Saturday, August 28, 2010

stinky compost

Y'all already know that I suck at gardening (yet still, I persevere, either because hope springs eternal or because I'm really dense, or both). This afternoon I went out to our garden plot to water the neglected cucumber and melon vines. I also pulled out the failed tomatoes and (sob) peppers, and planted fall arugula in their place. Is arugula hard to grow? We're going to find out in a few weeks.

Right now, though, it's our compost pile that requires most urgent attention. We used to have an open compost pile. Eventually, we put a fence around it to help the leaves etc stay compact and ostensibly to keep animals out. Of course, squirrels and raccoons and other vermin are perfectly capable of climbing over a little old fence, so fence or no fence, our compost pile was like an all-night all-you-can-eat buffet for the local wildlife. After constantly finding chewed up corn cobs and bits of stale bread around the yard and on the driveway, we got a fancy-pants compost bin when the city was selling them last May (or was it 2 years ago? I don't remember) for 40 bucks apiece (normally they cost over $100). This, we thought, would be the solution to all our composting problems. The bin is made of heavy-duty black plastic with a well-fitting lid and plenty of air vents on the top and sides, as well as a little door on the bottom for scooping out all that lovely fresh-made dirt. The composter would get nice and hot to break everything down while keeping the animals out. Perfect, right?

Not so much. The stuff we put in there is breaking down, all right, but it's wet and slimy and wormy (not earth worms, mind you, the nasty kind that like slime and grow up to be fruit flies) and smells horrible. As in, it smells like baby poo, or doggie diarrhea or something. Sorry, I know that's graphic, but it just about makes me gag, and I generally have a pretty high tolerance for this sort of thing. For the last year we've just been hoping that piling more grass and leaves and dry stuff in there will help, but so far, it hasn't. It's just as disgusting as ever. This evening, Stuart and I decided to Deal With It. Which means we removed the black plastic bin and left the smelly slimy pile (topped with grass and cantaloupe rinds) out in the open for all to see (and smell!) It's going to be hot and sunny the next few days, the last gasp of summer I suppose, so my hope is that the nasty, bad compost will air out and dry out and turn into nice, crumbly good compost that I can feed to my sorry excuse for the garden out front. And then what? I guess we'll go back to the fence made of chicken wire and just accept that critters are going to get in there for nibbles. That's got to be better than what we've got now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

the end of summer

Fall is approaching much, much too fast. Today it's almost chilly. At least, to me a high of 72 and cloudy skies feels chilly in August, especially after weeks of warm, humid weather and a trip to KS/OK a couple of weeks ago where it was so hot it felt like an oven. The other day I went to Target and the stacks of cheap futons and hoards of kids with their tired, haggard mothers reminded me that school is starting in a couple of weeks. For Daniel, that means preschool, the same place we had him enrolled in the spring, with many of the same classmates and one new teacher. For Anya, that means more time just with me. For me, that means trying to line up work at the school of music and somehow coordinating my schedule to accommodate kid pick-up/drop-off and finding a sitter with the right hours available and hoping that I might actually come out a buck or two ahead once all the preschool and childcare is paid for (unlikely, but I can't charge any more, I just can't.) For Stuart, it means going to work as usual, since he finished taking college courses for good almost a year ago (hooray!).

This is Daniel's last year of preschool before he starts kindergarten. This is my last year of more or less total control over how he spends his time and who he spends it with. I'm okay with this, but I am already having some serious pangs - the bittersweet kind - about it. The last couple of years I have really enjoyed taking the kids to places like the zoo, the children's museum, the farmers market, and apple-picking during the week. This is the last year I can do that. I have also managed a few trips to see my parents in Kentucky or other family in Kansas, just me and the kids (when Stuart can't take more vacation days) in the middle of the fall or spring, something I certainly can't do once Daniel is in public school. So I should really be enjoying this while I can.

Right now, though, too much is in limbo. I'm trying to schedule a 4-hand recital in Kansas like I did a couple of years ago, and while we've finally picked a date (tentative, but likely), repertoire is still totally up in the air. I'd like to try and play for some students at the school of music, but I can't really line anything up until September when the semester starts. Oh, and we're doing this huge expensive basement renovation this year, but we don't have a starting date and aren't really sure what to do first (though my guess is that applying for permits and cleaning it out would be good places to start).

I'm kind of having a hard time with the end of summer. I'm not ready for it. I grew up in Kentucky, where it gets hot and stays hot long enough that by the time cool fall weather rolls in, it is more than welcome. Up here, the days get shorter and cooler so abruptly I often wish we had just another week or two of summer. I want to take the kids to the pool a few more times before it closes (we'd get hypothermia if we tried to go today!), I want to help them fill up water balloons and be glad when they burst all over my legs, I want to wear shorts and flip-flops and enjoy our days free of schedule and obligations just a little bit longer. I'm not even tired of all the summer squash we've gotten from our CSA.

