Efficiency and Cutting Water Waste (part 2)

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Suburban stockade introductionThe next stage in water management is efficiency and cutting back on waste. The reason for this is the less water you use, the less water you need. This can also save you money two ways. Water is certainly cheap enough, a penny a gallon or so, but why pay for more than you actually need? And, you pay for it again with your sewage bill. Your sewage bill is based on your water usage, as the sewage company assumes that all the water that comes into the house leaves it through the plumbing. People with large swimming pools or who water their lawn religiously (!!!) often have a second water line installed so as to not pay for sewage treatment for water that goes onto the grass.

A water cube can store plenty of water to take care of your garden's needs.

A water cube can store plenty of water to take care of your garden’s needs.

The first thing to do is check for leaks in your system. Find your water meter. It will most likely be in a dark corner of your basement. Wipe off the decades of dust and you will see a meter that clicks over, counting your usage. If no water is being used, then the meter doesn’t change. The best test is to get everyone out of the house for several hours or more. Just before you leave (and after everyone has gotten that last bathroom break, hand wash, and glass of water), wait till the meter stops spinning. Write this number down. When you come back, hours later, it should be the same. If it is not, you forgot your automatic sprinkler system or your ice-maker, or, quite likely, you have a leak somewhere. A pinhole leak may take hours to register on the meter, but it does cost you some money as it never stops on its own. Tiny leaks have the bad habit of becoming big, damaging, expensive leaks so that is another reason to check the meter. The difference between the two numbers will give you an idea as to how large the leak is.

Your water meter should be co-located with the main water shut-off valve into your house. Everyone should know where this is, so if you have to, you can shut the water off, keeping it outside your house and your plumbing lines. If you need to do plumbing work, and the fixture you are working on does not have it’s own set of shut off valves, you will have to shut off the water to the entire house! Old houses often have this problem. As you upgrade and do repairs, install shut-offs to every sink, toilet, dishwasher, ice-maker line, washer, etc. Having to shut the water off to the entire house in order to do repair work is yet another reason to be prepared with some stored drinking water.

If you know you have a leak, the next step is finding it. Do any faucets drip? Does the toilet run? Is there a suspicious damp spot that keeps recurring on the basement floor? Stains in the ceiling underneath the second story bathroom?

Leaky faucets can often be fixed by a handy person with a plumbers guide from the library. If your faucets are in terminal condition, replace them with better quality ones that will hold up better. If you replace faucets, choose a single brand (see Consumer Reports for ratings) throughout your house. That way, they all work the same, and they all have the same repair parts. Ten different brands mean ten different sets of washers and other fittings.

Toilets may have very slow leaks. Test by putting a bottle of red food coloring in the toilet tank. Keep everyone away from the toilet being tested. If the water in the bowl turns red on its own, (and not with the assistance of your toddler) then there is a slow leak in the toilet tank guts. Again, many of these can be repaired or replaced by a handy person with a plumbing book.

If your toilet is in poor shape, consider replacing it with a low-flow toilet as old style toilets use a LOT of water per flush. Be very careful what you buy as some models work much better than others. A toilet that will only flush liquids will make you nuts as you flush and flush and flush in a vain attempt to get more solid items down. And, you will use up lots more clean drinking water. Toilet technology is changing rapidly so check out what is current before spending any money. When you do choose a toilet, see if you can get one installed with a four inch diameter throat as opposed to the standard three inch throat. Family members who have a larger output will spend less time plunging the toilet so that someone else can use it.

Traditionally, you cut down on water usage in old style toilets by sinking bricks or half gallon jugs of water into the tank. This seems of dubious merit as the bricks might crumble over time and mess up the works of the toilet and then you have more problems. If anything bumps around in the tank, it can mess up the guts and then they have to be replaced. Also, toilets are designed to use a certain amount of water to flush and clear the bowl. Changing the amount of water in the tank may mean the toilet doesn’t work as well.

The other standard response to cutting back on the multiple gallons of water per flush is to follow the little saying: If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down. This is a decision that needs to be agreed on by every member of the household for it to work at its best. It will be troublesome to guests, toddlers, and pets. It isn’t that sanitary. You will save a lot of water, but again, at a penny per gallon (or five cents a flush) how much are you saving? If you pay more for your water, you will of course, save more pennies, both on the water bill and the sewage bill. This option may best be reserved for water emergencies and if you really need to save every penny possible.

Leaks in the pipes will have to be repaired by a plumber. If you find leaks of this kind, do NOT put off the repair work. Tiny leaks can suddenly become catastrophic leaks that pour water into your house; far more costly in every way than the plumber will be. Leaks may show up in the dishwasher lines (a stain on the ceiling below may be your only clue) and in the ice-maker line in the fridge.

I had an ice-maker in an apartment refrigerator many years ago. It failed while I was away and flooded the apartment kitchen below. The landlord was responsible so it didn’t cost me anything. I now purchase refrigerators without the ice-maker. This is the most likely part to fail, and may cause extensive damage due to flooding. Not buying the ice-maker attachment saves money upfront and possible damage down the road. How do I make ice? Like your grandmother did, in trays that get emptied into a bin in the freezer compartment.

Once you have tracked down and repaired all the leaks you are ready to be more efficient in actual intended water usage. There are loads of ways to cut back but they are all, essentially, the same. Don’t let water run down the drain without using it.

That is, don’t run the water to get a cold glass to drink from. Use a pitcher in the fridge. Don’t run water to shave. Fill the sink and use the stored water. Don’t spend forty-five minutes in the shower. Full loads in the washer and dishwasher only. Scrape your dishes into the compost bin before you put them into the dishwasher rather than rinsing them under running water. Washing your car? Do it on the lawn or use a car wash that recycles the water. Is it absolutely necessary to wash a garment if it has been on your body for less than a day? Underwear and socks? Sure. Pants that the only physical work you did in them was sitting at a desk? Maybe not. Do you need a thirty minute shower twice a day? If you work in the bilges of a ship, then oh yes. In an air-conditioned office? Doubtful. Every single time you turn on the tap, use only what you need. Pay attention to what you are doing and be mindful of your money washing into the drain.

Next we start catching water inside the house. If you have a dehumidifier, don’t dump that water into the drain. Use it for houseplants or outside ornamentals. If you hand wash dishes, use rubber tubs to wash and rinse in. Dump the water outside on ornamentals, trees, or grass. If you are more serious (and in a worse drought), plug up the bathtub when someone showers. Bail out the water into buckets and use it outside to keep your trees alive or to flush toilets. Some people shower with a Rubber-Maid bin at their feet to catch the extra water. Is it easier to not do this? Sure. Once again, you are using your energy so as to spend less money and waste less water. Think of carrying water as part of your exercise routine if that helps. It is also good practice, because if you HAVE to cut back on water usage, having the habit of being mindful of how you use water will make it easier.

Water is considered to come in three types. Clean water is what comes out of the tap and it is drinkable, pure, free of contaminants. Our houses are set up to use this water for everything, including our toilets.

Gray water is water you don’t want to drink. You washed dishes, your body or clothes in it; it has some detergent residues, food particles, stuff you would rather not drink but your fruit trees won’t care. Black water is what comes out of your toilet. It is contaminated with urine and feces and is not reusable as is on anything.

Catching clean or gray water in Rubber-Maid bins is easy to do and doesn’t involve replumbing your house. Catching gray water from bathtubs, sinks, dishwashers, and washing machines for reuse requires much more effort. Many municipalities frown on replumbing your house to route used washing machine water onto your lawn. It doesn’t meet the building code and you have to be very careful what detergents and soaps you use as you could contaminate the ground water or poison your garden.

If you live in town in a place where it rains regularly, gray water replumbing will be complex and expensive and not hugely useful. If you live in Arizona, where every drop counts, the thousands of gallons of water your household uses every month may mean a lot to your garden. It may be the only source of irrigation water you can afford. There are books available (****see amazon ****) on the subject so study up before calling a plumber. You also have to be sure if it meets your local building code. Some places don’t care. Some places care a lot and you won’t be able to resell your house without returning it to it’s original condition.

Gray water systems do need more maintenance than just using the sewage system for all your household’s used water. They are, by definition, more complex. They dump large amounts of water all at once in one place (like when your washer finishes a cycle). Soaps, detergents, shampoos, anything that goes down the drain has to be biodegradable in a way that regular laundry soap may not be. These products may cost more and may not clean as well. Gray water systems do work and work quite well for many people. Do your homework so you can be one of them.

