Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Calling All Containers!

I'm teaching a class on container gardening on June 10. My info is all set, but I'm short on photos. I'm hoping my wonderful blogging friends (yes, you!) can help me out by directing me to a post of yours that shows a container, or by emailing me a photo at gardenfaerie02 at yahoo dot com. Pretty please? The container can have any kind of plant or plants (herbs, annuals, perennials, succulents, shrubs, grasses, veggies) or be a pond, hanging basket, window box, etc. Thanks in advance!

Monday, May 26, 2008

What Grows Up...

A cat in her natural habitat: Boxus cardbordus

I took the previous week off work to accomplish many procrastinated home improvement tasks. I ended up recaulking around the bathroom tub, painting the bathroom, painting the hallway, staining the deck, and sorting through piles of stuff in the basement. You can see Fiona is assisting me with organization! I even did some work in the garden, most notably struggling, sweating, and swearing while digging out the ubiquitous buckthorn (and as a bonus: poison ivy, oh boy!) around my two wild beds, and I used Roundup on the stumps. I'm overall an organic gardener but I do use Roundup on buckthorn (bad, bad invasive!) and poison ivy. Happily. Gleefully.

I also transplanted some winter-sown seedlings: catmint, castor bean, and kiss me over the garden gate, as well as some plants obtained at the plant swap: hens and chicks, sedum, and cosmos. (The best trade, a good size peach-colored trumpet vine, will go along the chain link fence bordering my neighbor, as soon as the Roundup has killed off said buckthorn. Thank you nice lady who brought this!)

And best of all, I started a little veggie garden this year, in the existing narrow bed along my driveway, which held zinnia and cosmos last year. The groundhog had eaten the tops of the zinnias twice before it dawned on me to enclose the area in a decorative metal fence I had. It fit exactly and by the end of September, I had six-inch high zinnia. The point being, this bed was both perfect in sun exposure (full) and security (fenced). I took down the fence so I could reach inside and weed the bed. Then I planted four baby red leaf lettuces, three romaine lettuces, one horse radish, four purple kohlrabis, and five winter-sown tomatoes. I also direct-sowed some zinnia and cosmos, in the small remaining area. I watered. I mulched. I watered again. I was tired and dirty and went in to take a shower, feeling pleased with my progress. Getting out of the shower, I realized I needed something in another room and out my front window caught a glimpse of the bed with the freakin' groundhog sitting smack dab in the middle of it!

I was so eager to chase away said interloper that I almost outdid Victoria of Our Life in Idaho, who chased after raccoons at night in her underwear, by running outside in broad daylight buck naked. No, no, don't panic; I said almost. I realized my nudity at the last minute and managed to find my robe before running out all crazy, sparing my gentle neighbors the sight of a chubby middle-aged woman running naked screaming at a groundhog. Heh.

I then hurriedly got dressed and drove to the nearby hardware store to purchase two rolls of a metal fencing with tighter space gaps (three inches apart). This fencing is shorter (maybe a foot) but the original fence is two and a half feet, so it was all good. The shorter fence comes rolled up so it was quite a job to straighten it after unrolling, but I steadfastly worked to place this fencing along the bottom edge of the existing fence. It even dawned on me to use cable ties to secure the fences tightly together. It was truly masterful, I can tell you. The next morning, I watered my babies again and even put down some fertilizer, using the remains of some Miracle-Gro that attaches to the hose from my gardening-for-clients days. (I don't tend to fertilize much, but I figured veggies could use a boost!) I watered again. Everything was so happy and pristine. My friend Wendy called and mid afternoon we went to the movies and then to dinner (a rare treat in the frugal person's world!). She wanted to borrow my chainsaw, so I was eager to show her my new veggie garden. Which was no longer there.

Oh, the fences were there alright, but the lettuce and kohlrabi were chewed down. The horseradish remained untouched (hooray horseradish pungency!) and by some miracle (or full tummy) the tomatoes were spared, too. It's just one of those things that your eyes process just fine but your brain is lagging behind, trying to match the visual reality to the unlikeliness of the situation.

