Sunday, November 14, 2010

You load 16 tons ...

We have about three dozen succulents and cacti in containers. Each fall I would haul them indoors to protect them from the elements and then in the spring I'd place them outdoors. They don't really like this, but I thought it was the only way to keep them alive.

Until I saw this blog post about a xeric cactus garden at the N.C. State Fairgrounds, leading to a visit to the JC Raulston Arboretum near the fairgrounds.

Could we pull off a desert garden in the Carolina clay? With some help, perhaps. Reading how a Raleigh gardener set up a scree/xeric/Alpine garden at home sealed the deal.

In September, we had several large azaleas removed from the front yard. The azaleas were not only hosting some noxious weeds, they were also blocking the sun from a nice perennial flower bed. This is the 15' X 20' hole that resulted from removing the azaleas.

We then found Michael Blake Inc. -- a terrific garden center in Knightdale. Michael sells Permatill, engineered slate (made in North Carolina!) that improves drainage dramatically and blocks voles and other varmints that like to chew on plant roots. He also sells an engineered soil (60% dirt/40% compost) that drains like a charm.

We bought 9 cubic yards of his special soil, 2 cubic yards of gravel, and 15 40-pound bags of Permatill. It was delivered to our house Thursday. In two truckloads!

After the materials were dumped in the yard, Cara and I mixed the dirt and gravel and put it over the spot where the azaleas used to live.

How much do nine cubic yards (1 cubic yard = 27 cubic feet) of soil, two cubic yards of gravel, and 15 bags of Permatill weigh? About 16 tons (cue Ernie Ford).

Cara (bless her heart) stuck with me for a couple of hours and then went indoors to bake some yummy banana bread. I got the stuff mixed, built a raised bed, and planted the first few plants that day.

Nano surveyed the progress.

Around dark, I gave up. Plus, my back and shoulders were barking pretty loudly.

So Sunday, we started again. First, we planted bulbs! Garlic, iris, crocuses, wildflowers. Some wound up in this flower bed (joining shallots I planted several weeks ago).

We also planted bulbs in two other flower beds and under this dogwood tree.

Then, it was back to the scree bed. We added plants in several stages.

Some of the plants we moved from other locations on the property were pretty doggone healthy.

Nano approved of our progress.
A lot of plants that are happy in the arid West get a chance to set down roots in Carolina.

And, the finished product, from several angles.

And there's the herb bed -- parsley, sage, thyme, tarragon, and oregano (the rosemary's elsewhere).

It'll be six months or more before we know if this experiment works. But it's been fun!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

(More than) A few words about Bobby Cox

I became a fan of the Atlanta Braves in 1969, as I listened to the Braves (on WKBC-AM in North Wilkesboro) win the National League West in the first year of division play. My interest waxed and waned over the years, but never my loyalty. When Ted Turner bought the team and broadcast the games on his network of UHF stations, I watched and heard Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren, and Ernie Johnson become the most interesting team of broadcasters in professional sports. They never yelled or shouted. In fact, they were often so laid back that you wondered if they cared who won. But you welcomed them into your living room and never wanted them to leave.

I'll confess that I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the club during Bobby Cox's first tenure as manager. For one thing, the Braves were pretty bad. Ted made a lot of awful decisions on free agents, notwithstanding the fine job Bill Lucas (the majors' first African-American GM) performed assembling young talent. Lucas died unexpectedly in 1979, and under John Mullen's watch, the minors fell apart within a few years.

Turner fired Cox in 1981 and replaced him with Joe Torre, who promptly took the talent Lucas and Cox developed and won a division title. Cox went on to Toronto, where he managed under another legendary GM, Pat Gillick.

While at Toronto, Cox began a stretch of putting his club in the postseason for 16 consecutive years, a major league record.

Which is why I think Bobby Cox is the greatest regular season baseball manager since World War II, if not earlier. Tony LaRussa may be the best manager, period -- he's more of an innovator and has had greater postseason success -- but Cox was unparalleled over the course of a long season.

Cox also was a mediocre manager once the regular season ended. None of his Toronto teams made the World Series. His 1985 club blew a 3-1 lead in the ALCS to the Kansas City Royals. And though the Braves won 14 consecutive division titles (1991-2005), his teams made the World Series only five times and won the championship once -- in 1995.

