Saturday, October 1, 2011

a secret garden

my amazing and wonderful husband, Chad, and I don't have much to hide. I met him in the fall of 2005 at that time in my life (CAUTION: cliche approaching) when I wasn't even looking for love. Well, maybe love but not a husband or a family. I was 25, had just completed grad school, started my first job, and was finally living on my own (sans roommates, etc.). I had a most fabulous apartment with a garden oval tub, a pool that stayed open through September (for those rare warm fall days), and plenty of singles. I was L-I-V-I-N.

I had recently ended a long-term relationship in which I followed the man kid guy around the world after two years of believing he was the one and trying to convince him so. In the end, we weren't meant for each other and I still regret leaving the country for a 30 day backpacking trip to New Zealand in which I never phoned him or sent a card. I guess that was my way of telling him it was over (I probably could have been more sensitive). So what is a relatively shy newly single girl to do? Try internet dating. Right. That ended with a few good dinners, zero romance, and an opportunity for a hot air balloon ride that I politely declined. Even the cable man asked me out but it was a nice "no thank you." I was having fun, though. I took salsa lessons, late nights in Newport, and wonderful evenings out with the girls. Happy hour became a popular tradition. Oh, and however did I manage to work on Fridays after staying out until 3:00 on Thursday nights. That continues to baffle me. But it was the happy hour where it all began. That's where our friends finally conceived a plan to connect the two of us and we've never looked back. He is the one for me.

On our first official date I mentioned that I had tried the internet dating thing for about a month. Six years later he still makes fun of me. Should have made that secret number one. Because somethings are just easier to keep mum. I have never kept a secret from Chad that would harm our marriage, our family, our relationship. What I do keep a secret is that I like to write and now I have my own blog spot. He'd spend the next 40 years mocking me if he knew. I tried to keep Facebook a secret too but when I started knowing things about his friends he became suspicious. He makes fun of me daily about it now. Secrets 3 through 30 would be about how much money I've spent at Kohl's etc. I will typically just come home and tell him how much I've saved instead. I don't often explain to him the details of my gardening either. He helps when he can, provides his input when he feels, and leaves the rest to me. Secret number 31 is that I plan to buy a swing or glider to put in the side yard so that I can sit and watch the boys play ball or just admire Terri's yard. I doubt he'll mind when it's done but if I tell him of plans now, he'll likely say no. So those are some of the secrets in my garden. Nothing scandalous, nothing outrageous. Just things that are probably better if I know and Chad doesn't.

Sticks and stones may break my bones

so keep them in the garden.

I love rocks. So much so that on a family boating trip, I took two unique looking rocks from the banks of Brookville Lake. When we were pulled over by the sheriff an hour later I was sure I was in trouble. It turns out you have to have a permit to be boating on the lake and rocks really aren't relevant. One write-up and three children's tattoos later, we were on our way. The rocks made it safely to my garden. I'm also the only one I know who gets excited to find them buried in my yard. When I went to plant my azaela in the front, I uncovered a fabulous 10lb rock. It not only made an excellent addition to my butterfly garden but left quite a hole for the bush I was about to put in. Two birds, one stone.

Rocks are essential for a butterfly garden. They heat up in the summer sun and provide a pleasant resting place for the flying insects. Wait, are butterflies insects? I'll Google that later. They not only like rocks but gravel too. Again, natural warmth. Wind isn't pleasant (probably difficult to fly) so areas protected are also essential. Oh and both butterflies and hummingbirds need to take baths. Puddles are their favorite and the best way to create them is a flower pot filled with gravel and a small amount of water. What I don't know are the types of butterflies native to my area and when I begin to read about it, I'm too overwhelmed so I'll just wait and see what comes my way, photograph them, and THEN look the species up.

In order to have butterflies, though, one needs caterpillars. But to have caterpillars,  one needs butterflies. Oh, the cycles of life always confuse me. No source out there is willing to explain the origin (if we don't know if the chicken came first, we probably won't know about the butterfly either). So, my plan thus far has been to plant a little of everything. I have the butterfly bushes and bee balm to attract the adults. I have the penstemon and dill for the caterpillars to feed. For now, it doesn't look like much. Nothing has begun to flower but I know what it will look like in the spring and I hope for the best.

