Garden Diary 2020 - June 16-30
The summer harvest has begun! Veggies and herbs sown from seed in the springtime are finally coming to fruition. We've had mostly successes and some failures. There's always room to learn. Brightly colored summer flowers are providing a spectacular backdrop. While the kitchen garden thrives on its own, we've been busy implementing more organic gardening practices to improve the health of our soil. Our long-term plans to remodel the backyard shade garden are underway, which involved two massive loads of free arborist wood chips. We're getting better at learning how to let nature take care of itself. Check my intro article here, where I'll add links to my Garden Diary 2020 posts throughout the gardening season.
A Little Inspiration
With Northern Virginia opening up after the COVID lockdown, our first pleasure outing was a visit to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. I was looking for ideas for our backyard makeover, where I intend to include elements of a Japanese-style garden in this largely shady area of my yard. We found plenty of inspiration for hardscapes, plants, water features, and whimsical garden ornaments. Here's just a sample, but I'll be including more photos in another post.
Woot! I saw the first hummingbird of the year in my garden today! I've practically BEGGED them to come with plantings and feeders. And finally I saw one on the Autumn Sage flower in 'Radio Red'. Because this plant begins blooming in the springtime, it will be the first plant ready to attract hummingbirds before the summer flowers arrive. I have yet to see a hummingbird visit the feeder. I wish I had my camera on hand to capture the moment. Maybe next time.
Another Lesson in Container Planting
A few weeks ago, I planted three types of herbs in one grow bag - cilantro, oregano and chives. The cilantro came up quickly and is ready to harvest, but the oregano was so slow to germinate, and the chives barely surfaced. When the cilantro begins to bolt, I won't be able to clear out the container and start over because the oregano is taking its time to grow. This was another lesson learned in container gardening - combine plants intended for harvest in the same container that have equal grow rates and harvest times, or plant one type only per bag.
Wood Chip Heaven
I've been listening to the gardening experts talk about the benefits of using arborist wood chips and how to get huge deliveries of them to your home for free. These wood chips are the shredded trees and limbs taken down by tree services. With my backyard makeover project underway, I knew I needed several truckloads of mulch and soil to fill in the planter beds and suppress the weeds. After years of neglect, the soil had eroded, especially at the slope that drops off near my back fence. I'd been dumping loads of leaves back there to help fill it in, which had been turning into compost, but it looked very messy and the weeds kept returning. Since this will probably be a multi-year project, I knew I had time to let the wood chips decompose and help build the soil layer.
So when I noticed a tree service removing branches from a neighbor's house and shredding them on sight, my eyes lit up! I promptly walked over and asked them if they had plans for those chips. I was happy to learn that they were heading to the recycling facility and asked if I wanted them. Of course I did! They kindly backed up their truck and dumped the whole load on my driveway. Oh happy day! The pile, a mix of wood chips, fresh leaves and twigs, was about five feet tall. It took all day to haul about half the wood chips, one wheelbarrow at a time, to the backyard garden and fill the beds. There's much more to do, but it's looking so much better already.
Learn more about arborist wood chips here.
In between rainstorms, I finished filling the planting beds with the arborist wood chips. What a difference it makes! I will definitely need another three or four loads to finish the entire job, but I'm happy to take a break and wait for another delivery.
First Sign of Trouble
My tomato plants have been growing so lush, tall and green. But after three days of drenching rain, some of the leaves started to turn yellow and spotted. Thanks to listening to the organic gardening experts, I noticed the problem in my morning garden walk and took care of it right away. Knowing that fungus will spread up the rest of the plant, I immediately cut off the leaves and threw them in the trash, not the compost pile, so that the disease doesn't spread to my other plants. We're expecting more showers this week, so I'll be on the lookout for more trouble.
The azaleas that were planted on my property when we bought our house over 20 years ago have been slowly dying. What's left of them are uneven branches with dead stumps in between. Since I'm not ready to re-landscape the areas where they are located, I thought I'd give them one last chance. When I cleaned out their beds, I noticed little sprouts coming up from the ground as if they were trying to revive themselves. Last summer, we had a large, mature bush cut to the ground, but didn't remove the stump. By spring, sprouts began shooting out and it's now almost two feet tall. If it worked for that bush, perhaps it will work for the azaleas. By the end of summer I'll know if I should replace them altogether.
The volunteer hydrangea I transplanted to the former ivy bed didn't look like it was going to make it. Though I watered it every day, it continued to droop and some of the lower leaves were turning brown. Then we had a heavy rain. By the next morning, the leaves had perked up and looked healthy again. A couple days later, it started to droop, until another heavy rain revived it. I noticed the same pattern with the new hydrangea that I purchased from the garden store in the spring that I planted in the front yard. The two bushes I have in my back yard that I planted years ago were never watered past the first year, other than by rain, and they come up beautifully every year. It seems that hydrangeas need a lot more deep waterings than other plants in order to get established, but flourish with little attention once they've developed good roots.
My lawn looks awful. Parts of it have been taken over by weeds, especially clover and dandelions, and other parts are bare dirt. But the good news is that the white clover flowers are popping up and attracting bees to the veggie garden. I guess my messy lawn is doing nature a service. My concern is that we will step on the bees and get stung as we walk through the yard. Eventually, we'll have a lawn service fix it up.
