Category Archives: Gardening

Transforming our neglected property

Contemplating Mrs. Brown made me want to share about our landscape’s ongoing makeover! Most of our efforts the past four years have required a hefty amount of observation, research, planning, muscle and dedication, but little money. It’s been a patience and grit game. Now that I can look in the rear view mirror I know that this was about trusting in the process, even when I was unsure how everything would unfold. By going slow, the land had a chance to let us know what needed to happen and we could jump on opportunities as they arose.

Doing our work by hand and without chemicals felt frustratingly slow at times, but that grew easier to accept each year, too. We have completely avoided pesticides, despite how tempting Round-Up may be for the weeds among our brick patio bricks that WILL NEVER DIE. We’ve even torched them without success. But, I’m not giving in. No bees or salmon will be killed in the name of obtaining a “perfect” lawn or garden. We prefer to accept the dandelions among us.

I often felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the job our first year. This lot is exceptionally large for Seattle standards (a fifth of an acre), and the weeds had raging parties for a decade. (For some “Before” pictures, please visit this post.) We hadn’t received our landlord’s blessing to change anything yet, so we cleaned up bits and pieces, pruned overgrown trees and bushes, and learned the perennial vegetation as it poked through the ground. In the meantime, probably due to our hard work, we convinced our landlord to let us build vegetable beds and take complete control of caring for the backyard. We evicted the hack-and-whack landscaping team, giving plants a chance to thrive.

The second year Harry built some raised beds for edibles. (Not those kinds of edibles, silly.) I started dividing the overwhelmed, introverted irises and lilies so they’d have space to bloom. (I know how they feel.) Splitting plants is one of my favorite ways to fill in beds and experiment with new planting locations. Free and easy! I also jumped on all opportunities for free or cheap plants to transplant. We received daisies, wild geraniums, and strawberries from friends. A few neighbors passed along divisions, and I frequented bare root and other affordable sales.

Our latest, and most ambitious short-term project, was hauling an enormous amount of mulch onto the property. Mulch makes gardens happy not only because they’re more attractive, but also because the soil retains moisture better, the wood breaks down to feed the soil, and weeds are suppressed. In late March we signed up with Chip Drop, an organization that alerts arborists that they may drop as many wood chips at your site as they’d like on any day they choose. It’s free! We signed up imagining we’d have a week or two to prepare for about five to ten cubic yards. Two days later they dumped EIGHTTEEN cubic yards (!!!!) on our driveway. I guess they liked my tip.

Clearly, it was time to act or else we’d never park our car in the garage again. (As it was, it took four weeks of serious work to clear that pile!) First I prepped our most wide open, heavily weeded and/or overgrown areas for the cardboard weed barrier. Both non-glossy cardboard and newspaper decompose and are safe in the garden. They beat the heck out of plastic weed barriers because they’re free and sustainable, plus you can actually plant in them later or move them around with ease. Plus, worm food!

Prepping for the cardboard involved weed-whacking big patches of weeds to the ground and hand-pulling those in smaller areas. We could’ve hand-pulled them all and spent five months doing this, but why? The cardboard we used is thick enough to smother most weeds. As long as it’s properly layered, it works. (There are places I short changed by not overlapping cardboard enough or using too little newspaper, so I’m already going over those again as weeds poke through. Learn from me. Even though it feels like it’s taking forever, I highly recommend you layer well or you’ll probably end up doing it again sooner than later anyways.)

I saved all of our Sunday New York Times papers for six months and used every single, non-glossy page. Surely Bill Cunningham’s fashion pages will yield showstopping flowers! Harry made frequent stops at a nearby bike shop to collect empty bike boxes. We removed all the staples using pliers, pulled any bits of tape off, and tore the boxes apart. I used an exacto knife to cut them to smaller pieces and feel totally badass. Cheap gardening thrills! Another perk!

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Some bike boxes were whiney.

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Parts of this process are really fricking ugly. Just keep working. It’ll look good eventually.

Once an area was ready, we piled mulch on top. We made sure to give trees plenty of space around their trunks and bushes adequate respect, too.

Voila!

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We are reaping our biggest rewards this year. We delighted in a steady stream of blooming irises from March through May. The lilies are starting to strut their stuff. Weeds are minimal and the mulch looks great. The beds are bursting with color or filled with green. Even the alley looks good.

