Things are coming along in the greenhouse. There are already several sets fruit on one of the Roma plants, and the cherry plants are close behind. Everything is flowering so I’ve been out there flicking the stems to fertilize as much as I can. It’s all a lot lower to the ground this year—cutting the extra shoots and branches way back has kept a lot of the plants focused on producing blooms instead of reaching skyward, and if I stay on top of that, their energy will translate into more and better tomatoes.
The sap from the oak tree falls onto the plastic and collects dirt quickly, so I bought a cheap mop and scrubbed one side yesterday. I have to get back out there and do the far side one morning before it gets too hot, and that will further increase the sunlight getting in there.
Over the last couple of weeks, Jen and I have pored over three pages of calendar printouts—the next six months—penciling in plans and family events and trips. We’ve got a lot of it hammered out, some of it is still in flux, and other things are dependent on timing and circumstance. One of the things on the list is a camping trip I’ve been wanting to organize with Finn and Zachary for the last two years following our excellent trip in 2018. I’m a little nervous now that they’ve both fully embraced video games, and especially after a year and a half of COVID schooling, that they won’t be able to leave screens behind. Or that just as they are getting past that stuff and into being away, we’ll have to pack up and head home. I’ve got a reservation set up in late August to a state campground on the Eastern Shore for three days and two nights which should be a lot of fun; it’s near the water, has fishing and kayaking, and now that I’ve got a good hitch for the bikes we can take those along too. Now I’m thinking I should add another night to the trip so we’ve got a little more time to rough it. I also need to sort through the camping gear and make some upgrades and additions, especially around food planning and storage.
I think I’ve mentioned the Coffee Walk at some point: essentially an excuse to buy coffee and muffins, we walk downtown to the bakery and then make a long loop around the neighborhood before heading home. It’s about two miles and gives us an excuse to get more exercise, catch up with each other, tire out the dog, and most importantly, get muffins. Our local bakery makes what they call Triple Ginger muffins, which are fucking delicious, and uncharacteristic of all of their other dry, crumbly pastries. We’ve been hooked on these since they started making them, and this spring they’ve been especially good—we can often time it so that they’re still hot from the oven.
Well, all good things come to an end; the bakery makes “seasonal” pastries, and only offers two types of muffin at a time; they’ve now switched to chocolate chip-almond (not as good as it sounds and crumbly at the lightest touch) and strawberry cheesecake, which sounds like it might be good until it suddenly makes one feel sick.
Continuing around the corner, we came upon the Farmer’s Market, which looks to be busier than it’s ever been; I think they’ve been preparing for people to come crawling out of their homes looking for human contact and artisanal pickles since COVID began. One thing I was happy to see was a mobile knife sharpening van, and while we tried to scope out the rest of the offerings Hazel completely lost her mind in the presence of all the other dogs out for a walk, so we noped out of there and headed home. I grabbed up a handful of knives and headed back down there with Finn: two Schrade pocketknives I’ve had on my workbench—one 3″ I’ve had since high school, from a repo’d car, and a smaller 2″ blade that was Dad’s. I brought our Wusthof hollow edge from the kitchen, which has needed attention for the last couple of years, and finally Dad’s 6″ Dexter skinning knife from his days at Cornell when they taught him how to dress meat as part of the Agriculture program. For a total of $25 all four are back in shape and ready to be used again. He took a little more off the blades than I liked to see, but they were all in pretty rough shape. Sadly he doesn’t do chainsaw blades but I’ve got a couple of other knives around here that will need attention, so we’ll probably head back in two weeks.
Things in the greenhouse have slowed due to the iffy, ineffectual weather we’ve had for the last couple of weeks. Where there was a lot of growth in the hot weeks right after they got planted, they’re all stalled and are throwing out multiple suckers instead of producing flowering branches. I’ve got one Roma plant with about ten blooms but other than that it’s all show and no go. At the Farmer’s Market I saw a bunch of potted patio tomatoes that looked lush, carrying fruit, and it immediately made me feel like I was doing things wrong. But when I looked at other stands, I saw the same varieties we’ve planted for sale that were smaller than ours and had no fruit, which cheered me back up—it looks like we’re right on time.
Hazel has slowly been working on a routine as she’s gotten older, and some of her more annoying habits have been smoothing out over time. She used to launch out of bed like an ICBM with the first beams of light over the horizon and pace by the bedroom door whining and crying and nervously scratching herself. I’d shuffle downstairs with one eye open, let her out, and then collapse on the couch praying that I’d be able to go back to sleep for a few minutes before she banged on the door to come inside—or woke up the neighborhood barking her head off.
