Saturday, April 25, 2009


This is the weekend that I was really hoping to get started on the Big Project, but the tree trunk has intervened. Turns out it is still much too solid to work around and we will need to get it ground out before I can start building.

I took an adze to it today and had little success. The parts that were completely underground for the past five years are partly decomposed, but even some of them are very solid. The stump itself is still very solid and won't even break up around the edges, so it won't be possible to build around it. Fortunately we know a tree man and will call him Monday. With luck he will be able to come soon and grind it up.

So, for this project there are two things I can do this weekend. First, I can is go look at landscaping timber choices. I would really prefer something that is more square - like railroad ties - than the ones with two curved sides, but that will work if that is all that's available. And secondly, I can pull up the timbers that are there and till the area around the outer perimeter of the space. I may reuse the timbers in the new box, so will keep them until I decide on materials.

Otherwise, looks like it will be a weekend of clean-up. I need to clear a foot on either side of the main path thru the garden, and that will include using Round-Up on a large area where sea oats have colonized all over the path, as well is clearing back the Shasta Daisies and more Monarda and a bit of the chrysanthemum patch. It is easy to see this week how much the maurading monarda did to that patch. Where there was no interferance, the chrysanthemums are about four inches taller than in the area I cleared last week.

Had hoped to receive my order of plants for the purple river today. The nursery sent an email on Wednesday that they were shipped, but now they will sit in the post office all weekend - hopefully not in a truck! I would love to get these plants in the ground soon. We are expecting heat in the low 90's this weekend, so I may have to water on Sunday or Monday.

What's blooming this week:
The Fothergilla is in full bloom and prettier this year than last. I really tried to water it periodically this past winter. More azaleas, too, and the woods hyacinths have come into full bloom. The prettiest thing is a white Viburnum, which is nearly full size now and covered with blooms. The groundcover around it is a purple vinca, so the contrast is nice.

Friday, April 24, 2009

There's Always a Better Job out There

Stacy was a Regional Manager and health educator at the last company for which I worked. When it closed a year ago - laying off 150 people - she quickly found a similar job and seemed well set. In a short time, however, she was not satisfied and began looking again.

As the main bread winner in her household and the mother of a teenage son, she had more to consider than just work hours and pay rate. For her there were many quality of life decisions: how much time would she have with her family, was the work fulfilling, would it provide future opportunities - all those real life questions. And, when one is forced to change careers in mid-life one may also have the opportunity to make a change in direction; one of Stacy's long-held dreams was to get her PhD and teach at the college level.

An opportunity arose to work on a grant contract to study the effectiveness of health education programs in worksite settings. Not only was it in her field, but it also was sponsored by the university where she wanted to get her PhD and so would allow her to go to school for reduced tuition. She jumped at the opportunity and now has two semesters finished and is nearly a year into her job. We talked today and it was wonderful to hear her enthusiasm about her progress.

More than 15 years after completing her Master's degree, she is back in the classroom and loves the experience. She has discovered that there is much new information in her field and she is mentally challenged to update her skills. She has learned new theories and thru her job is having the opportunity to see them implemented. She is designing programs that are completely different than the ones she worked with for fifteen years. She has written applications to present papers at national conferences and may get the opportunity to make the presentations herself. She has recovered both the joy of learning and the challenge of doing.

Professionally and personally she is growing and developing and building on her strong skill base. One day she will be a fine teacher - perhaps at the same university - and another generation of health educators will benefit from the combination of her education and experience. What appeared to be a professional body blow a year ago has turned into a wonderful opportunity for Stacy, and she is making the most of it. Best of all, she is enjoying every minute. I can hardly wait to hear what happens next.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Big Project

A week or so when I listed the projects I wanted to complete this year, I hinted that I had a big project in mind, and I do. Several years ago, I planted several big clumps of decorative grass along the fence that divides us from our neighbor. Mainly it was a place to put some miscanthus grass that I had and did not want to just throw away. When the grass died we tried sunflowers there, but nothing has ever really worked well. Then about two years ago we visited friends in New Mexico and got interested in xeriscape gardening - gardening with minimal water - and some of the plants that will do well in our climate, but which hate our clay-rich soil. Because the fence is at the extreme of our yard it is hard to water and would lend itself to a garden that needs less water, so here's the project: I want to build a raised bed and plant it with bee and hummingbird attracting plants that don't need much water.

There are several challenges: 1) the yard slopes about 8 inches from right to left; 2) the native honeysuckle on the trellis is well established and we want to keep it; 3) there is a rotting tree stump in the middle of the space; and 4) this is Central Virginia and our soil holds water like a sponge. So, here's the plan:

First, I'm going to use timbers of some sort to build a box for the garden. They will have to stair step up from left to right. I will have to level each row until I get out of the ground. Overall, I think I want it about 12 inches tall at the right end.