Once you have caught all the water inside your house for reuse, it is time to move outside. Roofs, even small ones, can collect thousands of gallons of water in a heavy rainstorm. This water can be captured and saved to water your garden between rains. There are two ways of dealing with this water to keep it from being lost to the storm drains.

Six people could easily lift this empty water cube. It can hold 250 galleons.

Six people could easily lift this empty water cube. It can hold 250 galleons.

The first way is to install rain barrels or water cubes at downspouts. The amount of water you collect will vary depending on the size of the collection unit, the amount of rain, and more subtly, the square footage of roof that is being drained. If the gutters and downspouts are draining a small roof area, you won’t collect as much rain. If you have a complex roofline with many sides, gutters, and downspouts, you can have huge variances in the amount of rain that flows through the downspouts. If you have a choice in location, put larger collection units (like 250 gallon cubes) under larger flow downspouts and smaller collection units (like 50 gallon rain barrels) under the lesser flow spouts. It doesn’t take much of a storm to fill a 50 gallon rain barrel to overflowing. Install a 250 gallon cube in the same location and you may discover that a typical rain only delivers 100 gallons to that spot.

Rain barrels and cubes only work when you use them! They are an active system and require regular management and maintenance. Therefore, a few days after each rain, you need to have a sullen teenager empty the barrel into buckets and water everything that needs to be watered. If your rains are regular in nature (and you pay close attention to weather forecasts) you can empty the barrel or cube at the midpoint of each rain/dry cycle. Or, you can water the garden with the stored rain when it needs it and hope it rains in time to refill the barrel for the next dry spell.

All rain barrels and cubes MUST have an overflow valve for when the monsoon comes. Make sure any overflows are directed away from your foundation walls. If you get huge amounts of rain at irregular intervals, use as many cubes and barrels as you can fit into your space to catch all that precious water for later use. Rain barrels and cubes can be chained together so you can catch more water.

All rain barrels and cubes should have the gutter opening screened off to keep out mosquitoes. If someone complains to you that you are running a mosquito farm, point out your screens. Then point out that mosquitoes can breed in a tea cup of water in four or five days so the real problem is standing water in sand box toys, litter, and unmaintained piles of junk. If your climate requires it, rain barrels need to be drained when the temperature goes below freezing. The screens need to be cleaned occasionally.

You can buy rain barrels ready made or convert RubberMaid trash cans using the wealth of online instructions. Make your rain barrel or cube easier to empty into a bucket by putting them up on concrete blocks. The faucet is at the very bottom of the container and if you put the barrel right on the ground, you will have about two inches of room for a hose or bucket. Don’t do this to yourself. Rain barrel water should be strained and purified before drinking (think of what the birds do on your asphalt shingles!) but, in a water emergency, it will work fine to flush toilets.

There are, apparently, some areas that get nasty about collecting rainwater that lands on your property. Check first! If it is a home-owners association (HOA), then why are you living there? Most of these places also dislike vegetable gardens, clotheslines, and compost bins; all items so necessary for fostering your resilience. Either get on the board and change the rules, or sell the house and move someplace less restrictive. If it is the local government, then you can be very discreet so the neighbors don’t rat you out, you can move, or you can run for local government office and change the laws.

The second way to easily catch rainwater from your downspouts is in the ground. This is NOT going to be drinking water. This water will keep your garden going longer between rains. Walk around your house and note where all the downspouts are. With time and a sullen teenager with a shovel, you can dig shallow, mowable swales to divert the water into your landscaping. The only active part of this method is the digging. After that, gravity does the rest. Why do this? Because rain water that drains from the downspout into the neighbor’s driveway is lost. Rainwater that drains into a swale (moving it away from your foundation) aimed at the vegetable bed or the berry bushes will have a chance to soak into the soil. Better water penetration will help your plants make it between rains more easily.

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There was a time, kids, when saying ‘motherfucker’ was edgy

That was back in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the air on college campuses were perfumed with incense, pot, patchouli and tear gas. Before George Carlin made a hit with the seven dirty words you couldn’t say on television, they were already being screamed, along with worse creations, on our college campuses.

Columbia University board game

Click on each image to embiggen them (they’re huge!)

For proof, let me show you my copy of “Up Against the Wall Motherfucker,” a Columbia University board game published in 1970 by the Columbia Daily Spectator. It’s now for sale on ebay, to finish on Sunday (8/31/14).

My version is not the original, but a reprint sold by Simulations Publications, Inc., at the Origins national wargame convention sometime in the late 1970s. It’s probably the rarest game they made, because it was sold only at that convention. Considering it consisted of a few sheets of paper, that was probably a good idea. It was intended more as a historical curiosity than a real product.

This game holds a particularly vivid memory for me. I was attending the seminar the company held every year at the convention. It was a fun gathering, because they were remarkably free with their opinions, about their boss, about the games (good and bad), and about the world in general. SPI sounded like the coolest company in the world to work for, much cooler than Apple (who wants Jobs are your bully/dictator?) or Google (spying on you? controlling your life? fuck that noise).

At the end of the seminar, they surprised the audience by announcing that they were selling copies of “Up Against the Wall” at the booth in the convention. I burned rubber, streaking down the hall, to be first in line to buy a copy.

It All Started At Columbia

2011_03_colprotHere’s the story: in 1968, Columbia was rocked by demonstrations involving the war in Vietnam, the presence of the ROTC on campus, civil rights, and other causes. The next year, a 25-year-old history major by the name of Jim Dunnigan created a simple game based on the clashes.

Dunnigan went on to found SPI, a company that published hundreds of wargames on nearly every topic possible, from ancient Greece to the science-fiction future. Then a little lizard named Dungeons and Dragons came along and swept up the fantasy crowd. The company ran into financial trouble and went out of business.

But SPI, along with other companies such as Avalon Hill, Games Design Workshop, Yaquinto, Victory Games, etc. left behind an interesting legacy. I’m not sure how many wargamers there were, but while pushing the counters around and reading the magazines, we received a hands-on seminar in military history. We learned about orders of battles, about the need for effective supply lines, about the value of training and how different cultures clashed on the battlefield. We learned about the Hittites, Vikings, Samurai, Saxons, Huns, the Old Guard, the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, the Red Army and the White Star. We could see how advances in technology played out on the battlefield, why generals hung on to the old ways of fighting. We saw how the U.S. Army would get its ass kicked time and again at the beginning of a war, but learn from their defeats, improvise new tactics, and press on to victory (when the politicians allowed them to, that is).

In short, we got a bird’s-eye view of history in a unique way.

auction 006

Administration versus Radicals

So “Up Against the Wall Motherfucker” is not just a simulation, but a story. The game is simple. On a map of the campus are several tracks, representing organized groups: trustees, black students, tenured faculty, conservative students, administration, alumni and so on. There are two players, representing the radicals and the administration. Each turn, after consulting a chart, they move counters on the tracks of their choosing in an attempt to get the various groups on their side. In the beginning, the radical student has the advantage; the chart gives them more points to play with than the administration player. But over time, the momentum will shift toward the administration (reflecting the second thoughts each group has over shutting down the university).

My favorite part of the rules is called “The Motherfucker Gambit”:

At the beginning of his turn, each player may choose to up the ante by shouting, “Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!” You should call a UAW, MF! with feeling, as it is usually the high point of the game. For the ADMINISTRATION, it represents calling in the cops or worse; for the RADICALS, it means calling a strike, or taking another couple of buildings. After calling a UAW, MF!, the player rolls the die and consults the University Conflict Outcome Matrix, but the results apply across the board, not just in a single track.

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

The game also comes with “contingency cards.” They act like Chance or Community Chest cards in Monopoly, only more timely (at least for 1970):

Mayor Lindsay Sends Urban Task Force to Campus to Cool Things. Add 9 LAWs this turn.

Rap Brown Appears at Community Protest Rally. Add one RAD this turn.

Daily News Reports Demonstrations are Peking-Directed. Add 5 LAWs this turn.

Norman Mailer Appears at Strike Fund Party. Add 5 RADs this turn.

“Up Against the Wall” was not the only political game SPI published. In their magazine, Strategy and Tactics, they published “Chicago, Chicago” pitting the police against the demonstrators at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Party convention. I never bought that one. Even then, there were so many games that a kid like me couldn’t buy all of them.

I’ll miss these games. But to put out the books I want to publish, the way I want to publish them, I have to let them go. Over the next couple of months, I’ll be opening my stash and selling them off, along with other kinds of weird pop culture.