She’s sleeping in later these days, which is a blessing, and even if I’m up before she is and slowly pick up my phone to do the morning’s calendar/weather/news check (what time do I need to be put together for my first Zoom call/how cold will the morning walk be/what’s happening in the outside world) she’ll clock that I’m moving but won’t stir until she sees I’m actually getting up. She knows what reading the iPhone means, and she knows what the pre-rise bed stretch means. She can read the signs.
So on Saturday morning, we slept in for as long as my bladder would allow, and then crawled out of bed to walk downtown for coffee and muffins. Along the way we passed several signs for yard sales, which is your author’s crack cocaine. The pickings weren’t quite as good as the signs promised, but a nice lady gave Jen a 1996 Maryland Master Gardener Handbook for free along with a thick binder full of her notes; she had to carry it back home before we continued our walk.
After eating, I got out to the greenhouse and cleaned up the plants, pinching off all of the suckers, pruning spare branches, and keeping things moving upward. They all got watered, and I fixed the wooden foundation of the building so that it’s a bit more stable. Meanwhile Jen pruned a bunch of the day lilies around the entrance back and cleaned up the gardens around the house. it’s all looking really good out there—I’m optimistic for a good haul this summer.
We ran out to drop Finn off at a friend’s house and ran some errands at the local Home Depot, and while I was there I left my Moleskine in the basket of the shopping cart and drove off without it. On a good day this might have been only a small setback, but I left my vaccination card and some other stuff in the back pocket, which made it a bad day. Two calls to Customer Service and a trip to the store netted us nothing, so I’ve pretty much given up hope. At least I have a picture of my card.
Sunday we puttered around the house and got a late start on the day. After dropping Finn off at a friend’s house across town Jen and I took Hazel to Second Chance to look for some spare doors. To recap: Our fridge is stuffed in what was originally the hallway coat closet, and during the summer, our un air-conditioned house tends to get stuffy. Having the fridge in the closet with the door closed is a terrible idea, so we’ve had to crack the door open and let the cats wander in and out and generally deal with how shitty that looks for sixteen years. Jen’s idea was to find another door in the same style, punch out the center panels, and replace them with radiator screen so that the fridge gets enough airflow and the door stays shut.
Second Chance is one of the advantages of living near Baltimore. We found a very close twin to our doors on the shelf—only 1.5″ taller and 1/2″ wider, in the same large-over-small panel design. We also found a replacement door to the master bath, something to replace the thin wooden screen door we found on the side of the road back in 2004. We stumbled on a beautiful, sturdy 12-light door with good hardware and wound up getting both for $60. I found a way to stuff them both in the back of the CR-V with the rear window up, scooped the dog into my lap, and Jen drove us home with our prizes.
The weather, which has been pogoing up and down for the last month, is supposed to get up into the 80’s this week, which means Brood X is going to rise from their slumber. I don’t know that we’ll get the same number of cicadas without the tree cover we had in 2004, but I’m sure it’s going to be loud out there.
When Finn was a tiny baby one of my favorite things was to get her fed and changed, put her in the backpack, and sneak out of the house while Jen slept in to hit the local yard sales. Catonsville has a reputation for epic yard sales because there are scores of big old houses with attics and basements and garages filled with decades of stuff. Finn would sit up above my shoulders and sing and talk to herself, and I’d walk from house to house and look, occasionally stopping to stuff something into the pack and occasionally panicking as I realized I was going to have to drag three lawn chairs and the baby a half-mile home by myself. Usually it all worked out.
The historic section of our town (basically all the houses across the street from us) were doing their community sale on Saturday morning, so I snuck out of the house with Hazel, a backpack, a wad of cash and my AirPods, letting the girls sleep in. We headed across the street in a thick fog and strained to see where the sales were through the muck. My guess is that many houses who planned on selling probably took one look outside and passed; the pickings were slim at first. Hazel and I found that most of the offerings that were out were junk; ugly decorations, Christmas stuff, glassware and fake flowers, uglier lawn furniture. One house toward the end of our route had some period bike gear I briefly considered—as well as a Specialized Rockhopper of the same vintage as my Cannondale. Discouraged, we headed downtown for coffee and triple ginger muffins, and on the way back I played a hunch and headed down the one street we hadn’t tried. Through the fog we came upon a huge sale in one of the old victorians by the Catholic Church and I guided Hazel up the driveway toward the back, where a bunch of old tools sat. For $12 I got a handful of box wrenches and this sturdy Craftsman toolbox:
With a little cleanup this will replace a modern plastic toolbox with a flimsy caddy that folds in half.
Sunday morning the girls and I put 32 hardened tomato
seedlings plants into bins in the greenhouse. I wound up buying 20 bags of soil for all of the containers, and we jammed all of them with as many plants as we thought might fit.
