Tag Archives: gardening

Stuff We’re Enjoying: Early Spring Edition

Summer weather arrived in Pittsburgh this past week, dramatically muscling spring weather out of the way with a flourish, flipping its ponytail over its shoulder and flopping down on a beach towel with a good book.  Your stalwart Eleventh Stack crew has done likewise; here are a few of the library materials we’re enjoying at the turn of the season.


This book will mess you up.

I know that everyone and their grandmother is reading The Hunger Games right now, but I don’t feel that I need to, as I’ve already read Lord of the Flies, Battle Royale, and The Long Walk. As a matter of fact, I’m rereading The Long Walk for the fifth or sixth time right now. It’s a Stephen King short novel, written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, from back in the days before King started selling novels by the pound. Basically, every year one hundred teenage boys start at the Maine-Canada border and walk south until there is only one boy left. There are rules, of course. And penalties. And insanity. And death. If you read this one, you’ll never forget it.


Recently I visited some family in Illinois. One of the folks there is a big reader of sci-fi and fantasy, and so I waxed on to him over a couple of beers about a recent title, Embassytown, by China Miéville, that I thought one of the best science fiction titles in years.  He told me that I had to read The City and the City, another Miéville title he insisted was equally fantastic.

And right he was. The basic plot has a noir feel: a dead body is found, a hard-boiled Eastern European detective is investigating. But there’s a twist. The city where the murder takes place (Besz) happens to share contiguous space with another, just barely visible, city (Ul Qoman), where a different population and a very different–though related–language is spoken. And, oh yeah, where the murderer perhaps came from. I’ve just started this one and once again  Miéville is pushing–literally, this time–the boundaries of speculative fiction.

It seems I ought to go to Peoria more often.


The following two CDs have been in heavy rotation during my daily commute:

The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond. First things first: contemporary country music mostly makes my brain hurt. However, for some inexplicable reason, I love the current wave of bluegrass/folk-alt-country stuff that’s out there (Avett Brothers, anyone?). Thankfully the music producers went that route for most of this soundtrack, which fits the tone of Katniss and Peeta’s District 12 perfectly. I especially like the tracks from Neko Case (“Nothing to Remember”) and Kid Cudi (“The Rule and the Killer”).

Say Anything’s Anarchy, My Dear. I’ve always admired SA leader and primary lyricist, Max Bemis, for his smart, brutally honest songwriting. Though he’s mellowed a bit with age and marriage, he’s still telling it like it is. Standout tracks include “Overbiter,” which includes backing vocals from his wife, Sherri DuPree of the band Eisley, and describes their long-distance courtship; “Admit it Again,” a sequel of sorts to the “Admit It!!!” track on the …Is A Real Boy album (completely worth tracking down to dissect the lyrics); and the title track, “Anarchy, My Dear,” an almost ballad-y ode to rebellion.

Leigh Anne:

I’d like to be able to tell you I’m reading something incredibly literate, deliciously witty, or professionally advantageous. However, I am forced to confess that, in this unseasonable heat, the best I can do is leaf through magazines. Super Girl Scout Niece #1 was selling subscriptions, and I’m a huge fan of The Girl Scouts, so I’m happily parked in front of a fan with Oprah, yoga, and some warm-weather recipe ideas.


In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, by Professor X. This eye-opening and provocative treatise caught my eye in a review journal. It’s an expansion of an article originally published in The Atlantic magazine, and deals with the unprepared students colleges recruit and the status and treatment of professors (especially adjunct professors like the author), with a bit of the author’s life story mixed in. I was intrigued because the author is an English professor, and he writes extremely well, so the book is interesting, illuminating, and readable. He writes anonymously because he’s worried he’ll lose his job.


For my birthday I received a Kindle Fire from my awesome husband , who always buys me things I think I don’t want until I get them. To my eternal (but not blushing) chagrin, the first thing I did was purchase the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy from Amazon. In case you live under a rock, Fifty Shades is a self-published “erotic BDSM” e-book by a little-known British author named E. L. James. I zipped through Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker in two days. I was ready to run out and buy some grey ties and an Audi.

