Category Archives: gardening

Week 2: Breathing Room

wpid-imag1954.jpgEvery fall, I vow to borrow Karen’s leaf shredder to create fluffy, nutritious mulch for all my garden beds. Every fall, time speeds up. Before a late season rain, I end up frantically dumping out bags of leaves scavenged from the alley; everything needs to be tucked in tightly so the neighbors don’t complain about the leaves they just raked blowing back into their yards. This means that, every spring, I have to pry off slimy blankets to make it easier for little plants to emerge. I’m not sure if these annual rituals do any good, but they are pleasant bookends to the growing season.

First snowdrop! I’m excited about this addition to the early spring chorus.
The parkway is also buried by a bunch of construction debris. Not sure what to do about that yet. Current strategy is to ignore.
The tiny shoots from last week have bloomed.
This part of the front parkway is not the best showcase for tulips; I love the bright tips against this rock more than the flowers.
Urban mulch includes garbage.
Love a plant that emerges early and blooms late. Can’t believe I’m spacing its name.
Until next week. . . .

Week 1: Return of the Living Undead

first crocus sightingLast Thursday, friends started sharing links to giddy five day forecasts, crowding out the pictures of home thermometers registering single digits. “The thaw is coming, the thaw is coming!” Tom Skilling was Paul Revere; social media the horse. I was unmoved. Barring a true heatwave, the shellacked snow pack would melt slowly—a good thing for the soil, watershed, and sewers, but a bummer for those counting the days until the flowers return. And it’s hard for me to get excited about 40 degree weather.bug's tulipsThe arctic grip did loosen Friday afternoon, as promised, and I grudgingly admitted that a sunny 45 is indeed better than a windy 15. But I was still moping about the bulbs, couldn’t imagine anything green emerging from the long buried muck for at least a few days–and that was assuming the “warm up” would hold.

Less than 24 hours later, I was jumping up and down on the sunny corner of Kimball and McLean. “Miguel! Miguel!!!! Look!! Crocuses!!!” We had to bend and squint to see the pointy green fingernails clawing towards the sun.  I ran around, searching for more in the narrow sliver of earth now visible between the sidewalk’s edge and still formidable pile of snow. Nothing, but no matter. A day later, I spied the orange tulips that honor (and draw nutrients from) Bug, Miguel’s beloved goldfish.  The earth has opened, I am giddy, and the show has just begun. tulipsneartreegoalpostswaitingforsnowdrops

I planted snowdrops for the first time last fall, excited for something to bloom before the crocuses. Do I remove the snow to see what is below, or wait it out?

A Dirty Lunchbreak

The spinach bolted into our salad last night.
The spinach bolted into last night’s salad.

Yesterday was beautiful. Hot and green, the type of day I ache for during winter and spring. The back yard was lush and loud with birds whose songs I wish I recognized. Mostly sparrows I assume, because despite my best—ie, faltering—efforts, I have yet to cultivate a landscape that attracts a variety of birds. I have been seeing monarchs, though!

Yesterday was one of my “garden half empty” days. Despite watching the red maple dance in the corner where concrete used to be, from under the deep shade of the apple tree we pried into barren, sun-baked dirt 12 years ago, my thoughts turned to what we haven’t done.

2014-06-03 10.20.46

We never finished pruning the apple tree this spring. It’s too wide, too dense, throws too much shade.

When and how do I harvest the various greens I transplanted from winter sowing?*

For all that effort, why do we only have enough for three dinners?

Which are weeds and which might be little flowers growing from last year’s seeds? And are these two plants the Cardinal Climbers I sowed with such hope this spring?**

2014-06-03 12.06.30

The good thing about a garden in summer is that there is always something to do. Figuring it is better to mope and putter than sit and mope, I organized seeds (why do I have four packets of peas and only one of kale?!), studied the planting guidance for various greens, started overthinking, got mad for wasting time, and set out to let the garden provide direction.

  • Thinned the container of lettuce sowed in mid-April. Produced a cup of microgreens.
  • Transplanted a tomato into a container with a water reservoir, and placed it out front as an experiment in summer sun. For most of the year, our north facing three flat throws a formidable shadow.2014-06-03 12.12.17
  • Ate some strawberries. Wondered why ours are so often deformed. Decided not to care.
  • Cleared some room in the strawberry patch for the last, somewhat stunted, tomato seedling to do more location experimenting.
  • Sowed arugula and lettuce in shallow containers where they will get half day, morning sun.
  • Pulled some baby morning glories and other obvious intruders.
  • Took tons of pictures.

