September 23, 2011

The Second Stone Wall

The second stone wall is all but finished. I only have about two feet left on the far side. I would like to see if I can make it a bit taller, but I am starting to run out of rocks and still have another wall to build. This one was considerably harder than the first wall for several reasons. First, I had to dig into the steep hill to set the wall, whereas the first was just set on relatively level ground. Second, I had to work under the low branches of the big tree. Bad for posture for carrying rocks. And third, the far side is covered with small rocks, about 4" diameter, which cause a landslide every time I dig out a path for the wall.

I figure I can finish this one with another hour of work, so hopefully by tomorrow. Once the wall is finished, I can back-fill it and start digging the path for the final wall.

September 22, 2011

Constructing a New Vegetable Garden Bed

I've been thinking for a while about expanding my vegetable garden. Things have gone so well the last two years I'd love to have more room to try more veggies. Today I constructed the perimeter of the bed. I used 2x6 redwood. The short ends are 4-foot lengths and the long ends are two 6-foot lengths end-to-end. I put a cross brace at the joint to keep it from bowing, and sealed every joint with metal braces suitable for outdoor use. I am quite happy with how it came out.

The next steps will be to remove all the landscape stone from the inside, see if I can get the ground level underneath the wood, start filling it with roughly a 50/50 mix of garden soil and compost, and then constructing the net. Some may think the net is unnecessary, but I don't want my veggie garden serving as a litter box for the neighbor's cat like it was last winter. Finally, if possible, I'd like to scavenge some earthworms I found in the back yard and add them to the mix.

At the end of this season, I will move the two existing 3'x3' beds to the lower tier and consider putting some berry plants in them (my attempt with raspberry failed miserably this year, as I couldn't get the bare-root plants to take to the pots). I have heard it is best to keep fruits and vegetables separate.

I preparation for the new expanded garden, I bought new seeds. In the spring, I will be adding corn, snap peas, green onion, watermelon, spinach, and celery. This fall, I will be planting garlic.

September 15, 2011

Rain Delay

In New Mexico, we have five seasons. Winter, spring, fire, monsoon, and autumn. I live in the mountains at 7300ft altitute, so we actually get a reasonable amount of snow during the winter. In spring, we get very little precipitation for months. Everything dries out. This is fire season, when wildfires are common. This past year, we got so little snow things dried out even more and earlier than usual. There were no fewer than eight wildfires state-wide at one time being tracked by the media, and who knows how many smaller ones.

And then, sometime in July, the skies open up. We get rain nearly every afternoon. Sometimes for only a few minutes, sometimes for half a day. During August, the forecast is 85 degrees with a 30-40% chance of rain. Every day. You can imagine the moisture roller coaster plants around here put up with. This is why it is very important to me to plant only native plants if at all possible. They can already deal with it.

This is where we are now. While the thunderstorms are more common in the afternoon, it does occasionally rain in the morning or during the night. Last week was a great week for working outside. It is starting to get cooler, 60s and 70s. With two small kids, I can only do yardwork while the older is in preschool and the younger is napping, which limits me to an hour and a half three times a week. (Yes, I tried letting my preschooler "help," but with the stone wall I'm working on it is way too risky for broken ankles. She does like to help in the vegetable garden, though.) Nevertheless, I managed to finish that first wall in a week. I really, really wanted to have the second one done this week, but it has been raining the last three mornings in a row. This is great for the plants and all, but not so much for digging in the dirt and lugging rocks around. However, it will be good to see if the first wall will hold up to the water, especially where I back-filled it.

My plan is to get these last two walls in place before winter sets in, or it gets too cold to work outside.

September 8, 2011

Vegetable Garden, Take Two

How can I improve upon last year's garden? Double it. I devoted one 3'x3' raised bed (with insect net, not shown) to red bell peppers and three varieties of tomato (regular, Roma, and grape). In the other, I put the broccoli, lettuce (with more varieties), carrots (with more varieties), and cucumber. I tried the potatoes in the bag again.

This time, the potatoes grew! I got just under a pound, which isn't much but is sure an improvement over last year. The broccoli was huge again, and the tomato plants are trying to push out of the net. The pepper plant is still small but producing a few specimens. I didn't get many lettuce plants or carrots, considering how many seeds I planted. So far I have only harvested the potatoes and broccoli and a few tomatoes.

What is the plan for next year? I want to make my own raised bed, 4'x11', basically covering that whole area. Ambitious, perhaps. But the last two years have shown me that it is at least possible, even for me.

My First Garden - With Plants

As much as I like the simple stone xeriscaping, my side yard was rather barren. But my track record with plants is so miserable I wanted to start small. I had a young daughter at the time (2010), so I thought, what a great project it would be to start a vegetable garden! So I did a little research and found some supplies, such as the 3'x3' raised bed with snug-fitting critter net and potato bag. I filled the bed and bag with a 50/50 combo of compost (purchased, I'm not a green thumb yet, you know) and topsoil (didn't know at the time that they made "garden soil," too). I also bought a seed-starting tray with convenient cover to keep the cats out.

Look! Things are actually growing! Can this really be this easy? I planted broccoli, lettuce, carrots, onions, zucchini, red bell peppers, tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, and Yukon gold potatoes. I made sure to water them every day, added some fertilizer once or twice, and soon ended up with this:

Only the zucchini and potatoes never grew. The pepper plant grew but not much and I never got any peppers from it. And the onions never got very big. But the tomato plants grew past the top of the supports, the broccoli was huge (guess that's why the variety I planted is called "green Goliath"). It's what I call a successful first try!

So successful, that I decided to add a second raised bed this year.

The First Stone Wall

Remember all the rocks I dumped down the back hill? This is where they are ending up.

