Category Archives: Make stuff

Measure it as it is

One problem that I run into while building is measuring things as I want them to be.

If I need a long course of a wall to line up, it's easy to close one eye, squint the other, and make a range of possibilities work. There I am, head down, looking along the back line of a wall block, rotating my head this way and that way, one eye closed until—hey presto—it looks like it's aligned to the longer line of the wall. It's magic. I didn't even have to adjust the block, I just had to will its current setting into alignment—or, rather, I had to will the alignment to the current setting of the block.

Obviously this is insane and wrong.

The block is how it is, and the larger alignment of the wall is how it is, and if the block and the wall are aligned then the block is correct, and if not, they're not. The block (or the wall, but the wall is so big I'm not going to adjust it, so it is de facto correct) objectively needs to be adjusted if there is a difference.

But. If it's hot. If it's been a long day. If I've been working on the wall for weeks or months. If my back is sore. Well, then subjectively that block is aligned. Then, ironically, all that work before that block is somewhat wasted, even as it's used as a rationale for making the shortcut.

The only correct answer is to pause, close your eyes, open your eyes, see things as they are, and act accordingly.

Unrelated, but made me think of the futility of objectivity, which isn't even always necessary:

So much for Objective Journalism. Don't bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

—Hunter S. Thompson. "January". Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973).

Throwing dirt, 2

Previous: Throwing dirt

There's one more point to make.

Making a work area look nice—whatever "nice" might mean—isn't just an abstraction. Something shouldn't just look good to look good if it's an intermediate stage between not-constructed and constructed. There isn't much use in that.

And it's not all about making the scene better for someone else to look at—or not have a mess to look at, really.

Sometimes it's nice to clean things up to have a clear look yourself at the thing you're making so you can enjoy the journey from not-constructed to constructed. Parts of the yard are still full of rocks and blocks and bricks and dirt—but there's one spot now in the middle that isn't. It's flat—measured, packed, flat—as it should be, and now there are grass seeds put out to start turning it green. There's still work to do. But at least some of the work-in-progress looks like completed work, and it gives a little motivation to keep going on the rest.

Throwing dirt

There's something to be said about keeping a work area clean—mise en place, more or less. Wash dishes as you cook, put tools away when you're done using them, etc. It makes final cleanup easier, it makes the work go faster because things are prepared and organized, it makes the final product better because there aren't things in the way while you're working, and it looks nicer.

Those first three things—easier, faster, better—are self-evident. The fourth one is basically the aesthetics of work—not aesthetics of the act of working or of the final product, but aesthetics of the state of the work at any given time.

There is still a big pile of dirt in my backyard. First there was a huge pile of clay dirt from digging the trench for the retaining wall and digging down the high side of the yard to the desired level. Then I pushed that out and made a new pile in the middle of that area from topsoil that I ordered. Then I really flattened the clay pile into what will roughly be the new shape of the flat part of the backyard—but it still doesn't look good because the topsoil pile is sitting there in the middle making what should look like Victory Field look like Mt. Trashmore instead.

There's nothing that can be done about it, really. I have blocks and rocks and bricks and dirt stacked in various places behind the house, biding their time. "Just-in-time" delivery of these things is a fine concept, but the reality is that every truck delivery from the material yard costs $125, so I've got materials for four projects back there to save some money. Also I have no concept of what "in time" means for these projects, because I'm stealing time—tempted to call it "free time", but it's not even cheap—to work on them, an hour or two after work, a weekend day or two. (This is also my trick for not shattering my back, I think: not working very much for any long stretch of time.) Although the final result will be what I'm most proud of, all of this staging that I'm doing—managing where this or that goes, what order to do things in, etc.—is what I'm secretly feeling good about. It's a complicated problem to solve. I'm not winging in, despite how it looks.

