Monday, June 30, 2008

Tristi's BIAM Challenge

So my friend Tristi Pinkston has many blogs. I don't know how she manages to keep up with them all, and her kids, and her writing, etc, etc, but she's amazing (and she's a dang awesome writer too). Anyway, on her blog Tristi's Challenges, she's got more than two dozen writers gearing up for another Book In A Month write-athon. She lets us set our own goals, and then expects us to check in and let her know what's going on. Since I've been tiptoeing around my latest project, I decided to take her challenge to heart and get it done.

My writing goal is to spend at least two hours a day editing/writing or 2,000 words at least five days a week (six would be better.) If I do this, I figure I'll finish the manuscript I'm working on, manage to make all the changes my brilliant critiquers are suggesting, (I'm such a slacker, I have a stack of five chapters waiting for me to make the changes on the computer), and maybe throw in some other work on other projects in there if I get burnt out of this one too much. I'm rather a butterfly that way in my writing--I play with one for a while, then flip to something else after a while.

Lavender: It's Not Just a Sweet Smell

Every summer my family takes a trip to Bear Lake on the Utah/Idaho border shortly after the Fourth of July, and we drive past a lavender farm about half an hour south of Provo. If I look out to my left, I see acre after acre of fragrant purple fields.

It’s that time of year again, and lavender plants are popping into bloom. Mine have begun their annual show and I’m making plans for those tiny purple flowers.

Lavender is a woody perennial that will grow in almost any kind of soil, as long as it is drains well, and it can handle anything from high-moisture areas to Xeriscaping. It prefers full sun and though one source I read said it only handles temperatures to about 0 F or -15 C, It grows fine in my area, where it often gets below zero for part of the winter.

I’ve been told if you trim back the bush after the blooms are finished for the season, you can often get another set of blooms later in the summer, and some varieties actually bloom for most of the summer. There are many varieties and each has slightly different properties, so check and see what you can learn about strains available in your area.

The plants live up to ten years and can be started by seed (a method that is somewhat unreliable, but possible) or by taking cuttings in July or August and rooting them. These plants do best if you baby them in a green house or inside over the winter and plant them out in the spring.

Lavender has been used for centuries, not only in sachets and potpourri mixes, but for medicinal purposes, and even for eating.

There are many medical applications for lavender oil: it can be rubbed on the temples to cure headaches; it has been used as a psychological calming agent to help people sleep or relax; it is a powerful antidote to some snake venoms; it is so antibacterial, it will kill typhoid, diphtheria, and strep germs, among many others. The essential oils are also used to treat sunburns, and as an insect repellent.

The leaves, petals, and flowering tips can be used raw in salads (in small quantities as they do have a strong flavor), and can be used as flavoring in many dishes from ice cream, to cakes, lemonades, and in meat marinades and vinegars among other uses. You can use the plant, either fresh or dried to make herbal teas, too.

I made a lavender-flavored custard for Sunday night dessert, and everyone liked it. Check on the web for lavender recipes—there are hundred of them out there.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Trees: The Backbone of Your Yard

Once you have a general landscaping plan in place and know where you want to put trees and garden beds, you still have to pick out specific plants. Trees are the backbone to any landscape. They add interest, provide welcome shade in the heat of summer, can help you keep your house cool if positioned properly, and can add spring and/or fall color.

The evergreen is in a class of it's own, but the options range from ground-hugging shrubs to hundred-foot giants, from haphazard arrangements

with branches sticking out every which way, to plants compact enough to make topiaries out of--or at least with the ability to be shaped. The obvious advantage to the evergreen is the fact that it is . . . always green, but don't just run out and buy the first thing you see. I visited several places that sold trees before I found one with one that would be the shape I wanted, with the color and type of needles, and that wouldn't grow so large that I would eventually have to cut it down because of space. As I mentioned, many evergreens grow to be real giants, and though that little tree may look lovely for the next few years, choosing wrong can mean a major hassle later to have it removed.

Side note: I've heard rumors that the reason nothing grows under evergreens is because the needles are so acidic: it ruins the Ph of the ground. Some even suggested mixing pine needles into garden beds that were too alkali, but I read about a study a while back that disproved the theory that doing so made the slightest difference.