This wall is approximately 40 feet long. Surprisingly it only took me three mornings working on it. Admittedly I didn't put in as much site prep as I did with the bricks. I'm happy with how it came out, but the true test will be when I start back-filling it. I think I'll take the weekend off and start the second wall on Monday.

Final Touches

I want a yard that is easy to take care of, so it really works out that I live in the high desert southwest (northern New Mexico). With an annual rainfall under 20 inches, an average of only five days per year where the sun doesn't shine at all, and an altitude of 7200 feet, our climate is challenging. The best landscaping is called xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is simply using native plants in your garden. Native plants are already acclimated, they don't require any additional water (a big plus in the desert), and they don't need any special care.

For an area like this, that also means no Kentucky blue grass. (Fine by me, as that stuff is hard to take care of even in wetter climates.) So what do we do with our yards? Unless you really want a lawn, use stone.

For the side yard here, I laid down a layer of the same weed cloth I used under the path. It's called Roc-Kloth, made durable enough to be used under pavers and stone. I used river pebbles for their smoothness. In the photo, you can tell I didn't buy enough. The goal is to have those wood guides along the paths completely covered. Lessons learned, I guess. Because of this landscaping, I haven't had a single weed since I finished two years ago. The whole process took me three years to complete to this point.

That black box on the upper tier is the next part of the story.

The Path

After building the stairs, I had to connect them. Using the same, irregularly-shaped pavers I used for the stairs, I carefully constructed a path. I used a weed-cloth underneath leveling sand to ensure no weeds growing between the pavers. It is really important to me to have a really low-maintenance yard.

A Way to Get In

Having not thought out my entire project before I started it, I had to take down part of the walls before building the stairs. I chose bricks that were two inches shorter than the wall bricks, and two-inch-thick pavers to place on top. Sealed with landscape caulking so they'll never, ever move, I re-built the wall over the edges and had a decent looking and working set of stairs. Presto! It wasn't any more difficult than building the wall, perhaps easier because the bricks weren't as heavy.

Making the Decision

Deciding what to do with the back yard has been the biggest problem of all. I originally wanted to put in a similar tier system with the same bricks as the side yard, but that would have cost over $2000 in material alone, not even counting any plants. So I sat here, year after year, staring at an ugly mess of a steep hill with no idea of what to do with it. I can't even take a picture of it from the house because it is at such a steep angle. The photograph below shows the hill from the bottom with the one rather large tree (which I kind of like, and the hummingbirds love), the cascade of rocks where I dumped them, and the general messiness that I can no longer stand. The hill ends at the bottom in a chain-link fence, but continues beyond that into a small canyon with a stream. Deer live in the canyon and sometimes come into my yard looking for food.

So what is the plan? Instead of spending crazy amounts of money using nice bricks when I already have stone - free - I'm building the tiers out of stone. It seems like the obvious solution, I know, but I resisted it for a long time. The stone wall also plays into the rest of my plan: I'm building a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

There are four parts to creating a certified wildlife habitat. The animals, large or small, need food, water, shelter, and a place to bear and raise their young. My back yard will focus on butterflies and hummingbirds, but I will also be sure to include some plants the deer like to eat. But first, I need to get the soil level by building these walls!

Out With the Old, In With the New

In order to explain better where I am now, I want to write about the first part of my landscaping/gardening project. In the summer of 2007, I decided I had had enough of the ugly side yard with the constant supply of weeds. I wish I had a "before" shot of the stone walls. They went all the way across, with no stairs or easy access to the lower tiers. I wanted something that looked decent, was easy to put together myself, and had stairs. (Actually, the stairs were an afterthought - I originally wanted to put in a ramp. Ha! Stairs are actually easier.)

The stone walls were massive. It took a few months of working during my daughter's naptime, driving a sledgehammer to break up the rocks, wheeling them over and dumping them down the back yard hill. Then, one 63-pound brick at a time, I built the rampart walls. Yes it was hard work. But it was also fulfilling work because I had something nice to show for it.

That is the story of how I ended up with a ton (or more) of giant rocks strewn about the back hill, where I am working now. I will continue the story of the side yard in future posts.

A Little Introduction

I wanted to name this blog "The Black Thumb Gardener," or something along that nature. But that blog name was already taken.

My past experience with plants has been dismal, to say the least. I killed a cactus once by underwatering it. My house has no plants in it, partly because of me and partly because my cats would eat them. The only plant I ever managed to keep alive was a schefflera. I don't know how it survived, frankly, because I only remembered to water it when it was starting to droop. I was able to keep the cats out of it, but my daughter (four years old at the time) pulled the leaves off.

I should also add that I hate insects and getting my hands dirty.

I live in the Jemez mountains of New Mexico. Land that comes with a house is small and expensive. A typical plot is a fraction of an acre. When my husband and I bought our current house, a townhouse connected to our neighbors on both sides, the side yard had two stone wall terraces and some flowering plants. The back yard is a steep hill that leads to a small canyon. There was a rough stone-outlined "garden" with some more flowering plants, and small lawn above that next to the house. It was not pretty, but I thought oh, boy, I can do whatever I want with this yard!

Well, you can imagine. For the first two years (and I have an excuse - I was pregnant the first summer and had a baby the second summer), the yards did nothing but gather weeds. I'd go out and pull them now and then, but they kept coming back. The following year, when the weeds were so bad we had an infestation of grasshoppers, I decided I'd had enough. In future posts I will show what I did with the side yard to make it respectable and completely weed-free. And now that I've decided what to do with the back yard, I wanted to start this blog to document my progress and to show that even for the non-gardener, a decent garden is possible.