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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
I did finally get a holly bush moved and replaced it with one of my all time garden favorites, Viburnum
I also planted an homage to my father-in-law Jim, wife Hilary, and daughter Elsie’s heritage: a trio of Korean lilacs.
And lastly, we did get out window boxes planted. Elsie took charge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As she planted she was humming and singing this great old song. I’ll post more as the gardening season progresses.
When I first noticed that some newly planted cone flowers (Echinacea purpurea ‘Pow Wow Berry’) were chewed down to the nub I suspected that a groundhog had paid us a visit. About a week after I found the damage I finally saw the culprit and indeed it was a groundhog. The biggest, fattest groundhog I have ever seen, and having grown up around farmland in rural Pennsylvania that is saying something.
The corpulent bastard waddled his way across the rocks and decided that brunch would be two other cone flowers I had just planted. I banged on the window and off he scurried (insofar as his size allowed for scurrying).
I immediately thought about how easily remedied this would be if I were still back home in Perkiomenville, PA. One option would be to trap and relocate him, but this is against the law in Marblehead. The less charitable option from back home would have been a .22, also a big no-no around here. I started considering using my bow from the second story window.
As I quietly grumbled my daughter whose attention was grabbed by my window banging and groundhog cursing observed “well daddy, a habitat is for everyone, even groundhogs. He belongs here too.” At six years old Elsie is not only wise beyond her years but is also often wise beyond my years.
Elsie reminded me of why we decided to restore the back yard habitat to begin with and in doing so reminded me of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic.”
“we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (Leopold, 1949, p. viii).
So I must sheepishly admit my preoccupation with our tiny slice of land as commodity, a thing that belongs to me and only me—well, given the price of plants at my local nursery perhaps I can be forgiven? Leopold’s and Elsie’s points are well taken: why engage in this undertaking if I am not willing to share not only with my friends and neighbors but also with the occasional obese rodent? What sense does it make to invite the birds that I love only to exclude other creatures simply because they have the audacity to eat things other than what I have allotted as “their share.”
On days when I am feeling more optimistic and less cynical about humanity I look back at the history of Western ethics and like to conceive of it as an exercise in moral evolution. That is to say that as we move forward through time we increasingly see in the “other” not someone or something alien but rather our brethren with whom we share the same moral considerability. This is what Leoplold is trying to capture, and for him the progressive dissolution of otherness and the ensuing moral embrace of that which had once been alien to us must include wider biotic communities.
“All ethics so far evolved” writes Leopold “rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land” (Leopold, 1949, p. 203).
I do consider myself to be a staunch environmentalist but I am by no means an animal rights activist; lord knows I have done my fair share of hunting and fishing and I understand the role of predator and prey. But to destroy a groundhog because he shares my admiration for Echinacea purpurea? That is just selfishness and conceit.
We want make room for our furry friend but don’t want to be completely resigned to nothing but plant stubs. I still want to see some cone flowers grow and provide joy to bees and butterflies. So, Elsie and I have come up with two solutions. The first one is her idea which is that we will plant tender perennials near the hole under the fence where Mr. Groundhog makes his entrance and exit so that he won’t have to venture far into the garden to find a tasty snack. A groundhog garden so to speak. The second solution has been some chicken wire cloches I picked up from Gardner’s Supply to help protect some of the more vulnerable groundhog delicacies.
If this were a vegetable garden (rather than a habitat garden) that I relied upon to feed my family, I would perhaps have a different solution. If I were a farmer protecting his crops I may be forced into more dramatic remedies. But that is not our situation, and there is enough chaos and death in the world without me bringing it into my garden.
So, Mr. Groundhog, enjoy the buffet and as you dine please be sure to give thanks to one very kind hearted six-year-old called Elsie who reminded me that you belong here too.
Leopold, A. (1949) A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There,
When we bought our house here in Marblehead three years ago it was literally the only house in the town that we could afford—it was also aesthetically unique and we loved it at first sight.
