Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saturday morning Sheba and/or Nina picture

Sheba is surprisingly indifferent to the snow. I'd expected that she would either love it and want to dig through it, roll around in it, etc., or that she'd want to avoid it as much as she could and go inside immediately. She really doesn't seem to care one way or the other: what she cares about is whether she gets to chase tennis balls. Which she isn't even consistently good at:

The "winter interest" wasn't there before the blizzard; I'm assuming it's branches of the maple that got snapped off by the storm and happened to land more or less upright. It does look a lot like "winter interest" often looks in photos, though, so that's what we're calling it until the thaw.

With the appearance of an extra foot of snow (the closest I've seen to an official total was 14 inches / 36 cm, by the way) to get through to reach the balls, she's adopted a sort of half-swimming style of getting through the drifts: she leaps ahead, then kicks with her hind legs until they're caught up to the rest of her, then leaps again. I occasionally have pangs that maybe it's cruel to make her do this -- I mean, it's cold, and it sometimes looks like a strenuous effort -- but her tail wags hard the whole time, and she has yet to decide it's time to go in before I do, so as far as I can tell she likes swimming through the snow as well as she liked running across the grass six months ago. Anything to chase the precious, precious tennis balls. Over and over. Not sure how I feel about this. I may be jealous.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Pretty picture: Anthurium 'Gemini' flower

Okay, well, it's true that I've posted a bunch of Anthurium pictures somewhat recently, but this one wasn't one of them, so it's technically new. (The plan is to go somewhere today where I can take pictures of plants doing something interesting, in which case I won't have to reach quite as hard for new post topics. Cross your fingers for me, 'cause sometimes when I try this, it doesn't work and then I wind up burning through an entire day for nothing.)

Also the book giveaway is still ongoing, so if you want a copy of Sara Alway's Soil Mates, hop on over to that post and leave an e-mail address before Monday night for a chance to win one.

Also also, Hulu and Viacom have settled their long-standing argument over whatever they were arguing about for the last however long it's been, so "Beavis and Butthead" episodes can now be accessed through Hulu (except the link at Hulu actually goes to, so I'm unclear why Hulu's even involved). I don't expect everyone to understand why, but this is the best news I've heard in months.

Or, no. Actually. It's the best news I've heard since a couple weeks ago, when I found out "RuPaul's Drag Race" was back for a third season. So "Beavis and Butthead" would be, like, the second-best news I've heard in months. Hooray for mid-winter! Hooray for sweeps months!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Book Review: Soil Mates, by Sara Alway

NOTE: The publisher has agreed to send a FREE copy of Soil Mates to a lucky PATSP reader in the U.S. or Canada.1 (Unlucky readers, as always, will have to fend for themselves.) Details about how to enter and how the winner will be chosen are at the end of the post.

ALSO: I received a free copy of this book with the understanding that I would write an honest review of it, which I'm fairly confident that I have done. I'm not saying that I have so much integrity I could never be bought, just that I have more than $17 worth of integrity.

Initially, when I first got my copy of Soil Mates, I was sort of disappointed: at only 127 pages long, it didn't seem like there could be that much in it. I mean, people do write much longer books about vegetable gardening. Maybe important information was being left out? But now that I've read it, I'm less bothered by that: it seems fairly complete to me. I'm not the best judge, I suppose, this being out of my area of expertise, but I was at least left without many lingering practical questions, and I wound up being fairly impressed with the information density Alway achieved. As for the accuracy, well, I read as many other people's reviews of Soil Mates as I could find to try to figure that one out, which I'll talk about later.

The book's shtick2 is, it presents the reader with twenty pairs of good companion plants (plants which grow well near one another), and talks about how one would plant them together (spacing, when to start, what kind of soil preparation for the pair, what other plants would also work well with one or the other of the plants, etc.). The tone is very non-technical and light, partly because the plants are anthropomorphized as romantic pairs. Consequently, instead of alternate pairings for the plants she discusses, Alway talks about "Love Triangles," and instead of talking about plants that don't do well near members of the pair being discussed, she talks about "Turn-Offs." Some reviewers thought this a little too cutesy, and occasionally confusing, which I suppose I can understand -- if it's not your thing, then it's not your thing -- but I can't say I ever felt like I was having a hard time keeping it all straight.

