Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Perfect Tomato

I am sometimes asked how I get my tomato plants to be over seven feet tall and what is the secret to the lush growth and dark rich fruit of my plants.  I will tell you everything I know.
   It begins will soil preparation as you might suspect and I have been working on my soil for over forty years.
Mine is a mid-sized plot for a city garden, about 40' x 50' and raised with concrete curbing about 18" higher than the surrounding area.  It is all pretty much one big raised bed.  Everything I have done with this soil could be done on a smaller scale.  Tomatoes will grow in a five gallon bucket.
   Natural fertilizers don't leach out like chemical fertilizers and you can add different ingredients in alternating years and their total effect will accumulate.  Your soil will get better and better.  My soil was a fine clay, almost potter's quality when I began and that is why I raised the garden bed eighteen inches.  Over the years I have had grass clippings and leaves two feet deep over the entire garden.  It all composts down to almost nothing when Spring arrives.  One year I will add about six yards of manure spread over the garden in the fall and the next year I will add the expensive stuff.  Bone meal, cotton seed meal, kelp meal and Epsom salts, about ten pounds each dusted over the entire area.  If you use a lot of compost like I do you probably need to add agricultural gypsum or lime to adjust the PH of your soil.  I add about fifty pounds every other year.  It has taken me years to get nice soil but now the top two feet anyway is like potting soil.
    I start my own seeds from the very best tomatoes of the year before.  This is so easy to do and I get almost 100% germination.  I scoop out with a spoon the seeds and jelly of the tomato and press between two pieces of paper towel and place these sheets in my pantry.  When early Spring is approaching, about mid-March I cut off the seeds and a bit of paper towel and plant these in little pots in my greenhouse.  You can also begin seeds on top of your water heater.  They love the warmth.  After they are an inch or two tall place them in full sun near a Southern window.
    Tomatoes are vigorous growers and thrive on being transplanted.  Mine are transplanted three times in the greenhouse before going into the garden.  Each time this is done, always into a bigger pot, bury half the plant into the new soil, always deeper.  The fine hairs along the stem become roots and the tomato will become stronger and stronger.
   When the soil is warm enough in the garden for the final transplanting, again bury half the plant no matter how big it is.  I have had some very large plants that required a post hole digger to dig the holes.  I don't pick off the leaves, just bury half the plant!
    Tomatoes require consistent deep watering.  If allowed their root system is as large as the plant itself, seven feet up and seven feet down!  I water mine twice a week, always in the morning, about three hours each time.  Tomatoes hate going to bed wet.  Never water in the late afternoon!
    Tomatoes develop suckers easily, little shoots in the "Y" between the main stalk and a branch and these should be pinched out to allow all the energy into the main plant.  Nice green foliage is pretty but you want the tomatoes!
   More tomato plants are sold in nurseries to home gardeners than any other vegetable and it is no wonder. Nothing beats the smell and taste and texture of a sun ripened tomato.  In a store you might be lucky enough to find two varieties, neither any good.  At a local nursery you will find many more, hundreds are available.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

