Friday, August 27, 2010

Free Gym Membership

If anyone is interested in coming to workout in our gym, you are more than welcome.  Its right in front of the house, and it has a variety of workout machines...

There's the Shoveling Machine - it's great for toning the arms and torso.  Al lent us the Wheel-Barrow Machine - great for the legs and arms, and if you have preceded it with the Shoveling Machine, you can get a really good stretch on your back muscles too.  Try the uphill mode for a bigger challenge, and to hone your balance, there's the breaching-holes-with-narrow-plank mode; really quite tricky!  If you feel that the back and knees need more working out, there is the the Picking Up Stones Machine, but this one gets a bit boring, though you can upgrade this to the Carrying Paving Stones Machine which does seem to have a beginning middle and an end to its routine.  Everyone is welcome!

Oh wouldn't it be great to wake up tomorrow morning to see a queue of people waiting to enroll at this gym.  My friend and neighbor, Laurie, told me that when the time came, what I needed for my garden would come along.  She said that after listening to me complaining (poor thing suffers all my "venting" so patiently) that the wood chip people (who shall remain nameless) still hadn't called me back despite my numerous calls.  Actually, her zen outlook has been right so far.  Just when I couldn't face pulling another stump out, Jon comes along and digs them out.

During this excavation we unearthed lots of rocks and two strips of sheet iron approximately 8 ft by 2 foot.  We had no idea how we would dispose of it.  Also, we were worried that the steeper parts of the embankment at the edges of the garden might slip and we felt we need to shore them up.  One morning I had a lightbulb moment - I figured we could use the iron sheets to hold back the soil and disguise the other side with a wee stone wall.  The Irish have cleared their fields for centuries by building stone walls - sure its in me blood! So three problems solved with one solution.
Mind you they don't have earthquakes in Ireland - I'm not sure how this will hold up in a good hard shake.

But I think it will look good when it is completely finished.
I quite liked the wall building and put together this cutesy one.

On Saturday, my husband and I went shopping to see how much the components for the hard-scaping would cost.  When we got home, our fabulous Al said, "Oh, I got a pile of old paving stones that you can have.  I don't need them."

There was enough for the little path we wanted to put in.  We put down cardboard as a weed block and recycled some of the copious amounts of red lava rock we have on the property.

Laurie's hubby asked my hubby  if we were going to "leave it like that?"  Then he decided that it has character.  He has a good point, but he should see some of the characterful roads back in Ireland - especially in Donegal!
The cardboard will be  covered by mulch eventually.

My families business in Ireland is packaging sand and cement into small DIY sized bags for little jobs around the home.  The company is called GM Handipack Products - no connection to the lesser known car company of a similar name!  They supply DIY stores around Ireland.  In the past, I've never had to pay for sand - I'd call my Dad and he'd throw a few bags in the back of the car and bring them to me.  That was when I lived in Ireland.... It was a bit much to ask my sister (who now runs the company) to send a few bags to California for my patio area.

I scan craigslist and freecycle each morning in the hopes that I'll get a bargain for the garden.  Sunday, I spotted an add for FREE SAND.  I couldn't believe it.  Someone was emptying a play sand pit and wanted rid of it.  I arranged to go get it.

My husband was reluctant at first, asking, "How will we transport it?"

"Garbage bags,"  I said.

"Can you put sand in bags?"

"Oh, yes - I was reared on it!"

So off we went.  The sand was perfect - not even dirty.  We shoveled about twenty pounds weight into each bag (free weights for the gym?) and got ten bags, taking the lot.  My dad would have been proud of us!

On Monday, I gave up on the wood chip guy and started again.  When we first moved in last year we'd had to take an old tree down.  I remembered the the company we used, Anderson Tree Care, had been really good.  So, I dropped them an email asking them did they deliver free wood chips.  They emailed back promptly saying yes, and they remembered me!  I called the office and Loosey answered.  I told her told the yard was completely bare soil, and she understood immediately that I needed the wood chips ASAP.  By noon she had a load for me!  An over-sized oak tree that had gotten too heavy in a school yard - no disease, and only the oak tree.  I was delighted.

