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Caring for a New Tree

15 Aug

So, as I mentioned before, our memorial tree for Bug is looking a little rough. More than a little rough, I think it might actually be a goner. This makes me incredibly sad. Way more upset than is actually warranted, I suspect.  I hate when plants die anyway, and then you associate a particular plant with my baby. Well, it isn’t pretty.  (Luckily Bug is growing better than the tree. Much better.)

But, it is motivating. We plan to replace the tree, it is an integral part of our overall backyard plan. So, I am going to damn well be sure that we don’t kill another tree.  I’m going to do the research that I should have done the first time around.  Here goes…

Bare root vs Root Ball

We initially made our decision on this front because the bare root tree was more economical (read cheap). Plus, it got delivered directly to the house, which is important because we still haven’t found a nursery near the new house that we like.

From what I’ve now read, the advantages to bare root (aside from the cost) is that the entire root system can be inspected. Also, more roots can be included in the shipped product because there isn’t as much soil and weight. On the con side, the tree is necessarily smaller when it is a bare root tree. So really it comes down to size. Oh, and skip the containerized trees because then you have to worry about circling roots.


I assumed, much like the vegetable garden, that Spring was the right time to plant our new tree. From what I can tell, that was a pretty accurate assumption. Bare root trees need to be transplanted in either spring or fall. Root ball trees can be planted anytime, where as the bare root trees should only be planted in the spring and fall when it isn’t such a shock on their poor little system. We’re in Zone 7, so it is entirely possible that Fall is a better time for planting so that the plant stays dormant for a little longer. Our fig trees, planted in September, are doing great. Even so, we perhaps waited a bit too long to get our tree in the ground in the Spring.

Seasoning the Soil

As best I can tell from my research, we should’ve mixed some compost into the soil when we were planting our tree. We unfortunately just used available soil and covered that with a layer of straw as mulch (keeping a 3 inch radius away from the trunk though). On the other hand, we should lay off the fertilizer until the tree starts to bear fruit.

Water, Water Everywhere

This was undoubtedly our biggest challenge with the current tree. The tree really didn’t look good after the deluge of water that it got during our mini-monsoon season. Then, we clearly didn’t water enough after it got hot and dry again. We have some sort of mental block against watering to begin with, so we need to clarify how much water the tree actually needs.

So, new trees need 25 gallons of water per week to stay alive. According to Casey Trees, that’s equal to 1.5 inches of rain fall. The more I’m watching this, the more I’m thinking that not watering was a bigger sin in our case. Given our track record, we clearly need to get one a tree gator to help us remember to actually get the water out.

If You Want More Info:

There is some great information from the U of M here.

This is a great resource from Virginia Tech about all things trees.


Baby Haze

29 Jul

We have been in the most wonderful and all consuming baby haze for the past two months. Everything else has been on hold, because a) I just want to stare at our baby all day, and b) I am too tired to do anything but stare at the baby.

The haze lifted in ernest this last weekend. Bolt had his regular Friday off, so I handed him a baby and promptly spent all day doing projects. While there is nothing finished or ready to report, it was really great to be productive again.

It also gave me the opportunity to spend some time in the garden. Unfortunately, in addition to the baby related neglect, the garden has been taking a beating from the weather and pests. This past July saw torrential rain followed promptly by searing heat. This was compounded by some human error as well. All in all, our garden hasn’t been as successful as we could have hoped, but we do have a lot to learn from.  Here are some of the mid-season take aways:

