Recently, I spent a weekend spreading an enhanced compost mulch over some of my perennial beds. While I filled the wheelbarrow, spadeful by spadeful, chopped and blended the rough compost, and then spaded it all out again onto the beds, it occurred to me that I was doing brute labour, the kind of thing one associates with medieval peasants.
But it’s worth it.
I can’t imagine gardening without compost. Making and using it is fundamental to the annual cycle of this garden, from gathering spent plant material throughout the summer and fall, to distributing the resulting compost the following spring.
It is true that making and using compost does involve episodes of vigorous work. But that can be said of gardening in general. Only the mildest types of gardening activities — buying pre-potted plants, plunking them on the patio and administering water occasionally (and it’s debatable whether this is really gardening) — are labour-free.
Composting is also burdened with the perception that it’s an esoteric, complicated process, involving strict proportions of materials, added chemicals, and right or wrong ways to put them all together.
I can say from my own experience that it’s really quite a simple process. The one critical element (aside from plant material) is the gardener’s labour.
So here’s how I make compost…
First, I must explain that I do cool, slow compost. It takes a full year to break down to a usable state. Fast, hot compost is a different process, involving (you guessed it) more work and possibly special equipment, such as a rotating compost drum.
I have two heaps, the working heap and the in-process or finished heap. Each one occupies a space about 5 feet (1.5 metres) square. The main inputs are perennial stalks and spent flowers, accumulated through the deadheading process in spring, summer and fall, weeds (of course!) and a huge raft of leaves at the end of the gardening season in October and November. Kitchen waste — fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags and eggshells — are a minute contribution throughout the year.
Collecting the stuff — cutting down, raking up and lugging — is just the beginning. I don’t put long, tough stalks into my heaps intact. They break down much better if I chop them up first, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to lay them on top of the pile and whack them with a machete. I have a nice one — nearly a yard long, handle wrapped with copper wire. It’s definitely one of the essential composting tools, along with digging fork and heavy pry bar (whose function I’ll get to shortly).
Because my compost piles don’t heat up sufficiently to kill seeds, I try to avoid adding material containing ripe seeds. Three plants that are stalwarts of my garden — lamb’s ears (Stachys betonicifolia), toadflax (Linaria purpurea) and rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) — seed vastly, so I have to make sure I cut them down before the seeds ripen. (Needless to say, I don’t always manage this, which is why they are “stalwarts”).
It’s best to chop up plant material when it’s fresh. Once wilted, it’s harder to cut through. That doesn’t stop me from piling up stuff to be dealt with later — sometimes weeks later. (Perfection, though desirable, is not always achieved). Things get messy all the time in the compost area, as when I cut down all the lamb’s ears, toadflax and campion before they go to seed, creating a backlog of stuff that needs to be processed for the heap.
Once or twice a season I do a big compost heap cleanup, chopping, forking and stacking everything into an organized pile, making sure I incorporate some finished or at least half-baked compost in with the fresh stuff, along with water when needed. A compost pile should be damp, like a squeezed-out sponge, not wet.
One often sees instructions about the proportion of brown and green material, with admonishments to get it right, or a smelly mess will result. I suspect this applies only to those who put lawn clippings in their compost heaps. Large amounts of fresh green stuff (as opposed to material higher in cellulose such as perennial stalks) may result in anaerobic decomposition which does produce slimy, smelly results. Or so I hear, never having experienced this myself. My lawn clippings stay on the lawn, and because said lawn is never fertilized or overwatered, it’s not thick enough for thatch buildup to be a problem. (Sometimes the lazy way is the better way).
Things (aside from ripe seedheads) that I don’t put in my compost heaps: woody material such as twigs or branches, dandelions (which can ripen seeds even after being pulled up), and noxious weeds such as bindweed and creeping bellflower, which can sprout from the smallest root fragments. All this goes to the municipal compost program. There, composting is done on a grand scale, resulting in temperatures high enough to kill weeds and seeds. (Or so one hopes; I never buy any of the stuff myself). Something else I keep out of my heaps — those little plastic stickers on fruit. They never break down and are offensive to see in the garden beds. Not all members of the household bother to peel them off and put them in the garbage, however, so they creep in too. Most annoying.
The pile in the picture above includes all of last fall’s leaves, with a layer of freshly added stuff on top. By now the leaves have packed down solidly and are probably not yet rotted. Oxygen is needed to promote decomposition, so I use the giant pry bar to poke holes into the heap, working the bar right down to the bottom as well as sticking it horizontally and lifting the layers. It’s encouraging when this is fairly easy to do, indicating that breakdown is occurring. It’s even more encouraging when the end of the bar comes out warm or even hot, meaning that some heat is actually being generated. Most often, though, that is not the case.
