Aahhh… AaaaH-ChOO! Quick! Get me a Potted Palm!

Winter is on its way.  I’m already planning our Christmas light display for this year and deciding where we’ll put the tree.  Decorations of red and green aren’t the first sign of dropping temperatures around here though; for us it’s the instantaneous jungle that happens in the living room overnight as soon as I hear the dreaded words “Frost warning advisory” on the evening news.
I confess; I’m a rescuer. I can’t walk by a poor, sad looking, 30%-off plant for sale in the store and NOT bring it home to nurture it back to life. This is how I gradually acquired the small forest that is parked behind our couch each winter; one sad little orphan at a time, I brought them home to nurse them back to health and watched most of them flourish under a bit of attention. We haven’t had curtains over our bay window since we moved in. There’s no need for window treatments with a miniature Amazon forest completely filling the view.  My husband has been good natured (pardon the pun) about my obsession so far, but has admitted to having Jumanji fears about some of my more aggressive growers.
In defense of my frond habit, houseplants are good for you. It gives seasonal gardeners a little something to do during the deep winter months, other than planning beds spring and browsing seed catalogs.  A much quoted NASA study claims that houseplants reduce indoor air pollution and improve air quality. (They wanted to know their effect on air quality on board space stations) Scientific American claims “Houseplants make you smarter! Research suggests that the mere presence of plants can boost attention span.” Ask any good home stager; houseplants are a quick and economical way to brighten, add color and life into an otherwise dull room. Plants are said to reduce stress, increase room humidity in dry climes and fight fatigue.  
Anyone that has been zapped by a sibling intentionally dragging their feet across the carpet in January and then touching your innocent, unsuspecting earlobe to watch the spark and hear you yelp should understand the value of having houseplants.  It may sound contradictory to have a houseful of plants and dirt in an allergy sufferer’s home, but if your allergies are to dust mites and mold, plants can help.
Dry winter air can set off asthma and allergy attacks faster than a field full of ragweed. My allergist once told me a rather disgusting fact as to why this is the case: Dust mites live in your carpet and on other cloth surfaces in your home- like curtains, furniture, throw pillows, rugs, etc. Molds can grow in your ventilation during the summer with the cool, humid air provided by your air conditioner. When you turn on the dry winter heat, the mold dries out too and the fine particles are blown right out of you vents and into the air of your home. Dust mites die and their bodies fall into the carpet padding and furniture. When there is sufficient humidity, most of the dried out little exoskeletons stay where they drop until you vacuum them up.  In winter, they are more likely to become airborne, since every time you sit or walk on the carpet, you dislodge some of the dried out bits into the air. Plants are nature’s natural humidifiers; ergo they help keep nasty dust mite bodies from floating out of your carpet and up your nose. Plants act as a natural filter to those pollutants that do become airborne.
The more draft-proof and energy efficient your home is the better chance of trapping pollutants inside. In addition to inhaling dust mite parts and molds, you may be breathing a chemical combo of gases released from the building materials, carpet, furniture finishes and fabrics in your home. Houseplants not only convert carbon dioxide to oxygen- they’ve been found to remove elements like formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene from the air. 
Of the plants tested in the NASA article, the following are the top best for filtering toxins and improving air quality. (Of which I have several, I’m pleased to add)

  1. Philodendron scandens `oxycardium’, heartleaf philodendron
  2. Philodendron domesticum, elephant ear philodendron
  3. Dracaena fragrans `Massangeana’, cornstalk dracaena
  4. Hedera helix, English ivy
  5. Chlorophytum comosum, spider plant
  6. Dracaena deremensis `Janet Craig’, Janet Craig dracaena
  7. Dracaena deremensis `Warneckii’, Warneck dracaena
  8. Ficus benjamina, weeping fig
  9. Epipiremnum aureum, golden pothos
  10. Spathiphyllum `Mauna Loa’, peace lily
  11. Philodendron selloum, selloum philodendron
  12. Aglaonema modestum, Chinese evergreen
  13. Chamaedorea sefritzii, bamboo or reed palm
  14. Sansevieria trifasciata, snake plant
  15. Dracaena marginata , red-edged dracaena

Most of these are fairly easy to grow, even for a novice. Philodendron and spider plants are virtually indestructible. Almost all will grow under fairly low light or much filtered light conditions, which means you can place them around the room in you home- not just crowded in front of windows. They are considerably cheaper and more fun to look at than a commercial air purifier.
If you have small children in house, be sure to teach them never to eat houseplants and not to crush the stems or leaves. Some, like the leaves of English Ivy can be skin irritants are also poisonous if eaten. For a good comprehensive list of poisonous house plants, check out http://www.guide-to-houseplants.com/poisonous-house-plants.html. Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not one of them, but the sap can be irritating if you get it on your skin.
My daughter was more partial to eating the dirt out of our houseplants than the plants themselves. I actually tried it once to see what the attraction was; I’m not much of a gourmand, but it’s not high on my list of recommended cuisine.

Doggie Septic System

Spring is here and I’m back in the dirt!

I took a little break from posting while I was doing next to nothing around the yard. Raking leaves and mowing don’t make for especially interesting post material and I did little else towards the end of the 2010 season.

