16 April 2012

mountain garden dreaming

Looking out my office window, I definitely see some green -- albeit the muted, winter green of the sea of pine trees we live in. But shift my gaze downward just a tiny bit, and it's all brown. A whole winter's worth of shed pine needles, brown grass, brown shrubs, brown leaves. It's easy to think back to a time, not so very long ago, when I somehow managed to grow a pretty wide range -- come to think of it -- of deliciously green edibles back on the tiny balcony of our place in LA.


Tiny strawberries...

Broccoli (and broccoli *greens*!)...



Loads of sun gold cherry tomatoes...


Cilantro by the handful...


And my favorite of all, snow peas...

This was probably my proudest ever day of gardening, and one of the most delicious...

Not that gardening was without peril, even in the city. There were many, many, many bird attacks, and a surprising array of bugs and caterpillars that made it awfully hard not to break out the chemicals, or the ladybugs.

But now, I am sooooo ready to start seeing more green again!

Back in the summer when we bought our house in Truckee (that's just north of Lake Tahoe in California's amazing Sierra Nevadas, for new readers), our little patch of mountain heaven was an explosion of green.

These days it's looking less, um, inspiring.

That bright green grass, though it's starting to make a re-appearance, is now more of the sad yellow-brown variety. Then and now...

And the front flower beds, though overflowing with greenery and flowers just a few months ago, wouldn't inspire much now. Then and now...

But, in exciting news, the daffodils that my dad planted in the fall, are starting to hint that they might make an appearance.

Last week...

Today, one additional week's growth...

Of course, I've got my eye on something bigger and better than flowers, pretty as they are, and as much personality as they lend to our lot.

I want food!

Fun facts about the growing environment here:
  • It can frost and get below freezing any night of the year, so the growing season for delicate edibles is very short (June to September, in a good year).
  • The Sierras are made of quartz-rich granite, in which not a lot of plants grow, so anything that looks like "dirt" is really just broken down granite with very little organic matter in it. That means: no topsoil. We only have a lawn because the prior owners put in topsoil and sod. Everywhere else, you can't just plant, and in fact, you can hardly even dig into it without a pick ax. (No exaggeration.) On the plus side, granite drains really well, so root rot is rarely an issue. (Not like the Wisconsin clay I grew up gardening in.) 
  • The big pine trees that make our lot and neighborhood so pretty also block most of the sunlight, making our lot more shady than sunny. 
  • It's very dry here. Weather and/or geology nerds may enjoy reading about the rain shadow phenomenon that absolutely affects us. It's amazing that less than ten miles to our west, the mountains get as much as sixty feet of snow in a winter, but over here, it's borderline desert. Technically we are the very western edge of the Great Basin, though we'd have to descend 2000 feet and travel 30 miles east to Reno to be in the basin itself.

So, if I want a garden, I can't just throw some seeds in the ground. We need to figure out a sunny spot on our lot (or make one), build an elevated garden bed with imported topsoil (plus side: at least then I can ensure it's organic and never had chemicals in it), start the seeds indoors so they have a fighting chance of surviving in the short summer, and then water like crazy. So what I gained in space by going from my tiny balcony garden to a real yard, I'm losing in terms of growing season length. But you know I'm still gung ho on the idea.

The best candidate for a garden plot is just beyond the edge of the lawn to the right of the house, if you're looking from the street. Unfortunately, that small pine tree is kinda in the way, either of the plot itself, or of the sun.

We know this general area can work as a garden, because our next door neighbors have their garden just a few feet away, and they had good success last year. But that darn pine tree just isn't in the right place. Fortunately, we have plenty of pine trees, so we can spare a few.  

This provides a better view of what we have to work with, which is to say: there is nothing here to work with. Hard, unworked ground, pine needles and even old fireplace ash piles (why anyone would put that in the flammable yard is beyond me). 

Though I'd love to have something like this...

Production Garden traditional landscape

... I will definitely settle for something simpler with no fence, terraces or multiple beds.

So that's my dream, but with no real plans behind it, we may be looking at another year of container gardening, or this may be a gardenless year.

Do you have any visions for gardening or landscaping this year? Any successes with container gardening that you can share? Or tips for working with a short growing season? I'd love to hear them all!

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  1. Oh the joys of winter. :) Everything in our yard is slowly turning green again too.

  2. I can't wait to see how this unfolds! I'm curious about mountain desert gardening as well. Breck averages around 30 days per year that don't dip below freezing at night, though that's just a statistic. I garden on my balcony in Denver but I'd love to learn how to take advantage of the additional space we have at our other house. I'm having a hard time coming to terms with the possibility of NO fresh veggies outside my doorstep!

    1. I will keep you posted! I have to remind myself to keep my expectations low, since this is a very tough climate for growing food. But lots of folks say it can be done, and I am determined to try! But it could totally happen that my only successes are herbs in our garden window (or, who knows, even those could fail!).

  3. I agree with Kate...cannot wait to see what you do! So much room...so much potential! Happy to see some green popping up!


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