As for deciduous trees, the options are incredibly diverse. Because of my incoming water line, the sidewalks and my irrigation line all running through my front yard (and nowhere near each other), my husband and I selected a spring-flowering tree that will never get very large. Smaller trees tend not to have as big of a root spread, so I figured it less likely to have water-line issues. The roots also don't get as large, so they cause less damage to foundations and sidewalks. We picked a tree that will grow kind of round on top, liking the shape, as well as the reddish leaves all summer long, and the spring explosion of flowers.

In my back yard I'll use more shade trees, and further back yet are my fruit trees. Aside from options like spring flowers, fall foliage, and general size, you need to consider what kind of seed pods the tree may put out. Does anyone in your family have allergies to specific trees (such as cottonwood?), does your climate or water conditions foster the type of tree you want--a desert tree is not going to be happy along the Oregon or Washington coastline, while trees that thrive in Seattle's regular rains may not be the least bit happy in Utah, Nevada, Arizona or New Mexico. Thankfully, your local garden centers are unlikely to stock trees that won't survive your weather conditions.

Other considerations:

Don't plant trees too close to your foundation as larger ones, especially, can cause a great deal of damage, and some smaller ones may not survive the hot, dry space on the sunny side of the house without a great deal of supplemental watering.

Trees are plants, so yes, they do need watering when rain is scarce, and they need deeper watering than grass and flowers. My local nursery owner reminded me to water my trees when we have a dry winter, or, as happened a couple of years back, a winter with lots of snow fall, but no melting for months on end. The trees are alive and need moisture even if the leaves have fallen off for the season. Deep watering from time to time also encourages the trees to put their roots down into the soil so they are less likely to be uprooted by strong storms, or affected by drought.

How fast do you want your trees to grow? Willows grow pretty fast, adding interest and shade in only a few years, but they don't live as long as the oak or maple that takes many more years to get established.

Do you have a beetle outbreak in your area? Some trees are susceptible to certain kinds of bugs. If you are interested in a specific tree, it wouldn't hurt to contact your local extension center and see if there is a problem with growing that variety in your area. The pine bark beetle is causing real havoc in many of our forests right now, and some deciduous trees have similar problems. Be especially aware if you are bringing trees in from out of the area, or are buying from stores that don't specialize in plants as they many not be aware of infestations in your general area.

One more thing--Be aware of where the shade is going to be cast. Planting a leafy tree on the south or west sides of the house (in the northern hemisphere) can save you a bundle on your summer cooling bill, but planting one to the south of your flower beds or vegetable garden can make growing what you want nearly impossible.

These pictures all came from the National Arbor Day Foundation Website.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Great Perennials

I wanted to highlight three more of my favorite perennials this time. Most perennials bloom only for a few weeks each summer. These, however, are plants that put out gorgeous blooms for most of the summer, and come back more beautiful every year. All three of these dies back to the roots in the winter and grow new stems.

I bought these plants last spring in six-inch pots and they did reasonably well last summer. There are a number of varieties, and those familiar with the Latin names of plants will know that the herb sage is also in this family. I wouldn't try cooking with this beauty, though I intend to blog on flowers that people do commonly eat at some point down the road. Anyway, Salvia comes in all kinds of colors and shapes, from purples and blues, to reds, oranges and yellows. and there are plants that thrive in almost every zone. Mine started blooming early in May and will continue through the cool fall months.

These beauties I bought in a pony pack--they were billed as annuals, but they came back beautifully on their own this spring, though some of them are slightly different colors than I remember buying. Dianthus is another plant that comes in many different colors from yellows into pinks and reds. They generally thrive in full sun. These didn't start blooming as early as the Salvia, but they will put on a show for most of the summer.

Veronica Speedwell
I bought this one in pots last summer from a local nursery. They make good cut flowers, do well in zones 4-8 and love the sun. In my experience they flower more sporadically than the previous two plants, and they just started blooming last week, but they look nice well into the fall. This comes primarily in blues and purples, but there are some cultivars in pinks and whites. Veronicas also come in ground covers and various heights, so there may be something for nearly any spot in your garden.

