Monday, September 29, 2008

Experiment: MP vs. Stray Cat

There is a black and white feral cat that's been digging in the front flowerbed. Oh who are we kidding here -- he's using it as a litterbox. I've decided to try deterring him from this habit by scattering MP's hair clippings around the bushes (MP has a very distinctive hairstyle, and I cut it. This is worthy of its own post.) Cats are supposedly picky about where they do business, so the introduction of something new and weird (i.e. - MP's hair) will make him go elsewhere (probably the next flowerbed over, but let's take it one bed at a time).

If this experiment is successful, I don't know what we can draw conclusions about -- cats' urinary habits or the smell of MP's head.

I love science.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gardened Out

The growing things are winding down, and this is just as well. I am feeling a bit gardened out. But like all gardeners (well, all obsessive-compulsive gardeners) I am taking stock in what I’ve done and what I would change next year. Let me share my successes and failures, beginning with...

Undoubtedly the biggest disappointment, my curcubits (cucumbers, melons, zucchinis, and, well… “squashes”) were slow to start, forcing me to replant, and then were very quickly set upon by both spotted and striped cucumber beetles. I got sucked in thinking they looked kind of cute before I realized what kind of havoc they could wreak, which they promptly did. I got fewer than ten cucumbers before the vine succumbed to cucumber wilt, so I pulled the rest of the plants to avoid further soil contamination. (At this point I have to say how impressed I am by the simplicity of garden nomenclature. My cucumber vines wilted, and the disease that caused it is called “cucumber wilt.” The bugs that carry the bacterium in their evil little guts are stripy or spotty beetley-looking things, and they are called “striped cucumber beetles” and “spotted cucumber beetles,” respectively. I’m all for transparency in gardening.)

The butternut squash succumbed to a slightly different problem. Not knowing that the Sungold tomatoes would grow into a sprawling jungle of nightshade fecundity, and I planted them too close to the squash. I couldn’t find the squash plants again until they bloomed, but by then they weren’t getting enough sunlight. On the plus side, the striped and spotted cucumber beetles were so busy in the cucumbers that they pretty much left the butternut squashes alone. On the down side, in some kind of pre-arranged turf-agreement, the squash bugs took over the butternut squashes, and they, too, left wilt in their wake (How dumb is it to kill your primary food source? No, wait… Humans do that. Never mind.).

Bottom line on squashes: controlling pest problems begins at the seedling stage either by physical means (row covers and screens) or chemical means (spraying). Weeds trap moisture and provide cover for insects; if they are allowed to gain foothold it’s harder to control the insects, and bacterial vine wilt is inevitable. Spacing is also important; good airflow, especially in humid climates, discourages fungus. Everything needs room to spread out properly without competing for nutrients, not to mention that it’s nice to be able to find stuff, unless you’re like me and enjoy that Eastery feeling of discovering hidden butternut squashes.

But having made all these mistakes, I still managed to eke out 3 tiny squashes (one at 1 lb. and two at 0.5 lbs.), which made the most delicious roasted butternut squash risotto. It was enough to encourage me to try again next year. As soon as I see seedlings, I’ll throw down mulch or newsprint with mulch to keep the weeds down, and I’ll skip the neem oil and go right to pyrethrin.

The concept of creating a “bean fence” with anchor poles and cross poles and twine wound around is a load of compost. The Blue Lake pole beans had those cross pieces and twine ripped down by the end of July and were cruising towards the neighbor’s fence. The quality of the beans was great; I only wish there had been more. But once again, I didn’t mulch soon enough to keep down weeds, and I planted too many beans in too tight a space, resulting in mineral deficiencies and fungal blight. That was easily controlled when lack of water caused the diseased leaves to fall off (I’m a “hands off” gardener, sort of “organic through lack of doing anything else”).