I Wonder

Do you vote?  Oregon recently had its Primary Elections and of course we all knew the outcome before the election:  Romney Vs Obama, but there were other issues on the ballet, always money issues, State Senate, and local government. We had a whopping 38% voter turnout!  This is in a State where you can be legally drunk and vote at the same time, or vote totally naked (as I often do!) if you so choose.  We have a mail in ballet and you have two weeks to vote at your leisure.  No crowds, no long lines, you don't even have to get out of bed.
   I find it kind of ironic.  American Flags are so common on the windows of our trucks and cars.  We get teary eyed at the sound of our National Anthem and easily talk about the pride of being an American, yet we don't even bother to vote!  We will send a couple hundred thousand young soldiers half way across the world to a god forsaken land to fight and be killed to establish this right to vote in some far away land, costing us over a Trillion Dollars, yet we won't put a stamp on an envelop and vote ourselves.
   Civics is not taught anymore in our schools.  We barely teach History anymore and we stopped teaching Geography years ago.  We don't even know where these countries are!   This is the modern digital, computer age and we know less than we ever did.  The really bad part is that we care even less.  What happens in the real world is that if you do not care then someone else will for you.
   I am not naive enough to believe that the Arab Spring or what is happening in the Middle East is about Democracy.  No one is protesting for the right to read the likes of Thomas Jefferson or John Stuart Mill, no one is studying the French Revolution or our own fight for independence.  It is mainly a battle for a piece of the pie,
whatever country, it is always about the 99% Vs the 1% and who controls what.
   Voting is just an easier way to achieve what one desires in a government or in a society.  Well, it is less bloody anyway, not always easier.  I sometimes wonder, when I see a hundred thousand or so protesting, or maybe even more sitting at home and complaining about the protesters, how many of these people are voting?
   What is it to "be an American" anyway?  I used to think that it was the right to be left alone, having no fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night, or of being spied upon and your mail opened, or of being locked away with no just cause, but we gave all that up with the Patriat Act.  Did you even know that?
I like to think that we could be a shining example to the world but am always stuck on that concept of getting your own house in order before you clean up someone else's.  38% voter turn out is not exactly something to be proud of, in fact, it is something to be fearful of.  Only 38% of the people are determining what will happen to me, what will happen to our country.  In some countries they have Revolutions for the right to vote, in our country, apparently, voting is not worth the price of a postage stamp.  Sad...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mostly Vultures

And lonely people and window shoppers and people looking for that special treasure, that's who go to garage sales!  I had well over 500 people, and often a quarter or dollar at a time, pulled in over $1,200.  I really expected to sell more junk.  A full box of nails cost me $50 twenty years ago and I had half full boxes for five bucks and still have them!  What surprised me was I sold a lot of metal art!!!  I have attempted in the past to get people one by one over to my shop/garden/studio and it just hasn't worked for some reason, but put them in a crowd in a garage sale atmosphere and something weird happens!  I sold a lot of it and have some potential clients for the near future!
    The selling of the junk was sort of fun.  It began the very first night with the theft of a large cabinet!  This was a gaming cabinet with ten drawers I made years ago for my kids to keep their games in.  It has been in my garage for years, in the way and swelling a bit from being in an unheated space.  It took me and my helper and a dolly to get it out and we left it in front of the garage.  The next morning it was gone!!!  This has never happened to me before!  No thefts of any kind, not around here.  Apparently my neighbor, a single mother and her sons thought I was going to haul it away to the dump!  they struggled with it and got some help from other neighbors and took it home!  I awoke to a very apologetic note on my front door!  After she got it home some other neighbors said I was about to have a garage sale and she thought it was going to the dump!  It was just too heavy to return and what did she owe me?  Ha ha, I "sold" it to her for a plate of brownies!  and we didn't have to move it again!
   I would some kind of junk on a table with maybe $7 dollar price on it and someone would always say, "would I take $4?"  some times I would say yes and sometime no and once I said, yes, but only if you take two of them for the four dollars!  It was really about getting rid of stuff as it was about the money!
   I feel as though I won the lottery, an unexpected windfall.  This summer I may go to San Fransisco! I do have a Tom-Tom you might remember!  My daughter who lives 3000 miles away in Washington DC is going to California to a wedding of a friend this summer and I may meet her there and have a road trip back to Oregon,
that would be so much fun, a road tip with my daughter!
   Oh, and I got a job out of the deal too!  I will spend all day today in the shop welding, making a big table for a local restaurant.  I am not sure how I will get it off my welding table when finished, it will weigh over 400 pounds!  That will be a problem I will deal with when I get it finished!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

THE Garage Sale!

