Category Archives: Writing

Worm Learning

Original bin

In June of 2019, I became the confident caregiver of a worm composting system. As I wrote in my blog, More new pets, I had learned all I needed to know to care for my new charges in a hour.

What could go wrong?

By the end of July, I noticed water collecting on the underside of the lid, a sign that moisture was building up inside the bin. I also noticed the remnants of a couple of worms who had wriggled out and perished in the arid environment of my balcony. A quick internet search told me that worms will try to escape if the environment is too moist.

Logic told the tale. The underside of the bin had only six small holes for drainage. The upper sides had only eight for ventilation. With the bin inhabited by worms, bedding, food, and worm castings, I couldn’t see how to drill more holes without mucking up my drill or contaminating the contents with bits of plastic.

When my son asked whether I had any wishes for Christmas, I jumped at the chance to suggest a slick worm composter I’d seen online. With the weather getting colder, I had brought the bin into my living space. The blue colour clashed with everything. An earthy aroma wafted about. A commercial version with an emphasis on design – and with lots of drainage – would be just the ticket for my struggling worm family.

What could go wrong?

The day I set aside to set up the new worm composter, I admired the charcoal colour that would blend with my balcony décor for three seasons and my living room in the winter. I attached the tap at the bottom that would drain away excess moisture. I looked for ventilation holes in the upper tiers and found none.

Upon checking reviews of the product online, I discovered that a buildup of excess moisture is a typical issue with this model. One woman posted a picture of hers wrapped in screening to prevent worms from escaping. It looked dreadful.

Before populating the new system, I decided to drill ventilation holes in the upper tiers and cover the holes with screening on the inside.

Ventilation holes
New composter

I haven’t spotted any fugitive worms in my living room. But I don’t want to speak too soon.

I am learning something from my worms.

Humility.

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The evolution of my Christmas tree star

On October 25, I got an unwelcome e-mail with the subject line: Hi Threadies, Felting Art Sessions on Oct 26th and Nov 30th are cancelled.

I’ve been a “Threadie” for a couple of years – we’re a sewing circle at my local neighbourhood house that’s intended to build community. All the materials to make felt toys and ornaments are supplied. Women and girls from eight to eighty and from various countries gather to sew. We help each other with our projects and enjoy each others’ company.  

In the summer, I found a pattern for a new star for my Christmas tree.

The ornaments I treasure most are made by hand by myself or family members – crocheted candy canes and Sesame Street characters my mother made when my children were the age my grandchildren are now, a set of salt-and-flour dough crèche characters I sculpted when my children were preschoolers, and some snowflakes my niece crocheted. The plastic, glittery star from my snowflake themed tree days had to go.

In the first couple of sessions, I cut out three felt stars – a small dark red, a medium white, and a large light red. By the end of September, I had accentuated the smallest star with beads of various shades of red and the white star with white and clear beads. In October and November, I had planned to decorate the outer star with red beads, sew on a backing, and stuff the whole thing with wool.

This cancellation created a dilemma because I no longer had access to the supplies. I hadn’t brought home embroidery cotton or red beads to finish the project.

I remembered I had inherited from Auntie Frances a box of embroidery floss that I haven’t opened in decades. Luckily, it had both white and red floss.

I didn’t have any small red beads on hand, but maybe there were some red buttons in my stash from my and my female ancestors’ past projects. I had a few, but not nearly enough to decorate the outer star.

However, I had lots of white buttons and some small white beads. I decided to integrate the white and red colours into a lively combo.

The star didn’t turn out the way I imagined it would if things had gone according to plan.

In my mind, it turned out much better.

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Weeds

Jim Taylor’s blog* about weeds prompted this week’s posting. He likes to get a dialogue going, and I took the bait. Here’s what I sent him.

“Hi Jim,

I enjoyed your “man-against-nature” depiction of the war in your yard, where the weeds may not be winning but yield a lot of power. As a lifetime gardener, I can relate. I recently took a course from the “Master Gardener” organization and have developed a fresh perspective that I’d love to share with you.

First, some science. Weeds are messengers. They are a symptom of disturbed soil. The more you disturb the ground by digging the weeds up by the roots, the more that the seeds of their cousins get a chance to germinate. The cycle continues, as you’ve observed, to your chagrin.

