July in my Garden: Wild America

I’ve been busy with work, a couple extended garden projects, picking blueberries, fun, and cats. July began with a whole lot of blueberries. I went to pick them three times and I hit blueberry jackpot twice by coming upon overloaded bushes and massive quantities. Most are in my freezer now and should last through the winter.

Near the beginning of July I also found myself with an empty raised bed, so I took my friend Jane’s offer and adopted some of the sweet potato starts that were at Patchwork and were looking for their forever homes. I wouldn’t normally have tried them, but I had space and it’s really late to try to start anything, so I took what was available.

I have the smallest of gardens this year. In addition to the sweet potatoes, a few volunteer tomato plants came up in the one garden bed not affected by the EPA soil remediation. I let them go and added a few bean plants and a small patch of basil. It’s minimal, but I’m thankful to have anything this year.

Between the soil remediation and the time it’s taken me to remediate the remediation, I decided there wasn’t much hope for getting any real produce from the spot that had been my main vegetable garden. At the beginning of the year when everything was uncertain, I’d gotten almost a dozen packs of zinnia seeds so I could sow some flowery joy where there was sadness. Sewing them still seemed like an appropriate response to the melancholy after the remediation, so that’s what I did. I’m hoping that by late summer I will have a mass of their blooms. I’m starting with three volunteer zinnias that I found surviving despite the soil replacement.

Also, I worked to make a new blackberry trellis. I tried to take my time and incorporate what I’ve learned in the last 10 years of gardening. My old trellis was removed in all the EPA soil remediation. It was pretty rickety with weird additions to make up for me making it too short at first, some of the cross beams were starting to rot, and the whole thing was held together with disintegrating caulk. The new one has taken a while to put together. Most of that time was devoted to painting it. It took three coats of paint everywhere, including each polka dot. Of course the cats had to help! Two got painted.

And all the while the neighborhood cats have kept me company while I garden. I like having them around. They’re goofy and fuzzy and always interested in what I’m doing. Perry takes almost daily walks, and the Ladies have surveyed all the goings on from their window.

Meanwhile, July has marked the return of Wild America in my yard. Raccoons! Possums! Hawks! Oh my!

First, hoards of raccoons returned. With all of John and my experience, we have a zero raccoon policy. If they are in our yard and fiddling with our property, we assume our furnace ducts are next and the vandals must be relocated. We trapped several at the end of June and the beginning of July. Here’s some wild footage from the cat cam I left out to capture their comings and goings:

There has also been a lot of hawk activity. There is a nest in the alley across the street from us. There are about four babies and they have been very active in the last couple weeks. They are starting to fly around the block and they call to their parents constantly. It’s a little unnerving. I tell the outdoor cats to be very careful. I don’t think the cats believe me.

And then there are the wild antics of Captain Scrappy. I think I could watch this cat play for hours. His favorite toys are dirt clods. He jumps around with wild abandon. We all need to be more like Scrappy.

2019 Tour de Fleur Garden Walk

At the end of June, the Master Gardeners held their bi-annual Tour de Fleur Garden Walk. You could buy a ticket and tour “10 Spectacular Gardens in Evansville, Newburgh, and Mt. Vernon.” I went on the tour because it’s always fun to see how other people do their gardens. The Master Gardeners try to include a nice variety of gardens–small, large, formal, informal, wild, cultured, expensively landscaped, and grassroots.

All of the gardens were fun to see, but some were more my style than others. There wasn’t any super-quirky garden that stood out to me, but the one that came closest was full of funky garden art and all kinds of angels including a couple cat angels. It completed the experience for me to see that there was an actual cat in the garden, but he swatted at me when I attempted to make friends, so he was definitely no angel.

There was a lot to see and it was a fun weekend, but as I looked through my photos I didn’t feel particularly inspired to do a blog post about it. But then I looked through everything again and decided that I have some fun flower photos, and I could post them for anyone who would like to see flower photos.

So here you are. Some random flower and garden photos. There’s no real storyline or clear delineation between the gardens, just a random smattering of the beautiful things I saw.

