Starting A Big Yard Project

My yard has a cave. It’s big enough for about three people and a dog. And it’s not supposed to be there. It’s situated on my side of the property line that runs along a utility easement, with the neighbor’s yard on the other side. The topography is best analogized by imagining a hill surrounding a lake and then imagine the lake is empty. My house and yard are at the top of a natural hill and my neighbor’s back yard is a drop of over 50 feet. The main floor of his house is almost at the same elevation as mine, but features a large basement/first story garage for which the back part of his yard was dug out to accommodate.

I’m a fan of doing yard projects myself. As an office worker, I find this amazing satisfaction in actually visually seeing physical results of hard work. Last year, I took three pallets of stone and built my own retaining wall. I’m a fan of hard work. Sometimes, though, you have to call in the professionals.

Since we moved into this house, we have not had great luck with contractors. I have been procrastinating getting quotes for about 6 months now, but New Year is the time, right? I put in several requests on Angie’s list and thus far only one landscaper has called me back. I did talk to a structural engineer over the phone, who said it sounded like a water issue not a structural issue, so he didn’t think more than a professional landscaper was needed.

The first consultation was today and I’m impressed with the company so far. He asked more questions about what I wanted than making assumptions (old wounds talking here) and wants to come back during a heavy rain to observe the water flows.

My goals for the project:

  • Structural integrity of the area (I don’t want to lose any MORE yard, preferably I can reclaim some).
  • Prevent/retain water runoff on the property to help the neighbor’s flooding situation and for general water conservation.
  • Facilitate removal of the invasive species taking over the area (I’ve already reclaimed about 100 sq ft from invasive privet, ivy, and honeysuckle, but I don’t want to make the erosion worse). If they remove some or all of it for me, great. If they don’t remove it, at least make it safe for me to remove and replace it without potentially falling into a cave, you know?
  • Structure and space to replant with substantial enough plants to reclaim some privacy on this side of the house. We are three houses over from a busy street. When the privet and vines were still in tact, you couldn’t tell. Our yard was like the secret garden. Removing it was the right thing to do, but we definitely want our privacy back.

I’ll take some pictures as things progress. Currently, all you’d see is a pile of leaves on a slope as the leaves are largely obstructing the view of the cavern/cave. (My leaf clean up is done for now, this is a section of my yard I’ve been intentionally neglecting per the Lazy Gardener pledge from Habitat Network.)

This isn’t the only big yard project for the year. We need to have one of our large oak trees removed, but I’ve chosen to prioritize this erosion issue first. I’m sad about losing the oak, so it may be somewhat of an unconscious bias delaying that as well. Unfortunately, the oak has been struck by lighting in the past and has lost some fairly substantial branches lately. We have been lucky none have hit our house, as it’s less than 3 feet (seriously!) from the wall to our carport. I can see some rot on a huge branch and while it was alive last year, I just don’t want to risk it all year.

Wish me project luck! Pictures to come once it’s all put together.

Seed Catalog Fever

It’s seed catalog season! If you’re not yet a plant nerd, as until recently I was just a plain nerd myself, let me fill you in. Plant companies, some you have heard of and many you haven’t, send you pages and pages of ideas for what you can grow in your garden. Even if you have no plan of starting anything from seeds, the catalogs plant the idea of warmer weather and dirt under your fingernails in your heard. Before you know it, you start daydreaming of a new way to grow runner beans on a teepee shape and how that will look with the cucumber trellis and YOU ARE DONE. They have you. It’s over. You have the fever.

I’m a victim. A national organic seed catalog from a company I’ve enjoyed ordering from previously caught me. I’m a little young for catalogs, so I should be immune, right? WRONG. It spurred me to “just one” look online about some wild bergamot bee balm and a whopping credit card bill later, I am now waiting on a grow light and about 20 varieties of seeds. This didn’t happen all at once, but each “just one” search led to many more things being added to the cart and well, here we are. Some shipments have already arrived but I am telling myself I have to be done now. I have to resist the seed catalog fever reinfecting me. Just enjoy planning with what I have (and have ordered)!

