A Tough Year For The Garden

Some sage English gardener said, “It takes 50 years to create a beautiful garden.”

An allium from my garden, before the hail, heat, and smoke.

It comforts me.

Last year, you may remember, we started the Great Suburban Back Yard Overhaul. Tore out the decrepit wooden deck, rototilled half the lawn, put in new fences, and built a new garden bed with seven areas and pathways. I was half drunk with the glory of planting last year—lilacs and a peach tree, vegetables and perennial flowers, roses and herbs. I had a few disappointments: the onions kept being eaten by some tiny worm (which happened again this year—help!). The only rose that made it was in the mini-greenhouse I erected. The peach tree nearly died of a fungus until I figured it out.

But an inaugural year is always sweet, isn’t it?

This has been a very unkind year for gardens in my world. There was the late spring, then an early and endless and destructive hailstorm just as I managed to get all the seedlings planted. Then came the extreme heat (102 degrees in Colorado Springs is weird indeed), which coupled with the altitude of 7000 feet scorched and exhausted the June plants.

Before the heat broke, fire began to rage in the mountains. The Waldo Canyon Fire pumped tons of ash and particulates into the air, thus further smothering my poor babies. It was too hot and smoky to do any weeding, though I still did my best to keep up in the evenings. Weeds don’t care about smoke or heat or hail. There is a particular little succulent weed that thrives on all of that and they have made themselves very much at home.

Finally, the fire is out (or at least contained). Even better, the monsoon season has arrived. It has rained a lot the past week, and there is more rain to come, nearly every afternoon over the upcoming week. The plants are THRILLED. The corn has gone from a pathetic ankle high to thigh high in six days. The potatoes have started flowering. The peas have croaked, but that’s normal this time of year. I’ll plant some more in a month or so.

The only things that just are not going to thrive this year are the tomatoes. They’re puny and overwhelmed. The watermelon plants were demolished in the hail storm and have not recovered, but they were a looooonnnnnnggggg shot from the start. I’ve left them, anyway. You never know.

Clearly, I am behind on my weeding and mulching, but it all burst into glory in about three days flat.

This morning I sat in my swing beneath the Ponderosa pine in my garden and admired the returned vigor of the lupines and the beans, the rose that has begun to bloom again and the snapdragons that add a corner of zest. I don’t know if I’ll get peaches, in the end. They were battered badly by the hail, and the tree still looks bedraggled. But there are a lot of them. They haven’t dropped off. They might be unbeautiful, but maybe I’ll get some jam.

Gardens, books, and children, I suppose. You don’t know how it will all turn out for a long time. In the meantime, you show up and do the work—writing pages or pulling weeds or driving them to violin lessons—and try to be present for what is, and trust that things work out.

How is your garden faring this summer? How are your other long term projects—books, children, remodeling? Does anyone know how to organically rid the soil of those annoying little worms eating my onions? 

The Turn of the Wheel–writing season begins

Here it is, arriving suddenly.  On Thursday, it was still Indian summer, sunny and hot.  Today is Saturday and that season has fled.   This is a wet snow, and won’t stick. Next week, it will be warm again—but instead of collecting a few more roses, another couple of squashes, I will put the garden to bed for the winter. Cut down the frozen stalks of corn, compost the wilted squash, the frost killed tomatillo, so prolific that I am secretly glad I won’t have to figure out how to use 10,000 more of them.

When I first looked out this morning, on the wilted, frozen plants that have been my companions all summer, I felt melancholy.  The summer is gone for certain now.  Another swift move of the calendar, this very particular summer, this sweet year of my new garden–gone.

And yet…I knew the freeze was on the way, so I found this little greenhouse at the local big box gardening spot.  (I had planned to buy PVC pipe and build one—this is ever so much better, and only a tiny bit more expensive.)  It’s lightweight, and easy enough to assemble that I did everything but the cover by myself in about 2 hours.  It would have been less, but I mixed up two parts and had to redo them.   It’s not all battened down just yet—I had hoped to do that today, but it will wait until Monday or Tuesday now, when the weather will be warmer again.

Stepping into that protected world last night, where the tomatoes are growing, and some more potatoes, I felt a sense of deep quiet.  Here, I can extend the season, both now and in the spring.  Here, I can have a secret stash of fresh, home-grown tomatoes and herbs. It’s too late this year to do it, but in the future, I can plan what the greenhouse bed will hold and provide myself with more herbs and fresh edibles, and create a place of puttering solace for the winter, at least part of it.

