Garden Shed

Since buying our house almost five years ago we have been in desperate need of storage for our garden tools.  I have been meaning to build a garden shed for awhile but other projects have taken priority.  But, with the COVID lockdown and the end of spring semester classes I have had a little more time on my hands, so I finally decided to have at it.

Now while I have had the time, I still don’t have a ton of space for shed construction.  This is largely due to the amount of exposed ledge behind our house.  So, I needed a shed of modest dimensions.  Unfortunately, most of the plans available online for small sheds lacked aesthetic appeal.  The look of the shed is important as it is sited on our property line and in clear view of my neighbor’s living room window.  My neighbor was cool with me building it, and so I wanted to be sure I was respectful of the fact that he was going to have to look at it, a lot.  A lean-to type shed clad in T-111 wasn’t going to cut it.  So, I had little recourse but to design the shed myself.  Not exactly a great architectural challenge given that it is only 3 1/2 feet by 6.  Nevertheless, taking the time to do a scale drawing–whether it is a piece of furniture or a garden shed–helps to make sure you have proportions correct.  It also helps when it comes time to estimate and order materials.

A simple scale drawing with three views (front, side, and top) makes all the difference during the process of design, materials estimating, and construction. In this case, 1 inch = 1 foot.

I started by spreading, leveling and compacting a base of gravel. The gravel will also help facilitate drainage, especially important as this shed sits atop pressure treated 4 x 6 timbers.  The floor is laid out in pressure treated 2 x 6 secured with corner brackets and joist hangers.  The floor decking is 3/4″ pressure treated plywood (and holy hell is that stuff heavy in 4 x 8 sheets).  The rest of the shed is framed in standard KD 2 x 4 and sheathed in 3/4 inch CDX plywood.

I got my lumber, roofing, flashing, and trim delivered from my friends at Gilbert and Cole

I will never order lumber from Home Depot–half of it winds up being unusable.  The stuff I get from Gilbert and Cole is always straight and flat.

The framing was pretty straight forward.  The wall are 5″ tall and the roof is gabled with a 5/12 pitch. I slightly increased the pitch over my original plan to give me a few more inches of height inside to accommodate longer handled tools.

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Framing underway.  One small change from my original plan was that I increased the roof pitch slightly to a 5/12.

Once framing and sheathing were done I moved on to finish the exterior.  Again, the aesthetics mattered, so I opted for cedar shakes to match our house.  The trim boards are all PVC and will never rot and don’t require paint (assuming you are OK with white trim).

Shingling under way

I tacked a layer of 30# roofing felt to the exterior before starting the shingles.  The PVC trim board along the bottom and the top of the door are capped with a Z flashing.  The back of the shed also has an 8 x 8 gable vent installed.

I used asphalt shingles on the roof and PVC for the soffits. I built doors out of 2x 4 covered in tongue and groove PVC bead board.

The finished product

I used some leftover off-cuts of plywood and 2 x 4 to make some shelves inside.  The shed filled up fast, but does hold all of my garden tools including my reel mower and wheelbarrow. There is enough room to store the window boxes and garden lighting over the winter.  She should last many, many years given the quality (and rot resistance) of the materials I used. Yes, this was a very expensive shed given its size–I’m into this project for $1500.  The main drivers of price was the PVC trim and the cedar shakes; the latter is up in price due to tariffs. It was worth it though to have a shed that looks like this and that will likely last 25 years or probably even more and require only occasional jacking and leveling.

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).

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.

Clearly Ricotta missed me.

The ornamentals are also doing their thing.



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


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.

Elsie sowing radish seeds in early spring
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.


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.
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!

Reflections on Career and Making Time–A Lesson from the Great Bill Watterson

I’m not a professional gardener or carpenter or furniture maker or restorer.  These things are my passion, but they are not my job.  In my professional life, I am an associate professor at a small state university in Massachusetts where I teach courses in public policy, biomedical ethics, and social research.  I do love teaching, and I also really enjoy the time I spend working with ethics boards within various medical systems.   It is a good job that I mostly enjoy and that affords me a decent salary, benefits, pension, and flexible schedule.  I also get a lot of freedom, which I appreciate.  How I got here deserves some explanation

A small state school in eastern MA was not what I was trained for–I was trained for a position at a major research University.  That I didn’t end up working at an R1 (that is, a PhD granting research institution) surely caused some disappointment among the faculty and deans at the University of Pennsylvania where I earned my masters degrees and doctorate.  With all due respect to my beloved professors, I don’t care–I made the right choice.

