Friday, September 25, 2009

How to sow grass seeds, part I: preparing the soil

Last weekend, for the first time ever, I had the pleasure working in my yard, doing the back-breaking, thigh-throbbing, never-ending work of preparing the soil for sowing grass seeds.

OK- it wasn’t me alone. There were five of us. And, to be totally honest, I worked in the yard the least of us, as I had to spend most of the time running after Lil’Dawg or feeding Pup. But I did get my hands dirty as much as I could. And I loved it.

As I wrote in an earlier post, due to the yard looking like this:

we decided to have the entire yard leveled by local farmer and have some topsoil added. Then Dawg and I would sow the grass seeds ourselves.

The leveling took place weekend before last.

Things were going fine until we noticed the soil that the farmer had brought to cover our yard. For some reason, we had expected the soil to look like it would when you buy it in a gardening store: dark, rich, moist, healthy. But we got this:

Even though the farmer assured us that he would get rid of the bigger chunks of rock, I immediately made a call to our friend Skip, who has a degree in Horticulture, and asked her if we were being ripped off by purchasing rock-and-brick filled soil. She told us that it was unreasonable to expect the soil to look like store-bought soil, as that would be crazy expensive, and something the French would think completely unnecessary. Our soil would improve over the years as we tended to it and used my compost on it. However, we would need to, she said, get rid of as many as the rocks as possible, even after the farmer had done his work.

That’s when we asked her and her boyfriend to come down the weekend and help us. We thought it would be fun. Poor them.

To prepare soil for sowing seeds, you need to do five things:
1. Smooth over any deep ruts or bumps in the yard.
2. Break up thick clumps of soil.
3. Remove rocks, weeds or trash from the soil.
4. Rake the area to level it.
5. Use a roller to make the soil firm (or just walk all over the area).

Preparing the soil took about 12 hours of work – almost all day Saturday, plus most of Sunday – and that was with 3 of us working at any point. It wasn’t just that we have a big working space (about 1300 sq.meters/13,900 sq. feet), but that our soil has multiple personalities. Horribly clayey in one area…sandy in another…rocky as a pebble beach in another. Breaking up the clay was a nightmare – some clumps were so tough that even hurling it into the side of the barn didn’t break it up. And the rocks seem to multiply under our fingers. We filled the tractor’s shovel twice, and still the yard was crazy with rocks. And broken glass. Oh, and the weeds! I swear, it’ll be a miracle if we get any grass at all. But we did go from this:

To this:

It may not have been perfect, but we felt pretty good about it.

I'm going to end this post with a few pictures of the weekend, but before I do, I want to give huge props to Skip and Tollie, who gave up their entire weekend to do hard, sweaty work. They worked harder than Dawg or me, and never complained (at least not to us) about how tiring it was or how much work was left to them while we were dealing with the kids. They didn’t even complain when Lil’Dawg tipped over the wheelbarrow that was full of rocks that we had painstakingly collected. So, props to you my friends. Ya’ll rock! (No pun intended).

Okay here are the pix.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The newest flower in my garden

This is my son "Pup" - born July 28, 2009.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dahlias and Grass Seeds and Lavender...Oh my!

I've been both a terribly negligent gardener and blogger. My apologies to you for the blogging bit, to my garden for the other. The only thing I've managed to get done since I last posted was plant the dahlia bulbs -- and I didn't even do that personally. My father-in-law did it. As I was almost 8 months pregnant at the time, my in-laws and husband thought it wasn't such a good idea for me to exert myself in that manner, even though I felt perfectly capable. So, the extent of my participation in the project was to tell my father-in-law where I wanted the bulbs planted and watch him do it. I know there will be plenty of other opportunties to plant bulbs, but I was a bit disappointed that I didn't do these first ones. Especially when I saw my son "helping" his grandfather water the newly planted bulbs with his tiny plastic watering can. But that's okay - the next time we went out to the house, one of the first things I did was to take Lil'Dawg out into the yard, with his little can, and water the flowers. Makes me feel good to know he'll grow up with this garden.