So I decided to have a garage sale.  Nothing from inside the house, my wife would disown me, but I will tell you what happened.  It was a series of happenstance, not just  a simple situation, no single decision.
    I am not sure where it all began, there is no order to this.  It may have begun with a leaky roof.  Most of the roof over my studio/shop is very steep and the rains fall freely and fast.  That roof is 20 years old but good for a few more years I am hoping. The roof section, about 300 square feet, over my office and a storage room isn't so steep and sits under a fig tree that drops its unpicked fruit upon the roof.  That is hard on a roof and it was leaking.  My initial reaction was buckets.  That is pretty much a lazy man's way to fix the problem but my wife will not allow me on the roof!   That is difficult for me.  I built the damned house and shop and have put roofs on them twice in the past, three times actually for the house!  When I had cancer it turned me into a ninety year old man, pretty weak and feeble and although the cancer is gone and I am stronger I admit I am no longer the young lad I once was.  However, she went to Texas a couple weeks ago to visit my daughter and no one was here to reign control over me!  Should I have a party, invite lots of hot women over while my wife was gone?
Well, I am not in that good of shape but I could certainly put a roof on while she was gone!  I did have a helper and the roof was a little worse than anticipated.  Reminded me of the time, ten days before Christmas I had the simple task of replacing a dishwasher!  Simple except that I discovered some rot in the floor causing me to remove all of the lower kitchen cabinets to repair!  So, anyway, I had to replace a section of the roof, pulling damaged sheets of plywood off and allowing me, for maybe the first time in 20 years to actually look into my storage room from the height of the open roof!  I haven't been actually able to get in there for years but now I was looking at it from the top down!  Way too much stuff!
   I have many outbuildings on my property.  Attached to my greenhouse along the North wall is a shed that is supposed to contain my rototiller, the lawnmower and only a few rakes and shovels.  For years these have been put some place else and this area too has become a "catch all", so full of stuff "that I may need" that you couldn't get into it!  Just too much stuff!
   The final element to the decision to have a garage sale, well the penultimate reason, there is one more, is this lousy economy!  I am not only not selling my metal artwork, I can't get any one over to even look at it.  In the "old days" a few years ago, I could place an ad on Craigslist and get 15 phone calls, half a dozen people would drop by and I could make some sales off my lot.  Today I don't even get a phone call.
So I am thinking if I had a garage sale maybe someone might drop by and I will meet new customers?
    Finally, retirement is not as easy as it is made out to be.  It is a huge transition and rethinking of priorities, requiring a different evaluation of time itself and a sense of what is important.  Maybe I don't need 16 boxes only half full of specialized fasteners?  So, in going through all of my stuff the main rule I gave myself was if I haven't used it in the past two year it would go on the block!  The area from the front of my house to the back of my shop is 160 feet.  It is full of tables and displays and piles all along the way!  If I am talked down in my pricing that will be okay, as long as they take two!  I want to be rid of it all.  Open space and near empty rooms are appealing to me.  I will just have to refrain from filling them!  Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A European primer: What does austerity look like? EarthLink - International News

A European primer: What does austerity look like? EarthLink - International News 

I just don't want to do what Europe is doing!  Austerity is clearly not the answer!

Garden is In!

