This weekend, we took a journey from dirt to expensive, wet, seed-laden dirt. That is to say, we landscaped our backyard, planted a seed and wild flower lawn, and established a vegetable garden. If you've done this before, you know it's a lot of work.
If you haven't done this before, but are also looking at your little patch of brown with a twinkle in your eye, here is what two mildly experienced, generally intelligent people learned as they went through the process.
To turn our sadly barren backyard into one of those natural-looking “native wildflower wilderness fields” that are always on the cover of the gardening magazines we read at Flying Star.
Like many backyards in Albuquerque, this newly-landscaped yard must:
1. Live despite our dogs running through it, trying to eat it, and pooping on most of it.
2. Live despite us inevitably forgetting to water every once in a while.
3. Look good even though it will never be mowed... we hate mowing and won’t be rich enough to hire anybody to do yardwork for us for a long, long time.
4. Not require us to sell our kidneys to install.
Oh yeah, a big part of the project is to also convince Grumblecake to garden topless.
Our .4 acres of backyard in the South Valley
. Right now, we have a very “traditional” New Mexican yard – lots of sun-baked dirt and some amazingly tough weeds. Theoretically we have good soil because our land lies in the old river flood zone, but to us it looks like patches of sand mixed together with patches of clay.
Last Fall, we planted four trees around the edge of our yard. They will eventually give us some shade out there, but they're still babies so they're not doing a whole lot of shading yet.
Fixing the Soil:
After watching various gardening shows on TV for about two weeks we learned two things:
- First, 99% of the gardens that people make on TV are either horribly ugly or will only work in the parts of the US that we definitely don’t live in.
- Second, we learned that needed to prepare our soil. All the TV shows said, “To prepare your soil, you need to know what kind of soil you have – so just gather a sample of your dirt and send it off to your friendly neighborhood laboratory to have them test it for you.”
Tell us if we’re wrong, but this sounded like total bullshit to us. We don’t know anybody that has sent their soil off to a lab for testing – and wow, that sounds really expensive. Besides, who wants to wait for weeks to get results back tht say something like, "Your soil has 18 micro-kilo-pounds-per-square-cubits of Nitrogen in it.” We’d have no idea if that was bad or good or what to do about it.
So we went looking for other ideas.
Fortunately, there were a few “truths” we read/heard/guessed.
, the universal recommendation for pretty much every type of soil, but especially for both sandy and clay soil, was to add organic matter. To us, this meant “whatever the cheapest thing you can find at a nursery or at Lowe’s Depot.” This means cow poop. Trust us, our car has not been the best carpooling vehicle for the past week - it has been full of cow poop. And then full again. And then again.
, the acidity of your soil is a big factor. We have no idea how acidic our soil is, but several places stated that most New Mexican soil is alkaline (the opposite of acidic), and that we should add something acidic to it. This means composted cotton burr. How do we know? We walked down the row of various composts at the store, and composted cotton burr was the only one that said it helped acidify the soil right on the bag.
, peat moss helps the soil hold water, and since we knew that we were going to forget to water our yard in a timely fashion on more than a few occasions, we got lots of peat moss.
, we were tempted to get a fertilizer of some type to help the yard, but we didn’t. Why? Because all of the fertilizers have a lot of nitrogen in them (all fertilizers have 3 main ingredients, represented by numbers on the front of the package - '15-7-10' – the amount of nitrogen is always represented by the first number). And one of the biggest warnings about using any type of poop in your yard is that it usually contains a lot of nitrogen in it (making it 'hot' according to by the gardeners we talked to). If you put to much nitrogen in, you will chemically burn your plants. And since our car was riding low to the ground with 30 bags of cow poop loaded into it already, we were afraid of having to much nitrogen.
MIXING THE SOIL:
Like a giant cake recipe gone wrong, we looked at our ingredients and prepared to begin mixing... 10 cubic feet of peat moss, a mere 5000 pounds of cow poop (in convenient bags), and several REALLY heavy bags of cotton burr compost. Yum!
Soil mixing is done in three steps:
1. Break up the soil
2. Put the stuff on the soil
3. Mix everything together
Eck grabbed his shovel and pick axe, Grumble steadily refused to take her top off, and the mixing began. 10 minutes later, the mixing stopped.
Yes, in a mere 10 minutes, we realized that breaking up soil with shovels and pic-axes - especially when a lot of your soil has roughly the same consistency as solid concrete - really, really sucks.
So we rented a rototiller
. After calling around to several places, we discovered that there are three sizes of rototillers one can rent: pathetically small, decent if you have a smallish yard, and gi-normous. We opted for gi-normous! This thing was so big that it has its own trailer to carry it.
The best deal, by the way, is at United Rentals
. For about $90, we rented the machine for the entire weekend, and the people were really nice. I might have even convinced the staff (but not Grumble) that Grumble was going to push it topless. Home Depot rented slightly smaller ones for about $90, but you had it for only 24 hours. Other places were quoting rates for 2- or 4- hour periods, which just wasn’t long enough.
Two tips with rototillers:
1. The biggest ones are actually easier to use than the smaller ones – they have their own self-propelled wheels on the front so that you don’t have to push it. Look for ones that are “rear tinned” to get this feature.