Life at an R1 university is not for the faint of heart.  Your life is tied to an endless cycle of funding proposals, data collection, conference presentations, and publishing, publishing, publishing.  Some of that is fine, but at that elite level, the demands for funding and publications affords one little time for other things like, for instance, growing, building, and restoring, not to mention family.  No thank you.  I received such a great education and my training as a researcher was second to none.  I also made a lot of close friends and I remain close to several professors whom I admire deeply.  I have no regrets about going to an elite graduate program, but I also have no regrets about turning my back on that particular rat race when it came time to find a faculty position.

I have been enjoying my sabbatical and reading things unrelated to my professional life (don’t be alarmed, I have also wrapped up some research projects).  Today, I read through Bill Watterson’s (he of Calvin & Hobbes fame) commencement address at Kenyon College in 1990 and it beautifully expressed the way I think about my own career and extra-curricular pursuits.

“But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.”

Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to allow my interests and ambitions to spread out over many areas. To be sure, many are linked to my professional life, but many are not except, perhaps, in a very abstract sense.  I am an ambitious person and I there are few things I love more than tackling an ambitious project; that should be obvious given the things I write about her.  However, my ambitions are diffuse rather than focused.  Does that make me a bad academic?  Perhaps in the R1 sense of the term.  Does it make me a happy person?  Absolutely it does.

“Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.”

I would not consider my job undemanding; being a good teacher (and that is a title I will claim) takes work, as does publishing and consulting.  But I get his point.  Again, there were some folks at my graduate program who really did not understand why I didn’t want to go to an R1.  It was hard to explain that there were other really, really important things I simply refused to sacrifice in order to get there.  I don’t know if that makes me a flake.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

I’ve written before that people often say to me things like “how do you find the time” or “I wish I had time to work in the garden.”  For one, I don’t spend several hours a day watching TV or scrolling through a Facebook feed as the average American does. Secondly, I consider things in terms of opportunity costs–a tip I learned by reading the chapter “economy” in Thoreau’s Walden many years ago.  I want a bigger house or a newer car or a few thousand dollars more in my salary.  O.K., what do I give up to get those things?  Time away from my family? Less time to teach my daughter how to use hand tools? Must I give up volunteering at my daughter’s school or serving on the board of my local farmer’s market or homeless shelter?  Do I need to cut back on how much time I spend in my garden or at my workbench or writing this blog? Is it worth giving up those things in order to have a bit more money?  The answer is usually no.

This is not to imply that I am endorsing hedonism.  I am doing no such thing.  In fact, I believe that the whole point of life is to be spirited and useful and not just self indulgent.  I am simply saying that the demands of more work and greater efficiency in order to pursue yet probably never achieve an artificially narrow definition of success and happiness forces us to disregard all of the manifold ways that we may contribute to the welfare and happiness of our family, our community, our environment, and yes, ourselves.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

And indeed I am.




A Slow Start to Spring, Sort of

Like last year, this has been a cold and wet spring.  Northern New England got snow the night of May 13th, while here along the Massachusetts coast the nighttime temp last night was upper 30s to low 40s. They are calling for the same again tonight. I hurriedly put row cover over my garden to keep my peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes toasty while we wait for real spring weather.

The cool season crops to the left should be fine, but I was a bit worried about the tomatoes in the large bed.

I have traditionally planted out my tender veggies on mothers day weekend–looks like I should have waited a bit! For now, the garden sits in a holding pattern while we wait for sun and warmer temps to get things moving along.  The doldrums this has engendered in me is exasperated by the fact that I am just now able to get back into the garden following surgery to repair my Achilles tendon.  I excitedly got rid of the cast, off the crutches, and into a walking boot, only to find myself hobbling from the couch and into a cold drizzle.  Bummer.

Late-autumn-weather-in-spring notwithstanding, we have managed to get some work done.  Before going in for surgery, we wrapped up the hardscaping and regrading at the “top” of our yard.

