The Impatient Gardener: May 2012

30 May 2012

Unexpected beauty

I have so many blog posts to finish up and run, but it's deadline week in the real world and unlike past years when I've worked over Memorial Day weekend because of that deadline, this year I decided to take the whole weekend off. It was a great decision and an absolutely stellar weekend but now I have to buckle down in the real world.

So instead of finishing one of the many half-finished posts I'm working on, I leave you with this picture of  a Guernsey Cream clematis bloom that flopped over on top of Japanese painted fern proving that A.) some clematis will grow in a fair amount of shade and B.) sometimes the prettiest plant combinations are those you didn't plan.

I hope everyone had a great holiday weekend!

25 May 2012

That's a lot of plants!

It's been a busy, busy, busy week so some of my planned posts didn't come to fruition. I spent almost all day helping to set up our master gardener plant sale. It is our major (only?) fund-raiser for the organization and it is a huge production but I enjoy it (and I get the majority of my required master gardener volunteer hours taken care of in two days). This year we got somewhere in the neighborhood of 13,400 plants, and all but a handful will be gone in three hours tomorrow.

It's quite an event for gardeners. The doors open at 9 a.m. but the line starts forming at 7 a.m. We give away the first 10 spots in line to the local public television station for their auction and in past years the first spot has gone for more than $100.

When we open the doors it's a scene a bit like that on Black Friday. These days most people run to the tomato and vegetable table (all heirloom varieties with the exception of a handful of peppers). Master gardener volunteers grow all the vegetables. All of the other plants are grown for us by local nurseries. This year we have 22 varieties of tomatoes. I limited myself to nine.

The tomatoes are huge.

I manage a table with herbs roughly classified as edible, but really it's sort of the ones that don't fit in any other category. The fastest sellers at our table are cilantro, mint and nasturtiums. Last year the nasturtiums didn't sell very well because we had a horribly cold spring and they were all pretty small. This year they were started a week early and we've had gorgeous weather so they are huge and flowering. I bet they sell much faster this year. Things with flowers always sell better.

And so are the nasturtiums.

We also sell malabar spinach at our table and it has become quite popular in the three years we've sold it. It's a gorgeous vine to grow and the leaves, if picked young, are quite tasty. Someone told me today she uses the larger, older (and therefore thicker) leaves for vegetables roll-ups. I've noticed it being used on a lot of those foodie television shows.

The lavender was looking quite healthy.

We sell these cute little mesclun bowls. Kids seem to love them.

We also sell a small variety of garden merchandise. 

You might guess that we sell more basil than any other herb. The many, many varieties of basil we sell take up at least 100 linear feet.

If you are in the southeastern Wisconsin area, feel free to come check out the sale tomorrow from 9 a.m. to noon. It is at Concordia University in Mequon. Check out the Ozaukee Master Gardeners Facebook page for more information (and a link to a coupon).

Have a fantastic Memorial Day weekend everyone!


23 May 2012

Killing weeds organically: sometimes you just need a little elbow grease

I thought it might be time to check in on my little weed-killing project. If you recall, this was an area of the yard that we are trying to reclaim for a bit of grass. It was overrun by weeds, primarily creeping Charlie, dame's rocket and garlic mustard weed.

If you look back at this post from a couple weeks ago, you'll see that I have been attempting to kill all these weeds in the most organic way possible. That consisted mostly of a combination of the weed torch, spraying full-strength vinegar on them and cutting them very short. I followed that process twice and I think I doused them with vinegar three times.

And here's what it looked like after not touching the area for about two weeks. You can see that a good amount of weeds are gone, but, especially in the front, several were doing just fine. For the most part, the creeping Charlie seemed to be the most resistant and a few dandelions were being sticklers as well.

There are chemicals that can deal with creeping Charlie, especially if you're in a situation where you can kill everything and don't have to be selective. Still, for reasons spelled out in the original post, not to mention satisfying my own curiosity, I wanted to give an organic approach a try. Certainly this isn't the easy way out, but you can see that it at least sort of worked.

