Archives for posts with tag: writing

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.

Advertisements

I came down to the garden this morning to weed. I had the three things I needed (see May 17, 2014): good conditions (rain two days ago; sunny and warm today); good tools (my two bare hands); and a good mood (what a pleasant way to spend an hour or two after breakfast).

My task was simple and clear and the scope of work small and well-defined (another important element of successful weeding). We’ll be setting out the tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and summer squash later and I needed only to clear the raised beds and soil mounds of the weeds that inevitably (and spontaneously, it seems) appear in any fertile soil.

This would not be difficult weeding (no dandelions, for instance) and no tools would be required other than my hands. So, why did I end up with a tabletop covered with artifacts?

Well, first there was the coffee mug I brought down with me. It was not strictly necessary but I enjoy coffee in the morning and if I can do something else and drink coffee at the same time, why not?

Then there was the waste bucket. I can’t just throw the pulled weeds on the ground, can I?

Next came the sunblock and insect repellent. Gardening is one of those activities that easily leads to sunburn, especially on such a nice morning and while the temperature is still cool. Also, we humans are not the only ones who enjoy the great outdoors; the bugs were out in legion.

While weeding the east planter, where the peas and root vegetables are already growing, I remembered that I ought to treat the Sugar Snap peas to ward off aphids. Out came the herbal spray.

At about the same time, I came up with the idea for this blog. That meant fetching a pad of paper and a pencil (my favorite way to write when it is practical) and, of course, the camera (what would a blog be without photos?). A second trip back to the basement became necessary when I realized (for the umpteenth time) that I cannot read or write anything without my glasses.

I jotted down some ideas and moved on to the west planter. After a few minutes of gently pulling out the hay that had sprouted there, my nose began to itch. The result? Back inside for a tissue. (Thankfully, the allergens were not so bad that I needed an antihistamine. That would have meant a trip upstairs to the medicine cabinet.)

I finished the west planter and turned my attention to the squash mounds. As I bent down to start weeding, what did I spy but an anchor for the pool cover that had gone missing during the pool’s opening two weeks ago. (What a relief! I was not looking forward to getting it replaced.) I tried screwing it back into its insert (in the concrete pool deck) but I couldn’t really get a grip on it.

So I reluctantly returned to the toolbox to retrieve the large Allen wrench that came with the pool cover and was explicitly designed for this purpose. On returning, though, I found that the anchor would still not twist into its sleeve. Even more reluctantly, I retraced my steps back to the toolbox for lubricant.

Anyway, you get the idea.

By the time I had finished with the diversion and was ready to get back to weeding, the day had warmed and my coffee had cooled. It was time for a drink of water—and yes, another trip inside.

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 Philipstown.info 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.

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.

This weekend is the first time this spring that is has been both warm and free of snow.  Finally, we can start our outdoor planting.

But first, a little planning.  I mean, it’s not like we can just throw some seeds in the ground, right?  Well, I suppose we could (and many people do, successfully) but then there would be less to write about.

Our main consideration is crop rotation and making sure that we do not plant anything in the same place we grew it last year.  Because we are doing the same vegetables again this year and have two raised beds, this simply means swapping everything from west to east and vice versa.

Our secondary consideration is expansion.  At the end of last season (see September 25, 2012 and January 16, 2013), we concluded that the zucchini and the cucumbers need more space than the raised beds can provide while still accommodating other vegetables.  Therefore, we will move them elsewhere (posts will follow).

So, without further ado, here are the planting layouts for the raised beds:

East planter:  Tomatoes in the north half; lettuces in the southwest sextant; eggplant and bell peppers in the south central sextant; and basil in the southeast sextant.  We have already started the tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and basil from seed indoors (see March 24, 2013) and will direct sow the lettuces in a week or two.

West planter:  Sugar Snap peas in the north half; turnips and carrots in the southwest quadrant; and radishes and beets in the southeast quadrant.  Starting all of these from seed—sowing them directly into the soil—was today’s activity.

The Sugar Snap Peas will expand to a row the full width of the planter which will, hopefully, increase our yield proportionally.  The duration of the harvest should not change—we planted the entire row today—but each day’s crop should be greater.

