Monday’s Photo: Oranges from the Backyard

It’s amazing what a little water, some insecticide, and pruning can do for a tree.  These fresh oranges are from a tree that a year ago I didn’t even want to walk by for fear of being attacked by insect residue.

This poor orange tree looked haggard when we moved into our place in May 2010.  First, it was clothed in webs from spider mites.  The webs took over the tree, making it look like a net had been placed around it.  Very Gross.  Second, whiteflies or aphids (not sure which, most likely both) excreted a sticky substance on the back of the leaves and dirt and dust in the air collected on the stickiness, making the leaves appear not green but black and white.  Third, it was brimming with soooo many oranges, many which were long past their prime.

When we tried to eat these “fruits,” we spit them out because they were more cardboard than orange.  A trip to my local family-owned nursery helped me figure out a tactical plan to save the tree from infestation.

First we sprayed an insecticide, an All Seasons Spray Oil that connected to our hose.  I don’t know why I said we, Kris did this, while I shut the sliding glass back door and stayed clear.  Then Kris pruned off some of the lower branches which had withered fruit on them.  Immediately (this is not an exaggeration) the tree looked taller, healthier.  The leaves were green again!

Then I started watering it once every 2-3 weeks, a deep soak.  Whenever I remembered.

Now when we use these oranges they are sweet and juicy.  From time to time when we cut one open it is dry and a light yellow color instead of a brilliant orange, so we just head back outside and grab another one with our fruit picker.  The ratio of juicy fruit to dry fruit used to be 1 juicy fruit for every 4-5 dry ones, now that is pleasantly reversed.

I can garden!!

P.S. I used this fresh orange juice in this recipe.


Our No-Front Lawn Experiment Part 2: Ripping out the Sod

This is part 3 of a (highly chronologically disorganized) series about turning our front yard into a French style potager garden.  In regular people’s terms, making our front yard a kitchen garden.

One of the most important things we learned in this process is an ever present question for young, new homeowners: how do we figure out what to spend money on and what to save and do ourselves?

Here’s the overview post of the process.
Here’s how we planned out the design.
This post is about ripping out the sod.

Can we even call our “grass” sod?  It was weeds disguised as grass, lots of crab grass or Bermuda grass, I’m really not sure which.  I learned this- if the grass has a roots system that looks more like a tree’s root system, woody, thick, seemingly impenetrable- then there’s a problem, and what’s there is not normal grass.

In an attempt to save money, Kris started by trying to rip the sod out by hand, thinking it wouldn’t be that difficult.  This was before he realized the incredibly evolved root system of Bermuda grass.  In 30 minutes he got one chunk out, a line along the sidewalk.

Trust me, there is progress in this picture; it’s along the bottom edge of the grass.

Exhausted, he came back in, “Let’s rent a sod cutter,” he states.  “It’ll only be about $60.”  I agreed, realizing that for some things, machines work much better than slaving away out of cheapness.

Luckily, we have a tool rental Home Depot by our house and got the sod cutter for a 4 hour rental period.  We used it for less than 1 hour, but 4 hours was the minimum.

The machine cut through the thick ground like a sword.  It took Kris 30 minutes to get a one foot long line along the edge.  With the sod cutter, he finished the rest of the area in less than 20.

Starting at the outer edges, he circled his way around a labyrinth prayer, concentric squares into the next section.  Of course he was being extra cautious by the automatic sprinklers.  Not like we’d used them anyways- who’d want to give weeds water.

And then, there it was half of our front yard, naked as a baby.   Exposed for all our neighbors’ confusion and gossip, a symbol of the new young neighbor couple’s insanity.

Still clueless new homeowners, we thought we may be able to get rid of the sod by putting up an ad on Craigslist.  FREE SOD.  Apparently many people responded and 3 actually came to our house to check it out.

“It looks a little too dried out for me,” said the first.

“Not as much as I thought it would be, but thanks,” said the second.

The third curious person stopped by about 8 pm,  just as I was returning home from work.  I was slightly freaked out since this man in a truck seemed to be staring right at my house as I was getting out of my car and walking up the path.