For over a week now I’ve malingered on the final book, Fifty Shades Freed. I have simply stopped caring about the characters, the story, and the sex. The controversy surrounding this book reminds me of a quote from Fear of Flying author Erica Jong: “My reaction to porn films is as follows: after the first ten minutes, I want to go home and screw. After the first twenty minutes, I never want to screw again as long as I live.”


Sublime Frequencies re-issues strange and wonderful music from all over the world, everything from Bollywood steel guitar to what’s playing on the radio in Morocco. It’s perfect music to listen to while cooking or porch-sitting, and we have quite a few albums available for check-out here at the library.

I’ve also just watched a recently re-released gem on DVD called A Thousand Clowns. Fans of films about eccentric and lovable iconoclasts (and the films of Wes Anderson) should check this one out immediately.


I’m not enjoying this “nice” weather because it’s disturbing to have 80 degree weather in mid-March.  And you know what else doesn’t like it?  Spinach.  Or radishes.  Or any of the other cool weather crops that only grow well when temperatures are in the 60s and 70s.

So I’ll be forced to enjoy such books as The Gardener’s Weather Bible: How to Predict and Prepare for Garden Success in Any Kind of Weather by Sally Roth or The Weather-resilient Garden : a Defensive Approach to Planning & Landscaping by Charles W.G. Smith.

Your turn.  Hot enough for you?  What are you reading / watching / listening to this spring?


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One Andrea Grows, Another Cooks

Andrea Bellamy raises enticing edibles on her balcony and in a community garden in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her credentials include a certificate in garden design from the University of B.C., and design is a focus of her new book, Sugar Snaps & Strawberries. She writes a blog called Heavy Petal, and both blog and book brim with smart advice on cultivating fruits and vegetables in tight quarters.

For readers in my geographic area, marine-influenced West coast gardening instructions will require adjusting to our more extreme climate. The design ideas, however, are appropriate anywhere space is limited. Bellamy’s work stands out for its artful garden structures and plant placement. Photographs of small and smaller working gardens inspire, teach, and delight. See how narrow planter boxes dress up an alley, basil seedlings thrive in a hanging basket, lush sage plants rise out of a big tin can. Let Bellamy lead you, and before long you’ll savor your own small, tasty harvest.

When it’s time to inventory your garden’s produce or shop at a farmer’s market, have a look at Cooking in the Moment, a new book by Andrea Reusing. With her brother, in 2002 she opened Lantern, a restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C.  I thought her book might focus on simplified restaurant recipes, an approach that doesn’t appeal to me. But these recipes are clearly written for the home cook.

Cooking in the Moment is organized by season, spring through winter. Simple to celebratory fare includes vegetables from every season, poached chicken, pot roast, pickled figs, rhubarb-ginger sorbet and strawberry ice cream (made with buttermilk and cream). One of the author’s seasonal essays bears the title “Seafood Market,” which questions whether there is actually such a thing as sustainable seafood. As part of a recipe for grilled Spanish mackerel that follows her essay, Reusing states, “The fact that our great-grandchildren may never eat a real seafood dinner gives those of us who still eat fish a responsibility not to put blue cheese on it.”

Grow. Eat. Ponder.


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Spring Fever!

crocusYesterday The New York Times published a lovely editorial praising the robin as the harbinger of spring. The editors wrote:

Somehow the robin stands for all the birds migrating now, the great V’s of geese heading north, the catbirds that will show up surreptitiously in a month. It also stands for the surprise of spring itself, which we had begun to fear would not arrive. We have all been keeping watch, as though one morning it might come sailing over the horizon. And now it’s here — the air a bit softer, snowdrops and winter aconites blooming, the bees doing their cleaning and the robins building their nests again.

