This. This is great.
One recent Sunday afternoon I went for a ‘distanced’ hike with a good friend I hadn’t seen since shelter-in-place began. She and I have always been hiking buddies; most of our conversations take place on a trail somewhere, preferably one high up, with a view. This time we were solving for empty space, a wide trail where we could walk apart from one another, and a slower pace because she’s pregnant and I’m just getting back into hiking. The weather was pleasantly hot, and there weren’t too many people on the trail.
As my friend caught me up on what’s been going on in her life – work stuff, family stuff, preparations for her soon-to-arrive baby – I slowly began to realize how much I’ve changed in these past few months. Alone in my own head, spending time mostly with my husband and, over videoconference, work colleagues and a few friends, I’ve shifted focus. The things I wanted to talk about were different than they would have been in February.
“How are you doing?” has become a real question. The answer changes like the weather. I’m more aware of weather, is one answer; I’m spending more time outside, and when inside, more time with a view of the sky. I think about work differently, what it is and how it functions, my own and other people’s, the kind I want to do and how I want to do it. I’m learning about soil. I’ve seen spinach flower and now I know what that looks like, and it’s fascinating. I’ve learned that an artichoke is a perennial, can grow over seven feet tall, and looks a lot like the plant version of a dinosaur. I’m thinking about seasons, both literally and metaphorically, and the (larger) role I’d like them to play in my life. There are people I miss, and people I don’t miss, and I’m surprised by who’s in which group. I have a different relationship to my physical self.
I’m reading more, and more thoroughly. I’m cooking more. I watch lizards and bees and squirrels and the way the hummingbirds chase one another off a particularly good batch of blossoms. I’m learning the streets and landscape immediately around my home. I know half a dozen loop walks I can do to fit almost any amount of available time or energy. I have a new appreciation for my neighbors. I have a new dis-appreciation for the news, less because it’s sensationalistic and more because it’s repetitive. I am thinking about race, and gender, and systemic violence – but I’m trying to do so more slowly, more thoughtfully, than I might have done a year ago. “You were there in those days,” asked a junior colleague who I mentor, “what was that like?” She was asking about tech-bro culture and gender prejudice and how those related to my own experience in tech, during Google’s earlier years. As I answered, I realized the bitterness had gone from my response. In many ways I still don’t know how to assess those days, but somewhere in these past months, I’ve made my peace with that.
Some of these changes are trivial, some significant – but they’re all meaningful at least to me. I don’t know how visible they are to others. Aside from a darker tan and more-sun-bleached hair, I don’t think I look very different. I am likely to tell you more than you want to know about the sex of zucchini flowers, or the way a corn stalk bends zigzag as the ears plump up, but beyond that – I don’t know.
What I do wonder is this: if I am changing so much, and if I hadn’t noticed while it was happening – is everyone else changing too? I don’t mean we’d all change in the same way, of course – but are we all changing? Do we always change so much, so fast, or is the chaos and uncertainty of these days accelerating the process?
What will I – what will we all – be like in a few more months?
This is a Chadwick Cherry tomato, planted from seed I bought early in the pandemic from RedwoodSeeds.net. Isn’t it doing nicely? Look at those blossoms! That sturdy stem! The equally nice little basil plants to either side! (Ignore the weeds. Nothing to see there. Focus on the basil!)
This tomato plant is, I think, looking good. And by all expectations, it shouldn’t exist.
When I planted it, I did everything wrong, as far as standard gardening advice goes. I planted seed directly in the ground on April 9. April 9 is too early to plant tomatoes, and planting seeds directly is not recommended in any source I’ve found. The recommended approach is to either buy seedlings from a nursery, or else start seeds indoors, carefully sheltered in a warm spot, preferably with grow lights and a heat mat. Either of these methods gives the tomato seedlings a chance to start earlier, because tomatoes take a long time to produce fruit, and in warmer conditions, because tomatoes love heat. And there were so many things I didn’t know! I didn’t know how much variability different kinds of tomatoes have in terms of cold tolerance, and heat needs, and days to produce tomatoes. I didn’t know that tomatoes need night time temperatures over fifty degrees in order to set fruit (can this really be true?! I’m still incredulous about this.) I did know that “days to maturity” on a seed packet means “approximately how long it will take to get tomatoes,” but I didn’t realize that for tomatoes, the clock starts when you plant a seedling, not when you plant seeds.
