Archives for posts with tag: time management

I know I’ve mentioned it many times before but I’m not going to let that stop me: Saying yes to one thing means saying no to others. I repeat it so often because it is still true.

Sometimes, the “no” is explicit—someone asks for something and the request cannot be granted—but it need not be. More often, the time and energy available are consumed by the committed tasks and at the end of the day, there are no resources left for the things not committed to. Stuff just does not happen.

It isn’t hard to guess where I’m going with this. I recently said yes to some work for my former partners. A large chunk of my time is now committed to this worthwhile—and quite enjoyable—project and, as a result, I have less time for other things, most notably this blog. That is why my posts have been few and far between lately.

Now, this is not to say that my blogging is less worthwhile or less enjoyable than the other work. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No, blogging has simply become less urgent; it remains very important to me. I admit to feeling a little discomfort with this—the puritanical worker in me wants to do everything, to get it done, now!—but I know I will catch up. Anyway, it is summer, a time when the pace is slower and more relaxed. For all I know, my readers are on vacation or tending their own gardens.

Nor does my not writing about the garden mean that nothing is happening there. To the contrary, the planters are bursting with growth, especially the east planter with its bounty of root vegetables (most especially, the turnips) and snap peas, while the cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, and bell peppers are preparing to carry out their own surge.

The most comforting aspect of the garden is that at this time of year, it practically takes care of itself. It basks in the sun by day, receives gentle watering from the timed hoses or occasional thunderstorm in the evening, and, at intervals, enjoys a little love from Rachel and me. Because in addition to everything else we are doing, we are both still chanting “yes!” to the garden.


Almost all of the Sugar Snap pea seeds germinated and today we thinned the sprouts.

This one round of thinning should be sufficient; the remaining seedlings have about three inches of space between them. The vines will be dense by the time they start producing pea pods but they will get plenty of sun (and we will get plenty of peas).

We got to the peas a little later than I had intended—the sprouts are about a foot tall—but it is not too late. The leaves are still tender even if the stems are starting to toughen.

Roughly chopped and sautéed with butter, the shoots were delicious on top of crostini spread with a dollop of ricotta.

It has been more than a month since we planted the root vegetables and they are coming along fine. As usual, the radishes are in the lead—they’re speed demons, relatively speaking—and their greens are at least six inches tall. The turnips are a close second while the beets and carrots are trailing far behind (again, not unusual).

We’re overdue, however, for a second seeding. I would have preferred to do it two weeks ago with a third seeding today, but others parts of my life took precedence. Better late than never even if there will probably be a gap between when the first crop is exhausted and the second begins to yield.

We laid out two new rows (at a spacing of six inches) and carefully placed (rather than sprinkled) the seeds with about one inch in between them. It is tedious—especially with the tiny carrot and radish seeds—but using tweezers helps.

And it is worth the extra effort. The seedlings that are growing now are comfortably spaced and will be easily thinned (and soon, too). The only seedlings that will require close attention are the beets whose seeds are actually seed clusters. No matter how much space we put between them, they will still produce tightly-grouped seedlings that we must thin carefully using clippers.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a gardening article that might be the first one I have ever seen that makes a case for not starting plants from seed (see “Roots and Shoots: How Homegrown Is Necessary?” which appeared in the February 14, 2014 issue of The Paper).  Pamela Doan’s column does include simple and useful instructions for starting a garden indoors in winter (with an emphasis on tomatoes) but starts off with her reasons why she doesn’t do it.

It’s nice to see someone bucking the conventional wisdom, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.  I’m a complete believer in starting from seed when possible but I recognize that doing so can seem like a lot of effort.  If the choice were between buying seedlings or doing nothing, I would buy the seedlings (as I did in 2011 and 2012).  Like most gardening projects, however, sowing seeds requires intermittent bouts of close attention—often accompanied by intensive activity—but little effort otherwise.  Once the seed trays have been set up and are safely tucked into a warm and well-lit location, they take care of themselves for the most part.  Only a modest investment of time is needed.  Potting up requires another infusion of time but the task is not much different from setting out, something that must be done whether the seedlings are home-grown or store-bought.

