Tools, Furniture, and Stuff

Digital Cameras: The Rewards and Headaches

by Susan Harris on January 25, 2008

Much to my surprise, digital photography has taken my enjoyment of garden to a new level.  And because now I’m designing the garden with great photos in mind, the result looks better than ever.  

If you’ve come to digital photography recently, lucky you. I went digital in 2001 and ranted endlessly about the frustrations of getting it all to work.  Turns out I’d really never learned Windows and ya know, if you’re on a PC you live or die by Windows.  I finally got on board and have been having a blast ever since. Well, mostly.

The Camera

My first (which I remember far better than my first roll in the hay on the topCanon Powershot550 bunk of a college dorm room) was an Olympus C-2020Z, which set me back over $700 for a mere 2.1 megapixels. Meager resolution, and clunky, too. But those days are long gone.

Then, following recommendations of some wonderful garden photographers, I moved up to the amazing Canon Powershot SD550.  This time I paid about $350 for 7.1 megs!! And it’s small enough to fit into my pocket, any pocket. It even survived being badly abused at the beach about a month after I bought it, so I LOVE THIS CAMERA. 

I’m no technie (no kidding) so I’ll leave to others the exacting job of reviewing it.  I’ll just recommend it.  Reviews are here,and here, Canon’s info is here.  (In you’re in the buying mood I hope you’ll buy it here. and support this site, though.)  I notice on that link that Amazon sells 7.1-megapixel Canon Powershots for $127, which I find amazing.

The Photo Editor

I started out using the Adobe Photo Deluxe Home Edition that came Adobe Photoshop Elementsfree with my first camera, and it was okay for a while.  But if you want to do much at all with your photos – and who doesn’t? – ya gotta move up to something better, and Photoshop itself seemed the way to go.  Or in my case the slightly less gargantuan and much cheaper Photoshop Elements

Again, reviews are here and here and you can buy it here and support this site.  It’ll only set you back 80 bucks or so, compared with over $1,000 for the full-blown Photoshop itself, which has professional-level capacities you’ll almost surely never need.  Believe me, the more consumer-friendly Elements version does plenty.

Speaking of which, it’s still no picnic to learn.  I took an all-day class and it barely scratched the surface of what I needed to know to do the handful of things I need to do with it (crop, adjust colors and light levels, and that’s about it.) The manual wasn’t much help and I’ve found the best source of information to be on line, simply by Googling "Elements crop" or whatever function I need help with.  Good old Google.

Photo Browser

Now you’d think I’d have everything I need after buying the camera and the editing program and I thought so, too.  But for reasons I can’t even remember now I found the photo brower in Photoshop not to my liking, and followed a professional’s recommendation to use iView instead.  It lets me assign little tags to each photo so that I can search for, say, all the images with tulips in them.  Well, that was the idea.  Do you think I’ve actually followed through and done all that tag-assigning? Well, no, but if I ever have time…..  In any event, you can buy it here.

What camera do you use in the garden?  And how about your photo editor and browser?  

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Breaking: Something Good to Say about Home Depot

by Susan Harris on March 21, 2007

So I was listening to the Q&A following the showing of a movie about American elms, part of DC’sHiomedepot Environmental Film Festival.  A panel of professional treehuggers was answering questions from the crowd, a couple of hundred more treehuggers.  Having been impressed by the film’s high praise for the disease-resistant Princeton elm and eager to buy one, an audience member asks:  Where can a homeowner buy one?  Hearing another audience member yell out "Home Depot", the questioner continues, "No, seriously.  I really want to buy one."

So here’s where it gets weird.  The person blurting out "Home Depot" representsElm River Edge Farm in Georgia, which happens to be a major grower of American elms, and he further declared that he’s recently delivered 12,000 of the prized, hard-to-get Princeton elms to Home Depots along the East Coast.  "And they’re really promoting them," he tells us, by featuring them prominently in the stores.  Another audience member pipes up to say "Buy ‘em quick before they kill ‘em," which elicited a knowing laugh from the crowd.