So in other words, I had no idea what I was doing! I planted this tomato both too early and too late, and in far-from-ideal conditions. About the only thing I did to give it a fighting chance was hope, figure “how hard can it be?” in a naive and uninformed fashion, and cover the seeds with a floating shelter to keep a bit of heat in.
(Why did I do it this way? Partly
laziness reality-based planning. I’m in the middle of a house remodel and it was the beginning of the pandemic. I wasn’t about to figure out where to buy seedling trays and potting soil, start seedlings indoors, figure out about a heat source, move a bunch of bay plants around out of the way of construction, deal with transplanting, etc. I do not need more fuss or chaos. And partly, optimism resulting from lack of knowledge. If I’d known that days-to-maturity thing, I might have thought this wouldn’t work at all, and not bothered/given up. Ignorance occasionally leads to a good outcome!)
Yet here it is.
It hasn’t yet produced tomatoes, but June is early for that, and meanwhile it is every bit as big and healthy-looking as the three seedlings I bought later from a nursery, and which I planted at the recommended time.
One of the most interesting things I’m realizing about gardening is the science-experiment nature of it all. At the same time I planted this Chadwick Cherry, I also planted two other varieties in similarly non-ideal conditions: Brad’s Atomic Grape, and Thessaloniki, both also from seed, and both also directly in the ground under shelters. Similar conditions, similar approach, but neither of those are doing anywhere near as well in terms of either size, sturdiness, or blossoms.
So – next year, which varieties of tomatoes will I plant, and how will I go about it? It depends in part on how all these tomatoes do over the summer. Is the Chadwick Cherry tasty? Does it produce fruit in addition to these blossoms? Do the other currently-unimpressive seedlings catch up? How do all those compare to the nursery seedlings? I’m hoping that some of these direct-seeded plants do well enough for that to seems reasonable again next year – if so, I might experiment with more traditional / improv style shelters (ie, empty plastic milk jugs with the bottoms cut out!), and see how those compare to the row covers. And now that I know more about varieties, and what to look for in seed-packet descriptions (“early” seems to be key, and maybe “cold hardy” or similar; cherry tomatoes are likely to set the most fruit, and in prior years were less prone to squirrel depredations), I might stick with whatever works this year, and then branch out to a few new varieties too.
Mostly I’m hoping for more tomatoes than I can realistically eat* – but looking further out, I’m aiming to figure out which varieties of tomato I can grow, lazily but successfully, in my own particular garden.
*Admittedly, I have not yet found the limit on that, but there must be one. Right?
So whatever this is, we’re past the beginning.
We’re past the new. We’re past the where-is-my-charger, I-can’t-find-the-connector-cable, what-should-I-eat-for-lunch-every-day. We’re past do-I-still-wear-makeup-and-shower-in-the-morning. We’re past wondering if there will be eggs and toilet paper (either there will or there won’t). We’re past the shock, the novel, the sudden. We’re past canceling trips. We’re past just-these-few-weeks. We’re past oh-well-it’s-just-a-few-weeks.
We’re past all that.
Whatever it is, we’re into the next.
Today is Thursday night, for me week 7 of shelter-in-place/work-from-home/etc.
Things I’m reading:
- Zoom fatigue is real – look, science!
- Philosophy remains relevant. And funny.
- Yay gardens! And native plants!
