Monthly Archives: May 2010


Beautiful Butterfly

Dear Reader:

If it takes a village to raise a child, what happens when there is no village anymore?

In a mass-market culture that views children and teens as a “consumer group” rather than as young people who need guidance regarding societal norms, ethical behavior, and self-discovery, parents are left with the awesome responsibility of accomplishing this task alone. Not only do parents lack societal support, but also they very often have to fight against societal trends which run counter to family cohesiveness, ethical behavior, values based on religious or philosophical beliefs, and even plain common sense.

While I acknowledge that parents should be responsible, ultimately, for the values, education, and social skills their children need to become healthy, functioning adults, I also believe that raising children would be much easier if we had strong, local communities. For instance, it would be reassuring to know that when your child went over to visit a friend over-town, the values you have instilled in your child would be reinforced by the other child’s parents. And when your daughter decides to practice her independence by arguing in favor of a too-revealing outfit, it would be great if other adults in the community gave her the old hairy-eyeball. This kind of dress is inappropriate for our village; now go home and change.

While there is a downside to small, insular communities (they can stifle individuality, persecute those who are deemed “different,” and can be generally hostile to outsiders and outside ideas), the upside is a safer, more protected environment in which to raise our children. Now, with a “flat” world made at once vast and intimate by the internet, social media, and cable television, things like town lines and village boundaries have little, if any, relevance.

Hollywood is in the family room. A morally-bankrupt music industry is plugged directly into the ear canal. Your son’s “community” resides on an internet gaming site, while your daughter’s clique spends more time typing messages on Facebook or texting on their cell phones than they do actually talking. (I have the urge to italicize “talking” as if it is some weird variant of “texting” instead of the other way around.)

These issues are forefront in my mind these days because I am now the mother of an adolescent. Desperate to find some answers regarding the weird, wacky, infuriating, annoying behavior of my almost-teen, I checked a book out of the local library.

Reviving Ophelia

REVIVING OPHELIA was written in 1994 by Dr. Mary Pipher. I’d heard of the book previously, when my daughter was just entering elementary school, and I tucked the title into the back of my mind years ago so I could pull it out when we reached this inevitable stage. One night I made myself a cup of tea and cracked open the cover. As with a horror story you can’t bear to put down until you get to that last, final blood-soaked page, I read it straight through over the next couple of days, whenever I had a spare moment.

In the first chapter, Saplings In A Storm, Pipher writes, “In early adolescence, studies show that girls’ IQ scores drop and their math and science scores plummet. They lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks. They lose their assertive, energetic and ‘tomboyish’ personalities and become more deferential, self-critical and depressed. The report great unhappiness with their own bodies.” (pg. 19)

Pipher then goes on to explain three big factors that make adolescent girls vulnerable to the societal pressures to conform to our American culture’s feminine ideal– an ideal based on size, beauty, and sex-appeal. First, a girl in early adolescence is at a developmental level where everything is changing at once: hormones, skin, body, cognitive skills, etc. Second, American culture tends to emphasize the importance of appearance. Third, the girls’ culture tells them they need to distance themselves from their parents . . . just when they need the most support as they struggle with personal changes, new experiences and social pressures. (pgs. 22-23).

A large section of REVIVING OPHELIA discusses various clients, case-studies if you will, who are all struggling successfully or unsuccessfully through their adolescent turmoil. The book ends on a somewhat helpful note with tips and ideas to aid the weary and, let’s face it, shell-shocked parent.

What was the scariest aspect of all this for me? It was written sixteen years ago–three years before my daughter was even born! If our culture was bad sixteen years ago, how much worse is it now?

Christina Aguilera

Well, we all know it is much worse. That fact was brought home to me in a very graphic way when I happened upon a website devoted to looking at symbolism in our mass media. The website is called The Vigilant Citizen and is perhaps a bit paranoid when it comes to searching out signs of some vast underground conspiracy bent on controlling our lives via mass media.

However, the author (who refers to himself as Vigilant) gives us an analysis of Christina Aguilera’s latest video which seemed very coherent. . . and disturbingly spot-on.

