Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Seed Snarfer August 31, 2008

My family looked out the window this morning and saw something pretty funny. A big, fat squirrel, perched precariously on top of one of my parking strip sunflowers, was scarfing down all the seeds s/he could reach. I had noticed yesterday that some of the flowers were leaning over and thought it was due to a windy day we had earlier in the week. Guess it was the squirrel’s climbing expeditions instead.

Sunflower Squirrel

One of the stems had snapped off halfway down, so I hacked it off and brought it up to our house level so that we could watch the fun from a closer vantage point. The squirrel soon reappeared and ate the entire huge head of seeds. “It’s like it’s a big feast!” was my daughter’s comment. Guess fall must really be here.

Squirrel Things Sunflower Seeds Are Yummy


Tomato House

A lot of gardeners in the Seattle area are doing a sun dance right now, hoping for a few more warm days before the rains set in for good. It’s been a cool, damp summer, and many tomatoes are just not ripening quickly enough.

I saw this contraption in a parking strip a few weeks ago when I was out for a walk in my neighborhood. It seems to be a kind of tomato house or cold frame, so the plants could be set out a little earlier than would be possible if they were just out in the open.

Tomato house

I keep meaning to go back and see if it worked!


Great Smells of Summer August 30, 2008

Late in the Seattle summer, as the garden is entering its final showy period before winding down, there are some flowers blooming out there that you just have to stop and sniff. The roses are doing their second bloom thing, a bit later than usual this year due to the cool/wet weather, the phlox is heady enough to practically knock you over, and in the parking strip, a few heliotrope are casting their sensual spell. This one looks like it’s getting a hug (friendly, I hope!) from its unidentified neighbor.

Lemon Gem Marigold & Heliotrope

The ‘Lemon Gem’ marigold planted nearby smells pretty strong too, but more tangy and, well, lemony. Heliotrope is one of those old-fashioned annuals that I would probably never plant on my own, but my mom gives me some every year and they smell so amazing.

Here is an article about how to grow this scent-erific plant.

How about you, what’s smelling (in a good way) up your garden at this time of year?


The Wacky World of Western Weeds

Practicing organic gardening is rewarding in so many ways. One kind of onerous task that can be therapeutic is the act of hand-weeding. I know some folks go for the corn gluten (does it really work? I’ve heard mixed things) or the pyromaniac’s dream tool, the propane torch weed killer. The best thing for my parking strip would probably be more perennial plants and ground covers, in order to provide less space for the weeds, and I hope to get more in every year. But in the meantime, I just have to count on my trusty trowel and do the best I can. Here are some of the fun varieties I contend with on a regular basis: quack grass, herb-Robert, bindweed (especially evil and hard to eradicate), Japanese clover, sorrel, and a bunch of dandelion-like weeds, not to mention the evil St. Johns Wort I yanked out of the parking strip three years ago that keeps trying to come back, the various lawns the previous owner took out even longer ago that want very badly to return, and all the other pesky ones I don’t know the names of. Phew, that was a very long sentence.

I know California poppy is considered by some to be a weed, but it’s a nice place-holder in the parking strip until the later-spring plants fill in.

(This imagine is taken from the National Parks Service site)

(This imagine is taken from the National Parks Service site)

The New York Times magazine had this interesting (and frightening) article about how global warming makes weeds stronger. They will probably be the last things standing, along with the cockroaches.

The State of Washington has a web site devoted to its “noxious weed” list, with photos of nearly all the nasty varmints. Some look quite pretty, but are invasive and crowd out native and threatened plant varieties.

If you live in the Western US or Canada, this book is pretty amazing, even at $30. Maybe your local library can get it for you as an inter-library loan, if you don’t want to spend that much.

What are your weed nemeses? How do you control them, especially organically?


Green Salad August 29, 2008

It’s time to go cut the last of the summer lettuce before it bolts and gets bitter. Sometimes I have a hard time harvesting the end of it, because I just love the way it looks.

I’ve had great luck with lettuce and arugula in the parking strip, they have pretty low nutrient needs so it fits my lazy lack of fertilizing ways to grow them.