After I took this picture I went in with a hoe and rooted out almost all the remaining weeds. Since this is very sandy loamy soil. I was easily able to get the hoe into the root zone and really attack. We raked up all the leaves and finally planted some grass seed.

I know we'll continue to deal with weeds in this area, but part of my master plan is to grow healthy grass that doesn't make a nice place for weeds to live. Just as weeds provide competition for the things we want to grow, grass can do the same to weeds. So that's the goal. 


21 May 2012

Garden gadget geekery

Some women have a thing for shoes. Not me; I have about four pairs of shoes plus a few speciality pairs. Other women  have a thing for purses. That's not me either. I have one purse that rarely leaves the car. My weakness is gadgets. And gardening gadgets? Forgettaaboutit.

Here are a few of the new gardening gadgets I picked up this year.

1. When we added the deck onto the house during the renovation, we buried one of two hose bibs. That meant that in order to water anything on the back side of the house we had to drag a hose all the way around. With this faucet extension from Lee Valley we have our second hose bib back. We simply ran a 25-foot hose under the deck to the other side of the house. This has made watering our new trees and newly planted grass much easier.

2. I'm sure the safety instructions for the Red Dragon Weed Torch do not suggest torching something with one hand while taking a picture with the other hand, but I'm crazy like that. I've wanted a weed torch for some time but they are usually quite expensive and I was afraid to make that kind of financial commitment to something I wasn't sure would work. Then Genevieve at North Coast Gardening wrote a review of the Red Dragon Weed Torch for Fine Gardening magazine and for about $50, I figured it was worth a try. It uses a small screw-on propane can, like you'd use for a portable camping grill. So here's my take on it. I like it, because it's fun to burn stuff, but it sort of takes awhile to do it. It would be much faster to just hand-pull the weeds, but there are times when you just don't feel like bending over anymore and this is good for that. It works really well on very very small weeds and is the perfect thing for the stone and gravel path. I would recommend wearing full shoes with it (not flip flops like I usually wear) because there are times you need to stomp a bit to put out the flames. So while I'm happy with this tool, I don't think I would have been if I had spent any more money on it.

3. I'm always on the hunt for better ways to water and if you read the blog regularly or follow me on Facebook, you'll know that I get very frustrated with leaky, inefficient watering  tools. I've long been on the hunt for a good hose: One that isn't impossibly heavy, doesn't kink and still provides good water flow. Once again, Genevieve came to the rescue when she reviewed the Tuff-Guard Perfect Garden hose. This is not an inexpensive hose, but I don't mind paying a little more for quality tools that I'll have for many years. I ordered one (if you buy one, do a little Googling ... I found it at ATG Stores for a much better price than a some other places). It should tell you something that I ordered a second one within days of getting my first. The kink-free brag is totally right on. In fact you can't even squeeze this hose to stop the water like you can with other hoses. It's also quite light, which I really appreciated. Gen had warned me that it sort of has a mind of its own when it came to coiling it up, so swung by Home Depot and got a hose pot to stick it all in (so much nicer than just laying around on the patio). 

When I got the second hose I connected it and right from the get-go a huge bubble appeared in it. When I leaned in to look closer, it blew up in my face and there was a massive hole in my new hose. I sent it back (which was a super easy process ... sometimes these things can turn into customer service nightmares, but that wasn't the case) and got a new one and both hoses have been great since. I'm not reading too much into that second hose blow-up. I mean, manufacturing problems happen from time to time and the important thing is that the company stands by their products (it helped that Tuff-Guard had told me on Twitter that they guaranteed I would love this hose, so I felt like if there was an issue with the return I could have contacted the company directly). 

All in all, two big thumbs up for this hose.

4. More watering accessories are next on the list (and you can see a close-up of the hose in the next picture too). I buy lots of these brass quick couplers from Lee Valley every year. Since I use a variety of watering wands, nozzles and sprinklers, I put quick connects on all of them so I can swap them out easily. The brass ones are far superior to the el-cheapo plastic ones that you often find in the hardware store. No leaks!

