Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Everything's Coming Up Beans

Week of March 22 through 28

It hailed this week at our house. The end of March and it is hailing? Must be global warming. It rained almost all week - which was great for the garden. Then on Friday, it hailed. Little pea-sized blobs of ice fell from the sky - right onto the herbs we had just moved outdoors. I'm not sure if they will make a recovery, especially since they were already working their little chloroplasts to the bone trying to set out new roots.

Happily, our garden didn't sustain any damage from the freak weather we've been having. Did I mention that it was cold enough last weekend for us to have a fire in our fireplace? In March! Not that I mind. I love the cold weather mainly because it gives me an excuse to wear flannel pajamas and cocoon myself on the couch in a blanket - and I'll always take an excuse to be cozy and lazy at the same time. The tomatoes on the other hand, don't really have the option of flannel pajamas, though they would probably look pretty cute in them if they did. Because of our schizophrenic weather, we didn't see much growth in most of our garden this week. Except for the beans.

The beans! They are amazing! I never should have doubted them. They have been enthusiastically taking root in their ordered rows since they first poked their tiny green heads out of the soil. They continue to grow, neatly lined up, like a little legume legion, awaiting my compulsive command. Like any good army, they were unfazed by the unpredictable weather, and I swear I saw them out there in the rain, doing push ups. Those beans should really convince the herbs to enlist.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Like Riding A Bike

Week of March 15 through 21

In the last year, since we bought our house, we have been constantly working on home improvement projects. We recently decided that we needed to do a little self improvement as well, and that meant becoming more active when we got home from work.

Our community was built with paved greenbelt trails that wind their way through all of the neighborhoods. The trails go for miles, and even pass under the two major roads in our area, so one never has to worry about crossing a busy street. Even better, there is an access path to these trails right at the end of our cul-de-sac. Basically, we have no excuse not to be using the heck out of these things.

I'm not much for sweating, and outdoor activities here in the south that don't make me all hot and sticky are hard to come by. The Husband has tried to convince me that running is fun, but I'm not buying it. Walking is more my speed, but then I tend to get distracted by my surroundings and my pace slows to a leisurely stroll rather than an attempt at exercise. We finally settled on bicycling as our means of becoming more active. As a kid, riding a bike meant pedaling as hard and as fast as I could, or circling the block over and over again just for fun. We decided on bicycling for exactly this reason. It doesn't feel like work. The only problem? We didn't have bikes.

For Christmas, my parents gave us very generous gift certificates to Target, with the express wish that they be used to buy bicycles. We had no trouble finding a bike for The Husband. A maroon and white Schwinn mountain bike.

Finding a bike for me proved to be a little more difficult. I tried out a cruiser in the aisles of Target, and really liked the smooth ride. But, when we went to check out, we discovered that one of the spokes on the bike was broken. Upon inspection of the other bikes, we found that all of the cruisers had broken spokes. No bike for me. We continued to check for an undamaged bike every time we made a trip to Target, to no avail. The search was made slightly more difficult by my insistence that my bike be pink. No other color would do.

Finally, last weekend, Target rewarded our persistence by stocking a brand-spanking new, freshly unpacked, pink mountain bike. Perfect. Note the extra-comfy w-i-d-e seat made explicitly for those of us blessed with junk in the trunk.

At last, we have our bikes. We took our first bike trip on the trails one evening last weekend. They are beautifully maintained and very quiet and peaceful. Every now and again, the edge of a house would peak out from behind the trees, but for the most part, we felt like we were biking through the woods. We certainly enjoyed ourselves - even if we did have a little trouble remembering how, and when, to shift gears.