In my garden, I created a path to wind up and around the ornamental grass. Some Rose of Sharon from my J-ma is new and lines the opposite side of the fence. In time, I hope, the shrubs will grow up and create a hiding place for the kids to play in the back of the garden as well as a variety of views of those butterflies I still hope will come.

Chad can continue to mock my somewhat dead looking garden but I know what is coming. I keep my mouth shut for now and he'll see. I can't blame him as it doesn't look like much now. And it is just a small corner of the yard. The leaves have begun to fall and cover the ground. I will leave them and pull them back in the late winter as I know they will strengthen the soil all winter long. Those drooping plants will come to full life next spring. Then the butterflies. Then the caterpillars. Then the butterflies. Crossing my fingers.

Time for tea

My neighbor frequently referred to her compost tea and this was her freshest brew yet. I had to check it out. Yum. I peaked into the 5 gallon bucket to see the bubbling brew of browns and greens.

Oh, you mean for the plants? I Googled "compost tea" to learn more because isn't that how we all get our information? What did people do before google? I doubt the heavy set of encyclopedias on Oma and Opa's bookshelf would provide the information I seek. Did we just walk around much dumber people 'back then.' I google everything. I once googled "I hate breastfeeding" desperate to find other mothers that struggled like me. Well, hate was too strong a word but for the 6 months that I made it work I did not find it to be the magical experience so many talk of. What's magical about sore nipples, aching breasts, and serving as a 24 hour dairy queen? And if you have a starving cranky infant like me, there is no more than 45 minutes of separation to maybe take a shower or quick nap (and that was for an entire 6 months). In addition, I found more info about nursing than I care to know (think breastfeeding parties) but that still didn't deter me from the online source of information. In fact, every new impulsive plant I bring home eventually makes it into my Google search bubble.

Google provided me with just the information I needed to get started on my tea. For about $10, maybe less, I bought an aquarium pump and tubing. I put 2 shovels of compost from our alien composter in a 5 gallon bucket and filled it with water. This sits right outside of our garage back door closest to an electrical outlet. I put a splitter on the rim of the bucket so I would have three tubes falling into the bucket. I ended up putting small washers of different weights on the end of the tubing so one would fall to the bottom of the bucket, one float in the middle, and one sit at the top. I turned it on and in two days I had tea.
materials (photo from Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection).


1 tbs molasses if desired

brewing tea

It's just that simple. Of course there are kits out there from $50-$200 so you do what works for you. But it all comes down to a little compost and water. The tubing is necessary to aerate the water to keep the microorganisms from decaying. This could be harmful to the plants. You can also add some molasses as a food source for microorganisms. The process can be 2-3 days and I don't know how to tell you when it is done. I think it just is. The tea can be used to fertilize your plants. It is also possible to put some in a spray bottle to spray the leaves of vegetables, etc. This will help prevent disease in plants. A chemical free way to make your plants love you.

As for my compost, I have a kitchen composter on my counter. A carbon filter in the lid reduces the odors. I love it because at least when the produce I pick or purchase goes bad and is beyond edible I can still utilize it. I put in all fruit and vegetable scraps (not meat, dairy, or bread). On occasion I've attracted some fruit/drain flies when not careful to take it out often enough. For that, a glass of red wine or container with plastic wrap and holes filled with vinegar will attract the bugs and drown them (if that's too cruel for you, google humane means of ridding the house of these pests).

Because Chad is terrible at asking for gifts he often gets things from my family that we can use in the yard (his birthday is in May when I'm up to my elbows in yard work). Don't worry, I give him weeks to think about something my dad or my mom can buy him but he has yet to come up with something only he needs. A year or so ago, he was gifted a composter for our garden. We had an old rabbit cage that could now be used for my seedlings. There is a formula to follow for prime compost that I often forget. The proportion of brown to green. Instead, I just dump (I'm not a pro). It can turn but I'm not always strong enough to do that. I don't use it perfectly but I get some amazing compost and again, a reason for my plants to love me (and they show me their love when they produce amazing flowers and ripe veggies).


