There are a lot of little things going on in the garden that hint at the spring days ahead. The dogwood is the big undeniable thing, shouting that Spring has arrived. When we first moved in, there may have been a bloom or two that first spring. As the trees have been thinned out and the tree has gotten more sun, it has responded with a big show. If I had begun this garden as a blank canvas, this is not the location I would have placed this tree. But it is the one tree in the entire yard I have never contemplated cutting down. Everything else has to work around it.
It is always interesting to get off the ground for a bird’s eye view. Although it feels like spring is coming on fast, it would be nice to see a little more green in these pictures. In the coming months, I’ll post some more of these. It will be quite a contrast. At least, I hope it will be!
It was an eventful year in the garden. Like most of the garden seasons lately, it was a transition year. I have been cutting down trees slowly over the past three years maybe, 2,3,4 at time and this was the year that a few key ones came down and portions of the backyard went from shady to possibly partly sunny with maybe 4-5 hours of sun at the summer solstice. This is a big deal. One 4 x 8 bed on the south side of the house only gets possibly 3-4 hours of sun in the summer and that has been the sunniest spot for years and the main productive area of the garden. This newfound sunlight was like opening virgin territory for expansion. True, it is not the recommended 6 hours for vegetables but I didn’t let that deter me.
A second hugel bed was built within the first giving me approximately 300 square feet of garden bed. I went with a hugel style since there was a good deal of wood left from the tree cutting. I hauled in a lot of soil and compost and filled the hugel as well as topped up the older one, now going into its second winter and really settling in. I began planting early, in January, with some cold weather crops under row cover and seedlings up in the attic under lights and on a heat mat. The cold weather crops began with peas and then later, lettuces, mustard, kale, cabbage and bok choy. The inside seeds were tomatoes (San Marzano), cucumber and jalapeno peppers, which were planted in a large amount because I wanted enough of these to preserve. There were also some butternut squash, chard, basil and maybe a few other random things that I had seeds of laying around.
The spring garden started out great, albeit slower than I wanted. Although many of the outside seeds sprouted, they seemed to be in suspended animation as the weather cycled through very cold days into warmer days. This didn’t harm the peas or the mustard or lettuce, they just hung out until it got warm enough to really get going, which was probably early March. The bok choy was not happy and never grew beyond a couple of inches, and then just flowered when it warmed. The season was great though, bug pressure was minimal and the new sun was amazing to follow through the garden. As it got higher in the sky, with no deciduous leaves and the pine needles still thin, sunlight really filled the garden. I was excited to see what the summer would bring, but as the trees filled out, I realized that peak sunlight was sometime in mid spring. I noted the trees that would need to be cleared for maximum sunlight return in future years.
The spring also brought a project that had been in planning for several years, a new patio. The job was hired out and it turned out great. It represents a major piece of the backyard puzzle and left some areas that needed to be planted. As I only have a rough schematic of the future of this garden, I had no idea what would need to go around the patio, but seeing the finished space really helped to inspire me. I wanted to create a room like feel, and, since the patio is close to the neighbors, soften the view of their house, if not screen it. So perennials that had potential to fill out, while leaving space to walk and not overwhelming the patio, was my main goal. Another goal was to have a variety of flowers throughout the seasons, and I wanted to get some bee friendly natives in, too. The existing large dogwood and camellia, which was saved by building the patio around it, gave the space a good start. I settled on Clethera alnifolia as a ‘wall’ plant. It has the potential to grow to seven feet which, while not enough to totally screen the neighbors will do much to soften the view. It is a native and has lovely fragarent flowers that bees, especially native bees, seem to love and stay busy with through several weeks in early summer. Other plants that went in this spot, what I am calling the patio garden, were Magnolia figo and a few hydrangeas. The Magnolia is not a native, but it is on the smaller bushy side. Since we have wanted a magnolia for a while, but lacked the space, this seemed like a good compromise. It’s flowers are small compared to a real southern magnolia, but they are supposed to be very fragrant. Unfortunately, it was planted after it had flowered, so I’ll have to wait to see about that. The hydrangeas were a mix of what I could find a big box store. I have been happiest with the oak leaf hydrangea. Depending on what happens with the others, one looked pretty sickly all summer, I may add another oak leaf. It held up great through the summer and my poor watering habits. It did not flower, however, but it’s leaves turned brilliant reds and oranges and lasted for a few weeks in the fall.
