Friday, October 31, 2008
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
The Black Dog has been worrying at me for about a month now, but the depression reached its nadir this past weekend following a visit to see my parents. My father has Alzheimer's, and it has rendered him angry, belligerent, paranoid, and, paradoxically, often whimsically erratic in his behavior (he is convinced, for example, that wily thieves break into his house to steal his socks). It makes for a stressful visit, the details of which I choose not to go into here. Anyone who has had a loved one with this disease knows what I'm talking about anyway.
What I will talk about is that I have learned through the years that my best weapon against depression is to make or build something (hence the spate of garden-building this past couple of weeks). So on Monday, the day after I returned from Midland, I went out into the shop and fashioned yet another handle for the Extraordinarily Effective Auger Compost Tool.
Mind you, I like tools. Always have. I like using them, I like making them, I like thinking about them. I am my father's daughter in this respect. My father grew up on a farm in northern Alabama, and back when I was a wee one, we used to go out there every summer to visit his brother, who still worked the old family homestead. When I conjure up those memories, what I see in my head are pictures of tools--plows, tractors, old rakey-things, corn-likker stills, deep in the woods and in merry disarray after the revenuers had made peace with them...
My father left the farm to go fight as a radioman in the Pacific during the second world war, and when he returned, he went to Auburn on the G.I. Bill to study engineering. He wanted to build tractors for John Deere, but Old Venerable wasn't hiring when he graduated, so he took a job out west with an oil company. An engineer for an oil company doesn't actually build things, though, and so for the rest of his life, in order to scratch that "build-things itch," he tinkered in his spare time. And oh, the things he made: Built-in bookcases for the house. A fancy grape arbor. A giant radio for the living room (the only radio in the neighborhood at the time).
Some of the things he built were actually his own wacky inventions--the automatic pecan sheller comes to mind. It is a machine I find rather alarming in its Rube Goldberg-ness, even to this day. (It was probably kin to the automatic butter-churn that he built for his Aunt Myrtis when he was twelve--the one that spun out of control and flung butter all over the ceiling of her farmhouse kitchen.)
There isn't any doubt that I inherited whatever it was that used to drive him to tinker and build. I can't explain what that drive is, though. All I can say is that it has something to do with the puzzle of a problem that needs solving, absorption in a task, and the satisfaction of making something that performs work.
My own tinkering usually involves woodworking. In my other life, I make canoe paddles, using hand tools in the process. I used some of these--a shop-built (homemade) bodger's bench, a spoke shave, and a drawknife-- on Monday to fashion another handle for my compost tool. I wasn't yet satisfied with my earlier effort, and thought I might try to improve on the design. Plus, I needed to make something.
I like using a shave. It is a singularly contemplative act. I sit on the bodger's bench, sunlight from the shop window falling on my work, a piano sonata on the radio filling the silence, a roughed-out version of an ash handle clamped in the jaws of the bench. I draw the shave across the surface of the wood and it makes a soft, chattering noise, like far away sandhill cranes. And the black dog retreats.
I wanted it to look like a rustic wooden tool handle, such as one might find on a farm in rural northern Alabama. Something that someone from the holler might have made using the old ways, in his spare time.
Friday, October 24, 2008
"I think that life must be like an ephemeral stream. And so I wait for the dream to pass and the waters to return. Sometimes these days I have a flashback that goes like this: I suddenly see the car turn sideways to the highway. I see my arm go up to protect my face as the car starts to tip and roll. I see the ground rising to meet the window. And in that instant a wave of peace washes over me. By way of explanation, I can only say that in that moment I see the ground rising up, I am reminded of beauty.
Recently, only weeks after the accident, I saw a tree in my neighborhood with such a dazzle of autumn leaves I felt stunned, unable to breathe. The leaves were at their peak and just starting to deck the streets with slips of amber and lemon yellow. It occurred to me that the tree probably looked that poignantly perfect exactly one day each year and that, if I was lucky, I had seen (perhaps) that one perfect day twice out of the last ten years. If I project seeing that tree in that state twice each decade, and if I assume, now that I have cheated Death, that I will live another four decades before I die, I might see such perfection exactly eight more times. It now seems to me that a total of eleven days of perfection out of a lifetime of trees is simply not enough, and therefore I must make a concentrated effort to increase my autumn tree perfection productivity.
That I am here at all to see the tree seems to me a notion that fairly shatters the air around me."
