Archives for posts with tag: procrastination

I’m tempted to say that we are much farther behind in the growing season this year than we were at this point in the last. The weather has been substantially cooler this spring, especially at night. Everybody—humans and plants, alike—seems to be moving in slow motion. The motor is running but the engine is cold.

However, looking back at photos and notes from mid-May, 2013, I find that we are not as far back as it feels. We have sowed the seeds for everything that we planned to start indoors and almost all have germinated and sprouted. The only exception is the Yellow Belle peppers with which we truly got a late start (after three failures of the Orange Sun seeds) and which are typically slow to germinate.

Also, we have already advanced most of the seedlings from their seed trays to larger plastic pots. Again, an exception is the Yellow Belle peppers but so are the pattypan squash and Early Fortune cucumbers. All of these were late additions to the garden lineup—and not because of the weather. Presumably, the failure of last year’s seeds to germinate was independent of what was going on outside.

More significantly, perhaps, the transplanted seedlings are taller and fuller than their 2013 counterparts. This is probably because despite the colder weather this year, we started the indoor planting earlier. We sowed seeds for herbs in January (even if only a few germinated) and again in early March. At about the same time, we seeded eggplant and peppers and in February, we planted lettuce. In 2013, we had not done any indoor planting until the end of March.

Oh, and we’ve already started eating lettuce, which had only just been planted in May of last year.

Where we have truly lagged, though, is in our outdoor plantings. Our goal had been St. Patrick’s Day; we settled for mid-April. The combination of lingering snow, travelling and (to be honest) procrastination pushed the peas, carrots, radishes, turnips and beets a month later than we would have preferred. Additional travel and additional procrastination (I can’t blame the snow this time) have also affected second plantings, which have yet to occur.

Oddly, though, everything we have planted outdoors looks to be as far along in growth as earlier plantings were at this time last year (we didn’t meet the St. Patrick’s Day deadline then, either, but had sowed seeds by the end of March). Apparently, the conventional wisdom holds true that plants will grow into their season regardless of the weather.

It’s a reassuring revelation that even if the engine starts cold, it will still get us to our destination on time.


We spent a few hours yesterday (before heading up to Stonecrop Gardens; see March 22, 2014) and again today, cleaning up the ornamental gardens. Saturday’s session was particularly enjoyable because the temperature quickly rose into the 50s. One or two dark clouds passed by, trailing a sprinkle of light rain, but otherwise it was sunny and warm.

Today was a different story as the weather returned to a more wintery state, including a chilling wind.

We cleared away the scruffy remnants of the Russian sage, penstemon (a variety of foxglove), black-eyed Susans, Siberian irises, and hostas. In the main ornamental garden beds, Rachel pruned the hibiscus (we have three) and some young lilacs. Together, we tackled the Japanese maple, a gift from the mason (and natural gardener) who constructed our stone walls and stairs.

We’ve been putting this off for a few years now and I hope that we did not wait too long. The maple had grown taller than we wanted, more upward than outward, and was threatening to obstruct the view from the patio that overlooks it. We clipped its upper branches and the skyward pointing portions of its perimeter branches. It looks a bit awkward now (most things do immediately after pruning) but its appearance should improve once the leaves sprout.

Up front in the hosta beds, we had a bit more work to do. I’m not sure when we last weeded this area (mid-summer, perhaps?) but it was in dire need of it today, especially the bed to the left of the stone staircase that leads from our front yard up to the labyrinth. The grade is steep here and the plantings a mixed bag. We’ve been slowly making a transition to flowering bulbs and groundcovers such as sedum and lily of the valley but mostly, the plants here are unwanted—weeds, by definition—and we removed many of them.

Weeding is very satisfying—the difference between before and after can be striking—but it is also back-breaking. After two hours in the bracing cold we were worn out. The ornamental beds are now clear of old growth and we were heartened by the signs of spring—snowdrops and crocuses at long last!—that are slowly emerging.

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 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.

The garden is not a place for instant gratification.

