Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Why Make A Garden...For Free?

A perfectly delightful little patch of urban heaven.
When I talk about gardening, I tend to use the countrified term, "making a garden," instead of using what I was taught was the more citified way of speaking, "planting a garden." I talk in the old-fashioned vernacular on purpose, and I do it for the same reason I still haven't expunged the word, "ain't", from my vocabulary. Using "make" for "plant" is just one more example of how gardening connects me to my roots in the country. And if I didn't continue to use that language--e.g. I ain't makin' a garden for nothing--or perform certain acts, which could only in certain ways be called sacramental, like continuing to use a double-edge razor like my father used to feel connected to him, I would be, in the words of Malcolm X, metaphorically cutting out my own tongue.

So I ask the question, Why would you make a garden for free? Why would you make a garden on a piece of property that wasn't yours, paying for it in quite a few hundred hard dollars and hours of sweat equity? I kept asking myself those questions as Sue and I worked the little plot of ground in front of the house where we rent in Quincy, Massachusetts, when the landlord and his brother won't even stoop to pull a weed. Am I some kind of chump? And, just like a lot of other answers I've stumbled upon, it came to me while I was sweating and chopping and bent over, my back aching, while planting because gardening for me is meditation and yoga combined.

Bottom line: I was raised to believe that every person in the world should accept an opportunity presented to them to make the world a better place. See, just like everything, it goes back to my southern/Midwestern roots. Sometimes making the world better means simply smiling at someone on the subway who clearly is having a bad day. How hard is it to smile? It might mean handing out your last dollar to a homeless person. But sometimes it gets a lot harder, and I'm not saying making a garden is the ultimate sacrifice. On the scale of smiling on the subway being at one end and giving someone a kidney being on the other end, I'd say a garden is still pretty low on the continuum. But in this age when giving a "like" and a "share" on Facebook now seem to be the benchmark for social activism (click a button and keep scrolling; you've done your part) getting your hands dirty amounts to some serious responsible behavior. However, in all honesty, if I had known how much money it would take--upwards of $400 plus--to complete this project, I might have balked. Still, I was aware this wasn't going to come cheap, and I still went ahead with it.

And there it was: Sue and I were presented with the opportunity to make the house where we live a little more pleasant for all of the people who live here, and also, let's not forget, the people who would pass by on the way to and from work. They could use a little cheering up, too. It's not that we felt we didn't have the option to say, no; it was more seeing a job that needed getting done, and we were the only ones who could (or would) do it. I think we understood the possibility better than some.

"To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived--that is to have succeeded."  --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our landlords, John and Steve, know nothing about growing plants. The proverbial green thumb? In their cases, they don't even have thumbs, much less thumbs of another color. They couldn't tell crabgrass from pachysandra, and honestly, they don't want to know. They watched with amazement as their weed patch of a front yard turned into what I would call a perfectly delightful little patch of urban heaven. For me, it was like being a cook and watching people enjoy a meal. I took delight in their delight.

 People who we didn't know, people who we've seen but never spoken to, would stop and comment and chat as we worked. It seems the front yard project became something of a topic of conversation for the neighborhood. I'll be watching, said one woman, an Asian who's first language wasn't English, meaning she'll be looking forward to what grows. A neighbor across the street, the wife in an older couple who have a pristine, Chem-Lawn lawn, actually flagged me down and stopped me while I was driving to compliment us on the front yard. In truth, the yard was a bit of a blight on the neighborhood, and I think there is a collective feeling of ownership, not only when something isn't looking good, but also when things are looking up.

And, of course, there were quite a few people who, when they learned we didn't own the house and no, we weren't getting reimbursed for the materials and labor, looked at us oddly and sometimes teased us and sometimes downright belittled us. Well, I hope your landlord appreciates you, said one, in a tone that suggested she never believed our landlord would appreciate us and we were simpletons to believe that he would. The answer that we were simply making the world a better place was, at times, greeted with  bemusement, in the way idealistic hippies were addressed for believing there could be peace in the world. Ours is a transactional world, and quid pro quo is expected.