In short order, moping flipped to optimistic musing. While nibbling a microgreens sandwich in the cool shade of the apple tree,  I dreamed and schemed about what to tackle next. Lunch over, I went back upstairs,  grateful for the freedom to work with dirt encrusted fingernails.Apple tree: 5/11/14

Apple tree: 5/11/14

*One of the benefits of blogging is that I work harder to answer my questions. Here is some guidance on harvesting spinach. I also learned about Malabar spinach which thrives in mid-summer. It’s not really a spinach, but has similar qualities. Maybe I should add it to my aspirational mountain of seeds.

**A friend gave me some Cardinal Climbers almost ten years ago. I will never forget seeing a hummingbird in our back yard that fall, and I am sure it was attracted by this vine. I was gifted some seeds by Karen, my gardening guru, and tried to germinate them this spring. The story of nicking and soaking is up next.

Ipomoea x multifida

In the Event of a Loss of Summer. . .

Epimedium is one of my garden’s early risers. It will be sleeping late this year.

My mind has been drifting towards spring, as there is little left to say about this winter (snowy, freezing, and pot-hole making about sums it up); we need more words like we need more snow. Even the meteorologists agree, as the 7 day forecast blurbs are shrinking. How many different ways can you say “Cold and below normal”? They should start writing: “Ditto, see above.”

CT potholes03.jpg
Michael calls this “Pothole Porn”

I had been looking forward to March 15th, which, according to file photos, is about when my garden starts to stir. I eagerly pull back the blankets of last year’s wet, musty leaves, and scratch around to find the early risers. This inevitably leads to collateral damage—sort of like opening the oven before the cake is done. Still, it’s worth it to be assured that, in the words of Frog to Toad, “spring is around the corner.”


According to recent (terse) prognostications, the ground might still be frozen by mid-March,  but I have been keeping my chin up. Perhaps the long, undisturbed beauty sleep will yield a spectacular spring show . I have more time to knock off in-door projects. The steady temps and persistent snowpack intensify awareness of seasonal changes:  more chattering birds, swelling lilac buds, earlier sunrises, shorter shadows. This Narnian winter can’t last forever.

Hurry up, Aslan!

Hurry up, Aslan!

But recently a friend got me shivering in my salt encrusted boots with an article about how the prodigious ice cover on the Great Lakes might produce a cold summer. No!!!!!! I grew up with “cooler by the lake.” I know too well the strong east winds that rake waves of bitter chill over the city.

Credit: NASA (and Canada)
Credit: NASA (and Canada)

Some folks relish the idea of “pleasant, spring-like conditions” in July. F*ck that. My tolerance of winter rests on the promise of mid-summer swelter. Sure, I could move, but my roots here are deep, I do love the seasons, and Chicago seems—so far—decently situated for global weirding. A mild summer is nothing compared to wild fires, sinking shorelines, and dwindling water supplies.

So I am turning my frown upside down and calling on the power of positive thinking. Here is my 4-pronged strategy for embracing (or just bracing) for a “lost summer.”* Please add your ideas!

Lower expectations:

  • As a lifelong Cubs fan, this should not be a problem. Enough said.

Gather provisions:

  • Half of my closet is devoted to winter. The rest is devoted to the 5 hottest, most glorious days of the year. It’s time to accept and prepare for the vast in between, perhaps with guidance from friends in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Stock up on firewood for backyard entertaining. When the temp dips below 75, it’s time to get out the blankets and huddle around the fire.
So many vintage sleeveless dresses, so few days to wear them.
So many vintage sleeveless dresses, so few days to wear them.

Adjust plans:

  • Spend more time at parks and less time at beaches? (Added benefit of keeping sand out of the house.)
  • Plant more lettuce and fewer tomatoes? I stink at growing tomatoes anyway, though I am partial to “This is the year!” optimism. See Cubs, above.

Look on the bright side:

  • Prolonged baking season.
  • Better sleep and running conditions. Even I don’t like sweaty sheets and bras.
  • Michael spared from installing our 3 window AC units.
  • Long blooming season?
  • More cheerfulness? I am in the tropical climate loving minority. Steamy weather makes many Chicagoans as, if not more, cranky than polar vortexes.
  • More to write about!
Karen gave us this fragrant long blooming rambling rose. I bet it would enjoy a cool summer.
Karen gave us this fragrant long blooming rambling rose. I bet it would enjoy a cool summer.

Lately, I have been disclaiming weather related commentary with “This is not a complaint.” The last few months have not been so bad, in large part to years of small investments in winter armor, and that Michael put plastic on the rattling north facing windows. There has been much sun, sledding, and snuggling. But the Polar Vortex-y Winter of 2013-14 has been notable, which makes for easier writing. It has been a muse to many, and at the rate we are going, I suspect the words will keep piling up—except perhaps on the 7 day forecasts.

Snowboarding at Mt. Humboldt.
Snowboarding at Mt. Humboldt.

For a real lost summer, look back to 1816. Yikes!