Archives for category: good enough

My second least favorite garden activity: Digging holes in our rocky, clayey soil. (Long-time readers of this blog know what my least favorite garden activity is; new readers can look at January 7, 2012 for a clue.) Unpleasant as it is, I have to face up to it if I want to be ready in time to plant summer squash and cucumbers over the Memorial Day weekend. More specifically, I need to start digging if I want to plant them in a different place from last year.

And I do want to plant them in a different place. Most gardening experts advise rotating crop locations every year. Moving vegetables in the same family around the garden helps protect them from insects and diseases that can hunker down in the winter and lie in wait for the new season’s plantings. Given our problems with cucumber beetles, aphids, bacterial wilt and powdery mildew, it is worth the effort.

Many sources advise a four-year rotation. Because crop rotation also helps balance demands on the soil (heavy feeders one year, light feeders the next), the suggested schedule sometimes includes a season of so-called green manure (peas, buckwheat, winter rye, alfalfa) to replenish nutrients or a cover crop to stifle weeds. I love the concept even if we cannot afford to lose any planter space to vegetables we do not plan to eat.

Any separation of the rotating groups is beneficial but to be maximally effective, there should be as much distance as possible between the individual planting areas. I’ve seen recommendations of up to a quarter-mile. That sounds good for large-scale growers but a quarter of a mile from my garden is practically in the next county. We’re very limited by the space available to us.

So we do the best we can. We have two raised planters and each year we alternate what goes into them. Last year, we planted cucumbers behind the west planter; this year, we will move the cukes to a similar location behind the east planter. And after laying out a dozen mounds for squash, we only dug and planted half of them last year, in a staggered arrangement. This time around, we’ll plant the other six. The separation is not huge but it’s not zero, either.

Which leads me back to the digging. It’s not my favorite activity but when it is done, the garden will be in a better state (and I shouldn’t have to do it again next year).

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Here’s another thing that can happen when tomato plants extend too far beyond their supports:  A far-reaching branch will develop a cluster of fruits which, as they enlarge, weigh down the stem and eventually exceed its capacity.  Sometimes the branch will break (and down it will fall); other times it will kink (what as a structural engineer I would call plastic deformation).

The latter has occurred with multiple branches of the apparently hapless Country Taste beefsteak tomato vines.  Despite their bad luck, they continue to grow enthusiastically.  Or perhaps it is the other way around.  Because of their unbridled expansion, they are experiencing mishaps directly associated with their size (see also August 13, 2013).  In other words, they are growing too much for their own good.

The beefsteaks are not the only ones.  In fact, all of the tomato vines have extended upward and outward from their cages.  Each now trails across the top of the adjacent cage to either side of its own.  The plants at the ends—the aforementioned Country Taste to the west, the Sungold cherry tomatoes to the east—have no cage to one side.  Consequently, their outer branches spill over and downwards, most of them kinked but not broken.

It puts me in an awkward position.  I had vowed to keep the tomato vines in control by careful pruning.  I have clipped the main stems and nipped the suckers on an almost daily basis.  But at some point in the last week or so, the vines sped past me during a moment (okay, maybe it’s a day or two) of inattention.  And now, not only are the vines very long, they all support several ripening fruit as well.  To cut the vines off at this point would mean losing a large part of our crop.

So I’ll adjust my approach.  On the longer stems, I will prune beyond the last cluster of fruit even if that means abandoning some blossoms.  For the vines that remain (and there a lot of them), I will do my best to support them from as many cages as necessary (without allowing the whole works to topple over).  We’ve ended up with a tangle of stems and leaves—the very condition I was trying to avoid—but at least we’ll maintain a good supply of tomatoes for the next few weeks.

And that, of course, is the whole point.  Our tomato harvest has really only just begun.  And the Country Taste beefsteak plant is looking to become the biggest producer.  We’ve already picked a couple of beauties—large, round, dense—and will be having them tonight for dinner.  Finally, a BLT.

Anybody keeping track of what’s going on in our garden (and everybody’s keeping track, right?) may have noticed:  No herbs!  (Not counting the basil, of course.)

Why?  Well, for one thing we got a late start with our indoor growing.  Herbs like thyme, oregano and sage, which take a long time to germinate and slowly develop to transplantable size, are best started in early January.  We didn’t plant our first seeds until the end of March (see March 24, 2013).  At that time, we were more concerned about tomatoes, cucumbers and squash than additional herbs.

