The Garden Project, Part Whatever

So much to do, so little time. However, with a few days of really nice weather and a little help from Mom and Dad, we knocked out some yard work in the past couple of weeks. Stuff we’ve accomplished:

  • power washed the siding and shutters on the front of the house
  • raked the front lawn (lots of dead grass and pine needles)
  • tilled the front flower bed where the old tree and hedge used to be
  • dug up weeds and grass in the bed alongside the driveway in preparation for grass seed
  • transplanted some hostas and sedum
  • assembled and filled two raised beds, planted vegetables and strawberries
  • dug up all the diseased rose bushes
  • mowed the lawn
  • cut down some overgrown shrubbery

Whew! What to do next?

  • rent a core aerator for the front lawn
  • over seed the front lawn
  • redraw the borders of the front flower bed and sow grass seed where necessary
  • buy and plant boxwoods along the porch
  • plant some annuals
  • mulch everywhere
  • sow some more spinach
  • prepare soil for summer garden crops like tomatoes

Today, though, I’m not going to do anything in the garden but watch my little plants grow. See the little radishes peeping through?

I’m finally making good progress refinishing Miss Seven’s dresser, and I’d like to get it finished in time for her First Communion in nine days. It’s obviously not essential to the celebration–she just needs the extra storage for her clothes so that her room doesn’t look like someone tossed the contents of a laundry basket in the air and let them fall where they may. I’d also like to get the dresser out of the garage so we can park the other car there again. I need a convenient deadline, so First Communion it is.



Why yes, I am staining this dresser purple. (Sangria, actually.)

Real food

The radish seeds I planted ten days ago have popped out of the soil in little pairs of round leaves. My reading tells me I may have been too generous with my seeds, scattering them in shallow furrows rather than spacing them apart. I expect to thin the seedlings in a day or two so they aren’t too crowded. The next few days promise to be sunny, so I hope to see a few more of my tiny crops pop up in their raised bed, too.

I’ve been on a steady reading diet of books about food. At long last, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I’m tearing through Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, by Michael Moss. I have a stack of gardening books from library, and my first issue of Urban Farm magazine arrived yesterday. My brain is swimming with conversations about what we eat and where it comes from.

All of this reading has crystallized my dissatisfaction with some of the food we eat (don’t get me started on the candy pushed at my preschooler at every turn). To be fair, our kitchen probably contains less processed food than in most houses on the block, and I’ve always been a proponent of moderation. I buy chips, but usually only if they go with a meal I’ve planned, not as an everyday snack. I don’t buy soda, water bottles, juice boxes, or any single-serve beverages unless we’re having a party (not counting the ginger beer and tonic water we keep on hand for cocktails). We rarely buy single-serve snack packages. Recently we bought a case of Pirate’s Booty at Costco for the kids to take for snack at school, but it’s just too easy for them to grab it as a default snack whenever they have the munchies.

The trouble is, some things are hard to moderate. For example, I haven’t been too picky lately about what kind of breakfast cereal I buy. My personal line in the sand stops at Red Dye Number Whatever, marshmallows, and chocolate. I like convenience as much as the next harried parent, but I’ve gotten more concerned lately as Little Five clearly prefers Golden Grahams and Cinnamon Toast Crunch over plain Cheerios, and regularly asks for (and is refused) them for lunch and after school snack. He craves sugar like nobody’s business, and wants dessert after every single meal. He doesn’t get it, but that hasn’t affected his demands. Honestly, I’m tired of the daily argument. Miss Seven, like her father, isn’t a big fan of cold cereal, but she will condescend to eat the sweetest ones. Anyway, I’m fully aware of the contradiction that while I’m busy packing their waste-free lunches, my kids are eating junky cereal for breakfast.

We had a long dinner conversation about better breakfast choices we could be making. Mr. Ten asked if there are different cereals we could buy that are healthier. This morning he learned to make his own oatmeal in the microwave and he confronted us with the ingredient label on the Trader Joe’s Cocoa Almond Spread that Miss Seven was spreading on her whole wheat mini bagel, so we had a little conversation about portion size.

Speaking of breakfast, we’ve embraced smoothies in our daily breakfast routine. It’s a good first step, but I’d like to work on finding other quick and healthy breakfast foods, since none of us finds a smoothie alone a satisfying meal. Some of us like oatmeal and other hot cereals with fruit, and some like eggs, but it seems everyone wants variety. Yesterday I baked a batch of healthy muffins (multigrain applesauce muffins, with just a splash of olive oil and honey), so that’s a good start, too. It might be as simple as refusing to buy cereal and forcing myself to bake and stock healthier choices that still taste good. I’m not putting my family on any kind of extreme diet, but we can continue our journey toward more whole foods, locally produced, prepared at home. And it’s just two more weeks until the farmer’s market opens!

