New house, soggy yard

First, the exciting news- David and I finally bought a house after about a year of increasingly intense searching. It’s down in Highland Park in West Seattle and has a big yard that will be perfect for gardening…. once it dries out! Last week’s rains left the downhill side of the lawn a totally soggy mess (the bad news).

The rains might be fine if we already had garden beds set up- I would just start transplants under the grow light and plunk them in the raised beds at three weeks old. Raised beds tend to dry out faster in the spring than in-ground beds, and planting transplants removes the chance of the seeds rotting in the wet soil before they can sprout.

Sadly, as we just acquired the house last week, we need to do a fair amount of work tearing up lawn, bringing in sand and compost, sculpting raised beds, etc before we can start planting, and the yard needs to dry out substantially before we do those things, lest all the digging destroy the soil structure and turn the entire plot to cement.

So… What to do? Wait? But I have asparagus roots coming in the mail from Territorial this week!! Add dry soil on top of the lawn to form garden beds? Hmmm… That doesn’t really solve the drainage problem. We are thinking of digging a big trench in the soggiest area, filling the bottom with gravel and filling in the top with sandy soil, but will the digging create impenetrable walls of dirt cement that worms won’t be able to navigate through? Sigh… If only we had found the house last fall…

I wrote about my family’s Australian shepherd Oscar a few years ago when he developed kidney disease and was no longer strong enough to perform his legendary frisbee-catching leaps. Now I write to say adios, Oscar, and to thank my parents for taking care of him so extraordinarily for so long.

I thought each visit to Boise might be the last time I got to see him and scratch his massive head, but he kept on trucking through a stroke, incontinence, and near-hind end paralysis- playing fetch and leaning in (and then collapsing) for scritches until he could no longer move. For the last couple years, upon coming home for Christmas or summer vacation, we were greeted by Oscar’s eager, increasingly Joker-esque face- the stroke had weakened one side of his body and now his head was permanently cocked to the side with a half-crazed smile. He could only eat and drink out of the right side of his mouth, could only turn right, and often got stuck in corners or amongst the table legs until someone rescued him (much like i imagine a disfunctioning Roomba would, if a Roomba could handle the massive amounts of dog hair present in every house i’ve ever lived in.)

Near the end, his back legs were fairly useless and he supported his increasingly frail frame on his front legs. My parents had covered the tiled kitchen floor (where he had to stay after he became incontinent) with rugs to give him enough traction to get around. Watching him pad around the back yard from my bedroom window, i was reminded of a horse costume worn by two people- the person wearing the head and front legs directs where the body goes- the hind end stumbles along blindly, out of step with the front.

After his stroke, Oscar really enjoyed being outside, even when it was cold and snowing. My parents built him several little forts in the back yard- under a picnic table, under the porch swing- where he could stay dry and warm. He still enjoyed playing fetch even when his body wouldn’t do what he asked, and would still scramble up the back stairs to the lawn when my mom got the frisbees out every day, little poops falling out of his butt on the way up- i guess he had to choose between controlling legs or sphincter!

One benefit to Oscar’s weakness was that it was much easier for my parents to groom him. No longer did my dad have to put him in a headlock between his legs in order to brush his fur or his teeth. He used to snap ferociously when we tried to detangle his fluffy haunches, chomping his nubby canines that were worn down by the time he was one year old. Before we adopted him, he had spent the first year of his life stuck in a barn, gnawing frantically on the wooden door because he wasn’t allowed out to chase the horses. When Oscar was 10 and it was no longer good for him to do agility trials, my mom tried him out herding sheep. He bolted into the pen and began tearing large chunks of wool off of the sheep. The instructor told my mom to bring him back when he was 14. She stuck with frisbees and stuffed toys.

The last time i saw Oscar was this past holiday vacation. We had invited the entire clan of in-laws over for dinner a couple days after Christmas. The younger, non-kid-friendly aussies were in their crates upstairs, Oscar was chillin’ outside, and we had cleared all the rugs from the kitchen so that the many people helping us cook and serve could navigate more easily without tripping. Our niece Leila is quite the mobile toddler now and absolutely loves dogs. She caught a glimpse of Oscar leering through the window from outside and let him into the house. He leaned heavily as we brought him into the kitchen, where he collapsed in a happy heap to be smothered with kisses and hugs from Leila. She cooed and wrapped her tiny arms around his neck, burying her fingers in the large amounts of fur that hid his fragile body, and he seemed unfazed to be kissed between the eyes so many times.

