Backyard gardening: Playing in the dirt

by | May 30, 2007

Raised bed in backyard garden, Racine, Wisconsin

It will yield you brambles and thistles,
as you eat the produce of the land.
By the sweat of your face
will you earn your food,
until you return to the ground.
as you were taken from it.

— Genesis 3:18-19, The New Jerusalem Bible

We’ve been spending a lot of time on backyard gardening lately, hoping to build on what we began last year and take full advantage of the growing season. It’s no botanical wonderland yet, but at least we’re getting fresh air, exercise, and some occasional tranquility.

Our first project was the raised bed pictured above, built April 29 of cedar, based on a Sunset plan I found online. I had admired the raised beds our friend Bridgett showed off at her house last summer, and then I ran across a blog post about how raised beds have warmer, less compacted soil than an ordinary bed, so I figured it would be just the thing for a “kitchen garden” of tomatoes, basil, parsley, oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram. Rather than the 4 by 8 foot frame in the plan, we built ours 4 by 14 feet, adding a couple of extra posts for stability. Who cares if it’s slightly bowed in the middle?

The flowers we germinated in mid-March sprouted nicely, but they grew weak and lanky waiting for planting weather. I followed the instructions of our Jiffy kits to try and get them “hardened off,” but the Jiffy pots are only peat — no nutrients — and the seedlings outgrow them before the weather is ready. We planted bunches of our spindly little plants only to have them leveled by 45 mph winds or eaten overnight by mysterious demons.

Seedlings in flats, in backyard shadeI have decided that while the Jiffy pots are fine for quickly getting seeds to sprout, they should then in turn be popped into small plastic pots of real soil, and exposed to as much outdoor shade as temperatures and winds permit. Window light is simply not enough. Following this new plan, we (okay, mostly Amy) have been carrying the heavy trays holding our hundred or so survivors up from the basement and out into the yard to relax in the shade on boards extended between lawn chairs. Now and then, we bring them drinks. On especially nice days, we walk them around the block in little red wagons. Soon there may be private tutors and summer camps.

One begins to understand how useful a small greenhouse might be, and also what a bargain it is to be able to buy ready-to-go plants from, say, Wayne’s Daughters. We snabbed a few bee balms there last weekend along with some Liatris, which is already getting visited by Monarch and Red Admiral butterflies.

Backyard garden bed with bee balm, other perennialsOur lawn eradication program continues step-by-step. I have expanded a couple of existing beds by cutting out large arcs of turf, and created a new bed that will eliminate mowing around the air conditioner and utility pole. I planted a semicircle of blue oat grass around the young variegated dogwwod. The elderberries (Black Beauty and Black Lace) that we planted last year are growing at an almost frightening rate and should bloom within a week. Last year’s Joe-Pye weed, purple coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, and Threadleaf coreopsis are all back and doing fine. Counting the butterfly weed and asters now growing from seed, we’ll have seven of the top ten nectar plants in the Stokes Butterfly Book. Plus, our three astilbes came back in the shade bed, along with a mess of violets all underneath the shrubs. In a few more weeks, our backyard should look exactly like the secret garden in The Butterfly.

One of the best things I did last fall was to mulch the backyard beds with alfalfa hay I bought from a farm out in the county. Bare dirt is such a weed magnet and it dries out so rapidly, and mulch solves both of these problems. I learned in Jerry Minnich’s Wisconsin Garden Guide that alfalfa hay is also a good source of both nitrogen and potash. The look is definitely rural, but that’s fine with me and my guitar, and the soil under the mulch is rich, loose, and full of earthworms. I don’t plan to go full-tilt Ruth Stout, what with her hay 8 inches deep and the raw garbage — just an inch or so of alfalfa over the dirt to fend off the pounding sun. That’s eccentric enough right now.

The pruning we did last summer has resulted in a lot more pink blooms on our weigelas this year, and last night we watched a pair of hummingbirds working them over thoroughly. We have not seen any hummingbirds on our feeder yet this year, but we have added the Red-breasted Nuthatch, the Rufous-sided Towhee, and a softly mewing Gray Catbird to the list of species we have spotted in our yard. I’m seeing more Cedar Waxwings this year and fewer Downy Woodpeckers and Blue Jays.

All of the birds are beginning to conregate around the mulberry tree they themselves planted in the bed on our west border. We removed its siblings last summer, keeping only the biggest tree, which is now at least 15 feet tall and will soon be ripe enough for weeks of wacky bird acrobatics. Last week, the City of Racine Parks Department planted a pair of of ‘Red Jewel’ crabapples in the parkway in front of our house as part of their Green Racine Tree Program. We hope to add a serviceberry sometime soon, so there will be more bird entertainment to come.

In addition to birds, we also have big, fat rabbits that either sit in the grass placidly chewing for hours while we step over them to barbecue, or else chase each other around and around like maniacs, leaping and spraying pheromone mists. The next thing we know, there are new, adorable, tiny bunnies in our yard, and our rose bush, dogwood, and assorted seedlings are being chewed down to nubs.

My search for a non-toxic, organic rabbit repellent led me to Liquid Fence®, and Amy first picked up a quart bottle, then a gallon. The stuff is some sort of all-natural combination of ingredients like garlic and rotten eggs. You do want to stay upwind of it when you’re spraying. It smells horrible — sort of like putrid cat pee — and it seems to deter the rabbits just fine. The only problem is that it washes off, so it has to be reapplied. This turns out to be madness if you’re watering every day. I have read that blood meal also helps some, so I’ll be trying that on the rose and the dogwood. We may also consider planting catnip to attract the muscular, gray panther that occasionally stalks the back fence.

Foundation planting: ferns and columbineFerns that we transplanted last summer are thick and lush now, along with the purple columbine on one side of our house. This weekend, we’ll plant a Chicago Fire® burning bush, probably a Viburnum dentaum, and possibly two or three Rose of Sharon shrubs on the other side of our house to add a little eventual screening there, plus fall color, berries, and flowers.

Some of you (okay, two of you) have remarked about the lack of fresh posts here in recent weeks. I’m looking into some sort of plastic membrane that will protect my keyboard from my dirty hands. That way, I can blog during my breaks in the lawn chair after five hard minutes of cutting and lifting turf chunks and shaking the soil off them. Or while I watch Amy lifting those heavy flagstones to build her path. And I can pay bills online. And get software upgrades. And delete spam.

Or maybe not.


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