After the deck was finished (well mostly, I still need to stain it), I began to research flowering shrubs to plant along the east rail.
the east rail is to the left in this picture

Something that would grow tall enough to shelter the neighbors from my boys' frequent trips onto the deck in their underwear but not give us complete privacy (I still sit in awe at Terri and Chef's yard and don't want to block that view). I was coming up with nothing. On a Saturday in September I went for a quick trip to get batteries when a 75% off trees and shrubs sign caught my eye. I browsed and found two different varieties of weigela and some penstemon. For these 8 plants, I spent $11. What the hell. If it doesn't work, I'm not out much money. After planting, I googled the species. Turns out this is exactly what I wanted, a flowering, airy shrub great for borders and privacy. The penstemon is also called Beard Tongue and I have already put some of that in my butterfly garden. Perfect. A little backwards, but that's kind of how I get through life.

I do, then learn. Like how I started sewing and then read how to use my machine. I bought a mountain bike and equipment as a graduation present and then took lessons on trail riding to see if I'd like it. Or how I began baking and with each attempt I research how I can make it better the next time. I signed up to play rugby in college without knowledge of the game. Once, I bought an expensive laptop on a whim and then read consumer reports. Or how I had a baby and THEN read the manual. I rarely do any research before taking on something new, always after I've tried to know it on my own or after an impulsive decision. I've made a lot of mistakes but had even more success. It works for me.

so much to see and zoo

zThe family was ready to go. 8:30am on a Saturday. To the zoo we headed and began to second guess the decision as we drove the 25 minute commute in a cold drizzle. But as Charlie started to nod off in the car we decided to persevere. If nothing else the boys were done bickering and Chad and I had a few minutes of peace. Yet, it was the best decision we made that day. We arrived to a hint of sunshine, front row parking and a morning of very few people and plenty of animals. It was like a private viewing of the zoo. I've never seen such activity from the elephants, polar bears, or giraffes. They were clearly enjoying the colder temps, damp air and lack of screaming children not quieted by their exhausted parents.

BUT, for the first time in all the years I've been to the zoo, I wasn't as interested in the animals as I was in the botanical gardens. Oh, right, hence the name Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Within the acknowledgement of the latter portion of its formal identification was an entirely different perspective for me. I was in awe. I stopped snapping photos of the kids because the plants became seemingly more photogenic. Well, at least they stayed in one place long enough for the shutter to open and close. The hibiscus were in full bloom. Mine aren't. It must be magic. The elephant ear plants were endless. I wonder what it takes to make those survive because I think they'd fit in nicely amongst my knockout roses. *Google alert. The cannas and begonias and all the other names I've forgotten. Unbelievable. Just the right colors. Just the right fill. And it all seemed so easy. I don't remember a time watching someone water or prune. How do they do it? It's become my own personal mission to find out.

So momma gets to wonder and gawk and eventually educate myself about what makes this place so incredible and the kids get some extra quality time at the zoo. Thank god we're members and can now go anytime.  I'll need to drag Omama along because she'll be able to give me the knowledge I crave about these plants. And if she doesn't know, Oma will. Last resort will always be Google.

Monday, September 19, 2011

don't forget your veggies

because you never know when your husband is going to come home and tell you that you are having dinner guests arrive this evening. What kind of side dish can I possibly whip up?

Out to the garden I rush: some tomatoes, squash, and basil. The pantry houses a box of pasta and Italian dressing. Bingo, a side dish worth the compliments. This season I had ample basil, summer squash, butternut squash, eggplant, banana peppers, and tomatoes (jet star, Juliet, Rutgers). It was was my best season to date but still room for much improvement.

