Archives for category: philosophy

One vegetable dies, another takes its place.

One plant germinates, sprouts its tiny stems, spreads its leaves, grows larger, offers its colorful blossoms to eager pollinators, sets fruit, and then gradually, or sometimes quickly, puts forth a bounty of shiny produce to the gardener who tended it.

And then, more quickly, the plant fades away, its produce picked and its energy spent. No more pretty flowers or tasty vegetables. Most plants simply wither away at this point although biennials will contentedly continue to absorb and store energy for their flowering the second year (not having flowered or produced seed in the first).

Depending on the time of year and the climate, that leaves a vacancy in the garden, a void that would be wasted if left unfilled. If it is early enough in the summer and the first frost is not expected until late fall, there is plenty of time for a fast-growing vegetable—radishes are a good example—to repeat the cycle of life and death before winter descends.

That’s how succession gardening is supposed to work, anyway.

In the best planned garden, there is more to it than squeezing a second round of produce into the growing season. With careful selection of the first vegetable planted, when it is through the soil will be well prepared (even if depleted in some respects) for the plant that follows it. Likewise, the second vegetable, if chosen with thought, will leave the soil ready for what is sowed the next spring. This process can be stretched out over multiple seasons in what becomes long-term crop rotation (see May 18, 2014).

Theoretically, we follow this approach. In practice, we do the best we can. I’ve already described our crop rotation strategy (see May 4, 2014) and for succession planting, we do multiple sowings of root vegetables, including two or three early in the season and one late in the season, for which we are about due.

We also planted a mid-season replacement for the Sugar Snap peas, the last of which we harvested this morning. There were still plenty of peas but production had slowed and the leaves had begun to turn yellow. New growth had appeared at the base of several vines and I was tempted to wait to see whether it would bear fruit. But wanting to move on, we pulled them out.

In their place we sowed string beans. We planted the same varieties as last year—Amethyst Purple and Roma II—knowing that they are fast-growing and prolific (assuming the seeds are still viable, of course). I don’t know whether string beans are a good successor to peas in terms of soil conditioning but I do know that they are the only other vegetable we grow that needs trellising.

Also, I love to eat them.

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Starting plants from seed is an act of faith.

It is not at all like buying seedlings or fully-grown plants from a nursery or garden center.  There, one knows what one is getting (even when the previous history is not disclosed) and what happens from that point on is somewhat in the gardener’s control.

But when starting from scratch, once the gardener places the seeds into the soil, they are out of sight.  After that, it doesn’t matter whether or how often the seeds are watered or fertilized.  In fact, any action (or inaction) by the gardener is probably irrelevant.  No, what happens next is up to the seeds and Mother Nature.

And neither is very communicative about what is going on under the soil.  There is no indicator light, glowing green when all is well; a warning bell does not sound if something starts to go wrong.  There is nothing even to confirm that the seeds are still there.  One has to simply trust that the seeds know what they need to do and that they are actually doing it.

Faith is only rewarded when the seedlings finally push up through the soil and spread their tiny cotyledons to the light.  Until then, the gardener waits patiently.

I’m sorry to have to say it but we’ve entered the grumpy season.

It happens every year, sometime in mid to late winter.  It is almost always associated with prolonged periods of very cold temperatures or a string of heavy snow storms.  Or, in a bad weather year such as this one, both.

The first two or three snowfalls of the winter were beautiful, including a magical dusting that gave us a white Christmas (see December 25, 2013).  But the storms started early (in mid-November or December, depending on the source) and new ones have been arriving frequently.  The Weather Channel (which started naming storms in 2012, much to the chagrin of the National Weather Service and other weather forecasters) is already up to Leon (the names progress alphabetically, just like hurricanes).

Making matters worse, the forecasters have been simultaneously sensationalizing the winter storms (today’s “Leon Leaves Atlanta DEVASTATED!” is typical of TWC headlines) and underestimating their impacts.  As an exasperated friend recently lamented, “Why don’t the weather folks just come right out and say that now ‘snow showers’ means 3 inches?”  Most of us have already seen—and shoveled—as much snow as we care to, and it is only the end of January.

