The cold, wet spring has finally yielded to warm sunny weather. Maybe my four small cherry tomato plants will get planted outdoors before they grow spindley in the shelter of my house. I jumped the gun when I bought them, though most years it wouldn't have been too soon. This year, April was March over again, and we just had to wait for May. Iowa weather is often weird. We're used to it, but we prefer when the months fit our expectations.
Two and a half years ago, my husband and I moved to be closer to grandchildren and to shopping, and because I was keen to ride a bicycle as much as I possibly could for daily living, and not just for recreation. Oh yes, and to live where high speed Internet was available without having to go the expensive satellite route, and to have suitable space for a home office following retirement. (By that I mean a room NOT in a dark basement. My cubicle life--not being able to see outside--was over.)
The house we chose met all those requirements very well. Now that I have taken time to pursue a greener lifestyle, however, I am confronting the decidedly un-green aspects of a typical city lot. That first summer I discovered a huge crop of crabgrass had taken over the lawn while I was busy getting myself retired. I've hand-weeded lawns most everywhere I lived, so out I went with bucket and knife and sun hat and kneeling pad.
My husband thought I was a glutton for punishment, ripping out the weeds that way. From my point of view, I had an excuse to spend lots of time outside and see what was going on in my new neighborhood. Besides, the crabgrass was far too well established to eliminate with weed killer. Tried that once many years ago and killed the grass, and still had to dig out the crabgrass.
The scale of that first summer's weeding was daunting, but some weeks later, that lawn looked as good as others on our tidy street, and our reputation as people who maintained our property was saved. I probably gained a different reputation as the crazy woman always out crawling on the ground.
Since then I've indulged in an annual application of crabgrass pre-emergent, but we never use broad leaf weed killers or insecticides. After my crabgrass feat, dandelions don't stand a chance.
This spring, our third one here, I stood looking up and down the street at all the emerald green grass, lush from spring rains, the ideal of beauty most of us are fixated on. I thought about all the fertilizer, weed killers, and power tools that everyone here uses to maintain this look, and how that burden to the environment of earth is mostly for appearance sake and to fill the distance between houses.
Now and then, children play on lawns, but mostly the turf only knows the passing roar of the lawn mower, the stealth of the neighborhood cat, and an occasional tickle by a bird, squirrel, or rabbit. I think SOMETHING HERE HAS TO CHANGE.
Perhaps when we have electric energy from renewable sources, we might feel that those rechargeable battery garden appliances are a good thing. Right now, no form of power appliance makes me feel good. I know that the gasoline motor on the lawn mower is very polluting to boot. But the area of grass is out of scale for a push mower like my dad used when I was a kid. His city lot was 30 feet wide. I'd need a battalion of teenagers with push mowers to get the job done. I don't think I could find even one teen willing to earn a little money with a push mower, around here.
At our former house in the woods, we kept a small area around the house as lawn with flower gardens filling a lot of space. The rest was left natural. On our new street, residents bag up every leaf and twig as yard waste and pay to have it taken away.
I am no stranger to flower gardening in difficult circumstances--clay and rock, or dry sandy soil. Working with the natural terrain and profusions of wildflowers at our country home, I managed to create lovely and at times, spectacular, displays of blooms. I am not a strong person, but I am a persistent one. I'm not about to let one city lot defeat me. Besides, now I want to try vegetable gardening even more than I want flowers.
I know you half expect me to say I've dug up the whole front yard and planted food crops, but that isn't my plan. If it ever is, it will be part of a neighborhood effort, and we'll all be hungry. Other than the hand-weeding, I will focus my greening efforts on the backyard. After we lost some large trees to last spring's ice storm, we had plenty of sunlight. It was easy to get grass growing in the bare spots that had formed under those trees. Now that we had lot-line to lot-line grass, what could be done next?
Now here's the thing: I haven't the strength to bring home a rented garden tiller, tear up the sod, and then grow a garden by myself. And my husband isn't about to trade the work of mowing grass for the far greater work of growing a garden. I'm the only one who likes the summer heat. Until food prices really skyrocket, I'm on my own and limited to taking small steps. One such step handily presented itself.
Last season my husband tried to start raspberries along the back fence, so that strip had gotten cultivated and watered. Most of the plants did not grow, and only pine straw mulch remained there. He turned that area over to me, and it alone was going to take me many hours of effort just to prepare it for planting something else.
I analyzed the entire backyard to see what more I might be capable of doing there this season. I looked at the patterns of shade and sunlight as the day progressed. I looked at where the soil tended to dry out quickly. I noted the subtle slope towards the back of the lot, ending with the neighbor's privacy fence. I read my own book collection on the needs of vegetables and on gardening for bird food sources and habitat, then realized that the two might not be entirely compatible. If I plant vegetables along that fence, it will be difficult to get water that far, and the critters will eat it all before I do.Finally I came up with a modest plan for this spring.
I'm going to plant sunflowers along the fence, with some root crops in front of them, just to see what happens. Over a period of years, I'll try to develop the back corners of the yard into thickets of shrubs to provide cover for birds. Each year I can try to widen the garden border along the fence by half foot or so. Those steps will cut down a bit on the area given to lawn. Fortunately, the neighborhood has plenty of mature trees, both deciduous and evergreen, to provide nesting sites, cover, and food for song birds.
Up near the house, I designated an area for shade flowers and a sunny spot to grow a few edibles in containers, including some herbs. I'm going to try growing gourds too.
My garden book directions always say to begin a garden by adding lots of rotted manure. Maybe 30 years ago suburban gardeners could obtain that from the farmers closest to them. Now, if the big box stores don't carry it, I probably won't be able to get it. Around here, people walking dogs even pick up after their pets. I want to keep purchases of soil amendments and fertilizers to a minimum.
I've had some success with composting lately, and no weed or leaf goes to waste any longer. The pines on our lot keep us supplied with pine straw for mulch. I don't like handling it, but it's there, it's free, and it works. I collect the pine cones for decorative mulch up near the house. Even with that, I am guilty of buying a few bags of decorative mulch for the front of the house.
And for the neighborhood's beautiful front lawns? I am pleased that most people let their grass go dormant, so that the street goes from emerald to golden tan during summer, to green again before winter. We really don't need to irrigate grass in this part of the country, except when starting it from seed. Letting areas of grass grow tall might some day come into vogue, with different varieties of grass to add shading and texture.
I remember victory gardens as a child, though by the time I was old enough to notice them, the Second World War was over. Some people continued to garden on their city lots for some years following the war. They kept chickens back by the alley and grew a few fruit trees, even on those 30 foot wide lots. In vacant lots like the large one next to my childhood home, vegetable gardens were shared by several families. My mother canned tomatoes the day before I was born. As I grew up, the coolest part of the cellar still had shelves and some glass canning jars, but they were empty and forgotten.
When it matters to do it, people will relearn the skills of growing food. For now, I'm happy to visit the farmer's market and get tomatoes and beans from my daughter's home garden surplus. Still, by growing a little at my own home, I can more easily ramp up production if I feel the need. Most people around here have backyard garden plots--a very popular hobby. If the day comes when backyard gardens are a necessity instead of a hobby, let's hope we can be one state that can feed itself, even as our corn and soybeans feed the world.