In the beginning, I planted a few tomato plants from starters. My father-in-law donated some remaining starters from his garden (which is immaculate and easily puts mine to shame) so I was able to also grow a few peppers. Not much else. I had some luck with the veggies but spent more time extracting weeds than goods to eat. Each year I've had a little more success than the last. Our dogs have helped keep intruders away and I only know this because the one summer we left for Florida, my plants were devoured go the core. It hasn't happened so long as we aren't away for more than a long weekend. I plant marigolds around the perimeter because I read the odor keeps animals out and my sunflowers go along the shed because I read this keeps the birds away. Though, few sunflowers grow strong and I now understand the runoff from the shed washes the seeds away. Some river rocks will solve this problem.

This year we built a raised bed garden. In addition, my father gifted Chad with a composter. It is big, round, and looks like it was dropped from the mother ship but it sure does the trick. Since the old rabbit cage was now free from apple cores and yard debris, I used it to protect the seeds I started. When rebuilding the deck, Chad found some trays under the wood that were probably not used to grow anything legal but that is what I intended to do. It worked. A plastic tarp tied to the top of the cage protected my seeds from the elements and within about 6 weeks, I was ready to transplant to the garden my snap peas, tomatoes, peppers, etc. The boys love to help so Charlie picked any weeds he could find and Carter wrote the labels for each plant. By the end of the season Charlie loved to pick the tomatoes and help dead-head the marigolds.
The new bed built this summer. I will fill it with soil and top with leaves for the winter. This will be for tomatoes in the spring.

The owl and marigolds ward off my predators. The tomatoes clearly need more support.

Our composter sits at the far corner.

My Oma gave me a butternut squash and later in the season an asparagus (that she pronounces ass-par-aah-gus). It all worked and by the end of the season I realized that my tomatoes needed more support. There is some old lattice in the shed so I built an additional bed that I can put this in next year. A truck load of top soil and some leaves sitting all winter will strengthen the new bed. I will have a bed for tomatoes and one for everything else. I'll likely do marigolds as they help with the bugs, critters, and add color. When my plants are young, I use coffee grounds from the maker and rub it on the leaves. If anything, I use no chemicals. My veggies may not be gigantic and shiny and super natural like those at the grocery but they sure taste better (and won't poison my family).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Little Fish

It was my freshman year of college and I'd only been away for a few weeks when my mom called to let me know she had to put the cat to sleep. Or maybe the cat just died. The details are blurry. That cat was my first pet--Gretchen. We got her when I was four and she was named because of her gray chin. She wasn't very nice. She would bite, scratch, growl and hiss. A very strange love. And she only became more cynical as time went on. When we adopted a Maltese-poodle after my parents split, Gretchen ended up spending the rest of her life in the garage. I think she was happy there since she didn't like us much and she sure hated the dog. Either way she was my first pet and it was sad to know she was gone. A year or so later my mom called to say "there's been a death in the family." My heart dropped. She proceeded to let me know a blue heron had eaten her Koi. Seriously. I was deeply saddened about Gretchen. Maybe I cried. The fish I didn't understand.


The hubby and I swear that this house chose us, we didn't choose it. I mean it wasn't all that pretty inside after sitting vacant for some time and the looming scent of cat and dog urine couldn't have been its selling factor. But I remember finding some charm in it and a little excitement about the cold, dark puddle in the back. So the house became ours and the Saturday we moved in the neighborhood was buzzing. We watched--strangers still--as one neighbor crossed the street with a handle of Seagrams. Soon the corn hole boards were out and yard lamps illuminated the thumps of the corn bags. Ahhhh. Home sweet home.