During our ride, The Husband informed me that he had never been able to master riding his bike without handlebars. I loved it. Simply because finding something that my husband is not able to do is very rare. He is a jack of all trades, and quickly becomes an expert at anything he endeavors to do. He knows so much about so many things, and I am frequently amazed by his talents. But in this, this, I had the upper hand. I spent the rest of our ride giving him tips for maintaining his momentum and balance long enough to let go and ride without holding the hand grips. When we got back to our street, he gave it a try, and after a few shaky starts, he got it! I am an excellent teacher. And riding a bike with no handlebars is an excellent skill to have. Because if one can ride a bike with no handlebars, one can also make computers survive aquatic conditions AND split the atoms of a molecule.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tiny Sprouts and Transplants

Week of March 15 through 21

Oh how our garden grows! Warmer days and good soil (and plant food) have caused our tomato plants to double in size over the last week. The squash and peppers haven't grown as much, but they have put on new leaves since we planted them.

The most exciting development in our garden has been the emergence of our bean sprouts. We have been (im)patiently waiting for our beans to come up since we planted the seeds. My dad told us that we would see sprouts in about a week, but being the constant worrier that I am, I assumed they were desiccated and hopeless about four days after we planted them. I really need to learn to be more patient. One week to the day of being planted, we saw the first sprout poke its little green bud from the ground. I will not doubt the green thumbed king of gardening again. At least not today. The next day it was bean-o-palooza! Every single one of our seeds had sprouted a plant with two flourishing leaves. Every grade school child in America has participated in the bean-in-a-styrofoam-cup experiment, and has been rewarded with a verdant green plant for their patience. How these six year olds stand the waiting, I may never know.

I had also given up hope on my living Easter eggs. For the last two weeks I have been optimistically adding water to their colored shells, hoping for any indication that the little flowers were actually growing. Just as I had decided that the eggs were rotten and would never germinate the way their (paradoxical) packaging promised, The Husband noticed tiny sprouts poking through the dirt. I'm not sure if we will have flowers by Easter, but the eggs sure are cute!

We also transplanted all of our herb sprigs into larger starter squares. I peeled off the tiny net surrounding each peat pellet, and gave each seedling its own little home. It has been four weeks since I started the seeds in the windowsill greenhouse, and in the last week, since moving them into full sun, the plants have burst forth, growing taller and reaching for more light. We moved the plants outside onto our patio after transplanting them, with the hopes that the sunshine and warm air would encourage them to grow even more. With better soil, and more room to take root, I think these little sprouts will flourish.

Realizing how decidedly impatient I am with growing plants from seeds, it is no surprise that growing up, my least favorite parent-ism to hear was "give it time." You aren't quite tall enough to ride the roller coaster? Give it time. You aren't old enough to get your ears pierced? Give it time. You aren't an expert flautist the first time you pick up the instrument? GIVE IT TIME! It was right up there with "don't wish your life away." As I've gotten older, I've realized what my parents were really saying - with time, everything has a way of working itself out. Finding a job, working through tough situations, determining your place in the world; these things all take patience. I've learned that when things aren't going quite the way I'd hoped or planned, I need to give it time. So, why am I so impatient with these seeds!?! It must be the crazy.

Around Our House Next Week: Closet Shelf Installation, Dressmaking, Decorating for Easter and A Birthday Celebration

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Constructive Demolition

Week of March 15 through 21

Our house came with a grizzled old basketball hoop anchored next to our driveway. It was one of our least favorite amenities, and disuse had made it an eyesore. Our front yard is shaded for most of the morning and, combined with the typical humidity in our area, is an excellent hosting ground for all varieties of lichens and moss. Generally, I approve of these fluffy-looking additions to our landscape because they add so much color and variety, but it just isn't prudent to allow vegetation to grow on one's basketball hoop. It not only causes the neighbors concern over their property values, it also advertises one's lack of skillz with the rock.

Not long after we moved in, The Husband and I took down the lichen encrusted backboard and hoop, and stored it in the garage thinking that we would post it on craigslist. You never know what hipster might need a green basketball goal for their art school final project illustrating the political ramifications of tourism in Holland - ironically. Yeah, I don't really get art. Said basketball goal is still in our garage, next to a working washer and dryer we also intend(ed) to list.