Sometimes it is downright handy being married to a civil engineer–we make a pretty good design build team. We built a few more steps and retaining wall so we could level out a small area for our chairs and fire pit.
The view down from the top of the back yard.  The veggie garden is off to the left just out of frame.

After I got off my crutches and into a walking boot I planted grass at the top of the hill.  I then planted some of the relatively shallow, rock areas around the new steps with succulents and alpine plants.

Hooray for my walking boot
A mix of succulents: Hens and chicks, and several different sedums like ‘Angelina,’ ‘Blue spruce,’ and ‘Voodoo.’

I’ve been obsessively watching the British gardening show Gardeners’ World (more on that at a later date) on BritBox.  They often feature scree gardens, and while I know what scree is, I had never heard of a scree garden before. I’m quite glad that I now have.  I filled in the new steps and walkway with river stone (slightly bigger than pea stone) after planting some tough alpine plants that can handle both rocky, sandy soil and moderate foot traffic.

The scree garden, including Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink chintz,’ Veronica prostrata ‘Nestor,’ Armeria maritima ‘Morning Star Deep Rose’ and “Armada Rose,’ and Juniperus horizontalis ‘Andorra Compact’

I did finally get a holly bush moved and replaced it with one of my all time garden favorites, Viburnum

Viburnum x ‘Burkwoodii’ or Burkwood Spice Viburnum

I also planted an homage to my father-in-law Jim, wife Hilary, and daughter Elsie’s heritage: a trio of Korean lilacs.

Korean lilac Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’ set behind a spread of Phlox subulata. Photo taken on one of the few sunny and warm spring days we’ve had this year.

And lastly, we did get out window boxes planted.  Elsie took charge.

Elsie is becoming quite the little gardener.  Kids like to be given tasks they can take charge of and “own.”

So, a slow start weather wise, but the garden has not been without activity.  My growing, building, and restoring activities are so tied to seasons that this late start to spring feels like a real disruption.  We plant in the spring, grow in the summer, and harvest and preserve in the fall.  After I put the garden to bed I take up my tools and spend the late autumn and winter in the woodshop. After a long New England winter I am desperate to start the cycle over again, and so the cold rainy spring has certainly dampened my mood a bit.  It will change though, and the warm weather will be here to stay, and soon enough I’ll probably be complaining about how hot it is.

Going Zero Waste: Furthering the Link Between Growing, Restoring and Environmental Conservation

Zero waste sounds like a lofty goal, and it is, but rather than be intimidated by it we should remember that “perfect is the enemy of the good,” or perhaps even the possible.  So while we (and this is a team effort between my daughter Elsie, wife Hilary, and me) we strive to do our best, we recognize that though we may not be perfect we can always do better than we do now.  So, when we say zero waste, we really mean minimal waste. We are taking steps toward dramatically reducing 1. the waste we put out for curb collection, and 2. our use of plastics overall.  This second point is important given the current crisis in plastics recycling.  Hilary is the one who has planted the seed for our family, but we all share a deep concern over environmental issues so she didn’t have to work too hard to get Elsie and me in board.  My passion for building and growing and restoring is inseparable from my environmentalism and is  rooted in my concerns about the impact of modern technology and consumer culture.  Our move to zero waste will, I think, intersect with woodworking, gardening, and restoring is interesting ways: these activities will help our efforts in some ways (restoring means reusing, and the composting we do significantly reduces waste), but will be challenging in other ways (the dreaded black plastic nursery pot for instance).

There are many really great blogs that cover zero waste living.  I’m partial to this one, but there are lists of other “top” zero waste blogs that give great tips on minimizing waste in the home: using travel mugs, switching away from liquid soaps and shampoos, buying in bulk, etc.

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We’ve been slowly moving toward zero waste for some time; years ago I switched to using shaving soap rather than cans of foam or gel and stopped using disposable plastic razors in favor of a classic safety razor.  This is a 1960’s Gillette I found at a garage sale. Yes the blades are disposable, but being steel, they can also be collected in a metal razor safe and easily recycled.

We are progressively adopting these practices in the home, but I’m mostly interested here in considering the unique advantages and challenges for gardeners. Later on, I’ll tackle zero waste issues in the wood shop.

Advantages and challenges

In some ways, we have already been operating on a zero waste philosophy.  Most gardeners do. First off, we compost everything we can from food scraps to  the cardboard rolls from toilet paper.  Very little from the kitchen goes down the garbage disposal.  Obviously, we don’t compost meat or grease, but just about any other scraps from the kitchen are fare game.  That equals a significant waste stream reduction.