So why DOES Home Depot kill its plants by giving them no care at all?  Like not watering them, even after they’ve placed them in the blazing sun.  Well, the blogging nurseryman at The Golden Gecko in California explains that it’s because Home Depot and other mass merchant stores like Lowes only pay for the plants when they’re sold, so they have no financial incentive to keep them alive.  When they kill ‘em by neglect, it’s the grower who suffers.  So growers are banding together to hire their own plant care staff to drive around to the plant-killing big boxes and water their plants.  Amazing what terms you can negotiate when you have all the power.

Oops.  Looks like I’ve returned to the more familiar subject matter for me or anyone who’s ever shopped there – griping about Home Depot.  We’ve all been there, right?  But just this once, head on over to your nearest plant-killing hardware store and pick up a Princeton elm – quick.

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Tool Talk

by Susan Harris on November 17, 2006

Trowel1webI’ve noticed there’s nothing gardeners like more than talking about their tools – the ones that disappoint us and the ones we’re devoted to, almost weirdly devoted to.  Don’t even TALK about separating us from our favorites; it’s bad enough we lose them occasionally, despite our resolutions to the contrary.  If I only had a fiver for every trowel I’ve lost.

But no use rehashing all those sad losses.  Today I’m showing off my faves, starting with the best trowel ever.  It’s the one that’s tough enough not to bend when I exert my (uncanny) strength on it.  The one that digs easily because it’s pointed.  The one that doubles as a measuring stick.  Damn smart tool, and I use it even more than my beloved Felcos (#2, please.)  Doesn’t it look lovely here, posed like a garden ornament?  Well, why not.

Next up, my expendables.  You’ve seen these gloves praised before so IGlovesknivesweb won’t repeat; I’m just happy to have found the four pair I just bought to replace the ones with missing fingertips.  But the steak knives are making their debut here as objects of my affection.  Best damn tool for dividing perennials I’ve ever found.  Liriope?  Slices through those roots like butta.  These and two others (total outlay, $2) should last me the next season.

See what optimistic, forward-looking people we gardeners are?  Planting those bulbs, laying in the supplies.  Getting ready for SPRING.

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The Wrong Umbrella

by Susan Harris on August 14, 2006

Readers whChairfinishedweb_1o’ve followed changes in my garden this season (and have I given you any choice?) know that last spring I removed my hated Bradford pear (yay!!), which left my garden chairs in full sun most of the day and thus unusable most of the season.  No problem, I say to myself.  I’ll just rearrange and level the area to create space for a new umbrella.  Six weeks later it arrives and well, it does create a bit of shade, maybe enough for one of these chairs, but only if you tilt it, a feature that seemed like such a fine idea in the catalogue.  Turns out the tilt’s actually damn hard to maneuver and that’s because the umbrella’s made of solid wood, another feature that’s better on paper than in the field.

How did I make this mistake, choosing an umbrella that’s both too small and too heavy?  My first line of defense is to blame catalogue shopping.  If I’d seen the damn thing in person I like to think I’d have noticed it was rather small and heavy and chosen aluminum poles, lightweight fabric, and 9′ in diameter instead of 6.  But I can’t blame mail order shopping entirely and at the risk of wandering into Dr. Phil’s territory, here’s something I hate about myself.  In the process of ordering it I automatically and instinctively chose the cheapest one.  (I’d blame my tightwad parents but Phil would never let me get away with it.)  For another $50 I could have shaded both seats, and probably without the annoying tilt thingie.

UmbrellagoodwebIf only I’d bought in person I might be sitting in the fine shade of an umbrella like this one on the deck of my smarter and wealthier neighbors.  It’s nice and big and made of aluminum and a lightweight fabric.  Some too-late research tells me these umbrellas cost about $800 at Smith and Hawken (ouch!) or waaay less (about $100 for a 9′ aluminum) from some fine Internet sources.

Now the last thing I ever want to do is discourage you all from buying outdoor umbrellas to shade your Adirondack chairs (okay, other types of chairs work just as well).  So now that I’ve done the research – and made the mistakes – go forth and buy.  There must be some end-of-season deals out there for bargain-hunters.   If you dare to go the cyber route, searching "outdoor umbrellas" should do the trick.