“You here about the sod,” says Kris, coming out of the house to meet him.

“Yeah, but I want to take a look first,” he said smartly.  “I’ve been re-doing my sister’s back yard for free with things I’ve found on Craig’s List.”  Walking up behind me, he lists off the concrete, wood, and other findings he’s managed to get from the freebie listings.  He stops at the edge of the path, surveying the half of the yard that remains and the other half, rolled up into neat piles for one lucky person looking for grass.

“This is mierda,” he says, using the Spanish term. “Ess-Eightch-Eye-Tee.”  He looks at us as if we were idiots.  Even though it’s nighttime, his annoyed mockery is palpable.  “This is pure crabgrass.  Weeds.”  He laughs at our naïveté and his waste of time.  “Did anybody really offer to take this?”

“A few people come out to see it, but they thought it was too brown,” explains Kris, starting to doubt our grass’s nature.

“You shouldn’t give this crap away to people.”  Then the businessman’s voice comes out, after all, maybe this wasn’t a complete waste of his time.  “Thirty dollars and I’ll haul it away for you.”  Ever thrifty, we decline the offer.  My husband decided he’d take the weed-sod to the dump himself the next day while he went to get some free manure at a horse stable.  We thought that since it was green waste there wouldn’t be a dump fee.

The next day, Kris takes the day off work to dump the sod and shovel a different kind of ess-eightch-eye-tee, horse manure, for soil development.  The dump fee for the grass-weeds-sod-whatever it was, $36, not to mention the couple of hours to shovel, haul, and toss.  Thankfully the horse manure was free.



5 Potager designs

New Year’s Resolution: Rip out grass in front yard and replace with something better.

“We got to design it first, honey,” my husband tells me, curbing my enthusiasm.

“What do you mean?  We can’t just rip it out and then plant the plants?” I respond in my most logical convincing voice.

“No.”  He’s onto my tricks, probably because I use them all the time.  “Don’t you want a path, so you can access all your plants?”

“Well, yeah.”

“It’ll also help so you don’t trample on them.”  I nod my head in agreement and start wildly researching French Potager designs.  Remember, a potager is just a fancy French way of saying a kitchen garden.  I found the four most common designs, then Kris and I made a few variations on a theme and came out with our final design which is at the end of this post accompanied with a few current photos of how wildly the plants are growing.

Of course one option is to have no path and just step over plants as you weed, harvest or tend.  This is the option for all the careful people of the world.

Paths are a necessity for me.  I need a safe place to step that won’t harm my plants, although, when my plants are so overgrown they usurp the path I have to get a little creative.For all designs, green= path and brown=garden space 🙂

1.  Classic Raised beds.  This is the most common form of potagers, a mixed assortment of square or rectangular raised beds.Similar to one of the most famous French potagers at a castle called Villandry.

Photo by Manfred Heyde from Wikimedia Commons

It is also the design for the gardens at a famous Yountville restaurant.We snuck by them one day driving back from a Sonoma day trip.

Option #2: Keyhole designs allow circular access to plants.You can have many or one large one.

Option #3: 4 squares or Cross

Option #4: The “X,” similar to the cross, just angled to create triangular garden spaces instead of rectangular ones.

Finally, our design, option #5 a variation on the keyhole design.

And now…at the end of July, everything is rampant.  Love it!

Kris took this photo

The vines (acorn squash, honeydew melon, and ambrosia cantaloupe) are definitely the most expansive.

This one too.

Stay tuned patient souls for the continuing process of turning our front yard into a French kitchen garden.

Our No Front Lawn Experiment

One of our New Year’s Resolutions, and I quote, was “Rip up front yard and replace with something better.”  Who needs grass?  It’s like botox, once you start, you have to keep it up.

Here’s what we started with:Lots of beautiful roses that burst in the summer=pollinating insects.

Don’t be fooled, as we were, by the green color of what is posing as grass.  It’s really just a bunch of weeds and evil, invasive bermuda grass.  Ickk!