Since then, with everything else we have been doing—planting, watering, nurturing, potting up, setting out; oh, and removing sod and placing cedar mulch—there just hasn’t been time.  Whenever we stopped to consider planting the herbs, we always concluded that there was something else more pressing that needed to be attended to first.

And there is also the question of where to plant them.  The adjunct herb garden of last year (on the concrete stoop outside one of our house’s doors) is no longer easily accessible.  My office is located just inside the door and my desk blocks it from opening.

The corner of the back porch, where we grew herbs two years ago, is now occupied by a bright yellow hibiscus plant in an intensely deep-blue ceramic pot (a gift from a friend; thank you!).  We tried placing a pot or two of basil beside the hibiscus but decided that it looked too busy and detracted from the flowers’—and the pot’s—simple beauty.

Meanwhile, at the other side of the house, several existing herbs from years gone by are staging a modest comeback.  Two of them—chives and oregano—we planted several years ago and left for dead after their first season; they’ve returned every year since.  Another three—thyme, tarragon and sage—we transplanted from the pots they grew in last year.  This spot, in partial shade all day, is not ideal for herbs but apparently it is good enough.

So, that’s where we’ll grow our herbs this year.  To fill out the space, we added spearmint and rosemary, the only plants we’ve purchased so far this season.  We would have transplanted our spearmint and peppermint from last year, but neither of them survived (which is odd because I consider mint an aggressive and invasive herb).  Finally, we nestled two pots of basil (ones we couldn’t give away) in among the other herbs.

This herb garden makes a pretty picture and, if it is successful, will be much more convenient to the kitchen.

Both the east and west planters are now completely occupied but we’re not done for the day.  This year we are thinking (and moving) outside the boxes and planting vegetables directly in the ground.

Yesterday, we removed the sod (see May 26, 2013) from the now-sunny area west of the west planter and covered it with mulch.  Today, we laid out the locations for the six mounds on which the squashes will grow.  A week ago, we had figured three-foot-diameter mounds spaced at three feet on center (see May 19, 2013) but looking at my sketch today, I noticed that I didn’t leave any walking space at the far end.

As I reconsidered the layout, I realized that because we are staggering the mounds, they can be spaced closer together.  We adjusted the west walkway from 2’-0” to 1’-9” and the spacing from 3’-0” to 2’-9” and were able to gain 1’-9” at the west end (I find the symmetry to be pleasantly reassuring).  This will be very helpful because the grade drops off steeply just beyond the garden area.

We extended a measuring tape along the ground longitudinally to form a baseline and then used a carpenter’s rule to measure the offsets in the short direction.  At the center of each mound, we pounded in a wooden stake.  After setting each stake, we checked our spacing both longitudinally and diagonally (we calculated that each mound should be about 3’-10 1/2” from its kitty-corner neighbor) and everything checked out.

When we got to the end, however, the final dimension looked a little short.  In fact, after measuring it I found that it was off by 3 inches.  In setting out the stakes, I had forgotten to reduce the first dimension (measuring twice doesn’t help if you are using the wrong number!).  We could have moved all of the stakes but decided that what we had was good enough.  Plus, having more clearance next to the planter is probably better than having symmetrical edges.

Next, we set our tape measure and rule to 18” and, placing one end against each stake, slowly rotated around it, removing the mulch to create a three-foot-diameter clearing.  We redistributed the mulch to the surrounding areas and were left with what looked like a small set of crop circles (we’ll keep an eye out for alien invaders).

Then, we dug.  Or, more accurately, we picked at the soil with shovels.  As I have noted many times before, the soil in this part of the yard is fill brought in during the pool renovation many years ago.  It is not of very high quality (from a gardening point of view) and is composed primarily of clay and rock.  Digging it is a slow, tedious project (the kind of task usually given to prison inmates).

After an hour of hacking away, each of us had dug one hole about 16 inches in diameter and six inches deep.  A large rock protruded into the hole I was digging and even with both of us working on it, we could not get it to budge; the squash plant who will live here will just have to work its roots around it.  Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we opted to plant these two locations and come back to the others later.