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The Life and Death of a Hypertufa Pot

by Susan Harris on July 29, 2006

Hypertufaweb_1Everybody loves these homemade hypertufa pots, even after they’ve seen the sudden pot death that can result if they’re made too thin (or maybe if the winter’s too severe – who knows?)  Here the bowl-shaped pot second from the left, my favorite of the bunch, suddenly split open last month.  Whatever.  For something that costs about 2 bucks and looks great, I’ll deal with an uncertain lifespan.  As for the other, thicker ones, they’re holding on after 4 years.

And before somebody writes to ask what the hell hypertufa is, it’s a mix of Portland cement, perlite and peatmoss, a formula that produces a reasonable facsimile of the stone troughs traditionally used in rural England for feeding animals – hence they’re often called hypertufa troughs. The real things are scarce, heavy and expensive, thus the appeal of homemade substitutes.  The mixture is pounded inside the walls of a container, like the bucket, cooler and kitty littler container used for most of these, or on the outside of an overturned container, such as the wok top that formed the broken one here. (Click to enlarge.)  I’ve given workshops in making hypertufa and I gotta say it’s one unholy mess.  Somehow, like making mudpies, it’s also a helluva lot of fun.

For plants, I’ve used only succulents like sedums and hens and chicks.  These drainage-demanding plants love the natural porousness of hypertufa and I love the very low watering needs of the succulents, so everybody’s happy as can be.

If there are any hypertufa-makers out there, tell us what plants have worked, how long the pots have survived, and hey, just anything on your mind that’s remotely on point.

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The Wrong Tool

by Susan Harris on May 19, 2006

Pickaxe2_1Newbie gardeners these days have it easy.  Thanks to gardening blogdom, they get to read what real gardeners say about the down-and-dirty of real gardening.  Like this little piece of advice I’m happy to pass on. You don’t have to spend 20 years digging with the wrong damn tool like I did because I’m telling ya right now, the pickaxe is the clear winner in the Takoma Digging Trials.  The shovel, the tool that’s singlehandedly upped the annual income of my physical therapist, is for lifting and moving the dirt, not digging it.  Ya dig?  Oh, the shovel could handle digging in store-bought potting soil or pure compost, but the rock-imbedded clay on my property?  No fricking way.

[Photo - an improvement over the standard pickaxe shot I first included here.  And the umbrella's my temporary solution to the full-sun here resulting from the removal of a Bradford pear.  A better umbrella is coming soon.]

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The Road to Electric

by Susan Harris on May 8, 2006

Oh, it’sMower been a long haul for me and my Sears gas-driven lawnmower.  Bought used in 1985 and serviced only once, it’s not only served my needs but those of several of my neighbors.  Yes, here in Crunchy Takoma we share mowers and power washers and spreaders and mulch deliveries and lots more stuff I don’t know about in the child care department. 

But back to what’s really important, the mower.  Our relationship began to crumble last spring after I replaced the railroad-tie steps leading to my back lawn with huge but rough boulders.  They’re gorgeous and oh, so naturalistic, but I had to carry the damn mower as I was going up and down, so I began to get a bad attitude toward mowing.  Like whining about having to do it.  And I’d always loved that clean new look you get from this simple act, which takes me only 30 minutes for the front and back lawns combined, thanks to gradual turf reduction over the years.

So recently I let my fingers do the walking and ordered this little guy, a 13-inch electric mower made in China under the terribly unsexy brand name of Yard Machines, for $120 delivered to my door.  I know cords are supposed to be a pain but I was willing to give it a try for my small lawns.

THE RESULTS  Wherein I discovered what a different experience mowing electrically really is, different in good ways.  Working with such a lightweight machine is a pleasure, and most of all, there’s the quiet.  Now, I’ve never been bothered by the sound of a gas mower myself but it’s always been frustrating, in the hot, steamy days of high summer, to have to wait till 9 a.m. to do my mowing, when the air is cool and I’m ready to go at 5:30. With this guy being so quiet, I can mow whenever I want to. 

And then there’s the nice result of reducing the pollution I cause while I’m here on Earth.  I read recently that thanks to legislative inaction in this area, gas mowers produce 90 times the pollutants per gallon of gas as a 2006 car, which is much worse than I imagined back in my bad-old pollutin’ days.

