Tomato race: I'm behind

Before we get to this post, I just wanted to mention that I did a little tree planting 101 tutorial on The Design Confidential yesterday. Basically you shouldn't do anything you've ever seen a city tree planter do, but check it out if you're looking for some info on planting the framework of your yard.

 

Late last week, I swung by the community gardens at the YMCA to check on the progress of our tomato experiment going on there. And the news, I'm afraid, is not good.

My mom's Legend tomato (in its protective plastic partial enclosure) is not only bigger than mine, it has TOMATOES! What the heck? Although her Delicious tomato has no tomatoes on it, it too is bigger than my Delicious.

Y1

Y2

Tomatoes on my mom's Legend tomato, above, and filling up its enclosure, below.

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Y4

My Legend tomato. No tomatoes here and it is slightly smaller.


A few interesting shots from other gardens:

Y5

The trellis structure in the middle is just branches tied together but I really like it. Looks arty. And the marigolds brighten it up.

 

Y6

This gardener put PVC pipe sections next to all his or her tomatoes to help get water and fertilizer to the root zone.

 

Y7

These are maybe the tallest tomato cages I've ever seen, but the holes in the wire are so small I don't know how this gardener will get the tomatoes out.

The easiest garden ever

I've mentioned and recommended one of my favorite blogs,  North Coast Gardening, more than once. There is loads of great information, but probably my favorite feature on the site is the product reviews. I have yet to buy one thing recommended by Gen that I don't love and a couple of things she hooked me onto are my favorite gardening tools (my hori hori and my Bahco pruners).

Recently I was l fortunate enough to win a giveaway for an Eartheasy Farmstead raised bed kit through North Coast Gardening and I can't tell you how excited I was. I've been looking at doing a small addition to the raised veggie garden to move out some of the more space-intensive plants that the critters won't touch (I'm looking at you, zucchini), and this sounded like the perfect solution.

After what can only be described as the most convaluted method of delivery ever (Fedex didn't just get on the failboat for this one, they were the captain, navigator and first mate of the failboat), the raised bed arrived, sort of. It was actually found on the side of a neighbor's garage. And I use the term neighbor loosely, since it was actually on an entirely different road. But I guess these things happen and I will say that the people at Eartheasy were amazing about the whole thing, which was not even close to being their fault.

But I digress. Stay on task, Erin, my fourth grade substitute teacher Mrs. Hummerding would say.

Anyway, amazing raised bed gets here. And I set about putting it together. But you see, Gen and her rather well-known cohort Amy Stewart (author of "Wicked Plants," "Wicked Bugs" and official Garden Rant ranter) made a big ol' fuss about how quickly they could put together their raised bed (Eartheasy says you can put it together in less than five minutes and Gen and Amy were aiming to do it in significantly less). So I watched their video (the unedited version so I could time them myself) and it took them exactly 30 seconds.

Never one to turn down an imaginary challenge not issued by anyone, I decided I would do it quicker than that. And I did.

28 seconds, baby! And oh yeah, I was by myself, so boo-yah.

(We regret to inform you that video footage of said major accomplishment/engineering feat is not available because I didn't shoot one. But trust me, I blew them away.)

Raisedbed1

Raisedbed2

Raised3

Rasiedbed4

So the last two pictures are phone pictures and boy are they horrible. Unfortunately the camera I use for the blog is actually the work camera and someone needed it for a work-related purpose so I've been without it for a week. How dare they!


Seriously, though, this is the easiest thing I've ever put together in my life. Slide in the ends and stick in the dowel pegs that hold it all together. That's it. Oh and since it's made of white cedar it smells amazing.

Fill that baby up with dirt (all I did was cut the lawn short underneath it and use my garden fork to sort of perforate the ground under it), and plant away. I'm thrilled to have the garden-eating zucchini moved out and I put a few herbs in it too. I hope to plant some garlic in fall and next year it will be the perfect spot for onions, too.