Gawd. What a fantastic, wonderful dog. Just the epitome of a good dog. I hope every person is lucky enough to adopt at least one dog like Oscar, and I hope every Oscar out there finds a good home.

The results on Washington Initiative 522, which would require labeling foods that contain GMOs, are coming in… and it looks like it won’t pass. I voted for the measure, but, as I was admitting to David the other day, not for very nice reasons. I want to put companies that push GM seed and farming out of business. I think the “No” side is right- putting “made with GMOs” labels on produce and processed foods will amount to putting warning labels on them. And while GMO labels may not increase the price of GM food itself, I do think that people would end up spending more money on their grocery bill to buy non-GM food, just like they spend more money to buy fair trade chocolate and coffee, and to avoid clothing and shoes made with child labor (though, Nicholas Kristof says that the only worse thing than being exploited in a sweat shop is not being exploited in a sweat shop- gotta start somewhere.)

So, what do we do if this initiative fails? How do we avoid buying and consuming GM food?

First, why are we avoiding GM food? I would hazard a guess that most people are against GM foods because it is unclear whether consuming them is safe. Because they are relatively new, I don’t think we have enough evidence to say one way or the other. Given that the FDA tends to operate on a innocent-until-proven-guilty platform, waiting until food additives have been shown to cause tumors or brain damage in rats and infertility (or what have you) in humans before banning them from US food, it might be smart for consumers to play it safe and not eat them. But as I argued in an earlier post, the foreign gene inserted into the crop (the one that makes corn cobs have those horribly ugly faces on protestors’ signs) is the least of our worries. On the other hand, there is ample evidence suggesting that agricultural pesticides are bad for us (Round-up ready crops get DOUSED in Round-up) and other critters, and that monocropping (which GM companies like Monsanto brutally push) is bad for the soil, the waterways, the oceans, and our future ability to grow enough food to support ourselves during unpredictable and harsh climate changes. The wave of fear and disgust toward weird monster corn genes may not be enough to get WA I-522 passed, but there are plenty of other reasons to avoid GM foods.

So here are some suggestions for how to do that sans label:

The simplest is to buy organic. USDA organic regulations do not allow GM ingredients in processed food, nor do they allow animals to be fed GM feed (which is where most of the GM crops produced in the US go- animal feed), so consumers can avoid GMOs by buying organic produce, meat, and processed foods like breakfast cereal. Buying organic also has the advantage of avoiding antibiotics used to raise animals, which have contributed to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and have led to lapses in cleanliness in slaughtering and processing procedures. (Logic being, why wash shit off the cow hide when the cow is pumped full of drugs?)

But, organic food is expensive. Is there any way to half-ass it? What are the most important foods to buy organic and which are not so important?

If the goal is to avoid GM ingredients,
1) stay away from conventional meat, dairy, and eggs (as animals are often raised with feed containing GM soy and corn)
2) or buy pasture-raised meat and dairy products (I don’t think they’ve genetically engineered grass yet…)
3) don’t buy conventional baked goods or grain products (GM corn and soy), or processed foods (GM corn syrup and soybean oil)
4) avoid particular products that you know have been genetically engineered, like some apples, sweet corn, and salmon- instead, buy organic and wild-caught versions of those foods.
5) uh… what’s left to eat? Based on this list, pasta, beans, and rice.

If the goal is avoiding pesticides, buy organic based on this list compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Some produce is more heavily sprayed than others. Produce grown by small farms often carries less pesticide residue than produce grown by huge farms. Know that washing your produce won’t get rid of all the pesticide.

Lastly, if you want to avoid GMOs because of the effect farming them has on the environment, on genetic diversity, or on small farms, buying your produce, meat, dairy, and bread at a local farmers market is your best bet. How much extra money are we willing to spend to save the environment, our health, and local businesses? That’s a tricky question. If you come up with a dollar amount appropriate for yourself or your family, spend it at the farmers market!

