20 Nov

We were so poor

Sometimes a friend sends you an unintentional writing prompt (as part of a longer message). In this case, “We were so poor that we thought new clothes meant someone had died.”

I read his mail on the bus ride to work this morning. It left me with two choices: follow the links that trailed his opener or take the “we were so poor” challenge. But, I suck at one liners (a timeless crazy smart skill now making careers in social media), so I wrote something that ended with a silent “and…” (sorry kid, no drumbeat–you better explain yourself). So here you go, written on a phone while riding the 30 minute AM express from Beaverton to downtown PDX, with helpful suggestions from autocorrect fixed from the original:

We were so poor that when we learned someone had died the first thing we thought was new clothes. Depending on how closely the deceased was to our sizes, the limits of our mother’s tailoring, and if our father could sneak into the loved one’s home before most of the neighborhood went on alert. Especially Mrs. Mosby, who supplemented her income with a permanent table at the flea market. Where our parents often bought our clothes when we bought clothes. I once heard them whisper that the pockets in flea market clothing were always empty.

One year, when my father’s Local went on strike for all of October and no one had died locally for several months (busting the National Average, mom said) a wind storm took down a big fir tree in our back yard. My brother and I had just gone through one of those all knees and elbows growth spurts, and nothing fit except our briefs which mom could stretch three sizes before busting a seam. She went down to the library and found a book on Pacific Northwest Coast Indians, then showed us photos of natives in bark clothing and how they made it pliable by chewing it.

We were so poor I know what bark tastes like. But that wasn’t as bad as my best friend Lee who had to wear socks made from old cats.

Honestly, our town was so poor that year (almost everyone who had jobs worked through the Local) there were kids coming to school who shared clothes, taking turns huddling in the locker room while their sibs were in class. On the schoolbus everyone gave everyone else eyeball privacy.

Our town was so poor we had standards.

04 Sep

Garden Report, 2014-09-03

It’s been a short long summer (short on days, long on heat). In short, the keyhole gardens have done well overall, with the kale, chard, and tomatoes highly productive (pounds upon pounds of healthy tasty maters from three plants), the single eggplant has delivered twice what we usually get, and the purple bush beans were reasonably but not overwhelmingly productive. (They would have produced more if had I layered organic materials closer to the surface).

Note: The keyhole gardens are too ugly now for photos. One must retain appearances. I’ll return later and add a few from their halcyon days of mid summer. I planted some late season carrots that almost took off–until the weather cooled, re-energizing Chloe, our young golden lab, who until that point kept out of the gardens. The carrot patch is now a DMZ. Straw hats on chests, we let it lie.

In the front yard garden, the long peppahs have been minimally productive (but also sunburn resistant and sweet fresh and cooked); the zukes overwhelmed then, thankfully, died fast; the sneaker pumpkin produced three little sugar babies and then sunk back with the zukes; and the corn tried real hard. Two to three bicolor cobs per plant, for a total of about 32, but disappointingly bland. We grew it in our “experimental bed”–our “grow it for fun” bed. Next year we’re going to try turmeric and ginger there–I’ve heard there are varieties that are possible to grow in the PNW. And the bed is in direct sun all day.

Nice surprises: The basil (about 14 plants) rallied for a strong second showing–we’ve had fresh basil in salads all summer. And we grew stevia for the first time–just one plant. I know many people don’t care for it–it’s easy to go from sweet to bitter with stevia. But it’s like growing a sugar plant. Leaves are nice to chew on my way out the door and they also work in tea without leaving an extra herby taste. I’ll grow it again.

Related to the garden, our mason bees filled all their tubes with larva and packed them with mud, so next Spring we’ll have another set of little pollinators ready for work.

27 May

Brief Garden Report, 2014-05-26

The keyhole gardens are planted for the spring. Here’s what we’ve done so far. Next steps include mulching, probably with newspaper. Weather’s been just about perfect–high 60’s to low 70’s, sun and light shade, mildly humid, spots of easy rain. It looks like the trend will continue for another week or so, at least.

