Archives for posts with tag: motivation

The garden has gotten off to a slow start this year. The cold weather has been a big factor, of course. Late-melting snow and lingering cold pushed the date when outdoor activity could commence from mid-March to mid-April. Indoors, even though heating pads and the radiators in the basement help keep the seedlings warm, the continued low temperatures have had a stunting effect of their growth.

And don’t get me started on the chilling effect—literal and figurative—of the weather on us humans.

But we’re starting to catch up and finally, a combination of spring-like weather and re-awakened energy has motivated me to get back outside. We’re almost ready to sow seeds for peas and root vegetables but first, I have to add soil to the planters. After sitting under more than a foot of snow for two months, the soil has settled by two to three inches.

An infusion of organic material won’t hurt, either, so it was off to the Plant Depot for compost. We purchased 16 bags of the stuff—that’s at least 640 pounds—which I schlepped from the car down to the planters, two bags at a time, in a wheelbarrow. Before dumping it into the planters, I raked out last year’s straw mulch along with the leaves and other debris blown there over the previous six months.

Along with the compost, I added about half as much (by volume) of peat moss to balance the soil and lessen its density (bagged compost can be highly compacted). I mixed it around with a steel rake—an operation akin to stirring a cauldron of witch’s brew—and leveled it out. There are just a few more ingredients to add (seeds, mulch, stakes) before the concoction is complete.

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One of the ways I know that spring has arrived is that for the next few weeks, the sun will shine directly through my office windows. With no leaves on the trees to filter it, the bright light makes it difficult to see the screen of my computer but the solar heat on my face feels great.

Another indicator that spring fever has hit is my desire to get out into the garden and start doing something. The draw is getting stronger every day as more snow melts to reveal another task that needs attending to. This was a rough and stormy winter and consequently, the yard is in disarray. Order must be restored! In other words, it is time for spring cleaning.

Most of our work over the next week or two will be in the ornamental gardens. We don’t do a lot of cutting back in the fall—usually, only enough to facilitate leaf removal. In particular, we leave the black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes in their bare-branched state to provide decoration and keep the garden from looking too empty. It is pretty, especially against the neutral background of winter white (i.e., snow), but as a result, the gardens are filled with dead wood.

To make matters worse, heavy snow came early this year and buried some of the plants we might otherwise have tidied up in the fall. These include the hostas, Siberian and bearded irises, and day lilies. In other years when we have left them, the faded leaves look crumpled and haggard by spring; this year, being crushed by snow for three months has done nothing to improve their appearance.

The first order of business, then, will be to trim everything back to make room for new growth. Clearing away last year’s detritus will also allow the sun’s warmth to activate the bulbs and rhizomes that have been lying dormant since the fall. In fact, small, spiky leaves are already poking up amongst the matted clumps of spent bearded iris leaves and I spy, with my little eye, a crocus peeking out through the cloud of desiccated Russian sage bushes.

I have some reservations about jumping back into it. Yard work is physically demanding and can be overwhelming (it sometimes feels as if the entire world needs tidying up after winter). But I know that it will also be immensely satisfying, a literal cleaning of the slate as we start the new gardening year.

Well, according to the seed sowing calendar, gardening tradition and conventional wisdom, St. Patrick’s Day is the time to sow the first seeds outdoors.  And not just any seeds:  today is the day to plant peas.

I fully embrace this idea.  It encourages a return to the outdoor garden.  It emphasizes the idea of rebirth and reawakening that is consistent with spring at its most conceptual.  And it involves (for us) sugar snap peas, one of my favorite vegetables, both to grow and to eat.  As an added bonus, it turns out that early sowing during the cusp season between the deep of winter and the peak of spring is actually good for the plants.

Cold weather (and it is usually cold in March) means that the pea shoots will grow slowly.  The restrained growth combined with the accompanying stress results in stronger leaves and stems (although too much stress is problematic; like any other plant, peas must be protected from freezing).  When planted in warm weather, peas can grow too quickly and weakly.  Worse, the period during which the peas are sweetest—fleeting at best—is even shorter.

Sadly, for the second year in a row, conditions will not allow us to sow any seeds outdoors today.  The garden beds, although again fully visible (see February 14, 2014 for a photo of when they were not), are still surrounded by a deep layer of snow.  The soil surface is overlain by a thick blanket of ice.  Preparing the garden in spring might involve turning soil but it should not include shoveling snow.

So, nothing going on outside.

What about inside?  All of the herbs have sprouted (the new seeds yielded seedlings about a week ago).  The second round of lettuce seeds have also started to germinate while the gangly lettuce seedlings from a month ago are almost ready to pot up (the taller ones were pushing up on the cover of their tray so I removed it).  The eggplant and bell peppers, seeded last week, should pop up any day now.