So, there is a 15 x 15 foot plot of ground in Quincy, Massachusetts that is a little better today than it was yesterday. And I think there are a few people who are also. At the risk of sounding like the idealistic hippie that I once was and probably still am, if everyone in the world took 225 square feet and improved it, well, that would go a long way in making the world better for all of us.

The day after a storm. We have two full rain barrels. A barrel of water doesn't last that long during a hot summer. Let's keep praying for rain.

Coincidentally, irises were both Sue's and my father's favorite flowers, so for a few of our past anniversaries I've been giving Sue irises for the garden. See how a garden can reach back to your family's roots and make your life so much richer?

Friday, May 27, 2016

Urban Garden Front Yard Project Complete

Completed front yard.
It was a pretty simple project to complete once we figured out what we really wanted to do. Yesterday I picked up two barrels of organic soil at Thayer Nursery. The price of soil had gone up to $20 per barrel--no surprise there; I don't know too many things of which the price goes down--but it's still a great deal. It's $20, no matter the size of the barrel, so of course I bring the biggest barrels I have, and if a little more soil drops into the bed of the pickup when I back it into the pile, well, so be it. Thayer gets the material for its compost from, among other places, the dining halls at Harvard University, so we're looking at some really smart compost.

Two trays of pachysandra were the perfect number. Empty the barrels, plant the ground cover. Sue added a birth bath, which is a really sweet idea. We feed the birds in the winter, and we've noticed they seem to feel this is a safe haven for them. Some of the little sparrows are getting comfortable enough around us that they come within a few feet of us. You want to attract as much wildlife as you can to your garden including birds, bees, and insects (the good kind, like butterflies) and do your part in keeping the biosystem humming.

We decided to keep the dead trunk of the dogwood intact because it would leave a visible hole in the yard. Instead we're going to watch it for decay and rot and cross that bridge when we get there.

I think for my next post I'm going to address why even take on these projects? Why build a garden at your own expense on someone else's property? I think there are some very good reason.

Hot, smelly organic soil. The really good stuff. Thayer Nursery gets the material for its compost from, among other places, the dining halls at Harvard University. This is some really smart compost.

Twenty bucks a barrel.

Here's the bare spot we're going to fill with organic soil and grow ground cover.

A nice thick layer of organic material.

Pachysandra added in rows, spaced evenly apart.

The coup de resistance: a hanging bird bath.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Urban Garden Moves To The Front Yard

We have a little project going on in the front yard, too. Last year, because of the vegetable garden we put in the backyard, Steve felt comfortable handing over his front yard to us, too. It was basically a small overgrown postage stamp-sized yard filled with weeds. What you see on the left is after the work we've done so far. The row of paving stones in the rear originally set in a straight line and overgrown with weeds. We moved them forward and placed them in a more pleasing curve to where they are now, and we filled the space behind it with a lot of plants that like shade. And, there's a line of flowers along the right that is pretty good at handling strong sun. We've added organic soil along the right and back. We need to get some ground cover on there, because 1) what's the point of a grass lawn that size? and 2) grass won't grow there because when a wall was built along the sidewalk, which you can't see, the builder back-filled basically with sand. It's like the dirt you find on a baseball field.

Honestly, I would have loved to put in more vegetables. Here in Quincy, Asians plant vegetables in their front yards all of the time. Why not? What's the point of grass? Unless you're a horse, you can't eat it. But believe it not, what we've done with this front yard is really breaking from tradition in the neighborhood. All of the other yards are the typical grass lawns, no matter how small, with foundation plantings around the house. 

But before we tackle the rest of the front yard, let's see what's going on in the back.

We had two days of cold and drizzle. Not nearly enough rain, with no rain in sight; 50 percent on Friday, and then 60 percent the following Friday. And that's not enough in the rain barrels for the garden. We may have to spot water with the hose, which frankly, it's nice to have that net. Farmers out in the Midwest don't have that luxury.