Now, I have a pile in my driveway that is nearly the size of my house!

My first task is to dig out the car - no, just kidding  - I need to dig out the the wheel block for the truck that the driver accidentally dumped the pile on after he decided to move forward to release the last half of the load!  Thirty wheel barrow loads later and I still haven't got it - its a kind of 'needle in a haystack' scenario!

Where the ivy has re-sprouted I laid cardboard and newspapers (where I needed more flexibility) under the mulch.  I was worried about how steep this section was, thinking the wood chips might slide down hill, but it was grand.

As I laid out the chips, I remembered to thank the big old oak tree for its life, and I promised to honor it with the beautiful garden it will drape over and around - eventually.

Trust me to get landed with a job like that in the hottest week we've had this year!  But Laurie was right - the universe provided what I needed for my garden.  And I need a workout too...if you want to join Byddi's boot camp....well a girl can but try!

By the way, the mystery squash was a spagetti squash.  Congratulations to Gardening Jones and Miss Kat at The Curlicue Fractal for guessing it right.  Your prize is free use of the Shoveling Machine and Wheelbarrow Machine for as long as the pile of wood-chips last!

At least the back garden is providing the fuel that I'm burning off tending to the front yard.  That's gardening for you - all about cycles!


Friday, August 20, 2010

A blank canvas

Before I launch into my post for this week, here is my entry for the Gardening Gone Wild Photo Competition for August.  The theme is "On the road again"  and I'd have thought I'd have a load of photos for this theme, but I didn't really.  I took this picture in Hong Kong and liked how the butterfly contrasted with the flowers.  Having seen some of the other entrants, I know I haven't a snowballs hope of winning, but then again, it's the taking part that matters - its a great competition too, and I love looking at the other photos.  If you have time jump on over there and have a look!

Back in March I began to pull apart our front garden.  To revisit the post I wrote then click here.  Basically, the front yard was a tangle of ivy, oleander and privet.  There was a neat little lawn in the center that we decided to get rid of.  As the blog says - we didn't come here for the grass - keeping a lawn is simply too much effort for what you get in return.  It takes up too much water, you can't eat it and it stays only one color, unless you forget to water it.  So, it looked as thought everything was coming out.

I used a lopper to take down the branches of the shrubs and discovered three fruit trees, a coyote bush and a wild rose bush - all plants I decided to keep.

The rose bush had grown skyward, so that it was about twenty feet high and lodged in the crown of the plum tree.

This exercise made me realize that I should wade in gently least there be more goodies hidden away in the jungle that poised as my front garden.

In one week, I went from this
to this, by removing the privet hedge down the middle of the front yard.

It had been suggested to me, by a person giving a talk about native gardens, that I hire some day labors and get them to dig out the ivy. Because the ivy was growing around the roots of the other plants I didn't want to just rip  it out willy-nilly in case I disturbed something I might want to keep, so I started to literally pull it out myself, strand by strand. 

It was March.  I planned to be planting my natives in October, so I had all summer.  I decided to tackle the job with the same approach one might eat an elephant - one bite at a time!  It was slow going and backbreaking work.  I also wore out four pairs of gardening gloves and gave my self blood blisters on the inside of my finger joints.  But it was a labor of love.

It took me the best part of a month to get this much cleared.
I found a hose pipe buried beneath the mulch.  It took me a week to dig it out!

I spent a day digging out one stump.  My backed ached and I considered that I was doing the equivalent of hard labor.  In fact, I'd have less work to do if I got a job or went to prison!  It was a mock orange and was I was told the privets would not give in so easy...easy?!  And I had ten more to do...

So, one day when I was hosting the garden club, Jon and Rosella noticed our stumps and said that they had rented a bobcat when they took out their lawn.  Jon even offered to drive it for us.  I was thrilled.  We agreed on a day to dig up the yard.  They recommended I use - A Rental Center, who gave excellent customer service.  The digger arrived on time and Jon got to work.

