Tag Archives: permaculture

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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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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