Tag Archives: spring gardening

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

 

 

 

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

 

Rededication

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about gardening, as many bloggers are this time of year. The front garden is bursting with spring color, even on a cloudy day.

colorful garden seen from paned window

And moles … why, with six cats, do we still have moles??

mole hill on brick sidewalk

Lacy doesn’t know how to catch a mole, but she knows how to pose for the camera.

Black cat sitting in front of Japanese lantern

But, you’re wondering … what happened to the kitchen project? It went underground for a few weeks. More precisely, Eric developed a hernia, very possibly from running (hard) into the corner of one of the cabinets. (A lesson here: Do not park unfinished cabinets in the middle of the kitchen.) As his symptoms worsened, he could do less and less physical work. Seven weeks ago he had surgery, and believe me, recovering from hernia surgery is no picnic. (I say this never having had hernia surgery … but I’ve witnessed the result, and I know I never want to experience it!) Eric’s getting better every day, and he’ll soon be back to 100%. But the bottom line is, we’ve lost two months of progress on our kitchen renovation.

I’ve had my heart set on celebrating our house’s 100th birthday with a big party in July (August, at the latest), but the reality is, it’s just not going to happen. I can’t deny that I am bummed. (No way are we entertaining before this kitchen’s finished!) This saddens me because a house only turns 100 once, and on the West Coast, relatively few houses are much older than that.

I also can’t deny that I’m partially responsible for our complete lack of progress during this time. At the very least, I coulda, shoulda painted the breakfast room, the ceiling, and all the beadboard. Nothing was stopping me. I just ran out of steam and enthusiasm, and I was distracted by Eric’s distress … and a garden full of weeds. Without Eric working on the kitchen with me, renovation just wasn’t as much fun.

As for the party, there’s always next year, right? It won’t be a 100th birthday party, but it could be a “Happy 2nd Century” party. And with a year’s reprieve (see how I’m talking myself into this?) we’ll have time to paint the exterior and rebuild the side porch! Whew! I’m suddenly so glad I don’t have a July party deadline breathing down my neck anymore! (I know darned well we will be rushing to complete whatever project we’ll be doing at that time … but it won’t—better not—be the kitchen.)

Now that Eric can resume building and installing drawers and there’s no excuse for me not being productive, we’re rededicating ourselves to getting this train back on track. Once again I’m hearing saw-and-sander noises coming from the basement. (I admit this always makes me a little nervous, but Eric’s only come upstairs holding a bleeding body part a couple of times. He uses safety equipment and he does know what he’s doing.) Now he’s actually waiting on me to catch up and apply polyurethane to the drawer boxes.

We can almost see the finish line on this section of cabinets. Most of these drawers and their glides are not yet attached to the cabinet boxes. They’re just sitting there, looking good (like Lacy) … but as soon as I finish finishing them, Eric will magically make it all work. Of course they’ll all have drawer fronts and pulls attached when they’re done, like the one at upper right. But you knew that.

base cabinets with drawer boxes

Turns out, installing the drawers has been a bit of a pain because the drawer fronts are inset (they don’t overlap the frames). The glides are attached to blocks inside the cabinets, and the boxes and fronts have to line up precisely, adjusted for the pressure of the load they will carry. Much tweaking involved. I tend not to watch because it makes me twitchy.

drawers and glides installed in cabinet

Duke points out which drawer will hold his food bin. The cat food—which he likes even better—will be in a similar bin in the next drawer.

Boxer sniffing plastic food bin

Last week I picked up a paintbrush and finished touching up the upper cabinet shelves, which, if you’ll recall, Eric had sanded down, trying to get the doors to fit properly. (This didn’t really work, and we are resigned to straight doors that won’t fit perfectly flush in the warped frame—or is it the other way around?) Finally, I reinstalled my shelf paper—for the third time—and moved our dishes back into their home-with-a-view. This accomplished two things: I got rid of FIVE boxes from the dining room, AND we can once again eat off of our real dishes (b-bye plastic picnic set)! Think we have enough coffee cups and wine glasses? Good grief … it’s just the two of us!

upper cabinets with glass inserts

I love how this cabinet turned out. To paraphrase Woody Allen, “Love is too weak a word for what I feel — I lurve it.”

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