But of course, there were things I'd forgotten. 1) Groundhogs are rodents and rodents are intrepid explorers. 2) Rodents are clever and inventive. 3) Rodents are made of Jell-O (my guess is lime or perhaps raspberry). They can squeeze themselves into physically impossible narrow shapes. I found this out when pet-sitting Wendy's rat, who also needed medication. She could scrunch herself into a ball one millisecond and into a long thin thing the next. 4) Rodents can jump. Not just the natural acrobats, squirrels, but also their more rotund cousins. I have a three-foot tree stump where I feed the birds and once saw a groundhog on top happily munching. Unless transported there by aliens (Esther, do you know anything about groundhog teleportation?), s/he must have climbed/jumped.

So, in retrospect, given that there was no burrowing into the bed, that clever little so and so must have somehow leaped over the lower part of the fence and then through the four-inch gap in the taller fence. If I had a video of this move, it might even be worth the loss of veggies! I can just imagine its thought bubble "Ah, you hapless human. It's so sweet and quaint of you to give me this acrobatic puzzle to solve. But truly, you underestimate me. This mundane two-fence system is for amateurs. Couldn't you have made it taller and the gaps narrower? I like a challenge, me. Verily, this is too easy. Thanks for lunch!"

I know, I know. In earlier posts I was trying to be all Zen and karma and cosmic universal balance about the groundhog. And I know you can't fight Mother Nature. And for better or worse, the groundhog is part of nature (and also a bit of a mother!). But because of last year's results, I truly thought I had the situation sussed. It never even occurred to me the groundhog would make it through. I should have known better. I am not going to get chicken wire or create a more elaborate fence. I've already spent enough time, energy, and money. I hope the tomatoes will grow, but I can always go to the grocery store. Groundhog can officially claim victory and human will claim defeat. Word.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Compost: I'll Show You Mine...

As a follow-on to National Compost Week (which was May 4-10, thanks to Aunt Debbi's Garden for letting me know!), I'd like to show you my compost. 'Cause that's just the neighborly kinda gardener I am. And I'd like to see yours! Seriously. À la Carol at May Dreams Gardens, who asked everyone to chime in about their hoes, I'd really like to know if you compost, what kind of pile/container you have, and what the main ingredients are. A link to a photo or blog post would be great!

Early spring compost bin contents: shredded leaves from last fall, first grass clippings of the season, and my trusty compost crank (visible), plus kitchen scraps and a bit of wood ash from my annual solstice bonfire (buried).

I started composting maybe 9 years ago, with one of those rotund black plastic containers that you fill from the top and, theoretically at least, empty from the bottom. Unfortunately, the top opening was not optimally wide for turning the compost, and it was really hard getting it out the smallish bottom hole. Next, I drilled holes in a plastic 35-gallon wheeled trash container and that worked pretty well for kitchen scraps, leaves, rabbit doo, and the odd shredded paper (but never even shredded paper-hyuck!). The wheels were really handy when it came time to empty the container because it's heavy and dragging it would have been annoying.

I still use a similar container on my deck right outside my sliding door for winter-time composting (almost entirely kitchen scraps). Not that the actual decomposition process is active in winter in Michigan, but it's a convenient place to collect the greens. It's unassuming-looking, but efficient, currently also serving nobly as a holding area for things to be planted and temporary storage for more leaves! (If I were actively composting in this bin, I would have drilled holes all the way up and on the lid.) In spring, I roll and empty the bin into my larger, main bin, made of pallets. The main bin is emptied in late fall, with the finished compost spread into the garden. It is then filled with shredded leaves over the winter. So the greens are a nice spring complement.

I made the pallet bin a few years back from pallets in my basement. For some reason, they did not have the usual empty space between slats, so I had to drill holes (I like a 1-inch drill bit). For the lid, I added a wood frame to a former plastic hoop composter. It latches at the back and can be opened the full way back. The front panel was meant to latch on both sides, so it could be removed entirely for easy access. However, the pallets were not uniform in size and the front one was a bit high for easy latching, made even higher by the sloping ground. As it turns out, just nudging the front panel with cinder blocks and an old piece of wood works just fine. (The bin is on a side of my house no one sees.) Note homemade rain barrel to the right!

