Category Archives: Home Project

garden bitch

I did everything right, I think, and nothing grew.

Remember this post? Well, take a look at that to-do list. I did it. I did it GOOD. I had to wait until the end of April to do it all, thanks to our record-breaking rains in March, but I did it. I planted my seeds according to Mel Bartholomew‘s directions after prepping my soil according to Steve Solomon and Portland Nursery‘s suggestions. May rains and I watered them in. It was cool, but according to my books, warm enough.

And nothing grew. Even the weeds haven’t been particularly enthusiastic.

I bought two tomato plants and two pepper plants at the Oregon City Farmer’s Market to ease the pain. They’ve begun to show flowers, but even they haven’t been particularly enthusiastic about being here. They haven’t grown much. And I’m seeing pictures from friends back in MN who have actual little green tomatoes popping on their similarly-early-varietal vines. What gives?

I have a few theories, but that’s just what they are–theories. I haven’t knowledge enough to definitively say YES, THIS was my PROBLEM, and NO, it WON’T HAPPEN AGAIN if I do x, y, and z. This is uncomfortable. I find myself in yet another face-off with uncertainty. Please, post in the comments if you have earthy wisdom to share.

In the meantime, here’s what I think. I think that I’ve only been in this house since November, when the trees were lean and it seemed like these raised beds would get sun. Well, the trees in my north neighbor’s yard are filling out and reaching over a little to shade my beds. My east neighbor’s trees are doing the same. And my own trees to the south of these beds are fattening up, too, leading to a mostly shady back yard. Oops. Seems like a no-brainer, but I didn’t see it back in December. The trees that were sparse in December will fill out and provide a canopy in June.

The tree-shade is one thing. How about the shrub-shade? The raised beds are dotted with large shrubs. Larger now that the weather’s warmed and the sun peeks out more frequently. Jesse insists, rightly of course, that we are the boss of them and can prune them down or take them out entirely. Removing them feels inherently wrong to me, somehow; they’re so mature and round, and I like round things. We’ve pruned and trimmed, but I wonder if their large roots are sucking up all the goodness I mixed into the existing soil. And they do cast shadows. And even if we did nix them, that would still leave the problem of the shady trees.

I’m not so sure about my seed-planting technique, either. The square-foot method of planting involved placing no more than 2 seeds in a spot; this seems to leave no margin for error. I trust Mel here, but have you ever seen a carrot seed? Tiny! The size of a comma on this page, maybe. I’m second-guessing.

And finally, drainage. These beds are made of cinder blocks and bricks that are mortared together. We’re talking minimal drainage. And since we’re on a south-sloping hill, any runoff from my north neighbor’s backyard collects in the beds and stays. Practically up until June, this soil has been cool and damp despite the warmer weather.

Hm. Perhaps this was not the best place to plant sun-loving veggies after all. Kale, you’re up.

This leaves me hunting for sun on our property. It seems most reliable, actually, in our south-facing and south-sloping front yard. In fact, it seems most reliable right off the front porch. I’m thinking rail planters. And a big giant pot of carrots. This isn’t quite scientific–instead of changing one variable and observing for a different outcome, I might CHANGE ALL THE VARIABLES and see what happens.

There’s something cheeky about the idea of having heirloom beet leaves, rather than impatiens and violas, peeking out over my suburban front porch rail.

Stay tuned.

I can still write a blog post if I have no idea what I’m doing.

The title says it all. Or, at least, quite a bit.

what the hell is this?

Since moving into our lovely lovely home, I’ve had to work a bit to change my mindset on my living space. In the past, it’s been apartments or stepping stones–you move in, you think “I better get this shit up on the walls and enjoy it before I move out in 6 (8, 11, 12, 20) months.”  And, significantly, you often don’t have any of your own dirt.

Dirt in the ground, I mean. Containers be damned. I kill things in containers.

We moved in November and have a smattering of things up on the walls. Every few weekends Jesse will get a burst of ambition and hang things or reconnoiter the office (or the closet, or the garage–bless him). Every few weekends I’ll get a burst of inspiration–or is it indignation?–and say EFF IT and paint the living room purple (“plum swirl”, actually) or the half bath a crazy mango and Caribbean blue. Or start a garden.

Woah there. Like I said, I’ve never had my own dirt. Like, in the ground. I remember the MULCH garden back at Mac, where I never helped out or had time or interest in learning anything from my green-thumbed neighbors. I succumbed to my  (false) perception of futility of growing things in Minnesota. Whatever. I’d like to think I’d have changed and would be doing the same thing if we’d stayed in Minneapolis, despite the relatively infinitesimal growing season.

That said, the Northwest has its own set of challenges too. We had sun and 50 degree weather a week and a half ago–couldn’t imagine another frost–and on Tuesday it snowed a few inches. It’s been raining for the last couple days, and turning over our clay soil while it’s this wet would make for a raised bed full of bricks. I learned this stuff from the good people at Portland Nursery on Division, who don’t care that I know nothing and was in fact a garden cynic a few years ago. I did my own research, too, and picked up Square Foot Gardening and Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades at the Powell’s Books for Home and Garden store on Hawthorne.