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Home Water Storage

You cannot live without water. Your garden, everybody’s garden, will die without water. Every single living thing on earth has to have water or die. Every industrial product uses water somewhere in its processes, and sometimes quite a lot of it. Cooling steel after forging? Water. Dying the wool from the sheep you sheared? Water. Building a loom from scrap lumber? Those trees grew with water. Mixing concrete? Water. Making adobe bricks? Water. Growing wheat and then shipping it world wide? Amazing amounts of water. Fracking natural gas? Flushing toilets throughout the western world? Gargantuan, amazing, astounding amounts of formerly drinkable water.

My point is that water usage is everywhere even if what we see isn’t alive or wet. Water was involved somewhere. Now on the surface, water doesn’t appear to be a scarce resource. Oceans are full of it; indeed, about 70 percent of the earth’s surface is water.

Sadly, unless you are a saltwater fish, ocean water is useless for almost everything people need to do. Saltwater is very corrosive and so isn’t used for industrial processes. It poisons the soil so it can’t be used for irrigation. You can’t drink it. If you are going to use sea water for anything but saltwater aquariums and mining sea salt, it has to be purified at huge costs of energy and money.

Fresh water falls out of the sky as rain. Quality may vary depending on how polluted your air is (Chinese acid rain) but usually rain water is OK. Streams and lakes are usually sweet enough but you can’t drink from them without purification (bacteria, intestinal parasites, heavy metals, manure as anywhere in the world, you are downstream from something). Fresh rain water, if given a chance, soaks into the ground into aquifers. These are sort of giant spongy parts of the earth’s crust. They are everywhere and range in size from billions of gallons to trillions of gallons of clean, pure, fossil water.

Notice that phrase, fossil water. It takes millions of years for a big aquifer to fill up with rain water and only a few years for industrious people to pump it dry for irrigation and industry. Wells in India and Pakistan that were fifty feet deep fifty years ago are now hundreds of feet deep. The water was pumped out onto the fields, where most of it evaporated or ran off into the sea. Very little actually got past the thirsty plant roots and sank back down into the aquifer. This is happening in the United States too.

The Ogallala Aquifer covers much of the Midwest. Some sections get enough rain water to recharge it. Other sections are being drained dry. As well as draining aquifers, busy industrious people divert rivers to suck up every drop. Both the Colorado River and the Rio Grande don’t empty into the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico respectively anymore. Every single drop of water gets used for irrigation, industry, toilet flushing, lawns, golf courses, swimming pools, you name it. Some of it actually gets used by people drinking it too. Very few of these uses allow the water to sink back down into the soil, down, down, down, and back into the aquifer.

Weather patterns don’t seem to be as reliable anymore. There is some thought that the last ten thousand years of human life — since the development of farming, in fact — the earth’s climate was unusually stable, consistent, and calm. This may be changing and not for the better. It may mean bigger, longer, harsher droughts followed by torrential rains that are lost to the seas due to runoff into streams.

Your garden, your farm, agriculture in general really prefers a regular amount of rain on a regular basis. An inch or so a week is what all the gardening books say and that certainly seems to be true for my garden. This is not at ALL the same as four or five inches all at once, every thirty days. Alternating flood and drought is terribly hard on you, your garden, your community, your agriculture. Monsoons and dry seasons can be managed with sufficient time, effort, and knowledge but regular rain, an inch a week, is way, way easier.

I. Emergency Storage

So how do we manage water better? The first step is to store water for your family for emergencies. The Red Cross says a gallon of water per person per day will allow enough water to drink, and maybe wash your hands once or cook a little. Notice that this does not include toilets, showers, dishwashing, laundry, pets, pools, plants, livestock, or anything else. In my household of five, plus pets, houseplants, and a large garden, we use about forty gallons of water per person per day. Most people use more, a lot more in some cases.

The Red Cross says you should have a minimum of three days of water on hand, planning for a gallon per day, per person (plus extra for pets). Water takes up a lot of space and it is heavy. Using this ratio means that my household of five, plus pets, should keep six gallons a day. Times three days means eighteen gallon jugs of water. This is the rock bottom minimum, and doesn’t allow for toilets, showers, dishwashing, or very much cooking. A five day supply would be better as it gives you more margin for error.

When you are next at the supermarket, look at those shelves of bottled water in gallon jugs and see how much space three days of water for your household would take. Look around at home and see where you are going to put all that water. As with everything else, water storage is best where it is cool, dry, and in the dark. I have gallon jugs of water tucked away in my basement in two separate locations as that is how it fit best. My water is still in the original plastic jug as it came from the store. I have never had them leak or fail and some of them are now ten years old. I may have to boil the water if we need to drink it and I will certainly need to aerate it for better taste but I know that water was clean, pure, and safe when I stored it.

Stored water will taste better if it is aerated. Pour the water from container to container a few times to “air it out” (after any boiling or bleach treatments) and it won’t taste flat when you drink it or use it to make tea. Flat water is fine for hand washing or cooking so don’t bother aerating it for these uses.

You probably won’t have the space to store more than twenty or thirty gallons of water. It gets heavy fast so make sure the shelves are reinforced, keep the water on the bottom shelves, and don’t put anything breakable underneath the water jugs.

If you are having a water emergency, remember that the water in your toilet tank (NOT THE BOWL) is still potable as is the water in your hot water tank. To keep that water clean, you will have to shut off the water coming into the house to prevent potentially contaminated water mixing with your clean water. If you need to replace your hot water heater, water storage is a good reason to get the biggest unit you can fit into your space. This is also why I don’t recommend those hot water on demand instant heating units. They store no water at all, and encourage certain family members to take even longer showers than they already do.

If you know that a water emergency is coming, you can temporarily store water. The easiest way is to get a rubber disk to cover the closed drain in your clean bathtub and then fill the bathtub. The disk will slow down the water leakage through the drain; you will have potentially another fifty or sixty gallons of water available for use. You will have to keep little kids away from this as it is a potential drowning hazard. You can also get huge plastic bags that fit into the bathtub to store the water. This would keep the water cleaner and be less of a hazard. I think those might also be harder to use and drain when the emergency passes. I believe they are single use only and of course have to be stored somewhere. The rubber disk seems easier.

Have clean, empty water containers with lids on standby and when the emergency threatens, fill them up and then fill all the empty spaces in your freezer and fridge. Leave some head space in the containers for the increased size of the ice. The mass of cold water and ice will help maintain the temperature in your freezer and fridge if you loose power, and the water will be available to drink. In fact, if you regularly have freezer space open up with the gardening and hunting seasons, plan on filling the empty space with jugs of water. It will keep everything colder in the event of a power outage and make your freezer more efficient.

While you are filling the freezer jugs, don’t forget to hunt up all your camping water storage jugs and fill them up with ice and water too. This is why I keep a five gallon Coleman Water Jug in my basement. In the event of an emergency, it gets filled with ice and water and then sits on the table waiting to be used.

If you have a swimming pool, you have many thousands of gallons of water. You may not want to drink this water (depending on its purity and algae load) without straining, standing, aerating, and boiling but it will work perfectly well as is to flush toilets and wash dishes.

During the water emergency, cut back on water usage as much as possible! Stop doing laundry, stop watering plants, use paper plates and paper napkins and disposable flatware, hand washing only, let the gentlemen fertilize the compost bin and only flush the toilet when feces are present. By the way, toilets can be flushed with the stored water in the bathtub. Dip out a bucket full, and pour it into the toilet bowl and it will flush. Use up the table top storage water first (your camping water jugs) followed by your bathtub, emergency storage water and water in the hot water heater. As you use up the purchased jugs, try to keep getting more water. You may have to save your empty jugs for reuse, if the only source of replacement water is the National Guard water truck. They will not supply you with empty containers, so don’t ask.

It is unbelievable inconvenient to not have water, fresh and safe, available at the tap on demand. We actually got to experience this first hand many years ago in York, S.C. There was a problem in the reservoir and suddenly, with no notice, there no water was available at all. After a day or so of panic — every store for miles was immediately stripped clean of water in every single size container — the city got the reservoir system going again. The water was brown as weak tea and smelled dreadful. You could at least use the flush toilets although the water looked so bad, it didn’t necessarily look as though you had flushed the toilet.