So, everyone – I’ll be starting lots of seeds this year! I mentioned the lettuces in a prior post, but it’s grown quite a bit beyond lettuces now… Here we go!

 

Mid-January – What’s to eat?

January and February are desolate food months, full of store-bought produce trucked from across the country or Mexico with limited flavor and variety. At least, that’s what I thought when I started on this journey of intentionally eating seasonally. And I have to admit, as I’m still standing up my urban food garden, and the farmers’ markets here won’t open until April, the local part of my quest is a huge challenge. I’ve been amazed by the variety of foods that are in season now, however, and am constantly reminding myself to enjoy them NOW, while they’re in season, so I won’t be craving roasted brussel sprouts in July! Here’s what I’ve found is fresh:

Fruit

  • Late Apples. I was resigned to closing out the apple season in mid-December, but I’ve been happily surprised by the availability, variety and low prices of later season apples. Green apples in particular have come into their prime and I still occasionally find Fuji or other red varieties that are abundant, cheap, organic and tasty.
  • Citrus. Judging by the news, citrus is in trouble nationally. I haven’t had any trouble finding cost-effective seasonal citrus this year. What I have noticed is that the varieties have been different with every grocery trip. Halos one week, gone the next. Grapefruit available and on sale one week, not to be found a few days later. I found organic lemons on sale about a week and a half ago and, although citrus keeps well, I needed to use them. I turned them into lemon chia seed muffins based on this pancake recipe from The Simple Veganista (exactly her recipe, but 20 min in the oven in muffin cups instead of pancakes). They were an amazing treat on this terribly cold (25 degrees Fahrenheit) day when I’m longing for some warm days in the garden.
  • Pears. I forget how many varieties of pears exist in the world. The pear offering has been reliable and always on sale since mid-December. These have been nice compliments to my morning toast, along with whatever that week’s citrus selection has been.

Vegetables

  • I listed many in my recent salad post, so let’s not forget those. I’ve used combinations of these as roasted bowls with quinoa, in addition to roasting them as a side and throwing them raw into salads.
    • brussel sprouts
    • cabbages
    • carrots
    • radish (particularly mild in the cooler weather)
    • mustard greens, kale, and other lettuces and leafy greens
  • Parsnips. My husband had never had a parsnip until I roasted them with carrots and broccoli and squeezed some lemon juice on them as a compliment to a pasta dish the other night. Full disclosure – he wasn’t a fan – but i loved them and they made the plate pretty with some white mixed in with the green and orange.
  • Potatoes. I haven’t had them often, but I still have a few stored just in case.
  • Butternut squash. I just used up the last of my butternuts, which stored for over 2 months since I bought them at a roadside stand. I roasted them and put them in a puree and stored them in mason jars – three in the freezer and one in the refrigerator. I plan to either use the puree with some sage and vegetable broth for a simple soup or use heated on the stove as a thick pasta sauce.

Other Seasonal Food Notes

Like many others, I’ve chosen not to drink alcohol this month for dry January. It hasn’t been too difficult, as my running schedule, work and endless gardening planning have kept me pretty busy. I did have some sake after one particularly difficult night involving an awkward family event, getting locked out of my house, and some other misadventures, but it’s been largely thoughtless. I won’t discount myself over one night! I’m a heavy drinker, and I don’t mean alcohol. I’m ALWAYS drinking something. Coffee, water, tea, sodas… I don’t wear lipstick because it wouldn’t last 5 minutes. In the evenings when I’d normally have wine, I’ve stuck with sparkling water, either plain or with a slide of lemon or lime.

When I need a treat, there are these amazing sparkling juices that I’ve been putting in a wine glass. They’re non-alcoholic, and quite a treat. There is a rose sparkling grape that is better than any rose wine or champagne I’ve had. The sparking organic cranberry and apple are tasty also. There are multiple producers of these, including one organic option. Check them out if you need a treat and are also doing try January (or any other month).

