Monday, January 22, 2018


January is prime time for editing inventory. The view of the year ahead is unimpeded. Freeing peripheral vision from subliminal distraction makes  it easier to navigate.

Advanced housekeeping calls for making discriminations based on intuition, a process that can seem foggy and brainless. I prefer to shop rather than discard things. When it's time to empty a crowded space or simplify a room, I physically evict everything and then pluck my favorites off the pile. Clearing the decks is my favorite way to lose unwanted pounds -30-
More after the jump.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Planning The Garden

Friends recently bought their first house and asked which of the ordinary shrubs that clutter the area best suited to growing food should be moved or composted. First off, Plant Amnesty's Adopt-A-Plant website offers a future to unwanted material. Listing it is a good way to avoid hard work.

As mine hosts and I cruised the back forty, Michael flagged rejects with plastic tape while Jane gave a running narrative about their objectives. I mentioned the value of classic English garden writing, but my hostess can't spare the time to research. Her exposure to agriculture is southern Californian and industrial. It's productive, efficient, and needlessly severe under local circumstances.

These notes are the summary of my understanding of the Anglo approach to managing a landscape. It is the most valuable for European-Americans in the Pacific Northwest, because there are only two other climates in the world that share the characteristics of this area: Blighty and Japan. English practice is essentially that of the great estates informed by cottages inhabited by the staffs of those estates. In my experience, cottages are as respected as the great houses, because everyone has to cope with maintenance...

Binda Colebrook settled in Seattle around 1970. An Englishwoman, she recognized the climate and wrote "Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest", that revolutionized local vegetable gardening. The short version is the growing season begins in October. Plant alliums and corn salad. 
Corn salad becomes an edible weed that crowds out other ones.  So does tyfon. Put in new plants without having to worry about watering them until February, when we often have an unrecognized drought exacerbated by freezing weather. Colebrook influenced Tilth, whose garden advice Robin Stern organized around 1985.Their web site is a go-to. Steve Solomon founded Territorial Seed around the same time and specialized in varieties adapted to local growing conditions.

Vita Sackville-West's garden writing informed my sensibility. A quick surf a moment ago revealed that she wrote much more than I had realized. The key to making choices is to know that commercial horticulture was preceded by a long tradition of privileged plant breeding fostered on great estates and supplied by daring voyages of exploration. Mea Allen's "Hookers of Kew" is a good reference. Sackville-West's mentor Gertrude Jekyll wrote widely on gardening. If I were choosing a landscape advisor, I'd find out if they were familiar with these writings. Ann Lovejoy wrote prolifically about gardening based on her experience on Capitol Hill in Seattle and on Bainbridge Island. She is knowledgeable about European estates as well. I was delighted to run across her blog as I was composing this post. The blog looks like a short path to the heart of local horticulture.

Simply walking in the woods is an education in itself. An archaeologist assures me that the woods were gardens as surely as any pea patch, although things have declined since the Indians' range was limited to reservations. Native plants are, unsurprisingly, best suited to local conditions. They can, however, be very aggressive. Native ferns make simple, elegant elements under trees.

One of the joys of gardening without toxins is being able to integrate ornamentals and things to eat. There are infinite subtleties to this approach that vary with a given site, so consulting a local garden planner is a good idea. I have salvaged three old and neglected gardens and appreciate the value of major shrubs and trees that can manage on their own. Salvage pruning by a knowledgeable person produces noble form in a neglected plant.

The lot I visited is dominated by a cherry tree that must have been planted when the house was built. It sits in the center of a square and mossy lawn behind the house.The tree is old enough to have developed the mound at the base of the trunk that is seen on classic textile renderings of a deciduous tree. I have a weakness for the moss that dominates the turf around the tree.

Jane and Micheal have cleaned up and brushed out the lawn area to reveal its essential dignity and elegance. The previous owner was an enthusiastic gardener who planted many ornamentals that staged a great show of blossom when the place was on the market last summer. The family's three children must have had a wonderful time playing in the summer shade of that cherry. 

