February 12, 2008

What I Learned from Being a Professional Gardener

During my first set of college years, I had a summer/work study job as a gardener. You might think that the major lessons were about plants and how to grow things, which I did learn. But the biggest lessons I learned were about how to handle a massive maintenance project with a minimal staff.

Our campus was a 147-acre botanical garden, and there were only a handful of gardeners to maintain it. The system was very simple: every morning we would be sent to a different area to weed (weeding being the major task for maintaining a tidy garden). The staff pruner would go deal with a different area that needed work, and sometimes she would take along a student assistant. For a week or so in the summer we pruned ivy from the college buildings. But mostly, we weeded.

I've tried to be as methodical in my approach to my own garden as we were about the campus back then. Instead of wandering all over the place picking a weed here and there, I will settle into an area and clear it completely, putting the weeds in a bucket to go to the compost pile (we composted our weeds back in college, too). When I finish an area I can continue to the next contiguous area, or move to a place that needs more attention.

I think it's the fact that when an area is done, it's completely cleared of weeds of all sizes that makes such a difference. Whether you clear the weeds by hand-pulling as I do now, or by scuffling them off as we did back in the good old days, the area is not going to even start looking weedy for a while. And when it does, you can come around again.

And now I'm trying to be even more methodical about the work. Instead of just choosing a spot, what if I divided the garden up into zones and worked each zone until it was done before moving on? I could make the zones as small as I wanted to give myself variety, and if they were small then the day's task would be over sooner.

This is a little different from the usual household division method for housework. It's as if I approached housekeeping by saying that today I am going to make the living room couch sparkle, and just ignore the rest of the room. I think that doesn't work as nicely indoors because clutter is very different from weeds: it can appear in huge amounts in seconds (weeds take time to grow). And you can move clutter from one area to another (you can do that with weeds but it's a lot of extra work and would be really weird). And you might want to keep some of the clutter (whereas the weeds are by definition unwanted).

For me, the lesson is about breaking things down into pieces and working on each one of those pieces in turn. Instead of trying to weed an entire campus, I was just trying to weed the planting beds around a particular building. And in a few weeks of work two or three teams of weeders would have touched every part of the campus.

The other thing that I have come to realize was very important was that the campus did not mulch anywhere. There are some compelling reasons not to mulch (just consider the cost of mulching a 147-acre campus for a moment), but the biggest reason seems to be that when you mulch, that makes systematic weeding a lot more work. You can't use a tool like a scuffle hoe without wasting a lot of mulch and possibly just reburying weeds. And the mulch tends to hide the weeds until they have much larger and stronger root systems, and are harder to kill. I've never found that mulch reduces the number of weeds to be pulled, anyway (they grow in mulch just fine). I use mulch only sparingly in my own garden.

So, did I learn a little tidbit about gardening methodology, or something bigger? The real lesson is to think about making sure your methods support your processes. By not mulching, the campus was allowing the weeders to work more efficiently, which allowed us to cover a lot more ground in a relatively short period. I'm trying to apply that to my own life, where it's clear that sometimes something I am doing -- something I thought would help -- is not supporting my overall goals.

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September 13, 2007

House Rules

Rules are not always arbitrary or unfair. Sometimes they're just life lessons codified, or even mutual decisions written down. We have some very simple house rules. Here are some examples:

- No perishable food item is ever stored in the drawers of the refrigerator. Why: out of sight is out of mind. It's been our experience that anything perishable in the "crisper" drawer is going to go bad before we remember it's there. We call that bin the "rotter." So what goes in the drawers? Beverages, usually. Cans and bottles of soda, beer, water.

- When we're down to one, it's time to restock. What? When you put on the second-to-last roll of toilet paper, you should go that day to the store and restock. I prefer to go earlier, myself. Because you know you're going to put it off, anyway, and at least this way you have not only the full roll on the dispenser, but the spare in the cabinet to cover you.

- When you do a load of laundry, throw in the kitchen towels and the bath handtowel as well. Why: somehow, the kitchen and bath handtowels get forgotten in the usual round of laundry; there's not enough of either or both of them to merit a load on their own, but they get really dirty. So instead of trying to work in a real schedule for cleaning them, we have a simple rule that you grab them when you go to do a load of laundry (right next to the kitchen, anyway). If we've really messed one up, we might just throw it in the washer to wait for the next load to be done. So there's a regular supply of clean towels without much extra effort.

September 24, 2006

Streamlining My Gear

I've been knitting for a really long time, and have acquired lots of gear over time that has just turned into a huge jumble. Recently I decided to cut that out, and I have been pruning my stuff down to my favourites and some more versatile pieces.

