Monthly Archives: August 2015

World’s Worst Gardener award

Look at this travesty. This used to be my beloved front triangle garden. Now, it’s just a crabgrass farm.

A gray tuxedo cat walks up the sidewalk past a weedy garden.

Our neighbor, Curveball, strolls past the jungle

People love this garden and it gets lots of compliments. But not this year. How did it get to this sorry state? Let’s see how many excuses I can come up with … all of which are at least partially valid. We’ve been busy with a couple of family-reunion vacations, as you know. Work gets in the way Monday through Friday. It’s been so miserably hot—in the 90s much of the time—I haven’t been able to stay outside to do projects, or even to take our evening walks. We Northwest mossbacks aren’t used to this heat!

Plus, something horrible has happened: Crabgrass has invaded our neighborhood. I have lived here 32 years, and we never had it before. It showed up a couple of years ago and now it’s taking over everything! Several years ago, long before the crabgrass appeared, we quit using chemicals in our yard, and now I can’t keep up with the weeds. They are winning. I really don’t know what I’m going to do. Gardening has become so much harder. Having a touchy back and getting older don’t help, either. Do you feel sorry for me yet?

On another record-breakingly hot weekend, I waited for the sun to go behind the big tree across the street, then I began hacking back the crabgrass jungle. I started at the broad end of the triangle, where I had planted an herb garden.

Closeup of crabgrass

There are herbs in there!

I had three things going for me: Our valley soil is soft and rock-free, enabling me to dig and pull weeds with ease. Crabgrass looks fierce on the top, but it has fairly puny, shallow little roots. And, weeding in an herb garden smells great, especially the curry plant. (I recently was surprised to learn that curry plant [helichrysum italicum] doesn’t have anything to do with Indian curry, which is made with a variety of spices. It has a wonderful, pungent curry-like fragrance, though.)

Silvery-green curry plant

Curry plant (helichrysum italicum)

I’m embarrassed to admit that as I ripped out the crabgrass, I uncovered 13 plants still in their pots, that I never got around to putting in the ground. Most of them are dead … the rest wish they were. Fortunately, I think I can still resuscitate a few that didn’t croak.

Several pots of dead plants

Poor things never had a chance …

As satisfying as it was to pull out weed after weed, I knew that with each pull, a fragment of root remained underground, quietly laughing to itself. This is the third time I’ve had to do a major weeding since spring. I occurred to me that we hadn’t mulched this spring. I asked Eric if we’d mulched last year. He held up three fingers. Three years ago?? I think I’ve identified the problem! But that still doesn’t explain why we have crabgrass now, when we never were bothered by it before. Hmm …

I did a little research about my new nemesis. Invasive species are opportunists. They invade because the conditions are just right for them to thrive. If you didn’t used to have a pest plant, but now you do, it’s because something in your garden has changed. If you pay attention, you can learn a lot about what’s going on in your environment. So I listened to my crabgrass, and this is what it told me.

“Hey, lady,” it said, sounding a little like a snarky Jerry Lewis, “You got an awesome lawn! It’s mostly clover, ajuga, buttercup, and dandelions … nice sparse grass—brown and short. The soil is nice and warm and gets lots of sun. And this garden—no mulch to fight through! My parents lived in the West,” he nodded his seed heads across the street. “I thought it looked nice and quiet over here … the kind of place where a grass can really put down roots, where nobody would hassle us. Man, this is exactly the kind of neighborhood we were lookin’ for! My family loves it here! Well, talkatcha later,” it said with a snicker, “I was just about to go to seed.”

And then I yanked it out by its damned roots. Look at this monster digitaria sanguinalis. Who’s had the last laugh now?

Large crabgrass next to my foot for comparison

Take that, you brute!

Indeed, the smart-ass grass was right. Since we quit using chemicals, we’ve pretty much ignored the poor lawn. It used to be nice and thick, but year by year it’s grown patchy and thin from neglect. Weeds blew in from the neighbors’ weed farms. The front yard gets the prevailing wind, while the back and side yards are protected by the house and fence, and have little crabgrass. We water the garden areas a couple of times per week (despite the drought, we have no watering restrictions—yet) because we have hundreds of plants, and we don’t want them to suffer and die. The lawn just catches what it can.

Grass with lots of ajuga mixed in.

Sorry excuse for lawn, but it looks green from afar

The past two summers have been warmer than usual, and this one has broken heat records left and right. We have had two days of rain since sometime in May, and more days over 90 degrees than ever before. El Nino, a warming condition of in the Pacific Ocean, is responsible for this. It’s climate change in action. The perfect storm for crabgrass.

Recently I saw an article about how to avoid this kind of weeding marathon. I leapt on the story, eager to learn the password to lazy gardening. The secret? Get a razor-sharp hoe and go out and weed every day!! Thank you SO much for this tip … as if I have time to do this every day! (Of course, I know they’re right. You’ve got to cut ’em down when they’re tiny and not let the weeds get so big that they can arm wrestle you.) But somehow it pissed me off to read that, just as it does when my investment company suggests I continue working until I’m 70 to maximize my retirement benefits. Oh, don’t get me started!! Any fool knows that a person can’t work full time and weed full time!!

