Monthly Archives: June 2012

Foraging for Blackberries

Some years ago, a bird floating along the windstreams happened to leave behind a blackberry seed or someone living at what is now my home threw out a particularly sour blackberry or perhaps an unwanted bush over the fence. The result is that now the perimeter of my property is filled to bursting with the berry bushes.

Some seed long ago set the stage for its begotten blackberries to run rampant in the acreage around my home. Yum!

This morning Akira and I grabbed a tin pail and a pair of thick socks and work boots and went foraging for the berries, finally beginning to blacken after months of mouthwatering anticipation. As the week’s record heat pulled back today to a mere 87 degrees, I should have added long pants to that prep list. Instead, I’ll spend this evening adding Neosporin to  cuts up and down my legs. It was absolutely worth it, though. I don’t think I’d ever bring myself to plant a raspberry or blackberry bush within the confines of my fence, as the thorny devils can become quickly invasive. Living blackberry-adjacent, however, is a wonderful treat. (As I researched and confirmed my find once more, I stumbled along this treat about a similar discovery, and with a wealth of information for anyone concerned their find may be poisonous.)

After sampling our blackberry harvest, Akira returned her attention to moles, apparently a tastier treat for akitas.

It’s still a bit early yet, so my harvest only yielded about half a pail (a few more, really, as the dog and I sampled some along the way). I’m going to see about finding a creative way to pull the tops of the berry-heavy bushes closer without bushwhacking into the wily prickers themselves. In the meantime, I have some additional research to do. I’m thinking I have enough for a few small berry tarts – I’d love to hear any additional suggestions about tasty ways to enjoy this bounty.

Not a bad harvest for a wild treat.

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Built to Last

I learned recently that my mom’s side of the family uses my dad’s name as an adjective to describe a woodworking project that will last forever. I had to laugh when I heard that. My family is full of woodworkers. My step-dad, uncle, grandfather, now my husband … But my dad is also an engineer, and if he’s tackling a woodworking project, its one criteria is that it will still be standing after Doomsday. Simple, sturdy, and it gets the job done.

My dad has been building backyard structures for as long as I can remember. I had some pretty amazing tree houses as a kid – ramps, trap doors, windows, built-in shelves for my magic potions and swords, you name it. But a year and a half ago I asked for a special backyard project.

The Internet provided a wealth of arbor photos from which to draw inspiration.

“You know, for the wedding, I was thinking,” I said over the phone. “It would be kind of cool to have an arbor, to stand in front of when we say our vows. Do you think that’s something you could build for me, Dad?”

“Sure, no problem. Do you have a picture of what you want?” he replied.

I scoured the Internet and found a few samples of simple structures that I thought would frame my groom and I nicely.

Early sketches showed dimensions for the soon-to-be arbor.

Dad pointed out that most of these structures were built into the ground, whereas I hoped to move the arbor from beside the pond after we used it for the wedding. “So it will need some kind of platform to hold it steady,” he explained of his reasoning. He shared with me a few sketches of what he had in mind. With a glance at the numbers indicating dimensions, I assured him that whatever he planned was fine with me.

The early frame for the arbor indicated its future size.

My little brother sent me a photo of the structure as construction got underway. It was maybe a little wider than I had imagined … but I  had invitations to order and a baker to find and the arbor was the last thing on my mind at that point. I simply wished them luck with painting and thanked them both for tackling the project.

A few massive lag bolts assured this arbor wouldn’t budge once assembled.

About a week and a half before the wedding, the arbor arrived. It came in four pieces, in a trailer my dad’s friend towed behind his truck, and it took both of them to lift each slab and arrange it on my lawn. Once loosely assembled, and I’d given the official placement okay, my dad pulled out a handful of massive lag bolts and began screwing the sides together. “This thing isn’t going anywhere,” my dad assured me as he worked. My eyes might have widened a bit when I took in the scale and heft of this new addition. It was so big, so bold … all on its own, it transformed the yard. From the deck, where I watched the assembly, I felt that our backyard had suddenly become a destination. The arbor, with its clean, pure lines and crisp, white paint was something to admire from afar, yet someplace enchanting to sit and enjoy the sounds and views of the entire yard. It was more incredible than I ever could have imagined.

Once assembled, Dad stayed to repaint the wood, listening to the sound of the waterfall and occasionally chatting while the fiancé and I repainted the deck. Dad left me with a gallon of white paint that I had to wrench from his hand as he worried over whether he should come back and repaint it in a few days, to ensure the green wood wasn’t showing through three coats of paint. I couldn’t help smiling, appreciating that this was a responsibility he took so seriously.

A week and a half later, that arbor was very much the star of my backyard wedding.