Similarly, the financial investment needn’t break the bank.  Unquestionably, one can spend a lot of money on seed starting apparatuses, depending on size, features and aesthetic appeal.  And the cost of specially formulated grow lights and heating coils specifically designed for seed trays is ridiculously high (a case, I think, of commercial opportunism).  Expensive whistles and bells will not necessarily be of benefit to so basic an operation.  Fortunately for one’s pocketbook, for example, plain fluorescent lights and utilitarian heating pads work just as well as their high-end counterparts.

In fact, as we found out last year (see February 18, 2013), a spacious and efficient seed starting apparatus can be put together for very little money.  Our modified shelving unit (including lights, pads, and seed trays) cost less than $200 and can accommodate 432 seedlings on three shelves (with two shelves left over).  A smaller apparatus would be proportionally less money.

The unit should last essentially forever; there will be no new expenses year to year so the effective cost, amortized over its expected life, is even less.  Further, it can be used for storage off season (a mixed blessing; see January 8, 2014).  Existing shelves similarly modified would be more economical and a sunny windowsill, for those lucky enough to have one, is even cheaper.

The most eye-opening of Ms. Doan’s arguments against starting from seed is her primary contention that most seed companies put too many seeds in each packet.  To her, this means planting more of any given vegetable than perhaps she would like.  The result, given overall constraints of time and space, is a lesser variety of vegetables.  Either that or wasted seeds.

I’ll admit that last year we started more seeds than we needed (72 basil plants; really?).  But that was due to inexperience and pessimism.  With no idea of what rate of germination to expect and a firm commitment to planting only our own seedlings, we erred on the conservative side.  We didn’t let that impact our decisions about what to grow, however.  Instead, we gave away as many seedlings as we could foist off on people and, with some regrets, cast what we couldn’t use onto the refuse pile (see, for example, May 4, 2013, part 2).

The startling part of the surfeit-of-seeds concept, though, is the implication that all of the seeds in a packet must be planted at once.  This notion never occurred to me.  I am frugal (some would say cheap) about many things (but by no means all) and always intended to save the seeds I did not plant last spring to use again this year.  The average seed life is printed on each packet and most are theoretically good for two years or more.

I say “theoretically” because, of course, seed life depends on how the seeds are stored between planting seasons.  We kept our seeds safely inside a small box in the basement.  There, they were protected from light and excessive heat and moisture.  It can get warm and humid here in July and August—and last year was particularly torrid—but the basement is partially underground which mitigates the extreme weather conditions.  The small volume of the box should have further minimized the effects of summer.  (Some would suggest storing seeds in the freezer, as we did with seeds from two years ago; unfortunately, they are too easily forgotten that way, by which I mean that I forgot about them.)  Even after a year, the seeds should still be viable.

So now we’re in the process of finding out whether they actually are.  Our plan this year is to sow fewer seeds of each type of vegetable and, possibly, to plant additional varieties (this would require buying more seeds or, later in the season, seedlings).  So far, we have only planted herbs (six seeds of six varieties) and lettuce (six seeds of two varieties).

The lettuces are sprouting at about a 50 percent success rate while only two herb varieties (basil and rosemary) have germinated.  Herbs are notoriously slow to get started but I should note that all of the herbs except the basil have an average seed life of only one year.  I may be pushing my luck—and the limits of my faith (see February 19, 2014).

Contrary to the Roots and Shoots article, there is more than bragging rights to be gained from growing plants from seed.  It is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get the garden started and to jump back into the gardening spirit, even in the midst of winter.  And for a control freak like me, it is the only way to grow exactly what I want and to know everything about my plants.  The bragging—and blogging—rights are a nice bonus.

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.

