Avant Gardener

Ever since 2008, I’ve had a houseplant or two in my dwelling.  By 2015, that number had grown to twelve, mainly hardy hanging philodendrons, spiky dracaena, and resilient aglaonema.  It’s not often that I lose one of them; these plants are pretty hard to kill.  A few have come and gone, usually lasting a few years without trouble.  Based on that unwarranted confidence, I fancied myself as having a bit of a green thumb.

Earlier this year, I was inspired by a couple things — firstly, that lovely patchwork flower garden on top of the multi-colored greenhouse bunker in The Witness, still my favorite puzzle set of the game; secondly, the flowers around Walnut Creek, where my current workplace is located; and thirdly, the very title of this post, which I’ll get to — to create and plant my very own flower garden in my backyard.

In San Francisco, it’s a blessing to even have a backyard, and my house had its renovated last year.  Since even before then, I’ve cared for the grounds insofar as I’ve been the one to voluntarily pull all of the weeds out of the beds surrounding the patios.  This past summer, and tired of looking at nothing but concrete and wood chips out my windows, I decided to add some color.

Naturally, watering hardy indoor plants regularly is a little bit different than growing flowers in a bed of mystery soil.  I didn’t know anything about it, really; I kinda just winged it.  Couldn’t be that hard, right?

I went ahead and dug up the dirt in two rectangular spaces with my trowel and garden fork.  We have a shovel too… not sure why I didn’t just use it.  A couple inches of worked dirt should be enough to plant in, I thought.  It only took a few hours in the afternoon summer sun to get it ready for planting.

The next morning I would head down to one of my new favorite spots in the city, Sloat Garden Center — right next to the ocean by the zoo — and snag a couple dozen 4″ perennials of varying colors as well as fertilizer and soil.  The soil in my yard is somewhat sandy, thanks to the dunes that used to cover my neighborhood, so I ordered soil specifically to enrich it.  Luckily, I happened into the store on the very weekend where they were having their annual flower sale.  I didn’t know about it beforehand, honest.

I very scientifically measured appropriate intervals for planting my perennials, dug little holes, and put them in, eventually covering the whole planting area with soil and mixing in the fertilizer.  After a light water, I was done for the day.  I have to say, it looked pretty nice!

Weekend project complete! #flowers #flowergarden #greenthumb

A post shared by Jake Buckley (@jacobdbuckley) on

I gave them a shower ever other day or so, as needed.  My lovely little flowers.  They grow up so fast:

In this fledgling garden was a great variety of color, shape, and size.  A cluster of magenta, red, white and orange geraniums flanked by deep blue and purple verbena and yellow, red, and pink calibrachoa.  Others included white lantana, apricot sprite agastache, and a few grassy pink things — I don’t know the names of the latter because they’ve since been replaced.

During the later summer, I went home for Labor Day weekend.  It was, unfortunately, the hottest week of the summer in California — temperatures in the city exceeded 85 degrees for days on end, which is a rarity.  In my absence and without water for four days of extreme temperatures, I lost a great deal of growth on my garden, with some flowers wilting enough to require amputation, while a couple just outright died.

To make matters worse, there was an invader in my garden.  I didn’t full understand the scope of my troubles until I saw it with my own eyes.

A gopher!  This little underground terror had been burrowing his way around my garden for weeks, casually nomming down my more appetizing plants — the verbena and calibrachoa —  as well as stunting the growth of the rest of the garden with its tunnels and root damage.  I had been puzzled as to why my left-side bed was under-performing the right; here was a sure indication.

Now, I should have known better.  There are gopher scars in the vacant planting bed at the rear edge of my yard, as well as all across the neighborhood.  I can’t help but notice them now whenever I’m out and they’re everywhere.  Indeed, the folks at the garden center confirmed they’re somewhat of an epidemic in the city, especially out on the sandy western side.

So with that in mind, I purchased and liberally deployed rodent repellent in the garden.  The above pictured bed was subsequently completely unaffected by the little menace following this endeavor.  The verbena he was most recently eating has fully recovered, as have the calibrachoa which were chewed up only on the fringes, with the cores left intact.  But, he scurried his way underneath the patio and began to severely terrorize my other bed.  The repellent had failed, despite continued use, and every week, another one of my tasty flowers was crippled.  I knew exactly where he was coming from, yet I had nothing at my disposal to solve the problem.

Finally, last week I’d had enough.  After losing two flowers completely and having *four* more crippled in just days, I decided to take a full measure.  No, I didn’t kill it.  That’s, ironically, only a half measure.  I plotted out and engineered a solution: I was going to enclose the beds of my garden in steel mesh to ensure that they were completely impassible to burrowing animals.

I bought corrosion-resistant galvanized steel meshing, planters for emergency evacuation, and wooden stakes to attach the mesh to.  I spent nearly a whole week working on it, starting by digging out my most vulnerable flowers a few at a time each evening after work.

Of course, that only seemed to embolden the little guy by giving him a direct path through now-thinned soil to get at other at-risk flowers.  I lost one completely, and am rehabilitating two others that were severely wounded.  What a terror!

When the weekend finally arrived, I stripped the garden down six full inches of dirt, roughly four inches below the base of the patio on all sides.  It was harder work than I was expecting.  By day’s end, I had two giant piles of dirt, but a snugly secured steel mesh in each bed, fastened in place with staples and friction.

That’s four cubic feet of dirt, plus whatever air filled in the gaps of the newly unpacked earth.  The mesh is jammed in there as best as I could get.  The only gaps are hopefully not large enough for vermin, but I can’t be sure.  The good news is any potential access points are easy to mend without needing to dig up the whole garden again.