If you dare, watch the YouTube video. It is disturbing on so many levels. It is an eyelash short of pornography, for one thing. It glorifies the sexual subjugation of women (men, too, actually), for another. It glamorizes S & M with a bejeweled mouth gag–in an image that is at once beautiful and horrifying, at least to this mom. And that’s the worst aspect, I think. Making the horrific beautiful. Maybe I’m a prude, but I watched this video with my mouth hanging open, literally, staring at the computer screen and thinking, “Thank god I don’t have cable; thank god I don’t have cable.”

Until I realized that my daughter’s friends probably have cable.

Until I realized that the BOYS in my daughter’s school probably have cable.

Suddenly, I didn’t want to let her out of the house. THIS is the ideal of feminine beauty in our culture? THIS is what my daughter needs to be in order to fit in to her time and place on the historical continuum? Not only is she told in countless ways every day that “beautiful” is synonymous with “thin” and “tall” and “clearly complected” (and, yes, “blond” still, I’m afraid), now she is told “beautiful” is “gagged” and “voiceless,” nothing more than a sexual toy. How is she to know any better . . . unless I tell her?

Suddenly, it occurs to me that I’ve given my daughter too much leeway in her choice of clothing. In an effort to give her autonomy and expression, I’ve allowed her to conform to a soul-degrading, appearance-driven social norm. She won’t like it, but I’m about to put my parental foot down.

Yes, things have changed in sixteen years, and not for the better. You can hear Dr. Pipher speak on this topic in a documentary-style video put out by ChallengingMedia. Like the book, the video is called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.

If nothing else, it gives you reason to think.

How will knowing all this help me SURVIVE my daughter’s adolescence? From now on, when she is displaying some typical teenage behavior, I’m going to try to remember that no matter how unhappy I may be feeling at the moment, she’s feeling one-hundred times worse. No matter how stressful my life might seem, hers is on a scale I can scarcely imagine. Will I fight to keep her safe? Yes. Will I try to help her become her own, independent person? Yes. Will it be easy?

Heck, no. I think that hot baths, yoga, and glasses of Merlot will be de rigueur for this mom over the next few years. Eventually, though, she and I will emerge from the storm, stronger for the struggle. At least, that is what I hope.


In the meantime, I’m going to look for ways that I can support societal change that supports, rather than destroys, women. As for mass media, I don’t believe in governmental censorship. I do believe in educating the public about the dangers of allowing certain types of mass media into the home. I do believe in talking to kids about the messages mass media is sending out. I do believe in saying, “This does not represent MY values. Here’s what I think. What about you?”

What about you? What do you think about issues of mass media, adolescent culture, censorship, etc.? Drop me a line . . . Outside the Box.

Quick Post: Thursday Humor

Dear Reader:

I think that Thursdays need a little laughter, so every week I am going to try to find some funny clip/photo/joke on the internet to post for your amusement.

I like Glenn Beck as well as the next person. I admire his passion for the Constitution. He seems like a “real guy” just trying to figure it all out like the rest of us, and he probably is. However, some of his statements can be a little over the top. Of course they are. His show airs on one of those quasi-news stations that is really nothing more than a vehicle for a certain political mind-set. (Do we have anything BUT quasi-news stations that are really nothing more than vehicles for various political mind-sets? Some say no. I leave it up to you to decide.)

Anyway, here is a really funny clip from The Daily Show (thank you to Yahoo! News for posting it) that pokes a little bit of fun at Beck’s obsession with Nazi Germany . . . Click HERE.

Of Arugula & Lilacs

Dear Reader:

It is the time of arugula and lilacs–a juxtaposition of sweet, heady scent of flowers in the air and the cool, peppery tang of herb on the tongue. We seem to be bouncing between extremes of late. One week it is sunny and seventy-degrees, and the next week we are shivering in the a cloudy, forty-degree chill. One day the stock market is steadily climbing and jobs are added to the economy, and the next day we shake our heads as the Dow plunges a thousand points in a matter of minutes–a drop attributed to a computer “glitch” of all things. The Greek economy tanks, and then it is bailed out. People protest in the streets. Meanwhile, the grass grows, the dandelions turn to fluffballs, and we plant our cool-weather-loving peas and kale in hopes of a good crop in a month or so.

Here at “the cottage” I’m keeping myself occupied by scanning my favorite doom and gloom websites–Whiskey and Gunpowder and James Howard Kunstler’s peak oil/new urbanism blog–and cooking up a batch of homemade beef stock. Last fall, I picked up my beef order and stuck the large brown paper bags into the freezer. Once I found the hamburger bag and the steak bag, I didn’t bother to open the rest until a few weeks ago when I discovered, to my delight, soup bones. Soup bones! Could I learn to make my own beef stock? Why not!

