Category Archives: Garden

Backyard makeover, part 3

We’ve had plenty of time to sew up our backyard makeover, and indeed, it is almost a wrap. Eric and I have been working diligently on this project since we returned from our Arizona vacation in mid-April. The final touches may well be in place by the time I finish writing this post (because it takes me forever to crank out a blog post).

For weeks, our backyard looked like a plant sale at a construction site.

Plants on a patio table and construction items in background.

This view made me feel a little overwhelmed, but we’ve worked our way through all of it.

These two hombres supervise. Chex looks tough, doesn’t he?

I busted my hump creating the rain garden, but I got to know my chiropractor better. The garden is dug, rocked, planted, mulched, decorated, and lit. Duke has dug it up at least five times, despite our (obviously too-wimpy) protective wire fencing. I have uttered many four-letter words as I replanted the poor, abused plants. Gotta admire Duke’s determination, though.

I especially enjoy the new view from our bedroom window. So do the cats … one is often on the windowsill.

Silhouette of cat on windowsill.

Ginger keeps an eye on our progress from the bedroom.

Here are some in-progress photos.

River rock being installed in a landscaping dry creekbed.

During construction: Laying out the bigger rocks. I sort of bowled them into place to achieve a random scatter.

River rock installed in landscape dry creekbed.

Large and smaller river rock is in.

Dry creekbed garden

From another angle.

We use the narrow, fenced side yard (through the gate in the photos above) to store large items like aluminum ladders and wheelbarrows … but how to get there across that creekbed? Eric built a beautiful, gently arched Japanese-style bridge that will make it easy—and safe—to haul awkward items and wheelbarrow loads across the creek. The area under the gate’s swing is paved with flagstones.

A gently arched bridge spans a dry creek bed.

A gently arched bridge spans the dry creek bed.

Most things in the woodland garden in the back corner of the yard are thriving, although Diggety Duke had his way with a few unfortunate plants there, as well. The sword ferns are going bonkers. Eric and I picked out the gorgeous lantern in the corner for our ninth anniversary present.

Ferns, birch tree and Japanese lantern in corner of backyard.

The back corner is ferny.

While I rocked and planted (and replanted), Eric was busy doing his own heavy work. He restacked the veggie garden wall and filled the garden with new soil. (We’d used some of the old soil to build up the woodland garden after the fence was built.) Veggies are sprouting! We’re growing radishes, onions, garlic, carrots, spinach, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas. (Does anyone else call them “rootabeggers” from childhood?) In the containers are bush beans and peas, Swiss chard, sweet peppers, and pickling cukes. On our deck are cherry tomatoes, Interlaaken grapes, a fig tree with 16 little figgies, and a lovely lemon tree (with teeny-weeny fruit!).

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I’ll leave details about the greenhouse refurbishment for a future post. You’re gonna love it! (I do!)

Over on the deck, I couldn’t resist buying this set of lime-green chairs to compliment agave Maria in her red pot. I resurrected a Midcentury hairpin table base out of the garage and painted it and a new table top to complete the set. I like the bright colors.

Green webbing deck chairs with red pot.

Green chairs and red pot.

Green webbing deck chairs with rec and green small table.

…and the table. (Color is washed out in this shot. The chairs match the table rim.)

Tuxedo cat curled up in a pot.

My favorite potted plant.

Just inside the gate to the alley, Eric wrestled with 60-lb concrete turf blocks to create a secure parking spot for a car or our utility trailer, should we want to get them off the street. Once the grass grows in, these pavers will be less visible. (See how nice the window wall of the greenhouse looks?)

Turf blocks being laid in backyard.

A heavy job.

He also relaid and raised the brick apron leading from the alley under the gate, and created flat areas for our garbage, recycling, and yard waste receptacles.

Brick pavers under a fence gate.

Eric lessened the slope of the brick apron from the alley into our yard.

Alley with fence and garbage receptacles.

On the alley side, it’s all business.

In total, we’ve moved over 5000 pounds of soil, rock, mulch, and pavers—most of it multiple times. We are tired. But we are happy.

To finish off our design, we installed some landscape lighting. Small solar lights shine down from the tops of the fence posts, and solar lanterns punctuate the garden. I added a few spotlights to highlight trees, and Eric installed a solar light in the tall lantern. It’s a little fairyland at night!

The murky nighttime photos are from my phone, but you get the idea …

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We’re pleased with the results of all our work, but as any gardener knows, the work is never done.

I’ll close with a couple of Eric’s shots.

Rain garden with hostas and Japanese maple.

The view from the bridge.

Two blue glass fishing floats among hostas in a rain garden.

Blue glass Japanese fishing floats in our rain garden.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

 

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Backyard makeover, part 2

I’ve been eager to get to my big spring project—creating a new landscape for half of our backyard. Now that I’m retired, I have nothing better to do all day than “putter” in the garden … or work like a dawg, whichever way you want to look at it. If you don’t enjoy this kind of stuff, you call it yard work. But if you love it, you call it gardening. I love it, and I’m so happy that I get to do it every day, for as long as my 60-something bod can take it.

Here’s the plan … not necessarily to scale, but close.

Planting plan for backyard landscape.

It’s always wise to start with a plan–although most of this was in my head.

And here’s where I started. What a mess! Last fall while the new cedar fence was being installed, we erected a temporary wire fence to keep Diggety Duke out of this half of the yard. We left it up all winter to keep him from creating more craters in the mud. The fence also effectively kept us out of that half of the yard, and nature took over. I love Nature, but … she doesn’t always consult me on gardening plans.

Overgrown ferns and weeds in corner of backyard.

I had to start somewhere!

The old fence boards sat in a pile for six soggy months. Eric thought maybe he’d save some and make picture frames or boxes out of them. Yeah … maybe someday. He wisely decided to scrap the entire pile. We don’t have time for crafts, and we aren’t keeping what we don’t need. (We already have plenty of that!)

Pile of old fance borads.

The cats liked sitting on this board pile. They were the only ones who appreciated it.

