Archive for the ‘Landscaping & Gardening’ Category

Can’t resist

Monday, July 21st, 2008

Oh, pretty summer flowers. Some from a lovely garden in Connecticut, some from my back yard, and some from the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.







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Basil in your basement

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2006

Basil is the essence of summer. If you’re a gardener, you grow it in your yard for flavorful pesto and you add it in handfuls to your chunky tomato sauce. If you’re not a gardener, but like to have the freshest ingredients when you cook, you buy bunches of basil at the market.

But what do you do in the winter if your local grocer doesn’t stock fresh basil? Dried basil just doesn’t make it. If you have extra from your summer harvest, you can freeze the leaves on a cookie sheet then seal them in a freezer bag, but with a little set-up you can grow a flat of basil in your basement.

First, you will need a little greenhouse in your house. This is not difficult, but you may need to run around a bit to collect your materials: flourescent lamp fixtures, full-spectrum grow-lights (natural light from a window isn’t enough), hooks to hang the fixtures, potting soil, flats (the plastic trays the plant nurseries use to hold the little 6-packs of annuals all summer) or pots, and basil seeds, all of which you can get at the hardware store. Basil seeds may be scarce once summer is over, but you can order them from a seed house like Burpee. You may also need chains or rope, cardboard or styrofoam, an extension cord, a power strip of some kind, a timer, and some plastic sheeting. You can buy pre-made light gardens from gardening catalogues, but making it yourself is a lot more fun.

Next, select a place in your house where a little dirt and water won’t do much damage and that’s big enough to accomodate your mini greenhouse. Two fluorescent lamp fixtures running side-by-side will provide enough light for a flat of seedlings. Flourescent fixtures come in 2’ or 4’ lengths. 2’ is enough for one flat. If you have room, use the 4’ length so you can keep two flats going. 4′ bulbs are easier to find anyway.

Hang the fluorescent fixtures from the ceiling or from a shelf (you need at least a foot of height between the lower shelf and the bottom of your lights) using hooks and ropes or chains. You could even hang them in a big cardboard box if your box is reinforced or strong enough to hold the weight of the fixtures. The lights need to be 2” above the plants as they grow, so either your lights or your pots should be able to be raised or lowered. Once the fixtures are up, click the flourescent bulbs into place. (Line the prongs up with the grooves on either end of the fixture, push the bulb up, and then turn it with your fingers until it clicks in place.)

If your growing area is cold, you will want an enclosure around the lights and flats to hold in the warmth. Plastic sheeting or pieces of cardboard taped loosely around your shelves work fine. It doesn’t have to look elegant. If you are hanging your lights from the ceiling, you will need to slip something rigid such as cardboard or styrofoam on top the light fixtures to hold the sheeting away from the lights themselves.

You will also need a waterproof surface to put your flats on. Line a low cardboard box with plastic sheeting or find a ready-made plastic tray of some sort that is big enough to hold your flats or pots.

Now the easy part: you are ready to plant. Fill your flats or pots with moist potting soil (dirt from your yard harbors diseases and weed seeds and doesn’t work very well). Make little ¼” deep grooves across the flat, about 3”-4” apart, scatter basil seed in the grooves, push a bit of soil over them, and tamp it down gently. Cover the flats with a piece of plastic wrap until they sprout. Put the flats in your greenhouse and plug the lights in. The lights will need to be on 16 hours a day. To make it easier, you can plug them into a timer.

Keep the soil moist by sprinkling it well when it begins to dry on the top, but don’t keep it saturated all the time or your seeds may rot.

Once the seeds sprout, remove the plastic wrap. Again, don’t let the soil dry out but don’t flood it either. When the sprouts start to develop their second leaves, thin them so they stand about 1”-2” apart in their rows. Keep thinning them as they grow and use the thinnings in your cooking. Once the plants get to be about 4” high, you can start to harvest them in earnest. It will take a few weeks to get to this stage, so start your flats early.

These winter basil plants won’t get big like your summer basil, so use the leaves when the plants are small. The plants will begin to elongate and look unhealthy long before they are big. The flavor is not as intense as basil grown outdoors so this basil doesn’t make very good pesto, but it is terrific for soups, light tomato sauces, and salads.

Start a new flat every two or three weeks for continuous harvest.

Deck and yard

Thursday, July 13th, 2006

About five years ago, I realized that my 20 year-old deck was less than safe, so I designed a new one. The next year, to solve some water problems in the basement, I walled in and roofed over my walk-out basement door, tying it into the deck with a large planter. Both projects turned out well, and here are a couple of pictures.

Just for good measure, here is my yard with the newly-configured flower bed (see earlier post regarding this bed).

The May garden

Monday, May 29th, 2006

I’ve been busy since April’s gardening post. In the back yard, I pulled out all the old rectangular raised wooden beds, recontoured the plot into a more natural looking border, extended a cobblestone wall, created several new beds and a new flagstone path, spread some grass seed, pruned, edged, transplanted a whole mess of plants, and added some new ones. In the front yard, I hired a crew to haul the woodchips from the stump of the lost Norway maple back to the compost, till up a new (and huge) bed, install a couple of largish shrubs, and spread a truckload of mulch. Then I jumped in and planted a ton of perennials, transplanted more things from the back yard, and topped it off with a few annuals for instant color.

So, now almost the whole yard is cultivated, weeded, planted, and mulched (I never get it all under control at any one time, but each year I get a little closer). We’ve had a cool spring and everything looks neat, clear, and crisp. It won’t look so trim all summer, once the heat and bugs arrive, but the plants should mature and produce a good flower show anyway.

Here’s what’s blooming in late May:

Ageratum Azalea Bearded Iris Tuberous Begonia

Bleeding Heart Perennial Bachelor Buttons Chives Clematis

Coral Bells Coreopsis Cranes Bill African Daisy

Deciduous Azalea Tiarella (Foam Flower) Fuschia Gardinia

Gaura Geranium Gerbera Daisy Impatiens

Lamium Marigold New Guinea Impatiens Peony

Philadelphus Rose Salvia Siberian Iris


Monday, April 17th, 2006

At last. A break in the schoolwork and a beautiful weekend. I spent the whole time in the garden, deep-sixing weeds, transplanting enormous clumps, and thinking about terraces. My old wood-framed vegetable beds have to go – the trees have grown to block most of the sun, so the days of vine-ripened tomatoes from the backyard are sadly past. Lots of new ideas are jumping into my head. I want to recontour the plot with stones and curves so I’m itching to go over to the quarry, haul in a few tons of rocks, and set to work. Before I do that, however, I need to dig out the old wood frames, move some plants, go to the hardware store to replace the shovel I busted prying up a stake, and of course make sure I have some time on my hands. A project is never straightforward.

I wish I had had some landscape design classes, but I’m finding that design is design. The same principles of proportion, line, and form apply whether it’s interiors, landscapes, architecture, or industrial design. What I have done by intuition for years is now backed up by a little education. With a lot more time and a fat pocketful of cash, I could make my backyard look really terrific.