Designing the World’s Most Pretentious Garden Shed

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The new garden shed, under construction.

At the very top of my “honey-do” list is a much needed garden shed to store tools, pots, fertilizer and chicken feed. After years of dragging my heels for years, the project went from napkin sketch to construction in under a week.

I set as my goal to build the world’s most pretentious garden shed and, as much as possible, to use salvaged materials. Yes, I’m crazy. I have to admit that when British hedge fund manager Crispen Odey tried to build a $250,000 neo-classical chicken coop at the height of the 2008 economic crisis I couldn’t help but admire the design.

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For ideas I thumbed through a coffee table book of 18th century French revolutionary architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s oddball sketches But fabricating a waterproof sphere from used headboards and pallets is beyond my carpentry abilities. Nevertheless, I came up with a few scribbles:

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Thankfully, most of my thoughtstylings stay in the sketchbook like the idea of a 20-foot tall observation chair on top of the shed. Kelly pointed out that the neighbors might not like that idea.

After dashing off a few sketches I created a Pinterest board to gather more notions, mostly from Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden, Little Sparta:
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The garden shed design I settled on is a kind of mashup of Ian Hamilton Finlay and the front of an “airplane” bungalow (a common type of house in our neighborhood).

Next it was time to put the idea into Sketchup. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Sketchup rocks. All DIYers should know how to use it. With Sketchup I was able to come up with a framing plan that allowed me to cut all the pieces out of the hot sun in the comfort of my garage workshop. Then I just had to carry my stack of pre-cut lumber up the hill and hammer it together.

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Another goal of mine was not to hoard materials ahead of time. I’ve been aided by two great resources, Reuse People of America and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. They both hoard materials so you don’t have to. Those two resources have kept me mostly out of the big orange store. And all of the doors I needed came from the street.

I’ll post an update and maybe even a video tour when I finish construction. Rents are so high in our neighborhood that Kelly and I might just move into the shed and rent out the house!

Tolkien and Trees

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The cypresses of Point Lobos

I love trees. Some of my earliest memories are of trees, and my passion for them and fascination with them only deepens with time. In addition to being a literal tree-hugger, I’m also a bit of a geek (no, tree huggers are not geeks–technically they are eccentrics) so you can imagine how delighted I was when I discovered that the Godfather of Fantasy, J.R.R.. Tolkien, was an unabashed partisan of trees.

A couple of quotes from him regarding trees are making the rounds on the internet, but I’ve learned to distrust popular quotations. They are often misattributed or downright made up. So I searched his edited letters for references to trees.

There are many–he always mentions trees when he describes places, has funny things to say about artists who can’t draw trees, and has many trees of significance in his books, which he mentions in passing, but the following are the more direct defenses of trees:

#165 To the Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1955 :

I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.

#83 From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, 6 October 1944:

It is not the not-man (e.g. weather) nor man, (even at a bad level), but the man-made that is ultimately daunting and insupportable. If a ragnarök would bum all the slums and gas-works, and shabby garages, and long arc-lit suburbs, it cd. for me bum all the works of art – and I’d go back to trees.

#339 To the Editor of the Daily Telegraph

[In a leader in the Daily Telegraph of 29 June 1972, entitled ‘Forestry and Us’, there occurred this passage: ‘Sheepwalks where you could once ramble for miles are transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings…’ Tolkien’s letter was published, with a slight alteration to the opening sentence, in the issue of 4 July.]

30 June 1972
Merton College, Oxford

Dear Sir,

With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, page 18, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

I say amen to that last paragraph!

And finally, as an interesting aside which may be of more interest to fantasy geeks than straight-up tree lovers, here he is on the Ents:

#163 To W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955

…Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing  but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connection with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war…

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Two Podcasts You’ve Got to Hear: Thinking Trees and Rewilding

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The Oostvaardersplassen, an attempt to rewild a very unwild place in the Netherlands.

In case you can’t get enough of our podcasts, let me suggest two other podcast episodes that will definitely be of interest to Root Simple readers and listeners:

WNYC’s Radiolab released an episode, From Tree to Shining Tree which features the mind-bending research of Suzanne Simard. Her work shows that the root systems of forests form a sort of neural network, perhaps even a kind of plant consciousness.

The always worthwhile and thoughtful Ideas show has an episode on Rewilding, the tricky notion of returning landscapes to a “natural” state. One of the examples in the show is an attempt to rewild a region in the Netherlands that was reclaimed from the sea in the 1960s. I’m very familiar with this place from a bizarre, failed project I was involved with that attempted to create a monumental land art piece with explosives. Someday I’ll tell that crazy story, but let’s just say that this part of the Netherlands is probably the most dull landscape in the world. The Ideas show begins with the story of Ecologist Frans Vera introducing wild animals to this very artificial place. The show goes on to explore what “wildness” means. Spoiler: that’s a topic that will never have a neat conclusion.

