Saturday, July 31, 2010

Happy Hops Plants

Earlier this spring I was working with a Habitat for Humanity green building project, and one of the project members and I had a discussion about growing Hops. I mentioned I'd like to do that for a type of greenscreen if nothing else, and perhaps one day get into homebrewing.

Well, later that day, the energy rater colleague happened to stop by his father's house, who had extra hops plants growing. So he dug some up. And then just happened to be near our home and dropped them off for us. What a pleasant surprise!

I managed to separate the root rhizomes into several groups, and planted them into seven containers. Some of these looked pretty sorry, but to my surprise, eventually every single one formed into a plant!

And it turns out hops plants are very excellent vertical growers. The vines are almost sticky, and want to grab ahold of anything they can - including me when I was tried to train them.

I put a few of these into a raised bed near the garage, and strung some landscape string from hooks in the garage eave to the wood frame in the bed. The hops quickly found their way up the garage as shown at right. Within a few weeks, the vines then had nowhere else to go vertically, so they started spilling over and climbing up themselves. We now have a large bunching mass of hops. And since this wall receives the most sun in our tiny back yard, the plants started forming little flowers already.Elsewhere in the yeard between us and our neighbors, I took an extra 10' section of 1/2" gas pipe and pounded it in the ground almost 2 feet, threw a Tee on it and a few short segments to create a pole stand for two other hops vines. These hops vines have also worked out quite well - these were two of the plants I was less certain would make it.

These plants are not quite flowering, but they certainly are reaching for the sky. It may not be until next year that actual hops buds are produced. But that's okay, the main idea for these is to add some color against the drab color of the neighbor's home, as this is what you see when you walk off our back porch.

I subsequently learned all these hops plants are from the Siebel Institute, a well-respected brewing academy, so I think some homebrewing will be in my future. I even had extra plants that I donated for a friend's pergola. And Chris actually has brewed beer before, so they may get put to use sooner than mine. In the meantime, we're enjoying the extra vertical greenery in our small urban yard.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Despite Heavy Rains, Block Party Goes On

Last weekend, our annual block party was scheduled. We had a hand in helping organize a few events and were excited as our niece and nephew were coming over to join the fun.

However, heavy rains Friday night and Saturday morning threatened to put an end to this. We received 8+ inches of rain which contributed to I-290 being shut down for the first time ever due to the new river that formed beside it. In fact, our town was declared a disaster zone and received the highest rainfall in the Chicagoland area.

We and others on our block were fortunate to only receive a little minor water in the basement, unlike some friends who received much worse damage. But despite this rain delay, folks on our block decided to press on with the block party.

After a social breakfast, the main activity of the day was painting rain barrels. While I may have had a part in suggesting the activity, it was well-coordinated by another member of our block, who took some photos of the process. Those of us interested chipped in on paint and supplies ahead of time, and we ended up with 6 rain barrels painted by different families on the block. The kids got into the painting at first, but quickly lost interest when bubbles and water balloons started flying around, so the adults ended up completing the barrels.

For our part, we took one of our existing rain barrels and painted a playful underwater sea scene on it. Jen had some great inspiring artwork for a whimsical octopus, puffer fish, jellyfish, and more that she printed off in advance. We painted directly onto the barrel and protected it with a coat of polyurethane. We're thinking about installing our barrel off the garage beside the vegetable garden, where it can give a lot of life and color year-round.

Another fun activity I was in charge of was the Blender Bike. Our friend Jim works with the good folks at Working Bikes and loaned me an old exercise bike fitted with a DC motor that could power a lightbulb. It could also power an old school blender, so with a bit of ice and some Countrytime lemonade mix, the kids on our block got a first-hand feel for energy. I would have them pedal and get a good speed going on the exercise bike, and then flip the blender switch to on. They would immediately feel the "electrical load" and have to pedal much harder to keep it turning. It worked out great and with the heat and humidity, the kids lined up for an ice cold slushie! Especially the ones who were pedaling to power the blender.

The party really started a bit later, when I offered all the adults to make a slushie with vodka in it. Lots of takers for that!

I also brought out our baggo boards and had borrowed a really neat set from Chris to have a baggo tournament (with a 16-team bracket). This has become a good block party tradition. We had some good teams this year, and I think we'll do some seeding for next year's party.

Finally, I collected electronic waste (e-waste) from people as usual to take for proper recycling. There's a Green Fest in Elmhurst this weekend that will be a perfect drop-off.

We skipped the evening communal dinner in order to spend time with our niece and nephew, but I think the block party was great fun on an otherwise wet day. It's always great to come together and strengthen the community.

"On this shrunken globe, men can no longer live as strangers," Aldai E. Stevenson

Friday, July 23, 2010

Some Finishing Touches in Front

I can tell you one thing. Putting together a garden during a hot, humid summer day is no fun. So after the initial landscape was in place in the front yard, I took it easy. Off tangent thought... if there no longer is any grass, can it still be called a front yard? Hmm.

