Thoughts

On gardening and civilized society

Ever since we’ve begun the restoration work on the historical monuments in the Transylvanian countryside (see Asociatia P.A.T.R.U. for the details), I’ve had to tend to the landscaping, among other things. And if there’s one thing you learn when you garden, is that you have to prune the weeds constantly. Some weeds you simply cannot just pull out and throw in a compost pile, they’re so invasive that you must burn them in order to stop them from spreading.

Yet in our modern, civilized society, we are led to believe that we must tolerate the weeds, including the really nasty ones. That somehow, we are to be as tolerant as possible, that there is a place for everyone in our all-inclusive civilization. It’s as if everyone’s a precious flower that we must tend to and nourish. Inasmuch as I want that to be the case, and lots of other idealistic people want that to be the case, a lot of people are weeds. Nasty weeds that we shouldn’t tolerate, that do not deserve our respect, attention, or our help. These are people that constantly shit the bed of civilization, so to speak. They take every chance, every opportunity given to them by society, by well-meaning people, and they abuse it. They turn it into something to be regretted. Like weeds, if they’re not pruned, they spread everywhere, and then there’s no garden anymore. They must be thrown out of society. For some, a little time in the compost pile might be enough. For others, there is no coming back. It’s like trying to stick a square peg in a round hole. They’re anachronisms, throwbacks to more barbaric times. Unfortunately, unlike anachronisms, they’re not self-eliminating, they’re self-perpetuating. And so more drastic action must be taken.

This isn’t something that’s done once. It requires regularity. Punishing regularity. Real effort, real sweat. A constant battle against the weeds. Just like gardening.

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How To

Why I fixed my wheelbarrow instead of chucking it to the scrap heap

This video explains why I chose to fix my wheelbarrow instead of throwing it away. (It has to do with conserving resources and reducing waste.)

Its inner chamber couldn’t be patched after too many punctures, and when I went to Home Depot and Lowe’s, I discovered I couldn’t buy a new inner chamber, because they’re no longer stocked. I’d have had to buy an entire new wheel and tire assembly, for almost the same price as a new wheelbarrow. What I did instead was to buy a new tubeless tire, which is made of solid rubber and never needs replacing, thus saving my wheelbarrow from the scrap heap and eliminating the need for new wheels in the future.

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Thoughts

Go eat some fresh organic peas

If you’ve never tasted fresh organic peas, or you can’t remember the last time you tried it, now’s the time to do it, because they’re in season. If you live in the northern hemisphere, in a temperate climate, go get some right now and try them out! Don’t cook them. Just open the pods and eat the peas raw. They’re delicious, and highly nutritious!

If you’re eating mature peas, their taste will be a little floury. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon some maturing peas, which are smaller in size. Their taste is unbelievable. It’s sweet and crunchy and even though they taste like candy, they’re really good for you.

I do hope I’ve made you hungry. Bon appetit!

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How To

How to make a compost tumbler

Last year, I made a composter using this plan from Boys’ Life Magazine. I modified the wooden frame somewhat, in order to use more wood screws and brackets — not bolts, nuts and washers — because that’s what I had to work with.

Before I recommended the design to others, I wanted to see how well it would hold up over a winter, and after proper use. It’s a year later, and I can tell you it’s held up just fine, so feel free to build your own if interested.

There are a few things to know that might help as you put your composter together:

  • Make the legs as wide as possible. There is a lot of torque generated by the tumbler as you rotate it to mix the compost. If the legs are too short, your composter is liable to tumble over.
  • Don’t drill the holes for the center axis (the pipe) at the middle of the barrel. Do it more toward the bottom of the barrel. This is because you can’t load the barrel completely with compost — it’ll become impossible to turn it, and the weight may also tear its sides, as you’re using them for support. You’ll likely load it a quarter-full or half-way full, and this means its center of gravity will be lower than the middle of the barrel. If the axis of rotation is at its middle, but the center of gravity is lower, you’ll be struggling to rotate it as you bring its bottom up. So make the axis lower, and it should make it easier for you to tumble it.
  • The pipe running through the barrel may be a nice and simple way to get the barrel to rotate, but it makes it difficult to unload the compost with a shovel. It doesn’t all come out by simply turning it upside down, so be prepared to reach in there with a scoop or something smaller than a shovel and dig out the compost. It’s not going to be pretty, I’ll tell you that right now.
  • Be prepared to drill more aeration holes into the side of the barrel than you think are necessary. Drill as many holes as you think are needed at first, but if your compost starts to smell bad even though you’re tumbling it, that means it’s not getting enough air, so drill more holes.

