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.

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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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Hooray for my walking boot
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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.