There are however two  big sources of plastic in the garden that present challenges: the plastic bags in which compost, mulch, and potting soil are packaged, and the plastic pots that come from the nursery and plastic trays and cells that are used for propagation.  Eliminating these sources of plastic is challenging, if not impossible given our current infrastructure.  Here are the ups and downs and challenges and victories of going zero waste in the garden:

1. We produce a good bit of our own compost, and when we run out, we have the luxury of access to free municipal compost through the Marblehead transfer station.  It’s a great deal if you don’t mind filling up your buckets and trugs and hauling them in your own car (and I don’t mind, which is why my wife drives a new car while I drive a used one).

2.  I order my bark mulch in bulk and have it delivered, or I use leaf mold which I produce myself.  I like to use a coarse wood chip for the paths in the vegetable garden, and I also get that for free from the transfer station (see above).

3. Potting mix/peat/vermiculite.  Well, there is no getting around this one.  Until garden centers start selling in a “fill your own container” format, I am forced to purchase it in 1, 2 or 3 cubic foot bags.  Now, being that we are a seaside town our transfer station has a special drop off area for plastic boat wrap.  I am am still waiting on an answer at to whether I can deposit plastic soil and peat bags there.

4. Plant pots. This one is another tough one.  New plants, shrubs, and trees come in black plastic pots that range in size from small plugs and “six packs” to 5 gallon.  If you are going to buy new plants, there is really no getting around the fact that they will come in plastic–occasionally you will find peat pots, but mostly it is plastic.  The best bet is to recycle these pots as if you can (there are challenges for commercial recyclers) or reuse them at home for plant propagation over and over and over until they they break (then recycle them if you can).  If you are buying  trees or shrubs, try to buy them “B&B” (balled and burlaped), all of which goes in the ground and decomposes. I am also told that Lowe’s will take nursery pots for reuse and recycling (assuming you live near one).

5. Our goal should be not just to reuse or recycle, but to minimize our use of plastic pots all together.  It is great if we can recycle plastic, but there is still a large energy input required to do so. For propagating at home, try to use alternatives to plastic pots.  Currently I am experimenting with peat plugs, cow pots, and paper pots in place of the flimsy plastic cell trays that have a limited life span.

Paper pot maker by Secrets du Potager.  Paper by the Marblehead Reporter

6. The old adage of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” still applies.  In the past I’ve purchased I don’t know how many plastic watering cans only to have them split, break, or otherwise fail after a distressingly short period of time.  No more.  Now I only buy used/vintage galvanized cans.  Occasionally I have some repairs to do, but they last for years and years, and when they finally rust through, steel is readily recyclable.

I picked up this old watering can for just a few bucks because the copper diffuser on the head was bent and split in a couple of spots. Some light hammering, bending, and a little bit of soldering (visible in this picture as a blob of silver) returned it to service. Do I get bonus points for recycling rain water?

7. As money permits, purchase high quality tools once and you will likely never have to purchase them again.  That means less going to the landfill.  For instance, a pair of Felco #2 pruners may run you double the cost (they retail for about $50) of a middle of the road pair but they are very durable, easily resharpened, and most parts (most importantly the blades) are replaceable.  This means you don’t need to pitch them altogether and buy new pair if one component happens to wear out.  I’ve had mine about 15 years and they have seen heavy if not downright abusive use; I’ve replaced the blade once at a cost of about $10. I keep them sharp, lubricated, and clear of sap, and with some basic routine maintenance they work as well now as they did brand new. And by the way, I would not have even had to replace the blade had I not used them to cut some hard steel wire that damaged the edge beyond what I could grind out.  The other lesson is to not (overly) abuse your tools.

8. I’ve stopped buying plastic plant labels and switched to using wood or bamboo.  Both materials will biodegrade in the compost pie, though the bamboo will probably do so a bit faster.