Crabgrass infestation in midst of ornametal garden

Yet more crabgrass

So Eric and I have a plan. First, we will mulch the gardens! We normally do this in spring, but this is war. Then we’ll aerate the lawn and apply a top dressing of compost. We haven’t done that for several years. Come fall and cooler weather, we’ll apply an organic fertilizer and weed control, and overseed the lawn. By spring we should have better grass coverage that’ll help crowd out crabgrass and other invasives.

You might ask why we have a lawn at all. Fair question … We have consciously worked at reducing lawn area over the years by creating more garden space. Our front lawn is smallish, but because we live on a corner, we also have grass parking strips (the part between the sidewalk and the street) on two sides of our property. We need some grass in the backyard for Duke’s benefit. I probably will carve out additional garden beds again in the spring. For the past few years, my MO has been “more garden, less lawn,” but now the gardens are becoming a burden to me. I’ve even been thinking about converting to a clover lawn (heck, we’re half-way there!), but I need to do more research. I’m not sure what comes next … do you have any ideas? Moving to a condo and paving the lawn are not options!


I wrote most of this post a week ago, and with the help of more moderate temperatures this past weekend, we got our butts in gear and mulched the triangle garden and the rose garden.  SO much better!

Even though I hesitated to plant anything right now, I picked up a few flowering plants, both annual and perennial, to fill in some blank spaces (previously inhabited by digitaria and his extended family).

Temps this week are breaking records again, so we won’t get much further until we cool back down. But it’s a start! Someone walked by and complimented me on the garden, so I’m optimistic that we’re on the right track.

Finally, I’d like to thank my hard-working landscaping crew, below. Couldn’t have done it without you!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it


My favorite room

When I last wrote about the side porch, it was close-but-not-quite finished. (If you missed them, read previous posts about demolition prep, demolition, framing, and porch decking.)

A large, uncovered porch with a white wood railing but without siding

The porch in June

Eric still had to trim out the square corner posts and apply the shingle siding. That sounds like it should go pretty quickly—it would only take about seven minutes on a home improvement show. In real life, it takes two months of weekends and 86 trips to building supply stores.

The caps on the posts did go quickly. We assumed our gender-specific roles: Eric cut the wood and screwed it in place, then filled the holes with stinky two-part epoxy filler that dries hard as rock.

Click on any photo to enlarge it.

Then I took over with the sander and paint, with the help of my assistant, Tara, who specializes in testing painted surfaces for dryness. Here are her results:

Shingling took a lot longer, and was occasionally interrupted by a trip to the store for more shingles (it took almost twice what Eric had originally bought). Tacking up the alternating 3-inch and 6-inch courses on the straight sections of wall went quickly, but when it came to the square corners, that was another story.

Eric had to do a lot of painstaking cutting and fitting, overlapping the corner shingles in alternating directions (one right, the next left), and fitting the shingles around the railings.

Detail of corner shingles overlapping on alternate courses

Corner shingles overlap in opposite courses

I really should say “painsgiving.” Eric essentially was doing squats as he fitted and applied the shingles, which caused a lot of muscle soreness, accompanied by moaning and groaning. But his thighs and the corner posts look great.

Inspired by some neon-bright plant arrangements I saw at our local Ace Hardware, I got excited about refilling the urns that I’ve always kept on the side porch. I managed to snag enough bright annuals to fill them before the fall mums and ornamental kale took over Lowe’s garden department. There’s an urn on each post, although the west one is obscured by the weeping birch tree. I’m hoping the flowers spill over the sides before the season is over.

Urn planted with pink petunias, lotus vine, marigolds, and small blue and white flowers

An urn tops each corner post

I had to have this plant! I’d never seen a spilanthes (acmella oleracea) before. It’s a Brazilian medicinal herb whose floral buttons are known as “buzz buttons,” “Szechuan buttons,” or “electric buttons.” According to Wikipedia, they produce a tingling, numbing, or effervescent sensation in the mouth, accompanied by excessive salivation. I think I’ll pass, thank you.

Green plant with blooms of yellow buttons with red centers

I drooled over this cute plant.

At another garden store, I found Senorita Kitty and a matching pot. Couldn’t resist.

Colorful Mexican pottery cat and pot with cactus

A Mexican pottery kitty seems appropriate for our porch

Then I went a little wild with throw pillows for the bistro set, and a couple of small turquoise and green planters that go with a red one I already had. I succumbed to some trendy colors that complemented Senorita Kitty, but these are colors that I’ve always liked, anyway. Now our side porch has a summery, south-of-the-border vibe.

A brass lantern and three small colorful planters holding succulents

Colorful pots hold succulents

I still need to decide what kind of foundation plantings I want in front of the porch. Something low and evergreen as a base, punctuated with some taller color. But, I will wait until fall to plant anything. It’s so hot and dry this summer, new plants wouldn’t stand the stress.