I happily realized that I wouldn’t have to reseed the resulting bare patch because that portion will be paved with diamond turf pavers to provide an off-street parking spot (should we need one), a project that Eric began a few years ago. Ultimately, we will need to seed, but not right now.

Diamond turf pavers.

Pavers will create a secure parking spot.

I began in the far corner. The two sword ferns, which I inherited from my parents’ property, needed their annual trimming. The one next to the gate had grown so much that it interfered with the gate’s swing. It would have to be divided. I trimmed both ferns; the other one (behind the birch tree) had been damaged during the fence project, but these prehistoric plants are tough—it’ll come back just fine.

Overgrown ferns and weeds in corner of backyard.

I had to start somewhere!

 

Fern partially trimmed of old fronds.

Off with the old fronds, exposing spring fiddleheads.

Damaged sword fern with broken fronds.

This damaged fern looks sad but it will recover.

Corner of weedy garden with garden tools.

In the midst of weeding.

Then I weeded and leveled out the soil in the corner until it was below the bottom of the fence. Eric reset some basalt rocks to hold the upper tier of soil and created a short rock wall (to the right of the birch) to hold the new fern. I am lucky to have him to do the heavy lifting, otherwise I’d be in traction now.

Weeded and reshaped rockery.

Starting to look better …

I tried to separate that big ol’ fern myself, but I hadn’t eaten enough Wheaties. It was incredibly stubborn, but Eric finally persevered. I planted it in its new home and surrounded it with a nice cozy blankie of leaf mulch. We only lost a few fiddleheads in the process. Now I’ll have three sword ferns!

I transplanted a hellebore, our prized black trillium, an autumn fern, a tiny purple painted fern, and a variegated hosta to fill in the area. Not done yet … room for more plants!

Backyard corner with fence, rocks, and plants.

Now this space has potential!

Long-haired black cat lying in garden.

Lacy kept me company.

Next, I turned my attention to the corner at the house. I spent three days weeding this garden section. Eric mowed the shaggy lawn. (The fence boards were gone by then.)

Overgrown backyard with weeds and pile of fence boards.

I hate to admit our yard had gotten this bad.

We’d mulched this mostly-muddy garden with laceleaf maple leaves, which helped keep the weeds and mud at bay. The mulch also enriched our soil, which is great anyhow, but now it’s teeming with earthworms, who are wriggling mad when they’re exposed. That makes me happy. (That we have them … not that they’re mad.)

Earthworms in soil.

How many worms can you see? (I did not stage the worms!)

I roughly outlined the course of our dry-creekbed rain garden with a rope, then there was nothing to do but dig for several days. I don’t dare complain about digging in fluffy glacial soil with NO rocks … but I did have to take frequent breaks for my back. My biggest challenge was finding new homes for the hostas that survived the fence project. Several were in the way of the creekbed. On one of my morning walks, I found a beautiful little Japanese maple to be the star attraction of this section. (That sounds like I filched it out of someone’s yard, but I actually bought it from our nearby Ace Hardware.)

Dry creekbed rain garden being dug out of garden bed.

Seen from the bedroom window, the creekbed will follow the rope outline.

Acer shirasawanum 'Sensu'

Acer shirasawanum ‘Sensu’

I lined the trench with weedblock fabric, but I ran short of staples. It didn’t take long for the cats to mess with it.

Rain garden trench with weedblock fabric.

Almost ready to rock and roll!

This project is coming right along … it’s so much fun to go out to the “jobsite” and get dirty every day! Now, BRING ON THE ROCKS!!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

 

 

 

 

Spring endings and beginnings

Everyone eagerly waits for spring to come, but I’ve never been as impatient as I’ve been this year. Not for the spring that began on March 20, but the one that began on March 23. That’s the day I retired.

I’ve been anticipating retirement for years, thinking about it daily, picking a date, sliding it to the right. Again. And again. When the large aerospace company I worked for decided to move some 3000 jobs to Arizona (including mine), the decision was made for me: It was time to stop sliding the date and just slide out the door.

Sailboat and Sunset Island, from Key West's Mallory Square

Time for me to sail off into the sunset …

Leaving people I’ve worked with for years, as well as the Midcentury office complex and its beautiful landscaping (cherry trees bursting into bloom) was bittersweet … but I have my own gardens to tend, literally and metaphorically. What intrigues me now is this: Who will I become in retirement? The door is wide open. All I have to do is walk through. And, after working my entire adult life, I must give myself permission not to have a job!

While I won’t predict who the retired me will become, I can tell you I’m stoked to tackle my list of projects and I have all day, every freakin’ day to work on them whenever I want! Or not! I’ll share them with you as they rise to the top.

First up—outdoors: Finish pruning the Japanese maples, and weed, weed, weed! I felt pretty good about the way I tamed the backyard sumo wrestler, so I was eager to go after the smaller laceleaf in the front yard. I found it much easier to prune because it hadn’t had so many years to take off on me.

Now I can actually see the branch structure on the sumo wrestler:

Laceleaf Japanese maple in winter

South side

Laceleaf Japanese maple in winter

East side

In the front yard triangle garden:

Northwest garde in winter

Getting things trimmed up for spring.

Northwest garden in winter

Winter colors

Laceleaf Japanese maple in winter

All shaped up

Boxer looks through hole in fence.

Duke peeks through the cat hole in the fence.

White dog paw sticks out under gate.

Whenever I walk by the gate, I see this.

Boxer lying on pavers behind gate.

View from the other side.

Tuxedo cat between porch slats.

Crosby keeps an eye on things from the side porch.

Next, relandscape the backyard! The poor yard took a beating when our new back fence was built last fall. The rains came as soon as the project started, and although the fence looked great, everything else ran straight downhill. Duke has been confined to the north half of the yard ever since, which has suffered from him doing his business and from his excavation hobby. I’m hoping that closer parental supervision will ease his digging compulsion.

Overgrown winter backyard

The backyard looks awful …

Japanese maple with red buds

But doesn’t this maple look great against the house?