This morning I cut up some onion, celery, and carrots and put them in the bottom of a stock pot with a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns, and a sprinkling of dried parsley. I then roasted a meaty soup bone in a 400 degree oven for thirty minutes, pried the bone off the bottom of the roasting pan, and placed it in with the veggies.

Covering the whole mess with some water, I set the pot to simmering on the stove. My whole house smells divine. In a couple of hours, I will be able to strain the stock, skim the fat off the top, add some stew meat and potatoes and carrots and more celery and maybe a can of stewed tomatoes and have myself a fine evening meal.

Baby Arugula Thinnings

In the meantime, I moseyed out to the garden to have a look at my cool-weather crops–the arugula, claytonia, and mache beds. The arugula needed thinning, so I now have a nice bowl of baby greens to go in a salad this evening.

No matter how grim the news in the outside world, there is always something to celebrate and enjoy if you take the time to look around you. Lilacs, for instance. Arugula, for instance.

Coffee with a friend. A favorite book. A special meal. A short nap. A brisk walk. What pleasures have you enjoyed today . . . Outside the Box?

Dumpster Diving Part Two

Dumpster Chair

Dear Reader:

As promised, here is my one and only literal dumpster find–my office chair.

I’ve done a quick bit of research regarding the price of a new wood + cushion armchair (okay, I looked at three websites) and found THIS example. Regularly priced at a little over $400, it is on sale for $309.80. My wood + cushion office armchair cost me much less, however–nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. I picked it up outside a dumpster eight years ago, a cast-off from some apartment in the married-housing development at the University of Maine at Orono. Its 1970’s gold and rust-colored crocheted cushions caught my eye, and when I walked over to investigate (seeing if the arms wobbled, the legs fell off, etc.) I was delighted by the chair’s sturdiness. Yes, the cushions were butt-ugly, but I could easily re-cover them. I really, really liked the shape of the thing, and it was being thrown away. Could I possibly take something from the trash? Yup. Looking furtively around me, I dragged the chair across the street to our apartment and tucked it inside. It was my first (and, okay, last) dumpster dive.

I never did re-cover the cushions. Instead, I’ve thrown a blanket over the top and stuck the chair in the corner of my office where it is the perfect, and I mean perfect, chair for reading. Why? Flat arms. I can set my coffee cup close at hand while slouching against the cushioned back. The chair is low enough that my shortish legs bend at just the right angle. The seat is wide enough that if I want to curl my legs beneath me or sit cross-legged, I can do so with ease.

Snagging this chair saved me three to four-hundred dollars, and I reduced the amount of waste going into the landfill at the same time. Brilliant!

Apparently, I am part of of a trend called Freeganism. The term is derived from “veganism,” the type of vegetarian eating that nixes all animal products from the diet. The New York Times published an article about the trend in 2007, interviewing various Freegans, including a former communication director for Barnes & Noble who gave up her corporate job, bought a one-room apartment, and began foraging for a living. Click HERE for the article.

Although Freeganism seems to have begun as a DIETARY lifestyle (dumpster diving at restaurants, bakeries, etc. for free food), it seems to have morphed into broader lifestyle philosophy–one branch of the anti-consumerist tree. While I have my doubts that I would ever, except in the most extreme necessity, dig in the trash for food, I have no qualms about using someone’s cast-off non-food items. The money I save on a chair produced in China, for instance, can be spent on a locally-produced item instead.

Not only that, I’ve patriotically reduced the embarrassing amount of trash generated by Americans every year.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Between 1960 and 2008 the amount of waste each person creates has almost doubled from 2.7 to 4.5 pounds per day. The most effective way to stop this trend is by preventing waste in the first place. Click HERE to read the entire article.

The way I see it, the best way to prevent waste in the first place is to stop buying so much! The less you buy, the less you have to throw out. Simple. And if you need something, why not use something someone else has thrown away? Not only are you reducing the cost of raw materials, packaging, and shipping of a new product, you are keeping waste out of the dump, the landfill, and the ocean.

