Lazy Days of Summer

Not really lazy per se, just recreational.  The garden is humming along and the plants are doing their thing.  There will be a flurry of activity when it comes time to harvest, but for not it is just a bit of weeding and watering.  I don’t spend much time building in the shop during the summer, so all in all, I’ve been relaxing with other activities.  Sitting and reading on the beach has taken a healthy piece of my time (O.K., that is kind of lazy), but mostly I’ve been working on rehabbing my right Achilles tendon, which I had surgically repaired about three and a half months ago.  Today I started back to trail running, and for my return to the trails I chose one of my favorite place: Appleton Farms. Beautiful rolling terrain mixing pasture, meadow, wetland, and wood.  Oh, and Jersey cows.

Appleton is one of my favorite places, probably because the rolling pastures remind me a bit of home, or at least what home used to look like.  I started at the visitor center and ran past Briar Hill where part of the herd of Jerseys had taken shelter from the heat beneath a tree.  The hill itself was covered in a blanket of Queen Anne’s Lace, considered an invasive, nonnative weed by some, but a regular fixture of the New England countryside nevertheless.

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Jersey Cows sheltered under a tree on Briar Hill
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Daucus carota or Queen Anne’s Lace

I ran along the dirt farm road between the Great Pasture and The Plains before turning to the west and heading up slope along the Great Pasture toward a low stone fence the marks the boundary between open ground and the wooded Grass Rides. Along the way I was treated to a field of goldenrod (Solidago) and Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosa) in full bloom.

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Goldenrod and Joe Pye Weed in bloom in The Great Pasture
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Appleton Farms and Grass Rides

I turned south and followed the stone fence up slope until I crested Pigeon Hill, the highest point of the property that offers a stunning view of the farm and beyond.  It is also the site of one of the four stone monuments placed in memory of members of the Appleton Family.  The granite pillars are the decorative pinnacles from the top of the former Gore Hall at Harvard University which was demolished in 1912 to make way for the new library.  The four pillars were gifted to the Appleton family.  The pillar at the top of Pigeon Hill was placed in memory of Francis R. Appleton, Jr. (1885-1974).

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The Great Pasture from the top of Pidgeon Hill
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Monument dedicated to Francis Appleton, Jr. atop Pigeon Hill

Heading down from Pigeon Hill I entered back into the wooded trails that comprise the Grass Rides.  Passing through low wetlands the trail emerges into a clearing called Round Point where I came upon another pinnacle from Gore Hall.  This was the first to be erected in memory of an Appleton Family member, in this case, Charles L. Appleton who died of pneumonia just a few years after returning from active service in the first world war.

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Entering Round Point in the Appleton Grass Rides

After circling back through the Grass Rides I retraced my steps past Pidgeon Hill, along the stone fence, through the Great Pasture and back along Briar Hill.  Perhaps not a Lazy Day, but certainly one of joy and discovery.  I’ll be back soon to find the other two pinnacles.

Refrigerator Pickles

In my day job I’m a university professor, which means I spend a good bit of my time trying to identify plagiarism in student papers.  It is an unpleasant task, but it goes with the territory.  If I want my head to explode, I could undertake the same investigation when looking up recipes on the internet; they all seem to be just copies of each other with only slight modifications.  So I’ll give you a disclaimer: I got this recipe mostly from the internet with a few minor modification, but I cannot for the life of me detect the original source since it is replicated on at least a dozen different sites (though I suspect it may have started with Bobby Flay).  Perhaps it doesn’t even matter.  By now, the concept of refrigerator pickles has been around long enough for the copyright to lapse, or in the parlance of the pharmaceutical industry, they are now free for generic manufacturing.

I’ve made a lot of cucumber salad off the two vines I grew this summer, so it was time to make some pickles instead.

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So, without further adieu, here is a tried and true recipe to use with your summer crop of cukes freely stolen from the interwebs and lightly modified to suit my taste.