Because this affected only a relatively small area, local stores were able to get tons of water shipped in for sale. Over a two week period the water gradually shifted in color and odor until, at about the four day mark, you could wash laundry without it being permanently stained and wash dishes without them smelling bad afterwards. The city said the water was safe to drink as it was heavily chlorinated although no one did so. By about the one week mark, you could easily take a shower again and by the two week mark, everything was completely back to normal. It was definitely a learning experience — Thank God we could still use our toilets! — and since then, I have always had a dozen or so gallon jugs of water on hand.

You never tell when you might need it, either. Within the last year, there was a massive chemical spill in West Virginia into the stream-fed reservoirs; no one could use their water for weeks. the coal companies claimed the water was perfectly safe even when it was brown, thick, and reeked.

If you are on a well, you may think this doesn’t apply to you. It does! What are you going to do when your electric pump stops working because of a power outage or a mechanical failure? You should have some kind of manual back up to get your water. If your well is too deep for a manual pump, then you need a generator backup to the pump and emergency water stores just like a household using city water.

So, find a place to store several days worth of gallon jugs of water, keep water frozen in your freezer, get rubber disks for all your bathtubs, keep insulated camping jugs for water on hand in your basement and pay attention to news and weather reports. If you don’t need them? That’s great! If you do need them, you will be so grateful you were prepared.

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Review: India Black and the Widow of Windsor

India Black and the Widow of Windsor. By Carol K. Carr.

There are plenty of Queen Victoria mystery novels that focus too much on getting the details right. Judging by the second book in the India Black mystery series, Carol K. Carr knows when to stick to the historical line and when to veer off into reader-pleasing areas.

queen victoria mystery India BlackIndia Black is young, beautiful and the madam of an exclusive brothel in the better part of Victorian London. She is also a secret agent, recruited by no less than the prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, through French, his agent (and her potential love interest).

It’s an absurd, ahistorical set-up, but it allows Black and French to play their parts in foiling plots against the British Empire, with Disraeli acting as Charlie for his two Angels.

This time, Queen Victoria is maneuvered through a séance with her late husband to visit Balmoral Castle in Scotland for the Christmas holidays. A Scottish independence group, led by its mysterious leader (natch), plans to assassinate her there. Disraeli catches wind of this, and sends French to suss out the aristocrats trailing in the queen’s wake, while Black impersonates a maid to check out the servants.

It’s not a job that Black looks forward to, but she’s become bored with her business and relishes the chance for a little excitement. Nor is she concerned so much about protecting the queen. She lists “Vicky’s” unhealthy obsession with her dead husband, the presence of her Indian retainers, and her constant companion John Brown. There’s also her list of prohibited activities, which includes talking loudly in her presence, coal fires or bringing bishops to lunch. “Just like my potty old aunt Dorothy,” Black muses. “Completely harmless.”

That’s the first sign that Carr is not above pulling out the rug instead of tugging her forelock. Once the action shifts to Balmoral, “Widow of Windsor” shifts closer to realism. The castle is ill-heated by the queen’s orders. The guests are boring and bored. The queen is dull when she’s not stuffing her face at the table. Then there’s Bertie, the future king, who’s chasing after every woman in skirts when he’s not dodging his wife. After awhile, you’re hoping for an assassination attempt. At least it would liven the place up.

Meanwhile, Black spends her time as a maid chivvying an ancient marchioness with a disastrous taste for snuff, exploring the castle, and following the servants. While she’s sneaking about and attempting to avoid the wandering hands of the Prince of Wales, French gets drunk and ingratiates himself with the young bloods.

queen victoria mystery novelist Carol K. Carr

Carol K. Carr

Told in Black’s acerbic, sometimes witty voice, “India Black and the Widow of Windsor” is a cozy mystery that expertly dodges the implications of having a sex worker as its heroine. At the same time, it gets the important bits right historically. Victoria’s court was shallow and boring. The assassination attempts, instead of being brilliantly planned by supervillains, are low-key and similar to the eight attempts Victoria encountered. Even the agencies tasked with protecting her engaged in keeping secrets of their own and bureaucratic turf wars that feel sadly all too real.

Writing a realistic novel that also encourages the reader to turn the pages is a difficult task. Many authors fail because they indulge themselves so much in getting the details right that they forget to tell an engaging story. It’s a lesson Carr did not forget. “Widow of Windsor” is an amusing journey and India Black is an engaging companion.

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Swimming Against the Tide

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without

Cultural norms tells us to go into debt shopping.

It may be better for the economy for everyone to shop till they drop, but that is not better for the individual household.

We are not mainstream at Fortress Peschel. We do odd things. I stay home to run the domestic economy (a fancy way of saying housewife). Our television is not hooked up to the outside world. I do things manually (knives vs. food processors, clotheslines vs. dryers) that take time and effort. I mend clothes. I patch sheets. When Bill went to the newspaper job as a copy editor, he packed homemade lunches and brought leftovers home. He brought beverages from home instead of buying from coffee or soda machines. We planed our car trips to minimize gasoline usage. We have two vehicles for three licensed drivers. I don’t shop for recreation. We take staycations where we rest and relax and work on home-improvement projects. The only traveling we do is to visit the grandparents in Delaware. We go to movies once a year or less. We rarely eat out.

Does this make us boring, dull people? Maybe. It certainly means that we don’t consume, consume, consume goods and services as economists say we should. It may be better for the economy for everyone to shop till they drop, but that is not better for the individual household. I have heard that the best possible person for the gross domestic product (i.e., spend the maximum amount of money) is a cancer patient going through a divorce. I don’t believe that creates happy people even though lots of money changes hands.

We don’t owe any money to anyone. Our mortgage is paid off and we own our cars. The one, lone credit card is paid every month and I make every effort to not use it. If I can’t pay cash, why am I buying the item? Hardcore thriftiness is letting us reach our goal of financial independence. We work hard, every day, and still have time to relax and have a life.

What I am getting at is that our culture — the water we swim in — tells us to do things that are not good for us.

What I am getting at is that our culture — the water we swim in — tells us to do things that are not good for us.

What I am getting at is that our culture — the water we swim in — tells us to do things that are not good for us. Why do you need the biggest mortgage you can qualify for on the biggest house you can find? I know the argument that the mortgage as a percentage of your salary will go down as you get those pay raises. Maybe. And maybe you won’t get those regular pay raises, and maybe that money is always needed elsewhere and you never, ever manage to pay off the mortgage.

You have to live somewhere, even if it is under a bridge. Your home is not an investment. It is where you live. If you want to get closer to financial security and independence, minimize the cost of your dwelling place. Buying a smaller house with a smaller mortgage that you can pay off early leads to your monthly expenditures being smaller. You will still have your utilities, groceries, insurance, and taxes but the mortgage is gone. Renters pay forever. Serial movers and refinancers pay forever. How can you retire — or quit that job you hate — with half your previous income if you still have the huge mortgage? You will have to sell the house and maybe, maybe, clear enough money to pay cash for a smaller house. Or you get a new, smaller mortgage and pay until you die or you rent an apartment and pay until you die.

Why do you need student loans to pay for your education? I find the idea of borrowing tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund a college degree pretty scary. Will you earn enough money to pay back $200,000 in loans (plus interest)? Maybe if you are a cardiologist it will. If you are going to be a social worker, a teacher, or a photographer? No. You will be in debt until you die. Like back taxes, student loan debt cannot be discharged in your eventual bankruptcy either. You owe them until you pay them off or you die.

If you are old enough to go to college, you should be old enough to do basic math and estimate future earnings as compared to your college debt load. If they don’t match, it is time to rethink your future. As a parent, I do not believe you are doing your children any favors by saying “don’t worry. Do what you love and the money will follow”. What drivel. Life and the universe do not care if you adore philosophy. Money will not appear. You will be applying your philosophy behind the counter at Starbucks and living at home with Mom until you pay off the loan or die.

You are also not doing your college children any favors by picking up the tab for their expensive college education. Are they going to work harder, knowing that you made it all possible by sacrificing your financial independence and retirement? Maybe. Maybe your student won’t party hearty through four or five years to get that BA. And when they get the good job, you can move in with them as you are now bankrupt. Maybe. This inability to connect current desire with future costs leads to financial problems. Part of growing up is learning that things have to be paid for, one way or another. Don’t send your children out into the world not knowing this.


It is heresy to say that not everyone is college material. But it is true. If you want or need further education, start with the local community college. The cost is infinitely less, you can live at home, and possibly hold down a part-time job to cover some of the costs. It accustoms you to a college-level education. In high school, students get used to lots of handholding, encouragement, rah rah rah, and follow-up to be sure they show up and do their work. The college doesn’t care. Their only concern is that the check clears. Students are supposed to be adults who show up on time, do the work, and hand it in when it is due.