"This is the day. There is no other. It turns out that the meaning of life is a terrible knowledge that sharpens the line of the tree and the bite of the wind. It deepens the sky and brings the moon closer. It shows, with brilliant clarity, the perfect line to take around the turn in the stream. It turns out, finally, that it is life itself that cradles us with grace and delivers us into peace."
The tree is probably still a couple of days from its peak, but we had our first freeze last night and I'm going out of town for the weekend to meet up with my sisters and check on the old folks. I thought I'd better get out there and take a picture in case I missed it.
On my travels today, I will pass by the site of the accident and, as always, I'll give a short prayer of thanks to that terrible day for what it taught me about beauty and life in the moment.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Now that I am having fun with compost again, I was looking for an easier way to turn the pile to aerate it and speed up the process. I have been using just a standard spading fork, but the ergonomics of leaning over the compost wall and lifting a heavy forkful of black gold leaves much to be desired.
Many years ago, I used one of those pokey sticks with the little flip down thingys, but it didn't work all that well. It was hard to push through leaves that hadn't broken down yet, and if I did manage to do so, it didn't "lift and fluff" very well when I pulled it back up. I worked at it for awhile, though, trying my best to be a good sport about its lackluster effectiveness. Eventually one of the little flip down thingys broke off, which was enough finally to discourage me, and I threw it away.
Nevertheless, now that I am back in the composting biz, I thought I'd look for another and was shocked to discover that they cost around $30, plus shipping. This seemed rather exorbitant to me, especially now that I am trying to travel the Righteous Path of the Frugal, so I started to consider how to fashion one together myself. Plus, I like to make things.
One day this past week, while doing some garden cleanup, I was simultaneously trying to work out in my head how to best make the little flip down thingy part when I happen to notice two auger-type ground anchors lying next to the fence. I had used them to hold down a portable bird blind I built two or three years ago. I've since taken down the blind (and plan to recycle it as a potting bench cum bird blind I'm going to build this winter), and had pulled the anchors out of the ground and tossed them aside.
Something made me stop and give those augers the eyeball. And I started thinking...
I took one of them, stuck a weeding fork through the top, walked over to the compost heap and gave it a few easy twists. Holy cow. The thing dove like a loon down to the bottom of the pile. When I pulled it back up, the disc on the end of the auger brought a big, fat, fluffy wad of compost with it, thus aerating the bejeebers out of the pile.
Easy. As. Pie. No frustrated grunting as I tried to shove it past the leaves. No back strain from dicey ergonomics. Lots of fresh air to get those microbes busy working.
So I made a little prototype and used it for a day or two, and found I loved how user-friendly and effective it was to use--much more so than the pokey stick ever was. Here is a pic of the prototype, next to its sister anchor:
And here is the finished product:
I gave the handle a couple of coats of my canoe paddle recipe (1:1:1 boiled linseed oil, turpentine, and spar varnish) to protect it. I had the dowels and brackets left over from another project, so total cost to me for my Extraordinarily Effective Auger Compost Tool was $0, thus keeping me on the Righteous Path.
I'm not crazy about the orange color, but I guess that's quibbling.
You can get these anchors at any hardware store. I don't remember how much I paid for mine, but a cursory search online turned up one for $6.99. The 1" hardwood dowel probably cost me a couple of dollars or so. The bracket on top of the dowel probably costs less than a buck. Those are two smaller dowels in the side to keep the larger dowel from slipping out (the bracket could probably do that, too, but I worried about the screws eventually working their way out as a result of all the torquing).
All you need, really, is the auger and a sawed-off broom handle for twisting. Attaching the dowel permanently is convenient but not necessary .
So for less than $10 or so, you too could have an Extraordinarily Effective Auger Compost Tool.
And no flip down thingy to break off one day...
I have been inspired by the linocuts on Sherrie York's blog, Brush and Baren, to try my own hand at it this winter. So I am busily trying to get as many garden photos as I can so that I'll have something to work from--maybe I'll start with these little beauties.