As Denise mentioned yesterday, Sunday’s equinox marked the official beginning of spring, and in celebration I’m engaging in all sorts of seasonal activities. From watching the peregrine falcons at the Cathedral of Learning guard their newly laid eggs to checking up on what the fashion world‘s elite have in mind for post-sweater weather, all things spring have caught my attention. My reading taste has spring fever, too, and I’m checking out lots of books related to nature and the outdoors.

John Fowles The TreeThe other day I stumbled across John Fowles’  The Tree, a naturalist classic whose website describes it as a “moving meditation on the connection between the natural world and human creativity, and a powerful argument against taming the wild.” The newest edition boasts an introduction by Barry Lopez, whose own nature-oriented meditations I’ve recently enjoyed in magazines like Tricycle.

The Tree is light enough to bring it with me on walks, another favorite warm weather Wanderlust : a history of walking / Rebecca Solnit.activity of mine. In the fall, I moved into a new house, so I’m looking forward  to discovering the changes warmer seasons bring to my new neighborhood.  As I read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking,  my mind can wonder about walking as I wander around.

The spell of the sensuous : perception and language in a more-than-human world / David Abram.One book that’s inspired many a musing since I read it is deep ecologist David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, a philosophical reflection on the ways nature may have shaped humans’ linguistic and perceptual evolution. In lyrical, moving prose, Abrams imagines our place in nature as participatory and reciprocal–both seeing and seen, feeling and felt–by the network of animals and landscapes we’re part of.

Springtime inspires my political activity as well. The more time I spend in our beautiful habitat, the more I appreciate and want to protect it. Locally, concerns about the environmental effects of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale and uncertainly about how our state’s elected legislature will handle it motivate me to stay informed about the subject and tell my state representatives how I feel.

In terms of my personal habitat, I’m preoccupied with all of the possibilities for a raised bed garden I’m planning. To prepare, I’m consulting every gardening resource I see (including my wise coworkers), and tomorrow I’m attending Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s free lunchtime lecture about rain barrels and rain gardens.

Reading, walking, gardening, and generally growing give me plenty to do as the days lengthen. I hope spring fever also brings you lots of ways to spend your ever-increasing hours of sunlight!


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The Joys of Summer

I have vacation on the brain, but I don’t leave for a week.  At this rate, it’s going to be very hard to get any work done.  So this post is dedicated to all the things I love about summer.

It’s the height of the growing season, and right now your garden might be a little hard to keep up with.  To stay focused, check out Keeping the Garden In Bloom: Watering, Dead-heading, and Other Summer Tasks, by Steven Bradley. Once that produce starts rolling in, you’ll want to read The Summer Cook’s Book: A Guide to Planting, Harvesting, Storing, Canning, Freezing and Cooking Popular Fruits and Vegetables by Brenda Cobb.  And if you’re unable to garden, you can still reap the benefits – visit the library’s CSAs, Farms and Farmer’s Markets page.

Of course, there’s more to summer dining than just produce.  If you want to put together a quick, satisfying, and in-season meal so you can spend more time having fun, try Summer Gatherings : Casual Food to Enjoy with Family and Friends, by Rick Rodgers.  If your interests lie in taming the flames, and wielding your skills everywhere from the stadium parking lot to  the middle of nowhere, check out How to Grill, by Steven Raichlen (of PBS fame).

Many people spend the summer hiking on trails all over the Pittsburgh area.  Whether you’re looking to get started, or you want new trails to explore, there’s something for you in Best Hikes Near Pittsburgh by Bob Frye.  You can even take your buddy, with Doggin’ Pittsburgh : the 50 best Places to Hike With Your Dog in Southwest Pennsylvania by Doug Gelbert.

Birdwatching is a fun summer hobby in both backyards and state parks.  If you want to develop your own personal wildlife habitat, there are many ideas in North American Backyard Birdwatching For All Seasons: Feeding and Landscaping Techniques Guaranteed to Attract Birds You Want Year Round by Marcus H. Schneck.  Once you’ve found the birds, you’ll want to know what you’re looking at – and hearing!  Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song by Les Beletsky is unique among bird guides, in that it contains a little computerized gizmo that will play the sound of each bird.  It’s definitely worth trying out if you have even the most passing interest in birds, or if you own cats.

