Straw Bale Gardening Update

I think I’ve put a name to an all to common gardening experience. I’ve got what I shall, from now on, refer to as Tomato Disappointment Syndrome or TDS for short. TDS recognizes a unspoken reality of vegetable gardening: that for every lush and productive tomato plant there exists at least ten spindly, diseased specimens hiding in backyards.

Without careful soil stewardship, just the right amount of water and diligence about not growing tomatoes in the same place every year TDS will visit your household. Since I’ve had tomato disease problems for years I decided to grow them in straw bales this season as I did, successfully, back in 2013.

Unfortunately, my straw bale tomatoes succumbed to one of three possible problems:

  • Improperly conditioned bale. I may not have spent enough time adding nitrogen to the bale.
  • Root-bound seedlings.
  • Herbicides in the straw.

I’m leaning towards a lack of nitrogen caused by not following bale conditioning instructions carefully. Herbicides in the bale are also possible or some combination of all three of the above factors.

Allow me to also theorize, building on the foundation of TDS, that success in vegetable gardening is inversely related to one’s propensity to brag, write or boast about vegetable gardening on, say, a blog or social media account. Perhaps I should just shut up and take care of the soil or pay more attention to my bale conditioning efforts and cease the grandstanding.

Digital Götterdämmerung

I approach most productivity books with wariness. Most of the authors of these tomes, I suspect, report directly to creepy old Wotan and just want to make us feel better about all the hours we spend chained to our digital workstations. I’m especially distrustful of prophets who claim to have a cure for digital addiction.

Typically, when the mainstream media does a story on why we’re all glued to our iPhones, it will begin with the reporter spending an hour in a M.R.I. machine while scrolling through their Facebook feed. The conclusion? By golly, various parts of the brain light up in response to pictures of babies and rants about our reptilian overlords! It’s all in the brain and there’s not much we can do about that so move along and never mind. What seemed to have eluded these incredulous reporters, until recently, is that there’s a whole bunch of oligarchs up in Valhalla exploiting our biologically based addictions so that they can make a buck and sell our information to . . . who knows?

While I patiently await the coming oligarch Götterdämmerung–spoiler: Brunhilde burns down Valhalla–until that glorious day we’re all left with a practical problem: we just can’t seem to stop looking at our phones.

Cal Newport has some suggestions while we wait around in front of Apple headquarters for the right moment to get the torches lit. The cornerstone of his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Amazon, library) is the suggestion to take a one month break from addictive apps, websites and other digital media. Use that time to figure out some life goals. At the end of the month carefully add back the digital tools you find useful.

I just started the one month digital fast and, already, I feel like I’m regaining a long lost pre-internet memory of when I used to read more, learn new skills and get stuff done.

Newport is flexible about what you abstain from during the one month period. He acknowledges that many people have jobs that require them to use social media so you have to write your own rules. In my case I gave up Facebook over a year ago but I’ve found myself spending way too much time looking at things like Twitter, NextDoor (which has turned into 8chan for grumpy old home owners), YouTube and a random assortment of click-baity websites. And I’ve spent way too much time randomly googling trivia (whatever happened to Sheila E?). So my rules for this month banish all the aforementioned websites and random Googling. I’m allowing myself to look only at Fine Woodworking, Lost Art Press and write this blog. The rest of my time I’m building furniture, practicing drawing and reading.

While the digital de-clutter forms the centerpiece of Newport’s strategy he has a lot of other common sense suggestions:

  • Consider experimenting with periods when you leave your phone at home. Even though I was a late adapter even to having a flip phone, it’s hard for me to remember all the time I used to have away from a mobile phone.
  • Delete social media from your phone. If you have to use it for a job log in only on a desktop computer or laptop but not on your phone.
  • Dumb down your smart phone by removing all addictive apps.
  • Use an app like Freedom to block additive services.
  • Take long walks.
  • Don’t click the like button (i.e. don’t fall into the cheap tricks the Silicon Valley reptilians set for us).
  • Consolidate texting by turning on the do not disturb function of your smart phone for set periods in a day. Then deal with those texts all at once.
  • Take up a high quality hobby. Newport actually mentions woodworking and I can vouch for the usefulness of this particular skill. But your hobby could also be something like sewing, welding, cooking, gardening, volunteering or learning a musical instrument.
  • Reclaim conversation by shutting off the phone.
  • Join something and be a part of a face to face group.
  • Take up a sport.

Newport contends that at the end of the month long digital fast you’ll find that services you looked at compulsively will lose their charm. This has already happened to me with Instagram. I took a long break this year and when I peeked at it recently I was horrified by what I saw which included privacy invading pictures of children in hospital rooms and an image of a distant acquaintance pole dancing that I can’t un-see. Newport says that “Online interactions all have an exhausting element of performance” where we end up at a “point where the line between real and performed is blurring.” I can feel how these services feed my own desire to perform rather than just be me. It’s a relief not to have to constantly preen and “peacock” for the camera.

