Thursday, March 5, 2015

Edible Landscaping Part One: The Front Yard

I've had gardening on the brain lately.  Maybe because February was unusually beautiful, and maybe because it's just that time of year.  It's a very positive thing to do in the winter, especially when other aspects of life have felt less than positive.  So I'm going to write a few posts about gardening, in part to keep my mind focusing on this positive thing in the midst of some real downers lately.  And so I have this written record of what I have done for posterity.

I never would have expected to love gardening.  I've never considered myself an "outside" person, particularly concerning anything sporty.  Curled up on the couch with a good book or sitting at a table with art supplies strewn all over is more like it.  But since owning a home and the attendant necessary refurbishing of a few seriously neglected yards, I have found there is nothing more therapeutic than sitting in the dirt and running my hands through the soil, especially soft, silky loam like we had at our old house. I need to figure out how to create that kind of dirt here in Pullman, because it is the about the best smelling stuff in the world. Working in the garden, I feel calm and connected in a way I almost never otherwise do.  And pulling weeds is a terrific way of dispensing anger, whether it's anger following a run-in with a teenager or anger at the world in general.  In the past few years I have become increasingly fascinated with edible landscaping, and especially growing fruit.  Here in America many of us, especially in the West, have such a luxury of space: I like the idea of using it to produce something. Something wholesome and delicious and not corrupted by cancer-causing chemicals.  I love to cook too, and reading about different varieties of fruit and vegetables in gardening catalogs is totally inspiring.  Especially those varieties with gorgeous French names.  I'm a bit of a sucker for seeds with French names.

Last summer we concentrated on the front yard, creating a wide curving gravel path to the front door lined with dwarf fruit trees and flowers and herbs.  There are four apple trees that ripen at different times to pollinate each other: Wealthy, Honeycrisp, Spartan and Gold Rush, as well as two plums, Mount Royale and Green Gage. Last winter I spent many happy hours reading about fruit varieties, blossom times, and the qualities of different rootstocks before settling on my choices.  The flowers and herbs along the path are Basket of Gold Alyssum, thyme, oregano, and Sweet William. At each end of the path there is Munstead Lavender and Golden Creeping Jenny, which is doing a fantastic job of creeping all over the place.  Some of the flowers chosen attract beneficial insects which are natural enemies of the fruit tree pests, and I am researching others that will do the same.  On the border between our yard and the neighbor's there is a line of blueberries, Hardyblue and Blueray (or Jay?).  Blueberries really aren't difficult, just mix the soil half and half with peat moss to make it acid. I bought my trees and berries from Raintree and Burnt Ridge Nursery.

Here is a picture of the front yard in progress--the fruit trees in and the gravel path just beginning to be dug out in the far right corner.  You can also see the gap where we dug out the arborvitae.

In front of the house I put in various shrubs, including two Nanking Cherries I bought at the end of the season when they were marked way down, a Serviceberry tree, a clove currant (I bought the wrong kind which doesn't taste good, but the yellow flowers smell lovely so it stays), a purple-leaved Ninebark for color, and a hydrangea which was also on clearance.  The house faces north and this area is shady, so I'm not sure if the Nanking cherries will work.  They may get replaced with currants. I've been researching and reading luscious descriptions of currants and gooseberries, just as I was doing last year over trees. With names like ben sarek, titiana, minaj smyriou and black velvet, it's hard to choose!  And usually hydrangea's die on me because it is just so dry here, but this one is near the rather leaky hose spigot and seems to be making it.

Near the street, there is a large bed that had shrubs--a false cypress (not sure?), and some super-ugly arborvitae which was replaced by a Black Lace Elderberry bush, a Hardhack Spirea (which looks terrific, I like it so much better than the regular garden center spirea!), a dusky pink colored rose also bought on clearance, and flowers I dug divisions of from my mom's beds: Black-Eyed Susan, Liatris and more Lavender.  All which love our dry summer climate.  I should get a peony and maybe some catnip--they love it here too.  And definitely some more of that Creeping Jenny.  One of the biggest keys to gardening is to plant things that happen to like your dirt and your climate!

Up the ugly leaning lamp post (which is just to the left of the picture) I'm trying to grow a clematis, but the soil keeps washing away down the slope, so we'll see.  The lamppost is surrounded by prostrate juniper. Our entire neighborhood is cursed with juniper, in every variety, ubiquitous in almost every yard and sometimes composing (consuming?) literally an entire front yard, which seemed to be the thing to plant back when these houses were built in the 1960's.  I hate it, but I'm not sure how to take this little patch out as it really anchors the steep corner slope of our yard.  The clematis might at least add a little color, and if doesn't work I'll try honeysuckle, which grew like gangbusters at our old house.  I'd like to take the lamp post out, but my daughter likes it--it's a Narnia thing.  My husband thinks it's a safety thing, as it is near the steps that climb up from the driveway into the yard.  But no matter how we try to prop it up, it still leans.

Then there is "the messy bed" along the sidewalk to the front door.  This bed is on top of an eyesore of a retaining wall.  Really, I'd like to see this whole area bulldozed down and replaced by giant naturalistic rocks, but for now it's a three foot wide strip with fairly rich soil and good sun exposure that is way, way overcrowded by Shasta Daisies, chives and cilantro.  There used to be two huge rhubarb plants, but I dug them up because I didn't really want these as the starring feature on the way to the front door, and nobody else likes rhubarb so if I bake with it, I end up eating the entire crisp or crumble by myself--not good.  It is truly amazing how a whole new rhubarb plant can grow from the tiniest chunk of root left in the ground--I will probably have another baby rhubarb this year.  In any case, I think the daisies are going to have to go.  They are nice looking flowers but they simply thug everything else out. Last year I used the space to grow a couple of bean-teepees, but the beans were nasty and fibrous, maybe because it was a super dry year, or we simply did not like those varieties (Marvel of Venice and Kentucky Wonder).  I will go back to Fortex and Provider this year.  I also divided up some clearance Stella d'Oro Day Lilies and put a Russian Sage in the hottest corner.  I am not totally sure what to do with this space, but more flowers that succeed (the same Black Eyed Susan, Lavender and whatnot that I have throughout the yard), along with vegetables and herbs are probably the answer, since I don't want to put anything permanent or valuable there.

At the end of last summer, only one swathe of grass was left.  Grass is my enemy.  I am deathly allergic to the stuff, it's ugly and boring, and it's a water hog.  By allergic I mean when I go for an allergy test, the spot for grass pollen swells to a few inches in diameter, sometimes I start breathing rough, and the nurses run to give me a shot of adrenalin.  I want all of it GONE.  But my husband, who is extremely frugal (read, cheap!), who did not want to rent a sod-cutter and dug out much of the grass with a shovel (!), was worn out by the end of last season.  I am thinking of tilling up the remainder and sowing it with a clover/beneficial flower mix.  You can buy some neat seed mixes for beneficial insect plants and compost crops here, where you can also find various clovers and birdsfoot trefoil.

I keep trying to read books on Permaculture, which tend to be very confusing. The more you read on the topic, the less you understand.  But I enjoyed this one because you could see the process of a Permaculture yard unfolding: The trial and error of it, the learning and experimentation that happened as these guys went along, instead of having it all exactly right from the front end.  Which seems to be the way real-life gardening works.  Not to mention real life.