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Book review: Heaven Scent

I took Rebecca Cornish Talley's Heaven Scent with me on an ambulance transfer a few weeks ago, knowing I would have two and half hours to read on the way back. After having to put the book down (way too late at night), I had been anxious to get back to it. The story is about eighteen-year-old Liza who loves basketball. It has been her dream for many years to play for a local college team, and it looks like she's about to get her wish as a recruiter comes to talk to her after her free-throws win the state championship game. Meanwhile, she's angry with her father for dedicating his whole life to his work and virtually ignoring his family, and her big crush finally starts noticing her both in and out of school.

Just as things start to look up at home, and she thinks her family has a real chance, one more broken promise causes a tragedy that turns her life upside down.

I used many a tissue on this book, and thought Liza's reaction to life, to her family and the difficulties she faced was very realistic. The dialogue is natural and I love Liza's relationship with her brother. Because the tragedy is mentioned on the back cover, I kept trying to decide what it would be with every plot twist, but I was still surprised at the direction it took.

I look forward to seeing what other stories Rebecca Talley has up her sleeve. For younger readers, check out her picture book Grasshopper Pie.

And now for the drawing: Answer the following questions from Rebecca's website and email them to me before July 4th at Heather at HeatherJustesen dot com to be included in a drawing for a copy of Heaven Scent.

1: What kind of dancing did Rebecca perform as a teenager?

2: How many children does she have? Girls? Boys?

3: List the name of one link on her link's page.

That's it!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Water-wise Planting

Just the word Xeriscaping brings visions of rocks and cactus to most people’s heads. They think of those poor desert dwellers whose city ordinances prevent them from growing ten square feet of grass and shudder, grateful it isn’t them.

Wikipedia says the word “refers to landscaping in ways that do not require supplemental irrigation.” And that “Plants whose natural requirements are appropriate to the local climate are emphasized, and care is taken to avoid losing water to evaporation and run-off.” The Greek translation for this term is ‘dry landscaping.’

On the other hand, a lot of people have begun to see Xeriscaping as more than just cacti, and dry desert. Water-wise landscaping is coming into vogue in many areas of the world as periods of drought spread in these last days. I won’t discuss floods here because there’s nothing much you can do in your landscaping to prevent damage from two-feet of water flowing through your yard.

The following are some of the great low-water plants I’m growing.

Many water-wise gardeners plan sections of their landscaping so plants with similar water needs are grouped together. The above picture is of GAILLARDIA, also known as Blanket Flower—this past spring I saw some creative mail-order nursery refer to it as Fiesta Daisy. No matter the name, it comes primarily in yellows and reds, some are all yellow or all red. It is available in variations with double the petals, and specialized petal shapes. This plant is big and bushy, starts well from seed, and resows itself generously (either keep on top of seedlings in early spring, or dig them up and transplant elsewhere). It does great in direct sunlight, makes a nice cut flower—staying bright in the vase for nearly a week—blooms for most of the summer, and only needs to be watered once a month after it has been established.

The SHASTA DAISY is another of my favorites. I winter sowed a number of plants along with my Blanket Flower a year ago and though I didn’t get many flowers last spring, the plants are doing great this year—they also multiply readily, but they don’t seem terribly invasive. It grows in zone 4 to 10, blooms from mid summer to mid fall, and again, only needs to be watered once or maybe twice a month once established. I say once established, because the first season you have any plant in the ground, you need to be more careful with watering while it sends its roots deep enough.

I used to think YARROW was a fall-blooming plant, but it has already started putting out flowers and will continue to do so until the fall cold sets in. Yarrow is another plant that spreads readily, though it can be a little invasive, so give it room and cut it back as needed. If you have a large empty space, however, a couple of cuttings are bound to fill it up in a few years and give you lovely color all summer. It comes in a whole range of colors—this one blooms pink, then fades to white before the petals fall off. It also only needs watering one a month or so. To top it off, yarrow is an herb that has been used to combat colds for centuries. I haven’t used it myself, but it might be worth looking into if you lean that direction.

Then there’s my favorite kind of GERANIUM—no this isn’t the annual that so many people pot up each summer—this is the true geranium, which is also called CRANESBILL, a plant I’ve seen in flower catalogs, though I bought mine locally. It is native to my area, and needs watering only a couple of times a month. I have mine in a south-facing flower bed right by the house, so I water more frequently as the light and heat reflecting off the building tend to dry out the bed faster. It often begins to wilt in the afternoon on really hot days, because its roots can’t pump enough water to keep the leaves going, but it is really hardy and recovers easily by the next day.

