Thursday, June 30, 2011

Harvest on the Western Front

It looks like a battlefield on the farm, what with all the concertina wire, booby traps, water cannons, guard towers, and attack dogs, but by golly gum, I have beat back the squirrels just enough to harvest some tomatoes for the first time in three years. Here is a photo of my first Cherokee purple:

It was not as sweet as I expected it to be, but maybe later ones will be sweeter. On the other hand, I HARVESTED IT. 

Perhaps that is as sweet as it needs to be.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Parting shots

I'm homeward bound today, but I didn't want to leave before adding two or three more photos from my stay in Virginia, land of coolth and rain.

My fellow teacher, Betty Gatewood and her husband Mark beside their vegetable garden:

Our National Squirrel, as seen on the National Mall, Washington DC:

My new favorite T-shirt, sporting the Mary Baldwin College mascot:

As for my own squirrels, fair warning: The ceasefire will be ending around 5 PM today.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cue the interlude music

Well, while my fellow Lubbockites have been suffering through record heat (I hear it was 110 F yesterday), I've been busy enjoying the relative coolth of Virginia, where I've been teaching a course at Mary Baldwin College called "Nature Journaling across the Curriculum" to teachers:

The "in-class" part of the course ended on Friday, and yesterday and today I've been visiting my brother Jack and his wife in Manassas. Today we went to the United States Botanic Garden, where, as usual, I was as drawn to the structures as I was to the plants:

I head back to the inferno tomorrow, though, and am quite curious to see how the garden is faring in the heat. I'll report on that, as well as continuing the report on the makeover of the back garden.

To tide you over until that time, here is a closing shot from my brother's front garden this morning, taken with my new camera, which I bought here in VA yesterday, since my old one finally gave up the ghost for good on Thursday:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Gardens are not like paintings: Part One

It never works out that you plant it and it's done. Some plants die. Some get overgrown and have to be cut back. Some grow lopsided, or stunted, or not at all. Some promise to bloom but never do. Some don't like it here, but would maybe like it better over there, in that spot. Some just always look at you kinda funny, and after a while, it gets to be annoying.

I keep forgetting that. I keep thinking that you plant a garden and it's done, the way one might compose a painting. But gardens are living--and, sometimes, dying--things. And so, if you are a careful gardener, you are constantly making adjustments for whatever temperament your garden might have. If, however, you are a neglectful gardener, like me, then one day you look up and say, "What the hell happened here?" 

And thus it was in my back garden this year. I suddenly noticed that what was once a lush oasis had turned into a patchy landscape of dirt. Between drought, the extreme cold of winter and the extreme heat of summer (and a pair of plumbers wielding shovels rather indiscriminately), things had gotten so bad back there that it really was like having a blank canvas again. A really disjointed, ugly, chaotic, and sorry canvas that, aesthetically, was making less and less sense with each passing season.

Fortunately, one night garden designer Susan Cohen, of Miss Rumphius' Rules, was hosting Garden Chat on Twitter, and I had the bright idea to ask this question: What pulls a garden together?

Her answer? Start with the foundation.

Well, duh! Of course! Brilliant! In my enthusiastic youth as a gardener, I had shunned so-called "foundation plantings" as boring, choosing to populate my garden with "stuff that everyone else doesn't have." And it did look good for a time, but, as I've noted above, those plants are now long gone.

I don't think Susan meant, in her plea for a foundation, traditional foundation shrubs, per se. But her comment made me realize that that, in fact, was something that could help me give my garden some pattern and order--something that could make it look designed.

It was nothing short of an epiphany. Once all those "stuff that everyone else doesn't have"* plants were gone, I was able to see that my garden had no foundation.

The other epiphany came while I was out riding my bike through some older neighborhoods in town. What I noticed were the plants that didn't seem to be suffering in all the heat and drought. In fact, they were doing just fine, even with what appeared to be a robust benign neglect in some instances. And what were they? That's right. Traditional foundation plants.

Photinia, nandina, holly, boxwood, etc. etc. Even some old roses look rather fabulous, while all about, everything else was languishing.

And so I got busy. It was a major overhaul, and it involved the whole garden. Because of this, there are simply too many "before and after" shots to put in one post, so I'm going to do two or three over the next week or so. Please bear in mind that it still looks fairly skimpy, but these should fill in pretty nicely in a year or two. It was a major chore getting it all in; plus, I added a drip irrigation line to each and every plant, both for the purpose of saving water and to make it easier for garden caretakers to look after things while I'm traveling this summer. Next year, I'll add the "specials."

Here was the worst area:
The fence needs hiding. There used to be a pyracantha back there, but it mysteriously bit the dust three years ago and I never got around to replacing it.

I've added two Silver King euonymous, which can grow to be quite large (6 feet by 6 feet). I'll prune them so that they form a soft wall and give the chaste tree a backdrop. I like that they are variegated and light colored, so the foliage adds some interest. I also like the thought of a quasi-formal hedge here, and in other parts of the garden, to add some counter-balance to what is otherwise a kind of wild and crazy landscape. My front garden is designed to pay homage to the wild landscape of a prairie or desert. The back garden, because of all the pecan trees, has a wooded feel, and offers opportunities for more traditional plants and pruning.

