Garden tasks to pass the time

First of all, if you're finding this blog from Young House Love, welcome! I'm thrilled you popped over to see the blog and I hope you enjoy it. I tend to jump around topic-wise, ranging from renovations (currently we're working on our kitchen) to gardening to DIY projects. If you like what you see, you might want to consider getting posts by e-mail, which you can sign up for just over there ----> to the right.

I was surprised and so honored that John and Sherry from the fabulous Young House Love blog (and New York Times bestselling book) featured our house renovation on their blog yesterday. I loved reading people's comments about it and I'm happy that some people found a little inspiration in it.

I know I'm not the only frustrated gardener out there chomping at the bit for spring. Winter is hanging on a bit long in many parts of the country. So to help us all out of our funk, I thought I'd share a few things you can do now to get ready for gardening. Some of these things depend a bit on what part of the country you're in, but up here in zone 5b we're among the last for spring to show up so there's a good bet that you should be on this schedule or ahead of it.

Prune SOME shrubs 
The some is key here. You do not want to prune spring blooming shrubs now because they have already set their buds and you will cut off your flowers. The key is finding out if a shrub blooms on "new wood" (stems that grow this year) or "old wood" (stems from last year or before). Some of my favorite hydrangeas like 'Limelight' can be pruned to whatever degree is necessary. They don't need to be pruned though (other than removing dead wood). I should have pruned my Limelights in late February or early March but I just never did. This weekend I'll put on my boots and stomp through some snow to do a light pruning (nothing like I did a few years ago). The less you prune, the bigger the flowers will be, so keep that in mind. I will just prune the big Limelight by about a third just to keep it in check size-wise. The new Limelights along the deck will just be slightly pruned to shape them a little as they are still growing.

Have no fear, just a few months after pruning, 'Limelight' will be looking like this.
The other shrub that is going to get a good pruning is the purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria), which I'm embarrassed to say I have never pruned. It was obvious last year that it was all out shape and badly in need of a good prune job. Like most plants that I'm not familiar with the pruning requirements of I did a little research and it turns out that April is the time for pruning them in my zone. Most advice seems to recommend a pretty hefty pruning (down to a foot or 18 inches) for smoke bushes (this is for smoke bushes that are being grown as shrubs, not trained into a tree form). I know it's tough to do that to a big shrub, but it will recover in no time. The year that you prune, however, you will have no flowers (the "smoke") so you will have to sacrifice those. That's OK by me as I'm really interested in the foliage.

The purple foliage of a smoke bush with the pink bloom of clematis 'Princess Diana', which grows up its branches in my garden.
Get that compost pile cooking again
Although I add kitchen scraps to the compost pile all winter, I do let it go dormant during winter. I just bought a compost thermometer (I am oddly excited about this purchase) and found that my pile is currently 32 degrees. I don't think anything is decomposing at that temperature.

As soon as it is workable (and, um, not covered in snow), I will start stirring the pile, adding water if it is too dry. Because I put a lot of well chopped up leaves and yard waste in the pile during our fall cleanup the pile always comes into spring a bit heavy on the "browns" (high in carbon). I kick-start in spring by adding well moistened alfalfa cubes. Alfalfa is very high in nitrogen so really balances things out and getting things decomposing again. I buy a bag of alfalfa cubes at the feed store about once every three years and soak them well in a five-gallon bucket so they break down a bit. Then I pour them into the compost, stir well and within a few days I usually have steam rising from the pile. There is something so incredibly satisfying about making the best thing for your garden. My problem is that there is never, ever enough compost.

Plan your vegetable garden
Ideally you will grab a piece of graph paper to do this, but I'll be honest and tell you that I usually end up doing it on a piece of scratch paper while watching television, but that's because I know from previous years about how much space I need for various things. Just putting it on paper helps a lot. Remember not to plant your tomatoes in the same place every year if you can at all help it. They say it's best to alternate between three different places but I just switch the tomatoes from one side of the raised bed to the other every year. It helps to know how much space things need to grow but keep in mind that you can plant much more intensely if you have very good soil enriched with a lot of compost. That's the theory I subscribe to. Make the soil as good as you can and then stick a lot of veggies in there. You can also plan out where you'll be switching things out. For instance, I always place my cucumbers and my peas in the same spot because the peas are usually done by the time it's time for the cukes to be planted.

Finish your clean up
If you're like me, sometimes you don't get to everything that needs cleaning up in fall. I prefer to leave some things, like perennial grasses, standing for winter interest. It's important to chop off the dead foliage on these as soon as possible (mine are still under snow, but I will do it the second I can get to them). The problem with spring clean up is that you have to be careful about walking in your beds. The last thing you want to do is compact your soil when it is sodden. If I have to step in beds I try to do it in one step instead of tromping all over the place and then I use a rake to reach in and pull out any material I've cut down.

So all is not lost as we wait for spring to arrive!

Speaking of spring, don't forget about the Grand Garden Show on Mackinac Island this summer (check out some of the details here). They now have the website for the event up and complete and I'm absolutely thrilled to see that Stacey Hirvela of Spring Meadow Nursery and Susan Martin of Walters Gardens have joined the line-up. I heard Stacey speak back when she was working at Martha Stewart Inc. and it was memorable.

Jack Barnwell also tells me that he's got all the private garden owners signed on for tours as well and I can assure you this will be a spectacular opportunity that is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Anyway, check out the website for more info or you can call Karen at 906-430-1206 or email her at mackinacgardenshow (at) if you want to ask some specific questions.

Catching up in a few other gardens

I hate to leave you hanging on garden posts while I'm stuck in kitchen renovation land. Plenty of the country also got a thick blanket of snow recently so I think we're all a bit fed up with spring's punctuality problem. It snowed at our house a bit over the weekend too so I didn't exactly get my garden chores done to write about.

Anyway, there is a lot of great stuff going on in garden blog land so I thought I'd help satisfy your garden itch by offering up a few here.

Steve's illustrated seed packets. Steve Asbell photo
Steve from The Rainforest Garden (who so nicely shared his favorite shrub on this blog) is giving away packets of seeds that feature his illustrations. Enter here.

Shawna Coronado featured Steve Bender aka The Grumpy Gardener on her blog. Steve writes a blog for Southern Living magazine and also wrote the book Passalong Plants. You can get a peek at his garden in Shawna's post as well.

LaManda Joy
Don't miss this inspiring story and interview with LaManda Joy about the The Peterson Garden project that created a huge organic victory garden in Chicago.

And if you're looking for a cute Easter project, check this out to see how you can make an Easter basket fairy garden.

And lastly, Debbie Roberts is offering some tips on how to select a tree for your garden. This is timely for me as I've been poring over Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs for weeks now trying to figure out what to replace some of the trees we lost (or will soon lose) thanks to our late winter storm.

Hopefully soon I'll have a real-life garden story to write but for now we remain firmly entrenched in the throes of winter.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Or: How we got this crazy heavy sink out of the kitchen and onto the deck.

I'm writing this Sunday morning. The cabinets are being installed and I'm mostly hiding because I don't really care for the messy/scary parts.

But rather than leave you totally hanging on a kitchen update, I thought I'd share a little item about how to get things done when you have get things done.

One thing I've learned from my adventures in DIYing various things, is that the worst-case scenario is almost never as bad as it seems so you can almost always recover a project from failure. This has led me to come up with some pretty bizarre and creative solutions to problems. Mr. Much More Patient often shakes his head at whatever crazy method I come up with do something. But you know what? It usually works.

However, I surprised even myself with the stroke of genius I had yesterday when we found ourselves in a major pickle of the demolition variety. We had removed all the old cabinets other than the sink cabinet. In our way was the cast iron sink. I don't know how much that particular sink weighs, but I looked up a similar sink online that is 125 pounds. That is a lot of weight for one relative weakly plus Mr. Much More Patient to lift up in the air (to clear the bottom of the sink from the cabinet). First we called a strong relative but he wasn't available to help and the person who was taking the cabinets was on her way back to pick up the rest. It was time to get creative.