Quick and Easy Refrigerator Pickles

3/4 c. white vinegar & 3/4 c. cider vinegar or some combination thereof

1/4 c. white sugar

4 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. mustard seed

1 tsp. coriander seed

1 tsp. dill seed

3/4 tsp. pepper flakes (or to taste, or omit altogether, hell, they’re your pickles)

2 c. water

2 lbs pickling cucumbers (or whatever variety you happened to have grown)

3/4 c. chopped dill

4 cloves garlic, chopped or thinly sliced

Instructions

  1. In a saucepan combine the vinegar, water, and dried herbs.  Bring to a low simmer until the salt and sugar completely dissolve.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
  2. Cut the cucumbers as you will; slices, spears, or what have you. In a large bowl, toss the cucumbers with the dill and garlic. Place in a jar.
  3. Add the cooled vinegar solution, cover, and place in the refrigerator.  Let them sit for a day or so (if you can wait).  Can be enjoyed for about a week.

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I didn’t grow pickling cukes but the regular old Burpee cukes I did grow worked just fine.  They were large so I cut them into spears and packed them into a 1/2 gallon canning jar.  I also had close to 3 pounds (2.9 to be exact), well over the 2 pounds the recipes call for but the recipes made more than enough pickling solution to cover them.  They are easy and they are delicious.

I have a friend who is a Serve Safe expert who claims that you can increase the refrigerator life of these pickles by omitting the garlic, which he claims is often the source of things like botulism.  As pickles rarely last long in this household I wasn’t too concerned.

 

Roasted Garlic Sriracha BBQ Sauce

I have made about a million different iterations of BBQ sauce in my life but have never really settled on a master recipe.  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that I have some friends from the south who argue at length about the relative virtues of regional BBQ variations and what, in fact, constituents a proper sauce.

Well, rather than try to mimic (or appropriate in the parlance of our time) a southern BBQ sauce, I decide to simply focus on the flavors I like and work out a master recipe that I can continue to tweak over time.  After all, I’m not a southern boy, but rather a son of Pennsylvania  now living in New England so why be fettered by BBQ provincialism?

I’d hardly call this done by any means, but initial batches are very promising.  I started with a generic BBQ sauce base that seems pretty common across the internets and built from there adding in maple syrup as a nod to my New England home, roasted garlic, and Sriracha.

Ingredients:

1/2 large sweet onion

1 head of garlic, roasted

2 cups ketchup

1/3 cup + 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

4 tbsp brown sugar

3 tbsp maple syrup

2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

2 1/2 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp ground mustard

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 1/2 tbsp Sriracha or to taste

  1. Roast garlic in the oven and allow to cool for easy handling
  2. Roughly chop the onion and saute until it develops a golden color
  3. Add the onion to a food processor.  Remove the roasted garlic from its husk and add to the food processor.  Pulse until fine but do not turn it to mush!
  4. In a saucepan combine the onion and roasted garlic with the other ingredients and simmer until thickened (about 20 minutes or so) and adjust seasoning to taste.
  5. You can store in a container in the fridge for a week or two, or freeze it.  Given the acid content, this recipe could also be canned in a water bath canner.

That’s it!  I rarely make a recipe the same way twice but this is a good master recipe from which to tinker.  My best friend of 35 years and his family will be arriving this Sunday and I will be smoking a large brisket on the Big Green Egg.  This sauce will go nicely on a brisket sandwich.

Father’s Day Repost: Here Is the Most Important Thing Pete Lukens Taught My Brother and Me

My dad was in the Army and served in Vietnam in the mid 1960s.  In typical Pete Lukens fashion he doesn’t discuss his military service much, but not because he is unwilling to; he has always answered any question I ever asked after all.  Rather, it is just his way to quietly do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult, without asking for much in the way of recognition. A story my grandmother told me several times is that my father never even told anyone when he was coming home from Vietnam; he just showed up on my grandparent’s doorstep in North Wales, Pennsylvania one day. He did his duty, came home, and moved on with his life, career, and family.  Doing one’s duty without complaint or expectation of reward is a good quality to emulate.  No doubt an important lesson for a young man, but it is not the most important thing I learned from him.