Moving forward

The point here is not to be self righteous, but rather to talk about some of the successes we have had–this is tempered by the challenges we face and the places we fall short.  In the end though, it makes little sense to restore our backyard habitat or grow our own vegetables if we don’t do our utmost to reduce the negative externalities those activities produce.  I’ll continue to try new things and consult with others to find ways of reducing the waste produced by our gardening and thereby increasing the net benefit of our efforts.  I’ll be sure to report back on how the paper pots hold up.  Next year I will be creating a new garden area, and one of the ways I am going to minimize the use of plastic is to propagate most of the new perennials myself.

This fall I will put the garden to bed and return to my wood shop.  Expect another post looking out ways of reducing the waste stream from my shop. Gardening, building, and restoring should be acts of environmentalism, activities that that engender thoughtfulness and care and are a bulwark against mindless consumption   To minimize the environmental impact associated with these activities is not just something nice to do, but rather, goes to the core of the philosophy behind those activities.


In praise of the humble Mayapple

I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania along the Perkiomen Creek.  The creek was wide and slow in parts, and in others, ran more swiftly cutting narrow valleys through farm fields and woodland. The damp cold and ash gray gloom of late winter and early spring proved irresistible to me, and it was surely one of the times I felt the greatest communion with the land.  I spent many chilly weekend afternoons and evenings after school exploring the wild places and fallow fields around my home.  Decades later, I read a passage in Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning about his own youthful excursions into the late winter wilderness.  He found in cold, gray swamps of his youth a great sense of happiness in being in a vast wilderness despite the cold and the damp.  Reading his essay It immediately brought me back to the fields and valleys and woodlands surrounding the Perkiomen creek.

I don’t know if happiness is the word I’d use to describe the feeling (as Bugbee does), but I understand  what Bugbee was getting at. The late winter and early spring landscape provided me then–and still does today–a quiet moment for contemplation when the snow has faded but life has yet to make a bold vernal return.  Inevitably though while tromping through the woods in the dusky haze one would fine a few harbingers of things to come.  Even while there was still a chill in the air, the flat colors of the  boggy stream bottoms would be punctuated by the fresh green of the emerging Symplocarpus foetidus, known to most as skunk cabbage.  A bit later in April another sign of Spring’s arrival started to form dense colonies on woodland floors: Podophyllum peltatum, commonly known as the Mayapple. New life and the promise of summer was on the horizon.  Sounds like a perfect plant to add life to the spring garden.

Podophyllum peltatum growing in a shady spot along the front of the house.  Behind the Mayapple is Hellaborus x hybridus ‘Flower girl’

This woodland perennial is native to the eastern United States and hardy in zones 3 through 8.  In recent decades other Podophyllum from Asia  have been introduced (P. delavayi or Dysosma delavayi–Chinese Mayappleis particularly stunning), but we grow the native species. Podophyllum likes woodland shade to part shade in cool, rich soil, and can grow up to about 12 inches tall.  The American Horticultural Association notes that the native Mayapple will quickly colonize, and, they caution, can be “too aggressive.”  That has not been my experience in my garden, but that may be due to the fact that my plantings are occupying relatively small shaded areas in marginal soil.  The plant spreads rhizomatously and can be propagated by division in early spring at the first signs of new growth.  Podophyllum received its common name due to the 2 inch fruit that turns from green to custard colored as it ripens in about mid summer. There is some debate online and in print regarding the edibility of the fruit; if eaten before ripening, the fruit of the Mayapple (which contains podophyllotoxin which is used to treat warts) can cause intestinal upset. I’ve never tried it, nor do I intend to, but I have read that they are tasty.  I’ll take others’ word for it.  Apparently the fruit of the Asian varieties is used in traditional medicines while the fruit of the P. peltatum was used medicinally by Native Americans. The leaves and roots are DEFINITELY poisonous.  By late summer, the plant will die back and go into dormancy awaiting the next spring.

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P. peltatum growing in the shade of a Yew tree along with Sanguinaria canadensis

P. peltatum is hardly a big attention grabber–not terribly tall and lacking in big showy displays–this woodland stalwart disappears from the garden by mid to late summer, giving way to more ostentatious perennials.  However, the Mayapple gives every gardener what he or she so desperately needs, a shot of early green.  As it happens, that early green comes in the form of a cluster of lovely umbrella shaped leaves that bear a delicate white flower and yellow fruit that has been an important part of the traditional medicine of tow very old and very rich cultures.  And, no doubt, there is for me a bit of sentimentality at work as well.  Perhaps the Mayapple is not such a modest addition to the garden after all?






