Monday, July 14, 2008

Before the rain

The forecast for Monday morning was for scattered showers, which translated into a slow drizzle all day long. Not many people's ideal weather--but it is for gardeners. Let me count the ways: 1) I live in Virginia, and on an average summer day, I get up at dawn so I can get in a couple of hours before the heat & bugs drive me inside at 8 a.m., maybe 9 if the bugs have been out late the night before. Drizzly days tend to cool things down into the 80's, and the bugs get all wet and heavy and can't fly up and bite me (that has not been proven scientifically, but I believe it to be the case). 2) Despite the fact that drizzly days are humid, you only notice the humidity until the drizzle starts, at which point you get a much needed shower without actually having to go inside. 3) Drizzle is good for plants, which is why British gardeners have an unfair advantage, not that there's a contest, but they do seem to write WAY more gardening books per capita, no? and don't get me started on what they call things . . . well, that will be a different post (mostly kidding--I'm an Englishgardenphile).

It turned into a day of little surprises. This first one has nothing to do with the rest of the post--I walked outside, a cup of coffee short of competence, and found what I at first thought was mold on the lilac by the back deck:

I'm not very good at identifying fauna yet--I have books on plants and birds of Virginia, but not on other animals. So I don't know what kind of frog this is, or whether it's a baby frog (I know about tadpoles, but I figure there's some point at which a baby frog is smaller than its parents) or a very small grownup frog. But it's precious--another joy of gardening.

And so I finished my coffee and admired the frog, and then Salix informed me (because he watches the news, someone in the household has to) that it was going to rain all day. So I said to Ranunculus, "back to the front garden before the rain starts!," and Ranunculus said, "Raoul." We still don't know who Raoul is--we adopted Ranunculus at 9 months not knowing anything about his past--but he mentions Raoul often. Assuming Ranunculus's comment was a non-sequitur, I grabbed my kit--two shovels (one flat, one for transplanting), a wheelbarrow, a little rake, a weeder, a soil scoop, and bags of peat moss, top soil, and humus--and headed to the front.

When we bought the house, the previous owner had put his vegetable garden in the front yard and set up a deer fence around it. The front yard was divided, just outside the front door, by a split-rail fence supported by 4x4's, along which an electrified wire ran. We want to open up the yard, but the 4x4 supports for the former fence still bisect the area in front of the house.

Beyond the vegetable garden, the fence ended but the electrified wire continued, forming a barrier about 30 yards out around most of the house. We didn't love the deer fence. Although it provided my at-the-time-teen-aged son and his friends inexplicable entertainment, it didn't deter the deer much, and since it was hell on my big dogs, we shut it down quickly. (It did come to our rescue during the hurricane--our insurance company, who grew tenfold in my estimation that day, declared the electric wire to be a fence, and thus paid us for every tree that knocked down a piece of wire. I'm not always a fan of big business, but in this case, the human element came through, which gave us the cash to have the huge fallen trees taken out of the yard). But the wire that carries the charge from the house to the deer fence is buried beneath two 4x4's by the front porch, which presents a problem in the front yard--Salix doesn't want to damage the wiring system (in the event that future residents want the deer fence, perhaps as their bulwark against hurricane damage, since the deer just jump over/duck under it). Respecting the wishes of Salix, we're left with two approximately 4' high pieces of 4x4 sticking up where a fence used to be, right outside the front door. Here's Ranunculus between the 2 posts in question--I'm working on the one to the right of the picture.

Another surprise (and another digression): Ranunculus, who frequently teaches himself new tricks, has taught himself to have his picture taken. Best as I can figure, this is what has happened. Whenever he has to sit or stay for no apparent reason (like, no one's just walked in the front door or no animal he might chase is in sight), he knows he's doing a trick and so he expects a treat. Ranunculus has to this point been camera shy, so we've had to make him sit or stay if we wanted a picture--and then he'd get a treat. With all the pictures I've been taking since I started this blog, I think Ranunculus has figured out "she's got that little silver thing again--TREAT!" So he has now started inserting himself in photos voluntarily--one might say aggressively--and then, once he hears "whirr, click," he's pawing at the door asking for his reward. Here he is again as I tried to take a photo from the other side of the posts--he might be posing.

Anyway, I hope that behind Ranunculus-looking-philosophical you can see a further complication to our opening up the yard--when there was a fence, we planted along it. Assuming in the early days that we'd always have the fence, I planted baptisia as a background plant--I'm pretty sure mine is baptisia australis; I picked it up at the Virginia Living Museum native plant sale years ago. It never did well at my former house, but I transplanted it here (a huge gamble with baptisia, which roots deeply and firmly and really resents being moved), and after an awful first year, it came into its own. And I'm not moving it again, even if it is now in the middle of what I envision as an open space. Fortunately for my marriage, it's right next to one of the 4x4's that Salix wants left as is.

So here's my idea--the kind of idea that makes the Garden Curmudgeon roll his eyes and that will probably end up some day soon on the wrong side of his "Do's and Don'ts" page--I'm going to plant a little island around each of the posts (the GC would say, take the post and wiring out and do this right--and that's sound advice--but I often don't heed sound advice, and Salix wants to leave the electrical set up intact). And this little spot has potential--there are among the baptisia little volunteers from the perennial bed we moved last year: purple coneflower, coreopsis "Moonbeam," a little bit of achillea millefolium, and some crocosmia. I also needed to plant a small barberry volunteer that I potted up in late spring because it was dying where it was (don't know if it's going to make it, but there are other barberry shrubs thriving adjacent to it), and I had to transplant a little crepe myrtle that was overrun by other plants and wasn't getting enough sun. As other bloggers have pointed out, mid-July is not an ideal time to plant. But the weather is going to be cooler for a few days, it was drizzling (a.k.a. all day gentle watering), and the summer is the only time I have to do these more complicated projects. So Ranunculus and I went to work.

