wildflower garden (with mistakes)

native lupine wildflower grown from seed (June 23, 2015)
The reason renters have such a stereotypical bad-neighbor reputation is exactly because they're not property owners. Unlike homeowners leasing house and land from a bank for the presumed long haul of a 15- or 30-year mortgage, renters have little incentive to invest in a property that isn't theirs—especially when landlords themselves provide the bare minimum of upkeep in their rental property (and yes, I'm thinking about the fences falling down in our yard). Why lay out expensive landscaping or replace fake-tile vinyl flooring and cheap carpeting with real tile and wood flooring or replace cheapo kitchen cabinets and old appliances (assuming a landlord would even allow such things), let alone spend hours and hours watering and weeding and mowing grass and trimming shrubs if you're just going to move in a year or two? Plus, it's assumed that a person who could afford such lifestyle upgrades in the first place would, duh, become a homeowner beforehand. So renters are usually a) poorer than homeowners and b) living short-term. The challenge then is how to put a personal stamp on a rental garden without spending much money.

wildflower garden at two months (late May 2015)

All winter I huddled inside in sweaters with the heat cranked up, watching pine needles fall onto the driveway. I'm only planning to live here as long as it takes to save up enough to build and site a tiny house. But come spring, the itch to grow something again—food and flowers—grew stronger than expected. Unfortunately, because of the garage thrusting out towards the street blocking eastern sun, the large pine tree in the front corner near the street blocking southern sun, and the neighbor's house blocking western sun, our most appealing garden plot is a small corner in the front yard that, though south-facing, only gets about four hours of direct sun per day. (The small backyard is north-facing and gets virtually no direct sun.)

After some discussion in March, my roommate friend and I bought two seed packets and three tomato starts. I wanted only cherry-sized tomatoes since in my experience those ripen best and fastest in Portland's typically short, unpredictable summers, but we compromised on one cherry, one Roma, and one Russian Black heirloom variety. In May, the tomato starts looked bigger but not much different than they did two months before during Spring Break when they were planted, probably from too little sun. By the end of June, though, the plants have grown huge, with green tomatoes swelling on the vine. We'd even sourced for free a few used (meaning slightly bent and a tad rusty) tomato cages discarded outside the Meldrum Bar Park Community garden. All together, we've each spent around $10 on the garden so far. How's that for frugal?

purple iris (May 2015)

The existing landscaping mainly consists of a long row of iris lining the west fence under and well past the big pine tree up to the front door. In May, the deep purple flowers (in a bluer shade of purple than pictured) provided a splash of color against the gray house and the often-gray sky. Sadly, I've never much liked iris or the color purple. I'd rather have a row of red tulips or bright-pastel Icelandic poppies or peach roses. But having iris is better than no flowers at all.

We did have at least one native plant already established in the garden, a pale-pink Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) that flowers in spring, growing against the shaded fence in the back side yard.

Yet I wanted even more flowers around without a big money investment, and so chose a mixed packet of "wildflower" seeds selected for the Pacific Northwest to attract bees and butterflies. All that was growing in that plot seemed to be weeds, anyway. While weeding, we realized the landlord had laid down an ineffective, soil destroying weed barrier cloth we ripped out. (Shh.)

However, after all the weeding and in our excitement to plant our tomatoes, heirloom zucchini, and wildflowers, we forgot the important composting step (oops). So we'll add some compost on top of the soil as mulch later on.

green tomatoes on the vine, Gladstone (June 23, 2015)

Twice, in late March and late May, we spent hours uprooting some kind of weed taking over the bed and suffocating the baby wildflowers. I can only hope it wasn't some native plant we would have wanted, though it really was taking over. It's hard to weed when you're not sure which plants are the weeds! As I tell my young Latino-American students learning English, a "weed" is really only a plant growing where we don't want it. How's that for relativity?

