Posts Tagged With: new beds

Change of Plans

So I was going to do that parking strip in bright pinks and purples to echo the colors elsewhere in the front yard. I was planning on Siberian iris, catmint, maybe some lady's mantle, all anchored by the Double Knock Out rose that I ordered via catalog. Unfortunately, a screw-up resulted in my order being cancelled.

Since I no longer had a rose to dictate a certain plan, I decided to try something else. I had a 'Darrow' blueberry bush that had to be moved to make way for another bed in the potager. It's been back there for three years, growing from a tiny stick into a less tiny stick, but never giving me more than a couple of berries. Presto! A new concept for the parking strip: fruit bed.
I love blueberries, but the prices in the stores are not cheap. The problem with growing your own in Indiana is that they require acidic soil. We have so much lime in our clay that the soil tends to be neutral to alkaline, which means that if I want my blueberries to do well, I have to amend the soil. Lots of people do that with aluminum sulfate (the same stuff they use to keep their hydrangeas blue), but as an organic gardener, I needed to find another route: peat moss, a natural acidifier. 
Ideally, you start trying to change the Ph of your bed at least a year before your plant. Right. Like I think that far ahead. I needed to transplant pronto, plus I wanted to get that strip planted before weeds could take hold and ruin all my hard work.
In a fortuitous coincidence, the original bush had struck a new bush right next to it. I have transplanted both the blueberry and son of blueberry to the parking strip to anchor my new fruit bed. I had already amended the parking strip with composted manure and mushroom compost (acid soils tend to be highly organic). I dug extra big holes and tossed in some peat moss, as well as mixing peat moss into the back fill. If I stick to mulching that bed with acidic materials like peat moss and pine straw, I should gradually be able to lower the Ph to the 5.5 or so berries need.

If you think I'm going through all this trouble for two blueberry bushes, think again. I'm ordering some more on the Web. Blueberries do better with cross-pollination (some can't self pollinate at all), so extra bushes should also help the yield. These are high-bush blueberries, meaning they grow in bush form and not flat to the ground like lowbush berries. 
As for the bare soil problem, I have filled in around blueberry and son of blueberry with strawberry plants gleaned from elsewhere in my garden. For some perplexing reason, some enormous strawberry plants were growing in the part shade border next to the Anabelle hydrangeas. I think they might be the spawn of some strawberries from when I used that spot as a holding bed when I had all the hardscaping done a few years ago. So I dug them up, dropped them into the new berry bed, and watered the whole thing. It looks a bit of a mess right now (see photo), but in a month or so, I expect there will be a bit less bare soil. All that extra space will be filled with new berry bushes and whatever other fruit I can come up with. 
Bring on the whipped cream and shortcake!

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To Dig or Not To Dig

I spent part of the morning double digging the parking strip. For those of you unfamiliar with double digging, a short primer:

