Friday, February 24, 2012

Square Foot Gardening: Creating A Kitchen Garden In A Small Backyard

Spring has sprung around the Lowcountry and over the past couple of weeks I have been busy working in my back-yard oasis to prepare for the season of “Easy-Livin” in The Land of Palm Trees. In fact, as I write this blog, you could say that I am already working on that “and the Livin’ is EEEEzzzzzy” theme. With the threat of severe weather arriving early this afternoon, I took advantage of the comfortable temps this morning and got my chores done early, now I am enjoying a wonderful breeze out of the Southwest and waiting to be run inside by the storms approaching from the West.

This week I successfully completed all of my prep work for the two existing small kitchen garden plots in my backyard here at White Gables. After the late fall harvest of my second crop of tomatoes and peppers, lettuce, cabbage and herbs I put the plots to bed covering them with leaves and other clippings from the lawn. Throughout the winter months the yard waste decayed and two weeks ago I added a couple of layers of fully cooked compost from the compost bin in the corner of the yard and plowed the plots under using the roto-tiller attachment on my weed machine. This week I created new crisp edges for the plots and raked and tilled the soil once again preparing the beds for planting.

My backyard is not real spacious; therefore I have had to adapt my gardening style to more of a square-foot approach. We have managed to create a very inviting green space within the confines of our fenced in yard that includes a Southern border planting with tropicals, Jasmine, Confederate Rose, Bay Trees, Rosemary, Oleander and low palms. I am preparing to plant grapes along the western border on the inside of the fence. At my wife’s request, my two sons and I built a foundation rose garden along the garage last year as a mother’s day present, and of course there are the two small kitchen garden plots, one measuring 3 foot by 4 foot and the other measuring 8 foot by 4 foot. That is a lot of green squeezed into a smallish back yard, but yet there is still enough lawn to give me and the lawn mower about a 10 minute workout. I should add that the lawn in the front and side yards take me a bit longer to mow and trim. But you get the idea, square foot gardening is not about bulk but is instead about planning and yield.

The nice thing about this approach to vegetable and herb gardening is that it isn’t extremely time consuming and you can do it yourself with some basic tools, a little bit of knowledge and, of course, permission from your HOA. The first step is choosing a location, one that is sunny at least 70% of the day, but ideally shaded or partially shaded during a portion of the blistering afternoons. Once you have chosen your location, it’s time to remove the sod from the plot. Since you are dealing with small areas, like 3x4, 4x4, or even 4x8 foot squares, sod removal can be done with a spade. I always have thinning or unhealthy areas somewhere in my lawn so the sod that I remove is usually put to use in patching somewhere in the lawn. Our soil is part sand and part clay, not necessarily in that order, so I added a lot of garden soil, manure and compost to my plots during the first 2-3 years of their lives. Honestly, don’t expect your first year of kitchen gardening on a newly prepped site to be the best, but it is worth the effort, especially if you approach it as a work in progress.

I have also discovered a great website to assist with my planning and charting of my gardens. Gardeners Supply Company provides a great planning guide that allows you to customize plans to fit your space. These images are from the website and represent the two gardens that I am growing this spring. For the smaller garden plot I have planned a “Cooks Favorite” garden with onions, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach and beans. The larger plot will feature a pre-planned high yield garden from the website.

We will supplement our kitchen garden produce with membership this summer in a local CSA (Community Sponsored Aggriculture) like this one from Gruber Farms. We are so fortunate that our local farmers offer this program, it is an excellent chance to support the local farming industry, and enrich your families diet with locally grown in season fruit and vegetables.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Good News!!!

Much of what I write about in From The Land of Palm Trees deals with day to day living in the Lowcountry as it relates to leisure activity. Occasionally I will remind the reader that most of us who live year around in “Vacation Land” have jobs and lives that include mundane routines and responsibilities like sorting recyclables and putting the trash at the curb on certain days, and doing lawn and garden work.

Of course, I would much rather write about fun things like golf courses.

Or trips to the beach.

Or boating.