Great vacations usually make great photos, but brushing up on your skills doesn’t hurt either.  Take a look at Digital Nature Photography Closeup by Jon Cox, or the National Geographic Photography Field Guide to Landscapes : Secrets to Making Great Pictures by Robert Caputo.

And if none of these ideas tickle your fancy, visit the Carnegie Library’s Outdoor Activities page.  You’ll find general and local resources on everything from camping to caving to water activities.  Or you can always come into the library to browse the collection, maybe take in a free event, and soak up some air conditioning.

– Denise

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How does your garden grow?

Each year when springtime rolls around I think about putting in a garden, but somehow every year I find myself so busy that my garden doesn’t materialize.  This spring was no exception, but rather than wait another year to put in the raised beds I’m dreaming of, I decided to try my hand at some container gardening.  Container gardening is fairly simple, but if you’re the type of person who likes to read up on things before starting something (like me!), a few guides on what to do can be helpful.  Here are a few books that I found particularly useful:

A Little Piece of Earth: How to Grow Your Own Food in Small Spaces, by Maria Finn Dominguez

From Container to Kitchen: Growing Fruits and Vegetables in Pots, by D.J. Herda

Container Gardening: 250 Design Ideas & Step-by-Step Techniques, by editors and contributors of Fine Gardening

Fresh Food From Small Spaces: The Square Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting, by R.J. Ruppenthal

Click here for even more books on container gardening.  And just because my gardening ambitions for the year have been scaled back, doesn’t mean it’s too late to build a raised bed or plant a backyard garden!  Have a look at some of our books, videos, and other resources on gardening for more ideas. 



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Eat Your Lawn

Garden Update

Two years ago this spring, I moved into a house with a tidy front yard. Clipped hedges outlined a small lawn intersected by a tulip-skirted walk. Though pretty in the spring sunshine, it seemed more a blank canvas than a living garden. That August I wrote in a blog post, “I’m working on a plan to trade my front grass for nasturtiums and fava beans.”

Julie's garden in progress

Last week I planted favas in the former front lawn. Also the seeds of lettuce, arugula, green onions, swiss chard, spinach, and a mix of mesclun salad greens.

Turning turf to garden requires removing the grass. I once spent a summer digging up my back yard in Seattle, filling five gallon buckets with heavy sod, setting them curbside for the yard waste recyclers to carry away. It was hard, hard work, and not a fool proof method. Hair-thin roots inevitably left behind allowed grass to continue to sprout. There had to be a better way.

This time I turned the heavy work over to winter. Just before the season of rain, snow, sleet, and hail, I flattened cardboard moving boxes, ripped off the packing tape, and covered the lawn. On top of the cardboard, I spread a thick layer of bark mulch. Under its paper and wood blanket, the sod succumbed to frozen darkness. Last spring, I pushed the mulch aside, gathered up any soggy cardboard that had not rotted, and dug the rotted paper into the soil. The weathered bark would mulch new plantings.

One source of inspiration sprang from reports I read about of new Victory Gardens. In the current context, Victory refers to urban sustainability rather than the war efforts of WWI and WWII, but the approach remains the same. Backyards, front yards, window boxes, patios, porches, rooftops, and unused land are employed to grow food.

Growing food isn’t the only reason to reconsider the primacy of lawn. Providing a diverse environment for insects and birds is another. It’s easy to say no to chemical fertilizers and weed killers, and the noise and air pollution of powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers, if you don’t have a lawn to maintain.

The following books, not all new, are my current main sources of ideas and instruction.

Your House, Your Garden: A Foolproof Approach to Garden Design “If you live on a small enough property . . . consider taking up all your lawn. Utterly surround your house with plants and a sitting area or two so that your home is literally the center of your garden.”

