Symmetry denied

Symmetry scares me a little. It especially scares me in the garden, because true symmetry is almost impossible to attain when you're growing things.

That's probably why I rarely (if ever) do matching containers. There's just too darn much pressure to make them look the same. But this summer I decided to go for it, because frankly, there was no option.

Just a few weeks ago, both containers were looking great. The one on the north end of the deck (the farther one in this photo) wasn't growing as fast as the other, but they both looked great.
I spent a lot of time (not to mention money) finding the right pots for the containers on my deck and an equal amount of time figuring out what to fill them with. And I was thrilled with how they turned out.

For awhile, all was going well. The northern pot (the far one) wasn't growing quite as quickly but I expected that. And then, a few weeks ago, I noticed that many of the leaves on the mandevilla vine were turning yellow. Then they were falling off. It had all the signs of overwatering.

This is what the mandevilla looked like when I pulled it out. Lots of yellow leaves, many of which had already dropped off.

I have to admit, I was a bit concerned about that because of how I planted them. To save on potting mix and lighten up the containers I filled up a garbage bag with broken up pieces of styrofoam to fill up half the container and then filled the rest with potting mix. I can't remember what kind of potting mix I put in (it wasn't my usual Fafard 3B Mix that I like to use as I ran out of that), but I was gavin a really hard time keeping it moist, so I was concerned that perhaps I had created a pool of water sitting on top of the garbage bag and rotting the roots.

So I waited a few more days. And the leaves kept falling off the mandevilla. All of the other plants were doing OK, and the other matching container was looking great. I figured I had nothing to lose and took drastic action.

After the replanting. And it only got worse from there.

I took all the plants out of the container. I dumped out all the soil, pulled out that styrofoam, refilled it all with potting mix and replanted everything. There was no pool of water. There were no rotten roots. There was no explanation for the mandevilla's decline. I've done a bit of googling and it seems that mandevilla (Diplandeni) can be prone to something called cerscospera, which is a foliar disease. That doesn't seem quite right either because the leaves were never wet, although this one did get less sun than the other container.

The other planter is thriving.

And in doing so, I put the last nail in the coffin that was my matching containers. The mandevilla never recovered. Most of the other plants, which had been doing fine, died.  There's really nothing to do now other than dump it and try again next year.

So much for symmetry.

WANTED: Zucchini robber

I went away for five or six days over the weekend (you probably noticed since, unlike much more organized bloggers, I can never seem to stack up posts to automatically go up when I'm not home) to do a bit of sailboat racing. It's always interesting coming home after you've been gone for a bit. Gardens, more than almost anything else I can think of, change all the time, but we rarely notice these changes because we're always puttering around in them and miss the subtle changes. But those changes are not so subtle after you're gone for a bit.

We have great housesitters, but their primary job is to take care of the animals and water the containers. I expect the garden to mostly manage itself in my absence (and I watered darn near around the clock to prepare for my departure). So I expect the garden to be a bit unkempt when I return from a few days away.

What I didn't expect to find was an empty spot where my zucchini plants were growing when I left. I kicked the zucchinis out of the raised veggie garden when I won the white cedar raised bed from Earth Easy (through a North Coast Gardening contest). I assumed no creature would be interested in the pokey leaves of a zucchini and the take up way too much room in the garden to get premium placement in the main veggie garden.

A week ago, the zucchini plants occupied the now empty spot on the end of this bed. You can see the cage that I half had up on the corner (just to keep the dogs from stepping in the bed) hasn't been disturbed.

When I left last week, I had harvested my first zucchini and there were several more growing. And now there is nothing. Not even a sign that the plants were every there. If I hadn't eaten that one delicious zucchini I would have thought maybe I imagined planting them.

I asked the housesitters if they had any ideas as to what might have happened to the plants, but they knew nothing.

So here's what my super investigative brain deduces:

The motive
Some animal thought the ripening zucchini looked pretty tasty and dug in for a taste. In the process of trying to pull the fruit off the vine, it actually removed the entire plant. The soil in that bed (as well as everywhere else) is dry and very finely textured, so I think it's possible that a good tug could pull a whole plant out roots and all. What I don't understand is where the plants went after that as they are nowhere to be found.

The suspects
Suspect No. 1

The deer were very active while I was gone. The hydrangeas have been trimmed, as were some of the petunias in the big container. The drought has them trying almost anything I think.

Suspect No. 2

We have a burgeoning raccoon population at our house this year. I'm not sure what sort of damage raccoons might do to a zucchini plant, but I know they massacre corn.

Suspect No. 3

While I've not seen a woodchuck around, I know they really can wreck havoc in a garden.

