Category Archives: Garden

Holy Awesome Garden, Batman!

Well, fair readers, as the May weather turned warmer here in Chicago (read: super hot, 100 degrees on Memorial Day weekend), it became clear that it was time to start the garden.  The wisdom on when to start your garden in Chicago varies, from people who get stuff out the first week of April to those of us who are a little bit more realistic about the weather here and wait until May.  Over years of gardening myself, and watching my mom do her planting for approximately 30 years, the well-worn advice of “wait until at least Mother’s Day in Chicago to plant” has great meaning.  There have been numerous years that the call of flowers has been too much for me in April, and I pick a moderately warm spring day to plant them, only to have a freeze come in and undo all my hard work. Please note: as I write this blog post up on the morning of June 1st, JUNE 1ST, it is 50 degrees and rainy in Chicago. We don’t really need to get into the fact that it was 90 for 5 days straight last weekend.  Raises fist at unpredictable Chicago weather.  With my edible garden, I’ve had to learn to stomp down the desire to start planting in April and hold out until Mother’s Day weekend.

Continue reading Holy Awesome Garden, Batman!

The NEW Garden Model, in All Its Glory…

Well fair readers, when last we left, I had ripped out the “eyesore” of the wooden garden box (per the LL, not my own personal belief regarding the beautiful box) and removed it to my mom’s house.  While figuring out how best to tackle the large garden area along our garage (think 2.5′ x 16′) we got our jalapenos and strawberries planted in individual plastic containers, and our herb boxes going.  Yet none of this addressed how best to utilize my huge garden plot, without the wooden box that I had originally built for it.   Ultimately, I decided to just do exactly what I was originally going to do, only without the beauty of my wooden boxes.

I made a quick graph on computer paper so that I could determine what plants I wanted to put where in the garden plot.  Now, here’s a quick hint — according to Mel ( my new gardening best friend who I’ve never met), not everything has to be at a 1 plant to 1 square ratio.  As in, there are certain plants that you can pack in more than just 1 into the square foot area that you’ve allocated to them.  I know! What great news. I can maximize my beans and peas and carrots and onions, while still growing 1 red pepper plant behind them.

After consulting with Mel, I divided up the plot into two long rows of square foot sections.  They actually ended up being a little more than 12″ in depth, as I had 2.5 feet, less the 4 inches allocated to my brick and fence exterior. I knew from last year’s garden plot that our cucumber plant will grow absolutely out of control, and will need support.  This was the first year that we were doing beans and peas, but I’d read in my friend Tina’s blog (and others) that you really need good support for those plants as well.  And, I knew from previous experience that our bell pepper plants would need some structure as well.  Herbs, lettuce, carrots and onions, on the other hand, do just fine without any type of structural support.  Therefore, I decided that along the back row of the plot, would be all of the plants that needed structural assistance  Smaller plants would be in the front.

Patrick and I discussed what our gardening/eating goals were and we decided to plant the following:  cucumbers, beans, snap peas, red pepper, green pepper, yellow pepper, onions, lettuce, mint, cilantro, oregano, basil, and carrots.  Off to Lowe’s!  I got to Lowe’s, realized that although their flower selection was fantastic they didn’t have much in veggies and herbs, and I headed to Home Depot.  Once at HD, I was able to get starter plants of the cucumbers, peppers, and herbs.  Based on the seedling start times and harvest times for the remainder of the veggies, I decided to try my hand with seeds and starting those from scratch.

With plants and seeds purchased, and a break in the rain on the Sunday that I just happened to decide to do all this, I headed outside to work.  Lucky for me, I had already prepped the soil and done all that hard work, so my faithful companion for the day (Scout, my sister-in-law’s pug who was staying with us for a few days) and I set off to work.  Note:  our pug, Oscar, is not the biggest fan of dogging my steps in the garden and following me around.  He’s learned by now that I’m not going anywhere and that I’m not doing anything to interest him, so he just kicked back for some sun on the deck while we worked.

I was still determined to use the Square Foot Gardening Method, as outlined by Mel Bartholomew in his popular gardening book.  I knew I had 2.5′ in depth to work with, and 125″ in length.  I got my trusty tape measure out, along with my twine and I started by blocking off my garden plot into 12″ square areas.