This winter I spent planning. I have grand designs in my head for the side yard this year; the only area of our yard that consistently gets full sun year round. There will be a large raised bed for plants and flowers, space for some edibles, trellis along the wall for some vertical interest, a small pond and sitting area… whew. I’m worn out already and haven’t even put a shovel in the dirt yet.Puppy Poo

My first project for 2011 was a small one, but addressed a big problem. Last week we adopted a new puppy. She’s a German Shepherd-Bull Mastiff mix, so will be a rather large dog in a very short time. Large or small, I discovered that 5 week old puppies need to relieve themselves a great deal. The area of the yard she was using for her potty area was already a mine field of puppy bombs; impossible to navigate safely when dragging her out to do her business at 3am, stumbling around in a bathrobe and sandals, half asleep. Worse yet, my 2-year old has a tendency to gravitate towards this area whenever she is out playing in the yard.

I’d seen an episode of Gardening By the Yard on HGTV where Paul James creates a simple doggy septic system from a 5 gallon paint bucket. (Unfortunately, the show is no longer on the air and I couldn’t find the episode on HGTV’s website, but I remembered enough to make it work.)

First you need a 5-gallon bucket or larger container, with a lid. If you have small children like I do, a snap on lid that fits tightly will probably be your best bet. Lowes had empty 5 gallon buckets for under $5.00 and the lids were under $2.00. You’ll also need a small bag of gravel or some small rocks collected from your yard and a bottle/can/jar of bacterial or enzyme septic system treatment.

Here’s how to set it up:

In a corner of the yard that’s convenient, (I chose the area where our puppy already tends to go) dig a hole deep enough to bury your container with only a couple inches sticking up above ground. You’ll want to leave it sticking up like this just a bit to keep water run off from flooding it, it also makes it easier to get the lid on and off if it’s not completely buried.

After I’d dug my hole, I turned my bucket over and cut the entire bottom out of it with a jigsaw. If you don’t have the tools to cut out the entire bottom, you could just make the bottom half look like Swiss cheese with a large knife. Enzyme septic treatmentThe point is to allow plenty of drainage so that the contents of the bucket are eventually absorbed into the surrounding soil, not just filling up the bucket over time.

I put my bottomless bucket in the hole and poured in small gravel to 3-4 inches in the bottom; enough to hold the bucket firmly in the hole and allow for plenty of drainage. Move the bucket around until it settles level or at least close to level in the hole and then back fill with dirt around it. Don’t forget to leave an inch or two sticking up from the surrounding soil. I used my remaining dirt to fill a low spot in another part of our yard.

Pick up your dog’s waste and drop it in the bucket. Sprinkle a bit of your septic enzymes over the top of this and maybe throw in just a handful of dry leaves if you have some lying around. Add a cupful of water to the mix and snap on your lid. The enzymes will break down the waste over time, just as it does in a home septic system. It’s contained, there’s no smell and you don’t have to walk through your yard as if you were navigating a minefield.

Visiting friends, small children and your local Fed-Ex delivery person will thank you as well.

Ely’s Playhouse

As I write this, the first coats of paint are drying on my daughter’s new playhouse.
Right now it is just plain white, I’m trying to decide whether to paint it a color and if so, which color might look best on it. Her bedroom is a soft gray with bright pink and ombre pink/white curtains, one wall is painted with silver glitter floated in acrylic. Although our house is an ugly shade of taupe that I would love to paint, I’m thinking the same soft gray I used in her bedroom might look good on her house as well, perhaps with pink trim on the windows and doors and a lighter shade of gray on the roof, as her bedroom ceiling is.  I bought small sample paint cans at Lowes, (7.6 oz size samples are available in almost any color and are very cheap!), these I intend to mix with white to paint flowers on the roof before I’m completely finished and cover them with a layer of acrylic to protect from weather.

Playhouse Frame
Playhouse Frame

We had framing lumber in storage that we’d bought for another project. If we’d had to buy this for the house, it would have been about $30.00.  Here’s what we used to build the house:

10 2×4’s (framing lumber)
2 leftover bits of 2×6 for sills

leftover bit of 2×8 for bench seat
leftover bits of post from fencing for bench  (these were the round posts I used on the yard fence in the spring)
4 4X8 Sheets of OSB (plywood pressboard)
5 1×2’s for trim around windows, doors  (this stuff is cheap, but looks fine painted. About $1.30 each. Much cheaper than what’s marked “trim” at the hardware store)

white severe weather outdoor paint

2 large hinges for the door

cabinet handle to open and close the door

sample paint in primary colors: bright red, deep blue and bright yellow. I can mix these with white or black to get many other shades

Front of playhouse
Front door of playhouse

My friend brought me some old artist’s brushes  to do the flower drawing on the roof. If you don’t have access to these, you could use kids watercolor brushes or even makeup brushes, available at almost any department store.

heavy landscaping fabric

bag of cedar dog bedding

The house is about 4 ft by 4 ft. My husband and I cut out the frame and nailed it together, framing in extra for the windows, door and roof supports.

We covered the frame in thick pieces of OSB. This is pressboard, which is not as pretty as finished plywood, but it is MUCH cheaper. It has a rough raw side and a smoother, more finished side. We kept the rough side facing out, since this would be painted over later. The smooth inside leaves less chance of splinters in little hands.