  • Spread out the tomato plants: We planted our tomato plants far to dense for their liking. Next year I think we should aim for about half as many plants in the given space. I also want to do some more research about tomato production. We’re getting a few paste tomatoes and some (albeit small) cherry tomatoes, but no Brandywines at all.
  • Attack pests early and often: This is highly related to the first issue. We struggled with aphids on the tomatoes and Squash Bore on the zucchini. In both cases we were slow to start treating the problem with the Neem Oil. Early and often should be our mantra in the future! Also, we need to make sure we’re pruning to help ensure healthy plants to resist the pest naturally. There is a good video here to walk through tomato pruning.
  • Okra!: We planted 9 okra plants this year. They’re now fully in their productive stage and we’re getting a pretty perfect amount of okra pods to really do something with.
  • Beans have a heavy water requirement: Water the beans, a lot. They get yucky and woody if you don’t. They are, however, bouncing back with a little love.
  • Spread out the carrots too: We just broadcast seeded the carrots this year.  As a result, they are really crowded and vying for soil space. As a related note, we need to figure out something to do with all those carrot tops.
  • Don’t always trust the landscapers: the bee balm that was planted in our rain garden apparently doesn’t like rain. Well, at least it doesn’t like as much rain as we got this month.

The most upsetting mid-season note is about the peach tree. It started to look a little bad with all the rain. Then it started to look really bad with all the heat. We took some advice from the local tree non-profit, Casey Trees, that we probably shouldn’t have. They were advising folks not to water, because we had so much rain. However, I suspect because our tree was so young and the root weren’t totally with it yet, we should have been watering anyway. I hope it bounces back, but I’m pretty worried about it.

I think that’s all for now.

Coming Up Roses

15 May

Blue Eyed Grass One of the most interesting and frustrating things about moving into an old house is dissecting how things are put together.  After many years and different levels of code adherence, every aspect of our home is a mishmash of projects and approaches.  This is incredibly apparent in our garden.

In the vegetable garden, while we might have had some complications, we were mostly able to construct what we wanted with relative ease. However, we’re now starting to tackle all of the other beds. And, well, we’re not loving what we’re finding.

We decided early on that we were only going to be able to focus on the backyard this year.  While our neighbors suffer by staring at our decidedly un-pretty front yard, we wanted to get as much as we could set in the back this year with the hopes that it would be the more functional space for us in the future. And, miraculously, we’ve gotten most of the work done before baby. However, we wanted to turn the bed right up against the back of the house into an herb garden, potentially with some perennial vines to add some vertical interest. (In particular we were thinking a hardy kiwi and a flowering clematis vine.) And herein lies our stumbling block. It is gravel. And tons of it. It appears that a former owner added 1) a layer of plastic, 2) about 12 inches of gravel, 3) three inches or so of top soil and, finally 4) bark mulch.  To the entirety of the existing beds.

BlueberriesSo, of course it would be easiest to simply build a raised bed over top of this mess.  We could easily ignore it all.  However, we never do anything the easy way. Plus, all that gravel will come in incredibly handy when we make the patio that we’re planning on for next year (or maybe the year after that, we’ll see).  So, with the help of some hardware cloth, we’re sifting out all the gravel and removing the plastic. It is, as you can imagine, very slow going. This made even slower by the fact that I can’t do much at a time (that whole big belly thing again) and that Bolt has been focused on making sure the veggies are growing just fine. Needless to say, our herbs aren’t getting into the ground anytime soon.  Certainly not before baby Bug, who is coming any day now. Really, the midwife says that she’d be very surprised if I make it to my due date (May 23rd).

So, that is not exactly the fun part of unearthing the hodge-podge of an old house. However, it has been interesting to see what Rosescomes up in the rest of the yard as Spring springs out.  I have heard several times that you shouldn’t do anything drastic to the landscaping in a new house until you’ve lived there for at least a full season-cycle.  For instance, we have this crazy rose bush that is growing like crazy (plus one that I keep expecting to be dead, but isn’t).  And tons of lilies everywhere I look. I’m watching the side yard closely this year, because it is the only area I don’t have a good plan for yet.  It offers a fair bit of space (if a very narrow space) with full to partial sun. It all remains to be seen!

Also noteworthy, lots of things we’ve actually planted are coming up!  The beans are almost all germinated, as well as chard, zucchini, cucumbers, carrots and okras. I think we’ll be able to actually harvest some arugula next week (we got that in late, so we won’t be able to harvest much before it bolts. Unless of course it stays so cool.) We planted Waltham butternut squash seeds this weekend too. We were going to buy some seedlings to replace to the ones that didn’t make it (tomato and peppers mostly), but we had a frost warning for last evening. So, we decided to wait until next weekend.  We did get a marathon weeding session in too, in between all the rain.