At breakfast last Saturday morning (pancakes and eggs at our favorite local joint), we started in on early planning for this year’s garden.  The first thing we concluded is that we are not really early.  By some reckonings, we should have sowed seeds for thyme last month and could be starting other herbs right now.  The second thing we concluded is that, once again, we are behind schedule.

Luckily, the choices of what to plant this year were relatively easy decisions even though a fair amount of thought went into each one.  We started with the list of plants we grew last year and then applied a few different criteria to assess their success.

The most important criterion for each vegetable is our answer to the question, did we like it?  It doesn’t matter how well it grew or how much it produced if, at the end of the day, we won’t eat it.  Of last year’s crops—those that actually yielded fruit—the only one that did not absolutely thrill us was the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes.  They were not bad, per se, but they didn’t leave us wanting for more.  Consequently, we will not grow them again this year.

There was one plant whose fruit we could not taste.  The Delicata winter squash did set fruit—several of them—but was not able to develop any of them to maturity.  And that leads to the next criterion, performance.  Plants that did not thrive last year may not be suited to our particular microclimate.  Then again, we may not have given them what they needed, either.

So, what besides the Delicata did not perform?  Well, the Kabocha winter squash produced only one specimen by the end of the year and it was a small one at that.  That’s two strikes against the winter squashes and based on this meager showing, I was tempted to say that we should try other varieties this year or skip them altogether.

However, roasted with a little olive oil and salt, the Kabocha squash was absolutely delicious.  It passed the first criteria with flying colors even though it showed weakly on the second.  Similarly, although we were not able to sample the produce of our Delicata, it is one of my favorite varieties (we often buy it at the farmers’ market).  Therefore, we will try the Delicata and Kabocha squashes again.

The next criterion then is, why did these vegetables underperform?  My best guess is that we underfed them.  I haven’t reported on last year’s testing yet (look for a future posting) but soil properties are a definite suspect.  The areas we planted with the squash were newly formed last year and have not had much chance to stabilize.  This spring, we will probably need to enrich their soil and fertilize them more frequently.

The same could be true of the summer squashes—both the yellow crookneck and pale green zucchini—and the cucumbers—one a pickling variant and the other a slicing type—all of which we planted in more or less the same area (the ground surrounding the planters) and with roughly the same soil (equal parts of compost and peat moss).

Despite these similarities, however, their performance was quite different.  Three of the four summer squash vines were hugely productive (especially the alpha crookneck; see August 6, 2013) whereas the cucumbers produced only a modest quantity of fruit before fading away in mid-summer.  Two other factors could account for the differences.

First, the amount of soil we introduced for the cucumbers was much, much less than for the squashes.  This is partly because of their location between the pool fence and planters but mostly because the cucumbers were the last seedlings we planted.  By that time, we were tired!  Our native soil is rocky and very difficult to dig but we will have to face up to doing more of it this year.  Adding to and amending the soil will be an early spring chore.

Second, the cucumbers were stricken hard by powdery mildew and once afflicted, perished rapidly.  It is not clear (and probably never will be) whether this was due to their undernourished state or simply because the varieties we planted are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew.  The squashes, on the other hand, seem better able to continue to produce after contracting the disease.  Each of the squash vines was still setting fruit into the fall.

Both of these are factors we can mitigate—or try to mitigate, anyway—and so we will plant both types of summer squash and both types of cucumbers again.  To help control the powdery mildew (which is endemic in the northeast), we will plant in new locations.  I will also arm myself with a spray bottle full of baking soda solution which I will apply early and often.  With diligence—and luck—we will have more squash and cucumbers than we can eat this year.

Greetings from the future.

What’s that, you say?  Today is January 6, 2014 so how can this post be from the future?

Well, it may be January 6, 2014 in the real world but in my blog’s timeline, the date is currently October 24, 2013 (my most recent post).  In fact, the garden engineer calendar has been stuck in October for quite some time now.  This is mainly because in the last two months, there have been many things to which to chose to say “yes” or “no” to.  With the garden fully dormant (spoiler alert:  the growing season has ended!), I elected to say “no” to it and its blog and “yes” to some of those other things.

