VEGGIE GARDEN GOALS

You might have noticed that I didn't write much about the vegetable garden this year. That's not because I didn't grow vegetables, but it wasn't my best year in the vegetable garden.

It's been my pattern to really let a garden slip after I've developed a plan in my head for how I'm going to change it. The most recent example of this was the circle garden, which looked like utter garbage for at least two years before I ripped it all out last fall and redesigned it.

As you can see, the vegetable garden is still a mess. That's the state it's been in most of the summer. But plans are in the works for this area. 

The vegetable garden has been on my mind for a few years now and I've been gathering inspiration on every garden tour I've been on and all over the Internet. And here's my conclusion: I want a vegetable garden that is as beautiful as it is practical. Veggie gardens do not have to be particularly pleasing to the eye, and one might argue that the most productive vegetable gardens are anything but. But I crave that perfect balance of producing food in the midst of a gorgeous garden.

I know my dream is perhaps a little unrealistic, especially for a gardener who has never been good about perfect spacing and daily maintenance in a vegetable garden. But if I aim for veggie garden utopia, I imagine I can land somewhere around "really pretty garden."

I was hoping to share this idea with you when it was either in the works or very close to it. I was also hoping to plant garlic this fall in the first stage of a new vegetable garden. None of that happened because sometimes that's how life goes.

The primary holdup has been a couple of enormous spruces. These are some more trees on our property that have been scalped on one side by the power company and don't offer much in the way of screening or aesthetics. They are also blocking a lot of sun to the existing and future site of the vegetable garden. Right now I'm getting away with a part-sun vegetable garden. More sun than shade but by no means full sun. And I do OK in that situation, but we all know that most edibles appreciate a lot of sun and if I'm going to make the investment in an upgraded vegetable garden, I want what I plant there to grow well. In other words: Those trees have to go.


I've also come to the realization that I'm sick of being limited to growing only certain plants outside of the raised bed that has a fence incorporated in it. Some years I get away with it, but this year, for instance, the kale never stood a chance thanks to the pair of young deer with indiscriminate tastes. (Kale has never been an issue in the past until last in the season.)


For me, raised beds are the only way to for growing edibles. It's just that I need a lot more of them. Although I have enough space in my current vegetable garden setup to grow small quantities of several different edibles, I don't have the space to properly rotate crops like I would like, so I'm constantly fighting disease issues, particularly with tomatoes.


Here's a cocktail-hour sketch I made this summer of how I envision the new vegetable garden might look. And if you think I can find this piece of paper now, you are obviously a far more organized person than I am. 

So here's what the dream vegetable garden would look like, all encompassed within a fenced area:

  • A series of raised beds, preferably a minimum of 20 inches tall, that would allow for easy crop rotation from year to year. 
  • A handful (possibly four) of smaller raised beds for cutting flowers that would add color as well as attract pollinators, not to mention provide fresh cut flowers all season.
  • Skinny fruit gardens on the east and west sides of the garden to plant espalier fruit and smaller berries.
  • Brick pathways. 
  • Gravel in between beds and everywhere there isn't brick, so there is no need to mow grass in this area.
  • A small arbor at the entrance over which to grow climbing roses or another flowering vine.
  • A Belgian fence along the back (south) "wall" of the fence.
  • A back door in the fence that would allow easy access to the compost bin just out the back of the garden.
  • A small seating area, either a bench or a little bistro table with a couple chairs. I know better than to think that I'll be lounging there much, but it would be a shame not to have a seat to sit back and enjoy it for a little bit. 
  • A center focal point. My favorite idea right now is a small, containerized water garden.
Earlier this summer, this WAS the plan. Then I did the math and it didn't really work out in my favor. So it seems likely that this is a project that is going to have to be developed in stages. Brick paths, gravel and espalier trees can wait, even if it makes me sad. The immediate need is level ground, raised beds filled with soil and a fence. 

I was hoping by now that some of that would have been accomplished, but it seems this has fully turned into a spring project at this point. But goals are good, right?





WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THOSE LEAVES?

Mr. Much More Patient and I spent a good part of the weekend dealing with the first round of fallen leaves at our house. Because we have a lot of trees, it works better to do it in two or three sessions rather than wait until everything is on the ground.