Step one of the backyard renewal is reseeding the lawn. After the fence was built, we kept the temporary Duke fence up to thwart his digging in torn-up gardens. I covered Duke’s worn-out lawn with cedar chips to keep down the mud. It worked well … or so I thought. I began to rake it up and bag it … and the ammonia stench overwhelmed me. Duke has a habit of stepping a few feet off the deck and relieving himself next to the laceleaf Japanese maple. After absorbing pee all winter, can you imagine the odor? It actually burned my throat! It ranked right up there with my other least-favorite smell: mildew. In fact, dog pee ammonia makes mildew smell kinda fresh.

Removing bark chips from backyard.

Raking the nasty bark chips.

Abg full of bark chips in backyard

Bagged.

I persevered and got rid of the bark. I assumed that repeated doses of acidic urine meant the soil should be treated to be more neutral, but when I researched the problem, I found that it’s not the pH, but the constant doses of nitrogen that damage the grass. Most sites recommend flooding the area with water to dilute the nitrogen. Not a problem in the Northwest, where it rains from the middle of October until the 5th of July. (Sort of a joke, but, sadly, closer to the truth.)

Pitchfork and Garden Weasel

Pitchfork and Garden Weasel

The most natural solution is to cover the ground with an inch or so of compost, which loosens and enriches the compacted soil. We picked up a few bags of compost at the store, along with a brand new Garden Weasel cultivator. (I love the way it jingle-jangle-jingles like a pair of spurs.) I got right to work running the Weasel over the hard soil. Fluffing it up only released more of the noxious smell. Then I aerated the patch by stabbing it with our pitchfork. Over and over and over again. The grass couldn’t be more dead.

Soil prepared for compost dressing

Forked and weaseled, ready for compost.

I was worn out by that point, but it was time to spread the compost, which turned out to be the easiest part of the process. Compost has its own pungent odor, but anything’s an improvement over ammonia. (Compost is made from decayed plant matter—it isn’t steer manure.)

Tuxedo cat sprays on plant

Crosby inspects and signs off on my work.

The next day, I started to cough. Despite taking allergy meds, I’m still bothered by seasonal allergies. I already had my usual spring sore throat. But the upper-respiratory cough grew rapidly worse, and I became paranoid. I looked up ammonia poisoning and found that breathing ammonia causes pulmonary edema. Eric pointed out that had I done such a job at work (unlikely as that seems for a technical writer), I would have had to wear a respirator. For two days I worried as the cough worsened. I hadn’t even been in a confined space—I was out in the backyard, in the clean urban air! Don’t worry, though … the cough was only the beginning of a monstrous cold. Nevertheless, if I ever clean up ammonia again, I’ll wear a respirator.

A few days later I re-raked the area, liberally tossed on the grass seed, and waited for rain. Now we’re just waiting for the grass to sprout. And I’m still trying to kick the nasty cold.

Seeded lawn patch

And … seeded!

For some relief, my next post will take us far away from our dreary Pacific Northwest spring.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

 

 

 

The sumo wrestler

In a recent Sunday edition of Pacific NW Magazine (part of The Seattle Times), local master gardener Ciscoe Morris  wrote a column about pruning laceleaf Japanese maples. I leapt on this article because I am desperate to learn how to properly prune a laceleaf. I’ve tried before with iffy results, and I simply gave up the past few years. We procrastinators excel at deferred maintenance.

If you don’t prune laceleafs, Ciscoe cautions, they grow into oversized blobs that look like sumo wrestlers. Say what? I’ve never pictured my laceleaf this way:

Sumo wrestler with white costume

I’ll never look at my lace leaf the same way again.

But you know what? It’s bigger than that guy!

Large Japanese laceleaf maple in winter

Bigger than a sumo wrestler!

From another angle …

Boxer stands next to Japanese laceleaf maple in winter

Duke is dwarfed by the laceleaf. (Love the textures in this photo!)

Close up, this tree is an impenetrable thicket of branches. In summer, the tree’s dense canopy forms The Clubhouse, exclusive seasonal hangout of our eight cats and their neighborhood buddies. I know the cats won’t be happy if their privacy is breached or the rain is let in, but I’d like to be able to admire the tree’s branch structure as if it were a specimen in a park. Like this one at the Seattle Flower and Garden Show:

Large Japanese maple in winter.

What a beauty!

Where do I start? “Simply clean out the unsightly dead branches and twigs,” advises Ciscoe. Okay … there are approximately 397,564 dead twigs. I’d already raked some of the thatch of dead leaves out of the branches, but there’s plenty more.

First task: Buy a new, sharp pair of pruners at our neighborhood Ace Hardware. I need all the help I can get because my grip strength isn’t what it used to be.

Fiskars pruning shears

These pruners promise three times more cutting power.

Closeup of laceleaf maple in winter

Looking through the branches to the mossy ground.

I tentatively started at the portion that borders the corner of the deck, where the tree needs to be pruned back and shaped so that it doesn’t take over the space occupied by our patio table. I felt confused by the wild tangle of branches that curved every which way.

A yellow line traces a branch in a Japanese maple

This branch loops around back toward its source.

Here’s one of the small branches that doubled back on itself:

Curved Japanese maple branch.

A branch that changed its mind.

 

Sumo wreslters in awkward position.

Ciscoe, I get it now.

After an hour of snipping, this is what I wound up with. It’s a little more open … er, bare … than I’d intended. But, it will look a lot less bare when it leafs out. Where is the sinuous trunk that I’m supposed to be exposing? This tree has the horticultural equivalent of thick ankles.

Pruned section of Japanese laceleaf maple

The once-secret entry to the Clubhouse is now wide open.

To be fair, I bought the laceleaf 30-some years ago as an injured 5-gallon sapling on sale. Its top looked like it had been whacked, and the branches have not grown the way I expect a laceleaf would look. It’s a little quirky, but I think it’s safe to say it has flourished. It is the focal point of the backyard.

Japanese laceleaf with odd branching pattern.

A very confused top branching pattern.