Meanwhile, this month has already established itself as one of the coldest in recent memory if not historical record.  In my experience (24 years in New York), a cold winter means highs in the 30s and upper 20s and lows in the lower 20s.  This year, we have considered ourselves lucky to have a high anywhere in the 20s.  The lows have been in the single digits (including one below zero).  Very rare and very cold.

So, we’re grumpy.  Especially in the morning, before the sun rises, when the temperature is at its lowest, and there is snow waiting to be shoveled.

Luckily, even if the grumpy season is prolonged, it eventually comes to an end.  It is most usually superseded by the mud season in early spring (the severity of March’s weather being a determining factor) and is occasionally interrupted by a gloriously, brilliantly sunny day such as this one.

Often, the execution of a task is dependent on the completion of another.  This condition can occur for a variety of reasons.  At the general end of the spectrum, for instance, a set of skills or body of knowledge might need to be gained before a specialized task or further study is possible (the former might be called prerequisites in this case).  Before learning to design cars, one must learn basic engineering.

More specifically, especially in a multi-step process, an operation cannot take place until the item to be processed is physically created.  An automobile cannot be assembled until its component parts are first manufactured.  Of course, the manufacture of individual components is not usually dependent on the others; this process is parallel rather than serial.

There is nothing wrong with the serial approach until a step in the progression becomes delayed or stuck.  When this happens, everything that follows the stalled task must come to a complete stop, even if the stalled task is minor.  On an auto assembly line, for example, something as simple as a shortage of bolts or washers means that production must be halted.  The result can be a logjam of thwarted activities that is annoying at best and catastrophic at worst (see the famous chocolate factory episode of I Love Lucy for a humorous depiction of the consequences).  Not surprisingly, industrial engineers spend a lot of time studying ways to prevent this from happening.

I frequently experience this phenomenon, partly because I tend to set projects up as series of dependent tasks and partly because I am prone to procrastination.  The most recent occurrence of this was the clearing off of the seed-starting apparatus (see January 8, 2014).  One group of items temporarily stored there was a set of wood-working clamps generously handed down to me by Rachel’s father.  The clamps are the old-fashioned variety which use two wooden threaded rods to control the wooden jaws.

The problem was that I did not have another place to store them.  I had a place where I planned to store them but it required some minor construction on my part or, in other words, a prerequisite task.  Not a big task—it involved replacing an existing shelf with a thicker, sturdier one—but big enough to keep me putting it off for months.  Making space for trays of soon-to-be-sown seeds was just the stimulus I needed.  The global task of growing vegetables provided the imperative to move me beyond procrastination.

Gardening is largely composed of similar serial activities:  First, find a place to build a garden; then, clear it and turn the soil; construct planters if desired; next, choose what to plant (which might be a parallel task up to this point) and get seeds started; nurture the seedlings (or buy them); set them out; water and feed them; and, finally, harvest the produce.  The same motivation—not falling behind the growing season—keeps the process moving forward.

In the end, rebuilding the shelf for the clamps did not take very long (about an hour) nor did it require much effort.  I had previously acquired the necessary parts (shelf, brackets and lag screws) and already possess the right tools.  (This is a good example of Life teaching me that there is no good reason to procrastinate.)  Once it was completed, the logjam came free and, with Rachel’s involvement, the shelves of the seed-starting apparatus were soon empty.  This sudden clearing of stalled events is another common aspect of dependent serial tasks.

At CVS yesterday, we picked up four inexpensive heating pads (fortuitously, we had a discount coupon to apply) to add to the seed-starting apparatus.  The pads are medium-sized (12 by 15 inches) and should fit nicely beneath the seed trays.  Most important, they do not have an automatic shut-off feature which would defeat their purpose of helping seeds to germinate—without my constant interaction.

Last year, we located the seed-starting apparatus in front of a south-facing window.  The idea was to capture as much light and radiation from the sun as is possible in mid-winter.  What we found, however, is that there is not enough sun this time of year to be useful (the heating pads provide energy until the seedlings break the surface; after that, the fluorescent light fixtures take over).

