garden log : killing killing killing & buying buying buying

This week has been rainy and I’ve focused on killing unwanted yard invaders. Chickweed is sprouting like crazy all over the town, spurred on by last year’s drought, and I’ve tried to clear the larger patches of it from the front yard. I’ve also tried to catch the dandelions before they go to seed, and have been moderately successful. I am not sure that the bare, slightly muddy, patches are better than the weeds, but I’m hoping the grass and violets will fill them in with time. I know that many people consider the violets themselves a weed — not to mention a sign of poor drainage — but I find them cheery and am happy to see them return. They, too, will spread, but more slowly than the plants that fling their seeds in all directions, so I tolerate them gladly.

I’ve taken advantage of the damp weather and wet ground to dig up more of the invasive liriope as well. I’m making slow but steady progress; I’m determined not to let the weeds get stronger over the next few months. Digging them up mid-summer was possible, but not a lot of fun, and I hope to have them well in hand by that point this year. In addition to killing things in our own yard, we lent our skills to the town for the civic association’s annual stream clean-up. Our contribution was to clear the invasive tree-strangling ivy from along the stream banks of one block of the town park. Yes, two hours of labor netted us two large contractor bags of ivy and one block cleared; that’s how prevalent the ivy is around here! In some instances the ivy had been previously cut but had grown back together and was refusing to die; in those cases we pulled the roots from the trunk, even though that can be harder on the tree. From all accounts the stream clean-up was a success, as there appeared to be enough volunteers to cover the entire length of the creek this year.

Ivy-damaged tree in the town park.

As I continue to clear the ground in our yard, I’m starting to need materials to cover it up again: plants and mulch. I purchased two cold hardy white azaleas for the left foundation bed, and they’ve been sitting on our porch while I collect the peat moss and humus that I need to plant them out properly. Azaleas grow well in the soil in our town, so I expect that if I plant them as recommended they’ll do well. This will be the first time I’ve planted a shrub, though, and I didn’t think the ‘plunking them in the ground’ approach that works so well with transplanting daylilies would suffice.

Plants waiting to be planted out.

In addition to the azaleas, I purchased a range of low-growing natives — woodland stonecrop, three types of woodland phlox, two varieties of crested iris — to fill out the front bed and the cleared area under the holly tree in the back yard. I’m hoping that the phlox will anchor both the soil and the mulch in the front and that the iris will spread into a nice ground cover in the back. Of course, this means that the coming week will be full of soil treatment and ground preparation, if it ever stops raining. Not that rain is bad; I’m grateful for it, especially after last year’s drought. It just means more time inside — and more money spent at the garden store — than I’d like.

garden log : killing killing killing & buying buying buying

extreme gardening

I’ve been busy lately, and hadn’t realized how much time had passed since I’ve gotten it together to write up anything I’ve been doing. The thing that’s been keeping me busy has been gardening. Although gardening is a far too genteel way of describing what we’ve been doing. Yard work is really too tame as well. In both cases, maintenance of an already-existing yard or a garden is implied. That is not what we have.

What we have is a temperate jungle. I have never had much empathy for the Europeans who came to occupy this continent, as their single-minded fixation on clearing the land and beating into into a replication of their homes seemed a little maniacal. However, as I spend hours digging out overgrowth — English ivy and kudzu and poison ivy and honeysuckle and Virginia creeper and sumac, to name a few — I am starting to feel for them. I still think their goal, to convert perfectly good forest into mediocre farmland, was out of whack with their context. But I am starting to understand how they could have gone very quickly insane, through working all day to clear one meager patch, only to turn around and see that the patch behind you had shot up another foot. That, in a nutshell, is what we’ve been doing. We like to call it ‘extreme gardening’ to try to make it more cutting edge. But really it’s just laboring away under the hot sun trying to dig out 20 years of neglect from the circumfrence of the yard.

Our main challenger in this effort has been a tenacious indigenous plant that we now know to be pokeweed. We purchased special equipment — a landscape bar — just to deal with this beast. Okay, not only to deal with this beast — we also have about a dozen stumps of various types of scrub to clear out of the yard — but it certainly came in handy. Pokeweed quickly grows to over 6 feet tall, and produces berries that birds love to eat and then poop all over the place. We didn’t get to it fast enough last year, so we have little mini pokeweeds coming up all over the lawn. Those aren’t actually the problem. The problem was — and I am happy to say that we’ve licked it — the weeds that had been establishing roots for the past two decades in the back corner of the yard. The stems and leaves die down each year, but the root mass is amazing in comparison to what’s above ground.

In the end, we had to dig down about two feet to the clay layer, and even so we left some smaller pieces of root that just refused to be dislodged. We had three roots this size to get out, and maybe a half dozen half that size. Plus innumerable little new ones from the berries. But we did it, and we now have a bare, soon to be mulched, area across the back of our yard where we previously only had crazy big weeds. Go us!