Think garbage doesn’t end up in the ocean, or if it does, it simply biodegrades and disappears? Think again. There are at least two “islands” of broken-down plastic floating in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. These tiny bits of plastic ride in on currents and get caught in a sort of vortex, accumulating into a giant “garbage patch.” Read THIS article from the National Geographic Magazine to learn more. Recycling our plastics–better yet, refraining from buying it in the first place–would at least help prevent the patches from growing and spreading and further messing up the ecosystem of our oceans.

First Edition!

So, what if you just can’t bring yourself to use used stuff? Do not fear. You can still take part in the Freegan phenomenon–as a contributor. Instead of throwing your old chair away, take it to your local Goodwill store or another local charity. Inquire at your local dump to see if there is a swap area . . . and if not, start one! Check out the Freecycle organization.

Donate used items to second-hand stores. Mom’s groups, churches, and other community organizations often host Swap Parties. Participate in a community or charity yard sale. Now that spring has finally arrived, it may be time to clean out the basement and the closets. Remember, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Your used items could find new homes and new uses rather than add to the average American waste statistic.

This weekend I checked out the local Swap Shack and was amazed to see how empty it was. Apparently, I’m not the only one who likes free stuff. Ironically, on the rather bare bookshelves, I came across two textbooks: THE ECONOMIC WAY OF THINKING and MANAGEMENT ACCOUNTING. Now I can learn all about economics while practicing economical, sustainable, local living. Thank you, to whoever brought them in! When I’m finished, I’ll bring them back in so someone else can read them.

I WON’T, however, be bringing back the Anne Rice book pictured above. It’s a hardcover first edition by an author I adore. It will reside safely on my bookshelves . . . just above my dumpster chair and the Swap Shack reading lamp.

Ah, life is good.

Quick Post: Car EN-V!

Dear Reader:

This is just a quick post in between the Dumpster Diving Parts One and Two. For a few months now I’ve been yearning for a car. Not just any car. I want a compact, fuel efficient, easily parked vehicle. In contemplating the future of driving, I’ve often thought that someday we won’t even have to drive our cars–they will drive us. It seemed to me that with the satellites, GPS technologies, and the advent of cars that can parallel park for you, it would only be a short step to all vehicles on the road being hooked into a computerized “net” that would guide the car over the road, avoiding accidents, conserving fuel, and allowing the “driver” to basically sit back and enjoy the ride. It would be like taking the train . . . only in your own personal bubble.

So, today I ran across this article about a car-in-the-making, designed by GM for the Chinese market. May I introduce the EN-V. The small size and weird shape was enough to intrigue me, but as I read further in the article, I discovered that I’m not the only one imagining little cars being manipulated around the roadways by computer. The article reads, Apart from its diminutive size and light weight — 880 pounds including the passengers — the vehicle would offer drivers the option of “autonomous driving:” letting the car drive itself via an elaborate system of GPS systems, digital maps, roadway and vehicle sensors, cameras and other devices.

Will we ever really see something like this in our American cities? Or out here on the rural by-ways where we can never hope to have access to trains and mono-rails? Without the threat of accidents, the safety issue would be moot (until the computer glitches, I suppose.) What do you think? Is this something you would ride around in, say, around 2020? Click HERE for some photos at the official GM EN-V site.

Dumpster Diving Part One

This episode fueled by Green Mountain Southern Pecan coffee.

Dear Reader:

I love coffee. I love the smell of it brewing first thing in the morning. I love the steam caressing my face when I lift the cup to my lips for that first, oh-so-delicious sip. I like my coffee bold, dark, intense. I enjoy the way the caffeine zips along my nerves, waking up my sluggish brain. I’ve cut pictures from magazines that feature people drinking coffee. It’s my one true addiction. Giving it up makes me cranky. Once I did give it up when I was following a macrobiotic diet, but I substituted a “grain” coffee instead. I managed to survive, but I felt deprived. A trip to Hawaii and access to that state’s incredible Kona ended my seven-months’ cafe-deprivation period, and I have no regrets. Coffee is one of my greatest pleasures, my strongest of comfort foods, a most dependable beverage because no matter where you go, no matter how bleak and terrible the location, you can usually find a cup of java.

