Wednesday, November 27, 2013

We Was Robbed!

     Winter arrived three weeks early this year -- much to my dismay. The temperatures in Chicago in mid November are the coldest they have been in 20 years. This is grist for the mill of my North Carolina friends, who are offering to mail me some of their tomato plants. I hope they get plastered by the big storm heading their way.

     I got caught in the middle of putting my yard to bed. The essentials were accomplished. I drained my rain barrels and brought my pump indoors. With a heavy heart I harvested all of my Brussels sprouts. They do fine in temperatures in the '20's, but I was not sure about 14 degrees and did not want to find out. So we now have enough Brussels sprouts to skip the turkey tomorrow.

     I also managed to dump my compost tumbler into the garden. The partially composted material is still sitting there in a heap, but at least it is not frozen in the drum for the rest of the winter. My snow peas -- a great source of nitrogen -- are lying about on top of the soil as well. I usually till both the peas and my compost into the soil to decompose over the winter.

     I did not have time to get in my hoses, but I at least took the various nozzles off so that any water inside that expanded as it froze would have a place to go.

     This year I found myself with a dozen or more shrubs that I did not have a chance to plant. They would be doomed to an early demise if exposed to the winter winds. Fortunately, I did have time to plant them, pot and all, in what had been my pole bean bed. The top of the pots are even with the soil surface and I have a layer of mulch spread over all. So far they are doing well. I just need to find them a home before the beans need to be planted next spring.

     I still have hopes for a winter thaw. I can then bring in all the hoses and till in all the compost scattered over the garden. I might even be able to plant a few shrubs, though I suspect that is the Utopian in me speaking. Meanwhile we can dream of an early spring, and a spring that is not too wet, and .... Hope springs eternal.

     I wish all a happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


     A few weeks ago I mentioned some of the limitations of rain barrels, mainly limited capacity,  limited water pressure, and, frequently, ugliness. We discussed how you can increase your capacity by hooking up more than one barrel in series and how you can increase your water pressure noticeably by raising the height of the barrels. You are also less likely to be disappointed if you keep any hose from the barrel short.

     I am too lazy to fill watering cans over and over if I don't have to, so I like to use soaker hoses. In the picture above my front rain barrel is attached to a soaker that runs along 4 Catawba Rhododendron in front of the house. Since my eaves are quite wide, the plants get less water than they should. In this case I keep the valve at the bottom of the barrel open, and all the water from the downspout leaks out the soaker to the back half of the shrubs.The barrel never has a chance to fill completely.


     My vegetable garden is behind the house, and for that I could use more water. For this I used two barrels and added a small submersible pump inside the barrel on the left. Buy a pump designed to power small pond waterfall -- at least 500 gallons per hour.  If you really want to use your rain barrel a pump makes all the difference. I irrigate my tomatoes using these two barrels and a soaker hose.

     For the "ugly" issue there are many alternatives. The simplest is to paint the barrels to match your house color and hide them in plain sight. Many barrels have built-in planters that can distract the eye. Or you could add a small fence or screen to hide them.

    Or you could unleash the artist hidden within you and come up with a barrel like this.

     Given the current weather it behooves me to mention one last thing about barrels:

     Do NOT do what I did the first year I had one. I forgot and let my barrel stay completely full going into our first hard frost. It's sides were soon splitting, and not from laughter. I keep the water level fairly low this time of year and drain the barrels completely after Thanksgiving. Then I remove the pump and leave both the faucet and bottom drains open for the rest of the winter.

     Finally, a reminder that my crew is available for anyone who would like help getting their holiday lights and decorations up.