2014 Garden: Ta-da!

So, if you are wondering where I’ve been…well the answer is Chicago, Michigan, Colorado and Chicago again. Partially vacation, but also for a specific big event that happened for a certain blogger (hints: Not me, blogs on this blog, name sounds like the event). But I’ve also been in the backyard. A lot. Basically, every minute I haven’t been traveling.

And here’s how things are looking now:

Original garden box, with tomato and pepper seedlings, herbs, lettuce and violas. Tomato and pepper pots along the garage. And a happy dog in a her favorite sunny spot

Original garden box, with tomato and pepper seedlings, herbs, lettuce and violas. Tomato and pepper pots along the garage. And a happy dog in a her favorite sunny spot.

 

New garden beds, with mulch surrounding them, and a row of vining melons and squashes along the side.

New garden beds, with mulch surrounding them, and a row of vining melons and squashes along the side. You can see where we’re already having squirrel problems in the front.

And, as a bonus, I tackled the front of the house too, filling the numerous flower boxes and pulling out weeds. We had so many weeds and vines (including poison ivy and belladonna, which is poisonous) I had to call a service to come do a pick up. And beg my landlord to take the cost off my rent.

porch flowers

So, now that the vast amounts of physical labor are done (seriously: building the boxes, making all the trips to get dirt, mulch and plants in my little car, lining everything with paper and filling with dirt and mulch, planting, weeding, weeding and more weeding — It took for ever. Probably about 60 hours between my time and the upstairs tenant’s), I’ll hopefully be back to blogging with less emphasis on gardening, and more of what this blog was supposed to be about — Homemade food and crafts!

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Garden Lesson 2: It’s like National Geographic out there

Last spring, in early June, we got new neighbors.

Our new neighbors

Our new neighbors

A bunny decided to have her babies in our herb garden, right under the parsley. It wasn’t really an ideal site for a bunny family: The herbs and lettuce hadn’t really grown in yet, so the nest seemed very exposed to us. Not to mention the fact that Bronwen-the-dog is out there all the time. And my neighbors’ cat, who is a known threat to wildlife (we’ll just refer to the proof as the Chipmunk Massacre of 2011 and leave it at that).

We called the Humane Society and they told us just to leave it, unless there was immediate danger. Young bunnies need their mom, she wouldn’t forget them and nature would take its course.

So we left them. And about four weeks later, they’d gone from being slimy little gray things to pretty cute fluffy babies.

Cute sleepy baby bunnies.

Cute sleepy baby bunnies.

I don’t think Bron ever realized they were there. Or if she did, she didn’t care. I kept a close eye on her those three weeks (which was a bit of a pain, actually), but she never touched them. At one point, we think the count went down from six bunnies to five, but it’s hard to count when they were always in a snuggly pile.  And, despite the fact that they were living in the garden, they didn’t eat anything, which was pretty nice. All-in-all, the upstairs neighbors and I were really enjoying watching them grow.

Then one night, at about 2 am, tragedy struck our happy little bunny family. I was woken up by a horrible repetitive keening noise and heard my upstairs neighbors (who were still up for some reason), run downstairs and into the backyard. And my neighbor (who was 8 months pregnant at the time) started shouting at the neighbor behind us to keep his cat out of our yard and then started crying. It turns out that the horrible noise that had woken me up was Momma Bunny screaming because that dang cat had raided the nest. (Now, I’m just going to note that I like cats in general, and I get that there’s a natural instinct at play, but I liked the bunnies and I hate that specific cat. I also hate that the cat is allowed by its owner to come into our yard and kill things. It’s really gross, and also, not safe for the cat.)

Now, my very pregnant neighbor was probably more upset by this than she normally would have been, due to hormones. She was extremely distraught. But it was really sad to come outside in my pjs and see that the nest was completely empty. We weren’t sure if they’d run for it, or if the cat had somehow carried them all away. We all had flashlights, and I scanned the grass and spotted one. We decided that this situation was an immediate threat, so we picked up the baby and put it in a shoe box. Then we spent the next two hours, in the middle of the night, out in the backyard with flashlights, looking for the other four bunnies. (Again, upset neighbor a huge factor here. I’m not sure I would have searched for survivors so long if she hadn’t been there.) Eventually, we found three.

Bunnie rescue box

Bunny rescue box

We also found a possum (which is a freaky thing to catch in your flashlight beam), saw a raccoon cross the alley and had a close (but not too close) encounter with a baby skunk. Apparently our yard is a wildlife hangout.

The neighbors took the bunnies to the Humane Society the next morning, where they were deemed really healthy and actually very big for their age and ready to be separated from their mom. They told them to put them back in the nest, and that their mom would either come back for them or they’d make their own way. The fact that they’d scattered when attacked showed they already knew their best defense mechanism.

When I came home from work that day, I could see them hanging out in the yard.

Home again

Home again

And that was the last time I saw them. I went out for the evening, and my upstairs neighbor looked out her window at dusk and saw that the momma had come back. She told me they were playing around, jumping in and out of the raised bed and chasing each other, and then they all ran off into the sunset.

As fun as it was to watch the babies grow, it was also a little bit stressful. I had to watch my dog every second she was in the yard (which is fenced, so she normally doesn’t need super attentive watching like that). I wondered whether all those herbs I’d just bought and planted would survive. And I worried that I’d come out and find a dead bunny on the walkway (which would be both sad and gross). So this year, I’m looking into ways I can prevent animals from calling the garden home. I’ve considered fences and possibly those scary owl things. Or maybe a bird mobile?

Now, if only I could figure out a way to keep that cat out of the yard.

Planning my 2014 Garden

This week is our Spring Garbage Pickup in my neighborhood (we have weekly pickup, of course, but this is the big week for yard waste and large items that don’t fit in the bins), so I’ve been busy cleaning out the alley (which was disgusting), raking up the leaves, acorns and twigs that littered the yard, and trying to eliminate the weeds that have already taken over last year’s garden patch.

My giant garden and all it's weeds

Last year’s garden, overrun with squash and weeds

This year's blank slate

This year’s blank slate

I’ve decided to add some raised beds this year to help keep the weeds at bay and keep my veggies from overrunning each other (last year the squash gave all the other veggies too much competition for sunlight). I’m also doing a bit of rearranging, now that I have a better understanding of the sunlight in each part of the yard.

The sunniest patch of the yard is actually the strip right alongside the garage and where the existing 4 x 8 foot raised bed sits. Last year, I filled this box with herbs and lettuce, but as lettuce can do with a little less sun, I’ve decided to promote the most sun-loving veggies to this part of the yard. My tomatoes did pretty well in a shadier part of the yard last year, but they were much slower than everyone else’s, so they are getting a little promotion. My cucumbers and peppers did pretty poorly, so we’re going to try out a sunnier spot for them too.

I’ve decided to try out a square-foot gardening approach this year, so here’s the plan for the first box:

Mint

Cucumber

Cucumber

Cucumber

Thyme

Basil

Tomato

(Cherry seedlings)

Tomato
(Heirloom seedlings)

Basil

Basil

Basil

Oregano

Hot pepper

Pepper seeds

Hot pepper

Chive

Then along the sunnier side of last year’s vegetable patch, I’m putting in three 4 x 6 ft boxes (the size was determined by the length of board that can fit in my tiny car).

Pole Beans

Arugula

Kale

Broccoli

Kale

Arugula

Parsley

Beets

Parsley

 

Peas

Spinach

Potato

Sweet potato

Parsnip

Chard

Lavender

Carrots

Sage

 

Cilantro

Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts

Dill

Fairy Eggplant

Eggplant

Onion

Red onion

Celery

Lettuce

Celery

 

Then, on the other side of veggie patch, I’m going to plan the vining vegetables and fruits — melon, zucchini, acorn squash, pumpkin and butternut. Last year the squash thrived on this side of the yard, while it wasn’t quite enough sun for the other vegetables. Plus, this way, the vines can go crazy without the risk of suffocating the eggplant or celery like last year.