The edibles are pretty happy, too, minus some unwanted berry leaf-munching bugs. Snap peas are taller than Miles, raspberries and blueberries are starting to ripen, and I ate my first boysenberries yesterday. YUM. One round of artichokes were consumed and more will be this week, making it our best artichoke year. Tulip’s gravesite is growing beans, squash, corn and a few flowers. It’s not doing as well as I’d hoped, so I’m guessing I rushed the process too much. The other hugelkultuur bed has tomatoes and a few other things. It’s doing ok. Next season should be better for both of them. I really hope we get to experience it.

I feel so fortunate to be gardening among Mrs. Brown’s flowers right now. I know how it felt to leave my first garden in Colorado, and I know how much I’ll grieve leaving this one, but now I’m savoring the transformation. One of my current favorite activities is to sit under the grapevines in the backyard and watch the boys play soccer with Harry or run through a sprinkler. Saturated with beauty, if not water.

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Rehabilitation

“Kathleen! Do you have a moment?” my neighbor asked after spotting Miles and I pull up by bike one afternoon last week.

“I’ve been wanting to tell you this for weeks. Has anyone told you about Mrs. Brown, who lived here until she died?”

She went on to explain that Mrs. Brown, a widow and a mom, tended the garden day and night, rain or shine. Mrs. Brown baked my neighbor a homegrown rhubarb cake after she gave birth and doted on her sons as they grew up. Mrs. Brown grew food and flowers, nurturing this land and her neighbors. I bet I would’ve loved Mrs. Brown.

“And you know what? You brought back Mrs. Brown to me. You have brought her back to life by restoring the beauty here. I’m reminded of her every time I walk by now and I am so thankful.”

I was so touched. I got teary eyed, and probably would’ve gone into an all-out shriveled up cry if Miles weren’t refusing to get off the bike, angry at me for not taking him That Very Moment to buy spy glasses at Archie McPhees.

I knew this place was treasured once upon a time because there were signs everywhere. The old plum and pear trees. The rhododendrons and azaleas, the hydrangea greeting visitors at the front door. I made a new discoveries almost every time I gardened during our first year. Bulbs would peek out and if I spotted them before the weed-whacking “landscaping” team arrived, I would try to prevent their demise. Sometimes I was too late to save a plant because it was too diseased or crowded. Other times I spotted them just in time.

One fortunate day a few years ago, while clearing a patch of weeds, I found five dying peony roots in a dry, barren spot that no longer received sunlight. (Three others were completely shriveled up.) I transplanted them with my fingers crossed. One flowered this spring. The others line our front window, growing stronger each season, and will likely bloom next year.

The neighbor who told me about Mrs. Brown used to run a rehab facility. Who better to understand and value the beauty of life restored? There is great joy in watching lives receive long-awaited nourishment after years of starvation. We rehabilitated this garden! When I think about it like that, I feel incredibly honored to have played a role.

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April 21

First of all, I feel bound to inform those of you who didn’t realize it that I posted about losing our beloved cow Tulip on April Fool’s Day. She never existed, but I did capture those pictures of cows during my exchange student year in The Netherlands. I also spotted that calf on a bike ride in Friesland and was absolutely smitten. But no cows traveled home with me. No animals were harmed in the making of that post.

The “burial site” is really just some logs, compost and greens in my first attempt at a specific type of garden bed, called a hugelkultuur bed. Hilariously enough, a neighbor’s visiting mom recently asked them with great concern if we buried a dog in our yard. It does look suspicious. That’s why I thought of that post in the first place. I’m hoping it’ll look a lot better once all the food and flowers are covering it. Plus, with time it’ll shrink. Otherwise, we’ll just be “Those neighbors. You know, the ones with the grave.”

Did I fool you? I hope you at least get a chuckle out of it.