After the spring mulching process, I like to keep some finished compost handy to add to planting holes or incorporate into soil mixes for pots. But by early fall, it’s pretty much used up. I make a point of moving the working heap into the resulting empty space, anticipating the deluge of leaves that will come in the next few months. The newest stuff ends up on the bottom of the pile, with the old leaves of the previous autumn on top. This gives me a chance to see how things are rotting, adding water to any dry layers and thoroughly aerating everything. Once done, that heap is “locked up,” becoming the in-process pile. Then I start accumulating new material for the next working heap on the other side.
By spring, the finished pile has rotted down, ready for use.
I can still recognize some of the elements — fern stems, the chicken-bony joints of the thickest campion stalks, skeletonized maple leaves — but mostly it’s blackish-brown, crumbly and perfect for mulching. I add alfalfa meal, kelp meal, lime, bone meal and other goodies to give it more nutritional value, blending it all into each wheelbarrow load. For use on potted plants, I screen the compost, throwing the coarse remnants into the current working heap. Screened compost is also perfect as a base for potting soil.
My compost is not perfect. It always contains seeds, despite my efforts to keep them out, so little surprises are always sprouting in my pots and beds — not always a bad thing. I’ve actually potted up some of the volunteers, such as hellebores, for use in the garden.
As for the brute labour aspect, it amounts to four or five days a year of moderately vigorous effort — mulching in spring, heap maintenance and turning in late summer and leaf management in the fall. Each of these is a milestone of the gardening year, the circle from life to death and back again.
Free ebooks! It’s a hot topic among indie authors these days, as we try to bring our books to readers’ attention.
Many authors say they would never give away their books for free (except for brief promotional periods). They believe this devalues the hard work of writing and publishing.
Others claim that making the first book in a series “perma-free” is a good way to generate reader interest in the other books in the series.
Who is right?
Arguments against free:
1. The time and treasure you put into writing and publishing the book is worth something.
2. People don’t value the ebooks they download just because they are free, and most never read them.
3. Free books cheapen the written word for everyone, harming authors who depend on selling their books for a living.
Arguments for free:
1. Free “outsells” any non-free book. People love free.
2. Free is frictionless. To buy a $0.99 book you have to go through the payment process. Free is an instant download.
3. People do read free ebooks and some return to buy either the print version or other ebooks in the series.
Now to my own experience: I have written and published a four-book series. In one 18-month period (September 2012 to February 2014) that the first book was free, it was downloaded several thousand times. And that was when it had its original homemade cover image. Sadly, only a small fraction of those who downloaded it returned to purchase the other 3 books in the series. But I was thrilled at the numbers that did.
Every year, Smashwords offers its authors two opportunities to make their books available in a special catalogue at reduced rates (Read an Ebook Week in March and the Summer/Winter Sale for the month of July). Prices may be reduced by 25% to 100% off the regular price. In my experience, there is little uptake for books at 50% off, but those at 100% (i.e., free) are snapped up. I suspect there are many readers who visit Smashwords only during these events, trolling for free ebooks.
Some say that making an ebook free should be part of a marketing plan, in which readers who get free books should be required to offer up something other than money in exchange — a review or an email address. A good idea, except it depends on the goodwill of the recipient reader. If a reader doesn’t produce a review, the author can’t get the book back. As for email addresses, when someone downloads my book from the Smashwords site, or from B&N, the Apple iBooks store or the other outlets to which Smashwords distributes, I have no idea who those readers are. All I see are the numbers of downloads; the readers are invisible to me. The only way I can think of to get their email addresses is to put a note at the end of the free book offering the reader the second one for free by sending me a message. (Have I done this? Not yet.)
Many authors buy advertising, which may or may not pay for itself in book sales. It may end up being a financial loss, so really, how is that different from giving away books for free?
Conclusion: do what works for you. The beauty of self-publishing is that you call the shots. If you have a number of books available, try making one of them free. Or write short prequel or spinoff story and make that free.
Of course the downside of calling all the shots is ever-present doubts, second thoughts and what-ifs. I frequently have arguments with myself that go something like this:
If I were charging $0.99 for that book, I’d be earning $0.60 per sale. Sure, there are lots of downloads, but I’m losing $0.60 on each one!
Yes, but if the book cost even $0.99, the uptake would be way less. And so would the number of readers buying the next book.