Another area that was opened up by the tree trimming was the back corner, what I am calling the food forest. It also got a few plants. I bought two paw paws and two serviceberries to anchor this area. They were mail ordered and a little scraggly. The paw paws adjusted pretty well, though they didn’t grow much. The serviceberries were more suspect. Although they were healthy upon arrival, they both dropped most of their leaves. Some new growth appeared later in the summer, so I am hopeful they will come back strong next year. Although I call it a food forest, I didn’t get much else into it, except a few random seedlings that had no other home, like bronze fennel and butternut squash. There is also a peach that volunteered by the fence where an old compost pile was. I put in another volunteer peach that I had to keep it company and squeezed in a fig cutting I had that was outgrowing its pot. The peach and fig are doing great in their new spots.
Possibly because I was so busy with these other areas, I didn’t pay that much attention to the annual garden. Things got planted out and then were left pretty much on their own. I harvested plenty of greens and some peas in the early spring, then some beans and a couple of early peppers. The tomatoes were growing well and setting fruit, but many developed blossom end rot. The cucumbers, though, were a disaster. They were a different variety than I had grown in the past and while the seedlings came up nicely, they never amounted to much. I was able to harvest a few here and there, but nothing like I envisioned when I planted them out. The winner though was the jalapenos. Besides some fresh eating, I was able to pickle 3 pints in midsummer and another 8 in the fall. Overall, though, the garden didn’t feel that productive. I tried to keep track of the harvest, but was unable to keep up with it. Although I didn’t feel like it was a great success, the veggie garden wasn’t a total failure either. It provided a somewhat steady flow of produce, if not much extra.
I wanted to plant a fall garden, but to my dismay, after the summer solstice, the amount of sun in the garden steadily decreased. By planting time, it was only a couple of hours at best. I did manage to get some mustard and sugar snap peas to produce a few meals, but the lettuce didn’t really work out. I didn’t even bother with the second block of lettuce I had planned. It was amazing the difference in sun amount between spring and fall, caused of course by the deciduous trees having leaves and the pines having full needles in the fall. I did not notice the year before since that fall garden was decimated by snails before it ever got going. So I count this year as an improvement.
In early fall, I picked up some native perennials from a local nursery. I added false indigo and boneset to the food forest, a blazing star to the patio garden and some Pennsylvania sedge to a bed in the front. I also got three blue-eyed grass and some gaura from another nursery that found different homes around the garden.
By late fall, most of the garden was cleaned up and I was ready to give it a rest, but two opportunities came up. First, a neighbor who was cleaning out their garage, asked if I’d like their ‘greenhouse.’ It is just a 6×8 clear tent with a sturdy metal frame, but free means it is worth a shot. I put it up in early December, but with the weather beaing unusually warm there hasn’t been much need for it. It will be a good place to keep the lemon and lime trees for the winter and I am considering using it as my seed starting area. Stay tuned.
At Thanksgiving my mom announced she would be selling her house and moving to something smaller with less maintenance. I had been wanting to take a cutting from a rose that was originally at my grandmother’s house, now at hers, but I had never got around to it. I told my mom I would come over and take the whole plant rather than let her leave it behind. ‘Fine,’ she said. I came over one Saturday mid-December and ended up with 3 roses, 4 echinaceas, some black eyed Susans, a bag of daffodil bulbs, a rosemary plant, some lemon thyme and a couple of hostas. It was a pretty big haul and I spent the next day getting it all in the ground. It will be pretty amazing to see all of that come back in the spring. Hopefully they all handled the transfer well.
So that was 2021. It was a great year of big changes around the Quarter Acre. I am already plotting 2022, and I am getting very excited for it.
2/9/21 Waning Crescent Moon | High 53 | Low 25
It was a busy weekend. The tree guys didn’t exactly leave a mess, but there was a bit to clean up. Their work was also a roadblock holding up some other things. When they moved out, I got busy. I laid out the new hugel bed, cut a couple of smaller trees myself to add to it, spread the leaf/compost pile around the poly-corner, moved about 1/2 the wood chips they left, putting some in the poly-corner and some in the strawberry/wine-cap bed around front and if that wasn’t enough, I planted some seeds, both outside, under the new bit of row cover, and some in trays in the attic. Hopefully, I will get the soil delivery during the coming week and finish this all up next weekend, although the weather continues to look a bit rainy.