Last year, we alternated rows of radishes and beets and this year we did the same.  Unlike last year, however, we planted the seeds in longitudinal rows.  It might not be the most efficient use of the available space (we could fit a slightly larger total length of rows if arranged transversely) but it will be much easier to water.  We took the same approach with the carrots and turnips, sowing their seeds in parallel rows.

By moving the peas farther back in the planter (and strictly speaking, they will occupy less than half of the bed), we can fit five rows of the root crops.  We planted one row of carrots and radishes (half of each) and one row of turnips and beets (again, half of each).  We will follow this in a week or two with another row of carrots and radishes and of turnips and beets and wrap up with a final row of carrots and radishes a week or two after that.  Our harvest will be staggered and should last well into summer.

We measured the rows and marked them by removing the mulch.  The seeds went in quickly—even the teeny-tiny carrot seeds—and we brushed a thin layer of soil onto them for cover.  Rain is expected later today so we will let Mother Nature do the watering.

One of the things I like about traveling west is that the time difference actually works in my favor.  I’m an early-to-bed/early-to-rise kind of guy and when I visit California, my 6:00 am to 10:00 pm day becomes 3:00 am to 7:00 pm.  This means that I can get up late, at 4:00 am say (7:00 am at home), do a workout, have a cup of coffee, and still have an hour or two before meeting the family for breakfast (not usually before 8:00 am).

Those early-morning hours are useful for touching base back home (where the workday is just starting) and also great for writing.  It is quiet, there are not a lot of people around and the phone does not ring.  The only downside (and it’s a small one) is that it is usually dark (so outdoor activities are limited).  The Saturday we were in California (October 20, 2012), I sat down in the morning to write some further thoughts about our visit to Glynwood Farm (I misplaced the pages when we got home, hence the delay).

During more stressful times, I often joke about chucking it all in and getting a job as a ditch digger.  The impulse is partly about doing something mindless—in the sense of no thinking required—but it’s also about doing something that is more physical than intellectual, activities more connected to the land (and animals, too) than to the intangible concepts on which I labor in my mind.  Our visit to Glynwood touched on those feelings.

The people who work there have definitely made a connection to nature.  Many of their day-to-day activities are governed by what is happening with the weather, their vegetables and their livestock.  They are constantly responding to their environment.  (Their work requires a lot of thinking so it does not qualify as mindless.)  They make an immediate and positive impact on their surroundings and by doing so on a daily basis (farming is a seven-day-a-week occupation), they extend their influence (through example and outreach) to a larger area over a longer time period (indefinitely, theoretically).

As mentioned before (see October 12, 2012), Glynwood has a CSA program.  They also sell their meat and poultry at local farmers’ markets and are considering the formation of a community-supported butchery (like CSA, the program would supply a weekly share of animal products for a fee paid at the beginning of the season) as well.  As described in a recent New York Times article, the community-supported approach has been applied to fisheries with additional benefits to both the suppliers and customers and, of course, the environment.

The fisherfolk commit to low quotas on popular species (such as cod) that are in danger of being depleted.  To supplement their catch, they focus on plentiful but less well-known species like redfish (their motto might be “one fish, two fish; red fish, blue fish”).  On the other side of the transaction, the customers have to learn how to cook varieties of seafood that they might not have even heard of before.  The CSF helps by providing recipes and giving lessons in filleting (give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to cook fish and he is a customer for life).

A similar tack could be taken with Glynwood’s CSB.  The types of meat—beef, chicken, pork—are well-known but instead of mass-market varieties (according to Glynwood’s Farm Manager, a conventional chicken is hardly recognizable as such), lesser-known heritage breeds are raised.  And although most cooks know what to do with a chicken breast, ribeye steak or pork chop, fewer would have any idea how to prepare chicken hearts, beef kidneys or pork chitlins.  A key to the responsible eating of meat is avoiding waste.  Using every part of the animal is the only respectful and sustainable practice.

I think the folks at Glynwood get this.  Now, I wonder if they need any ditch diggers?