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Everybody Loves CobraHead

by Susan Harris on April 15, 2006

Let me be the first to thank Andrea at Heavy Petal for the prize that arrived in today’s mail – a CobraHCobrahead_1ead "precision weeder and cultivator,"  which I won because my little essay on how I got started gardening was chosen as the best of the bunch.  Well, actually the four winners were chosen at random but who’s to know?   Having recently read some raves about this little tool on a garden forum I’d been perusing, I knew a good thing was coming my way.

And while I confess I haven’t tried it yet, I’m already convinced by the enthusiastic testimonials, one of which called it addicting.  Well, all I need is to become even more addicted to gardening, so I’ll take that as a precautionary note.

A quick question for my ever-astute readers, and a short comment.  First, the enclosed information tells me that "Working in conjunction with a good garden fork, there is no bed too tough to be quickly weeded."  Okay, what the hell is a garden fork?  My first guess was a cultivator but this tool is intended to be used to cultivate, so it can’t be that.  Guesses?  Could it be what we Easterners call a garden rake?

And there’s a testimonial that caught my eye. A gardener in Wisconsin wrote that she was amazed – exclamation point – because "I have always employed more of a soak it and pull by hand weeding style, rather than using a tool for the job. Battling weeds this way is just that, a battle."  No offense, but humans have been using tools now for, I don’t know, ages, and I wonder why she’d never given it a try until recently being given this one.  M. Sinclair Stevens in Texas, do you suppose the term "Luddite" would apply here, too?  (I was corrected when I referred to a computer-deprived tree-grower as a "Neanderthal" because apparently Neanderthals were enamored with technology, unlike the clueless Luddites of the world.  Now I’m using "Luddite" every chance I can.  Previously my favorite word was troglodyte, someone who lives in a cave.  Very handy word, too, and it’s nice to know the subtle differences, as I know Sinclair would agree.)

And Andrea, have you guys set a date?  Don’t keep us in the dark.

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Meet the Slayer of Invaders

by Susan Harris on February 2, 2006

Tool_1Admire, if you will, the newest addition to my tool collection, the amazing Whatchamacallit.  Lately it’s been the perfect tool for removing two of the worst invaders in the wooded valley in back of my house – multiflora rose and greenbriar.  Boyoboy it’s gratifying to dig out crappy plants like these, roots and all, knowing they’ll finally be gone, at least for a while.   

If these horribleGreenbrier_2 plants are new to you, I’ll just say that multiflora rose isn’t as nice as it sounds.  It’s truly one of those "alien invaders" we’re always hearing about.  Greenbriar, on the other hand, is something we almost never hear about – the native invader.  In fact, many native plant advocates, especially the newly converted, will tell you that by definition, native plants can do no wrong.  Well, somebody forgot to tell that to the greenbriar because, in the words of an astonished neighbor of mine, it "behaves really badly."  To wit:  smothering our beloved native woodland azaleas and any other desireable plants struggling to out-compete the junk plants that dominate this ecological mishmash.  The explanation may have to do with all the other factors that have changed in the last 500 years since European invasion (and aren’t we the worst invaders of all?) Maybe its competitors or the animals that eat it have become extinct, though it’s hard to imagine an animal eating this prickly, disgusting plant.  Here it is, though you’ll have to imagine it even uglier and totally covering large shrubs and small trees.

Whatever their origin or the cause of their misbehavior, winter’s a great time to get rid of them and did I mention how satisfying it is?

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The Gloves I Love

by Susan Harris on January 23, 2006

My gardeniGlovesng gloves, be they ever so humble.  Most days I use the $4 fabric gloves on the left.  They last about a year of hard use, but at that price I buy myself two or three pair a year and always have enough.  Best of all, they fit both hands equally well, so I never have to hunt down a left and a right.  Imagine the freedom, the convenience, the sheer niftiness of that idea.  See how easy I am to please?

The newer pair on the right are my muddy-day gloves because they have rubber where you need it.  At $10 a pair they’re more expensive, but they last forever.  They came in very handy this past weekend as I was moving large amounts of wet soil.  You know, the kind of real gardening work we never talk about when we show people around our lovely finished products.

There’s one more pair I use once every other year or so and they’re the stiff, hard-to-put-on and hard-to-use leather gloves we’re supposed to use for practically everything because they offer so much protection.  So okay, if I’m wielding a very dangerous power tool, I’ll put ‘em on, but I’ll never like ‘em.

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