Fighting Against Fitting In

The moss is taking over the patio. And I love it.

I like to lie on a chaise and stroke the moss with the tips of my fingers, like how you’d pet a tiny sleeping kitten.

Thick lovely moss

I like to watch the way the spores spread and bloom and thicken throughout the summer. I like visit places where something – probably a skunk or opossum – has dug up the moss in the night, in search of fat moist invertebrates to eat. During the day, in spring, birds strip off pieces, springy and green, to line their nests and cushion their eggs.

Spores spreading – and a bird visited recently.

But moss is one of those things that don’t fit in. One of those things we’re supposed to strip away from the bricks, so carefully and expensively laid in the garden. So we have to find ways to argue against the desire to make every bit of nature conform to our expectations.

Why can’t we resist the urge to remove whatever doesn’t fit in? How badly do we want to have things our way?

Things start easily enough. Let’s have a nice garden, we say. Let’s have a lawn, some flower beds, a vegetable plot, a patio. So we hire someone to do the bits we can’t or don’t want to do, and we take on the rest of the work. We plan, shop, dig, plant, water, fertilize – and then we expect to enjoy.

Nature laughs at our plans.

Our property is overrun with the native weed purslane this summer. It’s been very hot and dry hardly any rain all summer – and the purslane took full advantage of its opportunity.

Purslane takes over

Mile-a-minute weed also spread. And crabgrass. And then we had lots of bare patches of dirt where everything died and nothing replaced it.

So now we have planted grass seeds. Which means we have to water. The lawn is crisscrossed with hoses to golf course sprinklers that need to run daily for an hour. Stop watering, we have wasted time and money. And then will come the pressure – or the expectation – to apply the crabgrass killer, the grub killer, the other chemicals to remove whatever doesn’t fit in with our concept of “lawn.”

A pretty garden, if not for a mile of black hoses everywhere…

I needed to arm myself with a lot of information to fight the urge to slide down this slippery slope. Lawns are a waste of water. In the future there will be water shortages anyway, so the effort will be wasted. We will have to mow all the time. These chemicals are irresponsible to use, bad for the environment. Harmful to birds. The annual maintenance of a perfect lawn will cost thousands of dollars.

Lawns are stupid.

So we agreed to seed and water, and water more next summer, if needed – if the hot dry conditions continue. And why won’t they? The Pacific Northwest, California, the Amazon, Australia – all in flames. Surely we will be next.

Once we accept a less-than-perfect lawn, how freeing! Let the moss stay! Leave the spent perennials as they are – the goldfinches and siskins will pick them clean in no time.

Goldfinches have been filling up on seeds from these coneflowers.

Too Much Time on Your Hands? Ha!

I have now been self-isolating for 25 days. As the days have worn on – and as the virus has ravaged New York and other parts of the United States and the rest of the world – I have been trying (and partly failing) to Keep Calm and Carry On, as the British say.

It’s hard to concentrate at work. I have been giving myself something to look forward to at the end of every work day as a bit of a reward. One day I took an online Pilates class. Another day I tidied up the perennial beds. At some point, I dug out the yogurt maker and cooked up a batch:

IMG_20200328_193120
Homemade yogurt – not worth the effort, but a way to kill time

We ran out of bread, so why not bake some?

IMG_20200329_123747
Multigrain bread – tasty!

This recipe from Cook’s Illustrated was excellent. You use a multigrain hot cereal mix as a starter. We ate the last of it this morning in French toast – divine!

Then I got cocky and tried to make hamburger buns:

IMG_20200405_140107
Hamburger buns – not rocks – honest

They came out like hockey pucks – edible but dry and misshapen and dense. At least the toasted sesame seeds were tasty.

I’m not one to be defeated, so let’s play around with the Instant Pot! I tried making a turkey barley soup.

IMG_20200401_183334
Barley-palooza

I misread the recipe and put a pound of barley into the pot instead of a cup of barley. It swelled up every drop of turkey stock and affected a risotto-like texture. So why not call it “bar-zotto” and eat it with some grated Parmesan? It wasn’t half bad. There’s still plenty left if you’re peckish.

