Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Gardening Resolutions, 2011

Well, after reviewing how my gardening resolutions went for 2010, it's time to make some new ones! Without further ado...

1. Define the borders. In my (understandable) focus on plants, I have neglected to do much that really defines the gardens from the yard. With the exception of the wooden bars (or whatever these might technically be called) that were here from the previous owners, I have no hardscaping.

Digging a well-defined separation between yard and garden in the front would look nice, but digging is such an awful chore in this clay that I think fencing would be better, or at least easier. And for the new south border, rocks would complement the naturalistic look. I think some definition would literally set my gardens apart.

(Look past the lovely camassias and you'll notice this ill-defined border abruptly becomes yard.)

2. Fix this other @!$# border. This north border has been driving me crazy for years now! The tulips last year were lovely and I labored through planting about 40 more this fall. Inexplicably, the nectaroscordums seem happy here and I added 10 more of those too. But what else?! The shrub search was derailed when I killed the Canadian hemlock, the border in part shade, far from the hose (and hence always dry), and despite my best efforts at soil amendment this border is still holding tons of lava rocks from the abuse it suffered under the previous owners.

(But what else besides tulips?!)

My plans have changed at least ten times in the past year. I'm resolving to put something resembling a real garden here, likely with some sturdy prairie/savanna natives that can withstand the harsh conditions. We'll see...

3. Clean up the composting operation. I was very proud of myself for making actual compost this year! It took a long time but the sweltering summer did help me produce some lovely compost that immediately went in the above-mentioned problem border. Now I have my humble plastic tote filled again and I've made a pile next to it in which to dump scraps and leaves while the load in the tote decomposes. But this is amateurish and messy. Luckily, when I received my Troy Bilt 3090 XP, it came on a huge wooden skid that is now sitting against our house. It is the perfect material for building some boxes with chicken wire that will really class up the composting around here!

So this year I'm sticking with just three resolutions. Since I couldn't quite come through on four in 2010, I think it's wise to stay focused this year. Informally, I'm also resolving to be better about blogging. Work and life have kept me from reading and writing in the garden blogosphere as much as I would like, and I really want to try to improve on that.

So how about you? Any gardening resolutions for 2011? Happy New Year everyone!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Resolutions Reviewed

The detritus of Christmas is being swept away and I am already fully engaged in planning for next year's garden. Pots of forced hyacinths will be coming indoors at the end of the week and seed starting is just around the corner, but before jumping in to 2011 I wanted to reflect on my gardening adventures in 2010.

Last year at this time I made some gardening resolutions, in lieu of any serious resolutions that I would not be likely to achieve. Looking back on those has been rather amusing to me. How did I do?

My first resolution was to mulch frequently...well, not so much in practice. I did manage to get the front bed mulched by midsummer (was it June? July? Either way it was later than I would have preferred). Of course, once I had finished putting down the mulch I was looking over my handiwork and I exclaimed "I always forget how much better it looks with mulch!"

(This was taken in August, so there was mulch by then at least.)

I never did manage to get the back borders mulched and I've deplored my failure to mulch the vegetable garden numerous times already. So, I would say in 2010 I did mulch, but "frequently," certainly not. 0 for 1.

My second resolution was to plant a Japanese maple. Ha! Ha! This was a complete failure! I was seduced by a dwarf Canadian hemlock that I picked up at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show. I later killed this tree by letting it get too dry in its container. (The idea was to nurse it along during the spring and summer because it was a very small seedling and then plant it in the fall. You know what they say about the best laid plans...) I would still love a Japanese maple or even another shrub because this is the problem border I've been wrestling with for three years, and something will go there at some point! But will that happen in 2011? I won't resolve to do it, that's for sure. 0 for 2.

Next up was to fix this @$!# border. Success!

('David' phlox and purple hyssop was a great combo in the front sunny area.)

I widened the border (with some not-insignificant sod removal), planted a bunch of stuff, had seedlings survive, and it should be even better next year.

('Bon Bon' cosmos came through for a late summer show.)

Yeah for me! 1 for 3

Lastly I resolved to grow more vegetables. Done! 2 for 4

OK, so a .500 record isn't too bad! Time to resolve to do more next year, but I'll get to that in another post soon...

What did you resolve to do this past year in the garden? Did you accomplish your goals?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: The Storm 3090 XP Snow Thrower

Here in Chicagoland we're in the interlude between snow storms that are assuring us a very, very white Christmas. So earlier this week gave us a chance to try out our new Troy Bilt Storm 3090 XP snow thrower, which I won from a contest hosted by Garden Girl. (FTC Disclaimer: Obviously I received this item free of charge.)