I think that’s it. Happy composting!

In case the original article from Boys’ Life Magazine ever goes offline, you can also download it in PDF format here: Make a compost tumbler — Boys’ Life magazine.

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How To

The garden shed

We’ve recently finished putting together a “severe weather” garden shed in our yard, made by a company called Arrow. We wanted a model that could withstand hurricane-force winds, since we live in South Florida, where hurricanes do occur from time to time. The particular model that we purchased was the Homestead 10′ x 8′ (HS108). We filmed our progress along the way (it took 1½ months from beginning to end), and you can see the video below.

The process of selecting and getting the garden shed approved and built highlighted several areas of concern when it comes to the manufacturing, retail and inspection aspects of this particular model. It all turned out to be more involved and more costly than we thought. It certainly was an adventure in do-it-yourself construction.

Watch video on YouTube (parts 1 and 2) | blip.tv

We looked for guidance from our city (Hollywood, FL) when we made the decision about what garden shed to get, but they were not helpful. All they told us was that many of the sheds sold at local building stores may not be approved for use and may not pass the inspections, and that we needed a product approval sheets for the shed.

We went to Home Depot looking for sheds, but we thought the pre-assembled ones they had on display were flimsy and might not withstand strong winds. Then we went to Lowe’s looking for a shed, found one made by a company called Arrow, only to be given the run-around when it came to the product approval sheets. The store clerk thought they were on the Lowe’s website. They weren’t. The management thought the Contractor Services department had them. Perhaps they did, though we couldn’t get them to help us. Then we tried the Arrow website, where they should have been listed alongside the shed specs. They weren’t.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), we did find a particular model on the Arrow website, called the Homestead, rated for “severe weather” and engineered for the Miami-Dade county building code, which is stricter than what we have in Broward county. That meant it was sure to be approved for use here, and would pass the inspections if assembled correctly. The price was much higher than we thought though (about $1,700) for a pre-fab, un-assembled shed that came in two flat boxes and was only 10 feet by 8 feet (80 sq ft). Still, I remembered seeing a Homestead model at Lowe’s, so we went back to check. To our surprise, it was on sale for a little under $500. We thought ourselves in luck, but the clearance price should have raised a red flag for us. We bought it, knowing we’d at least have no problems getting it approved with the city.

Sure enough, it was approved, and the time for the initial inspection came. The clerks at Lowe’s told us we’d need to pour a six-inch concrete slab. Fine, no problem. Wrong. According to the building inspector, the engineering plans for the shed (put together by Arrow to supposedly comply with the Miami-Dade building code) required a house-sized foundation, which meant digging a trench all around the edge of the foundation that was 1 foot wide by 1 foot deep, with a 45-60 degree slope on the inner lip, using re-bar around its perimeter, not just wire mesh, and naturally filling it all up with concrete. That more than quadrupled our original estimate of the amount of concrete that we needed to purchase. We thought 1 pallet would be enough for a 6-inch slab. We ended up buying over 4 pallets of concrete (almost 5) in the end.

Forget the clearance price! The ridiculous foundation requirements in effect raised the price of the shed to well over its original retail price once again!

I have to lay the blame for this squarely in Arrow’s lap. After all, they were the ones who hired an engineering firm to put together the plans for the shed, and to get them approved with Miami-Dade. I sincerely doubt there’s anything in the Miami-Dade building code that specifies one must have a house-sized foundation for a flimsy pre-fab shed. That makes no sense whatsoever. All other sheds on the market do just fine with a 4-6 inch concrete slab, yet this model, which is shorter and smaller than the rest, somehow needs a house-sized foundation? No way. Someone was careless or fearful when they drew up the plans, and the customers are now paying for it!

