...in a belligerent tone, as if squabbling with his sister (except he's in there alone, washing his hands), Son insists, "Don't do what I do, Mirror Boy!"
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Many thanks to those of you who weighed in on my bathing suit dilemma. One thing I finally concluded is that, really, brands do matter. So to accommodate my frugal self while still satisfying my desire to wear something other than a garbage bag (or seersucker) to the pool at the gym, I decided to make a last-ditch effort at Marshall's before contemplating dropping more serious money at a swanky department store (cheap department stores clearly not making suits for tall people over the age of 17). The results? SCORE!
And because many of you are asking about the suit, and unfortunately photos of bathing suits on hangers just look like shreds of cloth, here are some photos...with apologies beforehand to anyone who finds the need to run away with burning eyes.
Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, you are my new heroes. I got not one, but two suits. A lovely chocolate brown courtesy of Calvin.
And a navy blue tankini that Michael Kors seems to have designed specifically for the woman with a long torso.
And the best part? The combined price of these two gems was $45. Which is why I obviously had to bring them both home.
Also [distract distract distract] isn't this antique mirror that we got for a wedding present really just the loveliest thing you've ever seen? I adore it.
Friday, May 30, 2008
The following was originally posted as a guest post on 'Twas Brillig. I'm archiving it here too, so I can keep it as part of what I think might become a little series on local history.
I live in a Michigan town that was once generally known as "Podunk." I kid you not. The government website for my town records this fact on its History page, as an introduction to information about the official naming of the town. What the government website does not say is that the 1827 meeting to choose a name took place in the barn of one of the town's founding citizens, a fact which to me seems poignant and important. These were pioneers, literally, who were looking to establish the legitimacy of their little hamlet. They had no township buildings, no civic location in which to meet, and so they chose the most logical of places: large, roofed in, dry, and associated with the gumption of the very first settlers, the Tibbits' barn served as their town center. It does not seem a stretch to conclude that the impetus for that meeting was the desire to resist Podunk becoming the recorded name on maps and government documents.
At this meeting, I have also learned, there was much discussion in favor of the name Peking, in honor of the general interest in all things from China. There is, in fact, a town in Michigan called Canton, presumably for the same reason -- a reason which, in the 1820s, also inspired the Prince Regent (later King George IV) of England to decorate Brighton Pavilion (his seaside palace) with a crazily "Asian" room in which he placed everything that seemed like it was probably Chinese or Japanese, or whatever, he wasn't picky, including fantastical wallpaper painted with giant stands of flowering bamboo. I've seen it. The pink-and-ivory orchid-like flowers are enormous and lush. Bamboo doesn't actually flower at all, let alone flower like a Hawaiian orchid, but verisimilitude was not the strong suit of our 1820s forefathers. What they wanted was the fantasy of Chinoiserie. And so, in the case of my town, they -- stout settler stock that they were -- contemplated the name Peking.
For reasons that are unclear, despite its popularity, Peking was abandoned as the town's official name in favor of LeRoy. Honestly, I could not make this stuff up if I tried. With a perceptive forward-thinking apparently far beyond that of the eager settlers, the Governor of the Michigan Territory (it was not yet a State), chose to approve instead the second choice name that the settlers put forth. It was a name I am sure they felt was no where near as romantic and lilting as LeRoy. At least, I assume they felt that about LeRoy. To me, that name is practically synonymous with "junk yard dog," but presumably in this pre-rock-and-roll era, it sounded exotic. Or something. Anyway, thanks to Governor Cass's eminently sensible judgment, I live in a town with a perfectly ordinary name, one that the Puritan settlers of New England happily bestowed upon many towns -- a name like Portsmouth, or Salem, or Haverford.
I'm sure at this remove of time, it would not matter if I lived in Peking, Michigan instead. It would not be any different than living in Versailles, Vermont (pronounced VER-sails, with a nice hard "r" in there). Which is to say, I would still be a Michigander, and the name of the town would have no particular resonance, no specific connotations, except to occasion a wondering query, "What were they thinking?"
But I do wonder, now that I know this history, what life would have been like for those early settlers if Peking had carried the day. Would they have felt more worldly? Held themselves a little straighter when they announced with pride the name of their town? Felt secretly pleased that they had taken the public step of labeling their town as different from those already-old towns of New England? Would they have felt particularly modern to live in a town called Peking in the Territory of Michigan? Even though they would never travel to China themselves, would probably never meet a Chinese person, quite possibly never even speak to a soul who had been to China, would they have felt proud that they were doing their part to enter into the increasingly global economy, to participate in becoming world citizens, by naming their town after one halfway around the world?
A part of me thinks they would have. And admires them for it. In 1827, still ten years away from becoming the 26th state, Michigan was wilderness and farmland. Settlers worked long hours carving farms out of the fertile soil. Tibbits is credited with bringing the first pony to the area. Say what you will about the problematic dynamics between settlers and Native Americans (what you say will be true); life in such a place was certainly not easy for the new settlers.
Perhaps the fantasy of China, the dream of the exotic, glimmered in those settlers' minds for a while on that February night in 1827. Perhaps they, with their work-worn hands and woolen clothes, stomped their thick boots to keep warm as they discussed the choice of a town name and quietly hoped to grasp what little they could of the reported glories of travel.
In the end, they chose a name less explicitly foreign (LeRoy) and, as one might argue is endemic of Midwestern farmers, offered up a second choice that was incredibly safe. The Governor, of course, preferred the latter. But like the questioning speaker in Robert Frost's "The Road Less Traveled," I wonder what would have happened in the formative years of my town if boldness had prevailed. And I am pleased to be reminded again that however much we twenty-first century citizens see ourselves as responsible for the phenomenon of the "global village," that shrinkage was already beginning nearly 200 years ago through the hard work and gleams of vision that filled the lives of people who lived in a place that was nearly named Peking, Michigan.
As promised, today's installment of the Green Up Your Thumb series is right below this post. But if you've had it already with the flower photos, or you just want something different to read, go check out my guest post today on 'Twas Brillig -- an interesting little story about a town that officially changed its name from Podunk.