The stripped hill is something our landlord does every year. Usually by this time it's just covered in weeds and by August natural grasses have taken a toehold that would continue to grow as the years passed. You just have to have a little faith and patience with Mother Nature sometimes. But, every spring Steve hires someone to just denude it. He thinks this looks better than a slope covered in natural grasses. He says if he doesn't do this it will look like a forest. I understand it's simply a difference in sensibilities, and people who are raised to see things traditionally have a hard time seeing otherwise. But now that it's had its summer haircut, I'm wondering if we want to plant raspberries? It's a lot of building rubble--mostly gravel--that's been dumped there, and it would take some work and expense to make it fertile for raspberries, which given the chance would cover that hill in a season. It really comes down to me deciding if I want to commit to the expense and labor.

But back to the front yard. That dogwood was planted by Steve's mother about 55 years ago. It's had a pretty good run. We started feeding it fall and spring, and it again was a gorgeous flowering tree this spring. The only thing is that trunk on the right is dead, and there's another dead branch that comes out higher up on the back of the trunk. At the base there's a hole where another trunk was removed a few years ago, that you can stick your hand in. Tomorrow or Friday I'll head over to Thayer's Nursery where there's a guy I know who I can ask what to do.

While I'm there I'll pick up some more organic soil. They sell it for $15 a barrel, if you fill the barrel yourself and haul it away. We keep our 1997 Ford pickup running for chores like that. I'll spread the organic soil on that bare spot in the front yard and we'll be planting a mix of pachysandra and some creeping ivy Steve has growing wild in the back. I'll also see what Thayer's has for mulch for the front plants and in the back to hold in the moisture. That's pretty much a necessity in all vegetable gardens, but it's looking more so this year.  I'm not a big fan of all of this shredded bark that has become popular, and we'll see what alternatives Thayer has. Long ago I used grass clippings, but now I don't have a source for clippings. I've thought about asking the neighbors for theirs when they mow, but most of our neighbors feed their lawn, so that won't work in an organic garden.

Hardly any water after two days of drizzling rain.
Do I want to plant raspberries just beyond that wall? That's mint taking hold just above the wall to the right.
Rose's dogwood tree. The right trunk is dead and it's probably wise to remove it. There's another dead branch around the back of the tree.
A hole a the base of the tree where another trunk had been removed. An entry point for insects and disease.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Water In The Urban Garden

Empty rain barrel.
Rain. It's probably the one thing that gardeners worry about the most. Not enough and your plants wither. Too much, and you fight fungus and no sunshine. There was a chance of rain Saturday night and then Sunday. Now they're saying there's a 60 percent chance of rain tonight. We'll see. Sixty percent isn't a guarantee by any stretch, and we do need the rain. The soil in our garden is made up of a high percentage of vegetable matter, but yesterday when I was planting I was noticing that it was kind of dusty. Even organic soil isn't going to hold moisture forever. So, while it's a beautiful day to hang the laundry outside, I'm looking at the sky expectantly. There's a mackerel sky and weather.com says the barometer is dropping, so that means the weather will change. 

Right now we have two barrels under downspouts, but we'll need more than that. Last year was a hot dry summer, and a couple of times we ran out of water. This summer is predicted to be hot, too. I try to just use rainwater in the garden, simply because I try to keep the cost of our yield as low as I can. Remember the promise I made to our landlord: If his water bill picks up, I may lose a garden. If you're going to collect rainwater, pick a downspout that comes off a big section of roof to ensure that enough water comes down to fill the barrel.

Just think of how much of our modern world is paved over, from streets and parking lots, to building roofs. Water that falls on a city is almost virtually sealed off from entering as groundwater until sewers dump it somewhere far from where it fell. As civilization moves forward (God willing) I've wondered why urban planners don't incorporate cisterns, along with solar energy, in both developments and individual homes. Public water systems were a boon to public health, but why can't homes collect rainwater (it comes out of the sky for free, like the sunlight and air that's drying our clothes right now!) It doesn't have to be used for potable water, but could be used for things like watering gardens and flushing toilets. There's no reason to pay for water that's been purified for those reasons.

I did take advantage of yesterday's dry weather, though, to plant the zucchini and acorn squash. I noticed that something had already eaten one of the brussel sprouts and my neighbor, Tom, gave me an entire bucket of coffee grounds to spread around the plants, saying that squirrels don't like the smell. He goes to the local coffee shop and gets buckets of grounds (yesterday he had three bucketful) so we'll see if squirrels/rabbits/insects stay away. I figured it couldn't hurt. I know one animal that loves coffee grounds is the earthworm.

