Another year of battle with the Tree of Hell

The correct weeding implement to remove a finger-sized “Tree of Heaven” sapling is a shovel.

I thought I’d learned that lesson two summers ago, when I foolishly bragged here that I hadn’t seen any new ailanthus altissima seedlings poking above my lawn. But by this June, I had a new crop of these trash-tree growths invading the front yard and part of the side yard.

This time around, I dug deeper, literally. Just yanking out the massed roots below each sapling wasn’t enough; I had to drive the shovel a few inches deeper to find the thicker, trunk-like root running below my lawn. And then work backwards and forwards to rip that out of the earth.

The upside of this dirt-under-fingernails work is, I hope, a more lasting end to this weed of a tree. And so far, that’s worked–in the sense that I haven’t seen new growths in the front yard two and a half weeks after this surgery. (The side yard is another story, but at least that’s not obvious from the street.)

The downside is that unless you do this root removal right before a torrential downpour, the grass you’ve removed probably won’t survive the disruption. In my case, I now have streaks of dead grass, that outline where this invasive tree’s roots had taken up residence in my yard.

You could say I had to destroy the lawn in order to save it. But I’m not going to state that conclusively until this time next summer, when I’m past the spring’s usual foolish lawncare optimism.

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An easy fix for being overrun by parsley: parsley-walnut pesto

This is the time of the year that makes gardening look easy, which also means I have a serious surplus-parsley problem. The plants that had shriveled down to nothing over winter are now straining against the netting covered the raised bed in which they grow, and if I only use parsley as a garnish I’ll never get through more than a tiny fraction of this edible foliage.

You can attack this scenario by making tabbouleh–I’m partial to the NYT’s recipe for Lebanese tabbouleh–but you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time finely chopping parsley and other veggies. And then the results only last a few days in the fridge.

Instead, my go-to recipe is a simple one for parsley and walnut pesto that a farmers-market vendor handed out years ago, which itself was cribbed from a 2008 issue of Cooking Light magazine.

(Note that I’m only talking Italian flat-leaf parsley here. If you somehow talked yourself into growing that much curly parsley, you’re on your own.)

Parsley and walnut pesto

  • 3 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (about 2.5 ozs.)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine everything in a food processor, then process until smooth.

You can use the results as you would basil pesto–so not just as a pasta sauce, but as a dressing or condiment for just about anything else. But parsley-walnut pesto has a fridge half-life measured in days instead of the hours of basil pesto. And it freezes exceptionally well, so you can continue enjoying it months later.

And that’s definitely something I’ll be reminding myself of should this year’s basil crop prove as disappointing as last year’s.

2018 gardening report card: tomatoes! (And rain and rabbits)

After years of complaining that my kitchen-gardening efforts were thwarted by drought, I realized that the opposite scenario can be bad too. D.C.’s rainiest year ever saw much of my attempt at a fall crop go to a watery grave when lettuce, spinach and various herb seedlings couldn’t withstand repeated downpours.

After the weather, the local wildlife was my biggest obstacle this year. The rabbits that scamper throughout our neighborhood may amuse our daughter, but they also found yet another way to get through the netting I’d stretched over a raised bed and devour all the lettuce and green beans in sight. To add to the indignity, one wall of that raised bed then fell apart from rot.

(For reference: my 201720162015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Arugula after rainArugula: A+

If you only try to grow one vegetable, make it this one. Arugula grows prolifically in the spring and fall–the photo at right dates to only last week–it’s great in a salad or on a sandwich, and unlike lettuce you can use it in risotto or an omelette.

Herbs: A

This grade is inflated by how well sage, parsley, and (after a slow start) mint did. Basil, however, was nowhere near as prolific as it was last year, and cilantro underperformed by an even larger margin. Mint, rosemary, dill and oregano did okay, while thyme had no time for me.

Tomatoes in cageTomatoes: B

After years of frustration, I finally got a respectable tomato crop. Lesson learned: There’s no such thing as overengineering your attempts to keep squirrels away from tomato plants. Another lesson learned: There is no tomato more delicious than the one you pluck on a summer afternoon and slice up, still warm from the sun.

Lettuce: B-

A solid spring was not matched by any fall crop, thanks to the aforementioned precipitation.

Spinach: B-

Same problem here. Which is too bad, considering how last year’s spinach survived throughout the winter.

Green beans: D

I thought these were off to a good start, and then those rascally rabbits made short work of them all.

Cucumbers: F

The seeds I planted did not appear to survive contact with dirt. To be fair, I think the seeds were from last year.

Bell peppers: F

These, too, failed to sprout, extending my streak of futility at trying to coax a crop of these out of my garden.

Peak lawn

It’s the time of the year when I have to mow the lawn once a week. That means it’s also the best time of the year to mow the lawn.

The spring wave of weeds has gone by now while spring’s rains have the grass growing at its fastest pace of the year–so fast that it starts going to seed, which at least lets me tell myself that those seeds will help fill in the bare spots.

It does get hot, but it’s not too humid and the mosquitoes have yet to arrive. So if I inevitably get distracted and start weeding or transplanting flowers, I don’t have to risk being used as a walking blood bank.