Brillig's got a lot going on right now, as she's in the middle of a move, so for the next month, she'll have a new guest blogger every weekday. If you want to meet some new people, her place will be a great one-stop shop for doing so. And stick around till she comes back, too -- she's one blogger it's worth waiting for.
Deciding where to put the plants in your flower beds is something that can be directed mostly by your whimsy. If you choose plants that suit your growing zone, soil, sun/shade, and water parameters, then beyond that, you can do whatever you like. Make a whole bed of white flowers if that's what you fancy. But if you don't know what you fancy, or you like the look of mature flower gardens you see elsewhere, and you're not sure how those looks are achieved, here are a few principles that might help guide you.
Think about keeping your flower bed as beautiful as possible for as long as possible. One way to do that is to include flowers that bloom at different times. The little tags in the pots will tell you if they are spring, summer, or fall bloomers. Aim to have some of each in your garden. For example, I have a bed in which both of the following are happening at the same time.
Because the tulips are waning, it's nice to have something else with promise.
And within a day or two, the iris bloomed fully, so that it doesn't matter at all that the tulips have all been trimmed back and are now just leaves.
Some people like to have whole beds that are filled with different textures and shapes of flowers that are all the same color. Personally I prefer juxtapositions of color. I put pink bleeding hearts next to blue forget-me-nots; red tulips springing up amongst clumps of yellow daffodils. If you are really interested in juxtaposing particular plants, they will have the best impact in clusters. Although single stems often look excellent in a vase, they tend to look lonely and sparse in a flower bed. So, rather than alternating a single daffodil with a single tulip, plant a large clump of daffodils, and accent them with three tulips planted close together.
Plant tall next to short, and take advantage of the natural shade provided by taller plants to include shade-loving low ground-cover flowers like Sweet Woodruff. In the same way that clusters of colors juxtaposed look nice, variations in height are pleasing to the eye.
Consider multiple focal points.
Unless your house is located inside a snow globe, chances are people will be looking at your garden from a lot of different angles: the street, the driveway, the yard, and -- importantly -- from inside the house out the window. Almost no flower bed, except one right up against a windowless wall, has a "back," so keep in mind multiple vantage points before you choose to position all the tallest plants at what seems to be the back of your bed.
Some plants grow very quickly from bare root to full height. With perennials, particularly those in colder winter climates (up to about zone 7 or 8), it is very common for the plant to die back to the ground in the late summer or fall, and then to grow back bigger each subsequent spring than it was the previous year as the root structures gain in size. This is why the planting directions on little tiny starter plants will sometimes tell you to place those palm-sized plants 18" apart. If you've ever done this, you will know that your garden looks sparse and silly for that entire first year, and sometimes even throughout the second. There are two solutions to this: (1) plant perennials much much closer together than the directions say, and then divide the clump in a year or two, as it starts crowding itself; (2) plant them as far apart as the directions say, and then put annuals between them for a year or two, until they get established.
Be prepared for some slow starting.
If you plant mostly perennials, you may find that some of them take a year or two (depending on how big they are when you start, and how finicky they are as plants) to get well established. Translation: not everything you plant will flower the first year. Don't panic. Just let them settle in, and you'll be well rewarded. You may also find that some plants that are scraggly the first year(or even two) self-seed and propagate like crazy once they get established. Take my columbine, for example. For two years, I thought that they weren't going to make it at all. They were all the size of that little plant at the top. This year, they are so prolific that they are threatening (in a good way) to take over the whole foreground of one of my flower beds -- and they are giant like the lower photo.
Avoid too much symmetry.
It's a guideline for many visual things: odd numbers are more appealing than even. You will find that planting in groups of three of the same, or one "specimen" plant surrounded by a larger number of others, is most visually pleasing. Similarly, unless you live at Versailles or some other exceedingly formal residence, flower beds that are laid out asymmetrically are more attractive. Consider anchoring one side with a shrub, and the other with a large group of shorter more feathery plants for example.
Use foliage to your advantage.
All leaves are not the same shade of green. There are bright clear ones, variagated ones, ones tinted silver, ones streaked with purple, and some that have no green in them at all. This is worth keeping in mind to maintain interest in your garden even when nothing is blooming, or between bloomings. Paint with foliage, not just bloom. Juxtapose small feathery mounds with tall spikes, broad purple leaves with succulents that are green tinged with lavendar.
Don't be afraid to experiment.
I've planted plenty of things that have failed. I've planted others that barely survived, others that I have moved two or three times until they found a spot they liked. When things succeed, I always feel like it's at least half out of luck. Keep in mind, even if the plant grows and thrives: nothing you plant is in a permanent home except a tree. Anything smaller than a tree (or a very large shrub) can be moved in a matter of minutes. So if you don't like it, don't be afraid to dig it up and move it somewhere else!
For the rest of the Green Up Your Thumb series, see here:
Part 1: Planning
Part 2: Selecting Plants
And on the next two Fridays, look for
Part 4: Gardening in the Shade
Part 5: Maintenance
Thursday, May 29, 2008
who spent half an hour
doing volleyball serves
with a beach ball in the swimming pool
so that your son and my son
could chase after the ball,
tumbling over each other like puppies,
and laughing as they splashed:
I noticed how you very carefully,
without saying anything at all,
kept track of who had reached the ball first
and made sure to swat the ball next in a direction
the other one would be most likely to reach quickest.
Nobody had to remind them to share
because you ensured that they would pretty much take turns
coming up the winner.
I noticed how you let them work it out
when they began a squabble,
and I noticed how you matter-of-factly
thought to make sure my son
felt as much a part of the game as your son,
even while keeping a close hand on your toddler
in a life vest.
I don't know your name, but I do know this:
any child would be lucky to have
such a father,
and your sons are fortunate indeed
to have such a man for a role model.
The woman in the brown bathing suit
who enjoyed a lovely playtime with her own toddler
in the kiddie end of the pool
while her older son had a ball.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
I've been compiling this list for a while, so I thought I'd send it on out there. Got any more tips to add? Toss 'em into the comments! We'll all thank you.
