Category Archives: Yard & Garden

April Summer Thunder

Much too dark for 5 PM

I strolled downtown this evening for a Thai New Year celebration with friends. As I left home, the sky was ominous, again, battleship-dark clouds heavy with rain lurking in the distance. I gambled and walked the mile, flipping my music to minor-keyed songs that seemed fitting.

All night, the perfect summer storm had raged, shaking the house and setting off car alarms as July-intensity thunder roared for hours. Strobe-lightning pierced my blackout curtains, lighting up my bedroom like daytime. The cat burrowed her face under a blanket, snoring deeply, but I kept waking, peering out over the river as lightning danced through town.


Typically, I love summer storms, but this one was particularly ferocious, and I fought the urge to go check the basement as sheets of rain pinged against the siding. (In the  morning light, wet pawprints on the basement stairs confirmed what I had assumed. Luckily, the seepage was minimal and quickly squeegeed away. Looks like I’ll be cleaning gutters again soon.)


After such a strangely warm spring that brought a blaze of tulips nearly a month early, the summer storm seemed out of place. Nights are still cool, perfect for my lightest flannel pants and deliciously bare feet under a blanket. But the storm decimated the tulips, scattering petals across the yard, and brought down still-naked branches and twigs.

And now, thunder rumbles again, bringing another round.


Low-Hanging Fruit

This is not a metaphor. It’s literally a post about the dearth of low-hanging fruit in my backyard. Sorry if you were looking for something deeper. (But yesterday I did wax on about celebrations and birthdays and milestones and fireworks.)

Anyway, the mulberry tree in my backyard has been the source of some consternation over the years. For the first three or four summers, I grumbled about the neighbors’ stupid tree that dropped berries all over the yard. It shaded the yard so nothing would grow, and the berries made a mess. The birds eat the berries, and then leave streaks of vibrant purple poo down the side of my white house. While mowing the lawn, my legs get stained Grimace-purple, and once the berries start rotting, a stench like stale alcohol dampens the air.

And then in late fall, the tree drops all its leaves in about 36 hours, typically the week after the city ends its free leaf pickup for the year.

The tree is wrapped around wires, so I called ComEd at one point, who came out and said that the affected wires are actually phone lines. I called AT&T, who said that until the tree caused a service disruption, they wouldn’t touch it.

When I rebuilt the fence two years ago, I discovered that the mulberry tree was actually on my side of the property line. I rejoiced, because I had always thought it was the (indifferent, bad) absentee landlord’s tree. And then I discovered removing a tree is very, very pricey, especially when involving utility lines and a tight space wedged between two garages. So my good neighbor brought over his chainsaw and helped remove the worst offending branches that stretched into my yard.

The mess of berries has been reduced, and my backyard has enough light for a feeble attempt at a garden, though I have learned that 3-4 hours of sunlight isn’t enough for most crops.

The irony of the whole situation is that I had never eaten a mulberry. I had once stepped out of the shower and seen a neighbor’s kid up in the tree with a bucket, right at my eye level, but I was so bitter at the tree that I assumed the fruit must also be bitter.

The other night, I finally tried a couple mulberries off a tree elsewhere in the city. They’re pretty damn good. Sweet, juicy and worth the stained fingers. All this time, I’ve had a bumper crop right in my own backyard.

So yesterday evening, while lounging in the yard with a book, I decided I should try to harvest some of my own berries. And I promptly realized that there is no low-hanging fruit – all the low branches were removed by my overzealous efforts. To reach berries, I need to either climb the tree or a ladder to the garage roof (where the raccoons spend their nights, fighting and pooping).

You can see the sprouts of non-berry-bearing leaves protruding from where a giant limb was removed.

Or I can just pick them up from the ground, as I did, carefully stepping to minimize the purple stains on my bare feet.

Once I settled back into my chair to read, the squirrels helped, running through the tree, shaking berries loose.

But beware the perils of cutting away low-hanging fruit.

Gardening Fail

My first year of vegetable gardening didn’t go quite as planned.

I had lots of early success, but when it came to the fall harvest, I fell sadly short.

So sad... no caprese

I got a handful of tomatoes, but they never got much larger than golf balls. I left them on the vine, hoping they would grow, but most of them shriveled up and died.

I saw four small eggplants, and hoped they would keep growing, but I finally harvested them after the frost and tried to roast them, but they were just too small.

Good thing I wasn't planning on making carrot cake.

Good thing I wasn't planning on making carrot cake.