I also learned from my father to always have a keen argument prepared if you want to debate because opinions are worthless if you haven’t done the hard work of crafting a strong case.  I guess it is of no surprise what I do for a living and that I enjoy a good debate.  Most of all, he taught me that it is worth knowing things just for the sake of knowing; learning is intrinsically, not just instrumentally good. Being prepared and educated and logical is a good quality to emulate.  It is a very important lesson that I have learned from him, but it is not the most important lesson

I could probably go on and on about several more such things to be admired and emulated, but I want to really discuss is why teaching my brother and me how to build and fix things wound up being the foundation of greater virtue.

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Building and fixing sounds secondary to duty and preparedness and logic and all the other virtues, right? Let me explain further then, because building and fixing is what has most often allowed me to exercise those virtues.

Clearly, there are some practical implications to knowing one’s way around a table saw and framing square:

  • I rarely if ever need to hire a contractor to work on my home which has saved us tens of thousands of dollars over the past few years
  • If and when I do hire a contractor I can tell a good one from a bad one and know if they are trying to rip me off
  • I can build things for my home that are completely unique
  • Having carpentry/home improvement skills was a great side hustle when I was in college and graduate school
  • I am pretty sensitive to the charge that academics are effete and lacking any practical skill so I like to maintain a pair of callused, working hands
  • I like being able to assist friends and family when they need help with their homes
  • I like to think that I am impressing my wife with my construction worker like manliness though I’m not sure she sees it that way
  • Working with my hands is entirely different from what I do professionally and is therefore a nice diversion

If we consider just these instrumental things then it would seem that Pete Lukens passed on to my brother and me some practical skills and perhaps a good hobby that makes us useful.  It is however much deeper and more important than that. The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was not the manual skills per se, but rather the will and desire to exercise those skills.

The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was to be spirited men.

To be clear,  I’ve never heard my father use the term “spirited men;” I am borrowing the term from Matthew Crawford because it ably captures what my father taught us. To be a spirited person does not mean to be loud or ostentatious.  Anyone who knows my father knows that he is certainly not those things.  Rather, the spirited person is one who is engaged in the struggle for individual agency in the face of a world that is hyper-specialized, hyper-technological, hyper-consumerist, and hyper-disposable.  In short, and to borrow another phrase from Crawford, my father taught us the skills and more importantly the will to be “the master of our own stuff.”

 “It is characteristic of the spirited man that he takes an expansive view of the boundary of his own stuff—he tends to act as though any material things he uses are in some sense properly his, while he is using them—and when he finds himself in public spaces that seem contrived to break the connection between his will and his environment, as though he had no hands, this brings out a certain hostility in him.” (Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, 2009).

I relate to this hostility as I find more and more things in my life designed to prevent me from knowing how they work or that put their functioning outside my command.  I also feel this hostility whenever I encounter building permit rules that seek to take away my ability to work on my own home so that I must hire it out to a professional who may or may not exercise the same care that I do. It is a constant assault on our agency, and it is the nature of the spirited person to resist that assault and to fight to maintain his or her self-reliance.

“A decline in tool use” writes Crawford “would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair.”

Remaining spirited in the face of increasing passivity and dependence is a good in itself, but there is more to my father’s lessons on building and fixing than the bulwark it has afforded me against the feelings of lost agency or decline into disposability and consumerism.  Surely I could be content just knowing that I can do a thing.  Perhaps my family would derive a sense of security just knowing that should a pipe spring a leak or a toilet not flush or a light need replacement I could do it in a pinch.  After all, as two professionals, we could argue that it is good I have such “emergency knowledge” but that my time and my wife’s time is better dedicated to activities that further our respective careers.  Hire a plumber.  Hire and electrician. Hire a carpenter.  Our elite educations and career choices have disburdened us from having to do home repairs.  I think that this is probably a common refrain these days, and is probably why I know very few people now who even mow their own lawns.  I just can’t get behind this sort of reductionist economic argument though, and I cringe at the idea that my education or economic station have somehow disburdened me.  It is a cringe worthy idea mostly because I don’t find deploying these manual skills to be a burden.  The reason why needs some explanation.