It was fun deciding where to put the dahlias. As I don't yet have a plan for the garden, I felt I could put them anywhere. I opted for around the well, so I'd be able to see them from our kitchen window:

I don't know whether the bulbs will actually grow. We may have left the planting too late...they should have been planted in April or May, but we didn't do it until early June. The last time I was at the house (late June), I thought I saw one shoot coming up, but it could have very well been a weed. And now, being in my 9th month of pregnancy, I won't be back at the house for at least another month or so, so I don't know what's going to happen to the poor things. Doesn't it figure that after having years of rainy summers, this one has been very hot and dry?

Anyway, we are moving ahead in other ways. We had a landscaping guy come out to figure out an estimate for leveling the yard. Right now, it is so full of ruts that Lil'Dawg keeps falling in them and cries piteously until one of us recues him. I think the job will be done in September: we'll have it leveled and a new layer of soil put on top. Then Dawg and I will sow some grass seeds. I'm really looking forward to that.

So, that's the update on our garden. Once the baby's born and we are at the house more frequently, I'll be posting regularly again.

(And by the way, the lavender on my balcony has gained new life - it looked half-dead two months ago, but now it's full of lovely purple shoots! It'll go into the ground at our house this fall.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Lavender redux

I can't believe it's been so long since I posted. Especially since I am always thinking about my garden and considering what to do next. The last time I was at the house (last weekend) we had friends visiting, and there was no time to do any gardening between showing them around the region and running after the little ones. I wish I could say that we could just let the kiddos loose in the garden, but it's full of stingweed, which - as you may guess from the name - leaves a very unpleasant stinging sensation when it brushes against your bare skin. We had expected for the grass to have been cut before our visit, but the people we'd hired told us that the machine broke down practically right at the start of the job. This is not surprising to me as the weeds in our garden often grow to some six feet tall and a couple inches thick. Seriously, it can be like a jungle and you need appropriate jungle-hacking equipment to tame our yard.

But advancements have been made in small ways. With the help of our friend, Dawg finished assembling our compost bin. It seemed quite a laborious task, but I think it looks great! And the compost itself is beginning to become a dark and earthy mix; finally not just a heap of twigs and organic trash. Here's a pic of the bin hanging out behind our barn:

I've also made some decisions about my balcony lavender plant. After seeing a very healthy, green and not-at-all woody lavender plant on the balcony of a friend, I figured my poor plant would probably never recover. But my friend, who studied lanscaping, suggested that I basically make a cutting of the whole plant,but instead of putting on our balcony, plant it directly in our garden. She said it should thrive well directly in the earth. Good idea!

Now if I could ever find a moment to actually spend in the garden! Except for a brief stint this weekend to decide upon the color of the house(have you ever had to make this decision - it's so scary), we won't be back until the first full weekend in June. On the bright side, we'll be bring Dawg's parents with us. Dawg's dad is a fabulous gardener, so I'm sure he'll have all kinds of tips for us.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Last week was just goregous in Paris: sunshine, blue skies, lovely cool breezes. Made me impatient to see my (would-be) garden again. A friend gave me some Dahlia bulbs for my birthday and I couldn't wait to clear a little space in the yard to plant them.

We arrived at the house late on Friday evening. Even though it was 9pm, the sky was still light and the air held the sweetness and warmth of late May. Went to bed full of anticipation. Woke up to a grey, lightless bedroom and the splatter of rain on the windows. Correction: the splatter of rain on the plastic on the windows. We're in the final stages of having work done on our house's facade, and so every window of the house is covered with heavy plastic.

To confirm the bad weather, I had to open the front door and was nearly knocked over by a freezing wind. Suddenly it was winter again. The rain came down fast, cold and sloppy all weekend. We huddled inside and built fires. Sounds cozy, except that we couldn't see out of any of our beautiful 6-foot windows -- all we could see was dirty plastic. I was bummed that not only could I not plant my bulbs, I couldn't even see the yard. A weird, claustrophobic sensation.

On the bright side, my husband Dawg did buy me a lovely wooden compost bin. It's huge (3x3x3 ft, I think) and will take awhile to fill, but I'm excited about it. (My freestanding heap will soon be taken over by weeds.) Poor Dawg spent quite a long time putting it together in the pouring rain and couldn't even finish because we had to head back to Paris. I wanted to take a picture of it but our camera battery wasn't charged and we didn't have the charger with us. Honestly...thwarted at every turn!

