Grow, Part 1 From interest to obsession

Anyone who’s talked with me recently soon hears about my relatively new obsession with gardening, landscaping, pruning, and compost. Really, anything that has to do with growing plants. Without chemicals, if I can help it.

I’ve always had an interest in it, probably because my dad grew vegetables for a time in three raised beds in the backyard, and has always had a good looking front yard. But living in a condo meant that there wasn’t a whole lot we could do outside, and for the first four summers here in the house, we’ve been more focused on, well, the house.

I think the current obsession was probably kicked off two summers ago when MT decided the backyard needed a stone patio. That got me thinking about designs and materials and installation methods, with frequent Google searches and debates over what we liked. We’re really happy with that patio, and last spring we also used some leftover stone in the front yard.

That’s when things really got going. We removed some lawn, an undertaking which is simultaneously easy and difficult. It was easy to cut the turf with a shovel and lift up each small section of lawn. It was difficult to transport it to the backyard in a wheelbarrow, where we’d decided to build a berm—at first we called it a swale, but a swale is basically the opposite of a berm. We flipped the turf upside down onto a section of the backyard, and soon had a pile that resembled a grave for siamese twins. Later in the summer, we half-heartedly bought a packet of wildflower seed and spread it on the berm. Some of it grew, half-heartedly, but it never really took off in the heat.

A slight detour to talk about goutweed

This has been another obsession that started a couple years ago, just as I began to turn my attention to the outdoors. Aegopodium podagraria or Goutweed, also called Bishop’s Weed and Snow-in-the-Mountain and Ground Elder, is a rather attractive perennial ground cover. It’s either solid green or variegated, and grows well from spring though fall. It’s highly aggressive and fast-growing, however, and can quickly choke out other plants. One year it’s just over in that corner there, not causing any trouble, and the next year it’s taken over the entire yard. It is evil. It’s so invasive that its sale is banned in some states. It spreads via seed, which is fairly easy to control if you cut off the flowers as they appear. But it also spreads underground via a vast network of rhizomes. My goal has been to eradicate it from our yard. Last spring, I took a long, hard look at each area, dividing it up into manageable sections. Then I got down on my hands and knees—MT got me one of those garden knee cushions, which I highly recommend—and started slowly digging through the soil, pulling out every bit of the plant I could find. Tilling and digging is not ideal, as it tends to stir up weed seeds, but it was really the only way to get at all the rhizomes. (Incidentally, goutweed shrugs off chemical herbicides such as Roundup, which I’d never use in my yard anyway. And if you’d prefer to simply cut it down, go right ahead. In two weeks, it’ll come back even stronger. It loves a good pruning.) By October, I’d managed to remove all above-ground evidence, but I know that some of it will be back this year: I’ve seen bits here and there, and my neighbors’ yards are already showing it as well. More tips on removal, if you’re curious.

I also got interested in our hostas and learned how to divide them, a process that is really simple and really cool. Basically, you cut a circle around them with a shovel, lift the whole plant or grouping out of the ground, then slice it in half or in quarters right down from the top and replant. This is cool because you think you must be killing the poor things, but they actually love being divided every few years. Our friends John & Lisa had also given us some of their hostas in May, so we’re starting to get a little more variety (there are many species and cultivars). Hostas are amazingly hardy and resilient, love shade, and produce tall flowering stalks later in the season.

A couple things happened in August

One day in August, I was digging around (ha!) on YouTube and came across the BBC series How to be a Gardener (they’re not updating the site, but the info is still good). Alan Titchmarsh does a great job of taking you through the basics, and it’s a lot of fun. This is a good place to start. I also recommend the Cottage Garden episode. Crucially, he makes it all seem so easy and simple.

Then, another day in August, I landed on Mike McGrath’s TEDx talk Everything You Know About Composting is Wrong. This was the moment I went full-bore obsessive. It’s so simple: you take your fall leaves (and your neighbors’), suck them up through a leaf blower/shredder, deposit them into a bin, and wait. There’s more to it than that, naturally, but that’s the basic concept. I also recommend his book. And I recommend his radio show, You Bet Your Garden, which can also be found in the iTunes podcast directory. I currently have three bins constructed of hardware cloth, which is actually a metal mesh that comes in 10′ × 3′ rolls. Just unroll, form a cylinder, attach the ends together with zip-ties, and fill with shredded leaves. You can also add coffee grounds/filters, but no food waste. Food waste attracts rodents and raccoons. For that you’ll want a worm bin.

Wait, did you say “worm bin?”

Yes, yes I did. Read Part 2 to hear about that.