The Portland Nursery people seemed pleased that I’d picked those two to be my main guides after a brief and caffeinated Internet search for help. I like these books–if you can get past both authors’ “my way is better than any other way and let me tell you why a million times before I tell you how to fucking do it” tones, you actually will encounter a wealth of valuable instruction. I’m relying on it.

Well. So far, I’ve:

  • pulled back the leaf cover over the raised beds we have against our south-facing fence in the back yard
  • transplanted a giant fern because I own this place and put my ferns wherever I damn well please
  • lay down 1 bale of Black Forest Soil Amending Compost to help break up the clay and improve the soil’s nutrients
  • bought and assembled a compost bin (that Enviro World guy–perfect for our smaller space, my lack of motivation for turning the pile, and because we don’t need 15 cubic feet of amazing compost every 2 weeks)
  • bought seeds and started planning my little square foot plots (I plan on picking up tomato, pepper, and lavender plants at the OC Farmer’s Market when it comes time)

To do, still:

  • lay another bale of compost when the rain lets up enough for me to go outside without melting
  • turn the compost under when it’s been dry enough
  • pick up large garden labels and nylon cord or string to keep myself honest about how big a square foot really is
  • …and, according to the Almanac‘s projected date of last frost, start planting in about a week!

Apparently, keeping soil healthy is a year-round task. We’re jumping into the cycle now, but not entirely from scratch–it’s clear that the previous owners cared about their dirt, at least a bit. The Portland Nursery info chick started waxing poetic about overwinter crops and I went cross-eyed. One step at a damn time. I’m under no illusions that I’m, like, a new hipster homesteader or anything.

But I do have some bitchin’ Carhartt overalls in my dresser.

Speeding Up to Slow Down

On Saturday night, Jesse turned to me at dinner and said, “When we have such full busy weekends like this, it seems like they stretch on forever.” At the time, I disagreed: “No–being so busy makes them go by more quickly!” And then yesterday, as I rolled up to Home Depot for the second time in as many hours, I totally understood what he meant.

We somehow managed to fit all of the following in our weekend: a Saturday Market trip, a graduation dinner celebration, two runs, a trip to the farmer’s market, coffee with friends, the complete start-to-finish construction of a fire pit and herb garden with retaining wall, and a successful Mother’s Day grill-out at said fire pit. We squeezed, like, four days into two.

Aside from the excitement of reconnecting with old friends (which tops just about everything, in my book), the highlight here was the fire pit. I will attempt humility as I take credit for the idea; my future dad-in-law was telling me about the ill-fated koi pond our neighbors began to dig a few weeks ago without first checking on the locations of the gas lines and I thought, “We can dig, too!” Seriously. A koi pond? And the idea for a fire pit in the back pasture was born.

After a fair amount of research and thought, Jesse decided that Mother’s Day was the day. With a little planning and the help of his sister, we knew we could get the fire pit finished in an afternoon while Cheryl was off at a dog show. And then we decided to go for broke and plant an herb garden AND plan to make dinner on the fire pit that night. With no contingency plan in place, I might add.

We followed the guidelines put forth here and here on how to create a relatively permanent and safe structure. First, chose the flattest spot we could find and marked out our 5′ diameter circle (with wheat flour–because I’m not going to be using it for anything else!).

Then we dug about 12″ down and spread river rocks along the bottom for drainage. And then Jesse with his beefy shoulders moved ALL 30 CINDER BLOCKS HIMSELF.

While Jesse moved literally 3,000 pounds of stone, Sandra and I set to planting the anti-mosquito lavender, sweet basil, Greek oregano, culantro, and German thyme. In digging the fire pit, we had created a giant pile of dirt and sod that threatened to slide down upon our new botanical babies… and Sandra had a solution.

Fire pit, herb garden, and citronella oil tiki torches in place, we headed up to the house to prepare dinner. Cheryl had arrived and helped hold gates open for the Subaru as the car climbed back up the hill out of the pasture. We washed the dirt off our hands and before I knew it, we were back down in front of an excellent wood fire with

-skewered onions

-baby new potatoes with chipotle powder, dried apricots, and walnuts

-salmon fillets with coriander, cumin, turmeric, mayo (seriously!) and lemon

and wine and beer. And the future in-laws (“Until the wedding, I’m your ‘Mom Outlaw!”). And Jesse. And Sandra.

And then, after a day of full sun, it began to rain. Being the undaunted Portlanders we are (and are becoming), we moved to the protection of the trees a few yards away and toasted our mothers as our food cooked over the wood fire.

As we sat under the trees, eating our salmon and listening to the rain, our full weekend began to slow down. Sandra got excited: “And now that you’re here, we can do THIS and THIS and THIS and we’ll have so much FUN!!!” And it hit me. We are doing THIS and THIS and THIS and having so much fun. We’ve made it.