April 2007, soon after we moved into the house

And that puddle in the back proved to be much more too. I wasn't quite sure where to begin so Omama came to the rescue (since she was clearly attached to fish, who better?). A pump, a filter, net, and some microblift were prescribed. $200 later I returned from Home Depot (though I'm now loyal to Lowe's) with the needed supplies. Between Carter's napping and feeding schedule my mom and I worked on the pond. Electric was already run underground, the liner seemed in tact, and the rocks appeared solid so we began to drain. The pump carried the dark water out quickly and the net helped with the leaves. The water stank of musty, decaying organic matter. It was good competition for Carter's diaper pail. As I mindlessly scooped my 15th net of leaves while plugging my nose, I was startled by a spastic movement. I dropped the net back in the water- what little was left of it. No way. Something alive? What could survive an entire winter and spring in this mud pit? I scooped again more carefully this time. The spams returned to the net and there it was, a tiny black fish. Scoop after scoop we rescued the little boogers even catching those that tried to jump back to what they must of thought was freedom. Now what? I had a bucket of ugly fish and a stinky pond.
 We were able to get the pump working to put the filter to work and aerate the water. Leaves cleared, water cleaner. The fish went back in and I sat stunned. Did you know that goldfish are black before they turn orange? Me either and I'm not completely convinced but I have 20 or more happy goldfish in my pond now. Oma brought be some water iris and Omama donated lilys. Some fish safe fertilizer was all I needed and we now had a working pond.

I began tugging away at some of the ground cover and planted a variety of ferns and grasses. Nothing survived. The coarse soil and heavy maple roots do not make for happy plants. My wonderful neighbor Terri gave me some creeping jenny plants that love the water and have begun to fill in around the rocks. I also have pieces of rock-loving plants from my mom's pond to add some green. For the first this year time I picked up a few water hyacinths from the Aquatic center down the road. I adore their bubbly green appearance but they won't last the winter so I'll have to replace those next spring (and at $3.50 a pop, I'll manage). The fish love the plants as they provide shelter from predators and shade on hot days. To add more green on the outer perimeters, I focused on potted plants--both sitting and hanging. I have wondering jews, spider plants, inpatients, aloe, Japanese fern, geranium and more. I plan to bring these plants in during the winter months. Some I purchased for very little but most were gifted from Oma and Omama. I must ask them a hundred times each how much water, how much sun, how much shade.

April 2011

Hubby is sweet to let me do whatever I want to the interior decor of our house. He claims the garage and no more so I don't fuss about the Budweiser girls or koozie collection. Our styles are different. He's all country (our house would be plaid if it were up to him) and I lean a tiny bit more modern. Two years ago I found a wagon-wheel bench on clearance. The bright orange sticker sang my name but it was the gesture that my husband could have a piece of the yard that lead me to that purchase. He's been talking about stupid wagon wheels since before we met. I like it now, it gives me and the boys a place to sit and watch the fish. He also harasses me about being frugal and even --gasp--dumpster diving. But it was this man that found an old ladder at the recycling center when he went with our weekly waste (yes, we pay for the recycling to be picked up but have so much that it often requires an additional trip). The ladder serves as a nice invitation in the maple tree overlooking the pond. A very natural tree house for the boys.

December 2010
My mom bought me my first Koi in 2007. Beautiful. I had no idea. I never named them but still loved them. Three winters ago one got stuck in my seasonal net and froze in the ice. I cried. I have a heater now that floats on top of the water and creates a hole just big enough for oxygen to get to the water when it freezes. I also only keep my net on the pond from September until the last leaves fall and then I remove it.

September 2011
September 2011

September 2011
This spring we had a visitor. One morning at 6:00am, the dogs went nuts. Hubby called me to the window to watch a 4.5' heron creeping up on my pond. I dashed down the stairs with the dogs in tow and let them loose. It was only a temporary fix. In fact, the heron only flew as far as the neighbor's shed to mock me for a minute before disappearing. In the next weeks, I lost the three other Koi from my pond. Again, I cried. My beautiful fish. It felt silly to be so sentimental but I was devastated. It's not like I could pet them but if I put my fingers to the water, they would come. I could talk to them. They didn't bark. They minded their own business and never peed or pooped or vomited on my brand new carpet. They were the ideal pet, really. So I cried for them. I still have 20+ goldfish that are quick and can hide much easier. I researched humane methods to prevent heron from returning (the dogs might have been cruel but not as much as a trip wire) and purchased a garden owl (it protects both the garden and the pond). My mom glued some jewels and tiny mirrors to fishing line and that hang along the pond. They're not only pretty but the reflections ward off the predators. I haven't counted any missing fish since May. And I count twice a day.
September 2011

