Gardening Blog

Good neighbours make great gardens

I've probably spent at least an hour in the garden every day this summer. Most days more, some days less. My kids are pretty good about helping, and Chris does the mowing and his fair share of the heavy lifting. But life is busy, and it's summer! Some days we went to the lake, or the library reading program. Eventually I've had to clean the house and do some laundry. And you know that a certain percentage of my time in the garden I was teaching someone how to pull a dandelion, reminding someone else to keep their hat on, or getting dirt out of the baby's mouth. I should not be surprised when 1.4 acres gets ahead of me, but here we are. The weeds and the undone jobs are winning. By a pretty good margin.

Rhiannon's version of thinning carrots.

Rhiannon's version of thinning carrots.

Despite it all, I am feeling pretty good about my garden today. Not because of something that's blooming, or any veggies I'm harvesting, or because it's ready for a photo shoot (that's a laugh). I'm feeling good about my garden because we put a huge hole in the weed population today. When I say “we,” I mean me, my kids, and two wonderful neighbours. Ralph and Brenda, both retired school teachers, quite literally drove up and dug in. We worked and chatted in the mud for the better part of two hours (well, the kids didn`t, but we did). No judgements implied on the flowering sowthistle, no comments on the lawn in need of a haircut. Just helping hands and good company. Praise for the children's efforts. Enthusiasm for mine. We're not done, but I feel so much further ahead… and not just with my to-do list.

A friend of mine, a single mom stretched on many fronts, has trouble keeping up with her yard too. She complained to me a few weeks ago about feeling judged by her neat-as-a-pin neighbours. They seem so ready, she said, to point out all her shortcomings, and less ready to offer to babysit. I wish I could send Ralph and Brenda her way.

From grass to garden: Part 1

This spring, my husband and I contemplated turning our front lawn into a garden after an ongoing battle with grubs decimated our grass for the second time. Warm spring evenings were spent wandering through neighbourhoods looking for ideas–and furtively taking the odd photo. But a busy schedule and the sheer enormity of the task–ripping up all the grass (for the second time in five years) and then finding plants to fill this bigger space gave us pause.

Then an emergency sewer pipe repair saw half our lawn being dug up leaving a pile of sand in its wake. This bigger mess overwhelmed us into inaction as we struggled to figure out what to do and where to start. We were so embarrassed by the state of our yard, we left the Roto Rooter sign up for longer than we would have so anyone walking by would take pity on our pipe repair and not judge the disaster zone.

I took a 'before' photo after the dirt was delivered. The end of the lawn is where we started to dig up. Crab grass obscures much of the sandpit that stretches from the middle of our lawn up towards the windows on the right.

I took a 'before' photo after the dirt was delivered. The end of the lawn is where we started to dig up the grass. Crab grass obscures much of the sandpit that stretches from the middle of our lawn up towards the front of the house. Two junipers were pulled out during the sewer pipe repair leaving an empty front garden.

We were tempted to hire a professional to sketch out a garden plan, but our creative side wanted to see if we could do it ourselves. And so we looked through magazines and websites, I read through Liz Primeau's fantastic new book called Front Yard Gardens: Growing More Than Grass and we finally sat down together one night to sketch out what we each envisioned.

It turns out we both had similar ideas in mind, so a plan started to take shape. We decided to cancel our long weekend plans and devote our three days off to our garden redesign. And my sweet parents–Sensei Gardener (Mom) and Sensei Landscaper (Dad)–were eager to help out.

Our first step was to order triple mix to enrich our soil and a nice dark cedar mulch. This was delivered on Friday afternoon by Arnts Topsoil: The Landscape Supplier. During the week we had started tearing up the grass and worked at finishing this Saturday. We also managed to get our hands on some fabulous big rocks left over from a neighbour's project. My husband used these to separate our side garden from the new one we were going to create. We took an afternoon break to meet my dad at Arnts and haul a load of stone back to our house. This would be used to replace a rotted wooden retaining wall and create a bigger wall that would separate our garden into two tiers. We also picked up a bag of multicoloured pebbles to experiment with a garden path.

With a house full of refreshments and our tools gathered and ready for action, we awoke on Sunday morning ready to tackle our plan. It’s not quite finished, but wait and see what we came up with!

Decisions, decisions

Okay, people, I need help.