The carrots? I waited until the tops were 8 inches tall before excitedly pulling them from the ground… and got a handful scrawny little carrot bites.

The beans started off well, but I think I planted them too late, as they like the cooler weather. They wilted and scorched under the July sun.
I had several peppers start, and one got a decent size before falling to the ground, where some animal got to it. (Or perhaps the critter knocked it off the vine? All I know is it was just about ready to pick one day, and on the ground with gnaw marks the next.) But the rest never got very big, despite my waiting. At the end of the season, while removing the last of the tomato cages, I found two decent sized peppers – with gnaw marks. Damn squirrels.

Anything that got much bigger than this got eaten by the local wildlife

The cucumbers and zucchini sprouts did very well on the driveway, but once I transplanted them into the ground, they really didn’t grow much. I had a couple squash blossoms, but no fruit.

Meanwhile, the cherry tomatoes and basil in planters along the driveway did very well, and the zinnias, begonias and nasturtiums out front thrived in their full sunlight.

So what did I do wrong? Plant too late? Reading labels, it sounds like I should have started these plants earlier, like late April or May, especially the cooler weather veggies like beans.

Not enough sun? I watched a couple days, and while the backyard definitely gets far more than the 0 hours of sun it used to, is 4 hours of full sun and another 1-2 of partial sun enough? The tomatoes stretched to reach the sun, but perhaps the lack of solar power stunted their growth.

Do I need to do more than just water and weed? Should I fertilize? Mulch? Use Miracle Gro?

So, gardening friends – help me out. Alternatively – does anyone have a good local CSA they recommend for next season?

A Bounty of Acorns and a Lack of Sleep

One night last week, I heard a strange noise while working in the kitchen. It sounded kind of like someone was knocking.

Since then, approximately 17,000 acorns have fallen from my neighbors’ giant oak trees. Each one makes a thwacking noise as it slams into the ground, one of their cars, or one of our houses. In my five summers in this house, I had never heard such a thing, but apparently we’re in luck: it’s a bumper crop.

Mostly, I hear the acorns thwacking while in the kitchen or living room. But on windy nights, I hear them dropping off the limb over my bedroom. Better yet, when they fall from that limb, a mere 2 or 3 feet above my roof, they hit exceptionally hard, and then roll down the roof. It sounds like someone slamming a door and then taking off running.

Last night was really bad. It was windy with a threat of storms, so all night, dozens of acorns were falling. It never rained water, but it certainly rained acorns. I’d also made the mistake of having a giant iced coffee about 4 PM so I was still wired and twitchy. Every time an acorn hit the roof, I would jump a bit. I tossed and turned, until finally about 2 AM, after the last Metra pulled through, I gave up and slept on the couch where the acorns weren’t as loud.

So if you see any hungry squirrels, send them my way, please.

Urban Farming

My first-ever “real” garden is finally producing!

In the four years I’ve been in the house, I’ve dabbled in growing various herbs in big planters lined up along the sunny driveway. (Eventually, I think I want to remove some of the asphalt in my extra-extra wide driveway and revert it to soil.) I’ve had luck with cherry tomatoes, basil, cilantro, various flowers – and that’s about it. My pepper plants have never actually produced peppers, and the dill and oregano drowned.

One of my reasons for wanting a backyard was to create a garden, but mine has always been too shady – the giant mulberry tree hulking along the fenceline prevented even grass from growing.

Last fall, as I replaced the fence, I finally cut off large parts of the tree.  (I wanted to remove the whole thing, but it would have been really expensive, so my neighbor-with-a-chainsaw removed several of the offending branches.) Late winter, I watched the daily sunlight as it passed through the backyard, and finally decided that I had enough light to try a garden.

First, I dug up a small patch – about 3×6 feet – and pulled out the sparse grass and weeds. I brought in about 200 lbs of new soil, mixed it all together, and planted some tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings, plus a small Swiss chard plant I got free from the Burpee folks at Union Station. Meanwhile, in egg cartons, I started seeds for more peppers, beans, onions, carrots, squash, cucumbers, lettuce and basil.

I was shocked by how many of my seeds actually took. I quickly realized that my little patch – which was already overcrowded – wasn’t nearly big enough, so I doubled the space and planted everything in early June. I put the basil in pots lining the driveway again, as the backyard patch only gets 4-5 hours of sun a day. That’s still better than nothing, but not the “full sun” that basil really needs.