And yes, I realize I'm going on a bit much about how much I love this raised bed, but all I did was win a great contest. Nobody even asked me to write anything about it, but I had to share it  because it is truly the quickest way to get gardening that I've ever seen.

Meh now, wow later? Let's hope

You know I'm all about keeping it real here, which is why I sometimes show the bad and the ugly as well as the good. As I mentioned last week, here in the Midwest we are suffering from a truly cruddy spring. Most plants are stuck at whatever size they were when they were purchased at the nursery.

The window box is no exception. So so many big landscaping projects going on this year, I've not put as much thought into containers as I usually do so the window box was sort of a last minute operation.

I'm one who works by inspiration, so I do best when I can find a picture of something—a combination of textures, colors or specific plants that I like—then tweak it to my tastes or needs, and my go-to source for inspiration is Deborah Silver's blog Dirt Simple. I've mentioned it many times before but Deborah elevates containers to an art form. Although I would have a hard time duplicating what Deborah does—the containers themselves are amazing, not to mention the interesting and mature plant material she uses—I find them very inspiring. If Deborah ever writes a book on container design (please????????) I will be first in line to buy it.

So when I found a picture of a line of containers going up a set stairs that were packed with an insane combination of colors: red, purple, hot pink, I thought, "Why not?" It's a little wilder than I usually go, and I'm not sure if it relates to anything else that's going on in the garden or on the patio, but I was drawn in immediately to the inspiration photo so there must be something there.

Even though we put the window box up using a French cleat that would allow us to taken it down, it is so high and so heavy when full of dirt, that it's just easier to plant it up on the ladder. So before I take all the plants up there, I laid them out on the front steps to get an idea of the best arrangement.

Windowbox2012 1

Windowbox2012 2

After rearranging things a bit, I carried everything up to the box (which I had refreshed the dirt in as well as added some time-release fertilizer) and put it in.

And the effect was ... underwhelming. It continues to be, actually. Containers are only really good looking once everything fills in and given the lousy weather, there is no filling out (or in) going on here. Still, I have hope that once the weather turns around it will come the window box will come to life. The fact of the matter is that most home gardeners will deal with this situation when planting containers. It's better to buy smaller plants that haven't bloomed themselves out and if you want the best selection at the nursery, that's exactly what you'll be buying. In an ideal world, we'd all plant our containers in April and then put them in a greenhouse to fill in and be babied until it's time for their unveiling, but that's very realistic. So we plant, squint a lot to imagine what it will look like in a month and hope for the best.

Windowbox2012 3

Superbells Grape Punch is looking positively pathetic in this picture but it perked up overnight and is looking fine now.


Windowbox2012 4

This is not exactly the big unveiling of the window box I was hoping to put on the blog, but that's just not how things go sometimes. Instead, we'll watch it grow and see if it's a success or a candidate for the failboat.

The background is dark red geraniums and a few nicotianas. Along the front edge is:

Superbena Royale Iced Cherry* (a crazy bright pink that I love! The Superbena Royale series is pretty spectacular: Last year I grew Royale Chambray and loved it and this year both Iced Cherry and Peachy Keen look promising. I hereby proclaim that the next addition to the Superbena Royale line is Superbena Royale With Cheese ... please Proven Winners?)

Suberbells Sweet Tart*

Superbells Grape Punch* (the "punch" line of Superbells is pretty fantastic too. This one is sort of medium purple with a dark purple center.)

Lime green Licorice plant (Helichrysum) for a little shot of cool color in this "hot" mix.

 

* These plants were provided by Proven Winners free of charge as part of their garden writers testing program. To my knowledge, all are set to be 2012 introductions so you probably won't find them in nurseries this year and they may be in limited release next year. I have not been paid to write about these plants and any comments on them are entirely my own.

Professional weather grousing

Midwesterners are professional weather crabbers. That is to say, complaining about the weather is pretty much our main hobby. The first sentence out of the mouth of many a midwestern baby has been, "Hot enough for ya?" or of course, "Cold enough for ya?" And that's pretty much what we say for the rest of our lives. It's basically what comes after "Hello" in any given conversation.