For the back row of plants, working left to right, I planted the squares as follows:

Square 1:  2 cucumber plants

Square 2:  red bell pepper

Square 3:  green bell pepper

Square 4:  yellow bell pepper

Square 5:  bush beans (started from seeds)

Square 6:  snap peas (started from seeds)

Square 7:  carrots (started from seeds)

For the front row of plants, the squares are planted as follows:

Square 1:  Basil

Square 2:  Mint

Square 3:  Cilantro

Square 4:  Greek Oregano

Square 5:  Boston Bibb Lettuce (started from seeds)

Square 6:  Mixed Greens Lettuce (started from seeds)

Square 7: Onions (started from seeds)

This is how it all looked the day we did the planting:

And, some up close pictures of how the individual plants look:

Obviously, the last picture is of the seedlings that I planted.  I left the wrappers as indicators of what we had planted until they started to produce.  Patrick helped me install the little wooden fencing that I had gotten at Lowe’s, which has helped keep Oscar out of the garden.  (Confession: I had nightmares of Oscar jumping into the garden plot and doing his little pug kick and tossing my seeds every which way into the wind.)  It seems that the fence, at about 14 inches high, has proven to be a deterrent for our lazy pug when it comes to jumping and catapulting his body around.

Our last project for the Sunday was to get the tomatoes into the upside down tomato planter. The tomato planter can handle 3 tomato plants, so I had purchased starter plants of beefsteak, plum and large cherry tomatoes.  In my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful than a good looking and healthy tomato plant, just knowing what I’m going to be eating in about 2 months on my salads:

As always, once the plants were in the ground and in their planters there was still more work to be done, but it seemed like a good stopping point on that particular day.  The garden looked GREAT! Our plants were in, our seeds were planted, the fence was up, and it was still warm and sunny outside.  The next morning I pruned the tomato and pepper plants back so that they could focus all their growing energies into the main shoots.

It was time to sit back and enjoy the remainder of a lazy Sunday afternoon, looking at all of my handiwork, and the hard work and planting efforts of my neighbors in their garden plots in the yard.  Yeah, I’ll throw in some more garden porn for everyone here:

The most amazing thing about the whole gardening process, and especially the seeds, is that within a week we started to have sprouts from the seeds that had been planted.  Why? Well, we had some AWESOMELY hot weather here in Chicago for a few days immediately after I planted — 4 days of 95 degrees and higher.  After that, the skies opened up and we had good, healthy rains for the plants to soak up nutrients. But that is for the next post! Hope you all enjoyed the pictures of what we have growing in our garden….and growing the stuff is…

The Garden, Phase II — the South will Rise Again, or Something Like That….

A quick recap dear readers.  When last we parted ways, I had built 2 beautiful garden boxes for use in our yard, only to be shot down by the landlord who knows nothing. It was time to go back to the drawing board and rethink how I was going to approach this project to accomplish my goals, which were delicious veggies in a small area, and minimizing contact with the LL.  While I worked on plotting out my plan for how best to accomplish these goals, I decided I needed to get my window boxes with herbs done, as well as get my strawberry plants and jalapeno peppers potted.

On the porch outside our back door, we have 2-24″ window boxes that I’ve hung over the railing.  They get decent sun and are the perfect place to grow herbs as they are within steps of the kitchen.  This year, we decided to plant Cilantro, German Thyme and Garlic Chives (in the box that appears on the right in this photo, but is on the left when coming out the back door).  In the left (really the right) box, we planted Fennel, Rosemary and arugula.  I took this picture of the window boxes while standing on the deck…it doesn’t show off with true accuracy just how pretty the herbs look in the window boxes, especially when the sun hits them.

In addition to the herb window boxes, we also planted a beautiful, large pot of Rosemary, as it is fragrant and to useful in cooking all the way through the winter.  Hopefully, this plant will last indoors again, like our Rosemary from 2 winters did.

We also did some small pots on the ledge of our porch that have English tarragon and basil, and of course, our Jade plant that is now flourishing in the sun.