Salad Experiments

I’ve fallen in love with YouTube garden channels. Among the PBS shows that I’ve long enjoyed and just started restreaming, I found a UK-based YouTube channel from Charles Downing. Much to my surprise, his growing zone is pretty close to mine due to the oceanic climate of the UK region. His videos have inspired me to try starting seeds this year for plants, particularly lettuces.

I’m not a huge salad person by default. As a vegetarian, at work functions I get served lettuce as my (only) lunch option quite often. By itself, it’s just not that satisfying. Lettuce isn’t even really a salad. It’s just lettuce. When paired with wonderful other seasonal veggies that add some heartiness and weight, a salad is wonderful. I just been victim of some lack of understanding of vegetarian options and it’s scarred me somewhat deeply when it comes to someone saying there’s a “salad.”

I’ve also started to realize how limited my lettuce exposure has been. Growing up, my family exclusive ate iceberg lettuce. I came to associate lettuce with watery, tasteless heads of slippery leaves. My husband enjoys romaine, which in my book is a step above iceberg as at least it’s got a crunch, but still hits those watery and relatively bland boxes. I’ve long mixed in spinaches and occasionally some chopped up fresh kale, but only if he’s not eating it.

Watching Charles’ videos has shown me colors and textures of lettuce I’ve never experienced (red?!?). I am also attracted to his harvest method, which doesn’t require a full commitment to a single type of lettuce for any given harvest/meal. He picks the older leaves around the side, even of head-type lettuce, to allow for a cut-and-come again type of crop and mixing the different types of lettuce together.

Sidenote – watching his harvests of lettuce made me realize how wrong I’d been harvesting my mustard greens all season… it’s my first year of growing mustard greens for me, so I’m not being too hard on myself! Also, mustard greens have helped spice up my seasonal salads!

My salad bowl right now – mid-January – is a mix of some or all of the following (depending on what I have and what looked good last grocery visit):

  • Brussel sprouts – quartered
  • Carrots – sliced
  • Radishes – sliced
  • Onion – chopped
  • Mustard greens – preferably the smaller leaves (I find they’re more tender), chopped and mixed in
  • Romaine – chopped, for some more crunch
  • Spinach – if I have it…

I store the brussels and root veggies separately from the lettuces so that I also have the option of roasting them as a dinner side, if I’m so inclined. I find all of these store exceptionally well in a salad spinner in the middle section of my refrigerator, where they’re not directly in front of the cooling elements (based on the way my refrigerator is designed). I’ve kept them for about a week and a half that way, with no noticeable different in quality for the root veggies.

My plan is to start the lettuce seeds in early February using Charles Downing’s methods, for setting out in my side yard between the pansies in mid-March.

I’ve been assembling supplies over January. Shockingly, it’s very difficult to find seed starting supplies in my part of the world. After visiting my two favorite local nurseries and being told that seed starting wasn’t in their repertoire, I went to the default big box store. They carry only a national brand of seed starting mix that I’d prefer not to use. I shopped online and found a great mix from Johnny’s but the shipping charges were prohibitive. I ended up going back to the big box store and buying the national brand. Thus, I’m not totally satisfied with what I have so far, but at least I have something if I can’t find a better option before then.

Charles Downing recommends mixing in some vermiculite or perlite to the seed starting mix for lettuces. He says this is helpful with drainage, and that lettuces are particularly sensitive to wet growing conditions. Finding that was yet another adventure. I finally found it online from a seed company (not Johnny’s) without too crazy of shipping charges, and I’m happy with that brand at least.

I’ll try to remember to take pictures of my lettuce experiments once they get underway in February.

 

 

Leaf Mulch Update – Mid-January

On my half-acre residential yard, with three very mature oak trees, surrounded by a canopy of neighboring trees, there is no end to leaves from early October and even until now. I’ve completed the clean up of my yard leaves. There were several days’ work involved between blowing, raking and shredding the leaves. A few things I’ve learned worked well and a few that didn’t work as well.