Here's everything, now. OK, I still have a bunch of straight needles that I'm probably going to give away, and those are stored in a big roll-up needle holder, but this is the stuff I'm using regularly.

All the knitting junk

What's in there, anyway? Well, I got the storage pages from KnitPicks, and tied them into bunches with some loose binder rings. I also have the big binder thing that comes with the set, but I find it can't hold as much as I want, and then it's hard to separate the pages into categories. I'm still deciding whether I will use the binder for current projects or not.

In this first set of pages, I have some ordinary circular needles of various sizes. Some of these I will eventually get rid of, because I don't really need them any more. The pages are labeled with the size of the needle and its length.

Some circular needles

In another bundle, I have all the bits and bobs from the set of KnitPicks Options needles I bought this summer. I'm very happy with this set because not only are they very fine circular needles, but they can be set up to operate as straight needles, too. Four of the pages that have three pockets will hold all the tips currently available from KnitPicks. Again, I labeled them with the size. The cables are stored in two-pocket pages and also labeled with their length.

The Knitpicks Options set

Another bundle of pages holds my little tool bits. Markers, cable needles, my little embroidery scissors, measuring tape, that sort of thing. I used to have a lot more of this stuff, but I've been getting rid of the things I don't use very often or only use out of guilt.


I use this little bag to hold the tools for my current project. Mostly things that would get snagged on the yarn in the knitting bag. It's a toiletries kit from an international flight on Virgin. I like that it is see-through, so if I'm looking for something I can locate it from the outside instead of having to dig around.

Current project stuff

And I had a few bags and things left over. Nice if I break something, or get more stuff and need to have more space, but also nice to keep away from the main working tools.

Extra storage bits

I've been looking for a cheap cardboard 6-ring binder to hold these together, but the loose binder rings work very well and the pages fit nicely into a little box I have, so this system will work just fine. Now I can stop obsessing about getting it all organized and perfect, and actually do some knitting.

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June 5, 2006

Let the Machine Remember For You

If there are routine things you have to do that you keep forgetting, it may be time to think about how you can avoid having to remember them in the first place.

Oh, yes, there are calendars and alarms and all that, but maybe the best solution is to not have to think about it in the first place. Electronic bill paying is an obvious example of this: you can monitor it, but you don't need to worry about whether you've paid the gas bill on time.

Then there's thermostat timers that turn the heat up or down depending on the time of day -- I'm so dependent on mine I can't imagine living without it. No more forgetting to turn down the heat before bed, or coming home to a cold house, or spending too much time thinking about whether it is time to fiddle with the heating controls. That brain space can be used for something else.

How about some other daily running worries that you can eliminate with automation? An appliance timer can turn on the coffee machine for you in the morning (or they make machines with timers built in) and turn it off for you, too. You can buy a kit to put little drip emitters in your potted plants, and hook that up to a timer, too. Imagine never killing a plant by forgetting to water it again. We have a timer on our shower ventilation fan, so it runs for thirty minutes after you turn it on to suck the humid air out of the room, then shuts off automatically. Bliss.

You can use automation (and appliance timers) to help make lifestyle changes. Want to cut down on your TV viewing? Put the TV on an appliance timer and it will be turned off for you when the limit is up. It's obviously trivial to override the system, but it requires real thinking about whether you want to watch TV now or not.

The real beauty of the automated system is that you can turn off that background process that is always nagging you to remember things. The machines, which are really good at remembering things, will do that for you. You can do the stuff that your brain is really good at.

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March 1, 2006

Do It Wrong

I have really long hair, and supposedly the right way to brush really long hair is to start at the tips and work your way to the crown of your head, brushing only a few inches at a time, to prevent knots.

Give me a break.

One of the worst things you can do is the simple act of thinking about how to do something the right way. Don't do it right, don't be perfect. Just do it, and if it's half-assed, at least it's done!

Consider this: I need to build a trellis for some roses. I've been in a minor obsession about this all week, thinking of where to get the materials and how to put it together. Because it needs to be just perfect. Instead, I should either a) go buy a cheap, imperfect trellis, or b) just get some stuff and put the thing together, figuring it out as I go. In either case I would already have the trellis and I could obsess about something else for a while.

Do work when you know you don't have enough time to do it right. Pick something up and throw it out on the way to the door. Clean the sink, but don't scrub it out and clean all the gunk around the faucets. Be imperfect, do a slap-dash job. It'll get you further than sitting around, paralyzed by the need to be perfect.

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