And yes, I know you’re all wondering, that IS a frog watering can in the right corner of the picture, with its tongue sticking out.  I won it at a garden party a friend of mine threw several years ago and it is just too funny not to keep and display!

With the herb window boxes and planters done, I moved on to the strawberries and jalapenos.  Both plants will grow like gangbusters, if I just got them going.  After the drama with the LL, I got out the individual, plastic planters that I have from years past and started in on them.  Each planter got 1 plant of it’s own — final count:  3 jalapeno, 3 strawberries.  The planters are on our deck, near the upside-down tomato planter.

Strawberries:

Peppers:  Ooh, I cannot wait for these to grow and be harvested — so many great things to do with peppers!

After getting all of these plants settled, we had some nice sunny and warm weather, and we got our first strawberry bud on one of the plants! Success!

Next post — after the success of the herbs, jalapenos and strawberries, I finally get the garden plot all sorted out, planted and producing! Stay tuned….

The Garden, Phase I, As it Lived and Died…..And Will Live Again!

When last I left you, fair readers, I had cleaned out a good portion of the large garden plot that we were going to use for veggies and was headed to the local lumber yard to make the beautiful garden boxes featured in The All New Square-Foot Gardening book that shows us that you CAN plant a garden in small or reasonably sized spaces.

Step One: The following Monday morning, I went to my local hardware store/lumber yard and purchased all of the wood that I would need, which I had painstakingly measured out TO THE INCH. Got my screws and nails, my plywood bottom for the box that was going on the deck and then headed to my second hardware store of the day.  Why? Because I had decided I wanted to put a trellis along the back of the garage where the big planter box would be, to use as a way for our climbing veggies (beans, peas, cukes, peppers to some extent) that would look real purty.  My local store did not have trellis wood, so off to Menards I went.

Step Two: Menards.  Now, if you’ve ever been to Menards, you know that the people who work there (inside the store) are helpful, IF YOU CAN EVER FIND ONE! I pretty quickly located the trellis piece that I wanted, but of course, in order to buy said piece of wood, I needed to find a sales associate and get him to ring me up.  That took approximately 2 hours.

Once you pay, the real fun begins, as you get to drive around the back of the Menards to the fenced in, Nazi-guarded lumberyard where you have to show your receipt at various checkpoints while the guards scream “Where are your papers?” (Okay, this may be a slight embellishment, but roll with it.)  After about 40 minutes, I found a guy to try and help me find where my trellis was located so I could put it into the car and drive happily off to home where I would start the next step of my project — assembly.  As the guy brought the trellis around, I realized, “oh holy shit, I have a problem.” There was NO WAY that I was getting the trellis into my car, even with the seats down in the hatchback portion.  Shit, shit, shit!

A light bulb went on in my head and I realized that I was at Menards! All I had to do was ask this lovely man to chop it down for me a bit. I mean, I am in the lumber section, that should be ridiculously easy to do, no? No. It was not. As I was informed by my sales associate/Nazi guard, this is Menards — they don’t have saws in the lumber section.  Of course not, what was I thinking? I then told the guy that if he could not cut it down for me, he was going to have to restock it and I would have to come back another day with a friend who has a truck so I could get my trellis.  Well, all of a sudden I must have said something to him that was akin to threatening to firebomb the place, as he raced off muttering something about a power saw. Moments later, he returned with a power saw and happily chopped my trellis down into 3 manageable sizes that I was able to get into the car.  Hmmmm, remember this for the future, readers — if you threaten to buy something at Menards and then leave it there for a few days to come back for it, they will do anything they need to do to get you out the door with your lumber — they do not want their precious inventory system messed up.  Finally, with my trellis loaded up in the car, I only had 4 border checkpoints to clear before I was headed home to start building!

Step Three:  HOME! I finally arrived home, unloaded all of my various lumber parts from the car and dropped them into the deck where construction would shortly begin.  At this point, I had been away from home for what felt like days, so I took an all-important lunch break before starting in on the assembly. THIS was my lumber, all in car-sized pieces, just waiting to be worked on.

