My (cheap!) three-plant formula for gardening adequacy

This upcoming week will mark the 10-year anniversary of our moving into our house, which also means I’ve now spent almost 10 years obsessively gardening around the yard.

LiliesThis pastime has had its expensive and inefficient moments (apparently, grass seed has grown to hate me over the past decade), but overall my gardening problem has cost me a lot less than I’d initially feared.

Credit for that goes to generous neighbors who invited us to thin out some of their plantings, but also to my early realization that three plants in particular would have a coveted combination of looking nice, growing like weeds and needing zero maintenance: lilies, hostas and liriope.

The first might as well be an official flower of the greater Washington area. Lilies–in my yard, mostly tigerlilies–rebound from the worst frosts, laugh at droughts, can easily be divided, and spread thickly enough to form a three-foot flowering fence. As far as I can tell, nothing eats them. (We don’t have deer in our neighborhood, but squirrels and rabbits are regulars and foxes show up every now and then.)

HostasThe second doesn’t colonize a yard quite as aggressively and cares a little more about details like getting enough water, but hostas are so easy to divide and transplant that it doesn’t matter all that much. Plus, they offer more variety than lilies; I would recommend individual species, but my recordkeeping has been way too sloppy to allow for that. Were that not the case, I could also tell you what species attracts the bunnies that hop through our yard instead of saying “the short kind with small, narrow, unvariegated green leaves.”

Finally, liriope: It’s a gardening cliche, but it also spreads like crazy as long as it’s not too dry. During the spring and summer, it’s mostly background vegetation, but in late summer it sprouts tiny purple flowers. The usual directions call for cutting its leaves to the ground in late winter to help the spring’s growth, but I forgot/skipped that step this year and it made zero difference.

So if you’ve just moved into a house or are about to do so and don’t know what to do about the yard, here’s my advice: Get two of each of those plants, as if you were loading a horticultural Noah’s Ark, divide and transplant each spring, and in a few short years most of those edges of the yard where grass refuses to grow should transform into lush beds of self-maintaining, self-replicating foliage. Also known as: areas you no longer have to mow.

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My 2013 gardening report card

The forecast calls for below-freezing temperature tonight, so I officially put this year’s gardening season in the books by plucking the last few, still-green plum tomatoes off their dying vines. That also means it’s time to assess how growing my own food worked this year, as I did in 2011 and 2012.

plum tomatoes

Tomatoes: B+

The removal of a tree that had cast too much shade on one raised bed and, I guess,  better luck made a huge difference: We’ve had a good selection of plum tomatoes since about the middle of the summer–even while the other two plants yielded next to nothing. It was nice being able to skip buying plum tomatoes at the farmers’ market.

Arugula: B

Unlike the last two years, I couldn’t get a fall crop started in time (I blame travel and a failure to focus when I was in town, followed by the stores near me removing seeds from their shelves), and the spring crop didn’t yield as much as before either. Even so, I’ll repeat my prior endorsements: This stuff practically grows itself, yo

Lettuce: B-

I love being able to step outside, grab some lettuce leaves, wash them off and put them on a sandwich or a burger. But without a fall crop (see above), that pleasure ended sometime in June.

Bell peppers: B-

These were late starters but came around over the last two months. Considering what red bell peppers cost in the store, they’ve definitely earned a spot in next year’s garden.

Green beans: C

Once again, I didn’t plant enough in the spring–I could pick enough beans off the plants to make a side dish for one, not so much for two and certainly not for four. And then a dry August put a stop to the whole enterprise.

Herbs: D

These did much worse than I expected, and I can only guess it’s because I took too long to enrich the soil around them with compost. The mint was its usual bulletproof self (it’s in a separate pot to stop it from overrunning the entire back yard), but cilantro was a no-show, and rosemary, sage and thyme died on me more than once. And the basil never yielded enough for a batch of pesto: How pathetic is that?

Strawberries: D

The pot on the back patio yielded fruit more often than last year, but I still haven’t figured out how to avoid having the squirrels make off with too much of it.

Cucumbers: D-

This was not the complete failure of last year, only a nearly-complete one. That leaves me even more confused as to how this vegetable could have grown so well two years ago and not since.

Also worth noting: Not through any effort on my part, I had a butternut squash vine grow on its own in one of the raised beds and give me exactly one squash.