5. I also got this bubbler soaker nozzle. I usually just turn the nozzle on and leave it at the base of a plant when I'm working on giving it a good soak, but that can wash dirt away. This bubbler is great (and inexpensive) it provides a gentle break to the water rather than having it come rushing straight out of the hose or the nozzle, meaning the plants get a good soaking, but I don't wash away all the dirt in the process. High marks for a really simple idea.

6. And the last of the watering tools that I got recently is a simple dial timer. I've never used a timer before and it has gotten me into trouble when I forget to turn it off. Last year I watered a section of the garden for more than 20 hours because I forgot the sprinkler was on. It was wasteful of water (and electricity to run the well pump non-stop for that long) and it's not good for the plants. Lee Valley (I was ordering anyway so I just started through stuff in the cart) says this is so simple it doesn't come with instructions and they are right. You just dial it to the amount of time you want it to run, or flip it to manual on when you just want to water by hand and you're good to go. Sometimes simpler is better.

7. From the simplest item I bought this year to maybe the most complicated (although it's super easy to run). I sprung for a Black & Decker Edge Hog. It's an electric edger and I'll just tell you right now, I love this thing. OK, it's not magic; you can't just run it along your beds and call them edged. You do have to follow up afterwards and remove a little bit of sod and push the soil up into the bed. I prefer to do this on my hands and knees with my hori hori, but you could do it with a sharp flat spade or a manual edging tool as well. In the past I've used a mezaluna edger that you step on to cut the edge and then followed up again with the hori hori. The Edge Hog is so much better. I spent probably 90 minutes edging all the beds on the front and one side of the house (including cleaning up with the hori hori and dumping the wheelbarrow). That's a project that would have probably taken me at least four hours without the Edge Hog and probably much more. And the edges are really nice. Check out the edge on one of the beds alongside the path.

I know it seems like a lot of new gadgets for the garden, but I'm really loving all of them and I think they make gardening (even weeding) more pleasurable. Just like a pair of Manolo Blahniks, only more practical and a lot more comfortable. 

Note: All of the products mentioned in this post were purchased by me. I was not supplied any samples (not that I'm opposed to that, mind you) and have not received any compensation from any product or company mentioned in this post. I just like this stuff and thought you'd want to know about it.

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16 May 2012

A demanding mistress

The garden is a demanding mistress this time of year. Despite our early spring when I thought I had a head start on gardening projects, I feel I'm behind again. The beds still need to be edged, plants moved, plants planted and, of course, weeding, weeding, weeding. Daffodils are fading and need to be tied into little packages so I can tolerate letting the foliage stand for awhile. The Virginia blue bells have all flopped and need to be removed.

My goal is still to have things more or less in control by the second week of June so that the rest of the summer can be managed with just a bit of gardening here and there. The past week has been a brutal schedule of going to work in the morning, coming home at 6, gardening until 8, eating dinner hopefully by 8:30 or so, then passing out. I always intend to take a day or two off from work during May to get ahead in the garden, but that can be a challenge since our deadline gets tighter with Memorial Day in the mix and I already take a day off to help set up our master gardener plant sale.

The mini greenhouse is overflowing with new hostas, annuals waiting to be put in containers, pots of perennials for the master gardener plant sale and a tray of sprouting seeds.
I thought I had an early start on some zinnias, but now it's looking like they may be the last to the party.
Although I've not potted any containers up (until this week it wasn't reliably warm enough to put annuals outside), I've been buying annuals and keeping them in my mini greenhouse because I'm afraid the good stuff will be gone by the time I get around to planting.

I've taken a more systematic approach to my containers this year. I take more joy in designing my containers than I do in almost any other part of gardening but some years I get so enamored with all the different combinations I can make that I buy plants willy nilly and end up with extras that I just stick in the ground. This year I made a list of what I intend to put in each container and have been carrying it around with me to every nursery I go to.