Why? Cox has said that the postseason was a crapshoot, and there's truth to that. Any club can get hot for a few weeks. But while he was a remarkable manager, motivator, and teacher, his talents were much more suited to a 162-game season than a short series.


1) It's been said often, but he was the quintessential "player's manager." From the 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract: 

It's hard to remember any widely publicized conflicts he has had with his players, either here [Toronto] or Atlanta.

The recent Brooks Conrad meltdown offers an example. When Cox took Conrad (who made three crucial errors in game three) out of the lineup in game four, Cox said, "he needs a day off. He needs to get away from it for a day. And I told him to hold his head high and maybe pinch hit and win a game for us.”

This was the typical way Cox handled his players, publicly and (by most accounts) privately.

Cox set the career record for ejections: 158 in the regular season, nearly an entire campaign. Why? He understood that players ultimately win games, and he would rather watch a game from the clubhouse if it kept his player in the game.

Cox not only "watched his players' backs," he also treated them like adults. John Madden said he didn't believe in expecting his players to abide by a lot of rules. "Be on time, pay attention, and play like hell when I tell you to," was the extent of Madden's rules. Cox's weren't much different.

That may be why he was so universally revered by his players. It may also explain why players who were considered prima donnas or head cases -- Gary Sheffield, J.D. Drew, John Rocker, Yunel Escobar, Kenny Lofton -- posed few problems in the Atlanta clubhouse. Or when they did (Rocker, Escobar, Lofton) -- Cox quietly made sure they played elsewhere.

2) Predictability, to a fault. Cox was not much of an innovator. LaRussa invented the one-inning closer, and whoever created the idea of the lefty/righty relief specialist, Cox copied both to a fault. As a result, he would leave his bench thin to make sure he had lots of guys in the bullpen to handle specific in-game situations. It was not at all unusual for his clubs to carry 13 pitchers. Which meant that he expected his starting eight to play everyday. (Leading to fatigue late in regular seasons and in postseason series.)

He also tended to work his relievers like Grand Canyon pack mules, particularly in the post-Glavine/Smoltz/Maddux era. During his final tenure in Atlanta (the full seasons from 1991-2010), at least one pitcher made at least 70 appearances in 12 seasons. Each of the past four seasons, two or more pitchers made 70+ appearances; in 2009, four did, and in 2010, three did. By late September/early October, his bullpens often were gassed.

In Cox's typical bullpen there was the ground-ball specialist (Clontz, Borowski, Gryboski, Moylan, McMichael, Campillo, Paronto) and the get-out-a-lefty (Remlinger, Dunn, Venters, Mercker, King, McBride, Ohman, O'Flaherty). Both got plenty of work. He preferred closers who threw strikes to those who could throw it through a wall (though he didn't complain when he had a Smoltz, Soriano, Rocker, Wohlers, or Wagner who could do both). And yet he had plenty of seasons when guys like Reardon, Ligtenberg, McMichael, and Wickman -- who rarely cracked 85 mph -- were finishing games.

The downside of relying on control-type pitchers is evident in the postseason, where it's more important to have big arms than finesse. (Indeed, two sure Hall of Famers who were Braves mainstays, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, were good but hardly dominant in October.)

Longtime pitching coach Leo Mazzone took some of the blame for the spotty performance of the Braves bullpens. He was given much credit for developing the best starting rotations in baseball throughout his 15-year tenure but little for his relief corps.

I'm not sure this is justified. The 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract had this, from James' profile of Cox, then in Toronto.


He likes his pitchers to be aggressive, to go after the hitters. That's hardly unique, I suppose.


Well, he'll use five pitchers in a game sometimes. You tend to get the entire staff involved that way.
So maybe it wasn't Leo after all, since Bobby's pitching coach in Toronto was Galen Cisco and after Leo departed, Roger McDowell's staffs have operated largely as Leo's did.

Nor was Bobby a particularly innovative or aggressive in-game strategist. His teams played for the big inning, the three-run homer, a la Earl Weaver, even if the roster didn't have a lot of home run power. His clubs didn't run a lot even when the stolen base was a big part of the game.