We notched in leftover bits of 2×6 to make wide windowsills, these I may add flower boxes to later when our daughter is a bit older (she’s only 2 now and not ready to plant flowers just yet). Another piece of leftover 2×8 and part of the posts we used to fence the yard made a perfect child-sized bench seat.

Playhouse side view
Side view of playhouse

Underneath the house I spread a thick layer of cedar chips, you can get this in large bags meant for outdoor animal bedding. Cedar chips are better than hardwood mulch for this purpose since they repel insects rather than attracting them, plus they smell nice too! Over the cedar chips, I put down a layer or landscaping fabric, which keeps weeds away from the edges of the house, covers the cedar chips to keep them from getting scattered and makes a sort of carpet to play on inside the house. I’d like to find a square of boat or outdoor carpet to put over this eventually, just to keep the landscaping fabric from getting torn during play. Our yard is mostly rocks/clay, so the cheap pins that came with the landscaping fabric didn’t work so well, I could only get them part way in before they’d start to bend and warp. I wound up using the house itself to anchor the fabric and just cutting it around the edges.

We added a leftover piece of OSB under the door as a sort of  porch, it helped to hide the edges of the landscape fabric in front. The sides and back I will finish off with rock to match the sidewalk when I finish painting.

I used outdoor window caulk to fill the crack along the roof line, around the eaves of the roof and along all the seams inside the house. This made it fairly weatherproof and though the windows are uncovered, the inside stays relatively dry, even in heavy rain. I let the caulking cure completely before painting over it. The instructions on the tube should give you the curing time; it may vary depending on humidity, temperature, etc.

Front of playhouse
Ely's Playhouse!

I used a brush for the trim work, edges and door and an all purpose roller for the large, flat areas on the walls, door and roof. I’ll probably have at least 4 coats of paint on when it’s finished. This will smooth out the rough texture of the OSB and hopefully protect the house from weather wear. I’m debating on whether or not to paint the inside to make it look more finished. This will probably depend on time and funds, it’s certainly not necessary since I heavily caulked the cracks to protect it from weather damage; it would be a purely aesthetic choice. This is what the house looks like so far. I’ll post new photos once I decide on color, roof design and finish the landscaping.

I’m SO glad to be back to work on projects again! My hand is still a little sore from surgery, but MUCH improved.

12 Step Program for Dead Tree Removal (belle style)

(Original article from ExistentialBelle.com Jan/2006)
My husband insisted that I re-post this article that I wrote for my personal website in 2006; he says it was always one of his favorites.

Step 1) Cut down big f*$#-off tree right behind your house. Make sure you get someone equally brave/ignorant to help you, so that you can do the pushing while they cut through the trunk. (Otherwise you’ll have a tree on your house, which is rarely a good thing)

Step 2) Watch your helper rip the blade off the chainsaw as the tree shifts and starts to fall. Point and laugh.

Step 3) Yell “TIMBER!” at the top of you lungs. This will convince your neighbors that you are insane and make their dogs bark.

Step 4) Jump out of the way in time to avoid getting creamed by the trunk when the tree falls and it kicks back.

Step 5) Realize that since the chainsaw is now broken, there is no way to finish the job you’ve started. Leave the tree lie in the yard for at least one year to dry out and get brittle. This is VERY important to the next steps.

Step 6) Not less than a year later, go and gather all the small broken branches from the tree and put them in a pile.

Step 7) Break a few more branches off, this is easy since the tree is now brittle. If you didn’t follow my advice in Step 5, then go back inside and complete it before moving on to the next steps.

Step 8 ) Since the chainsaw is STILL broken a year or more later; get a flimsy hacksaw and attempt to saw through some of the remaining branches. If you get tired, come back at random intervals over a course of months.

Step 9) When you have successfully removed AT LEAST one branch with the hacksaw; decide this is too much work and use your body weight as leverage to snap a few more medium to large sized branches off. Again, if you didn’t follow Step 5, this is going to be MUCH more difficult.

Step 10) Be sure to fall on your ass at least a couple of times when the branches break off. It’s especially helpful if the branch lands on top of you, pinning you to the ground for a few minutes. Sitting on a thorn bush gains you extra points.

Step 11) Pile all your torn branches up. Collect enough trash in the house to set them on fire. Pizza boxes and 12-pack cases are excellent for this. Toilet paper rolls and old bills burn too quickly to start a decent fire.

Step 12) Here’s where you must make a decision about what to do with the remaining branches you couldn’t break off, plus the tree’s trunk (which you’re NEVER cutting through with that hacksaw, a year old or not):

-If the tree doesn’t bother you much and you’re not all that ambitious, leave it where it is. It will get more brittle each year it lies there; eventually you will be able to remove more branches and possibly the upper part of the trunk in time. You can use the trunk as a little bridge to get to other parts of your yard; at least until the termites do enough damage that your foot goes through when you step on it.

-If the tree is REALLY an annoyance and you’re a bit more ambitious, you can try raking leaves and piling yard waste, trash, etc on top of it and slowly burning it until it’s gone.