Crosby and Tara came by to help. All of our cats love gardening.

Tuxedo cat on top of Japanese laceleaf maple

Crosby goes sumo surfin’.

Tabby cat in a winter garden with dragon statue

Tara and Carmen Dragon watch from nearby.

Interlude: Four weeks of rain

Back at it on February 10! Finally, a dry weekend. I moved to the garage-side of the maple because I could sit in the sun. I decided to concentrate on just those dead twigs. The long tendril branches have bilateral buds that produce more branches. Often, it’s the middle branch that dies. By removing the dead end, I am effectively pruning one-third of the plant … but I need to remove more than the “split ends.”

Pruning guidelines suggest making larger but fewer cuts, the idea being to create gaps between branches for a layered look. I need to work on that.

Getting cold, I began to grab at the masses of dead branches in the tree’s undercoat, and many of them simply snapped off in my hands. I wondered if this was hurting the tree, but no—it’s actually recommended! So much deadwood came out that the east side soon looked like this after just a few pruning cuts. I was pleased that its density sort of matches the inner corner.

Japanese maple being pruned.

The east side opened up.

Tabby cat under a Japanese maple.

Tara came by to oil a branch.

The next day, the icy wind made me regret venturing outside. I snapped dead branches off as fast as I could, but I just couldn’t handle the cold. (While our Seattle winter is nothing compared to the east coast, I am a weather wimp for both hot and cold extremes. Eric claims I have a two-degree comfort range.) Even though I didn’t use the pruners much, the tree is becoming diaphanous.

Japanese aceleaf maple in midst of pruning.

Becoming more transparent!

I’m wondering when I’ll get my next opportunity to spend time outside without getting soaked or frozen. It had better be soon, because Tara and I want to practice making bigger cuts and creating layers before the leaves pop out. We want to turn this sumo wrestler into a lacy lady.

I’ll have to get back to you on this.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

Hire a contractor? What a concept!

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know that Eric and I see home maintenance and improvement through DIY glasses. When we take on a project, hiring someone to do it never seems to cross our minds (unless it’s roofing, plumbing, or wiring—then you should always hire someone you can sue). But, when it came to replacing our backyard fence, we quickly decided to hire it out. I’m so glad we did! If we’d taken it on ourselves, we’d still be working on it. What made us hire a pro? Maybe we’re older and wiser … or maybe we’re just older. Even so, it turned out to be a lot of work for us, too.

Old, rotting cedar fence

Vintage fencing.

The old fence dates back to when I bought the house in 1984. My then-boyfriend built it for me, and did a credible job. Fast forward 33 years and the cedar fence is falling down like a pair of old socks, desperately grasping onto bungee cords and anything it can lean on for support. We decided to do the demolition ourselves. “It’s so wobbly, we’ll be able to just kick it down,” said Eric. Goes to show how wrong you can be …

A word of explanation about our sorry-looking backyard. Usually it looks nice, but we have had challenges this summer. Thanks to Duke’s excavation hobby, the gardens began to look more like craters of the moon. Then he began digging pits in the grass. Knowing we would be tearing things up along the fence line, we kinda quit taking care of this end of the yard. I like to think of it as next spring’s landscaping opportunity.

Backyard with trees, grass, and old wood fence

The dilapidated backyard with its dilapidated fence.

Backyard with long grass and old wood fence.

This does not look like a gardener’s backyard.

Rotting cedar fence boards

Something’s rotten …

Eric called a highly rated fence company in June, and was told we’d be scheduled for two consecutive Fridays in late September. It was hard to be patient, but good contractors are busy people. The week before our construction date, we set to work removing the old fence. Our first task was to build a temporary fence to contain Diggety Duke. We bought a roll of welded wire fencing and a bunch of steel poles, et voila.

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Installing the Duke fence.

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Duke proof!

Eric was right about the fence boards, anyway. They popped right off, as eager to retire as I am. We stacked them in a neat heap in the yard, where they remain for now, killing the grass beneath. We will pull the nails and store them elsewhere. They’re essentially barnwood, and will be great for picture frames and craft projects. Those that are too far gone will be used for kindling. The pile will not go to waste.

The new, wide-open view to the alley made us feel so exposed. I was a little surprised to see how much traffic went up and down the alley every day. We were eager to regain our privacy.

Demolishing an old wooden fence.

The panels all but fell off.

Old wooden fence coming down.

A new, wide open view.

The fun part was over. We began to dig out the posts, which we found to be set in generous, irregularly shaped chunks of concrete that resisted removal. Did I mention that the rain had come? We’d just survived the driest summer on record, but the instant we went outside to demolish the fence, that was enough to make rain. Not an unpleasant downpour, just a nice, gentle, Pacific Northwest drizzle, which turned our much-trampled fence line and backyard to a sea of mud.

We had the brief, bright idea of simply sawing off the stubborn fence posts and burying the evidence, but even though we were moving the fence line slightly, we found that they would still be in the way … darn it.

Concrete holds a fence post in the ground.

The concrete blob.

Under the fence line was a course of concrete block, which I had installed to build up a planting berm in the corner of the yard. On the alley side was a platform of concrete pavers that Eric had put down to form a level spot for our garbage and recycling containers. It wasn’t too hard to dig these out and carry them to an out-of-the-way spot in the backyard. They’ll be used again. We weren’t excited to discover two additional courses of the same under the first. More digging.

Black and white cat looks at a muddy fence project.

Crosby inspects our demolition progress.

Concrete pavers in muddy yard.

Everywhere I dug, I unearthed more concrete blocks and pavers.

All the while, poor Duke sat in the rain behind his fence, gloomily watching our progress and wondering why humans scold dogs for digging, yet apparently humans are allowed to dig to their hearts’ content. I finally had to put him inside—I couldn’t take his reproachful, hurt expression.

Boxer dog sits sadly behind wire fence.

