Dirt. Soil. Gardening.

Add good plants to bad soil and you might as well just go ahead and throw them in the garbage. Usually. Bad soil equals plant stress, which is like hanging a neon welcome sign for disease, bugs, and looking crappy.

I want to submit our yard as the master gardener final exam. Look- a representative sample of every turf weed in NC. As you embark on your manual weed control (aka, hand pulling), you’ll stumble across the vole holes. Cue this year’s version of the World Vole War. But wait! That nandina JB hacked down last fall grew 20 feet– yesterday!

We have landscape challenges.

Soil amending is a hot topic in the gardening community. Just like everything else there are some strong opinions. I’m as enthusiastic about tilling 8-12 inches as JB is about sanding furniture on a Friday night. I once read about rent-a-goat program that seemed promising.

Too many random, yet simultaneously occurring projects, two kids, one husband, a couple dogs, several dozen voles… adding a good soil mix on top of bad soil, as mentioned in Square Foot Gardening gets my enthusiastic thumbs up.

But…it doesn’t solve the problem for the those plants not destined for either a pot, or a raised bed. Most successful (and I’m not) gardeners coexisting with as many mature (read: LARGE and nutrient-sucking) hardwood trees would be challenged with plant placement.

I could do more potted plants, but sometimes you have to water those twice a day in the hot NC summer. I have to water so many talking things in the summer, quite frankly the plants don’t complain loudly enough to catch my attention.

How to improve the overall condition of the surrounding soil for these lone landscape plants? See if you can follow where the ADHD brain went:

Plants, yay. Look at the delicious mint that E picked out– bah-ha-ha chickweed, the mint is gonna get you… at least mint is pretty. i love how they come in these peat pots– I can just plant without feeling the need to hoard five dozen little plastic six-packs. Peat pots are so useful for soil conditioning… hey! Sigh, I don’t want to go back to the store OR pay money for peat pots, I guess I’ll just…


Cue youtube and a shameful bastardization of other people’s talent.

E somehow navigated from the bags to “how to sharpen your scythe.” Um.

Dug out The Independent, folded some edges, added some glue. Rinse, repeat and cut a v-shape to accommodate the soil without damaging the flower.

I scooped and chopped up some leaves. Grabbed the bowl of pulp from the morning’s green juicing session (you could use regular kitchen scraps, but I’d give them a good turn in the blender to break them down into fine little bits).

I gave my 5 year old a shovel and a pot, pointing him to the old garden (which JB was transforming from a single large bed into two 4×4 beds square foot beds). Zach’s face seems less than enthused about 6 hour old kale juice pulp.


Add a few shovelfuls to the newspaper bag.

Dig your hole in the ground according to the specifications on the plant tag. Put your plant in the soil bag, and backfill.

Water with your repurposed milk container. Walk away.

Observe and admire the following day.

There it is– a dirtbag you actually want.

Me versus the Wildlife, Part II

The squirrels are out of the attic, the starlings made a nest somewhere new. But my battle with the wildlife rages on.

I first need to own my problem. ALL of this is absolutely our fault. We practiced extraordinarily heinous housekeeping in our yard and around our house. A half-dozen deciduous trees drop 17 millions leaves. Okay, I might be exaggerating the number a bit—but it sure feels like that many. They also drop branches. And we’ve spent a lot of time cutting back some serious overgrowth. Did you know that red tips left alone will grow to rival the size of a pecan tree?

Well, if you buy your house from a widow in her late seventies, those (and other shrubs) absolutely do grow that large.

We chose to create a giant yard waste pile in the back corner of our yard. Less a compost area, more like the wildlife equivalent of a newly built, seriously upscale habitat. That was a really, really bad idea on our part.

While we attracted beneficial wildlife—toads, YAY—others have joined them. Voles. Moles. A shrew? Squirrels. Maybe a gopher? Or rats. I don’t think it’s a rat, though. But it could be, there’s no reason for it not to be, and until I can make an accurate identification I chose to look on the bright side and go with gophers.

Oh, but the voles. They are in my head. I hunt their trails when my kids nap, or right after my husband gets home from work. Just little sections of the yard at a time. Stabbing at the ground, clearing the leftover leaves that I thought would make good mulch and they thought would make good cover.

The voles and I—we were both right.

I am operating under several motivators. One, I’m super pissed off about their presence. Every time I rake back some leaves I find bolt holes and tunnels. All of the days frustrations—tantrums, whining, climbing, biting, whining, did I mention tantrums—are singularly focused on this small rodent and his ever-growing family. I’m hoping to be so annoying to them that they move elsewhere.