1. Soak pans containing cooked-on starches (rice, potatoes, oatmeal, etc.) in cold water rather than hot. The stuff will release from the pan much more quickly. (Thanks, Fawn!)
2. Make pancake batter in the blender. It's less mess to clean, since you can pour right from the spout to the griddle: no ladles or drips on the counter to clean afterwards. Also, if you want to sneak in a little extra goodness without the kids knowing, you can easily do so. Things you can add into pancake batter without anyone noticing, as long as you're using the blender: 1/2 block tofu OR one apple, quartered and cored (don't bother peeling) OR 1 medium sweet potato (steamed and peeled) OR 1/2 cup whole oats (you will need to add a bit more milk).
3. Use vinegar to help keep clothes colorfast. Add 1/2 cup white vinegar to every load of dark laundry, or use 1/8 cup in your hand laundry -- especially when washing sweaters -- to keep them from bleeding. (Thanks, Mr. Lady!)
4. Shake out, rather than vacuuming, small throw rugs and bath mats. They get much cleaner this way, and you don't have to fight to keep the vacuum from sucking them up. Instead, just take small rugs outside and give them a good shake and pounding. For really small rugs, you can shake right onto the floor if you're in the process of vacuuming anyway, and then vacuum up the crumbles.
5. Eggshells attract eggshells. If a little sliver of shell gets into your bowl as you're cracking eggs to scramble, don't use your finger to chase the sliver around. That could take all day. Just dip a large piece of the shell into the eggs, and you'll be able to scoop out the sliver in a jiffy.
6. Run your kitchen sponge through the dishwasher every time you do a load to keep it clean and fresh longer.
7. Your own spit will remove your own blood. If you can bear to spit on your cuffs when you've gotten a paper cut, go for it! (Thanks, I think, MIQuiter.)
8. Zippered, mesh lingerie bags made for the washing machine are your friends. You can keep one in each laundry hamper to receive dirty kid-sized socks, and then just zip it up and toss the whole thing in the wash. You'll never lose another tiny sock behind the washing machine drum again. Or, use one to hold all the bibs you have to wash, so that their velcro tabs don't snag up everything else in the load.
9. Use 1/3 of a capful of liquid laundry soap rather than the full cup the detergent says to use. The clothes will still get clean, but the soap residue will dissolve better and hence be less likely to form a film in your drain lines. The upshot? Less stinky washing machine parts (you know, that sweaty gym bag smell that sometimes plagues the washer? GONE.)
10. If your kids resist veggies... try simmering a pot of carrots, beets, sweet potato, squash, and/or other things orange/red in a small amount of vegetable broth until extremely soft. Then, puree the whole thing, and freeze in an ice cube tray. Keep the ice cubes in a ziplock bag, and toss in a few any time you make pizza, pasta, or anything else with a red sauce. (For reference, one Tablespoon / year of age = one serving of veggies.)
I know there's not a whole lot to say about a list like this. But I'd love it if you would give me your favorite cooking or household tip in the comments. Anything that will make my life easier or enable me to go to bed even 45 seconds earlier each day will be most appreciated.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
It's prom season, and you know what that means: drunk (on life, obviously; they know they aren't old enough to drink legally) and dressed up teenagers in various borrowed, midlife-crisis convertibles driving around with the wind in their corsages until it's dark enough to park by the soccer field and sneak under the fence into the (deserted) University President's House park so they can
get pregnant kiss under the stars all romantic-like. Oh, yeah, and somewhere in there go to some lame dance the school is putting on so that they can take photos, and compare dresses and dates, and figure out who has the best stash of after-party booze Doritos.
Or, if you're less cynical and more romantic. It's prom season, and you know what that means: the perfect dress, loveliest shoes, most fragrant corsage, handsomest date, most delicious dinner, great dancing, best photos, most romantic afterparty, and a lifetime of "ohhh...Trey...you are sooo wonderful..." ever after.
I don't know about you, but in my experience, there is an awful lot of hype around prom that may or may not bear any actual relationship to the evening itself.
But proms sure tend to leave in their wake (in addition to the mascara covered, sobbing popular chick) a giant pile of fabulous stories...once you get old enough to see the humor in teenage "tragedy."
So, I'm proposing a little prom retrospective -- complete with side ponytails, and fluffy dresses, and blue eyeshadow, and all manner of fabulousness. Dig out the old photos, reminisce, tell the truth about what really happened that night (not the version you told your mom, but the version you told your best friend). Take the next week to think about it, and then on Tuesday, June 3, in honor of all that is lithe and lovely, or too dumb to know better, post your story for the rest of us.
Feel free to grab the button for your post. And be sure to tell all your friends it's prom season again! Then come back on June 3 (that's next Tuesday), and add yourself to the Mr. Linky you'll find here. And read everyone else's True Prom Story. You know you want to. All the cool kids are going to do it.
Monday, May 26, 2008
The Zoo can be a very educational place, as long as you are willing to be open-minded about what counts as education. For instance, here is what I learned on our trip to the zoo yesterday.
We all know peacocks are very beautiful creatures. They know it too.
They prance around, and strut, and preen, and generally show off extensively. They also have an extremely loud and distinctive cry -- almost a shriek, really, but without the tone of panic. It sounds preternatural and disturbing. But all of this, I already knew, since we used to live across the street from a family that kept peacocks, emus, and other large birds. But what I did not know until yesterday is that if you put a shrieking peacock alongside a gaggle of interested ice-cream eating children, the children will shriek back at the peacock, imitating its pitch and cadence exactly, but half under their breaths as if they are not sure they should be doing this. And when a whole bunch of kids under the age of eight or so spontaneously and simultaneously make a peacock's cry back to a peacock, it is so hilarious you will choke on your ice cream.
Gorillas have strangely human looks on their faces. Yeah, yeah, whatever...primates are genetically close to humans, yadda yadda yadda, not news. But when you come home from the zoo, and start messing with your photos, you will realize that when the gorillas munching handfuls of grass got up and walked around on the other side of the huge rock to eat some more, and the crowd of people furiously snapping pictures of them eating then disbursed in frustration -- the gorillas weren't just moseying around. They looked at all those annoying people, and thought with some disgust, "Can't a gorilla eat her lunch in peace already?" and quite deliberately moved out of sight of the paparazzi.