So, off with their heads, I mean roots!

Idealist that I am, I thought this would be a quick weekend project.  We’d just rip up the grass, then plant some cool vegetables, et voila, as the French would say, our garden.

Thank God I have a husband who actually thinks things through and likes to problem solve.

He took a more rational approach to my idealistic one.  He went through about 3 different path designs before finally settling on the one that would optimize access to the different areas of the front yard.  What can I say, he’s an engineer, this is what he’s been trained to do, optimize space and utility.

Here’s our final design:So far this is half of the front yard, and the rest will surely follow.  In May we were able to rip up this part, the right side of our yard, a 16’ by 17’ space with lots of sun.

This would be our space for a French potager. For non-garden people, or wannabes like me, a potager is just an uppity way of saying French-style kitchen garden with cooking herbs, vegetables, and complementary flowers to bring in the beneficial insects.

Here are the stages of the No-Front Lawn Experiment, which took us 3 weekends with the help of a few sucker fabulous friends.

  1. Plan out a design.
  2. Rip out the sod.
  3. Find cheap or better yet, free, manure and compost to enrich the soil.
  4. Create your path.
  5. Plant your potager.

Stay tuned for more about our No-Front Lawn Experiment.

Lessons from the Garden: Mystery

We have a few trees in our yard that the previous homeowners, for one reason or another decided to completely WHACK.

First we have an orange tree.You can see what’s growing in the back.

Next, a peach or nectarine, we’re not exactly sure since its fruit isn’t much more than a large pit surrounded by taut skin.And finally, our mystery tree extraordinaire.What you’ve probably noticed is that even though the entire tree has been cut down, more keeps a comin’.  The orange tree is a solid 12 feet tall.

The peach (or nectarine, whatever it is) has what seems like a million suckers coming out of its root stock.  Kris insists that we keep it one more year just to “See what happens.”

Then we have the mystery tree which last summer bloomed brilliant white flowers, no fruit. This year, the same stunning cloak of white flowers. I thought it was just a flowering tree, which is pretty darn cool in its own right, but this year…it has shockingly produced fruit.

Fruit that for the longest time mystified us.

First I thought it was a cherry tree.  The bark seemed reddish.  the leaves were oval with wave-like edging.  The fruits dangled from the branches, prompting much excitement.Then, the fruits got bigger.  And bigger.

I thought they were apples because they kept expanding.  Oh, we were excited to possibly have green Granny Smith apples.  So perfect for baking.

We left for a 2 week visit to Kris’ family in Nebraska, returned, and lo and behold, our it-was-a-cherry-now-its-an-apple tree has finally established its true identity.Bright red-violet plums.  Beautiful tangy plums that our dog Titania can eat if she sits back on her haunches and jumps up to pick them off of the low hanging branches.  She loves them.  Kris and I love them.  And finally, the mystery has been solved.

The other side of nature’s resilience

A week or so ago, I made a post about the resilience of nature.  True, nursing my sugar snap peas back to health from near-death helped me have faith in nature’s ability to recover itself.  Then I went out to our front yard and remembered the other side of nature’s resilience, weeds and grass.Yes, those splashes of purple are from a lavender bush, strangled by Bermuda grass gone wild.

Nature has her way of reminding us that bare ground will not stay that way for long.  She will fill it with something or we can.  I cleared this area back in February with the intention of putting landscape fabric down, but our dog Titania got to the fabric before I could, and her teeth marks made the weed block useless.

So, here I am again, at square #1 with stubborn weeds insisting on taking over.  I bought some weed killer and a friend even gave us another bottle, but I’m just not ready for those harsh chemicals.  I’m afraid it might kill my plants or the run off will cause harm.  So far the old-fashioned way of pull-pull-pull is OK, for now, except for my massive allergy attacks that happen after 5 minutes of pulling.  Luckily, my sister-friend, Natalie, helped clear out these weeds.