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

are better than dead spaces, right?

it's a long time coming that I begin my blog. I've processed the idea time and again but never acted upon it. It was today that I came home from work, once again thinking I need to get it done. After a few encouraging words from my extraordinary mom (who watches my children while I work and has been an avid blogger for months) and stumbling across a friend's blog, I became inspired. I intend to write about my experiences as a gardener. My most recent passion in life (but not to be confused with the passion and commitment I hold toward my family). After all, I know I have inherited this talent and feel if I don't take action now I will be wasting good genes. My mother has a green thumb, my aunts, my grandmother, and probably her mother if I knew better. In fact, there runs a very creative gene in this side of the family and I can't say that I've been lucky enough to have it all,  but I have been able to tap into that which I find joy and pleasure--growing plants.

My husband and I moved into this house 5 years ago. When our son was 8 months old and we had been married exactly one year (don't do the math. that deserves an entirely different blog spot starting with "I was 6 months pregnant and had no idea."). First time homeowners. We were elated. It needed some work, inside and out, but to us, was an investment. The front landscape was dated, trees were dying in some places, a small pond in the backyard surprised us with tiny black fish when we were draining it and the remains of a vegetable garden existed near the shed. Oh, don't let me forget that the deck was deteriorating and if that wasn't bad enough there was a 20 year old hot tub sunken into the deck which never worked for us except to serve as a death trap for dogs, kids, and a wife that had too many glasses of wine.

In time, we've slowly updated the front to fit our style. A work in progress but it was out with the ground cover and thorn bushes and in with flowering perennials, a bird bath, and azalea plants. This isn't complete but I'd like to stop spending money on annuals and focus as much time and attention to both color and plants that will return year after year.

In our backyard--a decent 100'x150' piece of land--my amazing and wonderful husband has rebuilt the deck (no hot tub but plenty of room for seating and my herbs). In lieu of the mud that existed between the deck and pond because we have two 60lb boxers that need to run and a maple tree with large roots prohibiting the growth of grass, we spread cedar mulch. It transitions the backyard nicely and gives a soft play area for the kids and their collection of toys and play equipment.

With the help and expertise of my mother (my children call her Omama), I have learned how to care for the pond. I proudly tend to it twice a day for most of the summer, clearing it of debris (leaves, etc.), feeding the fish, and caring for the plants. I once had several Koi but a 4.5' blue heron snatched them up (and forced me to buy/make decoys). I now have about 20, very happy, goldfish and hope to get more Koi soon.

I picked up where the garden left off using an old rabbit cage from the garage as a composter. My first three seasons weren't fabulous but I had a huge learning curve this year and so I've built an additional raised bed to nurse this winter in preparation for next year's growth.

My big project this year has been my butterfly and hummingbird garden. In a small corner (Northwest to be exact), a few weeds and plant remains from the previous owners did their own thing. I've just let it be. Until this year. My husband (maybe I'll give him a name later) and I had talked about a wildlife garden. "Yeah, maybe next spring..." I would reply. I started to do some research to see what this might entail and planned to take my time. That is, until I found a clearance rack at Lowes (yes, not just Target and Kohls clearance get my attention). All these plants--50% dead, 75% off. Bee balm, Salvia, Butterfly Weed, on and on. I just bought. Impulsively. oops. I get home, time to get the weeds outta there and these plants in there. I worked until there were holes in my garden gloves, I broke a trowel, and my back was throbbing. But, I had my start. That night I figured it was time to do some serious research (after all, money was already invested). I learned that butterflies need rocks, and like puddles, and names I learned of plants they drink from as well as those they lay their eggs. I learned a little about hummingbirds too. A week later, my Oma (Grandma) sent me home with a trunk full (I drive a mini-van) of plants from her  garden. Hibiscus and butterfly bushes and Amaryllis, Coreopsis, Cosmos, and more. More planting more research. And so has begun my growing passion (no pun intended).