Camouflage is the new black in rhino fashion these days. If it weren't for the few shreds of grass in the foreground, you could hardly see this rhino at all. And that's the way she likes it, see. Which is why she's wearing stone-colored tones these days.
Zebras -- and, really, a photo of this would send this blog right into another league it doesn't want to join -- that is to say, male zebras, have a member that's apparently a "grower." Because I've seen this herd of zebras on every visit to the zoo, and I've never noticed anything untoward. But yesterday, I saw all two feet long of it, after witnessing something that looks a lot like dancing, if zebras danced on their hind legs or men danced on the backs of women. And (in case you need more learning about zebras): the rest of the zebra herd likes to watch when all of this is happening. And apparently, zebras are no where near as prudish as "higher order" mammals, because even the little foals will stand around in that semi-circle of watching wonder and gape until the deed is done. Whereupon the crowd will disburse and go off to munch grass as if nothing extraordinary has just happened, and as if a male zebra, with a two foot long you-know-what hanging nearly to the ground, is not wandering around all wibbly in the knees and punch-drunk with love.
Thank goodness our children were still absorbed in the painfully slow process of digging frozen lemonade out of a paper cup with a plastic spoon that's barely strong enough to lift a bite of yogurt, so I didn't have to explain why that one zebra had five legs.
All of which has led me to conclude that the the movie Madagascar has it completely right. The animals in the zoo know exactly what people are all about. And they get their kicks out of messing with our heads.
The peacocks are actually running a betting pool: "Hey guys, watch this, I'll bet I can get this batch of kids to scream in unison!"
And the zebras are the ring-leaders: "All right, every body gather round; let's teach them a thing or two about voyeurism."
The only animals that didn't seem to be having a laugh at our expense were the docile giraffes.
Though, who knows, maybe this one is really thinking, "Suckers! They actually paid extra to feed us, when we were going to get fed either way."
Visit here for more laughs today.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
I always thought that this
and especially this
were overkill. Silly. For wimps. Frivolous. Stupid expenses. For suckers. A ha-ha *snort* why would anyone buy it kind of gardening "tool." You know, for tools.
proved me wrong.
And the moral of this little pictorial essay is: just because it's the first warm, sunny day in weeks doesn't mean you ought to bust out the shorts for the Memorial Day Weekend Ivy Abatement & Landscape-Fabric-and-Mulch Installation Marathon.
Of course, I also chose this weekend to start purging my closet of pants. I know, not the brightest bulb...
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Look, I know it's a holiday weekend, and you probably have a date with some guacamole, chips and a beer, but can we talk about pants for a moment? Here's what I know about pants. They have the following options:
high-waisted a la Katharine Hepburn (good)
high-waisted a la Mom Jeans (bad)
pleats (bad) // flat front (good)
hip huggers a la Three's Company (depends on your hips)
low rise a la the hip and fashionable (depends on your hips AND your underwear--or lack thereof)
low rise a la the absurd (depends on your ability to stay perfectly vertical every second of the day so as to avoid Hot Fashion becoming Stone Cold Plumber's Butt (those first three links take you to girls who really just shouldn't have; the last is for the actual plumber's photo credit)
and then there are pants that are just a joke (one hopes)
Moving below the waistband (assuming your pants haven't already taken that liberty for you by removing the waistband altogether), the options include:
straight leg (good)
skinny leg (disaster. if you're below a size 6, you don't have a pants problem, so don't gloat. just wear your skinny legs if you must. preferably on a very bad hair day to be fair to the rest of us.)
boot cut (fine if you're wearing boots)
tapered (what is this 1985? if they have an ankle zipper, back away slowly)
flare (fine if you're yachting)
bell bottom (fine if you're Marcia Brady)
capri pants (once called cropped; long ago known as clam diggers; timelessly good for looking summery and pretending you're Audrey Hepburn)
cropped via rolled-up-cuffs (good for splashing in puddles)
very long with cuffs (elegant)
culottes/gauchos (good. if you've never heard of these, you were born after 1973; but you do know what they are; you just know them by the far less simple name of "those slighly swishy calf-length pants that look really great with high boots in the winter" -- doesn't roll off the tongue quite as nicely as "culottes," now does it?)
Here's what I don't know about pants:
what is in style right this very second?
As you can see, there are a lot of options, and I haven't even begun to get into the whole fabrics question. (No, the question is not to acid wash or not to acid wash; I do know that much.)
But here's what I really really really want to know about pants: do you think it's great when a woman wears the looks that suit her body type and personal style? Or do you think *sniff* how outre when
I she shows up somewhere in tailored wide-legged cuffed wool slacks when everyone else is wearing the super-skinny stretch-wool pant?
Because it's clean-out-the-closet weekend here at Chez MommyTime, and I'm tired of tripping over fashion "dos" that just seriously don't on me. So I want to purge them all (which I know is good). But some of what I want to keep is not "fashionable" -- it's just "classic." I look good in Katharine Hepburn's pants. And those are the ones I prefer for work. I look like crap in boot cut (which are always too tight in the thighs). I know better than skinny jeans or bell bottoms or ultra-low-rise on me.
But do I have to pay attention to the catwalks and the magazines and choose fashion pants? Or can I wear what makes me feel good, even if it's cropped when everyone else is wearing drag-your-cuffs-in-the-dust long? Or whatever.
Honestly? Finding flattering pants is nearly as hard as trying to buy a bathing suit. But I did have this brainstorm: if you buy pants that are made to cover a whole pair of underwear, you can avoid the dreaded muffintop by actually covering it with a waistband. And you don't even have to buy mom jeans to do it. All you need is to do is channel Katharine Hepburn.
