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.
There are several tomatoes coloring in the greenhouse, and I am READY for them. The cherry plants are still producing fruit randomly; every week I go out and bring a handful in for the girls. I’m going to have to go out and consolidate a bunch of stuff this weekend and finally put the panel in the back wall to keep things warm overnight. Winter is coming…
Here in the office I finally took the time to go through some drawers and bins and boxes full of old computer gear and set aside a bunch of crap to get rid of: ancient CD-RW drives I scavenged from old towers, a pair of AirPort Base Stations that date back 15 years, miles of old Cat-5 network cabling, first-gen iPod FireWire wall warts, old manuals…there’s certainly more to get rid of, but I’ve found that if I’m going to keep old machinery it’s critical to have the gear to support it. So I’ll still hang on to the AirPort Express that will talk to the G3 Powerbooks that will still run OS9 so that I can access design files from 1997…
One of the things I dug out of the archives is a Sony Watchman MD-10, something that came out of the unclaimed personal property of a repo when I was in college. I took it back with me junior year and it allowed us all to stay current on Seinfeld episodes when we were on break during late night classes. For its time it was an amazing little device, and I wish it had DC input, because as I recall it ate AA batteries pretty fast. It’s useless these days with the advent of digital broadcasting; I could theoretically hook a digital antenna up to an RF modulator and broadcast local analog signal to it, but it’s really not worth the trouble. Interestingly, Gizmodo just did an article on this very model a few months ago; I share the author’s hesitation to get rid of his.
The greenhouse is winding down from its peak this summer. I went out this morning and chopped most of the plants that are still producing way back and yanked four plants that have stopped producing out of their tubs. Most of the cherry plants are still producing fruit and some of it is reddening, but there’s a lot of green fruit out there that might not make it through the fall. My plan is to pull the plants out of the bins and hang them upside-down from the roof to send all the nutrients downward to the fruit before it gets too cold. There are two green heirlooms in the same situation; I’m hoping I can get those to ripen as well. Sadly it also means I’ve got to put the door back in place.
I donated to the Biden/Harris campaign last week, voluntarily opening the floodgates of spam campaign mail, and after hitting DONATE I realized I wanted to get a yard sign. Heading over to the store I saw that a 24″x18″ sign is $25, which is entirely too much money to spend on too small a sign. I had some 4×3′ plywood left over from the Chic Shack and I have an overhead projector, so I decided to make my own. It was easy to find a PDF of the campaign logo, and after I printed it on a transparency I busted out the projector and set it up in the living room facing the wall.
Once I had the stencil drawn, I cut it out on the production table and transfered it to the wood. I’d whitewashed the wood on Saturday so it was ready for paint. At Lowe’s I got two pint-sized samples of red and blue paint so I covered the red section and shot the blue through the stencil with the sprayer. When that had dried I masked off the red section with painter’s tape and brushed it on.
From there it was an easy matter of cutting some leftover wood down for yard spikes and pounding them into the lawn with a deadblow hammer. I have to go back out and straighten the west side sign a little bit, but overall I’m happy with the results. It’s right outside the office window so I get to see the neighborhood walk past every day.
Until Thursday evening, I’d had about 200 files from the March scanning project still waiting to be color-corrected and processed. I ran out of steam toward the end of the project, after I’d been sitting and staring at them for several weeks on end. After the girls went to bed last night I worked my way through the last batch. I wish I’d done all of this before my Dad passed, as I think he’d be blown away by how modern technology and a professional eye can save an underexposed or poorly processed negative—of which there are many in this collection.
The greenhouse bounty is winding down now that we’re getting into September; the cherry plants are sending out their last bunches of fruit, and the heirlooms are almost done producing. There are maybe 10 large tomatoes still ripening out there, and then the plants can come out and the greenhouse cleaned up. I’m happy to say we’ve enjoyed every tomato that’s come out of there, and I can’t wait to build a better version with more variety next year.