Key(hole) West planted with beans, evil eggplant, tomatoes, kale

Key(hole) West planted with beans, evil eggplant, tomatoes, kale

Key(hole) East, planted with snap peas, monster tomato, and kale

Key(hole) East, planted with snap peas, monster tomato, and kale

The front gardens have 4 zukes (3 bought–two Gypsy yellow, one green Noche, and one mystery volunteer), 12 corn (bi-color sweet), two sweet peppers (Carmen and Palladio), and a bunch of herbs, some new, some returnees (basil, leaf parsley (italian, cilantro), stevia, thyme, sage, tarragon).

15 Apr

Keyhole Garden Batteries #’s 1 and 2 Complete

Over the weekend I finished building the second keyhole garden (KHG), then moved a couple yards of dirt to top off #1 and fill #2. The lawn grew enough in the past two weeks to provide substantial green layers for both (I dug it into the #1 before topping it off and laid a healthy layer in #2).

Stats: 6 feet in diameter, 2 feet deep (including a few inches into the earth), with a good layer of brown compost (accumulated cardboard and other paper-based recycling), shrub trimmings, bark, and leaves; followed by a layer of lawn clippings, quickly covered by dirt. The ratio is about 3:1 (brown:green|carbon:nitrogen). Compost cage in the center, 1 foot in diameter, for long term feeding.

KHG-done-2 KHG-done-1

What’s that pink thing in the center of each compost cage (shown in #1)? Why, it’s a pygmy sarlacc, a natural squirrel and cat deterrent. Here’s a closeup:


The tomato cages posted around the borders are my attempt at keeping the dogs off until the vegetables have taken over. It doesn’t take much to deter Sasha–he has one lazy eye and unless he can easily detect a wide opening, he’ll steer clear (otherwise, he’s a natural hill climber). Chloe, if she doesn’t think she can use the elevation to reach the squirrels that race along the fence, will also probably be deterred.

People who don’t garden don’t quite understand why we built these. They aren’t along the fence and they stick up. Two people have asked, So you’re going to plant a garden in these this year? (After I gave them my pat summary description–although I was so tired I might have been speaking word salad.) Aside from being practical, I also think of the KHG as terrain or backyard architecture. Sure, they require less maintenance, water, and backache. But, fundamentally, they’re cool. The dogs think of them as the center of a figure 8 racetrack.

Next up: let the beds cook for a month, till mid-May, then start planting. In the meantime, order Deb Tolman’s KHG DVD–and learn what I haven’t learned yet (in prep for next year–when I’ll also probably add another layer of stones), plan the garden plantings, and shape a dog-friendly mound in the back corner of the yard from all the relocated sod. At some point, plow up the surrounding sod and plant nose and eye-friendly ground cover.

26 Mar

Keyhole Garden Battery #1: Filling It In

It turns out a garden two feet deep and 6 feet in diameter takes more material than you’d think (yes, the math is easy, but so is convincing yourself that you have plenty of materials on hand that fill the required volume). For the brown layer, I used quite a few  very large cardboard boxes (saved and snagged from local retailers), a few 2013 phone books, and all the paper-based recycling we could scrounge. For the green, clippings from the first mowing, and bark and sticks from the tree I felled last year (from the pile waiting for the chipper), then random dead cuttings from the herbs and flowers. Normally our lawn produces a recycle bin of cut grass–this year, I raised the mower deck to its tippy toes to accommodate the wet lawn and encourage even growth. The result: a relative tablespoon of cuttings. Maybe there’ll be more for the next bed.

The results, before adding dirt:


Note: the funnel cake-shaped roll of paper in the compost cage was added to retain the contents initially, just in case the grid was too large. It rained the next day, crumpling the paper. I dumped compost on top–the cage held it just fine.

Day before yesterday, I started liberating the nice black dirt from our big raised bed next to the fence (and associated tree roots). Plenty of dirt to top off the keyhole bed, my optimistic lobe said. Not quite. 3/4 of it moved and still a good ten inches (x 6 feet) to go. I’ll scrounge dirt from other sources around the yard, then see what it costs to buy a trailer load from our local landscaping supply yard.  I’ll probably pay their suburb-jacked prices to go easy on our minivan versus driving significantly further out. (We need the van–a 2005 Caravan with 130k–to last a few more years. It shows my age to think that anything made after the magical year 2000 AD–like my daughter–still sounds new.)