2. Also, really soak your yard well the night before you rototill. Moist ground is easier to work with than dry ground, but water needs a good long time to soak in deep to get the effect you want. Also, if you water too close to when you want to work, you just end up with mud – a plus if the person pushing it were to be topless, but mostly is simply dirty.
It took us about 2.5 hours to rototill the first time, 2 hours to spread our ingredients everywhere, 3 hours to take a nap, another 2.5 hours to mix everything together with the rototiller, and 1 hour to rake the ground smooth again.
Grumble went from wearing a sweater (a sweater! despite all my pleading!) to just a shirt, to a tanktop, to a tanktop rolled up to expose her midriff, but she stubbornly (STUBBORNLY!) refused to take off anything else, despite many offers of sushi
, jewelry, and foot massages.
BUYING AND PLANTING:
Even sadder than that though, was the fact that our yard looked pretty much exactly the same afterward all this work as it did before we started.
We ended up dividing our yard into three zones – a big wildflower and grass area, a vegetable garden, and an area for big plants like watermelons and pumpkins and squash.
Wildflower and Grass Area:
For the grass seed, go to Osuna Nursery
to find a good selection of hardy desert grasses. Given our lack of desire to mow, we ended up with: buffalo grass
, blue gramma
, and Indian Rice Grass
(an impulse buy). We also got some containers of thread grass
that had huge clumps of feathery seeds at the top (two planting options for the price of one - a ready-to-plant grass clump and lots of threadgrass seeds! Score!).
For that wildflower pasture effect, we spread several packets of various wild flower seeds, lots of California poppy
seeds, yellow cosmos
seeds, and sunflower
seeds to mix in as well.
Finally, we got some container plants of Mexican evening primrose
– this is a great plant for here – it will take the heat, is pretty drought tolerant, has great pink flowers for a most of the growing season. When it gets happy, it becomes very invasive, which we want. If you don’t want it to take over, you can keep it contained or water it less.
Now that the grass and wildflower seeds are down, we must face a harsh reality: No walking on it for two weeks, which means the dogs are banned from the backyard for 4 months in doggie years.
After improvising a somewhat doggie-proof enclosure using chicken wire and old wood, we went off in search of vegetables. Timing is important with these, as many plants die if they frost on cold nights. For the NE heights, mid-to-late April is usually a safe time to plant, but in the Valley, you should pretty much wait till may to plant outside.
We planted about 20 tomato plants, which should be enough tomatoes to break us of tomato cravings forever. Maybe we’ll do a DCF contest in a few months with tomatoes as the prize. (Also, if you post mean comments and then mysteriously get tomatoed the next day... well, don't say we didn't warn you). On the plus side, we got some cool unusual ones that you’ll never see at Raley's, like the yellow pear tomato
, and the green zebra tomato
, which is green even when it's ripe. Then we got some varieties that were recommended for ABQ: Roma
, and Celebrity
. We decided to stay away from the big tomatoes like Beefsteak, which seem to lose their tomato-y flavor the bigger they get. Ross Gardens on Montano west of 4th Street has a great selection of really healthy tomatoes at the best prices, and Osuna had some great exotics and heirlooms – how can you resist yellows, purple, orange, bumpy, and stripey tomatoes?
The secret to planting tomatoes is to pick off all but the top few leaves of a tomato plant and then plant it deep so that only those topmost leaves and a couple inches of stem are sticking out of the ground. Tomatoes can grow roots all along the stem, so by planting most of its stem underground, you supercharge the root system and make it much stronger.
We also have rows of herbs and other vegetables. Basil, thyme, oregano, dill, sage, etc.
The hard part for us was how to plant them. All the TV shows and books show rows of little hills and valleys, but how big and how far apart should these hills and valleys be? Honestly, we guessed and set our 1-foot rows about 1.5 feet apart.
We did learn that that you are not supposed plant the plants right in the middle of the hill, but off to one side, for what that is worth. Also, be careful that you don’t plant taller things where they will shade shorter things, unless the shorter things are supposed to be shaded.
We followed the spacing instructions on each plants' package, but if anybody has secrets, let us know.
Here are our questions about our vegetable garden:
Pumpkins and Watermelons!
- What's up with the instructions on carrots that say they are ready to be pulled when “they are the right length and color”? They’re underground! You can't see their length or color until you after you pull them, no? More guessing about when to cull and when to harvest.
- What's the best way to water our little rows of hills and valleys? We put a soaker hose down in the valley parts of our garden, but that didn’t seem quite right, so we then moved it up about 2/3rds of the way up the side of the hills and help it there with bricks. Does this seem right?
- How often should we water?
We also set up another part of the yard for big fruits and veggies like pumpkins
, and spaghetti squash
. These seeds get planted in little hills about 6-8 feet apart.
Anybody have any hints about these?
GRUMBLE (finally) GETS NAKED:
Whew! That’s it. After a nice water for the entire yard, some nice redneck sunburns, a nice shower (with Grumble FINALLY taking off all her clothes!), we’re done!
Read our more recent adventures: