Archive for April, 2018

March: Seeds again

3. March 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

Even cold March days have a very mild spring-like feel with the month’s longer days and higher sun. Bad winter weather happens in March and even April, but it doesn’t last long as a rule (as if there are still rules), and 2016 was off-the-charts.

I like to joke that we seem to now be Kentucky, but without the good booze and horses. (I ate these words the following year, when 2017’s April placed us squarely in Hudson Bay.)

As at the old place, I set up a seed station in the basement, starting herbs and dragon’s claw millet as they tend to be slow starters, but they came up fast, in less than a week. I thought the Breezeway would be too cold for seed starting. Ideally the temperature needs to be no lower than 55 even with the heat mats, but in subsequent years I learned the Breezeway is good for seed starting, if you wait until April (even a cold April like we had the following year). Because of the bright sun in the room, what I lost in temperature, I gained in light.

03- (3) MarchSeed-starting is critical for production-level vegetable gardening like mine. When you grow 20 tomato plants it is unsustainably expensive to purchase nursery seedlings at $5 to $10 each, so I learned to propagate and save seeds for everything I grow. People find vegetable gardens expensive when they commodotize them–you don’t need more than seeds, soil, a trowel, and some sticks, really. No need for all the attrative tools and tchotchkies in the garden center.

Some seeds are easy to collect; for instance for beans and corn the seeds are the part you eat. Just leave them on the plant until they dry, and you have seeds. Tomatoes have to be mildly processed (leave the seeds, goop and all, in a jar until, essentially, they start to mold, then clean and dry them). Leave peppers and eggplants on the plant until they’re a ways past edible. Lettuce, other greens, some annual herbs, and some root vegetables will “bolt;” that is, they start a flowering stalk. Leave them all season and they’ll reseed themselves, although this also takes up space in the beds. Doing this, you discover that lettuce plants create an astonishingly beautiful flower stalk. You don’t have to leave it, unless you have space for the self-seeding option; you can collect the tiny seeds if you need to open up the space for a new planting.

Some seeds can’t be saved without special steps to protect them from cross-pollination. There are wild carrots that will make inedible carrot hybrids; dill will mate with fennel. Squash will cross-pollinate with unpredictable results. If your corn is within a quarter mile of a different breed, even the ones you just planted won’t necessarily come out the way you think they will. If your plants are what they call F1 hybrids (it will say on the packet), it means they aren’t “stable”–the next generation plant may or may not have the same characteristics regardless of pollination; those will need to be purchased from a commercial grower. I grow the same F1 “Provider” beans every year, because they’re so good. But my tomatoes are all “heirloom” varieties, that is, they are stable hybrids, and will reliably create the same thing year after year.

I haven’t bought tomato seeds in 20 years. It’s fun, and it’s satisfying to take your food production the full cycle from seed to seed.

My other March task—filling the raised beds—was definitely made easier by the unseasonal weather. With the soil already unfrozen (I’m not sure it ever froze that year at all), I hauled about 2 cubic yards in 15-gallon storage tubs from a friend’s yard; enough to fill one large and one small bed. My housemate provided enough for another 1/3 bed from pots under the porch at their old place. This took five trips and was the start of a season of hauling heavy things. Since I ended up (a couple months of hauling down the road) with a badly sprained wrist, I think it’s safe to say my days of massive hauling projects probably need to be behind me.

03- (3b) MarchRight at the end of the month, the tulips I had planted in the fall started peaking through. I had a garden.

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March: Snowstorm

2. March 2017

Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

The unusually warm 2017 spring ensured that all the plants thrived both in the breezeway and outside next to the house; I retrieved the diaspora plants, and all of the shrubs started sprouting, although the new redbud kept us biting our nails well into May.

March in Chicago is “extended season” time. A lot of people go through all kinds of hoops (literally–they build hoop houses) to eek out an extra few weeks of planting time. In my experience, for home gardeners this gives you maybe an additional week’s worth of growth: the plants do grow earlier, but slowly because it’s cold even in a hoop house this time of year, and there’s just not enough sunlight. If you plant in a hoop house in March, you’ll have great looking peas by June 1. However, if you plant in the open bed the first week of May, you’ll have great looking peas by June 1.

03- (2) MarchThen, just as we had decided it was spring, and planted out a few things, it decided it actually was winter after all, and dumped a load of snow and a week of unseasonal cold. Chicago didn’t get as slammed as the east coast, but we still ended up with more than 8 inches of snow in two very lovely falls over two days. Not too cold, and the streets were cleared pretty fast, although oddly, even though seriously this was not a bad storm, traffic shut down.