We have a theory (superstition?) that everytime we have a mediocre visit to the house the next one will be great. Our next trip out there looks promising!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Balcony plants: Care of Lavender

This blog will mainly be about the development of the garden at my house, but every now and then (like now) I will feel compelled to talk about the flowers on our balcony in Paris.

For years, we've paid scant attention to them other than to water them, occasionally prune the roses, and replant dead ones in the Spring. They've done pretty well despite our lack of attention, but now that I'm getting into the whole gardening thing, I'm getting a little more ambitious.

Last year we bought lavender and placed in a pot outside our bedroom window, hoping that our room would become infused with its wonderful, summery fragrance. Didn't really happen that way. We could smell it if we were bending over it, but that's about it. I don't know what we did wrong, but as we did nothing other than water it , I figure it could be just about anything. This year I did a bit of research on care of lavender. Surprise, surprise: in order for it to flourish, it needs to be pruned regularly so that the woody stem part doesn't take over and so that it doesn't develop an open center. Pruning should occur either in early spring, just after the first new growth but before the flowers blossom, or in autumn, before the first frost.

My timing was pretty good: I did my research in early spring, before the flowers developed. But when I looked at my plant, I realized there were lots of woody stems, the center looked open-ish. Was it too late? I don't know - I just quickly got down to business pruning. You prune lavender by cutting the plant back by about 1/3rd. Make sure that you don't cut into the woody part and that you've left green leaves showing. (If you cut too far and/or eliminate the green leaves, the plant may not recover.)

A few weeks have gone by since the pruning. The plant has definitely grown with lots of new green leaves (no flowers yet - too early?). But it looks straggly. The woody part still seems very prominent, and the center still kind of open. So, again I wonder: is it too late?

I've posted a couple of pictures of the plant below (click on the picture to enlarge). If there are any knowledgeable gardeners or gardener-types out there, I'd appreciate your input. Is there anything I can do to improve the look of this plant? If it's worth saving, I plan to re-pot it with fresh soil and maybe a bigger pot.

Any advice would be appreciated. I really want to get it right because I'm envisioning having lavender at our house just beneath the windows to our living room and kitchen. Mmmmmm. Could be heavenly.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Progress...or not.

Well. Things are moving slowly on the gardening front. For the past two weekends, Dawg and I have been going to gardening stores to buy soil test kit - but apparently that's not a priority here in France (at least not in this part of France). I found only one kit and that tested for pH and nothing else. Of course, after doing all my research, I have it in my head to have the most comprehensive testing kit possible, so that little box was duly rejected. But as that's all I've been able to find, it might have to do.

Another issue has been finding a compost bin. Either the stores don't have them, or they're these huge black plastic monstrosities. I would like a wooden one, purely for aesethetic reasons, though Dawg thinks it might not be practicable (I don't know why it wouldn't be though - and I don't think he knows either. I think it's because his dad, who is a fantastic gardener doesn't have a wooden one.) If there are any readers out there who have an opinion, I'd love to hear about it.

Next, we're looking to have our garden leveled. As I mentioned before, we've got really deep tractor tracks in our yard from when the roofer was there. The problem is - who will do it? People in these parts have a really mysterious attitude towards work. As we've learned from restoring the house, even if you have a big, expensive project, workers will hem and haw like we've asked them to do something illegal. Everytime we've asked neighbors who might be good for leveling our yard, they get all shifty and evasive.

For example, recently a women from the neighboring village dropped by our house to see how works were progressing. We know her fairly well, as we used to stay in her chambres d'hotes, when the house was entirely uninhabitable and we needed to stay nearby. Her husband would be the perfect guy to work straighten out our yard, and we know he has the right machinery. But when we asked her about it, she looked like a cornered rat and said, uncomfortably, that we'd have to ask him. Well, okay. But why the nervousness? Why can't she men tion a potential job to him? I have a feeling that finding someone is going to take awhile, which depresses me a bit. Our kid will start running through the yard, then get stuck in (what is for him at 20-months) a deep hole. It needs to be leveled.