A neater yard and an emptier screen: How spring kills my productivity

I’ve written before that I’m a writer with a gardening problem, but my condition is never more obvious than this time of year.

lawn pornBetween late March and mid-May, three things come together for D.C.-area people who don’t mind dirt under their fingernails: many of the plants you want return to life, most of the plants you don’t want run rampant, and the mosquitoes remain offstage.

Since I work from home, I only need to look up from my desk to see the state of my yard. There, I have problems that I can attack without waiting for a reply from a source, the end of a tedious battery-life test, or a go-ahead from an editor: weeds to yank out, seeds to sow, flowers and shrubs to move around, borders between the lawn and the landscaped areas to tidy up.

Some of this work is hot and exhausting–I must have transplanted around 100 pounds’ worth of plants this spring–but much of it can be done in short stretches before I shower or right after some other chore that takes me outside, like getting the mail or taking in the trash and recycling. Plus, with many of the fast-spreading weeds that infest my yard every spring–I must have yanked out 15 pounds of chickweed and deadnettles so far–there’s the seductive promise that with a twist of a weeding fork in the right spot, I can painlessly dislodge a massive clot of uninvited foliage.

And as a 10-minute break stretches into an hour and I realize that my hands have gotten too dirty for me to want to check my phone, upstairs I have a half-written e-mail, a document that stops with my byline and a blog post that only consists of a handful of links. But when I do return to those things, the view outside will please me so much more.

My 2012 gardening report card

You’d think that success at growing a particular vegetable one year would be easily repeated the next. You would be wrong–at least in my case, considering how this year’s harvest from two raised beds and a couple of large pots departed from last year’s.

ArugulaArugula: A

I was sure last year’s plants would reseed themselves, so I foolishly neglected planting seeds until the absence of new growth was obvious. But then I had a good crop in the spring and a fantastic one in the fall. The latter allowed me to go two or three months straight without buying lettuce, and the plants have yet to conk out–that photo is from today.

Herbs: B+

The cilantro, on the other hand, did reseed itself–in massive numbers. I had more of that I knew what to do with for most of this spring. The parsley and oregano were even more invasive aggressive, the sage exceeded expectations, and the mint was its usual reliable self. But the basil struggled to get going, I had two rosemary plants die on me, the thyme didn’t make it through the summer, and it took two tries before dill established itself.

Strawberries: C+

I did a better job of keeping this pot watered, but I also lost a few berries because I didn’t harvest them in time. I may need to rethink my squirrel-defense strategy, now that these plants have grown enough to poke through the netting draped over the pot. I may build a cheap enclosure of some scrap wood, if the results don’t look completely hanky.

Green beans: C

I guess I’m not planting enough of these, because I rarely was able to collect enough beans to make sides for two people. Also, the drought in June hit them pretty hard.

TomatoesTomatoes: C-

The plants that were last year’s biggest disappointment made a late-season comeback after we took down a large, dying tree that kept them in shade for part of each morning. (Having this black locust removed also deprived Hurricane Sandy of a chance to toss its upper canopy onto, and maybe into, our house.) Now that I’ve established that I can grow tomatoes in this spot–I even picked a few small green specimens last week–I need to space them more widely next year. And to remember that these things reseed like crazy.

Lettuce: D

I barely got enough to accessorize a few sandwiches.

Bell peppers: F

The seeds I planted didn’t do anything, and the plants that grew from the seeds left by last year’s crop–two of which somehow materialized in the other raised bed–didn’t yield anything edible.

Cucumbers: F

I don’t know how last year’s glut of cucumbers could have been followed by this year’s complete absence of cucumber plants, let alone fruit–nothing reseeded itself, and the seeds I planted after that failure was obvious vanished into the dirt.

The 2011 gardening report card

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to garden, and not just for show. Growing my own vegetables provides food that I know is fresh and offers the prospect of saving money. And this year, those efforts took off in a major way, thanks to the effort I sank into building two large raised beds during last summer’s paternity leave.

My growing season isn’t quite over–I picked some arugula earlier today–but it’s time to assess how things went.

Arugula: A+ 

Meet my new favorite crop. I didn’t have to buy lettuce for two months straight in the spring–and I had enough left over to be throwing arugula into risotto and tomato-sauce recipes. I was a little slow to seed a second crop, but as I just wrote, it’s apparently outlasted the first frost here. I’m hoping this reseeded itself, but even if that doesn’t happen I can’t think of a more profitable expenditure of $2 and change on a packet of seeds.