Still, it's bad form to let the backyard construction site look like trash all the time. It's a curse to be able to see, inside my head, how all of the pieces will move and the game will play out when it's not obvious to observers who see only the visible situation. Sometimes it's worth taking some time to reorganize things. "Things" here are pallets of 45 30-kg (70-lb) blocks or truckloads of rock and dirt, so you really have to believe that it's worth the trouble to convince yourself to do it. It's a matter of taste. And sometimes it's a matter of comparing how much time it takes to move those things versus how much time it takes to explain to your significant other that the yard actually looks better than it did before, OK, there's just a pile of dirt there that will be moved soon, come on.

Sometimes you just have to throw dirt for a while—from this pile to that pile, from this pile to that pile—in order to keep the right people satisfied that the job is getting done. It's locally inefficient, sure, but if you have to repeatedly spend time explaining the current state of things, then it might be globally efficient. Form should follow function as a general rule, and like all rules you should really consider what the rule means so that you know when it's time to break it.

Watching the grass grow, 2

Previous: Watching the grass grow

There' something more to it than I said yesterday. I tried to pass it off as something respectable—as some kind of feedback problem that I'm managing, some kind of work that I'm doing, some kind of activity that I am accomplishing.

Look closely: action verbs. For grass.

Yeah... probably not entirely accurate. It's grass.

The thing I meant to say is that I go to a window—upstairs, downstairs, doesn't matter—several times a day to check out... the grass. I'll step outside the garage back door to have a look at... the grass. I'm not doing anything. But I am taking credit for the biological processes taking place in the backyard. (Maybe you've worked with people like this.)

There is an aspect of feedback correction, but it's very low frequency. It's hard to take credit for it, especially when the most difficult thing I have to do is walk around the yard and spin seeds out of this little seed throwing machine. It's an action—there is an act—but it's low effort.

What am I trying to get at here? (An honest question to myself.)

It's a funny thing to take credit for something that you're not really doing. I have these impulses frequently—maybe you do, too, I don't know. When your favorite sports team wins, or your university where you haven't been in ages gets some kind of credit for doing well, or your colleague gets an award, or an aspect of your work project has a breakthrough, and so on and so on—it's hard to take credit for doing those things, but still there's something inside that feels... something. It can't be accomplishment, but it feels like accomplishment. It's tickling the same brain receptors.

Grass in specific, but gardening in general: you can affect where the seeds go, you can affect the shape of the area you plant, you can affect the soil somewhat, you can add water, you can shade the sun—but you can't make a seed grow. There's effort and luck and environment, and then there's all the many variables inside the seed that you can't know (other than in some probabilistic sense). You can envision the outcome—and you should, sometimes that's the best part, before reality disappoints—but you can't know the outcome until the outcome comes out. Until then, I watch and watch and watch—not doing but waiting, patiently and impatiently, for what happens next.

Watching the grass grow

I do it. I admit it. It's just as boring as the saying implies, but since I'm doing it intentionally, it's not that bad—subjectively, in my own head, at least.

In the backyard there is an area in the southwest corner that never really has any grass when we moved in. It was shaded by the pine tree to the north, the hackberry and mulberry trees to the south, and a bunch of honeysuckle on the west boundary of our backyard. Also it's on a slope, so it was eroding every so slightly each time it rained.

Listen: I'm trying to justify why I wrote a post about grass.

Last fall we got rid of the mulberry tree, which wasn't healthy, and also all the honeysuckle that was arguably on our property, and all the low branches on the pine tree. Suddenly there was sun in the dark corner of the yard—but also a lot of exposed dirt.

This year I made the dirt worse by rolling the wheelbarrow repeatedly through the area while moving wall materials to the backyard. But once that was done, and when any residual trench-digging dirt (clay) piles were moved out of the way, it was time to reclaim the dirt slope.

(Please clap.)

So that's been one of my side projects this year: tossing grass seed on the dirt, turning on the sprinkler, seeing where the grass grows (some areas are still susceptible to fast moving water when it rains, and some of the dirt is exposed packed clay), then adjusting my approach (blocking the erosive flows with bricks until the grass grows, scratching or breaking the clay before throwing more grass seed). Then watch. Then adjust. Watch. Adjust. Over and over until it's right, whatever that means.