OK, but what if it’s true that hardly anyone actually reads free ebooks? If only a fraction do, and only a fraction of those return to buy the other books in the series, is losing the $0.60 worth it?
Well, but don’t you like seeing all those downloads pile up? It’s depressing to see no sales week after week. Better to keep the first book free for a few more months.
OK, but what about…
And so it goes. For now, The Friendship of Mortals ebook is free. For the next month, anyway. Or maybe the next 6 months. Or maybe just a few more days, depending on how that argument turns out.
I hate pruning.
For a gardener, that’s a dangerous admission. Gardeners are always pruning, or at least always cutting. (“Pruning” usually refers to operations on woody plants such as trees and shrubs, with the artistic intention to shape and train). We are always cutting down old stalks, bushwhacking overgrown or unwanted vegetation, or “pinching” young plants to make them bushier and fuller. The garden tool I use more than any other is a set of secateurs, otherwise known as pruners or clippers. On any inspection trip around the garden it takes only a minute or two before I spot a job that requires this tool.
So what’s the problem?
Yesterday, for example, I finally got around to cutting down last year’s fern foliage before the new fiddleheads start unfurling.
I wasn’t quite so prompt with Epimedium x perralchicum “Frohnleiten.” The durable foliage of this useful plant lasts all winter, but should be removed so the dainty flowers and beautiful new leaves may be seen and admired. By the time I got around to doing that yesterday, tender bloom stalks with their yellow flowers had already unfolded, with others still bent over but preparing to rise.
Rather than the quick clip that would have been fine a few weeks ago, I had to do careful, stalk-by-stalk cuts. Accidentally cutting off new growth is sickening and guaranteed to make one feel like a Bad Gardener.
That’s what I hate about pruning — cutting off healthy growth. In the case of the Epimedium, it’s not desirable and happens only as a result of clumsiness or haste. But pruning, done by the book, often requires removal of new, leafy plant material. Many types of clematis require that the plant be cut to the ground every spring. Easy but brutal, because often there is visible new growth all over the old vines. The gardener must steel herself and snip, suppressing the thought that the plant will have to replace all that mass, not just pick up where it left off last fall. (And yes, I know that if you leave the old growth, in a few years you end up with a woody tangle and fewer blooms).
The healthiest and most vigorous growth on roses is at the very ends of the branches — and if you prune as directed, you cut it off, leaving stumps from which you hope and believe better new growth will come. At the plant’s lower height, you will be able to see and appreciate the flowers. That’s a good reason for pruning, but right after making the cut — reducing a lush mass of fresh, red-tinged leaves to a bare stub — I feel like like a vandal.
I’ve been gardening for more than 30 years, and I still have trouble cutting off healthy-looking growth, even when I know it will (eventually) improve the looks and performance of the plant. Even now, there are occasions when I simply don’t do it, which means the plant gets leggy or woody, needing more drastic treatment (including total removal) down the road.
“Strength follows the knife.” I mutter this gardening maxim as I stand in front of a plant, secateurs in hand, contemplating amputation. It’s what I think of as the Pruning Paradox — the weaker the plant, the harder you are advised to prune it, because pruning stimulates new growth. Like many maxims, it’s not 100%: once a plant is really weak, my advice would be simply to save yourself the effort of hard pruning its measly little limbs. The result will probably be the same, in the end. Once a plant is dead, there is no hesitation before cutting it down.
Some great suggestions here by Charles. I especially like that he doesn’t ignore the negative aspects of writing and getting your stuff out there. It is tough. I see that with my series of 4 books I seriously broke Charles’s first suggestion. Each book has a different narrator, speaking in a different voice. Many readers possibly don’t like that, which would explain a few things. :-) It’s good to know others struggle with these issues, and very good to have access to the community of writers.
Originally posted on Nicholas C. Rossis:
You probably remember author Charles E. Yallowitz, who’s become a regular visitor to this blog and fast friend. He graciously agreed to a guest post on the things he has learned since self-publishing his first book of his Legends of Windemere series. Take it, Charles!
Stuff I’ve learned since publishing my first book
Beginning of a Hero (CLICK FOR AMAZON SITE) Cover Art by Jason Pedersen
So, Nicholas and I were talking a while back and I said something that caught his attention. It was a simple comment about stuff I learned since I published my first book of Legends of Windemere back in February of 2013.
I’m gearing up for the 7th book of the series, Sleeper of the Wildwood Fugue, and Nicholas suggested I write about what I’ve learned over the last two years — that happen to feel like a decade.