I had all the patio chairs on the font door step and the neighbors came over and watched.  Jon made it look easy and some of us even had a go.  It wasn't that simple though...

Four hours and $208 later we had accomplished what it would have taken me at least another six months to do, not to mention the money and time spent at a chiropractor for the backache it would have caused!


SO....many might say it looks like the aftermath to a nuclear holocaust, but to me it is beautiful - I can't wait to start putting in a little path around the mound (that's to add contour and drainage) and perhaps a gazebo with a trellis leading up to it...placed right in the shade of the plum tree.

For plant ideas, I plan to read back through Christine's blog, Idora Design.  Her blog has highlighted some beautiful native plant choices for the garden.   Besides being a  good read, she really knows what she is talking about and presents plant in a succinct and easy to understand way.  I get excited about my fall planting every time I read one of her posts!

I'm seeing deer grass beside the rocks...

I'm still trying to get free wood-chips for mulch that have been promised to me by a local tree care company.  They've been promising them now for two months - previous to this I wasn't ready for them but I sure am now.  I may have to broaden my search...anyone any ideas (I'm in San Jose, California)?

It will be interesting to see what the next twelve months brings...

Friday, August 13, 2010

Drying herbs - no sweat!

My basil flowered when I was in Hong Kong. I picked them as soon as I could but could not bring myself to compost them.  They were pretty and smelled lovely.  I looked online to see what could be done about them.  There were suggestions about storing them in oil, but the oil had to be heated and the jar heat sealed.  It all seemed like a lot of bother.  The talk of botulism scared me too.

One suggestion was to put them in a blender with olive oil then freeze them in an ice cube tray.  Unfortunately, I haven't got an ice cube tray.  Plus, they were too pretty to blend - The purple and sweet basil had pink and white flowers respectively.  So in the end I followed a suggestion to store them in vinegar.  Apparently, the acidity kills the bacteria.  I haven't tasted it yet - I'm waiting for comments to the effect of, "Yes, I've done that its safe," rather than "No don't do it.  I poisoned my grandma doing that!"  So, if you know that its okay, let me know and I'll go ahead and use it...It does smell great and looks very attractive sitting in my kitchen

The rest of the basil is cut leaving about four inches of stem.  These will regenerate.  I like to wash and dry the herbs before I tie them up for drying.

At this point I consulted Al as to how to harvest the oregano and marjoram.  He said to just cut them at the base.  Next thing, he appeared at the fence with twine for me to use to hang them.

"I have another roll, you can keep that," he said.  Bless him!  That's just what he's like.

I let the herbs dry in the afternoon sun after I had washed them.
The bees were still buzzing around the flowers as they lay drying out.  I couldn't blame them - they looked so pretty.
I picked a few of the chamomile flowers too - some had already gone to seed.  Maybe I could use them in my chamomile lawn?

A table full of herbs - not bad for container gardening!

When the leaves had all dried out I simply strung them together with the twine and hung them up in my kitchen.
I chose the kitchen because I thought it looked good, and it definitely smelled good.

I still had some fresh basil that I hadn't dried and I liked the idea of storing it frozen.  I also had chicken and fish that I needed to freeze, so I decided to make a marinade and freeze them in it.  Apart from the oil and salt, all the ingredients were from the garden - basil, garlic and lemon.

Maybe if I'd saved some of my sweat from my trip to Hong Kong I could have provided my own salt!
OK - Way to gross everyone out and not have them eat anything I ever make again.  I used bought salt - I promise...

So you put all the ingredients into a blender.
Cut the meat into playing card sized portions - that's supposed to be 4oz of protein. Then cover with the marinade.
Put the lids on the boxes and pop them in the freezer. Defrost when you need them, and fry 'em up in a wee pan - yummy!


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Growing herbs - just do it!