We entertained the idea of a car jack but we figured it would go through the bottom of the cabinet. Then I laid in the bottom of the cabinet and pushed up, but my short arms only bought us a couple extra inches before I maxed out. But in theory it worked.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I was going to have to do my best man-in-a-box impersonation and get in there. I might not have a lot of upper body strength but I do have pretty good leg strength. Also, my legs are longer than my arms, although probably not by much. After a quick change into sweatpants (there was no force on earth that was going to allow me to crunch up into that small of a ball with jeans on), I crammed my entire body into that cabinet and gave a big ol' push with my legs. Mr. Much More Patient pulled from the top and balanced it on the edge of the cabinet while I snuck out of the cabinet to grab and edge so we could carry it out on the deck.

That sink will be going back in temporarily while we wait for the new counters to be installed but we'll definitely be calling in stronger help for that. I don't think the legs work in reverse.

This year's seed order

Since it seems like so many people are dealing with less-than-stellar spring weather, I'm making a concerted effort not to spend too much time complaining about it. So instead of mentioning that there is still a 5-foot tall pile of snow in my yard, or that I'm behind on pruning things because I can't get through the snow to actually get to them, I decided to talk about what I've ordered so far in terms of seeds.

Here's what I've ordered so far (I still need to pick up some cukes and nasturiums):

From Dagawalla Seeds & Herbs (first time ordering from them):

Huichol Nicotiana: I'll admit that I ordered these on a bit of a whim. Margaret Roach wrote about interesting Nicotianas  on her A Way to Garden blog and I feel hard for them. I figured it was worth a shot.

The seeds arrived yesterday and what I found when I opened the envelope pretty much charmed the pants off of me. Check it out ... a hand-written note (and a free pack of seeds)!

From Fedco Seeds (my first time ordering from them):

Beans: I love beans and usually eat them straight out of the garden. I never have enough beans because I get stingy with my garden space. This year I'm hoping to actually have enough. I grew Velour last year and loved it although the beautiful green color doesn't stay when you cook it.

Jade Bush Green Bean
Velour Haricots Verts
Golden Rocky Bush Wax Bean

Peas: I love peas too and this year I'm going to try to get them in on time, which never, ever happens. Cascadia is a bush variety and Sugarsnap is a taller variety that is supposed to produce really well.

Cascadia Snap Pea 
Sugarsnap Snap Pea

Beets: I didn't grow beets last year and I missed them. So they are back for this year. Margaret Roach says this is the best beet mix there is. Good enough for me.

3 Root Grex Beet

3 Root Grex Beet mix

Scallions: I never have a lot of luck with these but then again I don't treat them very well either. They are cheap and don't take up much space so I figure it's worth a try.

Evergreen Hardy White Scallion

Lettuce: More than almost anything, I love lettuce from the garden. Nothing you could ever buy in the store tastes like homegrown lettuce. I think these are mostly made up of leaf varieties, so I just cut as needed. The key is to do lots of plantings which I usually forget to do.

Lettuce Mix
DeLuxe Lettuce Mix

Swiss Chard: I have grown to absolutely love chard and I grow this one as much for the taste as for looks. This produced all summer for me last year.

Bright Lights Chard

Swiss chard 'Bright Lights'

Broccoli: I kind of hate broccoli, but I do use rapini and broccolini in a couple of recipes and I don't mind it. I've found that the best way to learn to love a vegetable is to grow it yourself. Funny how things taste better when you grow them. This kind is a non-heading variety.


Kale: I love kale as an ornamental. I am always amazed at the beautiful containers Deborah Silver creates with kale. But kale is also really, really good for you and it's another vegetable I'm trying to make a concerted effort to learn to love. Whether I learn to love to eat it or not, I will certainly enjoy its beauty. And the dogs absolutely love kale (and all other leafy vegetables) so I can always feed it to them if I have too much.

Redbor Kale
Rainbow Lacinato Kale
Nero di Tuscana Kale

Redbor kale

Other than the aforementioned cucumbers and nasturiums, I think that's about it for me for seeds this year. I also grow onions from slips, and tomatoes and zucchini from plants, but mostly because I just don't need tons of those so growing from seed doesn't make a lot of sense. 

