Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Meet Gourdy: The Garden Experiment 10,000 Years in the Making

Last year, while I was on a pumpkin kick, I became curious as to whether I could dry a pumpkin such that it would form a sort of reusable container. The answer is no, you can't do this. The walls of a pumpkin are too thick and it will decay before it hardens. Though, you can use a pumpkin as a cooking container, which is handy to know.

While poking around, I learned that my question wasn't all that crazy. Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria), as their name suggests, are related to pumpkins and make excellent containers . Because they have thin walls, simply letting them age in a dry location will cause them to form a functional container.

This property isn't just handy for arts & crafts projects or for scoring points on social media (#allnaturalcontainer #noplastichere #oldschoolzerowaste); it's responsible for making the bottle gourd one of humanity's most significant plants:

The gourds have little food value but their strong, hard-shelled fruits were long prized as containers, musical instruments, and fishing floats. This lightweight “container crop” would have been particularly useful to human societies before the advent of pottery and settled village life, and was apparently domesticated thousands of years before any plant was domesticated for food purposes.

I'm a fan of engaging in living history, and when you experiment with bottle gourds you're stepping back in time nearly 10,000 years. Amazing, right?

But will it grow?

All this means that when I found myself staring at a packet of bottle gourd seeds at a local gardening store, I couldn't help but buy them.

A week or so later, I dropped six seeds into the ground, clustering them in groups of two to form three distinct plots. A few days later, there was signs of life as Gourdy started to sprout. I realized that I didn't have anywhere for Gourdy to grow, so I haphazardly connected a tent stake and our deck with some cordage. I then stood back and let nature take its course. And did it ever.

Gourdy grew. And grew. And grew some more. Jack's beanstalk had nothing on him. 

Gourdy Gets a Haircut

I was overjoyed at Gourdy's growth; Shira not so much. Once Gourdy reached our house and started to attach himself to the screen door Shira had had enough. Gourdy needed a trim.

It was at this point that I bothered to read about how you are supposed to care for a bottle gourd plant. First off, unrestrained growth isn't ideal. Apparently, you want to trim the main vine at about 10 feet to encourage branching . I also needed bit of Bottle Gourd Sex Ed: mainly, how to identify male and female flowers and how to cross pollinate the two to help encourage Little Gourdy babies.

While knowing this ahead of time would have been helpful, it wasn't too late to fix my mess. I carefully trimmed back Gourdy, chopping off what felt like dozens of feet extra vine. The experience felt like that scene in the movie where the main character has to defuse a bomb by cutting just the right wire. The goal is to find the female flowers and trim the vine after them. But Gourdy was so tangled up, it would have been easy to cut the wrong end and kill the very part of the plant I was trying to save.

Fortunately, the trimming process was successful.

Holy Smokes, It Worked!

I watched as Gourdy grew, flowered and produced those coveted female flowers which have the chance to turn into fruit. I clumsily tried to pollinate male and female flowers, though I'm not sure my efforts were successful. I gained a new appreciation for bees and other pollinators that, mind blowingly, were essential to make this whole endeavor successful.

Amazingly, it worked and I managed to grow seven fruit, five of which I've harvested. And now the waiting game begins. In theory, it will take about 6 months for the fruit to dry out and the pith inside to recede. I should then be able to fashion a simple container like our ancestors did millennia ago.

Saturday, September 03, 2022

US Open 2022 - Day 3 - (So Much) More Tennis

We started our second day of tennis spectating by taking a chance. We once again showed up to the grounds at 9:15am, rather than the hour earlier we'd normally get there. We had no line at security and waited a few minutes for the gates to open and our tickets to be taken. That's two days in a row of showing up a few minutes after the gates open and not standing in line; looks like we have a new arrival strategy.

Yesterday was all about bouncing between stadiums catching snippets of interesting matches. Today, our plan was to plop ourselves down in Armstrong and watch a number of matches in a row.

We started the day on the shady side of the stadium, opposite the umpire chair. In hindsight, it would probably have been better to start on the sunny side and suffer for a bit. The sun would have passed in relatively short order and we'd have been left with awesome seats for the day. Maybe we'll try that next year.

The first match of the day was between Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza and it proved to be an outstanding starter. Kvitova and Muguruza each took a set and it came down to 3rd set tie break to decide the match.

There's something delightful about watching such a balanced match. Both players were hitting their shots and neither showed any signs of letting up.

Next up, we watched Victoria Azarekna take on Petra Martic. Azarenka steam rolled Martic, 6-3, 6-0. This was quite the contrast to the even match up we'd just seen. There was a bit of poetry to this lopsided match: the last time we saw Azarenka play, she was on the receiving end of a 6-0, 6-2 defeat. Did she know that her career wasn't over at the loss? Did she appreciate that soon enough she'd be the one with the overwhelming win?

And finally, we watched the match we'd been waiting all day for: Frances Tiafoe vs Diego Schwartzman. We've enjoyed watching Schwartzman play for years, but we were clearly rooting for the DC area native Tiafoe.

What struck me about Tiafoe's play was that it was an impressive mix of power, accuracy and patience. Sure, he hit some amazing shots, but he also found himself in tights spots. For most of the match he couldn't hit first serves to save his life. He missed a chance to close out a set before a tie break. What was impressive was how he handled these setbacks: he just seemed to push forward. Ultimately, having ice water in his veins let him win the day.