The Garden Project: Ordering seeds

The snow has finally melted, the sun is shining, and I can see blue sky out my dirty windows. The daffodils are inching their way up. Spring is whispering in my ear. It ought to be saying, “Get on with the spring cleaning already,” but instead it’s telling me, “Plant a garden!” One morning last week, before coffee even, I ordered seeds and–on a whim–strawberry plants. I found that Home Depot has some reasonably priced raised bed kits that are in stock at my local store. There is still plenty of work in the back yard that requires the professionals, but I don’t want to wait until everything is perfect (that could be a long wait) before we start growing some vegetables this year. Right now I have a sunny spot that is clear and seeds on the way, so I have to make it happen!

I have no gardening expertise. A few times in years past we have planted a handful of vegetables, with mixed results. I am trying to start small this year so I don’t get in over my head. (“Baby steps, Bob!”) I’m not starting seeds indoors. I chose my seeds based on what the almanac tells me I can sow directly into the ground in March and April. I bought lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes, sugar snap peas, basil, parsley and beets. I plan to set up two four foot square beds, one with some trellis at the back for the peas, and see how it goes. Later in the spring, I hope to add some tomato plants, and maybe cucumber and squash.

In other landscaping news, we had our big tree and the remaining hedge cut down. We took advantage of a city program tree trimming program that gave us a reduced rate.



We are still waiting for the crew to return and grind out all the stumps. The front of the house looks dreadfully bare right now, and you can see all the pine needles the tree left in the gutter.



But thanks to Dig Right In, we have a beautiful plan to work from, and once the stumps are gone, I plan to work on amending the soil and adding some new plants in front of the porch.



I’m calling it officially Spring!


Are you making any plans for your outdoor spaces this spring?

The garden project: phase one

It’s been a long time since I first mentioned our landscaping project. We’ve moved at a glacial pace…lots of thinking, waiting, budgeting, thinking, waiting… Then we spent the majority of the summer traveling, so all projects were put on hold. But I’m excited to report that Phase I is finally a reality!

To refresh your memory: Our backyard has some serious drainage problems. Rain water and runoff flows from our neighbors’ lots on three sides into our low-lying property. Our ejector pumps also used to discharge under the patio and straight under the back lawn, causing erosion and subsidence of the soil over time. Every time we had a rainstorm, we had a swampy yard and standing water in some places, often taking weeks to drain. Grass wouldn’t grow, the lawn was bumpy, and the kids couldn’t go out and play without returning soaking wet and splashed with mud.

We have been so happy working with Dig Right In these past few months. They listened to our concerns and our vision for out outdoor space. They designed a complete plan for us (both a drainage plan and a landscape design), and then broke it down into phases so that we could prioritize and make some progress within our budget. What I most appreciate is their willingness to view the project as long term and to work within the reality of the budget we have at the moment. They are also committed to creating sustainable, Earth-friendly landscapes and educating homeowners about chemical-free lawn care and conservation practices.

So where are we now? We decided for this phase we would focus on improving the drainage. Jeff mapped out a swale to direct the water coming into the back of our property and move it (along with water from our downspouts and ejector pumps) toward the storm water sewer on the street in front of our property.

The crew began by removing some of the larger “weed trees” and out of control shrubs around the perimeter of the lot. Then they started moving the soil to create a channel for the water and keep it out of the center of the lawn. They added new sod to the swale to eliminate erosion, and in a future phase, we’ll also have a dry streambed of stones and rocks.

What else do we have to look forward to in future phases? To complete the drainage plan, Dig Right In will create a domed lawn for us so rainwater runs down into the swale and doesn’t pool in the grass. They’ll help us create some new perennial beds around the patio, reusing many of the plants that we already have. They also gave us a beautiful design for the front yard. The progress they made in a single day has really motivated us to get out  and do some of the work ourselves.

My dear friend Jen came with her shovels and helped me dig out the large overgrown bed along the east side of the back yard that is destined to become a vegetable garden. (Let’s be real: I helped her.) We trimmed branches, dug up yucca plants with their gigantic roots, eradicated more purple loosestrife, and pulled out countless day lilies to give away. I weeded several more beds (some more thoroughly than others), and we borrowed a chainsaw so that we can continue to cut down the overgrown shrubs and hedges. It’s a work in progress!

The week in review

How is it Friday already? This week flew by in a whirlwind of gardening, doctor’s appointments, buying school supplies, and watching the Olympics. And playdates. Lots of playdates. So here it is Friday (I swear I thought it was Thursday when I woke up this morning), and the blog posts in my head are as yet unwritten, unpublished.

So here’s a quick summer-is-winding-down summary of my week for you:


As a result of the drought this summer (and our neglect while away on vacation), we are now performing triage on our ragged lawn and garden. Our efforts to water the front lawn seem to be making a difference (let’s just agree not to talk about the weeds or the layer of pine needles). I have been hacking away at the wilted brown daylilies and miles of weeds that have overtaken the flower beds. My doctor told me I need to do more cardio, but I think my daily hour (or three) swinging a hoe is going to count this week. I planted some mums, spread some mulch, and have created many piles of yard waste to bag for pickup next week. And in a feat of superhuman strength, my husband single-handedly chopped down two-thirds of our overgrown hedge. Next week: more weeding, more mulch.


