Archives for posts with tag: rocks

My second least favorite garden activity: Digging holes in our rocky, clayey soil. (Long-time readers of this blog know what my least favorite garden activity is; new readers can look at January 7, 2012 for a clue.) Unpleasant as it is, I have to face up to it if I want to be ready in time to plant summer squash and cucumbers over the Memorial Day weekend. More specifically, I need to start digging if I want to plant them in a different place from last year.

And I do want to plant them in a different place. Most gardening experts advise rotating crop locations every year. Moving vegetables in the same family around the garden helps protect them from insects and diseases that can hunker down in the winter and lie in wait for the new season’s plantings. Given our problems with cucumber beetles, aphids, bacterial wilt and powdery mildew, it is worth the effort.

Many sources advise a four-year rotation. Because crop rotation also helps balance demands on the soil (heavy feeders one year, light feeders the next), the suggested schedule sometimes includes a season of so-called green manure (peas, buckwheat, winter rye, alfalfa) to replenish nutrients or a cover crop to stifle weeds. I love the concept even if we cannot afford to lose any planter space to vegetables we do not plan to eat.

Any separation of the rotating groups is beneficial but to be maximally effective, there should be as much distance as possible between the individual planting areas. I’ve seen recommendations of up to a quarter-mile. That sounds good for large-scale growers but a quarter of a mile from my garden is practically in the next county. We’re very limited by the space available to us.

So we do the best we can. We have two raised planters and each year we alternate what goes into them. Last year, we planted cucumbers behind the west planter; this year, we will move the cukes to a similar location behind the east planter. And after laying out a dozen mounds for squash, we only dug and planted half of them last year, in a staggered arrangement. This time around, we’ll plant the other six. The separation is not huge but it’s not zero, either.

Which leads me back to the digging. It’s not my favorite activity but when it is done, the garden will be in a better state (and I shouldn’t have to do it again next year).

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So, the melting has begun.  It is going slower than I expected, mainly because it remains very cold.  Even on a day as warm as today—with a high in the 50s expected—the snow only melts at the fringes of the still-covered areas, where solar radiation heats the pavement, or roof shingles, or exposed rocks, and the heat absorbed slowly conducts its way under the snow (snowpack melts mainly from its underside).  The few warms days we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy have been bracketed by nights with temperatures in the 10s and 20s.

As the drifts recede and the heaps shrink, the world is expanding again.  A month ago at the height (literally) of the season, we were hemmed in by a thick blanket of snow and the towering moraines left by snowplows and shovels.  Our narrow dirt road, constricted at the best of times, became truly one lane; passing a car in the other direction was tricky.  Simply walking around the house was impossible.  It was not necessarily an uncomfortable constraint—the minimized outdoor world was cozy in the way that a small room can be, or as cozy as snow can be, anyway—but it was very limiting.

Now the road is back to its normal width.  The stone walls that border it are again visible, as are the rocks that have fallen from them here or there.  Mileposts, “for sale” signs, political posters—most things shorter than four feet in height—have emerged from hiding even if they are somewhat the worse for wear, having been shoved around by unknowing snowplow drivers.  Indistinct white lumps in the lawn or on the patio have morphed back into landscaping boulders, chaise longues, and charcoal grills.  In the distance, the hills have lost their understory of white and the bare trees, once standing out in sharp contrast to the snow, have faded into a uniform brown background (we have few evergreen trees around here).

In short, the accessible environment is returning to its normal state.  Time to embrace the great outdoors again!

Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

Both the east and west planters are now completely occupied but we’re not done for the day.  This year we are thinking (and moving) outside the boxes and planting vegetables directly in the ground.

Yesterday, we removed the sod (see May 26, 2013) from the now-sunny area west of the west planter and covered it with mulch.  Today, we laid out the locations for the six mounds on which the squashes will grow.  A week ago, we had figured three-foot-diameter mounds spaced at three feet on center (see May 19, 2013) but looking at my sketch today, I noticed that I didn’t leave any walking space at the far end.

As I reconsidered the layout, I realized that because we are staggering the mounds, they can be spaced closer together.  We adjusted the west walkway from 2’-0” to 1’-9” and the spacing from 3’-0” to 2’-9” and were able to gain 1’-9” at the west end (I find the symmetry to be pleasantly reassuring).  This will be very helpful because the grade drops off steeply just beyond the garden area.

We extended a measuring tape along the ground longitudinally to form a baseline and then used a carpenter’s rule to measure the offsets in the short direction.  At the center of each mound, we pounded in a wooden stake.  After setting each stake, we checked our spacing both longitudinally and diagonally (we calculated that each mound should be about 3’-10 1/2” from its kitty-corner neighbor) and everything checked out.