My Garden in June

I’ve continued my work getting things back in shape after the lead remediation. In my East Garden, the lilies have been blooming happily. It’s the first year that I’ve had multiple colors in bloom, and I like it. Next to them are the masses of baptisia. It’s a plant that I like, but  I don’t quite have the space to grow it. The plants look great when they first come up and bloom, but after that they spread a lot. I’ve tried new ways of compressing them a little in order to give the other plants room to grow. In between them are butterfly weed and coneflowers. Actually, there is a lot in the East Garden that would take over if given half a chance. It’s just kept in check by the other things that are taking over.

My West Garden continues to look good. In other years it’s had some empty spots where I tried one plant or another and it just didn’t work. So far this year things have been very happy, but we haven’t gotten into the hot, dry parts of the summer that challenge many plants.

I experimented this year by adding some sun perennials to a section of this garden that has been a particular struggle. I’ve finally come to realize that, even as small as the East and West gardens are, there are sections of each garden that work for shade plants and sections that work for sun plants. With the way the shadows from the house move across these gardens every day, the sunlight is very different from one foot to the next. By the end of August, I may know if my experiment worked.

In the back yard, I’ve started to get the soil re-worked where my blackberries and vegetables had grown. It was the place where the heavy machinery accessed my yard, so it was pretty compacted. The soil itself is composted horse manure, so it should be good once I get it fluffed up. I was trying to figure out how to get a rototiller or something else to turn the soil when my friend Jane reminded me that she’d gotten a thing called a broadfork to use in Patchwork’s garden. It’s supposed to till the soil by hand.

I’d tried putting a shovel into the compacted soil and I could barely penetrate it, so I was really skeptical about the broadfork, but I didn’t have anything to lose so I gave it a try. It worked great and was really fun to use. You stand on the crossbar and wiggle it side to side just a little bit and the tines sink deep into the ground. Then you hop off and push down on the handles and it cuts through and turns over the soil like magic. For the small space that I have, it was absolutely perfect.

While I’ve started to get the soil in this part of the garden back in shape, the berries that will eventually populate it have stayed healthy and fruited in their temporary pots. I’ve also harvested my garlic that was growing in the raised bed in the middle. It didn’t grow exceptionally well, but it did good enough.

Also, I finally planted the garden in the brick pile by the birdbath. I’d been trying for weeks and weeks to eradicate the extremely invasive Tree of Heaven that kept putting up shoots there from its root system. I finally pulled all the dirt out and chopped out a lot of roots. Hopefully things will be better there for a little while, but the ends of the roots still lurk close by. I planted my usual ferns, begonias, and caladiums.

Things were going well, but then I noticed some damage here and there. Then there was more damage. Prior to the garlic harvest, little hands raked through the raised bed searching for food. Then for several mornings in a row I found slabs of sod rolled back. I knew the signs: we were being invaded by raccoons. The little boogers even climbed to the top of one of my bottle trees and pulled down the sculpted heads held in apple pickers there. I could imagine the juvenile raccoons drunkenly running around my yard with heads on sticks yelling, “WOOOO HOOOOO!!!” They placed them creepily at the base of the tree.

Ever since we found a family of raccoons living in our basement and ripping up our ductwork, we have taken a zero tolerance policy. If they are messing with our property, they need to be relocated. We’ve managed to move several of the most recent group away now, but there’s at least one more to try to catch.

Meanwhile, there has been plenty of cat drama. I don’t like cat drama. A couple months ago, Scrappy decided our house was his house. He actually came from the neighbor’s house, but he settled on our side porch and made it clear that he wasn’t going to leave. He’s a super sweet guy, though not super smart, so how was I going to turn him away? I started to feed him and a few of his brothers who decided to stop by from time to time.

But a few weeks ago, a black cat appeared. I have no idea where he materialized from, but it wasn’t the neighbor’s. I’m not sure how he’s made it this far, but he only has one tooth in his whole head–a very pointy canine on his bottom jaw. We are calling him Spike.

Little did Spike know he’d stumbled into a trap/neuter/return operation, so in exchange for food on my porch he got neutered. I was hoping all the neutering would help all the boys get along better, but the others don’t particularly like Spike and Spike doesn’t particularly like them. He took over Scrappy’s spot on the side porch, which makes me sad, but Spike’s an old man cat with one tooth, so I can’t be too mad at him. Scrappy is still around plenty, too.