I'm excited to get growing. Now, if I could just find the vegetable garden under all this snow ....

The beauty of small decisions

With any renovation there are big decisions and little decisions. I find the big decisions to be nerve-wracking exercises in self-doubt. There is nothing like knowing you are spending a lot of money on something that is not easily changed—the layout, counters, etc—to give you a good case of decision paralysis. Because we sort of fast-tracked our mini kitchen renovation there wasn't a lot of time to linger over decisions, but that doesn't mean they can't come back to haunt you at 3 a.m.

Small decisions, though, are the best. That is totally in my wheelhouse. If I could find a job as an official small decisionmaker, I'd be thrilled. Because it's fun to make decisions when there aren't serious consequences to being wrong. Those of you who follow me on Facebook have seen a few of these ridiculous decisions (yes, some are ridiculous, but that's kind of the fun of small decisions, isn't it?) in real-time.

So, in honor of small decisions, here are a few pictures of a lot of the small decisions that went into the kitchen.

Cabinet glass options

Counters count as a big decision, but just so you can see how bad it got, those are all the countertop samples I purchased. That does not include all the samples I hauled home from the showroom. By the way, at some point I'll make a list of all the samples I now own that I have laying around that I'll send to blog readers if they need them, but drop me a line if you're looking for something specific, particularly in Caesarstone or Bendheim glass.
LED light colors. I know, really?
And if that wasn't bad enough, how about light switch/outlet plate colors? 

It actually shouldn't be too long before I find out if some of the big decisions I made for the kitchen were the right call or not. I did get the ceiling painted this past weekend and honestly, it was easier to brush it on than it was to roll it on like I did the first time. And it looks much better. I've been unpacking the insane amounts of stuff that were hiding in our cabinets and the cabinets will be coming out this week. I approved the cabinet paint color on Monday and the new cabinets should be installed on Sunday, followed quickly by countertop templating the next day.

My push to get this kitchen project finished before it was time to garden turns out be somewhat in vain, given that we just got MORE snow and the last bunch has barely started to melt. For the day before spring, it sure looks a lot like winter out there.

Make your own garden mistakes

I was shuffling through Google Reader* this morning checking on all my favorite blogs (the iPad and a cup of coffee in bed are pretty much the best accompaniments to blog reading) and one of my favorite design blogs was talking about gardening. I love when that happens. This great designer (who shall remain nameless) is making a garden for her family. I think that is fantastic and from the little bit she mentioned about it, it sounds like it's going to be beautiful.

And then she mentioned that she's planning on lining all the beds in oregano. She's working with a friend who designs garden so maybe he knows more than I do about gardening in her area. But what I know about oregano is that it's a lot like mint in that it can be a total hog. They say once you have oregano you always have oregano, unless you plant it in a pot.

Lots and lots and lots of oregano. Herb Gardening photo

So I debated for a minute about posting a comment with a small warning about oregano. I mean, it would be sad to see a beautiful garden get unmanageable within a few years because it turned into an oregano factory.

And then I decided not to. Partly that's because I don't want to ever come across as a know-it-all. I don't know it all. In fact in the world of gardening I suspect I actually know very little (this is part of the reason I love gardening so much: there is always more to learn). Also, she didn't exactly ask for opinions on it. It's different if someone outright asks you for an opinion. But the other reason I didn't want to send up a warning flare is that I think gardening is one of those areas where you have to learn from your own mistakes.

Oh sure, people can warn you and provide advice, but sometimes you just need to learn your own lessons through trial and error. In other words, you made your bed of oregano and now you need to lie in it.

There are lessons I learned that my mother and countless other gardeners warned me about. "Don't buy one of everything, buy lots of a few things," my mom said. But that's not what I did, is it? Nope, I had a veritable collector's garden going on out there, which is OK if you're truly a collector, but not attractive if you want a pretty garden. I bet it took me four years to figure that out.

