Bring on the Spring!

south side of houseI am so ready for spring.  I can’t stop garden planning and I’m ready to run out and start DOING things if only it would be warm & dry for two days in a row (don’t want to overly compact the soil).  I also need to spend a little time creating a [sigh] budget.  I wish I were either fabulously wealthy or super skilled at transforming society’s garbage into useful structures like trellises and fences and grape arbors and outdoor showers.  But as I am neither, I have to prioritize and I’m having trouble.

So right now I’m focusing on one of my ideas that doesn’t need to be implemented just yet: planting some vines to help shade our south-facing window.  It has been lovely to have this winter (although I might try to beef up our curtains next year with some thicker insulating fabric for night time protection) but in a couple of months we’ll shift gears to keeping heat OUT of our house and this year I’d like to do it with plants.  We already have some trumpet creeper vine that grows all over the front porch railing so I think with a few well-placed structures we can coax it into a window-shading growth pattern.  Hmmm, that sounds a bit like some sort of nasty disease but I mean my goal is to have the vines grow up and over the porch to keep out the sun but I also want to maintain a view from the window to the garden plus it would be nice to have sun on part of the porch for my solar cooker.

There’s also the design challenge that our porch already has a roof overhang that is relatively low (like the ceilings in our house, about 7.5 feet).  There isn’t a good place to hang brackets to suspend wires, as suggested in the Carbon-Free Home, and I’m afraid if I put any sort of pergola on the porch it would feel really low (especially if the plants sagged at all).

front_of_house_trellis_sketch_croppedSo here’s what I’ve come up with (as translated with my crude drawing skills).  On the left is a trellis that would run east-west, creating a truly shady spot in front of our front door.  On the right is a trellis that would run north-south (perpendicular to the house), nestled in the corner next to the stairs.  I would connect them with 4 or 5 wires running parallel to the roof overhang, where vines could grow and help shade out the noontime sun but leave the southeast corner of the porch uncovered so I could set up my solar cooker.

Next step: Life-size mockups with giant pieces of cardboard lurking in my garage and some leftover bits of kite string.  I think there’s a good chance this set up might be a little too low for comfort, although we might not know for sure until we grow some vines and see how dangly they are…  But you know we’re game for experiments!

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Using Energy for Good

Seed Starting ShelvesSo we signed up for the SIREN Energy Challenge and have been trying to figure out where we use electricity and how we can cut back, which means Will is running around using his Killowatt on everything.  At the same time, I am planning my garden for spring and also thinking about how we will take advantage of the summer bounty.  My dad helped me set up a seed starting system with three shelves of fluorescent lights and I’m trying to talk Will into getting a chest freezer so we can store the summer’s vegetables but all he can think about is the increased electrical consumption.

It’s a tough balance!  We have managed to cut down on our natural gas consumption this winter despite unusually low temperatures.  I hope it’s from our vigilant caulking or perhaps our installation of a homemade insulating curtain over the window by our bed.  Still, our electrical use seems relatively high even after replacing our water heater (which we thought was wasting a lot of electricity).  The two main suspects right now are our refrigerator and our laptops.  Laptops are more energy efficient than desktops but we both do use our computers quite a bit since we mostly work from home and we also use Will’s laptop for much of our TV and movie viewing.

I think we’re getting close to the point where we can’t cut much more energy use without major changes to our standard of living.  I also think that it’s reasonable to use electricity for food production and storage, since homegrown food has other benefits in the form of increased nutrition, lower grocery bills, higher assurance of organic quality, and reduced transportation of food.  Still, it’s always tough to evaluate all the pros and cons and I know for now much of my lobbying is based on the fact that I’m super excited about gardening.

Did you know it’s not too early to start planting seeds indoors, even though it’s freaking cold outside here in Indiana?  I am ready to plant onions, kale, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage so I have nice fat seedlings ready to transplant when the ground thaws in March.  (All those except Brussel sprouts are available through Nature’s Crossroads and I’m enjoying the employee discount on seeds very much.)  I suspect this will be another year when I bite off more gardening tasks than I can keep up with but I’m really hoping this will be the year that I feel like I mostly get it.  Of course, there’s always more to learn so I won’t be too upset if I face a few more garden disasters…

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Autumn Means Back to Blogging

Saffron Eating Peanut ButterI can feel autumn in the air.  We had an unusually cool summer and didn’t end up doing much of the usual summer swimming and popsicle eating but now the city is bustling with students on their way back to school.  I feel the urge to stock up on school supplies, despite having graduated from college nearly a decade ago.