-If you aren’t even ambitious enough to burn trash on it, then bribe a friend with a chainsaw to come cut it up for you in to nice, manageable chunks. Or, if you have money to just throw away, you can always call a professional yard/tree service to remove it for you.

So there you go! Tree removed, problem solved!
Plus, as an added bonus, unless you called the tree removal service, you can brag to your friends that you did it ALL BY YOURSELF!

Missouri Natives and Other Plants for Clay Soil

Tiger lilies or ditch lilies– 1-2 ft tall greenery with flower stalks up to 5ft. They flower for a month or more and require next to no care. Like irises, they will need to be thinned out about every 3 years or so for best bloom. They are often seen along the sides of roads (Hence the nickname “ditch lilies) or in sunny places near water.
I got mine from my friend Shane; we dug up about 20 plants from his mom’s old house when she moved. I now have literally hundreds of plants and could have more if I divided them more diligently.

Honeysuckle vine– I have three of them against the back wall of a large crescent shaped bed I built into a hillside. They smell amazing when they flower from Mid-May to June and the pink to vanilla flowers are very pretty and delicate in appearance. Without a climbing support, I’ve seen people grow these in their yards as shrubs. I’ve also seen plenty of them growing wild the same way. Also very low maintenance and seem to be one of the few things the deer leave alone in my yard.

Roses– Are said to do well in clay soils. Their roots are woody and strong enough to penetrate it, the clay provides the needed nutrients and deeper water supply that they crave and it prevents wind rock of the roots by giving them a strong anchor. I’ve personally only tried a few different varieties and have the best luck with climbers and wild roses. Most roses are too much maintenance for my taste, with their tendency to get black spot, powdery mildew and a host of other diseases and pest issues. I do intend to try some of the knockout roses in the future; as I hear that they require very little maintenance and don’t have most of the usual rose afflictions. If you’ve had good luck with them, share your experience, please!

Oriental Poppy– The big, red showy ones are best for clay. I’ve personally never grown them, but my grandmother had a small bed of them for years that absolutely flourished. They like full sun and tolerate the drier clay soils, not so well the wet, waterlogged clays. They also spread over time and will need to be divided when the clumps become overcrowded.

Hollyhocks– I’ve seen these grow prolifically in places where even some weeds feared to tread. My mom has them growing right out of the gravel in her driveway, next to her garage. The look great in rows or bunches and put out tons of seed each year (they are annuals). They do require plenty of sun and some water if the leaves begin to droop.
Purple Coneflower– 3-4 ft tall perennial, attracts butterflies, great for borders, wildflower meadows, prairie style gardens. It grows wild in Missouri, in fields and along roadsides. The plants bloom a long time before going to seed, from midsummer to fall. They are drought tolerant, relatively pest free and unattractive to deer. The most common colors in the wild are purple and white. There are also pinks, rose and a new orange variety. Will tolerate clay soils but thrives in well-drained average soils.

False Indigo– This small shrub is often found naturally in Missouri along streams and in the woods. The flowers are clusters of purple flowers, similar to those on Butterfly Bush. False Indigo is in the legume (bean) family; legume plants are able to help restore nitrogen depleted soils- they are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that the plant can use. I ordered about 20 False Indigo plants from the Missouri Conservation site several years ago. They’ve never had pest problems, require no maintenance, watering or pruning to stay healthy and are all thriving several years later.

Dogwood– Another shrub/tree that grows wild in our area. Mine came from the Arbor Day Foundation as bare root trees only about 6 inches high. I planted them directly into the ground, haven’t bothered to fertilize, seldom water and have only mulched them a couple times. It had a slow start, but after about 5 years, is now nearly 6 foot tall and seems to be well established. Dogwood trees bloom in spring near the end of April; they may have pink or white blooms, although the whites are much more common. The leaves will burn and shrivel in full sun. They are naturally under story trees and prefer at least partial shade.

Lilac– I got my lilac start from a friend’s large established bush. I dug up a small start, about a foot high with some root, brought it home and planted it directly in our yard; it tripled in size the first year with only a little watering and some mulch. It isn’t high maintenance, although it has had occasional issues with some powdery mildew on the leaves during especially hot/rainy summers. (A cup of milk in a gallon of water, sprayed on the leaves will help get rid of mildew spores) My only other problem with my lilac is that they are sometimes plagued by weevils. So far, I have only sprayed these with the water hose to discourage them from the plant and they’ve caused little damage. I’m not a fan of pesticides in the garden if it can be avoided.

Persimmon– These are a deer favorite when they fruit, so if you take issue with them being in your yard, I’d steer clear. I planted them in hopes that the deer would eat them instead of my other plants (the deer are coming in our yard regardless; we have 50 acres of woods in our back door). They also attract birds and other wildlife. Male and female trees should be planted near each other; they like the company and it’s how they have little fruits.

Redbud– I got 5 of these from the Arbor Day Foundation the first year we moved to our house. Most of them I planted directly into the ground in various places around our property, it’s taken them a long time to establish any real growth. Two of them however, I over-wintered in pots, brought out the following summer and then planted that fall. These two are now about 15 feet tall and absolutely covered in blooms every spring. One of them I had to stake until the roots were deeply established, it grew in height much too quickly for the small feeder roots to support the trunk’s weight. The only maintenance I’ve done to them outside of staking is an occasional watering and some pruning of the lower sucker branches.

