Friday, March 19, 2010

Grow Soil

Photo courtesy Flickr

Woody plants build soil quickly as they compost. Use foot traffic to break down small diameter sticks, the ones too big to mulch safely with the mower and too small to chop into kindling using a sharp hatchet and a notch on a stump. Turn a layer of small wood into mulch by strewing it artfully in a traffic area. This is a medieval technique. Back in the day, barns were mucked out into the yard each morning and cattle set to trample the dirty straw. I first tried this technique with sticks and children, and it worked just fine in spite of their soft-soled shoes. A muddy path is a good spot to set up.

In thirty years of managing this property, we have taken only two loads of garden waste to the dump. There are areas in the yard where the soil is more than a foot deeper than it was in 1980. Last spring, I mixed leftover vegetable seeds and broadcast them in one of these places, just to see what would happen when such highly bred plants were left to fend for themselves. Not much, it turns out, especially since I don’t water anything but fruit trees and containers, but a little patch of greens emerged, and I transplanted them into patented growing bins. One lettuce was too big to move, and it gave us good salads from soil that was bone dry from record heat but pure compost to start with.

Every time there’s a pruning job, I grumble and think it would be easier just to set out bundles of waste for the city to haul away. Repeatedly, I learn that the fastest, cheapest, and greenest way to deal with yard waste is simply to take the time to process it with sharp tools and use it myself. A reciprocating power saw makes short work of large branches.

Sticks become fertilizer, weed-blocking mulch, and barbeque fuel. The small amount of time it takes to manage them is less trouble than mushing out to buy the products they replace, and less trouble than making the money to pay to get rid of them. A year’s stock of prunings takes up little space in a corner of the garage. Paper yard waste bags are porous enough to let things dry, strong enough not to tear, and frustrate bugs and vermin that would otherwise set up housekeeping. It only takes two or three bags to hold the season’s harvest of small wood.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bennison's Fade

Photo courtesy Flickr

I discovered the work of Geoffrey Bennison in the Nineties while leafing through glossy shelter magazines. He designed fabrics in the deep tradition of English country houses. Bennison’s work looks faded when brand new, yet has the structural integrity of textiles undamaged by sun. This aged quality is an asset when refreshing a room that achieved its best some time in the past.

Over time, I have realized that fading blends accumulated furnishings and brings gentle harmony to a collection. Diana Phipps, author of Affordable Splendor, defines a set of pigments that are common to traditional architecture and furnishings. An art supply store will carry color chips for reference. Many of these colors are earth-based, and as such are color-fast and non-toxic.

Learn to recognize chrome yellow, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw sienna, burnt umber, raw umber, Vandyke brown, Venetian red, cadmium red, vermilion, alizarin crimson, terre verte, viridian, cobalt blue, ultramarine, Prussian blue, black, and white. White before 1970 was based on lead and slightly yellow. I won’t use toxic pigments, but it makes sense to copy the old effect.

The first time we painted our 1890 house, I chose a period color, a reddish brown. As the color faded and we repainted small areas, I matched the fade. The next time we had the whole structure painted, the color was approaching Venetian red, the original royal purple. I stayed close to the faded color, because by that time the landscaping and interiors had been keyed to the veteran paint. When it’s time to paint again, I’ll push the color back toward a darker shade, to retain the excellent passive solar gain it affords.

A faded atmosphere need not be a sad one. If it’s freshly maintained and accented with white and polished brass, it looks comforting. It is also comforting to know the conservative strategy for interior design: do it right once in the beginning and stick to your guns. It’s a small matter to bring a room up to date with state of the art lighting and new small furnishings like pillows. Over time, the value of classics will make itself apparent. They are often the best value as used things.

Spend time looking through glossy shelter magazines from previous decades. Besides their being a hoot, you may find that design of lasting value literally leaps off the page. I find that looking at old products gives me an eye for the insights of good contemporary designers. My great-grandmother’s cut-glass decanter has a profile that could have been designed by Ettore Sottsass for his Memphis collection.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mac's New Foot

Photo courtesy Flickr
I doubt that your grandmother’s silver tray works any more than mine does. Usually, I just polish it before I don’t use it again for Christmas.

This year is different, no kidding. My son recently pointed out the cooling tray he had slipped under his laptop. It’s a wire baking rack that does double duty for cookies. I was ignorant of cooling trays, but stayed uncharacteristically silent.

Back at the ranch, I used a plastic tray for a few weeks before remembering how good silver is at conducting heat-it makes a mean stock pot. Finally putting two and two together, I connected with the round tray that has sat in my peripheral vision for months.

Works like a charm and does separate duty as a giant saucer when coffee comes upstairs.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Vintage Excursion

Photo courtesy Flickr

Planning a trip is more complicated since I threw my car away. It’s not that lacking a motor vehicle is privation: it’s that the absence of a car reminds me how many alternatives there are for getting from here to Portland.

The city is just close enough that air travel is not an automatic choice. I don’t ride the dog or hitchhike. Fifteen minutes on the Internet taught me that sometimes the old way is the best way here in pedestrian-land.

I can walk to the Amtrak station from the house. Portland preserved its early twentieth-century travel amenities. That train station is ten minutes’ walk to the grand old hotel. With a preferential rate and a bus to the doorstep of my local destination, I stayed three nights in a quiet, dignified room with decent art on the walls and twenty-four hour room service from a good restaurant. I spent less money than it would have cost to stay someplace cheap and rent a car. A late evening cab ride wrapped up the journey when I got back to Seattle.

This is a tranquil way to travel, even though the train north was full of young sports fans heading for the Winter Olympics.

-30- More after the jump.