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.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Pest Control

I inadvertently shared my appreciation for the slug-killing aspect of cold weather with a woman who is seriously creeped out by these gastropods. It was not until I repeated her story of being trapped in a South Sound log cabin by a slug at each threshold that I learned the scale of the event. A witness said
the slugs in question were the literal banana slugs that fill the niche occupied by earthworms in other parts of the country.

The notion of free protein that crawls into the skillet has some, but limited appeal. The cookbook says, "Picking it up is the hard part." Early in my tenure here in Seattle, I read that slugs crawl into the prevailing wind and that they follow each other's trails. I interrupted the trails by tapping each slug with a gloved hand until it curled into a ball and then tossing it over the fence to windward. I briefly considered using a nine iron. I have not seen a large slug since that first summer. The hatchlings are bird food -30-

More after the jump.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Downsize And Upgrade

My buddy Bethany nailed the essence of selling the family home in favor of a condo. The concept is close to less is more, but deeply insightful. Bethany has a knack for learning the things that can't be taught.

See Paul Hawken's "Next Economy" for details about this line of thinking -30- More after the jump.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Adaptive Reuse

A chemically neutral museum board box with reinforced metal corners has become a solid little workhorse in my storage inventory. Careful reading of the specs on the vendor's website led me to conclude that one will do for protecting textiles as well its original intended contents, photographic prints.

I use a 16x20 for a baby quilt. The 8.5x11 version moves easily from bookshelf to drawer, from scrap file to holder of awkward electronic accessories. The box is so solidly constructed it is more furniture than stationery -30- More after the jump.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Urban Ore

I hope I have the nomenclature right. As I understand it, ore is the term the solid waste community uses to designate what goes into the recycling bin.

I follow an industry newsletter for the waste industry. I'm not witting about how to evaluate the stories, but it's an interesting focus on the business end of housekeeping. The history of American housekeeping (see all three volumes of Susan Strasser's blockbuster trilogy that starts with "Never Done") is the history of industry stepping in to lighten the burdens of life support. 

Come to think of it, the history of the industrial revolution is the same. If I remember correctly from a PBS documentary, the iron cooking pot and the sewing needle were the first two industrial consumer items. In the northwest, that level of technology persisted until the Twenties, and still does in some circles.

Considering household waste as raw material for industrial production lends a note of seriousness to procedures that have long been trivialized as insignificant compared to "real" work outside the home. I was surprised to run across the term contaminated waste in a recent newsletter. Ore with even a minor amount of waste that is not included in the list of desirable contents is unusable. Because it takes so much energy to generate the waste in the first place, I submit that contaminating recycling is an offense against carbon conservation, no matter how minuscule the excess -30- More after the jump.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Paring A Room

Every year the cycle of holiday events makes slightly different demands on the space inside the house. Over the decades I've rousted and edited the contents of each room so many times that only essentials remain. My side bag holds the personal kit of daily life, so a room needs only to be furnished for immediate use. 

The least appealing room on each floor holds furnishings in reserve. Isolating inactive inventory is the most effective and efficient change I have made in conventional housekeeping practice -30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Daylighting Dinner

I rise very early. Doing so gives me peaceful and uncrowded work days in a dense neighborhood just minutes' walk from downtown. The rest of the family rises early, too. Over the holiday, I realized that we had revived the old practice of having the main meal at midday. I grew up understanding that to be old school farmers' practice. Living off the grid at an isolated cabin taught me the value of putting a meal together when I could see what I was doing.

Casual scanning of a City Light newsletter brought my attention to the plan to charge different rates for power consumed at different times of day. Early rising has yet another advantage now besides uncrowded busses and clerks who are not yet fried from their day of customer service -30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Tray

Christmas brought a new serving plate to the inventory. It's a disc of aluminum treated to have an iridescent surface. I needed an extra dish to put dinner on the table, and the new one arrived just in time. It seemed out of harmony with the existing collection of traditional serving ware. As I was drying it after the meal, I realized that the iridescent surface picks up the subtleties of tarnish on the old plated silver I use for this and that -30-
More after the jump.