Mardi Gras month is berry busy
February 24, 2008
Doesn't the Super Bowl seem like eons ago? One moment we were all watching anxiously to see if the New England Patriots could finish a historic perfect season. The next, Eli Manning and the New York Giants are going to Disneyland, leaving Tom Brady and the media shaking their heads. Yes, the Big Game was barely three weeks ago, but when the weather starts to warm up, our thoughts turn to outdoors and gardening.
We won't try to sugar coat it our yards, front and back, are a complete and utter disaster. We touched on this fact last month, but the truth is you don't realize just how awful things have become until you take your first close-up survey of the situation, which we did at the beginning of February. If there is one thing that grows exceedingly well in our yard, it's weeds. They are a couple feet tall in places, especially beneath the birdfeeder on our ailing mulberry tree. Birdseed tends to stand out when it produces wheat-like stalks amid your shorter crabgrass. We plan to make a round with the weed whacker in another week or two.
In the eastern side of our back yard, where we once had a garden, the ground is littered with... well, litter. Broken bricks, discarded fence boards, busted strips of lattice from our dismantled gazebo. It's an obstacle course, made more demanding by the presence of gopher holes and 5-foot-tall wild sage plants, and clusters of spike weeds that act like a miniature mine field if you attempt to cross them to get to the other side of the yard. In Summer's Garden, generally our best-maintained part of the yard, the wild raddish and low-lying succulents have invaded our bed of carpet roses and wooly thyme. California poppies have sprouted in places we really don't want them. Our pathways from the back yard to the front are shrouded by green grasses that sway in the breeze. It's enough to bring tears to one's eyes.
...Or, in our case, enough to inspire us to get busy.
We decided on a simple project to get us in the mood for yard work. Roni is determined to have a strawberry garden once again and had been reading on the Internet about creative ways to plant them. The gopher being our longtime nemesis, we had already decided that anything we plant has to be in containers. We were ready to set up a couple of wine barrels to handle the job until Roni discovered something called a "strawberry terrace." Sounds like some street you'd find on "Desperate Housewives," but the truth of it is that it's a multi-tiered planting area designed to let the berries hang over the edge as they prefer to do, which theoretically will produce a better crop. You can order the terraces prefabbed from a number of places at prices that are all over the map, or you can build them yourself from a variety of materials. We chose to construct our own, natch, out of wood and a few supplies we mostly had on hand.
First step was to prepare a corner of the yard for the project. We already had a triangular area set aside a few years ago for a strawberry garden that had long since gone to weeds. Glenn spent several mornings before work turning over the soil and leveling the ground so that it was even with our patio; over the years the area had accumulated a lot of sand that was spilling onto the concrete. We carved out an area large enough for a 6x6 square-foot base, shoveling the excess sand into a large pile that we jokingly referred to as "Mini Mount Diablo." Before doing anything else, we rolled out crisscrossing layers of chicken wire to serve as a gopher screen, similar to what we did in Summer's Garden in October 2006.
Next, we visited Home Depot to choose our building materials. Our first idea was to follow an example we'd seen on the Internet that used rolls of plastic lawn edging material to build our terraces. However, at 4 inches tall, the product would have made for a short terrace. We also feared it wouldn't be heavy enough to hold the chicken wire in place. Glenn considered using 2x6 pressure treated lumber to build the planter boxes, but this was a bit pricey and seemed like overkill. After all, we're only growing a few plants, not building play fort. Roni came up with what turned out to be the perfect alternative: fence boards. At 8 inches wide they were a bit bigger than we needed, but their 1-inch thickness was ideal, as was the price per board. We picked up boards in several lengths. It felt like we were preparing to do our fence project from two years ago all over again.
Building the terrace was relatively simple. The bottom box was constructed of four 6-foot sections of redwood fence board, attached at the corners with small angle brackets. The completed tier was moved into place on the chicken wire, then backfilled with material from the sand pile. The second tier was a 4x4 square-foot box constructed from a pair of 8-foot boards sawed in half. This was placed in the center of the first tier and also backfilled. The third and final tier was a 2x2 square.
Once all the tiers were in place and backfilled, the thing kind of looked like a sandy wedding cake or a pyramid. All it was missing was one minor detail: the strawberries. That is the detail that has eluded us thus far. The garden centers only stock bareroots this time of year, and the live plants won't arrive until the end of this month or early March. That means we'll have to be content to look at our empty terrace for a few more days while we plan out the sprinklers and what sort of "topper" we want for the upper tier. Our plan is to find a little garden statue of perhaps 2 feet tall or less that will sit amid the berries. Maybe a patron saint of berries, or something whimsical. We don't know yet, but we've been looking.
