My Curated Weed Patch

Last Autumn, I moved into a new place and was responsible (for the first time since 2008) for the “yard.”

I put “yard” in quotes because the back is so shaded from the overhang of dense tree branches, it is basically a small, awkwardly-sloping dirt patch. The front is a narrow sliver of ground on one side of the walk leading to the front door and an awkwardly-sloping 8′ x 8′ area on the other.

Mercifully, the HOA takes care of the shrubberies on the other side of the sidewalk running along the front, but neighbors on either side care for their own “lawn” indifferently, so they have the weeds. These weeds sometimes like to come next door to my place to play and thus begins our tale.

Immediately before I moved in, the owner decided to take down a tree that had shaded the front for many years. It was necessary because the tree had become hazardous. So they mulched the stump and after such a long time in the dark, the ground was essentially bare except for a large “elephant ear” plant growing beneath the window.

Having been a container gardener for several years, I set out my pots and wondered whether I should invest in any lawn care equipment for such a little bit of ground. If not, what was I going to do with it?

For the time being I did nothing, however, and in the full morning sun each day, what had lain beneath began to assert itself.

First, three flowering things with tulip-like leaves sprang up. I learned in the next freeze that whatever that was didn’t tolerate frost well.

Soon after, some monkey grass started happening near the front. Toward the top of the lawn behind my large pansy pot, a very attractive ground cover started to spread. (I think it may be the Elizabeth variety of Sedum.)

Then came the weeds.

Dandelion was first. As the autumn progressed, however, so too did the number and variety of native plants.

There were these little plants with dark green, spade-shaped leaves that produce tiny purple flowers. Soon after, some fern-like vines erupted. These had paler fronds with the most beguiling curled tendrils on the end with even smaller purple flowers.

Then came the random grasses (at least two kinds), some kind of spread-y thing that seems to exist just to drape over everything else, thistle, and a bit of clover. Those were ones I kind of recognized anyway.

Because the nights grew colder, the weeds mostly stayed in check with a little hand removal and the ever-so slight application of Round-up. (*Don’t throw things at me YET, bee-lovers. For, this is a story of redemption.)

Then as they tend to do, the days once again grew longer. The frosts ended, but I still had a problem: responsibility for this bit of ground and no equipment. <sigh>

Fortunately, my powers of observation, keen sense of the aesthetic, and total cheapness were all working for me when I decided, I like my weeds. There. I said it. I. Like. Weeds.

They really are quite lovely and mine are mostly fairly short. They grow without any effort from me, survive without me watering them, and the bees* (eh? eh?) seem to like them.

Now my life is different after committing the highest form of suburban heresy. But my plan is a bold one.

I enter a gladiator in the Darwinian competitive fray between the pretty and small and the tall and unattractive. I will weigh in on the side of the weeds I like by hand-removing the weeds I don’t.

My hypothesis is the small and pretty will eventually occupy the entire space and crowd out the others. It may take the entire season before I have enough evidence to be proved correct (or otherwise), but in the interim, I am getting a little exercise, I am saving a ton of money on fertilizers, herbicides (bad! very bad!), seed, and water.

Here is where we are today.

     

Hopefully, I remember to circle back in late summer to update you on my progress. 

Rawr!

Episode One of Foodiesaurus, Weekend Warrior Princess

Okay, so even though I grew up in a farming family, until last year I had never orchestrated the whole symphony on my own, so to speak. So I got in small and decided to stock my 0.00023 acres with as many herbs in containers as I could decoratively manage.

I decided to use no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or soil additives. I scoured the Internet for information on companion planting, and finally, I selected the soils, containers, and plants. And it was a good introduction. I managed to start enough herbs to make Kentucky Fried Chicken (eleven) plus Roma tomatoes.

Then came the challenges. First, was the historically high heat last summer, frequently topping 100 degrees here in Birmingham, which all but killed my tomato production. Second, came 31 tobacco hornworms, voracious little nasties I had to hand pick and squish (eww) lest they strip my tomato plant bare and eat up what little green fruit I had. Finally, came this white, fuzzy stuff with little black ant-like bugs on the herbs in my “shady,” rather air-circulation-free porch corner, as well as the sticky, spider-web like egg sacks on my rosemary.

Tomato plant with basil and zinnia companion plants

Between and before the heat waves and pests arrived, however, I made batch after batch of fresh pesto, drank mint juleps, and supplied my husband with all the fresh thyme, oregano, and sage he could use. And each plant cost about the same as we would have paid for just one of those plastic packages of fresh herbs in the grocery store. You know, the ones that go bad in about three to five days.