Will and I intend to use that going-back-to-school energy to wrap up a couple green living projects this fall before winter sets in.  Our top priority is the roof.  It could probably last another year but we want to replace it with a metal roof, add a bunch of attic insulation, and finally install the solartube we purchased months ago to add light to our kitchen.  We’d also like to build a passive solar air heater and get it installed but that one we’d have to do ourselves, which feels a bit more challenging.  Despite having completed a few construction projects around the house, I still feel like my carpentry skills are limited and am nervous about putting holes through our wall…

The project I’m most excited about is adding in some more edible landscaping features.  We finally created a reasonably accurate map of the yard (look for a post next week) so we can figure out where new plantings can be added.  Our friends at Brambleberry Farm have a number of fruit trees and bushes that they suggest we could plant this fall to get a head start for next year.  I’m also contemplating putting in a mediation labyrinth of flower bulbs but that one might have to wait until next year.

And, of course, we also intend to return to our regular twice weekly blogging schedule.  Sometimes posting to the blog can seem like one more chore to deal with but it’s also a great way for us to constantly evaluate our progress and keep living well.  We’ve done a lot since we started this blog, including some big life steps like getting married, buying a house, and adopting a dog.  It’s exciting to find new ways of greening our lives and enjoying the simple pleasures of life.  Blogging is just one little way to share our stories and to motivate ourselves to keep improving.

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gardening anxiety

HELP!  My friends are gearing up to start seedlings for their gardens and I haven’t even ordered my seeds!!

Okay, I know, it’s still February.  Indiana may have taunted us with 60 degree weather but it didn’t last.  Still, I feel like the pressure is on to get planning in the garden.

If you were going to plant five vegetables and two fruits, what would you grow?

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Gardening in the Snow

Our garden and shedWe had our first little snowstorm today.  Well, it didn’t stick so I don’t know if it counts but Kelly (our foster dog) sure was bewildered.  Okay, only for about thirty seconds and then she started eating it in the shadowy places where it kinda stuck.  I spent part of the morning reading a book on companion gardening and watching the snow out the window.  It’s a bit frustrating to get excited about gardening on a blustery day.

Luckily, the weather was fair this weekend so we found time to clean our gutters and rake up leaves.  We piled a bunch of leaves on the garden plot to become mulch for next season.  It doesn’t look that impressive in the picture but our garden plot is probably 10′ x 12′ and has about a foot of leaves piled up.  It’s no mini-farm but I’m a little overwhelmed thinking about what to plant and how to manage it all.

Overwhelmed and excited!  I want to have a beautiful garden bursting with tasty food and this place is going to be great for growing.  My only concern is that we’re dealing with heavy clay soils, a common feature of Monroe County.  The garden plot soil needs a lot of TLC and by TLC I mean organic matter.  The leaves are a great start but they have a pretty high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.  I need to find a good source of nitrogen.  Composted horse manure would be awesome but the only sources I can find are haul-it-yourself, which doesn’t seem feasible in a Mazda Protege.   Food scraps tend to have a lot of nitrogen but I’m pretty sure putting them out on my garden plot would invite an impressive assortment of wild and feral animals to come strew bits all over the neighborhood.

I’m thinking maybe coffee grinds.  We don’t drink coffee but there are about a gazillion coffee shops in Bloomington and I hear coffee grinds are pretty easy to come by and full of nutrition.  I suspect they might encourage hyperactive plants but I guess maybe that’s a good thing?  I’m still debating the ethics of accepting coffee grounds from Starbucks; can I feel good about collecting waste from someplace that I don’t shop?  I had the same internal dilemma about whether or not to collect used vegetable oil from McDonalds for my greasecar but I think in the end, recycling anybody’s waste is a net boon to the world.

Next up: plant selection.  Garden catalogs, here I come!

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The Perfect Garden

It’s raining today and I’m thinking about gardens.  Often when I think about gardens I think about vegetables and all the good things I could grow to eat.  Today I’m thinking about a different kind of garden, a garden that draws people outside and invites them to enjoy the out-of-doors.  I’ve been reading a lot of landscape and garden design books lately in preparation for designing a new look for our yard, for helping design a courtyard garden at a local school, and for starting a business creating beautiful vegetable gardens for paying customers.

There’s a lot to learn!  I believe my biggest challenge will be improving my drawing skills to a point where I can communicate my ideas on paper.  Both my grandmothers were fantastic painters so I keep waiting for those artistic genes to kick in but right now I’m still at the stick figure level.  I especially want to learn how to draw good maps and plans.  I love sketches of neighborhoods or houses or landscapes – even more so when they show how to change a somewhat drab building or yard into a fantasy wonderland.

I’m also anxious to get started so part of me is ready to jump in and start making changes without worrying too much about the plan.  I have dreams of creating a large mosaic welcoming path but I know it will take a lot of work so in the meantime I’m looking around at elements that would be easy to install.  Will keeps suggesting we purchase a concrete hippo for the front yard but I think we should start with a garden gate, or perhaps a bridge.  Something to add a little mystique, a little invitation to walk through.