The next day I woke up sore, but managed to fill in all of the dirt, along with new enriching soil, layers of repellent, and fertilizer before the morning was through.  I replanted all of the flowers in the new beds, re-arranging them in a more appropriate configuration given their individual growth patterns and colors.

In a few weeks hopefully the dirt will settle and I can finish the landscaping off nicely.  By then, I also hope the damaged flowers will have somewhat recovered.  For now, my reborn garden looks a little unfinished.

Five months into this project, I feel like I’ve learned a ton about how to build a garden and care for it.  San Francisco’s climate is welcoming, so I have yet to experience the challenges of other areas, but at least it’s a start.  When I inevitably move out of this house (hopefully not for awhile), I’ll have practical knowledge to build on for my next garden adventure.  It’s been unexpectedly expensive to do this, but it pays off in the vibrance and life it gives my yard.  I appreciate my view far more than I did before.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t follow up on the title of this post.  “Avant Gardener” is a song by Courtney Barnett, one of my latest favorite artists.  I have to admit the lyrics of this song are also partly responsible for my dive into yard work; the way she puts it, it sounds wonderful, at least at first.  Coincidentally, I went to see her in concert in Oakland just last week during the majority of my garden troubles, and as I suspected it would, the show closed with this very song.  Incredible.


The Piano Bug

I recently had a revelation, wherein I didn’t completely suck at the piano.

I’ve been playing keys in some form or another for over twenty years.  I had taken formal lessons for a few years toward the end of elementary school, but fell out of interest in the music I was given.  I played on and off in high school, lending my abilities to a smattering of events and jams.  After I graduated in 2007, I bought an electric piano for college, where the on and off playing continued, mostly due to the fact that I had to store my keyboard underneath my bed due to space constraints in the freshman dorm.

When I moved up the hill to my fraternity house in 2008, I set up my keyboard next to my desk so I’d had easy access to music at any time, and as a result my creative juices flowed like never before.  As school progressed, music took a backseat to my studies and other various activities, and once my senior year rolled around, I had once again stashed my keyboard under my bed.  My senior year apartment was (relatively) nice, but my cozy room had, again, no space for a piano setup.

Since I’ve lived in California, I’ve always had my piano out in full view.  In my first few apartments, I’d even set it up desk-adjacent, like the good old days.  My playing was relatively regular.  A few years ago, I started MIDI tracking some of my favorite songs as a gift to my mother.  It became an annual Christmas present… for two years; in 2015, after recording a shorter batch of pieces later in the year, I stalled indefinitely.  I’d moved to San Francisco and, thanks to the topology of my studio apartment, my piano was no longer within arms reach of my computer desk.  It’s ten feet away, directly behind it, which is a nearly intolerable distance when in the process of laying down MIDI tracks.  I’m only half kidding — the lack of immediacy did definitely kill some of my interest in the piano for a time.

That brings me to now, and the reason I’m writing this.  Suddenly, this summer, I’ve been bitten by some kind of piano bug and its effect has yet to wear off after several weeks.  It might have been seeing Hamilton that made me dive into the Hamilton sheet music book I’ve got here.  When you really get it going, the piano arrangements are extremely fun to play:

On the other hand, another catalyst for my new found addiction might be the time that I stumbled upon a new piano artist whose songs I found not only immediately gripping in their musicality, but seemingly simple enough that I could play them with little effort.

For example:

This is suddenly one of my favorite pieces of music ever.  It’s beautiful, the chords taken some unexpected and frisson-filled turns, and it’s not too complicated for my hands.  I bought the sheet music for this album from Germany on a whim not long ago, and I find it’s not that hard to play.  Granted, I’ve been playing it (and many others) over and over and over these past few weeks, and wouldn’t you know it, I’ve gotten better.  Funny that.  I am still working on that quick-chord part in the second half, though.

Between 2011 and now, most of my piano playing has been improvised, relying only on chord charts and my ears.  While fun, this doesn’t do much to help technique and skill.  It wasn’t really until this summer that I really cracked open my sheet music books and sat down to learn songs, slowly and painstakingly without shortcut.  I’ll tell you what, my hands got sore just from stretching and bending to previously unimaginable positions.  The fun part is, eventually some of these more difficult songs actually become possible for someone of my limited talent to play.  It’s a great feeling to finally nail a tricky bar or two, and an even better one to get through an entire song without a mistake or hesitation.  I don’t have a lot of those songs in my repertoire, but that number is slowly going up.

Additionally, I’d had another sudden revelation just this past week.  For years, I’d struggled with digitizing my playing due to the latency between the physical touch of the keys and the output of the MIDI-fied sound.  When you press a key and it’s a full half-second before the note is returned to the ears, it tends to make keeping tempo difficult.  However, for whatever reason, I stumbled across an, in retrospect obvious, fix that I would then quickly implement this past weekend.  I installed a new secondary sound driver designed specifically for low-latency musical input.  It worked (nearly) flawlessly right away, allowing me to play digitized tracks full of effects, backing tracks, without delay nor distraction.  I’m somewhat ashamed this idea never occurred to me in the last ten years, but it’s better discovered late than never at all.

The end result is that, beyond my rediscovery of the instrument, I’ve only managed to further strengthen my desire to play.  I’m even taking my newfound confidence to social media.  There’s nothing more motivating than putting my performances out into the public, where I’m not allowed to screw up lest I face the wrath of my fans.  Or, less dramatically and more realistically, I’m putting all of the pressure on myself to be perfect.  It works. (Especially when all you need is a flawless minute before you’re allowed to make a mistake again…)

All of this is to say, I’ve fallen in love once again with the piano.  I can’t believe I let it sit idly for so long; I’m glad its back in my life.

Perhaps you could expect some new music out of me?  It’s been… a while.