If any of them turn out halfway decent, I'll share the results.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Here's a favorite dish of Walt's and mine that I made on Sunday night, using my home-grown poblano peppers:
Vegetarian Black Bean Enchilada Casserole
1 can organic black beans, rinsed
8 corn tortillas
2 cups grated cheddar jack
1/2 cup light sour cream
2 small poblano peppers, roasted and chopped
2 small avocados, peeled and chopped (sprinkle with lemon juice)
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1 small can green enchilada sauce (or salsa verde)
2 T chopped green onions
chipotle powder to taste
Use non-stick spray on a casserole dish, then line the bottom with 3 corn tortillas. Mix black beans with chopped poblanos, then pour 1/2 of the mixture over the tortillas; layer with 1/4 cup sour cream and 1/3 cup cheddar jack. Repeat these layers, then top with remaining tortillas. Pour green enchilada sauce over all. Top with remaining cheese. Sprinkle with green onions, tomatoes, avocados, and chipotle powder. Bake at 350 F until cheese is bubbly and starting to brown. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Serves 6.
Variation: add fried tomatillos instead of tomatoes. Bread the tomatillos in flour and cornmeal and fry in canola oil. Put the fried tomatillos on the top layer of the casserole, sprinkle with cheese, green onions, and chipotle powder.
Hint: Roast the poblanos over an outdoor grill or under the boiler until all sides started to blister and turn black, then remove them from the heat and place in a heat-proof dish. Cover these with a lid or foil until cool. Once they are cool, peel the skins, rinse and remove the seeds. (Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling the peppers. Do not touch your eyes or other sensitive parts.)
I only used two for the dish (they were packing a little heat) so I froze the extras in individual servings to use later for chiles rellenos and other tasty winter dishes.
Composting is certainly something I feel morally obligated to do--we all know the many environmental and organic gardening bennies to it, so I won't go into it here. However, the real reason I like composting is because I get to make and use compost bins. I do like neatness and tidiness in the garden (even though various people have described my ornamental garden as "wild"---something that I am not entirely sure is meant as a compliment...), and, as we all know, I also like to build things--compost bins perfectly satisfies those two desires, creating an orderly look in the Farm just by their very presence.
Even so, I've found it difficult to use them. Oh, I put an amazing tonnage of pecan leaves in there every fall, and on the few occasions that I actually mow my "wild" yard, I throw some grass clippings into the mix. But I've always been sort of lazy when it comes to turning it, and as for composting my kitchen waste, well, that little exercise just hasn't happened the way I'd like it to.
It's not that I don't want to compost the kitchen waste. Certainly it would improve the nitrogen content of the compost pile, which tends to be carbon-heavy from all the leaves. (Of course, I wouldn't have to worry about that if Walu would let me get a couple of hens. ) I've gone through the motions of saving it up in a container, only to forget about it and having it turn a stinking, toxic soup (sadly, this has happened often enough that Walu has been driven to order composting out of the kitchen...).
I'm a big believer in Therbligs--you know, the time/motion studies to improve workplace efficiency. Whenever there is something I'd like to do that I'm resisting doing, I find it useful to consider why, exactly, I don't want to do it. Nearly always it has something to do with inefficient or uncomfortable motion. So when I considered the problem of not composting, I turned to Therbligs for the answer. And here it is:
A) Leaving the kitchen waste in a pail to compost later is a sure way for me to forget about it. I need to compost every evening, as part of the dinner-making chores. However,
B) In the time it takes me to run out to farm, open the gate, run to the back corner of the Farm (where the bins were located), toss the scraps in, run back to the gate and then the house, I am eaten alive by mosquitoes. And,
C) Ideally, I should be hot composting, but this requires turning the pile every day or so. However, see B) above re mosquitoes. (How they torment me!)
I don't like to lather up with Deet more than I have to, so it seems silly to do it for a two-minute exercise in composting. On reflection, I realized that the answer was to move the bins closer to the house, so that I minimized my time in the mosquito zone. Therbligs!
So on Sunday I moved them. First, however, I decided to fix something that had been bothering me for awhile. They were not quite the same size, a small detail that offended my sense of symmetry. So I took the bigger of the two and resized it using my reciprocating saw:
Then I moved the operation to just beyond the picket gate that separates the farm from the backyard, on a path that is a straight shot from the back door to the gate leading to the alley:
I think they look rather spiffy there, as if they are standing at attention.
Like all projects, it seemed like I eventually dragged every tool in the shop outside to complete what I thought was going to be a relatively straightforward, simple task:
I think that moving them to this location will help motivate me to get those kitchen scraps out there where they will do some good, and since I pass by the spot on the way to take out the trash or water the crops, it should be easier to give the piles a quick turn. And, not coincidentally, the bins are also closer to where most of the leaves fall, so loading them up should be easier as well. Therbligs again.
