I'm starting a new section or feature of this blog. I'm thinking of asking the local, small-town newspaper if they'd be interested in a weekly article from me. I don't want to start a separate blog for it, because I'd never keep up two -- it's all I can do to update one! But I do have a title for this section -- "The Mystified Gardener."
Now, I always think of myself as rather a "mystical gardener." Working the soil, growing food, eating what I grow and feeding others from my garden are all experiences that make me feel closer to God. I have profound thoughts about sin, evil, and of course resurrection, when I'm tending my plants. But it occurred to me that I am also frequently "mystified" by the challenges that my yard and gardens present. There is so much to do, and so much that I don't know, that I'm often immobilized by it all. I have so many questions, and so little knowledge. Now I'm a fair gardener. I've got a pretty good intuitive or "mystical" sense for plants and what they need; in other words, I've got a bit of a green thumb. But that's often not enough to make things thrive. And rather than carefully research and address problems that I encounter, I tend to just shuffle them to the back of my "problem pile" or "question deck," and nothing gets done.
So I'm going to begin to address this long list of questions and challenges, one project a week (roughly speaking), until I work my way through them all. I've taken pictures of various "problem spots" in my yard. What I hope for, is that any of you with ideas and/or gardening experience, will chime in and offer comments. I also intend to research each problem, both on the web, by visiting gardening shops or the extension agent, when appropriate, and in my own substantial library of gardening books. Then I intend to post a "before" photo (that will be at the beginning of the week), and progress reports periodically about how I'm doing.
Here's the first one -- it's a "two photo" question that mystifies me:
This is the western-most end of my garden, which measures approximately 20' x 35'. That's twenty feet (no, not metrical) by thirty-five feet. You see my cunning little gate with the "A" in the middle, built for me by a parishioner and stained by moi. You see the fenceposts, even though you can't see the fencing itself. I have sunk that fence about 6 inches into the ground, and lined the bottom of the material with chicken wire, to keep out marauding bunnies. I worked hard on this garden. You also see the raised beds, which I worked so hard two years ago to put in with boards given to me by friends who dismantled a house, board-by-board, and saved the salvaged wood. I measured, I staked, I placed all the wood, filling the beds with dirt from the paths and manure that I hauled myself from a local stockyard. The vertical structure in the second bed from the left (can you see the green fenceposts, with white on top of them?) is a structure on which my peas climb each year. I grow sweet sugar snap peas, yum. There are no perennials in the beds you see, they are each planted anew in the spring.
In this second picture you can see where we are now by the placement of the gate. This is the east end of my veggie/herb garden. The concentrated bit of green at the far right is my rosemary bush (I'll get to it in a later post). I'm thrilled that it survives the winters. My asparagus is also in this bed. The raised bed next to that is filled with strawberries. In the heaviest part of the season (it's "Ozark Beauty" and I get a pretty long season, though not completely throughout the summer) I get about a quart a day from the "white part," which is the oldest stand, mulched with yellow straw. In this part of the world (I don't know about other places) there's "yellow straw," which I imagine is wheat, and "pine straw," which is raked-up pine needles. After a windy winter, I'll be raking up the fallen pine needles from our small stand of pines, and using it as mulch this summer. In the first photo, at the very end of the left-most bed, you see a brown spot -- that's a pile of shredded leaves that I will also use as mulch. Anyway, here's my first "mystified gardener" question: What can I do to make this garden charming and beautiful?
Of course it's prettier in the summer, when everything is growing, blooming, producing. But you can see it's a very utilitarian garden, appearing neater and better-kept than it actually is during growing season. The restrictions on this question are that I really can't afford to invest more than minimally. The fence works well (wish it were a little higher, to discourage deer, but I have other ideas for this year), and I don't have time, money, or energy to change it. The gate is obviously beloved, and I'll stain the posts this year, as I did the gate itself. I have LOTS of questions about this little garden alone, but the first one is, what can I do to jazz it up a little, to beautify it?
The first answer is obvious. Close up, it needs work. The raspberries need cutting completely back. The laboriously and carefully placed wooden borders for the raised beds need reinforcement in some places -- they lean into the bed, or outward into the path, and need more staking in place. I need to complete the mulching of the paths. You can see how much better the mulched sections look:
The mulch, of course, is in the foreground. So today I began to address that project further -- I mulched perhaps 8 feet of path, down to that corner and around to probably where the photo itself ends. It took me nearly an hour, and maybe 4 wheelbarrows full of mulch. It doesn't seem like much (though it looks like quite a lot in this photo, because of angle and perspective), but I did remind myself that on 3-foot paths, 8 feet is 24 square feet. It sounds like a lot that way. But of course there are enormous numbers of feet (and most especially square feet) remaining. When I see growing weeds, I pull them, even root them up with a hand cultivator if I can. But of course in late winter, there are no visible weeds. So I lay a thick layer of newspaper (at least 6 sheets, often more -- you see it at the edge of the fresh mulch), and top that with 3-4 inches of the wood chips that are from the maple tree downed nearly 2 years ago. There's still quite a mulch pile, though considerably reduced by my mulching efforts and natural settling through the seasons. Newspaper and wood chips won't last forever, but it's really effective, and completely organic. Use only the black-and-white sections of the paper (I know, there's still a LITTLE bit of color, but stay away from all those heavily colored advertising sections). Last summer it worked pretty well. I intend to have all the paths finished this year, and I'll let you know how it goes. That back path and several others were mulched with landscaping cloth and grass clippings -- major mistake! Stuff grew up through the landscaping fabric, and made it impossible to completely uproot. I'm not removing the fabric just now, but will top it with my newspaper/wood chip experiment.
This bed on the right, as I said, is the herb and asparagus bed. Asparagus doesn't like its roots disturbed, so I can't put in any pretty little border of herbs or flowers. And the strawberries, remember, are at the left of this photo. Midwinter, on a really warm day, I dug strawberry plants from the path and transplanted them into the bed, back at the rear part that isn't mulched. Many of them look like they've survived, though you can't see it here. In that east-west running bed at the very rear of the photo are the raspberries that need cutting back ("Autumn Gold" -- they produce well in late summer and fall, and are a pretty yellow color, not red, but taste just the same). It all needs a very early-season cover of compost and manure. I think this year I'm going to buy bags of it at Kmart or the garden supply store. I may work on making a pile from the stockyard and my own cold-compost pile (which means LOADS of miscellaneous seeds survive, and lots of gravel from the stockyard manure), but this year I'll do myself a favor.
So I'm working on some cheap, simple solutions for "jazzing up" or beautifying my veggie garden. I'm also thinking about a PVC or even metal-pipe "arbor" for over my pretty little gate. But that's only thinking. I'll be stringing either disposable aluminum pie plates or trash CDs (I get them in the mail from AOL, etc.) to scare off the deer from my grapes and raspberries. And I'll be looking in my garden books, though they usually have things like elaborate arbors and charming little picket fences, neither of which I can afford (or have the energy for). What I'm most interested in is: What do YOU think? Do you have clever, even quirky ideas for adding some charm to the utilitarian look? Can anyone out there help me? I'll be posting pictures as I continue to address this eyesore, both in the next week, and in the lovely seasons following.