Friday, September 28, 2012


Pickles & applesauce
            With the blessing of his cardiologist, ten days ago Tim stopped taking an extremely toxic medication meant to control his afibrillation: now, for the first time in over a year, he feels, well, well. As a result assuming responsibility of his own health (nobody knows a body like its owner), Fitzgeralds Gardening put in its first full work-week since July.

            We labored for 15 hours over 5 days pruning, weeding, bagging debris, dumping debris, edging beds and mulching one of our regulars’ property. Doesn’t sound particularly taxing, but I suggest most of you probably could not achieve the same manicured results in as little time. For two geezers straddling 60 it was a triumphant (if exhausting) re-entry to the world of gardening-for-hire.

            In addition to the regular job, I’ve contracted to weed a friend's overgrown spread for two hours every Saturday morning with the aim of independently financing my various money-pit hobbies—weaving (lessons, yarns, looms, books), knitting (needles, lots and lots and lots of yarns, books), canning (canning pots, jars, lids, specialized utensils, all the local produce I can find, books), and reading (more books). Most of the writing I do—blog, newsletter columns, the poetry collection I’m whipping into shape—only eats up time, which, as the 1% knows full well, is money. Except in my case, apparently.

            With the advent of our return to gainful activity, however, my above-mentioned hobbies threaten to overwhelm me. I cancelled my weaving lesson last week because I hadn’t done my homework. (“Did the dog eat it?” teased Kathleen, my teacher.) I have three little projects in the works on two looms at the moment, one incomplete, two not even started.

Work not in progress
Work in progress

Almost there!
Meanwhile, on the knitting front, my first-ever raglan-sleeve sweater project lacks only two-thirds of a sleeve, neckline detailing, and blocking. The nearness of the finish line is a goad to my flesh. Plus, on our most recent visit to the yarn shop, I got wool for a new sweater for Tim because I love to start new projects and I’m an idiot.  

Out in the garden, I pulled out most of the remaining looper-and-pickleworm-devastated melons (will try again next spring) and sowed lettuces, onions, rutabagas and turnips in the Grow-Bags. What’s hilarious about that is almost every bag has at least one potato sprout that I carefully hilled and planted around. The rest of the yard I continue to ignore.

Hope springs...
The former melon patch
            On our way to work Monday, Tim and I stopped by Oak Island’s farmers market, where we cleaned out two stalls’ remaining pickling cucumbers and apples, and picked up some persimmons and three cool-looking yellow zucchini for good measure. Tuesday morning, Tim had his actinic keratoses drug-trial check-up in Wilmington, so we took advantage of proximity to Whole Foods and Carolina Farmin’ stores to buy even more cukes and apples. Arriving home at 2 o’clock, we set about making pickles and applesauce.

Eleven pints of
bread-&-butter pickles
            Working together on projects reveals new and fascinating things about your partner. Tim, for example, is a champion apple-peeler, a fact that had heretofore escaped my notice. He skinned 14 pounds of apples faster than I could core and quarter them. Absolutely amazing. And he’s also a whiz at packing jars with cucumber slices and strips. (“I watched a Mister Rogers once where he visited a pickle factory, and the ladies there really crammed them in,” he explained as I gazed at him with wonder and watery eyes over a saucepan of gently boiling vinegar and spices.)

 Eight pints of applesauce, 
minus the quart jar 
we already opened
            In a little over three hours, we reduced 23 pounds of produce to 24 pints of preserves. It was at this point, obviously in some sort of fugue state, I volunteered—hold on to your hats—to cook dinner. No, really, I did. I whipped up one of my two specialties (the other one is baked ziti), a shepherds pie made with North Carolina-raised grass-fed beef from the Greenlands Farm Store on Midway Road and sweet onions grown in Brunswick County, topped with mashed potatoes from our very own Toadflax Farm. With all those local ingredients, even such a pathetic excuse for a chef as myself couldn’t mess up too badly. It came out okay, I guess: we very nearly polished off the whole thing at one sitting, although we immediately wished we hadn’t.

Two pints pickled yellow zucchini

            Later, the dishes air-drying in the drainer, Alex Trebek running the Jeopardy! board with his usual aplomb, knitting in hand, I remembered I hadn’t turned out a blog post for this week. So here it is now. As with all things, I get around to it. Eventually.

Thanks for dropping by.