So I have no problem dragging my lawnmower and its extension cord up the basement steps once a week. (I have no idea what possesses people with small yards to buy gas-powered lawnmowers; the electric model I bought for $200 or so 14 years ago has been essentially free to use, needing no maintenance beyond blade sharpening.) Soon enough the grass will slow down, a summer drought will set in, ailanthus altissima (aka the Tree of Hell) will make its annual assault on my lawn, and in three months just reading this post will probably make me grumpy.

2017 gardening report card: lettuce, at last

With last Thursday’s hard frost, another year of backyard gardening has come to an end and it’s time once again to assess the results of a hobby that may not make much financial sense on an opportunity-cost basis–but which does allow a regular analog respite from all of my screen time.

(For reference: my 20162015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Herbs: A+

Planting basil seeds in a different, sunnier spot paid off with weeks of abundant leaves that I could toss into pesto sauces. The sage did even better and has kept on going into winter, although the relative lack of recipes for it means I’ve left most of the crop outside (any ideas to change that?). The parsley, meanwhile, rebounded from its subpar 2016 showing and once again led me to make multiple batches of tabbouleh in the spring. Mint, oregano, and rosemary were their usual prolific selves, and chives and dill did well in the fall. But cilantro only showed up in trace quantities.

Arugula: A

I got a terrific spring crop of this versatile green that lasted into July, then had another several weeks’ worth in the fall. If you’re thinking of starting a kitchen garden, this should be first plant you aspire to after parsley or basil.

Lettuce: A

Planting this in a sunnier spot paid off spectacularly well in the spring and summer, yielding an outstanding return on my investment in a couple of seed packets. If only I’d bought more: I couldn’t try for a fall crop because I forgot to purchase extras in the spring and then couldn’t find any after August.

Spinach: B

Last year’s plants held on through last winter–the day I got back from SXSW, one day after the season’s one notable snowfall, I brushed off some of the accumulation to pluck some leaves to use in a pasta sauce. It flourished throughout the spring but did not reward me with a fall crop.

Green beans: B-

These did great through the spring, but then some of our neighborhood’s many rabbits got into the raised bed and devoured the plants. Having enjoyed the Peter Rabbit books as a toddler, I can only laugh at the thought that I’ve become Mr. McGregor.

Tomatoes: C

Modest, incremental improvements at cultivating tomatoes did not yield a huge difference in this gardening paradox: I have no trouble getting tomato plants to sprout, but coaxing any to bear fruit is much less of a sure thing.

Cucumbers: F

Just to show that there’s no year-over-year logic to gardening, a comparable level of effort this year yielded 100 percent less than last year. Fortunately, cucumbers cost almost nothing at farmers’ markets.

Bell peppers: F

For yet another year, I got nowhere trying to grow these.

Lawn enemy number one: the Tree of Hell

Fourteen summers of battling the weeds in our lawn have left me with a weird, foliage-driven sense of the calendar.

If I’m twisting loose chickweed with a weeding fork, it could be February but it shouldn’t be later than April, lest I waste my efforts on plants that have already gone to seed. Pungent deadnettles come about a month later. followed by crabgrass.

And from late spring on, I can expect to see Ailanthus altissima saplings invade the front yard. “Tree of Heaven,” my ass: This invasive, quasi-viral plant grows like a weed, literally stinks, and spreads with zombie-like persistence.

Clawing out one of our worst imports from Asia requires advanced stubbornness. Plucking a shoot out of the lawn is easy but leaves a densely-coiled root that will send more growths aboveground within days.

You have to shove a trowel underneath it, elevate a clump of lawn, then feel through the dirt for that root mass and then tug it loose. Done right, you’re left with a long stretch of subterranean subversive that can no longer make a nuisance of itself.

I want to think I’ve seen results this summer, in the form of patches of lawn that haven’t sprouted new ailanthus shoots in weeks (but do show the collateral damage of bare spots that I’ll have to re-seed in the fall). It may seem like an endless task, but it can’t be as futile as trying to evict our single worst import from across the Pacific, the tiger mosquito. Right?

Bonus of an unwinter: a spring surplus of parsley and spinach

I really did think that the 2016 gardening season had ended in December with the first hard frost. But then the parsley and the spinach refused to die. Even the few inches of snow we got in March wasn’t enough to kill them, as I found out when I removed some chunks of hard-packed snow two days after I got home from SXSW to expose intact spinach leaves that promptly wound up in a creamy pasta sauce.

Now that the ground has warmed up and the arugula and lettuce seeds have germinated and gone to work, I suddenly have more parsley and spinach than I know what to do with–although I’m trying by throwing some into every stir-fry, stew and sauce I can put together.

I guess I’ll also be making a lot of tabbouleh and parsley-walnut pesto weeks earlier than my usual gardening schedule would suggest.

(The sage also kept going through the winter in less robust form, although there aren’t as many obvious applications for that herb.)

As much as I appreciate living in a place with actual seasons, this does look like a pleasant bonus for having a fake winter. Now if I could just get basil to be half as productive, or at least to stop taunting me with a lack of productivity…