7 Garden Goals for 2011

The frozen garden gate

I’m sitting in the office writing this while the snow outside still sits just inches below the nearby window sill and my poor garden beds are shivering under at least three feet of snow and ice. Last year I planted the first peas the weekend after St. Patrick’s Day on March 20/21st. It seems hard to believe that I’ll be able to see bare ground let alone get a spade blade into the earth in less than a month. Still, the garden catalogs are pouring into the mailbox, so it’s probably time to take stock and plan out what I want to accomplish (or at least attempt) this year.

This will be year four of, while maybe not serious, a bit more intense than a few patio pots, gardening. A quick recap of the lessons learned from the past three years.

Year 1: Built the semi-raised beds and filled them with gloriously organic, virgin soil. Plants and yields were great.

Year 2: Turns out in addition to the great soil, I think we had great weather for the most part as well. Year 2 was marked with a very cool, rainy start that knocked down a vast majority of the tomato plants with blight. I took solace in the fact that most other gardeners were suffering along with me and it wasn’t something I did.

Year 3: If year 2 was the year of wet and blight, year 3 was depleted soil and bugs. I had added some additional compost and soil goodies, but it must not have been enough. The yields were generally meager at best. After three years, beetles, horn worms and other pests have discovered my plots in earnest.

With those things in mind, here are my goals for year 4:

Last year's peas

1. Pump up the soil
It all starts with the dirt. I’m going to re-dig the beds with a lot more compost and manure than I have in the past two years. If that doesn’t work this year, I’ll send samples off to UMass again to analyze to see if it’s a specific deficiency. Along those lines, we’ve been home composting in a bin for the last three years. I think it’s time to see if we have anything usable in there to add to the beds. I’ll build a simple screen and see if the compost effort is paying off at all.

2. Add more upside down hangers
While the upside down experiment didn’t work out too well on the larger varieties last year, they did work gang busters on the sweet 100’s and the other cherry varieties. I’d like to add three more hangers along the garage eaves. Two for additional cherries (Cece’s favorite) and one for pickling cukes.

Looked ok, didn't taste ok

3. Try pickling cukes again
The problem hasn’t really been growing them, it’s been using them. Along with everything else, we had bumper crops in year one and decent yields in two, but each year was an unmitigated disaster in the actually pickling process. I think I’ve found a good, fool proof method this year, so despite Chelle’s reservations, I’m trying again!

4. Harvest winter garlic
One of last year’s goals was trying to overwinter some crops. I chose garlic mainly on co-worker recommendations and its general infallibility. This spring it’s time to put that to the test and see if we can harvest, dry and use the two different varieties we planted last November. Trying to stay positive, but that garlic has to be chilly, despite the blanket of salt hay, under all that snow. Fingers crossed.

5. Better Pea and zucchini yields
I’m hoping this is largely related to the soil issues (see #1 above) but last year was crushingly disappointing in terms of good peas and zucchini, two of our top 3 favorite veggies to grow.

6. Plant (at least) one fruit bush
We inherited a blueberry bush with the house and have kept an ever bearing strawberry plant going, but we’d like to clear out space near the garage, a nice warm sunny protected spot to plant some raspberry bushes.

7. Healthier Pumpkins
Finally, I’d like to focus on pumpkins more this year. We’ve grown them in the neighbor’s larger plot the last two years and both times eked out at least one decent gourd, but they have mainly been an afterthought. It seems the long growing time and the ambling nature of the plant leave vulnerable to all sorts of fungi and pests. This year I’ll try to see if I can’t even the odds a bit and give the pumpkin patch a little more TLC.

Seven seems like a good lucky number and more than enough to keep me busy.

 

Deferred till next year (and beyond):

  • Better watermelons – while we got a number of sugar melons last year, on the whole the entire patch was an abject failure. I’ll take a year off and try again next year
  • Potatoes- I think Cecilia would like digging around to harvest the potatoes. I’ll try this next year when she’s a little older and can do more from start to finish.
  • Creating a new raised bed for a dedicated kitchen herb garden
  • Starting tomatoes from seedlings
  • A more concerted canning/preservers effort
  • Add a (dwarf) apple tree
Almost tropical lushness with the first year's soil

 

Recommended Reading

Is it a crime if a boy doesn’t read the Hardy Boys?