To fill the hole and create mounds (to elevate the plants above grade), we combined equal parts (roughly) of compost and peat moss, using the wheelbarrow as a mixing bowl.  I dumped the soil into the holes and Rachel formed it into mounds.  At the top of each mound, we dug a small hole into which we placed a summer squash seedling.

Finally, we covered the mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to helping the soil to retain moisture and discouraging the growth of weeds, the mulch should prevent the soil from washing away in a heavy rainfall (of which we can expect many over the course of the summer).

Over the last few days, we’ve been throwing our rejected seedlings onto a refuse pile.  And all the while, I’ve been lamenting their loss.  If only I had a compost pile, then the loss would not be as great.  The seedlings might not be producing any vegetables but they would be contributing to future soil.

It has made me think, though, that perhaps my approach to the compost pile should be similar to the one we ultimately took with the paving project.  Instead of waiting to construct a carefully designed and detailed compost bin enclosure, why not just clear an area and start piling the stuff up?

It would be good enough (the soil and earthworms aren’t as obsessed with aesthetics as I am) and a quick start to the production of local compost.  Best of all, doing so would not preclude building the compost bin of my dreams sometime in the future.

I don’t usually favor an expedient solution over one which I consider to be better, even if it is not as easy or quick to effect.  Although I’ve come to embrace the idea of good enough, I still feel that sometimes it means only just good enough or, put another way, not as good as it could be.  My parents always told me that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right.  I took the idea to heart and have lived that way most of my life.

But sometimes what I think might be best, my concept of it, can blind me to other possibilities that could be just as good or even, possibly, better.  As an example, I decided last year that the best way to pave around the planters would be to use some slate and bluestone that was leftover from another project.  My reasoning was that the stone would provide a flat, stable working surface that would be attractive (the coloring would match the pool) and easy to care for.  It would also be putting to good use materials that are currently just taking up space.

And those are still good reasons.  But there are other factors that I did not take into account.  I know from experience that the stone cannot simply be placed on the ground; it is best set onto a layer of sand.  Also, keeping the stones level, especially across joints, is difficult and preventing them from rocking almost impossible.  And unless we were willing to accept irregular edges and large gaps between the stones (we weren’t), we would have to cut them to fit.  This would require that we rent a stone saw and learn how to use it.

In short, there would be more to the project than I had originally thought and as a result, nothing got done.  It turns out that even though the final result might have been the best, the process involved would be far from ideal.  In other words, getting there would have been none of the fun.  Knowing this led to procrastination and delay.

So we reconsidered our options and concluded that ease of installation was more important than the finished product.  And what could be easier than cedar mulch?  It’s a material that we almost always have on hand (we use it to cover the ornamental gardens), it is inexpensive and it comes in convenient 40-pound bags.  Once the ground has been prepared, laying it down is a breeze (well, relatively speaking anyway).

This is not to say that considerable effort will not be involved.  Preparing the ground sounds easy but it means removing sod, probably the most physically demanding gardening activity I know.  On the positive side, we have done plenty of it before and know exactly what to expect.

And best of all, we can get started right away and be finished by the end of the weekend.

There was a nicely-written article in Sunday’s New York Times about using deadlines to motivate work and prevent procrastination (“Need Motivation? Declare a Deadline.”). It’s an interesting—and chilling—topic for me. I don’t think anybody really likes deadlines and most people probably dread them but very little would get done without them. If we had to rely entirely on our wishful thinking about what we’d like to accomplish, we’d have next to nothing to show for it.

I’ve been trying to minimize my exposure to deadlines but I recognize setting them as a motivational tool. And I’m pretty good about meeting self-imposed deadlines, especially when the work involved is important and/or urgent. If it really needs to be done, I’ll usually get it done.

But I’m pretty good at dragging my feet, too. Sometimes, this is because the task at hand is unpleasant and I simply do not want to do it. For example, we are in the process of updating to a new computer. Many people would enjoy this (increased processing speed, more memory, better apps, etc.) but I do not (I find it very disruptive). Consequently, the process has taken a long, long time (and not a little nudging by Rachel). There’s no urgency here, though, so there’s no problem.

Most often, however, my stonewalling is evidence of some internal doubt, an intuitive hesitation brought on by a feeling—not always conscious—that the chosen action might not be the right one. It can be easy to come to a decision based on overwhelming rational criteria but nearly impossible to act on it if I know in my heart that it will not serve.