Though I have a famously high tolerance for plant anthropomorphizing, so maybe that's why.

In any case, even the critical reviews3 don't seem to have a problem with the accuracy of the information. A few people would have liked there to be more information,4 and I'll admit that I would have liked to see the science behind companion planting addressed a little more forcefully. Alway does often include some justification for pairing plants up, and sometimes the reasons provided are fact-based, like one plant attracts bugs which would bother the other plant,5 or tall plants can shade more delicate, low-growing plants from intense midday sun, but sometimes there's no explanation. I was more bothered by the way she doesn't discuss the degree to which companion planting actually matters. (If I plant tomatoes and brussels sprouts next to one another, will they all die? Will they just produce a lower yield than if they'd been further apart? How much lower? How necessary is it, in a normal year, to have some dill near the cabbage? Etc.)

It didn't bother me a lot, and it's an enjoyable read anyway, but yes, I did wonder about the whys and hows from time to time, and those aren't consistently addressed. I also occasionally found myself wondering how Alway knows this stuff in the first place, because she never says specifically that she's tried lots of different arrangements and this one is the best; she never cites other books or scientific research; she doesn't talk about getting out the Ouija board and contacting the spirit of Cleopatra for corn-growing advice. (Not that Cleopatra would know anyway, corn being unknown to Egypt during her lifetime, but one might pick things up in the afterlife, just from talking to people or whatever. Or maybe Cleopatra likes making things up to mess with people.) The source doesn't matter if what she's saying is true, and the other reviewers didn't raise objections about the accuracy, so I assume it is good information being presented here, but I do kind of like to know where it's all coming from, so I know how seriously to take it. So that's a bit of a quibble.

On the other hand, at the end of each pair's section, Alway gives a (usually vegetarian6) recipe in which both vegetables are used. This is simple and yet kinda brilliant. I think every review I read agreed that the recipes were a good idea. I don't actually like to cook, or even really aspire to like to cook, but there's a practicality to including the recipes that I suspect encourages readers to go forward with planning and planting a garden, and that's kind of awesome.

The last section of the book goes over basic garden concepts -- fertilizer, starting plants from seed, composting, pests -- and seemed reasonably solid, based on what I know about vegetable gardening. (In fact, one of the more surprising things about the book, to me, was how much of it was sort of familiar. Apparently I've picked up more from working at the garden center, reading blogs, and reading the comments readers leave here at PATSP, than I thought I had.)

I don't think I have any actual complaints about Soil Mates. It's not a book for advanced vegetable gardeners, but advanced vegetable gardeners don't need books to know what they're doing anyway. Some of the advanced gardeners who wrote reviews criticizing the light tone and anthropomorphization were, I think, maybe failing to take into account how complicated new subjects can seem when you're first starting out, and how much less intimidating a casual, put-this-here-put-that-there approach can make learning.

Not all beginning vegetable gardeners are going to like Soil Mates either; some people do have more of a just-the-facts style to them, and there are already books for them so they should just go read those. Also potentially problematic: the Soil Mates emphasis on relationships and feelings and such might be distressing to younger American men of anxious or insecure masculinity.7 It's not an especially manly book. (No cigar-chomping sunflower mows down a field of borage with an AK-47 because of a drug deal gone wrong; we don't see a grim-faced pepper walking in slow motion away from an explosion.8, 9)

So, upshot: I thought it was fun and interesting read, and pretty close to the technical level I need, as someone with very little veggie-gardening experience. If you regularly read PATSP, you'll probably like Soil Mates' style just fine, and will find it reasonably entertaining. Whether you find it useful or not will depend mostly on how much experience you already have with growing your own food and, to a lesser degree, how much help you need finding recipes for the stuff you grow.