The woman from whom we purchased the house was a flipper, and as such there were things left undone, incomplete, and in some cases half-assed. This also made the house affordable for us, and thankfully I have enough knowledge of carpentry, plumbing, masonry and the like that I have yet to have to hire a contractor as we slowly get the house to where we really want it. It has been without a doubt a labor of love. Along the way, my daughter Elsie has picked up some good skills that will make her self-reliant when eventually she purchases her own home.
One of the major undertaking over the past three years was the landscaping of the “back yard” with the goal of certifying it as a backyard habitat (Elsie’s idea). I put “back yard” in quotes because the small bit of land behind our house is not really a yard per se; it is an exposed outcropping of the Salem gabbro-diorite formation that underlies much of the North Shore.. This is what gabbro-diorite looks like (with a lovely syenite dike). (Photo from https://hiveminer.com/User/straif)
By Marblehead standards, our home is pretty young having been build in 1938. By contrast, the Abrose Gale house down in Old Town was built in 1663, while the town itself was founded in 1629. The rock formation it all sits on is over 300 million years old (a bit of geological background https://mrdata.usgs.gov/geology/state/fips-unit.php?code=f25009). The outcropping rises about 25 feet starting 5 feet or so from the back door. Therefore, a major part of the backyard habitat restoration was making the area accessible and plantable. this meant building steps and retaining walls. Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos of what the “back yard” looked like when we first bought the house. Here is one that may give you some idea of what was going on:
The slope from the lower retaining walls up to the top was really just a jumble of rocks that with several yards of wood chips dumped on top. The seller had added a few plants here and there. The area is pretty steep and was not terrible accessible.
Step 1: Building steps to the top of the hill
In the middle of the slope was a “V” shaped cut in the rock that contained a alrge tree stump–it seemed like a natural spot to build steps. I removed the stump and excavated down to gabbro-diorite ledge, drilled some holes with a rotary hammer and drove in (along with some anchoring epoxy) 1/2″ rebar to tie the steps to the rock. I then framed the steps in 6×6 PT lumber laced the interior with more ½” rebar. The concrete had to be carried back behind the house and up the slope in 80 pound bags—all told it came to about 3 tons of concrete. This project lasted two summers (delayed in no small part by surgery I had to repair a torn labrum in my right shoulder). Once the final bit of concrete was poured a few retaining walls were built and/or repaired. My wife Hilary and daughter Elsie got in on the act collecting rocks and mixing mortar. Now it looks like this:
We are now ready to add plants back. We are also launching a program to get the invasive plants under control (mostly multiflora rose, common periwinkle (Vinca minor) and Norway maples) and also remove several tree stumps that continuously send out suckers. This is an ongoing process that I will discuss later. There are still some Norway maples to come out which I will get to as I purchase native trees to replace them. The periwinkle is going to be a major chore. Part of certifying our habitat is controlling plant species that crowd out native species–it will no doubt be a multi year process.
Elsie and Hilary have both been driving forces in the effort. Hilary and I met back in the early 2000s while working together at the Delaware Center for Horticulture—I was the community garden manager while Hilary was an AmeriCorps volunteer with the education program. We are both plant people. Elsie is a lover of all things wild, winged, furry, or feathered. She has been the one insisting that we make our yard a habitat to attract lots of wildlife and that it also serve as a refuge for pollinators. Anything I use (like fertilizer) has to be safe “in case a bee or a butterfly drinks it.” Elsie is the one who routinely surveys the property to makes sure we have everything in place that wildlife need: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young. She is the one who went through the National Wildlife Foundation checklist to make sure we met the standards for certification. So in addition to plants that provide seed, nectar (and that stabilize some of the steeper slopes) we have added feeders, bird baths, and nesting boxes. Because of the shallow soils (that also are thin on organic material) we tend towards native plants that are drought tolerant: butterfly bush, cone flowers, sedum, monarda, Lupine, black eyed susan, daisys, and ornamental grasses. For winter interest (and erosion control) we have massed together red and yellow twig dogwoods. More to follow as we make our way through our first serious planting year.