Thursday, September 20, 2012


            For a long time, I toyed with the idea of penning a volume entitled The Lazy Gardener. It seemed a perfect fit because I garden and I’m lazy. Too lazy, I guess: Mara Grey beat me to the punch, before I’d even worked up enough energy to think about the project. (Disclosure: I haven’t read The Lazy Gardener, but I did peruse the front and back dust-jacket flaps and the back cover courtesy of Amazon Books. I’d’ve scanned the first pages, too, but, well, you know. Lazy. But I did put it on my wish list, because it looks like a good read.)

            I trundled out into the front yard Monday afternoon, with a view to preparing the raised beds for fall root crops. How hard can it be? I asked myself. Mix up some Black Kow, Garden-Tone and kelp meal in the wheelbarrow, fluff it into soil, plant the seeds. About an hour into it, however, the only seeds being sown were the ones for this post, along with several alternative titles, such as IT ALWAYS TAKES MORE TIME THAN YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD and NO LAZY GARDENER GOES UNPUNISHED. 

Bye-bye, pumpkins
            The first distraction came from the melon patch, where pickleworms have joined the cabbage loopers in a stem-and-fruit-invading, leaf-chewing, poopilific free-for-all. Despite fairly assiduous caterpillar-crushing sessions every other day or so, I lost every single pumpkin and ‘Honey Rock’ melon plant, and my first baby ‘Sakata Sweet’ melon. Well, huh, I thought, so planting late in the season doesn’t necessarily ensure success. Taking uncharacteristic pleasure in the act, I squished every looper I could find against the sides of the Grow-Bags and cut the melon-drilling pickleworm into three pieces with my Joyce Chens.

Melon plant destroyed by cabbage loopers
            As a further consolation measure, I moved the (dead) tomato trellises to support the (temporarily) remaining melons, a brilliant idea that required locating wire cutters to disentangle said trellises from irrigation lines. Sigh. That chore done—although it reminded me I should use the wire cutters to clip a few openings in the tomato cages I’d fashioned out of fencing fabric that would actually allow a hand holding a tomato to pass through them, a thought filed under “Later”—I moved on to the main event.

Kelp meal, Garden-Tone & Black Kow
            Mixing up 50 pounds of Kow/Tone/kelp in the wheelbarrow very nearly went as planned. I could only find one glove (the left-hand one), so incorporating the fertilizers into the Kow was messier than it absolutely needed to be. About halfway through the process, it occurred to me I should document my progress with the camera… which was, naturally, inside the house. I retrieved it, leaving a trail of soil amendments across the living room carpet that would have to be dealt with at some point. Then I had to pose the shot, meaning the man-handling of yet another sopping wet 50-pound bag of Kow off the ground and into the ’barrow.

Wheelbarrow boo-boo
             It was at about this time I realized the wheelbarrow wouldn’t fit through the garden’s gate. Well, piffle, I thought (or something close to “piffle”; it had an "f" in it). Back to rummaging in the work truck for joint-compound buckets. Search successful, I filled one and entered the garden. I’d yanked out the tomatoes a week or so ago, so now, in theory, all I had to do was toss the Kow mix on the bed, ruffle it in, and go get the seeds.

            Garden-activity theories have much in common with the dismal science of economics: they only work if you first assume away the real world.

Bucket o' roots
            Hopes of smooth seeding evaporated as soon as I tried the first ruffle. Root crops naturally produce best in easily penetrated ground. Seven millimeters below the surface of the former tomato patch lurked a tangle of tough tomato, crabapple and centipedegrass roots that simply had to go. Heavy sigh.

             The good news? I found my right-hand glove while scrabbling in the truck for buckets. The bad news? There was a hole in the index fingertip, my prime root-hook. I tried to work around it for a while, continually wriggling my finger back inside the glove. Finally I remembered a little trick learned back when Tim and I regularly laid sod—I reversed the gloves so the hole moved to the top of my left index finger,  where it was less annoying.

Root-crop-ready at last
            Some folks advocate using machines to make short work of root-infested soil. Others suggest tools like trowels and claws. Not me. I’m a hands-on kind of person. So a quart of water in, two quarts of sweat out and one hour later, most of that four-by-eight area was root-crop-ready. Except that by the time I’d rested long enough for my heart-rate to return to normal and tidied up the area, I was too tired to plant the seeds.

Unplanted seeds
            The Lazy Gardener? Once you’re out there in the trenches, there’s no such thing. You either love it, or you don’t. As the late Henry Mitchell trenchantly observed in The Essential Earthman: "There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating in the face of chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises. It sounds very well to garden in a 'natural way.' You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled dell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes a gardener."  