Plants adapted to a Northern Illinois winter actually need the snow. While I don’t think we had a precipitation deficit, because it came down as rain, snow can act as winter “mulch,” protecting roots. Winter rain also doesn’t do much to hydrate the ground—because the ground is mostly frozen, it just runs off. Snow, which melts more slowly than rain comes down, has a chance to seep into the soil, keeping roots and seeds moist.

It was the most snow-free winter in more than 100 years, with not a single snowflake from Christmas to this March storm. Can’t really complain after a winter like this. (Don’t worry, complaints coming for the most miserable April and May in years.) Since I hadn’t actually gotten to see my garden in the snow, because there was no snow in January and February, this was kind of nice. And since in March you know it’s only going to last a few days, especially March in a warm year, I figured this was it (although the joke was on me).


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March: Diaspora

1. March 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

I had an interview with a landscape designer. Not to design my landscape, but to work for her as a designer. Knowledge of plants + gardening background + art degree apparently can equal landscape designer. In talking to her, one of the things I learned was that a garden like mine would probably cost upwards of “not affordable,” with design, plant purchase, installation, and hardscaping.

But I’ll do this garden the way I did the last one: by myself, with some labor from the kids, and a whole lot of scavenged plants and blocks and pavers and pots.

Starting in March, the housemate I’d acquired (that’s a different tale) started bringing me plant orphans, pavers and flagstones from various landscaping sites and stashes: strawberries, a currant bush, some gooseberries (in addition to the one I brought from the old place), and a lot of prairie plants. They kept it up all summer, in fact, bringing discarded plants from job sites and alleyways: everything from weedy spiderwort to an ornamental cherry tree.

I also had my own plant immigrants, and my “diaspora” plants—ones I’d divided and staged in various friends’ yards as soon as I knew that I had to move, four years ago. There was nothing worth saving already at the new place except a couple of hostas and two peonies. The people I bought from were emphatically not gardeners. Neighbors constantly stopped on their way by to tell me how grateful they are that I was putting in these beautiful gardens.

03- (1a) MarchWith my blank slate before me, I started with the big projects to get the various garden “rooms” ready for plants. This meant navigating a new regulatory system. Chicago is pretty much “ask forgiveness, not permission.” My new town seems to have ordinances, fees, and permits for everything, and they apparently drive around looking to catch you. If they do, the fines are burdensome. It’s easy to fly under the radar in Chicago; even though each ward and even neighborhood is a town unto itself, the regulatory regime just doesn’t care all that much about what you do in your front yard, much less the back.

But Evanston requires notifications and permits.

03- (1) MarchNevertheless, not wanting to be told “no” or have to pay a fee, I took a chance and contracted with a tree company without bothering the mention it to anyone to remove all the junk trees along the alley so that the Farm would have full sunlight. Their method was a cliché “Tim-berrrrr!” – notching the trees and then pushing them over. They managed, through skill and luck, to avoid the power lines under which they were growing, as well as the cars both parked and driving down my street. The biggest tree was probably 40 feet tall, so this was fairly terrifying. The same day they were doing this, workers in a nearby suburb died when a tree they were removing fell on a power line.

I had them chip it on the spot; originally I estimated the wood chips pile left at 5 cubic yards, but after seeing the soil dump a couple of weeks later (which I knew to be 4 CY), I think it was probably closer to 10.

Here is the list of plants we had scavenged by the end of June:

  • Angelonia
  • Aster and boltonia
  • Astilbe
  • “1/5th of an azalea”
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Blue eyed grass
  • Blue Rush (Junca)
  • Boltonia/Aster
  • Cherry tree*
  • Clove currant bush
  • Columbine
  • Coneflower
  • Elderberry
  • False strawberry
  • Ferns (3 varieties)
  • Fleabane
  • Foam flower
  • Ground sedum
  • Hosta (several types)
  • Hydrangea, shrub
  • Hydrangea, climbing
  • Hydrophyllum*
  • Iris
  • Jewelweed
  • Lamiastrum
  • Lamium
  • Liatris
  • Lily (Asiatic)
  • Limelight sedum
  • Lysmachia
  • Milkweed*
  • Monarda
  • Ornamental Cherry
  • Peony
  • Potentilla (maybe. We’re not sure)
  • Redbud
  • Red Twig dogwood
  • Rose of Sharon
  • Solomon’s Seal
  • Spiderwort
  • Sunflower
  • Sylphium
  • Wiegela
  • Wild Garlic
  • Wild Ginger
  • Witch Hazel tree
  • Wood Poppy
  • Yarrow*
  • Yucca

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