the most weeds

July 28, 2014

This year’s garden is the biggest area I’ve ever attempted. And the most difficult land. And the most weeds. Not surprisingly, they quickly became more than I could manage. Even with hours of work, progress was slow–mostly because weeds grow back. They grew tall in places I’d yet to hoe and plant, creeping through vegetable seedlings, so invasive I feared disrupting the seedlings’ rooting process by pulling them out.

Crabgrass and field grass are resilient, and the rate at which they emerged told me that the garden had been plowed and tilled minimally, not enough to break up what had taken over those two years. These roots go deep and seem to spring back up in the spot they’re discarded.

At the beginning of June, I decided wood chips were the only solution. The woodchip pile was about 150 yards away, so I began lugging woodchips to the garden and spreading them–one five gallon bucket at a time. I realize that sounds a little pathetic (and impossible), but without a truck or a place to store a wheelbarrel, it was my only option.

After witnessing how arduous that method would be, I asked Jack for help. He brought a truck and we watched an afternoon pass loading and unloading woodchips from the truck bed and then laying them around the garden borders and between the rows. He even made a path at my insistence; I obviously like the outdoors, but I know better than to stomp through tall weeds (snakes!).  I worked more on my own later (we left a pile of woodchips at the garden’s edge) and covered the remaining area. The end result was ordered. It was beautiful.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetProcessed with VSCOcam with f2 presetphoto 1 Within two weeks, though, the weeds crept through our work. I redid it—all of it—scraping the chips off with a hoe, laying down newspaper, pouring water over the top to help the newspaper stay down, and covering that with woodchips. Again, I realize that this may seem like overkill, but after the time I’d already invested, I didn’t want them to take over, stealing the nutrients my vegetables needed.  This took me almost twice as long, especially since I somehow chose to work on the windiest days and often found myself chasing newspaper across the garden or standing in stretched stances, trying to hold the newspaper down while I reached for water jugs.

photo 1 photo 2photo 5When Alyssa visited, she helped me cover the area around one of the corn rows; I never went back and finished the other row. When I told my dad about my plan at the beginning of July, to re-cover everything, he said that the time of the summer, the weeds would outmatch my hoeing stamina.

I knew he was right; it was more work than I could do, so I tried ignoring the grass creeping through the woodchips and the weeds in the untended area growing taller and taller, slowly moving in, threatening to swallow my plot. photo 4 photo 5Now the surrounding weeds stand to my waist; in different places and varieties, taller. Weeds poke through any inch I missed with newspaper and woodchips, trained to find a spot through which to sprout.

I am embarrassingly behind on blogging, so much so that it might be time to consider the purpose/usefulness of this exercise. Part of the truth is, I think, this: I spend so much time in the garden that there isn’t time to write about the garden. I bit off more than I ever have this summer–but I’m glad. In the interest of getting caught up (more) quickly and getting to some super cool stuff that’s happened lately, I present you an abridged version of May’s garden happenings.

photo 4While having the garden plowed and tilled was certainly helpful (and absolutely necessary),  I missed the fine, almost black soil I worked with in the Lawrence community garden, that I could work up in a few afternoons.  The soil in the new garden was either packed flat from heavy rain, broken up in chunks, covered with dead/dying weeds or some combination of the three. I have to work each potential row or bed multiple times to even have a chance at producing anything.

I spent an afternoon hoeing and planting my usual spring stuff, though it was a little late. I planted kale, spinach, lettuce, chard and some flower seeds. I watched them try to break through. And though some of it did, none of it did very well. You can see seedlings in the photo below, trying to creep through the cracks.

At this point, I’d used about 1/4 of the space I’d marked off for my plot, and felt discouraged about how/if I’d have the energy to make use of the rest.

I also missed the people from the community garden, and this was after only a few afternoons there alone. It felt like such a shame to have so much space and not to share it. photo 4The pastor mentioned that members of the church might be interested in gardening too, especially once someone else had shown interest. Initially, I was modest in my land acquisition, but when no one came, I expanded.

I started inviting friends. It serves both my purposes: I can get help with the large space AND I have friends there with me. As a third, ulterior motive, I can (hopefully) get someone else excited about growing stuff.