-I apologize for not citing my sources- it feels wrong… but perhaps when I’m finally finished with my PhD- two weeks till my defense!- I will come back and write about this in a more scientific way…

Very glad to hear about increasing efforts to replace lawns in the SW with more water-friendly landscaping, though it is true, there’s nothing quite like a lawn to nap and play frisbee barefoot on. This is one instance where I support genetic engineering- soft, foot traffic-tolerant, drought-resistant lawns would be fantastic!

Jamaica turns to the earth

Suddenly I want to go to Jamaica. To learn, to help, to figure out how to give momentum to the same movement in the US. I always forget that everything revolves around money- here it’s much cheaper to buy food produced on giant farms halfway across the country. If we could figure out how to incorporate the cost of pollution, climate change, and dwindling health into conventionally produced food, growing our own and buying at farmers markets might very well become less expensive.

Life-work balance

Have read a few interesting articles lately that were passed on by my science buddies.

First is how to be a productive procrastinator, via Lisa. I think i have a lot of potential for using this technique, as i find myself being incredibly productive while i avoid working on my thesis.

Second, via Melanie, is about surviving the rat race that is tenure track… by not racing. Some very good advice in there. I have been pretty good in grad school about not subscribing to the whole “good graduate students work 80 hours a week” insanity or the list of things i must accomplish to succeed, like networking (i hate networking) or attending as many conferences as possible, or publishing x number of papers. It may all come back to bite me in the butt later if i ever try to get a tenure track position, but whatevs, i’m having fun now.

And a third linked to by the above article about life-work balance in academia. Now, this one is interesting too, and brings up good points about how weird it is to expect ourselves and our colleagues to work so goddamn hard that we have to give up most other aspects of our lives. The emphasis here, as it is in many articles written about life-work balance, is on splitting oneself between career and family and how we women can’t have it all if these crazy career expectations continue.

All fine and good, but i am bothered that in the discussion of life-work balance, life = children. Life does not equal children. It’s unfair that, in our consciousness, life = children for women and thus women have to choose between a career or raising children (or be mediocre at both), yet not many people feel that men have a similar choice to make. For men, life = life apparently, and more work means fewer adventures with friends, wooden canoe building, and brewing beer. In fact, life = life for everyone, and anyone can choose to make their life revolve around kids. Parents bemoan that they can’t possibly work the same hours that their childless colleagues work if they are to be good parents. Why the hell aren’t people without kids complaining that they have to work insane hours and they don’t have time to play city league softball or volunteer at the animal shelter or write a novel? It’s all crazy- the hours and hours of work for shit-tastic pay (shouldn’t forget here that science grad students get paid to go to school; not all disciplines are so fortunate), the stress of trying to be known by lead scientists in your field, the race to publish papers to beef up your CV… Forget the damn kids, our whole lives are suffering because we’re trying so hard! My dog is bored, my garden is neglected, I barely see my friends, and I’m getting skinny-fat for chrissake!

Ahem. So. Life-work balance. What i aim for is to do what i want. Maybe what you want is to spend time with your kids. What i want is to spend time with my husband (yeah, we got married, whut!), make sure my dog is happy, grow beautiful veggies, pickle and jam everything in sight, get off my ass, chat with my buddies, see my family, go on adventures. That’s what i’m going to try my best to do.

Occasionally the New York Times publishes articles like this one on the crises modern agriculture brought on by gawdawful weather. Some discuss government-paid crop insurance and lament the plight of farmers across the country. This one actually mentions compost as a way to ameliorate the effects of drought, as well as gray water systems, and the importance of maintaining seed banks so that we can weather the weather with drought- and heat-resistant varieties of crops. I’m going to go ahead and add a plug against big Ag companies that promote and sell and monopolize crops with single varieties that are bred or genetically engineered to do well in shitty soil with lots of synthetic fertilizer. Bad idea. We need to be increasing the genetic diversity of our crops and animals, not whittling our base down to a teetering giant disaster waiting to happen.

On the Seattle Urban Farm and Coop Tour last weekend we visited a house over near Madison Ave that had quite an impressive garden and produced meat and held farm to table dinners and everything. Very cool- 41 Legs Farm. They manage to make enough money selling extra plant starts and garlic to fund their gardening hobby, and take donations for their farm dinners to cover those costs. Very, very cool. Kinda want to be like them when I grow up.