- Literature: Autumn, by Ali Smith
- Fun & escapist – a bit like Wodehouse combined with one of those comedy musicals where everyone keeps winding up in the wrong bedroom, or coming down the stairs at an inconvenient moment: The Apricot Colonel, by Marion Halligan
- Because awesome: On Trails, by Robert Moor
Things I’m grateful for:
- Somebody at work wants to start a book club, with books not about work.
- The peas are up! And the kale! And the beans! And the melons! And the spinach! They’re all up about a quarter of an inch, but still. They’re up! And there’s one ripe strawberry, which I’m hoping to eat before a squirrel does.
- That our house, the house of the Horrible House Remodel, came with an Awesome Garden. We at least partially bought the house because of it, and yet. The Awesome Garden is even more awesome than I realized. The past several weeks have offered me much more time to spend in it, and I love it.
- That we got the new fence and raised vegetable garden beds in before shelter-in-place.
- Clear air, and the views over the southern & eastern hills.
- Two days ago, the deer that hang out in the far yard eyed me carefully while I sat on a bench under a tree. I held very still, and they carefully walked right past me and continued on their way to graze on whatever they wanted to graze on.
- Having a kitchen, and a heating system.
- Having plenty to eat.
- That my family is healthy.
People I miss:
- My parents.
- My nephew-by-friendship, and his parents.
- My hiking buddy.
- My afternoon-walk friend, and my mentee.
- My college friend who just moved to California.
Things I’m surprised by:
- How just plain exhausting videoconferences are.
- My own lack of patience for said videoconferences; most large virtual meetings; project status updates; and other work-process type things.
- How nice it is to be at home all day.
- How not-stir-crazy I feel.
- How I still feel busy (although, and I’m grateful for this, less than a week or two ago).
- How easily we switched from eating out nearly every night (which started because no kitchen), to cooking nearly every night (because shelter in place).
- The difference an ergonomic keyboard makes.
That is all.
Today I planted seeds for spinach; scallions; chives; the first batch of tomatoes, and basil. The tomatoes are an experiment. I’m not one for transplanting, so I’m starting the seeds under this row shelter. It’s a sort of lightweight portable greenhouse, designed to keep the air and soil within it warmer than they would be otherwise – and thus, I hope, encourage the tomatoes to grow. I don’t know if it will work. I’m hopeful but not confident.
This brings my total number of garden-beds-planted out to two – the two smallest, out of six total, but still. It feels like progress. I’d already planted peas, and they’ve started to sprout; and two years ago I put in strawberries, which being perennials, remain right where they are and just keep on producing. I pulled back the bindweed from the raspberries, and they are starting to send out runners from main plant & generally expand, so I’m optimistic about that as well.
Dirt is wonderful.
I am not, I would say, an experienced gardener. The six beds I’m planting out now will be my first full-scale vegetable garden. Previously, I had the strawberries, and I grew peas last year, and for several years I’ve bought tomato plants at the nursery and put them in, with mixed success (sometime I get the tomatoes, sometimes the squirrels do) – and I have thyme and oregano and rosemary, all of which are pretty much plant ‘em and forget ‘em types of herbs. But this year …
This year is different.
When work-from-home / shelter-in-place / buy-groceries-only-every-two-weeks began, the first thing I did was buy a frying pan. The second thing I did was think I am only growing things to eat. Then I bought seeds. It wasn’t a well thought out plan. It felt more like instinct, a do this now urge that, while imperative, didn’t come with a lot of background knowledge or detailed instructions. I didn’t know how many of any kind of plant I would want, or even how many would fit in the space I have. I didn’t know how long things would take to produce, or what to do about fertilizer, or how far apart to plant things.
I figured it was better to have too many seeds than too few, so I bought more seeds than I needed. I focused on things I like to eat, that are best eaten uncooked (spinach, kale, tomatoes, herbs to brighten up canned goods or casseroles), that I just love and want lots of access to (corn, snap peas, more tomatoes, melon, zucchini), that seem like really handy things to eat that I might not want to get from a store (green beans, scallions, dill, chili peppers).
Then I started clearing weeds.
Then I made a spreadsheet.