My second was that they are eating my freaking plants. It would appear that Mr. Vole has some opinions about my recent assaults on their homes and highways and it showing his displeasure with the vole-equivalent of a horse head in my bed. The picture below is of one of my new spreading ferns. Note that the fern started its day planted in the ground.

Mole mounds I could handle (and, trust me, we have those, too). Moles eat grubs, not tender roots of expensive perennials. Their tunneling aerated through some really dense thatch on our front lawn. Moles are solitary. Plus, they aren’t rodents, they are insectivores. The moles can stay.

Voles are the opposite of solitary. I realize I have become Carl Spackler (Bill Murray, Caddyshack) about the voles. Voles are the equivalent to an opportunity-criminal. They see the front door open (a mole tunnel) and steal your flatscreen (precious perennials). A friend’s husband joked about their solution, “we moved. Vole problem solved”. Even the critter guy who gets paid to remove pests, while dismantling the squirrel trap from our roof, had no other advice beyond “get a snake”.

I’ve spent a lot of time entertaining the snake-thing as the bolt holes, tunnels and just down-right, WTF *IS* that! continue to crop up. Why not just go to petsmart, buy a few snakes and start dropping them down into the larger holes? I’m going to plant catmint in strategic locations to attract Gray Kitty—a big ol’ wandering cat that has killed here in the past. I saw Gray Kitty catch a squirrel; he’s a bad ass Kitty. He likes to poo in the flower bed, but that seems like a fair, if disgusting, exchange.

Then I saw this guy trying to get away from my rake next to the front porch. Shudder. Hello, google? What snake is this and do I need to be frightened? Nope, it’s a small snake and it eats slugs and snails.

Did I mention the slug and the snail problem? No, well hold your surprise but we have a ton of them outside after dark. I bought them a tasty Colt 45 to enjoy this evening.

So, no worries little brown snake, be free and eat your fill. Call some friends over, too.

Then in the backyard yesterday I ran up against this guy.
Shudder, again. The ones with spots/patterns freak me out more than the solids. Venomous? Non-venomous? That’s a baby—quick look behind me—where’s his mama?

Camera, pictures, google. By the way–great site for my local NC friends.

I will say this—having to actively deal with this crap on a regular basis is making me less of a “it’s yucky, creepy, icky” kind of girl. Again, since I’m the mother of two sons, this is probably for the best.

I learned some things that I would like to share. Women! Empower yourselves with knowledge—don’t be held captive by your fear. One, Mr. Snake is the free version of what I wanted to buy from petsmart. He’s “going on a vole hunt, gonna catch a silly vole”. And kill it. Dead. Two, it’s the circle of life. Three, rat/gopher/voles or non-venomous snake? I’ll take the snake any day of the week.

This is what I learned—beyond even being able to detect the distinction of the markings (which will never happen for me at first sight) there are three things to look for in an initial observation of a snake.

      1) The tip of a Baby copperhead/cottonmouth’s tail is bright yellow.


      2) Non-venomous snakes are slender and venomous snakes are usually fatter,


    3) A venomous snake has a triangle head, a non-venomous snake has a round head.

The other thing I was reminded of was that just because a snake isn’t venomous doesn’t mean it won’t still bite you.
Our only solution is to totally clean up all of these overgrown areas, which sounds simple enough, but when I consider the depth of that project my brain leaks out my ears a little bit.

One day at a time. Meanwhile, friendly, round-headed snakes—do yer job. I’ll try not to wet my pants when you surprise me in the yard. I will, however, scream like a little girl.

Spring has Sprung

It’s true! The Forsythia are in bloom, as are Bradford Pears (not everything about Spring is awesome—those things smell like dirty gym socks). I realized recently that for the first time since March 2005 I am both functional (e.g., not pregnant) and capable (e.g., not parenting a 4 month old) of being outside and getting heavy projects done. Put another way, that’s half a decade since I’ve been able to do what I do to keep the crazy away. Women talk regularly about losing their mojo but I didn’t realize until this year that mine had been hibernating. While other women drool over shoes and Coach purses, I’m pouring over seed catalogs and gardening websites.

Ray Bradbury fans? I randomly watched an adaptation of his short story All Summer In A Day when I was younger and the concept stuck with me. Note—if you’ve never read this one—do so.

I’ve been like Margot—missing the joy in life because I had once known the sun. But more than just sun on my skin, I need to hack weeds, rake leaves, make compost, and build new vegetable beds. I need it. Since I’m neither pregnant, nor the parent of a 4 month old I have been (metaphorically speaking) freed from the closet just in time to reach for the sun. Plus, all that stuff, a chore for many, is fun for me; I enjoy it even when I’m frustrated at the process and the project drags on longer than anticipated. I love coming inside at the end of a day with dirt-caked jeans and shoes. It is for a good reason that fate gave me two sons.

