Monday, March 30, 2009

Something good this way comes...again

It's that time of the semester when, one by one, the eggs I've been juggling start to drop. Even so, I'm trying to focus on the bright side of things to keep my spirits up.

Like this little item of interest: my favorite grocery store, MarketStreet, long a shining light in an otherwise vast sea of mediocrity, has always had these super bike racks, which are used more and more every year (LBB is not known for its commuter-cycling community). However, during a recent renovation the racks were removed, and when they were bolted back in place, they were too close to the outside wall to be usuable. You see, it has to be far enough away to allow the cyclist to put the front wheel all the way through--otherwise, you can't thread a lock through the frame of the bike. This is a sure-fire invitation to theft.

So...I complained, gently, to a store manager. I took him outside and pointed out why they were now unusable, and he listened with great patience and interest, and even asked intelligent questions. While we were standing there, a cyclist wheeled up, looked at us quizzically, and started to lock his bike.

"We're talking about the racks," I said.

The cyclist nodded in understanding and then said, "Oh yeah; they're too close to the wall. I have to park my bike sideways now and it takes up the whole rack that way. The ones on the other side of the store are just as bad."

The manager said he'd bring it up at the next store meeting, and I thanked him for his time. And truthfully? I thought that would be the end of it.

But no. A week later I returned to the store and what did I find? A bike in the rack--which had been moved farther from the wall to allow the bike to be locked through the frame! They'd moved it another foot out and bolted it back to the concrete--just like I'd recommended.

By the way, this excellent rig (not mine) was also pulling a cute little red wagon. Wish I'd had my glasses on when I was taking the picture--I might have noticed it wasn't in the frame...

Of course, I would have lifted the front wheel over the down loop and pulled the bike even farther through to catch the back wheel with the lock, too...but I quibble.

Oh my. I love MarketStreet. I really do. (And I am not a paid shill.)

Imagine a world where you are listened staggers the mind.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

River trip update

Well, I conferred with the other instructor this morning and we both decided that I am simply too sick to go this year (head and chest cold/stomach bug combo that I've been fighting for over a week now). It will be the first time I've missed a field trip, ever. However, since germs travel pretty readily around a campsite, everyone will be much better off if I stay home.

They'll do just fine without me, I'm sure.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Public plantings: my village, part two

Yesterday I introduced Veg Plotting's public planting meme challenge, and offered a couple of examples of less-than-satisfactory efforts on my campus. My main gripe with them is that they are influenced by a vague notion of what a typical college campus is supposed to look like (read: a small liberal arts college in New England), but that sort of planting doesn't come off very well here. And the reason for that is actually pretty simple: we don't live in New England.

There used to be a great swath of prairie right up the middle of this continent. Most of it is gone now, but the environmental conditions that created it are still around: semi-arid climate; sandy soils; abundant sunshine; unfettered wind.

The first three things in that list dictates what thrives here. Ideally, a public planting should be something that doesn't need to be coddled, since coddling = time, and time = money. Gardeners have long known (but too often ignored) that plants do best if they are situated in either their natural environment or one that does a darn good job of mimicking it.

There are of course many plants that can accept a wide range conditions. Tulips are arguably in this category, but most of the year they are not in bloom, and in a public planting, this means the space which they inhabit will be blank, or, as in yesterday's example, they will have to be dug up and re-planted each season. (See above, in re "coddling.")

So that's an argument to create public plantings that fit their environment for sustainability reasons, but as I noted in yesterday's post, there are aesthetic and cultural reasons to do it, too. I won't re-hash that here, but I will say that we can take it a step further and create plantings that honor the environment in which they are found.

Here are a couple of examples on campus in which I think this is happening. (Please bear in mind that the plants have just had their spring haircuts, and so are not looking their best.)

The first location is the hell strip between a campus street and a dorm parking lot. Note the benches for seating, trees placed for shade purposes (the only reason to have trees here), and the use of drought tolerant species like artemesia and Mexican feather grass:

In this example (as in the one I also offer below), I like the use of "negative space." That is, I like it that there are wide swaths between beds; it seems to reference the openness of the plains. The soft gray greens and yellow of the plants, and the earthy, rust color of the paths do this, too.

I also like the abundant use of the Mexican feather grass, and in this case I think it makes a nod not only to the grasses of the prairie, but to the wind that blows through them. In my mind, there are few things more beautiful on Earth than the sound and sight of wind blowing through a stand of grass. Close your eyes right now and imagine yourself sitting on one of those benches, soaking up the warm spring sun, and listening to the sound of the grasses as they are lifted by a soft breeze.