As a parent, look at your student. Is he or she really going to work hard, independently, without constant supervision and management?

As a parent, look at your student. Is he or she really going to work hard, independently, without constant supervision and management?

As a parent, look at your student. Is he or she really going to work hard, independently, without constant supervision and management? If they can’t do it now, for free, why will it be better five hundred miles away with a truckload of borrowed money?

If you are contemplating college yourself, you need to be very honest. Are you studying hard now, taking advantage of all the free education being offered to you by people who want you to succeed? Are you stretching yourself with the fullest course load the high school will let you take? If you are not, get your head out of your ass and get to work. College will not be better, easier or more rewarding than high school if you are lazy and shiftless. If you don’t have a future career in mind (cardiology), then take the widest array of classes you can. Taste everything to see what you like. Work hard, ask questions, and get the best education you can while it is free. The highest GPAs lead to potential scholarship offers which can cut your costs drastically.

Rejoin the Real World

Boring, dreary Mundania. Who wouldn't want to avoid it?

Boring, dreary Mundania. Who wouldn’t want to avoid it?

Another message our culture sends us is that we need constant stimulation. Do you really need earbuds in place all the time lest you accidentally hear the people around you? Why are you more involved with your phone and ignoring the people sitting besides you? You know, the ones you claim to care about deeply. Isolation in a technology bubble certainly means you get what you want and when you want it. You don’t have to interact with pesky, live family members who might misunderstand you or want you to do something you don’t want to. Boring, dreary Mundania. Who wouldn’t want to avoid it? But your social skills, your people skills, your real-world abilities to do and achieve do not improve when they go unused. They atrophy and it becomes ever harder to cope with messy, irritating humans and their petty wants and needs. If you are genuinely concerned about the difficult future bearing down on us, then you should break the electronic apron strings and rejoin the real world.

We do this by not playing. Our television is not connected to the outside world. It can only play games and DVDs. It is an effort to use it so it doesn’t get used that much. The TV certainly doesn’t get left on to play to an empty room.

I don’t do social media. I have no Facebook page, I don’t tweet, I spend very little time on-line. I don’t even text. Bill has a Facebook account he ignores and a Twitter account he rarely uses. He does maintain the website PlanetPeschel.com as it acts as a platform to promote his writing and mine.

Our household does have a cell phone. My sister insisted. I do use it when traveling to say I am on the way home. Otherwise, it stays off and tucked away. I do not like to be on an electronic dog leash and so I am not. Somehow, the world gets by without me being one hundred percent available one hundred percent of the time. Older son has a smartphone that he bought and paid for himself. No one else in the household does. We don’t live under the threat of constant kidnapping so why do I need to keep constant tabs on everyone? Even more than cell phones, smartphones distract the user away from the people in front of him and into the virtual world. If you are serious about connecting with the people you claim to care about, you need to be there with them in spirit as well as in body. Not talking to someone else who isn’t there but is clearly more interesting.

I hear people claim all the time they don’t have time to cook from scratch (admittedly this can be time consuming), garden, sew, wood-work, exercise, be thrifty, get organized or volunteer. Stop spending several hours a day with your TV or your social media or aimless surfing or hunting Orcs online and time will magically appear.

Everyone gets 24 hours a day. You never get less, but you never get more either. Subtract eight hours for sleep (don’t kid yourself; you need every minute), another hour or two for eating and hygiene, eight to ten hours for job and commute and you have only five or six hours left per day. Are you going to watch TV or study hard to learn more marketable skills? Are you going to exercise, work out, learn self-defense, go to the shooting range and improve your abilities or hunt Orcs online? Guess which option will make you stronger and more resilient. Will playing games on Facebook teach you how to darn socks or grow food? Subtract out what you have to do and then decide how valuable the remaining time is to you. Use it to learn and grow or fritter it away aimlessly. You choose.

Does avoiding electronic time sucks make us boring and dull? Maybe. But I am pretty well read and reasonably up on current events. I can walk into a kitchen, cold, and turn out a complete meal for five in an hour or so. I can repair almost any piece of clothing and make it last longer. I exercise and improve my fitness and health. I write Fortress Peschel. I walk my dog and learn all about my neighborhood and even meet my neighbors. I volunteer with the Derry Township EcoAction Committee and plant trees and arrange recycling workshops.

Examine your life. Is it what you want it to be?

Examine your life. Is it what you want it to be?

The culture around us, the water we swim in, values certain things. Are those things what you value? If you don’t want to emulate the Kardashians, then why are you watching them? If you say you want a comfortable retirement, then why are you deep in debt? Examine your life. Is it what you want it to be? If you say you want closer relationships with your family, then you need to be physically and emotionally present. Pay attention to them and not the virtual world. If you want to grow your own vegetables, then you need to start a garden and actually get your hands dirty. If your health concerns you, then start eating a better diet and exercising every day. If you want more knowledge or skills, then start learning and working. You can choose to swim against the tide and improve your life. But you have to be mindful, aware, and work to do it.

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Review: New Orleans Requiem by D.J. Donaldson

The past really is a foreign country in this republication of a New Orleans mystery novel.

New Orleans Requiem. D.J. Donaldson. Astor + Blue Editions. Ebook and trade paperback.

Night of the Living Novels

They’re coming by the tens of thousands. The forgotten. The abandoned. From the highly regarded to the barely remembered. And they can’t be stopped.

They’re the Remainders.

New Orleans mystery novel "New Orleans Requiem" by D.J. DonaldsonThey’re novels that had been published, faded, dropped and given new life on your ebook reader. Many of them were revived by their authors who got the rights back after they fell out of print. Publishing houses, seeing how much money writers were making off their spent books, are combing their backlists and reviving once-profitable series in hopes of striking gold again. New companies such as mystery and thriller publisher Brash Books are bringing back the best examples from the genre.

Call it the Great Hiccup. Used to be, a book had one chance to find its audience before fading to used-bookstore limbo. There it would sit, embalming the culture that created it, to be picked up by readers drawn to a memorable cover from their reading youth, or flipped through like a researcher examining an historical artifact. Now, they’re being converted to 1s and 0s and resurrected, revived and electrified and returning from their pulpy graves to compete with new works.

Revival in New Orleans

In the 1990s, D.J. Donaldson published six books about New Orleans Medical Examiner Andy Broussard and psychologist Kit Franklyn. The second book, “New Orleans Requiem,” was given a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. It contained the genre’s popular tropes at the time — serial killers and forensic scientists — mixed with scenes of pre-Katrina New Orleans recognizable to any tourist.

Because it was published in 1994, “Requiem” naturally reflects its times. Encountering the changes between then and now can be disorienting. New Orleans is still whole. Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t happened. Smartphones, the Internet, and Google are nonexistent, forcing everyone to track down information by hand. (Kit’s quest for a set of Scrabble tiles requires her to visit something called a “toy store.” Amazingly convenient. Whatever happened to them?)

“Requiem” opens with a body found in an artist’s crate in Jackson Square. The victim was stabbed, one eyelid was removed, and four Scrabble tiles left on his chest along with a section from the local newspaper on his chest. Not only that, a hair was attached with tape to the tiles. Clearly the killer doesn’t believe in half-measures when it comes to leaving messages.

The rest of the book consists of Franklyn following the chain of clues left behind by the killer, Broussard examining the bodies, and the police concluding that the killer could be an attendee at a convention of forensic scientists in downtown New Orleans. The story picks up speed as they shuffle through the suspects, culminating with a tense cat-and-mouse chase through downtown. The revelation of who, how and why can’t bear too much thinking, however. Following the trail of clues the killer left behind required Poirot-level thinking and leaps of logic as wide as Lake Pontchartrain.

Intertwined with the killings are the stories of Broussard and Franklyn. While they are attracted to each other, Broussard is haunted by his past and Franklyn is involved in a relationship. Broussard also loves Louisiana cooking, which gives us a reason to visit a restaurant for po’ boys and crayfish. That’s pretty much sums them up. “Requiem” pauses several times for them to reflect on their feelings and memories, before picking it up again with the arrival of another body.

“New Orleans Requiem” is a book hamstrung by its time and tropes. Serial killers aren’t nearly as interesting to readers as they were in the days of “Silence of the Lambs.” The culture is flooded with books and TV shows revolving around autopsies and microscopes, and the science behind them has progressed to DNA profiling and beyond. Donaldson’s New Orleans is little more than window dressing. Broussard and Franklyn are realistically drawn characters. They’re nice people. They could be someone you see every day at work. But is nice good enough to carry a book?