Where I've come against a brick wall, however, is in the containers themselves. I'd like to add a couple pots to the deck this year, with mandevilla to vine up the posts for the pergola. I want pots that are tall enough that they don't jump out and grab someone's leg, big enough to plant a few things along with the mandevilla (licorice plant, a small grass and a hot pink Superbena, according to my well-worth container list), and be relatively contemporary in style. I also have to be mindful of the weight because they are going on an elevated deck. It seems that local nurseries are only stocking glazed ceramic pots these days which are heavy and require more care than feel like giving. Fiberglass and other similar materials seem to be called for but I am astonished by the prices these things go for. Pretty soon I'll have to bite the bullet and just pony up the money for something because it's high time to get planting.

And then, it's back to weeding.

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09 May 2012

Daffodils: Spring's unsung heroes

The relationship I have with daffodils is one that has evolved over the last decade. For a time, I thought of daffodils as the ugly stepsister to the showier and more varied queen of spring bulbs, the tulip. They were something I merely tolerated because I wanted something blooming but knew that tulips would be ravaged by critters in most of my garden. Then I started appreciating the cheery color they brought at that time when a gardener so needs to see something blooming. Soon after, I discovered all the different varieties of daffodils and now I have a whole new appreciation for them.

I'd like to say I planned it, but to be honest, I got lucky and inadvertently planted varieties that bloom at different times so I have about two months of daffodil blooms to enjoy. I don't pay much attention to their names so some are unknown to me, but others I pay more attention to. 

I don't do anything special to my daffodils. These days I just dig a hole and throw a bunch of them in as I prefer to have large clumps vs. individual flowers scattered here and there. I don't fertilize them. I do leave the foliage standing as long as I can possibly tolerate it (although I braid it and tied it into little packages), but that's it.

Some varieties have already finished blooming (I believe my first bloom was April 7 this year, a record for me, I believe), but others are just now coming into their glory. Here's a sampling of the daffodils you'll find around my yard.











I have to say, I'm partial to the doubles, but what amazes me most is the lovely scent that some of them have. It is sweet and decidedly not daffodil-like. They will never play second fiddle to a tulip in my yard again.


07 May 2012

The unfinisher strikes again

It rained all weekend here which is so frustrating when there is so much to be done in the garden. The hostas, however, seem to be loving it as a I swear they've all grown 3 inches overnight. If and when the sun ever comes out I imagine everything will take off.

Given the lack of garden time this weekend, I thought it might be a good time to take a break from outdoor topics and head inside where I show you what a slacker I am. Although we finished the house renovation over a year ago, there are several unfinished projects that are starting to drive me a little crazy.

You've seen the master bedroom before from this angle:


… but have you noticed that you've never seen the wall that is opposite the windows? Well, there's a good reason for that. Here is it:

That's the closet door on the left (and can you believe that I took this photo at 2 p.m.? That's how dark and dreary it was Sunday).  When we were building this room I was so excited about that big empty spot on the wall because I saw it as the perfect place to hang a huge piece of art. It still is, but I am so fussy about art (not to mention I don't have the budget for the art I really want) that I've yet to find the right thing in the budget. Complicating the issue, I don't like placeholders in almost any situation. I like to wait for the right thing to come along. But the lack of art and color is making me a bit mad.
There is one spot where I've made some progress in the bedroom though. Take a look at the first picture. Now check out this:

Do you see that? I have a real, live window seat cushion. And here's the best part: I made it myself! When we had the banquette made for the kitchen, the cushions were the most expensive part, even thought I found fabric at a steal. My mom is pretty handy with a sewing machine and frankly I was starting to feel a little bad about asking her to sew pillows for me all the time, so I thought it was high time I learned. So my very patient mother walked me through the steps to sew the cushion cover myself. Originally I was going to do a tutorial on how to do it, but honestly, I think I better learn a lot more about sewing before I start telling other people how to do it. It took a lot of Saturday afternoons, but it was fun and I'm thrilled with the results. It's a pretty big accomplishment for a person who actually sewed her finger in summer school sewing class. That's a true story: I sewed the damn needle straight through the top of my finger. My poor dad had to come to pull out the needle because the office people couldn't touch it since it had broken the skin. I'm not sure if I felt worse for my dad or for the sewing teacher who had to remove the needle from the machine with my finger attached to it.