Aside from Jack, I first invited friend Madison to garden on a Sunday afternoon. Her grandparents suggested that she plant tomatoes with a gallon jug in the hole. You drill a hole in the bottom and fill the jug with water. This should create a slow, steady release of water. Sister Alyssa helped us.

Not only was Madison’s water jug idea smart, but she came prepared: with topsoil and a shovel. I have to admit, this hadn’t crossed my mind and initially, I thought topsoil was cheating. But then I saw how perfect the soil was, how it would give the plants’ roots a fighting chance. I planted my own tomato plant the same day, feeling guilty for sticking it straight into the dry dry ground.  I didn’t even own a shovel, which is pretty pathetic for a gardener, though I have since received one for my birthday from Jack. It was an excellent birthday gift.  I’ve also since caved and bought topsoil; it helps the seedlings get better established.

photo 1 photo 3(1)

Next, came corn. It’s super hearty/tough (accounting for the garden’s less than ideal soil conditions) and it takes up a lot of space (making good use of the big space). For this, I recruited Jack and his younger sister Amelia. When inviting people to garden, I worry that they’ll hate it, that they won’t enjoy digging and hoeing and sweating, and so I try to do the strenuous tasks, leaving them with the fun stuff, the planting, the watering. But so far, everyone has wanted to do the hard work. Amelia even said she might plant some stuff of her own, which I am obviously in favor of.  After a few hours, we had two long rows of corn planted. Judging by the photos, Jack and Amelia are happiest when working in unison.

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4I’ve done a ton of planting since these photos, and I’ve decided it’s time to move from the expansion phase into the maintenance phase. Sadly crabgrass (and lots of it!) is moving in. But, I’m working hard, happily, and I’ve got a plan. We’re also to the garden “tour” portion of the summer (if you can call it a tour).  Already, I’ve had friends come see it and I have more coming next week. I make Jack observe its progress weekly.  I love it. I get to say Hey, this is my summer. This is what I do.

After not gardening in Moscow–with the exception of a some spinach seedlings I grew and then promptly abandoned on my trip home for Christmas–I knew I had to find a KC garden. To most new friends here, I said things like “I hope I find a new garden” and then I’d smile and shrug. To boyfriend Jack and older friends I’d say “I need to find a garden.” And they’d nod and say “I know.”

I experience this thing called fear. Sometimes it manifests as anxiety. Sometimes it’s a painful combination of the two. Though I welcomed spring’s arrival–embracing the close of what was honestly the longest winter of my life (it’s quite amazing how surviving a Russian winter and not experiencing a sweltering Midwestern summer can make it seem like you didn’t have summer at all. It feels like the last 20 months have been winter)–I feared that spring would come without me having found a place to make things grow.

I became fearful and anxious that I would not find a garden. It was a troubling paradox–hurry spring! but hold off until I’m ready! Jack suggested we pray, that I ask for one. And so, even though it felt selfish, I did. I was never taught to ask for things I wanted, but instead to pray for improved health, to pray for a resolved conflict.

Multiple friends in the KC area offered to let me garden in their backyard; however, I go to the garden almost daily, and therefore, needed something close to me, in the Northland, something I could be at in five minutes.

Though there weren’t many options near me, I obtained contact information for a few. I got on the list for the most promising one at the end of February, and the woman I spoke with said she was pretty confident that they’d have space for me. She’d let me know in April. My fear subsided. Hurry spring!

When I hadn’t heard anything by the double digits of April, I called. She was direct: “We’re out of plots, and you’re way down the list. We definitely won’t have space for you.” I protested a little, but mostly, I was shocked. And hurt that she hadn’t told me in enough time to find a plot at another community garden. I will not make her the villain of this story, though I’m tempted.

I moped around a bit and then started frantically calling other places on the list. No one at the YMCA ever called back. But, when I called one of the church community gardens, I had the following conversation:

Lady: “Oh, well we’re not actually doing the garden this year…”
*Heart sinks further*
Lady: “…so you can actually have the whole space.”
Me: “Wait, really? The whole space?”
Lady: “Yeah, we’re not using it.”
Me: “Do I have to maintain the whole thing or just the area I need?”
Lady: “You can just use whatever space you want.”
*We discuss logistics like tilling and water, etc. It hits me that this makes absolutely no sense*
Me: “Wait, are you serious? You don’t know me at all. This is like really, really nice of you.”
Lady: “Well, we’re not using it so if you want to put it to good use, it’s yours. Just call the pastor and tell him that you’ve already spoken with me, and that I said it’s okay.”photo 1

I met the pastor the next week, and he showed me the space. The garden is up on a hill in the middle of a field, surrounded by a fence because deer are a problem (more on this…). The church has 40 acres, so despite being easily accessible and close to a major road, it feels secluded, set apart.