Considering I worked with neither instructions nor any kind of carpentry skills, it turned out pretty good if I do say so myself! It may look a little ramshackle, but it's actually quite sturdy and has ably served its purpose.

The first year, the bottom was just the earth. But it's positioned just 15 feet from big thirsty trees with big hungry roots who were drawn to the crack cocaine of soil the lovely nutrient-rich soil under the compost bin. And then, just to let me know they were there and enjoying themselves, neener neener, they continued growing up into the pile. Thick roots. Eeny beeny feeder roots. You name it, it was there. It was really difficult to disentangle the compost from these roots—imagine a rootbound annual plug sized three feet by three feet! Oh sure, if I had been better about turning the pile, I may have noticed this before October, but... what's your point?

The next year, I put down several layers of newspaper under landscape fabric. The tree roots were amused. The leaves rustled softly whispering to each other ("Can you believe this dilly human? She actually thinks those flimsy layers can keep us out!" and "Yeah, she's crazy! That wouldn't have held me back when I was knee high to a sapling!") while the roots crept unseen to their feast. And again, I should have been better at turning the compost during the year. But things happen in the summer, you know? It was almost, but not quite as, hard to free the compost from the roots that year. Cursing abounded. From me and the roots.

This year, I have thicker layers of newspaper under layers of used yard waste bags under, what I'm hoping will be la pièce de la résistance, 1/4-inch sturdy-grade chicken wire combined with the resolve to keep on turnin', baby.

In case you're thinking a non-porous material, like, say, a tarp might be a good solution, it isn't. Unless you happen to like compost soup. Which I did not. Drainage = good.

Finally, I'm not much of a garden gadget kinda gal, and I'm not prone to spending tens of dollars on a garden gadget, but I love, love, love my compost crank (did I mention I'm fond of it?). I use it instead of a pitchfork to turn my pile. Its squiggly end turns down into the pile and can easily be lifted up. It's made by LoTech Products, but the website hasn't been updated in a long time and I'm not sure if they still sell it. And in honor of Mother's Day, I must thank my mother for turning me on to this product.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Photo Friday: Cincy, Cox, Chocolate

Greetings! Always so much happening in spring! Back on April 20, Carole and I went to the Cincinnati Flower Show. It drizzled nearly the whole three hours we were there, but no matter. It was fun and some exhibits were inside, as was a taste extravaganza (Stilton cheese is transcendent), and attendance was good.


The show took place on Coney Island, near the river, which is usually an amusement park. There were displays of landscapes, table settings, container gardens, window boxes, and many vendor booths.






Chard in a flower container—clever!






The next day, we were headed to Dayton but made a little side tour to Lebanon, the poster child of a beautiful Midwestern small town, to stop at the Golden Turtle Chocolate Factory. They had many varieties in both milk and dark chocolate, including dark malt bark, dark mint patties, and other yummy things (long since consumed, mmmmm...).


Outside of Dayton, we stopped at the Cox Arboretum, which was a wonderful delight with perennial beds, expanses of blooming bulbs, a Monet bridge on a pond, a woodland wildflower garden, and very friendly volunteer staff! Plus, all the trees were labeled, which was a treat!


The espalier trees are apple!







Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Frugal Faerie Meets Ultimate Cheapskate

If you know anything at all about me, you know I'm cheap! (Lots of earlier posts mention this in passing, but this one's fairly amusing.) I even made up "Cheap!" buttons to hand out when I teach. (Only making them ended up being too costly!)

It's not that I'll never spend money. I happen to like Clarks shoes (which is a huge thing for me to admit publicly as I hate shopping and am hugely brand unaware and fashion oblivious (perhaps in fact an ideal candidate for What Not to Wear—Stacy? Clinton? Helllllo?)). I'm hard on my shoes, I like walking, and most shoes make my feet hurt. I found that Clarks (at least the old-school ones) are comfortable. They're also expensive. But the value to me is worth the price--or it would be, if I couldn't get them loads cheaper on eBay, which I can.