So! Mulch. Weed. Water. More importantly, there’s a reason they’re called “pole beans.” I’m putting up a line of seven foot poles and planting three seeds at the base. I might wrap a little twine around the pole to give the vines something to hang on to, but I’m not sure that’s necessary.


a 1.25 lb tomato on a scale
This is the first time I’d ever grown tomatoes from seeds (they’re fuzzy). My first Paul R. tomato weighed one and a quarter pounds and I ate it like a steak, but every one after that has been considerably smaller. I was really bad about letting them get too dry before watering, which lead to cracks in the fruit, making each tomato a potential insect hotel. I also let the spray schedule slip a few days, with disastrous results. I can track tomato hornworms by the damage they do, and I do not let them live (which leads to a whole other topic about karmic debit accrued by snipping large caterpillars in half with garden pruners).

As for the Sungold tomatoes, well… It didn’t matter what I did. Unwatered, unweeded, crowded, and attacked by an occasional hornworm, the three Sungolds produced pound after pound of tiny orange tomatoes. By late August I realized that if I ate another Sungold tomato, I would puke. And there they sit to this day, producing tiny orange tomatoes without a care in the world. Of course, those tiny orange tomatoes are full of tiny fuzzy seeds, dropping off the vines as I write. Next year I don’t think I’ll have to “plant” Sungolds anywhere; I think they’re just gonna come up. As a matter of fact, I think they’ll be the new weed problem in that section of the garden. I will plant three Paul Robesons, but only TWO Sungolds next year. Fertilizer and consistent watering will help yield more consistent fruit.


I’ve been blogging peaches all season, so I’ll spare you most of those details. My two big lessons: thin more aggressively and keep spraying with the pyrethrin. I think I’ll also seek out some oriental fruit moth traps and see if I can’t make a difference in that problem. Pruning this winter will be essential to try to reverse the damage done by the OFMs. Based on the flowering schedule of this year, I’ll wait until mid-February before I prune. This will give me a few branches I can force indoors for an early spring treat. I’m still trying to get MP to smoke ribs using last year’s prunings, but not having any luck. After this season, I am proud to say I can field-strip a peach in 10 seconds.


zinnias everywhereThe zinnias are the sleeper story of my garden year. I had a tiny patch of dirt left over, and I thought I’d just put in some happy flowers for the heck of it, something I could use as cut flowers and give the place some color. I ordered Burpee’s Cut and Come Again Oklahoma Mix and paid $5 for a packet of seeds that produced… fourteen seedlings. I was livid. “Rip off” and “robbed” were words oft bandied about, as MP will attest. And yet those zinnias exploded. Look at them. I love how this photo makes them look like acres of flowers, but really, we’re talking a 3x4 ft. space, tops.

a goldfinch seeks a snack of zinnia seeds When the zinnias really started going and a few flowers had begun to fade, I noticed petals strewn over the ground. It was like the leftovers from a colorful wedding. I didn’t think much of it until one morning I caught a goldfinch absolutely ripping the flowers apart to go after the seeds. That was the end of spraying the zinnias with pyrethrin (yes it kills bugs, but it also kills fish and is not so hot for frogs and birds, either. I try to go with the least damaging pest control, but this year, the beetles were bad).

I’m glad I stopped, because not long after I was in the garden, crouched down and studying the beans, when I heard a deep buzzing sound over my shoulder. Certain I was facing down the biggest bee in the Mid-Atlantic States, I turned very slowly and saw not three feet from my head a hummingbird, wanting to have a go at the zinnias. As we regarded one another, my first thought was “My, what a sharp and pointy little beak you have.” Did you know they cheep? Kind of a funny, squeaky sort of cheeping. I did not know that, nor would I have if not for planting the zinnias.

There are still a few things left growing – the zinnias will go until frost, as will the tomatoes. MP has a tiny little jalapeno pepper that survived some kind of fungus and is thriving, in a tiny sort of way. And just the other day I harvested some greens for a salad. MP found me at the sink, gasping and raking at my tongue. “Mustard greens!” I sputtered, hoping the burning in my sinuses wasn’t permanent damage. “Here, try some.”

Gardens. Amazing entertainment, I tell you what…

Friday, September 19, 2008

This Little Piggy Hurts Like Crap

MP hates it when I say, "Eww! This smells terrible! Here, sniff it." I'm not sure what irritates him more: that I'm inviting him to sniff something nasty, or that, for a brief half-second, he leans in to sniff before giving me a withering look and stalking away.