Bees Love Cucumbers
Cucumbers, I have found, are one of the most popular plants in my veggie garden for the bees. I hear intense buzzing every time I check on the plant's growth.
The leftover Roma tomatoes plants I moved to plastic containers were looking pretty spindly and pale for awhile. But after grinding up some more tree branches in my mulcher and placing the chips around the tomatoes, the plants began growing and greening almost overnight. That proved to me the importance of keeping the soil cool and moist around tomato plants.
At Last, the Pesto
Ever since we started basil from seed indoors, I have eagerly watched it SLOWLY grow, to the point I didn't think it would grow at all! But today, the moment arrived when we had enough leaves to make a batch of pesto sauce. Our basil consumption cannot be satisfied with just a couple plants. No, we need a whole bed of it! I've planted over a dozen varieties sown from seed both indoors and out, and purchased a couple flavors for which I did not have seeds. Finally, with all the rain we've had, the basil finally began to flourish enough to produce a packed cup full of leaves. We enjoyed delicious pesto sauce with fresh from the garden basil for the first time this season. It's going to be a great summer!
The thing about root veggies is that you don't know how well they're doing until you pull them out of the ground. My first set of harvested carrots were laughable. The were so tiny that the whole row wasn't enough to feed a bunny! Looks like I'll need to do a little more homework before I plant again. The row of carrots I planted from the seed tape are still growing above ground, but I'm not hopeful for a better result. Perhaps they need to be in a raised bed or planter?
My Homemade Pallet Compost Bin
On my list of backyard cleanup projects for this summer has been making a three-bay compost bin out of free shipping pallets. Like many of the gardening tips I've learned this year, I got this one from Joe Gardener, too. Here's an article and video.
Once I had my backyard compost area cleared, my friend stopped at a local hardware store and picked up all the free pallets they had, with permission of course. Although it's recommended that you pick pallets that are the same size, I used whatever he brought me and put them together like a puzzle. Some were longer than others, and had different wooden slat configurations. I started by repairing some of the damaged boards by adding a few nails where the boards had been separated. Then I lined them up against the fence in the order, using the longest boards for the back and the shorter ones as dividers. I bought long, 2 1/2" galvanized screws to fasten the pieces together.
The plan was in place, but execution of the plan was another story! My lack of construction skills cost me at least a couple hours. Because the compost system is long and heavy, I had to assemble it in place. Unfortunately, the ground is uneven and the pallets were a little warped, so none of the pieces were coming together quite flush. The screws wouldn't go through the wood, either. I was finally ended up drilling pilot holes, which worked somewhat. I inserted cleats from wood scraps where there were gaps.
My construction job was atrocious, but it is now up and running, and full of compost. I added a fourth bay for our rotting firewood since it will decompose much slower than the leaf pile.
I Struck Gold!
It's not every day you strike gold - black gold, that is! Compost! Years ago, we had some dead trees taken down in our yard. We cut them and stacked them up for firewood. Since we rarely use our fireplace, the stack of wood sadly rotted behind our shed for over a decade. With our new compost bins in place, I decided to clean up the woodpile which had been covered by leaves and yard debris. But when I removed the leaves, I found a huge pile of beautiful, black compost underneath. Oh happy day! I've only begun to scoop it out. I can't wait to go outside tomorrow and dig for more!
In another tip from Joe Gardener, I made a compost screen out of 2x4s and 1/2 inch chicken wire to sift the larger debris from my new-found finished compost pile. It was a good, easy project to get started back into DIY woodworking. Here's the information on how you can make a compost sifter, too.
Bush Bean and Cucumber Harvest
At last, the first set of bush beans and cucumbers are ready for harvest! There weren't a lot, but in a few days, we'll have enough beans for a family sized serving. And it already appears that the cucumbers will be plentiful. For our first year of having a full-blown kitchen garden, I can see that next year we will plant more beans.
Building a Bed the Organic Way
I began ripping out another old planter bed in the back yard as part of our remodel project. This spot used to be a children's sandbox that came with the house. The soil quality is terrible. It's hard with clay and leftover sand. Not much can grow here. Since we're not going to do anything with this bed for awhile, I decided to backfill it with organic material like logs, leaves, bark, sticks and some overgrown plants, and top it with the arborist wood chips. I figure that will help build the soil until I'm ready to use it. I found out later that this is actually a growing method called Hugelkultur, which I learned more about here.
Another Load of Arborist Wood Chips!
I ordered another round of free arborist wood chips, this time from www.getchipdrop.com. The service is awesome if you are in a position to accept a mountain of wood chips to your yard. The chips we got were from a variety of trees, but we had no debris, leaves or pine needles. Despite the size of the pile, we are actually going to need a second load, probably closer to fall. We are so pleased with this service and its benefit to the environment.
While the flower and kitchen gardens have been busy growing, I've been busy planning and improving the back yard. The summer harvest has begun with fresh cucumbers and beans, and tomatoes, peppers, onions and potatoes on their way.
Summer flowers are blooming, birds and insects are thriving, and the herb and veggie plants are flourishing in their organically prepared beds.
In my happy little garden, you'd never know the world was struggling with the COVID pandemic.