Coping With Clay

Several years ago I had a website called ExistentialBelle.com on which I wrote several articles related to my yard work, plant growth and landscaping ventures. The website didn’t survive due to my then cluttering it up with too many personal things.

This is an article I had written for the gardening portion of the site- something I didn’t get bored with or outgrow. (I’ve edited a bit here and there as I saw fit)

Northern Missouri, where my family is originally from, is blessed with dark, rich, workable topsoil that is perfect for growing. Even in some of the cities near the Missouri or Mississippi rivers, such as St. Louis or Jefferson City, I’ve seen great topsoil; black silt that I’m guessing must have been deposited there over many years from the rivers long ago. However, here in my part of Missouri, which is the Lake of the Ozarks, our soil (if you want to call it that) is primarily comprised of two things: layers of rocks, followed by layers or clay on top of more layers of rock.

Our home, as well as many others in the area, is built on filled land. Most parts of the Lake Area are wooded hills, prior to development. In order to make the land relatively flat for building, they do what’s called grading it. This essentially means that they use bulldozers and other heavy equipment to scrape the tops off the surrounding hills and shove them into the valleys to create a flat area large enough to hold a house. It’s a common practice here, especially on the hillsides surrounding the lake itself. I’ve seen many a lake home’s back yard landscaped with small rock or gravel to cover the red, muddy mess the excavator’s left behind. Our yard was equally as scarred and ugly when we first moved in. The former tenants of our home didn’t see fit to do anything with the yard for the two or three years they occupied the house. The result of their neglect, combined with the complete removal of any topsoil by the excavators left a rocky, exposed clay mess that was suitable for growing only small patches of crabgrass, dandelions, thistles and a few other hardy weeds.

After many frustrating attempts to dig and plant in this stuff without success, I went into research mode to find ways to deal with my clay. Clay soil is manic-depressive. It has two states: Mud or Brick. You have to learn to manage these opposing conditions to reach a happy medium and say goodbye to clean tennis shoes and socks. I still have more than a couple pairs of shoes and socks in my closet, permanently stained a brick-orange color from working the clay in our yard. On the bright side, clay’s binding properties are wonderful for holding trace minerals and nutrients. The particle size is small and smooth; it holds water well and is very fertile for supporting plant life. If you ball up clay soil in your hand, it will stay in a tight, sticky ball that holds shape. The deeper layers are slow dry out and can support plants with deep, well established root systems very well. Trees like Oak and Dogwood especially favor clay soil. It also supports plant’s root systems to protect them from wind rock (a condition where the upper portion of the plant moves during windy conditions and causes the roots to lose their hold or become damaged).
The problem with clay is those same binding properties that make it nutrient and water rich can pack wet clay together into heavy, unworkable clumps. Lifting a shovel full of wet clay feels as if there is a toddler swinging from the end of it. Aeration (the ability to get oxygen to the roots of a plant) is often very poor. The top layer of clay soil can dry into a hard, cracked crust, while a few inches underneath remains bog-like. Steel tools can barely penetrate the stuff; small feeder roots drown in the lower layers, dry out and burn up in the upper portion of the soil.

The first couple years in our new house, I was desperate to treat the problem of the red mud being tracked all over our carpets and ruining pair after pair of shoes. Clay soil’s rotten drainage can result in a moat or lake in your yard for days after the smallest rain. Worse yet, unprotected slopes and hills can erode quickly into mudslides, washing away what little topsoil has accumulated there, compounding your drainage problem. When it does finally dry out, plants that grow in the upper layers or soil- such as all grass and many flowers- dry out and die quickly without at least daily watering. In its dry, concrete like state, clay is nearly impossible to get a shovel or a tiller into and with no plants to hold topsoil in place, dried clay is also prone to wind erosion and rock slides.

Since we were on a very tight budget those first couple years, I figured I only had a couple of options for fixing our red, two acre mess. Buy plastic alligators or pink flamingoes and pretend I lived in the Everglades during the spring season; replace them with plastic cactus and tortoises in the summer. OR– something a bit more practical, find a way to both soak up excess water and keep the top layer of earth from baking in the sun. It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but a thick layer or hay/straw solved both problems for a while. In the fall, I used a mulching mower to run over the leaves and left them on the yard. Straw, mulch and leaves thrown on top of the clay were only a temporary fix though. They were akin to the lake houses I’d seen swathed in landscaping fabric topped with river rock or gravel. They covered up the problem, rather than addressing it.

Re-routing water with ditches or drains, building raised planting beds and walkways helped some in the high traffic areas of our yard. It kept the mud out of the house and prevented walking on the already damaged areas so that some had a chance to recover naturally. The rest of my yard still looked like a giant stable. What a really wanted was some grass. I went through several bags of seed, which sprouted, lived briefly and died in the span of a couple months. Sometimes it hung on doggedly until the end of the season, only to give up the struggle over the winter months. The raised planting beds were doing fine, since I’d planted on top of the offending clay instead of in it. To these I had added a small amount of our clay to bag after bag of potting soil; not the most economical solution. The problem seemed overwhelming and too much for one person to manage.