In the past few weeks I have been buried under piles of mulch, speech-language pathology textbooks, a strange medical event, making the most of the boys’ spring break week at home, and celebrating my little guy’s fifth birthday. I’m clearing away one pile at a time, but will not be posting here often until late May, after I’m done taking my SLP national exam.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some pictures of our yard and garden. The layers, textures and colors are breathtaking right now. I feel so thankful to live here and to have nurtured this property along to better health. There are plants, bushes and flowers blooming now that weren’t four years ago because the soil was so poor and/or they hadn’t been pruned. This is the first year I feel like we’re really seeing it all come together in health. It’s a daily treat to look outside to the canopy of pillowy blossoms, the soft flowers carpeting our grass, the eye-achingly bright azaleas, the dogwood’s pink flowers, like fall in the spring, and the promise of food to come with our peas, chives, lettuce and berries growing up as fast, strong and colorful as my boys. I am so grateful.

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Spring’s call

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After a few weeks of increasingly anxious waiting, good news keeps bursting from the ground. Harry secured a contract for a few months that might become full-time work. The boys were accepted into a school that is a significantly better fit with our educational philosophies. While there is grief in leaving friends behind, we are eagerly anticipating joining this community. I am so thankful to have relief from the unknowns, as well as the opportunity to look forward to new experiences. In the meantime, I am relishing the present. It’s spring, friends!

Spring beckoned me to the garden, sore back be damned. Peas, lettuce, arugula and kale are in the ground and the tiniest of lettuce leaves are now visible upon careful inspection. A few peas peeked out today, too. Flower seeds were sprinkled all around, too. For me and the bees. A couple hugelkultuur beds are in process, ensuring my reputation as one of the craziest gardeners in the neighborhood. (The fact that I’m not THE strangest says more about Seattle than it does me. I have neighbors down the street who grow a ton of food, own goats, and trap and eat bothersome squirrels on their property.)

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I transplanted a bunch of perennial herbs and flowers out of this bed to make room for my first half-ass hugelkultuur. It’s our sunniest spot that’s ok with the landlord to change around, so I try growing heat-loving veggies here. I threw a ton more logs down, some leaves, weeds and grass, a layer of compost and a layer of topsoil. Fingers crossed! (Really should’ve done this last fall…)

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Here she is, simmering and sitting pretty for the next month until I plant.

Anyways, it’s not the first time I’ve covered a yard with cardboard and newspaper while neighbors craned their necks. After submitting a to-scale plan and receiving approval, I xeriscaped our front yard in a Colorado HOA suburban community that was filled with perfectly green, weed-free, Round-up abundant, sterile turf yards. Mulch and newspaper was a surefire way to get all busybodies talking. I ended up doing most of that work at night with a headlamp on, mostly to avoid gawkers and cranky old men with nothing better to do than complain.

In comparison, this time feels easy, if not downright delightful. I got landlord approval years ago! Many people pass by on walks and ask about the project with genuine interest. I’ve met five new neighbors since the mulch was dumped. Gardening is a fabulous way to build community in a neighborhood that appreciates it. Most people in Seattle do, thankfully. If they don’t, they’re certainly not surprised to see it. Gardens and weeds are tolerated, along with the chickens and goats of urban farming nutheads. (Oh, how I dream of joining them.)

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Enough mulch was dropped on our driveway to bury a bus. The boys immediately took to rakes, shovels and wheelbarrows. Give them a pile of mulch and they’re like sheepdogs around sheep. They need to move it. Three days in and I’ve barely made a dent in this pile. Oy.

Spring brought rain and wind, which was surprisingly absent most of winter. One of the nastier days we hunkered down to watch Mary Poppins as a family. It was the first movie in ages that hasn’t landed our boys crying in our laps. They giggled like crazy, eyes wide in wonder, “She’s flying with an umbrella!” “They’re dancing on the roofs!” The sweetest sound in our house in ages was the boys singing “Chim chiminey” repeatedly after the movie’s end. (And, by George, Mary doesn’t even sing “Let’s go fly a kite!” It is Mr. Banks, of course! Somehow, it’s still her voice in my head when I’m biking. Even now that I know better.)

Spring brought a morning of traipsing through the farmer’s market with Miles, who eagerly accompanies me anywhere offering quesadillas. On our way out, with our treasured orchard apples, my favorite loaf of bread and a few veggies in hand, I spied the word “nettles” written on Foraged and Found’s sign. My heart skipped a beat. I’ve wanted to try them for years but always let intimidation stop me. This time, I walked away from that booth with an extra skip in my step, a bag of stinging nettles, and a bag of watercress. I immediately knew what dinner would be.