I decided to first assemble the 4×4 box that would be placed onto the deck for the purpose of growing certain leafy and low-climbing veggies, mostly lettuce and chard.  After much hammering, nailing, screwing with the drill, waiting for the drill to charge again (WHO puts that drill away every goddamn time without charging it? Not me.), and realizing that I attached the wrong side 3 and had to dessemble and re-assemble, I had created a LOVELY, 4×4 box, just waiting for dirt to be tossed in and plants lovingly planted.

Once built, I decided to put the box at one corner of our deck so that it was out of the way and yet could make the deck look pretty.

Now that the 4×4 box was assembled, it was time for me to start in on the 34″x125″ box outline that was going to go in the large plot by the garage.  Now, since I don’t have an XLT pickup truck in the city, I had to have my 125″ sections of lumber cut down into 3 manageable pieces that I would then later link together with these lovely little brackets that cost $0.06 at Menards. Another 2 hours of swearing, sweating, assembling, waiting for the drill to charge, fighting with the wood and brackets, and going back to the store to get more wood screws later, I had assembled the box and gotten it into the garden plot.  Now, when you look at this picture, keep in mind, we had done no planting and it had yet to become truly beautiful.

My last step of the day’s project was to load dirt into the deck box and then the planting would start the following day.  Time for a cocktail and much-deserved night of Dancing with the Stars (gotta root for Hines Ward!)

The shitstorm with respect to this little garden project of mine occurred the following morning, when I went outside and there was a note on my LOVELY garden box from my landlord demanding a phone call from whoever was responsible for this project.  Oh great, I can only imagine what HE wanted to say about this. Keep in mind, that every time anybody ever asked him to do something in the yard, his stock answer is “it’s your yard, you guys do what you want, I do not want to get involved with any of it.”

During this 30 minute phone call, I was advised by my landlord that he did not like the look of the deck box, that it was an “eyesore” and that he wanted it moved.  Ironically, the wooden fence that is falling down and the half-dead yard of grass that he never mows is somehow NOT an eyesore, but my plants are. Despite my reminding him that I have planted in plastic containers every single year on the deck for 7 years, and that this is actually a more sustainable and pretty looking endeavor, he stood firm.  I offered to move it to the cement driveway along the fence, where the plants would still get plenty of sun, and was advised in no uncertain terms that it was an unacceptable idea as the dirt would stain the concrete.  Um, no.  He literally told me I was “to put the project on hold until he thought up a different way of doing it.” Oh, I don’t think so. I’ll show you! You want multiple plastic containers on the deck instead of 1 pretty box?  Well, fine.  Careful what you wish for!

The LL then also advised me that the wood box in the ground-garden plot was also an eyesore and that I should stain it (doesn’t matter that staining the wood will harm the soil for planting veggies) and that I have to put plastic down under the dirt to protect the bricks that comprise the garage so that the bricks are not “ruined” when we water the plants.  Now, I’ve planted here for 7 years and never had to lay plastic, nor do I water bricks.  Nor, to my knowledge, does anybody else in the building.  I asked LL what happens to the bricks when it rains and why the garage is not wrapped in plastic on those days, but I do not think he appreciated my obvious logic.

After this conversation, my hackles up, I made Patrick help me load the deck box into the back of my car and I promptly drove it over to my mom’s house, where she let me put it on HER deck.  Note: her neighbor saw me unloading the deck box from the car, and came over to compliment me on it’s construction and quality — he’s a landscape architect! I was validated — a normal, non-crazy person actually liked my deck box!  When I returned home, the LL was there, all sheepish about the conversation in the morning and convinced we could come to a workable solution. But where is the box? “Oh, no, LL, don’t you worry about that — I resolved the issue myself!” The box is getting some TLC at mom’s house and I’ll still benefit from what we plant in there.  I told him I would lay the plastic along the back of the bricks, even though his requirement lacked all logic and sense, and that I would use my plastic containers again.

Phase II of the garden saga will be posted separately, and in short order…..stay tuned !

Springtime means Gardentime!

Well readers, it is above 35 degrees here in Chicago and it is actually sunny on this lovely Mother’s Day Sunday, which means it is now officially time to get started on the garden! YAY! YAY! YAY! One of the things that I love about spring and summer is working in the garden.  Yes, we live in the city, so it is small.  Yes, we share our yard with other neighbors, so our plot space is even more limited.  But that does not stop me from claiming my share of the yard and heading outside to work in the sun and grow some vegetables and herbs that we will enjoy throughout the summer and fall.