I’m pretty sure Dad’s right; that arbor isn’t going anywhere. But I have designed what I consider my most genius backyard plan yet, which I hope to put in motion in a few weeks here; its ingredients include about a dozen men with strong backs, a box full of oriental lanterns and a dry creek bed. But more on that later…

…Now I just want to add that my earliest memory of creating a magical backyard space was helping my dad make one of these timeless structures. It was a swing set; the beam holding the swings attached to a raised platform that held aloft a homemade slide. I remember Dad had finished the platform for the slide first, before even the stairs, and I remember him lifting me over his head to sit up above the world while he worked on the steps. I felt like a princess trapped in the highest turret of her castle, but I was a princess with a hammer who got to bang each nail in the platform just a little bit further with all of my four-year-old strength. I remember being incredibly proud that I got to help my dad on such a special project.

It’s pretty comforting to know that old swing set, much like my new arbor, will  be standing tall, strong, ever there, come any misadventure. Much like my dad.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

The Rustic Bench

I wrote earlier this week that summer had arrived, as defined by the arrival of the hammock. Well, the garden has room for two more to relax now, as I’ve just completed my second woodworking project! This one was a bit more ambitious than my silly signs, although only by a bit.

The simple bench was built to blend in with the mulch and stone already in place around the pond.

Thanks to Wood Magazine’s “Best Ever Outdoor Projects 2012” special supplement, I finally feel my pond is complete. Never mind I need to remulch and the rocks are sliding slowly to the bottom of the pond; a place to sit comfortably and ponder the day’s plans was exactly what this pond was missing.

I love this little bench; super easy to assemble; low to the ground so that it nearly blends into the (slowly growing) landscaping; and capped by the beloved stone that my husband has promised (threatened?) to strew across the entire yard. I’ve made two already so far and love my little perches and the unique views they afford.

The princess of the pond surveys all in her domain from her favorite spot of late.

I dare say that’s the best part of adding seating to the garden. Every time I sit in a new spot I find I make some exciting discovery. I started to realize that when Akira was just a puppy. I’d take her outside and she soon found a favorite spot, on the mulch around one of the bigger trees. I’d sit out there and watch her become fascinated by a crawling spider, the wind catching the leaves overhead, or a particularly talkative squirrel. I’d watch her eating it all up with her big, brown eyes, and then I’d watch those things that fascinated her, appreciating them for myself.

Sometimes it pays to move a chair into the middle of the lawn to see what suddenly looks different; to turn left instead of right on a regular evening walk to see if your eyes turn to a different view; or to look up instead of at your feet as you hurry to another chore. That’s probably the best thing about gardening – you always have an excuse to stop and smell the roses!

It’s Officially Summer

I don’t care what the calendar says, as far as I’m concerned, today is the official start of summer. Why?  Let me show you:

“Summer breeze, makes me feel fine…”

Does anything scream “it’s summertime” louder than kicking back in a hammock and looking up at the trees? Possibly the only addition that could have made this afternoon more divine would be having one of the beverage stakes pictured in this month’s Better Homes & Gardens.

I’ve read many a gardener’s musings on the importance of taking time to sit and enjoy their hard work – tough for those of us who find ourselves constantly moving. I know I can barely make it down the front walk without stopping to pull an errant weed, never mind I’m in heels and late for work! One of the most beautiful parts of a garden, though, is the lulling sense of peace (perhaps exhaustion?) one feels on those perfect summer days, a hint of wind blowing the hammock and the sweet scent of a happily planted bouquet.

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”

I dare say we garden because of a love of beautiful things. Sometimes it’s easy to forget to step back and appreciate the beauty of what’s already there waiting for us. We creative types love to think we’re making a mark, rather than rearranging something already perfectly beautiful. Consider this a reminder to put down the trowel, pull of your gloves, and look up at something truly perfect.

Larkspur Update

C’mon, it was just a matter of time.

Summer Nights Delphinium is a clump-forming perennial expected to grow 4 to 5 feet wide and up to 2 feet tall.

I love the unique blue of this flower, and I think the gold of the creeping jenny makes the blue appear even richer.

Clockwise from front: Creeping Jenny, Summer Nights Delphinium, April Dawn Camellia, yellow knockout rose.

I ultimately settled on this location because I realized I had a perfect match for the larkspur’s blue. The creeping jenny may be relocating in the near future – I think the gold might really liven up and pull together the chaotic flowerbed beside my driveway.

The Lure of the Exotic

I was at Lowe’s yesterday to buy bolts for my latest outdoor project, and ever since then I’ve been stuck thinking about delphinium (commonly known as larkspur). I know that may seem unrelated, but I’m simply not capable of going to Lowe’s and not looking at plants.

The worst part is, when I got home  I realized somehow I nabbed one screw that’s a good inch too short for my project. I know I checked the lengths so the only logical conclusion is that I subconsciously decided to entrap myself in a return trip during which I would, of course, have to buy the plant that’s calling me.

Most people would have probably put this internal turmoil to rest yesterday by just plopping the plant in their cart and moving on. But you see, I’ve been trying to be good and budget my plant spending money over the course of months, not days. I’ve been trying to rearrange and improve the chaotic mess already in my yard rather than adding new heights and colors that don’t match anything and will ultimately end up in my “plant cemetery” at the back of the house. I’ve been trying to swap and steal plants from friends’ gardens rather than splurging on new things every time a flashy color catches my eye.

