Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Urban Garden Challenges - shade, roots, and a cat

Across my back yard is a patch of dirt about five feet deep and twenty feet wide between my patio and a wall. When we moved in it was quite literally just a patch of dirt. Nothing grew there. The first year we tried to grow vegetables. The dirt was so poor, the tree roots from the maples that run across the back of the property so invasive, and the shade from the same trees so intense that we had very little luck. Last year, we put in three raised beds. This eliminated the problems of the roots and the poor soil, but not the shade problem. The perennial herbs, including sage, thyme, tarragon, chives, and oregano, did alright. The beans were pretty sad until they finally got high enough to find a little sun. The eggplant was a complete failure. Although that had as much to do with the squirrels as the other problems.


This year I had planned on growing some spring vegetables before the leaves came out on the maples and then annual shade flowers. The perennial herbs all came back, and my plan was to leave them for at least another season. Based on that plan I went out early last week with my little trowel and some seeds, very excited to have a few minutes to myself in the garden. The first dissapointment came when I realized how many tree roots had already invaded the beds. We expected this to happen eventually, just not after one season. The second, much bigger dissapointment came when I realized that my cat had spent the winter using all three beds as litter boxes. That's right. All three beds are full of cat poop, and, since I am pregnant, that means I really shouldn't garden there at all this season.

After a good cry (pregnancy hormones, a couple of sleepless nights with a sick baby, and this type of dissapointment are not a good mix), I started to think of alternate plans. For this summer, we are going to put shade-tolerant annual flowers in the beds. To be more specific, Adam is going to be putting flowers in there. The big question will be what we should do next year and in the following years. I see, at the moment, three options:

One, leave the beds as is and continue to grow flowers. Flowers care less about the roots than edibles, and there are many shade-tolerant flowers to choose from. This is the least labor-intensive option. It is also my least favorite option, because, as much as I love flowers, I am much more interested in growing edibles. Adam is the more passionate flower gardener.

Two, remove the raised beds, install an underground barrier between the beds and the trees, rebuild the beds. This is the most labor intensive option, and honestly I have doubts about the long-term effectiveness of the barriers. It seems to me that the roots would eventually find their way under the barriers and back up again anyway.

Three, remove the beds and replace them with a bunch of containers. This would eliminate the root problem entirely. We could plant perennial flowers in some of the pots and use others for early spring edibles followed by warm weather annuals. At least one of the raised beds could be moved to the front yard. The other two could be given away or used for other purposes, like coralling compost.

After discussing all this with Adam, it seems like we are going for option one. It is the easiest, and with baby number two coming in June that is an important consideration. In the next couple of years we will add raised beds to the tiny little front and side yards in order to grow more vegetables. The back will remain dedicated to flowers.


PS A few days after writing this, I took a closer look at the middle bed and realized that the cat hadn't completely befouled it. Yet. You will notice the bamboo skewers sticking out of the dirt all around the plants. I am hoping this will keep the cat out.


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