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Robin Williams’ Suicide Chat with Marc Maron

Like the rest of the world, I am sad over Robin Williams’ suicide. Like him, I’ve been caught in a depressive spiral, and I think I understand the wall that is built between you and the world. You think that … no, scratch that. You don’t really think. There’s only that loop playing in your head, giving you what you think of as the answer in the back of the book.

Robin Williams' suicide

Robin Williams and Marc Maron, 2010

Because Robin Williams understood. He knew, that suicide doesn’t just hurt you. It hurts your family. It brings down an enormous load of pain on people that you love. For the rest of their lives, it remains the dominant fact they’ll know about you. Every time they hear your voice. Every time they see a picture of you. The fact that you were in so much pain that you would take on that burden of cutting your wrists, of hanging the belt from the door and slowly choking the life out of yourself.

I can’t imagine Williams consciously inflicting so much pain on his worst enemy. I certainly can’t believe that he would do that to his family. That he did should demonstrate how well the mind can wall off counter-thoughts.

That becomes even more apparent after listening to Marc Maron’s 2010 interview with Williams for his “WTF” podcast. In the hour-long interview, Williams opens up about his alcoholism, his comedy, and his life. It’s a chat with a thoughtful, humorous, empathetic man, and these two minutes near the end in which he talks about suicide should show you just how horrible he must have felt in his final hours.

UPDATE: Thanks to my friend Meg, who posted Zelda Williams’ thanks to the people sending messages of condolence to the family. Her especially graceful observations about the trolls and haters who see nothing wrong with hurting the family when they’ve been slammed shows grace, and love, and good humor. Clearly, her father still lives in her.

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Soil-Building (Part 3)

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Read Part One and Part Two of Soil Building.

Traditionally, fields were allowed to lie fallow every few years to let the soil recover from being plowed and all the nutrients stripped out. Whatever wanted to grow up would be left alone; the field, as it recovered might have been used for pasture. The cows or sheep would fertilize the soil with their manure. After a few years, the pasture would be plowed under again and sown with a grain crop.

When you do this — let a bed lie fallow for a year or two — you do not have to let Nature decide what plants will grow. You can buy cover crop seed mixtures. Catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds have a wide range of choices depending on your geographic area and soil needs. A dedicated cover crop will have a mix of plants that will fix nitrogen, and have deep roots to break up hard packed soil. Deep rooted plants can also bring up nutrients from deep in the earth. Let the plants grow, chop them up before the first frost, turn them into the soil and they will die, rot in place, and return all their fertility back to the bed for next year’s tomatoes. Real farmers do this to improve their soil and so can you.

Plants need many, many kinds of nutrients to grow and produce vegetables. If one element is lacking, then no matter how rich your soil is otherwise, that one missing element will determine how well your crop grows. You can have your soil tested to see what you have and what you are missing.

The first, basic test you can do yourself with a glass jar and some water. Fill the jar about one quarter full with soil. Fill the jar almost all the way with water. Shake vigorously until soil and water are fully mixed. Let the jar sit, undisturbed, for a few days to settle out. The contents should settle out in layers, with heavier rocks and sand in the bottom, topped with clay particles, then silt, and finally, any organic matter at the top. If you see a lot of sand, you have sandy soil. If you see a lot of clay, well, you know. You hope to see a thick layer of organic humus on the top. There probably won’t be much at all. Do this test in several locations in your yard, as it is very unlikely the soil will be the same everywhere. You want to dig down an inch or two to get your sample as this is where the plant roots will grow.

To get more in-depth information, you will need to purchase a soil-testing kit. Every garden center has them. Follow the directions carefully and you will have a better idea of what you are missing, what you have, and how acidic the soil is. You can also get your soil tested by a laboratory. The local county agricultural extension agent will be able to tell you who to contact in your area. Some states do this for free, other states charge a fee depending on how much you want to know.

The information you get will tell you if you are low on any of the big three elements: potassium, phosphorus, or nitrogen. You will then get a long discussion of micro-elements and suggested changes and amendments. Missing micronutrients, like the big three, can be added to your soil by spreading various amendments. The lab report will tell you which ones to buy at the garden center. We were low on calcium which is easy to supply. Save all your egg shells, crush them fine, and sprinkle them everywhere. They disappear fast and the worms incorporate them into the soil.

The testing will also tell you the pH level of your soil; that is, how acidic or alkaline it is. The pH level determines what plants will grow joyfully, which will die a lingering resentful death, and which will struggle along but not quite die. As an example, blueberries insist on a very acid soil. It is really hard to permanently adjust the pH of soil so your blueberries may have to be grown in containers if your soil is more alkaline. Grass likes a more alkaline soil; spreading lime is a way of increasing the alkalinity of your soil to make the grass happier. Acid liking plants won’t appreciate the lime from your lawn leaching over into their beds every time it rains.

You can add all the soil amendments you want and you can fertilize all you want, but your soil will not come to life without decaying organic material. Compost, decayed leaves, grass clippings and any other rotting organic materials you can scrape up are what feed the microscopic zoo. You will keep coming back to having to add more organic matter to your soil.

A heavy clay drains poorly and can get waterlogged, drowning the plant roots. That is, if it accepts rainwater in the first place. Clay can harden and bake into a bricklike consistency. Water rolls off of it without soaking in. Sand drains and drains and holds no moisture at all. Roots get plenty of air but they die from dryness. The cure for both conditions is compost, leaves, mulches, and any other organic material you can layer onto the soil. Of the two, I like clay better. It is harder to amend at first but it retains moisture better and has more available minerals. Sandy soils burn through compost at a much higher rate than clay. The drainage is better but plants dry out quicker because of that.

This is where knowing what your soil is like will help you garden better. If you know your soil is sandy, then you want plants that like it drier. A heavier clay soil shouldn’t be planted with things that demand perfect drainage. Clay does tend to have more minerals available naturally in it and it will hold moisture better when heavily amended with humus. If you don’t add loads of leaves and compost to clay, it turns into concrete and repels water like a brick would. Sand will always drain beautifully. In fact, it drains so well that your plants will be gasping for water and starved for nutrients as everything you want to help them grow will leach down, down, down into the subsoil where much of the root systems won’t reach. Compost, compost, and more compost will fix sand AND clay problems.

The beauty of a raised bed is that you can completely change the soil from what is in the surrounding areas. Think of raised beds as giant pots that are open at the bottom. If you want to grow something like blueberries and you do not have very acid soil, a raised bed with custom mixed soil is the only way to succeed. I tried to grow blueberries and despite regular applications of pine straw, coffee grounds, and Holly-tone (a fertilizer for acid loving plants like azaleas, hollies, and blueberries) I could not change the overall pH of the soil. The blueberries are gone, replaced with hazelnut bushes.

Don’t use inorganic mulches like gravel or shredded rubber. They do nothing to improve your soil so what is the point of having them? Any mulch that was once alive will rot down and improve your soil. I think the difference between mulches and compost is mulches tend to be woodier and heavier. Think chunks of twigs and wood chips as opposed to something that is as fine as potting soil. Leaves are free and readily available every fall. Grass clippings are free, readily available but should be dried out or composted prior to use. Branches, whole shrubs, old Christmas trees can all be broken up, by hand or with a chipper and spread out as mulch. It will take longer to rot down than leaves but it will do so, eventually. Pine needles rot down. Newspaper rots down. Big bags of shredded documents will rot down but are better mixed into your compost bin so they don’t blow all around. Wood ashes can be composted and so can sawdust. Nutshells, cocoa pods, Halloween hay bales, straw, seaweed, spent mushroom compost, anything that was once alive. If a landscaper or the power company is working in your area trimming trees, stop and ask for the chopped up leaves and branches. Chances are they will be happy to drop it off in your driveway so they don’t have to deal with the stuff themselves.

Look around at the possibilities for soil building. The sooner you begin adding rotting plant matter to your garden soil, the better it will become. Make soil building a regular part of your garden routine and your improved soil will reward you with healthier plants, both in the growing and in the eating. Don’t ever stop adding leaves and compost. You can never have too much humus in your soil. The better your soil, the less dependent you will be on expensive artificial fertilizers to feed yourself and your family. You don’t want to use them anyway as they are very damaging to the soil communities and eventually, they kill many of your soil critters. Feed your soil and it will feed you.