Coffee is egalitarian. Run-down diners on the edges of small towns serve coffee and so do fine restaurants. Elisabeth Ogilvie in her Bennett’s Island books about fishermen and their families is forever referencing the “mug up” of coffee. (If you want a shot of pure Maine literature this summer, I highly recommend Ms. Ogilvie. Click HERE to read a little bit about this author.) Coffee tastes good served in thick, heavy mugs and in thin, delicate bone china. It even tastes good in paper cups, as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are well aware. Coffee complements both sedentary and active pursuits–reading, talking, driving. I wouldn’t recommend it while playing tennis or soccer, but celebrating after the game with a large cup? Sure! My family usually heads over to a Dunkin Donuts after the Maine Class A Boys Basketball Tourneys, for example. It is comfort in defeat and celebration in victory, with or without sugar and cream.

So what does all this have to do with Dumpter Diving? Well, yesterday morning I filled my coffee filter with some Green Mountain Southern Pecan, poured in the water to the six cup mark, and pressed the ignition button. The cheery red light came on, the pot began to gurgle and croak and sigh the way it always does, and I went over to the computer to check my emails while the lovely smell of fresh-brewed filled the air . . . except it didn’t.

Investigating the cause of such a wacky turn of events, I discovered that while the unit was ON, it certainly wasn’t working. The machine had, as all coffee makers eventually do, died.

Now, it wasn’t the end of my world because I tend to be rather inventive around the house. I’m pretty good thinking outside the box. The coffee filter was still full of fresh grounds. The glass pot was still intact. All that was needed was a manual application of boiling water. I could do that myself. I grabbed the tea kettle and set the water to boiling, poured the water over the grounds a little at a time, stuck the coffee pot beneath the filter cup, and voila! Not-so-instant coffee!

I couldn’t be too upset by the breakdown of my coffeemaker because, you see, I didn’t pay a penny for the thing. I know what you are thinking, but no, I did not dive headfirst into my neighbor’s trashcan for their old, discarded unit. I did the next best thing, however. I went to the dump.

The call it a transfer station now, but basically our town has a nice little dump where you can sort your recyclables, discard your old tires and furniture, throw your brush onto the community pile to be burned at a later date, and stow your meager bag of excess garbage in the “household trash” bin where I believe it is picked up and taken somewhere for energy-production or possibly a landfill. An attendant greets you from a cute little gardeny-looking cottage as you drive in and directs you to the proper areas. (I’ve noticed a big pile of wood mulch, too. I need to ask if that is free for the taking.) These are all wonderful components for a dump, of course, but the best part by far is the Swap Shack.

The Swap Shack is where you bring stuff that you no longer need/want that someone else may find useful or fun. I like to go in there and poke around. There is usually a halfway decent selection of used paperbacks. I’ve picked up drinking glasses and baskets and a couple of VCR movies. One day, on the back shelves with the old Crock Pots and frying pans, I saw this coffeemaker. My old one was pretty much done, its heating element dying like a red giant star growing cooler and less effective every day. I signed the book at the front of the Shack indicating what I’d taken, and brought the white, Black & Decker twelve-cup capacity coffeemaker home. If it worked, great. If not, I’d just return it. No problem.

And it wasn’t a problem because it worked fine. I’ve had it for a couple of years (my husband says one year, but I’m pretty sure it’s been at least two), and it has been dependable and hardworking. There was one idiosyncrasy–if I failed to push the filter holder cup thingy all the way down, the pot cover wasn’t able to reach the lever that opened the bottom of the cup allowing the coffee to drip down into the pot. This resulted in a bit of a mess a couple of times as the water entered the filter cup and had nowhere to go but over the top, spreading coffee and grounds everywhere. Once I figured out what was going on, I simply took care to make sure everything was lined up and tucked in nice and tight. That Black & Decker worked liked a charm–and it was free.

The Swap Shack isn’t all take and no give. I’ve donated outgrown Halloween costumes, paperbacks, toys, and even a couple pots and pans over the years. It’s a means of exchange among neighbors, and it saves us time and money. It fulfills the “reuse” portion of the Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The less stuff that goes into the landfills, the better. Plus, it’s fun. You never know what treasure you’ll dig up in there.