I don’t have a lot of experience, but I am very very good at online research of the how-to variety, and I am very very good at structuring information. My spreadsheet lists the seeds I’m planting down one side, and across the top has months, broken down into half-months. Based on looking up when to plant, how long things take to grow and mature, and when to harvest, I now have a diagram showing what the seed producers + the collective wisdom of the internet think I should plant when, and how soon I can expect to see it sprout, and how soon I can expect to eat it.
My plan is to take notes as I go, and see what works. I do want to eat all this goodness this year; but I also want to learn, and I’m enough of a realist to suspect that some things I’ve planted will work out better than others.
So. Today I planted out the first two beds.
By the end of the week….
A few friends who are sheltering in place in apartments (or houses with not much outdoor space) have asked about growing herbs and veggies in containers, and how to get started.
This is totally do-able! You just need pots; potting soil; and seeds. It can be sort of intimidating to figure out which, though, so if you want an easy way to get started, here’s a list:
Pots and dirt
I’m linking to Home Depot because they’re open, and offer delivery. Your local garden store might be open too! If so, just ask them for three or four large-ish pots and the equivalent amount of potting mix.
Self-watering planter, 1 (or 2 if adding a tomato plant)
Rectangular deck box, 2 (or 3 if adding basil)
Potting soil, 2 bags (or 3, if you get an additional planter and/or deck box)
I’m listing seeds that are easy to grow; don’t need transplanting, staking, or other special stuff; grow quickly; and are a reasonable size to grow in containers.
I’m linking to KitchenGardenSeeds.com because I’ve ordered from them before, and they’re open and shipping. I also like RedwoodSeeds.net and ReneesGarden.com.
Snap peas: Sugar Ann
Arugula: Runaway Arugula
Spinach: Bordeaux Red-Stemmed Spinach
Parsley: Gigante d’Italia
If you have a sunny spot, you can also do:
Tomatoes: Cherry Falls (doesn’t need a tomato cage!)
The seed packets will have planting instructions. In general, all these seeds should be planted just below the surface, about 1/4” to 1/2” deep.
Peas: plant them in the self-watering pot.
Arugula & spinach: plant in one of the rectangular boxes; use half the box for each one.
Parsley & cilantro: plant in the other rectangular box; use half the box for each one.
Tomato: plant in the other self-watering pot.
Basil: plant in half the other rectangular box; use the other half for whichever other type of seed you like best.
Tomatoes like warmth, so if you have space, start by keeping the pot indoors and move it outside only once the seedlings are 5”-6” tall. If you don’t have space indoors, find a sunny spot for the tomato – in front of a wall that gets sun reflected off it is a good choice.
I work at Google. Everything posted here is my personal opinion and content, and in no way Google’s official take on anything at all.
March 15, 2020
Over on Twitter, Jim posts about the Decameron and Erik is discussing pandemic math. My group chat with my writing group covers the challenge that is lunch at home; Kate posts east coast beach pictures to Instagram; my cousin Angela links to a diagram about the safest way to greet someone (middle finger up: no germ transmission! ha); Adam posts a poem that causes me to tear up because it is so right and exactly what I needed to read right now; Estee lists food it might be helpful to have at home in case of quarantine, and how to grow micro greens because you’re going to want something fresh. There are suggestions for how to help out your favorite small local businesses; there is advice for what to tell your children. Everyone who cooks posts pictures of stew; everyone who bakes posts pictures of pie (and other comfort-food desserts).
We’re at home in a way we’re not used to. We’re online in a way we are used to, but in this week’s pandemic-focused world, our online-ness matters more. Online, we’re doing the most human thing there is: gathering together to face down fear. We’re gathering virtually because that’s what we can do right now. We’re gathering, and we’re checking in with the people we care about. Are you there? Are you okay? Are your parents okay? Your kids, the people you love? Your home? Here’s how I’m doing. What about you? I’m scared. I thought of something funny, want to hear it? How are you? Are things okay?