  1. Strip all the sod off the bed, if there's any there.
  2. Remove all plants from the bed (if there are any).
  3. Dig a trench to the depth of one spade. Move all that soil onto a tarp.
  4. Use a garden fork to loosen the remaining soil in the trench to the depth of a second spade.
  5. Pour mulch, compost, dead weeds, roadkill, or whatever organic material you have lying about into the trench.
  6. Move over.
  7. Now dig a second trench right next to the first, again to one spade depth. Dump the soil from the second trench into the first trench.
  8. Repeat steps 4 through 7 until you have completed double digging the whole bed.
  9. Dump the soil on the tarp into the last trench.
  10. Smooth out soil with a rake, breaking up any clumps. Replant. 
  11. Crawl to the bathroom, take four Advil and a hot bath, ideally followed by a shot of whiskey.
  12. Sleep like the dead.
Double digging is a method for loosening up compacted soil and enriching it with organic material. There's no question that it does a pretty good job of both of those things. But it took three hours to do about two-thirds of the 8' x 16' parking strip. I almost never double dig, and now I remember why.
Besides the fact that double digging is slow and exhausting, it's hard not to mix up the top soil and subsoil. The top soil is the dark brown stuff that actually supports plant life (and worms and microbes and other things that make plant life possible). The subsoil is the extremely compacted yellow stuff you could use to throw pots. Ideally, you want to loosen the subsoil without actually mixing it with the top soil. In practice, that's nearly impossible, at least when digging a new bed in an Indiana garden.
Also, I'm pretty sure I killed a lot of worms. The more worms in my soil the better, as far as I'm concerned. But you move all that soil around with sharp implements like spades and hoes and whatnot, you're going to chop some worms. The robins are out there having a buffet. 
I read about a woman who hired some teenagers to strip the sod off her bed, then bury it upside down 8" below the soil line. This woman was a genius who 1. got someone else to do the labor and 2. came up with free organic materials to enrich her soil. I was unable to follow her example, largely because my trenches weren't that deep. My sod is like the grass of the undead, and I was convinced no matter how deep I buried it, it would rise again, probably while moaning and lurching across the bed toward newly planted perennials. So for now, all those little squares of sod sit in a pile in the backyard, probably planning their assault on the rose bed.
In short, I'm convinced some sadistic head gardener invented double digging to keep his underlings busy and out of trouble. As I have no underlings, I will not be double digging the remaining one-third of the bed. Instead, I'll loosen up the soil with a garden fork. When I plant, I'll dig extra-wide holes and amend them with lots of compost. Then I'll top-dress the bed with compost and let rain and the worms work it down into the soil.
Leave the digging to the worms. It's their job.

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The Dandelion Disaster (or, My Front Yard)

As an organic gardener, I find that lawn care rates way down on my list of fun garden tasks. Sure, lawns make a great spot for playing, and they serves as a restful counterpoint to flower-filled beds. They're worth having, in the right place. But lawns as practiced by most Americans–perfect green turf, untouched by flowers or weeds–are completely unnatural. Mama Nature does not like monoculture. She's all for a a fine mix of species, each fulfilling their part in the ecosystem.
And dandelions (along with other weeds) are nature's way of preparing the soil for more substantial plant life. Ever wonder why dandelions have those long taproots from hell? It's so they can pull nutrients up from deep in the soil. Weeds thrive in spots with bare, compacted, or depleted soil because they're adapted to survive there. They pull up the nutrients, die off, and return the nutrients to the top layer of the soil. Over time, that prepares the soil to support other plant life–grasses, tress, flowers, or what have you.
So what's this got to do with my lawn, you ask? Well, my lawn's a bit patchy, which means that the dandelions loooove it. I've never been one for the perfect lawn; I'd far rather spend my time weeding flower beds, pruning, and speaking gently to my tomato plants. 
But I do want my front yard to be presentable (although my standards for a presentable lawn are considerably lower than my neighbors'). My lawn is full of clover (good for returning nitrogen to the soil, stays green all the time, doesn't get very tall), a couple of kinds of grass (which gives a really weird green-and-brown marbling effect in the winter, when the warm-season grasses die off), and violets, which I like for their flowers. Even a few dandelions are ok. The problem with the dandelions is that they grow so much faster and taller than everything around them, making it even more obvious when I've shirked mowing.
And as an organic gardener, I'm not going to pour chemicals on my lawn to create a perfect green turf I'd be afraid to let the neighbor kid play on. Which means that my dandelion control of choice is hand-weeding. The front yard's only about 40' x 30', so hand weeding is possible, although tedious. I spent about two hours weeding with my trusty hori-hori knife this week, and I'd say I got about 90% of them. I dug them out, trying to get as much of the taproot as possible. I followed up by applying corn gluten, a natural corn byproduct that inhibits germination. The corn gluten will prevent the seeds that will inevitably float into my yard from taking root. 
In the process, I gave myself a huge fat blister on my right palm. I look like I'm working on a stigmata.
Other current front-yard products include applying milky spore to target those damn Japanese beetles that keep detroying my roses. Normally I have a live-and-let live philosophy when it comes to pests. I figure if enough of them show up, a predator will also arrive for an all-you-can-eat buffet. But the Japanese beetles don't have any natural enemies here, and hand-picking them off my plants isn't cutting it. Milky spore is a natural bacteria that targets the grubs. Over a couple of years, it kills of the grubs in the soil, reducing the beetle population and improving the lawn whose roots the grubs have been feasting on. 
And finally, I'm digging up one of the hell strips to prepare it for planting. If I had thought ahead, I would have smothered the grass there with newspaper and mulch last fall, which would kill the grass and ease up the digging in spring. I did not think ahead, however, so I'm stuck stripping the sod by hand, a torturous process that always takes three times as long as I think it will. I only managed to strip about one third of my 16' x 8' strip in a couple of hours. On the upside, by taking it slower, I was actually able to walk the next day.
Updates as they occur.