Therefore, we will leave the apparatus tucked into the corner of the room (in front of a door we no longer use) where it will be out of the way (the window location interfered with access to a refrigerator).  It is now ready for seed trays, the planting of which is the next task in the serial process we call gardening.  I’ll try not to put it off for too long.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  And of all vacuums, the one that Nature abhors most is an empty shelf.  If she encounters one, she seems to exhort (in her inaudible but distinctly perceptible and imperative way), “Don’t just stand there; store something!”

That’s my experience, anyway.  Every bookshelf in the house is full to overflowing; many shelves carry two or three rows of books.  In the kitchen, our cabinets are always groaning with everything from pantry staples to exotic ingredients.  Upstairs, I never have any shelf space in my closet despite the two or three trips to Goodwill I make each year.

And then there’s the basement.

We have several shelving units down there:  one for tools (and whatnot), one for paint (and the like), yet another for seasonal items (such as Christmas tree decorations and pool furniture cushions).  Whenever a space opens up (e.g., when we put the cushions outside in spring), it is soon filled with something else (e.g., a box of the previous year’s records that was sitting on the floor for lack of shelf space).  It’s a good example of what I might call the “Shelf of Dreams” Law which holds that if you build it (a shelf), they will come (items to be stored).

This law immediately became apparent when we began planning our indoor seed sowing for the coming growing season (believe it or not, we should be starting this month) and I made a trip to the basement to prepare.  Recall that last year, we constructed a simple seed-starting apparatus to facilitate indoor growing (see March 17, 2013, part 2, for details).  And what did we use as the basis of our apparatus?  That’s right, a shelving unit.

Shortly after we assembled the shelves, we filled them with seed trays.   A few weeks later, after we set out the seedlings in spring, the shelves became empty again.  That condition did not last long.

First, I started placing miscellaneous gardening supplies there:  spray bottles, sacks of soil amendments, plastic seedling pots.  Then, in mid-summer, we held a big party for our 25th anniversary.  We needed room elsewhere in the basement (for the caterers) and so anything that did not have anywhere better to live moved to the seed-starting apparatus.  By the end of the summer, the shelves were full.

Which was fine through the fall and into the start of winter.  But now it is time to make space for the seed trays again.  It will take some effort—there’s a lot of stuff to relocate—but I’m sure I can find an open shelf or two somewhere in the house.

Do you believe in Christmas miracles?

About a week ago, it seemed that we had a lock on a white Christmas.  Two snowstorms each dropped about six inches of snow on the ground.  Our world was robed in a one-foot-thick blanket of pristine white powder, softer than the fluffiest fleece.  By day, we were bathed in the light and warmth of the reflected rays of the sun and by night, we basked in the cool, silvery phosphorescence of amplified moonlight (or would have basked had we ventured outside).

Then, rudely, we were subjected to 24 hours of steady rain accompanied by temperatures reaching into the mid 60s.  The warm shower rinsed away the snow and by yesterday morning, almost all of it had disappeared.  Any clumps that remained—mostly spots where plowed or shoveled snow had piled up—were icy and grimy, dirtied by the splashing of passing cars and covered by windblown debris.  With no snow in the forecast, our hopes for a white Christmas had vanished.

But then, just before sunset last evening, we noticed a slight sparkle in the air just as the last rays of light were streaming through gaps in the clouds.  We did not give it much thought until later, after our Christmas Eve feast, when we spied scattered glints of reflected light coming in through the dining room windows.  We switched on the floodlights that illuminate our back yard and there before us was an expanse of sparkling white.

Unbeknownst to us as we were eating our celebratory meal, just enough snow had fallen to coat every surface with a thin layer, only a fraction of an inch thick, of icy white crystals.  There was not enough of it that I needed to shovel, or even sweep (thank goodness!), but it was more than enough to ensure that Christmas morning would dawn thoroughly and unquestionably white.