Starter Vegetable Gardens: 30 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens “Food Gardens can be as pretty as they are productive. Including colorful flowers looks great and attracts butterflies and bees as well as scores of pest-eating beneficial insects such as lady beetles.”

Future Project, Remove or Replace Hedge

The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life “The smallest lot may be partially or completely fenced by fruit trees. Dig up the laurel and privet hedge. In their stead, set out espalier fruit trees, blueberries, and raspberries – or any other kind of berry plant that will thicken into a hedge.”



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Ladies of the Land

Back in July, I took my family on the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Western Region Farm Tour, a “behind-the-barn” look at local food production.  We got to see loads of produce, take a hayride to see pasture-based cattle, taste delicious local cheeses, and even feed alpacas.  And those were only four of 20 participating farms.

elliot1 elliot2 elliot3

The tour was a great introduction to the work of PASA, our partner in this Saturday’s Sustainable September program.  We’ll be screening Ladies of the Land (watch the trailer), followed by a panel discussion featuring several local lady farmers, including Jen Montgomery from Blackberry Meadows Farm, Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez from Paradise Gardens and Farm, and Leah Smith, Member Services Coordinator of PASA.  The program starts at 3:00 pm and will be held in Classroom A at the Main Library.

The library has plenty of other resources to investigate and learn about food production. To start, check out Our Daily Bread (watch the trailer), a visual essay on industrial agriculture, or The World According to Monsanto.  For something a little more upbeat and closer to home, try The Grange Fair: An American Tradition (watch the trailer).  On Thursday, September 17, we’re partnering with Slow Food Pittsburgh to screen Slow Food Revolution and discuss the growing slow food movement.  Another good one might be Milk in the Land, also screened earlier this year as part of our Real to Reel Documentary Film Series.

And those are just some of the documentary DVDs.  We have lots of other media on sustainability and related issues, and, of course, plenty of books too.  If you’d like to find more, or if you’ve been inspired to start producing your own food, check out our Take It Slow lists, especially the film list, or check with a librarian.


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This Summer’s Bummer Crop

A headline in the dining section of the New York Times two weeks ago shouted, “Northeast Tomatoes Lost, and Potatoes May Follow.” My heart sank as I read, “Every state in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic has confirmed recent cases of late blight.” I wondered, does that include Pittsburgh?
Last Sunday brought more bad news. First, the Times carried a full page op-ed piece by Dan Barber titled, “You Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster.” I read the sad facts. Later in the day neighbors told me their tomato plants were infected.
Plate from Flora de Filipinas by Francisco Manuel Blanco, ca 1880

Plate from Flora de Filipinas by Francisco Manuel Blanco, ca 1880

Late blight affects nightshade plants, which include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, tomatillos, and peppers. It can also attack petunias, which are closely related. Though the fungus responsible for the blight is common, this summer it is unusually early and extremely severe.

Late blight spreads more quickly than any other plant disease. Three days is enough time to wipe out an entire field of tomatoes. Once blight has infected a plant, there is no cure. Organic gardeners can apply copper-based sprays, and non-organic growers have the option of using synthetic fungicides, but any spray works only to suppress, not erase fungus. None have been effective this summer.

Brown spots on stems are one of the first symptoms. Cornell University’s College of Agriculture Web site provides helpful photos and descriptions of the disease. Since airborne spores can travel up to 40 miles, to prevent spreading home gardeners should pull plants out at the first sign of late blight. Place plants in plastic bags, seal, and send out with the trash. Do not compost infected plants. This FAQ page is a regularly updated source of information from Cornell.  

If you find your tomato crop infected, here’s a bit of consolation. The fungus is not dangerous to humans. Green tomatoes that appear unaffected by the blight may be picked and brought indoors. Once inside, if they develop brown spots as they ripen, simply cut away the affected area. The fruit is safe for eating.

Plant pathologists report that home gardeners, by planting infected tomato starts purchased at large retailers, inadvertently transferred the disease across the Northeast states. The increase of neighborhood gardens and favorable conditions for fungal growth contributed to what will be the worst tomato harvest in memory.