Though I’ve learned a lot…
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I’m halfway through reading Nick Cutter’s The Deep, having heard a feverishly enthusiastic endorsement of it by a local radio commentator. For the most part I can’t argue with his opinion — the book has all the right stuff for a can’t-put-it-down horror/thriller: a research station at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a mad scientist and a crazed one, a lurking evil, and a couple of people who descend from the surface to find out what’s going on. And some experimental subjects — specifically two dogs.
So far, I’ve met only one of the dogs — a skinny, anxious chocolate Lab. Don’t know what’s happened to the other one, but I’ll bet it’s something bad. And I have a bad feeling about the ultimate fate of both dogs and all the humans. This can’t end well. It’s that kind of book.
Here’s the thing: suspecting a bad end for those dogs gets in the way of enjoying the story. I’m fine with the scientists going crazy, with the humans encountering everything from claustrophobia to terrors behind closed hatches to depth-induced nightmares. That’s the whole point of reading a book like this — experiencing terrible things vicariously while reclining on your couch with your favourite cat and a bag of snacks. But expecting to share the experience of an already frightened dog suffering and dying is too real to be enjoyable. When I get to that part, I will skip over it, or just close the book and put it down.
Weird, isn’t it? In a world where millions of factory-farmed animals die every day, where small children endure terrible conditions in refugee camps, I can’t bear to read about the suffering of fictitious dogs (or, even worse, cats). Maybe it’s because I’ve witnessed the illness and deaths of three cats in the past 20 years. Maybe because unlike humans, animals don’t have any concept of hope for the future or self-sacrifice for a good cause. They are simply swept up in humanity’s projects and become unheeded debris along the road to… whatever. (But then, so are those kids in the refugee camps).
Conclusion? Horrors are great to read about, as long as they aren’t too real. As long as reading about them doesn’t bring us to a place where we don’t want to be, reminding us of the sadness and tragedy inherent in our mortal lives. Which is why many readers simply avoid the horror genre altogether, and some of us read it with relish only if we know no animals will be harmed in making the mind-movie.
I’ve been contemplating a post about indie authors giving away books for free, but Nicholas has put forth some very good points here.
Originally posted on Nicholas C. Rossis:
The very sweet Toni Betzner asked me for a guest post for her blog, My Write of Passage. Having noticed how I do a lot of giveaways and offers, she suggested I discuss the benefits of free.
This got me thinking. I keep reading contradictory information on this. Jack Eason complains that it attracts trolls. Effrosyni Moschoudi – and many others – have told me that free doesn’t work – in the sense that it fails to generate subsequent sales.
Also, this is a question that has troubled me a lot lately, As you all know, I’ve decided to keep Runaway Smile available in its entirety for blog visitors, wishing to both thank my followers and gain reviews.
So, does free work?
Quick answer: yes and no. It does as part of an overall strategy, and it can do wonders to put a new author on…
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Readers may have noticed an absence of garden-related posts recently. Well OK, it’s been winter, but here on the Fortunate Coast you could have been fooled into thinking spring came very early — or winter cancelled itself soon after Christmas. For the past three weeks I have been checking for emerging blue poppies (looks like 10 or 11 of the 16 plants have survived) and pruning shrubs. The cotoneaster, ceanothus, one of the barberries and the magnolia have undergone well-intended amputations. I’ve cut down old perennial stalks left over from last summer and pulled up some of the invasive grass from the perennial bed that is slowly being taken over by it.
But I feel disengaged from the garden and I’m not ready to embrace spring. Part of me would be happy enough to have a couple more months of winter. The reasons for this are clear — some challenging family issues and the presence of The Dog. I have less time and energy for the garden. Moreover, I’m still coming to terms with sharing the space with a large, bouncy puppy who chews sticks and fallen branches and occasionally does some unauthorized digging. Fences around the beds protect the plants but are visually jarring.
I have no ambitious plans for the coming season. Maintaining the status quo will be the name of the game, and I’ll be quite pleased if things don’t deteriorate. No new beds will be dug (except by Nelly), no exciting plants introduced. I may even skip the long-established ritual of growing tomatoes. The fewer pot-confined plants I’ll have to water every day or two in the dry months (May or June through September), the better.
This is one of the dark secrets that garden writers don’t reveal — a garden can’t be put on “pause” while the gardener takes a time out, unlike a hobby using inert materials. Plants will grow and seed and die quite happily on their own, unsupervised by the gardener. But many of the features the gardener values will be lost or diminished — integrity of plantings, clear edges around beds, and survival of delicate or fussy plants. One reads of the disheveled charm of abandoned gardens, but it’s different when the garden is your own and you get to witness the dishevelment creeping in.