It's a whole lot more interesting to write about good times in one of the world’s foremost tourist destinations, but the mission of this blog is to present a taste of what life is like when one chooses to be more than a visitor in the Land of Palm Trees. And for many of us who call the Lowcountry home our lives take on a sense of regularity and worldliness amidst all of this sand, sun and fun. You know, we read the local newspaper daily and we watch the local newscasts, we have church homes, we belong to civic organizations, PTO’s and we vote in local elections. We bank at neighborhood banks and even get our teeth cleaned twice a year. In much the same fashion that you live your lives in various cities and towns all over the country. OK, granted, it’s a little different going to the dentist or eye doctor in an office that is decorated with wicker furniture, palm leaf patterned fabric and tropical color schemes, but you get the point.

To the tourist or visitor the historic streets and picturesque landscape of Charleston and the surrounding areas provides a picture worth the memories. Us locals, whether native or transplant, take a lot of pride in our city and the travel, tourism and food awards that it garners. But for most of us, life here is not just about being a tourist in our own town. We also focus on the livability qualities of the Lowcountry. For instance the balance between being a hospitable host to the cruise ship industry but at the same time keeping an eye to the fragile nature of the ecosystem of the coast that we love so much. We are attentive to the transportation infrastructure, the health care system and the public school system.

We get excited when we read good news about the local economy, just like we do when we read about yet another foodie award for Husk. That was the case yesterday when I picked up The Post and Courier and read the front page headline LOCAL ECONOMY ON THE UPSWING. I was even happier when I read the first few lines of the article: “The Charleston area is seeing a stronger economic recovery than the rest of the state and most of the nation.” Even though the experts quoted by the report state that not much improvement is expected in the real estate market over the next 2 years it was still welcome news for residents of the Lowcountry to hear that all signs indicate that recovery is here, especially for a home owner like me who expects to grow old on the shores of this beautiful coastline. Unfortunately, we moved to the Lowcountry and purchased the home we currently live in just before the huge de-valuation in the real estate market. Since then not only have the numbers of homes selling plummeted but also the selling prices have decreased significantly. In 2006 close to 18,000 homes were sold in the tri-county area, last year in 2011, the number sold was half of that. In many neighborhoods homes are selling for upwards of 30% less for the same home today as opposed to say back in 2007, ouch, especially if you bought in 2007. But there is a silver lining to that dark cloud, mortgage rates are at an all-time low and there are some FABULOUS homes for sale at drastically reduced rates, and if you are fortunate enough to be a buyer in this market, now might be the time to make a move. Especially based upon the modest growth in the local economy being forecast by the experts. I have heard stories about the real estate boom of 2003 and 2004, when folks were purchasing home packages and having the value of the property and home appreciate 15-20 % before the house was ever completed and they moved in. With some of the drastically undervalued real estate available today, it would seem that a buyer may be poised to see their investment pay off quite well for them over the next 5-10 years.

As if that wasn’t enough good news, yesterdays paper also reported that the US Navy is expanding their local involvement with a doubling of the current nuclear submarine training program currently operating at the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek.

Now all of this news may not be as entertaining for the reader of my blog as reading about a day at the beach or on a boat, but it should be encouraging not only to anybody who is lucky enough to call the Lowcountry home, but also to anybody who is considering a move to the Land of Palm Trees. I for one am glad to hear the news, it makes it that much more fun to live and play in Vacation Land.

Friday, February 10, 2012

And The Day Lives On; In Infamy!

February 10th is not a particularly happy day in the Hammond Family. As my siblings and our children carry on our lives at various spots between South Carolina, West Virginia and Illinois we will each pause today to remember that this is the anniversary of the day that both of my parents lost their courageous battles to cancer, the bitch. Shocking isn't it, that one could lose both parents to the disease, but on the same day, separated by three years casts an ominous shade on this day in history.

My parents, Jack and Helen, built a smallish ranch style house in a burgeoning new neighborhood in the country 12 miles from town in Fairmont, West Virginia. To give you an idea of the type of people they were, this house was to be covered in stone, field stones to be accurate. Over a 3-month period they would drive the family car all around the countryside, asking permission from farmers and land owners to collect stones out of their fields and meadows, load them into the trunk of their car and deliver them to the house site for the stone masons to lay the next day. The result, a stone house with a stone covered exterior that is absolutely gorgeous. The entire house was covered with stone, including the attached garage, and the cost to them for the stones that covered the house? A couple of tanks of gas, calloused hands and a lot of sweat.