Aww, Dukey …

After a full weekend of soggy, muddy demolition, we waited excitedly for Friday to come. I worked at home that day so I could watch the crew’s progress. They would be setting posts the first day, and returning a week later to install the fence panels. I don’t have a single photo of the crew at work. I must have been too busy lurking behind the curtains, watching them—no, no, busy working, yes, that’s what it was—to take pictures.

Eric didn’t take any construction photos, either. He must have been working, too.

But wow, here’s the finished product! The crew worked amazingly fast. We’re so, so pleased with the results. The fence now extends between the houses almost to the front yard. We’ll use the narrow section along the side of the house, which is partitioned off with lockable gates, to store things like our long ladders and firewood. It’s already covered in gravel, although it could use more.

In place of our sagging gate, we now have an eight-foot gate on sturdy 4 x 6 posts. It doesn’t sag a bit.

Corner view of new cedar fence.

I like how the panels step down to follow the grade.

New cedar fence showing eight-foot gate.

The gate on the alley.

I’ll wait until next spring to show you pics from inside the backyard. We have a ton of landscaping work to do … but it’ll be raining for the next six months (kidding/not kidding).

The particulars

125 feet of 6-ft cedar fence. Two walk gates, one 8-ft drive gate. $4600. Contractor: Western Pacific Fence, Auburn, WA.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

Seattle Catio Tour!

I know some of my readers have been waiting for this tour, so LET’S GO!

Black and white cat peeks through Japanese forest grass

Cats want to be outdoors!

Catios—enclosures that allow cats to safely enjoy the outdoors—are becoming wildly popular. So much so that a local animal welfare organization, PAWS, along with Catio Spaces, sponsored a tour of Seattle-area catios. We don’t have a catio at the bungalow (Duke’s dog door gives the cats in/out access), but we have the purrfect place to build one outside our breakfast room windows, if we wish. When we build the Whidbey Island house, a catio will be a necessity because we’ll be near a busy road. Not to mention the coyotes and eagles that roam the area.

So, on a hot Saturday afternoon, Eric and I cranked up our car’s AC and crisscrossed Seattle on a catio tour. What better way to spend a gorgeous summer day?

Our first stop: Magnolia Manor.

Catio under magnolia tree

Magnolia Manor

Beautifully sited beneath a mature magnolia tree, this 8′-6″ x 5′ catio has a southern exposure to the home’s lovely, landscaped back terrace. In the catio constructed of natural-colored 2 x 4s and 2 x 2s, covered with one-inch hardware cloth, and partially roofed with metal roofing, the two resident cats can really feel like they’re up a tree. The structure is supported by pier blocks and floored with wood decking. The cats enter the catio via a cat door in the side of the house, climb a ramp, then traverse a 12-foot sky bridge into the enclosure. Multiple perches, huts, and soft beds provide places to lounge and be entertained by two birdfeeders hanging tantalizingly out of reach. Like all the catios we saw on the tour, this one features a full-size door for humans, which is padlocked for security. These cats were totally relaxed even while a passel of strangers poked around their digs.

Click on any photo to view the slideshow.

Next up: Casa Gatito Madre.

Dark-framed catio built against house

Casa Gatito Madre

This small-but-tall catio is framed with 2 x 4s and 2 x 2s that are stained charcoal gray. Screening is welded wire fencing. Two foster kittens slept, dead to the world, on corner shelves covered in outdoor carpet. Ultraviolet-resistant polycarbonate panels cover the roof. Although the pawprint is small at 5’7″ x 5′, the structure extends 10 feet tall so that the uppermost cat platforms are level with the deck railing, enabling humans on the deck to interact with kitties. Pea-gravel and a colorful rug complete the  floor. Obviously, people have fun decorating these spaces, which are equally part of the landscape and the house.

Serena’s Garden Getaways provide lucky creamsicle cat, Serena, with three awesome catios.

Large catio next to house

Serena’s Garden Getaways

All are designed by her mom, Cynthia Chomos, founder of Catio Spaces (check it out for lots of great photos, ideas, and plans). First, Serena got a window box catio in the front of the house—perfect for keeping tabs on neighborhood comings and goings … especially birds and squirrels.

Window box catio on front of house

Serena’s window box

Then, Cynthia built a 6 x 8 sanctuary catio next to the house. (If the charcoal gray framing and polycarbonate roof look familiar, it’s because Cynthia also designed Casa Gatito Madre.) Eric and I noted what a difference the color of the framing and fencing makes: A dark color makes the frame almost disappear, while natural wood stands out and lends the structure a lighter-weight feeling. If we built a catio, we’d use the same colors as our house to help it blend in.

But wait—there’s meowre! The pièce de résistance is the Catnap catio, a tall, gabled 12′ x 7′ garden spot in a corner of the beautifully landscaped backyard. (I felt like we were getting a bonus garden tour at these three houses.) What a serene place to lounge with Serena. This fanciful space features a grass floor, a spiral staircase for kitty, and a comfy couch for mom. The human door is decorated with another vine-motif panel, which we came to recognize as a design feature of Catio Spaces. Later, we saw similar metal trellises at Lowe’s, so they are readily available to dress up your catio. Imagine, if you’re a cat, the fun of running to your own garden room through the 20-foot honeysuckle-covered catwalk tunnel, which blends so nicely with the fence that at first my brain only saw “arbor.” The catwalk features drop-down hatches for maintenance or cat retrieval. What a paradise!

The Enclosure that Mama Built is a little more rustic, but just as functional as the others.

Large free-standing catio

Mam’s large, freestanding catio

Spanning three levels, cats can exit the house on the top deck, hang out in the area below the deck, and then continue on through a short tunnel to the freestanding catio enclosure. Both the enclosure and the under-deck area have doors for humans. Where other catios feature potted plants, this one borrows foliage from the backyard itself: ivy and rhododendrons grow inside, with shade provided by trees along the property line. A small tree trunk supports a series of cat shelves. Humans can hang out on the Adirondack chair, or on an old wagon buckboard. I especially liked the detail of a salvaged window forming a transom above the door. This structure isn’t as sleek and fashionable as the first three catios, with a homemade mix of materials … but I’m sure the cats love it just as much!