Can you tell I'm ambivalent? On one hand, I would benefit from a little more structure, and the kids would benefit from a little more social time. Of late, they've gotten a little too dependent on me to entertain them, which is understandable but it's wearing me down. On the other hand, there are going to be all these things to deal with in the coming months and I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by that and wanting to cling to this [perhaps false] sense of being carefree for a little longer than I deserve.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

gardening woes

I have this ongoing daydream in which we live in a little solar-powered cottage on a few acres of land with some chickens and a big garden where we grow most of our own vegetables and even a few fruit trees. There are a few problems with this fantasy, one being that I'm not well-suited to rural life. I like the convenience of walking or biking to places like the farmers market, the corner store, the park, the pool, and preschool; I like living in a neighborhood with nice people so I don't feel lonely and isolated; I like the diversity and liveliness of a mid-sized city. And on and on.

But the biggest problem with my homesteading dream is that I suck at gardening. Really, I do. Whatever is the opposite of a green thumb, I have it. Not that I haven't tried, mind you. I've got some hardy herbs and perennials in the front garden, and they do okay, at least the ones that don't get choked out by weeds. But every time I have attempted to grow vegetables at home or in a community garden plot (and I've done this several summers in our time in Madison), something has gone wrong and we hardly benefit. One summer, for example, I was newly pregnant with Daniel and just didn't have the energy; the thought of going in the hot sun and pulling weeds just made me want to roll over and take a(nother) nap. Time and time again I've tried to grow greens in my back yard but it's so shady they just get leggy and bitter.

This summer, we again got ourselves a community garden plot, and for a while things were going well. We planted beans, tomatoes, a variety of peppers, melons and cucumbers. The beans did well and produced, but after one good harvest we went on vacation and what was left got completely over ripe (we can at least save the seeds for next year). The vines were planted late and haven't produced yet, though this morning I found some young watermelons that we can hopefully eat in a week or two. Except for a couple of jalapeƱos and long, lean, mean-looking cayennes, the peppers are all rotting right on the plant. I have no idea why, whether it's a fungus or bugs attacking or what. Except for one Roma plant, the tomatoes are a total mess, splitting and pulling the vines to the ground before they're even half ripe.

It's just so discouraging. But since hope springs eternal, I get all ambitious and think "THIS year something will work! If I just water and weed diligently enough, it'll work out!" and every time the tomatoes rot, the basil goes yellow, the vines wither, and it just hardly seems worth the effort.

Because I am a slow learner, I'm sure I'll try all this again next year. Maybe it will be better, maybe it will be worse, who knows. I should probably just quit trying. After all, we have some of the best farmers markets in the nation right here in Madison, so I might as well leave the vegetable growing to the professionals and save myself the effort and agony and discouragement. (And mosquito bites - have I mentioned how bad the mosquitos are this year? They are downright vicious.)

But there's a part of me that isn't ready to give up just yet. Perhaps it's the farming heritage I've got on both sides of the family. Perhaps it's my romantic ideas of growing my own food. Perhaps it's a little bit of my desire to be able to do this independently, so I can rely on myself to feed us if the need arises, like in the face of total economic collapse (dramatic, I know.) Whatever it is, I hope I can get it right eventually.

Monday, August 09, 2010


We're home. All weekend we drove and drove and the kids watched so much Curious George on the new DVD player in the backseat (best. invention. ever.) I think I could recite a few of those episodes. Curious George beats the hell out of whining, though.

It's good to be home. A 12-day trip is no small thing, especially with two young children, and they held up admirably. We visited several places and slept in a variety of homes and hotels, encountered a barrage of relatives, all in the miserable summer heat of the lower Midwest, and they took it all in stride. I'm so proud of them. Yes, there will be some serious de-spoiling and de-compressing over the next few days, but I'm okay with that. Our only obligations this week are to get the car's oil changed and have dinner on the table every night.

Still, I have some lingering post-vacation melancholy. This always happens to me. Even though we spent over a week in places where conservative politics reign (not among my family or in-laws, though, thankfully) and temperatures soared well over 100 degrees, I still feel a little homesick for Kansas. For the big, wide sky and long, loooooong straight roads and most of all, the people I know and love there. I have a lot of family and friends in Kansas, and seeing them is like coming home, in a way. (Having said that, I don't miss the heat. Or the wind. Heavens, the wind...)

I don't think I have much to share about our time there that will interest you much. Our trip was certainly much more about the people we visited than the places we were. I have a few pictures (very few), though, to share a glimpse of our experience.

1. Peaches, from a small orchard in Whitewater, KS. Quite a ways off the beaten path (though if I have any KS readers out there who want to know where to find this place, leave a comment and I'll give you directions.) The couple who owns the orchard will invite you in their modest home and tell you stories about their dog's run-in with a skunk, about their conversations with church folk about who will have the fanciest bathroom in heaven, and 45 minutes and $25 later you drive away with a peck of the best peaches you can imagine. Big, sweet, and so juicy you have to eat them over the sink. Chin drippin'.

2. The BBQ place across from the food co-op in Lawrence, KS. Talk about a sign fail. I wonder if it was on purpose.

3. Daniel atop the steps of a tractor hooked up to a combine. We got to ride on that and in a semi truck made for hauling corn. It was pretty neat.