Anyway, after the busy weekend planning and planting the front garden, I wasn't about to subject myself to further heat exhuastion. So I have been subsequently doing a little work after the sun goes down each day (but before nightfall).

I planted an evergreen groundcover, and then made a trip to the local mulch pile. A few weeks ago, Chicagoland had a massive round of windy thunderstorms that resulted in many trees and branches falling down. Our city picks these up and runs them through a grinder to make mulch. These are stashed in a few locations, and they let residents come by and help themselves to as much mulch as they'd like.

So I went to get some. I really missed my old pickup truck for this trip, and instead had to lay down a tarp in the trunk of our economy car, backed it up to the pile, and shoveled away.

Frequently, this free mulch can get quite rotten, but with the fresh thunderstorms that had passed through earlier in July, the available mulch was actually quite nice. I made several trips over the last two weeks, and it was interesting how the quality varied. Sometimes there was really rough course mulch (shown above), other times it was very fine wood chips. But beggars can't be choosers!

So far three trips have been made, and I plan to make at least one more to establish a nice mulch base. And, much as installing trim in a room helps bring everything together, mulch really does help give the front yard garden a finished look. And hopefully with a bit more rain (and rainbarrel water) the plants will all get properly established before winter.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Surprise! A green landscape plan

Sometimes the best things evolve and happen organically. Other times they don't.

Our front yard had evolved organically over the past 5 years that we've been in Humphrey House, almost like a nursery rhyme, "here a plant, there a plant, everywhere a plant plant." And you know what? It wasn't working. In fact, it failed miserably. Even though people tried valiantly to help us, we had no clue about various plant sizes - placing things in a tight bunch, too close to the foundation, putting tall plants in front of short plants, sun plants in shady areas - if there was a list of bad DIY landscape plans, I felt certain we were on that list. Well, all that changed over the weekend as I finally set things straight.

With Jen leaving town for the weekend, I promptly set off to surprise her upon her return, and ripped out the existing hardscape timbers and dug up almost every existing thing in our front yard and put the plants into spare containers. The only thing that survived were the coneflowers Chris from TinyBungalow gave us a few years ago and our weeping cherry tree. This gave me a blank slate, with lots of dead ground to play with.

The plan for our yard started with a goal: Create a sustainable landscape. Great, but what does that mean? Well, a landscape that is more native (adapted) to the local climate - able to withstand Chicago's winters and dry summers without extra care. A garden that doesn't need extra watering beyond the natural rainfall we receive. And a landscape that would be more pervious and help absorb stormwater on-site rather than directing it to the overburdened municipal storm sewers. Additionally, native plants also are more attractive to wildlife providing food and cover for birds, butterflies, etc.

But there were many challenges to meeting this goal:

  1. Aesthetics - we wanted something with year-round interest that didn't look like crap.
  2. Shade - our parkway has a Norway Maple that provides dense shade - and few hours of sunlight. Most aesthetically pleasing drought-tolerant plants and flowers thrive in full sun.
  3. Maintenance - I like the idea of quarterly yard maintenance rather than weekly mowing.
  4. Budget - always a factor, which meant trying to use many materials we had on-site
  5. Size - while not huge compared to many, we are dealing with 2/3 of our front yard, about 400 square feet, which could definitely stretch the budget. We also wanted some good vertical height to transition to the porch.
One of the nice things about delaying a landscape plan until July is that you can take advantage of season-end sales, which really helps with #4 above. I visited no less than 5 garden centers and deals ranged from buy 2 get one free to 50% off or more. I even got a 1/2 gallon healthy goldenrod plant for $1 at Lowe's just by asking how low they would go!

Well, it all came together so much better than expected. Once everything was cleared out and placed into extra planting containers, I laid down some flagstone pavers that had been left behind under the back porch by the previous homeowners. With a hardscaped footpath in place, I then played around with arrangements with the existing plants such as evergreen boxwoods, along with some new plants I had picked up. Fortunately some of the local garden centers have a nice distribution line with American Beauties. No, that's not a link to some X-rated site, it's a native plant landscape supplier. Combining this with the selection at the big box stores and our existing plants, I grouped the plants together in odd numbers and got successful results.

So what did we do? Well, using advice from friends as well as a native plant specialist, I selected:The hardest thing to find was an ornamental grass that can perform in a part shade environment, on about 4 hours of sun per day. I was careful not to choose Chinese Silver Grass, as that is classified as an invasive plant species in Illinois. But with a bit of help, I was able to locate an ornamental that was actually labeled "Full sun to Part shade", a Miscanthus feather read grass strain called "Karl Foerster". These will be great because the grass dies off and provides a clump of winter interest. And potentially neat colors in the spring and summer. Right now though, there's not much to look at.

While I was working, several neighbors came up and remarked on how improved things look. Of course, anything is better than the dead lawn that was there for for months. I'm not entirely convinced the spacing is "just right" for everything, but we'll keep an eye on the plants and adjust as the year goes by. In the meantime, it's had a truly transformative effect on our home giving it style and a natural prairie setting to our neighborhood.