Where do you find inspiration for your perfect garden?

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Summer Gardening Thoughts

Riesenstraube Cherry TomatoesAugust is rapidly approaching and the summer harvest bounty is rolling in.  Alas, my gardening efforts this year have been pretty minimal.  I planted a pot with three Riesenstraube cherry tomato plants and two bigger pots with some sort of hybrid variety that Mike gave me that are supposed to taste like grapes.  I’m still a bit befuddled as to why anyone would develop tomatoes that taste like grapes but I am also intrigued.  The Riesenstraubes started to form fruit last week but then they went unwatered for three days…  I believe they’ll recover but it’s going to be a late harvest.

Luckily for me, my mom is leaving town right as her garden goes into overload so I should have tomatoes, cucumbers, and green beans coming out my ears.  I’ll probably stock up at the farmers’ market as well and see if I can “put away” some tomato sauce, green beans, fresh corn, and whatever else looks good.  (BLUEBERRIES!)  Last year I canned some pickles and some applesauce but this year I think I’ll focus on freezing because I’m lazy.

My mom had a garden for a long time while I was growing up as well as several fruit trees.  We even had some grape vines although mostly it was just an area of the yard where you were likely to get attacked by bees.  As we grew older, the garden became less important.  I think it was a combination of being busier and having more disposable income.  Well, that and the fact that the white pines along our property line grew into towering giants, shading the garden pretty thoroughly.

So a couple years ago, when I had moved back home (for the fourth time?  Thank Heavens for welcoming parents!) I convinced my parents to build a garden in the sunny part of the yard.  The major feat was getting Dad to help construct an eight-foot deer fence.  Sadly, even that is no match for our friendly neighborhood deer.  But we manage to get a reasonable crop most of the time although my parents still sometimes mutter about getting a dog who will keep the deer at bay.  (The cats are no use at all.)

Last year I helped plant some berry bushes and fruit trees but this year I haven’t done much at all.  Well, I did plant one crop.  Remember those potatoes I was going to grow in a trash can?  Well, I kept procrastinating until the little seed potatoes had sprouted all over the place so I finally asked Mom if there was a spare corner of the garden and I plopped them in.  They will be a late crop but hey, it’s better than no crop at all!  And I should be able to mooch quite a bit of other produce from local gardening friends and neighbors.  Now I just need to find a good pizza sauce recipe to go with Will’s fancy dough

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Raindrops Keep Falling… So Build a Rain Garden!

Rain GardenIt has been raining pretty steadily for the last two days. I hear some areas south of us received 9 inches but we’re feeling that 3 or 4 is more than enough. As chance would have it, I spent about 8 hours today attending a conference about the use of native plants in urban spaces with a focus on using native plants to manage storm water, sponsored by the design firm EcoLogic.

“Alternative storm water management” was one of the key buzzphrases when I worked for JFNew as an engineering consultant a few years ago. It’s one of those ideas that makes a lot of sense but is totally opposite from conventional storm water management. Okay, so the old school way of dealing with storm water was to get it off-site and into a stream as quickly as possible. This makes a lot of sense if your main goal is to keep your building from flooding. However, it has several unfortunate consequences. One is that all the pollutants that get washed off roofs, streets, and other impervious surfaces get immediately dumped into our streams. The other is that a large amount of water gets dumped into streams all at once, which means the stream experiences higher flow levels than it would in a natural setting and there can be flooding downstream.

So the theory behind alternative storm water management is this: Why don’t we try to hold some of the water on-site and let it infiltrate into the ground the way it used to? This recharges the groundwater, it allows some of the pollutants to be filtered out as the water flows through the soil, and it helps the streams have a more natural flow pattern.

One of the most common ways to do this is using a bioretention area. The basic idea is to have a depression (dry pond) that captures water during storm events and then lets it percolate slowly into the ground. They can be done at a variety of different scales but someone wisely dubbed the backyard version “rain gardens.” Rain gardens are becoming much more common as a landscaping option for individual residences and are being actively promoted here in Monroe County. They’re pretty easy to build; you basically dig a depression in your yard that will naturally catch water, amend the soil a little bit so it will let water infiltrate (this is especially important in Bloomington where we have heavy clay soils), and plant some water-tolerant native plants.

Native prairie plants are ideal because they have massive root systems that help increase infiltration rates and they also are used to tolerating periods of extreme drought and extreme water. There are also lots of cool native wetland plants to use in the wettest part of the rain garden.  I listened to a couple of botanists talk for two hours about what species are the most appropriate but really, the key is finding plants that will tolerate a wide range of moisture and that you and your neighbors agree are at least marginally attractive.

I think our landlord would frown on us digging holes in the turf grass that surrounds our little duplex so we’re going to wait on this one until we have our own space but I really want to build one. Maybe next year I’ll be ready for those April/March showers.

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