There are more varieties this year, and I expect all of them will try to get huge, but I’ve told Jen I’m going to be merciless about keeping them cut back to focus on producing. I’ve still got to get the rain barrels organized—the one under the garage gutter is leaking slowly, so that will have to get tossed—but the other two look like they’re in fine shape and will get pressed into service directly.
Meanwhile, the hand I burned smoking meat last weekend is looking worse and worse as the damaged skin peels off; the knuckles have been in bad shape all weekend (I did wear nitrile gloves while planting) but now the other skin is beginning to let go. The whole thing needs a soak and some Vitamin E. Don’t play with fire, kids.
Jen has been bugging me to try smoking some meat since my first abortive attempt in June of 2015, when I turned a chicken into a block of cement. The smoker has been sitting in the garage since then, taking up space, silently mocking me. Fed up with waiting, Jen found a recipe, drove us to the butcher, and kicked me out of the car to go buy some meat. Sunday morning I cleaned out the smoker, lit some charcoal, and rubbed spices into two cuts of tri-tip. Throwing some wet mesquite onto the fire, I put thermometers into each cut, laid them on the grill, and said a prayer.
It’s pretty obvious in hindsight, but cooking meat with a good thermometer changes the game entirely. The smoker did a great job and I was able to get the meat up to temperature right on schedule. I ran out of charcoal so Hazel and I ran to the 7-11 to pick up another bag. They had no matchlite, so I had to resort to lighter fluid. Because I was in a hurry and not thinking, I didn’t set up the new charcoal the way I should have, and I wound up flash-burning my hand pretty good when the chamber full of vapor lit off, as well as ruining a good fleece jacket. Lesson learned.
After four hours smoking, I wrapped the meat in foil and let them get up to final temperature, which took less time than the recipe called for. We had an early dinner at the table with coleslaw and French fries, and the meat tasted absolutely fantastic. I made a Manhattan to go with it. We all ate until we were stuffed, and decided there will be more smoked meals in our future.
After some hesitation, I put Finley’s blue bike up on Craigslist this afternoon. in hindsight I should have done it last year, when people were desperate to get bikes, but for some reason I waited. Ever the sentimental fool, I’m sad to see this one go. It’s the one she learned how to ride on, the one Santa brought her. It’s even the same color as Ox (this was not coincidence). But her legs are almost as long as mine now, and it’s time to find a new rider. I hope it makes good memories for the next little girl who climbs aboard..
On Saturday I re-organized the greenhouse so that the spare table is up front where most of the light will be, and prepared a bunch of bins with soil and fertilizer. The seedlings are on their second day of hardening, so by next Saturday they should be ready to plant. There are seedlings on one tray that are 8″ tall at this point, which is fantastic; I’m much further along this spring than I was last year.
With the quarantine altering my work schedule last year, I was able to spend what would have been commuting time on starting seeds and tending plants over my morning coffee. 2020 was a pretty good season but I know it could be vastly improved with the right lessons learned. This year I started seeds much earlier and transplanted the strongest seedlings into larger pots a couple of weeks ago. I’ve learned that the larger starter pods don’t work well, and taking the covers off the trays (and moving them upstairs into the heat) helps them grow much faster. There are now 30+ plants that are ready to start hardening outside, and the overall weather is getting warmer.
Having expanded the number of seedlings available, I knew that I was going to need to reorganize the greenhouse to take advantage of as much interior space as possible. Yesterday I dragged all of the chairs out onto the lawn, dumped last year’s soil out, and took stock of the space. Back in 2005 Jen and I bought a trio of greenhouse tables from a local nursery that was closing; I don’t recall what we spent on them but it wasn’t much. I usually have 2 set up down the middle of the floor and have the fourth over in the corner for storage, but that’s valuable surface area that could be covered with plants. So I moved that to the back corner and offset the middle table to give us walking space. The big question is whether or not to move that table up to the front (southwest) corner, where the majority of the daily sun is, and find a new place to move the old potting bench so that it all fits. It’s raining today so I may go back out and move some stuff around to see if I can make something work.
We hit the Home Depot and picked up 8 bags of potting soil to start the bins, and I figure we’ll need another 8 at least to fill them all completely and the extra pots I’ve got set up for stragglers. I’ve got to pick up a cheap fabric mop and an extendable pole so that I can wash the sap off the plastic outside, and find a way to build a rack for all of the poles sitting in the far back corner.
Our house is coming up on its centennial in just a few years. At the turn of the century, this whole area was still sparsely populated with gentleman’s farms and vacation homes for Baltimore’s wealthiest residents; The track for the trolley from the city is still embedded under Frederick Road in front of our house. From our back windows we can see Summit Mansion, one of the largest of the local mansions, whose frontage was subdivided into our current neighborhood in the early 1900’s.