I waited too long to get tomato cages and had to fight with the four foot tall plants to lean them up against the supports. And I definitely learned that I should have followed the spacing guidelines. I had assumed that half of them wouldn’t take, anyway, so why waste precious space? Weeding has been a challenge, as the patch attracts veritable swarms of mosquitoes in the evenings, and weekends it has rained or I’ve been busy with other chores.

But now, I’ve had one small pepper (that fell to the ground before entirely ripe – very sad), and have a whole bunch of tomatoes just about ready to harvest. The Swiss chard is doing well, and yesterday, I noticed a couple baby eggplants where there were small blossoms last week.

It may only be a baby, but gee willickers, that's an eggplant!

The carrot tops look good, though I’m not quite sure I’ll know when they’re ripe, and it quickly got too hot for the lettuce. (Again, I should have followed directions! I think the beans are suffering from the same “too hot” fate.) The basil on the driveway is doing very well – a bumper crop – and the cilantro drowned with the recent downpours and doesn’t appear to be recovering.

I can’t wait to make a salad of vegetables grown entirely on my land.

Should I be starting a “fall crop” now? If so, what works well in northern Illinois?

Our Lawn, Seattle Style

What do you get when April and May weather continues through July?

Jungle lawn!

It’s the close of the coolest July in decades – with not a single day at or above 90 degrees. We’ve had tons of rain, inconveniently spread on multiple days throughout the weeks.

Hence, the jungle lawn. It just keeps growing! And it seems to rain just frequently enough that it’s hard to find a time to mow the lawn when it’s actually dry enough to work with.

Perhaps we should get a goat. Or a couple rabbits. That should solve the problem.

Thank you, Circle of Life

Around noon yesterday, I spied a squirrel lying on the garage roof. Later in the afternoon, he was still there, in the exact same strange, awkward position – sprawled out flat, not moving. Mid-day, I wondered if he was resting, but by evening, I assumed he was dead.

When Don got home, it was already dark, so I told him that the next time we were both home in daylight hours (umm…. Thursday? Maybe Friday?), we would have to go get the thing off the roof. This would involve the ladder (fun!) and shovel. That shovel – which came with the house – has done its fair share of animal removal duties, including Gus the Groundhog and the presumably rabid (or just plain batty) squirrel that spent an entire day twitching itself ten feet across the driveway, driving the cat nutty.

But this morning, in daylight, the squirrel is gone. I’ll bet our friendly neighborhood raccoons took care of it for us. Thanks, guys! You’re finally good for something besides scaring the bejeezus out of us when we deign to enter the backyard in the evenings.

Update: Don says that he actually heard the raccoons fighting it out over the squirrel carcass. Yum.

It’s Time to Play…. Name! That! Plant!!!

Every year about this time, I play a game I like to call Weed? or Sprout?. In the weeks (month?) since I planted dozens of new seeds in my front garden – dozens of things have begun to sprout. Add monsoon rains, a dash of sunshine, and some transplants are suffering, but other new seeds seem to be thriving.

I started with a freshly weeded bed, added a couple new bags of soil and topped everything with mulch.

But the fact that the rain has enabled them to grow makes me wonder. Like this one – is it an offshoot of an existing lily that somehow migrated 5 feet north? Or is it a really big weed?

Or this one? The spiky leaves either indicate marigolds (yay!) or unidentified weeds (boo!):
With all the rain – despite the beautiful weekend, everything was still soupy wet – I haven’t had a chance to investigate further. But I’m sure when I do… I’m going to have a lot of weeding. Sigh.


A quick happy thought:

Late last week, the monsoons (3.75″ of rain in a single hour on Friday!) flooded most of my potted plants lining the driveway. Most of the pots lack drainage holes, so my fledgling cilantro, basil and oregano are gone. (The lettuce might still pull through.) However, my tomato plant gets the biggest, bestest pot that I borrowed from a fellow tenant many moons ago. This plant is thriving and today – in the hot sunshine – I even have the beginning of an actual tomato!

Luckily, I also started some basil indoors that is doing pretty well. I can’t wait to make some fresh bruschetta. Really, the bruschetta makes the whole planting ordeal worth it.

Maybe a Machete?

Our string trimmer died last year after a whole season of service. Rather than buy another cheap one, I started using hedge clippers to trim the grass along our retaining wall, where the lawnmower can’t cut.

It’s easy enough, and since the retaining wall lifts the lawn about 3 feet above the sidewalk. And the distance involved is short enough that I can knock it out in about 10 minutes.

But I can’t help but wonder if a machete would be more effective. And a conversation piece for the neighbors.