It’s more than enough to keep me going until the weather warms up.

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.

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.

Here’s another good reason why I enjoy growing tomatoes in my backyard:

Of course, it is also a good reason why I enjoy eating and drinking and otherwise being alive.

Here’s one good reason why I enjoy growing tomatoes in my backyard:

It might be the only reason I need.

I’ve been using an old plastic container, the kind in which plants from the nursery are potted (that’s how we came into possession of it), as a waste bucket.  It is a convenient place to toss weeds, pruned branches, rotted vegetables and other green waste from the garden.  It sits on the ground near the hose bib and next to the watering can and is a much easier target than the ravine beyond the pool fence.

I started this practice a few weeks ago and by today, the bucket was full.  So I walked it over to the refuse pile and flung its contents on top.  What I immediately noticed as the mass of organic matter plopped onto the pile was that the material at the bottom of the bucket, which had been kept moist by rain and warmed by the sun, had already started to decompose.  After less than a month, the green garden waste had become a dark brown, granular mass, well on its way to becoming rich organic soil.

In other words, my waste bucket had turned into a mini compost pile.  If I had let it bask in the sun much longer, I could probably have simply tipped it back into one of the planters to replenish the soil’s organic content.  Presumably, there is a little more to the process—balancing different materials, mixing them together, aerating the pile—but the experience showed me how simple the basic operation is.

Also, how magical the process is, almost like alchemy.  It is very encouraging and will motivate me to find a place where a pile of garden discards can be transformed into a useful soil amendment.

Our plan this year is to expand the garden and plant the squashes, both the summer squash seedlings and winter squash seeds, directly in the ground to the west of the west planter.  It is also our intention to grow the cucumbers along the fence, just behind (i.e., north of) the planters.  When we hatched this plan in the middle of the winter (see January 16, 2013), it seemed like we had all the time in the world to make it happen.

Well, five months later, it is still only a plan.  The difference is that now we have two dozen seedlings that are almost ready to be transplanted.  That we have not yet prepared the garden for them is not yet critical (they’re still fine in their pots) but getting it done has increased in urgency.  The plants will continue to grow regardless of what we do—or don’t do.

Sadly, the weather has not been conducive to outdoor activities.  It remains unseasonably cool and unusually rainy (all of the showers we were supposed to have in April arrived this month instead).  The work will have to wait a bit longer.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to refine and better define our plans.

Preparing the ground for the squashes will first mean removing more sod, 160 sq. ft. of it to be specific.  This is almost exactly the same area (158 sq. ft.) as we removed around the planters at the end of April (see April 27, 2013, part 2 and April 28, 2013) so we have a long day (or two) ahead of us.

It’s not something I look forward to but I am heartened by the fact that there is not much that would qualify as sod in that part of the lawn.  It is mostly weeds and bare earth which should come out with substantially less effort than the soil in grassier regions, especially if the conditions are favorable (e.g., shortly after a rainy day).

Once the sod is removed, we will cover the area with cedar mulch to match the adjoining garden.  That will leave us with a blank canvas on which to lay out our squash plants.  According to the seed packets, they should be spaced at about five feet in each direction and we know from experience that squash plants can get quite large.  Even so, we would like to fit as many as possible within the available space.

So I sketched a rough plan of the garden as it currently exists to the east and as we envision it to the west.  The squash zone is eight feet by 20 feet and we will need aisle space on each side and between it and the west planter.  Assuming one foot for the former and two feet for the latter leaves us with a useable area that is six feet by 18 feet.

This divides nicely into 12 sections, each three feet square (and each nine square feet).  We have enough seedlings (and seeds) to plant all of them but that might result in more squash than we can handle.  Also, if we plant the entire area with squash this year, we would have to find someplace else to plant squash next year to avoid replanting in exactly the same place.

Instead, we will plant six of the sections in a staggered arrangement and leave the other six sections vacant (next year, we will swap locations).  We will plant two of each type of summer squash (crookneck and zucchini) and one of each variety of winter squash (Kabocha and Delicata).

When they mature towards the end of the summer, the squash vines will be more circular than square in extent and that means there will be a narrow space between them (about 15 inches, or three feet times the square root of two minus one).  This will provide some additional access.

The cucumbers are a bit easier to configure.  We will plant three of each kind (slicing and pickling), spaced at two feet, behind the east planter.  We planted cucumbers in the west planter last year and will plant them behind it next year.  It is neither a long-cycle crop rotation nor a long-distance one but we hope that it will keep the striped cucumber beetles guessing, at least for a little while.

Rachel predicts that we will next decide to convert the area east of the planters (about 64 sq. ft. are available there) and jokes that eventually, the pool will be surrounded by the vegetable garden.  At the rate we are going, it is probably no joke!

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.