My childhood wasn't perfect, my parents weren't perfect, so I have an excuse. For that I am thankful. It is early in the morning, about the time of day in 1998 when I received the call from my mom and dads next door neighbor, Joan Perry (not the Charleston SC one), who had served as a second set of parents along with her husband Frank; that's the way things were in our neighborhood. I will never forget that morning and the kindness and compassion in Joan's voice as she told me that my father had passed away.

The temptation is to look at this day as dark and dreary, but alas, although I deeply miss both parents and have grieved their loss to us on earth, it is also a day to celebrate their lives and as our faith comforts us, their heavenly birth. So today, I remember and reflect. I feel sadness, yet I am comforted to know that they are free from the pain and suffering that gripped their earthly bodies throughout their fight. And therefore, February 10th isn't as dreaded of a day as one might expect. Reverent, yes, Infamous? Not a chance.

Friday, February 3, 2012

I Belong In A Pirate Town

In many ways last night’s Jimmy Buffett Concert at the North Charleston Coliseum was a familiar spectacle for me. You see, my wife and I have been to many Buffett shows through the years and last night when Jimmy walked on stage it was one of those Déjà Vu type moments. All of the ingredients from past shows were on-hand.

The parrotheads, Jimmy’s fan club army, were in full regalia just like they are at every venue where he performs; the grass skirts, coconut bras, cheeseburger hats and tropical leis were abundant. The parking lot before the show was full of tailgaters tailgating as only parrot-heads can tailgate, an emphasis on frozen concoctions with a hint of lime and abundance of tequila. Once again you could have easily closed your eyes, turned around in a circle five times, clicked your heels like Dorothy and woke up in a stadium parking lot in Cincinnati or some other arena parking lot where the caravan frequents on an annual basis. As Jimmy likes to say, he has the “coolest summer job” in the world and when he hit the stage last night in Charleston, barefoot, wearing shorts and a Hank’s Seafood t-shirt (see this) early February became mid-July in the Holy City, feeling hot, hot, hot.

While the scenery and the songs were the same last night’s show was just different. First of all, the other umpteen times we have seen Jimmy, it has been at an outdoor venue. In fact all of our former concerts have been in Pittsburgh PA at an outdoor amphitheatre in the summertime. So last night attending a show during the winter months,indoor was a new experience. Although based upon the 76 degree high yesterday afternoon it didn’t seem like a winter-time experience. But that’s not what accounts for the “difference”. Midway through the show, Jimmy drifted away from his normal Finland song set, and inserted a section “only to be performed tonight in the Lowcountry” that he called "the shrimp and grits section.” Jimmy noted when he first came on stage, “finally, I come to Charleston and I get to perform a show.” Jimmy Buffett by his own admission spends some time on the Coast of Carolina, in fact, as he performed the song Coast of Carolina a video montage appeared on the huge screens that are part of the Finland Concert stage featuring video shot through the years of Jimmy sailing, fishing, paddling and frolicking in the waters that surround the Lowcountry. The video included scenery very recognizable to those of us who are lucky to call the Lowcountry our home and showed Jimmy with hair, lots of it, and Jimmy as he appears now, with just a hint of hair. Unlike all of the other Buffett shows I have attended, this one was like a homecoming show, and for good reason. Jimmy married a South Carolina girl and his son even attends college here. Oh sure Jimmy works the crowd, dropping local names and mentioning popular local dives at all of his concerts, and you don’t tour for forty plus years without making friends at every port of call, but you got a sense that last night Jimmy was connected to a lot of people in the crowd, and he was. During the “shrimp and grits” portion of the show, he paid homage to Pat Conroy for being an inspiration, and as he launched into Prince of Tides, a Buffett Classic based loosely on the novel of the same name by Citadel Alum and Lowcountry resident Conroy, I realized something as I heard him recite the dialogue at the beginning of the song: “the sun, red and enormous began to sink into the western sky and simultaneously the moon began to rise on the other side of the river with its own glorious shade of red, coming up out of the trees like a russet firebird. The sun and the moon seem to acknowledge each other and they moved in both apposition and concordance in a breath taking dance of light across the oaks and the palm. Father watched it and I thought he would cry again, he had returned to the sea, and his heart was a low country heart.” What I realized was that for the first time of hearing that song performed live, I actually understood what he was talking and singing about.

I experience that “breath taking dance of light across the oaks and palms,” quite regularly in fact. So, unlike, the experience of hearing those words and imagining the image from some field outside of Pittsburgh, my perspective on the song now is completely different.