Photo #1

Photo #1

Last fall, my sister Jenni built some stone steps from our gravel driveway down a short slope, and then a little bit of a walkway curving around a flower bed, as shown in photo #1. They look pretty good, no? Jenni did 99% percent of the work because I was eight months pregnant at the time. That was my excuse anyway; the reality, frankly, is she knows what she's doing, and I don't. At least when it comes to this.

Jenni only had a couple of days to help us, so she got the steps built and got the walkway kind of planned with randomly placed stones (photo #2), and left the finishing to us. The plan was to put the sod back in around them and cut the edge of the bed spring and fall to keep it neat. Well, the kids went back to school, I had a baby, winter set in… and now I have the mess you see in photo #3.

Photo #2

Photo #2

So here's my problem: I started thinking. (Uh oh, right?) Could it not be grass on one side of the path, flower bed on the other? Wouldn't it be nice to plant thyme and creepy things amongst the stepping stones? How would I keep the grass out of them? Can I afford (in time, money, and back muscles) to run the path solid the rest of the 12 or so feet I want it?

You must understand, I have spent a lot of time getting this flower
bed cleaned out. I have pulled a lot of grass out of here. I have done
the layered newspaper thing with very good success, but quack grass does not
give up without a fight. I do not want to open the door to re-invasion.

Photo #3

Photo #3

So, what do you think? Is Plan A still my best bet?

My priorities are:

1. Ease of mowing
2. Looking nice
3. Not cost the earth in the aforementioned currencies
4. Death to quack grass.

Purslane taste test

This morning while I was out weeding, I decided I'd set aside some purslane and try it with my lunch before serving it to my unsuspecting husband as I mentioned I would do in yesterday’s post. As I washed my weeds, I chewed a couple of leaves. I detected a hint of that lemony flavour John Kallas talks about in his book Edible Wild Plants. They tasted very similar to my mesclun mix that I planted this spring.

I added the ends of the stems and their leaves, which are supposed to be the sweetest, to a mixed greens salad with cherry tomatoes and my homemade balsamic vinaigrette. With all that company, I didn't really taste the purslane, but felt good knowing I was getting an extra dose of omega-3s.

An edible weed discovery

Out of all the weeds I have to pull, I didn’t realize I was composting a nutrient-dense super food. Purslane is a succulent with a reddish root and little shiny green leaves with more omega-3s than kale and lots of antioxidants. It also happens to love my yard. Apparently purslane is very popular in the Mediterranean, but here in North America we haven’t quite gotten used to eating this weed that likes to pop up in dry places like sidewalk cracks. After reading the chapter on purslane that we’ve excerpted on the site from the book Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas, I pointed out the weed to my husband. He seemed a little dubious about eating something that doesn’t come from the boundaries of our vegetable garden, but I might sneak it into a salad this week. Shh, don’t tell!

All or nothing

The corn is coming along nicely so far.

The corn is coming along nicely so far.

My husband Chris is an all or nothing kind of guy. He's an artist. A big idea man. And that includes his thinking about our yard. He didn't build the kids a play house, he built a play castle. He hasn't moved that metastasizing pile of building materials, because he's waiting to have a full day to tackle it. He hates mowing unless he can finish the whole place at once. But I digress.

In Chris's world, there's no point growing corn unless you grow a whole batch of it. As in half a dozen 100-foot rows. That would take up pretty much all of our current veggie patch, which I'm not up for. Also, as a big idea man, he tends to move on to the next big idea, leaving the last one for me. I know I'm the one who would end up doing most of the work weeding, watering and pollinating. And with our short growing season, you've got to be pretty on top of it and the weather has to cooperate just right if you're even going to end up with any edible corn. Take up all that space and invest all that energy, in a crop that might happen? So I told him, go till up a new patch and you be in charge of it.

Our not quite enormous, yet giant pumpkin

Our not quite enormous, yet giant pumpkin

Hasn't happened. Mission accomplished.

This year he came home with giant seeds a friend had given him. We have always grown pumpkins, but Chris wants to try the “grand-daddy” pumpkin–Dill's Atlantic Giant. I smiled and nodded and rolled my eyes internally. Scanning the seed packet, I realized maybe I should have been more supportive of the corn–these babies need their hills spaced 15-20 feet apart, and need a soil pH of blah blah fertilizer blah blah. My laissez-faire garden mind tuned out. At least hundred-foot rows of corn might give us something to eat other than bragging rights.