Take this table, for example. There is not a thing wrong with it except the handle needs tightening. It tends to spin around like a mad whirligig if I hit is just right. It caught my eye at the Swap Shack because it looked as if it perfectly matched my computer desk. I thought the little table could go in my upstairs office with the desk, but it ended up at the end of my upstairs hallway near the clothes hamper, instead. Inside I’ve placed a bunch of Harlequin Superromance novels I won in a writing contest. The short shelves inside are the perfect height for the little books. It could be used to store stationery supplies, cd’s, dvd’s, maybe even jars of jam. Decorating philosophy #1: You can’t have too many small tables. Decorating philosophy #2: You can’t have too many bookshelves. This cute thing fulfills both at the same time. Lovely!

According to some, every woman, especially every woman writer, needs a room of her own. I have a tiny office upstairs where I store my books, my photo albums, my writing files, and other inspiring items. (Ironically, I do the bulk of my writing downstairs on the laptop these days . . . it’s closer to where the coffee lives.) Without quite meaning too, I’ve pretty much furnished my office with free stuff. The reading lamp beside the bookcase was another Swap Shack find. It works perfectly well, and I like the brass finish. Someday I’ll replace the lampshade. Maybe. Although I have good interior design intentions, I’m not very ambitious with the follow-through when it comes to refinishing my finds.

Take this file cabinet, for instance.

I dragged this home from the dump last summer. My plan was to buy some bright pink spray paint and make it pretty. Well, here it is, still gray and sitting beside my computer desk. This find was a bit disappointing as the top drawer likes to slip off the little plastic wheels and drop down in one corner if I try to open it too fast. However, I don’t need to get into the top drawer all that often, and when I do, I simply remember to apply a little upward pressure when I slide it out toward me.

I understand that there is an element of the ridiculous in all this. We are a family with two college-educated people, one of whom has a very decent job. What am I doing “shopping” at the dump?

I could go on about the recycling aspect, the staying out of the box stores aspect, even the saving money aspect, but I suspect that to get closer to the truth I’d have to say I simply like the idea of getting something for nothing. I don’t think this makes me a terrible person. After all, I give many hours of my time away in volunteer activities, doing for nothing. Perhaps on some level I consider getting something for nothing is a just reward. Mostly, though, I think I love the idea of cutting out the middle man, the money, the means of exchange. This way there is just plain exchange. This works for used items, and it also works for new goods as well as services when people engage in a barter system. Economics in this century is complex, convoluted, and dare I say twisted? Bartering and trading cut to the chase. I give you something in exchange for something. It’s the oldest kind of trade there is. What could be simpler?

In recent years, perhaps due to the economic downturn (recession? depression?) I’ve noticed that people are turning to barter, swapping, and trading. One local business,Nurturing Tranquility Salon & Spa , holds regular Swap Parties for clients. A local “Mothers” group organized a clothing swap in the clubhouse of our neighborhood association. An artist friend of mine, Sandra Waugh, swaps artist trading cards (ATC’s) with other artists around the country and the world. (Check out her art at

None of what I’ve described so far fits the literal definition of Dumpster Diving. So far. But I do have in my possession at least one piece of furniture rescued from an actual dumpster. Stay tuned later this week for Dumpster Diving Part Two . . . Outside the Box.

Rock On!

I (heart) rocks!

Dear Reader:

Last week, just before the black-flies made their Spring 2010 debut, I managed to treat my perennial beds to an application of compost/manure from bags I purchased at my local, trusty Plummer’s Hardware store here in town (where I always find whatever I’m looking for–from mop buckets to paint chips to bird seed to fishing line. I swear, everyone needs a Plummer’s Hardware in his/her life. If you persist in going to those big, boxy hardware stores you are missing out!)

This year, Plummer’s has a wide variety of manure, humus, and compost from which to chose as they recently added Coast of Maine products to their selection. Square-foot gardening recommends using a smorgasbord of composts in order to assure adequate nutrients, so I was pleased to see this addition to the stash in front of the store. I hauled ten bags of these amendments home in the back of my husband’s big, red truck and announced to him that, yes, okay, sometimes the behemoth earns its keep. Most days, I curse its very existence as I find it extremely difficult to park in the tiny spaces of school and office-building parking lots, not to mention the small lot beside the Clipper Merchant Tea House where I love to go for a nice pot of Earl Grey and the soup of the day.