Advance planning is recommended (if not, strictly speaking, required).  Depending on the scope and extent of a garden’s design, much work must be done to construct it and make it ready for planting.  And once the seeds are sown or the seedlings set out, the plants take time to grow, mature and produce fruit.  If one wants a ripe cherry tomato—right now!—planting a cherry tomato vine is not the way to get it.

And although many people do demand instant gratification (as my mother recently observed, it used to be only children; now it’s everyone), there are obvious benefits to waiting.  Like the study that offered children one piece of candy immediately or two pieces if they agreed to wait for an hour, a garden promises a prolonged bounty of vegetables (nature willing, of course) to those who take the time to nurture it.  As an added bonus, the produce is usually of much higher quality than anything that can be procured in a market, especially when out of season.

Also, it is my experience that instant gratification often leads to deferred aggravation.

For instance, if I put off making a minor household repair (and here, the instant gratification is putting my feet up and watching television instead), that leaky faucet or loose floorboard may develop into something requiring more extensive—and expensive—work to remedy.  And whenever I go too long without weeding, Mother Nature teaches me a lesson by allowing them to overrun the garden.

In fact, a garden is a good tool for overcoming procrastination.  The procrastinator’s motto (attributed to Mark Twain) is, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do day after tomorrow just as well.”   It’s a useful phrase and nicely turned from Thomas Jefferson’s, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today” but as an approach to gardening, it is not very effective.  In the middle of summer, if you put off watering till the day after tomorrow, there may be nothing alive left to water.  (This might help explain why Jefferson is known for his garden while Twain is not.)

Unless, of course, that is the ultimate goal.  Yet another variation of the anti-proverb states, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can avoid all together”.

We’re running behind with the cucumbers which should have been in the ground over a week ago.  With plans for the weekend, we decided to make time during the working week to get caught up.

The cucumbers, like the squash, are moving out of the box.  Specifically, we are locating them along the fence behind the west planter, safely distant (we hope) from the east planter where they grew last year.  Next year, we will move the cucumbers to that portion of the fence.

I briefly considered putting the cucumbers behind (i.e., north of) the squashes where there would be no danger of their being shaded.  But that would be putting all of our cucurbits in one basket.  Because they are susceptible to the same harmful insects (e.g., the ubiquitous cucumber beetles) and diseases (such as the seemingly omnipresent powdery mildew), the cucumbers and squashes will be better off if kept as separate as possible.  Besides, at this time of the year, the sun casts a very shallow shadow.

We measured six locations, spaced at two feet on center, and brushed away the cedar mulch.  Rachel used a standard shovel and I used a spade to dig holes about six inches deep.  It is interesting that a standard shovel is best suited to a hemispherical hole while a spade, with its flat, rectangular blade is better for cubical excavations.  The shoveled holes were about eight inches in diameter; the spade-dug holes were approximately six inches square.

Once the holes were completed, we mixed up two batches of soil (each batch consisting of one 40-pound bag of compost and an equal volume of peat moss) and filled the holes.  We kept the mounds small in diameter (especially compared to the squash mounds) because they are located along an access aisle.  We want the cucumbers to be as tight against the fence as possible.

We expect that the cucumbers will grow high and wide.  To support their wandering branches we installed a chicken wire trellis along the fence.  We marked locations for six cedar posts (seven might have been better but we were short by one) and, using an old steel chisel and a sledge hammer, formed pilot holes.  This step is necessary due to our rocky soil.

Then, we pounded in the stakes.  I had originally planned to embed the six-foot stakes by 18 inches but had to stop at a foot (the depth of the pilot holes).  Once a stake encounters a rock, there is a risk of splitting or crushing it with further pounding.  Using our trusty Velcro tape, we tied each of the stakes to the top rail of the pool fence.  The stakes have a slight backwards rake to them (their bases are about three inches outboard of the fence) which will both stabilize the trellis and prevent it from feeling too imposing.

