Category Archives: Make stuff

Garden planning 2021, 6

Previously: Garden planning 2021, 5

It's tomato time:

Jiffy pots came in the mail this week. Everything is a little slow because we live in viral times, but I'm not going to complain—let things take as long as they take. Besides, I didn't really have much time to get things planted until this week.

One other problem: the winter was so warm (relative to winter, etc.), I didn't build any shelving in the basement because I could work outside on the wall-that-never-ends. I'm going to move these things down into the basement, but the lights aren't set up. I'm just going to throw some 2x4s on top of some sawhorses and just clamp the lights to that. Good enough for Gilson.

I selected these tomatoes for a variety of reasons:

I was thisclose to not planting tomatoes this year because they're a pain to grow, especially in clay soil, but a packet of seeds is about the same cost as a big heirloom tomato right now so I guess I can justify the work. It would have been nice to get the soil ready to go before planting season, but we'll do the best we can this year and then chop everything and drop it on the ground for next year.

Garden planning 2021, 5

Previously: Garden planning 2021, 4


  • Spider milkweed (asclepias viridis)
  • Missouri coneflower (rudbeckia missouriensis)
  • Purple coneflower (echinacea purpurea)
  • Showy goldenrod (solidago speciosa)
  • Whorled milkweed (asclepias verticollata)
  • Butterfly weed (asclepias tuberosa)

These plants were all selected because they are native species that butterflies like. I also have some others, but these require some cold preparation before planting. Nominally, I might have gotten this strange drive to plant these kinds of things last year, then I could have just thrown them on the ground and let nature cold prepare them. But here we are. I'll try that for next year. (Nominally I might just pass the time like a normal person and find a good TV show.)

Each one has its own predilections for length of time to cold stratify, according to the seed sellers:

I'm using this as a general guide: Amanda Shepard. "How To Cold Stratify Seeds For Spring Planting". American Meadows (2018-03-07). I'm going to do some in peat moss and some in paper towels, just to see what happens.

OK—into the refrigerator they go. See some of you in April, some in May.

Garden planning 2021, 4

Previously: Garden planning 2021, 3

Here we go:

  1. Pawpaw
  2. Apios americana
  3. Comfrey
  4. Chinese hawthorn


I've never seen a pawpaw fruit before. Never tasted it. I know it as an abstraction—a Quintessentially American Fruit. I've only heard about it because: (1) there is an old and becoming-extinct dialect of French in Missouri called Pawpaw French which was centered around Ste. Genevieve, Missouri and Kaskaskia, Illinois (Paw Paw French: Two 20-somethings bet St. Louis can save a vanishing dialect, St. Louis Public Radio, 2015-07-13); and (2) it shows up in lists of local foraging guides (Shane Franklin, "Wild Ones" Teach Foraging in Missouri, KSMU, 2012-08-13).
I bought some seeds of three varieties:

Nominally, I'd buy some seedlings, but they're fairly hard to come by. So we'll start from seeds. Kentucky State University has a guide: Pawpaw Planting Guide. The short story for starting is that they need cold, moist conditions for 70-100 days, so off to the fridge they'll go—but only some of them. I'll put half of them in the refrigerator in plastic bags with some sphagnum moss, and I'll just plant the other half in the ground straight away to see what happens. It's a reckless experimental control, but I have more than I need (although I can tell I'm assuming a high germination rate, which seems unlikely).

Apios Americana

Apios Americana is an American native tuber. I don't remember where I learned about this one, but I've seen several references to it being one of the foods that kept English immigrants in 1600s Massachusetts alive.

This reference seems to be the main one: Reynolds, B.D., W.J. Blackmon, E. Wickremesinhe, M.H. Wells, and R.J. Constantin. "Domestication of Apios americana". In Advances in New Crops (1990): 436-442.

Here are a few references I've found for growing it, starting from a string of tubers. This one seems simpler: plant it 2- or 3-inches deep—no real preparation required. They have vines that like to climb, so I'll plant some where I'll have a trellis, some near a deck pier (or maybe I'll put some trellises between deck piers this year), and maybe some hear our old compost bin and let it climb on that.