And I did get another little project that's been bugging me finished in the other bedroom. I finally painted and mounted the little mini closet doors. Our contractor thought we were nuts that we wanted this mini closet that is only accessible with the help of a ladder, but I believe that in a small house you have to make the most of every bit of storage space available and I couldn't stand the idea of a giant dust-collecting ledge up there.

But then we go downstairs to the kitchen. This is probably the worst unfinishing offense because I actually finished the eating area of the kitchen almost three years ago now. This is an old picture of the kitchen but sadly, it still works for this post because that's exactly how it looks now (on a clean day). Again there's a huge wall screaming for huge art and I'm paralyzed by my inability to put something there for fear that it won't be the right thing. You wouldn't believe how many people walk in our house and ask what I'll be putting there. I wish I knew!
Kitchen2 101211
So what unfinished projects do you have staring you in the face?

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05 May 2012

Killing weeds organically

We're coming up on a decade of living in this house during which I've added or rejuvenated more than a few garden beds. I seem to work in cycles of creating a new area to garden in about every other year. But never, in all that time have I tried to create more grass.

We have a standing rule around here that I'm in charge of gardens and Mr. Much More Patient is in charge of grass. It's been a frustrating role for him because we are so conditioned to believe that if you want a beautiful lawn you need to apply an almost constant stream of chemicals to it, and well, I don't allow that. Mr. MMP has gotten on the organic bandwagon now, and not just because I made him, but it's true that it makes growing a lush lawn more challenging at times. But really, we have really sandy soil and two very large dogs so we're never going to have a perfect lawn anyway. I say put in more gardens and you won't notice the lawn!

We have 1.3 acres, which, when we bought our house, I thought sounded like an estate but now I'd be happy with five times that much land. At least 50% of that is wooded, so we struggle with balancing woods and yard. Over the last 10 years the woods has been encroaching on our yard, mostly because tree limbs started sagging making it difficult to mow under them and then creeping Charlie took over. The situation got worse when we added the deck onto the back of the house, taking up a good amount our yard.

Because we're in an "off" year for garden creation (last year we put in the path and the new terraced beds along the deck), we're dedicating some of the gardening budget (by the way, I use the word "budget" loosely, as I make it a point to never add up how much I spend on plants; I recommend the same strategy for costs related to pets) to reclaiming a bit of yard, cleaning up some poor performing trees and installing some new screening trees.

This is the to-be-grass area as seen from the deck. You can see it's not a small area. There was a sickly pine tree in the middle of the white area (that's left over chippings from the stump removal). Nice brush pile in the woods, huh? I put it there when there was a big pine tree in front of it so we couldn't see it. Then we cut down the tree. Whoops. I won't feel comfortable burning it until winter, so we'll have to live with it, but the good news is that I just learned in my level 2 master gardener class that brush piles are very important habitat for native critters.

The process has a couple of phases and started with trying to kill the weeds in the area we're going to (hopefully) grow grass. I suspect this area actually once was grass because the only thing growing there was weeds and there seems to be a clear line where the Ostrich ferns that fill our woods stop. Normally I would kill a large area of vegetation by smothering it with newspaper and then building from there. This is how I've started most of the new gardens I've made. But that is a long process and one I've always done at least six months before I plant something. And as you know, I'm nothing if not impatient. I want grass now. I am not a fan of Round-up for various reasons including its potential environmental damage and the fact that buying it supports its manufacturer Monsanto, which has the most despicable business practices I've ever heard of. I'm particularly sensitive to the first issue because of our proximity to Lake Michigan and the fact that we have a creek just feet away from this area that feed straight into the lake a few hundred feet away.