I suggest a cut-and-cover strategy instead. Cut the weed off at its base and cover the ground with mulch – straw, dried grass clippings, compost – whatever organic matter is handy. You can even add the carcass of the weed if it hasn’t already gone to seed.

When the weed’s root sends up a new shoot through the mulch, as it probably will, cut it off before it develops many leaves to feed the root. After two or three attempts, the root will die of starvation, and its remains will feed the soil for the plants you want to nurture.

Add lots of dried leaves to the mulch in the fall. Leave them on in the spring, and keep adding to the layer of mulch. The earthworms will integrate the tasty bits it into the soil, so adding mulch will become the new ongoing cycle. And your soil, and therefore your plants, will be much healthier.

Next spring, you can cut off the odd weed that has the gall to breach your mulch barrier and busy yourself with environmentally-friendly pursuits like watching the beautiful blossoms and continuing your delightful blog.

That would be a win all around, I’d say.

* Jim is a prolific writer with a theological bent. If you are looking for an interesting perspective, you can request a subscription to his blog, Softedges, by emailing jimt@quixotic.ca

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More New Pets

Last Saturday, I brought home new pets. As readers of my blog know, I sponsored a traffic circle garden in place of a pet last summer. I don’t have to walk it, but I figured it would get me out into the fresh air and help me meet more of my neighbours. The strategy is working.

A dry layer of straw or paper scraps plus a lid keeps it all discrete.

Buoyed by this success, I decided to attend a workshop in vermiculture conducted at a city-owned composting demonstration facility a brief walk from my home. For the $25 price of admission, I got a worm bin to keep in a balcony corner, a supply of carbon-rich material like straw, earth, and newspaper, some food scraps, about 500 red wriggler worms, and an hour-long lecture and demo. I’ll be able to feed the worms some of my kitchen scraps. About every four months, I can harvest compost to use as fertilizer for my house plants, balcony planters, and circle garden.

I feel like a new mother, only more confident, as I learned in the space of an hour everything I need to know to care for the lives I’ve taken into my hands. When the worms multiply, I can feed them more of my scraps. If I have a population explosion of worms, I can donate the surplus back for the facility to use with their school programs. If I encounter a bad smell or attract fruit flies, I know what to do. If the outside temperature goes below 5 degrees Celsius, I can cover the bin with a blanket to avoid bringing my livestock into my living room. Easy peasy.

En route home triumphantly with my worm bin, I met a neighbour who was trying to wrestle the front yard jungle that had come with her condo into a garden. We had a great time trying to identify some of the plants, and strategize what to remove or add. She was very interested in the worm bin and asked how to get on the waiting list for the next vermiculture workshop.

As we parted, I assured her I would watch the developments in her garden with interest. She said she’d be asking me how my worms are doing.

“That’s fine,” I said, “but please don’t ask too loudly when there are a lot of people around.”

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Waking up

I used to refer to missing a weekly entry in my blog as a “blink”. Then I started to snooze for a few weeks at a time. Since Christmas of 2018, I’ve gone into all-out hibernation in the blog department.

Life on another front, on the other hand, has been more active than usual. From January to March, I enrolled in the basic training for people who aspire to the “Master Gardener” designation. The course involved a full day of classes and about ten hours of reading and research assignments each week.

“It will be intense,” they said. They did not lie.

My learnings have led to new insights.

In the Master Gardener program, we are taught the principle, “Right plant in the right place makes a healthy, happy plant.” Something I didn’t understand decades ago makes perfect sense now.

My Aunt Velma, one of my mother’s sisters, was an avid gardener. When she heard we had bought a house after I got married, she lovingly divided one of her favourite plants so I could have it in my garden, too.

“I call these rosabluebells because I don’t like the real name. The flowers come out pink and gradually turn blue,” she said. She may also have mentioned they do well in the shade. By my logic, if a plant did well in the shade, imagine how much better it would do in the sun.

So I planted the rosabluebells along the foundation of the south-facing wall of our house. I recall a visitor saying, “Oh, I see you have some lungworts.” No wonder Aunt Velma hadn’t shared the name.

Over time, other plants took over the area where I had planted the lungworts. I wasn’t as into gardening then as I am now and likely wasn’t that keen on having a plant with such an ugly name, anyway. They died out and faded in my memory. 