So I hope the 2015 gardening season isn’t one where chaos reigns and the gardener (that’s me) throws in the trowel.
Blue is the colour of hope.
For the seventh year running, Smashwords is participating in Read An Ebook Week. Authors who have published through Smashwords can offer their books at discounts from 25% to 100% (i.e. free) on the Smashwords site. The discounted books are featured in a separate catalogue from March 1st (12 a.m. Pacific Standard Time) until March 7th (12 p.m. PST).
What are you waiting for?
While writing my post about Pete Rawlik’s novel Reanimators, I started thinking about Lovecraftian writing in general. You see the term everywhere these days, in blogs, book reviews and descriptions. What does it mean, anyway?
What is a Lovecraftian novel or story, and how does it differ from other types of weird fiction, science fiction or horror fiction?
Tentacles? Surely more than that!
First of all, who was Howard Phillips Lovecraft? He was a writer of weird fiction who lived almost his entire life (1890-1937) in Providence, Rhode Island. Almost unknown during his relatively short life, he achieved enduring fame after his writings caught the popular fancy. Lovecraft’s friends and fellow writers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei are credited with bringing public attention to his work by publishing it posthumously under the Arkham House imprint.
Fiction dubbed “Lovecraftian” covers a wide range:
1. Rewritings or expansions of HPL’s stories. Examples include Pete Rawlik’s Reanimators and my own The Friendship of Mortals, both of which use Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator” as a starting point.
2. Original stories with HPL’s settings, entities and situations, but with new plots and characters. The body of such writings is sometimes described as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Authors include August Derleth and Brian Lumley, among others.
3. Original stories with new themes similar to those of HPL, often referencing his works. Colin Wilson’s story “The Return of the Lloigor” is an example. Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft is another.
4. Original stories that mention HPL or elements from his fiction but with plots that go beyond his characteristic settings and situations . Many present-day writers in horror and the paranormal give a nod or pay tribute to Lovecraft in varying degrees. Stephen King, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell and many others — too many to name, really. Kiernan’s novel The Red Tree, which I recently finished reading, is a perfect example.
I think that to be truly Lovecraftian, a story or novel must include certain qualities and plot elements, such as references to ancient books, other dimensions and displacements in time, but especially the idea that we and our Earth are not the culmination of anything, merely a small blip in the cosmos. The horror, when revealed, must be enormous and incomprehensible, on a cosmic scale.
Fiction of the “classic Lovecraftian” type would include some or all of these:
1. A New England setting.
2. Old houses or other buildings, or subterranean places.
3. Ancient books or manuscripts of secret lore.
4. Concerns with ancestry.
5. Connection with a university or with researchers.
6. No sex and almost no female characters.
7. An earnest, scholarly narrative style.
8. Accidental discovery of shocking secrets by a character (always a man, of a scholarly, solitary type) engaged in genealogical or other research.
9. No magic; presumably all manifestations are natural phenomena, even though some violate the laws of physics as we know them.
10. The idea that the earth, solar system, galaxy and universe have a history independent of any connection to humanity, involving life forms or vast entities that, while indifferent to humans, may pose deadly threats to them, either directly or by actions of worshippers or minions of these entities.
This brings me to religion and magic. Lovecraft’s atheism and scientific rationalism are reflected in his fiction. Magic appears only in Lovecraft’s fantasies, for example The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Even there it is somewhat limited, being part of that fictional world — for example, cats that can fly to the dark side of the moon. As for religion, it’s human beings who worship and act in the name of the Great Old Ones such as Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. The entities themselves appear to be indifferent to humanity.
Personally I think the term “Lovecraftian” is being applied rather too freely these days, as a synonym for weird fiction generally. In a straight-up Lovecraftian story, their main characters may not necessarily be male, but should definitely be unattached and engaged in some sort of scholarly enterprise or genealogical research, rather than sex. Characters with active sex lives are not Lovecraftian in the strict sense, no matter what weird things happen to them.
In fact, I would argue that many of the works in my fourth category of types above aren’t really Lovecraftian at all. They may have been inspired by HPL’s writings or contain references to them, but it takes more than that to be “Lovecraftian fiction.” It’s a subset of weird fiction, not a synonym for it. Writers and reviewers owe it to H.P. Lovecraft and his admirers to be familiar with his outlook and style before applying the term to a piece of writing.