Also like Weaver, Cox put a premium on pitching and defense. And it showed in performance. During the 14-year run, all but two seasons his clubs had an OPS+ of less than 100 -- short version, the team's overall offensive production was below league average. And yet his starting rotations were typically among the best in baseball, even when the top winner on the staff was a Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright, or a Denny Neagle.

Mazzone deserves kudos; in 2005, ESPN named him the best assistant coach in any sport of all time. So does Pat Corrales, the longtime bench coach, who set the defenses and used the most aggressive positioning in baseball. The outfields and infields often had huge holes, but the pitchers were expected to hit spots -- and more often than not, the batters would hit the ball right into the teeth of the defense. (The Braves' defense has deteriorated noticeably since Corrales left the club to join the Washington Nationals in 2007.)

3) He recognized talent, and was unafraid to elevate untested kids over veterans. When Cox left Toronto in 1985, Turner hired Cox to be the Braves' GM. And he drafted/signed/developed the nucleus that would take him to 14 straight division titles.

The Braves invested heavily in scouting, both in the U.S. and internationally. Their goal was to identify talented players, sign them young (usually out of high school or in their mid-teens if they were from Latin America), and teach them to play the game properly. Young guys who are trained the right way don't need a lot of rules.

As James said in the '84 Abstract, "If there's a 23-year-old on a Bobby Cox team, it's a safe bet he'll be in the lineup."

Cox was a really good high school quarterback (who played against Daryle Lamonica and was recruited by USC). And he was fond of two types of players -- great athletes and smart "grinders." His rosters reflected that. A typical lineup would feature a couple of physical specimens -- Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, J.D. Drew, Gary Sheffield, Andres Gallaraga, Jason Heyward, David Justice, Ronnie Gant, Deion Sanders, Jeff Franceour, Ryan Klesko, Rafael Furcal -- and a lot of gamers -- he gave significant playing time to guys like Keith Lockhart, Marcus Giles, Rafael Belliard, Jeff Treadway, Mark Lemke, Omar Infante, and Vinnie Castilla.


1) Predictability. See above. A superior game tactician could beat him. Cox played by the book, even if an individual matchup said to throw the book away. In the late innings, he'd routinely set up lefty vs. lefty and righty vs. righty matchups, even if his lefties weren't particularly effective against like-handed batters/pitchers (or had been lit up by the opposing player he was about to face).

2) Loyalty. His abiding faith in players failed him at times. Case in point: Jeff Franceour. Frenchy came up in 2005 because the team needed a warm body to play the outfield. He went on a hot streak immediately. Even though it took the opposition less than a full season to figure out that Franceour had no strike zone judgment and would swing at any pitch between the on-deck circles -- by one sabermetric measure, he was the worst outfielder in the 100+ year history of the franchise -- Cox continued to run him out there for three more seasons.

Perhaps it's not possible to find a skipper who combines the sunny disposition and people skills of Cox with the tactical chops and decisiveness of an Earl Weaver, a Davey Johnson, or a Dick Williams. Does Fredi Gonzalez? We'll find out.

But Bobby Cox is a Hall of Famer, without question. And just as I miss the voices of Caray and Van Wieren, I'll miss hearing Cox shout encouragement from the dugout, and shuffling on his artificial knees to make pitching changes.

Being a Braves fan just won't be the same.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Jon Tenuta, Canary in a coal mine

NC State opens the 2010 season 3-0, improved in no small part because its aggressive defense has forced turnovers and put relentless pressure on opposing QBs.

The architect of that defense is Jon Tenuta, State's new linebackers coach, hired from Notre Dame after Charlie Weis was fired. Tenuta appears to be one of the oddities: a genuine teacher at the highest levels of the NCAA, someone who can take kids at top-flight programs and "coach 'em up." Over a two-decade career as a college assistant, several dozen players Tenuta have tutored made the National Football League. From his ND bio:

Prior to Notre Dame, Tenuta coached at Georgia Tech for six seasons where 18 Yellow Jacket defenders earned first- or second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference recognition, and 18 players from his first four units were either drafted or signed NFL free-agent contracts.
He also was the defensive coordinator for one year at UNC -- 2001, the season that Carolina had the ACC's best defense and sent seven defensive starters to the NFL, including Julius Peppers. He's served as a position coach or defensive coordinator at Marshall, SMU, Kansas State, Ohio State, Carolina, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, and now NC State. His defenses routinely finish in the top 20 nationally.