In addition to being impressed with and jealous of their huge city lot and nice set up, I learned a new technique for growing tomatoes. They had their tomatoes trimmed down to one or two leaders and strung up vertically on tall supports (which I’ve seen before- I think most commercial tomatoes are grown this way) but they had also trimmed the lower leaves off the vine to allow more air circulation between the plants and prevent disease. They had some rule of thumb like for every foot above four feet the plant reaches, trim off one foot of leaves from the bottom, or for every 2 feet of growth, trim off 1 foot of branches below… Can’t quite remember.

This weekend I did the same for my tomatoes… Kind of. I don’t follow the trim to two leaders rule, but I do trim out suckers, especially on indeterminant (sprawling) plants so mine end up with 4-5 leaders each. I tied closeline-like cords from the garage to the tree across the top of the garden bed (stronger than tying individual plants to individual posts) and hoisted long floppy vines up off of the tomato cages. Then David helped me remove the wall o’ waters that have been around the plants since transplant.

Side note: Last year we left the wall o’ waters on all season because they’re hard to get off once the plants are so big, but the fruits that grow within the wall o’ waters invariably get eaten by snails who think it’s cozy in there. This year we slit the wall o’ waters open- linearized them like a plasmid, if you will- and slinked them out from under the bushes. Next time we use them we’ll have to circularize them with clips, but they’ll be easier to put on the plants that way too!

Next I clipped off all of the leafy branches growing within the tomato cages- up to about a foot and a half off the ground. I left the fallen leaves on the soil under the plants (apparently tomatoes like to eat the composted bodies of their fallen comrades) and then spread a layer of hay on top to insulate the soil even more from water loss.

The bed looks good now- the vines will get more light because they’re not piled on top of each other, the plants will get more air between them and hopefully we’ll have fewer losses to snails and rot, and we can actually see where the fruits are to pick them!




Just harvested my first ever crop of garlic this morning! The bulbs aren’t gargantuan, like the garlic David grew on the farm in Olympia (pictures coming soon), but they are reasonably sized considering the amount of effort i put into them.

Sara’s garlic growing method:
1. Shove garlic cloves pointy side up into the ground, about 2 inches deep and 6 inches away from each other. Do this in early fall.
2. Cover soil in between with hay, fallen leaves, or other mulch. The garlic will send up shoots through even a thick layer of mulch.
3. Totally neglect your garlic all winter and spring. No water, no pruning, no weeding because the mulch keeps the weeds down. Also, forget what variety you have planted. Maybe you wrote it down somewhere? Nope… Damn.
4. In the summer, when a good portion of the leaves have turned brown and the stalks start to fall over (falling over may or may not be caused by chickens breasting them over as they search for bugs, as it was in my case), loosen the soil with a digging fork and pull the garlic heads out!
5. Save the best looking ones to plant this coming fall, even though you want to eat them. Curse yourself for not writing down what variety these were, because they turned out pretty well!
6. Tie all the garlic up in small bunches of 10 or so (or braid it!), and hang in a coolish dry place that gets some air circulation, like the open garage. I’m going to let mine dry in loose bunches for a bit then braid it tightly.
7. Eat, share with friends, use for pickling over the next year.



Kefir buzz

Trying to get back into blogging slowly. Have been in the garden and kitchen and pantry plenty, making jams and real fermented pickles, and even butchering our pig, but haven’t been writing. But, I have so many other things that distract me from finishing my PhD, this may as well be one of them!

A while back I wrote about flavoring kefir with jam to make a delicious and nutritious drink. Usually I just stir it in with a spoon. This evening in a fit of “get me away from my computer!!” I decided I’d blend the kefir and jam with the beat stick. (Clever name I just came up with for the hand-held stick blender). The result is glorious! Blending makes it frothy like a pisco sour or… something else that’s sour and frothy. Mango lassi?

The kefir: home cultured with grains and whole milk, past it’s normal drinking stage and super sour, super chunky.

The jam: a blackberry-rhubarb concoction that’s more like syrup that I made from berries picked down on the Olympia farm and fresh rhubarb from the market.