Friday, May 23, 2008
So, let's say you've chosen the location for your flower bed--or it's been chosen for you courtesy of the previous owners of your home, or through the vagaries of temperamental grass that refuses to grow in that one shady spot, or whatever. And you've done a little observing of the soil, water, sun/shade, so that you have some idea of the parameters you're working with. And you've read some gardening books (or at the very least enjoyed a cup of coffee while admiring all the pretty pictures). And now Saturday is coming up, and you're all excited to go buy some plants.
Where do you go to spend that money? How do you choose which plants to buy? And how many? And of what size? Here are some things to keep in mind when answering those questions.
Where to Go
There are basically three types of places to buy plants: dedicated nurseries, garden centers that are part of big-box stores, and online. I buy most of my plants at Home Depot's garden center for two reasons: (1) I'm incredibly lazy, and Home Depot happens to be 1/2 a mile from my house, whereas all the nurseries are miles away; (2) I'm pretty cheap, and since most of what I buy is an experiment (it might thrive, or I might kill it deader than dead in a single season), I prefer to buy the more inexpensive versions.
It's no secret that big-box stores sell plants for much less than do nurseries. The internet is even cheaper. In general, here is the difference in quality for common plants at these three places: nothing. If you want to buy plants that are of your everyday garden variety, generally easy to grow and hardy in your area, and of a decent size, a big-box garden center is your place.
If you want specialty plants, shrubs (which are far more expensive than flowering plants), or young trees that are bigger than your Kindergartener, then go to a nursery. Why? First, because a nursery will have a big staff to help you choose. If you include the cost of killed-through-incompetence plants in your overall assessment of how much it costs to fill your beds, then a nursery can be a real boon. For example, a nursery staffer would have pointed me to willow bushes, which I didn't know existed, and steered me away from forsythia when I said I wanted something to plant in a very very wet spot, thereby saving me at least $40 in dead forsythia. Although you'll spend more per plant, you'll be far less likely to make a costly mistake such as purchasing precisely the wrong shrubs for your spot. Second, many nurseries have guarantees, so that if the things die within a year, they'll replace them for free. I still don't use nurseries for my general bedding flowers, though, because I find they are twice the price as the same plants at Home Depot, and I don't need that kind of security for a $3 plant (make that $6 at the nursery).
Plants online are generally the cheapest of all, but in many cases it's a false economy. Sure, you may get a dozen bleeding hearts for $8, but when they arrive, you will find that each plant is the size of your thumb. It's far better to spend $10 at a big-box gardening center, buying three lush plants that will flower this year and make your garden already look a bit filled up. On the other hand, I use online gardening supply centers for things like bulbs, which only come in one size anyway, since there is a far greater selection online than I can find at any local supplier, and the prices can't be beat.
How to Choose
I'll assume you will be choosing plants that suit the sun/shade requirements of your spot, which is the most important consideration for keeping them happy and healthy. But some plants are more finicky than others, and there are some important things to consider when making your choices.
For the most failsafe gardening, choose indigenous plants, or ones that naturalize easily in your area. Naturalize is a fancy way of saying they'll grow wild in the woods, or along streams, or in the ditch by the railroad tracks, if someone accidentally drops them there and no human ever does another thing to help them along. They'll be hardy, and they'll reproduce quickly and with minimal effort on your part (like my Lily of the Valley, to the left). The easiest way to find out what these are is to buy a Field Guide to your area -- you know, one of those books designed to help you identify plants on your nature walks. That will show you pictures of all sorts of things that thrive in the local soil. (Be careful, though, not to choose things that are just fancy weeds -- such as Queen Anne's Lace -- or you'll never have another thing in your garden again because they'll go so crazy reproducing. If you stick with things you can buy rather than things you actually dig up in the woods, you should be fine.) If that's too high maintenance for you, then at least use this link to look up your gardening zone, if you are planning to shop online. (Anything sold at your local gardening store will theoretically grow in your area, as long as you pay attention to its water/sun requirements.)
When selecting plants to put together in one bed, aim for continuous interest. Look at the little tags in the pots to see what the stated bloom time is. This is important because although many things you buy in a big-box store will be forced (have their timing tinkered with so that they'll be blooming when you're shopping), if you buy perennials, they will revert to their natural cycles once they are in a real outdoor climate rather than a greenhouse. "Aim for continuous interest" means choose some things that will bloom in early spring, others in late spring, some that bloom in summer, others in early fall.
In the picture above, for example, you can see that the pink Bleeding Hearts have prominence in this bed right now, and the little Sweet Woodruff (white flowers) and Forget-Me-Nots (blue) form a carpet under them. The Sweet Woodruff blooms almost all summer, so it makes a lovely border for this shady bed. The Forget-Me-Nots will last till mid-summer, then just be foliage. The Bleeding Heart will die back completely by mid to late summer. But by the time they do, the broad leaves you can just see in the background on the right will have grown into mature and very large Plantain Lilies. These in fact fill up the entire back half of the bed, and a few are planted very close to the Bleeding Heart in the foreground. That way, once the early plants begin to die back, the later plants are springing up. In late summer, as the front of this bed begins to look a bit thin, the rear of this bed has two-foot-high stalks of giant trumpet shaped white flowers...so you don't even notice that the earlier plants are gone. (And, by the way, I only figured out what bloomed when and died back when after about five years of gardening in this particular house, so don't assume you'll get that just right immediately. It's an experiment. But it is something worth keeping in mind as you're buying. Even though it all depends on whether the rabbits eat up every single shoot the minute it bursts forth or not, anyway.)
Perennials or Annuals? The Big Debate
I spend nearly all of my planting money on perennials, which I think of as plants designed for long-term gratification. It's okay to buy them fairly small, since each year they'll get bigger and better. To the right, for example, are two shots taken of the same plant (can't recall its name). I planted the lower one a year ago as a little bitty thing (the size that comes in those little plant six-packs). I took these photos from the same vantage point, so you could have a clear sense of the difference in scale. The bottom one has not only grown tremendously; it's also spawned offshoots including the one above. I planted six of these; only three survived, but there are already two new plants -- and the whole batch cost me about $3. Clearly, this will be a good ground-cover for this shady spot within another year.