To form the trellis, we unrolled a 12-foot length of four-foot-high chicken wire and stapled it to the stakes using an electric staple gun.  (We acquired this tool many years ago for reasons I can no longer recall.  It always strikes me at first as silly—like an electric carving knife—and yet it is very useful and practical.  Although it delivers a staple with great force it does not otherwise disturb the work and requires very little effort.  In that regard, it is more akin to a pneumatic nailer.)  We held the bottom of the chicken wire eight inches above grade to give the young cucumber plants room to sort themselves out.

After that, we set out the cucumber seedlings, alternating the slicing and pickling varieties for visual interest.  On a leaf of one of the pickling cucumbers, I noticed a small white spot that might—I say, might—have been the beginning of a powdery mildew infection.  Just to be on the safe side, we tossed the seedling on the refuse pile and chose another.  Powdery mildew on the cucumbers is almost inevitable (we’ve had it every year) but we certainly don’t need it this early in the season.

To wrap up the planting (literally and figuratively), we dressed the soil mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to all of its other advantages—moisture retention, weed control, erosion prevention—the mulch will act as a visual marker of the cucumbers presence, just like the yellow tiles on the edge of a subway platform.  While installing the trellis, we found that it was easy to accidentally step on the mounds and now that the cucumbers are resident, we don’t want that happening again.

Due to the trellis’ location, I had to remove the hose rack and then reinstall it on the fence, two pickets to the right (east).  Eventually, we will install a timer-controlled soaker hose to irrigate the cucumbers but today, I gave them a bucketful of water (laced with fish emulsion).  Tomorrow, rain is forecast (as Tropical Storm Andrea makes its way up the Atlantic coast) so the cucumbers should get plenty of water.

Knowing that it will be difficult to find the time during the coming (short) week, we got out of bed a little earlier this morning and came down to the garden to finish planting the squashes.

It’s a nice time of day to work:  The temperature is much cooler and the garden is not yet directly in the sun (which is still behind the trees to the east).  On the other hand, it is very buggy this early.

Yesterday’s picking and shoveling were good practice and we dug the four remaining holes fairly quickly.  We started work at 6:30 am and were done with our digging by 7:30 am.

I underestimated the amount of compost we would need (I calculated the volume of the mounds as cones and did not include the pits below grade).  Luckily, we had a bag of potting soil on hand and we added it to the mix.

It took another half-hour to mix the soil, dump it in place and form the mounds.  By 8:30 am, we had set the other two squash plants in the ground and we had sown seeds (three each) for the two types of winter squash.

I’m excited about growing the winter squash this year.  We are starting the seeds at Memorial Day (which is summer in the social sense but actually late spring) and the squash are not expected to mature until Labor Day or later (fall, at any rate).  Their development will be a visual track of the summer’s progress.

I hope they don’t grow too quickly…

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!

We finally arranged for our tree guy, Jerry, to come by with one of his helpers to remove the two maples that shade our garden in the late afternoon (see February 6, 2013).  We had meant to get this done before the trees sprouted their leaves (it would have made less of a mess) but didn’t get around to it.  Now that the garden is in full swing, though, we need the extra solar exposure.

When Jerry removes a tree near the house, he follows a very careful and elaborate procedure.  First, he cuts off the outer branches, then he tops the tree, and brings the trunk down section by section.  Sometimes, as a final step, he removes the stump by grinding.  The stump-grinding equipment is truck-mounted so accessibility is an issue; consequently, we have several stumps on our property.

Jerry chips all but the largest branches and takes the rest away.  When we have needed firewood, he has cut the trunk into appropriate lengths and left it for me to split and stack (see, for example, February 5, 2012).  Tree removal is a very labor-intensive activity but when Jerry and his crew are done, the only signs of their having been there are tire tracks and a scattering of sawdust.

The same approach would not be practical for today’s project.  The trees in question are just outside the border between our pool area and the surrounding woods, a transitional zone between order and chaos.  They are over 100 feet from the road and their bases are on a steep slope.  The trees could be cut down in the same way but removing the branches and wood would require an unjustifiable amount of effort.