I'm more of a leaf person than a flower lover. I can't quite bring myself to cut one any more, preferring to let it live its life out in  peace on its own stem. I like a carefully considered layout that is defined by evergreens. A snow day is the best time to examine a scheme. Then I like to let plants romp happily around the design telling me what it is they like and what they have to contribute that I didn't know about. Sackville-West or Jekyl made the definitive comment about a garden. It is the gardener, and it will never be quite the same with another hand making the decisions.

Behind the lawn is the prospective food garden. It is froggie heaven, a good, good environmental sign. Several small fruit trees are worth salvaging, and the juvenile pine by the back fence establishes a sense of depth in the lot by focussing the eye on the distance. Japanese-style, the eye "borrows" the expanse of the neighbors' acreage through a utilitarian hog wire fence. 

Once the cherry is sculpted, the relatively low rounded form of the tree will contrast pleasingly with the punctuation of the pine at the boundary. Control the focal points of a site and you will control the sense of space. The gestalt factors of harmony, contrast, balance, order, and unity are a good short checklist for decision making. Knowing that shapes in front of other shapes add depth and interest is another, cost-free, advantage in salvaging a site.

I had a free and very valuable lesson in the nature of form when I was cutting back the two overgrown English laurels that flanked the front steps of my first little house in the Madison Valley. A senior jazz pianist walked past and complimented the symmetry I was achieving in two very different shrubs. I take his word that symmetry ain't two identical vases on either end of the mantel. I was aiming at establishing a sense of visual balance. Plant Amnesty's site posts fundamental critiques of bad pruning practice, which is hard on property values.

Much nineteenth-century landscaping advice was aimed at suburban properties of several acres. That plant material doesn't always fly on a small lot, but it still dominates the market. The classic English cottage garden was small, crowded, and aimed at production. It is defined by an entry path that leads straight to the front door. 

The magic of a cottage garden, for me, is Sackville-West's comment that many choice old plants survived by being taken home and cultivated by the garden staff of a great house. Sackville-West was a rosarian and hunted old varieties. She recommended planting the choicest version of a given plant to make the most of a small lot. That line of thinking can be taken too far for my purposes: plantaholics can be dangerously competitive at garden sales, but I don't move in those circles. I would like to see carefully selected strains of native plants.

My garden has been in place for thirty-seven years. A few of the plants are old varieties that I brought from my first, small house. The most important part of the garden is the way I have learned to think about it as radical change has come and gone. If I had closely defined time and funds to devote to setting up a new garden, I'd take the shortcut that Lovejoy's blog appears to offer -30-

More after the jump.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The House Carl

A medieval hall house had a staff of what we might call stage hands, roadies, or roustabouts. They were known as house carls. Carl as in kerl (fellow, or guy), I suppose. The main room of the house, which could shelter twenty people in two hundred square feet, had a fire pit in the center (heorth, or heart) and a board and trestle for mealtimes.

Board and trestle as in a collection of planks laid across sawhorses. The lady of the house asked the carls to knock down the table after a meal when another use was required of the space. After my nest emptied, my enthusiasm for rearranging furniture diminished. Last fall, the nest was completely empty for a couple of months, and I discovered a harmonic convergence of high tech and medieval housekeeping.

Many of the home furnishings that are current here are so light compared to their recent antecedents that I can easily manipulate them myself with only a pair of sticky-palmed work gloves to help. A minor maintenance hassle with the plumbing caused me to set up camp in the family parlor off the kitchen. The board and trestle that serves my graphic needs also makes a dandy raised platform for sitting and sleeping a la Japan. Industrial grade dairy crates replace the featherweight folding plastic sawhorses that had supported two hollow-core doors hinged together -30-
More after the jump.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Noodle Bowls

A classic noodle bowl is a kitchen workhorse that saves space and time. I accumulated four of them over several years. The motley but harmonious assortment enlivens my plain tabletop and replaced uninspiring utilitarian mixing bowls.