TO WIN A COPY OF SOIL MATES: Leave a comment which includes an e-mail address at which you can be reached.10 Deadline for entry is Monday, February 7, at 7 PM CST. A winner will be chosen at random from the eligible comments, and will be announced and notified by 9 PM CST.

UPDATE: The winner, by random drawing (you'll just have to trust me that it was random), is Emily.

1 (Sorry, rest of the world.)
2 Not to malign the idea by calling it a shtick; shticks aren't necessarily bad.
3 Other reviewers have mentioned that the book appears to owe an unacknowledged debt to Louise Riotte's book Carrots Love Tomatoes, a book I haven't read, but which is famous enough that I've heard of it. I don't know whether that's a fair criticism myself, but by all accounts the style of Soil Mates is substantially different from Carrots Love Tomatoes, and Soil Mates has a much narrower focus, so they're definitely not the same book, even if there's information overlap.
4 E.g.:
"Statements are made maybe in jest that have little substance and are just not useful to the gardener who is reading the book, keen to learn. 'Cucumber dislikes Potato, with her bulbous figure and staring eyes'. Whilst some will find this amusing, this is fictional and I have learnt nothing."
This is . . . well, not untrue, but I'm not sure it's a fair criticism, either, because you know from the first page that there's some heavy anthropomorphization ahead. Criticizing Soil Mates for not being fact-dense and having a light tone is a bit like criticizing "Teletubbies" for not discussing different methods of birth control.a You knew it wasn't going to be all graphs and footnotes when you started reading it.
     a Though I suppose "Teletubbies" is a moderately effective form of birth control unto itself. (Are they still making that, or have the kids moved on to something else now? Did Tinky Winky ever get a boyfriend?)
5 Though I'm sort of confused about why it's a good idea to be attracting and feeding pests on purpose. I mean, I get it -- you want to make sure they won't bother the crop you really want, so you grow something else that the bugs like more -- but there's just something wrong-seeming about going out of one's way to feed pest insects. That doesn't really work indoors; obviously there's a perspective problem here somewhere.
6 Not vegan: most of them involve butter, milk, or cheese at some point. But plenty of them are vegan, and those that aren't can be tweaked, if that matters to you.
7 Which is to say most of them.
8 Perhaps in the sequel? Sara Alway: call me.
9 Not that it's a hundred pages of Tomato, Cabbage, Nasturtium, and Sweet Potato sitting around drinking ginger-apple-cosmotinipolitans while talking about the latest Prada line and their biological clocks, either ("Thinking about my relationship with Summer Savory is making me so depressed, guys. Let's go shoe-shopping. . . . In Europe!"), but it's a bit closer to that than it is to "Radish: First Blood, Part II," and it would be dishonest of me to pretend otherwise.
10 If you want, you can disguise your address to prevent its capture by spambots, as in the following examples:
  • "moc.loa@evitcnujbusrm" backwards,
  • "zefhowhapgvir@nby.pbz" in Rot13,
  • "" without the three "k"s, etc.
Just make sure to disguise it in a way that's simple enough that I'll be able to decipher it. Or take your chances with the spambots. Whatever.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Storm Review: 2011 Blizzard

+5 points if you can find Sheba in this picture.

Technically, I think we've been under an official blizzard warning here four times since we moved: twice last winter and twice this winter. I wrote about one of the ones last year, and mentioned the other (though I didn't really write about it), but so far the winter weather this year had been really dull. Even the previous "blizzard" didn't amount to much, especially not by comparison to the winter New England has had.

But this -- even if the snow totals weren't up to New England standards -- was respectable. Or at least it's as good as we're likely to get.

SNOW AMOUNT: GOOD. About 15 inches (38 cm). It's hard to tell with all the drifting, but the National Weather Service kept moving its predicted totals up as the day progressed, and it looked like it was converging on something like 14-19 inches for the storm overall (36-48 cm).

Back: plant room door. Left: garage. Right: house (kitchen).

SPEED OF SNOW ACCUMULATION: EXCELLENT. Snow began 11:30 AM on Feb. 1 and was over by 9 AM on Feb. 2, with most of the snowfall happening, I think, between 4 PM and 2 AM.

