Monday, July 15, 2019

An ode to chamomile and shade

One day last week I got out into the garden early so that I could do a little weeding in the shade. The chamomile, which scatters its seeds rather widely next to the fence where I was working, was still shaded also, and so its petals drooped, awaiting the sunlight.

Drooping petals await the morning sun.
Once the sun cleared the tree across the alley and its light fell on the chamomile, the flowers came alive. The white petals perked up and spread out around the yellow centers, the sweet appley fragrance rose invisibly, and dozens of tiny flower flies showed up, fluttering daintily from one blossom to the next.

The flowers open, the flower flies come.

It made me think of a poem by Japanese poet Ryokan (even though it's about butterflies). 

The flower invites the butterfly with no-mind;
The butterfly visits the flower with no-mind.
The flower opens, the butterfly comes; 
The butterfly comes, the flower opens.
I don't know others,
Others don't know me.
By not-knowing we follow nature's course.

[From Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan, trans. by John Stevens. Shambhala Publications, 2004.]

Harvesting chamomile on a not-so-hot day in the garden

I try to keep up with harvesting the blossoms to dry for tea, not so much because I drink a lot of chamomile tea, but because if I let them all go to seed, they stop blooming and the plants dry up and that's the end of it. If I keep harvesting, they will keep blooming all summer. I don't worry about picking so many that I keep it from reseeding; it's really not possible to do that.

I usually pop off the blossoms with my thumbnail and into a bag while sitting on a chair that I bring out to the garden. But harvesting those prolific blossoms can get tedious even while sitting, especially in the sun on a hot day, so with temperatures in the 80s already at 10 a.m., and climbing to 90-plus pretty quickly, I took a scissors and cut off several bunches, then sat down in the shade of our patio umbrella to pop the blossoms off and into a paper bag for drying in the garage.

A thumbnail is a very handy tool for separating the blossoms from the stems.

A lot of the flowers were already past their peak and destined for the compost, so I placed my harvest basket on the table to hold a handful at a time from the bucket where I had put all the cuttings, with my paper bag between my feet for dropping in the blossoms. A second bucket collected the compostable leftovers.

A mass of chamomile stems and flowers in the shade of the patio.

For drying the flowers, I use a grocery bag that's been cut down to half its height, plucking the blossoms so they fall into the bag until there's enough for a single layer at the bottom, then set the bag on a table in a dark spot in the garage where they won't get sunlight to turn them brown, and leave them for several days to dry; I leave the bag open for maximum air circulation. We don't put our car in the garage in summer (much easier to get our bikes in and out that way), so there's no exhaust fumes to spoil the herbs. 

A glass of iced tomato-veggie juice aids the harvest on a hot day.

I've got some spearmint growing in a pot this summer, so I'll be sure to dry some of that, too. It complements the chamomile very nicely in an herbal tea blend, which tastes pretty good iced on a summer evening, when shade from the house falls on the patio and reaches across the backyard. 

Pretty soon the chamomile is shaded too, and the petals fold down, as if tucking themselves into bed for a good sleep before the morning's visitors arrive.

Chamomile with poppy petals and a tiny bee (probably Ceratina genus), on a morning in July.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The delight of starting pink pansies indoors

I haven't started seeds indoors for several years, but this year I decided to renew the practice because I wanted pink pansies.

They are surprisingly hard to find. My local garden center, Mother Earth Gardens, has a really good variety of plants during the growing season, especially when it comes to Minnesota native plants, heirloom vegetables, and herbs. Plus loads of perennials and annuals. It's pretty amazing all the choices and variety they offer for a small urban garden center.

But, like other garden centers, they don't have pink pansies, except maybe in a six-pack of assorted colors, with one of them pink. But I wanted lots of pink ones, from light pink to mauve and burgundy. So I searched online until I found them at Swallowtail Garden Seeds.

The photo at left is  of the Heat Elite Pansy in pink shades, from their website, but you can't find these particular ones anymore. I assume they are sold out for this year.

I bought the seeds in January, along with some lettuce seeds (romaine and butterhead, my favorites), and paper daisies (Helipterum roseum), which are also mostly pink (as you may notice if you click the link).

I started the pansy seeds in late January and the paper daisies soon after, along with a few other flower seeds. The lettuce I'll sow directly in the garden very soon (ideally, I should have done it already—as soon as the soil became workable, which was a couple of weeks ago or so).

I used cardboard egg cartons as my seed-starting trays, which has worked very nicely. Pansies germinate in the dark, so I covered them with the egg carton lid until they poked their tiny green noses up, about a week after sowing. Then I uncovered them and kept them in a south window in a warm upstairs room.