I decided to divide our yard up into smaller portions and focus on one section at a time. My three greatest allies in my battle against the clay were several pairs of washable suede garden gloves to prevent blisters while digging, a mulching lawnmower and a large compost bin.

I’d read that additives were the best long term method of improving clay soil. They help to loosen it up, dry out the deeper layers and bring moisture to the crusty upper layers. Inorganic materials like lime, gypsum, vermiculite, perlite and oyster shell can be purchased at garden stores and used to loosen clay, making it workable. But some of these can alter the mineral content or PH balance of the soil and are also rather pricey. I’ve personally had the best results with organic matter. Compost, shredded leaves, newspaper, hair, eggshells, wood mulches, grass clippings, pine needles, hay, straw, vegetable waste and even coffee and tea grounds. Many of these add valuable nitrogen to the topsoil layer as well, while helping to loosen the clay and encourage plant growth.

Composting was a HUGE help in reforming my clay soil, accompanied with the mulching lawnmower, I joked to my husband that I was using our yard to fix our yard. You can pick up the grass clippings in a bag and add them to your compost pile, or just let them drop on the yard and decompose right there. Be prepared to spend a lot of time working the top layers of your clay, adding your organic material and then re-working as necessary. Ultimately, you’re trying to get the soil closer to a loam state, where it still balls when wet, but readily comes apart when squeezed. Ideal soil has a medium particle size, is full of organic matter, holds water well, but also has good drainage. The first few times you work your compost into the clay, you may not be able to penetrate the soil very deep without major effort. Give the compost some time to do its work (and by this, I mean you may need to give it a several seasons to see serious results).

Organic additives will attract earthworms too; they will further aerate the clay and break up the stickiness of it. After a few treatments like this, you should be able to work the soil at deeper levels.  Remember that this is an ongoing process, not a do it once and forget it kind of fix.

Plants can also improve clay soil. Choosing native plants (ones that grow in your area naturally) will help to ensure their success. Clay soil is slower to warm in spring and plants will take longer to become established, but they often do well with minimal intervention once they are settled in. Established plants can help by breaking clay up with their roots and by drawing moisture up to the dry upper layers. Watering your plants in clay can require a bit of finesse as well. Since its small particle size packs tight and doesn’t readily absorb water, you should water for short intervals over a period of time. Let the sprinkler run for a few minutes, turn it off and allow the surface water to soak in, then turn it on again and let it run for a few more. This gives the upper layers some time to soften up and absorb the water down to your plant’s roots rather than just pooling on the surface or running off.

For those of you in Missouri, the Missouri Department of Conservation is an excellent resource for trees and shrubs that will grow well in all types of Missouri soil. I’ve ordered several shipments of small seedlings from them over the years and most of them have matured nicely.  I will caution you that if you are very particular about what you’re getting, then you should order EARLY. They often run out of the more popular stock very quickly, especially the fruit/nut/flowering trees and shrubs. I don’t know if other States have similar programs, but this one has been a wonderful resource for our yard.

The Arbor Day Foundation’s website is another economical place to buy small trees and shrubs. ( I think they now even have some flower packages.)  Both sites send their plants as bare root stock, meaning they are only 6 inches to a foot tall and come wrapped in paper or plastic rather than planted in pots of soil. They give instructions for “heeling in” the plants when they arrive. I’ve found that with my clay, my plants are often more successful if I place them in pots of garden soil or potting soil for the spring/summer season, allow them to establish strong root systems and then plant them in the yard that fall. Stock I’ve received in the fall, I over-winter inside in small pots and usually let them spend the Spring/Summer season in their pots outside before giving them a permanent Fall home.
I will do a separate article soon with specific plants that can prosper in clay soils and also elaborate on composting methods.

B

Getting Dirty

A blog that calls itself “Dirt” needs at least one post on the subject, don’t you think? So this post is about just that: dirt.
Dirt/soil is the most basic and also one of the most important building blocks of your yard or garden. It doesn’t just hold the plants in place; it gives them the nutrients they need, absorbs and collects and it protects the root system of the plant from sun and cold. Most plants grow in some type of soil. The exceptions to this rule are air plants, such as orchids that absorb nutrients through the leaves; roots are used as anchors only, usually to other plants. Some water plants do not need to root in soil, but get their food from the water. Or one of my favorites; plants like the Venus Flytrap that survive in very poor nutrient soil or watery bogs with little to no soil by ‘catching’ their food in the form of insects. Hydroponics, plants grown in controlled conditions in nutrient rich water, is another form of soil-less growth.

For most plants you buy in your local nursery though, they are going to need dirt. The nursery tag on the plant should tell you what type of soil it prefers. Like almost all living things; plants need air, light, water and food to thrive and grow. Good soil is one of the most important steps in the health and success of a plant. Some plants will not only do poorly in the wrong soil type, they will simply not survive.

This doesn’t mean that if the plant you want to grow doesn’t match the soil type in your yard, it is automatically off limits to you. It most cases, it simply means you’re going to have to adjust or amend your soil to meet that plant’s growing requirements.