But there are lots of things I won't spend money on, like rain barrels (which run $80 to $200, and which I made myself using a free 35-gallon barrel from Ann Arbor's water processing plant, instructions from Garden Gate magazine, and $20 in hardware. I built a compost bin out of wooden pallets that happened to be in my basement. I like trying to make things, so any time investment wasn't "lost," but fun.

Sometimes, projects don't seem fun or they are way out of my league--when my sump pump broke last January and water was inching up in my basement, I called a plumber. When I needed ceiling fans installed, a called an electrician. Little projects I can tackle--I've figured out how to fix a toilet, unclog a sink drain by removing that pipe section thingie, and fixing the garbage disposal with my bare hands and a cool Allen-wrench type object. I wear almost entirely second-hand clothes. I'm an avid garage saler. I have awesome Danish modern furniture I bought at reasonable prices second hand. I love the modern, clean lines and practical, space saving design. And I love the idea that they have a history. I love craigslist. I didn't buy as much house as my banker wanted me to mortgage. My 2001 Ford Focus is still new to me, and I plan to drive her many years yet (highly, highly unusual in the Detroit area, I can assure you!).

In the garden, I host an annual plant swap (May 17 for locals) and otherwise get plants from cuttings, friends, and of course through winter seed sowing. But I'll buy the occasional shrub (this year it's a witch hazel) because I can't propagate those and even if I could, I'm not that patient. In the fall I curbside shop for bagged leaves (the leaves go onto my beds as mulch or are shredded--with my mower--and added to my compost bin) and reuse the paper bags in spring.

My point being, I weigh each possible expense and ponder its financial and time consequences and then decide what path to take. I don't immediately run to the store for everything I need. But I will pay for an experience--like travel (although even that can be done cheaply) and admissions to museums and botanical gardens. (When I'm in Victoria this fall, I will gladly pay my $28 to enter Butchart Gardens, who aren't on the AHS reciprocal garden list, thankyouverymuch.) I also enjoy both volunteering time and donating money to nature organizations.

So, I don't recall how I found out about The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches by Jeff Yeager, but was glad when my name came up on the hold list for the Ann Arbor Library's copy (you didn't think I'd pay for a copy, did you?!). It's a fun book, easy and quick to read. Jeff points out how everyone knows the saying time is money, but that it's also important to realize that money is time. The more time you spend in the pursuit of money, the less time you have to enjoy other things in life. He also advocates skipping what he calls "the money step," which is essentially what I talked about above--figuring out alternative ways to get what you need and thinking about whether you in fact really need the whatsit after all. He also suggests ending up in the house you start out in, instead of continually jumping to newer and fancier homes. There was a lot of other practical advice. Some of it may seem radical to people who enjoy shopping, but it fit really well with how I already live my life. Another big point of his, and mine, is that spending less isn't about depriving yourself. It's about prioritizing what you want and how much you're willing to do/work to achieve it. I know I've never felt deprived; in fact I feel proud of my home and garden and what I've been able to make of them even given my modest income. The only thing I've ever resented is having to work a job I don't enjoy.

Anyway, I found out Jeff was doing a book tour, on bicycle, through Ohio. His first stop was on Sunday at the Wood County Library in Bowling Green, Ohio. So my friend Pete and I drove the 70 miles to hear him speak. (Yes, gas is expensive, but there was no other way to get there and I really wanted the experience.)

He was just like you would have guessed from reading his book: down to earth, funny, interesting, and informative. After the talk, I stood in line to have him sign my library copy of his book--which I knew he'd appreciate. I also had a copy of Fun with Winter Seed Sowing on hand and gave it to him "in compensation for the fact that I didn't buy his book." Now, I knew he had an interest in gardening, and winter seed sowing is certainly a frugal way to get more plants, so that was in line. I contemplated a long time whether pushing my book onto him would be seen as stalkerish or wannabe-ish, or if it would be a welcome gesture from a fellow frugal writer. I decided to go for it at the last minute. He actually seemed pleased to take the book, saying he liked gardening, and asking me to sign it.

So that went really well and was worth the cost of gas!

Update: First in a series on ABC News, Cramming the Most Into Time, about a poll that shows Americans would rather have more time than more money.