I might have been more lenient in my overall view of the shed, had it proven sturdier during the assembly and in the final review. But it’s just as flimsy and cheaply made as the rest of the pre-fab garden sheds on the market, many of which come pre-assembled and cost a third of this shed’s original retail price. There’s nothing to set it apart for me from the rest, other than the presence of extra wall beams at waist height, and the lack of a need to use hurricane anchors to strap it to the ground once it’s assembled. The sheet metal used for its walls and doors is just as cheap and easily bent or dented, the doors open and close just as badly as on other pre-fab sheds, and to top it all off, it’s so darn short I bang my head on the lintel every time I go in and out!

Oh, and lest I forget, let me mention that Arrow forgot to provide the sufficient number of bolts and nuts needed to assemble the shed properly. We were delayed by a day during the assembly process because we needed to make a trip to the store to get some more hardware, which should have been included with the shed to begin with. On the bright side, they did include the Hilti anchors needed to anchor the shed to the concrete foundation, though I expected to need to get those myself.

Yes, the shed is now fully assembled, approved, and we’re using it. But it proved to be much more expensive in the end than it should have been, it took much more time and effort to get the project completed, and in my eyes at least, it wasn’t really worth all that. Imagine how those people who bought this shed at its original retail price felt! They must have felt they were ripped off royally. Thank goodness we at least got it at clearance price.

The City of Hollywood could also have been more helpful when I called them asking for guidance on garden sheds. Instead of dismissing me with some generic advice, they could have said, hey, here’s one of our building inspectors, talk to him and he can recommend sheds that he knows will get approved, cost less, and take less time to put together. While I understand that a government employee can’t recommend specific brands and models, at least I could have gotten helpful advice that could have saved us money, time and effort. Instead, the City of Hollywood was the only city in Broward County to raise property taxes this year, during a big recession, making me wonder exactly what we’re paying for, if they’re not helpful to us, its residents.

All I can say is this shed better hold up when the next hurricane comes, or Arrow will hear from me again.

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Places

The mole cricket – with better video

Back in May, I wrote about the mole cricket — one of the pests that we have to deal with in our garden — and I posted a short video clip.

Last week, I had the chance to shoot footage of another mole cricket that my wife caught in our garden, and this time I used a camera that could record video in macro mode. The result is definitely worth it — at least I think so. You can see the mole cricket in all its nasty, creepy splendor. Let’s hope you won’t get nightmares. Just think, this little monster can fly. One of them could land on your face at night…

Enjoy!

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The mole cricket

Q: What insect from the Gryllotalpidae family burrows around people’s gardens and eats the roots of freshly planted vegetables?
A: The mole cricket.

mole-cricket

This nasty critter, which grows to 2 inches or more in length (I’ve seen some that were over 3 inches), has strong forelimbs that it uses to dig around in gardens here in Europe. They’re supposed to be omnivores, and they feed on whatever they find. In the spring, they feed quite a bit on the roots of the planted seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, spinach, cabbage and other common garden vegetables and fruits, which means the seedlings die.  They wither and dry out, unable to extract food from the ground since their roots are gone. This also means that your crop, which you, as a gardener, took great care to plant and nourish, is wiped out by some filthy creepy-crawly thing that gives nothing in return and only gets fatter and uglier with each seedling root it shoves in its ravenous mouth.

It is for this very reason that these ugly critters are considered garden pests, and people do what they can to get rid of them. Some put out pesticides, but then you’ve got poisons on your vegetables, and that’s not healthy. Others, like my grandfather, used to go out at night with a flashlight and squash them when they reared their heads from their burrows. Thankfully, they have plenty of natural predators, though you wouldn’t want most of those guys around your garden either — I’m talking about rats, skunks, foxes, armadillos and raccoons. Birds are another of their predators, and they’re definitely welcome in my garden.

My wife caught a mole cricket recently (they’re called “coropisnite” in Romania), and I recorded a short video clip. Sorry the focus isn’t that great — my Nokia N95 doesn’t focus very well in video mode at close distances.

http://vimeo.com/4445113

Updated 7/6/09:

Images used are public domain. Source: Wikipedia.

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Places

National Arboretum

This past May, Ligia and I visited the National Arboretum here in DC. We try to go there at least once a year. The grounds are huge, and they have both outdoors and indoors facilities. Admission is free, and the grounds are open from 8 AM to 5 PM daily, every day of the year except on Christmas.