Seedling Blues

1 May

05_01 Bean BabyThis weekend we got another round of seeds and seedlings in the ground.

From seed we planted:

  • Homemade Pickles Cucumbers
  • Hill Country Heirloom Red Okra

And the seedlings were:

  • San Marzano Paste Tomatoes
  • OTV Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomatoes

And perfect timing, just after planting we had two full days of misty, spitting rain.  Godspeed little guys.

We haven’t had the best of luck with seed starting this year, in general. Other than the Brandywine tomatoes, which were really stubborn in the beginning but quickly started going all gang-busters, all the other seedlings have been a little anemic. For instance, our dill and basil seedlings were so tiny and wasted looking that we ended up just direct seeded them a couple weeks ago. Half of the eggplant seedlings were looking ok, but then completely died off.

We think that there might be a couple of problems that need to be dealt with.  We did get a heat mat last year, and according to the thermometer we’ve been at a consistent 70ish degrees.  So, we think that is generally ok.  We’re not convinced that the lights are quite right though, probably just not strong enough.  So that’s one issue.  Two, we didn’t use sterile seed starting medium.  I’m not sure how detrimental that can actually be (here are some ways to deal with it next year though).  I’m not sure if the little guys had enough nutrients.  Also, there was some mold/fungus growing on the paper planters that could have been a result of the potting soil. However, it could have come from another source, which leads me to issue number three. I think there was an inconsistent watering issue. The plants were either dry or too wet, often too wet.  It certainly seems like we might be suffering from a case of the ‘dampening off‘. Seems as if this is a common enough problem, but an annoying and seedling-fatal one nonetheless.  So, lots of things to think about next year. Like new lights, cooked soil, less water and a fan.

It is sometimes overwhelming how much I don’t know. The garden seems so simple – seeds+water+sun=food – and often despite ourselves, it is that simple. However, often it really is not. There is an amazing amount of science to this art. Fortunately for us, we’re both pretty big nerds and we rather like the science of it.  We’ll figure it out, little by little.

05_01 Peach LeavesIn the mean time, nature is continually defying our learning curve by moving forward on its steady march. The peach tree, in the ground for two weeks now, is starting to bud out. The raspberry plants a neighbor gave us (and we rudely stuck in a pot, unprotected, all winter) have leaves all over. And then, inexplicably in the other direction, we have a crazy crop circle of dead grass forming in our front yard. Never a dull moment.

Bug gets a Tree

24 Apr

When we bought our house, it was clear that no one had loved this place in quite awhile.  Everything basically works, but there was nothing extra and no attention to detail. The house was a rental for four years or so before we moved in and from all reports it was a real hard livin’ four years. In the nine months we’ve been here we’ve been slowly working through each room trying to make it shine again (with our limited budget, this is not a complete overhaul!)

Any work inside the house has come to a complete standstill these days though. As you maybe can see reflected in our recent posts – it is all about the garden. And, well, rightfully so.  It is so beautiful outside these days and the landscaping has been just as neglected as the rest of the house.  Plus, it is our intention to make the yard as edible a landscape as we possibly can.

Peach tree from a boxTo this end, and again cognizant of that limited budget, we put together a master plan for the yard to be implemented over the next couple years. That master plan includes a couple trees. Now, we don’t have a big yard. Our whole lot is just slightly more than 3,000 sq. ft., less than a tenth of an acre (just the way Bolt likes it, ask him about urban density some time…) But, the trees are important and an important part of a larger plan to make the District a truly great place to live. And despite the fact that they’ll take up quite a bit of our limited space we want to add several for their shade, beauty, permanence and fruit.

It was important, when we started making our plan, for us to plant at least one of the trees this year. Bolt suggested, almost as soon as we found out that I was pregnant, that we plant a tree this year in honor of the birth of our little boy-to-be.  It still makes me a little misty to think about. It is our living memorial to his life and the myriad ways in which his life will change ours. They will both grow and hopefully thrive, marking the passage of our time together. A little sappy maybe (pun intended), but it makes me really happy.