One important thing to know about perennials is that many of them will not flower the first year, as they are busy building root structures and gathering strength. Also, since they can increase dramatically in size over time, you have to space them a bit further apart to give them room to grow -- or you have to be prepared to divide them up once they do get too crowded.
This is where annuals are useful. If you buy 2/3 or 3/4 perennials and 1/4 to 1/3 annuals in your first year, you can fill out the bed with faster-growing, fully flowering annuals to give some time for the perennials to take hold. If you are going to do this, intersperse them, so that next year, you can put new perennials in the empty spaces left by the annuals. Keep in mind, if you find a perennial in a gardening book, but that plant is not hardy (meaning it won't make it through the winter/summer) in your zone, you may still be able to use that plant as an annual. Snapdragons, for example, are perennial down South, but work just beautifully as a summer annual here in Michigan.
Don't be afraid of bulbs. Perhaps the most gratifying thing to plant is bulbs. Why? Because you put them in during the late fall, when all your other gardening tasks are about pruning and watching the leaves come down, and then they sit there working their magic over winter, and suddenly one day you wake up to glowing puddles of fabulous Crocus welcoming the springtime. Glorious. They are exceedingly easy to plant, especially if you get one of those little hand-held bulb planting gizmos which looks like a slighly cone-shaped tub with a handle across the top; you poke it down into the soil, and remove a plug, drop the bulb in, and then replace the soil. Easy as pie. (Hard to describe -- ask the folks at the garden center to show you.) Keep in mind that each bulb will produce one plant, which may mean one flower or multiples, depending on the plant. For the best impact, you should buy at least a handful of the same bulb and plant them close together. I flaunt the spacing directions for bulbs all the time. I dug big holes and put 20 or so daffodil bulbs in each when I was transplanting mine. The impact is much greater. Just don't crowd the bulbs in the hole -- leave at least an inch or two of space between each one -- and be very careful about how deep you plant them. Too much soil above them and they won't flower; too little, and they may dry out or freeze to death in winter, literally.
As for what specific plants you choose: pick the things you like. Choose color combinations that make you happy. Buy enough plants to form pleasant little groups, but don't feel the need to fill every square inch of the bed right away. Part of the fun of gardening is its continuousness. You put in a few plants, see how they go, add others to complement, move some around, add again, rearrange, till you get it the way you like it.
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For the rest of the Green Up Your Thumb series, see here:
Part 1: Planning and Assessing the Flower Bed Site
And coming on subsequent Fridays
Part 3: Laying out Flower Beds
Part 4: Ideas for Gardening in the Shade
Part 5: Maintenance
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Our kids aren't allowed to drink soda except on very rare occasions. Ginger ale when recovering from stomach flu is a given; anything else is a special treat. In addition, they know that they are not allowed to have any drink that has caffeine in it. There are plenty of other reasons we don't let them drink soda, but that's the easiest way to explain to them why they can't have Daddy's diet Coke.
Yesterday, while driving to the gym, Son exclaimed enthusiastically from the backseat, "Mama, Mama, I see a big red truck just like the one I saw yesterday -- the one with the caffeine sign on it..." He paused and considered, then added, "We-ellll, actually, I don't know what it really says, but it means caffeine."
It was easy to tell what he meant, though I hadn't spotted the truck myself. I replied, smiling, "It says Coca-Cola, honey."
To which he responded knowingly "Oh, yes, Coca-cola. That means caffeine in Spanish."
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Know what I'm eating right now? BOTH heels (the best part) of a loaf of fresh sourdough bread, toasted, and slathered with homemade chocolate icing.
How much do I care that this is not exactly in my diet? This much. 
Besides, I worked out today. (You remind me of my meatballs and macaroni-and-cheese for dinner, and I remind you I had a very large helping of broccoli too, thank you very much.)
And also, nom nom nom -slurp- nom, sip of chammomile tea, nom nom.... sorry, must run.
You should try this sometime. Seriously.
...Procrastination? Insanity? Someone Else's House? You pick.
Those of you who have been reading here a while might recall a little survey I put up about household cleanliness. What? You don't recall the survey? Well, perhaps you are younger than 87 years old, since I think it's been about that long since I put up the survey and then promised a post right after the survey closed to reveal my own level of household chaos.
I could plead general busy-ness, the distractions of life, unexpected house guests, getting ready to teach summer courses, my newfound obsession with the greatest gym on earth... But the truth is probably somewhat simpler: I have been a little reticent to reveal my own abysmal housekeeping skills to what is clearly a crowd better organized, tidier, and generally more adept at this whole cleanliness thing than is my family.
The original poll question, for those of you who have only limited energy for recalling random useless information, asked how long you have to clean in preparation for a play date at your house. Here are the results:
I do no special cleaning -- my house is always quite tidy: 0 [with much gratitude to you all for your honesty, by the way; I think I might have died if most of you picked this one]
15 minutes or less -- just a quick toy pick up and sweeping: 8 (16%)
Up to one hour -- toy pick up, bathroom, floors: 18 (37%)
One to two hours -- toys, bathroom, vacuuming/mopping, serious kitchen tidy: 9 (18%)
Over two hours -- toys, house-wide tidying, floors, bathrooms, kitchen, and other panic: 4 (8%)
Clean schmean -- love us, love our mess: 5 (10%)
Don't ask, don't tell -- I pick neutral locations away from my house for play dates: 5 (10%)
So, as promised, even though 53% of you have a cleaner house than mine, and only 8% will admit to having a house messier (though 20% of you don't exactly identify how messy your houses are; you are just comfortable with the status quo), here is what you would find if you said you were coming over for a playdate at 10am but actually showed up at 8am (because it will take me darn close to two hours to get ready for your visit).
<-- Here's what the dining room looks like on a typical day. The costume bin has belched forth its contents onto the floor; the table is the receptacle for all manner of things that no one can be bothered to put in their proper places; the archway to the living room is adorned with festive silver beads and red-and-white ribbon (so what if these started out as Christmas decorations? They aren't that holiday specific.) And on the right, you'll find what the rest of the floor looks like on a particularly bad day, courtesy of The Dog Who Showed That Diaper a Thing or Two about Who is Boss.