The National Arboretum was established in 1927 through an Act of Congress. It is administered by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Its mission is to “serve the public need for scientific research, education, and gardens that conserve and showcase plants to enhance the environment”. It sits on 446 acres and has 9.5 miles of roads.

Among its gardens are:

  • Single-genus: azalea, boxwood, daffodil, daylily, dogwood, holly, magnolia, maple, and peony.
  • Major gardens: aquatic plants, the Asian Collections, the Fern Valley Native Plant Collections, the Flowering Tree Collection, the Flowering Tree Walk, the Friendship Garden, the Gotelli Dwarf and Slow-Growing Conifer Collection, the Introduction Garden, the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, the National Capitol Columns, the National Grove of State Trees, and the National Herb Garden.

If you’re in the area and you haven’t been yet, please visit, it’s worth your time.

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My grandfather's garden

My grandparents on my mother’s side always had a garden, no matter where they lived. They were city folk, and even when they lived in an apartment, they managed a nice little plot of land in the back of the building, where they grew fruits and vegetables. Later, they moved in a house with a big garden, and my grandfather’s obsession with gardening was finally given free rein. He planted everything in there: grapes, tart cherries, cucumbers, tomatoes, rhubarb, berries, parsley, onions, garlic, salad, potatoes, apples — the list could go on, but I can’t find the English words for some of the things that grew (and still grow) there.

Just a few short weeks ago, I visited my grandfather and got to walk through the garden once more. It was bittersweet this time. My grandmother has passed away, and the place is lonelier and more melancholy. But it’s still beautiful, and it’s full of memories for me, since I practically grew up there.

Shortly after taking this photo, I took a pair of scissors, cut down a few bunches and ate them. They were delicious, of course.

Ripe and ready for the picking

This flower shone so pure and white with the rays of the falling sun passing through its petals, that I just had to photograph it.

Pure white

The name of this plant in English escapes me at the moment. In Romanian, it’s “busuioc”. Not so long ago, women in the countryside would take bunches of dried up “busuioc” with them to church. Its fragrance would fill the place.

Busuioc

I believe this flower is of the same kind as the white flower pictured above, but its petals are red. I’m terrible with plant names (actually, I’m terrible with names of any kind), so I don’t know what it is. But I really liked the shape and color of the petals. If passion could be photographed, I think it would look like this.

Passionate

I’ve got so many beautiful photographs from Romania — many more from my grandfather’s garden, the various cities and places I visited — but so little time to process them. Oh, how I wish I had a few months to spend curating my photo library…

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How To

The best tomatoes are homegrown

You can go to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, MOM’s, Safeway, Giant, Publix — you name it — and buy the most expensive tomatoes, but they’ll still taste just as flat as the cheapest ones you’ll find. I don’t care if they’re organic, hydroponic, vine-ripened or whatever — they still have no taste.

It’s a fact of life in America. I don’t know what our farmers do to their fruits and vegetables, but nothing tastes good when you buy it from the store. Most stuff tastes like cardboard, and if you’re lucky, it might have a semblance, a sad little ghost of the taste of the real thing. I call it the great American taste theft. It doesn’t matter if the stuff is cheap or expensive, it still tastes like crap. While I expect the cheap stuff to taste like that, I find it offensive and downright thieving to charge $3-7 dollars for a pound of tomatoes that tastes just like the ones that cost $1-2 dollars. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you haven’t gotten around much.

Our families have always grown their own vegetables, even when they lived in cities. Now that Ligia and I are on our own, and we’ve only got a terrace, we still grow a few vegetables, mostly tomatoes, every year. Let me tell you that there’s a world of difference between the tomatoes you grow at home and the ones you buy at the store. The ones over there might look better, cosmetically-speaking, but the ones you grow with your own love and care, without pesticides or fertilizers, are the ones that will blow you away every time you taste them. They may have a few blemishes, they may not be as big or pretty as the ones in the store (you know, the ones full of hormones and all sorts of crap that’s not good for you) but when you bite into one, that fragrance and taste explosion you’ll feel is proof of their pedigree.

Homegrown cherry tomatoes

Trust me, there’s no substitute. You don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t try it out. You may lose a few tomatoes to disease, but if you let them fend for themselves, and only feed them water, till the ground once in a while and prune them carefully, you’ll come to find out what I mean.

Homegrown tomatoes
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