There are tons of other plants that require little water and will do well in your area. Do a search online for water-wise plants and the area you live in (state or province) and you are bound to come up with sites that tell you about plants that will thrive in your yard with less water. I also love the site There is a plant file search that members have contributed to with pictures and descriptions of thousands of cultivars. There’s information about size, water needs, light (or shade) requirements, bloom times, how invasive it is or easy to propagate, and much more. Many of the tools on this site are free, so take a look if you’re considering a plant.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Hardscaping: Taking it on First

Today we’re going to talk about hardscaping. What is that? In a nutshell, hardscaping is any non-living portion of your landscape. This includes sidewalks and driveways, retaining walls, patios or decks, gravel paths, and any other undead, er, non-living components.

In our yard I’m going to be installing gravel pathways between my flowers beds soon. Last summer I put down pieces of cardboard and covered them with the stump grindings the tree-removal company left behind at my parents’ house. It made for a charming walkway that kept me from getting too muddy when I moved the water around. The wood shavings are deteriorating now and returning to the soil, along with the cardboard, so I’m getting a lot of weeds and dirt starting to come through.

I’ll document the process when I get the time to work on this project. This type of path has to be added after the beds around it are built, or maybe midway through the project depending on what kind of edging you plan to use. Still, knowing what you want to do with the pathway before you begin the project can help streamline the process.

The free-standing pergola we’ve got planned for the back yard this fall—if all goes well—also falls under the description of hardscaping. I’m hoping to train a woody vine up the side and across the top for shade, which will also soften the edges. Something like this could be made out of any number of materials from wood to vinyl to steel beams. The product we plan to have installed is called Alumawood—a wood-grain look in a metal beam with a steel center and a really great paint warranty. We’ve considered both vinyl and real wood for the project, but this product is stronger than vinyl, and less maintenance than wood, while it keeps the wood look.

We probably would have gone with redwood if we could have built it ourselves, it would have been considerably less expensive to do so, but my husband is really too busy with two jobs and I can’t build it alone. The fact that I won’t have to stain this structure every year or two to keep it looking great is a major bonus in my book. This is a project that has to be done before I can build the beds around it, or add grass, unless I want to make a mess of my landscaping. Doing large projects like this first can really save you on stress and work down the road.

And thirdly, we’ll be adding our flagstone patio and I plant to create a flagstone path through the grass out to where my poultry are kept. The patio will be installed first, then the path will be added before I bring in sod—a couple more steps down my landscaping plan, but I’ll buy all of my flags at once. I’ll do this to make sure I have enough matching flags to do all of the projects I have planned. If you don’t get everything up front, you may not be able to get matching materials down the road, so plan ahead and save yourself some hassle. Neither of these flagstone pictures are from my yard--they are just to illustrate what I'm talking about. It's a good idea to spend time looking at the kinds of projects others have done to get an idea of what you want in your yard.

I’ve got some other minor hardscaping projects planned, which have to be done before I start looking seriously at grass, but they aren’t a priority at this point. The key is to know which project you need to do first in order for your landscaping plans to flow the smoothest. If you have questions, you can speak with a landscaping contractor (especially if you are contracting out part or all of the project), or a gardening expert, like your local nursery.

Each step in my landscape plan is going to take time because I’m trying to heed the prophets’ admonitions to stay out of debt. I could haul in some top soil, throw out a bit of grass seed and forget the rest, or I could go into massive debt to have it all done this summer—the bank might even loan me the money against the value of my home. With the way the economy is going, and the massive numbers of homes going into foreclosure in some areas, I don’t want to be another statistic, and I don’t want to carry around a huge amount of debt.

I never want to move again, and hope to live here into my twilight years. That being the case, I want this yard to be a place of refuge from the world’s pressures, a place where friends and family can gather to enjoy a barbeque, an impromptu marshmallow roast or just a lazy summer afternoon in the shade.

Because I know what I want, and I’m not in a huge hurry, I can take my time and put together the yard one piece at a time. I know it will be worth it.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Season of Sacrifice Winner!