Planted in about a six foot section of the hugel:
- sugar snap peas
- Ice Queen
- Yugoslavian Red
- Black Seeded Simpson
Planted in trays in the attic:
- Tomato, San Marzano
- Cucumber, Pickle Bush
- Jalapeno, saved seed
- Bronze Fennel, saved seed
The hugel section planted about 4 weeks earlier is doing well but seems to be in a wait and see mode. The mustard and pak choi have not put out any true leaves and the peas, while standing tall, are not shooting up. Maybe they are just waiting for longer, warmer days. I can’t say I blame them.
Some of the plants that are overwintering, like these purple mustards, are starting to perk up a bit and enjoy the sunnier days. Spring is coming to the rescue soon!
2/4/21 | Third Quarter Moon | High 50 | Low 31
It is hard to believe, but I have cut down a lot of trees in my backyard. When we first moved in 15 years ago the landscaping could best be described as a thicket. There were a ton of small sweet gum trees in the 4 to 12 foot tall range that blocked the whole back half of the yard off like a great green Berlin Wall. Within the thicket, there were tall spindly pines, quite a few already dead, starving for light. And, of course, the gravy on the biscuit, the icing on the cake, the cherry on top – poison ivy was crawling and climbing over everything. Over the years I managed to clean it up, at least enough so it doesn’t appear to be such a thicket. I have gradually thinned it out, focusing on the northeast corner since it was the most open to begin with and because my neighbors to the south and southeast have their own thickets it is the spot with the most potential for open sky. Too many trees, that is a problem most people don’t have out here in this suburban sprawl. For whatever reason, this neighborhood was not clear cut when it was built and there are a lot of big old trees all over. Things are done differently now though; most new subdivisions are scraped and flattened, everything gone before the houses start to go up. More sun in my yard would be nice, but I don’t think I would be happy in the barren wastelands created by these so-called developers.
I have cut down some quite large trees myself, but I am beginning to reach the limits of my confidence. I had a crew come out and cut down five trees yesterday. It is a hard decision to cut down a tree. I know a lot of people don’t like to do it. Trees are remarkable, yet sometimes they just aren’t in the right place. I have thought a lot about how I want this yard to ultimately be, and there are several big trees that are part of the plans. There are others, however, that must go. I take it slow (obviously, going on 15 years) and see how removing a few trees affects everything else, before choosing the next ones to cut. Right now I think I know the next ones to come down, but until I see how the remaining trees leaf out and the light falls, I won’t know for sure. In case you are worried, I did a basic tree inventory not long ago and had about 50 significant trees in this quarter acre. I am overstocked, and it is not healthy for the trees. A fair number of pines have died over the years. The sweet gums get contorted and unbalanced, trying to find some kind opening in the high pine canopy. Nothing else gets enough light to grow.
The tree guys are kind of expensive, but I am glad I had them handling these five trees. There were a couple that I contemplated long and hard doing myself, but I opted to let the pros do it in the end. These guys are crazy, though, that is all I can say. Having some experience in what they were doing, I couldn’t help but be stressed out watching them trying to wrangle these things. Everything went off without an issue, though, and it was simply amazing how quickly they did the job. Now I can move on with getting ready for the spring!
1/27/21 – Full Moon! | High 53 | Low 40 | Rain .30″
The tree guys were supposed to come on Monday, but due to the pretty crummy weather, they have been unable to come out and take care of the trees I have scheduled for removal. This doesn’t really put me behind, but as I mentioned in the previous post, I am feeling like I have a lot to get done and the clock is ticking. Today did turn out pretty nice in the afternoon (although snow is in the forecast tonight), so I decided to get the drone out and take some ‘before’ pictures for posterity. This corner of the property is where my focus is going to be this season. First, four trees come out. Then I’ll build a hugel bed with some of the wood just inside the current one. I plan to put the wood chips from the trees in the corner and begin to build the soil for a polyculture bed, probably adding some Wine Cap spawn to speed break down of the chips. Right now, I am thinking a couple of paw paws here and maybe a hazelnut, but I really haven’t worked all of that out yet. They aren’t visible in the picture, but against the fence behind the blackberries, there is a volunteer peach and a fig from a cutting I planted. Although maybe not this summer, I will probably have to add some trellising for those two fruit trees to be espaliered on. If I come across an interesting blackberry, I might add that to the current bed. I definitely need to upgrade the trellising I have in place for the blackberries. It is just 5 foot T posts and a few wires. It barely kept things under control last year. This is the second season for the blackberries, so I expect them to really put out some growth this year.
In a few months, I will try to post the ‘after’ portion of this entry. Everything will be green and alive and much more interesting than these drab pictures!