My pansy seedlings in their egg-carton tray in mid-March, six weeks after starting.
But I didn't buy and set up supplemental lighting until March, which, in hindsight, I should have done much sooner. I had hoped they'd be forming flower buds by now, but they still have a ways to go, and I blame inadequate lighting for their slow progress.

I eventually potted them up to 4" diameter round pots, which was probably too big of a jump, so they languished some more after that, but now, on the first of May, they are showing real signs of progress in the porch, where they're getting sun from south and west windows.

The pansies are in the round pots farthest back. The square cardboard "pots" (boxes) hold marigolds at the center, and 3 tithonia at front. Photo taken on April 28 in the porch.
Even though the pansy seedlings haven't gotten as far along as I had hoped, I'm glad I started them from seed, along with the other flowers. It's very satisfying to nurture them along and eventually watch them flourish and bloom in the garden.

If the bunnies don't eat them.

Come to think of it, maybe I'll plant the pansies in the tall cast-iron urn on the front stoop.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Writing notes by hand really is better sometimes

I've taken to jotting appointments and dates on a pocket calendar, and then later adding them to the  calendar on my computer, rather than entering them via my phone when I'm scheduling them. Although, honestly, I find myself using the calendar app less and less as I have gotten used to going back to paper.

Writing stuff down first with an actual pen on an actual paper calendar is working better for me. First, because it's quicker and easier to do it that way than to enter the pass code on my phone and then open the calendar app and then enter the info into the form—even when the process is not interrupted by a reminder to update my software. And, second, sometimes the phone auto-fills the wrong information; or I discover later that there's no reminder when I was sure I had set one up; or I am unable to find the appointment on my electronic calendar at all.

It also seems like I remember things I wrote down better than things I noted via device; so I was pleased when I came across some research supporting that claim.

Studies comparing these two methods of recording information suggest that writing by hand really does improve learning and recall, even without all the distractions and annoyances I experience using my devices.

Neuroscientists say that our brains are engaged more and in different ways when we write by hand, and this brain engagement helps us to learn and remember things better. For example, a study in France found that children who were taught letters while writing them by hand, later recognized them better than a group of children who learned their letters on a computer.

Those same scientists repeated the experiment on adults, teaching them a new language that used a different alphabet, and again found that the adults taught by way of handwriting remembered more than those taught by computer. (This and other fascinating research is reported in The Guardian in this December 2014 article.)

Meanwhile, at UCLA, two psychologists tested college students to find out whether taking notes by hand affected learning and recall differently than using a laptop. They, too, found that students performed better on tests after a lecture if they had taken notes by hand. They tested one group of students (divided into a pen-and-paper set and a keypad set) shortly after the lecture, and another group a week later, allowing time for study and review. In both instances, the note-writers did better than the typers; and the group tested a week after the lecture showed an even bigger difference favoring the notes-by-hand technique.

The way that these studies were conducted suggests that the participants did not have to deal with all the little distractions and annoyances that I stumble over when I attempt to use electronic devices for jotting appointments and notes, and yet they still found an advantage in taking notes by hand.

While none of these researchers is suggesting that we go full luddite and abandon our electronic communication devices altogether, their findings do make the case for also using our pencils, pens, and paper notebooks and calendars. Think of them as exercise equipment for our brains—and as the ultimate backup devices, provided you remember where you put them.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Flowers in the house as we wait for flowers outside

It's April in Minnesota, which means that today is lovely and sunny and about 60 degrees, and there are tulips and crocuses just poking their green tips up out of the soil.

And tomorrow, a snowstorm is coming.

So I have been trying to complete my late winter/early spring pruning of trees and shrubs that I was supposed to do in March, except there was way too much snow on the ground and I needed to buy a new pruning saw and shears, which I didn't get around to until a week ago. For that, a not-so-early spring is actually helpful.

But for my spirits,  I have taken to buying bouquets at the co-op during my weekly grocery shopping trips, so I can enjoy some flowers and greenery in the house while not-so-patiently waiting for them to appear outside.

A recent article on one of my favorite eye-candy websites, Gardenista, offered some tips on arranging flowers like a Frenchwoman. I find myself torn between falling into dreamy idolizing of all things French, and Oh, Please. Really? But it was fun to look at the photos, so there's that. And some of the tips were actually helpful, in that they helped me articulate what I am attracted to when I see a flower arrangement that I really like, such as a limited color palette and a touch of wildness.