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The Front Yard

I've been in my house for eight years and gardened for seven of them. Three years ago, I had a garden designer lay down the bones of the back garden for me. In the intervening three years, I've created the potager, planted roses, increased the blue and yellow border by the garage, acquired a hammock and a comfy little bistro set, planted a lot of lavender, and continuously tweaked the plantings. No garden is ever done, of course, but I'm happy with the current layout. The beds are bursting and the potager is surprisingly productive for such a tiny space. 

The problem is that I still have a ton of things to experiment with, and the available back garden space is nil. I can't cram a whole lot more in there without digging up more of the lawn (which is currently about one-third the size it used to be) and trashing the circular theme I've got going. So of course, my thoughts have turned to the front yard.
While I consider the space behind my house a garden, the front is really still more of a yard. After my sewer pipe ruptured four years ago, I took advantage of the destruction of the front yard. I pulled out the yews that had been in front of the house and asked a garden designer for a plan. 

At the time, I just wanted a pretty front yard that looked welcoming and left me some space for flowers. So a curving border along the front of the house has a serviceberry, three hollies, many purple daylilies, three lilacs, a vibrunum, two creeping junipers, and three Knock Out red roses. The other side of the door is home to three more hollies, an Anabelle hydrangea, a nest spruce, and more daylilies. That nest spruce replaced an earlier nest spruce that died, and this one is on its way to the same fate. The small island around the lamp post has three pink Fairy roses, a perennial sweet pea, catmint, and geranium.
I also allowed the designer to talk me into taking up the Zoysia grass that was there and replacing it with a seed mix. Big mistake. The lawn is now full of weeds. I don't mind them so much; I like the way the clover looks, although I could do without the dandelions. But the grass is really thin now, especially on the side where it butts up to the neighbor's giant pine tree.
So I have all this space in the front, including a couple of 8' x 16' "hell strips" between the street and the sidewalk. My tentative plan is to turn those into flower borders. I'll need to lay some stepping stones so there are paths for people getting out of their cars. I've ordered two Double Knock Outs that will match the flower colors of the single Knock Outs I already have. I'll use one to anchor the right-hand hell strip. I'm not planning to spend much money on this, so the rest of the flowers will likely be transplants from elsewhere in the yard. Geraniums, Siberian Iris, and Lady's Mantle should all do pretty well in this part-sun border. I'll fill in with catmint and more daylilies if any of the purple ones are ready for division. 
I haven't decided about the left-hand hell strip yet, mostly because there's a small maple tree there. So I will probably transplant divisions from hosta alley, and possibly more geranium.
That takes care of the very front of the yard. But I also want more space to grow food. Because of all the curves (in the border, in the path leading to the porch, and even in the front door) a formal potager would look out of place. I'm playing around with ideas for curving food beds, or even ones that run in a spiral. I'm pretty sure there will be tripods with beans, too.
Of course, this is all pretty ambitious, and I likely won't get it all done this year. I am aiming to complete one hell strip and perhaps one or two food beds. The challenge is to make the garden productive while still maintaining curb appeal. Updates as they occur.

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