Once my garden is plotted and planed and tilled and prepped the planting can begin.  Tomatoes that have been in the green house for a couple months are sensitive to the full sun and must be shaded for a few days to allow them the strength to face the full sun.  I have seen beautiful green plants turn pale and fry in an early Spring sun.
   It is a lot of bending and digging and working with my hands and my whole body aches!  But my garden is in and by May 13th, a full two weeks earlier than last year and they are not predicting the torrential Spring Rains we had last year.  This appears, so far, to be a great Tomato Season, much like it was three years ago when I got tomatoes by the wheel barrel load.  Wouldn't that be nice?  Being a farmer is a bit like going to Reno, a gamble every time.  The hot weather crops will do well or the cold weather crops, you can't have it both ways.
I plant both and after doing all I can to ensure a great season, pretty much hope for the best.
   I have tried corn again this season although last year it was pretty pathetic and didn't produce much.  In a good year it is my second favorite vegetable from the garden, next to my tomatoes which will always be King with me.  Corn needs to be "knee high by the Forth of July" here in Oregon to produce any yield at all.  In a good year you would swear the corn was grown in sugar!  Even bought from a local farmer it is just not the same as picked fresh from the garden.  Nothing is actually.  We have all had fresh home grown tomatoes and know there is no comparison to what you can buy from the store but carrots are the same way, they are supposed to be bursting with flavor!  Head lettuce has developed a bad reputation simply because the variety you get from the store has no flavor, but it shouldn't be that way.  A bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, that wonderful lunch of kings should always be made from fresh head lettuce right out of the garden.
   I could go on and on about my tomatoes!  I  baby them from the beginning, saving the seeds from year to year and planting the dark, almost black heirloom varieties which can grow over seven feet tall.  Oh, I plant the big red ones too, the brandy wines and beef stakes and huge two pound yellow ones, but the deep red, purplish black have the most flavor and I plant most of these.  Different colors are different flavors and are great in salads and any kind of cooking but my very favorite is dried tomatoes, dried to the point of potato chips.  These can be rehydrated with olive oil and a balsam vinegar or added to soups but my very favorite is a simple tomato chip with a bit of cheese on a cracker.  It is a burst of flavor like you wouldn't believe!  Store bought dried tomatoes are not the same because they use the same flavorless varieties sold in the stores.
   So, what is in my garden this year?   Here is the list:

                                                         25 Tomato Plants
                                                         short row of potatoes (same family as tomatoes!)
                                                         Peppers, about 20 plants
                                                         Green Beans
                                                         Brussel Sprouts
                                                         Lettuce (several varieties)
                                                         Leeks, Onions and Green Onions
                                                         Cucumbers, three varieties
                                                         Zucchini, Yellow Crook Neck
                                                         Two varieties of Winter Squash
                                                         and here and there, like a painter gone mad, Sun Flowers!

There are actually flowers all over, everywhere in my garden, some in the ground along the paths and others in pots at the Garden Entry and at the very back of my garden.  I probably have 30 five gallon sized flower pots scattered here and there in and around my garden, some on the ground and others sitting proudly seven feet in the air.  My garden is my best canvas and like any good artist I will intend your vision, your experience while there.
    Soil preparation was the earlier blog if you missed it.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Something about Dirt

Finally Spring has arrived bringing daytime temperatures of close to eighty degrees f and night time above 45 degrees, so close to being over 50 degrees that magical number that tomatoes like so much.  It is the weather at night that is most important to tomatoes.
   My main organic garden area is surrounded with an eighteen inch curb of concrete like one big 50 foot by sixty foot raised bed and I have been preparing it for planting.  This is a process that I alternate from year to year, one year adding about eight yards of cow manure and other compost layered over the top and dug into the soil and the next year adding the expensive nutrients and minerals in the form of cotton seed meal, epsom salts, blood meal, bone meal and kept meal in addition to a healthy dose of dolomite lime.
   I always begin with the lawn mower, running it over the entire area, chopping down the weeds and winter broccoli and whatever might be growing where I want to begin with nothing.  Each year my garden begins with a clean slate, like my blank canvas.  The paths are never in the same place and I never plant the same plants in the same place.  I then rototil the entire area several times, back and forth and diagonally, maybe in circles even.  No method so far but I am thinking.  In my mind's eye I am the sun crossing the horizon or I am shade at the fence line or I am the plant and wondering who my companion might be.  Or I might be a garden guest and I begin to entertain interesting pathways to investigate this garden.
   After the garden is tilled by not designated in any way I take a break and just pretty much look around.  I have worked this soil for over 40 years.  I have hauled in dump truck loads of grass clippings and the ground up debris from fallen trees brought free to me from the City workers.  Over the years I have added tons of sand and hundred of yards of manure from the local farmers (actually their cows!).  I have added rock phosphate and vermiculite and mushroom compost and mint and bark mulch.  Finally, after 40 years I have pretty good soil.  It is dark and rich, has a good smell, the worms like it and it falls apart in your hands. After all of these years it is only about 18 inches deep and then you will find clay.  Not sort of clay but real clay, almost potter's quality, blue and like plastic.  At least my plants get a good start before their roots discover reality.
    So then I lay out the paths taking a flat shovel and scooping as I walk a meandering path, like a snake through my garden.  Once the beds are designated I sprinkle them with the essential earth nutrients, this year
kelp meal, cotton seed, bone meal, epsom salts and a dusting of lime.  Then I til all of this in again creating a smorgasboard of nutrients  for for the plantings to come.  Then, of course I have to redo the paths but this time I can find them.  Today I will get a truck load of fermented mint leaves and layer the paths about 3 inches thick.  This smells nice, keeps the weeds out, the mud off the shoes and adds to the garden next year when it will be all turned over again.
    Earlier this year, between rain storms it seems, I had already prepared and planted a small section of potatoes, carrots, broccoli, onions and lettuce.  Now I can plant the rest of my garden.  I have discovered places for 24 tomato plants!  All heirlooms and from seeds from the year before.  I also will try again for some corn which didn't do well last year.  And cucumbers, peppers, several squashes, eggplants and maybe another tomato!
   Last year we had a rainy Spring and I didn't get the garden in until the end of May.  This year I will gain a critical three weeks and predict a great tomato season!  I love my garden.  I just like playing in the dirt.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Balancing Budgets