I didn’t handle the nettles at all until they were blanched. I dumped them straight from bag to boiling water, treating them like hazardous waste until I was certain they wouldn’t sting me. Our first encounter left me confident enough to forage for them now. The taste is absolutely worth a possible sting.

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Toast a delicious piece of bread, sourdough rye if you’re lucky, and top it with a thick layer of chevre. (I had a black truffle chevre, and oh man, that was extra nice.) Spread on some nettle pesto and voila! My first real bite of spring came courtesy of those nettles and I’ve enjoyed spoonfuls of it almost everyday since.

(I substituted almonds for pine nuts because they were already in my house. I also added a bit more olive oil and lemon juice. Pesto is easy to make to taste. Have a bite, see what you think, and add more of what you want. We first enjoyed the pesto on pasta along with a watercress salad. In a somewhat miraculous evening, both boys ate both dishes! Plus, Miles exclaimed, “I love watercress!” which might be the nicest utterance I’ve heard exit a 4 year old’s mouth when faced with an all-green dinner.)

P.S. Are you on Instagram? I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE instagram (beankathleen). It sharpens my focus on the everyday moments of my life that are filled with beauty. After years of using it, I think my eye is better trained to appreciate simple delights. I am so thankful for that practice. Plus, it gives me glimpses into the precious tidbits of other people’s lives. Or the not so pretty moments to which we all relate. I like seeing those, too. Occasionally I also post wacky pictures there. Like this one: my cry for help after the bags of nettles and watercress attacked me.

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Absorb

IMG_8584 IMG_8585Gray skies, droplets lingering, snails gliding. I find comfort on misty mornings when browning petals drop from the dogwood, covering our nearly dormant grass with the semblance of autumn. Does this seem odd since artichokes await harvest, blueberries deepen their purplish hues, the smell of peaches fills my kitchen? IMG_8609 IMG_8611 IMG_8612 The clouds, the spent flowers. They console me. Grief is almost always present, even when surrounded by blossoms. Sometimes it’s a forgotten seed, buried for years, germinating after disruption. Often is arrives overnight, weighing down petals, penetrating layers.

It must wash over, soak in, absorb. Shelter from it leads to bitterness, drought, fruitlessness. I find comfort in the hope that eventually, like the rain, grief may provide nourishment. IMG_4676 IMG_8592

Birth

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In a bit over a week my youngest son turns four. He understands enough about time to realize April is his birthday month, but not enough to comprehend that waiting NINE MORE DAYS means it’s also not his birthday tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. He knows it’s coming, but he can’t track it day to day. So, every morning we’re hearing these excited statements laced with doubt. “It’s my birthday!…?” “Today’s my party!?”  It’s all he’s thinking about, besides Legos and food.

The sentences flying out of his mouth these days could land him on Ellen’s couch or Bill Cosby’s lap. (Also, the principal’s office, but for different reasons.) Today he told one of Charlie’s classmates how old he was: “I’m three and three quarters. When I’m four I’ll be four and three nickels!” He is at that sweet spot of language development in which spoken vocabulary is incredibly diverse, but most multiple meanings remain confusing and misused. I hope I get to hear that one again since Charlie didn’t catch him and correct it. (What is it with first graders correcting EVERYTHING? And they’re so often wrong! Then I wonder, if I correct Charlie for incorrectly correcting Miles, does that make me as equally annoying to Charlie as Charlie is to Miles? Sheesh.)

Yesterday, Miles tried to playfully spit at me. Not real spitting, more like a directed air-zerbert. He explained, “I’m spitting sunscreen on you! My sa-li-va mixes with chocolate in my mouth and becomes sunscreen!” Spit, spit, spit. It was sunny, so the protection was quite appreciated.

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I began labor at 2am and continued slow and steady enough through the bluebird morning to walk the historic Queen Anne streets surrounding our previous rental. Under giant magnolia trees and alongside tulips, I chatted with Harry and my friend/doula between contractions. One of my elderly neighbors watched me leaning against a wall during one and offered to take me to the hospital. Very kind, but I didn’t mind laboring in public. We even strolled to the Macrina bakery, where I stood outside the store window having a contraction, while Kari and Harry got coffee and pastries. We sat for a bit, waved goodbye to my favorite workers with promises to bring a baby by next visit, and moved on to enjoy the beautiful day as much as possible until the real work commenced.

