Archive for May, 2018

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

The weather continued dismal. It’s not really that unusual for April temps to hover around 50, but somehow Chicagoans always get it in their heads that it will be in the 60s and 70s. We got a lot of rain, which happens in April.

After the raised beds were filled, and the patio built, I moved on to the next project: getting the city itself to trim the five huge trees in the city easement, and this is where living in a well-off suburb rather than the big city was a revelation. Unlike at least five attempts to get Chicago to trim the damaged tree in front of the old place, here I put in a ticket with the Forestry Service, and a couple weeks later they came and trimmed them in the pouring rain. I brought them some hot, fresh scones.

They chipped the trees on site at my request, and my housemate and I spread it on the Botanic to kill what passed for grass in this area.

Late in the month, after the rain had stopped, my housemate built a 40” tall stand for four rain barrels in the farm against the garage wall. Unless rain barrels are up fairly high, there isn’t enough water pressure to use a hose unless they’re full. Once they empty past about a third full, you have to use watering cans, which is tedious and time consuming.

04- (3) AprilThe stand fits four barrels for a total of 200 gallons capacity, which is enough for about a little more than a week of watering my 7 beds, or about 220 square feet of planting area. They are 40” tall, level, and have storage space underneath. It not only is ecologically sound, since I use almost no municipal water in the Farm, but it’s also necessary because there’s no functioning spigot near this part of the garden. I have to drag a hose from the other side of the house (which I did later in the season when it stopped raining).

Then I moved those patio stones again, to a rough approximation, since I didn’t do a sand substrate or make any attempt to level it. They were going to have to moved a third time.

I had now moved 10 CY of mulch, 6 CY of soil, and 80 granite pavers, twice. Then I did some heavy lifting inside, moving two metal file cabinets to the basement.

Eventually this would come back to haunt me.

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April: Soil

2. April 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

April continued unseasonably cool, which was a boon for my next big move: filling the raised beds. With two of them full from soil scavenged earlier in the year from my friend’s old garden, I ordered bulk soil, a garden mix of top soil, compost, sand, and clay.

There’s no “yard” at the actual back or front of my new house, just a narrow gangway in the back, and the city easement in the front. The house faces sideways on a corner lot. At this point I’d designated my four garden rooms:

  • The Botanic—a shade garden in my north sideyard, which in a way is my backyard, although the city considers it my front, since it faces the street that is my address.
  • The Gangway and Savory—west, where I had put the herb garden in October, and staged a lot of plants.
  • The Breezeway and Front—a patio seating area on the actual east-side front of the house, even though it faces a different street from my address. This is endlessly confusing to delivery people and anyone using GPS to find me.
  • The Farm—my vegetable garden, on the south side of the house, where I had put five 18” raised beds.

Raised beds are essentially giant containers, and they need soil that addresses this. Most raised bed blends will contain some combination of topsoil, compost, sand and possibly some clay to emulate loam, the high-organic loose soil that is ideal for cultivation. Some mixes contain a loosener like vermiculite, but I have found that in large containers this will just float to the top and doesn’t do much to really keep the soil loose. You can loosen a clay-like soil better with gypsum, or simply by planting root crops like carrots or parsnips (really).

There are several ways to “make” good garden soil. I have a friend who went the Hugelkultur route, which works best for large areas. This is a way to build soil from old tree trunks, branches, and massive amounts of leaves. It looks an unholy mess when you start, but breaks down in a couple of years to rich, perfect soil.

There’s permaculture, sometimes referred to as “no dig gardening.” You create your garden beds generally over existing soil by making a shallow border and piling on cardboard, leaves and straw, and planting root crops to break up the existing substrate. Many permaculturists don’t even plant out seedlings year to year, but rely on self-seeding (this does not work well for many crops if you have a growing season under 160 days).

04- (2) AprilAs long as you test your existing soil for heavy metals and other contaminants it’s fine to plant in the ground. But I was thinking forward to when I’d get too old and stiff to be wanting to garden at ground level, so I built the high beds, which has the added benefit of mitigating any rabbit problem (rabbits really need three foot walls to really keep them out, but this should at least discourage them).