Removing the goal left a lonesome square steel post jutting eight feet skywards from our yard. And thus it has been for the last year. Until now.

The torrential rain of the previous weekend softened the clay mud around the concrete piling enough for The Husband to dig out most of the post. Then the testosterone kicked in. Testosterone+Pickup Truck = Great Idea! Using his brand-new, self-retracting tie-down strap, The Husband hooked the steel post to the back of the truck and used some hemi-power to pull it out of the earth. As the clay relinquished its hold on the concrete piling it released a big sloppy wet slurp of resignation. Sadly, we can now no longer have Maypole dances in our yard.

We filled in the gaping hole with sand and topsoil and the large chunks of grass uprooted by the testosterone and hemi-power rippling so closely nearby. Then we realized that we couldn't lift the post to move it out of sight. Not even a budge. The basketball goal lives on! Toppled, and humiliated by the brazen display of its concrete nether-regions, it is still in our yard. I don't know which offends the neighbors more, our willful determination that a moss covered basketball hoop is art, or our willful defiance of social mores by allowing our basketball post to lay outside, naked, for all the world to see.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Herb Blurb

Week of March 8 through 14

Our herb garden has really taken off this week. The chive seeds have finally sprouted, so we can now move the greenhouse into the full sun and remove the greenhouse top to let the sprouts really grow. I don't know how much longer it will be before we can actually harvest and cook with our herbs, but it is sure fun to watch them grow!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Gardening Hootenanny and a Flower Bed

Week of March 8 through 14

The Parents came into town for a visit this weekend and we had so much fun! We originally planned for their visit knowing that my mom would be coming to town for a bridal shower. But, when we realized that our parents could be coerced into manual labor, we knew that this weekend would also be the perfect time to build our garden.

My dad has the greenest thumb. He inherited it from my grandparents, who have the biggest garden plot I've ever seen. Sadly, I think the emerald-phalange genetics skipped me, though I did inherit the crazy. Having a backyard garden was inspired by my dad's natural ability to coax vegetation from the earth. Growing up, we always had squash and tomatoes and blackberries from the backyard plot that my dad lovingly tended. It seemed only natural to me that when The Husband and I finally had a yard of our own, we would plant our own garden.

For the last month we have been in the final, serious, planning and preparation stages for the installation of our garden in our backyard. We've done our research: picking out the best location, the best plant varieties and the best soil for our area. We also spent a day driving around our neighborhood to determine what kind of retaining walls we liked, and what kind we didn't (ahem...the lip on those concrete landscaping bricks is supposed to go down). After determining that we liked the rock wall l
ook (and why wouldn't we, since it was the most expensive option) we chose a pallet of moss rock at our local landscaping supplier and arranged to have it delivered. We were all set for our Gardening Hootenanny (with free labor!)... then it started raining.

Since the beginning of the year our area had gotten a total of 2 inches of rain, over 8 inches behind the average for this time of year. As the weekend approached, the skies darkened, the temperature dropped and the meteorologists began predicting drizzle and rain for the entire weekend. And over the weekend we had carefully and thoughtfully set aside for our garden, no less! Still, we were not going to allow this to deter the hootenanny-ness of our hootenanny.

The 1.5 tons of stone we ordered was delivered via bobcat to our driveway on Saturday morning. I asked the delivery driver if he wouldn't mind just driving it on back into our backyard for us and he just grinned. I think maybe he had heard that a few times before. Meanwhile, The Husband drove off into the rain with a trailer to pick up 2 cubic yards of some kind of special soil.

Drizzle, drizzle, drizzle...

The Parents and I ventured into the backyard, and after much deliberation, staked out the plot for our garden. It so happens that the spot in our yard posing the least grass resistance was also located between the two sad, lonely and haphazardly positioned plants that existed in our yard when we moved in. While my dad tried to rescue the few lone patches of grass that would soon be covered by our garden (to fill in the bare patches in our poor, sad lawn), my mom and I loaded up the wheelbarrow with stones and started shuttling them from the front to the back of the house.