Gazing out at the snug little greenhouse, I felt sweet anticipation creeping beneath the melancholy, edging it out of the way.  After a break of more than two months, the girls in the basement woke up and peered over my shoulders, yawning and scrubbing their eyes.  “Hooray!” they cried. “It’s the writing season! Make some cinnamon tea while we get dressed.  We have lots of stories to tell you.”

Another season begins—fresh and unmarked.  So it is.


Progress and a flat of basil

Have been scarce finishing the new book, attending to the wedding of my younger son, and generally running from one urgent thing to the next.  But I thought you’d like to know that the garden beds are going in this week! So excited.  A couple of photos.

The winds finally took out the twenty-five year old fences in our neighborhood so we had to have those replaced.  (The houses look much closer than they actually are, but you can see why we want to plant for more privacy.)  This photo was taken this morning, by the way.  A surprise snow storm struck overnight.


This is this afternoon, from the upstairs window, looking down on the mapped-out garden beds.  You can see how desperately the sandy soil needs amending. Just out of the photo on the left is one of the best things about the yard, which is a tall, healthy, beautiful Ponderosa pine that will get its own box, so we can keep the desiccating needles out of the rest of the garden. That’s a whiskey barrel toward the back, about four feet from the fence, for size estimations:


This is a tomato plant, robust and nearing readiness for transplanting:

And here is a pretty flat of basil. I will have to give some away.


As I type this, there is snow coming down again, but spring can’t hide from us much longer.


Project: building light frames

Today begins the first major project of my urban farm. the growing season is so short (some years) that I must start seedlings indoors. I attended a class on starting seedlings indoors, and then found these plans for a light frame in Urban Farm magazine.

I’ve collected all of my materials and marked the PVC pipe. I’m not actually allowed to build it until I’ve done my pages for the day. A good incentive to get to work. 🙂





The first order of business was to get a better hacksaw, which cost all of $11 with extra blades.  This little guy couldn’t do the job.

The article in Urban Farm seemed to make this a very easy project, but I have to admit to some dismay when I was sawing away with my new hacksaw because it was very difficult to keep the cut straight, and I kept hearing my ex-husband’s voice in my head, telling me that I wasn’t doing it right.  (He wasn’t a mean guy, just a construction guy who thought my use of tools was hilarious).

Turned out I couldn’t saw them straight to save my life, but in the end, it didn’t matter at all anyway, because you stick the ends of the pipes into elbows and joints and things.  I was quite pleased with myself at the result.











The final stage was putting the shop lights together with one regular bulb and one grow light, then rigging a wire circlet around the pipes from which to hang the lights.

I also secured the pipes to the table in a very high-end way:

Yes, lots and lots of postage tape.  The table was just big enough, and I didn’t want to take a chance on kittens making a big mess of my hard work. I suspect this will be an interesting place for them.







Finally, I installed screwed the bulbs into the stoplights and hung them up.  The growlight bulb is a lot bigger in diameter than the other one, which freaked me out at first, but it doesn’t seem to matter in the slightest.  What I also learned: the white bulb is seriously loud (or maybe it isn’t quite installed right or needs to warm up? I don’t know the answer to that yet).  I might have to opt for two more grow lights.

Anyway, mostly completed:

Now to the planting!

Have you undertaken a scary little task you didn’t think you could do?  How did it turn out?

An organic farm…in my backyard!

Just before Christmas, CR surprised me by bringing in a landscape architect to make our yard over into a beautiful urban farm. Perhaps he wants more fresh potatoes like the ones I grew in a black bag last summer. Or maybe he is tired of me complaining about the price of organic produce. Whatever it is, I am thrilled.

The trick is to use vegetables and fruit trees, along with ornamentals, to create a pleasing setting for a backyard barbecue, but also use the land and water productively.   (You may have heard me rant before about watering grass in Colorado, which is an exercise in waste.) The first draft is here, and I am SO excited. I thought you might want to follow along with me on this journey.   This is the draft.

There are many challenges to growing a hearty garden in Colorado. For one thing, the season is short–Zone 4 where we are, thought some parts of the city are Zone 5.  For another, we sit at just over 7000 feet, which means a lot less oxygen and much harsher sunlight.  To maximize my success, I’m starting plants indoors, in waves.  Last week, I attended a class on starting seeds with grow lights, and have stocked up on materials.   I can begin March 1. (Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes!!)

What a Christmas present, huh?

Do you have a garden? What are the challenges where you are, and what crops to you most like to grow?