Like the telling of a nightmare in the hope it will fade, sharing bad experiences (i.e. -- the scent of cheap candles, the flavor of uni sushi, or that time you ate half the cream cheese bagel before you noticed that, while the cream cheese was fine, the lid to the cream cheese was covered in mold) is necessary to balance the horror of it. Some things are too big for the individual to handle alone.

Which is why I want to tell you about my big toe.

All summer I keep my toenails painted. Where I live, well-groomed feet are a must. I am known for my bright and eccentric choice of colors -- "tidal wave" (turquoise blue) and "parrot" (lime green) are my particular favorites. Unfortunately, even if you remove the toluene and the formaldehyde, nail polish is some wicked nasty chemistry. For that matter, so is nail polish remover.

So here it is mid-September and I've had nearly six solid months of painted toenails. I removed the polish to give my toes a chance to breathe. The nails are not pretty; they are yellowed (dark colors stain) and dry like you would not believe.

Therefore, it was no great surprise that while I was putting on my kung fu pants, my big toenail snagged on a seam and split. The horrifying part, and whole reason why I'm sharing this, is that is wasn't your typical, horizontal split. No, this was a vertical split, 2 mm wide and 4 mm of side nail all the way into the quick.

After the initial swearing, I stared at it and reviewed my options. I couldn't put my foot in my kung fu shoes with this hanging off. I had no clippers, no file. I could have asked Sifu for a knife, but he probably would have handed me some KA-BAR drop point knife and I couldn't do anything but cut off my toe with that. Nope, only one thing for it -- I pulled.

The whole experience left me surprisingly queasy.

I think I read somewhere that you cannot walk without your big toe. I believe it. Just having that bit of nail gone from the side of my big toe has completely messed me up. Stepping down on my foot feels wrong wrong wrong. It doesn't exactly feel painful, but God knows it doesn't feel right, either.

I think I'm done with painted toenails for the season.

(And thanks for letting me share; I feel better. Really.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Adaptability Revisited

Our house was built by crack-smoking monkeys. The upstairs ground fault switch is in the hall bathroom, but when it goes out, it doesn't shut off the lights in that bathroom, but the lights in the master bathroom. But only on one side, because the end of the circuit is at the ground floor outdoor receptacle on the back deck.

Crack. Monkeys. Believe it.

I know all of this because for a long time, when it rained I would end up taking showers in the dark, and after I tried to deal with the problem myself, tasting 120 volts in the process (In the last words of every dead electrician, "but I turned it off at the junction box!"), I had a long conversation with an electrician, who informed me that the wiring in my house had monkey-prints all over it.

Well, it rained and the lights went out in the bathroom – on the Friday night beginning Labor Day weekend. No matter what we did, the ground fault switch would not stay set. You never ever want to call a union contractor during a holiday weekend if you can help it, so I tried to think of the bathroom's new look as "mood lighting."

All of this, by the way, is prologue, which is why this post is called "Adaptability Revisited" and not "Crack Smoking Monkeys," which is a good title that I will probably use someday. I wanted to call this post "Adaptability," but I see I already have a post by that name. Strange how events involving MP lead to musing upon this elastic quality of mind...

MP decided he wanted to smoke a pork shoulder for Labor Day, the first one this year. He's been working on ribs, with fabulous results, but he misses doing shoulder. More to the point, he misses smoked pork shoulder leftovers. Doing a pork shoulder is something of a commitment. A 7-8 lb shoulder takes about 12 hours to smoke, which means MP has to *gasp*... get up early! Like, say, 8 AM.

Let me be fair. There are Morning People and there are... What are they, Zombies? You never hear "Night People," what...? Oh yes, "Night Owls." I am a Lark, and MP is Night Owl. He never willingly goes to bed before 12:30 AM, so 8 AM does not find him... fully refreshed. Actually, MP is seldom fully refreshed before 8 oz of coffee, and 20 oz is safer.