My sons are part of the reason my projects drag on, but I’m okay with that. It takes much longer to do anything when you are explaining “why” to a 3 year old and helping a 16 month old maneuver a shovel. They love to help and I’m getting to do what I need—we have a cooperative arrangement. And when they get bored being helpers they move on to the temporary sand box and the water table.

Elliot likes to drink from the water table, which grosses me out. Regular redirection is another time-consumer. But he’ll get it, eventually. Zach put in a bunch of boulders (big rocks he’s been collecting) and used a small bubble bottle as a boat.


Not only do we enjoy all being out there together, but I can also send Zach outside and he will just play, following the rules, alone. Since respecting limits and boundaries continue to be a source of strife inside the house, watching him manage on his own outdoors gives me hope.


Elliot—not egged on during dinner prep by a tantruming Zach—actually sat on the floor and looked at books. He did not spend the entire time climbing on the chairs to get to the table and screaming “UP”. He just. Sat. Unheard of for my little monkey boy.


The squirrels have been evicted from the attic, but stay tuned. I will update on the continuing saga of Stephanie vs. The Wildlife tomorrow. By last count the wildlife are definitely winning, but my double-reinforced compost bin is the first small step in my strategic battle plans. I also read somewhere online that it possible to annoy furry creatures so much that they just move into your neighbor’s yard. I doubt that is true, but I’m working on finding out.


Fences Make Good Neighbors

Fences make good neighbors? Mine probably think I’m nuts. I can hardly blame them considering my “throwing rocks at squirrel in gutter” escapade. A lot of them seem to question my landscaping methods.  And again, considering the current–and past–state of my yard, is still not particularly unreasonable.

I use organic and natural methods almost exclusively.  One, because I’m frugal (nice word for cheapskate, isn’t it?); two, because it’s better for the environment; and three, because my Dad died of a cancer caused by chemicals.  All of those things combined in my psyche created the monster that is DIY-Stephanie.

Old-school methods take time.  Leaf mold doesn’t grow overnight.  Our yard gets tons of shade, because of the half-dozen mature trees in, and around, our lot.  We could rake them to the curb, letting the city of Raleigh vacuum ‘em up to turn into soil that is then resold to various homeowners.  I have no interest in buying back the finished product when I can make it myself in the relative (dis)comfort of my neighbors.

Last fall, I raked leaves, not to the curb, but into various piles around the yard. To the casual observer it might look like I forgot to finish raking, but those piles actually represented future beds.  Beds that I planned from the cool indoors during the sweltering August heat.

The past few days have been gorgeous—60 degrees—after an abnormally cold few months that included TWO significant (i.e., more than 2 inches, lasting longer than a day) snowfalls.  I totally become part of the clichéd rush-to-Lowe’s-folk when warm weather approaches after winter, my hands itching to dig in the dirt.  Unlike a lot of others, my SAHM status means I can rush-to-Lowe’s on Friday morning instead of Saturday, which limits dealing with a hundred other mulch-eyed gardeners.

My supplies included humus, compost (yes, I know I can make this myself, and we do), and some more of the border edge stuff.  Pushing a shopping cart loaded down with children while pulling a garden cart loaded down with product takes skill; doing it without looking like a moron takes grace.  I was managing the skill part, but failing on the grace, when two store employees came up and offered help.  When you happen to be the lone customer it’s harder for the employees to pretend they don’t see you struggling which often means they might help. Being a girl and having a few kids–also helpful.

Once I trek everyone back home the fun begins. Play, play, dig in dirt.  Drag sand table, sand toys, and sand into the front yard.  Set up small children with shovels, buckets, and cars.  Screech, “Elliot, we don’t eat the sand,” a hundred times.  All while I’m hoeing and placing the edgers around the new bed.  Open humus and begin to pore.  Stop to chase Elliot back into our yard while trying to explain to Zach why it’s cool for him to hunt for grubs, but not to just put them in a different, safer spot in the yard.  Rinse, repeat.

As to my neighbors thinking I’m nuts—I thought it important to defend myself before just blurting it out.  Apparently, everything was okay until I started watering the dirt.  You see, humus is light; you can’t just spread it around and expect it to stay put.  You have to get it wet enough in order for it to be heavy enough to not blow away.

Sadly for me, all of the people walking the ‘hood and/or arriving back home from work didn’t see that DIY-Stephanie bought all of the makings for soil rather than just buying pre-made soil.  All they saw was a crazy woman entertaining children (at this point teaching them how to stomp down molehills) and watering dirt.  I wonder how they’ll feel when I bring out the old area rugs to use as a super-heavy weed barrior for the bed in the back yard?  Aw, we put up a privacy fence to hide the majority of my experiments. Too bad for shock value, probably good for heart health.