Monday, May 5, 2008

She Ran Calling Wildflowers...

I love woodland wildflowers (spring ephemerals), but as I see them only once a year, I tend to forget which are which. I recognize their forms, sure, but I tend to go blank on their names. This can lead to certain embarrassment and awkward greetings in the field. Compare, for example, the greeting "Hello, um... er... Fred?... Ginger?... Guadalupe?... Er, cute little white-ish pinkish subtly striped flower I distinctly remember seeing at Old Friends in Chelsea on the east side of their house three years ago when stopping by looking at their herb creations!" with "Hey, spring beauty, wassup?! May I call you Clay?"

Sunday morning I bridged this knowledge gap by attending, with my friend Carole, a wildflower walk sponsored by the Stewardship Network, taught by Catherine Marquardt. (I took a field study class at WCC from Catherine last spring and really enjoy her practical knowledge, laid-back attitude, and ability to effectively lead a large group through narrow nature paths.)

I think the key to becoming fast friends with wildflowers, as opposed to passing acquaintances, is to go to the same area frequently, to see the same flowers throughout their entire bloom cycle. Here's what we saw Saturday in Bird Hills Park in Ann Arbor:

Wild leek (Allium tricoccum), usually found in flood plains/low mushy areas. They bloom with a white flower later in the season.

Blood root ( Sanguinaria candensis), so cute with its neat leaf shape and reddish stem. Eventually blooms in delicate white flowers with eight to ten petals.

Early meadow rue (Thalictrum dioicum ), is a dioecious plant, meaning there are both male or female plants. Edit: Ooh, a better photo from the same walk is here.

Trillium (Trillium grandiflora), fairly recognizable but oh so cute. White blossoms fade to pinkish purple. I like plants whose common and Latin names are the same!

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginiana), with cute white flowers with pink-purple stripes! Unlike other spring ephemerals, spring beauties can regrow even after deer grazing!

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), just starting to bloom. Don’t even talk to me about Pelargoniums!

Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cacullaria), cute blue-green leaves and an indicator species of a southern mesic forest (rich, well-drained soil). The same species as bleeding heart.

Red baneberry (Actaea rubra) or white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), can't tell until blooms. A cute woody. Red baneberry has taller, thinner stalks with multilple white flowers (racemes), that turn into red berries in fall. White baneberry has shorter, wider racemes with white flowers that turn into white berries in fall. Cool! Berries are poisonous. Click for flower/berry photos.

Gooseberry (Ribes cynosbati), will get translucent green berries with subtle stripes in the fall.

Cutleaf toothwort (Dentaria lacinata), also an indicator species for mesic forests, has cool toothed leaf margins and sets of three whorled leaves. Has four-petaled white flowers.

Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum), spreads by rhizomes. Has blue, white, or purple flowers later in spring, and cool mottled leaves.

Dogwood tree (Cornus spp.), has beautiful white flowers (white blotches in photo!) facing upright. Not only needs some shade, but is an understory tree in protected locations so cannot handle wind.

Wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), has five-petaled white flowers a bit later (bottom right). I love all anemones, native and cultivars!

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), grows in wet areas, with beautiful yellow flowers and waxy leaves.

Golden ragwort (Senecio aureus), so cute. Amazing how those purple buds open into bright yellow flowers! Click for a nice shot of both the purple flower buds and yellow flowers.

Yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), so, so cute in its drooping flower. And the sun backlights the leaf, showing the spots.

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), above as I saw it yesterday and below on April 7, 2007, with the spadex showing and the leaves still curled up. It comes out early in spring, melting the ice as the spadex and its eeny beeny flowers bloom inside. It is pollinated by flies, and does apparently stink. Cool, huh?!

I also saw may apple (Podophyllum peltatum), false and real Soloman’s seal (Smilacina racemosa and Polygonatum biflorum), bedstraw (Galium spp.), and Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum),but didn’t photograph them (well, you can see the bedstraw in the second photo with the bloodroot).

Notes to self: For future photos, be aware of sun and shadow so one part of the photo isn't washed out/overly saturated. Pore over camera manual to find out if automatic settings can be overriden, especially flash (even though I thought I'd already disabled it!).