When we got to the end, however, the final dimension looked a little short.  In fact, after measuring it I found that it was off by 3 inches.  In setting out the stakes, I had forgotten to reduce the first dimension (measuring twice doesn’t help if you are using the wrong number!).  We could have moved all of the stakes but decided that what we had was good enough.  Plus, having more clearance next to the planter is probably better than having symmetrical edges.

Next, we set our tape measure and rule to 18” and, placing one end against each stake, slowly rotated around it, removing the mulch to create a three-foot-diameter clearing.  We redistributed the mulch to the surrounding areas and were left with what looked like a small set of crop circles (we’ll keep an eye out for alien invaders).

Then, we dug.  Or, more accurately, we picked at the soil with shovels.  As I have noted many times before, the soil in this part of the yard is fill brought in during the pool renovation many years ago.  It is not of very high quality (from a gardening point of view) and is composed primarily of clay and rock.  Digging it is a slow, tedious project (the kind of task usually given to prison inmates).

After an hour of hacking away, each of us had dug one hole about 16 inches in diameter and six inches deep.  A large rock protruded into the hole I was digging and even with both of us working on it, we could not get it to budge; the squash plant who will live here will just have to work its roots around it.  Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we opted to plant these two locations and come back to the others later.

To fill the hole and create mounds (to elevate the plants above grade), we combined equal parts (roughly) of compost and peat moss, using the wheelbarrow as a mixing bowl.  I dumped the soil into the holes and Rachel formed it into mounds.  At the top of each mound, we dug a small hole into which we placed a summer squash seedling.

Finally, we covered the mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to helping the soil to retain moisture and discouraging the growth of weeds, the mulch should prevent the soil from washing away in a heavy rainfall (of which we can expect many over the course of the summer).

When I woke up this morning, my first thought was, I’m getting too old for this stuff.

Of course, this is not really true.  But I was tired and sore, especially in my hands and forearms, and I have to say that it is becoming increasingly difficult over time to muster the energy needed for intensely physical tasks such as sod removal.

We briefly considered taking the day off but then asked ourselves, if not today then when?  It would be much better to dive back in and get the job done now.  So, we headed back out to work around the west planter.

It was sunnier today and much warmer than yesterday.  We don’t always realize it, but the weather makes a big difference.  We had to work slower than yesterday and take breaks more frequently.

We managed to persevere, however, and after a couple of hours had removed the sod up to the west edge of the planter.  As we progressed from east to west, the grass petered out and weeds predominated.  Also, the soil became rockier and rockier.  Consequently, by the time we finished, the sod no longer came away in rolls.  Chunks the size of the spade’s blade were the largest we could pull up.

After the drudgery of digging, placing the mulch was enjoyable in comparison and by the early afternoon, we were done.  Well, mostly done.  At some point in the next few weeks, we will have to continue the sod removal to the west to make room for the squashes.  I’m not looking forward to the work but I am looking forward to being truly done with it.

And that’s a very good thing because eventually, we will be too old for this.

Having made a decision with which we are completely comfortable, we jumped right in to our paving project.  So, after a hearty breakfast this morning, we got started with the sod removal.  Auspiciously, the weather this weekend is forecast to be some of the nicest of the season so far.

We’ve done this before (see January 7, 2012 and January 8, 2012, for our most recent experiences) and I have a clear script for what is needed.  The first step was measuring out the perimeter of the area to be removed and cutting it with a spade.

Next, I divided the sod into manageable strips.  One foot wide by four feet long is about as large as I can lift.  Even if I could lift larger pieces, it would be difficult to prevent them from falling apart.  I expect that sod farms have specialized equipment for handling bigger and longer rolls of sod; all I have is a spade and a wheelbarrow.

Getting the first strip of sod out is a bit like serving the first piece from a pie.  I had to gradually work the spade under one edge until I got enough leverage to pry it up (and like that first slice of pie, it got broken up at the edge).  At that point, Rachel could start rolling the strip (this is a two-person activity).  She continued rolling as I jabbed the spade underneath it horizontally to free it from the ground.

The only part of this process I like is the compact roll of sod that results (a four foot strip of sod makes a cylinder about one foot in diameter).  I muscled it into the wheelbarrow and when we had repeated the operation, carted the sod to a storage area.  I may use some of it to fill in gaps in the lawn but if we do not get to it (very likely), the sod will eventually dissolve in the rain.

After half an hour, we had cleared away eight square feet of grass (and not a few weeds and rocks).  But now that we were warmed up, our pace increased and by lunch time, we had removed the sod from three sides of the east planter (a total of 68 sq. ft.).  The temperature had also warmed up, however, and we decided to stop there.