The second example comes from a courtyard space between the library and student union. This used to be a paved street, with some rather ho-hum plantings. That was all taken out a few years ago and replaced with this landscape. Again, note the use of negative space, drought tolerant plants (artemisia, sedums, Mexican feather grass, yucca), and trees and benches for comfortable sitting in shade:

These spaces are all empty right now because I took these photos over spring break, but in good weather those benches are usually full of students, sitting around reading or visiting.

Now I ask you, do those places look like "Anyplace College, USA?" I think not, and more than this, I think they reflect who and where we are. I think they look spare, tough, gritty. As Isak Dineson once said of her home in Africa, ours is a land that is lean, with no fat on it. Let us celebrate that unique quality with our public spaces.

Both of these examples were designed by the university landscape architect, Jason Hodges, who is a real advocate of the prairie environment. He has worked hard over the past few years, slowly adding these elements of design. The plantings he uses are not always native to the prairie (only a couple of the ones I mention above are native, for example), but they still manage to provide that aesthetic reference while also providing for drought-tolerance and the specific needs of public spaces.

Even so, it has been difficult for some to leave behind the old ideas, as demonstrated by this little bed in front of the library:

Oops. More tulips and pansies.

I'll be back with some updated photos later in the season, when the plants have grown their hair out again and are looking their spruciest. Maybe I can even talk Jason into doing a guest blog on the sort of considerations a landscape architect must make when designing a public space.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Public Plantings: my village, part one

VP, of the lively blog of the same name (sort of), Veg Plotting, came up with a wonderful meme showcasing public plantings and invited us all to join in. (Check it out on the sidebar link called "Out on the Streets.") As soon as it was announced, I knew exactly the space I wanted to talk about: the campus where I work.

Because many of the faculty and staff live near the campus, we see each other for many hours of the week at work and then again in the neighborhood on our time away from work. At times, in fact, the spatial boundaries between workplace and home become blurred, and it all starts to seem like a small village. As a result I take more than a passing interest in how my "village" looks and, like any proud resident, want it to present the best possible face to the world.

And for the most part, it does. For one thing, the campus is spread out and sprawling, a space where you can swing your arms with abandon. We have the second largest land mass of any University in the United States, and so there is plenty of room for open, grassy spaces for playing a game of softball with friends, wide boulevards for walking, and cozy courtyards for sitting with friends or even (gasp!) studying. All this openness encourages our broad, normally sunny sky to reach right down and touch the ground around us, unhampered by tall buildings, or thick trees, or overly-shady mountains.

This last part, the lack of trees or mountains, is characteristic of the plains where we live and it is a hard thing for many newcomers to get used to. I know this for a fact, because many of them tell me so. This discomfort has been around for a long time, apparently, because many of the neighboring small towns bear names that reflect a poignant mix of humor and despair about this landscape: Plainview; No Trees; Levelland; Shallowater.

Maybe because of this, my campus seemed to have a bit of a problem with low self-esteem for awhile, at least where the landscaping was concerned. Instead of trying to look like ourselves--that is, a place on the prairie--we tried to look like another place, a sort of hybrid HarvardYaleOxfordTypicalNewEnglandCollegeCampus place. A place with lots and lots of trees and brightly colored flowers. A place that only existed in the imaginations of people trying to pretend like they were were living someplace else. The results have been less than satisfactory. Here is an example:

What is this strange melange in front of the Administration Building? What is the fevered reasoning behind mixing pampas grass, yellow pansies, red tulips, and purple ornamental kale? There is no organized aesthetic or cultural design here that I can discern. The colors don't even complement each other.

Here is another example of imagination, fueled by low self-esteem, gone awry:

Now, I have nothing against trees or hills. In fact, I think they are quite lovely, and this little spot on campus, unlike the previous photo, feels composed and calming to look at. I even go there to sit and draw trees sometimes. I run up the hill to strengthen my legs when I am in training. Whenever we get our annual Day of Snow, I drag out my cross country skis, waddle over to it and practice not falling down. I like it.

And I don't.

It represents, again, an attempt to be something this place is not. The trees are not native to here (few trees are, in fact), there are no flowing prairie grasses to remind us of the plains, and even the hill itself was trucked in at great cost and built up from the flatness (I kid you not--it is the highest topographic point in LBB).

This spot concerns me more than the bed in front of the admin building, though, since it doesn't just hide the natural landscape, it lies about it. Students have even told me that it is their favorite place on campus because it reminds them of west Texas. When they say this, I have to wonder, "Have you driven around the countryside? Were your eyes closed while you did so?"

I am tired of the fact that we hang our collective heads in shame about living on the prairie. Enough. Let's make a campus space that celebrates our unique landscape. Doing so not only makes sense in terms of sustainability (keeping a facisimile of HarvardOxfordYale etc. alive here takes a lot more water than we naturally have available), it acknowledges environmental and cultural diversity's place in the world.