I have watched Jimmy Buffett grow old, and in some ways as he catches a glimpse of me from the back and top of the arena, he has watched me grow old as well. Along with all the other parrotheads in attendance, when did the parrotheads get so old? I couldn’t help but think of my old friend, Steve Crawford, the pharmacist from Elkins, WV with whom I had attended several Buffett shows with. From time to time during the show as Jimmy shared his memories with the crowd, I reflected on my memories as well. And, as I often experience during my day-to-day experience of life here in the Land of Palm Trees there was affirmation in our decision to become Lowcountry Transplants. Near the end of the concert, Jimmy paused to introduce the next song saying, “a song about pirates, this town knows a little bit about pirates” referring to the historic past of pirates in Charleston, think Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard, after all Charleston’s historic past isn’t all about the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. As Jimmy crooned the familiar verse, “yes I am a pirate, two-hundred years too late. The cannons don’t thunder there’s nothing to plunder I’m an over forty victim of fate, arriving too late, arriving too late” he added a new line to the end of the song, “mother, mother ocean, after all these years I’ve found, my occupational hazard being my occupations just not around, I feel like I’ve drowned, I belong in a pirate town…” And so do I Jimmy, so do I.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rooftop Bars, Tuscan Deliciousness and Theatrics: Just A Friday Night In Charleston

Last Friday evening the entire Hammond Family plus one Alpha Delta Pi girl from USC (JD’s sweetest) did the Charleston. The evening was sort of a pre-birthday celebration for my oldest son, JD, who won’t be able to make it home next weekend when his birthday actually occurs.
Our night on the town began with a leisurely stroll along N. Market Street, pausing to window gaze at The Planter’s Inn and pop into a few specialty shops and jewelry stores along the way. We must have passed by the candy store a half dozen times and every time the AD Pi girl took a fudge sample from the tray, “y’all AD Pi girls love fudge.” We stopped in the Peter O’Neill Art Gallery, I really like his work, and of course we did a little window shopping at Kaminsky’s – you just never know when you might be in the market for a little desert. Not to worry, I didn’t blow my diet on a high calorie binge at Kaminsky’s.

We still had a little time to kill prior to our dinner reservations so we decided to enjoy a little happy hour at Henry’s where we hit the rooftop for a comfortable couch, a cool coffee table and a WONDERFUL view of Charleston by moonlight perched high above the street at Henry’s. Charleston has some very neat rooftop bars and it’s absolutely over-the-top that we are able to enjoy a cocktail on a rooftop in late January.

We were all looking forward to our dinner at Bocci’s since we are all fans of Italian Cuisine. And, each one of us chose a different entrée to feast upon. Of course we warmed up with a little bruschetta and calamari. The prosciutto on the bruschetta was magnifico and the calamari was some of the tastiest I have ever eaten. The service at Bocci’s was above average and the atmosphere was purely Tuscan, but unfortunately our meals were rated by each diner as average, just so. Except of course, JD, he raved about the Tuscano Duck; I must admit it looked very tasty.

My rating of the entrée’s as average shouldn’t be taken as a non-recommendation for Bocci’s, remember when it comes to Italian food, I am a tough customer, that’s coming from a lad who enjoyed pasta every single Sunday of his life and grew up in a town that celebrates The Feast of The Seven Fishes every year at Christmas. Although I did love the atmosphere at Bocci’s, but I would suggest that they should consider some Italian background music throughout the restaurant.

After dinner, it seems our night was just getting started. We headed over to East Bay Street to Southend Brewery where one of our friends was performing along with several actors and actresses with Cabaret Night for the League of Charleston Theatres and Theatre Charleston. Charleston is so blessed to have a great community of Theatre, and the Cabaret Night showcased the best of the best.

My son Noah, even got into the act after the show was over.

I really enjoyed the performance; in fact, I have February 24th circled on my calendar when Theatre Charleston returns to Southend Brewery for another Cabaret Night.

The night was a perfectly glaring example of why I love living in Charleston. Browsing like a tourist through neat shops, hanging out on the rooftop of a historic building in a historic city enjoying the lights of the city and a glass of wine, world class dining followed by entertainment in the loft of one of Charleston’s hottest night spots; what’s not to love?