Fort Fluff was built to keep a rescued stray from bolting.

Cation built against yellow house

Fort Fluff

The two resident kitties have a shallow window catio in the front of the house and a large space in the back of the house, both accessible through windows. The owners told us that Lowe’s sells cat doors made to be cut into window screens—what a great idea! (We looked for them, but can’t find them at Lowes or on their website. Amazon has them, however.) With the house’s bright yellow paint, giant potted hostas, and turquoise patio set, this catio has a fiesta vibe. The wooden box with multiple circular cutouts is a clever place to hide. We often cut doors and windows in large cardboard boxes, to our cats’ delight. The enclosure fabric is dark green plastic poultry fencing. The owner mentioned that originally the catio floor was made of organic cat litter, until they found that rats could chew through the plastic fabric to get to the litter. They kept the poultry fencing but changed the floor to cedar chips, which naturally repels fleas (and rats), and it smells great. No more rat problem! This catio’s sunny location can be quite warm, and the concrete block house radiates even more heat. I’d add a roof or awning to this structure to make it more comfortable. Maybe that’s what the umbrella is normally used for.

Our last stop was the Cat Corral, another catio designed by Catio Spaces. Can you tell?

Catio in backyard

Cat Corral

This 12 x 9-foot enclosure (the biggest we saw) features a grass floor. (How do people cut it, I wonder? With a weed whacker?) The catio sits just off the couples’ deck so they can easily sit close to their cats, who enter the catio through a cat door directly from the house. There’s actually plenty of room inside the catio for cats and humans to cohabitate. The interior is spare, with carpet-covered shelves and platforms, but little in the way of hiding places, plants, or décor for either cats or people. And, in the afternoon, the catio is bathed in full sun. If it were mine, I’d add a sheltering roof of some sort, and furnish it with plants and items for cats and humans alike to play with or relax upon. Maybe it’s a new space and the owners haven’t gotten that far. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to ask. Still, it’s a lovely, large catio with tons of potential.

What we learned

Even though Eric and I have good imaginations and construction skills, we picked up some valuable tips on this tour. To create a professional looking catio that you and your cats will love, pay attention to these aspects:

♥  Use 2 x 4s for major framing, 2 x 2s for additional bracing and for attaching fence fabric.

♥  Stain or paint all structural members the same color for a cohesive look. Dark colors recede, light colors stand out. Or, match your house color to help the catio blend in.

♥  Cover the structure in hardware cloth or welded wire fence fabric. Run all the fence fabric in the same direction for a consistent look.

♥  Of course, add lots of shelves and perches for cats, but don’t forget to include some comfy furniture for you so you can enjoy the catio, too.

♥  Make sure your cat can find some hiding spots. Add little cat houses and boxes to explore.

♥  Catios are all about being out in nature, right? Build it under a tree, or use potted or natural plants so that your kitty can pretend he or she’s in their own safe little jungle. Cats love gardens!

♥  Be aware of your site’s exposure. If it gets baked by sun, make sure you provide shade. If you want the cats to use the catio in all wa eather, install a roof to keep them dry.

♥  Brilliant idea—install a cat door in a window screen!

♥  Cats can easily negotiate tight spaces, so you can get creative with entrances and tunnels (the parts you won’t get into).

♥  Add a trap door to a tunnel so you can reach in to clean it or grab your cat.

♥  Everyone appreciates a clean floor. Try wood, stone, pea gravel, grass, or cedar chips. Add an outdoor carpet.

♥  Add art! Cats love art!

Which catio is your favorite? We loved Magnolia Manor not only for its cat-friendly accoutrements, but for its beautiful garden setting under the magnolia tree. As our cats always remind us, “Location, location, location!”

B;ack and white cat sitting on a rock in a garden

Checkers says “Remember–cats love gardens!”

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

 

 

 

Tough love for the weeping birch

As we sat in the Starbucks drive-thru line, a familiar song came on the oldies station: the Sir Douglas Quintet playing “She’s About a Mover.” (Watch the go-go girls in this clip!) What does that mean, I wondered aloud. She’s good looking? She has good dance moves? We didn’t really know. A few Googleseconds later, we learned that it meant she didn’t stick around in relationships for very long—she moved on.

That not only describes my twenties, but also my relationship with a succession of trees in my front yard.

As long as I’ve lived here, there’s been a tree just off the northwest corner of the house. Thirty-three years ago it was a robust holly that dropped berries and prickly leaves all over the lawn. Enough of that! I replaced it with a deodar cedar, a graceful, and yes, still somewhat prickly evergreen, my favorite of the trees that have occupied this space. Sadly, I lost Deodara during a particularly soggy winter, when a windstorm blew it down. How heartbreaking.

Craftsman bungalow and gardens

1985? The baby deodar cedar is on the left.

Woman in wdding dress stands in front of deodar cedar tree.

1995. It got so big! And I’m so young!

Next came one of my gardening mistakes: I impetuously fell for a lovely sumac, whose lacy foliage turned flame red in the fall. After several years, its crown grew large and threatened to split. Goodbye, sumac. What I wasn’t prepared for were the runners that it had secretly sent out in all directions, resulting in a mini-forest of sumacs that sprang from the lawn for years afterwards. I felt like I was being stalked by its ghost. I think we’ve eradicated them all by now.

Sun shining through red sumac leaves.

2005. Gorgeous!

Three tabby cats on sidewalk in front of Craftsman bungalow.

2009, with three cats in the yard. Its wide canopy starts at the left edge of the photo and goes clear to the chimney.

We planted a young Mount Fuji cherry tree in its place. Then, a mere year later, we walked past the Ace Hardware a block from our house and I fell hard for a weeping birch. I’m so fickle. I had to tell the cherry that I’d met someone new. We gently ushered the cherry off to the parking strip and installed the birch. It had an interesting, sinuous shape. I was smitten with its long branches and delicate leaves that fluttered in the breeze.

Mt Fuji cherry tree glows in morning sun.