His excitement, as usual, was contagious, and the giant seeds got planted. They've had a late start because of our weird spring (the first flowers are just coming now) so we'll see how giant any pumpkins get. And we'll see how much space they actually take up as they wind their way through the rows of (sigh) corn.

Lest you think me a shameless husband basher, here's the upside to having an artist around the house. Chris built these steps and I'm getting a trellis to match this fall!

Lest you think me a shameless husband basher, here's the upside to having an artist around the house. Chris built these steps and I'm getting a trellis to match this fall!

Garden bugs!

My two-year-old Izah has two categories of bugs: “ewww” and “helper.” She likes worms, ladybugs, and bees, because she knows they have jobs that make the garden better. Pretty much everything else is an “ewww.” I hate to admit it, but mostly I agree. I know they each have a role to play, I just wish they would do it somewhere else. Preferably out of my sight.

Gardens have bugs. This is an inescapable truth, in the same category as death and taxes. Some we appreciate, others we tolerate. Then there`s the cringe-inducing annoyances: aphids, grubs, cabbage moth larvae, beetles of various stripes–we all have our personal nemesis.

I`ve had the odd problem with insects over the years. I`ve poured boiling water on inconvenient anthills, hung those fake wasp nests (which I endorse, by the way), and been infested with earwigs. But for the most part, their activity has been akin to punk teenagers egging the neighbour`s house on a Saturday night, and I`ve shrugged it off accordingly and carried on. This year, for whatever reason, the bugs have gotten organized. We`re talking Mafia tactics worthy of Al Capone.

There are hornets finding their way into my enclosed porch, at least one a day. There are suddenly ant hills all over the yard, with scouts all over the house. There are spiders everywhere in and out, big nasty ones too. I`ve got aphids on my broccoli and kale, and I`ve noticed more than one six-legged critter I`ve never even seen before. And don`t get me started on the mosquitos.
I`m chalking it up to the overly wet spring we`ve had. We move every ladybug we find to help with the aphids. Borax and peanut butter seems to have gotten the ants to behave, and we plugged some holes in the porch. All told, we`ll get by. But these mobsters aren`t scoring any points with me and Izah. –April Demes

Introducing our new blogger, April Demes

april-demesBack in the winter, CanadianGardening.com hosted a contest called So You Think You Can Garden. The winner received a prize package along with an opportunity to blog on the site. After receving an overwhelming amount of entries, we finally chose April Demes to be our winner. April was scheduled to start blogging for us in May, but we’ve been waiting for our developers to launch a shiny new blog format for us. Since we’re still waiting and it’s July, I thought I could publish April’s posts for the time being under my blog. I will clearly mark these entries so you can follow April’s adventures in her own garden until we can publish her posts separately.

Here’s a link to April’s winning entry.

Nematodes to the rescue

A few weeks ago, while making a couple of purchases at Home Depot, I saw a little fridge filled with Nema-Globe Grub Busters at the checkout counter. I went to grab some, but the lady helping me couldn’t find the hose attachments anywhere. With a growing lineup behind me, I told her I’d come back. But a couple of days later, at a Garden Writers Association luncheon, I was lucky enough to take home a sample–along with the hose attachment. It was such great timing and I–rather my husband–promptly dispersed the contents throughout our lawn.

nema-globeNematodes are microscopic, parasitic worms and are an eco-friendly way to control white grubs (which I’ve seen more than my fair share of throughout the yard). Packaged by Environmental Factor Inc., Nema-Globe Grub Busters Nematodes also protect against other soil pests like weevils, sod webworm, cutworms and more.

According to the early summer issue of Canadian Gardening, they are best applied to damp soil in mid to late spring and late summer. Do not fertilize your lawn for two weeks before or after application.

It’s been a few weeks and I really think the nematodes did their job! Our lawn has suffered from grubs since we moved in, but last year it was decimated. Now it’s gradually coming back, so my fingers are crossed that those nasty grubs are gone for good.

My invisible squirrel barrier

Last year I had such a problem with squirrels, especially in my vegetable garden. They dug up seedlings, they broke stems off plants and they took one lousy bite out of the only cucumber I managed to grow, and left it to rot. I read somewhere that they don’t like blood meal, so a few weeks ago when I planted my garden, I sprinkled some lightly throughout all my newly planted gardens. I’ve been diligent about reapplying after a heavy rain and so far so good. I hope I didn’t just jinx the fate of my garden with this blog post.

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