If you are like us and absolutely love cooking with fresh herbs, there is no substitute for a constant, use whenever you want, right out on the front porch supply! Assuming we would have kept a stock of about six herbs at all times, each with a shelf life of five days, and a cost of $3.99 per package, that little herb garden saved us about $700 plus tomatoes. Hey, even if I paid $11 per bag of soil and $30 per container, I still came out ahead and then some.

Serrano pepper

Additionally, my herb pots were very pretty. In fact, other than a few box hedges, all of my ornamental plantings last year were totally edible. And my front porch smelled fabulous, making evenings spent there even more special.

Fast forward to last weekend. Having come through what should be the last frost (Easter weekend) and most of the last cold fronts expected for the year, including some pretty fierce straight line winds and tornadic near-misses, I figured it was time to roll so I went about unloading the containers of any old soil and debris they may still contain and rinsing each thoroughly to eliminate any dormant nasties from last year. I also cleaned out a couple of my now-root-bound box hedges to make room for my latest evil scheme.

Then I went shopping. First stop was Hanna’s Garden Shop on Highway 280. They have a huge selection of plants and landscape materials and are conveniently located on my side of town. And they were having a sale!

Although I was able to find organic soil and organic chicken poop fertilizer, none of their herbs were organic.

Dirt--but, hey, there's poop and stuff in there!

I did find a lovely San Marzano tomato plant and decided to get it regardless of its parentage, as this variety is a family favorite. (The variety is only half of the story, however, as the official “San Marzano” designation is an Italian certification that indicates not only the variety of the tomato, but also that it was grown in the San Marzano region. Hey, hopefully, one out of two ain’t bad….)

So I moved on down the line. After returning home to deliver the goodies I had accumulated thus far, I decided to let my fingers do the walking because I could already see this was going to be a long day of driving otherwise.

You see, last year, I planted basil as a companion to my tomato. The basil was intended not only to improve the flavor of the tomato but to repel the tobacco hornworm’s larger and even nastier cousin, the tomato hornworm. And, who knows, maybe it worked as I did not get tomato hornworms. But this year, I was looking for a companion plant besides basil for my tomato in the hopes of avoiding the procreative efforts of any stray tobacco hornworm moths as well.

I consulted The Oracle (okay, the Internet) to check my recollection that marigolds might fill the bill. Some very convincing sources argued, however, that regular marigolds would not only not prevent hornworms but might actually attract things like white flies. That sounded pretty bad. Instead, these sources recommended calendula or “pot marigold” saying the popular marigold advice was just so much mistaken nomenclature. Sadly, calendula doesn’t grow here until Autumn so nobody had it.

One lady I spoke with believed companion planting zinnias might repel hornworms and advised that zinnias were plenty hardy through our hot summers. Although a subsequent consultation with The Oracle indicated zinnias were good at repelling lots of bad stuff and attracting plenty of good stuff that killed other bad stuff, hornworms were not specifically mentioned. So, I’m hoping for the best.

Rosemary plants

This lady’s shop, Libby’s Plant Odyssey, also had a wide variety of organically- and locally-grown herb plants, so I drove up to the Lakeview District to look around. At the end of the day, I purchased the following additional plants—

  • two rosemary plants;
  • one each gray sage, spearmint, English thyme, Italian oregano, Genovese basil, French tarragon, marjoram—all of which I planted last year; and
  • one each of a few newcomers, specifically, French lavender, savory, a serrano pepper, and a four-pack of pink zinnias I thought would look nice with the cobalt blue containers on my porch.
  • Clockwise from the top--French tarragon, marjoram, Italian oregano, and lavender, with a ubiquitous zinnia in the middle.

Admittedly, several of these herbs can grow to a great scale if spaced properly. And also admittedly, I only had one 18″ round faux stone fiberglass pot for the tomato, two basils, and two zinnias; one two gallon round number for the serrano pepper and two of the same for the two rosemary plants; and finally the aforementioned pair of blue 18″ square containers into which I placed four herbs each with a zinnia in the middle. What can I say? I’m a maniac.

Clockwise from the top--spearmint, savory, English thyme, and sage, with a zinnia in the middle.

I won’t bore you (further?) with details about how to remove a plant from a plastic container and place it uninjured into a hole in some dirt. Instead, I will leave that bit to your imagination and/or whatever training the sales person at your local garden center decides to provide at no additional cost to you.

One tip, though. Shopping locally and staying out of the “big box hardware with occasional garden center attached” stores is a real help in this respect—the people who work at local shops do this gardening stuff all year long, most work in their gardens and at these local garden shops out of a passion for the subject, and many of these folks have done so for longer than they can remember. They are an amazing resource and good people to get to know. And they didn’t used to work in the plumbing or hardware department last week!

From time to time, I plan to revisit this chronicle of garden misdeeds so stay tuned for updates from Foodiesaurus, Weekend Warrior Princess.

Bon appetite!