There are three basic soil types: Sand, silt and clay. Each of these soil types has a different particle size and holds water and nutrients in a different way. If you aren’t sure what you have in your yard, one of the easiest ways to test it is by feel. Pick up a handful of wet soil and try to form it into a ball in your hand. If the ball falls apart easily, you have a lot of sand. If it forms a loose ball, it’s silt. If it forms a semi-solid, sticky ball, you have clay. Of course, I’m over-simplifying a bit here, but this is after all, a blog post and not a book. Give or take specific mineral content, the vast majority of plants prefer a moderate silt-type soil. If you have one of the other types, your goal will be to amend it until it resembles silt as much as possible. This usually means adding some form of organic matter to the soil.

Sand– Has a large particle size, feels rough when rubbed between your fingers, but doesn’t hold nutrients well. Sand usually provides good water drainage.

Silt– Has a moderate particle size, feels powdery when dry/smooth when wet, but not sticky. It holds nutrients and water well; it’s usually the preferred growing medium for the majority of plants.

Clay– Has a small particle size. It can turn to a brick when dry and is sticky when wet. Soils with high clay content are called heavy soils. Clay can hold a lot of nutrients, but drainage and air circulation is often poor.

There are many options when it comes to soil amendments. It’s not recommended that you try to adjust your sand or clay soil by simply adding clay to sand or sand to clay. This is a recipe for cement, not so great for plants. Your best bet is to add organic matter, or some form of man made additive or fertilizer. You can buy all sorts of things to improve your soil at your local nursery or garden center such as bags of humus, peat, vermiculite, chemical and natural fertilizers and so forth. I stay away from the majority of these for two reasons: 1) They are expensive and 2) I don’t like chemicals on my lawn/plants/food, etc. I prefer to use natural materials and make my own compost. I’ll write a more in depth post on the compost subject later, but for now I’ll just say this can include leaves, yard clippings, newspaper, vegetable scraps, etc. You break them down in a compost pile or drum, bucket, bin, what have you and just mix them directly in with your soil.

Another option if your soil isn’t quite perfect is to grow on top of it rather than in it. By this, I mean building raised beds, using planters, pots, or some other method of getting your plants out of your native dirt and in to purchased potting soil or garden soil instead. More expensive than composting, but often a lot less work and can require a great deal less patience. I’ll also try and revisit this subject later, as I’ve spent a good deal of time building raised planting beds around our yard.

Once you have the consistency of your soil right, meaning you’ve added material to it so that your clay or sand feels more like silt, you’ll then need to adjust the content for nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium depending on the plant’s individual needs. (Yet another subject that could be addressed at length…)  Commercial soil additives will usually list these nutrients on the bag and their concentrations in percentage form. Nitrogen helps leaf growth and dark green color, Phosphorus encourages plant cell division, flower and seed formation, root growth and protects plants from disease. Potassium increases plant’s disease resistance, encourages root growth and is needed for making chlorophyll.  You can buy soil testers to test the amount of specific nutrients in your soil if you feel your plants are suffering from a lack of one of the above. Testers can also help you with adjust soil Ph, which is especially important to the health and production of some plant types.

A Ph range of 4-9 is about the limit of plant growth. The Ph scale runs from 0.0 being the most acidic, to 14 being the most alkaline. You don’t need to be a chemist to adjust soil Ph. An application of lime and fertilizer will lower the Ph of acid soils, or if your soil is too alkaline you can apply sulfur to lower the Ph. Before home soil tests were readily available, some farmers would actually taste their dirt to see whether it was ‘sweet’ or ‘sour’. If it had a soap taste, they knew there was some lime in it and if it was sour, they knew it was acidic. Sand and loam require less lime/sulfur to raise or lower Ph than is needed to adjust clay.

Those are the basics on soil/dirt. As I said a couple of times above, I’ll expand later on several of the points I touched on in this post; this gave me sort of a jumping off point to start from. For those of you that have clay soil, keep reading… it’s one of my favorite gripes- er… subjects. I’m sure to have lots more to say on coping with it later.

Fencing

In the past eight years since buying our house we’ve done a major yard project almost every year, with the exception of the past two, during which I was pregnant and then subsequently taking care of a newborn. A fence around the back yard was this year’s project, inspired by our daughter, who is now an energetic, exploring toddler.

When we first moved here in March of 2002, the so called back yard was a roughly 20×20 area of red clay mud and three large dirt piles left behind by the excavator who I assume leveled that area for the house. Because it was built on fill, this part of the yard sharply drops off to a ravine on one side and the previous level on two other sides; all three slopes covered in blackberry briers or wild roses (equally thorny in either case), Poison Oak, Staghorn Sumac and other fun things. This wasn’t really a problem until we had a small person who didn’t realize that A) gravity will send you rolling down hills into ravines and B) thorns hurt soft baby skin.

So this year I cut the wild roses back from the yard and we built a fence to give baby a boundary from that dangerous edge. I dug holes for the corner posts as deep as I could get them, which only turned out to be 20 inches maximum. Three feet is the actual frost line minimum in Missouri if you are burying water lines of any sort, but we aren’t putting in irrigation, we’re just trying to prevent frost-heave on our posts.

We used an 80 lb bag of concrete on each post, so hopefully there is enough concrete and they are just deep enough that this won’t be an issue. All of our soil is heavy clay also- a soil not that susceptible to frost heave as say a sand or silt would be.