At last, we could check off this project as DONE!! It was time for our celebration dinner. Duke supervised the table setting.

Dinner for two on the new porch

Dinner al fresco

Boxer looks over tabale set for dinner for two on the porch

Gonna eat that?

Unfortunately, yellowjackets drove us inside not long after we sat down … but that didn’t diminish our celebratory mood. I wander out onto our reborn porch daily just to admire it. Eric did an incredible job, as usual, and I just did a little polishing … as usual.

It’s hard to look at the “before” photos. We took it from this eyesore …

To this beautiful relaxation spot…

It really is my favorite room!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it



Look, I actually half-finished something!

Remember our bed frame project? Gosh, that all seems so long ago… but we’ve only been sleeping on the new mattress since April. Suddenly it’s August, and the summer is getting away from me (as usual). Whatever became of our African mahogany bed frame?

It’s hard to make progress on any project when we’re galavanting around the country to family reunions, and the weather hasn’t cooperated. It’s been SO hot that I can’t work with stain and polyurethane outdoors. I won’t do this kind of project indoors where clouds of pet hair would drift over wet stain. (I’m only semi-kidding about that.)

BUT … I’m pleased to say, the footboard is finished! Of course, what good is a footboard without a headboard? Not very … but if we ever get back to a normal 78-degree summer, that’ll get done, too. Here’s how it all went down.

Welcome to my paint booth. It’s really pleasant in there … shady, slightly breezy, and vaguely blue.

Blue canopy and sawhorses set up on the deck for staining

My paint booth–blue on top, blue below

After a quick finish sanding, I began by sealing the footboard’s surface with Zinsser Seal Coat. Because I had tested all the products beforehand, I could move quickly, with complete confidence. I was glad I didn’t have to worry and wonder about how it would turn out.

Applying a coat of shellac sealer to footboard

Sealer goes on first

Shellac sealer applied to African mahogany footboard


Um, not so fast … as I was swabbing on the sealer I found a major split in the wood, formed by a separated layer of the grain. This was the kind of thing I couldn’t simply sand out—it would continue to separate.

Separation between grain layers in African mahogany

Oh no! Splitsville!

We paid another visit to the good folks at Rockler, who told me what kind of filler would be best. I bought Famowood Wood Filler, in mahogany color. It didn’t really match our African mahogany, but it would be stained, so I wasn’t concerned. However, I had made a mistake by applying sealer before I mended the split. When the filler dried and it was time to sand it down, the shellac sealer sort of gummed up as I sanded. The more I tried to sand it out, the gummier it got, burning from the friction of the sander. I had to sand a large area very lightly to even it out. Suddenly I really was worrying and wondering how the stain would take. Things never go quite like you plan! You can see, though—or maybe you can’t see—that the split mended perfectly.

Split in African mahogany mended with filler

Split filled and sanded … and sanded

I also filled a gouge near the top of the footboard. You can see that the pinkish filler doesn’t match the wood at all.

Filled small gouge in African mahogany

Filled gouge

With the split and gouge mended and the footboard sealed, it was stain time. Because I’d used sealer, I didn’t have to worry about the Minwax dark walnut stain soaking in too much. I took my time and allowed some color to develop.

Lastly, I applied two coats of General Finishes Enduro-Var water-based satin urethane. Between coats (between all coats) I rubbed the wood down with a fiber buffing pad. This gentler alternative to sandpaper removed any bubbles and imperfections on the surface. Duke parked himself under the footboard as the finish coat dried, thinking that it must be a table … and sometimes food falls off tables.

Boxer sleeps on blue tarp under a footboard propped on sawhorses

Wake me up when the food arrives

When Duke wasn’t holding down the tarp, Chex and Tara played ambush in its folds.

Two cats play on a blue tarp on the deck

Checkers and Tara play with the tarp

Everything was turning out fine … except that filled gouge. It didn’t take the stain properly. This would never do! Not to worry—I whipped out my trusty brown Sharpie and stippled it until it blended right in. That fine arts degree has NOT gone to waste!!

Finally, the footboard was finished. Eric and I carried it back into the house. That’s when I noticed that the back of the footboard was considerably glossier than the front. What the … ? I realized that when I put the finish coats on the front of the piece, I’d stirred the half-full can of urethane thoroughly. When I coated the backside, the can was full and I stirred gently (if at all). So my vigorous stirring had woken up whatever is in the urethane that makes the finish satin instead of gloss. Sigh … I didn’t learn about that in art school. Well, who will notice? Most of the shiny backside will be covered by bed, anyway. And it’s not like the world is going to beat a path to my door to see this bed. If they did, they couldn’t see both sides of the footboard at once, could they! ARRGGHHH!!!

Now, check this out: This is the satin side (the outside) of the footboard, one photo taken at an angle from the left, the other from the right. See how the light and dark ribbons of grain change directions, like tiger eye? Is that trippy or what?

I promise to stir the heck out the poly when I stain the headboard!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it