Growing herbs is so easy.  Many will grow easily from seed.  I just stick the seeds into a pot of seeding soil and water well.  They like full sun too.  I was nervous about basil in full sun but it did well - both sweet basil and the purple basil.
When the basil gets about 8-10 inched tall you can harvest it.  Best to go less on height, though, and more on flowering.  When the flower buds start to develop, that's a good time.  Next week's post is all about what to do with that harvest.  And some ideas for the flowers too if, like me, you didn't quite get there in time - its not a disaster!
The pot on the left shows the post harvest basil - it will grow back and I'll get another harvest from it.  The pot on the right has thyme at the back and sage at the front.  One of these may out compete the other.  The trick is to pick more of the fastest growing one.  I am hoping to harvest them as I need them year round.  I'm not sure what frost might do.  Same thing with tarragon which I've also paired with sage.  Tarragon chicken -yum!

I've either grown all my herbs either from seed or from cuttings out of  Al's garden, namely the chives and the Italian oregano (or marjorum).  Lavender and rosemary were hard to germinate but a couple of seeds did and really that's all I need - once these guys get started they are pretty prolific.  That is why, for now, I am growing all my herbs in pots.

Some day I may commit to planting them in the ground, but I've heard that they can take over. I've placed them at the edge of the back lawn so they catch some water from the sprinklers that may otherwise fall on concrete.  I hope to replace the grass lawn at the back with a chamomile lawn.  Has anyone done that?  Would you recommend that.  Please leave a comment with any tips.

I did buy the prettily variegated lemon thyme because I could not find seeds for it.  Something ate my lemon balm and I sowed more seeds.  I noticed dicotyledons which I hope are those seeds germinating.  The lemony herbs add an extra zest to a dish.

Rosemary finally germinated, having been planted at the same time as all the thyme and the sage.  Be patient though, two more germinated nearby, long after the first one. You can see one of them bottom left.
And in this shot you can just see the dicotyledons and the first true leaves  of the other in the top right.
I transferred the soil from the other 3 pots in the seeding six pack in case any of the other seeds decided to wake up and join the party. 

Lavender, I did plant directly into the ground.  It's a contained area bordered by rocks.

When these are both bigger, I hope to harvest year round from them too, so no need to dry or preserve them.

My cilantro (coriander) bolted in May and hasn't come back! I've been slack about resowing the pot, though I've been equally slack about deadheading or seed saving, so if the birds haven't eaten all the seeds they may sow themselves.

Cilantro doesn't preserve well so succession is the way to go to get a continuous supply.  I'm going have to put a reminder in my calendar to sow a few seeds each month.  Nip off the flowers for more leaves, or you can save the seeds and cook with those too.

Lemon grass goes well with cilantro, especially in Thai cuisine.  I started lemon grass from a stalk I bought in a grocery store back in February.  When the roots were at least a centimeter long I planted it, thankfully in a pot.  It has gotten huge and is a very attractive plant too.  All this is from two stalks.

Chives are such a handy herb - they lend flavor to either warm or cold dishes.  I practically ignore mine and they do well.  Even when they flower, I haven't found it to change the taste of the leaves.  They are a really pretty addition to any garden.  Here is a picture of some I took in Al's garden, mine of course are much smaller (not so private joke!)
In the background you can see Al's forest of Italian oregano.  He grows the Italian oregano (sometimes called marjoram), with white flowers and gave me some.  I  grew some oregano, with the purple flowers, from seed.  They look lovely when they all blossom together and the bees love them.  Just as the flowers are about to die back you harvest them at the base of the stalk.  You may have to fight the bees off!

And when the bees are done with the flowers the birds love, love, LOVE the seeds.  I five mocking birds gathered around the herb pots.  I'm hoping that they will snack on some protein too and take out any nasty bugs, grubs and slugs that may gather in the garden too. 

In next weeks post, I'll tell you how to dry the oregano and basil.

If you aren't lucky enough to have the Californian climate, trying growing herbs on your kitchen window still for a year long supply.  It's worth it for the fresh taste.

Byddi Lee