So, after a fair amount of somewhat agonizing research chronicled here, we decided on the tree we wanted.  It is a semi-dwarf peach tree (which will be our third fruit tree to join the fig trees that Bolt gave me for my birthday last year).  We decided on the Contender variety for its general pest and disease resistance and per The Farmer’s Almanac recommendation. After some more research, we bought a bare-root tree online and had it shipped to the house (a process that was totally painless and one that I don’t imagine will mimic Bug’s entrance into our lives).  This weekend it went into the ground.

The peach pit (pun also intended...)

The peach pit (pun also intended…)

Peach PitBolt reports that a 3ft x 2ft hole is really big and takes a while to dig. I report that it is still a little weird to me that I can get a tree in the mail.

What’s in our Dirt

16 Apr

Soil Test

We got the results back on our soil test this week. And, drum roll please, we’re in the clear!  At least as far as lead goes.  Actually, we’re in remarkably ok shape over all.  The bottom line is that I don’t need to worry about our soil leading to lead contamination for me and the baby.  Also, other than the leaf compost that Bolt has been adding in the double dig, we don’t need to add much to the soil this year to get a good crop going.  This is really a huge relief to me. So much so that, despite the virus that mostly kept me in bed, I managed to help out in the garden a little this weekend.  I planted a couple of Brandywine tomato plants that severely overgrew our seedling table.

Going in ahead of schedule on April 14th.

Going in ahead of schedule on April 14th.

Garlic plants on April 14th

Garlic plants on April 14th

The Brandywines have been funny this year. Several of our seeds didn’t germinate. And those that did grew like nuts. I’m not entirely sure I understand what’s going on there.  In any case, the big guys are planted.  There are a couple more that will go in on our regular schedule –  closer to the end of the month. I’m not too concerned that we’re going to get a frost or that the soil isn’t warm enough. We’re in a bit of a heat sink, being in the city. Also, now our garlic plants have a little across the garden path company and don’t look so lonely.

While I was moaning about my runny nose, Bolt was working hard on finishing prepping the garden beds. Minus the area that we were hoping to use which is actually a giant hunk of concrete (damn you ECP!), we’ve got about 177 (oops, 168) square feet of garden space this year that will roughly break down like this: Garden Plan

Matt double digging

With the end of the digging, we are actually able to start direct seeding some of the plants that were supposed to go in the ground last month (oops) and a few that are right on schedule:

  • Silverbeet Swiss Chard
  • Danvers Carrots
  • Arugula
  • Sweet Genovese Bail
  • Bouquet Dill
  • Blue Lake Bush Beans

Things are really starting to come together around here. Still a tremendous amount of work, but it is so great to see progress. When we bought this house, it was clear that the landscaping (as well as just about everything in doors too) had been left to its

Blueberry buds in our new rain garden

Blueberry buds in our new rain garden

own devices for several years.  I knew that going in, but it is still a bit overwhelming sometimes. However, looking out over our back yard, with all of the new dirt and buds and bees, it is a good shot in the arm for my confidence that we can really make this place our home.

The Dreaded Double Dig

9 Apr
Matt in his Hat

My husband is a rock star, or rather, a clay star.

We’ve been running a bit late on all our garden preparations this year. Most pressing at this point is that we need to dig out the new garden beds. Our beautiful little seedlings need to be planted in the next few weeks. In fact, our schedule means that we won’t get several of our cool season/long growing season plants in this spring (chard and parsnip for example). Last weekend Bolt rid the plots of all the sod, but this weekend marked the beginning of the real work. The dreaded double dig!

Double digging is a technique we first learned about in John Jeavon’s book “How to Grow More Vegetables.” It is a rather back-breaking ordeal in our clay-based soil here in DC, whereby the digger integrates compost (we used local Leaf Gro, since our own compost is not ready yet) two spade lengths down into the soil. According to the NYTimes, those across the pond call it ‘bastard trenching.‘  I don’t think that either of us are convinced that it is a winning strategy for production year after year, but it is critical for breaking up the clay to get our garden started.