The mini-snowstorm might not have been a miracle—the National Weather Service has missed forecasts before and will undoubtedly do so again—but it certainly seemed miraculous, appearing as it did without warning and in just the nick of time (the St. Nick of time?).   The sight of it lifted our moods immeasurably as we headed off to bed to dream of the presents and stockings that would be waiting for us this morning.

I’ve been doing a lot of snow shoveling lately.  We had two big snow storms last week (the first major storms of the year) that left about a foot of snow on the ground.  In lieu of lifting weights or running (my usual fitness regimen), I’ve been following the snow-shoveling workout.  Perhaps I should develop the concept for a DVD or maybe it’s a franchising opportunity.  But first I have to figure out how to make it work in warm climates.

And that may prove important because it seems that many biomes which were once reliably cold throughout the winter are now mutating into climates that would be found much farther south.  Here in the Northeast, for example, last week’s snow was followed by warm days with temperatures in the 60s.  With the accompanying warm breezes, it felt like December in Florida, if not Hawaii.

The balmy days melted most of the snow, the remainder of which was washed away by an almost-tropical rainstorm that followed.  Today, it is as if the snowstorms of last week never happened.  It makes me wonder, why did I bother shoveling that snow in the first place?  Is there a deeper motivation than simply getting from my front door to where the car is parked?

The cycle—snow, shovel, melt, repeat—reminds me of the mandala sand paintings of Buddhist monks.  (Last year, the wrapping of Christmas presents put me in mind of the same thing; see December 22, 2012).  A snowfall creates a blank canvas on which we carefully create an intricate design (although because this is a process of removal, it is more akin to etching or carving a woodblock).  We plow roads, clear pathways, and dust off our cars, taking away only what is necessary to reestablish the transportation routes that are the otherwise invisible patterns of our daily lives.

And then the weather changes and our creations vanish, melting away into oblivion.  Here, the analogy to the sand paintings is more literal, as the carved snow transforms into water and is absorbed into the earth or trickles into storm drains or streams and thence, eventually, into the ocean.  We realize the impermanence of life, recognize the relative unimportance of material things and are healed in the process.

If only it healed my aching back as much as my psyche.

No holiday is given shorter shrift than Thanksgiving.  The run-up to it is short—it is practically non-existent, in fact—and the celebration is sandwiched between two holiday grandstanders:  Halloween—one of the flashiest holidays—and Christmas, whose season seems to start earlier and earlier every year.  On the holiday calendar, Thanksgiving does not get much attention.

In supermarkets (for example), the Thanksgiving items often will occupy only a narrow section of seasonal shelving and then only for a week or two.  During that same period, the canned pumpkin and stuffing mixes will share the space with half-price trick-or-treat candy and a vast selection of Christmas goodies.  The brightly-colored candy canes and foil-wrapped chocolate Santas visually dominate the muted earth tones of Thanksgiving packaging.

And once the turkey has been consumed, the Thanksgiving holiday is almost instantly forgotten.  After all, the next morning sees the dawn of Black Friday, an event which has become almost more spectacular than Christmas itself and which has stretched through the weekend and into the following week to include Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.  For some retailers, the sales extravaganza begins Thanksgiving night (talk about no respect).  Ads may make brief, comical references to Thanksgiving leftovers but that is usually the extent of it.

Really, it’s a shame.  And not just because Thanksgiving is overshadowed by commercial activities.  It’s too bad mainly because Thanksgiving is such an elemental celebration.  It is observed by essentially everybody, has no religious affiliation and is almost entirely about family.  Yes, food is the central physical component—the equivalent of the presents at Christmas—but the holiday focuses on sharing that bounty, rejoicing in belonging to a social group (not just a traditional family), and expressing our gratitude for everything we have.

 This Thanksgiving, in addition to everything else I am thankful that the holiday has not (yet) been entirely crowded off the calendar.

We spent some time today planning our Thanksgiving meal.  The menu is based on tradition so there are not many choices to make.  Typically, our trusty-dusty recipes dominate although we will usually consider the variety of choices presented in the November food and cooking magazines.  Often, but by no means always, something new can be accommodated.