Last year, we definitely learned some lessons in our garden — the cucumber plant needed WAAAAY more room than we were initially told.  It choked out the smaller pepper plants around it, but when it yielded the cukes, we had a ton.  The poblano plant was on steroids.  It grew to about 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide, but we were blessed with poblanos through almost November.  Once that plant started to bloom there was no stopping it.  The bell peppers were great, but needed a bit more room, and I was thoroughly unimpressed with where we planted the sage.

Over the winter, Patrick and I have talked casually about how we want to do the garden this year, what we liked about last year and what we would like to change up this year.  I’ve consulted one of my most trusted tomes on the subject of gardening in Illinois, the book Month-by-Month Gardening in Illinois by James A. Fizzell, as well as my friend Tina’s blog, Squirrel Accorns.  This year, we are going to try square foot gardening, as discussed in the book All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, and talked about by Tina on her blog (see above).

The biggest area that I’m using for our veggies is currently a pretty sad sight….we cleaned out most everything before winter hit, except for one sage plant that I left out of sheer laziness.  Ironically, it has started to bloom again, but it’s going to get the chopping block for now.  I’m almost embarrassed to share the picture of the current state of the garden, but hey, at least it will be a nice “before” picture.   I also plan on turning the soil a bit so it is getting primed the way I’d like it to be and ready to have the new plants dropped in.

See what I mean when I said the last vestiges of winter needed to be cleared?  Our shovel has been resting there since snowmageddon hit in February.  Before I could even really start to ready my area, which measures about 26″ deep by 14′ long, I had to remove the shovel (better not need that for a long time), pull out the leftover sage plant you can see, yank the weeds out that had already started their infiltration and remove the debris and former little bamboo fencing.

It may not look like much, but that actually took a ton of work, as I also decided to rake the remainder of last year’s mulch to throw away, so the soil will be nicer for planting.

Next up, I had to measure the spot, precisely, for my wood so I can purchase the lumber and create the “outline” for our square foot garden bed.  And last, but not least, I got the pitchfork out to dig out and turn over the soil.  All of a sudden (or more accurately, after each backbreaking dig into the earth, beautiful, dark soil emerged, practically screaming for new plants.

Halfway point shot — I had to take a break to interrupt a fight between Oscar and a squirrel and decided to get a shot of the contrast…

Oscar was NOT happy that I physically yanked him away from the fence to stop assaulting the squirrel in the next yard.  “But mom, that squirrel is public enemy #1!”

Finally, by the time I finished up today, the soil had all been turned, debris and mulch and last year’s sage is GONE, the exact measurements have been taken and I’m ready to hit up the lumber yard for my wood.

And no worries, those bricks are going to be a thing of the past as of tomorrow’s gardening session, too.  They’ve been there “outlining” the garden plot against the garage since I moved in and in prior years I’ve just worked with them since I didn’t want to offend anyone by changing something.  Unfortunately, the bricks are beyond crumbling, are in horrid shape and have seen the end of their useful purpose.  They are also, in my humble opinion, an eyesore. Hence, I’m tossing them.

Many may be wondering what the Hell gardening has to do with me attempting to lose weight and get healthier, which is ultimately the point of this blog, and to me, it’s pretty simple.  Gardening is great exercise, you use a ton of muscles, many of which you may not have known existed, and growing your own fruits, veggies and herbs is gratifying and a great way to ensure you eat healthy.  One of my favorite things in the summer is a fresh tomato right off the plant from my backyard.  Last year’s tomato crops fell pray to a disease, along with most people’s in northern Illinois, so we didn’t get much of them.  However, we had a great season for peppers and cucumbers, the herbs were wonderful and aromatic, and the satisfaction that comes from eating something that you grew yourself is pretty amazing.  Add in that for me, at least, gardening relieves stress, and it’s a no brainer. I truly enjoy being outside in the summer, eating the food that I’ve grown and hope to post lots more updates here as the weather warms up.