Suspect No. 4

Sadly, this cute face (aka Hudson, aka dog No. 1) is a bit of a garden thug. The boy likes his veggies (so much so he has his own tomato plant) and if he getting into the fenced-in garden he eats everything he can get to (mostly lettuce and Swiss chard).

Being called in for questioning

The only problem is that he's not talking.

Of course, as someone  mentioned on the Facebook page, there is one other possibility: it's the work of the Anti-Zucchini League.

A summer haircut

A few weeks ago, Debbie at A Garden of Possibilities wrote about her favorite reblooming perennials.  Nepeta (i.e. catmint) didn't make her list, but it tops mine.

I've always loved lavender-lined paths, but I've had no luck whatsoever growing lavender, so I lined part of the path near the patio with nepeta. It shares many of the same attributes that lavender has. It has a wonderful scent that wafts through the air when you brush against it. Its blue flowers grow on taller stems, not unlike lavender, and its blueish-gray foliage is a nice contrast to much of the bright green in the garden.

It has the added benefit of flowering almost nonstop during summer. I planted 'Dropmore hybrid' along the path, which is a shorter variety of nepeta (some get quite tall and a bit floppy) and I keep the height even further in check by trimming it off early in the season. This delays the first blooming a bit, but only by a week or so. From then on, I let it bloom, trim it back and let it bloom again.

Although the blooms hadn't faded yet, it was getting a tad leggy so last weekend I gave it its second haircut of the summer. It's always interesting cutting back the nepeta because it is always buzzing. Literally. The bees adore this plant so its constantly covered. I have no fear though because they are far too busy doing their work to mind me.

Here's what it looked like before (don't you love how I can't manage to pick up my wetsuit boot for the photo? You know me ... keeping it real):

And here's the enormous pile of trimmings:

And here it is spruced up and ready to bloom again. I did this on July 15, so it will be interesting to watch to see how long it is before it blooms again.

It is kind of nice to be able to walk down the path (which is extra wide) without the nepeta attacking your ankles. I suppose the wise thing would have been to plant them farther from the edge so that even when they are in their full glory they just overlap the edge a bit.

Don't try to understand the deer (and how to keep them from eating your garden)

Deer are odd creatures. They don't seem to have any rhyme or reason to what they feel like eating on any given day. They stand in front of cars and stare at the passengers. They will stand in a yard just feet away from a house with a pair of dogs going absolutely berserk barking at them without looking like they have a care in the world.

I guess it's time I finally give up on trying to predict what our neighborhood deer are going to do next. The other day I caught one staring at me reading the newspaper on the deck from the ferns. It casually turned and disappeared, sort of like the baseball players in "Field of Dreams." I suspect that's how they view my garden: I built it and they have come.

For years, the first plants they would hit in the garden were the hydrangeas and the lilies. Then they'd come nip the occasional petunia in a pot in the garden or sample a rose. And because I am obviously a slow learner, I usually never did anything about preventing them until they'd already started sampling. The same bad habit holds for this year, but for some reason I thought they were going to skip my house this year. Do not ask what sort delusional thinking allowed me to entertain that idea for even a nanosecond but suffice to say, I was wrong.

The hydrangeas look fine. Even the Annabelle hydrangea, which apparently has proven to be very tasty in the past, remains untouched. I have lilies blooming that I have surprised me with their color; I've never seen them bloom before because the deer always nipped off their buds. Nope, this year, the deer went straight for the hosts. For whatever reason, they've never done a lot of hosta sampling in my yard before, even though I know many other gardeners have experienced the sinking feeling of looking around the garden and finding only stems standing where just a day before were gorgeous bold leaves.

I could show you dozens more pictures just like this, but you get the idea. In the case of poor 'Fat Cat,' they actually ripped it right out of the ground (I recently planted it). Any not-fully grown hosta (which is most of them) has been reduced to stems. They didn't care what color they were or where they were growing, they just mowed them down.

Ultimately, it's my own fault. After 10 years of living a quarter-mile from a state park with a very healthy deer population (I wish they would just stay in the park), I ought to know that the deer are going to eat SOMETHING in my garden. It might not be the lilies or the hydrangeas or the petunias, but it will be something.

In case you're wondering how I fend them off, at least when I'm smart enough to do it, I've tried just about everything you can imagine to keep them away and everything seems to work for a little while. But the least expensive option seems to work the best, so long as I'm thorough about using it and reapply it after a good rain (not a problem this year). This core of this recipe was given to me by my mother who got it from someone else, but I've added a few extras to it that I think help (and they certainly don't hurt).