Not this year, though.  To work around work and travel schedules, we are having the main meal early—the Wednesday before—and taking it on the road.  We’re still the cooks, so everything must be made ahead.  Further—and, hey, no pressure—we’ll be joined by relatives visiting from out of town.  This is no time for experimentation.

We always start with the basics:  roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Then we add another starch, some variation of sweet potato casserole or a second stuffing (and probably, I should use the term dressing because we haven’t stuffed a turkey since 2001).  Yesterday’s New York Times Dining section (see “Essential Thanksgiving”) referred to this menu component as “something orange”, a clever characterization that they expanded to include macaroni and cheese.

(Serving mac and cheese on Thanksgiving is an interesting idea; many Italian-Americans I know include pasta as a separate course on Thanksgiving, which has always struck me as a good way to combine—or, dare I say, mash up—culinary traditions.)

We agree with the philosophy that there should be something green on the table to round out the menu both in nutrition and color.  In past years, we have prepared everything from Brussels sprouts, kale, and even an arugula fennel salad (although salads are my least favorite contributor from this group).  Most recently, we have been making green beans with walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette which is a perfect complement to the meal (the dish’s acidity refreshes the palate) and has the added advantage of being relatively easy and quick to prepare.

And then there must be dessert.  Most often, this is pie, pumpkin or pecan.  Some years, we add a second sweet, which may or may not be another pie.  This year, we decided to make a Polka Dot Cheesecake, a recipe developed by Maida Heatter and featured in an early issue of Saveur magazine.  The polka dots in the recipe are chocolate but we’ll make them pumpkin-flavored in honor of the season.  (Maybe we’re experimenting this year after all.)

I like to start the meal (while the turkey rests) with a small glass of Bourbon.  This is not my usual cocktail choice but the Bourbon and its perfect accompaniment of roasted, salted pecans are uniquely American.  Both items seem appropriate for Thanksgiving which, although not uniquely American (Canadians celebrate it in October), is in part a celebration of being American.

There was an amusing Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times wherein the author, Ben Schott, proposes a selection of new German compound words that “express the inexpressible” (see Schottenfreude).  Of the neologisms presented (excerpted from an upcoming book), my favorite is, “Fingerspitzentanz”, which he defines as “tiny triumphs of nimble-fingered dexterity” (isn’t that redundant?) or what I would call the joy of simple tasks done with the hands.  “Kinking a metal tape measure into a corner” and “Inserting a USB plug right-side up, first time” are two such tasks—exhilarating in their small way—that I can relate to (although the latter almost never happens).

If it were my book, I would add another word, “Laubrechenzufriedenheit” (leaf raking contentment; my apologies to speakers of German), for the immense satisfaction that can be achieved after completing what might be considered a menial activity or chore, especially when it has been done well.  The feeling of accomplishment that follows the completion of a significant project or attainment of a lofty goal is more readily recognizable but, almost by definition, much more rare.  The commonplace and mundane tasks, such as making dinner, clipping the fingernails and, yes, raking the leaves happen much more frequently but are no less important to quality of life and peace of mind.  And after all, as my father often remarked (in lieu of criticism), if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing right.

Most if not all gardening activities fall into this category of quotidien chores that provide for almost constant gratification and these daily successes and feelings of reward are probably a major contributor to gardening’s popularity (they are for me).  It helps that many garden chores are relatively straightforward and therefore easy or quick to master and accomplish with flair.

Now, it is not that expansive, longer-term gardening goals, such as creating a huge, formal garden over the course of several years or expanding a vegetable garden until it serves the entire neighborhood, are not worthy of attention—they are—or that arriving at them is not a significant accomplishment (the neighbors would certainly appreciate either example).  Rather, the path to those larger goals can be embellished by a series of lesser rewards that encourage progress.

Gardening can be a noble pursuit but at its core, it is a humble one.  To do it, one must get one’s hands dirty.  And that, at the end of the day, can be immensely satisfying.