Anyway, I digress. Along with the organic compost, I also turned a bunch of old, spent beech leaves into the seven-year-old beds. Some beech leaves hang on tenaciously all winter and only drop to the ground when the new buds emerge in the spring. I don’t know why this is, but it means that I have to rake not only in the fall, but also in the spring when the stiff breeze picks up these lingering bits of cellulose and swirls them onto the lawn and into the emerging greenery in my gardens. Usually I rake them out, dig in the compost, and then sprinkle wood chips on top for a mulch. I was talking about this to a fellow gardener who informed me that if I simply turned the leaves into the soil, the worms would transform them into rich castings, helping to build up the nutrients in the garden over the summer while I lounged around sipping iced tea this July.

Well, I added that bit about the iced-tea, but you get the point. The worms do the bulk of the work later if I do a little front-loaded work now. Good deal!

While thus engaged in spreading and digging, I realized that my formerly-brilliant idea to edge perennial beds with rocks was not so brilliant after all. After seven years or so, the rocks were mostly covered with soil and grass and left a narrow strip of bare dirt between the garden edge and the cement walkway that had been poured a few years after I’d established the flower beds. Looking down, I figured that if I dug the rocks out of the garden, I could gain a nice five or six inch wide strip of soil in which to plant things like chamomile, oregano, catmint, parsley, and maybe even some lavender. (Click on the green lettering to get more info).

The herbs will make a nice, fragrant edge against the cement. The cement will warm the soil, creating a micro-climate perfect for the heat-loving herbs–and maybe a few tomatoes as well. I may even plant some tomatoes in big pots and install them on the walkway. Try something new every year. That’s my motto . . . one of them, anyway.

One of the most fun aspects of gardening is the opportunity for experimentation and change. When you use your imagination and creativity to solve problems and engage your brain in a “use-what-you-have” type of game, the possibilities are endless. As I dug up the edging rocks and threw them into the wheelbarrow, I pondered what to do with them. In the olden days, farmers dug boulders and rocks from the soil and used then to create beautiful and practical walls. Some are still standing two hundred years later. In my neck of the woods, tumbled rock walls run all through the mixed pine and hardwood woods, testament that this land was once cleared and used for pasture.

Mini-wall between the beeches

We have one of these tumbled-down walls edging our property near the road. In some places, the rocks have disappeared altogether. In others, soil and humus have filled in the spaces between the old boulders, and a few hardy rosa rugosas manage to bloom there every June for a week or so.

In the picture above, you can see where I’ve filled in the space between two of the larger boulders with some of my smaller, garden-variety rocks, creating a sculpture of sorts. Eventually, I will haul in some soil and compost and put a shade garden in front of it. Maybe someday I’ll tackle that entire wall, scrape away the soil, and replace the tumbled rocks, but for now I simply enjoy it the way Europeans enjoy their ancient ruins–as a connection and reminder of a past faded into history.

Rocks as mulch

In this sandy, shady spot, I’ve used small rocks as a mulch. This area near my shade garden was mostly gravel from the driveway anyway, so I decided to fill it in with the rocks rather than try to rake the gravel away from perennials every year. Any rocks I found near the bleeding hearts, the hostas, the iris, the astilbe in this shady garden spot went to this section, creating a type of “rock pond” rather than the “rock stream” you sometimes see in home and garden magazines. A little hens-n-chicks succulent plant manages to survive in there, but it hasn’t grown or spread. I may need to clear a little space around it and give it a shot of compost-water this summer.

retaining wall

As you can see from this picture, I’ve used rocks to create a retaining wall in order to extend the edge of my front garden bed out past the end of my cape-style house. This allowed me to build up the soil and plant a lilac shrub at the corner, adding a kind of old, farmhouse touch to a newly-built structure. I under-planted the lilac with chives, rock geranium, and a few other perennials, and it is now one of my favorite sections of the garden. I do have to pull up the encroaching grass every year as well as manually pick out the ubiquitous dead beech leaves, but a fresh layer of rocks dug from the edging this year will help prevent the grass from poking through next spring.

These are just a few of the possible uses for rockscaping in the garden. A fabulous book I have in my gardening library called GARDENING MADE EASY by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall is an excellent resource for all things “garden.” In this book, Fearnley-Whittenstall included an entire chapter devoted to growing alpines, and I hope to use some of her ideas this summer in these stony areas in my garden.

So, already I’m committed to an herb border and an alpine rock garden as well as continuing with my square-foot gardening boxes. What new projects do you have planned for this summer? Stop by and share your enthusiasm and ideas . . . Outside the Box.