Part of my problem with local Northwest plant identification is that I didn't grow up in this marine valley climate but in the rain shadow of the Cascades in southeastern Oregon, a colder high-desert climate. For this reason, I've been trying to err on the side of caution when weeding, so we'll see what else comes up in the bed this summer. I did pull up a stinging nettle I should have let grow; I've since learned that nettles support various insects like ladybugs, as well as birds.

Another mistake when scattering the wildflower seeds was not first placing some stepping stones, which made subsequent weeding that much harder, trying not to squash the baby plants. So the second time weeding, we moved a few youngsters and yanked up three stepping stones from the side of the house to give us a place to stand while tending the garden—and picking tomatoes! Somehow the heirloom zucchini didn't come up at all, a whole packet and not a single plant. What's that about? I thought I'd seen one squash sprout poking up in April, but it disappeared—poof. At least there will be farmers markets for zucchini, one of my favorite summer vegetables.

blooming wildflowers seeded in March (June 23, 2015)

honeybee on (which?) wildflower (June 23, 2015)

But the wildflower seeds worked! Honeybees have been whizzing around the wildflower patch, dawn to dusk. The bees are most attracted to a lavender-colored, lightly fragrant plant I don't recognize at all. (Do you?) Why didn't I keep that empty seed packet?! When white butterflies flit by, my cat jumps up on the windowsill to track them, blocked by the screen. I did recognize the (native) California poppies among the plants that survived the weeding whirlwind, even before they bloomed, because I grew up with them. Our bed has white and traditional bright-orange California poppies in the mix. Crimson or Italian clover (Trifolium incarnatum), a nonnative clover species, and native lupine are now blooming. Most of the plants that have come up I figure must also be wildflowers because those leaf shapes weren't in the bed pre-intervention. I also recognize cosmos in there from my two years in South Korea—of all places, since cosmos are native to Mexico!—though they haven't bloomed yet.

wildflower garden at three months (late June 2015)

Our next-door-neighbor, whom we've caught whacking plants in our yard without asking, said when confronted about this that she "likes things tidy"—even apparently when they're not her things! I asked her if she'd like us to do the same in her yard. She said no. The old biddy must then hate our messy wildflower patch.

Miss C., a faithful churchgoer in her 80s who has convinced herself we renters will be burning the whole block down by building a firepit in the backyard, as evidenced by all the (free) wood piled up in the backyard (waiting there till my roommate builds a deck)—which I informed her is perfectly legal and none of her business—spends hours every day on her yard, sweeping, weeding, watering, or pruning, year-round, even in blustery cold weather—good exercise though rather obsessive-compulsive, even Sisyphean. She would also gladly chop down our big street-side pine tree if she could since it scatters needles and pine cones in her driveway all winter. She had already convinced a previous tenant to cut down one of our blue spruces, its four-foot stump still standing in the yard, while the remaining one is all hacked off on her side, lopsided as if bonsai-ed or growing on a windy coastline. So no, I'm not terribly fond of Miss C.

old neighbor lady on a ladder hacking away at our tree with a saw (June 2, 2015)

On my side, I resent that she just paid someone to hand-spray her dandelions with Roundup; but it's her yard and her right to poison it. And too much tidiness in a garden is actually bad for bees, birds, and other creatures that find food or shelter in dried stalks, dead trees (called snags when upright, logs when downed), or piles of brush. Rather than hours of (unnecessary) daily yard work, I'd rather spend my spare time watching birds, bees, and butterflies, and photographing flowers. It's all in what and how you choose to landscape. But that's just me. Call me crazy.

So here we have the tale of two gardens growing side-by-side: on one side of the low fence, a conventional, pretty suburban garden with many high-maintenance, nonnative species; heavy pruning and shaping; and regular chemical use (widely accepted by her generation). By contrast, our raggedy renter's garden-in-progress is the antithesis of homeowner Miss C.'s garden: function over form with nonconventional focus on native species as bee, butterfly, and bird attractions and avoidance of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. I suspect my voting ballot does about the same thing, existing merely to cancel hers out. The one thing we both agree on is wishing the large field across from us weren't slated for development.

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