Sorry it took so long for me to post the winner, this week has been crazy! Cathy Witbeck won the free copy of Tristi Pinkston's book Season of Sacrifice! Congratulations Cathy, and we'll get that mailed out to you!

Landscape Plan Part 3: Other Considerations

So you have a good idea of what you want to do with your yard, or that trouble spot in your yard—time to start digging, right? Wrong. Before you get the shovel out there are a few caveats you need to consider. What kind of soil do you have? Is it heavy clay, super sandy, filled with rocks, or—as one of my writing friends said about hers—a few inches of soil on top of a lava flow? When you water, where does the water go? Does it puddle up and is it going to end up in your basement (if you have one)?

My ground is very clay, which means digging when the ground is dry is nearly impossible. I’ve found the best way to dig holes is to get it really wet one day, let it dry for part of a day so it’s not slick mess, then dig, because the clay retains moisture really well. It also is very full of nutrients. Unfortunately, it’s a pain for roots to work through and it puddles really easily because it takes a long time for water to soak in. The other difficulty I had with my yard was the rocks.

This picture is a fair representation of what most of the yard looked like when I moved in—at least the part that is close enough to the house to warrant landscaping in the foreseeable future. I am dealing with this problem by choosing to build up. My flower and vegetable beds are raised, my patio will be raised, and I’ve used about a zillion rocks to line my garden beds. This has two advantages—free landscaping materials, and getting the rocks out of the way. When I’m ready to put in grass I plan to bring in about six inches of top soil, because strangely, grass roots don’t penetrate rock.

I actually had someone ask me where I got all the rocks to line my flower beds. She seemed surprised when I said I pulled them out of my yard, but most of the neighbors didn’t have the ‘gift’ of rocks that I received when I bought my place. My husband doesn’t share any part of my belief that they are a blessing, but we have to find silver linings wherever they are, right?

Part the reason you need to understand the type of ground you are dealing with, is to know what kind of amendments you need to add. You can have a soil test done by your local extension service if you live in the U.S.; if you live outside of that area, you might contact a local nursery and see if they know anyone who does soil tests. This test can tell you how acidic it is, any amendments you need to add to your soil, and what kind of ground you are working with. Usually the tests are fairly inexpensive.

The solution for either heavy clay or seriously sandy soil is generally to add compost. It breaks up the clay and makes it drain better, and helps the sand retain moisture better. Do not add sand to clay ground as it only makes a nice concrete-like material that is even harder to deal with than the clay was in the first place.

I mentioned before that my soil is really alkali. Knowing this helps me decide what kind of plants to grow since some thrive in this kind of soil, and others do best in acidic ground. Now, when I go to my local nursery, they are most likely going to stock plants that thrive in the local conditions, with a few exceptions. A few weeks back I went to a nursery in St. George that had some funky cacti for sale. It was clearly marked with a sign that said it wouldn’t stand the freezes they get in the area and would need careful protection in the winter. If you have a question, ask someone who works there. If they don’t have the answer, they will usually find someone who does.

I’m not referring to your local big box garden center, however. The employees there may or may not know the first things bout keeping a plant alive. For example, I spoke with someone who overheard an employee at one of these places telling a customer that it was the perfect time to plant tomatoes (in late March—so not true). Employess are there to tidy up shelves, stock shelves, and run the register and sometimes you get someone who really knows their stuff. But do your own research if you plan to shop there, because while you may occasionally get incredible deals on plants, and a different variety than at some of the small nurseries, you have to rely on plant tags and your own know how.

Do you live in a flood zone? Is your house in a depression in the ground, or is it above the rest of the yard? Are you going to be watering right next to the house? If you have a basement or cellar, you need to consider your drainage issues to make sure you won’t be adding water to your basement. Think about water flow around your house and be sure not to increase the likelihood of problems down the road. If you are planning a major overhaul of your landscaping near the house, now would be the best time to fix any flooding problems you have been experiencing.

And before you finalize your plans—don’t forget to call Blue Stakes (the people who notify utility companies to come mark their locations, for those of you who don’t live in the U.S.). Some lines are going to be closer to the surface than you think, and as I said before, you don’t want to plant a tree on top of your sewer or other water lines. My Blue Stakes service is free and all of the utility companies came out within forty-eight hours of my call. Basic precautions can save you a real hassle down the road.