He said he was embarrassed, that no one had used it last year and so everything had grown over.  And it was; the grass had grown up and died and the fence was mostly down. He asked how much space I’d want, and I felt conflicted–excited about the possibility of having it all but recognizing my limits and also not wanting to seem greedy. With the exception of a donation for water, he said, it would be free. He said that maybe others from the congregation would want to use it, too. They could find someone who would plow it, but I’d have to figure out the tilling. I imagined what prep work I’d have to do to get it ready.

I told him I’d take it. That night I researched renting a tiller or hiring someone to till it for me. This was totally doable, totally worth it. I wouldn’t get to plant as early as I’d hoped, but I’d be going within two or three weeks.

The next morning, the pastor called at 11 am and left a message; it had been plowed and tilled. It was ready. I could start planting whenever I wanted. photo 2


Sunday I secured my spot in the group of 20-and-30-something-year-old wannabe/amateur interior designers who dream of the home office that fits their aesthetic and the kitchen that makes up for its lack of counter space by employing shiny hooks and shelves that hang from the walls.

I’ve finally been to IKEA, though I went all the way to Moscow to do it.

My brain is inundated with images of innovative bookshelves, lavender coffee tables, and slender filing cabinets. I don’t know what my perfect bedroom looks like yet, but you can be certain that I’m brainstorming, drawing floor plans, subscribing to the IKEA catalogue.

I wandered the display rooms, pictured myself drinking cups of tea on various couches and baking cookies and homemade bread in all the kitchens. I envied Zooey Deschanel for going there with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the way they tested beds and stoves, and plotted their theoretical home.

Since getting to Russia, I’ve been pretty darn resourceful. In my temporary apartment, I made it a goal to buy as few things as possible, because I didn’t want to move them to a new place. So, I bought foods that could be eaten for every meal—rice, bread, fruit, eggs, cheese—and when home, I ate basically only those things. I saved plastic bags, which are surprisingly useful for keeping your passport/visa sweat-proof and rain-proof in your sports bra when you’re out for a morning jog.

Though it’s only been a few days, I love my new place. It is sunny sunny sunny. The doorways inside the apartment have arches (which almost everyone comments on). It’s only four metro stops from work. I live on the fifteenth floor, which is awesome, and like all Russian apartments I’ve seen, there are three levels of security—a magnet-key gets me in the front door, a gate gets me into my side of the fifteenth floor, and then I unlock my door. No one can get to me. There is a huge, beautiful park (photos to come) across the street and I can see it out of my window.

But since I’m still settling in here, I’ve still had to be resourceful. While I had furniture, sheets, and a few kitchen items the first few days, I didn’t have many basics. Example: On my first night here, I didn’t get home from work until 8:45 because I had to stop at this quasi-mall to buy a towel for showering and then go to the grocery store. After getting yelled at by the Russian cashier for not knowing the word she used for “bag” (it was different than the one I knew), I rode the metro to my stop. I bought eggs for dinner, but once home, I realized I didn’t have a skillet. I did, however, have a pot. So, I had salad with hardboiled eggs.

Maybe that’s not a big deal, but at the end of a day where I moved into my new apartment, went to work, negotiated with the towel lady using only hand gestures and “yes” and “no” in Russian, got yelled at by a Russian cashier, and realized that I didn’t have the main cooking instrument I had planned on using for the dinner I was hungry for, it felt pretty damn resourceful to make a legitimate meal and not just eat chocolate and crackers (I’ve found some REAL tasty Russian crackers) for dinner. The next day, I bought fruits and vegetables from one of the many outdoor vendors and made essentially the same meal. And it was great. One new friend from work gave me extra dishes from her apartment—a few bowls, some mugs, and a lovely Russian tea set. And that was just really nice and it definitely made it easier for me to eat meals here.

