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A Year of Gardening

October 2018: A year goes by
The series starts here

You may notice from the date on this entry that I’ve skipped ahead: I’ve had another full year in the garden.

I made some adjustments, and watched things grow. I moved some plants around (which I’ll keep doing forever. For me it’s like rearranging the furniture). I know what works a little better. I got the spigots fixed and routed municipal water through a 100 foot hose into the farm so I can water properly when the rain barrels are empty. I’m getting a better handle on where the shade is, and I’ve had a second harvest. I planted more bulbs, more shrubs, and more prairie plants. I have a pear tree, an elderberry, and two pawpaws.

You’re never really done with a garden; even rooted, plants can, and need to be, moved, divided, pruned. Kind of like families. I do daily walkabouts all year long, carrying my paper journal and jotting down the little and big things that still need doing—finish the wall, reset the pavers, dig up the dandelions.

My last garden, which was also my first garden, grew over a 25-year span. It grew with my children, who were 3 and 7 when I first started to plant things, and were 27 and 30 the last time I walked through it. It grew, like the new one did, from plain grass to an elaborate mix of beds and paths and plants, much like children grow from a plain baby to an elaborate mix of knowledge, hope, and love.

I started this new garden several steps ahead of the old one. I had a good grounding of knowledge and experience that I didn’t have when I decided it would be fun if the kids could pick their own food from the backyard, and dug prairie plants out of my father’s backyard in a prairie town downstate. I knew how much space I needed for vegetables, and that it’s nice to sit and watch the world go by. I knew I liked berry fruits, and that they’re easy to grow. I knew how to build a retaining wall the right way.

I had a cherished fantasy about the old garden, of watching my grandchildren, still unborn, learn about the space. About where we used to plant so many snow peas that we couldn’t stand them anymore, and the story of the dog that is buried there, and where the secret entrance was that led to Narnia. To watch them nibbling raspberries right off the canes like their parents did, and make more grape jelly than we need from the vines on the porch.


Instead, we’ll make new memories here, in a new garden, where the stories are still to be born, too.

Take a tour around the garden’s second year here: http://bit.ly/2RsKQ5E


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September: Equinox

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

Of the lunar events that mark the calendar, the fall equinox is my favorite.

The garden balances between summer and winter. There is still food to harvest, and a few three-season flowers like cleome, sunflowers, and black-eyed susan that won’t give in to the cool nights. The main color has changed from summer’s neon to fall’s subtler reds and purples. The canterbury bells, whose blue insistence marks the beginning of the July peak, have formed hard seed pods; its leaves are turning yellow. The delphinium and baby’s breath sigh out one more bloom into the chilly morning air. The banes are flowering— bugbane, fleabane, wolfsbane, leopardsbane.

The goddess sends her winter scouts in the guise of spiders the size of a finger joint, and the cicadas scream out a final chorus before the chill takes them underground.

09-Sept (2a)The memory stones–repository for the things I have lost–sit in the heavy rain that impedes the work. The morning dew has that heavy cold sparkle that says “I want to be frost”.

Gardening becomes the mirror of the spring–long days filled with heavy tasks. In the new house I have to switch out eleven screens for the heavy old-fashioned storm windows. I empty the summer’s compost into the beds as I remove the spent plants , replenish the mulch, store outdoor furniture,  and empty and upend the rain barrels. Garlic and bulbs get planted,09-Sept (2c) potted plants are brought inside for the winter. When I was younger I would do it all in late October in a couple of marathon days. Now I spread it out over weeks, and wonder about the time when I won’t be able to do this anymore.

I tend to extremes, so it’s not really in character for the fall Equinox to be my favorite of the earth holidays. I’m not a compromiser. Libra and her scales just annoy me— it’s ONE way or the other,  f*ck compromise, I’m right. My brother, with an autumn birthday, is a classic Libran compromiser. I can’t imagine how awful it must have been for him growing up in a household with a dour and whiny Capricorn (me), a flighty, intense Gemini (my mother) and a choleric Ares (my father).

My birth family, come to think of it, matched the sun cycle–two Solstice and two Equinox birthdays: winter, spring, summer, fall. There’s a novel in there somewhere, or a mythology. Perhaps the eventual implosion of that family unit is the reason I’m a gardener–a garden matches the eternal with the ephemeral. It is something you can both keep and consume. A family that consumes itself, like mine did, has no replant; you cannot save the seeds and start again.

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September: Harvest

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

Through all of August 2017 we got less than 3 inches of rain.

The food garden was suffering. I went through all the water in the rain barrels, and had to start dragging the hose around from the other side of the house (there’s no spigot on the farm side, unfortunately). I got plenty of harvest, but not what there would have been in a better rain year.

Many years ago, on this blog and my old family recipe one Mahlzeit, I decided to see if I could grow enough food to preserve for a full cycle, really about 9 months from final harvest to first fruits. This was the main thing that expanded the garden as I learned how much and what to plant to make this happen.