This can occur when faced with the big decisions in life—career choices, buying a home, raising children—but crops up with the more mundane as well. Last year, for example, I resolved to pave around the planters with the surplus stone we have on hand (see June 10, 2012). I allowed myself until the end of the summer to get it done but despite my apparent (and public) commitment to the idea, the task is still undone.

Reconsidering, I think that what I had proposed to do would have required too much effort to achieve a result that we were not sure was what we wanted. Instead, I will take some very good advice from the Times article, and opt for something that I can actually accomplish even if it is not necessarily the best I can do. In other words, I’ll choose something that is good enough (at least for now) and make getting it done the priority.

It seems that you can not use too much deer repellent.  Like voting, I started spraying early and often and was prepared to protect the lilies, lilac and hostas before they had sent out their new spring growth.  I had hoped to deprive the deer of any of our delicious baby greens this year.

But the deer would not be denied.  Instead of going elsewhere for their daily salad, they started nibbling on the Siberian irises.  No matter that they’ve never eaten them before and that irises are not usually attractive to them.  Because there was nothing better available, they settled for the irises.  I guess I can’t blame them.  This is a case of the deer deciding that the irises were good enough which is keeping in the spirit of this blog.

I’m not happy about it but it has led me to a theory that I will call the Conservation of Munching.  Regardless of the steps that one might take to prevent deer from making lunch of a prized flower or vegetable, another equally precious plant will present itself to the deer to be eaten.  If there are no particularly valuable plants available, the deer will move on the more mundane or common things in the garden.  It might not be their first choice or even their second, but they will settle on something.

It’s not unlike the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the one that states that entropy never decreases.  In fact, it might be a corollary.  After all, a nibbled plant exists in a lower state of order than an unnibbled one.  It’s just a part of the overall theory of life on this planet as hypothesized by Murphy.  Or, put another way, if something can be munched by deer, it will be.

Every year in my household, we say “Best Thanksgiving ever!” or, like today, “Best Christmas ever!”  We say it sincerely but with some amusement because regardless of how this particular holiday may stack up to the celebrations of years past, we always say the same thing.  The oven may have broken down while the turkey was roasting (this actually happened to us a few years ago) or the tree may have fallen over and crushed all of the presents (I’ve heard stories but so far we have avoided this) but even so, it is the best ever!

And, of course, it is true.  Because the holiday we are celebrating today is the current one, the one in the immediate present, the one being actively experienced.  Last Christmas is now only a memory and next Thanksgiving a future possibility but today is happening now, and that is truly the best, whatever the details.

I hope everyone had the best Christmas (or whatever holiday you celebrate this time of year) ever.

While engaged in elf duty these last few days, I realized that wrapping gifts is a good example of when accepting a less-than-perfect level of “good enough” can be a good thing.  Regardless of the choice of paper and ribbon, the crispness of the folds and the precision of the taping and bow-tying, the wrappings will be torn off and discarded by the gift’s recipient.  Often, in the case of an excited child for example, the opening will be done in a frenzy with little notice paid to anything except, maybe, the gift tag.

This is especially true of stocking stuffers, which in my house are numerous.  If I tried to precisely wrap and ribbon all of the candy, toys, novelties and other tchotchkes that go into our oversized socks, I’d be up all night for a week.  I know because for many years this is exactly what I did and exactly how long it took.  A few Christmases ago, however, I discovered the efficacy of tissue paper.  It is easy to cut and fit around small and often oddly-shaped items and with its soft and crinkly appearance can hide a multitude of taping sins.  Since then, I’ve been getting to bed a bit earlier this time of year.

In some ways, the wrapping and subsequent unwrapping of holiday gifts is similar to the mandala sand paintings created by Buddhist monks.  Packages are assembled (starting with the Black Friday ritual), decorated (albeit with varying levels of care and precision) and arranged under a tree, within stockings or on a table (or some other centralized location) to create an elaborate tableau, a detailed picture of generosity and love.  Then, on Christmas morning (or whatever holiday is being celebrated), the scene is ritually deconstructed as paper and ribbons are torn away and discarded (and aren’t we all excited children in this context?).

But there the similarity ends.  In the Buddhist tradition, the sand would be returned to nature (usually a river or other body of water) to symbolize the impermanence of life.  In our more materialistic culture, the wrappings are discarded (without ceremony) but the goodies remain.