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Landscape Plan Part 2: Putting it on paper

In my last blog, I discussed the importance of an over-all landscape plan before you begin to make changes. There are several reasons for this, but the most important reason is so you don’t have to redo some of the work later due to poor planning.

You can see my landscape plan, a plan I drew up early in 2007, and worked on over the course of several months. It’s light because I drew it all in pencil—much easier to make changes that way. I drew it on graph paper and used every 1/8th-inch square to represent one square foot in my yard. I measured out sidewalks, driveway, the house and walkways. It doesn’t have the precision of an architects rendering, by any means, and I have made a few changes in the yard that aren’t reflecting in the plan, but overall, it’s my map. The drive ways and sidewalks are the darker gray, the house is the big white block, and there are large circles representing trees and rectangles for garden beds. I even wrote out the name of the kinds of grapes I planted so I can remember which order they are in when I start to train them on the fence.

The front yard was fairly straight forward. Once I decided on the shape of the beds I was going to create, I just went for it and didn’t worry about the rest. The back is another thing altogether.

Last fall we had planned to build a flagstone patio out back. We considered all of the possible options: pavers, cement, stamped concrete with an acid wash, but what I really wanted was flagstones. I was thrilled to learn I could get flags from a local company for less money than having pavers shipped in—considerably less money, actually. It would have been least expensive to have a concrete pad poured, but with the cottage-garden feel to my yard, the pavers and concrete were not quite right and the stamped concrete was way out of my budget.

However, before I could start laying flags, I decided I needed to run a three-inch pipe under the patio. The plan was for it to be available if we needed to run irrigation under there some day or any other lines that I didn’t want to run around the patio and the pond I plan to put beyond it. Then my husband and I started to talk about water and electricity out where the birds are. We also want to build a garage/workshop for him in the back yard at some point down the road, so we decided we needed to open another trench running out there. And while it was open, we also ran a gas line—so there could be heat in the workshop.

This was a bigger hassle than I expected (any home repair or improvement is always more work than you expect--it's like Netwon's fifth law or something), and because of some unplanned expenses, we weren’t able to run the line or fill the trenches until this spring, but it was worth it, since I would rather go to the expense and hassle now, than to have to tear up our landscaping later.

Having a plan also made it clear which steps we need to take first, second, etc. Once again, we’ve put off the patio, because we want to add a free-standing pergola, and decided it would be best if the flags flowed into that space. So we wait while the money for the pergola adds up in our savings account, and hopefully we’ll be able to add it before the snow flies. That means the patio will be a year and a half later than I planned, but in the long run the hassle and expense will be worth it.

Your plan may not be nearly as detailed as mine, or on nearly as big of a scale. But if you want to add a tree, a few bushes and some flowers to a corner of your yard, it’s always worthwhile to be certain that you know what you’re starting with and where you want to go. More on things to consider before you dig coming up later.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Win a book

Just a reminder, you must post on my comment thread before June 10 if you want to win a copy of Tristi Pinkston's " Season of Sacrifice." Please, make sure I have some way to reach you to get your mailing information in case you win. This is a great book about the Hole in the Rock pioneers. Click here to read my review.

Planning your landscape

I mentioned last week that I've had the opportunity to landscape two yards from the beginning—actually, we didn't finish the first yard before we moved, but I had my plans.

Whether you're starting a new yard from dirt and rocks (or rocks, rocks, more rocks, and a little dirt in the cracks as my current yard is made of), or you want to make some changes to only a small section of your property, it's important to start with an all-over plan.

For me that meant spending half of my life on the computer researching different options after we moved in. Since we took possession of this property in December, and it snowed the next week—and didn't melt for months—I had plenty of time to research all of the options..

The first thing you need to consider is how you want to use the space. Do you want to have friends over to barbecue? Do you want flowers or trees? Fruits or vegetables? Do you have kids who will need a sandbox and swing set? Do you want animals (of any kind since the preparation for chickens is significantly different from dogs, and different kinds of dogs may require different landscaping changes)? How about a water feature or patio?