So. Pork shoulder. MP decides to get up “early.” I'm up toodling around by 7 AM, fluffing the garden, watering the yard... And it occurs to me to wonder if MP actually set an alarm clock or if I'm supposed to be the alarm clock. What if I was supposed to wake him and I don't? What if I wake him at 8 AM, and he doesn't want to get up until 8:30 AM?

At 8 AM I remove the shoulder from the refrigerator and make a pot of coffee. At 8:15 AM I flitter softly into the bedroom.

I am a terrible flitterer. MP grunts and raises his head immediately.

“Um yes, uh... Hi Sweetie. Was I the alarm clock?”

“No,” MP moans, “I'm waking myself up.” (Translation: fifteen more minutes and get the hell out of the room.)

At 8:30 AM he comes down fully dressed with shoes on, but I am not fooled. He still has pillow lines on his face.

As he transfers his equipment out to the back deck, I have a horrible thought – the lights are tripped in the bathroom, and since the end of the circuit is on the back deck, there's no way the electric smoker will work. Why neither one of us thought of this earlier, I don't know. I mean, you can intuitively grasp the logical connection between the upstairs bathroom lights and the back deck, right?

“What?” said MP.

“Don't worry about it. There's another outlet down in the yard.”

MP stares at the cord of the electric smoker. It's 3 feet long. He stares at me.

“Have some coffee!” I sing out as I trot out to the garage for the 100 ft extension cord. Problem solved.

Or not. Fifteen minutes later MP is still staring foggily at the coils of the smoker. “Isn't it hot yet?” I ask.

He reaches out and wraps his hand around the coil, ““No,” he replies, “I don't think so.”

And wouldn't you know, the receptacle on the front porch is out, too. Son of a Gun. Curse those monkeys. “Well, you can use the outlet in the garage and smoke it out on the cement pad in front of the driveway,” I suggest.

“No, I can't,” MP says as he props himself against the countertop. “I don't want to do it out in front. I don't want anyone to see me. I don't know why, but I don't.”

Barbecue Performance Anxiety? I ponder this. I mean, is he worried about uninvited neighbors looking for handouts, asking questions? It's not like you can hide what you're doing. Big puffs of smoke, cooking meat. It smells. And it's not like MP wears anything stupid when he cooks; no “Kiss the Cook” aprons. He does drink beer, but it's nice beer. And it's stupid to get drunk and play with burning hot metal, he knows that. No, clearly this was a “thing” he just had. There was no talking abut it or convincing him otherwise; it was just one of those “things.”

I popped out of my reverie. MP was staring at me, awaiting Truth. He had not blinked.

“Out one of the windows?”

“Smoke in the house.”

“Good point. Well, if the wind blows south, we can use the north window. Of course, if the wind bows north, then we should use the south window. I wonder what the weather is supposed to be like. Have you seen a weather report? Because I thought maybe it might rain later in the afternoon, but that might hold off till tomorrow –”

MP stood against the countertop with eyes like those of a shot and bleeding deer. Despite being out of bed for 45 minutes, he had not had coffee.

There are times to Think and times to simply Do. “Stand here,” I said, and put him in front of an east facing window. I went outside and knocked on the window with the plug. “Hello? Take this.” MP plugged the cord into an inside socket and the smoker at last had charge. An hour late, maybe, but he was off and... crawling. He still desperately needed coffee.

Adaptability. You wake up thinking you're gonna do one thing and end up doing another. It's too easy to get scope lock and not see the other possibilities, to to end up focused on what you don't have rather than utilizing what you do have. I am a terrible one for getting scope lock. But even when you're trying to avoid fixed-mindedness, you still have limitations. That's why you've got to be honest, and hopefully surround yourself with people who can shore you up when you need it.

MP had his coffee and the pork smoked. Unfortunately, starting an hour later meant everything came in an hour later, which meant we were standing in the kitchen at 11 PM pulling pork. MP was fully awake and singing the praises of his spice rub, and I was trying not to snore in the pork. The only reason I kept eating what I was supposed to be pulling apart was to stay awake. Seriously. After we were through, MP pried the two forks from my hands and gently pushed me off to bed.

You gotta love a man who will smoke pork and clean the kitchen.