I started some seeds in January, including some pink pansies that have been languishing. I should have invested in some supplemental plant lighting a little sooner, I have concluded. I have the seedlings in the porch now, which is enclosed but unheated, with south and west windows, and I added a grow light, but they remain tiny. I'll end up buying pansies at the local garden center for my front step urn, but my tiny pansies will surely bloom eventually. Other flowers I have started from seed are looking pretty good, and giving me some hope for the near future.

I also started some Dutch white clover, for St. Patrick's Day, by which time they looked pretty cute.

But I decided to keep them going, and now they've become quite lanky. I've changed up their companion figurines from elves to something more Easterlike, and I'm rather enjoying them as quirky houseplants. I may repot them in something that will go in an Easter basket, although I am enjoying them in their cute little planters, so maybe not. They'll eventually join the compost pile out back.

Meanwhile, I'll be trying to finish up that pruning before new growth starts, and checking to see what new bouquets Seward Co-op has to offer this Friday.

Monday, March 11, 2019

It's a calendar, it's a zine, it's a diary — It's the Useful Calendar Almanac!

Yeah, I know. I'm writing about my 2019 almanac in March of 2019. What?

I actually finished the thing in January, and stitched together a prototype, which I marked up with corrections and notes, and then decided to use that one myself rather than discard it. Then I made a second one for my husband, who was missing his old-style printed calendar-planner. It's the size of a quarter of a letter-size sheet of paper, 4-1/4 by 5-1/2 inches, a nice handbook size that's also manageable for me to print and assemble at home.

Then I ran into a friend at the coffee shop, and when I showed him my copy he immediately said he would like one, so I made a few more to display during a neighborhood art event in February, the LoLa Winter Fine Art Exhibition, and he bought one, and the remaining 5 copies are now available in my Etsy shop. 

The truth is, this has been about four years in the making. Since 2015, I have made some version of an almanac-diary for my own use and as prototypes, always finishing them after the first of the year and telling myself I will make the next one in time to sell in the fall for the following year. These prototypes had limited text, since I didn't want to research and write articles, lists, and such for myself only.

But as I have modified the design of the Useful Calendar to allow more room for art, and to keep the font a readable size, and still keep it small and pocket-sized, I have left out more and more of the fascinating tidbits of information I gather along the way, and I really wanted to make them available in some complementary format, for which an almanac seems just the thing. And then it just made sense to have a few pages for a person to jot their own notes of whatever sort, whether using it as a planner or diary or phenology journal. So I added three lightly gridded pages per month.

This time I was determined to just get it out there, no matter the poor timing, and set the precedent that there will now be a Useful Calendar Almanac every year, alongside my usual compact-yet-informative calendar formats.

But I'm also equally determined to do all of it myself, from the research and writing, to illustrating, to printing and assembling and stitching. Because that's just how I do things, inefficient though it is. The following photos show the steps in the assembly process. Each one takes me about an hour to assemble, so I find something interesting to listen to and just immerse myself in the doing.

The cover, printed on card-stock, about to be cut and scored for folding

The flap to the left will form a pocket, because I gotta have a pocket.

Here are the pages, to be folded into signatures to form the text block.

Marking the signatures for where I will punch the sewing holes. The cover has the holes printed on it, so I punched those first and then use them as the guides for marking the holes in the signatures, because I will be sewing through the spine.

I chose some pretty-colored linen thread since the stitching will be both functional and decorative; the signatures will be sewn through the spine in a criss-cross pattern that forms X's on the outside. It means the center signature gets a bit more stitching than it would with a different style of stitch, because it is being sewn to the first and then again to the third signature in the process of stitching it all together. The result is a good securely bound book.

After all the sewing is done, I brush the spines with PVA glue, which remains flexible when set, so it will strengthen and protect the spine and the stitching. I brushed the glue over the edges, too, because I figure that's where the most wear will occur. They'll stay clamped like this overnight, after which the glued spine will still feel a bit tacky for a couple of days, but eventually it will just have a kind of rubbery feel.
I was going to offer these through my shop as a made-to-order item, but after I assembled a few and realized it takes about an hour just to do that, I thought I really can't ask what they're worth so late in the almanac season, so I am just offering the five that I've already made for $15 each, with a note in the description that the 2020 edition will cost $25 so as not to create the impression that $15 is a normal price for a hand-bound book like this. In truth, $25 isn't really a normal price either, but I do want to strike a balance between what I see as affordable and how much it's worth to me to make them. Because while I enjoy making them, I'd enjoy selling a few of them too.