I do my best to avoid complaining about the weather on the blog too much because it just gets old after awhile. But after yet another 50-degree mid-June day, I think I've earned the right to complain a little.

My biggest problem with the weather is what it's doing to the plants. The tallest peas, which I actually planted on time this year, are only about 16 inches tall. The tomatoes appear to be stuck in some kind of time warp; most of them don't look like they've budged since I put them in the ground. That's just what's happening in the veggie garden. The annuals are ridiculously small this year and I can see that it will be a good month before the containers even look like anything. The buds on the peonies are just nickel-sized and the clematis look like they want to bloom but are afraid to.

Weather1

The tomatoes and the few basil plants that look like anything anymore all seem to be stuck some sort of time warp: they don't seem to have grown at all.


Weather4

Over on the other side of the garden, the peas are finally starting to climb but there is no sign of any peas. The lettuce is doing great and the beets and Swiss chard in the foreground are in dire need of thinning.

 

Weather3

A new plant I'm trying this year is malabar spinach. It's supposed to be a beautiful vining plant and the leaves, which are quite thick, taste like buttery delicious spinach. I hope it lives up to the hype but it too hasn't done much since it was planted.


There are a few things that seem to like the weather. The lettuce is delicious and plentiful and the hostas seem particularly large this year. The only other good thing about the weather is that I'm so far behind in my garden maintenance that I feel like I have a little more time to get things in shape before "real" summer weather arrives.

So am I suffering alone here or has the weather in your part of the world been lousy too?

We interrupt your gardening to give you a reason to drool



Erin over at House of Turquoise is doing a house tour of maybe the most amazing "real" house I've ever seen. You'll never believe that this is in Utah! I love damn near everything about this house, so the point where I'm seriously considering repainting the famous blue front door the same color as the one on this house: Ben Moore's Wythe Blue.

Anyway, if you haven't already seen this house, go take the tour and follow the links at the bottom to see the rest of it.

Click here for the dream tour: House of Turquoise: Day One: Dream Home Tour

Putting up walls

The hardscaping continues in the back yard. I didn't really want to take on all these hardscaping (read: moving lots of stone) projects at the same time, but it only made sense to order all the material at once and, well, you can't have 10 tons of stone sitting in your driveway for very long.

Since we have a sloped back yard, I decided to do a tiered garden off the deck with a small retaining wall. Anyone who reads this blog knows where the inspiration for this came from: the lovely gardens at the Hotel Iroquois on Mackinac Island that I talked about here and here.

The difference between building the path and building this mini retaining wall is that while I've laid small flagstone paths before and have a pretty good idea how to do it, I have never built a wall and have very little idea how to do it. I'm happy there will be garden beds in front of the wall so technically it shouldn't really be used for anything other than looks and retaining dirt. No one should really be sitting or standing on it, and that makes me feel better because I'm not sure it's the most stable wall ever built. Humpty Dumpty beware.

Anyway, here's the basic process I followed.

1. After figuring out where I wanted the wall and laying it out (by the way, in my typical fashion of second guessing everything, I'm not sure I'd put the wall in the same place again but I just really needed to get this project done and I didn't think it through as much as I probably should have) I dug a trench where I wanted the wall, about 8 to 10 inches deep.

2. I filled the trench with the same road base material I used on the path. The tricky part was leveling this base as much as possible. Then I tamped it all down.

Wall1

Wall2

When I said I tamped down the base in the trench I was referring to using an actual tamper but Hudson seemed to think he could do a better job. How a 145-pound dog manages to lay down in a 10-inch wide trench I do not know, but he was not interested in moving (second photo is the view from the deck).

 

3. Since I was using natural stone rather than a man-made block, laying the first row was difficult and time consuming. I wanted to make sure it was as level as possible, which was tricky when the stones varied in thickness as much as 2 to 3 inches.