Sprinkle, drizzle, sprinkle...

My dad, expert stone stacker that he is, had the front wall built three courses high by the time I loosened my mom's shackles and allowed her to stop toiling long enough to get ready for her shower. I continued to move stone, and Dad kept stacking, and occasionally breaking, stone (think: chain gang in a old prison movie). I think he enjoyed breaking the stone with the sledgehammer a little bit too much. In his defense, though, some of the stones did need to be broken in order to make a stable stack, but the determination of which stones those were was a bit willy-nilly. Soon, The Husband's Parents arrived to lend a hand (and some tools) and shortly after that, we had all four walls of the garden built.

Sprinkle, rain, rain...

The Husband returned with the soil just as we were finishing the walls in the backyard. Thanks to The Husband's Parents, we had an extra shovel, an extra wheelbarrow and two extra people to help us haul the stinky, compost rich soil to the garden. Little by little, The Husband, my MIL, FIL and I filled the wheelbarrows and then the menfolk hauled them into the backyard and dumped them into the garden.

Rain, rain, pour...

When the garden was full, we still had about a quarter of a trailer full of soil. We also had some left over stones. Even though we were all wet and tired, and the rain had really started coming down, we decided to take on the front flower bed. (Bonus project! Order now and we'll include some rain absolutely free!) We laid out a garden hose to mark the shape of the bed, and then my dad and MIL dug out a shallow trench while The Husband and I followed behind, filling it in with stones.

One would think this would be a much easier task, since it was certainly smaller. But, I'm an organized, anal retentive, methodical planner, who needs to think things out before making a decision, and since I hadn't even considered the possibility of tackling the flower bed, my crazy started showing. As the project progressed, all of our lovely assistants were thoughtfully asking me if I liked how it was looking. I think this might have been because at one point during the construction of the garden, when my dad asked The Husband if he was happy with the progress thus far, I said, "He doesn't care what it looks like, as long as it grows tomatoes, I'm the one who approves aesthetics around here." Thus, my approval was needed on the front flower bed, quickly, before everyone gave up and went inside where it was dry. And my head nearly exploded from the power/unplanned disorder of it all.

No sooner had we placed the last rock, than it started raining in sheets. Thankfully, we were finished, sadly, everyone would later die of pneumonia.

The next morning, we visited our local nursery to pick out vegetables for our garden and plants for our front bed. We still needed expert advice on plant selection, though, so we requested that the king of all things agricultural help us. Of course, it was still raining, and the nursery is not covered. In true royal style, my dad stood under the only dry overhang at the nursery, while we ran out into the rain and grabbed flats of different plant varieties for his perusal. The king then decreed which plants were the best specimens, all the while staying perfectly dry.

Drizzle, rain, drizzle...

We spent the afternoon ducking in and out of the house, avoiding the downpours, and planting our garden and flower bed in the drizzle. We planted tomatoes, bell peppers, yellow squash and beans in the back. Then we designed our front flower bed with shrubs, begonias and impatiens. We got dirty, and wet, and we got some invaluable garden advice from my dad. And we finally got our garden finished. Over the weekend of our Gardening Hootenanny, our area received 2.5 inches of rain. We got more rain while we were outside working in the yard than we had previously gotten all year!

We are so excited about how everything turned out. It is more than what we were even hoping for. We can see our garden when we wake up every morning, and we love it. We can't wait for our first harvest!

We truly could not have accomplished what we did without the help of our families. We are so grateful that they live close by, and that they were willing to give up their weekend to stand in the rain and deliberate over each and every stone placement with us. Everyone worked so hard, and we are so appreciative of the effort and energy they put in to help turn our dreams of a garden into a reality.

When we were looking for a house, we knew that we wanted something with a lot of space and an open kitchen so that there would always be room for company. We really enjoy having all of our family together at our house, and we wanted to have a comfortable gathering place for everyone. This weekend was one of those times when we felt so grateful for what have. Our family, all together, cozy in front of the fire, spending peaceful time together in our happy home. Perfect.