I’m also planning to use some freestanding pots along the side of the garage, for additional tomato plants and possibly peppers. And rosemary — I regret not planting last year’s rosemary in a pot I could bring inside.

How do you decide what to plant where? Any plants that need maximum sun that I missed?

Mint

Cucumber

Cucumber

Cucumber

Thyme

Basil

Tomato

(Cherry seedlings)

Tomato
(Heirloom seedlings)

Basil

Basil

Basil

Oregano

Hot pepper

Pepper seeds

Hot pepper

Chive

Garden Lesson 1: You might occasionally win a battle, but you’ll never win the war on weeds. Especially if your garden is organic.

Since I can sense spring coming, just around the corner (even though it’s freezing today), I thought I’d finally share some of the lessons I learned from last year’s garden.

Our garden was a rather large (14 x 27 feet) reclaimed portion of the yard that had previously been a giant weed patch. I think before it was a weed patch it might have had some trees and shrubs that were cut down because they had been interfering with power lines, but it was definitely not a lawn or garden. The three years I lived in the building prior to our garden effort, it was just a big patch of weeds. My landlord had told me that if we (we being me and the new upstairs neighbors) cleaned out that part of the yard, he would have two raised garden beds put in. We cleaned out the weeds using a tiller and a ridiculous amount of muscle and time, but no boxes were installed. I’m still a little miffed about that. So we ended up putting in a few rows of plants directly into the ground, and used a mix of weed block fabric and mulch to try to ward off the return of the weeds.

It did not go well.

My giant garden and all it's weeds

My giant garden and all it’s weeds. You can see in this picture that I was also battling out of control squash vines.

We had the perfect recipe for a never-ending weed battle: Weeds had already claimed that portion of the yard as their home, and they were not going to give it up with out a fight. And, tilling the ground meant that even more weeds had the opportunity to take root.

Our biggest problem was lamb’s ear. It was everywhere. It never stopped coming in, but it was very, very easy to rip it out as it grew. My daily routine became: Come home from work, let the dog out, rip out weeds for a half hour. Not kidding when I say every day. Why didn’t I use weed killer? Well, for one thing, the weeds were literally side by side with my vegetables, and I really did not want to kill the vegetables. For another, I was trying to be mostly organic (I didn’t buy specifically organic plants, so they might have been GMO, but I didn’t use any weed killers or bug killers). With a dog frequently in the garden and a pregnant neighbor upstairs, I didn’t want to risk using chemicals that might be harmful. This year, we’ll have a dog and a soon-to-be-walking baby in the yard, so we’ll be skipping chemicals again.

We also had a severe problem with invasive, hard-to-kill and poisonous weeds. Mullion weed, for example, is insanely hard to rip out. You can cut it back a million times, spend hours trying to dig out the deep, tuberous roots, etc., and that sucker is still going to come back. Same with belladonna, aka deadly nightshade. If you don’t rip out every last bit of vine, it’s coming back. Needless to say, while the mullion is a pain, the nightshade is actually hazard, especially since the baby will be mobile the summer. She’s really cute, so I suspect my neighbors don’t want her eating poison foliage or berries.

Mullion - a hard to kill weed

Mullion – a hard to kill weed

So what am I going to do? The first order of business is to finally get the raised beds in. We had one last year (previously installed by my landlord in a different part of the yard), and there were almost no weeds in it. My plan for the garden part of the yard is to do a thorough raking and remove all the debris from last year’s efforts as soon as the snow is finally gone. Then I’m going to put down a fairly solid layer of newspaper (I’ve been saving my junk mail for this purpose), and a thick layer of wood chips. This was pretty good for controlling weeds in some portions of the garden last year. I’m hoping that and fresh dirt in the raised beds, will keep the worst of the weeds and proliferation of lambs ear down.