I like being resourceful, but I also like hanging up my blazers and frying eggs in a skillet, so two of my friends took me to IKEA. There I was daydreaming. And then, like I assume happens to many 20-and-30-something-year-old wannabe/amateur designers in complete awe of IKEA, I remembered that I am a 20-something-year-old. And that I am renting an expensive, tiny one-bedroom apartment in Moscow, Russia. And I remembered that the 56cm x 70cm x 19cm space in my bathroom would certainly not hold the iron shelf I liked so much. And I realized that in order to implement all the design ideas I had rolling around in my head, I would surely need a mansion. And that anything I buy here—even if it is a dark red nightstand I love dearly—will likely stay in Russia when I go back to the States.

So I got real. I still oooh-ed and aaah-ed at every perfect display room. And I wondered how awesome it must be to be an 8-year-old with a tree house for a bedroom. But I made sure everything I bought had a purpose. And I used the paper ruler they provided and I measured things. And I paid attention to price tags and got out my phone to divide the ruble amounts by 32 to see about how much it was in dollars.

A new friend here claimed that it was impossible for a trip to IKEA to take less than two hours; he suspects this is the reason IKEA has a cafeteria. I nodded politely, as Midwesterners do, and thought “He hasn’t seen me shop.” I hate shopping and so I shop quickly. My ideal shopping day is going to the Gap with Katie W or Clare E, buying the one item I need, and then getting out of there. Thirty minutes tops. So, I thought I could do IKEA quickly, not thirty minutes quick, but quick. How wrong I was; we were there for at least 2.5 hours, and I think I enjoyed every minute of it.

When I saw that I spent 6,173 rubles, I sort of freaked out. But then I realized that was only about $200 and for everything I got, it seemed pretty good. I bought picture frames and a bulletin board. And two plates, one bowl, and two glasses. I got Tupperware, three small cooking utensils, two skillets, pot holders and some kitchen towels. And I needed something for the bathroom so I found these plastic drawers and bought these little boxes in which two pairs of shoes fit perfectly. I bought wooden hangers. And I assembled a metal closet/rack thing in a dress, using a knife with some remnants of a hardboiled egg as a screwdriver.

Can someone please send me a screwdriver?

Kara Bollinger, M.A. writing you directly from the bright, lovely state of Kansas. I defended my thesis with zero hang ups. I didn’t even need the nerf gun I had stashed under the table. After writing my thesis for two semesters, I’m able to intelligently talk about it to a group of professors. Hells bells, imagine that.

After spending Tuesday defending and celebrating, I did garden things Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. If this surprises you, well…um…that’s weird. Four days of work means there’s a lot to tell you. But mostly photos.

Wednesday I discovered I was tired. Sometimes I finish something major, and then I crash. Or get sick over Thanksgiving break because it’s the only time I have time to be sick. I think this happens to most people. Anyway, I realized this on Wednesday, my busiest-on-campus-all-day-long-no-breaks day. I didn’t want to build a pea trellis that day, but garden mate Clare and I had already decided we would.

Building stuff in the community garden is a fun puzzle where you find whatever scraps are around and then create something out of it. It hasn’t not worked yet. Clare already had a general plan of how we should build the trellis. And after a bit of brainstorming, we had one. Again, like last year’s trellis friend Justin help me build, it’s very One Hundred Acre Woodsy. I love it. It’s not that tall yet, but in a few weeks when I’m antsy with free time, I’ll add to it.

I also took some photos of things growing, because they are my favorite before they grow up.

Baby kale.

Baby bok choi.

The pretty mixed greens.

Though the day was hectic and I still had a softball game to play that night at 10 pm(woah!), I felt so much better when I left the garden, as I always do.

Much like the compost in the fall, the city of Lawrence sells mulch in the spring, so on Thursday garden pal Nic and I went and got a truck bed full. I don’t have much to tell you about this except that 1) getting mulch has been my personal goal all spring because the weeds around my plot are getting real crazy 2) it sorta sprinkled the whole time which gave the whole loading/unloading mulch thing a new level of intensity and 3) I really enjoy doing things that oppose gendered norms (ie girls aren’t supposed to be good at unloading mulch). Take that masculinity/femininity.