But now that the holiday season has passed (another spoiler alert:  Thanksgiving and Christmas have already occurred and were the best ever!), I have time to loop back and fill in some of the missing posts from the end of 2013.  My brother made the excellent suggestion that I simply do a single, catch-up summary but I’m afraid that I am much too literal- and serial-minded to be able to do that.  Besides, some of the posts were already (mostly) written.

Instead, over the next week or two I will continue the chronology that garden engineer has been following from the start, including only those posts that pertain to actual events during year’s end.  For topics that are less temporally fixed, e.g., season recap, soil testing results, planning for this—I mean next—maybe I do mean this—year (time travel is difficult), I will wait until after I have caught back up to the present day.  With luck, that will be soon.

For those readers who feel that 2013 ended too quickly, this might be a welcome extension of the fall and holiday seasons.  Others may wish to skip ahead.

So Happy New Year (when you get here).  Until then (to paraphrase Doc Brown), “Back to the Past!”

There is always so much to be done—my to-do list is lengthy—but only so many hours in which to do it.  On any given day, I have to make several decisions about what I can accomplish before the sun goes down.  To a few things, I say “Yes”; everything else gets an implicit “No”.

The choice can be difficult, especially when the garden is on the receiving end of one of those nos.  When that happens, I sometimes feel like I’m neglecting the vegetables and that something critical may occur while my attention is elsewhere.  Perhaps hornworms will appear on the tomatoes (Yikes!) or a first eggplant will form (Rejoice!) and I won’t be there to witness it and take appropriate action (removing the offending insects for the former and photographing the blessed fruit for the latter).

So my goal is to avoid missing the garden for more than one day.  Frankly, not much happens in the garden in any particular 24-hour period and often the garden will go for several days with no discernable changes, good or bad.  (Those dreaded hornworms, which can chomp their way through entire tomato plants in a very short time, might be an exception.)  If I have to be away longer, I get someone to look after things.

Ironically, blogging about the garden can be counter-conducive to the actual gardening activities themselves.  Noting the progress (or lack thereof) of the vegetables, taking photographs, writing about it (probably the largest demand on my time), and posting; these things take time.  That’s time that could be spent doing the things that eventually I will be blogging about.  It could easily become a Catch-22:  I can’t write the blog if I don’t do any gardening but if I spend too much time gardening, I can’t write a blog about it.

And, sometimes, it feels preferable to blog about something rather than do it, a la Andy Rooney.  For instance (nasally, whiny voice):  Don’t you just hate it when you have to remove sod?  It has to be the most difficult part of constructing a garden.  And what do you do with all of that sod, anyway?  It’s not like you can sell it or exchange it for other plants.  (With no disrespect to Andy Rooney, who wisely—or luckily—made a long, successful career out of such rants.)

While I’m on the topic of ironies, here’s another one.  At times, I feel reluctant to harvest vegetables when they are at a near-perfect state of ripeness and aesthetic beauty.  They look so nice, the well-formed squash, blossom still attached, or pristine white turnip, peeking out of the ground with a symmetrical plume of succulent greens on top.  It would be a shame to spoil the tableau.  And once harvested, a void remains, a barrenness, an absence of beauty.

But, hey, this is dinner!  I snap a few photos, grab the vegetables and head for the kitchen.

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”.

Using the heating pad with the automatic shut-off proved to be impractical.  It only remains on for 15 minutes.  There’s no way I can be running downstairs to reset it that frequently.

On the other hand, the smaller, old-fashioned heating pad works fine.  I’ve set it on a timer to run for a few hours, followed by a short cooling-off period (to prevent overheating) and repeating for most of the day.  I will move it manually from tray to tray so that everything gets its share of the warmth (and the love).

I may look into inexpensive heating pads for dedicated seed-starting use.  Realistically, though, this may not happen in time for this year’s seeds.