Blue delphinium provided a rich accent against white daisies, tulips and roses. Bouquet courtesy of Thompson’s Florist. Photography courtesy of J. Pool Photography.

But oh, delphinium! I have a special affinity for the blue variety of this flower since it provided the accent in my wedding bouquet. I had chosen for my colors royal blue and white; upon deciding the event would be held outdoors, I began to assume the day would be overcast if not full of thunder (only partly the case) and I wanted to have a rich blue represented somewhere in my photos, if it wasn’t to be in the sky. Blue is not a common flower color, but the delphiniums did the job most beautifully.

Cindy here knows what I’m talking about. How gloriously original this blue is! Hammelmans’ blog describes the flower as “carefree.” The HGTV blog notes that hummingbirds love these fragrant flowers (I stopped reading after that because it’s not helping my self-persuasion to know some varieties can reach 8 feet…).

But where oh where in my stunted flowerbeds will I put such a striking plant?

… I suppose there’s really only one way to find out …

A Creative Tangent to My Mint Adventure

Earlier this week I set a garden challenge for myself. I decided I would make some signs to add a bit of fun to my growing mint garden. Enamored of the idea, I quickly got to work.

My husband has become quite the woodworker over the last couple of months, and while he’s worked on constructing a masterpiece of a built-in shelf unit in our garage, I’ve happily played with the scrap lumber for my own somewhat less-ambitious projects. In this case, I nabbed a few scrap 1×1 pieces ranging from about 2 to 4 feet in length. For each piece, I used a miter saw set at a 45-degree angle to chop a sliver off the end, before turning the piece over to remove a complementary sliver from the other side, creating a point for my new stakes. Next, I laid my painting cloth out on the grass in a sunny spot, arranged the stakes side by side, and spray-painted them with a Rustoleum satin white. I gave them each several coats on all four sides over the course of the day.

While my stakes dried, I found a roughly 2-foot-long scrap of 2×4 pine and used the miter saw again to trim it down to 20 inches. Next, my husband gave me a hand with my first routing experiment. I’ve been fascinated by the tabletop router ever since he first brought it home and it’s the one tool where I’ve been encouraging him to go get new bits … so decorative! So fun!

Such a pain to use. It took forever to set the bit up properly and several test pieces before I found just the right pressure needed to trim my wood without taking divots out every few inches. Eventually I got it down, ran my sign through the router on all four sides, and surveyed the results. I had selected a bit that essentially shaved a shallow ledge around the sign, and I tell you, it really makes it. It gives it a framed look that I just love.

After I spray-painted the sign itself white and left it to dry, it was time for a bit of shopping. I hit up Micheal’s Arts & Crafts for stencils to help with my lettering. Most of what I saw seemed far too small, so I eventually settled on the Martha Stewart Crafts Monogram Serif Stencil Set. I liked that, being all caps even for the lowercase letters, I could use the lowercase set on my smaller stakes and uppercase on the larger sign.

I was thrilled to try out my stencils. I bought the pack of recommended stencil bristle brushes, a black and a green acrylic paint, and hurried home to play.

The result was not exactly what I had envisioned.

A few stencils, lots of paint and an impatient artist: ingredients for a muddled mess.

I want so very much to blame Martha for the poor results but, in truth, I suspect my own lack of artistic ability (or, as my husband insists with a snide grin, patience) is the reason I wound up re-painting my first stake three times. The problem with the stakes was that, given their narrow width, there was no way to tape down the wide cardboard stencils. As a result, no matter what brush type I used or where I applied pressure, paint leaked beneath the stencil and created a drippy mess. Finally, I gave up. Not on the project–just on its professional quality. I decided I would not let anyone get within five feet of the sign, hoping that from that distance the markers would appear merely whimsical … at least until I can bring a professional artist (oh dear readers, you know who you are!) on board to do touch-ups.

Although the message is clear, the paint on my muddling sign is a bit muddled itself.

The  sign went somewhat better than the stakes, because I was able to tape the letters down as I went, but the result is still not exactly perfect. And if I had had the patience (yes, I’m woman enough to admit it) to buy the stencils before playing with my beloved power tools, I could have measured the sign more appropriately. Instead I added a few decorative details to the sides to fill the white space. Once the paint had completely dried, I used a finishing nailer to attach the largest stake securely to the back of my sign.

As my mints take over the garden, I hope these signs near their origins will help me to determine which fragrant smell belongs to which mint.

So maybe my art project wasn’t exactly a smashing success–but it was tons of fun. And now when I mow, I have something to make me giggle as I round that corner of the yard.

But, more importantly, since devoting this side of my flowerbed to mints, I have discovered that my artistic talents may, in fact, lie in another area … It turns out that after a hard day’s work in the garden, the mojito is just the perfect finish! The only thing to improve on the refreshing drink, is a relaxing place to sit while drinking it–and admiring the fruits’ of one’s labor. More on that in a future post!