So instead, we will leave the downed trees in place.  And if we are going to do that, there is no reason to cut them into pieces.  Bringing them down in one fell swoop (each, for a total of two fell swoops) is more appropriate.  (I had hypothesized that felling trees was the literal origin of the saying, “one fell swoop,” but my research revealed otherwise.  Fell can mean cruel or fierce while swoop in this context refers to the sudden dive of a bird of prey.  Given the sound a tree makes when it is felled, I like my story better.)

Felling a tree with a single cut at the base is much more difficult than it might at first seem, especially if the direction in which the tree will fall is of concern.  In fact, it can’t be done reliably with only one cut.  If the saw is not properly aligned with the direction the tree wants to fall (due to the location of its center of gravity), the weight of the tree will close the kerf as the tree starts to lean and that will bind the blade.  Unfortunately, I have to admit that I know this from firsthand experience.

Most often, three cuts are needed.  The first two cuts are made on the fall side of the tree to remove a wedge of the trunk.  This forms a hinge about which the falling tree will rotate.  The third cut is made on the side opposite the wedge and if all of the cuts have been done properly, the tree will start to fall due to gravity before the final cut makes it all the way through the trunk.

Geometry cannot be ignored, however, and even if the cuts are made correctly, the tree still might want to fall in another direction.  Based on Jerry’s assessment, this is the case with our trees, both of which are leaning slightly uphill, towards the pool.  Obviously, this is not the direction we want the trees to fall.  To counteract the trees’ gravitational tendencies, Jerry attached a rope near the top of each one to pull them in the direction he wanted them to fall.

Getting the ropes into the trees took a certain amount of finesse.  For the first tree, Jerry knotted the rope to a length of lightweight line—string, almost—at the end of which was a small beanbag slightly bigger than a Hacky Sack.  He carefully launched the beanbag up and into the tree with an underhand motion, aiming for a branch high on the trunk.  It took two tries but the second toss sailed through the crotch and dropped back to the ground.

Using the lightweight line, Jerry hoisted the main rope up to the top of the tree and back down.  Then, he formed a loop (tree work requires as much knotting skill as sailing, it appears) and cinched the rope around the tree trunk.  His helper took the free end downhill (the direction we want the tree to fall) until the rope formed about a 45-degree angle with the horizontal.  There, he anchored the rope to another tree trunk.

Using an in-line winch called a come-along, the helper took out the slack in the rope and then applied some tension.  At this point, Jerry starting cutting the notch on the fall side of the tree.  After confirming that the rope was taut enough to prevent the tree from shifting in the uphill direction, he completed the notch.

Then, the dramatic part began.  The helper continued to winch up the rope while Jerry commenced the final cut.  As the helper cranked up the tension, we could hear the tree trunk creaking and see it starting to list downhill.  When the tree was leaning by about 15 degrees from the vertical, there was a loud crack as the trunk gave way.  Both Jerry and his helper moved back and with a loud thwump, the tree fell to the ground, precisely where Jerry had intended it.  Quite a spectacle!

The second tree had several branches extending almost horizontally from the trunk.  Jerry judged that these outriggers would interfere with a clean fall so he decided to cut them off.  He strapped on a lineman’s belt and climbing spikes and scrambled nimbly up the tree, pulling two ropes with him.

When he got near the top of the tree, he tied himself off with one—his safety line—and looped the other over a branch to use a belay line for the cut branches.  I have described this process before (see October 31, 2011) and it is particularly elegant when Jerry rappels between locations, his chainsaw and pruning blade dangling from his belt.

After trimming and dropping the protruding branches, Jerry returned to earth.  He freed himself from his safety line, knotted a loop in it and cinched it up to use as the tension rope.  His helper again marched the end of the rope downhill and, following the same procedure as before, he and Jerry brought down the second tree, felling it almost exactly parallel to and on top of the first tree.

Described this way, it seems like it would take a long time to perform all of these steps.  But after only an hour and a half, Jerry and his helper were packing their gear up and heading to their next project.

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.