Our almost weed-free raised bed.

Our almost weed-free raised bed.

I’m also going to try to attack the areas where I know there’s nightshade and mullion early this year and stop the problem before it starts. Part of the issue last year was that I didn’t know what I was dealing with. Now I do, so hopefully I can get a jump on it.

If you’re an experienced gardener, I’d love to know how you keep weeds in check — especially in new gardens where they might have already established themselves. Any tips?

Some updates

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Sorry about that! It turns out that managing three blogs at work means that I’m less inclined to work on my own blog at home (go figure). But that’s going to change in 2014, I swear!

Some exciting changes here. For one, I got a new camera! It’s a Sony Cybershot Mark 100, which is a compact, fixed-lens camera, but with an incredibly powerful lens and sensor. I wanted a small camera for travel, but didn’t want a mediocre point and shoot. So far, I’m really happy with the purchase. I took it with me on my recent vacation (I went to Paris. Everything people say about it is true.) and got some great pictures with it. I do have a few catch-up posts to share, which will still feature less-than-perfect, step-by-step iPhone pictures, but after that you should see a noticeable improvement in photo quality. If anyone is interested in how I went about choosing my camera, leave a comment and I’ll do a post. I did a lot of research ahead of time and went to about 5 stores to look at cameras in person (I research things to death when I make a large purchase). Otherwise, I’ll assume you get your camera advise from a camera expert!

Some other exciting things you missed:

I made this cake for my sister’s birthday. It was ridiculously good and impressed everyone who ate it, even those who ate smooshed leftovers out of a tupperware three days after her birthday.

susan's birthday cake

At one point my vegetable garden was producing crops like this on a daily basis (this is my share, after giving the upstairs neighbors their share):

veggies from garden

I can’t wait to start planning for next year’s garden, and I’m hoping to share some of the stuff I learned having a vegetable garden for the first time.

And at one point, my living room looked like this:

Brown Living room

In an attempt to try something new, I painted the living room a nice cozy brown (Basketry, by Behr). I actually still really like this color. It’s a great mid-tone neutral—not too green or too red, in my opinion. But, with the wood trim and floors it was a lot of brown. Then I bought a brown couch (not what I intended at all—I’ll definitely share my couch saga soon!), and a too low coffee table and the room slid into a horrible state of Not Working At All. So, aside from the couch (which I LOVE), it’s completely different!

Oh, and I bought these insanely girly hooks for $2 each at Anthropologie. Everyone who saw them on my counter said they were really flowery and looked like they belonged in a little girl’s room. Everyone who’s seen them on the wall  (they  in my back hallway next to the door) has complimented them. Girly can totally work in a grown up house.

girly hooks

So that’s what’s been happening here. More to come soon!

Slow roasted tomatoes – from the garden

I planted a garden this summer. A huge garden. Then I waited.

Gardening is all about patience. And weed control. If you’re trying to reclaim an overgrown patch of yard, there is lots of weed control.

But, back to the patience…I planted five tomato plants in May, and in late July I started to see a few teeny tiny results.

three tomatoes

But then, a month later, I suddenly was seeing results like this

IMG_0613

Every week. For going on 5 weeks now. So in addition to making sauces, caponata, and a bunch of other old favorites, I was looking for new ways to use tomatoes. And I found an awesome and easy recipe with spectacular results: Slow Roasted Tomatoes.

sundriedtomato

 

This is one of the easiest things I’ve ever made. Doesn’t even need a formal recipe.

Set your oven to 250 (225 for smaller tomatoes, like cherry tomatoes). Cut the tomatoes in half. Place on lined baking sheet. Splash with a tiny bit of olive oil and perhaps some balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle with a little salt. Let it slowly roast in the over for three hours or so — till they shrink a bit and start to look a little dry.

They taste fantastic — sweet and intensely flavorful. You can add them to dishes like pasta. I simply stacked them on a piece of french bread with a slice of soft mozzarella. Heavenly.

IMG_0607