As we closed out the Tiafoe / Schwartzman match my thought was: dang, if Tiafoe could figure out his first serve and continue to keep this laser focus, he could win the whole tournament. He was playing that well. C'mon USA, you got this!

After the Tiafoe / Schwartzman match we finally left Armstrong and headed over to Ashe to watch Rafael Nadal take on Richard Gasquet. Gasquet got off to a slow start and it looked like it was going to be another blood bath of a match. I had the sense that Gasquet would eventually put up some kind of fight (which he did!), but we were just too exhausted to wait it out. We decided to call it a day.

On the way out of US Open Grounds we couldn't help but poke around a bit and see what was going on. We saw that court 17 was absolutely packed as an overflow crowd watched some sort of match finish up. On one of the no-name side courts we caught former US Open Champ Marin Cilic close out a match and then sign autographs for adoring fans. We even watched the first few games of the Jule Neimeier vs Qinwen Zheng match, soaking in the fact that we could be watching pro level tennis from the second row of a tiny court. This 30 minutes of wandering the grounds really captures one of the features that make the US Open so amazing: there's so much tennis and most of it is amazingly accessible.

Friday, September 02, 2022

US Open 2022 - Day 2 - Tennis Time!

Our day at the US Open felt like the collision of years of experience, preparation and dumb luck, all making for an amazing day of tennis spectating.

We started the day as we usually do, with a trip to Iris Tea & Bakery to stock up on amazing baked goods. And then we made our way over to the tennis grounds. For the first time we had reserved seats at Louis Armstrong stadium and that's where we planned to start the day. This meant that unlike past years where we wanted to be first on the grounds to get the seats of our choice, we knew our seats were already reserved.

Rather than arriving to the gates one hour before they opened, we opted to show up 9:31am, 1 minute after the gates opened. The result was impressive: the initial crowd had been let through the gates and the additional masses of people had yet to show. We strolled onto the grounds like we were VIPs, without missing a beat. It was luxurious!

Because we weren't rushing to grab seats, we even had a moment to step into the American Express Fan Experience and see what that was all about. One fun and sort of hidden feature: they have an area set up where you could send old school post-cards to friends and family, which these days was surprisingly retro and novel. So novel, in fact, that the young lady manning the station had never addressed a post card in her life and appreciated Shira showing her how it was done.

We took our seats in Armstrong and watched Casper Ruud warm up a few feet away. It didn't occur to me to grab his autograph at the end of the practice session like others did, but I'll probably give this a try next time.

The first match of the day was between American Shelby Rogers and Ons Jabeur. The match started with Rogers taking first the set. But Ons wasn't having it and managed to take the second set. Before we could see how the match played out, we headed over to Arthur Ashe stadium to take in a match between Experience and Youth.

Playing the part of Experience was legend and failed retiree Andy Murray. Youth was represented by Matteo Berrettini. Shira found herself stumped as to who she should be rooting for. For my part, I was team Murray all the way. As someone who would find himself filed into the experience column, I had nothing but respect for what Murray was trying to accomplish.

While we saw flashes of greatness from Murray, and he did manage to take a set off of Berrettini, ultimately Youth took the day.

While refilling my water bottle from a refill station (pro tip: bring an empty bottle and use refill stations; don't pay the crazy fees for water!) I noticed for the first time that a section of Ashe overlooked what appeared to be a player's lounge and warm up area.

While it was fascinating and more than a bit voyeuristic to watch the players just chilling, I really did find it fascinating to see how they used the relatively small space to warm up. Between a few elastic bands, some tennis balls and short sprints, players managed to stretch and work on their focus. I saw a number of variations of the tennis ball drop drill, which looked like an especially effective way to use the small space.

After Murray vs Berrettini we headed back to Armstrong to catch Casper Ruud take on American Tommy Paul. We cheered Paul on as he took the second set. Though, ultimately he was no match for Ruud.

We then bounced back to Arthur Ashe to watch Madison Keys take on Coco Guaff. Gauff was playing quite well, and beat Keys without much difficulty. Guaff looked so good, I'm thinking this may be the year where she goes all the way. C'mon Gauff!

After a day spent going back and forth between Armstrong an Ashe, we finally headed over to Grandstand to watch a few minutes of Pablo Carreno Busta take on Alex de Minaur. More than anything, we were hanging out and waiting for the night session in Ashe to begin.

Normally, seeing last year's winner and the number one player in the world would be the better attended of the two night matches on Ashe. But tonight, Medvedev was hardly on anyone's mind. Tonight, the spot light belonged to tennis legend Sarena Williams. Williams had defied the odds and made it to the third round. She was either going to continue the winning streak of her life or play her last match. Either way, we would be in attendance.

Arthur Ashe is the largest tennis venue on the planet. As a result, we've found that the quality of seats that Shira's able to purchase can often vary pretty dramatically. Tonight, through sheer luck, we happened to score not just good seats, but the best seats we've ever had. We got to watch in awe as the stadium filled up to capacity. The atmosphere in the stadium was absolutely electric.

While Ajla Tomljanović ultimately took the match, Serena more than entertained the crowd by keeping the first two sets competitive. Serena absolutely had moments where she demonstrated why she's an all time great. However, the fact that all long rallies went to Tomljanović just underscored that it was probably Serena's time to go.

The crowd willed Serena forward and resounding cheers happened after every point she scored. But alas, all great things need to come to an end, including Serena's career. It was definitely a unique privilege to not just watch the match, but to be there in person.