This green oak leaf lettuce was part of a six-pack of mixed slightly-exotic lettuces that I bought at the Seattle Tilth spring plant sale in May (always a zoo, the fall Harvest Fair is much mellower) and that didn’t go into the ground until mid-July (I had forgotten them, poor things, but they forgave me and grew well anyway).

Green Oak Leaf Lettuce & Marigold


Fall Fruit Trees on the Street August 28, 2008

Urban gardeners who want a sunny spot for fruit trees sometimes opt for the parking strip. Birds usually get to cherries first, plums drop fruit and are super messy, so most people (at least in our part of Seattle) seem to choose either pears or apples.

One neighbor has two pear trees in planter boxes on the street – they seem pretty disease-free and they have a lot of fruit this year:

Parking Strip Pears

Pear Tree in Planter Box

I am guessing that the raccoons, squirrels and (ew) rats get some, but there are enough left over for human consumption as well.

Another neighbor has lovely red apples ripening right now. Not sure of the variety, I know there are red Gravensteins that are getting ripe at the moment but it’s probably not that.

Parking Strip Apples

They seem to have something going on, maybe scab?? Apple maggots are also a real problem in our area. My folks have had success with putting “footies” (those little nylon demi-socks they give women to try on shoes if they have bare feet) on before the flies emerge and begin to lay eggs. It’s labor-intensive but seems to work quite well. For more information on this method, contact the Seattle Tree Fruit Society.

Lots of windfalls on the ground. Makes me sad to see fruit go to waste, but maybe these ones were no good.

Apple Pile in Parking Strip

Many communities have programs where volunteers will come to your house and pick whatever fruit you know you will not use, so it can go to the hungry. In Seattle, visit the Lettuce Link site for more information on their Community Fruit Tree Harvest.


Raise High the Planter Beds, Carpenters

(Sorry, gratuitous Salinger reference there…)

In my previous (and very first) garden, the only patch of ground that was free of summer-long shade was on the street, in the parking strip. So, if I wanted a few veggies, herbs and strawberries to nibble, I had no option but to garden out there. Not being too handy, but feeling like a raised bed was the best way to contend with tree roots and crummy soil, I pondered the options. My mom ended up getting some friends to build me one as one of my all-time best ever birthday presents. I got a lot of fun and use out of it, and was really bummed to drive by our old house recently and see that the new owners had dismantled it for some unknown reason. Maybe I should ask if I can have the pieces back, to rebuild it (by myself, this time) in our current place…

Here are some links for building raised beds. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here, just providing some options.

Sunset Magazine has a fairly simple design, and they claim it can be built with redwood or cedar for under $200. Does require a table saw, though.

Here’s a really spiffy one, from This Old House. Pricier too, though, and probably needing someone pretty handy to put it together.

Prefer a video? This is kind of goofy (bonus for dog-lovers, cute labs co-star, chasing sticks and a frisbee), but shows how to make a planter bed with untreated 2 X 12’s, coated at home with linseed oil. Tells you how to mole-proof, too.

This is a Texas A & M University (Ag school) article, ” In Praise of Raised Beds,” with advice about how big to build yours and how to prepare the ground, what soil to add, etc.

Treated wood is icky. Nobody knows for sure what it leaches into your soil, so try to avoid it if possible!

Here’s an example of some raised planter beds in our neighborhood:

Raised beds

Small crosswise ones allow you to reach in and not have to step on and therefore compact the soil.

This one is a small square bed, great for a vertical crop like beans or peas plus whatever you want to plant around the edges.

Small raised bed

You can also forgo wood altogether and make a bed out of paver bricks or broken concrete (scroll down in the latter link to see a nicely formed herb bed using this method). To be legal with the city, at least in Seattle, raised beds in the parking strip require a permit, and bricks or stones must be fixed in place, not removable for easy hurling.

Raised beds make root crops like carrots and beets much easier to grow, and in an urban setting, adding your own soil from a known safe source is a plus too. Before you set up your bed, be sure to double-dig or rototill the existing soil to help with drainage. And don’t forget to add lots of compost! Anyone have a favorite? Mushroom compost? Something containing bat guano, perhaps? Or just home-grown?