Street Leaves Make a Great Base Layer for Mulching the Beds

My neighborhood has curbs. The downside of this is they collect piles of leaves, even before the yards have any noticeable leaf-fall. The upside of this is that the worms seem to thrive in this pile of moist, matted leaves. This year, I focused mostly on clearing the leaves from the grass first to prevent mildew or other issues later in the growing season. As the leaves on the grass dwindled, I shifted my focus to tidying up the surrounding street and curbs. I found so many worms, I just couldn’t bear to shred these leaves. I carted the whole, wet leaves – worms and all, if I could – and heaped them on top of the few remaining piles of shredded leaves that I haven’t yet used as mulch. In retrospect, I should have started my collections with these leaves to get that wonderful worm action at the base of my leaf piles.

Storage is Tricky

My yard is large, but very visible and I don’t exactly want rotting piles of leaves visible to all of the world. I found a few clever hiding places to stash my leaves. As the weeks wear on, the piles have already shrunk. Next year, I’ll plan a bit better on where to store the excess so that I can take advantage of the neighbor’s bagged leaves as well.

The Job is Never Ending

Even after my yard cleanup, I still have leaves in my grass. This is because my neighbors are all on different schedules and a windy day will quickly redistribute their unmanaged leaves back into my yard. Over time, it’s less and less, but it’s never-ending.

I’m still excited about seeing the beds with their natural mulch over the year. One of my shade beds on the north side of the house has been particularly difficult to grow in, as the prior owners seemingly piled treated wood mulch in thick layers for years. The soil is only now starting to come back as I’ve let it rest over the last two growing seasons, but it’s increased my weed battling quite a bit. My reserve of shredded leaves will hopefully help with this. And after this self-contained experiment with just my leaves, I’ll consider what else I can do next year with more found leaves from neighboring yards!

lea

A Hack to Make Getting Out of Bed Easier

All you need is a programmable thermostat with a “wake” setting. It’s been life-changing for me!

As part of living seasonally, I try to keep our programmable thermostat directionally following what’s happening outside in the season. For now, it’s set to 62 degrees Fahrenheit the majority of the day. That’s as low as I can go for now (although some say I can go a degree or two lower after a few weeks of adjustment). The one big problem is that I have a terrible time getting out of bed when I’m cold! Those warm flannel sheets and fluffy comforter are really difficult to leave for a cold breeze!

Our thermostat has a “wake” setting that for the first year we lived here was always set the same as the rest of the time settings. A few weeks ago, I realized what a missed opportunity this was! As the weather started to cool, for just a few hours around the time I wake up, I programmed it to go up to 70 degrees. It’s set to start up about 30 minutes before my wake time and stay there about 30 minutes after I get out of the shower – about 2 hours total.

Yes, yes, I know – that’s hot for this time of year. But it’s made a huge difference! I no longer linger in bed. And it makes all of the other hours of 62 degrees much more bearable so I’m not tempted to adjust the temperature up on the whole.

All of the Leftovers!

Last week was Thanksgiving and with all of the yummy fall recipes I’ve been making, I have a TON of leftovers! Fortunately, there’s an extra week after Thanksgiving this year before December starts, so I’m going to do my best to use up some leftovers before Christmas and all of the food that goes with it lands upon us.

I’ve frozen a little bit of everything I’ve made (that’s freezable) over the last few weeks. I still have quite a bit of Halloween chili, a few jars of butternut lentil soup (which also makes a great pasta sauce), frozen and unfrozen pumpkin puree, and about 6 trays of various Thanksgiving leftovers. That’s a lot of food for a week!

The husband and I are planning a nice night out one night this week and I’ll have a friend in town toward the end of the week, with inevitable eating out to follow, so it’s not likely I’ll use it all this week. That’s ok – a few things left will be welcome for a quick lunch or dinner into December.

Thinking maybe a week of leftovers toward the end of the month might be a good tradition to start. I’ve heard of others who do a “produce only” shopping week. That would let me buy fruit and veggies while requiring some use of the frozen stuff.

Have you found a system that works for you? How do you waste-not, want-not when it comes to using up your seasonal leftovers? Let me know in the comments.