All over the world countries have gotten into serious debt and are attempting the tricky maneuvering out of the red columns into the black. Some were lucky to have played "monopoly" in their childhood and realize that the game only works when there is a free flow of money, every player has some, taxes are paid and the bank does not run out of money.  When this board game is out of balance, one player controls all the property or the bank runs out of money, then, the game is over.
   It is interesting to watch how other countries are dealing with this problem.  It is always nice to learn from other's mistakes and their successes and then we could avoid the learning curve that can bring so much havoc and bring governments down.  Austerity has not worked in Europe.  It just brought down the French Government and Greece is toppling towards a far right wing  Nazi type over reaction to their economic mess.
When people can't eat or keep a house over their heads there will be riots in the streets.  That is how revolutions start.
   Our own Republicans in the House want to balance the budget by eliminating "meals on wheels"! and other social programs for the elderly, woman, and disabled.  I hate to put those three groups into the same category!
I would hope women had more power to let this not be the case.  The Republican approach is to balance the  budget through elimination.  I remember my monopoly games as a child.  When one player drops out, has to go home or loses all his money, the game is soon over.  Keep it balanced and the game can go on and on and on.
   Here in a nut shell is what happened.  There was a Congressional "Super Committee" made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats who were charged with putting away their differences and working for us!  They were to come up with ideas to balance the budget through a mixture of tax increases and curtailments
both cutbacks on government waste, analyzing what we simply couldn't afford and altering the tax structure to "more fair and balanced".  In order to put some pressure on them to be level headed and get the job done, it became "the law" that if they failed to reach agreement the balancing would be from an automatic 10% reduction in the military budget!  What it should have been was to come up with a solution or your fired!  We paid them once to work for us and they didn't do their job.  Now they want to do it by getting rid of "meals on wheels" and other social programs!  That didn't work in Greece and the same reasoning brought down the French Government.  It won't work here also.
    You have all heard of the expression, "it takes money to make money."  When are we going to rebuild our infrastructure?  We have leaking water systems and over flowing sewers over a hundred years old! Bridges that are falling down and roads with more potholes than asphalt.  Out Inter State road system was built in the 1950's and '60's  and has not been attended to since. "Those" were the heydays when we were working and industry all across American would follow the road system.  China has better railroads than we do and soon they will have better everything.  At one time we spent 17% of our Gross National Product on infrastructure and now it is less than 7%, that is 70% less!
   I like the automatic laws that say "fix something" or it will automatically come out of a particular budget.
How about "fix it now" or automatically get a 40% reduction in your wages?  Whatever we are paying our congressmen it is too damned much if they can't get 'er done!
   Two weeks and I can plant tomatoes!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