I entered this contest really for the sake of my husband, affectionately called Tech Support, because we have never had a working snow thrower and shoveling almost always becomes his responsibility. I just don't like shoveling and will avoid it at all costs unless we're getting a blizzard during the day and I have no choice but to shovel the snow lest he not be able to get his car in the driveway by the time he's home from work. So I felt that since I stick him with this chore all the time, the least I could do was try to win a new snow thrower.

And did I! This snow thrower is huge and it has more features than my car. It's a two-stage snow thrower that clears a 30" swath. It's got power steering (yes, a snow thrower with power steering), plus heated hand grips and a headlight. Tech Support was the one to use the 3090 XP a couple days ago when it snowed, and here is the gist of his assessment:

It was surprisingly maneuverable for its size. It started easily and made quick work of our driveway, sidewalk, and part of the neighbor's driveway too. We always have deep snow pile up at the end of our driveway because the concrete dips, but the 3090 XP had no trouble clearing it. Above second gear it moves really fast and can get away from you a little, so be aware when moving into a higher gear. He did not try out the heated hand grips (!) so I have no info on those. And it was very loud, like the sound of a really big lawn mower.

Here's a direct quote: "Once you get the feel for its power, it runs easy. Make sure you start in a lower gear and work your way up to find your comfort level."

What about assembly, you may ask? It took him about two hours start to finish but that was because he didn't read the directions (I'm not joking, that really did happen). He admitted that had he read about the certain part of the assembly that messed him up, it would have taken much less time and been a lot simpler. So the lesson is read the directions if you get this machine.

All in all, Tech Support felt (and I agreed) that this is a top of the line snow thrower and we're thrilled to have it. I'd like to thank Garden Girl and Troy Bilt for hosting such a generous giveaway.

And Merry Christmas to everyone!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book Review: Energy-Wise Landscape Design

This is a woefully late review, but since I have nothing blooming and can't participate in Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, I figured this is a perfect time for a better late than never post.

I won Energy-Wise Landscape Design: A New Approach for your Home and Garden, by Sue Reed, in a contest on Garden Rant way back in August (FTC Disclaimer: yes, this book was free). I immediately liked the organizations that is based around how to arrange your landscape, how to design it, how to construct it, and how to generate energy. A couple of years ago I attended a natural landscaping symposium and I saw a presentation by Pat Armstrong of Prairie Sun Consultants (who for some reason doesn't have a website!!) about how she and her husband designed their home using passive solar approaches, natural evergreen windbreaks, and one of the most outstanding prairie restorations in northern Illinois. I was already growing many native plants in my garden, but I was inspired by the holistic energy conservation embodied in this house design. I was hoping to learn some specific ways to incorporate these types of ideas into my own existing home landscape by reading Reed's book.

Unfortunately for me, most of the methods in this book are best applied to new construction. Let me emphasize that Reed's ideas and tips are sensible, easy to understand and would certainly accomplish energy efficiency in every sense of the term. From shading your home in summer to capturing the sun's heat in winter, from using water efficiently to building environmentally friendly structures, Reed covers every conceivable aspect of landscape design (plants, hardscape, buildings, energy generators, I mean everything). But the vast majority of these actions are not applicable on a small, established suburban lot like mine.

For example, I can't significantly change the way that mature trees shade my house at inopportune times because many of them are on my neighbors' properties. Removing and redesigning my driveway is also not spatially feasible on a 1/4-acre lot. Of course none of this is Reed's fault nor does it make her book less valid in its knowledge; it just means it's less useful for those of us on typical suburban lots.

In general, Reed's discussions of native and regionally appropriate plants are cogent and informative for people unaccustomed to gardening with natives. She explains the ecological value of native plants, how to match plants to soil conditions and ways to reduce or eliminate your lawn. Significantly, she addresses how to do this without estranging neighbors or running afoul of community regulations (an ever-present worry here in the Suburban Wasteland).

However, I was disappointed in her discussion of rain gardens. It was too vague to be directly helpful to someone trying to plant one, yet at the same time the diagrams she included showed numerous layers of materials that are not at all necessary for a functioning rain garden. She had crushed stone, rain garden soil mix (whatever that is), and geotextile fabric included in two diagrams, and I can tell you from personal experience that a rain garden will work just fine without any of those. Had I been new to the concept of rain gardens, seeing these complex diagrams and the generalized discussions warning of it becoming "a big mushy puddle in the landscape" I would have been turned off right away. And that is exactly the opposite of what this book should be doing. Now, I fully agree that rain gardens need to be designed and planted intelligently and safely, but the idea here should be to encourage, especially for something like installing water-absorbing plants, which is way easier and cheaper than ripping out and replacing your driveway.

In short, if you're buying property and building a new home and you care about energy conservation and environmentally friendly construction, this book will be an invaluable guide to developing your home landscape. If you live on a relatively small lot and/or have an established homesite, there is less that will be directly useful to you.

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