Secondly, it will have to end about 12 inches from the trellis and honeysuckle. That will create a "well" for the honeysuckle, so I will need to create a swale to run off the water.

Thirdly, I need to try to break up the old stump as much as possible. It can be buried in soil and will not matter, but I would like to clear it away from the fence enough to place the landscape timber between it and the fence. It's been rotting for about five years, so I may be able to take an ax to it and do pretty much damage now.

And finally, I will have to measure carefully since I have to build it from the left end up toward the trellis and that's the hard way! Once I build the box I will put in several inches of gravel and then several inches of sand. I'll top it with several inches of enriched dirt - Mitchell makes great dirt in his composter - and then the plants will be those that like a drenching, but good drainage. I will need to put weep holes of some sort in the downhill end of the box so that the water can get out.

I already have a catalog from High Country Gardens marked and ready to order - penstemon, evening primrose, salvia, creeping thyme, and agastache. I also plan to transplant some sea oats that are spreading where I don't want them, and maybe a varigated yucca that is not doing well where it's currently planted.

With luck I can build it in three weekends. I have a Mantis tiller that will break up the dirt, but I will still have to place the timbers individually and attach them somehow so they can't fall down. I will see what Mitchell can suggest for that. Then it's simply a matter of carrying in bags of gravel and sand. Stay tuned for progress reports.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mitchell's Vegetable Garden

Lest you think that I am the only gardener in the family, you need to meet Mitchell's veggies. He got interested in "square foot gardening" last summer and built two four-by-four boxes, complete with wire-frame tops to keep the critters out. He planted fall veggies and we enjoyed radishes, beets, lettuce and spinach. In fact we have been eating his spinach again for the past month.

This spring he decided to branch out and try a few more things. With a little digging help from a friend he has planted four tomatoes, five peppers of various colors and tastes, a patch of onions and some head lettuce. He is currently soaking spinach seed to add a row of new spinach. He has ordered a lattice to support his tomatoes as they grow, so that will be an interesting new part of the project.

We have neighbors who started this trend last spring. They had a lovely garden with excellent tomatoes growing on a similar lattice, and tons of other veggies. They were his inspiration. Unfortunately, we cannot keep up with the Jones on this, as they have already added two more 4 x 4's this spring.

SFG is a real theory of gardening, complete with a book and website, so if you want to really learn the principles I'd refer you to the expert - Mel Bartholomew at

Mitchell has found it to be an easy plan to follow and we got good results last year. We planted the beets too close together and did not thin them properly, so that was a bit of a disappointment, but the mistakes were all ours. We will do them again this fall, 'cause we really like them! The weeds are kept to a minimum by the raised bed, and it's easy to take care of, so works well for us. I'll keep you posted on his progress.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Save Comic Sans

Late last night I learned there is a movement afoot [always wanted to say that; it sounds so Sherlock Holmes!] to ban the use of Comic Sans font - one of my favorite fonts. Apparently some folks think that Comic Sans is overused and inappropriately used and so they are working to rid the world of this scourge.

Now I agree with them that Comic Sans is used inappropriately. Clearly it's a funster and should be used only in lighthearted ways, but if we start there what goes next? Helvetica, or Times New Roman, or Verdana?

Personally, I would ban Remedy. Fortunately, most folks got really tired of it a while ago, so you don't see it much any more. Dropped into a headline it can provide a bit of wow factor, but I once worked for a company that did an entire marketing presentation folder with multiple inserts all in Remedy. It was almost unreadable.

Another font that is becoming overused is Bank Gothic. I like it, too, but you see it in all sorts of odd places. Clearly it was meant to convey strength, calm and safety - can you say "bank"? - but you see it used for lots of other things now. Maybe we should ban it, too.

The leaders of the Ban Comic Sans movement are concerned that by the year 2050 it will have become the only font used. They say. "By the year 2022 the US Federal Reserve will have adopted Comic Sans as the official font for all United States currency." I kind of like the idea. If we keep Bank Gothic for a safe and solid feeling, then our money could get a little funkier. Or, maybe by 2050 it'll be funny money anyway, and the Comic Sans will be the right font after all.

However it goes, you'd better start choosing your three favorite fonts and protecting them!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bullies in the Garden

Altho much of the weekend was spent working on the patio, there was still plenty else to do. Remember the plants I picked up along the way while I was getting supplies for the patio? - well they all needed to be planted. Most went somewhere in the purple river bed - either as accents or as purple plants, but in clearing space I found myself battling a bully - monarda.