Kris and I are contemplating 3 options for this fertile area.
1.  Plant sweet corn
2.  Plant mint to be a delicious invasive ground cover
3.  Plant some other type of ground cover

All are better than the bermuda grass that lurks like a squatter in any spot of bare dirt.

The Avocado Tree That Carries All Hope

A gorgeous California February weekend demanded that I spend it outside in my backyard, working on the garden.

One major task was adding fertilizer to our avocado tree. Of all the trees on our property, this is the one that we are most excited about.  By we I mean myself, Kris, my mom, my neighbor Kathy, my godmother, and all of our friends who know we have this tree. We’ve eaten its two previous fruits, and this year, we all want more.

Of course, there were plenty of weeds around it, and I didn’t want weeds sucking up my expensive organic fertilizer. Titania helped out in her usual fashion; while I went ripping away at the bermuda grass et al, she sun bathed in her favorite spot.


Sunbather Extraordinaire

It took forever to get this picture because every time I came close, she’d look up and give me her big pit bull smile.


Smiling in the sun

Meanwhile, I worked on clearing space around the avocado tree in order to add fertilizer.  I noticed that the bermuda grass and other weeds were coming out quite easily, then discovered that it was because of landscape fabric put down by the previous owners.  In my zeal to get rid of the weeds, I’d ripped the fabric up.  I had to fertilize the tree, not the dirt above the landscaping fabric.  My hoe and gardening claw dug into the rich soil, full of earthworms and ants, creating a little circle around the tree.


Ooophs, ripped the fabric

Here’s the fertilizer I used, recommended by my local nursery.


E. B. Stone Organic Citrus Fertilizer

I staged it on top of the weeds I’d pulled, hoping that someone (besides me) would appreciate the irony.  I know the nursery probably just recommended the most expensive one; we’ll see how it does. A lot of people have high hopes for this tree.  Who wouldn’t? Look at these cute little buds; these are going to become flowers, and eventually…fruit.


Lots of Little Buds

I bought one 4 pound box, thinking I could use it for the many trees around our house (2 giant orange trees, an almond, a lemon, an apricot, a peach, and a cherry).  Then, I read the directions which explained that for a 5 year old avocado or citrus tree (I had to guess the age), I’d need to apply 4 pounds every time I fertilized!  The whole box for just one application!  Then, on top of that, I’m supposed to fertilize 3 times a year.  Is this normal?!  I am just flabbergasted (love that word).

I ended up following directions because, well…because I’m a teacher and appreciate when my students follow mine.  I mixed in the entire box, four pounds of fertilizer, around the tree.  We’ll see how she does (although I’m not sure if it is a male or female avocado tree).

Then, of course, Titania comes over to sniff out what I’m doing.  While my back is turned, mixing the powder into the soil, she grabs a quick lick of the fertilizer’s box.  I freak out, hoping it won’t poison her, good thing it’s organic.  When I look at the ingredients, I see that the first one is blood meal.  Go figure she’d want to lick that.

I decided I need to protect the fertilizer, not just from the dog, but from weeds that want to leech off of the richness I just added to the ground.  At this moment I wished I hadn’t ripped the landscape fabric so much.  I didn’t have any mulch, but what I did have was a lot of cardboard.


From a recent IKEA purchase

I’d just cut it, lay it around the tree, and remove it when I needed to water.  The size was perfect, and I didn’t even have to do my usual measuring by trail and error.


A resourceful substitute for mulch

Knowing that Titania would still be able to burrow her head under the cardboard, I found some bricks by the orange tree and moved them to use as weights.  Perfect dog/weed barrier.

The perfect makeshift mulch

Naturally, the dog keeps sniffing out the area with a guilty look on her face.  Hopefully my yelling and reprimanding plus the cardboard barrier will stand up to her pit bull stubbornness.



Massacre of the Thistles

We moved into our house in May of 2010.  One of the first items on the to-do list was clearing the thistles in the backyard.

These were not your ordinary thistles that randomly show up in the lawn. These were soulless devils that had been given free range of our new backyard for the past 2 years (my guess based on talking with our new neighbors).  They had completely conquered the left side of our yard, growing waist high and spreading virally.