Though you can't see them well in the photo above, I also added two cranberry cotoneasters, which show up a little better here (near the top of the photo, behind the bird bath and salvia):
(Well, okay, you still can't see them very well, but trust me, they are there in all that green; truthfully, I just wanted to show off the garden dog) The cotoneasters should grow up a little higher than the salvia, and provide a deeper green for contrast. I also filled in with some artemisia and daylilies, and left the society garlic, irises, and salvia. As you can see, I've left plenty of space for next year's planting. This year, as I said, is all about the foundation.

To create a repeating pattern, I also planted a Silver King euonymous in this spot on the opposite side of the garden:

This mahonia is old, and has been showing signs of giving up the ghost. So I'd been thinking of taking it out and replacing it.


The euonymous should fill this in completely, and screen off the work area as a living fence. The color will provide a nice contrast with the trumpet vine and Virginia creeper.

Finally, also in the interest of pattern, I added some Silver Princess euonymous as a hedge along the picket fence that separates the vegetable garden from the rest of the yard. These should grow to be about three feet high and wide, and again, I am looking forward to pruning them into a soft hedge shape.** I planted them in a slight curve to mimic the flow of the gravel path. They are a bit diminutive at the moment, but if you look closely, you can see them nestled in the mulch on the right of the photo. The variegation and color should tie into the larger hedges of the Silver King plantings.

*These were mostly native plants and xeric plants, which, at the time were really cutting edge where I live. Now they, too, have become fairly commonplace. Which is a good thing.

**I actually enjoying pruning hedges. I took out all the foundation hedges in my front yard when I converted it to a prairie landscape, and miss the monthly haircutting I used to give them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Goodness, it's hot

And it's the wrong time to be trying to get things established in the garden. Unfortunately, it's the first chance I've had all year. But all the shrubs are now in the ground, and there's just a few day lilies left to plant, having followed me home from the nursery. I've been busy running a drip line to each and every newbie so that my friend and neighbor Karen will have an easier job of it looking after everything while I'm gone next week. I've got about one more day of hard labor left and then everything should be good to go.

In the meantime, as a teaser, here are a few "before" pictures of a garden that has been neglected for the past few years. You know how it goes, first one shrub bites the dust, then another, then the plumbers dig everything up, then we have one of the coldest winters on record, followed by one of the worst droughts since 1925...before you know it, it looks like the garden that never was.

Ah well, nothing a little focused care can't fix.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Busy busy busy

I got slammed with work last week when a couple of emergency projects dropped into my lap at work. Even so, I got out into the garden at daybreak each day to try to get some shrubs in the ground.

It would have been best to do it in the spring, but school kept me too busy to get out in the garden. And so now I'm faced with babying them along in 100 degree weather, trying to get them somewhat settled in before I take off for Virginia in another week, where I'll be teaching a graduate course for teachers at Mary Baldwin College on using nature journaling in the classroom.

I'm going to try to set up as much of the new planting as I can on a drip irrigation system. Besides saving water, it will be much more convenient for my neighbor Karen, who has kindly volunteered to look after the garden while I'm out of town. I'd ask Walu to do it, but...I'll just say he's not as focused on what a garden needs as another gardener would be.

In the meantime, as I look over the landscape of the summer, I'm thinking about my list of chores in the back garden. It's just a few things, but they are each big, both in scope and impact:

  • Plant foundation shrubs
  • Install drip irrigation
  • Refresh the limestone gravel paths
  • Build a planter for the back patio
  • Move compost bin
  • Build chicken coop

Hopefully, I'll find some time to blog about it and keep you up to date on the progress.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Home again, home again

Walu and I took a quick trip this past week to Chitown to see his parents and his brother Sasha, who is visiting from Laos. It was a whirlwind week, but relaxing, too, as we kept our agendas uncomplicated to accommodate everyone else's schedule. If we'd had a longer visit, I would have tried my best to cobble together a trip to Mr. McGregor's Daughter's Squirrelhaven, since I've been reading about it for a few years now. I met Barbara at last year's Fling, and throughly enjoyed visiting with her about my favorite Chicago plant, the hosta (which, to my sorrow, I cannot get to grow here). It was not to be, though, so I'll just have to wait to catch up with MMD in Seattle at the Garden Blogger's Fling.

I will say that the highlight of the trip, as always, was the Second City's beautiful architecture. Walu, Sasha, and I even took a guided tour by boat down the Chicago River that was sponsored by the Architecture Society to learn more about it:

I highly recommend the tour, but if you do it in the summer, it might be advisable to wear a hat.

Now I'm back home and ready to plant some foundation shrubbery in my back garden, which has suffered from neglect the past couple of years and looks a tad tattered as a result. It didn't help that we needed to replace a sewer line this year and the plumbers completely destroyed one of the flower beds in the process. Ah well, in every disaster, there is opportunity for renewal, and so it shall be here.

I've gone for a bike ride this morning, on a lovely, overcast and moderately breezy day, and now I'm ready to go plant shopping. I don't have anything in mind except that I need some shrubs for a backdrop and that they need to get in the ground and somewhat established before I take off again here in a couple of weeks.

So, gotta go, since I'm burnin' daylight, but I'll keep you posted on what transpires.