WIND: GOOD. 20 mph (32 kph) sustained, gusts to 45 mph (72 kph).

Tuesday afternoon, after the snow first became heavy but before it had begun to accumulate significantly.

UNUSUAL FEATURES: FAIR. I'm pretty sure I saw one flash of lightning and subsequent echo of thunder, though only one. Some interesting snow drifts, including one on the plant room door that's six feet tall.

More or less the same shot as the one above, plus Sheba and a bunch of snow.

FEAR LEVEL: FAIR to GOOD. One of my office windows was making all kinds of horrible noises, because the screen had started to come off. One screen actually did get blown off the house but was recovered.

PERSONAL INCONVENIENCE: EXCELLENT. Power stayed on. The wind blew a drift up against the plant room door to the point where it's unusable, but one can still use the front door. The drifts formed around the car in such a way that we could use it easily enough if we had to (though we'd have to shovel a small drift out of the way first). Sheba has experienced minor inconvenience in locating places to pee and poop, as her usual spots are mostly inaccessible now.

Plant room door, as seen from inside.

INCONVENIENCE TO OTHERS: UNKNOWN. I haven't heard anything about traffic accidents, though presumably there had to have been some. Also haven't heard about power outages. We had enough advance notice about the storm that I think anything nonessential likely got shut down or canceled well ahead of time, but I really have no idea.

PHOTO OPPORTUNITIES: POOR to FAIR. Most of the best weather happened during the night, when it was too dark to get pictures, and today it's been mostly sunny, so all pictures show is a bunch of white, without the shading cues that would tell you how big and deep it actually is.

Looking out the south kitchen window at the neighbors' house, approximately 9-10 PM Tuesday.

OVERALL RATING: Five out of five stars. Would participate again, would recommend to others.

Random plant event: Sempervivum 'Red Beauty'

Something has happened! (Or, more accurately, something has failed to happen, but it was surprising, so it still counts as news.) Almost two years ago, I bought a Sempervivum 'Red Beauty' from the garden center where I was working, with the intention of planting it at the new house. Grandma Subjunctive had Sempervivums by her front door when I was a kid, and I thought this sounded like a good idea for my house too. I divided them up, to hedge my bets a little (I figured they'd be fine, but I didn't know whether they'd be durable enough to make it through the move or not, and also I thought maybe I'd want them in more than one place, or want lots of them, and plus I just like propagating things so sue me), and then we moved.

But: that summer was chaotic and unpleasant, and I never got around to planting anything, except for some corn that sucked and some peppers that disappeared in the weeds almost immediately, so I kept them indoors over the winter. A couple of them died (presumably because I continued to water them -- even less often was still too much), but the others survived, so I was all like, okay, this summer, I'm totally going to plant them outside somewhere.

But of course I didn't manage to do that either, and a couple more plants died (I didn't let them go out, in the summer of 2010, for reasons that I'm sure made sense at the time), and finally I was down to a six-pack of offsets that I'd potted up back in 2009. It'd been two years. One of the six had died, they were all stretched from lack of light, and the idea of keeping them through another winter, just to not-plant them again, seemed stupid. So I said, hell with this, and gave up. I declared them officially dead, stuck them on the lowest shelf of a cart in the plant room without pulling the plants out first, and forgot they were there for several months. I'm not sure when this happened, but my guess is August.1

Then in January, I was looking for used soil to re-use,2 and checked the cart, and noticed that they were not only still there, but they were still alive. No water at all, no light to speak of, cold when the heater isn't on, hot and dry when it is, and yet there they were, arguably doing better than they were last winter when I was trying to take care of them.

(Granted, they weren't this pale previously.)

So they've earned themselves another year. Will 2011 be the year the Sempervivums get planted outside, at long last? Only time will tell.