Ever heard that expression, “A weed is just an unloved flower”?  No my friends, a weed is a infinite invasion of irritation, and thistles, with their think thorns and evolutionarily designed deep taproot and strong stem system are the worst offenders.

Kris, mid-destruction

Looking back, it seems I underestimated (or repressed) the actual size of these adversaries; it appears that these suckers topped Kris’ shoulder level.  Here’s another picture taken from my camera phone; it’s all we had at the time.

So manly...

After much finagling, Kris agreed to take out these weeds once and for all.  Little did I know, but thistles just keep coming back.  Luckily, we now dig them up before they explode out of control.

We tried to cut up the thistles with our lawn mower to make it easier to place in the green waste container, but, as you can see from this image, our little black mower’s bag couldn’t handle that kind of work, and this wasn’t even half of them!

Our lawnmower couldn't stand a chance

Still, by the time we, well, he, had finished, we had enough thistle carnage to last a lifetime.


The Carnage

Three weeks worth of filling the green waste bucket, and the thistles were gone, well, managed.  And behind all of that impassability, we found ourselves this…


One Perfect Avocado

It was divine.

First Foray into Edible Landscaping

Edible landscaping is a term made famous especially by the writings of Rosalind Creasy in her book, Edible Landscaping.  She starts from the premise that we can have a beautifully landscaped yard that also provides food.  In other words, we don’t have to limit ourselves to grass, roses and the like for our yard.  Vegetable plants, fruits, herbs, and edible flowers are just as beautiful and have the added benefit of providing deliciousness.

Our new house came in the “classically” 1950s landscaped grassy front yard with a wall of roses around the perimeter.  Don’t get me wrong, the roses are beautiful, and a couple of them actually smell divine as well, but I want a yard that is both beautiful and bountiful, so I’ve become a follower of the edible landscaping movement, the no-front-lawn revolution.  While we still have a front lawn, getting rid of it a post for another day, we are slowly making progress on parts of our yard.

First of all, after being abandoned for several years, the yard was completely overrun, wild, a suburban jungle.  We’ve been working on clearing the neglected yard, and this weekend, I worked on clearing out a front flowerbed to prepare a space for 3 blueberry bushes.

The bed contained iris plants that had developed a bulbous root system where each plant that I dug out had an underground body of bulbs connected to each other.  The hoe proved useless, the plants’ rhizome root systems were the size of my face, sometimes larger, so I got out a shovel and worked on finding the elusive bottom of these monstrosities.

Some older bulbs had been completely eviscerated, leaving a crumbling, leathery carcass full of holes, attached to the newer leech-like bulbs.  As beautiful as these flowers are, their rhizome-bulb-root system is a hydra, expanding exponentially, sucking the guts out of the previous year’s growth, growing 3 or 4 new plants from each one.  A little research helped me to understand that the irises must have been attacked by iris borers, worm-like voracious insects that eat away at the rhizome (the bulb/root system).   Left naked, marked up with dozens of small holes, the rhizome rotted and the plant died, but not before it let out one last attempt at prolonging its DNA, in the form of several bulbs connected to the disintegrated one.  These plants are hearty and have a will of steal.

However, they were no match for my shovel, and my own will of landscape transformation.  So, bed cleared of old irises, a few cyclamens also, I added an acidic soil preparation, since that’s what blueberry plants prefer.   Two bags worth of soil helped put back what I’d taken out via the irises.  Then, randomly out of nowhere, the sunny sky starts to rain on me.   A light sprinkle at first, and looking at the half sunny sky, I thought the rain would pass in a few minutes.  Ten minutes later, my sweatshirt soaked, the sky ambushed by rain clouds, my attempts at planting the blueberries were thwarted.  I place the three containers in their respective spots above ground for the sake of imagination, clean up, and go back inside for a late lunch.

My first foray into edible landscaping has been postponed for now, but the area is ready, the soil prepped, all that’s missing is putting in the plants, oh, and three years of waiting for the plants to heartily produce.