But on the bright side, we looked out the window this weekend and saw a nice little surprise by the stone wall that we share with our neighbor.

We planted these years ago, when the yard was literally still strewn with chicken wire and broken glass. Dawg's sister, not knowing the true state of our house and yard, bought us daffodil bulbs to plant. Even though everything was a mess, we thought - what the hell - and planted them in the hard, winter ground. And to our surprise, they bloomed the following spring. I guess they've bloomed every year since, though we've been too preoccupied with the house and the baby to notice.

Anyway, it makes for a pleasant change to see something other than weeds and tire tracks in our yard. Can't wait until the whole thing is filled with flowers!

Monday, March 23, 2009

How to Start A Garden

So, after the composting fiasco I decided to do a little research before I took any further steps on my garden. How in the world do you start a garden from scratch? I assumed that you don't just start haphazardly throwing seeds and bulbs in the ground, but beyond that I had no idea. I put this question to the wise gardeners at Garden Stew and did some further poking around, and I think I've come up with a general plan.

The first thing to do is to assess your soil conditions. This makes sense because -- along with the degree of sun and shade you have in your garden -- the quality and nature of your soil will largely decide which plants will grow best in your yard. Plus, if you know what nutrients your soil is lacking, you'll know the proper type of fertilizer or soil amendment to buy. I was recommended to buy a soil test kit and take samples of the soil in various spots in my yard. A good soil test kit tests for:

  • pH - this is the level of acidity in soil. If the acidity is too high or too low, your plants won't be able to absorb the nutrients in your soil.
  • Nitrogen - this gas is necessary for strong growth of stems, stalks and leaves. Too much nitrogen will cause the stalks, stems and leaves to grow too rapidly and will slow down flower and seed formation; too little renders plants at greater risk of disease or infection.
  • Phosphorous - the proper amount stimulates root formation and speeds up maturation.
  • Potassium - again, a balanced amount of potassium stimulates root formation. Too much will result in delayed plant maturity.
A really good soil test will also include a comprehensive list the ideal soil balance for hundreds of flowers, plants and trees. I haven't begun looking for a soil test kit yet, so I don't know how common the inclusion of a list like this is in France.

The next step is to assess the sun and shade patterns for your yard. As you might expect, this means that you need to take note of where in your garden the sunlight hits (and to what degree and for how long), and where there is shade (taking note of how much). Obviously, this is key in determining which plants will flourish. For more information on how to figure out the sun and shade patterns of your yard, check out this link. It goes into more detail on the subject than I would have thought possible - talking about observing the differing length of shadows and whatnot -- but in a totally accessible way.

Once you've tested your soil and assessed the sun and shade patterns, it's time to draw up a plan of the space you've allotted for your garden and consider which flower, trees, and plants you want. Of course, this also means that you'll need to do some research on which plants are right for your soil and climate. For hints, peep into your neighbor's garden (his garden, not his windows), and ask at your local gardening store.

In terms of thinking about what type of garden you want, here is something seasoned gardeners asked me that I didn't expect: What kind of "theme" do you want for your garden? This really stumped me, as I never really thought of the average house garden as having a theme beyond vegetable, organic, or - for the really intense gardener - Japanese. But taking a look around gardening forums, I see that themes are big things for gardeners. Stuff like "butterfly gardens," "water gardens," "shade gardens," "hummingbird gardens" and so forth. I was really amazed at the creativity people display. Who knew?

I thought I wasn't really into themes, until I saw one gardening forum that was all about "fragrant gardens." I really liked that idea: imaging walking in your garden and being struck, not only by the colors of the flowers, but by a host of wonderful fragrances. Mmmmm. So, maybe I'll aim for that.

Of course, when I asked my husband what he thought the theme should be, he said something like, “view blockage.” It’s true that we don’t want anyone to be able to stare into our garden from the second story of their home, and there’s a really ugly house across the street that we’d rather not see, but come on! Here am I thinking of tumbling, fragrant flowers, and there he is thinking of large, view-blocking trees. No thought whatsoever to sun-and-shade patterns and how that will affect the rest of the garden! I think we’re going to have a serious talk before planning gets underway.