Unlike me, Newport isn’t a Luddite. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who have to use social media for a job, Newport contends that most people can get what they need out of a social media service in as little as a half hour or 45 minutes a week of focused use.

My research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services–dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set buy these companies can spring shut.

He’s also realistic that we might all need to carve out some time for low-quality web surfing but that this time needs to be contained rather than sprinkled throughout the day.

During the one month fast Newport suggests developing a long term plan with what to do with our spare hours. In addition to my quixotic furniture building mission I’ve vowed to improve my drawing skills and finish reading a few long books on my literary bucket list. I’ve already feel like I’ve reclaimed, for the first time since the appearance of the accursed interwebs and the un-smart smart phone, a greater focus and attentiveness.

Saturday Tweets: Ancient Bread, Wild Horses and High Metabolism Money

132 Legalize It! A Conversation with Beekeeper Max Wong

Photos: Jacob Dickinson

On this bee-centric episode of the podcast I talk with fellow “backwards” beekeeper Max Wong, in front of a live audience at a meeting of the Long Beach Beekeepers, about her techniques as well as her role in the successful efforts to legalize beekeeping in Santa Monica and Los Angeles. During the podcast Max mentions:

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. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Misadventures in Laser Cutting

Here at Root Simple we have a tendency to only post our successes. This can lead to the impression that we live in a state of transcendent Martha Stewart perfection, obscuring the reality that DIY projects are as arduous as climbing a mountain. There’s an initial enthusiasm followed closely by alternating periods of triumph, self doubt and pain. Hopefully you learn from your mistakes while acknowledging that you’ll never un-see the flaws nobody else will ever notice.

My latest episode of DIY mountain climbing involved a laser cutter. When I found out that the LA Central Library had a laser cutter that you can use for free I jumped on the opportunity. As an experiment I thought I’d try making a woodblock for printing as well as etch a few images on wood.

For the woodblock I downloaded an image from the internet by the Belgian turn-of-the-last-century artist Félix Vallotton. I used a combination of Photoshop and Illustrator to change the downloaded JPEG image into a vector file suitable for laser cutting. The actual laser cutting was fairly simple. I loaded my Illustrator file into the library’s PC based CorelDRAW program and then hit the print button. A screen pops up with a set of options for the laser cutter which includes materials and depth of cut. I used birch plywood and checked the thickness of the material with calipers. I ended up having to run the laser cut twice to get a deeper cut in the plywood so that the cut portions of the wood wouldn’t soak up ink. It was almost as easy as printing a normal document on paper.

A few days later I asked Kelly (since she has the art degree) to assist in printing the woodcut. We made a trip to the art supply store to get a brayer, paper, and some ink. I fashioned a baren, used to press the paper onto the woodcut, out of scrap wood and a doorknob.

We managed to pull two not-so-great prints. The problems fall into two categories: materials and concept. First, I should have sanded the birch plywood before laser cutting. The surface of the wood left too rough an impression in the print and soaked up too much ink. I probably would have better results had I put linoleum in the laser cutter instead of wood. Or, perhaps, I should have sanded and sealed the plywood more thoroughly. I did put a coat of shellac on the wood but that wasn’t enough.

Conceptually, using a computer and laser cutter to make a woodblock can remove what is interesting about a woodblock: specifically the irregular line qualities introduced when a human hand cuts wood with a gouge. This does not mean that using a laser cutter to make a print block isn’t worth doing. But I think you might get more interesting results where you acknowledge, rather than try to disguise, the use of a computer and laser. For instance, artist Patrick Collier uses photographs with a halftone pattern to make large lino prints. In a similar process, Toby Millman deomonstrates in a YouTube video how she turns photographs into colored lino prints. The advantage of using a laser printer to make a printing block is that you can do effects that would be impossible to do with a gouge as well as make large prints that would take weeks to cut by hand. Getting the right balance of concept, materials and tools is, of course, one of the central struggles in making art.

Printing on Wood
After completing my print block I had some extra time in the lab so I thought I’d see what it looks like to simply etch in wood. First I tried an image of our cat Buck, one on birch plywood and the other on a scrap of quarter sawn white oak. With some more tweaking in illustrator I probably could have gotten a better image on the birch but I didn’t have time. The oak image did not work at all because the figure of the wood competes too much with the image. If I had my own laser cutter I could probably spend my weekends sitting in a booth at cat shows making laser printed wood cat portraits but that’s not a future I look forward to.

I also tried cutting a more complex image by the symbolist illustrator Carl Otto Czeschka. The results prove that the laser is capable of very fine line quality. I’m thinking of experimenting with some intricate Islamic patterns on a small wood box. Laser cutters can also cut entirely through thin materials so that opens up more possibilities to do things that would be difficult to do by hand. I’m intrigued, for instance, with the possibilities for making three dimensional folding paper cards. You could also use the laser cutter for screen printing, making stencils, wood inlay or marquetry.

Many thanks to the knowledgeable staff of the Octavia Lab!