It’s easier now with just me using the produce. When the family was together, I never made it past January, but now I routinely get through the year by preserving produce from 18 tomato plants, 3 eggplants, 100 beans, 10 potato plants, 10-15 corn stalks, plus four square feet each of carrots, onions, and beets. I can or freeze the tomatoes, roast then freeze the eggplants, blanch then freeze the corn and beans. My housemate remarked that everything I eat is “processed” but then, everything I eat is homegrown, so I’m not sure how it’s better to buy tomatoes from Chile in midwinter because they’re “fresh.” Plus, once you cook them into sauce, you’ve processed it anyway. Not sure it counts as processed if it’s not full of salt and preservatives.

In the first year of the new garden I ended up with 20 half pints of tomato sauce; close to my goal of 25 that I know will get me through the year. I lost the pumpkin vines to squash vine borers and inconsistent water. It’s tough to water this many raised beds by hand. You just can’t keep up; they dry out too quickly. Same with the second bean planting, my shelling beans that I dry for soups and chili. The plants died down earlier than in past years so that I didn’t get as much harvest from them as I should. I chose not to plant a third round, because if it doesn’t rain, they just wouldn’t sprout. A lot of the ornamental plants in the Botanic died too, as well as both cherry trees (planted from bare root stock just before the drought hit).

I always tell novice gardeners not to worry about stuff like this; after all, there are grocery stores. You won’t starve if the garden doesn’t produce. And there’s always the gardeners’ (and the Cubs fan) mantra:

Just wait ‘til next year.

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4. August, 2017
Planted: A Year of Gardening
The series starts here

08- August (4)I used to live a 15-minute walk from Chicago’s lakefront. I chose the new place partially for that proximity but it’s an additional 30 minute walk; a little more of a commitment. I seriously considered buying a condo off one of these beaches, but decided I couldn’t live without a garden of my own.

The beaches in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood are part of the long “forever open and free” stretch that makes Chicago’s lakefront so unique. For most of its length, even in sections downtown, the lakefront is public space, open to anyone, never taken over by developers with their hands in the pockets of City Hall.

Considering Chicago politics, it’s remarkable.

This stretch has a nearly uninterrupted stretch of beaches from the city limits at Howard to Loyola University, more than 2 miles, with one mile-plus length of sand that includes piers, a small lighthouse, snack stands, two Park District field houses, and restored dunes. When we first moved to the area the beaches were nearly 60 feet deep, but lake levels have now decimated a lot of it, completely obliterating several small coves, and shortening the walk by nearly half a mile. People who used to have beach at the end of their street now have tiny bays.

On August 21, I sat on this beach with my daughters, and watched the sun disappear in the middle of the day. I’ve witnessed many partial eclipses, although never a full one. The lasting impression is of eeriness: it doesn’t really get that dark, but there’s a strange stillness to the moment, when even all the birds go silent, and all that’s left is the waves in front of you, and the city at your back.

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

I wrapped up July and started August by landscaping my sister- and brother-in-law’s house. They aren’t gardeners; Mary, my sister-in-law, views the garden the way Fran Leibowitz viewed the sidewalk—it’s what have to cross in order to get to the cab. I suggested a backyard seating area, bright flowers, a fruit tree. All got rejected, on the theory (knowledge) that they had never and would never sit outside. So I ended up putting in five different essentially maintenance-free ground covers: three varieties of bugleweed, a sedum, and chameleon plant. A lot of corners were filled with divided iris, lily-of-the-valley and hosta from other parts of the yard, as well as both scavenged and transplanted shrubs.

My landscape designer friend Maureen says that “maintenance free” is the holy grail for the kinds of people who hire landscapers to put in their gardens. And ground cover is pretty maintenance free; once established you never have to mow, or even weed very much, as it crowds out even aggressive weeds.

A new planting, however, is not maintenance free. You have to weed, and water, until it fills in, which can take a couple of years, especially if you don’t invest in enough plantings to fill the space. We could have used double the number we planted, but it wasn’t in the budget.

Mary says she hates “gardening.” I would just like to clarify that “taking care of the yard” is not the same thing as “gardening.” Saying that you let your lawn and plantings go to hell because you hate to garden is like saying that you never clean your house because you hate to build furniture.

The yard at my in-laws’ two-flat was, to put it charitably, a disaster 30 years in the making. As I joked to neighbors walking by while I worked, you have to do this at least every 40 years whether it needs it or not. It gets no full sun—at best it gets dappled shade. When they moved in, they put in a barberry hedge (because nothing says good neighbors like a thorn hedge—were they hoping to catch the fleece of the golden sheep?) and then never trimmed it. Ditto the spirea and a vicary golden privet. The barberry was overgrown, tangled and half dead.

I started by covering both the front and back with heavy black plastic to kill the weeds, leaving it there for 6 weeks. I shaped, pruned, and trimmed the barberry so that you can see the vase-shaped structure of the plant, but leaving a fountain of branches overhead. A lovely and unusual form for barberries, which people generally cut into little box shapes with power trimmers. I did get several helpful neighbors and my mother in law telling me that I was doing it wrong, and must cut it all even. Thanks for the (unsolicited) input, but no.