Read About Soil Building

Let it Rot!: The Gardener’s Guide to Composting; Stu Campbell; Storey Communications, Inc.; 1975

Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost; Mike McGrath; Sterling Publishing, 2006

Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth; Judith D. Schwartz; Chelsea Green Publishing; 2013

Feed the Soil: Rodale’s Complete Guide to Soil Improvement; the Editors at Rodale Press; Rodale Press, 1992

Gardener’s Guide to Better Soil; Gene Logsdon; Rodale Press, 1975

The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet; Kristin Ohlson; Rodale Press, 2014

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Soil-Building (Part 2)

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Part One of Soil-Building Can Be Read Here

Many of my plant die-offs have been related to not improving the soil prior to planting my expensive baby shrubs and perennials. The hedgerow is certainly a case in point. This is the area along the north side of the property. It had a straggly forsythia hedge hiding a steep downslope. We installed the 4-foot chain-link fence almost as soon as we moved in to contain our toddlers and dog. A few years later, Bill and Older Son dug out the forsythia bushes. I wanted to have a mixed-shrub border of assorted natives to block the north wind, screen the yard, and provide plenty of habitat for native songbirds.

To slow down water run-off, I lined the bottom of the chain-link fence with composite decking. The decking is rot- and insect-proof, about six inches tall and should last forever. I threw a few leaves on in the fall and planted my expensive native shrubs in the spring. Six years or so later, almost everything I originally planted has died. The soil was too heavy, too much like a brick, would not accept rainwater and had very little organic matter in it. It was dirt, actually, and not soil. I have been adding piles of leaves for the last few years but this was not soon enough to save the shrubs. The survivors are doing better now as the soil is finally improving, but it has been a struggle.

I should have waited two or three more years after pulling out the forsythias, using each year to lay down thick layers of compost, mulch, and scavenged leaves. I could have let whatever vegetation grow that wanted to grow, and cut it down every fall to rot in place. Several years of this treatment would have vastly improved the soil. My shrubs would have had a much better chance at life and I would have learned how badly I needed a serious wind barrier along the fence. Knowing this, I would have changed the plan and grown a wall of yews (taxus) or cedars (thuja) right along the fence to protect my more delicate native bushes.

soil building in a raised garden bed

Once raised beds are built and in place, it is really hard to double-dig them and spade in loads of leaves and compost.

The raised vegetable beds have had some similar issues. Once raised beds are built and in place, it is really hard to double-dig them and spade in loads of leaves and compost. I would lay on compost whenever we had made some or I could get Bill to go to the township to get some, but again, it was never enough to compensate for what the lettuces and tomatoes took from the soil.

Now, soil building has become a routine part of my annual gardening schedule. Fall comes, I collect every leaf possible. Younger son lays them down thickly on every bed. In the spring, any remaining, broken down leaves are turned under into each bed. More compost (homemade or from the township) is spread over the bed. Only then, do we plant our seeds and seedlings. Younger son and I have started experimenting with green manure and letting beds lay fallow for a season or two.

We have only seriously concentrated on soil building for the last two or three years. My soil is noticeably better, darker, more crumbly and able to hold rain water. My vegetable plants seem to be doing better. In addition to adding all this organic material to my soil, I sometimes use bone meal (for phosphorus) and greensand (for potassium and trace minerals) and crushed eggshells (for calcium). I make iron water (by allowing nails to rust in a bucket of water) and apply it very, very sparingly. We don’t use any other fertilizers. If I had chickens or rabbits, I would compost their manure and add that to the soil as well. Maybe in the future.

Don’t let fertility go to waste

As we move deeper into a more uncertain future, compost and leaves may be the only fertilizer you can get at a price you can afford. Wars were fought over the great deposits of guano in caves (bat poo) and on small ocean islands (seagull poo) waiting to be mined and spread on farmer’s fields. Those deposits have, for the most part, long since been mined out and used up. Most inorganic fertilizers these days are made from natural gas. Don’t expect them to get cheaper. It is cheap enough, now, to buy a bottle of fish emulsion for your house-plants but very few of us can afford to use that on a large vegetable garden.

So stop throwing away your fertility! Every leaf that falls on your property should stay on it as should every blade of grass and every carrot top and potato peeling. When your wasteful, profligate neighbors throw away their fertility, collect it at once. If they ask what you are doing, explain that you garden intensively and need the leaves to feed your soil and mulch your beds. This may inspire them to start gardening themselves which is a good thing, even if it means fewer leaves for you. The more self-sufficient your neighbors are, the more resilient your community becomes.

Leaves are so easy to handle. They are usually dry and rot very nicely in compost bins or spread out as mulch. We pile leaves on every raised bed in the fall to a height of twelve inches or so. By the time it is warm enough to plant, most of the leaves have broken down through weather, time, and insect activity. It is easy to spade under the remaining few inches in the spring. My leaves are pretty mixed up and I rarely have a problem with them matting and clumping. If it looks like they are matting down, I (or Younger Son) fluff them with a rake.

The asparagus and rhubarb beds get their foot of leaves as well, but because these plants are perennials, we don’t spade in the leaves. Any unrotted leaves in the spring are pulled away from the new growth and left in place as a weed barrier. Any compost I can get is spread on the beds prior to layering on the leaves in the fall.

The flower beds, hedgerows (where the berry bushes are), and the thicket get as many leaves as we can salvage after the raised vegetable beds are done. These plants don’t require as much compost as the vegetables do and, unlike the vegetables, they tend to feed themselves in the fall with their own leaf drop. These leaves are never spaded in. They are left to rot in place and act as a weed barrier until the next load in the fall. Normally by late August, all the leaves have vanished into the soil under the bushes and these areas are ready for their next load.

Sometimes my leaves, especially the giant brown bagfuls I collect in Lancaster County are full of pine needles, acorns, sweet gum balls, twigs, and other bits. All of this rots down just fine, if a little slower. If I am not desperate for leaves to cover the vegetable beds, I use the twiggier stuff on the hedgerows and under the berry bushes. Branches and twigs can be turned into mulch by breaking them up into smaller pieces. You can do this with a chipper if you have one, or you can do it by hand just by breaking them all in half repeatedly. This is another reason to have a wilderness area in your yard as it gives you a place to toss branches and old Christmas trees where they can rot down slowly and out of the way.

Let it rot

Grass clippings are more problematic. The best way we found to handle clippings is to use a mulching lawn-mower and let the clippings fall and rot in place. Great piles of grass clippings don’t rot into compost very well unless they are turned over and over completely every few days. They get nasty, ferment, and pack down in a slimy mass with little or no air to keep the composting action going. A sullen teenager with a pitchfork is the best way to handle piles of grass clippings, lifting, turning, and fluffing. We experimented with using a pick-up truck load of clippings from Denny in the spring as mulch. The clippings matted, got slimy, and putrefied. It may have been better to lay on the clippings a few inches deep and spade them in. We will have to see how that works.

If you can collect enough leaves in the fall, and can plan ahead, and can store the leaves in bags, you can layer spring grass clippings with stored leaves with each layer a few inches thick in your compost bins. This will rot down beautifully into compost. We have never planned ahead this well.

When laying out your garden, decide where you want to put vegetable beds, permanent beds for perennials like asparagus and rhubarb, flower borders, hedgerows for berries or fruit trees, hedges, and your wilderness areas. As soon as you know what a stretch of grass will become, put the mower to its lowest setting and mow the area down to grass nubbins. Soak that area with water. Layer on ten to fifteen sheets of old newspapers, completely covering the new bed. Punch holes in the newspaper layer with a spading fork. Water again. Cover the newspaper layer with a foot or more of leaves and water them well. A year later, turn over the layers and be amazed. This is what soil building does. The newspaper layer is to help kill the grass and any perennial weeds.

If you want raised beds, i.e., planting areas encased in a four sided box of composite decking, open to the sky and the soil below, follow almost exactly the above procedure. Mow your grass down to a crew cut, build the raised bed box, water well, lay down newspaper, water and perforate the paper, and lay on the leaves. If you have any soil handy from recycled house plants or other building projects, spread that in too. Wait a year, spade it all over, and be amazed by the change in what you see.