The sun came out – time to hit the garden. For years, I have been meaning to relocate some blueberry plants to encourage better cross-pollination and protection from berry-thieving birds (if the plants are grouped tightly, one piece of bird netting should cover the lot). So I dug up some plants and moved them, replanting with a good dose of fertilizer for acid-loving plants.

IMG_20200404_133307
New home for blueberries

There is so little traffic and noise in my neighborhood – we live on a normally busy street – that I can clearly hear all the spring birdsong. In an hour or so I counted 18 species, a few by call alone.

My house is old, with the ghosts of gardens all over the place – a wisteria vine here, a decaying stump there. In the middle of the lawn, this blue-striped quill appeared, ready to delight anyone who came across it:

IMG_20200404_144120
Squill making an appearance

Every night after dinner I sew 10-15 cloth face masks. My nurse friends take some to work, while others have been given to relatives, neighbors and friends.

IMG_20200403_075809
More masks

Finally on Friday I had to go to the supermarket. There’s only so much barzotto and hardtack a gal can eat, amirite?

The trip took 2 1/2 hours and cost me $330. I wore a mask, gloves and a hat. When I got home, I stripped to my undies in the laundry room and threw everything – including my sneakers – into the washing machine to scrub on the “sanitary” cycle.

The market was out of all kinds of weird things – no salt, no Romaine lettuce, no flour or cinnamon, no chicken breasts, no macaroni and cheese mixes, no 1% milk, no cleaning supplies of any kind, except for some feeble-looking “all natural” stuff that might be a bit better than vinegar or lemon juice.

I figured I might as well live it up – I bought a rack of lamb, a kosher chicken, an organic pork loin – all the cheaper cuts were sold out. I bought a $5 jar of applesauce and four funky-looking oranges called “Sumo” for $1.50 apiece. A big bag of Costa Rican coffee. A bag of frozen wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. Organic onions and potatoes and milk.

Americans have been hoarding toilet paper. We are not guilty of this (we conserved – as a child, my grandmother admonished me that “a lady only uses four squares.”) Still, we were down to our last two rolls. The store limited each shopper to one 12-roll bundle. I felt lucky to get it.

elaine

In the diary aisle by the display of creams, a man was arguing with someone on the phone. “They don’t have quarts of heavy cream! They only have pints of heavy cream! I looked and looked and that’s all there is!” This went on for a minute, while he shouted  all the various creams and quantities available into the phone. I stood by  (six feet away, natch), waiting for reason to arrive on the scene. Finally I suggested that he buy TWO PINTS of heavy cream, as each is 16 ounces and a quart is 32 ounces. He looked at me like I was crazy for 10 seconds. Then his face lit up like I was an angel from heaven. I never have received such fulsome gratitude in my life. He grabbed two pints and bolted for the checkout.

My good deed done for the day, I approached the display and took a pint of half and half. Upon returning home, I realized I grabbed the fat-free shit instead of the real thing. Bah!

IMG_20200405_143821
No good deed goes unpunished

 

Damn You, Aphids!

When you’re a gardener, you stop and smell the roses. All the time. And all the other flowers, too. I mean, you plant them to bring you joy, right?

So it feels like someone’s stabbing me with a knife, when I peruse my flowers one day and find this:

IMG_20190614_101529
A metric fuckton of aphids.

IMG_20190614_101552
Sucking the life out of this heliopsis

I don’t begrudge a few aphids to a few bits of my garden. The birds, ladybugs and ants often take care of them anyway, and their damage won’t kill a plant most of the time. I usually let them be, or I pick off a few infested leaves by hand and throw them away. But this was a serious infestation, that left several heliopsis plants wilty and in peril. Time to take action.

If you Google “how to get rid of aphids,” you will get a lot of advice. Here’s what I tried and how well each approach worked:

  1. Spray them off with water. This is the #1 recommendation. “Just fit your garden hose with a high-pressure stream of water and spray away,” I was told. “Most aphids can’t fly, and they are too small and weak to climb back up on the plant. If they don’t die from being blasted off the plant, they’ll die of starvation.” Sounded good to me. I blasted the plants with water thoroughly, taking care to also hit the undersides of the leaves, where the little suckers congregate. I noted, with satisfaction, thousands of aphid corpses on the ground. The next day, a conga line of red aphids covered the stems again. THIS METHOD DOES NOT WORK. Maybe for a few aphids, it would do the trick, but it does nothing to stop a major infestation.
  2. Spray a solution of water and dish soap. This #2 recommendation assured me that the soap would kill the aphids by suffocating them, yet it would not harm the plants or the bees. I mixed a solution of water and dish soap in a squirt bottle and sprayed away, again with special attention to the undersides of leaves. I noted with satisfaction many aphid corpses on the plant a few hours later. I also noted with agitation many alive aphids. I sprayed again. And again. I tried adding garlic and cayenne pepper to the mix. Still no dice. I’d kill some aphids, but more would appear, and some seemed temporarily stunned but not dead. THIS METHOD DOES NOT WORK EITHER.
  3. Rely on natural aphid predators. Many experts advise releasing ladybugs into your garden to watch nature at work. When I first noticed the aphids, I also noticed several ladybugs feasting on them. When I tried remedies #1 and #2, I shooed away the ladybugs so they wouldn’t suffer collateral damage. They did their part, but we’re talking tens of thousands of aphids vs. a few dozen ladybugs. How many aphids can a ladybug eat in a day? 50 or so, I read. How nice. Maybe I could try this sometime, before an infestation gets out of control, but I am not going to pay $30 and wait a week to get mail-order ladybugs when things are this bad. JURY’S OUT, BUT I AM MOVING ON.
  4. Live and let live. I found some gardeners who noted that there’s always an “aphid season” and if you just wait it out, the aphids go away on their own. SORRY, NOT HAPPENING.
  5. The best defense is a good offense. Aphids prey on weak plants and won’t attack healthy plants, I was told. To put it another way, if you have aphids, it’s your own fault. Accept the consequences and take better care of your garden. This seems unfair to me. These plants have been well-tended, fertilized and watered. SCREW YOU.
  6. Use an insecticide. No one but the insecticide makers recommend this. The gardening world is full of people who will tell you that some combination of remedies #1 through #5 will solve the problem. Maybe with a mild outbreak, sure, but with a full-scale infestation on my hands, I opted next for the nuclear option. I cut off all the flowers so that no bees would come by. Then I mixed up some concentrated pyrethrin spray, donned a mask and gloves, and let loose. Two quarts of spray later, I had a full-scale aphid massacre on my hands. I declared victory. The next day, I noted a few live aphids, but not many. I figured the insecticide residue would get them. It didn’t. It rained. The next day, a few more appeared. I squished them with my bare hands. I got the insecticide on my skin and enjoyed a numb sensation for a few hours. I marveled that the insecticide affected me – a 155-pound mammal – while teeny aphids lived on. A week later, the infestation was as bad as ever. INSECTICIDES ALONE DO NOT WORK.
  7. Scorched earth. At this point, I was beyond angry. I decided to literally cut the aphids off in their tracks. The plants would die – or at least be very sickly – anyway, and the aphids would spread elsewhere, so I might as well go scorched earth on their asses. The aphids clustered on the soft new growth while leaving the tougher old woody growth alone. I pruned the plants back to the woody growth, taking most of the new growth and all the flowers with it. I also weeded all around the base of the plant. Here’s what I had at the end of the job:

IMG_20190615_145520
Pruned back heliopsis, next to one not pruned but infested.

I had a nice paper sack of aphids after that. Some managed to escape the bag, only to die on the curb. Ha ha.

IMG_20190615_145332
Sack o’ aphids

I sprayed more pyrethrin to kill off any stragglers.

Three weeks later, behold:

IMG_20190704_170829
VICTORY!

I still see a few aphids, and a few ladybugs, so I figure things are in balance, finally.

So, what REALLY works? Simply this – removing the aphids – physically – from the plant. Cut them off. Spray a little too, just in case. A healthy plant will grow back. You may lose a few flowers or fruits, but you will not lose your mind.

Gratuitous Garden Photos

It’s rained so much in New England this spring that people are joking that it’s like “Old England.” I’m not complaining, especially when I see the results of this wet weather and milder temperatures.

img_20190624_184324
Perennials having their moment – with a weeping cherry and Japanese lilacs for company in the back

img_20190624_184317
More perennials – Shasta daisies, phlox, bee balm, coreopsis, veronica and red yarrow showing off.