The area was very weedy--it's been untended for almost a year--and typically in preparing a bed I would scrape the top 3" or so of grass and use it to fill in holes from the hurricane. But among the weeds here I found lots of little surpises: mostly baby coneflower and baptisia.

Most of the baptisia will stay where it is. But it can be moved when it's this small (though even at this size the root is surprising)--I use a daffodil planter to take up the plant with root intact, and if I want to give it to a friend, I put it in a peat pot so they can rip off the bottom and just stick the whole thing in the ground. The plant also grows well from the lovely seed pods that form this time of year:

And so I hand weeded everywhere except where I was planting the crepe myrtle and the barberry. For those, I dug a nice deep hole, about 3x the breadth of the plant and depth of the root ball. I dig until I hit the really hard clay, and then I get my digging stick and break up another six inches (no photos here, it's not pretty!) and take that out, and then I break up another six inches and mix that with leaf mold. Then I fill in with my mix of 2 parts top soil to 1 part humus to 1 part peat--and hope the plants have a comfortable bed in which to spread their roots. Fortunately, they were smallish plants--suffice it to say I won't need a workout for a day or two, though I will need to get some more humus.

As I was digging, I hit another victim of the hurricane (or maybe of my benign neglect since then)--the walk leading up to the house. I uncovered five slabs from the walkway buried beneath a few inches of dirt.

That gave me an idea about how to mark off the island. We have a lot of small rocks, I suppose left from an unfinished project before we moved in--I haven't raised this bed much, so I just need something to let Salix know where he can't mow. The rocks look similar to the slabs in the walkway, so I'm going to use them to mark off the perimeter of the island, and then move some of the thyme that's spreading all over the front yard into the crevices between the rocks. Salix can mow the thyme without hurting it, and it in turn helps keep the grass from growing into the bed.

So here's what I'd finished on Tuesday--not much now, but I think it will be pretty as the shrubs establish themsleves and the flowers grow a bit with the better dirt. Then another surprise entered the equation--about eight feet from where I was digging is an old blue bird house. We have bluebirds in the back, but no birds have ever moved into this house--we figured it was too close to the front door. That is, until I started working on this bed. It's pretty late for bluebirds to be nesting, but this one is determined to move in, and he chatters at me incessantly as I water the new plantings (I tried to get photo of him, but I can't get close enough with my camera). I don't want to bother him too much, so except for the watering--which will need to be daily for a week or so--I'm going to stay out of the front yard until he decides what to do. He's a nice surprise, and there's plenty to do in the back.


Les, Zone 8a said...

... and boy did it rain for us. We got about an inch at work in Suffolk and about the same at home in Norfolk. I am glad that I don't have to fight deer or biting bugs, at least not anything but a few mosquitoes. I do have a crazy neighbor who breaks branches and steals plants, but since I called the cops on her the second time, she is sticking to her own yard. Good luck with your 4x4s.

Gail said...

Wonderful read...this morning as I was planning where to put this one lovely monarda or when I dug up a peony bush that had to be moved... it would be killed by construction of a new mailbox... I thought July is not a good time to plant, but sometimes we have to! it will require extra care but...

Sometimes we have givens and the 4x4s are givens in this case!

I like lining beds with stone...yours looks good.


Lisa said...

Hey, check it out. Was the group shot taken before we got there?

Eve said...

I enjoyed reading your blog. I am having trouble with rabbits right now and I guess little fences will have to go up if I want to keep any veggies. They don't bother the plants in my yard though, so far.

Roses and Lilacs said...

Hi Cosmo. Did you put the bluebird house on the post? That's what I was thinking from the beginning would be nice on the post. And a climbing vine like clematis or maybe an annual vine. I think the little island will be very pretty.

Cosmo said...

So, Les, one nice thing about living in the country is that we're pretty far from crazy neighbors--I suppose cops WOULD be the best repellent. I like the idea of "givens," Gail--the impetus for some creative thinking (not sure how creative I'll be, but . . .) I AM going to put something on the posts--maybe some solar-powered lanterns since they're on the walk to the porch. I like the idea of a vine--are there clematis that stay kind of short, Marnie? And Eve, I wish you luck with your bunnies--we haven't had any until this year, and suddenly there are four or five--I guess a family moved in. The Liquid Fence has get them in the grass (fingers crossed!)

Rose said...

I think you've done a great job, Cosmo, of working around obstacles. I've found my husband often doesn't want to move things around, and if I had to wait on him to complete something, it might be ten years before I was able to plant! I think your islands look great.
Ranunculus can pose for any picture he wants--he's quite a handsome fellow!

By the way, if you're still teaching, I can understand totally why now is when you have the time to garden, not this fall:)

Cosmo said...

Hi, Rose--Ranunculus says, "You're too kind"--though it sounded like "Raoul."

I am still teaching, which is a gardening double-edged sword (is that the right metaphor?)--I have lots of free time, but NONE in late Spring or early Fall, prime time for gardeners. But life is still good.

Were you an English teacher by chance? Just guessing from your reading list.

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