Wall3

Laying the first course was the most time consuming part of the project because I wanted to get it at least close to level.


4. After the first row was laid I just started added courses. The process went pretty quickly at this point. I just tapered the wall at the ends as necessary and went as high as needed to created a garden bed level with the patio.

5. I backfilled the wall with the road base about three-quarters of the way up the wall, and then used dirt. We filled in the whole area with all the dirt we dug out for the path so fortunately we didn't have to bring in any additional soil.

Wall4

There's a lot of stuff laying around and a shovel standing in for a tree, but you get the idea of what the completed wall looks like. There will be garden in front of it where you see grass in this photo.


Overall, I'm happy with the look but right now it requires a little squinting to really imagine it because I still need to dig the garden on the "lawn side" of the wall, not to mention plant it (although much of the planting will be done next year as I'm running out of funds and energy). Unfortunately, I also have to build a small version of the wall on the opposite side of the garden to contain a very mounded corner of the garden.

Oh and the time on this one? About 90 minutes of digging one day and then the majority of the following day to touch up the trench and build the wall, but I was flying solo on this one. It's pretty damn amazing what you can accomplish when you REALLY want to get the pile of stone in your driveway moved.

My name is Erin and I'm a Tomato Hoarder

There. I admitted it. They say that's the first step. I don't, however, think I'm alone in this.

For some reason the quest for the perfect tomato, or better yet, bushels of perfect tomatoes, seems to be a pretty common theme among gardeners and I'm right there with them. My home veggie garden is certainly a great improvement over how I used to grow tomatoes, but I'm not satisfied there. Nope, I'm a greedy gardener too.

And it might be genetic, because it turns out that my mother is too. So the two of us are sharing a plot at the community gardens at the local YMCA. I'm a huge proponent of community gardens so I'm happy to be involved anyway, but I'd be lying if I said that's why we ponied up a whopping $25 for the 4-foot-by-8-foot plot. We just want more tomatoes.

Community1

The community gardens at the local YMCA. Each large bed is divided into three plots.


Community2

We worked in a lot of compost and composted manure but I think we probably should have worked the soil a little more because it's not the best. The little Alaska nasturtium in the corner (a leftover I had) for some reason decided to just bloom a billion little yellow flowers and might have burned itself out just doing that.

We're hopeful that we'll do well at the community garden because it's located in absolute 100% full sun and 5 miles farther inland than either of our home gardens (which stay much cooler into summer because of the influence of a rather frigid Lake Michigan).

Interestingly enough, we also planted some of the same varieties of heirloom tomatoes, unknowingly. And my mom was anxious to try something she'd read about: enclosing the tomato cage in thick plastic to help retain heat (the top is open so it doesn't fry). So we ended up with a little experiment that we weren't intending: which plant will produce more tomatoes  and which will produce first. They were purchased from the same source (our master gardener's heirloom plant  and herb sale) and planted on the same day. We're treating them identically in every other way.

Community3

Community4

Two of my tomatoes (top) are living their unhoused existences with just basic tomato cages around them, but my mom's is living in it's little plastic enclosure. Any guesses if it will make a difference?

 

When I went out there earlier this week to water, I would say the plant in the plastic looked slightly larger than my "control" plant. They had the same amount of flowers and looked the same otherwise.

I have five tomato plants growing at home (heirloom varieties Black Cherry, Snow White Cherry, Paul Robeson, Black Krim and a grafted Japanese Black Trifele) and three at the community garden (heirlooms Legend, Delicious and a grafted Brandywine/Super Marzano). The grafted tomatoes are an experiment all in their own right but we'll see if they are worth all the hubbub.

It will be interesting to see how this little tomato experiment ends up. I don't care as long as we end up with so many tomatoes I'm begging people to take them off my hands. That'll be the day.

Putting some punctuation on the path

The path is finished! And trust me, that declaration is entirely worthy of the exclamation point.