If your soil is really dreadful, and you have a few sturdy teenagers to do the work, you can double-dig your vegetable garden. Don’t do this work for anything else as only annual crops of vegetables really benefit from this exhausting, laborious job. You should only have to do this once per bed. Lay on the newspaper and leaves as listed above. Wait a year while time and soil critters work. Mark off the bed area. Dig out a trench about a foot deep and two feet wide and remove all that soil, leaves, and newspaper shreds to waiting wheelbarrows. With a spading fork, loosen and turn the soil in the trench. Work in more leaves, grass clippings, compost, mulch, whatever organic material you have on hand. Move over to the next strip of bed alongside the trench. Dig out about a foot of soil, leaves, etc, and layer them into the trench you just emptied. Spade over the bottom of the new trench. Repeat this process until you reach the end of the bed. You will end up with an empty trench that has been spaded and turned and loosened. Take the waiting wheelbarrows of soil from the beginning of the project and lay them into the empty trench. If you can, cover the newly double dug bed with another foot of leaves and compost. Wait another year. The soil will be beautiful, healthy, loose and friable and full of life. It will be ready to grow food for you.

In addition to spreading leaves in the fall, and compost whenever you can get it, you can also improve your soil with cover crops. These are the plants you grow in a bed with the express purpose of chopping them up in place and spading them under to die and rot. We’ll cover the use of cover crops next week.

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Soil Building (Part 1)

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Sometimes, we do things not in the best order. Better gardening books will tell you that soil building is important. But they don’t go into intensive detail about how, and why, and the overriding importance of starting soil improvements the day you move into your new home.

Before you open up your catalogs, draw the first garden layout on graph paper, figure out your solar orientation, and map out the high, dry spots, the low, soggy spots, and the prevailing winds, you should be working on your soil.

The backyard: 2001 (above); 2014 (below.

Building the soil in your yard can turn it from barren to lush.

Naturally, we did not do this. Fortress Peschel is my third house and Bill’s second in which we had enough yardage for an actual garden as opposed to just a few house plants. My soil in Virginia, long ago and far away, was pretty poor. The soil in South Carolina was equally bad, heavy with orangy clay. I grew up watching my mother garden in Delaware with its almost barren sandy dirt. In fact, none of these places had soil. It was dirt. Worn out, tired, beaten down, exhausted, and barely alive dirt. I did not learn from this — why I thought this was kind of normal.

Sadly, dirt is kind of normal, but it is not what you want. What you want is soil. Soil starts with clay, sand, or silt, and you add life to that base with rotting organic matter that feeds a zoo of insects, fungal networks, microbes, worms, arthropods and other multi-legged critters. Much of what makes soil alive can only be seen with a magnifying glass or a microscope. Your zoo of critters turns this rotting organic material into humus. Humus is what feeds your plants, making nutrients available to them and holding water without becoming soggy. The takeaway from this? Soil is alive and the more alive and healthy it is, the healthier your plants will be.

I started learning how to make soil in South Carolina by happenstance. We had a half-acre, planted with an irregular pattern of trees and shrubs. I wanted to minimize lawn mowing, and the easiest way to do this was to rake the leaves into big circles around the randomly placed trees. It was too heavily shaded to grow grass anyway. Over time, as the leaves decayed, built up, and decayed again, insect-eating birds like thrushes came to visit. I looked more closely and saw a thin layer of rich, humusy soil over the red clay. It was full of insects and life.

Bill had tried growing a small vegetable garden but had never worked on soil building. I didn’t learn from what nature was showing me and in nine years, the dirt in our raised beds didn’t improve very much over hard red clay. We had a small compost bin, but it just wasn’t enough.

In the meantime, in an effort to attract more birds, we had put down around the trees a few tractor-trailer loads of leaves that the city gave us for asking. We were letting these areas go a little wild and free leaves made a great mulch. By the time we moved, this soil was getting pretty decent compared to the hard red clay under the struggling grass. I was beginning to recognize what nature was telling me.

We moved up here to Fortress Peschel in central Pennsylvania. The property was a barren rectangle other than a green spruce and Japanese maple in the front yard, the neighbors’ privet hedges (on two sides), and a scraggly forsythia hedge. The dirt (I won’t call it soil) was dead. It was mostly clay and had been packed down into something like concrete. We not only had no worms, we didn’t even have slugs. I would have said the dirt had been Chemlawned to death except the grass was in too poor a condition.

We knew we wanted to grow a few herbs and a few vegetables. I wanted to grow a hedge to shield us from the neighbors and the highway. I also wanted to build a mini wildlife refuge as I like birds and squirrels and other little, furry animals. We had very few leaves available and darn little compost. I had to improve the soil if I wanted to grow anything at all. After a year or so, it dawned on me to find out if the township offered free leaves as they did in South Carolina.

They did not. They offered, instead, great mountains of compost and mulch from all the leaves and yard waste the township collected year round. As much as you could possibly want and all free for the hauling. Over the years, we laid out vegetable and flower beds, hedgerows, and thickets and covered each area with a thick layer of mulch or compost from the township.

Over time, I learned to salvage the leaves the neighbors were throwing out for township pickup. I would send a son with a rake and the lawn-cart to collect the big street piles of leaves and spread them where we needed them most. People rarely asked why a sullen teenager was raking up piles of leaves from the gutter and hauling them away. My sons have been instructed to say that their crazy mother uses them for mulch.

I also began to collect the big brown bags of leaves that people throw out in Elizabethtown. In the fall, whenever I drive by a big brown bag of yard waste, I stop and open it to see if it is leaves. If it is, I stuff the bag into my car and bring home all that soil fertility for my yard. I have a Ford Focus sedan and it is possible to stuff as many as ten bags into the passenger seat, back seat, and trunk. I have never had anyone stop and ask me what I was doing.

I am now in the happy position of having pick-up truck loads of leaves delivered to my driveway. I made an arrangement with a neighbor who has a small lawn-care business. It saves him time and gas money to drop off his seasonal mountain of raked leaves into my yard as opposed to hauling it to the recycling center. My sons spread out the leaves as they arrive, wherever they are needed. These are wonderful leaves, chopped and mixed with grass clippings, rich with fertility.

Getting leaves has greatly accelerated my soil-building program but I still collect every brown bag of leaves I drive by. I still send out my sons to collect the street leaves before the township gets them. We still get compost and mulch from the township. We compost all our food scraps, yard trimmings and shredded paper.

Why don’t we slow down at this? Because it is darn near impossible to add too much organic material to the soil. And, if you stop adding organic material, it gets used up by the critters and plants. If you have a wilderness area, the falling leaves and dying plants will slowly, slowly continue to build up. Nature might build up half an inch of soil every century this way. That may be ok in a meadow or forest, but not in a vegetable garden.

The plants in a vegetable garden are removed and eaten so they don’t rot in place. Vegetables are heavy feeders of soil fertility and will use up every bit of organic matter. Every carrot you pull takes with it the nutrients it absorbed from the soil. Those nutrients do not reappear by magic for the next crop. They have to be replenished, by you. If you don’t use a heavy hand with synthetic fertilizers (which are very damaging in a host of ways) your crop yields will drop and eventually, you won’t get any vegetables at all. So, we keep adding compost and leaves.

Over time, my dirt has changed to soil. It is most evident in the garden beds, hedgerows and the thicket. These are the locations where we have piled up leaves, compost, and mulch year after year. Younger son can layer on a foot of leaves in November and by June of the following year, it has all rotted into the soil. Turn over the soil in these areas and you will see a looser, more friable layer of humus full of worms and insects. The soil can now absorb rain water better, hold it longer and yet not become soggy. Looser soil means better aeration which leads to healthier root structures, that can grow down deeper.

Interestingly, the soil has improved in the grass areas too. We have not put in nearly as much effort into the lawn. We have spread compost over the grass twice in ten years (very thinly) and we now use a mulching lawn mower so the clippings fall back and rot in place. Older son keeps the mower set at the highest setting as taller grass has deeper roots. Younger son went over much of the lawn with the broad fork to punch holes into the soil allowing air and water to flow into it. We do not water or fertilize the grass, ever. What seems to have happened is that the exploding population of worms, ants, and other arthropods living in the beds, hedgerows, and the thicket are slowly colonizing the soil desert under the grass. As they move into this packed clay, their actions make it accept the grass clippings and rain better. Their waste adds fertilizer. Their movements through the dirt open up air channels. These areas are changing although very slowly.

Good soil building is the single best thing you can do to start and keep healthy plants. A wide mix of vigorously growing plants will be able to withstand diseases and pests better. Your produce will be more nutritious. It may even taste a little better. But because fruits and vegetables are removed and eaten, soil building needs to a regular part of your gardening routine. Feed the soil to feed the plants to feed your family.

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