Comfrey is, as far as I can tell, a permaculture cult plant. It's main features are (1) it has a deep, deep taproot that will pull nutrients from a different level than other plants, and (2) the leaves grow back fast so you can hack them off and let them turn into mulch. The second feature seems to be the chief characteristic, and I'll try it for that, but I'm curious how that deep taproot is going to fare against our garbage clay soil.

I got root cuttings of a variety called Bocking 14, which doesn't spread by seed. This one also seems to not care about preparation, just plant it 2-inches deep in clay soil. I'll put it near to where I'm planting other vegetables so I can cut the leaves off and throw them there as mulch. I'll get it started in some pots and then move it—still need to reshape some of the areas where I intend to plant
A few links for info:

Chinese hawthorn

The last one is a special plant for my wife: Chinese hawthorn. I couldn't find any seedlings of this for sale in the US, so we're starting from seeds. There are tons of other kinds of hawthorn trees, including the Missouri state flower, the white hawthorn (Crataegus punctata). This one, Crataegus pinnatifida, is special because the round red fruits are skewered on bamboo sticks and covered in sugar: 糖葫芦 (tánghúlu).

This one looks like it's going to require a little more patience. From the Plants for a Future database: "Be patient, it will take at least 18 months before any will germinate." (And the specific PFAF page for Crataegus pinnatifida.) It looks like I'll experiment a little with this one, trying a few methods:

  1. Just planting them
  2. Planting in pots and keeping them watered for 18 months until they germinate...
  3. Warm stratifying for 3 months at 15C and cold stratifying for 3 months at 4C

Garden planning 2021, 3

Previously: Garden planning 2021, 2 (2021-03-05)

I have seeds—so many seeds. Too many seeds. I'm a reasonable man, sometimes, but when it comes to filling out lists, and then fulfilling the items on the list, some part of my brain gets activated in a weird way and the stupid thing won't rest until I have a monstrously complete list and, if I'm not careful, a monstrously large pile of things like seed packets. Usually I can avoid this—I could easily fill the garage with tools, for example—but sometimes the momentum is too great to stop.

Blah blah blah—as if I could keep writing words and writing words and avoid the thing that comes next: making an inventory of the seeds, and then getting ready to plant them.

Making an inventory of the seeds I have on hand was more work than I expected. After moving in 2019, I discovered several small caches of seeds that we had in the apartment in St. Louis, and maybe also in the apartment in Burbank. Small things are easy to lose, hard to find intentionally, and easy to find unintentionally. Add those to the seeds I bought this winter, and now I know what I have to work with.

The next part is: how do I work with them?

Some of the milkweeds need to be prepared in the cold for several weeks. Some of the vegetables will get started early indoors. Some of the old packets that I don't care too much about (chives, green onions, several extra packets of various lettuce) are just going to get tossed into some general area and we'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, I need to do a little research about the best timing for planting for each of these things. I've got a file going here—Garden 2021—where I'll add what I find.

Garden Planning 2021, 2

Previously: Early Garden Planning 2021

I've got all my seeds in the mail, except for a few experimental ones. (Experimental to me—to the seeds it's just another day.) I've got a few extra plant lights, and I'm waiting on a shipment of peat pots, then I'll get the seeds started for later transplant. Then out they go.

That's all there is to it: (1) decide what to get; (2) get; (3) prepare; (4) plant. It's almost Too Easy—so easy, perhaps, that I'll just consider it done already and move on to something else because I got enough seeds to start a neighborhood garden jungle, and I still have a backyard that is a literal pile of clay from excavating the trench for the wall and steps.


That's where my head is this weekend. I need to get a few slow things moving inside, then go outside and use the daylight to build. In the meantime—between now and outdoors planting—I need to decide what goes where. Nominally I'd do that before starting seeds, but I'm just going to wing it with a variety of things this year, since I know I selected them intentionally to be planted, I just have to figure out where... and when... and how.

The garden (gardens) will break down roughly into a few regions or features:

  • Three sisters (corn + squash + beans)
  • Native wildflowers and grass
  • Tomatoes (these needy bastards need their own category)
  • Backdoor garden (herbs, leaves, onions, etc.)
  • Things on vines that will grow up bamboo poles onto the deck
  • Things that will grow on trellises, because I can put trellises everywhere and it helps me consume this obnoxious bamboo patch
  • A bunch of random vegetables that will stand on their own
  • Things to improve the soil here and there (beans for nitrogen, comfrey for compost, daikon to bust up the clay and decompose in place)
  • Tree seeds (pawpaw, Chinese hawthorn) that I'll get started but won't get planted for a while, obviously

The first step seems to be, since it will take a few weeks: getting the milkweed seeds ready to germinate. We'll start there.