What my father taught my brother and me as did every parent who ever handed down these skill to his or her children is that value is not just in the outcomes we achieve like a light that works or a lawnmower that now runs or the utility of a new built in bookcase of our own design.  There is value in the activity itself separate from the material results. Here I will lean on (as Crawford does) the work of Alisdair MacIntyre.  In After Virtue MacIntyre differentiates between goods that are internal and external to a practice.  External goods are easy to grasp as they are the tangible products which I may produce myself or I may have produced by paying another: a shelf, a new bathroom, etc.  However, there are also goods that are internal to a practice that are available only to the person who engages in the practice.  Regardless of the finished product (or even lack thereof) there is the satisfaction of exercising a skill like crafting wood or fixing a door that won’t close properly or installing a tile back splash.  There is a sense of accomplishment available only to the craftsperson.  More than that, there is the opportunity our labor gives us to engage with others and contribute in some meaningful way; it was a chance for my brother and me to spend time with our father and a chance for me to spend time with my wife and daughter or an opportunity to help a friend or neighbor fix their house.

To be sure, there are economic benefits to not having to hire a contractor and being able to build “sweat equity” in one’s home, but to me those are secondary to what working with my hands allows me to express.  For instance, ever since we bought our house my wife has complained that her closet was dark and difficult to access (which it was) so I renovated it along with the rest of the bedroom.  I guess I could say I love you by buying some flowers or a Valentine’s day card, but I would rather build something—surely this also meets the definition of a good internal to a practice!

Politicians, philosophers, and sociologists across the political spectrum have gotten a lot of mileage out of bemoaning the increase in listlessness and decline of spiritedness in American society, especially among its young men.  The decline is epitomized in consumerism and passive consumption without accompanying production.  What some have termed decadence can on a personal level be understood as a lack of spiritedness.  I don’t think my father ever put in quite these terms, but implicit in what he taught my brother and me is best captured by Raymond John Baughan.

“Run, climb, work, and laugh; the more you give out, the more you shall receive. Be exhausted, and you shall be fed. Men do not really live for honors or for pay; their gladness is not in the taking and holding, but in the doing, the striving, the building, the living. It is a higher joy to teach than to be taught. It is good to get justice, but better to do it; fun to have things but more happy to make them. The happy man is he who lives the life of love, not for the honors it may bring, but for the life itself. (The Uniscovered Country, 1946)”

That, my friends is the quintessence of spiritedness.  We do things not for reward or recognition, but because of the good internal to the practice: the satisfaction of doing and giving. Along the way to learning that lesson I have learned many other great lessons: craftsmanship, thoughtfulness, preparedness, self reliance, and a keen grasp of my duty to family and community. The spirited person excitedly looks upon a problem or challenge as an opportunity to coolly think through a solution and to patiently, thoughtfully, carefully, and yes even lovingly, see that solution to completion. When we complete a task, not mater what that task is, we take satisfaction not merely in the products of that task alone, but also in the doing that has permitted us to be our best selves. So thank you Dad for teaching Mark and me to be spirited men.  I am teaching Elsie to be a spirited woman.

An I bet you thought you were just teaching me righty tighty lefty loosey and to measure twice and cut once.

Spring Progress and Spring Blooms

As I’ve written before, it has been a tough spring here in eastern Massachusetts.  Lots of rainy, cool weather.  It seems now that things are looking up, and some of my favorite spring plants are out in all their glory. The vegetable garden is also taking off (finally).

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Tomatoes in the back then leeks, shallots, cabbage, beets, and broccoli.
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A new addition this year–potato bags.  We got these from Gardener’s Supply in Vermont, and so far so good.  We have a few of them growing purple, red, and yellow potatoes as well as French fingerlings.