Tomorrow I will show you some encouraging signs that this is happening.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Texas evening primrose in the hell strip

I spent most of spring break in a family work week at my mother's house. Part of my duties included cleaning up my dad's garden in the side yard hell strip. It was such a lovely chore to have--Texas evening primrose was blooming, as was the Salvia greggii, and they both looked wonderful against the contrasting white bark of the persimmon tree and the red rocks and boulders.

The weather was perfect, warm and alternately sunny and cloudy, with a hint of cool spring breeze to soothe the soul. Would that all chores in hell were so pleasant.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spring break, sort of...

Well, last week I was swamped at work, per the usual "let's all have meetings and papers and exams and grading done before the break starts just in case the world ends and we don't get a chance to get anything done ever again after we take a week off!" madness.

But finally it was all taken care of, and I had a pleasant couple of days in the garden, replacing the stone retaining wall on a little raised bed by the back patio.

And then I got sick.

It's only a spring cold and not the sort of thing that should slow anyone down, but Walu came out into the garden yesterday and yelled at me for setting flagstones in the farm plot. Seems he thinks it's silly to overtax myself while the immune system is waging a war. He could have a point. Anyway, I had to waste a perfectly gorgeous day inside on the couch, honking and sniffling and watching insufferably bad daytime television.

I am really, really, terrible at playing sick. Especially when the weather is nice.

Anyway, I am now off to Midland to meet up with my sister and brother-in-law. Walu isn't coming (too much grading left for him to take any time off) and I can take full advantage of the weather to get outside and work in my dad's garden to my heart's content. It's a few days of general clean-up, with a tiny bit of shopping with planned for Mother's Day.

In the meantime, here are the before, between, and after shots of the raised bed, finished before the sniffles hit:

I think it looks loads neater and more polished. Plus, I'm taking all the stone and using it to add some spruciness to the farm--I'll show you some pics when it's all done. Provided I can either a) get over my cold before school starts back up, or b) do it when Walu is not hovering over me like a worried spouse.

Cheers, y'all!

Thursday, March 12, 2009, Thursday

I'm a little overwhelmed at work this week and have been putting in some late nights and early mornings to stay caught up, so I'm afraid there've been no Bike Garden antics about which to write. However, Spring Break starts tomorrow at 5, and things should start to level out a bit after that. I'll try to get caught up on the comments from my friends then!

Until then, a picture from my pre-Christmas cuttings visit to the candy-factory greenhouse will have to do.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spring giddyap: before and after

I always drag my feet when it comes to the spring tidy-up; I'm not sure why this is, since once I get started I really enjoy it. But this weekend I was going to have a confluence of good fortune: the weather was perfect for getting out in the garden, and I was going to be in town to take advantage of it. And so I did.

Here are the before and after pictures of the farm and the storage area behind the shop:

I've decided that my next big project will be to install a storage shed in the area behind the shop. I could move the lawn mower, extra bike, and garden tools out there and free up some much needed space in the woodshop. It will go where that big pile of bricks are now.

I'm not looking forward to moving them.

While I was working, I was thinking about my reluctance to get started on the tidy-up, and as I kept repeating the phrase in my head, it eventually morphed into that old word, "giddyap," that cowboys used to get the cattle moving along the trail. Giddyap is a fine word, a bastardization of "get up!"--which seems an appropriate charge to the procrastinating gardener.

Giddyap, y'all!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Look what my little city is doing!

Every once in awhile, something good this way comes:

Rain barrel workshop

Storm water management

Rain barrel brochure

Of course, the talk is more about using rain barrels for reducing storm water runoff than it is about the bennies in ameliorating drought, but hey, who am I to argue with tiny seeds of change?


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

File Under: Um, that didn't work...

Last Friday I put my sugar snap pea starts out, watered them in, and covered them with mulch. I was out of town all day Saturday, but got back late Sunday afternoon. The very first thing I did was check on the peas. It was clear from the limp leaves that they were struggling. I watered them again and hoped for the best, but by the next morning I knew I'd lost them.

I don't know if it was the sudden cold snap we had on Friday night, or the fact that I didn't water them on Saturday, or that it just wasn't going to work to transplant them. In any case, I'm going to sow the seeds directly this morning and try again, though it may be late in the season to get a good crop from seed.

I do like how my tripod turned out. If you'll remember, this is from the juniper wood my mother's neighbor cut down and was going to discard:

I also put out my arugula starts yesterday, and am currently protecting them with a cold frame. They looked a little shocky when I left them, though, so I'm hoping they don't go the way of the peas...

Ah well, it's all a learning process. Good thing I have plenty of arugula seeds left.