About five years ago Mitchell's boss gave me three small pots of dark purple Monarda. It's a beautiful shade and the bees fight with the hummingbirds to get to the nectar, so it is a garden favorite. I love the smell of it, and the square stems, and the way it fills with bees. I love the color and the way it looks nestled in with the white Shasta Daisies. It's a favorite plant, and like most perennials it moves around a bit and the clump increases in size each year, but that's one of the joys of perennials. I like having extra plants to give away or to try somewhere else in the garden.

Apparently, tho, while I have been thinking of pavers and ponds, the bee balm brigade has tried to take the entire beach head of my garden. In short - it was everywhere! The river of purple was well on its way to being a river of bee balm. I had to dig out every single salvia, and the lilies and day lilies, and the hydrangea. Most of all I had to rescue the chrysanthemums, which were absolutely overgrown. I'm guessing I pulled a mile of monarda roots! It smelled great and I had all sorts of bees for company, but it had to come out. I suspect that I will need to give it some attention for the rest of the summer to keep the chrysanthemums clear.

One of the hard parts of gardening is deciding who's a bully. For five years monarda was a hero, filling in the blank spaces and providing great color and fragrance all summer long, and suddenly I have proclaimed it a menace. The shasta daisies could go that way any time. They spread more slowly, but their clumps are larger every year. The Obedient Plant is the same. It's currently in a place that's shadier than it really likes, so it isn't spreading at full speed, but it could go bully at any time. It's all a matter of context. As my garden changes and my plan matures, I suspect many old friends will have to be reigned in.

About the third year we were here and I had finished digging up the entire width of the backyard, and had a good many plants in place, Mitchell asked what I would do "now that the garden is finished". My reply as something like, "start moving things around". And now that's what it's all about.

I'm even more excited about my purple river now that I am beginning to see it - the salvia all came back and I have added some things this weekend and ordered a few more plants that should arrive soon, so it may be a reality by the middle of June. Then I will look around and see what I want to plan for next year.

Coming later this week: Mitchell's vegetable garden and The Big Project.

Let There Be Patio!

Creating - ok, building - the sitting place was not nearly as hard as I had feared. I was able to create the solid walkway with a matching paver and then it just grew from there. Because of the curve in the walkway, I had to play a bit with curve, but even that worked out well. I used the six slate squares to create a bit of design on either side of the walkway, which - I hope - draws the eye to the pond, and then filled in the rest as I went.

The hardest part was keeping it level. There is an incline from the front of the bed toward the back that rises about 2.5 inches overall. I decided to make the sitting area higher so that water would run off of it, rather than standing on it, so I had to add soil underneath the pavers nearer the front, but even that worked out ok. Approaching the sitting area from the front, there is a small step up - but it's clearly seen, so should not be a hazard for tripping. I ended up getting some half bricks and burying them under the very front edge of the front step. That gave it the stability it needed and let me get it settled well and level without the front tilting.

Around the pond I planted some sedum to help hold the soil and soften the edges and where the stones created "holes" around the edges I put groundcovers and small plants. I had to pull up a good bit of ground cover - mostly a creaping euonomyous, which will come back and help soften the edges.

The only potential problem child that I see so far is an iris at the front corner of the new space. I am afraid that water coming off the sitting area may stand there and - well, drown it. I will keep an eye on it this spring and try to move any standing water away and then transplant it in July to higher ground just in case. It's a huge pink iris that mother gave me, so I want to take good care of it.

The final step was to take some construction sand to fill the spaces between the pavers. I like the orangy color - which emphasizes the slight "sunray" effect that is caused by the curve of the walkway - and it's more course than play sand. I filled the spaces by hand and then watered it. Should have swept it first because the washing was too hard and moved a lot of the sand around. Once it dried I swept it back into the spaces and it looked fine. Will probably have to add more sand in a few days. We are due to have rain tonight, so that will help settle both the sand and the dirt under it, and I may need to fill a bit more.

Overall it took me 8 - 10 hours of work, and not too hard, plus about $25 in materials. Since I had about half of the stones to begin with, I saved a lot there. Of course, I spent it on other plants for the garden. But now I am ready to all it a patio!

What's new in blooms today?

Spring is coming on so fast, that it will soon be hard to keep up. The first (dark, dark pink) azaleas bloomed Saturday, and the first lavendar bloomed today. The woods hyacinths bloomed Saturday, too.

A word to the novice: This is not the way to set a patio to last forever. To do that one must dig out the space, fill with construction sand, level and then set the stones. I have done it the cheap and easy way and will pay for it over the years with heaving. I will have to relevel some of the stones every year. Since we will only use this patio for sitting and it will not get much foot traffic, I decided it was worth the risk.