"Even though it tolerates shade, you can't plant that oakleaf hydrangea in shade and expect it to bloom much," I was told. Well guess what I did anyway? I don't know if I thought that maybe I was special and that the laws of horticulture did not apply to me, but I planted that oakleaf hydrangea in  full-on shade. Twice (I took it back to the nursery under warranty after the first year when it outright died).

"Artemesia is a spreader," I'd heard. Oh pee-shaw, my formerly cocky gardening self thought. It won't be for me!  Mmmm hmmmm. This is how that turned out.

Having made those mistakes (and countless others) I will not try those things again. In fact, I'm a better gardener for having made those mistakes.

That's why sometimes, when you see someone making a gardening mistake, it's better to just let them make it.

*Apparently Google Reader is going away in a few months. A lot of you follow me through a Google Reader subscription. To make sure you keep getting posts, you can subscribe via email at that link on the right above. In the meantime, I'm trying out some Google Reader alternatives and I'll let you know if I find one I like. 

Dear Spring: Where are you?

I think March must be the most challenging month in my neck of the woods. It feels like it should be spring. The stores are filled with pastel everything, magazine covers are fresh and bright and lucky friends who live even a little bit south of here are in the full-on throes of springtime.

But it is not spring here. It is most certainly still winter. Oh sure, the birds chirp when the sun comes out but we're just as likely to get snow as we are to get rain. The daytime temperature seems almost permanently pegged at 35 degrees.

It seems worse than usual this year because I did not escape to anywhere warm all winter and last year we had an unusually early spring (and we actually had spring, which is not typical). I think this year is actually far more normal than last year, but when I think about what I was doing at this time last year (including golfing with my girlfriends in cropped pants on St. Patty's Day), this year is downright depressing.

Last year on March 1, I posted a photo of an allium that was about 4 inches out of the ground.

Last year:

This year there are barely nubbins of daffodils poking up in the one area that's not covered in snow.

Last year I was showing off the leaf buds on one of the clematis:

This year I'm showing off our new unintended water feature. Parts of the garden are under at least 6 inches of standing water and now that water is freezing again.

See the bridge about two-thirds of the way into the "pond"? The white things you see off to the left are plant tags!
And last year on April 2, just three weeks from today, I was showing off pictures of the Can Can rose with tons of leaves and a bright little daffodil.

Sights like that seem so very far away. Sigh.

Oh how I love a great garden path

My favorite of my boards on Pinterest is my "Great Garden Paths" board. I have a weakness for garden paths. There is something so incredibly inviting about a path through a garden. It says, "Explore me," or "Feel free to look AND touch, I'm cool with it."

My favorite garden paths bend around corners, begging you to follow them to see what lies beyond. In my book, a great garden design practically forces you to continue exploring and nothing does that better than a path.

Paths define how intimate a space is by their width. A wide path, by its very nature, is more social and meant to be traversed with company. A narrow path tells you you will be one with the garden.

This is the kind of narrow path I could imagine myself meandering down with a cup of coffee in the early morning. Aren't you dying to know what is around that corner?

Wide and stable, this path is meant for a crowd. I picture a group gathered for a dinner party, cocktails in hand, traversing this path to head back to the house after having appetizers in a scenic spot on the property.

Gravel is a lovely choice for a path. It is easy to maintain and makes the most lovely crunching sound underfoot, but it can be hard to walk on. I think it should be reserved for paths that are meant to be walked on slowly, not rushed down. Cut gravel is better than pea gravel, which can actually feel a little slippery because it rolls around. Of course if you intend to have people walk barefoot on the path, then you have to go with pea gravel, lest you create a torture device for bare feet.

The concrete (or perhaps bluestone) rectangles on this path give it a modern edge, but because it is still undulating, it has a little bit of a rustic feel too.

This path is easy to walk on with stones set in concrete, and well-defined by the red bricks.

I think my favorite paths have a mixture of materials and different sizes and shapes.

My own path is combination of flagstone, bluestone and black gravel (gardens have been added to soften the edges since this photo).

 Some paths are made of unexpected materials. This one is slices of a tree.

Concrete strips with moss in between.
Los Angeles Times photo

I love this wood path.

Some paths aren't so much about the destination as they are about the path itself.

Judy White/ photo

This path isn't even meant to be a path.