4. The inflatable wading pool we bought in Lawrence after abandoning plans to swim in the public pool with the fecal in it.

That's it in a nutshell, I guess.

Monday, August 02, 2010


Lordy, oh lordy is it HOT here in Kansas. Stu and the kids and I are visiting his parents for the week, following my cousin's wedding in Oklahoma over last weekend. Other than traveling from place to place and attending the nuptials, we have been largely occupied finding ways to avoid the sweltering heat.

Early last week we drove down to Lawrence to see Steph (whose blog I would link if she'd update it more often...ahem...) and Eric and, of course, their cats. It was downright tropical outside, with highs well into the 90s and very high humidity, the sort of weather in which simply stepping outside to get something from the car is enough to have you drenched with sweat in the 30 or so seconds it takes to get back to the house. We went running anyway, in the early morning. And if it weren't for Stephanie's cats providing the kids with constant entertainment, we might have run out of things for them to do inside. Djuna, who is old and decrepit, mostly kept out of their way, though since she has gone deaf the kids didn't seem to alarm her much. Bonzo, who is still lithe and limber, was the focus of their attention, especially Daniel, who delighted in spraying Bonzo with water whenever he was being naughty jumping on the counter or the dining room table. This happened pretty often.

One day in Lawrence we decided to venture to the local aquatic center to cool off. We donned our swim gear and piled into the car, only to find out upon our arrival that the pool was temporarily closed. "We had a fecal in the pool," the attendant informed us lazily, "so we won't be open for another 20 minutes or so while that gets cleaned up." I was somewhat disconcerted by two things, the first being that twenty minutes is sufficient time to clean up when someone shits in the pool, and the second being that this lady seemed so nonplussed by the incident. "How often does this happen?" I asked her. "A lot," she replied frankly. "At least twice a week." Well, that did it. We may have been dripping with sweat and miserable in the heat, but I wasn't desperate enough to take my family to a body of water that is crapped in on such a regular basis, so we decided to go to the hardware store and buy an inflatable wading pool instead.

But first we went to the liquour store. We wanted beer for the evening, and Stuart wanted to get some scotch for my brother's birthday present, so he and Steph and the kids and I, miserable and sweating, still donned in swim gear (except Steph, who had planned to just hang out at the public library this whole time), entered the liquour store, where Anya decided that she was done, finished, finito with the entire situation. She dragged herself partway across the floor and then lay down in front of a refrigerator full of Budweiser, and whimpered that she was thirsty. "Do you have a water fountain?" I asked the guy at the register. "No," he replied, unhelpfully. "Do you sell bottled water?" "No." And then he looked at my flushed, pathetic daughter, and volunteered that there was a water cooler in the back room and that we could help ourselves if we liked. This helped considerably, and I'm happy to say we made it to the hardware store and back to Steph's place without anyone fainting of dehydration or any other drama.

Oklahoma was hotter still. We spent two nights in Guthrie, a cute little town about twenty miles north of Oklahoma City, where my cousin David got married Saturday evening. The ceremony was outdoors, but blessedly brief, seeing as it was still 100 degrees by 7:00 when they got started, and the reception, of course, was inside. (Everything was quite lovely, if sweaty, and went without a hitch.)

Because the whole extended family doesn't get together too often like this, several of us decided to hang around on Sunday to spend some more time together, and there were some attempts at sight-seeing in the Oklahoma City area. Those of us in my generation (cousins, spouses, significant others) spent considerable time seeking out a good cup of coffee, a search that ended in vain when we realized that absolutely nothing and I mean NOTHING is open in downtown Guthrie on a Sunday morning. The handwritten sign reading "WEEKLY SATURDAY NIGHT SHOOTOUT SPONSORED BY THE GUNFIGHTERS ASSOCIATION" suggested that we'd missed all the fun the night before.

Our comedy of errors continued for the rest of the day when we got lost trying to find the place we'd planned to go to for lunch in Oklahoma City (though we ended up at a really good diner instead that served honest-to-goodness fresh squeezed orange juice and cheese grits to die for). Even though walking outside felt exactly like walking into a furnace, we wanted to find something interesting to do. We women-folk took the kids and drove around looking for the botanical gardens, which are evidently under construction; where the gardens should have been was instead a giant pile of dirt, several excavators and an empty greenhouse. At this point, we bagged the sight-seeing and just went out for ice cream before returning to the hotel. While we were driving around in downtown Oklahoma City, the guys went disc golfing in the 106-degree heat, where Stuart got stung by something larger and meaner than a bee (a wasp, perhaps, or a hornet) and had to rush back to the hotel for his epi-pen in case he started going into anaphylactic shock. Fortunately, he neither went into shock nor had to give himself a shot, but his hand is swollen and he spent much of today knocked out with a dose of benadryl.

Now we are back in Kansas at my in-laws' house, which is located just a few blocks away from a brand new splash park. Thank goodness, because the predicted high temperature tomorrow is 110. Somehow those Wisconsin winters don't seem so bad now.