Reclaiming Marginal Ground

I’ve written quite a bit on our efforts to restore the back yard, which, isn’t really a yard.  As a recap, starting about 5 feet from the back door our property rises nearly 20 feet over a run of about 20 to 30 feet.  You can see in the picture below the view across the first set of retaining walls that sit atop the rock outcropping.


This outcropping of the Salem Gabbro-Diorite creates a low ridge that emerges suddenly from otherwise level ground and runs about 500 feet or so parallel to our street before dipping back down.   The formation is evident in a few of my neighbor’s yards, but is most pronounced in mine.  Turning this outcropping into accessible ground has been a lot of work: removal of invasive species, replanting with native plants, terracing, building steps, etc.  Challenging yet rewarding, and the work is ongoing.

Last year we terraced off a small section along the right hand edge of our property in order to put in a vegetable garden. The area had previously been overrun with invasive like multiflora rose and shaded by a Norway maple.  After removing these invasive we were left with an area of marginal ground.  The soil was relatively shallow (little more than a foot in spots), rocky, and lacking in substantial organic material.  The terracing helped increase the soil depth a bit and I was able to introduce some organic material into the soil.

Our first year’s garden was moderately successful.  Truth be told, I didn’t have very high expectations for year one, knowing how poor the conditions were.  Our tomatoes did O.K., as did the squash.  The beets really struggled, as did the eggplant.  I suspect soil PH and nutrients were at issue.  The soil was also pretty compacted in spots.  Despite those struggles I was happy that anything grew given how poor the conditions were before we constructed the low retaining wall and started the process of reclaiming that small bit of land.

Nearly a year later, we were ready to move on to step two which was to construct raised beds.  The goal was to buy ourselves a little more soil depth, increase soil fertility, and  ameliorate the problem of soil compaction.  In the early 2000s, I managed a community gardening program in Wilmington, DE run by the Delaware Center for Horticulture. The problems faced by the community gardeners I worked with in that urban environment were similar to what I am dealing with here: nutrient poor, highly compacted soils.  In Wilmington we had bricks and concrete in soil whereas here I have rock.  About the only thing I’m not dealing with–thankfully–is soil pollution (Wilmington had elevated levels of lead and arsenic).  Our solution there was also to build raised beds.

There is nothing complex about building raised beds.  The only real question is the type of material you want to use.  Obviously the fact that there is soil contact means that natural materials will eventually decompose and need to be periodically replaced.  Pressure treated lumber is less toxic than it used to be since it no longer contains arsenic–nevertheless, I didn’t want to use PT lumber in my veggie garden.  Cedar is rot resistant as is cypress but both were cost prohibitive.  I also considered Douglass fir, though that ain’t cheap either.  As this is a project on a budget (I have a Disney vacation to pay for) I simply used pine 2 x 8.  I expect I’ll get no more than three or four years out of it before I need to rebuild.  In the meantime. I am going to work on sourcing recycled plastic timbers like I used in Wilmington or perhaps I’ll find a source for cypress.


The beds were assembled with simple butt joints fastened with decking screw.  I drove some stakes into the ground to stabilize the frames.  I filled the beds with compost, peat , and a bit of vermiculite.  That’s it.  Easy. We are going to use square foot gardening  to maximize out limited space–another technique that I learned doing community gardening.


We are approaching mid spring and have already planted carrots, radishes, spinach, lettuce, and onions.  Elsie was if course in on the action.

Elsie’s smaller and more nimble fingers make her better at sowing tiny seeds.



As she planted she was humming and singing this great old song. I’ll post more as the gardening season progresses.

Teach Your Children Well

I often hear people say that “kids these days don’t know where their food comes from” or that “kids think food comes from the grocery store.”  That’s hyperbole. I’m pretty sure most kids beyond the toddler years understand that there are places call farms where food is grown and livestock are raised.  But, I understand the concerns implicit in these somewhat exaggerated claims: we are ever further removed from food production as fewer and fewer people make their living from agriculture and fewer people live in proximity to active farms. So, I’d like to amend the above claims to say that “kids these days don’t understand the work, energy, and sacrifice that go into raising food.”