In any case, it was a pleasant enough way to spend a beautiful autumn day. Now if I can just talk my neighbor out of some of the manure from his chickens...
Saturday, October 18, 2008
That Becky's Diner mug is for scale. John warned me that the squash get big, but good grief. Surely it's not good for you to eat something that is larger than your head...
Powdery mildew (PoMi) update: The homemade organic concoction didn't do anything it slow it down, and I trimmed leaves until I was afraid to trim anymore. So finally I decided to just let it go to see what happened. The leaves are starting to look tatty, and in some instances are dying off, but the two squash that I have are continuing to grow (and if both grow to this size, two are all I need to get me through winter--heck, they may get me through the next two winters...). Research suggests that the PoMi may affect the taste of the squash. Having never tasted one, however, I'm not sure what to expect. In any case, the PoMi has apparently had no affect on the size of the fruit.
Friday, October 17, 2008
I had a cedar box that I've used as a raised bed in the past, so I thought I'd use that as the base and build a removable top for it. That way I can put the box back to use as a raised bed if I ever need it.
Here are some pics of how the top turned out:
I started with using simple plastic sheeting, but when I put it out in the rain one night this week to test it, it filled with water and tore. So I got some clear corrugated PVC roofing material and used that instead. The PVC and foam support together cost about $17. (A plexiglass sheet for the same size would have cost $25.) The cedar I used for the top frame is made of 4" and 6" fencing pickets, with the sides cut on a slope to create run-off, and they cost ~$12 total. So the top wasn't cheap--well more than I would pay for carrots or arugula in the store--but it is sturdy, and should last several seasons, thus amortizing the cost. I hope. Plus, I can't stand flimsy construction. It just offends my sensibilities.
Many instructions for cold frames suggest using an old window, which is fine if you have old windows lying around. I do not, preferring to use my old windows for, well, windows. I find that the house is much warmer that way.
I ran poultry wire along the inside of the box, and plan to fill it with leaf litter for added insulation:
Hopefully, the timing of the pecan trees' leaf drop will correspond to the need for added insulation. I thought about getting some builder's insulation and tacking it on the inside (per some instructions I found on the internet), but since I had a roll of poultry wire lying around, this was
I think it has turned out well. It will be interesting to see how long into the winter season I can grow things. Plus, I hope to use it in the spring to start seedlings for my foray into heirlooms. I do love a good experiment!
And building things. I love building things. I am just a building fool...
Each morning and afternoon I ride my bike past the hell strip in our front yard on my way to work. ("The hell strip" is the name some people give that weird little stretch of nothing between the sidewalk and the street...) This past spring I got busy and finished it, putting in some gravel, Mexican feather grass, chamisa, and blackfoot daisy. Everything really took off once we started to get some rain.
I think it is looking especially lovely this week. It makes me smile every time I see it. These photos don't really do it justice.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
If you are looking for some good reading material, check them both out, and I'll return in a day or two to post on the construction of my cold frame.
Monday, October 13, 2008
Friday, October 10, 2008
I've never been very successful at growing things from seed. First there's that problem of not seeing anything for days and days--it takes a lot of faith to keep watering dirt.
And snails. Oy. Don't get me started talking about how much snails like to nibble on tender young shoots...
So many ways to fail.
As a result, over the years I've more or less given up on starting my plants from seed, thinking it an enterprise more suited to...well,
The problem is, I am limited to the "same old, same old" that is found in
So seeds it is, boys and girls. I decided to give these heirloom carrots (Amarillo) a try and plant them in a cold frame. If all goes well, Walt and I will be eating fresh yellow vitamin A for Christmas. Stay tuned.
Damping off, indeed. Hmph.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Let's take a moment together to breathe deeply.
I heard this interesting story on NPR the other morning about what happens when people start feeling a lack of control in their lives--apparently they start seeing patterns in things where there are none. That people see bizarre images of of the planet Saturn in static and buying into conspiracy theories when they feel anxious and powerless is in itself interesting, but what really caught my attention was at the end of the story--I almost missed it:
"In short, people who felt that the world was beyond their control became so hungry for patterns and connections that their minds started just making them up.
But Whitson also found one way to help people who are feeling powerless to see the world the way it really is. In a different experiment, she asked volunteers who were feeling a lack of control to talk about a personal value that they consider important.
When these people were shown fuzzy, meaningless images, they did not see imaginary objects.
Maybe this could help in real life, Whitson says. When you're feeling powerless, maybe you should stop and think about what you really care about — something you do have control over."