Running a book club, always carrying a book, generally being known as a book nerd that can quote the dewey decimal system, I get asked what I’m reading and if I could recommend a book for so and so, or I just finished Book A, could you recommend something. It happens at least a couple times a month. And a lot around the holidays. Figured maybe it was time to write something up so I, while I still love talking books, I could point folks here for later reference. I’ll update, add, re-arrange frequently, so check back once in awhile. Continue Reading

Kindle Publishing: Links, Lies and XML

Shaking the Tree - Kindle Cover

So I finally took the plunge and released the Shaking the Tree into the wild. Spurred on by JA Konrath klaxon call to self-pub and the always welcome sensation of learning something new, I tackled converting my Word manuscript to the Kindle format. Sounds quite simple right? I mean everyone and everybody uses Word, right? Mac or PC. Creative or corporate. Male or female. Facebook or MySpace. Right? Sort of.

While it’s not as easy as they (the ubiquitous they) make it sound, it’s not terribly difficult either. It does not require a ton of coding skills, though being comfortable with HTML syntax is a plus. It does require a big dollop of patience. Sure, you can hack something together that will be semi-readable with little effort, but if you want something with a little polish and panache (in other words something you won’t blush at charging 99 cents for – you can’t give it away anymore on Amazon) it’s going to take a little time and effort. Then a little more. Then some debugging. Then it should work.

Like always, the Internet is a bounty of useful information. To help you sort the wheat from the chaff, here are the tips, tricks, links, sources, documents and programs that helped me the most. Your mileage may vary. Note, this is only for the Kindle. And really only for fiction or manuscripts without a lot of imagery or internal tables etc. Haven’t tackled Smashwords or other e-book formatting issues yet.

Things you will need:

  • A manuscript, or a bunch of words, something to publish, otherwise what’s the point
  • A computer (with internet connection)
  • Mobipocket Creator
  • Kindle Previewer
  • Kindle Reading App (optional, but I noticed some quirks between the previewer and the apps)
  • Kindle itself (optional)
  • A text editor (like notepad or something a bit fancier like Dreamweaver – either one will get the job done. I like the free Notepad++ myself)
  • A KPD account

Ok, the best place to start is at Amazon’s DTP (hmm, seems like they renamed it to KDP recently) KDP Community page. While a bit light on in-depth how-to’s unless you search the forums, the Getting Started Guide is a worthwhile read for the overview and background on the process. A nice way to get your feet wet and ease into the terminology.

Once I ran through the KDP guides, I moved on to April Hamilton’s How to Use Amazon’s DTP guide (a big PDF, be patient). Her PDF (and her excellent indie author site in general) was by far the most in-depth and hands on training guide that I could find (for free at least). It’s chock full of pictures and step by step instructions written very simply and clearly (not easy to do in technical writing). I thought I had found nirvana. A road map to lead me to the Kindle promise land. I mentioned the patience part above, right?

Now, a little background. Over time, my manuscript had mutated into a Createspace template (long story, but I got a free proof copy so the effort was worth it – remember I like learning new things) with a lot of heavy Word formatting. After a lot of experimenting, I blame this more than anything for taking my off the rails that April had so carefully drawn up. Lesson learned, if at all possible turn off the vast majority of Word formatting and use only the most vanilla template.

The dreaded NCX

April’s guide filled in a lot of holes and taught me a lot about what I was up against, but I just could not get the Word generated table of contents and NCX file to play nice. I went looking for more sources. I found romance writer Nadia Lee’s page on kindle formatting. It takes a much more short hand approach, but after reading April’s guide, the learning curve wasn’t steep and best of all, she sidesteps Word’s table of contents and uses HTML formatting and Mobipocket to create one. Using Nadia’s style sheet template and a lot of hands on cleaning up of Word generated HTML (patience, remember), I was able to get a simple HTML version with working table of contents.

So I was 90% of the way there, but of course marathons don’t really start till the last 10 percent. I still had the NCX file to create. Oh, if you dive into Kindle publishing, you will come to dread those three letters. At least I did until I found CJ’s Easy as Pie Kindle tutorials. The NCX file (Navigation control file for XML) is (sort-of) required by KDP. It tells you it’s required, but if you peek in the forums, you don’t need to create one. But I’m a stickler and if I’m charging folks, I might as well do the most I can, right? By the way, the NCX controls the tick marks (and a few other navigation controls) along the bottom of the Kindle. Not strictly necessary, but it’s all about professionalism. With CJ’s tutorial as a guide I was able to hack my way through a working NCX.

The kindle formatting site was also helpful in a glossary sort of way, going back and checking different things. Or seeing the same instructions written a different way. Or just plain debugging and looking for answers. I started here more than anywhere else when I was stuck.

Using Mobipocket to bind it all together and I was done. Maybe this will help any other indie author struggling flailing away with Kindle issues. If so, it was worth the time to write it up. Besides, I’ll probably need it myself when I finish the next one.