1 Based mainly on how long it feels like, and what relatively-new plants are in the spot where the Sempervivums used to be.
2 If the plant's died of rot or bugs or something, I won't reuse soil, but it's okay if the plant's died of ugly. Ugly's not contagious. Usually.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pretty picture: Tillandsia NOID

Reaching deep into the photo archives again with this one; this picture is from last July. The reasons for this: 1) there still isn't anything much happening here to be written about, and 2) I blew off watering on Saturday and Sunday, then tried to catch up for all three days on Monday, which wound up meaning I carried plants around for five and a half solid hours. So I am very tired, and in no shape to be clever or interesting. I'll try harder tomorrow.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Music Video: DJ Earworm "No More Gas" (multi-artist mashup)

I don't think I'll do this again, at least not to this degree: even if the "extra" posts aren't huge, and don't take that long to write, any time I spend working on extra stuff is time I'm not spending on the bigger, more complicated posts like the plant profiles. Which is the excuse I'm going to use for why I didn't get the Persea americana profile done this month. (UPDATE: It's done.) I'm not saying we're completely done with mashups, just that I think it was maybe a bad idea to try to write about so many of them in so short of a time. It was fun, but I'm glad I don't have to do any for a while.

Having said all that, "No More Gas" is a personal favorite, and we may as well go out with a bang. The songs which were put together to make it:

"4 Minutes" (Madonna, Justin Timberlake, & Timbaland)
"American Boy" (Estelle & Kanye West)
"Bleeding Love" (Leona Lewis)
"Closer" (Ne-Yo)
"Damaged" (Danity Kane)
"Dangerous" (Kardinal Offishal & Akon)
"Disturbia" (Rihanna)
"Gimme More" (Britney Spears)
"Low" (Flo Rida & T-Pain)
"Superstar" (Lupe Fiasco & Matthew Santos)
"When I Grow Up" (Pussycat Dolls)

Pretty picture: Beallara Tropic Lily 'Ice Palace'

Sorry about this. I know it's not my best photo. There's nothing new going on in the house, though, and the last few times we've gone out looking for interesting garden center photos, either the garden center in question was closed when we got there, or it was open but they didn't have anything interesting going on either. So with this picture I'm reaching way back to last August, and it's not even a particularly good or interesting photo, though I still like Beallaras in general.

On the up side, we're supposed to get a little snowstorm today (Monday) and then a big snowstorm Tuesday and Wednesday, which between the two of them are supposed to drop 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) on us. It's not East Coast kind of snow (seriously, guys -- so jealous), but it'd be the biggest snowfall of our winter to date if it happens like they're saying it will, so I'm pretty stoked. Alas, it's also going to involve 25-30 mph (40-48 kph) winds and wind chills down to -21F (-29C), but you know: every rose, thorn, yada yada.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Random plant event: Justicia scheidweileri reflowering?

I've been a little worried about the Justicia I got from a reader last August. It dries out faster than the 12-to-14-day watering schedule permits, so I only catch it when it's wilted from lack of water, and although it always perks back up again, it usually loses a couple leaves in the process. (Zach, at The Variegated Thumb, has experienced this also.) And I figured I probably didn't have enough light to get it to rebloom inside: it's in an east window, with a number of other plants between the window and itself. (I have lots of plants. They sometimes wind up in non-ideal locations.) But it looks like it's going to rebloom anyway, which is interesting.

Justicia and I are still pretty much strangers to one another,1 but this is an encouraging development. I think it may also have thrown a seed into a neighboring plant, as they are rumored to do; the seedling didn't wind up surviving, but there was something I couldn't identify coming up in one of the Dieffenbachias a few months ago. I don't know exactly what happened to it, but it looked like it could have been a Justicia. They're also supposed to propagate fairly easily from cuttings.2 So all the early signs are looking good, except for that whole watering issue. And I'm fairly sure repotting would fix that.


1 Indeed, it may be something of a stranger to itself: Justicia scheidweileri is, as far as I can determine, the correct name for the plant, but they're still sold as Porphyrocoma pohliana, and some websites only acknowledge the Porphyrocoma name.
2 Not surprising for a plant in the same family as Hypoestes phyllostachya or Hemigraphis exotica, though the Acanthaceae is also home to Strobilanthes dyerianus, which I've found harder to start from cuttings, and often not worth it even when the effort succeeds.