I think the last line bears repeating now: "When you're feeling powerless, maybe you should stop and think about [a personal value] you really care about — something you do have control over."It is also worth noting (for me, at least) that it is in times of panic that I most tend to forget what my values are. I'm thinking that it wouldn't kill me to reflect on them a bit, in the hopes that I remain true to what I believe even if Old Man Crises comes knocking at the door.
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming:
Sunday was rainy, so I couldn't divide the irises, as I had planned (Amy Stewart, blogging on Garden Rant, recommends doing this in election years--a terrific idea for keeping the garden timetable straight); I did, however, manage to sneak out there between raindrops to do something I've needed to do for a couple of years: tie up my antique climbing rose, "Silver Moon," in a proper way.
This is what it looked like before:
As you can see, a pathetic, hodge-podge attempt to encourage the rose to climb up and drape over the pergola. And a bit tacky looking, to boot.
I cut the supports, and then used poultry staples and zip ties to wind the canes around the post, like this:
I think creating a lattice of the canes turned out rather nicely. Here is a close-up:
Simple. Clean. Orderly. A pattern that is true.
Personal value thought-note for the day: There is beauty in simplicity.
Monday, October 6, 2008
One thing I felt good about, however, was that it forced me to finally deal with some pesticides I had on a shelf. Over the years I've gone more and more organic with my gardening, and rarely use pesticides anymore; in fact, some of the stuff I had was more than a decade old. But once you stop using them, you can't just toss the leftovers in the trash and call it done. Most of the stuff was not too terribly bad--herbicides, fertilizers, etc.--but there was some Dursban, and that concerned me.
So I did some investigating about how to deal with disposal of the stuff properly. You can safely dispose of small amounts of household poisons in the city dumpster (I'll pass along the recommendations on how to do it at the end of this post), but I just didn't feel comfortable doing that with the amount that I had. In the end, I called the solid waste disposal department for the city, who instructed me to take them to the recycling center on 84th St.
When I got there, however, I was informed by the man at the gate that they weren't accepting them anymore. But then he told me to talk to the "boss" and maybe he would make an exception. So I tracked the boss down, and he confirmed that they'd decided not to accept individual drop offs of household toxics anymore. Instead, they are going to go to a monthly, by-appointment only, drop off date. So I asked when that date was coming up, and he replied that he didn't know. They hadn't gotten that far in their thinking about it yet.
I guess I look dismayed (I was driving around with a toxic waste dump in the back of the wagon, after all), because he took pity on me and relented. We unloaded everything into a blue shed, and I closed the door on that part of my gardening life. Felt good about it, too.
Here's an alarming thought, though: All across America there are shelves of pesticides, just like mine. Shelves, and shelves, and shelves...and they all are going to need to be dealt with. All the more reason to start moving toward less troublesome modes of gardening. Sorry, Monsanto, but your way of doing things just isn't going to cut it anymore.
Disposal of Household Toxic Waste:
Small amounts of household toxics can safely be disposed of in the city dumpster (the dump site is also lined to prevent toxins from leaching out into the soil). The City of Lubbock website and my friend Jill (who used to work for the Poison Hotline, and who has written a book about toxics) suggests the following to prep for disposal:
Rinse empty containers, seal in a plastic trash bag.
If the poisons are solids (powders, granules, etc.): Double bag and seal in a sturdy trash bag.
If the poisons are liquid: Double bag and seal in a sturdy trash bag, with kitty litter to soak up any possible leaks that might occur.
For paints, oils, stains, etc.: open can and let air dry, safely away from children and pets. Once dry, dispose of in the dumpster.
I'd like to stress that these are these are the procedures for Lubbock. Your own muncipality might have other means of taking care of households toxics, so to be on the safe side, always check with your local authorities before doing anything.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
level radial arm saw to bench tops
make top for cold frame
finish %$#2* drip irrigation system
make paddle blanks for paddle making workshop
build potting bench
create rain barrel bed/herb garden
dig out and fix driveway
finish mosaic staircase (finally!)
plant veggie garden
There you have it--a few things to do.
Today, of course, I am doing none of these, opting instead to do some writing and work on a quilt.
On another note: it's a nice rain we're having today, and just in time, since the rain barrels were getting a little low. They are all full up now and still it comes. I really do need to add another 100 or so gallons of capacity, hence the addition of the rain barrel bed to my list above.