Friday, March 20, 2009

Developing a Garden Plan: part 1

After the hit-and-miss plantings of the last few years, Jen and I decided that this was the year to actually develop a plan for our backyard that would incorporate many of the the things both of us desire.

  • space for a table / chairs
  • vegetable garden
  • herb garden
  • raised planters
  • gravel / porous paving areas
  • solid paving from house to garage
  • shade-friendly plants
  • perennial plants
  • firepit area
  • compost area
  • water efficiency (more rain barrels)
  • And perhaps a bit of an oxymoron - low maintenance
Of course, there needs to be a lot of compromising because we're working with an area that is effectively 22 x 30, surrounded by a fence, and most of which is shaded by a large maple tree on the north east corner of the area, as well as some very mature lilac bushes. Here is a preliminary drawing we came up with that incorporates the existing site elements with much of our "wish list" items.

After this initial step, we are now working through designing the hardscaping that needs to be done to accommodate all of these features. In addition to the soft lines of the gravel-based plan above, we came up with many other ideas for the space - rectangles, a diagonal patio, a circular theme. With the goal of trying to find a plan that best fit the small space, we have pretty much settled on the octagonal patio idea shown below.

This would ideally be pavers, but may be stamped / stained concrete too. We already need to have some concrete re-done in the left-side area of these plans. The steps leading down to the basement are crumbling, and the slab there is pitched towards the house. When coupled with a large downspout that sometimes overflows, that is a bad combination.

Also, Jennifer is a little concerned about the patio area being limiting - we like to have gatherings with friends when weather allows, and the backyard fills up fast - she's worried it will fill up even faster with a small defined patio space! So this may evolve ... we shall see.

But with a firm(ish) plan in place, we can start to look at how to go about implementing it - and what will fit within our budget.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Our Garden's Solar Window

One of the neat things about instructing for the Illinois Solar Energy Association is that I have access to some pretty neat tools. My friend Jim loaned me a site assessment tool that has turned out to be a pretty neat device for determining the best location for our garden.

The Acme Solar Site Assessment Tool (manufactured appropriately enough by Wiley Electronics), is a tool that basically is a camera mount that is aligned with true South, and then takes seven photos from different positions from east to west. The neat part is the software, that then brings in all of these images and plots the path of the sun across them at different times of the year. It also determines the shading, and calculates the hours of sunlight available throughout the year.

While our backyard is clearly not a useful site for solar panels, I was more concerned with ensuring that we can get at least 5 - 6 hours of sun for our vegetable garden. So I took photos from two locations in our yard - one near the garage (shown above), and one spot near the back porch of our house (shown below).

Based on these sun paths, it looks like the first location, close to our garage, will be the best location for our vegetable garden. That will receive a bit of morning light, and a healthy amount of afternoon sun. Although, in this location, we may still have to sneak a bit of tree trimming on our neighbor's tree. We may also try to put some container-based plants near the porch and see how they do. That way, we can always move them if needed.

In any case, this was a fun way to see how the sun hits our home all year round, and we also now know where the best location for solar panels would be (our roof), should we ever decide to.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Growing a Garden

With 20-degree weather in northern Illinois, it's difficult to think about the growing season and summer coming. But, before we know it, warmer weather will be upon us. Especially now that our USDA growing zone has been bumped up to a warmer level (Zone 6), in what I love to hear described as not global warming, but global wierding.

Since most of the major renovation projects are out of the way at Humphrey House, and we don't have much money to spend right now anyway, I'm trying something new this summer: planting a vegetable garden. Jen has grown several herbs and peppers each year in our backyard. And we're slowly getting pretty decent at this. Last year our plants were quite successful.

So for 2009, I figured it was time to leap into a full-fledged grow-your-own-food garden this year. Sort of a victory garden for self-sufficiency. After all, you can't get more local then your backyard! We're beginning by starting to grow plants from seeds ourselves. To make things easy, I picked up a seed starting kit made by a company with the deceptive and tempting name, "Jiffy". I'm hopeful that it really is *that* easy to start seeds, and the hardest part is thinking far enough in advance. We will see.

So with the help of a Mother Earth guide to growing your own food, I've started some seeds for a garden that hopefully isn't too ambitious for us:

Current seeds:

To be joined later by:
And maybe even some sweetcorn growing along the garage!

Coming next: Time to find and start planning space in the backyard to grow this garden!