I picked up 5×8 round fence posts from the farm store as opposed to using 4×4 lumber because I thought they looked better. They were about the same price as a 4×4, about $7.00 per post. We used these for the corners and anywhere in the yard there would be a bend that would create a lot of stress on the fence. Getting these in the ground in between running after the baby to keep her out of trouble took us about 4 hours from digging the holes, to setting all the posts. The last post closest to the house we had to bolt to the house’s frame; I hit a concrete pad or ring that I assume is part of the foundation of the house and couldn’t get into the ground more than 8 inches or so.

For in-between posts we used green metal T-posts, which are the ones you often see around farmland with barbed wire. They pound into the ground with a heavy metal tube that has handles on either side. This part of the project proved to be the hardest on my husband, who literally ripped the skin off his hands in multiple areas on the tool. I’m sure there is probably a mechanical alternative to this, however, in the interest of saving $, we didn’t even look into it. The brute force bashing-thingy was less than $20.00.

The second day of the project, we hung the fence itself. Chain link was cost prohibitive and also would have required a stretcher and other tools we didn’t have, so we opted for vinyl coated garden fence instead. Not as sturdy as chain link, but it serves its purpose as a barrier for a two year old quite nicely and the green practically disappears against the plants so it’s not intrusive as looks go. Tom used tomato staking wire (which is also green, vinyl coated wire) to attach the fence to the posts while I stretched it taut.

The front gate is actually a portion of decorative metal fencing that came in a package of two interlocking pieces for $20.00. We used one for the fence gate and the other to gate our deck stairs. In retrospect, the cost savings on these gates may have been overshadowed by the cost of cobbling together hardware in order to secure them to the posts and create a latch. But they worked out, regardless and the bonus is, if I decide I don’t like the latch, I can change it with a different piece of hardware in seconds.

Overall, the project took about 8 hours and cost us around $750.00.

And we had a visitor to our fence the day after it was finished 🙂

Summer Pool Project

This has been one of our ongoing projects in the yard, improving year by year as we added structure and found out what worked well and what didn’t.

We started with an Easy Set pool, one of those with the inflatable ring around the top. We just sat it on the ground on the tarp that came with it and filled it up. The pool wound up being more than slightly lopsided, but got us through the season. We did have one “incident” in which Tom rode his raft out of the pool on a wave of water and wound up still on the raft outside the pool. I’m not admitting guilt, but I may have been bashing his raft and helped it go over the side. And I may have been laughing so hard when it did that he nearly washed down the hill because the pool was still dumping water on him. But there were no witnesses; so really, it’s just his word against mine.

Which reminds me, if you have one of those pools with the inflatable ring around the top, be careful about squashing the ring below the water-line. The force of and weight of all that water is enough to push the ring down even further and drain half your pool in a matter or seconds.

Because of the prior year’s excitement, we decided the next year that the ground needed some leveling and that perhaps a privacy screen was in order as well. (We live on a very busy major highway) I used our garden tiller to remove at least a foot of earth from the back side of the pool area. The removed earth I re-used on the other side of the house to build raised flower beds.

Tom built a frame of treated lumber and attached to it an upright frame for lattice screens. These were a nice start for a privacy fence, but the lattice being the slightly flimsy kind- didn’t stay up very well and I spent the next two years re-attaching it to the frame. Finally I grew tired of struggling to keep it on and bought three wisteria plants to plant along the outside edge of it. These have now wound themselves through the trellis to such a degree, I’m confident that it’s going nowhere. It would likely hold up to storm winds better than the siding on our house. The wisteria will need to be trimmed often to keep its growth under control, (it’s a VERY aggressive vine) but it solved my problem of the lattice falling off and added another layer to the privacy screen.

Our inflatable ring pool became inflicted with a slow air leak that we never could find, so we finally replaced it with a tube framed one instead. It was about the same price and is MUCH more stable; also little danger of someone going over the side on a float and winding up in the woods. Before we set up this new pool for the season, we ordered a truckload of sand for the bottom frame. I spent several hours with a fine leaf rake, removing every tiny rock I could find, and then filled the frame with sand to around 3-4 inches. For the most part, the sand has held for the past two years. It will probably need a touch up fill next season. I have to weed it periodically; a nice layer of weed barrier under the sand might have saved me some of this; however cost was a real concern when we started this project. This year I used an old bench for a plant stand and brought some of my indoor plants outside to set around the pool. I have a yucca, some elephant ears (newly planted), my spider plant and Christmas cactus (which is currently full of blooms and adds a nice touch of color). I like the plants in pots this way, they are easy to rearrange and I can move them out of the way when I need to weed or mow. For now, I’m calling this project complete.

In the future I may add some more landscaping around the outside of the frame or a walkway from the back steps to the sand frame. Or I may add a second smaller frame off the first and build our daughter a sandbox to play in. Maybe a rope border, sunken treasure chest…

🙂

Update!

Apparently there have been major changes to the hardiness zone maps in the past 10-15 years or so. All of Missouri is now listed as Zone 6, with some areas even as high as Zone 7. You can see the changes on the Arborday.com site here.

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