It is not the knowledge of what a farm is, but rather, what a farm demands and what a farm means that we lose sight of.  It is the loss of the culture of agriculture that Wendell Berry has warned us about for almost half a century now.  My friend Jay (who works on the land) recently sent me an article about the need for a “chore culture”as a means for cultivating the virtues of hard work, commitment, and responsibility. It really struck home. These virtues have always been integral to the agricultural narrative, but of course translate into success in any sphere: family, community, and career.  This is part of what we lose as fewer and fewer people make a living from the land and mix their labor with the soil in order to meet the basic needs of the community; we have ever fewer people whose lives exemplify those core virtues of work and thrift and sacrifice and commitment.  No wonder we throw away so much food in this country–it is cheap not only in price, but also in the values we once affixed to its production. Our food is no longer set against a larger horizon of significant people, places, practices, and values.

We don’t all need to move onto a farm to revive the culture of agriculture.  Gardening is a great way to introduce kids to the connection between the soil, labor, and the food we consume. It also teaches care and patience.

New raised beds awaiting soil, compost, and plants of course.  Over the next several months Elsie will be helping to plant, weed, water, and harvest.

I am also grateful for having the opportunity to include my daughter in the volunteer work I do at Appleton Farms where she learns about the effort that goes into the gallon of milk in our refrigerator.

Chores need not be drudgery.  Helping me feed the Jerseys and the White Parks is also a chance for joy and discovery
In my experience, kids like being given a task that they can take charge of and complete; it helps to follow up with recognition for a job well done.  In this case, putting out hay before the dairy herd is brought in for milking.
Jersey calves are cute and curious.  They also need to have the poo brushed from their fur from time to time. Give a kid a job and show her that you trust her to do it and do it right and she will often reward you by exceeding your expectations.

When we visit my friend Jay, she understands the daily chores that go into the carton of eggs we use for breakfast.  She also learns what it means to be respectful toward and show gratitude for animals, even those that are being raised for food.

Elsie has learned from Jay and his family that chickens don’t work for free.  If you want eggs, you need to provide for the hens. Chores at Jay’s farm are more fun because she is often joined by Jays kids Emma and Liam.

The point of all of this?  If we wish to cleave to the virtues of thrift, commitment, hard work, and sacrifice that we claim are the foundation for our welfare and prosperity, we must seek out the places where we can transmit those values to our children.  Those places are fewer and farther between, but they are there if you go looking for them, perhaps even in your own back yard.


The Garden in Late Autumn

Late November is always poignant for me.  My birthday falls on the 19th, and my favorite holiday–Thanksgiving–comes just a few days later.  Inevitably this time of year finds me in a particularly contemplative mood. I think about what it means to be another year older and reflect on my own mortality while also taking time to thing abut gratitude and the good fortune I have enjoyed.  A strange mix of melancholy and joy that I struggle to explain.  I remember growing up in farm country in eastern Pennsylvania and having that same feeling as I walked or rode my bike along the corn fields that had been cut down to ragged spikes and were now host to hers of whitetail deer and flocks of crows.  I doubt that I was contemplating mortality all that much at that age, but nevertheless, I can recall that same mix of sadness and delight.

I spent the better part of the past weekend cleaning up leaves and cutting back dead perennials and putting away the garden tools for the winter.  It is late autumn in New England and it has turned cold and we are reminded that winter is close. I’ve had A lot to think about today.  Recently turning 45 has weighed on my mind. We recently celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, and so I also thought about gratitude and good fortune.  Never far from the ecological, my thoughts drifted to things other than my lifelong affinity for merging the mournful with the celebratory. While cleaning up leaves I thought about the absurdity of cleaning up leaves and shipping them away.

As the light began to fade and I finished putting the garden to bed for the season I returned to that old preoccupation that is for me so tied to this time of year: life and death and the passage of time.  Gratitude, fallen leaves, and death. This may all sound a bit disjointed, but completing my work in the garden in late fall somehow tied it all together.


Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings. –William Arthur Ward


Each seasonal transition signals a set of duties I must fulfill–cleaning gutters, raking leaves, re-caulking windows and on and on and on.  A lot of people will roll their eyes and effect their most sarcastic tone and say “ahhh, the joys of home ownership.” I often say that myself, but without the eye rolls and sarcasm because  these are not chores to me.  They are rituals, and I love rituals.