I recently learned that plants that do well in the shade typically developed as woodland plants and actually need shade and moisture. No wonder my neglected lungworts languished. https://plantdatabase.kpu.ca/plant/plantDetail/1007

In the Master Gardener program, we are also taught to use the Botanical or Scientific names for plants, rather than their common names. If that had been the general practice, my aunt would not have had to rename her prized plant.

Its botanical name is Pulmonaria.

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Moment of Truth about Santa

On Christmas Eve, I had a conversation with a friend about the tricky age and stage when children begin to question whether the Santa story is factual.

It took me back to my childhood in a humble farmhouse in Ontario. Our mother was very creative and skilful in the craft department. She also taught us that it is important to please others.

One Christmas, “we” decided to delight Santa by decorating one of the beautiful Red Delicious apples she had purchased for the treat bowl at Christmas as a replica of himself. Wouldn’t he be surprised?

We got to work. A marshmallow became Santa’s head, fastened atop the apple with a toothpick. A red construction paper cone trimmed with cotton batting, saved from pill bottles over the year, became a hat. We got out the India ink and carefully painted a black belt around the fullest part of the apple. More cotton batting for his beard and coat trim finished off the effect.

A glass of milk fresh from our cows and a home-made cookie completed the snack.

On Christmas morning, the glass of milk had a thin white scum in the bottom, and the cookie had left only a few crumbs. There was no sign of the apple Santa. He must have taken that along for the journey. Maybe he wanted to show it to Mrs Claus before he ate it. We smiled, imagining the possibilities.

When I opened my tin lunch box at school in January, I was delighted to see Mom had packed a Red Delicious apple. I had thought we had finished them during the holidays, along with the large navel oranges we had only at Christmas.

Imagine my dismay when I saw traces of black ink around the circumference of the apple.

Perhaps I had begun to have lingering doubts, but those tell-tale black marks sealed the deal. I had a heart-to-heart with Mom when I got home. She was busted.

Do you remember your moment of truth around the Santa legend?

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New Pet Becomes Reality

In the summer, I wrote about my anticipation of sponsoring a renovated traffic circle garden. The drought-resistant ornamental plants and culinary herbs I had requested conjured up visions of stepping across an ocean to the south coast of France at a moment’s notice. “Fifi” was the name I assigned to the concept while I waited for the weather and the city crews to establish the new garden.

Something felt off.

On November 15, city crews transformed the traffic circle garden from a jumbled mass to a fresh design. I spent a few sessions with a spade moving several of the plants around to create a more artful, welcoming feel, and added a couple of plants.

As I nestled parsley and sage near the rosemary and thyme that were part of the initial planting, I suddenly started to hum, “Are you going to Scarborough Fair”. I became curious about the Simon and Garfunkle song that I loved as a young woman and discovered it was originally written more than six centuries ago by minstrels in England. That’s where many of my ancestors originated.

Now I get why the original concept wasn’t sitting well with me. I don’t have a drop of French blood in my veins. I learned any French in my vocabulary in school, not at my mother’s knee. And a dog with an aristocratic name doesn’t work for a space that I hope some of my neighbours will help to tend and the whole community will enjoy.

So, my short trek to the garden will take me back in time instead of thousands of kilometres in eastward.

Anybody got a name for a friendly, mongrel pup with an old soul?

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Ruminations from a Dental Chair

I spent a whole afternoon recently chain-watching home renovation shows on HGTV. That wasn’t the plan.

When the dentist’s assistant asked me if I wanted to leave the TV tuned there during my filling, I told her I’d prefer spa music. As she fumbled to find it, the dentist arrived to get the show on the road.

“Never, mind. The HGTV show will be fine,” I lied.

It wasn’t long before workmen got out the jackhammers to dismantle a cinder block wall that had to go.

“Don’t get confused about the noise. I need to start up my drill now,” the dentist joked.

Life was imitating art. And more was to come.

And as the contractor found a tattered vapour barrier and phoned the client to break the bad news that it and the wall in front of it had to be replaced at a significant additional cost, the dentist shared what her excavation project had revealed – decay had entered the root of my tooth and was killing it.

“The only way to save this tooth is to do a root canal. The good news is that I can do them and will not have to refer you out for it.”

After a one-sided conversation about the deal she could give me because I was already frozen, I nodded. She proceeded with what turned out to be, three hours later, a quadruple root canal treatment.