I actually finished it two weekends ago but sometimes I like to let these things percolate before I write about them on the blog. If you recall, after the last update on the path the path had been dug, edging put in and the road base put in and tamped. All that really left was for the stones to be laid. My original intention was to level the stones individually with sand but I found using more road base worked better.

I've laid small flagstone paths before so I knew what to avoid, which is the same thing you want to avoid when laying any stone: long runs of joints. To me, creating patterns that are intentionally random are much harder than set patterns. I just made sure to limit the number of times I had two stones going across the path. Most of the stones seemed to be sized to fit two across so if I did a larger one on one side, I'd switch and put the next larger one on the other side. I laid four stones that were the entire width of the path (or very close, requiring just  a small accent stone next to them) which I think really helped break up the pattern.

The hardest part of laying the stones was dealing with the bluestone. It was all cut into mostly rectangles and of course that wouldn't work with the more informal flagstone, so I chipped away the edges on every piece of bluestone. This was difficult because bluestone likes to break into layers and in several cases when I was trying to just break off a corner, the entire piece would shatter into layers. It also shattered into shards that were downright dangerous and a pain to clean up.

Here's the path as it usually looks. The difference between the flagstone and the bluestone is barely distinguishable.

Pathcomplete1

Here's what it looks like wet. I sort of like the idea that it feels like we almost have two different paths depending on the weather.

Pathcomplete2

 

Pathcomplete3

As it turned out, I had plenty of flagstone leftover, enough that I could have done the entire path in flagstone if I had wanted to, but I liked the idea of incorporating the bluestone from my grandmother's house and even though I wasn't sure it would all work, I became sort of infatuated with the idea of a subtly striped path. I didn't measure anything out but I did roughly pace off sections so I would know roughly where to put the bluestone.

After all the stones were set, I let them sit a day or two and then went back to check for any rocking or unlevelness and once I fixed that, I put the decorative gravel in.  And I'm thrilled with the results. They say that hardscaping is just as important as plantings in your yard and garden and we've never had much of. And I think once the garden beds that will flank a portion of the path are installed,  the overall look will be quite nice.

The entire project took about 25 hours (I think). Mr. Much More Patient helped with the digging for one afternoon (the worst part of the project by far) and helped place the three biggest stones but I did the rest myself. I'm convinced, hardscaping is worth the time, pain and expense but I will be really happy when all these hardscaping projects are over.

Easy art

Now that the house renovation is finished it's time to get some art on the walls. Because the budget is gone (and what little is left is going into the landscaping) it's time to get creative.

This might be one of the easiest art projects ever. Ever since I discovered Hudson Valley Seed Library's art seed packs, I knew they were too pretty to just sit in a drawer with the rest of the seeds. I've given several packs as gifts, but this year I ordered a selection of seeds solely for the art packs they came in (although I'm sure I'll use the seeds somewhere or give them away to someone who will).

Artpack1

 

Turning them into art was as simple as cutting a piece of textured watercolor paper to the size of the frame and using some spray adhesive to glue the opened seed pack to the paper. Then I stuck them in very inexpensive frames I picked up at Michael's with a coupon. Of course since I can't seem to leave well enough alone, I spray painted the black framed white.

Artpack2

What I love about this project, other than that it took about 30 minutes including the time to paint the frames, is that it could be perfect for a children's bedroom or playroom if you picked some of the more whimsical packs such as the super cute Fox Cherry Tomato or the Tiny Tim Tomato.

Fox cherry tomato

Tiny tim tomato2

 

Or if you're a proud New Yorker or you just love the city, how about the New Yorker Tomato? I could see this see pack looking very cool hanging in a mini display wall of scenes from New York or a collection of maps.

New yorker tomato

In fact, the hardest part of this project was choosing which art packs to frame and limiting myself to just three. I chose Stair Fair Zinnia, Spotted Trout Lettuce and Aunt Molly's Ground Cherry because I thought they worked best with the colors going on in the kitchen, but I also love Gift Zinnia, Good Bug Blooms and Rainbow Chard among so many others.