Mostly I just want something to stop the erosion, and something to hold some water in and shade it from evaporating away. Grass works for that—we are, after all, living in a suburb, where grass is the national animal. It also looks nice—soft and green. But it seems to work best if you keep an eye on it—not just to watch it, which I do 1000 times a day, keeping up with patches of new grass which have recently joined the party, the but to keep that watch-adjust feedback loop working.

Garden planning 2021, 7

Previous: Garden planning 2021, 6

I have some misgivings about preparing wildflowers for the yard. I mean, they're not very wild if they need my help. These wildflowers would never survive in the jungle, hunting their own food to eat, surviving with their wits and cunning. Wildflowers these days are too soft.

This should be the last garden planning post. It's too late to plan. May is on Saturday. Most of the vegetables that started in the basement graduated to either the space above the retaining wall, or are tomatoes and waiting for me to figure out where to plant them. The only starter plants left in the basement are the various chilies and eggplants and bitter melons.

But now I've got these small, small wildflower seedlings down there as well.

These are the first batch of seeds that required 4 weeks of cold soak before germinating: butterfly weed, whorled milkweed, purple coneflower, and showy goldenrod. Then they got an extra week and a half on a side table because I was too lazy to get them planted. No matter—this gave the seeds some time to germinate so I could find them in their respective beds of moss or paper towels.

To my surprise, the seeds stored in wet paper towels outgerminated the seeds stored in wet sphagnum moss. My model for which one would be more successful was simple, and apparently stupid: plants grow in dirt, moss is more like dirt than paper, the seeds in the moss will grow better. If I do this again, I'll skip the moss and go for the paper.

Quite a few of each kind germinated, but in order of success it was: showy goldenrod, butterfly weed, whorled milkweed, purple coneflower.

There are still two others bags left in the refrigerator, waiting for slightly longer soak times. The individual wildflower seeds that I planted—"planted"—earlier didn't seem to take. I figured that since they were wildflower, I'd just throw them on the ground where I wanted them and then, since they were wildflowers, they would just grow, because that's how wildflower seeds do it in the wild. No one plants them. Maybe they're germinating now, I don't know—we'll see if some unexpected milkweed pops up.

There was also a bag of mixed wildflower seeds that I threw on the ground near our garage path, but later I covered them with mulch when I was putting mulch around the (very much not wild) tulips. Lots of these wildflowers have germinated and are poking through the mulch now.

We'll see what happens. It's hard to justify to anyone what is the utility of planting a bunch of milkweed and other plants. I just thought I'd be friendly to some butterflies who I've never met before. Maybe in this suburb where we live now there used to be the kinds of plants that would support monarch butterflies and other butterflies and insects and animals as they traveled from here to there. Maybe not. But there will be.


It was clever to talk about designing for interruptibility, but the truth, as ever, is more bothersome.

I'm rounding the bend of the deck with the wall now. Getting the curve right is hard enough, and the wall drainage is on the curve as well, adding slightly more difficulty. The drainage also means that when it rains, even if I cover the part of the construction I'm working on directly, some water still comes in from the side—not much, just enough to make the work grind to a halt.

The base rock is 3/4-inch limestone with a bunch of fine bits of dust and tiny rock, smashed down again and again until it's basically a solid layer. It's solid, but there's an interesting feature to deal with: it has enough pores to hold some water when it rains, but not enough to evaporate efficiently. And when the pores are full of water, the water-rock aggregate behaves like putty when pressure, like a sledgehammer flex smashing down the rock, is applied. Smash it here—, but it blurps up there. You can't compress it, you can't level it properly. You're stuck.

There are two ways to fix it. One, wait a week and let it dry out on its own terms. Two, dig out all the water-saturated rock, let the hole dry for a day or two, then fill the hole and keep going. Either way, it's annoying—you really are stuck until nature does its part.

That's where I found myself today. It rained Saturday. Sunday I discovered the mistake saturation situation and dug it out, then today went crazy filling the hole, smashing and leveling the rock, beating and leveling and aligning the blocks —just trying to get one block past the drain pipe so that when it stops raining in a few days, I can get back to a plastic-covered, not water-saturated rock to work again.

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