And while some people bag their leaves or push them to the curb for pick up by the city, every leaf in our yard gets put to use in any number of ways.


First off, I'll admit to a bit of ridiculousness when it comes to leaf clean up. I blow or rake leaves out of garden beds so that they can be chopped up and put back in those garden beds. Go ahead and laugh at me, because I agree that sounds a little insane. But I'll tell you why I do that: Chopped leaves break down in months; whole leaves take much longer and can stick together and create a mat that's difficult to break up. Of course the latter works just find in forests, so clearly it's nothing major to be worried about, but aesthically it's not as pleasing to me.

The leaf pick up process starts with our lawn tractor and a bagger. The mower chops the leaves up some. From there, I run them through the chipper shredder, which chops them up into about half-inch sized pieces. Because the mower cuts the lawn at the same time, there is some grass mixed in as well, meaning that there's a pretty good balance of nitrogen-rich material (grass) and carbon-rich material (leaves) and it should all break down relatively quickly.

It's not the prettiest composting operation, but it works.

From there, I use the leaves in several different ways.

1. IN THE COMPOST BIN

Garden cleanup produces a lot of green material in fall so I need a lot of leaves to get the compost balances right for proper cooking. To be honest, if I were composting "correctly," I would have a bin to hold greens in until I needed them, but I'm a lazy although enthusiastic composter, so it all goes in the bin when I have it and I try to figure it out later. Basically I jam the bin as full as I can with leaves along with the greens, throw some water on it before I put the hoses away for winter, and let nature do the rest. By late spring, most of it is lovely compost and the rest becomes the basis for future compost.

2. MULCH GARDEN BEDS

I did this for the first time last year in one part of the garden and I was so happy with the results that I'd like to do it everywhere I'm able to this year. After I clean out my beds (I leave some plants standing for winter interest, others get cut back, and I try to remove all the perennial weeds that I can), I just throw on about a 4-inch layer of chopped leaves. In the bed I did this in last year, I had significantly fewer weeds in spring and by mid-summer, when the plants had filled in, the mulch was almost entirely broken down. It does take a lot of leaves to mulch like this, however.

Chopped into tiny bits, the leaves quickly break down into leaf mold or as part of compost.
3. MAKE LEAF MOLD

Leaf mold, which is nothing more than what's left after leaves disintegrate, is an amazing mulch and soil amendment. I like to mix it in to potting mixes to help lighten the soil and add some beneficial microbes. It's also a fabulous mulch for spring and summer. The good news is that making leaf mold requires nothing more than patience. Some people do it by filling up plastic garbage bags with damp leaves, poking some holes in the bag and letting it do its thing, but all I do is make a pen out of chicken wire (just to keep them from flying everywhere), and fill it up with leaves. I use my chopped leaves, but whole leaves work just fine too. I never look at it again until they've broken down and it's time to use what's left.

4. PROTECT SENSITIVE PLANTS

On occasion I'll protect the crowns of cold sensitive plants with leaves. For the roses I planted this year, I will use either a rose collar (here's an affiliate link to one I found but haven't tried) or create a cage with chicken wire or hardware cloth and mound up leaves over the crowns. I've also done this with non-bud hardy hydrangeas with some success (and some failure). The key is to wait until the plant is dormant before you do this. I've heard Thanksgiving weekend as a suggested time and that works pretty good for me.

5. MULCH OVER HEELED-IN PLANTS

Any plants that I either don't have time to plant or don't want to plant in their final location get heeled in inside their pots (usually in my raised vegetable beds, just for convenience). After a hard freeze I go back and cover the whole group of pots with mulched leaves to provide additional insulation.

The shredding part of this leaf operation is optional, but it does speed up the decomposition process. Mulch with a mower works just fine as well and for compost and leaf mold, whole leaves will work as well.

I actually use so many leaves that I occasionally take some from my neighbors. I'm not going to lie. All of this is boring, tedious work, often done in a fair amount of solitude because I'm wearing hearing protection when we run all these machines, so it's not my favorite job. But when nature dumps a whole bunch of free, fabulous material at your feet, you don't look that gift horse in the mouth.



SaveSave

FRIDAY FINDS

It has been a difficult few weeks to be a gardener in my area. The sun is setting early (and soon to be much earlier) so there's no time for gardening after work and the weekends have been rainy. I appreciate this late season rain, as I believe that it is best for plants to go into dormancy well hydrated, but it would be much more convenient if it could just rain during the week instead of on the weekends.