This marks the second year for these perennial beds that line a walkway from the driveway to our back door. I am pleased with how it turned out, with a few issues. A few things didn’t make it over the winter, and a few things grew differently than my expectations.

img_20190623_171939
Coreopsis crowding out the veronica

When I bought the coreopsis and veronica plants, for some reason, I thought the veronica would be taller. Maybe it’s stunted from crowding or not enough sun. Anyway, it’s fun to see the purple spikes try to break through the sunny yellow coreopsis crowd. I’ll move them to the front of the bed in the fall.

img_20190623_171929
Phlox and red yarrow

Here’s another unusual color combo – pink phlox and red yarrow. I think the blue undertone of the phlox makes it work with the red. I also like the contrast in flower shape and structure. Even if it clashes, who cares?

img_20190531_175616
Poppies… you are getting sleepy…

The poppies have been gone by for a few weeks, but I couldn’t resist a photo anyway,

img_20190607_100923
Jake photobombing the roses

My roses really went to town. I didn’t get around to pruning them all – a few bushes to one side of the garden were left to their own devices. See what a difference pruning makes?

img_20190602_143332
Pruned roses

img_20190602_143336
Unpruned roses

Even my little yellow climbing rose is putting out.

img_20190615_150051

After years of frustration with this yellow climber, I decided to just let it do what it wants. It will never really climb onto the trellis. I will always need to tie it. Boo. Look at the flowers though!

Trees are also loving all the water. This redbud is a stunner:

img_20190615_145658
Eastern redbud with its variegated pink and green leaves

I have lots of peaches in my future:

img_20190615_150020
Elberta peach

And even my reluctant Cortland apple is putting out for a change.

img_20190615_161302
Cortland apple

And with some luck (and defense against birds) buckets of blueberries are in the future.

img_20190615_145955
Early Girl blueberries

I never water plants as much as I should. I mean, I will water annuals and my vegetables, and anything in pots or planters. But that’s it. I leave perennials, bushes and trees to their own devices. Seeing this year’s bounty makes me realize I ought to water everything more often, if Mother Nature hasn’t.

A Year in Review

I happy that I scored a few accomplishments in 2018 in my distaffian pursuits, besides sewing. In no particular order, here they are, plus some recommendations in case you’re interested in knowing more.

Survey Research and Statistics

survey

I enrolled in a graduate program in survey research. I took an intro to survey research class in the spring and a statistics class in the fall. I recommend that everyone gets to know a little about surveys – how they’re conducted, what a good one looks like, what a bad one looks like, how the math is done and how to interpret results.

There are so many surveys these days. I estimate I get a request to take a survey at least twice a week – mostly marketing and customer service surveys where companies want to know why I bought or  didn’t buy something or what my experience was like. Sometimes a pollster calls me for a public opinion survey or a political poll. I used to say “thanks but no thanks” to surveys, but after learning more about them, I participate more often.

A couple of takeaways:

  • People like to harp on surveys that are “wrong,” but they rarely are wrong. Most 2016 US presidential polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win by a slim margin. Most Brexit polls predicted the UK would vote to “remain,” by a slim margin. Those surveys were not wrong. A slim margin is still a margin – the margin represents the likelihood that the outcome would go the other way. It’s unlikely, but it does happen, as we know all too well.
  • Innumeracy is a problem. Many people do not understand simple statistics and random chance. For example, if you flip a coin, the chance it will be heads is 1 in 2 (expressed mathematically as 0.5). If you flip a coin twice, the chance it will be heads twice in a row is 1 in 4 (0.5 times 0.5 = 0.25), but the chance is will land heads on each individual flip is still 1 in 2. The odds reset with each flip of the coin. If you flip a coin 9 times and it comes up heads 9 times, what’s the chance it will be heads on the 10th flip? Still 1 in 2. Every slot machine ever was built on peoples’ inability to understand this.
  • All surveys contain some kind of bias, no matter how well the pollster controls for it. For example, some respondents will modify their survey responses depending on the gender or race of the person asking the question. Some people will misunderstand a question. Maybe a question is poorly worded. The person asking the questions may not be clear or understand a response. Many other things can go wrong.
  • Survey fatigue is a problem. As more and more surveys are conducted, respondents are getting better and better at evading them. This makes it harder to get a decent response rate, which increases the cost and time it takes to do a solid survey. The old random-digit telephone dialing methodology doesn’t work well when so many people have cut the cord, and most young people have never had a land line at all. New technologies are needed to combat this.
  • Internet polls are useless. Seriously, don’t ever pay attention to what an Internet survey says.