You can check out my author site or better yet, buy a copy of Shaking the Tree Kindle edition at Amazon. It’s only 99 cents! Not many things left you can buy for under a buck.

On a Roll…Homemade Butter

I can’t remember what made me think about butter first.  It might have been the recent Bitten post, or the copious amounts of bread I’ve been baking or thoughts of making my own cheese. I’m pretty sure it was one of those. Turns out fixing the housing crises might be simpler. Making anything but the soft cheeses is a real pain and involves more patience and equipment than I currently can handle. Plus, Chelle barely tolerates the jars of sourdough starter fermenting in the fridge and wasn’t about to embrace active mounds of mold in the basement. Luckily, it turns out butter is a lot, lot simpler. Continue Reading

Birthday Boxes

Ooh, the suspense. What's in the box?

Ooh, the suspense. What's in the box?

What to get someone for their 30th birthday? I’d used up my quotas of photobooks and custom made art prints for awhile and none of my ideas seemed to match up with the significance that seems to get dropped on these deca-milestone birthdays? To add fuel to the fire, the present also needed to work for someone that’s nine months pregnant and a house already stuffed with newborn paraphenalia. And I’m just smart enough to realize this present should probably be more about her and less about the baby. Which brings us back to the original question. Jewelry wasn’t totally jibing with our pending addition and therefor more frugal ambitions. What was a guy to do?

Unlike me, Michelle is not a big hobby person which can present some challenges, but still I could think of a lot of smaller gifts that would work, but nothing that seemed big enough for the occasion. Cruising the online gift shops, I stumbled over Norwood Arts’s countdown boxes. While I didn’t want to do the baby gifts, maybe I could borrow the concept. Use the smaller gifts, en masse and make the presentation part of the experience. For my milestone birthday a few years ago, Chelle purchased tickets for three Red Sox games because she wanted the present to be more of an experience than a thing. I was hamstrung by the pregnancy (an experience in itself) on the experience front, but getting ten birthday boxes to be opened one each day might be memorable.

Seven days in and I think the birthday boxes are a success. I bought a number of sizes and styles from the Container Store, printed up some stickers and filled the boxes with a variety of gifts, some small trinkets, others a bit grander in nature. The best part is that after a long day dealing with a baby banging on your ribs, sometimes having a present waiting at home can help make it all a bit better. That and leftover birthday cupcakes, of course.

Garden Party

20090412-_dsc0007
Snap peas seedlings with chicken wire trellis

Last year I missed the window for the cool season, early spring planting. I had to spend late March, early April pulling up the grass, building the raised beds in the yard and rehabbing/importing soil. I didn’t actually get any plants into the ground until late May. Sure, like a tone deaf man at a karaoke bar, I tried to give it a go with some lettuce and brussel sprouts anyway. The results were not exactly Martha Stewart and rainbows. The heat just kept a foot on the necks of those plants and they never went anywhere. That corner of the garden was like an abandoned block of Detroit. The one real failure in last year’s garden experiment.

20090412-_dsc0005
One tiny pea plant

Live and learn. This year, freed from two by eights, brackets and back breaking soil improvements, I could get to the planting early. After last year’s efforts, I only had to work in a little compost, some lime and add a few nutrients (blood meal, bone meal, greensand) before getting the dirt under the fingernails. And really, isn’t that why most people garden? A garden is just a guilt-free, bulletproof excuse to play around in a box full of dark, black gold dirt. The only thing missing from my pre-school fantasy was a tiny steam shovel replica.

Aided by some fava bean and snap pea seedlings from the father-in-law, I planted about three quarters of the two raised beds. I wanted to save some room for some early hot plants. Besides doing a better job of canning and preserving the veggies this year (last year everything came in a flood), I wanted to try to do a better job of progression planting to avoid that deluge of produce for two weeks in August. Other than the beans and peas, I have a row of cauliflower, a row of brocolli, three short rows of mixed lettuce, a half row of carrots and some medium containers of head lettuce, swiss chard and some mixed herbs.

More updates throughout the season.

Cupcakes for Chelle

The beginning of April means Michelle’s birthday which also means starting to plan for her requested strawberry dessert. This year, for the second time in a row, we are opting for the cupcakes over the layer cake. Last year’s cupcakes were quite good. After baking as many cupcakes as I have over the past few years, if one still makes me sit up and take notice, it’s probably worth a repeat. So, after conferring with the guest of honor, we decided to do the vanilla cupcakes with strawberry filling and strawberry studded buttercream. The only catch was that I’d misplaced the recipes that had proven such a success last year.  Continue Reading