The other good news is that I am out of the waling boot and mostly back on my feet so I am able to get back up to Appleton Farms to see the girls.

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Clearly Ricotta missed me.

The ornamentals are also doing their thing.

 

 

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Clematis, unknown cultivar
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Lupinus perenis and Lupinus ‘Russel hybrids.’ Coreopsis ‘Jethro Tull’ about to bloom
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We don’t call it the pollinator garden for nothing–the bees have been taking full advantage of the Lupine blooms.
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Butterfly enjoying the Perovskia atriplicifolia

 

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Iris sibirica

 

Waste Not Want Not: Radish Top Pesto

Our daughter loved radishes and so we have been planting, harvesting, and replanting in quick succession and will do so as long as the weather permits (radishes bolt when the warm weather sets in).  Radish sprouts are great on salads and sandwiches, and we of course love the full grown radish root.  However, radish tops/greens are a different story.  Unlike beet greens, radish greens are not as appetizing in their raw state.

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Elsie sowing radish seeds in early spring
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She reaps what she sows!

The leaves are rough if not somewhat spiny and, of course, they have some zip to them.  But after all the effort that goes into planting, we hate to simply toss the greens onto the compost pile.  My wife discovered a recipe for radish top pesto that we have really enjoyed over at Genius Kitchen.

Ingredients:

2 -3 cups radish greens/radish tops

3 cloves garlic, smashed

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons pine nuts

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Place the first four ingredients in a food processor and pulse into a fine paste
  2. Add remaining ingredients and pulse to combine
  3. If the pesto is too bitter, add some additional sugar.  Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
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Radish greens are good in the compost but better in a pesto

That’s it, pretty simple.  Be forewarned, this pesto is very different from its basil based cousin; the spiciness of the radish definitely comes through!  We really enjoyed it though and it was a nice change of pace from the tomato sauce or traditional basil pesto we typically put on pasta. Special thanks to Genius Kitchen user Just Garlic for posting this recipe!

Gardening Past and Present: A New Garden Based on Vintage Designs

When we tackled the restoration of the back yard we did not have a solid plan in place.  I had a rough idea where the hardscaping would go, but we really did not engage in much careful planning since we were most focused on removing invasives and making the ground accessible.  Now that the bulk of the hardscape is complete, we are turning our attention toward the plantings. We now think about the garden in terms of “rooms” which must simultaneously have unique characteristics in terms of plants, design, and themes but which must also fit together into a cohesive whole.  As we develop the themes for each of the rooms, we will continue to refine those areas to create unique spaces.  This means a lot of moving plants, adding plants, and taking away plants.  I’m sure that if we had hired a skilled garden designer we could have simply plopped down our plants once and for all and been done with it.  I don’t know how much fun that would be though.  I like that this garden is evolving and changing over time.  I suppose it also reflects my status as an amateur; when I get something right in the garden it is often due to experimentation or happy accident.  That’s fine–many great things have come from passionate experimentation and happy accidents.

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A garden room in need of a theme.  The ramped steps to the left need some work; they will be made narrower to increase planting area.  The area looks deceptively small here.  The bed is much deeper than is apparent in this pano image.  I will remove almost all of the plants, build the soil, and replant as an heirloom flower garden.

The bottom left of the garden, the area where the steps that ascend the hill begin is in need of an overhaul.  There will be some hardscape work to be done, but nothing nearly as intensive as has been completed over the past few garden seasons.  The soil needs improvement so I will need to add substantial amounts of compost.  As far as design goes, we envisage a garden “room” that invokes or honors some of my early garden memories; my grandmother’s garden. We are early in the design phase with the idea that hardscape construction and soil amending will happen this fall and planting will be done in the spring of 2020.  Here is what the new garden design must accomplish:

  1. The plant materials must be selected from heirloom varieties that would have been common in gardens from the mid 20th century or earlier. The challenge is that many older varieties of herbaceous plants are not widely available in garden centers, so much of the plant material will need to be propagated from seed obtained by firms specializing in heirloom plants.  Thankfully there are a few of them.
  2. Though we are creating a unique room in the garden based on heirloom plants, the plant selection must still meet a couple of essential standards: they must be non-invasive, they must attract wildlife, and the majority of the plants must be native species.
  3. The layout of the new garden must invoke vernacular design from the last century which could include garden arbor, formal clipped hedges, or some other features commonly found 60 to 80 years ago.
  4. Undoubtedly this new room will have a unique feel, but it must still have continuity with the rest of the garden.