Next year, gardeners can take the following steps to help keep late blight away. Buy plants from locally based nurseries, where disease is monitored more closely than at big box stores. Or even better, start plants yourself from seeds, since seeds do not carry the disease. Home gardeners are likely to pay close attention to their foods sources, and as Dan Barber wrote in the Times, a plant that travels 2000 miles to your garden is no different from a tomato that travels 2000 miles to your plate. Pay attention, too, to the connections between the plants you care for and the wider agricultural world. This season’s late blight disaster provides a vivid example of the close link between garden and farm. Finally, continue to support local farmers, whose income will be diminished if their crops include tomatoes.

This morning I pulled out the first blight infected tomato plant from my small garden. The disease responsible for the mid-1800s Irish Potato Famine is decimating tomato and potato crops at least as far west as Michigan. I wonder, do thoughts of my Irish heritage make my unfulfilled love for home grown tomatoes even sadder? When it comes to tomato/potato blight, these Irish eyes are not smiling.

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Music to Make Our Garden (Not) Grow

Renée’s compost post and my own composting and modest green thumbing have made me think of music to listen to while gardening.

First of all, one should avoid Garden Ruin though it is a pretty good Calexico album.  Take heed that R.E.M. says “Gardening at Night” is “never where” and “just didn’t grow.”  While the Microscopic Septet (creators of the theme for Fresh Air with Terry Gross) swing hard on their tune “Infernal Garden Blues,” it might not be conducive to plant life. Both one’s plant life and love life seem up to no good in “Sally in the Garden” because Sally is either “sifting sand” or “upstairs with a hog-eyed man.”  Oh, no!  Perhaps those things are best kept secret so I’d suggest listening to the Dave Holland Quintet’s “Secret Garden” featuring Pittsburgh’s own Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba.  Then again, if the garden is a secret, no one will save you from the “Spiders in a Garden” (though the Lifetime song really has more to do with love and confusion than spiders and gardens).

Yes, I’ve realized that “you’ve been a fool and so have I,” so we should just listen to “Make Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein‘s Candide whose lyrics by Richard Wilbur admit that “we’re neither pure nor wise nor good” but “we’ll do the best we know…and make our garden grow.”

– Tim

p.s.  Naturally, if you have your own favorites (perhaps Bela Fleck’s “Weed Whacker” has controlled undesired plants in your garden), please share your suggestions.

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breaking down compost

Thanks to the Pennsylvania Resources Council, I am now the proud owner of an Earth Machine. The PRC offers affordable backyard composting classes, where they break down (forgive the pun) the basics of composting and provide attendees with a bin. While composting has intrigued me for some time, I was surprised to discover several key points. Namely, it doesn’t smell bad if done correctly, it’s easy, it doesn’t require much space, and it doesn’t take very long.

If you garden with herbs, fruits and veggies, flowers or trees and shrubs, composting can provide you with a great way to amend the soil in just a few weeks. Using the same ground for years at a time my lovely gardenhas reduced some of the nutrients in my already typically Pittsburgh clay-like yard, but composting creates dark, rich humus that restores beneficial qualities to the soil. Composting is also a great way to reduce the amount of yard and kitchen waste I leave on the curb for the city to collect. Municipal waste management is among the highest costs cities must deal with, and it feels good to know that I’m doing my part to help my garden, the environment and the city budget at the same time.

One more bit of good news about recycling…even though I’m doing what I can to battle the devastating effects of plastic bags, recycling my 1s through 5s, and composting has reduced my weekly garbage day contribution, all the junk mail, old bills, magazines and other paper I throw away still weighs on my conscience. Not anymore though! This week I discovered the Paper Retriever bins–bright yellow and blue dumpsters placed throughout communities where people can drop off paper to be recycled. Their locator showed me that there are two right by my house.

Michael Pollan recently wrote a moving call to action for small, individual eco-actions, and as I take the time to set up systems for my everyday activities, going green gets easier and easier.


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