So, I mentioned that Bolt is a total trooper, right? I am out of commission in the garden this spring and can’t help at all with this crazy work. In part, it is because we are still awaiting the results of our soil test. We had to send the soil sample out to the University of Massachusetts soil lab for analysis because it was critical for us, with me pregnant and Bug on the way, to understand the heavy metal composition of our soil – not every soil test will look for these.  No lead poisoning for us please.

The already dug bed is to the left, the bed to be dug in on the right.  Also, look at our garlic grow!

The already dug bed is to the left, the bed to be dug in on the right. Also, look at our garlic grow!

According to folks we talked to at the Rooting DC Conference this year, DC will soon have its very own soil testing lab to go with its increasingly active cooperative extension program, but we couldn’t wait for it to open for business.

In any case, after two days of slinging clay, Bolt is about half way done with the double dig. He should be very proud of his hard work.  The beds look beautifully raised and we’re well on our way to planting.

ECP update: Apparently the ECP has a little brother.  We’re calling this one the ECS, or the enigmatic concrete strip. This one, which runs through yet another one of our garden beds.  Sigh. Did I also mention that we have a strange crop circle forming in the front yard? Can’t wait to find out what’s underneath that one.

The Tyranny of Too Many Choices

2 Apr

StellaI had a mini meltdown last night trying to pick out a mattress for Bug’s crib.  There are just too many options, all of which seem basically the same.  Amazon reviews are really only making it worse.  How can a mattress be both too firm and sag in the middle?  How can these stupid things make me feel like a bad mother even before I’ve given birth? Really people, this is just crazy talk.

I’m having a similar conundrum with our backyard. Bolt suggested that we plant a tree in our backyard to celebrate our little boy-to-be. Something we can point to for the rest of his life and say – ‘that tree is as old as you are.’ We decided, in order to make our back yard as edible as possible, to plant a peach tree.  We also want to plant a redbud tree in the front yard and take advantage of the Casey Tree’s rebate program, but that is another story.  (BTW, how amazing is it that our city and local non-profits keep practically paying us to plant things in our garden?)

However, have you ever looked at how many different kinds of peach trees there are?  So many. And, all, basically the same.  Luckily for me, reading about fruit trees is way more exciting than reading about crib mattresses. So, here are the criteria that I’m looking for:

  • Self-pollinating: We only want to plant one tree because we live on a pretty small city lot. So, if this thing is going to go, it is going to have to pollinate all on its own.
  • Dwarf: See above re: small city lot.
  • Freestone: for easier manipulation down the line (read, I will get more peach jam if the peaches are easier to process!)
  • Yellow: I always like the flavor of the yellow peaches better than the white variety.

That’s really all I’m going on. The Virginia Extension recommends the following trees:

Variety Ripening

Garnet Beauty July 17 Yellow flesh peaches small to medium – Cling Stone
Laural July 25 Medium, well colored freestone, recommended for trial
Redhaven Aug. 1 Medium size, very cold hardy, semi-cling stone
Rich Lady Aug. 1 Large, firm, well colored yellow fruit, recommended for trial
Topaz Aug. 7 Large, attractive freestone
Contender Aug. 10 Large, attractive freestone
Earnie’s Choice Aug. 12 Large, firm attractive, freestone
Loring Aug. 18 Very large, firm freestone
Harcrest Aug. 29 Medium to large, very attractive freestone
Fayette Sept. 6 Very large, firm, well colored, freestone
Encore Sept. 12 Large, firm, attractive freestone

But, they are focused on commercial production over home growth (not that their information isn’t useful.)  The Farmer’s Almanac also recommends Contender, as a favorite for zone 7. Also from the Almanac: although peaches are native to the Chinese countryside, the peach was brought to the western world from Iran.

Anyhow, I suspect that we’ve got some more research time ahead of us. Or at least one more visit to the greenhouse to stare wistfully at all of their trees.