Anyway, these three/four steps are, I think, a good way to start a garden when you're beginning with nothing as we are.

We're off to the house this weekend - it's been two weeks and I'm very interested to see how our compost heap is going! (Despite having had too much wood ash.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring at Last, Spring at Last....

...thank God Almighty, it's Spring at last! Of course, no one knows how long it'll stick around. Some years it hangs around for a few weeks, reverts to winter for a month, jumps to summer for a few days, then moves on to late fall. Just have to enjoy it while it's here.

Even though I have no experience with gardening in the ground, I do have a good seven year's experience gardening in pots on a balcony. Every year our balcony explodes into color with stunning marigolds, double impatients, roses, pansies, clematis, jasmine and - naturally - red and pink geraniums, which are practically required if you have a balcony in Paris.

Some of these flowers and plants survive the winter -- we haven't had to re-pot our geraniums, for example, for the past four years -- but inevitably, every Spring we have five or six pots to fill and we head down to the "flower district" to check out this year's hot blooms. (When I say, "head down to the 'flower district' I mean that literally; we happen to live smack in the middle of it. We can see the sidewalk displays at the while sitting on our living room sofa, which is pretty cool -- gives the illusion of living near a park.)

Anyway, I was heading home this afternoon and all the gardening boutiques had their flowers outside. They were absolutely dazzling in the sun. I don't know who wouldn't have smiled at the sight of them, but it wasn' me. Automatically, I began thinking about which flowers we'd put on the balcony this year. And then it hit me: I don't have to limit myself to balcony flowers...I can actually consider the cherry trees and raspberry bushes and the host of seed packets and bulbs that are on display too!

Happy day!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Wrong Way to Compost

Well. I've only been working on the yard for one weekend and already I've made several mistakes. All of them having to do with composting.

This may sound strange, but I've always wanted to have a compost pile. I read about them in books as a kid, and while (as a city kid) I didn't know exactly what it was, the idea of it appealed to me. It sounded so nature-loving and sensible. City life being what it is (gardenless), I forgot all about composting until a few years ago when my mother-in-law stopped me from throwing some organic matter in the trash, saying: "Oh, can you throw that in the container over there? It's for the compost." I felt ridiculously proud and "of the earth" as I carried my eggshells or whatever it was to the compost container. From then on, I vowed to have a compost pile for my own garden.

Fast forward to last weekend, when I decided that the very first thing I'd do for my garden was to make a compost pile. And here's how I did it: I gathered up all organic matter we used over the weekend (cucumber peelings, wood ash, eggshells, etc.), and dumped it all in a corner of our yard. And walked away all smug. Done.

It was only when I got home and actually did some research on composting that I learned, welp, there's a bit more to composting than that. Here are 8 tips for any beginning gardeners out there who want to start a compost pile and don't know how. Don't do these things.

1. Don't just throw any amount of organic material together and think you've got a good compost pile going.

Compost piles need to be balanced between "brown" organic material (such as dead leaves, twigs, manure, nutshells, hay) and "green" (vegetable peelings, grass clippings, fruit scraps, coffee grounds) organic material. A mix is needed because the different materials provide different crucial gases: "brown" provides carbon, while "green" supplies nitrogen. There appears to be some debate over which proportions are best, but a 1:1 ratio of green/brown seems to be considered reasonable.

I think my pile was almost entirely green, unless you count the wood ash, which I used entirely too much of (see "Don't #7").

2. Don't heap your greens and browns together randomly.

In building a good compost pile, you need to layer, layer, layer! Green and brown organic matter should be piled in alternate layers, with an occasional shovel of garden soil to add bacteria (which is necessary to help it all decomposed faster). Each layer should be moistened - a dry heap won't decompose very well - and when all done, the heap should be "comparable to the wetness of a wrung-out sponge." Top off the compost pile with garden soil, manure or finished compost.