My goal is to have the invasives cleared out of the yard — side beds the length of the backyard and beds all around the house — and under mulch by the fall. We’ll be doing a little transplanting, such as moving the bulbs and the lily of the valley to more suitable and less crowded spots, but mostly this is the year of killing. Since it’s now officially summer (a belated happy solstice!) and we’ve cleared maybe a fifth of what needed to be done during the spring, I think we will be lucky to make it by the first hard frost. Granted, we started with the worst fifth, so there’s hope that the rest of it will go more quickly. And, we won’t have to do this again after this year. Or at least that’s the hope, that once we get things cleared out the whole thing will be much easier to maintain.

extreme gardening

killing caterpillars, and other less than pleasant garden duties

In general, I try to take the ‘live and let live’ approach to insects outside (mosquitoes being the obvious exception). Eastern tent caterpillars really creep me out, though. I don’t like the way they fall from the trees; even if they don’t fall on me, they make a disturbing plopping sound when they hit the ground plants. I especially don’t like the way that, no matter what I do, I invariably end up stepping on them (which is gross) because they are around in such abundance. Unfortunately for me, we have in our yard several cherry trees of the variety they love to eat. Which means, nests busting out all over the place.

This year, I decided to just bite the bullet, alienate my insect-protecting friends, and kill as many of them as I can before they mature. It seems less cruel to smash a nest full of itty bitty little caterpillars than run around stepping on them when they’re full grown. But that’s really just a post-hoc justification: I want as few of them around as possible, and killing them in the nests is the most effective way to make that happen (given that I neglected to try to seek out and remove the eggs during the winter; I’ll try that next year). I hope that if I remove the tents I can reach, my feathered friends will help by eating as many as they possibly can as they mature.

At any rate, we started that last night, pulling down (and in some cases pruning out) the limbs with tents we could reach with a ladder. Although it’s not the recommended approach, we burned the webbing and then pulled the mass out of the trees. I’m torn on whether to just cut back the limbs that are infested; one of the trees (the smallest and youngest) is close to the garage, and there’s a goodly chance it will need to be taken out when we repair the foundation. It’s tempting to just take it out now and be done with the caterpillar issue there, but it’s a nice little tree and I’m fond of it. Besides the creeping me out factor, I hate to see the caterpillars decimate the trees (even though I know intellectually that it doesn’t create long-term harm, as the trees generally refoliate without issue).

The caterpillar killing came at the end of a day of digging up onion grass (another exception to my general ‘live and let live’ approach, as it stings my eyes when I mow the lawn) and pruning deadwood out of the dogwood (I’m a bit concerned that the dogwood might be struggling with a fungus; a smaller one in our yard died off completely last year and will be the next thing we work on taking out). This year’s garden work seems to be clustering up around the theme of ‘remove all the stuff that’s died off or invaded due to years of neglect by the previous owners,’ with a sprinkling of ‘move plants that are in the completely wrong environment to a different part of the yard where they will get the sun (or lack thereof) that they need’ thrown in to keep things interesting.

Which is all to say, check back in a few years for photos of things actually growing: we’re not quite there yet.

killing caterpillars, and other less than pleasant garden duties

spring is sprung & yard work has begun

All of a sudden, this past week, flowers are popping up all over the place: from the ground, on trees, and all over previously skeletal shrubs. We didn’t see our neighborhood at this time last year; the major tree flowering fell in between our first visit to the house and when we moved in the following month. My parents also missed this by a couple of weeks on their recent visit; because the winter was a regular (i.e. cold) one, the early blooming of the past few years didn’t happen. Our dogwood hasn’t bloomed yet, either, and I’m looking forward to that.

It’s really quite pretty, and it’s easy to see why the Bradford pear trees were such a popular choice for the town now that they’re in full bloom. Because of the cold winter the azaleas haven’t bloomed yet, but the forsythia and cherry trees are also in bloom this week. Before moving out here, I didn’t have any allergies: now I have them for these three weeks each spring, when the pollen count goes through the roof. I maintain that they’re not technically allergies, but just a completely predictable and healthy reaction to having my internal head membranes become coated in plant dust.

All these flowers serve as a reminder that spring is really and truly here, and the time to take advantage of weak root structures and soft earth is now. ‘Ivy, begone!’ is the theme of this season’s yard improvement project plans. In practical terms, we’re trying to fill our two trash cans with yard debris (old wood, pulled up weeds, pulled down ivy) every pickup (twice per week) from now until all we’re left with is the lovely mundanity of side beds that are weed-free, soil-treated, and mulch-covered.

With a little luck, that will be sometime before next winter. If that’s all we accomplish this summer and don’t plant a single new thing in our yard, I will still be ecstatic.

spring is sprung & yard work has begun