I filled the bottoms of the beds with leaves, tree branches, and even some sand from the tree planting. Two beds were then completed with soil from a friend’s garden, but the rest I had to buy. The soil I got turned out to be too heavy in topsoil (essentially construction debris, seriously) and clay and too low in sand and organics. When it didn’t rain for most of the time I was slowly filling the beds, it dried into concrete. I spent a lot of time and energy smashing basketball sized clumps of the stuff, and then had to heavily amend with compost.

So here’s the gardening advice: I believe in bulk soil, but I think gardeners should take the extra cautionary step of mixing it themselves. Go to the yard and have them show you their stock. Bulk order 3 parts planting soil, 2 parts compost, 1 part sand and mix it yourself. You can do this by putting that recipe of each (i.e. 3:2:1) in the middle of an old shower curtain or blanket, then shift it corner by corner until it’s mixed. This is easiest with 3 friends to hold up the other corners. You can also purchase pre-mixed raised bed soil in 2 cubic foot bags, but this will be expensive.

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April: Sun

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

April starts outdoor gardening season in Chicago.

Mostly this means finally getting to walk around outside without wearing 50 pounds of outer clothing. But the walkabouts can be useful, too, especially in a new garden, as you get a feel for the space and the light.

One of the things you need to know about your garden, before you plan it, is where the sun is.

There are different ways to plot the sun. To really do it right, make a detailed matrix with a spreadsheet, designating minute portions of the garden down the X axis, and times of day across the Y, and plot in when there is full sun, or mark down the type/amount of sun in each cell. Of course, you’ll need to do this for each month, or each week, starting in April and going through October (in Illinois anyway), to really get accurate data.

04- (1) AprilLess accurately, but also less time-consuming, you can walk outside a few times a day every month or so and write it down. You can make a nice drawing of this too (or, again, several drawings, depending on the month and the time of day).

The main point for any of these is to know which parts of your garden get 6 hours minimum of full sun, and which do not. I wouldn’t obsess about it too much. If you’re growing tomatoes, you need six to eight hours. If you’re growing prairie natives, you probably need 6 hours, but can get away with less. For most other plants, unless it’s deep shade, they’ll probably do just fine.

The spring of 2017 was reluctant. It wasn’t that unusual a spring, with temps hovering around normal for the time of year (low 50s). We got a lot of rain, which happens in April (and made me wish my rain barrels were set up). The difference was that this was more or less the weather we’d been having for months. I felt like it had been reluctant spring since January, and I just wanted it to be done. We never had true cold, or much snow, just this endless niggling not-quite-winter. I like winter, when we have winter.

Now I needed sun, and warmth.

The daffodils were also not down with this. They finally bloomed, taking forever to emerge, and then another couple of weeks to form buds; they didn’t open until mid month.

April ended cold and drizzly and dark.

I had four garden areas to deal with: what I thought was a full shade side yard, but which turned out to be a hybrid site, not enough sun to be considered full sun, not enough shade to make a shade garden. It’s going to take a few years to sort it out. Meantime, it’s a staging area for all those scavenged plants.

The Farm was part shade until I turned it into full sun by removing the junk trees. With the exception of some morning shade from a large tree in the parkway, every part of the area gets at least 8 hours of sun, with the added benefit of the warm brick garage wall for potted plants.

I took the 80 granite street pavers that I’d liberated from the old place and made a little patio in the Breezeway. After laying it out I realized I should have put it in the corner away from the noisy air conditioner, but what the heck—moving 15-lb pavers is practically my religion. It turned out there were ground-dwelling bees in the mulch, too. They were not happy with all the activity. At one point they were actually flinging themselves against the breezeway windows. I felt like I was in a scene from The Birds. They’re not aggressive, but if you don’t like bees, this was not the place for you. They settled down again, at least until I moved the pavers again a couple months on (sorry, bees!).

The Breezeway gets full sun until the parkway trees fill out, after which it’s part sun, with shade from the trees to the east in the morning, and from the house to the west in the afternoon. Midday, the noon sun beats down, warming the granite of the patio, the prairie plants, and whoever is lucky enough to be sitting there.

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