These two college textbooks were pretty well written and approachable:

Elementary Statistics in Social Research by Jack Levin et al.

Survey Methodology by Robert Groves et al.

Also, the statistics posts on DrMath.com and the LinkedIn courses by Eddie Davila are good.

Easy-Does-It Gardening

I finished my perennial beds this year. A few things didn’t do so well, but all in all, I am happy with how this turned out. I am glad I spent the money to have the old bed dug up and new beds created.

IMG_20180705_113625
New perennial beds

I have learned the hard way not to engineer a perennial bed that closely. Maybe some gardeners are OK with fussing over everything, but I lack the money, time and energy for any high-maintenance plants. They have to grow with little love or supervision, or they’ll take their chances. That means no delphinium, which need constant fertilizer, or Asian lilies, which get eaten by bugs.

IMG_20180905_191731
Asters (blue) and false sunflower (yellow)

I didn’t design these beds but instead adapted a sample bed design from the book “The Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosch. Not all of the plants were available in the varieties and colors the book suggested, but I was able to find decent substitutes. A friend gave me this book years ago. There’s a new edition out that has updated recommendations for plant varieties.

I’ll revisit the plan in the spring, as some plants likely won’t survive the winter. I wanted some white phlox, but I couldn’t find any – will seek again in the spring. Also, I think the design overall has a few too many “daisy” shaped flowers – I’d like more shape variety.

The vegetable garden turned out pretty well, considering the soil in my raised beds needs replacing. I augmented it heavily with compost – bought some in addition to what I made. As usual, I planted too many tomatoes.

IMG_20180803_193546
There is such a thing as too many tomatoes

And I really messed up with the seedlings I bought from a roadside stand. I will always go to a reputable garden center from now on.

Modular Cooking

In 2018 I discovered the joys of modular cooking. In brief, my husband and I cook and prepare a variety of proteins, veggies, starches, salads and soups that can mix and match into meals.

For example, in the summer I do every week a big mixed grill of vegetables, and in the winter I do a big pan of roasted mixed vegetables. The mixes are seasonal and vary a bit week to week.

IMG_20180719_184423
Mixed grill of summer vegetables

This mix above has bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and yellow squash. Alongside this grill wok we cooked several chicken breasts and a few ears of corn. We get these meals out of it:

Meal 1: Chicken and veggies with corn on the cob

Meal 2: Chicken fajitas with the veggies, plus salsa and tortillas, with corn salad on the side

Meal 3: Pasta primavera with the veggies and the last of the chicken, plus some Parmesan cheese and a tossed salad on the side

Meal 4: Omelets with the last of the veggies, plus cheese, bread and salad

Winter takes on this concept start like this, with a whole roasted chicken and roasted root vegetables.

IMG_20180520_170304
Modular cooking in fall and winter

Dinner 1: Roasted chicken with sweet potatoes and roasted carrots and parsnips

Dinner 2: Chicken pot pie with some of the leftover chicken and roasted vegetables, plus a gravy and a pastry crust

Dinner 3: Stuffed sweet potatoes with leftover chicken, plus some nuts and dried fruit

Dinner 4: Chicken noodle soup, with broth made from the chicken carcass, plus pasta and the rest of the roasted veggies

This method of cooking is a revelation for me. For this to work, you have to be OK with leftovers, admittedly. Often as the week goes on, the more flavorful dishes appear. Hot sauce is my new best friend.

 

A Common-sense Guide to Pruning Rose Bushes

If you want to try pruning roses, here’s two pieces of advice from me:

  • Get a tetanus shot before you start. You will prick yourself 100 times with thorns.
  • Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing, or you’ll start a fight. Everyone thinks they know the best way to prune rose bushes.

OK, fine, here may be some do’s and don’ts with pruning. Here’s how I do it. If you disagree, don’t take it personally.

Basically, you need to prune the bush a lot more than you think you have to. I know I’ve done a thorough job when I feel a little pang of guilt about it and worry I’ve pruned too much. I never have. Yet, anyway.