Do you have any great hints for maintaining your lawn and garden in the worst of the summer heat?


In the kitchen, I’ve been keeping things simple. Sunday night we were so wiped out, we ate popcorn for dinner. I jazzed up the popped kernels with a generous handful of grated cheese, leftover bacon, melted butter and salt. Mix it up and bake on a rimmed cookie sheet at 250 degrees for 5-10 minutes, until the cheese melts. Serve with Chocolate Banana Milk Shakes (from Mollie Katzen’s kid’s cookbook Pretend Soup).

Cheddar Bacon Popcorn

I also tried one new recipe from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain. With the illicit stash of cheap quinoa flour that I brought from Ecuador in my suitcase, I made the Banana-Walnut cake. My kids often say they don’t like nuts, but they sure liked the cake. It was lovely with a tall glass of iced coffee while catching up with a good friend. (It’s a super moist cake and keeps really well for a few days–two, at least!) I’ve got some amaranth flour to try next. Next week I’ll share a recipe for a cool Avocado Shrimp Roll–wonderful for a summer lunch or light supper. I need to make it one more time to get it just right…


HAHAHA!!! By that I mean that things are getting pretty dusty–possibly even sticky–around here. The daily laundry routine has helped me keep on top of the dirty clothes, and I’ve managed to make the bed and do the dishes every day. I even broke out the vacuum and attacked the family room rug (and then issued one of my frequent bans of food in the family room–frequently broken by everyone, including me). But any serious cleaning is going to wait until next week. We’re expecting houseguests again next weekend, so I’ve divvied up my cleaning tasks throughout the week on my list at I love TeuxDeux because I can’t misplace my list! It automatically moves any items you haven’t crossed off onto the next day’s list–so easy.

How do you prepare for houseguests? Mints on the pillow?

The garden project: an introduction


I’m really excited to share our latest house project with you, even though it’s not strictly inside the house.

We’ve lived in our house five years, now, and the back yard has deteriorated steadily since we moved in. Sure, we mow the grass, occasionally have a weed-pulling or leaf-raking session, and try to pick up the kid’s outdoor toys once in a while. But things have gotten out of hand. Every time it rains we have mud puddles that take days–sometimes weeks–to disappear, and a soggy lawn prevents us from mowing those areas where grass still grows. Each year the marshy area creeps farther into the yard. Sometimes it feels as if our house is slowly turning into an island.

After a good rainfall, this is the lawn in front of the swingset.

Several factors are to blame.

1) We’re at the bottom of a slope, and all the lots that surround us are on higher ground and drain toward our lot.

2) Our ejector pumps used to discharge straight into the back yard, gradually eroding the soil (we had the pipes redirected last year).

3) The previous owners were avid amateur gardeners, and planted far more than we can keep up with.

4) Several invasive plant species have crowded out the nicer plants.

5) We have three young children and minimal gardening knowledge. A recipe for a wild garden if there ever was one!

This secret garden needs some love…look at our poor capsized garden ornament among the weeds!

We also have a bunch of issues with the front yard (imagine the forest growing up around Sleeping Beauty’s castle), but the water issues in the back are foremost in our mind, since they prevent us from using the space at all: it’s often too muddy for the kids to play or for us to host a backyard barbeque.

So, after months of browsing the gardening shelves at the library and consulting Google with searches like “poor yard drainage,” I finally stumbled upon a local landscaping company that specializes in environmentally friendly solutions to yard drainage issues. I discovered the concept of the rain garden, which diverts storm water runoff to a garden that absorbs and filters the water instead of flooding your lawn. Finally, a solution!

Before meeting with Jeff Swano, owner of digrightin, I started a list of what our dream back yard might look like and what questions and problems we wanted to solve. We expect to be in this house for a long time, and we’d like the outdoor space to function well for our family. The neighborhood children run in and out, playing long games of hide-and-seek (often behind the shed) and crowding into the playhouse. We like to entertain and enjoy family meals on the patio in the summer. We’d like to do a little bit of vegetable gardening and maybe learn how to compost. We want a low-maintenance landscape and some guidance and education on how to maintain it without applying chemical fertilizers or weedkillers.

Jeff reassured me that he could sculpt our yard so that the water collects along designated paths around the perimeter of our lot instead of flooding the grass. He offered to tutor us in organic lawn care (which I realize involves more than just ignoring the weeds). Yesterday, the landscape designer stopped by to take photos and inventory what good plants we already have (and we have a lot!) that can be kept or moved, and which are overgrown or weeds that need to be removed.

So far I am really impressed by how the digrightin staff have listened to our needs, and recognized that this is long-term project for us. This year we’re focused on the nitty gritty of the drainage problems, but eventually, as our budget allows, we’d like to make over the front yard, too. I’m looking forward to seeing the completed design, even if we can’t realize it all this year.

I’ll continue to share our progress on the back yard. In the meantime, I plan to get a little dirty myself and work on this little bed alongside the driveway that I am slowly filling with herbs. Even though we’re not making major changes in the front yard this year, I can do a little to make it attractive for now. A little.