All Around Our House Next Week: Transplanting our Herb Garden and Bikes

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Spring Cleaning and Fresh Eggs

Week of March 2 through 7

The arrival of spring always encourages me to clear out and clean up around our house. I think the bright, clean, freshness of spring makes me want to refresh everything around me. In this salubrious spirit, we decided to tackle the reorganization of The Husband's closet, among other spring cleaning tasks.

The Husband can be a very tidy man, and he often helps me clean the house. He is also married to a methodical, organized, anal retentive woman whose definitions of "messy" and "tidy" might be slightly skewed. (Meaning, he is generally very neat, I'm just crazy). Since our move, things have slowly but surely been finding new homes in our new house, and sometimes those locations have changed a few times before a permanent spot has been found. Such is the nature of moving, I guess. These vagabond belongings created a disorganized state that was compounded by the fact that, when we moved, our closet shelf space was reduced by half, while our hanging space remained the same. That, and we lost a coat closet. Needless to say, things in the closet were a little untidy.

The solution: more stuff. We bought a modular storage shelf with a right justified 3-2-1 cube arrangement that we hoped would fit on the funky-shaped shelf under the stairs in the closet. It didn't. To make it fit, we modified the building plans, and cut 3 of the pieces with the table saw, and now we have a right justified 3-2 cube arrangement that fits in The Husband's closet perfe
ctly. By culling out some unneeded belongings, regrouping some things and relocating his suitcases to the attic, The Husband now has a super tidy "home" for all of his stuff. He also has a happy wife whose eye doesn't twitch every time she walks past the decidedly "untidy" stack of sweaters on his closet shelf.

While in the spring cleaning spirit, we decided to replace our vacuum cleaner. My vacuum from college had been slowly dying for the last year, even after valiant efforts at cleaning and repair by the engineer of the household. The choice was: $100 for professional repair OR buy a new vacuum. After two months of debate (during which time NO vacuuming took place - gag) we decided to spring for a Dyson. Man does that thing SUCK! No sooner had we walked in the door with the Yellow Wonder, than The Husband was asking to put it together and use it. Not only does this vacuum work like no other, it somehow activates the carpet cleaning hormone in the male species. He vacuumed the who
le house. Buy one today!

The fresh, green crispness of spring also enticed me to try a new planting project. For years, I have wanted to plant a living Easter basket, but have never been able to remember far enough ahead of time to plant the grass. While at our garden center a few weekends ago, I spotted these adorable prepackaged eggs that made my living Easter basket project easier to achieve, so I decided to give them a try.

The packaging claimed that each egg contained everything it needed to grow a cute little plant in 6 weeks. The seeds and growing medium were included, I just had to crack them open and add water. Easy, right? Not really. The instructions on the packaging told me to use a spoon and gently tap the top of the egg until it cracked (a la a soft boiled egg perhaps?) When I peeled off the cellophane packaging, however, a second set of instructions folded neatly inside the cellophane warned me that removing the packaging before cracking the top of the egg may cause the egg to break! These cute little Easter eggs posed a paradox the magnitude of the chicken vs. egg controversy.

That first egg did break when I tried to gently remove the top. Turns out "gently" as defined by Catch-22 egg instructions means "wail on it". I modified my technique for the next three, as suggested by the resident engineer, and used a hammer and the more commonly accepted definition of a gentle tap, and achieved much better results. After gluing the first egg casualty back together, and filling it with the seeds and growing medium that had spilled all over the counter, I watered each of the eggs and placed them in the windowsill. Now I just have to wait (and hope) for sprouts.

Speaking of sprouts - the little greenhouse I planted last week (according to the clear instructions on that packaging) has produced little baby basil sprouts. Next week, the rest of the seeds should be shooting up!