To start, here’s a prime example messy rosebushes I have to cope with each spring:

IMG_20180414_140023 (2)
Wild rosebush on the loose!

If you just cut off last year’s hips and spent blooms, OK, you did something. You can stop there. I have, plenty of times, said the hell with it after that little chore. You can see those bits on the outside and top of the bush. But let’s say I want to do a proper job of it.

Next, cut off anything that’s obviously dead. This is also pretty easy. If the cane looks brown and dry on the outside, prunes off with a crisp snap under the shears, and is brown on the inside, you’ve done it right. There’s more of this than you might expect, if you’ve had a hard winter.

IMG_20180414_140257
Dead canes at the top, a nice healthy green cane at bottom left.

Take little bites at a time with the pruning shears. It’s easier to handle the debris (hello, thorns) and also ensures you don’t overdo it.

Now things get tricky. You also need to prune the stuff that is mostly dead.

 

You will know the canes on your rosebush are “mostly dead” when the pruned cane is slightly green on the inside. It may be brown on the outside, but there’s a bit of life left. “Bummer,” you may think when you prune such a cane, “this was OK after all.” Well, it really wasn’t. Miracle Max isn’t going to revive that cane with bellows and a chocolate-covered pill. The cane may have produced some offshoots, but it’s a second-best cane anyway. Gotta go. Prune it down to the first offshoot that’s heading in the direction you want the offshoot to head – outside and up from the bush, not inside or down. See below, where a few red offshoots at the top right had to go because they were headed in the wrong direction.

img_20180414_140257.jpg
This rosebush cane is mostly dead, so I pruned it back to where it was 100% healthy.

Then things get tricky.  Some perfectly good canes will need to go because they don’t play well with others. One cane may crisscross another. Look closely and you’ll see both canes have a little dead spot from the friction. One of these has to go, maybe both if the dead spot is extensive.

I prune canes that are also headed for trouble – pointing to the inside of the bush, pointing down, or going off at a weird angle that likely will break later on. I also prune very low canes that run close to the ground, since the dog likely will step on them and get thorns in his paws. This is all very subjective and debatable.

I don’t stop, however, until I feel like I have done a little too much. Here’s a before and after picture, with the finished job on the left:

IMG_20180414_140023
Pruned bush on the left, two unpruned ones center-right. The upper right bush is a river birch and needs its bushy shape, lucky for it!

One down, 11 to go! And yes, I see all the damn weeds too! No rest until frost!

Appreciating the October Garden

The trees are just starting to turn here in Connecticut, but the weather’s been unseasonably warm and sunny and we haven’ had a hard frost, so flowers are still blooming. It’s a funny time of year for the garden, with pruning on the agenda, as we wait for the leaves to fall and for the annuals to die.

I harvested the last of the tomatoes and basil, and pulled them out of the raised beds for compost. I’ll process the basil with some olive oil and salt and freeze in mini plastic containers to use all winter. The frost had kissed, but not killed the green basil, and there was a little of the red basil left. It didn’t produce that well this year. The tomatoes were spent.

IMG_20171021_213958

I harvested more broccoli but left the plants alone for the most part. Despite harvesting almost every day, eating a lot and blanching some to store in the freezer, some broccoli flowers and goes to seed. I love these humble broccoli flowers, and so do insects. You probably can’t tell from this picture, but there are at least 9 species of insect feeding off these plants, including four kinds of bees, two kinds of moths, a ladybug, some other small flying bug I can’t identify, and one noisome garden pest – these gray aphids that form huge masses on the plant and suck the life out of it.

I prune off aphid-infested stalks and let the rest of the flowers go. The bees get rather aggressive at this time of year, as the flower supply dwindles.

While autumn color is still a few weeks away, my blueberry bushes are doing their own thing. I have three varieties in my garden, and they’re all donning their autumn colors on their own time.

IMG_20171022_131508

The fully green bush to the left is the “Blue Crop” variety, a midseason berry. Its scarlet neighbor is “Jersey,” a late season berry and the coppery neighbor to the right is “Earliblue,” an early variety, of course.

We pruned the lilacs and holly bushes so they won’t crowd the driveway and sidewalks this winter. I still need to do the roses, but that will have to wait for another day.