Victoria Vasilieve photo 

Obviously I have a thing for paths, but I think my favorite of all paths are those over water. What could possibly be more fun?

Apartment Therapy photo

What does your perfect garden path look like?

Big snow, big mess

Last week Tuesday we got a dumping of snow the likes of which we've not seen for years around here.   It wasn't so much the quantity—a healthy 12 inches at least, but probably more like 14 or 15—but the water content of what fell. I read somewhere that it had 30% more water than the average snowfall, thanks to the storm system picking up massive amounts of moisture from Lake Michigan.

All that heavy snow wreaked havoc on the yard. The trees were laden with snow, bowing under its immense weight.

I've heard plenty of times that it's not good to shake the snow off trees (I believe that's because the branches can be brittle and break when they snap back up), but it was clearly a salvage mission out there. The Serviceberry tree, which stands at good 20 or 25 feet tall was reduced to a 6-foot-tall mound, all its branches bending over. The new arborvitaes planted last year had all flopped over, laying almost flat in the snow. The main branch on an older birch that we hang the bird feeders on drooped so low the bird feeders were laying on the ground.

The Serviceberry to the left of the photo was completely crumpled.
One of the bird feeders was sitting on the ground as a branch of an old birch bowed under the weight of the snow.
The cedar trees, though, sustained the worst of the damage. We have precious few cedars left on our property as they are difficult to grow because they are the favorite treat of deer and therefore are stripped bare of all foliage 7 feet off the ground and lower. They do line our driveway and we have a lovely mature cedar outside the living room window that provides an excellent screen from the neighbors and the road. We also have a few more the east edge of our property that screen us from the neighbor in that direction.

That's our garage back there. The Serviceberry was bending almost into what should have been the driveway and the cedars and spruces on the other  side of the driveway were full of broken branches.
Every cedar lost branches. We actually had to cut branches along the driveway just so our neighbor who plows for us could clear the driveway. The ones to the east were a huge mess. And the great cedar outside the living room lost two branches, causing the remaining tree to list toward the house, at one point making it so heavy with snow that it rested on the roof.

With a main branch broken, this big cedar outside the living room was listing badly.

We spent all weekend clearing fallen branches and took six overflowing truckloads of branches away. Lumberjacking is exhausting work!

Most trees recover pretty well once the snow falls off them and the remaining part of that cedar did pop back up a little, but it's clear that losing two more main branches (we had cut one damaged one off that balanced it in the other direction several years ago) was the death nail. It's no longer safe.

The ancient birch tree that the bird feeders were on needs to go as well. We knew that was coming when we were hanging Christmas lights on it and discovered that the entire thing is mostly hollow and dead.

And then there is the great birch to the east. It is a stately tree that I look at from our bedroom windows in every season. I've noticed over the last couple years that the branches seem to be getting closer and closer to the bedroom windows. It is a lovely tree to set the hammock under and relax in summer. Occasionally we find huge dead branches from it fallen on the lawn. It's not healthy.

Sadly I think it's time for this birch to go.
Birch trees have a life span of about 50 years here and I have to think this tree is at least that. This has been wearing on us lately, and last week when I laid in bed listening to the branches break outside (I heard the big cedar branch come down with a huge crack), I couldn't sleep for fear that I'd wake up with that birch tree in my bed. I guess when you start not being able to sleep because you're worried about a tree falling on your house, it is, perhaps, time to do something about that tree.

We will be incredibly sad to see it go, which is why we've put off what we knew was inevitable for at least three years now.

Any doubts we had about our decision to have the tree removed by a professional when the snow melts a little (but before the ground thaws to minimize damage to the yard), were tempered when we saw the huge birch that fell in our next door neighbor's yard during the snowstorm. Our houses were built within a year of each other and we have reason to believe the trees were planted at about the same time too.

Our neighborhood is called Cedar Beach, but with all the damage to the cedars in the neighborhood, I'm starting to think someday the "cedar" part of Cedar Beach won't make much sense.

Somewhere under that pile, the boxwood meatball is lurking. I wonder if it will be totally flattened when it emerges.