For the rest I'll get an inventory going—I've already forgotten exactly what I've got—and start some specific planning. Here we go: the fashionably cool content that everyone subscribes for.

Design for interruptibility

Trailhead:Design for assembly

"Focus and finish" is a nice adage for projects. Do one thing—and focus on that one thing until it's done. I've never seen it actually happen like that in the wild, but it seems like a theoretically sound idea for getting things done right and done quickly.

At home that theory shatters into pieces. For any large enough project I have to deal with the effects of fitting that project into the times when it will fit between work, school, and other around-the-house activities, and if the project is being built outside it has to fit during the daytime and around the weather.

In reality, "focus and finish" is more like "prepare to get interrupted".

Really I'm thinking about this project with the steps and wall in the backyard. I started working on it in November during a long stretch of warm, dry weather. Fairly early on in the project—after I dug the trench, but before I finished laying in the base rock—the weather forecast called for rain. OK, no problem. The finished project has to live outside in the elements, so we'll just let the project under construction live in the elements.

After bailing out that water, I still had to wait for some time for the water in the crushed rock to go away as well because it wouldn't compact correctly while wet. (Side note: with the use of this free water level I could tell where more base rock needed to be added to make the whole thing level.) Also, some of the dirt (clay) washed off the sides of the trench—not enough to cause problems with stability, but it was inconvenient to remove and, if it happened often enough, sure to cause some problems with the trench.

Now I keep an eye on the forecast and plan for the interruptions. It doesn't prevent water from getting in, but it limits the effects and lets me get back to work sooner. It's not just about preventing the water from getting in that one spot, but not starting too much at once so that more work is exposed to problems.

Early garden planning 2021

This year it's time to put in a proper garden at the house.

We've already prepared the west side, installing a little sidewalk around the garage with some place to plant flowers and maybe some vegetables. The backyard, though, is where the real work will happen.

The project to flatten the backyard—installing a retaining wall behind the deck and some steps down from the garage back door— is getting... well, it is less unfinished than it was a few weeks ago. The wall is in good shape, but the steps need more time. And there is still a huge pile of dirt ("dirt"... more like clay) from the excavation piled up in the yard. That all needs to be pulled sideways to being leveling the lower side of the sloped yard, and some of the high side of the yard still needs to be dug out to bring it to level. Hopefully that will all be finished in a few weeks, before spring arrives

Let's consider finishing the hardscaping as Project 0—finishing the shape and size of the garden.

Speaking of the pile of dirt/clay: that needs to be fixed to grow anything well, even grass. It's awful. We planted a few potatoes last year, and the only one that grew only made it to about 2 in x 3 in (5 cm x 7 cm). That's it. That's as far as it could push the dirt around it to grow. Some of the other plants grew with ridiculously small root systems. That's it. That's as far as they could push the dirt.

So that's Project 1: fix the dirt. Probably that means raised beds for growing, at least in the short term. Long term, something should be done to build a good layer of dirt on top of the clay.

Project 2 is the most interesting for me: plant interesting seeds. I'm looking for old varieties—heirloom seeds and Missouri natives, plants that are the very definition of the place. I'm not against the modern hybrids, it's just that I can buy those at any grocery store, so they're not as interesting. (And they don't taste as good.)

Project 3: optimize placement. How do I keep fruit and flowers going in multiple seasons? How do I keep tall things from blocking small things? How do I mix plants to keep them from attracting pests? How do I get bees to come and help pollinate things?

Project 4: introduce automated monitoring and controlling. It's not necessary, it's just interesting. Why not teach the garden to decide when it needs water—and then water itself. How can I take data about which areas of the backyard get sun at which times on which days? Where does the rain fall, and where does it get blocked by the trees overhead? Which spots get hotter and cooler, more and less humid. How can you sense the health of a plant—size, color, chemical properties in the soil—and have it call for help? Can I power everything with solar panels? Can I store rainwater and use it instead of watering everything from the tap?