Young Mt. Fuji cherry in morning sun.

Craftsman bungalow and gardens in summer.

2011. Young birch in background.

Here it is in 2015 … it’s even bigger now.

Craftsman bungalow and gardens

Can’t wait for summer!

After our long, wet winter, the gardens look more like this.

Black and white cat in winter garden.

Chex is waiting for summer, too.

Several more revolutions around the sun, and my birch has grown from an adorably quirky sapling into something of a brute. Arms and tentacles reach out to swat people walking down the sidewalk and smother nearby shrubs. And as much as it makes a great foil for the side porch in summer, screening us from the street, it’s getting a little too friendly with the porch. What used to feel like cozy protection now feels like possessive overbearance. Have you ever been in a relationship like that?

When it lost its leaves in the fall, I wondered to Eric whether we shouldn’t simply kill it in its sleep and start over (again) with something new and more self-contained. But I can’t do it. Truth be told, I still have feelings for this tree. I’ve decided to give it one more chance. We’re going to prune it and attempt to teach it some manners. This usually doesn’t work with people. Can it work on a tree?

This birch really belongs on the banks of a brook, with enough space to spread out all it wants in all directions. But, it lives in town next to a rain barrel. It needs to shape up. Its foliage is so thick that when I stand next to the trunk, the long branches cascade down around me and create the effect of a little secret room. It’s so secret that last year we discovered a homeless woman had been camping under the tree for a few nights. We were tipped off by a scrap of blue tarp on the ground. Eric looked under the tree and found more tarp and a tent pole. How did we know it was a woman? She left us her dirty underwear.

That was enough for me! I trimmed the birch’s floor-length locks to about 18 inches above the ground, which made the poor tree look like Cousin Itt in a waltz-length gown. No one is going to camp in my yard again without a permit!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about pruning, it’s that you want to err on the side of being conservative. You don’t want to step back to admire your handiwork and think, “… Oops!” I know this from experience.

The tree grows predominantly to the northeast, with the heaviest branches on that side (between the sidewalk and side porch). Lately it’s been producing more young branches in the opposite direction in a natural attempt to balance itself. Eric made just three cuts: The long arm that was reaching south to the front porch is gone. So is a branch that was heading straight west over the triangle garden. And the lower (and closest to the side porch) of the two top branches. This removed a  lot of weight, mostly from the heavier northeast side, but also some from the west and south.

It’s hard to tell that the tree’s been pruned. I admit, if it weren’t for the date stamp, I wouldn’t be sure which are the before and after pictures. I think we’ll see a difference once it leafs out, though. We can always take more off.

I’ll keep you posted. Anyone feel like camping? We’re taking reservations for summer.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

 

Two Friday dates

Northwest Flower and Garden Show

Every Christmas I find two tickets to the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in my stocking. Come February, the show marks the exit from gloomy winter to dreary spring. Playing hooky from work for an afternoon (cough, cough) is part of the tradition. To my winter-weary soul, nothing beats entering Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center and breathing in an acre of soil and plants in the display gardens. Ahhh—spring!

This post covers only a small sampling of the garden displays. Hope you enjoy the color!

Entrance to Washington State Convention Center seen from street

Spring is through these doors!!

There’s always a theme to the display gardens; this year’s theme was “America the Beautiful.” Let’s begin right here in Washington State with a visit to the Hoh Rainforest. This large display was incredibly realistic, with native plants, fallen trees, and even a natural mulching of dried leaves.

Native plantings and fallen cedar tree depict the rainforest floor

Native plantings depict the rainforest floor

Nearby was a nod to the upcoming PGA Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, complete with azaleas, Rae’s Creek, and the Hogan Bridge.

Stone bridge, creek, azaleas, and golf green salute the Masters tournament

As close to Augusta National as I’m likely to get.

A trip to the desert Southwest sounds good at this time of year.

Rocks and cactus form a xeriscape garden.

I’m always attracted to xeriscape gardens.

A bushy yucca in a garden display.

I waited a long time for a woman to move so I could photograph this yucca.

One of my favorite gardens this year was inspired by Smith Rock State Park in Oregon, with rocky outcroppings and windblown, craggy trees.

Rocky slope garden with snags and grasses

Heavy lifting.

Water puddle in the rocky garden

Traces of a seasonal stream among the rocks.

From bare rocks to an overabundance of blooms.

Colorful flower garden with tulips and weeping cherry tree and gazebo.

Where’s my Zyrtec?

Colorful mosaic cat statue in a flower garden.

I hoped to find this mosaic cat in a vendor’s booth, but no luck.

Great seasonal color around the basalt water feature, inspired by Na Pali Coast State Park in Hawaii.

Daffodils surround a black basalt rock water feature.

Banana leaf unfurls.

Someday I’ll have a banana plant. Yes, they do grow here!

This gorgeous fence promised something special inside. So did the people crowded around with their mouths open. “Tiny Tetons” was probably the most beautifully designed display we’ve seen.

Horizontal wooden slats form a high wall

We’ll remember this design.

Tall rocks in back and waves of purple and green in front look like the Tetons.

The sense of depth was masterfully done.

A depiction of Denali National Park in Alaska featured trout from Fish in the Garden (we have FITG carp in our garden).

Blue ceramic trout hover over a woodland stream.

Are they swimming high or flying low?

Beyond the display gardens were acres more, filled with vendors of all things garden-related. Fish in the Garden was there, all the way from Maine.

Vendor booth selling ceramic fish.

The Fish booth is always busy.

I was so fascinated by this sculptor’s metallic shoes that I didn’t take a picture of his wares, which were, appropriately, water features made of brass musical instruments.

Metallic shoes.

Shiny!

Are bugs your thing? You can collect some fancy ones for your wall.

Large metal sculpture insects mounted on the wall.

Where’s my fly swatter?

And of course, the Northwest is home to glass artist Dale Chihuly, so art glass is very popular here. No sign of Dale, though.

