in the hospital on IV antibiotics (it had gone gangrenous! GROSS!), my surgeon told me not to lift anything more than 20lbs for a month. So it was November by the time I was “allowed” to do anything really effectively as yard work, although I did get my bulbs planted! But in Western Washington, as soon as November hits, the weather sucks and it pours rain and it’s cold and cloudy and generally unpleasant to be outside. I was NOT into mulching in November.
So it rained, and rained, and rained. Then it snowed a little, then it rained again. And let me tell you…. Rain does great things for bulbs. It also does pretty impressive things for 40 years worth of weed-seed accumulation that wasn’t able to grow due to not getting water under the junipers.
I have some world record sized weeds. And every square inch of soil is filled with them. In order to successfully mulch and make sure we don’t end up with weedy mulch, the weedy areas need to be covered with something robust, like some cardboard, or a few thick layers of newspaper. But you can’t easily lay down cardboard or newspaper between tulips that are 6″ apart. So you have to pull the weeds. All of them.
And when you decide to plant an olive tree? Ya gotta move all of the weeds out of the way so you will eventually be able to mulch around it. The area where you spread that beautiful luscious topsoil a couple years ago? Shotweed. That’s the weed that has those seeds that it flings in all directions as soon as you touch it. A mountain of shotweed.
Since these photos were taken I’ve put probably 8 hours into pulling weeds. If we had just mulched in October when we should have…. none of this would be happening right now.
But hopefully in the next few weeks, we can spend 8 hours putting down mulch and avoid all of this next spring. Bah Humbug!
I went back to Olympia to visit with my mom and cousin last weekend while my mom’s still in town. Kari (my cousin) recently moved into the house she grew up in and has been working to restore her mom’s gardens to their former glory after renters neglected them. In doing so, she has unearthed some pretty creepy garden animals. And I freaking LOVE each and every one of them. As such, I figured I’d share the photos I snapped with my cell phone of them.