Then you also have to consider your climate and what you are starting with—obviously there are lots of plants I can't have in my area because they don't winter over, require too much humidity and/or watering, or maybe they'll hate the extremely alkali soil. For example: If I want to have a blueberry bush, I need to build up a special bed with bagged soil that is more acidic or work bags and bags of high-acid amendments into the bed. Blueberries prefer acidic soil, and if I put a few drops of vinegar in a tablespoon of my dirt, it fizzes like mad.

Then you have to figure what you have to start with. I mentioned my yard was mostly rocks. Actually, the previous owner of the property used it as a dumping ground for the fill dirt when he built a fast-food place on the edge of town. The back half of the property is several feet lower than the front half, because he didn't dump that far back, and the dirt is beautiful. It may have a few rocks in it—egg sized or smaller—but it's good, rich top soil.

An over-all garden plan is important to start out with, so don't rush through it or decide you'll figure out the rest later. Mine evolved over several months, and I'm still making small changes to it as I have to adjust for things I hadn't expected—like the irrigation company putting my water on the wrong side of the yard—right where I intended to bring heavy equipment through to take care of the big projects out back.

And let's not forget my learning that the sewer line runs right through the area where I had intended to plant my orchard—a recipe for disaster as the trees grow and their roots spread. The chickens and other birds now have their home in that area, which is probably just as well anyway as the fruit trees will like the soil in the low lands better.

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Making a self-watering planter

After I wrote my previous gardening blog, I began looking into different ways for patio gardeners to keep their pots watered. I know I have a tendency to let my watering slide, which is why I didn't use my large pots last year, but I knew there were various ways to make up for the problem. Last summer, a neighbor of mine complained that she had to water her patio pots twice a day during the hottest part of the summer--something that would definitely be the death of my plants.

There are gels on the market that you can mix with your potting soil that will soak up extra water, then release it as the soil dries out, but they can be pretty pricey. As I looked for these products, I found something even better--the self watering pot. You can buy these pre-manufactured, but they can be pricey--$25 for a medium-sized rectangle box. On the other hand, that can be fairly inexpensive if you would otherwise lose your plants.

While I was looking at these, I came across several Web sites that showed various ways to make your own self-watering pots, so I decided to give it a go. I've had these two planters for a couple of years, but nearly killed the flowers in them the first summer. Since I had them on hand, I decided to give it a go.

I scoured my house for bits and pieces that I would need for the project. I actually only had to purchase the pink netting from the fabric store ($1.10/yard), but all of these supplies are available in even tiny towns like mine. The wire is hardware cloth, but you could use a length of window screen instead if you attached it firmly to the pan. I've also seen people use medium-sized gravel or hollow balls of clay as spacers instead of the hardware cloth to leave the water somewhere to collect. Instead of the pink tulle, you could use anything with a weave tight enough to keep the potting soil out of the water.

I cut the hardware cloth large enough to wrap securely around the foil pans (3/$1 at many grocery stores or dollar stores).

I cut the corners out of the hardware cloth, then trimmed back the corners of the flaps on an angle--I didn't do this on my first pot and the pan didn't fit as well in the bottom of the pot.

I cut the pipe to length to it would stick out of the dirt only a couple of inches, then cut an angle on the side that would go into the pan. This is so the water will easily release into the pan.

I cut a four-by-four-inch hole in one corner of the metal mesh of the soil 'wick', then a one-inch hole in the other corner for the pipe-which is how we add water to the reservoir.

Make sure you get plenty of potting soil into the one corner of the pan-held in place my the pink tulle in this case, since it is what will pull the water up into the rest of the pot. If the container you use doesn't have drainage holes, (you can use almost any water-tight container, including five-gallon buckets or those shoe-box sized clear containers), you need to drill a small hole at the height where you want the water to stop. This is an overflow to prevent over watering. Since my pot does have drainage holes, I figure the water will just begin draining over when it reached the top of the pan. It seems to be working for me.

This what my pots looked like when I finished filling them. Notice the pipes stick out a couple of inches.

And it's planted. In a few weeks the flowers will nearly hide the pipe, but I will be able to fill it with water with my watering can. After a week the plants still look healthy, despite the fact that I only water them every couple of days. I think one of the pans didn't get placed quite flat, because it doesn't seem to hold as much water, but the plants are still staying alive. This is probably a much more efficient way to water plants anyway, because the water won't evaporate as quickly as it does when you top water.

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