I use the bowls as serving pieces for small dinners and for food preparation. They are sturdy enough to use for mixing and a perennial favorite for dry cereal -30-
More after the jump.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Face Recognition

I stumbled across a not so minor miracle of consumer production: the battery-powered travel alarm clock designed by Dieter Rams. Steve Jobs' work was influenced by Rams' design of kitchen amenities. His principles of design are easy to find on the net and well worth a moment of consideration. The one I like best is not to do any more designing that you have to.

In the mid-Seventies, Seattle's Broadway was still a center of high-end European design. The store with the Copenhagen-blue facade offered Rams' clock at a price that was just out of my student reach. I never forgot it, though, and now and then when I was shopping for a travel alarm I would wish for the straightforward, gentle elegance of the original piece I found in that shop. 

Not so long ago, I realized that the clock face on Pomme products is the very one I remembered. A quick surf brought up the clock reissued, and at the same price as the first one. The in-house critic noted that the clock lacks a light for night viewing. That technology wasn't convenient at the time, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the hands of the clock sport old-school glow-in-the-dark technology.

It seems clear that the clock could be the progenitor of Pomme's white laptop case. The clock is a joy to handle. It's fussy to set, but I assume that means it can't accidentally be reset. The graphics are clever and economical. The great surprise of the device is how it handles: the proportion of weight to size is enough to stabilize the small case, and the form seems to exercise the many joints of the manual motor train without stressing them. I feel like I'm shaking Rams' hand when I handle the clock.

There must be a fascinating history of patents and materials encased in it. I don't recall seeing plastic or pigments of that quality in any other consumer products of the period, nor electronics that small and subtle. Sitting on my actual desktop, the little clock is a Seventies beacon into the future -30-
More after the jump.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Solid Waste

A piece of shop gear I tried to discard has turned out to be the most useful, versatile, and economical piece of furniture in the house. About ten years ago I hinged together a couple of hollow-core interior doors and set them on flyweight folding plastic sawhorses to use as a sign-writing board. I propped the upper door at a slant with a pair of legally-acquired industrial grade dairy crates. I didn't need the set-up for long, and though I set the upper door flat to use for staging projects, the board and trestle soon became redundant. I set the doors out for disposal, and no one claimed them.    

They sat around for years. In idle moments I visualized ways to set them up using dairy crates as a support. Stacked one, two, or three high, the crates allow a versatile range of heights for the work surface. I used them now and then for big layout projects.

Recently I wanted to set up a workroom to look like habitable space for a holiday dinner. I discovered that resting on a monolayer of crates, the doors make a first-rate daybed. They're modular with the luxury self-inflating air mattress carried by the Great Big Hiking Co-op. Oregon Rodeo's blankets make a modular cover that suits the essentially Western character of my furnishings.

The day bed is the most comfortable rack in the house. I can open the doors, prop them on crates, and transform a single into a double bed in a minute with no heavy lifting using components I can  handle by myself. I can store the mattresses under the platform and use it as a clean, raised surface for exercise or seating. The doors can stand vertically in a corner of the room, if necessary, decorating it with their interior covering of outdated concert posters harvested from the wild. The crates hold the home improvement shop, but they could store anything-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Bin

I treated myself to a stainless steel recycling bin that has served elegantly and well. It would serve even better if I could sit on it, and better yet if it had a handle that could be pulled up for a back rest. A pair of wheels would bring the design to the perfection of a nineteenth-century parlor chair.

About twenty years ago, "The World of Interiors" featured a restoration of a traditional English canal barge, that housed and generated income for a family in a tiny space. The owner had fitted the cabin with upholstered storage cubes with backs. The cubes could seat diners or be lined up against the hull like a banquette -30-

More after the jump.