090 Garden Myths: Nitrogen, Roundup, Compost Tea

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Our topic this week is gardening myths and our guest is Robert Pavlis. We touch on a number of controversial, hot-button gardening topics such as synthetic fertilizers, roundup and compost tea. Robert maintains a six acre garden near Guelph, Ontario all by himself, he’s a master gardener and a speaker. He has a background in chemistry and biochemistry and runs two blogs: gardenmyths.com and gardenfundamentals.com.

During the show we also discuss the “whys” of gardening, mosquito prevention, stuff you shouldn’t buy and the problems with fish fertilizer.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

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Cold brewed tisanes, teas and coffee: Your summertime best friends

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Cold brewed coffee is all the thing these days. And you’ve probably heard that we’re not supposed to make sun tea anymore, but fridge tea instead–which is cold brewed tea. In fact, cold brewing allows you to  throw just about anything you’d brew hot into cold water instead, refrigerate it overnight and end up with something refreshing, cold and delicious to drink the next day.

Proponents of cold brewing point out that though it takes longer than hot brewing, it preserves the more delicate scents and flavors of whatever you’re brewing, and minimizes the bitter and vegetal overtones which come from heating and from overbrewing.

Most importantly from my standpoint, you don’t have to heat water. You don’t have to get anywhere near the stove, and the finished product is nice and cold and ready to guzzle.

Cold Mint Tea

My everyday summertime fridge staple is cold mint tea (tisane, technically). I make this by simply throwing a handful of dried mint leaves (harvested from my rangy mint plant) into a jar, adding filtered water, and leaving it in the fridge for the length of a day, or overnight. Then I strain the tea to remove the leaves and keep the tea in the fridge. I never measure anything. You can make the tea stronger and dilute it to taste if necessary, or make it very weak, so it’s just cold water with a delicate breath of mint to it. It’s good no matter what you do. If you don’t have a mint plant, use a couple of mint tea bags.

Jamaica

If you don’t mind a little added sugar in your bev, jamaica (hibiscus flower tea) is a really nice summer drink, tart and sweet and refreshing. And as a bonus, my herbalism teacher tells me all that rich red flower power is good for you, too.

You can buy bags of dried hibiscus/jamaica flowers inexpensively in the spice aisle of any Latin market, in the same area where you’d find dried peppers and the like. If you can’t find the flowers, you may be able to find bagged hibiscus tea.

Cold brew jamaica by placing about a 1/2 cup of the dried flowers into a quart jar and top with water. I am ever grateful to The Kitchn for turning me on to the idea of adding a cinnamon stick to this brew. Cinnamon adds a really nice, sophisticated touch to the flavor. (The whole article is worth a read for some in-depth jamaica talk.) Let this sit overnight, or most of the day, strain and add sweetener to taste. It’s easiest to use simple syrup.

A taste of the wild

Our friend Pascal, who is on our podcast this week, usually shows up at parties with a big jug of cold infusions of foraged plants. He talks about this in his book, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine. He uses whatever is in season at the time, an eclectic mix that may include wild mints, elderflowers, conifers like white fir and pine, herbs like black sage and berries of all sorts. Sometimes he adds less-wild ingredients, like lemons or honey. He leaves all these things swirling around in the jug at table, so that the sight of the infusion is almost as arresting as the taste.

Pascal’s beautiful infusions should give you the courage to grab a few things from your garden and see what happens.

Spa water

If you’re not up for infusing the entire forest into your drinking water, what about cucumbers? It’s easy to forget how good simple infusions are to have around. A few cucumber slices, a cup of watermelon chunks, a handful raspberries–all these things make iced water a little more fun. Just use whatever you have leftover on any given day–that spare half of a lemon, a melon slice that no one seems to want, that extra handful of herbs. My favorite Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, Cacao, puts sprigs of rosemary in its table water.

Other herbal experiments

Experiment with other teas and herbs you have in your cupboard. For instance, I quite like cold brewed chamomile tea. Erik does not, however. Tastes do vary! Any of your favorite bagged hot teas might be good cold. It’s a good way to use them up if your tea collection is taking over your kitchen cabinet.

A healthy if decidedly green tasting option is dried nettle cold brew. Cold brewed nettles taste a little less like a cook vegetable than hot brewed nettles. Sometimes I mix nettles and mint half and half, to make the nettles a little more sprightly.

Extreme wonkery over iced tea and iced coffee

I am a lazy person. I enjoy sitting in my proverbial armchair and reading about other people’s obsessive quests to make things like the perfect cold brewed iced tea, but when it comes time to make it myself, I always end up just throwing a few things together and seeing what happens.

I always enjoy the experiments in the Food Lab over at the Serious Eats site, and I send you there if you want to up your fridge tea game:

The Tea Lover’s Way to Make the Best Cold Brewed Iced Tea

For The Best Sun Tea, Forget the Sun

(Amusingly, the different authors don’t exactly agree on the best route to iced tea, which only reinforces my laissezfaire attitude. But they’re great reads.)

And here’s their take(s) on cold brewing coffee:

It’s Time to Make Cold Brewed Coffee

Or maybe not?

What’s the Best Way to Brew Iced Coffee?

So brew yourself up something refreshing, find yourself a seat in the shade, and enjoy the summer!

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