Venturing into the kitchen, really the only thing you need to see is My Nemisis, The Pile:
Not much needs to be said about The Pile. It contains mail, kid art, markers, video camera tapes, photos, envelopes whose return addresses need to be recorded in my address book as soon as I find the book, and other Important papers that (hopefully) won't cost me finance charges if I don't see them again before a certain date. Though I should point out that this is really a Baby Pile or a Practice Pile. Clearly someone went through the real Pile recently, and this is just the seeds of what it will become in the next week or so.
Below, we find the typical end-of-the-day state of our family room. Not exactly a ferocious mess, just lived in, right? Where lived = rambunctious running, "spoon fights," fort building, and a general lackadaisical attitude towards the matching of containers with contents.
And here is what I will accomplish in those two hours, with a little help from the kiddos (if I'm lucky):
I did get Son into the act of cleaning this room, while Husband was on bedtime duty with Daughter. When we finished, Son got two Girl Scout cookies as a reward for his solid half-hour of work. "What about Daddy?" he asked. "Daddy didn't clean, so he doesn't get cookies," I replied. (Daddy is on a diet, but Son doesn't know that.) Son's eyes sparkled. "And," I said, "we still have lots of cookies left. So every night we are going to have a cleaning project, and whoever helps the most gets TWO cookies when we are done." He could hardly wait to go to bed so that he could wake up and it would be tomorrow and he could clean again.
This may constitute evil bribery in some people's books, but honestly, it's the only way I could think to try to keep the place tidier. In an effort to combat the need to clean frantically for two hours before visitors arrive, we've also instituted a cleaning chore during Daughter's naptimes a few days a week. Mondays are bathroom cleaning day. He looks forward to the excitement of spraying cleansers and scrubbing all weekend. I know this will change as he gets older, but for now, I'll take whatever help I can get.
If you were coming over to play, we'd tidy, and vacuum, and scrub for you. And we'd bake muffins or put some pizza dough ingredients into the bread machine, or make some other tasty preparations -- because we love eating, and we love eating yummy things with our friends even more.
What would we not do? Dust the knick-knacks.
We love you, but we just don't have that kind of time.
*** If I haven't alienated you completely with that last photo of my gross ineptitude, I'd love it if you'd leave a comment: what's your best tip for cleaning maintenance? You know, the thing you've got down to a science so that it always looks the way you want it to in that one little corner? I figure, if I pool everyone's tips, maybe by the time you come over for a play date, I'll be able to spend 1 hour and 45 minutes of my two-hour prep time cooking something extra fabulous and checking my email over coffee. ***
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Husband and I both love to cook. On our second date, I went to his house for dinner, and he made me a delicious Thai curry -- with sauce from scratch. We spent our years in graduate school cooking together, cooking for each other, having dinner parties, and generally enjoying food every chance we could get.
Fast forward 10 years, and we have two children, two full-time jobs, and far less time every day than we used to. We still love to cook, but on a daily basis, we tend to do what I think of as "cheater cooking." We'll throw rice in the rice cooker, chop up some chicken and veggies for a quick stir fry, and then pour on some delicious organic sauce from Trader Joe's. Or we'll rotisserie a chicken and just have steamed veggies on the side. On "ambitious" days, he'll make a big pot of Tortilla Soup, which involves mincing all the random bits of peppers, corn, onions, or other appropriate veggies we've got lying around, sauteeing some chicken, and tossing it all together with crushed tomatoes, water, spices, and (of course) tortilla bits. It's a very good soup, but hardly up to our previous standards of curried squash or whatever else we used to do that was more complicated.
Please understand, I'm not criticizing your cooking here, simply lamenting the falling off of our own creative outlet. We are both toss-and-taste cooks. Which means that although we like to read recipes a lot, when it comes time to cook, we do so by feel and taste more than by measurements (except when baking): we toss into the pot whatever seems right, simmer a while, taste, and adjust with more tosses.
What all of this has translated to lately is that we buy a lot of shortcut ingredients -- packages of Japanese curry sauce cubes, jars of Mojito Marinade, organic pasta sauce, bottles of plum chipotle dipping sauce, and so on. Ever on the lookout for things that will enable us to cook lots of different kinds of foods quickly, while not compromising our food standards (no hydrogenated oils, no high fructose corn syrup, no empty calories except as an occasional treat), we have a tendency to buy lots of interesting looking jars that slowly make their way to the back of the pantry or fridge as new jars full of interesting flavors get put up front.
So, our fridge and pantry (and freezer; we're always stocking up on promising cuts of meat / poultry / fish that are on sale) are full to bursting. It's annoying. They're so full we can't find anything, and then we just end up buying a fourth can of coconut milk -- and no one needs that much coconut milk with no specific plan to cook a single recipe that calls for coconut milk.
I know that the food organized among us recommend weekly meal plans to combat this wasteful purchasing. But toss-and-taste cooks, even ones who find it necessary to prepare an entire meal from scratch in under 20 minutes because the children are melting down before their very eyes, get all twitchy when you suggest making a weekly meal plan. It interferes with their cooking mojo, which depends on spontaneity. (Nevermind that the kids are eating eggs and tortillas for the second time this week because of lack of time to cook something more complex. The last shred of our former love-to-cook selves is contained in this illusion of spontaneity. Let us keep at least that.)
So, because we are also a bit controlling, and we both love a good bargain, I started an Empty-the-Pantry Challenge with myself. (Yes, I know you have to be pretty type A to enjoy a contest with yourself. Whatever. I'm an oldest child.) The best part of this challenge's design is that it fosters creative cooking while at the same time reducing the excessive grocery hoarding that plagues our cupboards. Here are the very simple rules:
(1) Grocery shopping happens only one day a week. (Previously, we'd stop by the store while out doing other errands at least three times a week. This led to a lot of impulse purchases.)
(2) The only items that may be purchased on grocery day are fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and staples that have been emptied in the past week or won't make it till the following Monday (e.g. flour, soysauce, coffee). In all cases except staples, purchases should reflect quantities that can reasonably be eaten in a week. After all, it's not like we won't be back at the store next Monday.