You can see that we ended up with a pretty skinny strip of grass alongside the deck and the woods was feeling a bit close when we were sitting up there. In the distance you can see the "caution" tape I put around the wildflower area where the mayapples, trillium and ramps grow to keep the tree-cutting crew from stepping in there.

That didn't leave me with a lot of weed-killing options so I got creative. I started by using my new weed torch on the whole area. It took a long time because the torch I have is really meant for spot treating weeds, rather than killing whole areas. Then I followed up by spraying vinegar (the regular household stuff you by in the grocery store at full strength) with the pump sprayer. After it I was happy to see some serious dead weeds. We limbed up a pine tree that was really close to the deck and the main thing impeding our lawn mower access to the area, the mowed the area with the blade really low. Then I followed up immediately with another vinegar treatment. I don't expect to kill everything that's growing there. I think that's probably unrealistic with an organic method. However, I hope that by getting rid of a lot of it, and then by growing a healthy lawn, the grass will eventually crowd out most of the weeds.

This picture shows how the weed murder is progressing. Not too bad, considering the methods I used: a torch, a lawnmower and vinegar.

A few days later we had four trees removed, including the pine tree we limbed up (we knew it was coming down, but we wanted to just trim it enough to get the mower under there in the meantime). I thought I took a pre-tree removal photo, but I can't find one, so all you're see is post-tree removal. The tree guys showed up at 7:15 a.m. and were so efficient that I didn't even have time to take a picture of them in action.

Suddenly we're feeling very exposed to our neighbors (who are nice people, but you buy a house in the "country" so you're not on top of your neighbors, so everyone appreciates a bit of screening). We own all the land right up to their garage so we have a lot of area to do something in. A couple of fast-growing screening trees are going in, and I feel like the area on the edge by the birdfeeders would be a great place for a more natural-looking planting area that included some beautiful and larger shrubs. 

We will be adding several new trees in more appropriate places to help with screening, which you'll notice is a real problem, especially in spring before everything leafs out. In the meantime I continue to work on killing before I can work on growing. I think the next step will be get in there and hand remove some of the more stubborn weeds, rake the whole area and hopefully spread a thin layer of soil on top, then seed away.

I have never thought about grass this much before in my life. It's an interesting change of pace for me.

A quick note/update from my last post: Comments DO appear to be working now, but you have to be in the actual post, not just the home page of the blog in order to see the comment form at the bottom. I'll try to fix this. Unfortunately it looks like I did lose a lot of comments but I hope to restore those as well. Thanks for bearing with me on this. As always, I really do appreciate hearing from you!

02 May 2012


You may notice that the comment form has disappeared. I'm so incredibly frustrated with this system (Intense Debate). I lost all my comments when I switched to it and now I tried to do a "required upgrade" and I appear to have lost everything else. Anyway, I apologize for the inconvenience and hopefully the situation will be rectified soon.

01 May 2012

The Ramp Report

Last week I told you about how I found ramps (wild leeks) in our back yard and got a few more from a nice neighbor. I could hardly wait to try them but it was the middle of a busy week so I had to take a pass on all the fancy schmancy recipes I found for them online and go a bit more basic. So I sautéed them and added them to some roasted (organic) potatoes along with one of my favorite go-to quick dinners: fried eggs (the runnier the better) on ciabatta with feta and very lightly dressed spring greens.

The ramps were delicious and they mellowed into a very leek-y flavor with the sautéing. The only problem was that I was so worried about picking too many that I didn't have nearly enough and I'm worried about going back for as second round to make more delicious ramp dishes. All in all, an excellent exercise in eating from the back yard. And they were so good that I didn't stop to take a picture so please enjoy another picture of them before they met my good friend olive oil.

If you're looking for something a bit more exciting to do with ramps, check out these recipes. The buttermilk ramp biscuits sound amazing.

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