Cucumbers: A

A new crop for me, these were almost as prolific as arugula. The only reason I didn’t wind up pickling a bunch was because I have three or four different cucumber-salad recipes and at least two for cucumber soup. And as I learned from the cuisine at a rest stop on a bike tour, you can make a tremendous sandwich out of cucumbers and tomatoes.

Bell peppers: B+

Another first-time crop, these had a slow start but took off in August and September. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how many of my pepper plants were of the “OMG hot!” variety; there’s only so much you can do with them.

Herbs: B

This is a collective grade, covering basil, parsley, mint, oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary and cilantro. Mint and parsley were the most consistent; although I had to reseed the latter halfway through the summer, those plants still look great. Basil got going slower than in prior years, delaying pesto-sauce season until late August. The sage did a little better than I’m used to; oregano and thyme, a lot better. Part of the rosemary plant died off, but the rest did fine. And for once, I got cilantro to grow in both the spring and fall.

Lettuce: B-

This was good in the spring–especially compared to prior years, which speaks to the benefits of amending dirt with peat moss and compost–but the fall crop has barely yielded enough for two sandwiches.

Green beans: C-

For the amount I planted, you’d think I would have been able to collect more than a single handful of beans each time. But they did taste good, and I know I neglected to pick some once the tomato, pepper and cucumber plants got in the way. In the bargain, my lame legumes fixed nitrogen in the soil for next year’s vegetables… or so I hope.

Strawberries: D

The plants I stuck in a large clay pot (and shielded with plastic netting to avoid providing a banquet for the squirrels) would have done better had I watered them more consistently and checked for new fruit more often. Too bad, since strawberries can be bland at the supermarket and rarely last long from the farmer’s market.

Tomatoes: D-

This pains me: I’m from New Jersey, where we named a whole family of tomatoes after the state, and as an American of Italian ancestry I take great pride in my ability to cook tomato sauce from scratch (not to mention gazpacho). But this is the fourth year in a row of woeful results. Once again, I had far more foliage than fruit. And although I planned to prevent the local squirrels from snacking on half-green tomatoes (they always seem to do this the day before I plan on picking them) by draping plastic netting over the entire bed and anchoring it to its walls, I left enough of a gap for one or two of these varmints to eat half of the single most promising tomato. A dry May and June, followed by a thoroughly soaked August, don’t seem to have helped matters. And by the time these plants mounted a comeback in the fall, they weren’t getting enough sunlight to yield anything bigger than the sad specimen you see at right. Can somebody please tell me what I’m doing wrong here?

Post-Labor Day reflections

The calendar says summer runs through Sept. 23, but in the working world it ends on the Tuesday after Labor Day, when kids go back to school and most adults either return to their work or return their full attention to their work.

Things have been a little different for me this year. I started this summer by exiting the working world, and I have not quite rushed to return to it. I needed time off, more than I realized in April.

It took a good month after my departure from the Post for me to realize the absence of the accumulated stress I’d been working under. It wasn’t just the volume of work, it wasn’t just the pressure to write up tech rumors of dubious long-term relevance, it wasn’t just the increasing anxiety of hearing each new crack in the ice under my position–it was the combination of all that.

Having that weight lifted from my back was a blessing. So was the chance to catch up on many of the things I’d been missing. Among them: growing enough lettuce and cucumbers to be able to stop buying either for two months (please don’t ask about the tomatoes and green beans); trying a round of new recipes to use up those crops; brewing beer at home; turning a few unproductive patches of lawn into beds of perennials more compatible with my erratic groundskeeping; witnessing the space shuttle launch in May and again in July; swimming in the Atlantic and the Pacific; exploring my expanded freedom to speak more directly on Twitter; arriving somewhat on time for weeknight events instead of showing up 90 minutes late.

Best of all, I’ve watched my daughter taking her first steps.

(I should also note things I’ve left undone: reading Ulysses, or even finishing the books I got two Christmases ago; resuming my fitful attempts to learn Spanish; getting rid of most of the junk in the basement.)

But now it’s back-to-work time for me as well. Blogging twice a week for Discovery News has left room in my schedule, but I’m about to start a second weekly gig and am looking at one or two other possible regular arrangements. I’ve also been picking up one-time assignments–within the next few weeks, I owe various third parties two magazine articles and at least one blog post. Under these circumstances, I don’t mind being busy again.