3. Don't make your compost heap too small.

The ideal size for a starting heap is a 3x3x3 foot pile. This minimum ensures that it will produce enough heat during decomposition to sterilize the compost and hasten the decomposition process. If you don't have organic material to make a 3-ft. cube, just top off layers you do have with about six-inches of soil, and continue layering when you have more materials until you reach the 3-ft. cubed ideal.

My compost pile was about a foot tall. And it should go without saying that it didn't top it off with anything. Oops - my bad.

4. Don't leave your compost pile unturned.

Oxygen is necessary to the decomposition process. And to supply the pile with oxygen, you must turn the compost pile so that all the material at the edges are brought to the center of the pile. Turning the compost once a week will help speed decomposition and lessen odors.

As I said, I just dumped the stuff in the yard and left it.(God, this is getting really embarrassing.) Fortunately, I also read that, if starting a new pile, you should wait 2-3 weeks before turning it as it will allow the center of the pile to "heat up" and break down the materials. Whew.

5. Don't put your compost in a location that's too sunny or too shady.

Hah! This one I got right just by the luck of the draw. I put my compost in a semi-shaded location (just behind the barn) which is exactly what you're supposed to do. Putting it in a sunny location will dry it out too much; a too-shady place might result in your pile being too wet (which sucks because the necessary organisms can't survive when the compost is soggy). You should also make sure your compost isn't too close to a tree (check!) as the tree roots might grow into it.

6. Don't hesitate to add cardboard to your compost pile

My husband added a cardboard box (formerly containing a six-pack of beer) to the compost pile. At the last minute, I took it out. It just looked too big sitting there. Of course, I get home and read that cardboard is great for composting. It adds carbon to the pile (a "brown"! ) and if it's corrugated or still in box form (like egg cartons, for example), the oxygen trapped in the folds and corners will help the decomposition process. The beer box would have been perfect...

7. Don't add too much wood ash.

From what I've read, a small amount of wood ash is good for compost, but if you add too much it will absorb the nitrogen in the pile and render the pile too alkaline to break down the materials properly.

My compost pile was probably 70% wood ash. Sigh.

8. Don't add meat, whole eggs, dairy products, sawdust and fatty materials to your compost.

Somehow I managed to not add any of these things to my compost pile, but since I was talking about the wrong way to compost, I figured my list would not be complete without mentioning this. Don't compost these things as some will slow decomposition, some will attract rodents, and some are just...bad. Just don't do it.

So, there's my list for any beginners out there. If any experienced gardeners have more tips on how to build a compost pile, I'd love to hear them. I think it's pretty obvious that I need all the help I can get!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

So Very Green

Before I go any further, let me show you what this totally green gardener is up against. Here are a few pictures of my "garden" as of yesterday:

It's got potential to be something special, right? Too bad it's in the hands of a complete novice.

This yard is a part of our beautiful country house in northern Burgundy (France), which we've been restoring for the past 4 years (see my blog Really Old House). Because the house was such a disaster when we bought it, we haven't focused at all on developing the garden.

But now... it's time.

When we first bought the house, I imagined so many things for our future garden. The yard is about 1500 square meters (16,154 square feet) of space, so we have lots of room to work with. Right away, I decided that I wanted a trellis entwined with fragrant wisteria arching over the columns that led to the entrance of the backyard. I also envisioned yellow and crimson roses snaking their way up the iron railings of the staircase at the back door. I saw myself picking blueberries and raspberries from my own bushes, a wicker basket dangling from my arm, and I saw a luscious cherry blossom tree making a dainty pink blanket of flowers by the stone wall surrounding the property. And, naturally, there'd be a vegetable garden.

Now that it comes down it, though, I don't know if any of this is practicable. Can a blueberry bush survive the moody weather of central France? Will the pH balance of our soil support a vegetable garden? How close can a cherry blossom tree - or any tree - be to our wall without its roots eventually dislodging the stones? What kind of beautiful flowers, plants and trees exist that would be perfect for our area that I haven't even thought of?

At any rate, we're a long way from dealing with those issues. Our immediate goal is to find someone to level the yard and get rid of all those awful tractor tracks. But in the meantime, I want to learn all that I can so when the time comes, I can get my garden off to the right start.