While waiting to complete the strawberry garden, we turned our attention to the front yard. The parkway along our driveway has been a sore spot for a couple of years since Mr. Gopher invaded it and turned most of Roni's roses into a salad bar. We had long ago pulled out most of the decimated plants, but apart from putting down some landscape fabric and decorative redwood bark on half of the parkway, the rest of it had been left to grow pretty much whatever. That included sweet alyssum that grew wild, and our ever-present honeysuckle vines that have escaped their corner and invaded other portions of the property. It also included an unsightly tangle of weeds and dirt mounds left behind by the gopher's tunneling . We'd also piled on a few shovelfuls of sand transplanted from other gopher mounds in the front yard. It was starting to look like some of the properties that the City of Oakley uses as examples on its website that talks about its property maintenance standards ordinance. We were beginning to fear that a city inspector might one day tell us we had to clean the parkway up. And when your neighbor in casual conversation offers to give you the name of his gardener... well, you know it's time to do something.
So over President's Day weekend we picked up our shovel, rake and hoe to begin restoring the parkway to its pre-weed splendor. We removed the old landscape fabric and bark and smoothed out all the gopher holes. The fabric had done its job keeping the weeds from taking root. There were just a few spots that needed minor weeding. The other side, where there had been no fabric, was a different story. We've been at work for nearly four days pulling weeds and leveling the soil. Once we get it cleaned up we will be planting five new bareroot roses that we picked up from Orchard Supply Hardware. But instead of putting them directly in the ground where they will eventually become gourmet gopher chow, we picked up five 16-inch clay pots from Home Depot that Roni intends to bury up to the lip. An in-ground barrel garden? It will be an experiment, and the pots should prevent the roses from getting too huge. After that, we'll put down new landscape fabric on both sides this time. Hopefully we'll have more photos to share next month.
We went a little overboard at Home Depot the day we bought the clay pots, bark and planting mulch. They had also just received their first spring shipment of wine barrel halves, so we impulsively bought a couple with plans to expand the Patriot Garden along our western fence. We had to do some creative arranging to get them to fit in the back seat of Roni's Toyota Corolla along with all the other stuff. We're up to eight half barrels in the back yard and hope to eventually add more. They're relatively cheap and require very little maintenance, plus they are easy to relocate okay, easy with a forklift, perhaps, but it can be done and we have done it.
We aren't the only ones that have been enjoying the return of warm weather and planning for spring in the great outdoors. Our favorite pair of mourning doves has started building what will be their third nest in the planter basket hanging from our pergola. At least we think it is the same pair. They seemed to stake out the basket instinctively, and have been making several visits on good-weather days to collect bits of grass and twigs from which they are fashioning their nest. We've had the fountain running a few days this month, which seems to draw all sorts of birds who come for a drink or to take a bath. The doves have been all around Summer's Garden when they aren't sitting on their partially complete nest.
February is a great time of the year. Seems like the world is coming alive and there is so much to get excited about. Lots of big events. Yes, we enjoy watching the Super Bowl along with 150 million other Americans, but we also eagerly anticipate the start of NASCAR season and the Daytona 500. Glenn was an especially happy camper when his favorite driver Ryan Newman took the checkers in a thrilling finish. Our other favorites, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, had lesser luck, but that hasn't stopped Ben from adding memorabilia to his ever-growing "Jimmie Shrine." He had been keeping the collection of die-cast cars, trading cards and magazine covers on a shelf above his computer desk in the dining room, but following Daytona he relocated the shrine to a larger shelf in the closet of his bedroom.
Ben was inspired to do some redecorating in his room after attending the birthday party of one of his school friends Feb. 16. Apparently Ben was very impressed by the way his friend Evan themed his shelves and walls to display his collectables, so Ben took a similar approach. He now has a shelf for NASCAR items, one dedicated to .Hack anime, and his books neatly arranged on his bookcase according to series, genre and physical size. (There are spaces reserved for "Warriors" series books, "Pokémon" books, "large" books, "really large" books and "boring" books. Fortunately the latter category is small.)
Ben is also starting to plan for making the jump to high school at the end of July. He recently signed up for his fall trimester classes and attended an orientation session. Roni also has attended an orientation for parents. He's interested in learning more about computers, which is one of the classes he'll be taking.
The other big event associated with February is Mardi Gras, and although we don't live in New Orleans, we do think of it fondly when we remember the fun vacation we had there in 2004. The thing we think most fondly of is all the great food that can be found there. It's a Mardi Gras tradition to eat "king cake," which as far as the rest of us are concerned tastes pretty much like a breakfast bear claw. The cake is often found at offices and parties during Mardi Gras season and comes in a large braided ring topped with icing and yellow, purple and green sugar sprinkles. Inside the cake is a miniature plastic baby, which if you happen to find it obligates you to purchase the next king cake.
We don't happen to have any local bakeries that produce king cake, but there are several in Louisiana that sell it mail order, so we bought one over the Internet from Haydel's Bakery that was delivered next-day air on Feb. 1. They send it packaged with Mardi Gras beads, coins, a magazine, a scroll detailing the history of king cakes, a commemorative figurine, and a bag of coffee. Not exactly the same as being there, but we had a ball the next morning, Saturday, dressing up in our beads and putting on the music of Beau Soleil while we dined.
For Valentine's Day, Roni treated Glenn to cheesecake from a new place in Antioch called Russel's Sin Cheesecakes, and then we went out for barbecue lunch at Kinder's Deli. It's not Mo's, but it's about as close as we get to it in these parts. Darn good way to celebrate the day of love.
See you next month.
Glenn, Roni and Ben