Left to my own devices, I would probably turn the entire backyard into some weird jungle garden. Fortunately I live with someone who has taste (and a degree in biology), so we might be able to turn it into something good.

Some resources I've found so far to answer a few of these questions:

A trip to Cambodia

Previous stop: A trip to Paraguay

The final stop on our winter break pseudo-vacation was Cambodia. This time, there's nothing much to talk about except the food. Unlike the previous trips, we didn't have time to cover much information about Cambodia itself because we spent so many hours shopping (first time paying attention to the Southeast Asia section at Pan-Asia) and cooking. Maybe we'll come back around and watch some videos on the weekend, but we'll see how this first week back at work treats us. (It might be time to discover what Cambodians drink.) In the meantime, there is a bit of info back in the prep post: Next stop: Cambodia.

Saying we "only" made some food sells the entire enterprise short. We did a pretty good job with this one (with the usual caveat that we don't know how it all compares to the real thing). In fact, I think we might do it again this weekend. Here's how it went down:


Yellow kroeung
Making the bowls for amok trey
Ready to steam...
...ready to eat.
Marinating the beef for loc lac
...and eat.
Fry the fish...
...and hide it under a mango salad
Fill that gourd with eggs, palm sugar, coconut milk, and a little salt. I think I would cut a smaller opening next time.
Hide it
Heat it
Eat it

Now that work has started up again, we won't be able to fake travel again for a little while. (Actually we might try these recipes again this weekend—why not?) But we will take a fake trip about once a month this year. It was too much fun to leave it alone. Later this month we'll go to Baja California in our kitchen, though we'd certainly like to go there in person.

Backyard model

I've been meaning to share this for some time, but the actual work on the wall and steps in the backyard have been occupying that time.

In the backyard, the boss wants (1) steps from the garage back door down to the backyard and (2) a flat backyard. It took a long time to design it (some early steps here, starting with measuring the level of the backyard) because I didn't really know how it was going to work. Somehow the steps needed to be integrated into a wall. Somehow the final level of the yard needed to be sorted out. Etc. So I had to teach myself how to use SketchUp, a solid modeling program, to figure it out.

Here's what I came up with. I don't know how to efficiently show the dimensions in the model, so:

  • West-east: outsides of outside piers are 30' 1" (9.14m) apart
  • North-south: steps from garage to end are 36' 4" (11.07m) long
  • Up-down: top of top step to top of bottom step is 7' (2.13m) high (and then each block is 6" tall with 6" of limestone base underneath it, so it's a great deal of Fun if you love Shoveling)
The yard itself, showing the west-east (left-right) slope and the north-south (top-bottom) slope, as well as the deck piers, garage door (upper left) and basement door (lower right).
Adding the wall and step models to the original terrain.
Replacing the original terrain with a flat yard. The wall area under the right side of the deck is a notional design for a shed—not going to look exactly like that, but it's a future project anyway, so we'll deal with it in the future.
Here is, more or less, what has been installed as of... now, except for the curve at the top right. The notch near the upper left corner is a pass-through for the underground electrical cable. I was planning to make this wall one more block deep, but the cable sort of set the max depth.
Comparing the model to a recent pic.
Comparing the model to a recent pic.

Which was harder? Modeling? Or building? Ambiguous. Eventually, while digging, you'll find bedrock and need to stop, but modeling can go on forever. (At least, that was the criticism I was getting.) However, moving blocks in a model was so much easier than in real life, although I appreciated the one week of Popeye forearms after moving 600 of those bastards, plus rocks, etc.

This all divides itself into four phases:

  1. Build the deck wall
  2. Build the steps (this is the boss's most important feature, but it has to sit on the wall)
  3. Build the wall around to the garage
  4. Build the under-deck shed
  5. And then later some of those other blocks sitting around in the yard will be used to build a retaining wall on the northeast corner of the house, but we'll burn that bridge when we get to it.

If any of you want to learn how to use SketchUp, hit me up. I haven't done any solid modeling of my own since college (Unigraphics, which has been subsumed into some other company and software now), and I used to be able to open and explode (technical term) SolidWorks drawings of our flight control to put diagrams in specs and test reports when I was at Mason. Like most things in life, it's pretty easy to do once you know how to operate it, and then the difficulty is in knowing how to organize things.