No, not me, not my island.  My little enclave of sanity has been long paid off, over twenty years ago, no mortgage for me. It is not so hard to do when you buy a shack which is pretty much what I did over 40 years ago.  It was the worst house in the neighborhood and about 800 square feet with no foundation when I bought it for $8,375.  No typo there, that is what I paid.  $1,500 down and $75 a month payments.  Over the years as I could afford it I improved it, first with a foundation and then additions until its present 2,200 square feet.
What it is worth to me is home.  It is where I live and dream, share with my wife and raise my daughters. It is a continuous "art project" and alters with my needs, once adding a back yard shop and now my art studio, my organic garden.  It is my island of sanity in a pretty crazy world.  I have never borrowed a dime off it, never treated it as a bank.
   At the height of the housing market when it seemed that housing was inflating by thousands of dollars a day, they claimed my house was worth $335,000.  Those were like lottery days when there were thought to be so many winners.  Some people would refinance every couple of years and turn their "profits" into super vacations and new cars, expensive clothes and nights on the town.  Money was easy this way.  Monopoly Money.  I admit as a contractor I benefited from this craze and got a lot of work improving other's houses as they mortgaged theirs to add ornamental fencing and pretty nice entry gates.  Those were the days, I had a lot of work.
   Then it crashed.  Although the crash in the housing market has caused a lot of pain and the financial ruin of many, it just had to come and I was predicting it years before reality struck and foreclosures became common.
Housing would double in price and wages were stagnant.  The math just didn't add up.  Today they say my house is worth about $165,000, just about half from its height.  It makes no difference, it is my home and not for sale but I will explain how this adjustment came to be.  It is quite simple math really.
   Banks loan money based on a house's value.  There is an appraisal and comparable sale figures of nearby houses are compared. What one paid for a house means nothing, it is all determined by the sale of the house next door, or down the street.  If your neighbor's house gets foreclosed it will drastically bring down the value of your house.
    Here is a case in point:    Ten years ago, before the housing boom, a friend of mine bought a small "fixer-upper" house for $45,000.  He put a great deal of work into it adding an expensive bathroom and a modern kitchen, new flooring and windows.  Pretty much a total remodel and renovation, even adding a studio shop in the backyard.  Then the market "took off" and he saw another opportunity (I am thinking it must have been a house and not a home) so he sold it, "flipped it" as the expression became, for $127,000 and bought another.  This is an older neighborhood of 900 square foot homes and nothing fancy or modern but housing went nuts and the new owners soon refinanced in order to take advantage of the times and buy a new truck
(with their "winnings!").  Now the mortgage became $177,000!!!  The neighbors were happy and they pretty much did the same thing and soon all had new cars sitting in their driveways.
   Then the dream became a nightmare!  The guy who bought my friend's house, this house with a $177,000 mortgage lost his job.  Something went wrong and there are no "living wage jobs" in our town anymore.  He stuck a For Sale Sign in the yard and moved to Colorado where he did find work and the house didn't sell.
Finally it was foreclosed upon and sold for $95,000, that is a loss of $82,000 for the bank!!!! AND an automatic devaluing of the neighboring houses by almost HALF!  Comparable values.
   This is not the end of the story.  The IRS will look upon the loss of $82,000 by the bank as a gift to the owner (the guy who moved to Colorado to find a job) and he will have the tax burden as if he received this money on next year's Income Tax.  We are not out of this mess yet.
   A friend of mine has a little garden nursery selling plants and  vegetable starts to the gardeners.  He tells me he no longer sells apple trees and I asked him how is that?  It takes, he explains to me, seven years for a young apple tree to produce apples.  People don't stay in a house that long.  Not long enough to make it a home.