All Around Our House Next Week: The Parents Visit and A Gardening Hootenanny

Thursday, March 5, 2009

All About Our Citrus

So I thought I would expand a bit on our citrus trees. We were lucky to find all the varieties we wanted at our local nursery, and I would suggest anyone interested in growing their own fruit trees look at independent nurseries as opposed to Home Depot or Lowe's, I've noticed the varieties they have aren't well adapted for our area. We may have gone a little overboard for our first year of growing citrus, but ended up purchasing a Meyer Lemon, Mexican Thornless Lime, and a Joey Avocado.

The Meyer Lemon is a great tree for our area, it is cold hardy down to 25°F, can be pruned to whatever size best fits your area, and is a heavy bearer of fruit of August through about January. I didn't realize when we went to pick it up what a beautiful tree it is, the blooms are a nice pinkish-purple color and are very fragrant. The blooms have started setting fruit, which unfortunately we have to pick off most of this year so the plant can establish itself. This is one of the trees we will be growing in a container on the back porch. If planted in the ground it could grow to about 8-10 feet tall, but we will probably keep it pruned back so it is easy to pick the fruit without using a ladder, and so it is about the same size as the lime tree.
The lone lemon I'm going to let it develop this year.

The Mexican Thornless Lime is a very small tree, looking almost more like a bush with the way the branches grow. It can't handle the cold like the lemon tree can, but with it in a container we will be able to bring it into the house during any hard freezes. This one will produce some amount of fruit all year round, perfect for margaritas or a frosty Corona. I'm excited to see that it started setting blooms this week.

Both of the container plants were planted in Citrus Mix soil. It's a specialty blend of soil created specifically for growing citrus trees in containers. It has good quality soil for drainage and easy root growth, compost to provide beneficial organic matter, and special soil amendments to provide the nutrients these trees will need. Plus they both got a nice layer of mulch to keep the soil from drying out too quickly. Hopefully by giving them a good start they will become well established in their containers and bear great crops for years to come.

Potting Trees and Starting Seeds

Week of February 23 through March 1

This week marked the (meager) beginning of our garden. We have been talking about planting a garden since we moved into our house. Unfortunately, it was already too late in the year for any plantings when we moved in last April. Happily, that has given us plenty of time to work on other parts of the house (to be seen in later postings!) and allowed us to really scrutinize the light and drainage patterns in our yard over the last year. It also gave us lots of time to study the different plant varieties - which led us to a huge list of plants we want to grow, that we will never have enough room for in our yard! Now, we feel like we have a great plan for our garden and we are really excited to put it in!

We began our pursuit of the perfect garden back in January by purchasing a lemon tree, a lime tree and an avocado tree. Since then, the trees have been in their original pots on our patio, waiting patiently for the final frost of the year so that they could be transplanted into more permanent homes. The weather over the last few weeks has been completely bipolar. At times it has been in the 80s during the day, only to drop into the 30s at night. We have loyally shuttled the trees indoors when there was the threat of a freeze so that they were warm and cozy at night. Coupled with the 80 degree days, their cozy nights have tricked our trees into putting out blooms already.

Since these are first year trees, they will need to put all of their energy into growing big strong roots and limbs. Sadly, that means no fruit for us this year. A few weekends ago, we had to pull all of the blooms and buds off of the trees to force them to focus on growing up and out. The little blooms were really pretty - and they actually tasted like lemons! (True story, we tried them.)

This weekend we were finally able to transplant our trees into larger, permanent pots. We chose lightweight, terracotta-look pots so that we will be able to move them more easily should the need arise. We also used citrus soil specifically formulated for growing citrus trees in pots. Something about drainage and nutrient content - The Husband knows about that.

We also started the seeds for our herb garden. We decided to start with seeds, rather than nursery plants because the seeds allowed us to pick the specific variety we wanted. I planted six starters each of oregano, chives, basil and rosemary in a purchased windowsill seed starter greenhouse kit. I've never used peat pellets before and I was amazed by how big they "grow" just by adding water! We should have sprouts by next week!

Around Our House Next Week: Dressmaking, Truck Repair, and maybe some Closet Shelf Installation