On Sunday, I worked in the garden for almost 2 full hours. *Sings “Glorious” in high pitched annoying voice* I invited my students to come to the garden. We’re reading Michael Pollan’s  The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s also at the point in the semester where they decide they really need extra credit, so…I offered them a few extra credit options related to the book, one of which was coming to the garden and writing about it. Another option is to write about the Farmer’s Market. This morning one of my students asked if I knew how to cook swiss chard; he bought some at the market. After I spouted off a number of spices he could use and what he should serve with it, he said “Oh. So you definitely know how to cook it.” Best teaching moment of the day. I know I’m supposed to teach them English and not how to garden or eat locally, but can’t I do both?

Though I had six or seven students excitedly tell me they were going to come to the garden, no one showed up initially! I was a little bummed, but then…when we were almost done working, one student showed up. Faith in humanity restored. We planted okra, popping corn, and put down a bunch of mulch to keep the weeds out. Today I told my students that I cried myself to sleep in a bed of spinach because of the low turn out…and they thought that was hilarious.

The crying thing isn’t true, though. I’ve never cried in a bed of spinach. Sunday evening garden time makes me feel sunny and smiley and worn out and like it was all worth it. It might be my favorite of the week. Our attempt to be at the garden at the same time at least once a week is working out well. There were eight of us there, and not only did we get a lot done, but we also got to chat/brainstorm/laugh/smile. There were also salted caramel cookies.

**I realize I skipped Friday. A third guest gardener is on the way.**

all about garden mates.

January 26, 2012

You might remember a few posts (and months) ago when I wrote about digging sweet potatoes.

You might also remember Amelia, my garden mate from summers past. She’s all over this blog.

I mentioned this in the sweet potato post, but Amelia moved to Omaha in July. While I now get to live in her very, clean and well-taken care of old apartment (which I love), it means that I have a garden plot all to myself this growing season; I’m worried that’s going to be lonely.

Side note: I have a super secret plan for avoiding this loneliness, I just haven’t executed it yet.

Since she was in Omaha when I dug the sweet potatoes, I’ve been saving them for her next visit. I devoured mine pretty quickly and have been eying hers…but luckily she came to town a few weeks ago with her BF Martin. We caught up over Sport Tea at the Pig and I delivered her sweet potatoes.

As the photo indicates (even though I’d accidentally chopped some of them into pieces with the shovel), she and Martin were very happy.

Also, a super special shout out to Elaine Mohr. Amelia said you’d like this.

A couple of weeks ago, I got to churn butter.

Right now, you’re either wowed because: 1) I got to churn butter or 2) I am a 24-year-old and I am excited about this.

Well, for those of you falling under #2, I was not just excited, I was real excited. Be wowed.

It’s always refreshing when someone gives you a gift that says “Hey–I totally get you.” Though my family/friends always get me cool things, Aunt Sandy (of green beans via the USPS fame) and Uncle Kevin gave me that “I totally get you” gift this year.

After I had opened all my gifts and everyone else still had presents left (I’m not sure how I let that happen…), Aunt Sandy said that I had one more present that she had forgotten to wrap.  I thought it was going to be a Carhart sock cap because I had made such a big deal about NYC hipsters wearing Carhart sock caps and totally re-appropriating our Midwestern-ness, but when she handed the present to me, though, it was cold–definitely not a sock cap.

It was a Mason jar full of fresh cream. Uncle Kevin buys eggs from a local farmer. Recently, the farmer gave Uncle Kevin a jar of cream and Aunt Sandy got to churn butter. Now this farmer saves cream for Uncle Kevin and when he gave him this jar so close to Christmas, Uncle Kevin thought  “This is just perfect for Kara.” And it was.

Luckily, Grandma Pat’s house is a veritable antique mall, so I had my pick of butter churns. Actually, I just used the one she said to use because she knows best.

Grandma and Aunt Sandy gave me three instructions: 1) let the cream get to room temperature before churning [Aunt Sandy didn’t do this and she churned butter all day] 2) just when it seems like it will never become butter, you will start to see yellow flakes 3) rinse the butter off…but not with soap. They also promised me it would be fun.