In short, the garden must pay homage to the past while fitting with the rest of the garden design and keeping to contemporary standards for ecological sensitivity.  A garden for the past and the present.

Two initial tasks then.  One, Hilary is developing plans to improve the ramped steps that currently serve as the entry to the garden.  Task number two is to research plant choices and design features from many decades ago.  I have obtained a few vintage gardening books from the 1930s through the 1950s that are a wealth of information and ideas and give me an idea of how people thought about gardens and gardening back then.

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The Better Homes and Gardens book is the newest of my historical gardening books having been published in 1951

Apparently women used to garden in dresses with full makeup and a pearl necklaces, outfits that would have impressed June Cleaver.

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1950s husband: “Honey, just because you are doing manual garden labor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be wearing a nice dress with your hair and makeup done.”  1950s Wife: “If it weren’t for the Valium and whiskey sours I would have murdered you by now and buried you under the rose bushes.”

Some of the plant choices were also pretty cringe-worthy by modern ecological standards (Privet! English Ivy! Turf!), as was the generous use of pesticides (DDT!).

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Nothing calms cold war anxieties like a nice flower garden.  Remember Jimmy, duck and cover! Nuclear holocaust jokes aside, that garden design is a reminiscent of a cottage style with plants leaf to leaf and stem to stem jostling for position. Most of the pictures depict more formal borders, but here and there this classic English style creeps in.

But, the images I have come across are also evocative of my earliest garden memories and the gardens quite charming with swathes of snapdragons, cone flowers, hollyhocks, bachelor’s buttons, blue bells, and foxglove.  It is hard not to be a bit nostalgic or wistful when leafing through these books (and I acknowledge that nostalgia is at least party contingent upon my white male privilege).

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The borders are pretty narrow, but the climbers on the front of the house are dramatic.  The garden fits the scale of the house very well (though I’d have less turf grass), and nothing screams 1950s suburbia like a white picket fence.  I unironically love this.
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Apparently there was a time in the not too distant past when people cared for and repaired their tools instead of just pitching them in the landfill and buying a new disposable POS shovel from Home Depot.  God, people were CRAZY back then.

One thing that has struck me while reading through these old gardening books is not so much the garden design (predominately formal but some cottage inspiration) but rather the very human and humane scale of the houses.  These books were meant to give gardening advice to the average suburban homeowner and so it is the average home that is depicted.  Some are classic American vernacular architecture (like a cape or colonial revival) while some are classic mid century modern forms.  In all cases, the houses are small but tidy and well balanced and welcoming unlike the post 1970s horror/ crime-against-architecture-and-humanity that is the McMansion.  We forget that in 1973 the average house size was a modest but comfortable 1,500 square feet; today that number is 2,467 square feet.  In the early 1950s it was only about a thousand square feet!  Somehow people managed to comfortably raise larger families in much less space with much less stuff.  Go figure.

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Here is Better Homes and Gardens vision for the suburban oasis.  A small home based on vernacular styles with a single detached garage.  No McMansions and no snout-houses.  That said, one problem is apparent in the vintage gardening books which is the endorsement of expansive and resource intensive turf grass, a harbinger of the coming turf grass wastelands as part of the McMansion craze.  Double or triple the width of those borders and you’ll be in better shape.

This is already a fun project and I have not even dug a bit of soil yet.  The challenge will be in merging the formal features of mid century American gardens (such as clipped hedges) with the more naturalistic aesthetic we have been following thus far.  I believe we are up for such a challenge.  Stay tuned for more posts as this project moves along.