That pattern may change this weekend, thankfully, but it's also going to be in the 40s. Remember how I said that the problem with cleaning up the garden is that it's either the right time for the plants or the right time for the gardener and those two things rarely happen simultaneously? Well, that's what's happening now.

Box o' bulbs waiting for planting. More coming tomorrow too!

Well there's nothing to be done about it. It all has to get done. The priority this weekend will be bulb planting, and a lot of it. Once that's finished I can better clean out beds and then start mulching with shredded leaves (of which there are thousands on our lawn). After that, the containers need to be cleaned out. Most of the plants are mostly still alive (and would be more so if I hadn't pretty much given up on watering) as we've not had a frost yet, but they've served their purpose. The new containers I planted for fall will stay, but everything else will begin its road to compost.

So that's what is occupying my time this weekend. Here are some of the things that I enjoyed online recently:

Linda, whose garden shines no matter the time of year, is celebrating flaxen hues.

I do tend to go on about Chicago's Lurie Garden, but check it out in fall! It's gorgeous.


This is not a link, but can I just say I wish I would stop seeing posts about holiday shopping? Enough! Unless its a DIY project that takes time, it is WAY too early to be discussing such things. We still have Halloween and poor, forgotten Thanksgiving!

Sadly, many salvias are not hardy in my area, but they are beautiful enough to give some of them a shot and hope for the best.

Did you know you can buy kit houses on Amazon? I sure didn't until I read this article on GardenFork.

Are you planning to be in the garden this weekend?
SaveSave

PLANS FOR NEXT YEAR: A SHRUB BORDER

I tend to go on a bit here about taking stock of your garden so you can make changes next year, but that's because I still think it's one of the single best things you can do. Plus, I find it to be a very optimistic activity. In the middle of a season of decomposition, I find it quite enjoyable to think about what comes next.

This is the fall view of the wooded area. The ferns have all died back, and the Viburnum 'Mariesii' is starting to change color on the left. I'd like to make the entire edge where the woods meets the grass an informal shrub border.

Many garden designers advise that you should start your design process inside, and I agree. Make what you see when you are in your house looking out the best it can be from that view. Beyond our kitchen, the next place I spend the most time looking out the window is, believe it or not, our upstairs bathroom. Because we live in a fairly secluded area with neighbors that aren't too close (and have lost any cares we might have about it anyway) we enjoy the view out the bathroom window from the glass shower as well as when I'm standing there drying my hair and getting ready in the morning. So it's an important view, even if it's probably the last place you get to if you are strolling through the yard.

Big strides have been made in this area over the years, but it's a slow process. The area that abuts the wooded area is most in need. We love the woods and the ostrich ferns that take over, but the edges of this area get taken over by jewelweed, which is not a plant I care for.


Viburnum plicatum 'Mariesii' has been allowed to grow into a large, free-ranging shrub. It's putting on nice fall color now.

A few years ago (maybe four), I planted Viburnum plicatum 'Mariesii' on the edge of this area. It's a lovely shrub that can get quite large—10x10 or so—and I wanted to make sure it had all the room it would need or want. I recall thinking at the time I planted it that I could also add other shrubs in the area. For some reason I never acted on that idea.

After a lot of studying of that area (like, every morning), I've doubled down on that plan. There are a lot of fabulous older shrubs that I don't have the space to grow elsewhere, but a shrub border along the woods would be the perfect location for these. Don't get me wrong, I love so many of the new cultivars available now, many of which are more compact than the species and they fit in well in much of my garden, but there is a certain statement that can be made by a large specimen.

At the far end of the wood's edge we planted a  Cercis canadensis (Redbud) 'Forest Pansy' last year. It struggled a little this summer, but its leaves are so beautiful.

I don't have any shrubs in particular in mind and that is exciting to me. I can't wait to get stuck in researching shrubs in winter to design this area. Shrubs are not inexpensive, so it's probably something I'll install over the course of several year, and pick up things as I find them, or even better, as I find them on sale. And I hope to be able to incorporate a few somewhat unusual shrubs to keep it interesting and to satisfy the needs of my suppressed plant collector.