My memories of his birthdays are bound together with my favorite images from Seattle spring. Our ornamental cherry tree proudly wearing it’s light pink tutu, the skirt of little ballerina dreams. Our pear tree blossoms dripping with rain, sparkling in the bits of light that peek through the clouds. Our delicate plum tree flowers, whose sight always prompts me to yearn for a huge harvest.

Petals carpeting the sidewalks and streets, trees dressed to the nines in fancy blossoms and moss accessories, baby leaves emerging, pea vines popping out of the ground, little boys pleading for their birthday to arrive. Springtime and birth, woven together.

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My Balance with Growing Food

My kitchen currently smells like the odd combination of garlic, apricots, peaches, and nectarcots (which are so delicious!!!). Our beloved fruit CSA started a few weeks ago. The box comes Wednesdays and we have just a few items left. Three days in and we’ve almost eaten it all. I just might need to order a bigger box. The fruit is going faster this year than it did last year because the boys are now 100% nuts about it all. They even have little fights over who will get the last of the items. We have had cherries on pancakes, cherries with yogurt, cherries with chocolate. It has been divine. Once a week this delivery provides me with an adult version of Christmas morning.

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Nectarcots, apricots, peaches

I’m crazy about both the CSAs we do, so having them as a regular part of our life for six months a year has led me to think differently about the food I grow. I’m moving towards high value, low maintenance produce. I also will make room for things that taste dramatically different fresh from the garden, that aren’t grown by our farmers, or that we eat a lot of. Like garlic.

I harvested my garlic last week. It’s now on our kitchen counter curing. Upon recommendation of my favorite northwest garden blogger, I mostly planted the variety Music. Oh my goodness. I pulled one out and could not believe how enormous it was. I’ve never seen a bigger head of garlic, except for Elephant Head. It is huge and gorgeous and now my kitchen smells like garlicy peaches.

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Rows of garlic in early June

Do you know how easy garlic is to grow? It’s pretty silly. When someone asked me about mine I almost felt like I was lying saying I grew it. I basically did ten minutes of work for this yield. You just put a clove in the ground in the fall and it sits through the winter to shoot up in spring. Hardneck varieties give you a delicious scape as a bonus (garlic scape & arugula pesto!) that you get to snip off and enjoy a few weeks prior to pulling the head out of the ground. It’s about as easy as it gets.

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Garlic scapes

Do you have hesitations about growing food? Starting with something like garlic this fall could be a great way to go. I also highly recommend perennial fruit (berries!) and herbs because they provide a lot of value for less work than annuals. All of my perennial herbs have probably paid for themselves ten times over. A few more harvests from our various berry plants and they’ll have paid for themselves, too. (Also, even people who don’t love to cook can thoroughly enjoy a bowlful of berries.) Cheaper produce, like carrots, I enjoy planting here and there for the kids to harvest but mainly am leaving annual veggies to our fabulous CSA farmers. Along with being more economical, we get significantly more variety than we could grow at home.

My ultimate dream is to have a permaculture edible landscape that produces a lot of unusual berries that we gorge on, preserve and freeze for the winter. (Have you heard of jostaberries, gooseberries or salmonberries? Elderberries, BOYSENBERRIES!, huckleberries, and the usual suspects, too, of course.). I also want hardy kiwi, cherries, more varieties of plums, apples, asparagus, rhubarb, and *sigh*, so much more. Maybe even chickens and ducks. If this place were ours, there would be much less grass and many more edible plants. But, our landlord was only willing to let us plant where the weed beds were, and even then, he asked us to remove the raised beds when we leave. So, for now, I’m thankful we’ve got what we’ve got, along with a lot of opportunity to dream big.

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Music! My garlic harvest

Here’s my current favorites resources and/or sources of inspiration when it comes to growing some of my own food:

Northwest Edible Life – blog, facebook

Salt of the Earth Urban Farm – blog, facebook

Paradise Lot – New York Times article, blog,

Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Landscaping website is lovely food for thought, and I always add to my dream list when I browse her book.

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The mother of all garlic. She will be next year’s seed. (My phone screen is broken, so forward facing pictures are always foggy.)