When they put these houses up, the practice of home insulation was still in its infancy, and I’ve been playing catchup for the last sixteen years. With the weather in the teens overnight, I’ve been concerned that our seedlings will get frostbitten in the basement once they’ve grown large enough for me to take the covers off, so I figured I’d make a plan to move them upstairs. The best location I could find was in the den, on the cabinet under Finn’s gallery wall, where there’s lots of natural light during the day and several available plugs for the lights and the heaters.
I built a frame out of scrap wood for the grow lights so that the fixture sits directly over the trays and put some plastic down on top of the cabinet before getting everything situated. Once I’d moved the old light fixture up and plugged it into the timer, it refused to work, so I picked up a new one from Lowe’s and wired the plug into it from the old one.
The new covers are excellent. They give the plants tons of room to stand up, and they feature two vents on the top to let the condensation out. By Sunday evening, everything was standing tall and enjoying the new location.
Other than that, and a bunch of chores and other small projects around the house, I did absolutely fuck-all this weekend. I’ve made it through a bunch of minor quests in Fallout 76 solo and participated in one event with a bunch of other random players, but I got absolutely smoked in a cave by a giant mutated turtle trying to complete a major quest and spent the rest of the weekend licking my wounds.
Jen and I took advantage of a snowy Sunday morning to get our seedlings started after a breakfast of homemade pancakes. Having already set up a better light stand, I went out and bought a pair of new seedling trays and a variety pack of heirloom tomato seeds. This year we’re doing Amish Paste, Beefsteak, Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Roma, Large Cherry, & Yellow Plum Tomatoes, as well as Italian Flat Leaf & Thai basil. There should be at least 10 seedlings to choose from for each variety, which will be more than enough to fill our containers.
Along with the seeds I got an outdoor timer for the grow lights and set up heating pads and the lights downstairs.
Other than that, and an afternoon walk with Hazel, I didn’t do a damn thing on Sunday until the Super Bowl, which was, as usual, underwhelming. I was sad to see Frat Bro win yet another ring and the Tampa Bay defense run over the Chiefs; Mahomes tried to do everything he could but he’s only one man, and he didn’t get much help from the rest of the team. The highlight was live-texting back and forth with Mom, Renie and Jen up until the third quarter when we all saw the writing on the wall and gave up on it.
As mentioned earlier, I set up a new growing station in the basement a few weeks ago to be ready for seed starting, with a 4′ grow light, two growing trays for 60 seeds and heating mats. I ordered a timer and a pack of 6 varieties of tomato seeds from Amazon this morning. I’m excited to get some seedlings going. The Farmer’s Almanac says I should be starting right now but that feels very early to me—especially when we’ve got two inches of snow on the ground. Asking Jen about this on our morning walk today, as we trudged over sections of new ice that had fallen overnight, she said something to the effect of, “duh, Bill, why do you think the plants at the store are so big in the spring when they go on sale?” Duh, indeed. So I guess I know what I’ll be doing this weekend.
In the greenhouse, the plan is to buy an inexpensive shelving unit for the back corner to free up the spare table, and move that over to the south side wall for more planting space. It’s pretty clear I need to prepare the containers better before planting, probably with some kind of fish-based fertilizer. Outside the greenhouse I’m going to go scorched-earth on the weeds out back and put in some kind of simple pavers to keep the ivy from returning, as well as build a new water barrel platform to replace the rickety one I’ve been using for 10 years.
Finally, I’ve got to find a mop on an extended handle that I can use to wash the plastic on the greenhouse; the oak tree overhead tends to drop a lot of sap, which collects dirt and cuts back on the amount of sunlight making its way inside.
Here’s an updated version of the energy graphs I plotted last week; this is a two-part visualization that shows the difference between summer and winter.
A couple of weeks ago I found an old fluorescent light fixture up in the attic of the garage while I was organizing stuff, and hauled it into the basement to take a closer look. I don’t remember where it came from. It needed a new cord, but other than that looked clean, so I picked one up from Home Depot and wired it up. Then I took the light stand down and rigged it up from the ceiling over by the brewing stand. Now, instead of taking up the entire workbench, there’s a dedicated growing setup for starting vegetable seeds. Now I just need a 3-prong programmable timer. The goal for this year is to build on last year’s success. I’m going to prepare the bins better this time, with better fertilizer at the beginning, better positioning, and a selection of new seed for some variety. I’m also going to pick up some inexpensive plastic shelving to clean up the greenhouse and open up space for growing.