Archive for October, 2009

IMG_6751Among annuals, pansies bloom earlier than almost anything else — and given a chance, they’ll bloom later, too. Witness this poor flower, one of several blooming in a low pot on our back deck. I haven’t watered the pot in months — though nature has done a good job of that since September. Yet it’s still blooming, putting out one last flower against the cold and wind of winter descending rapidly upon us.


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Ready for winter

Last spring, I added a new raised bed to my vegetable area and filled it using the lasagna method. Despite not having a winter to percolate and meditate and otherwise breakdown, the soil in the garden was humus-rich and fertile. A trowel would easily sink 10 inches into the “dirt” in this bed. I grew some large (if slightly out of control) tomato plants in the bed, and I have a freezer full of the tomato sauce I made with the fruits. So, all in all, a success.

When I cleaned the bed up about two weeks ago, it was clear the lasagna had shrunk. This is to be expected. Lasagna gardening basically involves making compost in your vegetable bed. So, over the past few days, I’ve been layering on the fresh materials: slabs of sod taken out of the lawn, vegetable scraps, a thick layer of finished compost from my two compost piles, and on top, a layer of chopped leaves.  These will have several months to breakdown and renew the bed. I’m not sure what I will plant there next year, but it’s a long winter here, so I’ll have plenty of time to think about it.

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Courtesy of Jung Seeds

Courtesy of Jung Seeds

A second part of our recent spruce-up was the removal of some old alpine currant shrubs that were dying. The shrubs formed a hedge around an area below our back deck, an area that I use mostly for storage of garden equipment. Not wanting to leave this exposed, I planted it this past weekend with nine plants of hedge cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lucidus), a plant that will grow about 4 feet wide and up to 8 feet tall. We’ll probably keep ours around 5 to 6 feet tall by shaving the tops. The cotoneaster should be an improvement over alpine currant for two reasons. First, it is less prone to disease and general keeling over. Second, has a blue berry that birds love, so it should be more attractive to wildlife. It also has a pretty reddish fall color. Right now, my hedge looks skimpy, but the photo at left is what it should look like in a year or two.

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A Place to Sit


The new patio after a recent snowfall.

We recently ripped out the foundation plantings around the front of our house and replaced them with a tiered area with a 8-foot circular brick patio surrounded by shrubs, grasses, and small trees. This is an idea that had been percolating in my head for a couple of years as a result of a sense that the best place to sit outdoors at our house, especially in the early evening, was not the place in the back.  The evolution of this project points to a number of issues related to home siting and what makes people comfortable.

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a book on architecture called A Pattern Language. The authors note that people feel extremely comfortable in older towns — specifically those built in the Middle Ages. These old towns followed similar design principles, including the relationship between people and the street and ways to orient a home. They condensed these ideas to 257 rules, many of which speak to some very basic elements of human nature. Why do people like nooks and window seats, for example? Rule Nos. 179 and 180: Alcoves and window seats. Why do we feel more vibrant in rooms with windows on more than one wall? Rule No. 159: Light on two sides. Why have basement bedrooms for teenagers become so popular? Rule No. 154: A teenager’s cottage.

If you are considering building a house, read this book first. You probably won’t want to follow all the rules — the authors are against most bedrooms — but it will alert you to some typical problems with newer home design.

Several of the rules relate to the connection between the house, the garden and the street. People enjoy front porches because they provide a way to see the street, to interact with your neighbors, while still remaining close to your home and protected. (Rule No. 140). Adding a porch was out of the questions for us: it would have destroyed the lines of our home and cost too much. But the patio was an easier fix and would give us many of the benefits of a front porch.

IMG_6723While I had the vision of what we wanted, I wanted to make sure it would look right with our home and that it would drain properly. (As someone who spent many hours shop-vac-ing the basement of a previous home — trust me on this one, water trumps aesthetics every time.) To make sure the plan would work, I called in Kristen from Knecht’s who had helped me a year or so ago in designing my other front-yard garden. She came up with the idea of repeating the boulders we have on the hilly sides of our house around the front to create a tier. We agreed that an 8-foot patio was plenty of room for a small table and a couple of chairs. Around that, we planted some of my favorite plants: sedum, baptisia (this came out of another garden in our yard), weigela, coreopsis and a hydrangea tree. For a little seculsion, Kristin recommended Karl Foerster grass, which I know is a beautiful and reliable plant that grows about 4 feet tall, just enough to provide a sense of seclusion. Some groundcovers such sweet woodruff and creeping thyme will give texture to the space around the patio, and a nice smaller evergreen — Tannenbaum mugo pine — anchors one edge of the tier. Stepping stones connect the upper and lower tiers and seem to beckon people to come up for a chat.

Knecht’s did the installation for us — moving boulders is beyond my skill level — and finished the job in just a few days. I’m very happy with the look and a couple of my neighbors have commented that they like it, too. For now, the patio is empty, though I’m thinking we might be able to put a Christmas tree out there when the season arrives, and next summer we’ll create a comfortable place to sit out there.

I’m hoping it won’t feel too exposed, but I followed as many of the pattern language rules as possible including having a wall to the back of the sitting area, terracing the levels, and creating a half-high wall (with plants rather than bricks) to offer a sense of seclusion.

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With a couple of inches of snow falling and temperatures consistently under 35 the past few days, I’ve been contemplating this question. All of my established perennials, trees and shrubs will shrug off this little blast of Arctic air as a mild inconvenience, of course, but we put in about 20 brand new shrubs and perennials the week before this current cold spell started. Those plants have not had time to send out new roots yet, although we were lucky to get lots of rain — more than 4 inches over several days, according to my rain gauge. So, I’ve been wondering, will my plants survive?

A check of Internet resources proved unhelpful since snow and cold this early is rare even here in Minnesota. So, I talked with the folks from the nursery where I purchased the plants. It turns out these plants likely would have been outside at the nursery anyway, and they should get through the cold just fine. We are expected to return to more seasonable temperatures by the end of the week, and that will give the plants a chance to send out roots and establish themselves. Whew!

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It’s Too Early for This!

Snow on Sedum

Snow on Sedum

When I took the dog out this morning, we were greeted with this: a dusting of snow and temperatures in the 20s. Isn’t it a little early for winter? I still have bulbs to plant, for crying outloud! It will pass, of course, and probably by noon, but the message is clear: Winter is coming.

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