The paving stone at the bottom of the barrel anchors it in case of high winds.

A gorgeous day to dry clothes. We dry our clothes outside almost all year long. Why use a machine and energy when there's a perfectly good dryer that comes up in the east every morning?
Mackerel sky. Hope it brings a little rain.

Yellow squash seedlings.

Thirsty yellow squash seedlings.That's mint and Jerusalem artichokes in the background.
Coffee grounds spread around plants to deter squirrels. I'll let you know how it works.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

An urban garden takes shape

Planting lettuce in the spring between onions that were planted last fall.
I don't think there is anything more optimistic than a gardener. Every year we plant our babies with so much hope and vision. And then, it's all pretty much out of our hands. Oh, we can bring in water if it doesn't fall out of the sky. We can weed. But there isn't much we can do if Mother Nature decides to invoke her wrath in the form of insects, scorching heat, or even some other kind of voodoo. For a couple of years now, I haven't been able to grow peppers in the little plot I garden. I've talked to my neighbors who seem to have the same problem I have. Everything is lush, except for their peppers. This year I'm trying to grow them in a box on my porch. If that doesn't work, I'll try something else. Like most things, there's always so much to learn. Today at the garden center a woman and her young grandson were picking out plants, and I said to the woman, That's how I learned, from my grandmother in Indiana. I've been gardening since my parents started sending me to work on relatives farms during the summer, and it's something I've loved to do ever since. I think just about every place I've lived, I've left a garden behind. 

For a number of years, we've been working a backyard urban garden in Quincy, Massachusetts, just south of Boston, where we rent an apartment. It now takes up more than three-fourths of the backyard, but it started with the landlord letting us take a small corner for a couple of tomato plants. A few fresh tomatoes hung in a bag on his doorknob, and the corner grew to a little square. More tomatoes and zucchini and a handful of strawberries, and a couple of years ago Steve said to take the whole backyard. I sealed the deal when I persuaded him to let me put barrels under the downspouts, telling him he wouldn't even have to pay for water since in comes out of the sky for free. Herbs and smaller vegetables we grow in packing crates I found alongside the road and turned into garden boxes.

The garden has been a big part of our journey as we move, as best we can, to a more organic way of living. The garden is 100% organic; we compost all of our organic food scraps including coffee grounds and eggshells. As we like to say, we use even the smallest part of the buffalo. I am, though, worried about the quality of the runoff that comes down the downspouts, and I've put off having the soil checked for lead and other heavy metals the same way I put off a colonoscopy for ten years: I'm just afraid of what I'll find out. Our backyard garden has become a big source of our food, especially during the summer when we eat a lot of greens. Just last night we used up the last of the pesto made from basil we grew last year, and it was only a few weeks ago we finished the tomato sauce from last year that we froze.

It saves us money, makes up happy; an hour's work in the garden is equal to I don't know how many hours in the gym or with your therapist. I can't explain it but weeding gives me such satisfaction, not only because the end result is so pretty and the physical exercise so cathartic, but the simplicity of being outdoors makes me forget for that little bit of time the inanities of the modern world. Gardening puts me back in touch with nature. I follow the weather and seasons. I can feel myself taking that trip around the sun.

This year is going to be an experiment. A la Barbara Kingsolver and her incredible book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which leapfrogged us into trying to live more healthy lives as we increasingly began to mistrust just about every institution in society, but especially our food delivery system. This little backyard is us pushing back on what we feel is a system that has gone completely out of control.

Part of the backyard urban garden we make every year.

One of my all-time favorite tools for preparing the soil: A small pick mattock.
Swiss chard, brussel sprouts, lettuce, and peppers.
Planting lettuce between rows of onions. Good exercise: the stretching and reaching is worth a gym's membership.
We utilize every inch of the garden. We've learned that from seeing other gardens when we travel.
Compost. We have two bins that cook our yard and kitchen organic waste.

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