Homemade deer repellent

4 eggs
1 tablespoon of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
A couple drops of dishwashing detergent (to help it stick to leaves)
Whole garlic cloves, crushed or smashed (I probably throw 6 in but just put in whatever you have)

Put all the ingredients in a rinsed out gallon milk jug and fill the rest with water. Shake thoroughly. Then set it out in the sun for a few days. You want it to get good and nasty. After it has "fermented" a bit, dilute it about 4:1 and sprinkle it all over everything. I think it's especially helpful to make a "perimeter" around the garden as well as being sure to thoroughly coat any prized or particularly tasty plants. It can create some discoloration on leaves, particularly on blue hostas, but discolored leaves are better than no leaves, right? 

A temporary, but pretty, tabletop

Here are a few things I've learned in the last week:

1. Living near a large, damn near freezing lake (seriously the water temperature off our house is 56 degrees today), has its benefits when it's amazing hot outside (but it's still plenty hot).
2. Detroit is not a good place to get stuck overnight whilst flying (in hindsight, I should have foregone the airline-provided hotel and just stayed in the airport. It was much nicer).
3. I am officially the worst blogger of before-and-afters ever. In my defense, however, that's because I'm so anxious to get going on a project that I forget to take a picture of the before.

That brings me to a little project I pulled off a week or two ago with not a lot of effort. Normally I'd just skip telling you about it giving the lack of before and during pictures, but it actually turned out pretty neat so I'm going to do it anyway. Plus, it's nothing hard it doesn't require a lot of explanation.

Three or so year ago we bought a patio set that included a tiled table. Because we're a little light on storage space, we've been leaving it out all winter, usually covered by a tarp. Apparently that's not so good for a tile-topped table because the tiles started popping off a couple years ago. We just glued them back on but then they'd pop off again. This year the table just started disintegrating to the point where we could pull the tiles off by hand.

I really didn't feel like looking for a new patio set in the beginning of summer (when selection is not at its best and prices are are their highest), nor was that in this year's budget, so we needed to come up with an interim solution. We first tried to take all the tiles off and hopefully just sand the top, but the top was made up of some kind of plasticlike material that couldn't be messed with.

Instead, we bought a half sheet of plywood and had it cut in half to the 48-inch width of the original table. Mr. Much More Patient took the jigsaw to it to get it back into a circular shape and then sanded the edges to round them a bit. We used birch plywood, but they were all pretty much the same price and I think anything would have worked for this purpose.

With the shape defined, the finishing department (that would be me) took over. I sanded the entire thing, both sides with 120-grit then 220-grit sandpaper and primed both sides. This was another spray-paint only project for me (mostly to save time, but also some money because I certainly didn't need an entire quart of paint for this project). The idea with priming the underside of the table was to give it a bit more protection from the elements. I used a spray primer by BIN, which is my preferred brand.

We then attached it to the table base, mostly because Mr. Much More Patient was leaving for a couple weeks and I wanted him to do it before he left. It could have been done at any time in the process after the bottom was primed.

With it attached to the table base I no longer had to rely on the crappy plastic sawbucks, which as you can see in the picture below, fell over with the top on them (the good sawbucks are in continued use with the front screen door, which, if you can believe, I painted backwards about two months ago and is still sitting in the basement waiting to be finished).

Honestly, this is the first part in the process that it occurred to me that I should take some pictures, and I did it mostly to send to my husband to prove that the sawbucks were garbage.

I did about four or five coats of white spray paint on the entire top. I really wanted to coat it well given that the table top could use all the protection it could get. Then I taped off some stripes quickly (and if you look closely you can see they weren't exactly straight, but the priority here was getting a functioning table back) and gave it a full can's worth of spraying with Rustoleum's Stone Gray.

I waited the required 48 hours (that's the thing with spray paint ... you either have to recoat it within an hour or so or wait until it's completely dry in about two days) and then covered in a clear protective spray. Again, my intention is to protect it from the elements as best I could.

When that dried it was a little rough, so I did a very fine wet sanding (where you literally get the sandpaper good and wet) with 1500-grit sandpaper (which I assume we have around for various boat-related projects) just to get it nice and smooth without taking off much of the clear lacquer.

I actually like the new look of the table much more than the old look. I know it won't last very long and I have to wipe it off a lot because the white shows every speck of dirt, but it serves it's purpose beautifully. All told we probably spent about $40 on this (if you divide the cost of the plywood since we still have half a sheet for another project), which is much less than a new table would have cost. I'm not sure if we'll get more than this summer out of it, but we'll certainly enjoy it plenty this year.