So bed #1 has become our learning (or teaching) garden, providing a realistic estimate of work and materials needed  to build a keyhole bed: a template that we can plug into our garden budget and calendar. Having that info on hand has freed us to think about other garden-related dependencies to address before or while the second bed goes up.

And when it’s all done, then we shall bask in the admiration of our neighbors…


Or, more likely…

20140325_123632 (1)

24 Mar

Keyhole Garden Battery #1: Ground Breaking to Build Up

Keyhole garden #1 progress made on Saturday, 3/22/2014.  Cost $0, thanks to the stones retrieved from a raised bed I’m razing to the West (left/downhill of the photo frame).


Yesterday I found enough cardboard and paper products (just barely) to layer the bottom and sides, followed by bark from a tree I felled last year and the first Spring lawn cuttings. (I finished that work in the dark, so no photos yet.) I also made a compost cage from materials on hand: tomato cage wrapped several times with wire fencing.  Yesterday, I broke ground on the second bed just uphill (you can see it staked out in the bottom photo), but am focusing on finishing the first bed before I do more with the second. 


Tonight, I’ll pick up a few blocks for the keyhole inset (it’s fairly shallow), scavenge the creek banks tonight for some more dry green material, fill in the compost cage (from our existing compost bin), and start transferring the dirt from the old raised bed.  Bed #1 is on the steepest pitch–about a 12 inch drop from the upper to the lower side, but the bed bottom is flat: built up on the lower end and dug into the ground on the upper. It’s two feet deep with a three foot compost cage, with a six foot interior diameter.


Our motivation behind this effort, aside from Fun with Gardening and Reducing Water usage (even though we live in the Portland metro area, water’s still expensive): The dogs were rough on the backyard over the winter, removing much of the thin layer of sod long the rise and further down. The photo above shows some of that damage. The placements are ideal: during much of the Spring and all of the summer, both beds will be in full sunlight nearly all day long. Though the yard is on the north side of the house, it’s high enough in the upper end to stay out of the house’s shadow.

Given the shape of the garden wall, the kids were sad to learn that I was filling it with dirt. The dogs helped by sleeping in the sun most of the day.


24 Mar

Mason Bees Breakout

…break out of their cocoons, that is. While they’re easy bees to “keep” they’re tricky to place. They need to be near a source of mud (the more sticky clay, the better) to furnish their tubes/nest and near a Spring food supply (pollen). Fortunately they have a range of 300-400 feet, so it was more a matter of what do I want them to see first and how do I keep them happy.

So I placed them near the food (two bloomin’ plum trees) about 4 feet up on a shared fenceline and turned over some earth below the nest. There’s a creek about 25 feet away for extra mud if they need it. There’s rosemary blooming about 20 feet in the other direction and soon early blueberries in bloom, too.

I watched two hatch yesterday and take off like Harrier jets straight for the plum trees. Four others were already out and about. That leaves four more to hatch. I expect they’ll be out and about in the next few days.

Photos are still in the camera.

20 Mar

Chagall’s Green Fiddler

marc-chagall-the-green-violinist-1923-2420 or so years ago, my Mother, ever the garage sailor, remembered that I was a fan of Chagall and brought this over one day after a successful voyage into the Western Reach (Hillsboro, I think). She was fairly sure I didn’t have any print of his Green Violinist and said this painting made her think of me. I think the fiddler looks a little mad or possessed and may be possessing the village around him–or infecting them joyously with his art. Like Roaring, it’s sat on my desk for the last 20 years, a companion to Roaring in spirit (not style). Both are in our bedroom closet for now. I’ve captured what I need for the time being from both (and was gifted with a replacement that’s a message from Deborah) and she and I decided a change would be nice.

20 Mar

Mason Bee Ranching

This was my early birthday present from Debby and the kids:


–a Mason Bee kit, with house, paper tubes, and bees–in larval stage, currently in the fridge until I tack the hive onto our backyard fence this weekend. Our son Adam is working at a local beekeeping supply store, Bee Thinking, and helped Debby with the purchase. I’ve been interested in raising honey bees but we have bee allergies at home, so this was the family compromise.


The Mason Bees won’t produce honey, but they’re industrious little pollen spreaders. They’re half the size of honey bees, the workers sting only if crushed, and produce such a small amount of venom that the risk of anaphylactic shock is very low.