And most of all:
We’re going to get through this, right?
In the middle of all this real-time person-to-person connection that can potentially help us feel less alone, less isolated in our strongly-recommended-social-distancing, gatherings-over-50-people-prohibited and gatherings-over-10-people-strongly-disrecommended context:
Advertisements for vans to go on vacation in
Ads for food delivery
Ads for a new type of women’s undershirt
My hometown’s declaration of a city-wide emergency
Something about real estate
Ads for work-from-home productivity tools
Ads for a startup selling something that I actually cannot tell what it is
There are two problems with this:
First, when did it become okay to merge a bunch of commercial demand-generation nonsense in with messages from people we actually care about? In tech we talk a lot about the need to separate work from life – the more I think about it, I think the real split we need is commercial from non-commercial. The mix has snuck up on us so gradually that it’s easy to assume it’s always been this way, that it’s inevitable, but if we were designing this from scratch, is there any way we’d choose this? A discussion about the Decameron that cheers me up because it reminds me of everything I loved about college, a photo from a friend who’s grateful she got her family back to their beach-town home, my cousin’s sense of humor – those are fundamentally different from that undershirt ad. When I want people, I want people.
Note, this isn’t about relevance; most of that commercial stuff is arguably relevant to me, and might even be something I’d be interested in (when I was a kid, I convinced my parents to acquire an RV – the advertised van is four-wheel drive, and I had fun looking at the pictures on the company’s website!). It’s not that I necessarily don’t want this stuff. I might have fun browsing it, the same way I used to enjoy browsing magazines. But if I do want it, I want it somewhere else, not mixed in with messages from people I care about.
Second, it is just plain frustrating and a bad user experience that all these updates from people I care about are scattered all over the place. I want some kind of hub. I want to not have to think about whether a particular person is on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or has a blog or a group chat or whatever. I want to look at one thing and have everything show up, photos and comments and all. I want to reply or comment or like or send a heart or a hug or a smile or some kind of emoji for sympathy (I don’t know what emoji that would be, advice welcome) from within the single hub I’m looking at, and have it reach the person I send it to on whatever app (or other hub!) they use.
I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t have a particularly great path forward in mind. But – if I’m hopeful that the pandemic brings out the best in us as humans, and I am, I’m also hopeful that it may also cause us to rethink some of the directions we’ve been sending our interactions with each other.
Tech is awesome.
We can do better.
A few weeks back I re-read Getting Things Done. It’s a classic of productivity, and I’d been feeling overwhelmed: not by big things, which happily have settled down, but by daily life’s minutia. I needed to wrangle things into place, and make space to move forward.
Getting Things Done is interesting. The core idea involves capturing all the things, getting them out of your head and into some other system so you can free up your brain for other tasks. This resonates with me. I tend to shy away from looking at what I’ve signed up for – I just don’t want to know. But really, I do know, and that knowing drags at me.
As I made my list, beginning to clear the clutter in my head (and make things actionable: it’s not “clean up office,” it’s “put away shoes & makeup”), I started to think about how similar the ideas are to other practices of mental clarity. From Marie Kondo’s “does this spark joy?”, to the early Arts & Crafts movement & William Morris’ “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” to traditional rhythms of spring cleaning or breaking or burning possessions at various celestial or cultural milestones, to cleaning up one’s desk before beginning work – the notion of streamlining, getting things in order, creating a fresh start by creating a fresh sense of place is fundamental. As humans, we tell ourselves this story, these instructions, over and over again.
And so. It’s New Year’s. I don’t have New Year’s resolutions; I’ve learned I don’t think in years. Instead, I have a short list of goals for January and some habits I’m banking on to get me there. I’ve cleaned out my closet and the pantry, and detailed out the spreadsheet that tracks the house remodel. Tonight I’ll celebrate with hot cider and fairy lights on a rosemary tree, and watch my breath steam up in the outdoor cold.
What does your fresh start look like?