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

At the old place, I had a patio garden, a perennial garden, and a vegetable garden each blending into the next. I built comparable spaces at the new place, too, but here these spaces are much more distinct because of how the house is situated on the property. The garden spaces mark the compass points: on the east, the patio (Breezeway and Front), to the north the perennial garden (the sideyard or “Botanic”); the south has the Farm, and to the west is the Gangway and Savory.

The garden spaces at the new place require different kinds of care—the Farm and the Gangway need harvesting, a little bit of weeding, and lots of watering. The Breezeway has a lot of potted plants, which need watering daily. The Botanic is constantly changing, as I add plants to what will eventually be another recreational, patio, and ornamental garden.

The type of garden also informs the use. A patio garden is for sitting, by design. A vegetable garden is a working garden. A front yard (or as here, side yard) garden is for passersby to enjoy.

I call my vegetable garden The Farm. I grow more than $1,000 worth of vegetables a year, which to the USDA makes it a farm, although they actually say “produced and sold;” since I don’t sell any of the produce, I’m more farm-adjacent. A lot of farmers, of course, will quibble with even that; to most farmers it’s not a farm without a tractor and some animals, and certainly not if it’s less than an acre. So I guess technically I don’t fit the definition after all. There goes my government subsidy.

This vegetable garden, however, with about 200 square feet of planted beds, is essentially my subsistence garden. I grow what I eat, and I eat pretty much only what I grow other than grains and the small amount of meat I consume. My housemates admonished me one winter day for never eating what they called “unprocessed food.” But in fact, my food in winter is all processed because I’m eating the canned, pickled, and frozen stock from my summer harvests. In other words, yes it’s “processed” but I’m not sure one can count home-grown, home-preserved food as “processed” as that word is currently understood.

Having a mobility-restricting injury made my relationship with the space frustrating. It turned all the gardens into “looking gardens.” An arm in a sling, fortunately, is not nearly as debilitating as a foot in a cast had been. At the very least, I could get into the garden, although all the planting and building I had planned got put off for several weeks. On the other hand (haha), my various “sons and daughters” (both my actual son and daughter and various of their friends who seem to have reverse-adopted me) helped with jobs like adding mulch, laying pavers, and building tiny walls. (I have this thing for tiny walls.)

Gardeners develop strategies for forcing themselves to relax in their gardens—seating areas that face away from known problems, arming themselves with friends or family members, outdoor lighting so they can at least sit there after dark.

People tell me I should “just enjoy” my garden, but they are imposing their idea of what enjoying a garden means. To me, it means working.

I like to have dirt under my nails.

After all, it’s a farm.

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May: End days

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

With the plants taken care of, I laid paver paths in the Botanic. From earlier in the season I’d hauled 10 CY of mulch, 6 CY of soil, and 80 granite pavers, twice. Now I added to that 30 concrete pavers and about 10 bags of compost to amend the soil, as well as planting out 50 plants. Oh, and switching out my screens and storms.

05- (4) MayThen there was the marble.

One of the delightful side effects of not having a fence is that all the gardeners in the neighborhood stop by to talk about the garden. One of them was K, who works near a marble yard, and has access to scraps. So he brought me about 10 large (very heavy) pieces; enough to make a small patio for the Botanic. Foolishly, I decided one day that I just couldn’t wait for someone to help me with them, and even though I knew my wrist was sore, I decided to carry them “using mostly my uninjured arm.” Right.

I woke up the next morning in screaming pain from spraining the cartilage complex that connects the ulna to the carpals; this injury happens from lifting things that are too heavy, and I’d lifted an awful lot of heavy things.

As the population ages and as people with mobility disabilities demand full participation in society, a gardening industry has grown around accommodating gardeners who use wheelchairs, who are elderly or infirm, and with vision impairments, among other things. There are ergonomically designed garden tools and catalogs full of kneelers, bent-handled trowels, and raised beds with space under them so you can pull a wheelchair right up to the edge.

In addition to trying to discourage rabbits (which by the way, didn’t work), I put in raised beds anticipating growing old with this garden (full disclosure—I started this garden already old), and a time when kneeling and reaching at ground level was not going to be possible.

The therapeutic aspects of gardening have also been discovered, and even have become something of a medical specialty. Numerous hospitals now have healing gardens, which may be simple meditative oases, or may actually include medicinal plantings, or at least sensory plantings, both for the vision impaired, and for the known benefits of aroma, color, and other garden aspects as a therapeutic tool.

05- (4a) MayTen years ago, I managed to break my ankle right at the start of arguably the best gardening summer Chicago had seen in years— just the right mix of hot, warm and cool, pretty much perfect rain, with any severe weather doing only minimal damage, if any, to the flower beds.

I was in a cast for almost nine weeks. Forget gardening- it was difficult just to get down the three levels from the kitchen to the porch to the deck to the garden. Crutches are terrifying on stairs. I would scoot myself down on my rear.

This year my badly sprained wrist put me in a soft cast for 6 weeks.

I spend a lot of time in my garden, although it’s not so much just spending time in it. I work in my garden. Except when some limb is in a cast.

May: Planting Day

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

05- (3a) MayOne of the things I miss the most about the old garden was the beautiful 3-season perennial border, which was particularly spectacular at its July peak, with a drift of yellow coneflowers, pink phlox, blue balloon flowers, and orange turks’ cap lilies. I brought samples of all of these plants with me. In one of the brief warm spells I planted them out in the Botanic, thinking to recreate the spectacle.

That planting was followed by actual unseasonal warmth, and not enough rain. My transplanted perennials and the annuals starts died. The rabbits ate everything else.

It was the death knell for the cool weather crops, too—the seeds never sprouted, the brassicas had not grown a single inch, and the chard, I’m absolutely convinced, had actually shrunk. The lettuce seeds, planted liberally in my pots, had sprouted quickly as lettuce seeds do, and then never developed a second set of leaves. They didn’t die. They just sat there.

I dug out the brassicas and the chard, and repotted them in a good potting mix, putting them back inside with the warming mats and a grow light. While the weather was certainly a factor, I believe poor soil was the main culprit; the soil company however was not interested in talking to me and ignored my complaints completely.

The rule of thumb on watering is that plants need about an inch a week. When I started gardening three decades ago, that is how it rained: on average an inch a week. In August there might be the occasional heavy downpour of 2 inches in an hour, but for the most part you could count on one to two inches of rain in a single rain event about once every seven to ten days. I seldom watered, because you could count on this.

Now, it seems like it rains nonstop from April through June, but with big rain events of 4 or more inches in a single days-long storm, and then nothing for weeks later in the summer.

But you have to plant, especially when you’re relying on your garden for food. So even though the weather was see-sawing from too hot and dry to too cold and wet, at the end of May I threw caution to the winds and planted out the solanums—peppers, tomatoes, eggplants—as well as putting the repotted, and now thriving, brassicas and chard back in the heavily amended soil. I finished planting all the ornamental starts, plus another set of scavenged plants: astilbe, hosta, junca, day lilies.

And crossed my fingers.

May: Mother’s Day

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.

May: Frost Day

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

April: Mulch and water

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.

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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