(3) The purchase of any more sauces, marinades, simmer mixes, fabulous flavor bases or novelty ingredients (dates? a can of escargot? we have both in our pantry right now!) is completely forbidden until the ones we've got are used up, even if this takes until next January.
(4) The purchase of any more meat/poultry/fish of any kind is completely forbidden until every last shred of a given protein food currently in the freezer is gone. So, no buying hamburger if there's any other cut of beef in the freezer, even if the hamburger is gone.
(5) Meals will continue to be well-balanced.
It's amazing what has happened as a result. For six weeks, I bought not a single bit of meat, fish or poultry, not a single sauce. I cut our grocery bill in half every week. I can see the pantry shelves. And, we got creative again. It's become a fun challenge to see what I can rustle up using a box of corn muffin mix, black beans, one pork chop, and two huge ripe red peppers. (The answer? A cumin-spiced stew, that also contained onion, garlic, lime, and cilantro and tasted great with a side of cornbread.) Now that I've been doing this for a while, the grocery bill has climbed up a little, as I have to buy some meat and canned goods. To help avoid the impulse buys ("it's on sale, buy several!"), I'm trying hard to make the first grocery shop of the month be the one where I restock the freezer and canned goods; then all other shopping trips follow the rules above. This way, things don't languish in the freezer for months, and I don't overbuy every single week.
So, if your grocery bill is getting you down, or you're tired of those packages of unidentifyable meat that end up at the bottom of your freezer, or you have 8 packages of half-used pasta on your shelves (which we did at one point!), try this little challenge. You'll save on gas by not running constantly to the store; you'll save money by eating what you've already got; and you might even find yourself inspired to pull down a cookbook again in order to find a recipe that features some ingredient you forgot you ever had.
But don't say I didn't warn you if an unintended consequence of this is that you have to spend two hours scrubbing down the inside of your refrigerator once you can actually see it again. I'm not the one who let the apricot jam dribble down the back of the shelves behind 28 jars of pickled something and three half-eaten loaves of bread. Honest. I'm not.
Monday, May 19, 2008
As I watched you dance across the stage last night, more poised and beautiful than any almost-six-year-old has a right to be, I realized with painful force that you, my darling girl, are a baby no more.
Gone are the days of your first recital, when you toddled across the stage, all roly-poly goodness, spinning the opposite direction from your neighbor and forgetting where to put your arms. You were so excited that year to dance on stage. The very fact that you were going to have a real, live tutu like a “big” ballerina was enough to make you giddy. You told anyone that would listen that Mama was going to put real lipstick on you. The energy and excitement was beautiful to watch, and the sheer cuteness of you in costume made me laugh with joy. I cried through your whole performance and shouted louder than anyone when you were done. I was so proud of my baby girl.
Last year you remembered a few more steps, and delivered them in a sweetly crooked preschooler fashion. Auntie M came to watch, and she sobbed to see you in your pink tutu and crown, dancing with a fierce concentration that was broken occasionally by giggles at the friend dancing next to you. You clung to me a little as I left you in the Green Room, then ran to chat like a teenager with your friends. Perhaps you were not poised or polished, but you were having a ball. I made you a ballerina cake to celebrate your success, and it was all you could talk about for months afterwards.
And then came last night’s performance. I did not expect that much, I’m ashamed to say, having watched the disjointed practices you conducted at home, punctuated by “hmmm, I’ll just do four of these ‘cause I don’t remember how many we’re supposed to do” and “aaaahhh, I don’t know what comes next!” Sure, I watched the dress rehearsal, dutifully recording your efforts on film, but rehearsals are always a disaster. So when I settled in my seat last night, your sister on my lap, I expected another endearingly amateurish performance. But, my girl, you blew me away. The memory, as I write, brings tears to my eyes. You have achieved grace. Granted, only a glimmer of a smile showed through your focus and concentration, but unlike the other little girls, you held yourself like a ballerina, executing each step with determined precision. You spun. You sashayed. You pointed and tapped, and all the while you held your arms in a graceful curve in front of you. You are almost six, and you are a real ballerina. And though it makes my heart break just a little and tears fill my eyes to say goodbye to your babyhood, my first-born beauty, I am so incredibly, amazingly proud of the girl you have become. I love you so very, very much.
Your Loving Mama
If you try to explain to a four-year-old that it's really much easier to rip duct tape than cut it, he will not listen. Because he already knows it is "the strongest tape in the world," and obviously mere human hands will not be sufficient to sever such strength. And so he will INSIST on using the scissors. And you will be wise to let him work on this for a while on his own. You will probably be able to answer several emails or enjoy an uninterrupted cup of coffee while staring dreamily out the window before he finally wanders into the kitchen and presents you with this
and says, "Mama, can you help me? I've tried every kind of tricks and it just won't cut."
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If your four-year-old accidentally pulls down a bath towel from a high towel hook, and you have trained him well, he will try to hang it up again.
If you just say nothing and watch, you may wonder why he is pulling over the bathroom scale to stand on. Just keep watching. He will probably stack onto the scale the little box that holds the wet wipes for cleaning unmentionable places when toilet paper is insufficient. Since that stack is only 8" high however, and the hook is a good six feet in the air, he will need to add something to what you will realize is his growing step ladder. Try to restrain yourself to silent laughter when he adds a very large baby doll to the top of the pile and then stands on her face to see if NOW he can reach up to re-hang the towel. (He can't.) Be suitably impressed when he chooses to put the magazines from the floor on top of the scale and under the box of wipes, as they are large and will indeed work best at the bottom of the pile. Do not wonder too hard why there is an icepack in your shower because you won't be able to answer that question. Do feel free to fall off the potty in complete hysterics when the icepack is added to the dolly's chest and he finds in frustration that even now he cannot reach high enough. But when the whole pile slides out from under him thanks to the slippery magazine pages and the precariousness of the dolly's chest as a resting place for an ice pack, do not make it clear that you are laughing at him. Obviously, you are only laughing at the one-legged baby doll that used to be your pride and joy when you were five, and that now must suffer eyelash-less as a stepping stone for domestic chores.