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

Mother’s Day has a lot of origin myths.

There was one movement to choose a day for the mothers of Civil War vets; another as a nationwide effort for mothers to promote peace. In the U.K. there was a tradition of “Mothering Sunday,” honoring mothers in church on the fourth Sunday of Lent. In America, it’s a sentimental and highly commercialized Take Mom To Brunch Day.

Celebrated around the world, it’s variously recognized as Women’s Day (many countries in the Russian sphere of influence), Women and Children’s Day (Asia), and on various queens’ official birthdays. In Arab countries, mothers are celebrated on March 21, the first day of spring. Like western versions, it’s slotted in right around Beltaine, which as you may recall from February is a holiday for both making and birthing babies.

Congress officially recognized Mother’s Day in 1914, just in time for all the mothers to send their sons off to die in another war.

For Mothers Day in 2017, rather than making me breakfast, or taking me out for a meal, my kids came over and transplanted all my shrubs in the Botanic. Before getting started we walked over to Dunkin’ Donuts and ate junky sweets for breakfast.

05- (1) MayThe kids placed and planted blueberries, currants, and gooseberries in the sunnier spots. We, well they, also planted out other diaspora and scavenged shrubs.

With the plants that my housemate was still scavenging, there are now too many, too large plants in too small an area. I think next May is going to see some serious re-landscaping to pull it together.

There are people with gardens, and there are gardeners. People with gardens hire services to design landscapes where the plants are in the right place when they go in because the designer knows what they are doing, and because they’re getting more mature plants. Gardeners might approach their spaces like this, but often as not, they’re like me—moving plants around as they learn the space, and the plants mature, and you learn what thrives where.

Even in mature gardens, where spaces are filled and plants are large, you have to do some digging and moving. Older plants require occasional dividing so they don’t get unruly or outgrow the space. That’s why I had a garden at all in the first year here—I divided 60 mature plants in the old garden and brought them with me.

This garden required a lot of moving around, because plants were small when I brought them in, and because I hadn’t thought through the space. I acquired the plants in a piecemeal way, one or two at a time, sometimes weeks apart. So the plants had to go in, and then others arrived and everything had to be moved.

So even though I had “designed” all the garden spaces, the plants got moved a lot.

I planned for the Botanic to be a part sun garden, as it seemed to be getting 6 hours of sun across about 25% of the area despite several large shade trees. There are actually very few plants that do well in Zone 5 that really can’t take the sun. It’s just that there are plants that can take the shade. There are also plants that are just less invasive in the shade. I have a beautiful purple-leaf lysimachia that propagates by runners, and will completely take over a sunny garden, but behaves itself in the shade.

It turns out, instead, to have not quite enough sun to support sun-loving plants, but not quite deep enough shade to be a shade garden. It’s going to take a few years while I sort it out.


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May: Frost Date

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

Every year I tell myself I will not plant anything until after the “frost date,” i.e. the latest date that frost might still threaten, which is theoretically May 10 in Chicago. And indeed, there was a frost in the western ‘burbs on May 9 of 2017 during the garden’s first year. In general, cool and long-season crops like greens can take, and even benefit from, frost. At any rate, it’s mostly hard frosts—the kind that get into the soil, or lay heavily on the leaves—that are a problem for vegetables. We generally don’t get those after mid April even in a cold year.

Still, every year I plant before May 10 and regret it. There’s no reason to extend the season in this way. I’ve always got plenty preserved from the prior year, and of course, there are grocery stores.

After the 80-degree tease in April, we went back to a typically annoying Chicago “spring” of 50-degree daytime highs and 30-degree overnight lows, coupled with no sun and too much rain. But this was actually not unusual weather. It turns out it would be weirder in the second week of May for it to be warm. I went back and looked at all my journals from 2006 on, and found these notes. In 2005-2006, “cool.” Then “70s!” in 20017 but back to cool and rainy in 2008, and frost in 2009. 2010 was warm, 2011 cool, and 2012 “seasonal” although I have no idea what I meant by that. I had no notations for 2013, but in 2014 it snowed and 2015 I “turned the heat on.” 2016 said “50s wtf” which kinda is the quintessential comment on Chicago weather.

Only 3 years out of 10 were what I would think of as “seasonal” i.e. upper 60s (which is also what the local weather reports seem to consider seasonal). Maybe they’re only considering temperatures at O’Hare. But here by the lake it’s pretty much SOP with this miserable rainy cold.

05- (1) May

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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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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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