Both Scrappy and Spike love gardening time with me. I’m never outside long without at least one of them showing up. Often, either one or the other is right in the middle of whatever I’m working on. I like having little gardening buddies, but I wish they got along better. I want every cat to have a place and to be a happy cat.

Re-Creation

I never imagined exactly how much a feeling of lightness would come over me during the first weekend after the EPA subcontractors finished their work in my yard. I knew that I’d been feeling a lot of stress and anxiety. I knew that I’d been trying to keep my expectations for my garden low and that I’d decided to stay out of my yard till the work was over. I didn’t buy plants. My gardening activities were limited to removing all my art and digging up plants that would be in harm’s way.

My garden still looked good. The plants came up as usual. The subcontractors didn’t destroy any of my flower beds. Things were good. But, that first Saturday I came out and started working and I felt such joy. I brought the first of my garden art out of storage, and I went to a plant nursery and treated myself to a few new plants. It was a perfect day to garden, and at the end of it my empty planter was filled and some bright bits of artwork were scattered around. I felt like life was finally, truly coming back to my garden. As an added bonus, this first weekend came at the absolute height of the blooming of the honeysuckle along the back fence. The air itself was intoxicatingly sweet.

I’ve had several more weekends to work since then, and things have shaped up more and more during each one. Because there was a time that I feared my entire garden would be dug up and destroyed, I’d pulled out all of the garden art from across my entire yard. I’d also pulled out a variety of plants and had prepared to pull even more. In the end, I would not have needed to move as much as I did, so it’s taken longer than necessary to put everything back.

At this point, I’ve gotten around to every garden bed except for the bare earth where I hope to grow berries and vegetables once more. There was no getting around having this area horribly compacted, since it was the machinery’s only route into my yard, but now it will take work to make it good for plants again. I’m also trying to plan better so I can contain some of the things I had planted there but that had spread beyond my intention. Since this is one of the original parts of my garden, I’m enjoying the prospect of a little bit of redesign.

Meanwhile, CATS! The Ladies are absolutely lovely as ever. It’s so calming to watch them survey the world from their chair at the back door. Perry continues to get daily walks. He continues to enjoy checking out the EPA subcontractors’ heavy equipment. He continues to bite.

Meanwhile, it appears we officially have porch cats. They’ve appeared one by one over the past nine months. It turns out our neighbor has unknown quantities of cats inside her house and when the boys become too big a problem she throws them out (though she still cares about them and feeds them).

The boys had all kept their distance until Captain Scrappy showed up and claimed our side porch. Now he’s always here. He’s incredibly sweet and lovey, but he’s not very bright. He follows me around constantly in the garden and then rolls all over whatever I’m focusing on. He’s flattened my garlic and he’s terrible when I’m trying to put weed killer on the trees of heaven that are sprouting everywhere from tree roots wounded by the EPA-related digging.

Two of Scrappy’s brothers also hang out in my garden a lot of the time. We’ve managed to get all three to the Humane Society to be neutered, which Perry is very happy about. Their presence tends to ruin Perry’s walks. There are other brothers roaming around, though they’re less often in my yard, so this may be an extended project.

Everything Non-Remediation

Throughout all the EPA lead remediation work, things have continued to bloom and grow in the rest of my garden. There has been plenty of beauty, though I haven’t wanted to do much work outside while I waited for the remediation work to be over. In some spots, the blooms happened in spite of all the remediation work. Here’s a look at the rest of my garden:

And here are a batch of cat photos and videos for the cat fans. The Ladies have had plenty of time to sit at their back window and survey their backyard domain. Perry gets to go out for daily walks. We never stray far from home but stay out for at least a half hour. Meanwhile, our neighbor has now ejected three male cats from her home. They hang out in our yard all the time and are generally pests. John and I really hope to get them neutered in the hope that it will make everyone (including our cats) happier. That will be a big project, however.

Remediation

The EPA subcontractors have come and gone. In short, the plan was followed and everything should be OK, but it sure took a lot of my energy to get to that point.