One afternoon, friend Patrick (of STL guest gardener fame) came over to my parents’ house and we churned butter. Most people would either think a) that I was weird/a loser or b) that I meant something dirty by that, but he didn’t. He’s cool like me.

And now…mostly photos. There’s not a lot to explain really…we took turns churning and taking photos.

We also chatted and drank coffee and let my parents’ outside cat into the house.

After about 35 minutes, we started to see yellow flakes/blobs/stuff.

Regarding butter color/yellow-ness: Grandma Pat said that the butter would be more yellow in the summer when the cows were eating different things (grass, corn, etc). The chicken farmer said they are just eating hay right now. I think the butter is super yellow in some photos (and not others) because Patrick’s iPhone is newer/has a better camera than my iPhone.

We weren’t sure if more churning would mean more butter, but after another 15 minutes, we decided to stop.

Then we rinsed the butter off and put it in a bowl.

At this point, Patrick became very concerned about determining what kind of milk the leftover milk was. He did some research: skim milk. We strained the little pieces of butter out of it using a broken reusable coffee filter my dad probably kept because he knew I would one day need it while churning butter, and then let the milk sit for a few minutes. We skimmed the stuff off the top and tried it. The verdict: just like skim milk.

We tried the butter. Wonderful.

When I got back to Lawrence, I shaped the butter into a cow, much like they do at the Iowa State Fair. But I didn’t want to be a show off here on the internetz, so I just smashed the butter cow and put it in a Mason jar. It’s in the fridge.

If you weren’t sure before, I can now confirm that being real excited about churning butter is totally normal. It is cool and fun. Be wowed.

Christmas and such.

December 21, 2011

Christmas and gift-giving/receiving are cool, but shopping is kind of annoying. Especially at the big stores. I really don’t like those monster-sized displays that are all glittery and say some clever slogan about the holidays. I also hate how around this time of year companies just make up weird stuff that people don’t really need. Has anyone ever really mastered those crazy yo-yo things they sell in the mall? And who has ever wanted to pay for bubblegum out of a machine in their own home?

Living in Lawrence allows me to isolate myself from this, which I like quite a bit. I shop downtown on my way to/from working at coffee shops usually. I only go into the stores I like, shopping little by little until I have everything. This is fun because I get to go to the places I like, and I have a legitimate excuse to buy stuff. For example, every year (for almost all occasions), my sister Alyssa (who just got back from London-hooray!) gets something from Wonderfair. I’m not worried about writing this here and her seeing it, because it’s a pattern I’m sure she’s already picked up on.

My friends and I don’t buy each other things very often because we are graduate students and don’t have any money. Or we do something together and let that count as a Christmas present–for example, best friend Molly and I have pretty much got the next few birthdays/Christmases taken care of with all the concert trips we’ve taken. If someone does buy you a gift, you have to buy them a gift, etc, etc, and this huge chain starts that can get hard to keep up with.

However, this year my friend Rachel (of Smachos fame) said she was going to make me a gift. Everybody’s getting all crafty here in Lawrence, KS. So, I decided I’d make people something, too. I wanted to do something garden-related but realized that if I gave people something from the garden in December, it would likely be very dead tomato plants or dirt. I have few friends who would be happy to receive dirt.

What I decided on involved buying Mason Jars, so I was sold. 

I made some friends chocolate peanut butter. It’s essentially the easiest thing ever: roast peanuts, chop/blend them, and mix with melted chocolate.

Other friends got homemade granola. Though I tried a few different formulas, I found this combination to be practically perfect: oats + molasses + oil + unsweetened coconut + craisins + apples + cinnamon. I think molasses might be my new favorite thing.

And what homemade gift did I receive from Rachel?, you ask. It’s real cool. And totally blog related (which is mostly why I’m writing this. I’m also writing this because I did something uncharacteristic recently and got an iPhone, so now I can take super hip photos. I kinda just want to show off how awesome those Mason jars look). She painted the canvas in the photo to say “Watered Love.” I just think it’s great. And the colors are my favorite–brown and green. Our presents matched each other, which was also just great. I’m still choosing the perfect spot in my apartment.

Disclaimer: if you are my friend and you didn’t get chocolate pb or granola, it does not mean I don’t love you. It just means that we haven’t seen each other or that I didn’t think you’d care about granola. I’m almost certain I still love you.