It may seem absurd at first to think about the yearly chores of home ownership as sacred rather than profane, but I do.  What some would see as nuisance–raking leaves, cleaning gutters, cleaning out window boxes, cutting back perennials, and stowing away the gardening tools for the winter–are something more than what they superficially seem to be.

Rain barrel disconnected and turned on end to prevent ice damage

Far from rote, annual toils, these rituals of late autumn are another reminder of what it means to be thoughtful and to exercise care for the things around me: our home and the environment around it and the critters with whom we share our little corner of Marblehead.  Showing care for the things around me is how I express my gratitude.  So I go about my late Autumn tasks with the devotion of a pilgrim.  Perhaps “he piously kept his gutters clear of leaves” could be my epitaph! After a passerby got over the absurdity of that inscription he or she might consider what it means: that we may express our piety through attention to grand religious rituals, or, as I and many others do, through our attention to and care for common tasks.  I’m not a particularly religious man.  In fact, I lean heavily toward atheism.  However, I have always admired the Shakers for their devotion and craftsmanship.  On a trip to Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts I saw a saying that really resonated with me: “Hands to work, hearts to God.”

In defense of leaves

Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. –Henry David Thoreau


Autumn in New England brings many things: changing foliage, apple picking, cooler weather and, of course, a proliferation of Ugg boots.  Autumn also brings the near constant whine of 2 cycle leaf blowers as landscapers descend on our neighborhoods to rid each and every yard of the greatest scourge known to man (I mean besides Ugg boots): fallen leaves.  It is a ridiculous autumnal ritual that even I admit to falling prey to, though I am happily becoming more and more of an apostate.  I still blow the leaves from our small yard and driveway and walkways, but when it comes to the garden and beds, I am an advocate  for leaving the leaves alone (sort of).

  1. If I must pick up leaves, I try to find a way to use them on the property. Leaves that I clean off of the driveway and walkways around the house I put into a wire bin to make leaf mold which I use to mulch around plants.  I also add leaves to the composter to boost the amount of brown material.
  2. When I can, I leave them where they fall.  There are many benefits to doing this.  The leaves protect and insulate plant roots.  Leaves are also a vital habitat for small mammals, toads, turtles, and birds, all of whom need cover and protection during the cold winter months.  In the spring, I either work the leaves into the bed with a cultivator prior to mulching, or if there is too much buildup, I will add them to the composter.
  3. I spread  them in the treeline where, along with brush piles, leaves can return nutrients to the soil while providing vital cover.

It is ridiculous to think about the resources we expend rounding up leaves and hauling them away.  More ridiculous to consider how much of it winds up being landfilled.  For more information on why you should leave your leaves check this out.

The garden on the cusp of winter

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it – the whole story doesn’t show.”- Andrew Wyeth

The vegetable garden has been put to rest for the year and I have cut back the perennials that have gone from summer green to a crisp, autumn brown after a late October frost.  When I cut back the desiccated plants I leave behind the seed heads from cone flowers and Black Eyed Susan among the leaf litter so the birds and squirrels may find a bit of forage before the first snow.  The leaves have lost their October hues and  lie scattered across the garden beds.  Brittle and snuff-colored they rustle now at even the slightest wind.  The garden in late autumn is austere, but beautiful still.  Dried stalks of grass remain upright, though they will eventually bend to the first snow fall.  Until then, their dried seed heads are luminous in the late November sun.

Inflorescence of the Miscanthus sinensis


This Pennisetum orientale ‘Karly Rose’ has lost its deeper red hues in favor of pink and brown while its remaining seeds disperse in the autumn wind.
A stand of Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ has fade from steel blue to bister, but continues to define our property’s edge.

Besides the evergreens, there is little color left, though the stems of the dogwoods seem to intensify in hue as we reach deeper into fall.

Red and yellow twig dogwoods, Cornus sericea

If the summer garden invites us to explore the proliferation of life, the winter garden–quieter but just as welcoming–invites us to consider the end of things.  Thoreau wrote of the falling Autumn leaves:

“How many flutterings before they rest quietly in their graves! They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe,–with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.”–H.D. Thoreau, Autumnal Tints

Colder and more melancholic but just as vital and intriguing, the garden in late Autumn inevitably draws us to a meditation on death and the passage of time.  The year’s work is done, the harvest is in and we may take our rest.