The longer version: Back at the beginning of March I met with representatives of the subcontractor in charge of doing the EPA lead remediation in my yard. I’m sure they have their own version of the events, but my version is that they said everything in my yard was slated to be dug up. Everything. And just 6 days after that meeting.

After the meeting, I voiced my concerns to the project supervisor at the EPA. I had many of them. I said that I’ve seen the process go well and I’d seen it go badly, and so far this was going badly, but I knew it could go better. I started clearing what I could from my garden (most of my plants were still dormant), felt horrible, and finally realized I could ask for more time. I heard unofficially that my yard had been rescheduled. I followed up more. Several weeks later I got a call and arranged a meeting with the contractor the next day.

Six or seven men showed up wearing their official safety vests and hard hats. It was a little intimidating. But, they were all very nice. They liked cats and birds and gardens. They complimented my garden, which by then had begun to emerge from dormancy. And they asked what I wanted to have done. They made new notes and a plan that would spare the perennial beds where I’d already added so much soil and so many plants. They asked when I would prefer to have the work done, and we came up with May 10, since I could get off work that day.

I waited and completed my final garden preparations. There was a false start when the excavation crew had their equipment in place and were ready to start about a week and a half before I’d anticipated. John told them, “not today,” and they moved on to the neighbor’s yard.

May 10 arrived and they were running late, but they still honored our agreement. They got their equipment in place on the 10th, and digging started on the 11th. They finished removing soil on the 13th. After some initial damage from trying to get the excavator into too tight a space, they were incredibly careful in the restrictive spaces of my yard. I was impressed with the care with which they manipulated the excavator claw so it missed my shed and fence on every pass.

After the contaminated soil was out, they brought new soil in. Whether it was the complaining to the project coordinator or dumb luck, I got some fantastic soil. At the initial meeting, they said I’d get fill dirt and only the top 4″ would be topsoil. In the end, it was all topsoil and “platinum grade” topsoil at that, as the contractor explained. It came from a source in Kentucky who mixes in racehorse manure, resulting in a relatively high percentage of organic material.

Of course, I still needed to argue with the skid loader driver so he wouldn’t try to fit his machine through the same spot where the excavator guy had tried and failed. The argument went longer than need be. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of work in my yard that needed to be done by hand and in the end they had people do it.

The topsoil was added, then sod and mulch. Now we’re a week from when it all began and I’ve started to put things back where they belong. It felt good to get back to creating a garden again after holding back for so long. Even with my perennial beds being spared, it will take the summer to get things back in shape. I had them leave the back section bare where I hope to have a garden again just like I did before. However, the soil is incredibly compacted, so I’ll need to find a tiller to work it up before I can use it.

Below is a slideshow of what the process looked like, along with some videos to give you a feel. There are captions to explain what’s what. My cats should be on retainer for the EPA. They provided a lot of very critical supervision.

The excavator working in the tight space:

Lady Ygraine keeps an eye on the guys doing the hand digging:

Lady Ygraine Views the Quiet Excavator:

The skid loader brings new dirt:

 

 

The Most Beautiful Time of the Year

I’ve been so busy taking pictures of my garden that I haven’t had time to edit and post them! All through April, I saw wave after wave of beauty come through my garden and the entire city. The soft greens, bright spring bulbs, pastel redbuds, frothy cherry trees, pink and white dogwoods, fluorescent azaleas, and deepening greens make the world feel airy and light. Everything is new and perfect.

My garden emerged from dormancy. At first I was still waiting to hear what the EPA contractors and subcontractors would do to it or not do to it. Now, however, I am much more hopeful. If everything goes as I’ve discussed with all the workers, things will be OK. It’s taken plenty of energy, though. I’m really not one to complain and put up a stink, so it’s been a lot of work to continue to be “that crazy lady” to all of them. Hopefully it pays off in work I’m happy with.

Below is a slideshow that takes you through most of April 8-27 in my garden. You will see things emerging and expanding to fill their spots in my different garden spaces. I love the way the plants change and develop throughout the process. There are also a few cats mixed in for good measure.