Inevitably, after a day filled with beautiful garden designs and colorful art, we always return home to this: February in the Northwest, the deadest and gloomiest month for the garden, and the wettest winter on record. Right now, it just looks like a lot of work.

Messy winter garden in the sun.

You should see it on a rainy day.

I was inspired enough to plant primroses in our porch planters and create this succulent garden (with frogs!) for my desk at work.

Tabby cat standing next to planter of primroses.

Tara is worried because the primroses are already bedraggled from rain.

Square green planter with succulents and ceramic frogs.

How many frogs can you find?

And we installed our garden art addition, an biplane whirligig, which fits in nicely because we enjoy watching the small planes fly over our house as they turn to land at our local airport. We’ll let it rust up and then add a coat of protective lacquer.

Rusty steel biplane whirligig mounted in the garden

On final approach.

Suddenly, it’s March, and everything’s starting to bud and grow, including the weeds. Our Mt. Fuji cherry is about to put on its annual show.

Cherry tree buds about to bloom.

It won’t be long now.

Seattle Home Show

The week after the garden show, we returned for the Seattle Home Show. We don’t hit this show every year, but it’s time for us to start getting serious about building our retirement home on Whidbey Island. I can hardly believe we’re to that point. We have a lot on our plate this year: The company we both work for is going through massive layoffs, we are planning to retire within the next two years, and we’ll be building a house on our island property … and, of course, continuing to work on the bungalow. What could go wrong? Right now, life is full of questions and we just have to wait for some of the answers. We’re having an interesting year.

At the Home Show, this architect’s design caught our eye. This home’s exterior comes really close to embodying our vision for our next house.

Now, we’re just waiting for the money tree in our backyard to bloom like crazy! Where’s my fish fertilizer?

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

Can this ficus be saved?

Several months ago I inherited a large ficus benjamina plant from a coworker who left the company. It stood on a bookshelf on top of his desk and leaned over into his space. It looked miserable. One evening after work, Eric and I came to my office armed with a new, larger pot, fresh potting soil, and a tarp.  The after-hours office was dark, with only a few emergency lights on. Why I didn’t find a light switch, I don’t know, but the dim light seemed appropriate for masterminding an escape, which, in fact, we were. It truly was a rescue operation.

Leaves of ficus benjamina (weeping fig)

Ficus Benjamina [Source: HouzBuzz.com]

We cut the ficus from its mooring: It had been shackled to the cubicle wall with a coat hanger and a chain of paper clips. Then we removed the outer pot … which revealed an inner pot … and yet another inner pot. I had never seen this technique before, but I’m pretty sure repotting a plant doesn’t mean throwing it, pot and all, into another pot. Twice. I hoped the smell of rot and stagnant water would dissipate by morning.

I wish I’d been able to take photos of the operation, but cameras aren’t allowed where I work. Eric and I elevated the newly repotted tree on a step stool in the corner of my cubicle, behind my computer monitor, so it would have enough height to rise above the cube walls. When I came to work the next morning, the tree thanked me for saving it by relaxing its graceful six-foot canopy over the corners of four adjoining cubicles. Suddenly I had the garden cube of the third floor. And—I got to work under a tree! Who gets to do that?

Drafting table and stool on a patio under a large tree

Not my desk or tree!

Unfortunately, my garden-cube days were to be short-lived. A few months later I was reassigned to another project, and had to move to a different building a mile down the street. When I saw my new digs, I knew the ficus wouldn’t work out. There wasn’t a good place to put it, and the light was too dim to support plant life. Eric and I loaded the tree into our utility trailer and brought it home, where it took up residence on the dining room table and proceeded to drop leaves everywhere to show me how unhappy it was.

Ficus trees are finicky plants: Moves (much less trailer trips down the I-5) and changes in environment throw them into a leaf-shedding tizzy. As its limbs drooped in defeat and it cried leafy tears all over my dining room, I saw that the tree was still very unbalanced from its time chained to the wall.

Ficus tree growing in one direction

Leaning to the right

I decided to attempt a fix. What did I have to lose? Out came the coated wire and stakes. I really had no idea what I was doing … all I knew was that I’d successfully encouraged a limb of our Mt. Fuji cherry tree to change directions by wrapping it with wire, bonsai-style. So I would wire around a few ficus limbs and used Velcro gardening tape (awesome stuff) to secure the limbs to stakes.

Ficus limb wound with wire

Grow this way, please.

Ficus limb wound with wire and staked

I said THIS way!

Ficus with wire-wrapped limbs attached to stakes

Resistance is futile

I even taped a couple of pennies to one limb to convince it to hang in a certain direction. My two cents, if you will.

Two pennies taped to ficus branch

My two cents

I imagine the poor plant feels like a kid with new braces. Ouch! I gingerly pruned a few branches on the heavier side, but it was hard to make myself chop off good foliage when so many leaves were already on the floor. You can see that its silhouette is slightly more balanced now.

Ficus with limbs repositioned with wire

A little improvement

Eric brought the schoolhouse desk up from downstairs. For some reason, I have always envisioned it as a plant stand … and so it has become one. It’s in rough shape and could use some love, but that’ll be another project for another day.

The ficus is in the north-facing dining room window, where it will like the light. It might not like the breeze from the nearby furnace vent. I hope it will gradually become accustomed to our coolish house, which we keep in the mid-to-upper 60s during heating season. Ficus benjamina is the official plant of Bangkok, Thailand, but our house is distinctly un-Bangkok-like. My previous office, on the other hand, was a nap-inducing, tropical 74 degrees. I think it will adjust eventually, because another, much smaller, healthy ficus thrives just a few feet away.

Ficus tree sitting on old-fashioned schoolhouse desk

The schoolhouse desk finds its calling

Our dining room is large, but this tree, which was my protective buddy at work, really feels like a bit of a monster now that it’s in our house. It’s lost so many leaves in the month that it’s been with us that it looks visibly skimpier than when we brought it home. Hang in there, ficus … work with me. I’m doing the best I can for you.

View of dining room from outside at night

It’s a jungle in there

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

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!

Update

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