Meyer Lemon buds April 1_2In the meantime, we need to continue caring for the fruit tree that we already have.  Our Meyer lemon tree got a dose of fertilizer back in February and the blooms look absolutely amazing.  We already have two little fruits growing away and a bunch of beautiful and beautifully smelling flowers blooming.  I can’t believe what the addition of that little bit of fertilizer did for the tree.

Seeing as all those flowers need to be pollinated, I spent some time this morning violating all those pistils and stamens with a Q-tip. Hopefully they will forgive me and bear lots of tasty fruit as a result. In the meantime, we (meaning Bolt, since even on a good day I can’t lift that ginormous pot) are watching the weather to see when we can move the lemon to its seasonal home in our backyard.  Sometime after the middle of this month we should be frost free and ready to go.  And then me and my Q-tip will play second fiddle to the bees.Pollinating


28 Mar

Here’s the rain garden being installed

So far, our garden has not exactly gone as planned.  I mean, the seeds are started and Bolt has begun the massive double dig to start the veggie portion of the garden we want to start this year. We even got ourselves a really great rain garden, courtesy of the District of Columbia.

However, there has been one very large complication to our plan.  We call it the ECP because we are in the land of acronyms.  The ECP, or the enigmatic concrete pad, measures about six feet by 14 feet and spans the whole length of our proposed garden space. Why there is a concrete pad in the middle of the yard covered by a few inches of top soil, I can’t rightly say.  But, there it is.

Bolt and I debated what to do with it. Our first instinct was to rent a jack hammer and rid ourselves of the ECP entirely. However, we have so many projects right now: the pantry door, finishing the baby’s room, getting the garden dug, the yard cleaned up, the roof repainted, etc. All of this needs to happen before the baby comes in late May.  Of course, I’m really no help with many of these things, being more than seven months pregnant is not conducive to manual labor.

You can see the damnable thing there in the back

So, for the time being, we’re leaving the ECP right where it is.  The garden will just have to be planted around it.  Maybe we’ll put some chairs out there and make it our patio.  In order to deal with the space constraints we’re not going to be able to get the garden perennials in the ground that we had hoped – strawberries and asparagus, in particular.

So, back to focusing on the good stuff.  The rain garden, watered by our fancy new rain barrel, includes the following plants:

The Installed Rain Garden

The Installed Rain Garden


  • Tickseed, Coreopsis verticillata
  • Beebalm, Monarda didyma
  • Blue-Eyed Grass, Sisyrinchium angustifolium
  • New York Aster, Symphyotrichum novi-belgii


  • Switch Grass, Panicum virgatum


  • Highbush Blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum

The new garden makes me crazy to finally rip down all the chain link fence and finally put up a nice wood one. I must be patient…


Notice the Brandywines not growing…

We also got all our wonderful Southern Exposure seeds started (albeit slightly later than we had hoped).

So far we have seedling of the following:

  • Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomatoes
  • OTV Brandywine Tomatoes (which, surprisingly, have been really tough to get to germinate this year, notice in the picture)
  • San Marzano Tomatoes
  • Sweet Genovese Basil
  • Bouquet Dill
  • Jalapeno Peppers
  • Listada De Eggplant
  • Jupiter Bell Peppers
  • Lacinato Kale

Moving and moving on

12 Jul We did grow some things...

It hasn’t been a good seasonWe did grow some things... for our garden.  Not because it isn’t growing, but because it is growing without any real intervention by us. Half of our beds have been taken over by volunteer plants.  (I’m secretly excited about that though. The rogue plants are all cherry tomatoes which are my favorite.) The other half are surviving the Derecho and this summer’s heat wave like they were/are no big deal.

It isn’t a good season because our hearts haven’t been in it this year. Bolt has certainly gone through the motions (and by motions I mean repetitive digging motions), but I think we have both checked out.  We even bought grass seed yesterday to fill in the beds that Bolt so nicely dug. All of this to say, we aren’t giving up on gardening all together – just on this garden, because we are moving at the end of this month to our very own patch of ground!

We’re looking forward to our adventure as homeowners. Despite the anxiety that this whole home buying process has engendered. How and when we’ll be sharing our adventures here is yet to be determined, but we hope that we can continue to do so.