         Saturday, September 22, is big doin's, astronomically. In the morning, the autumnal equinox occurs at 10:49 a.m., officially kicking off fall with dramatically converging sunrises and sets. If you haven't already noticed the days getting shorter, you'll have to be sequestered in a basement or cave to miss it now. Saturday evening has been designated the official (whatever that means) International Observe the Moon Night. SkyGuy at the Naval Observatory urges us to go out and give the moon a wink in memory of Neil Armstrong.


             Meanwhile, back on Earth... All you defiant dirt monkeys out there, I salute you. And thanks for dropping by.  


The lazy gardener, done for the day

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Carolina blue sky with cirrus clouds
            The fall season’s first burst of open-window weather arrived Monday morning, with a pleasant north-northeasterly breeze. Oh, it won’t last, but it’s made for a welcome change from 137% humidities. The clear air sparkles with the first hints of autumn coming, the light visibly slanting as the sun lines up with the equator. Yellowed poplar leaves above browning bracken ferns hug the ditches along Rt. 133, hinting at imminent change. Closer to home, working in the garden transforms from a sweaty chore to purest joy.

How the sun appears to travel
across the sky during the
autumnal equinox
             Once the initial thrill of turning off the air-conditioner for whole days at a time subsides, however, the melancholy side of my nature whispers that the sunlit hours begin to decrease in earnest as we move inexorably toward autumnal equinox. Since I find intellectual activity soothing, I did some research to pin down the sine wave that day-lengths follow over the course of a year on Oak Island.


          Sunrise to sunset, our seven longest days in June run 14 hours and 25 minutes long. Winter solstice, on December 21 this year, logs only nine hours and 53 minutes of sunshine; the five days on either side of solstice clock in one minute longer. The graph below depicts day-lengths on the winter and summer solstices, vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and the four cross-quarter days of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain, pronounced “sou(as in south)-EEN.”

Please click on this to make it readable

            Why mention the cross-quarters? (Don't know what a cross-quarter is? See the "Things Are Looking Up" post from August 13, 2011.) Despite their medieval, New-Age, wiccan and pagan associations, those dates have real as well as symbolic meaning for Northern hemisphere gardeners, celebrating key transition points in the cycle of cultivation:

 the first stirrings of new life; 



planting crops;


first harvest; 


and final harvest.


            Still feeling a little blue, I moved on to the U.S. Naval Observatory’s sunrise/sunset chart. The next graph resulted from plotting day-lengths from another angle.

Again, click for readability (if not legibility: see below)

            Okay, we’re done with graphs. Those colored inks don’t erase as well as pencil does.

Plus I feel better now. Sure, the amount of sunlight we get each day is shrinking now, but it’ll stretch out again soon. Soon? You bet. Labor Day’s gone, so that means Halloween lurks around the corner (as a visit to any store will attest); Thanksgiving and Christmas won’t be far behind. After winter solstice, we start the sunlight upswing again.

Summer solstice graphic
Winter solstice graphic

There's no good reason for the above graphics. I just think they're pretty.

Ah, reassuring cycles.

            Now for something completely different.

            At the top of my bedside reading stack is Simon Garfield's fascinating Just My Type: A Book about Fonts. You may think the shapes of letters rank far down on the list of influential factors in your life, but you'd be wrong. Readability versus legibility issues aside, fonts make texts feel purposeful or playful, emotional or detached, scholarly or goofy, formal or informal, quaint or modern, with-it or stuffy, straightforward or fussy, serious or inane, even male or female. Take a minute to really look at the nine examples below. Which one appeals most to your eye? Are you a serif or sans serif aficionado? Have any clue as to why or why not? Or why a movement exists to ban breezy and conversational-looking Comic Sans

            The fall season’s first burst of open-window weather arrived Monday morning. 

            The fall season’s first burst of open-window weather arrived Monday morning.

The fall season’s first burst of open-window weather arrived Monday morning.

            The fall season’s first burst of open-window weather arrived Monday morning.

            The fall season’s first burst of open-window weather arrived Monday morning.
          The fall season’s first burst of open-window weather arrived Monday morning.  

            The fall season’s first burst of open-window weather arrived Monday morning.

          The fall season’s first burst of open-window weather arrived Monday morning.

          The fall season’s first burst of open-window weather arrived Monday morning.

            As one striving for publication, I stick primarily to Times New Roman for the work I send out into the world. Just My Type may move me to branch out and forge some new neural pathways, which is always a good thing, if it doesn't require further graph manufacture.

            Thanks for dropping by. (Whaddya think?)