We broke for lunch and when we resumed work, I used a steel rake to scrape the exposed soil level and shoveled out the excess (along with many more rocks).  Then, I dumped in several bags of brown cedar mulch.  I used the rake to smooth it out and to complete the operation, Rachel compacted it with a cast iron tamper.

I know that some people would have recommended that we put down a weed barrier between the soil and the mulch to prevent the inevitable return of dandelions, purslane and all of the other undesirable plants (not to mention the grass) and we did consider it.  But in my experience, these barriers are ineffective, especially at the joints, and often bunch up and become exposed.  When the weeds come back, we will pull them out.

We are very satisfied with the look of the mulch and love its soft feel under the feet.  We know that it will fade over time and that some will eventually blow away (and into the pool).  Fortunately, it can be easily be replenished.  And, if we later decide the mulch isn’t working, we can shovel it out and use it in the ornamental gardens.

One of the must-see attractions on Maui is Haleakala National Park, the site of a dormant volcano at the center of the island.  A popular itinerary involves driving to the summit before dawn, catching the first rays of the rising sun (well before it reaches sea level, 10,000 feet below) and then cycling down the narrow, windy park road to a well-earned breakfast.

We wanted to see the park again this trip but even the idea of getting up in the dark held no appeal.  After consulting with our friends, we decided to go there for sunset instead.  This allowed them to spend the morning on the beach (while we were exploring the Dragon’s Teeth Labyrinth; see February 26, 2013) before we met in the early afternoon to drive up to the park.  On the way, we planned to stop by the Surfing Goat Dairy and the Alii Kula Lavender Farm.

To make part of a long story short (unusual for me, I know), the goat farm was less than exciting (to be fair, we did not take the tour) and the lavender farm was just closing when we arrived there at 4:00 pm.  But the weather was beautiful and because our friends had rented a convertible, we were able to enjoy the drive with the top down.  Getting there was at least half the fun.

It was late in the afternoon as we started up Highway 378 towards the park entrance.  As we climbed in elevation, the air grew cooler and, eventually, we had to put the top back up (convertibles work well for the driver and front-seat passenger; for those in the back seat, the effects of weather are amplified by the fast-moving air).  When we were still a few miles away, we entered the clouds that seem always to cling to the upper slopes of the mountain.

The entrance to the park is at about 7000 feet of elevation (for reference, this is the same as Donner Pass and Echo Summit, the two main highway crossings through the Sierra Nevada).  When we finally arrived, we were deep into the clouds; it was rainy and dark with passing squalls.  In this weather, sunset would not be visible and we weren’t sure we wanted to go on.  But the informational signage kindly provided by the National Park Service reminded us that conditions at the top are often different from those at lower elevations.  Encouraged, we paid our fee ($10) and proceeded.

We had forgotten two things from our previous visit to Haleakala (for sunrise) in 1989.  First, the summit is a long way from the park entrance:  about 10 miles of narrow, windy road and another 3000 feet of elevation.  Reaching the park entrance gave me the feeling of having arrived but we still had another half-hour of traveling ahead of us.  Getting there might turn out to be more than half the fun.

At about 9000 feet of elevation, we popped out of the clouds—like an airplane reaching cruising altitude after taking off on an overcast day—and into the sunshine.  It was an exhilarating experience.  The summit is above the tree line (in truth, not much else grows up here) and the terrain is otherworldly.  The rocky terrain and absence of vegetation makes me think of photos of Mars and being above the clouds adds to the sense of being in a place not exactly of the earth.  It felt more like being on the edge of an adjacent planet, looking down over the clouds at the ocean and low-lying lands of Earth below.

The second thing we had forgotten about the summit is that it is cold up there!  The ambient temperature was a brisk 40 degrees and with wind chill taken into account, the effective temperature was well below freezing.  It made taking photographs difficult.  None of us had brought appropriate gear and so, with an hour left until sunset, we opted to head back down the mountain and enjoy it from a lower—and warmer—elevation.

Believe it or not (I’m not sure I did), we still had not replanted all of the Siberian irises after our last root-dividing session (see September 15, 2012).  There is no more room in the ornamental garden and after scouting around (again) for suitable new locations, I ended up back at the strip of weeds next to the stone wall where we replanted some irises two weeks ago.  Clearly, this was the place for them.

After two hours of labor that can be summed up by a single punctuated word—rocks!—we are finally finished with the Siberian irises.  When combined with the bearded irises, which we received from friends in exchange for a share of our Siberian ones and which we planted near the patio two weeks ago, we have done everything we need to do with irises for the next few years.

Now, if I was a more conscientious and energetic gardener, I would move on to the lilies and hostas, both of which could benefit from the same treatment we gave the irises.  But I’m not (and am feeling lazy) so they will have to wait.  Maybe next year…