At the end of the month my son Seng and I started planting the ground covers. When I pulled off the black plastic the weeds were all gone, but a lovely moss was thriving. Unfortunately, six weeks dry had turned the soil into concrete.

I marked off the patches for the bugleweed (ajuga), a sedum, and dead nettle (lamium). We got 2 of the ajugas and the deadnettle planted, about 300 plants, before we cashed it in. I came back on my own twice to finish the front, and then a third time for the backyard. I had originally thought Seng and I would be able to plant the whole property in a single day. We thought we could dig out individual holes with trowels, but in the end had to use the big spade to turn and break up the soil.

I did the last two plantings on my own, but because they’d been watering, the soil was mercifully looser and it went fairly fast. The yard should bloom in succession in the spring, from the pink lamium to the purple ajuge, to the yellow sedum. It didn’t rain, however for the entire month, and the weeds took over. They continued to neglect the new plantings over the course of the following year, with no watering or weeding. The weeds have taken over again.

They should have put in the patio.

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

Late in July I went to my hometown of Urbana for 3 days. Urbana is an old land grant college town, plopped in the middle of the farmed prairie, a place where midwest Republicans, generational farmers, and liberal intellectuals get along just fine.

I walked around the beautiful restored prairie south of town, managing to get there right at peak bloom. I go to Urbana a few times a year, sometimes for a day or two, sometimes there and back in a single day. It’s a place to restore myself. To remind my lizard brain that there’s a place I belong to, and that belongs to me. A place where I understand in my bones how it works.

The prairie is part of Meadowbrook Park, which in addition to the prairie restoration includes a large community edible garden, a cultivated herb and flower planting, a sculpture walk, and a big children’s playground. They’re now restoring an open woodland— removing the invasive trees and understory and replacing with native wildflowers, as well as creating a small wetland.

Prairie and native plant restoration is another movement, like community and backyard gardening, being addressed from backyards to neighborhoods to national parks, with much the same goal: to bring our systems back in synch, and to reconnect to the world as the goddess intended it to look.

I lived just a few blocks to what is now Meadowbrook when I was in high school. Then it was farm, university-owned and therefore cordoned off with an 8 foot chainlink fence. There were with some uncultivated areas, very very rare in central Illinois, gone back to woodland. The city of Urbana spent almost 20 years slowly acquiring the land to stop the sprawl that was overtaking it, and creating a park as big as the whole central campus- with a main perimeter walk a couple of miles in circumference.

Although I have no country people in my background, going back generations, Urbana in the mid-late twentieth century was still a country town; although I’ve lived in Chicago longer, and have urban roots through parents, grandparents and even great grandparents, being an Urbana townie gives you the pretension of being from the country. It’s right there in a way that country isn’t back east, where I went to grade school. Back east, country comes in and out, cities giving way to towns giving way to farms, and you go ’round the bend and there’s the city again. Country and city cheek by jowl.

In Illinois, the city ends at Interstate 80, and then it’s just farms and silo towns for mile upon mile upon mile. The Chicago and suburban kids who end up at U of I find the drive mind numbing, but I love it– the barns and the silos and the long, straight prairie horizon. Sometimes when I would drive home, I’d go up Route 41 from St. Joseph just east of Urbana, all the way to Kankakee, where it ends at the highway again. Out here, where the Interstate never created fast food and gas oases, and the roads were never paved, it feels as remote as the Sahara. The cornfields stretch like sand dunes, impossibly immense, but it’s as unnatural as downtown Chicago, an artifact of humans.

08- August (2c)There’s a creek running through Meadowbrook, with several charming bridges along the path. When I was living nearby there was no creek. Like the creeks in Manhattan, it had been drained and buried and diverted to accommodate the farm. It has also now been restored.

The country isn’t really the country even out in the country. It’s just another type of urbanization, of subsuming the natural landscape to human needs.

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

I worked through the summer as an educator and gardener for the terrace garden at a senior living facility. There are about forty 4×6′ common beds (mostly with trees and shade plants), and 25 beds for the residents. I’ve been working with these gardeners (average age 80) since April, and it’s a truly lovely way to spend one afternoon a week.

Gardening with the elderly is interesting. There was Bonnie, who gave no fucks and dished to me on everyone in the building. Richard, who just quietly took care of not only his little plot, but all the ones around him, too. Patricia who could not be placated, to the extent that she invented traumas to complain about. Fortunately, she didn’t really remember them from week to week.

08- August (1d)Fern felt that everyone should have a tribute to the Cubs in their bed, because how about those Cubbies, but failing that why couldn’t we build a replica of Chicago’s historic water tower? Bob clearly no longer knew what the heck was going on, but his sons planted him a vegetable patch, from which he’d hand out whatever he’d picked to whomever he encountered. Alice asked for her plot to be moved, and then freaked out when we did it, so we moved it back. She introduced herself to me once a week for the entire summer.

It’s the best job I ever had.

08- August (1a)

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