My ability to converse with her was severely limited by the fact my tongue was held back behind a rubber dam. It was there to prevent saliva, blood, and the debris from the construction zone from choking me.

On several occasions, as I watched the tearing apart of houses and digging up of gardens that looked like palaces from my space-deprived urban vantage point, I drew on decades of yoga training to remind myself to breathe, to relax my shoulders, and to unclench my fists.

Near the end of the session, the dentist said what I had been thinking all afternoon.

“I have to wonder whether these shows are creating dissatisfaction and a perceived need for a renovation that sometimes isn’t necessary. So much stuff is being hauled off to landfills because people have been programmed to think everything has to be ‘different’ and ‘fresh’.”

Next time I go for a filling, I’m going to hold out for the spa music.

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My Feet Speak

Today I have given this space over to two guest bloggers. My feet. They want to share their newfound sense of empowerment.

Right Foot: Excuse me, but I need to rant. This summer has been quite a trial. Wilda has been off having a good time in various places, thinking about everything and everybody but me. She’s skipped yoga classes that used to help me stay limber because either she’s been on vacation or the teacher was. When we were out, I’ve spent most of the past three months in sandals that have no strap across the back. I’ve had to curl my toes with every step to be sure the sandals didn’t slide off. Inside, she’s walked me over hardwood and tile floors bare or worn slippers with no support for my arches. I have been aching all over. Finally, I developed a serious corn that pained her with every step.

Left Foot: I hear you. It sounds as if you’ve gotten the worst of it, but I’ve been suffering too. Two of my toes have started to curl under from all that walking in backless sandals.

Right Foot: Well, I’m happy to say she finally started to pay attention. The corn prompted her to make an appointment with a foot care nurse. She sees clients in a shoe store that specializes in fitting people with “problem feet”.

Left Foot: “Problem feet, my foot.” It’s more like “problem owner” in this case. I’m glad the foot care nurse pointed out the errors in her ways.

Right Foot: Yeah, the last ten days have been much better. By the end of the day of the foot care appointment, Wilda had bought a pair of sandals with a strap across the back. That fact they were 50% off because it’s the end of the season appealed to her frugal nature, but at least she bought them. I’ll give her that. Wearing them has brought back the joy of walking places. She also got a pair of soft-soled, supportive shoes to wear around home. On top of that, she bought a spikey little exercise ball to run our soles across when she’s on the computer. Ahhh, relief!

Left Foot: And all because she got treated for that corn you developed. I must remember that in case she forgets.

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My New Pet

“Why don’t you get a dog?” has been a typical response whenever I’ve dared to mention that I regret not knowing more of my neighbours. Or that I spend too much time sitting in front of my computer.

It’s true that pets can be lovely conversation-starters and exercise-influencers.

I’ve thought about getting a dog. For about five seconds each time. Until the same questions inundate my mind.

Who will walk it if I want to be away? What if I get tired of one-sided conversations? Who will hold my nose while I stoop to scoop?

I’ve come up with another solution. Sponsor a traffic circle garden as a Green Streets Volunteer.

The circle in question is due for renovation. It’s a jumble dominated by overgrown lavender shrubs with woody stems. Other flowers take turns sticking their heads higher than the two-foot limit required for visibility. A rescue garden, for sure.

A landscape architecture student hired by the city is working on the redesign. I’ve asked for a big emphasis on drought resistance in the varieties we choose. Vancouver’s climate is technically outside the traditional northern limit of a Mediterranean climate zone, but our summers have been getting hotter and drier. Lavender, rosemary, and thyme sound like winners. I anticipate my short walk to tend the garden will transport me to southern France on a regular basis.

Traffic circles don’t come with taps. Next summer, I look forward to building bone and muscle mass as I heft jugs of water to help the plants get established.

I anticipate neighbours will start conversations. This week, two people took the trouble to say “Thank you,” when they saw me clipping back the spent lavender wearing my “Green Streets Volunteer” vest.

A friend who loves to garden and lives nearby is helping with the design. I got her a vest as well. I hope others will join us when they see how much fun we are having. Maybe they’ll offer to water when she and I are both away.

And instead of filling doggie-do bags, I anticipate stooping to clip the makings of potpourri and herbs de Provence.

My choice of a new pet (project) fits me perfectly. But it needs a name. “Traffic Circle Garden,” takes too long to say.

I think I’ll call her “Fifi.”

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