Why is such a successful coach a vagabond? Perhaps it's a coincidence, but every head coach he's worked for was fired either while Tenuta was on the staff or soon afterward. 1987 at Marshall? Under head coach George Chaump, the Thundering Herd made the DI-AA playoffs for the first time, but Chaump was gone two years later. 1988 at Kansas State? HC Stan Parrish, gone. SMU (1990-94)? Tom Rossley, out by '96. THE Ohio State University, 1995-2000? John Cooper, outta here. Georgia Tech (2002-07)? Tenuta and Chan Gailey, shown the door. Notre Dame (2008-09)? See ya, Charlie Weis.

Carolina head coach John Bunting actually survived five years after Tenuta's (voluntary) departure to the Ramblin' Wreck.  And Tenuta was on some people's short lists to succeed Bunting at Chapel Hill -- until Butch Davis got the job.

Given Tenuta's history, however, you have to wonder if Tom O'Brien saw the hire as a good news/bad news story. The good news: Your defense is likely to get a lot better. The bad news: You may be unemployed soon anyway.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Garden blogging: Part the second

I finished the project this morning. (And did some more stuff, mainly weed removal from another bed.)

For the story so far, go here.

I started this morning by giving the bed one last blast of Roundup and then covering the dirt with newsprint. (A few years ago, a single Sunday paper might have done the trick, but we all know what's happened to the newspaper biz.)

I even managed to find a front page that had Dook on it, so I could bury 'em, haha. (Hey, it was the one when they went to visit Obama at the White House. Two for the price of one.)

Next, I put landscaping cloth over the papers and secured the cloth with stakes. It too exactly one roll to cover the area.

Next step: some dirt. Cheap topsoil to give the forthcoming mulch a little better sticking power.

Then, the mulch. Ten bags of it. And I could have used a couple more. Fortunately, the previous owners of the house piled leaves by the back fence (possibly to make compost), so with a couple of garden cartfuls, I had enough rich stuff to fill in.

Finally, I moved containers into place.

Not a bad couple of mornings' work, if I say so myself.

Finally, photos of a couple of smaller flower beds I forgot to post earlier. The plants in the top one were dang near eaten up by the bugs and the birds and the rodents. They'ver bounced back wonderfully.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Garden blogging

Greetings, folks. Anything happen while I've been away?

We've bought a house -- a classic early-'60s ranch -- and moved to the east side of Raleigh. The sellers were under contract with another buyer last summer and fortunately for us, the deal fell through. So the sellers didn't really tend to the lawn or garden from about June until we took occupancy in February.

We inherited some cool stuff -- a hydrangea, a lot of azaleas, some hosta, several columbine, and other perennials.

And a lot of things we were not attracted to. Like ivy. It was all over the side and back of the house. You know what ivy does to a brick house? Attaches to the brick and mortar and pulls stuff apart. I mistakenly did not take a picture that did it justice.

Pulling it down and killing it was quite the chore, especially since it had become intertwined with this massive hibiscus.

The only way to kill the ivy was to take out the hibiscus, too. Easier said than done. First, I chopped down the hibiscus with the hedge trimmer and pruning shears.

Then I tried to dig it up. No dice. The roots were broad and deep and pervasive. But Dan The Man came through with this suggestion: Pour about a gallon of heavily brined salt water on the base of the hibiscus. (Or hit it with Roundup.) I did both. And waited about two weeks.

We had done a lot of other work, planting flower beds, and several containers, and freshened the place up quite a bit. We're having folks over next weekend and wanted it to look as spiffy as possible given the magnitude of work needed and the short time to do it.

A lot of trial and error, figuring out proper light and water.

And this morning, I tackled the hibiscus again. Dan's remedy worked! It was not exactly an easy task, particularly with the heat index in the 90s, but I did it.

And here's what I pulled out of the ground.

Because the hibiscus had deep roots and the ivy shallow ones, I had to tackle each division of the hibiscus separately. But I got that sucker out.

Meantime, this is our second season using Topsy-Turvy planters. We're fans. Last year we hung one on our apartment balcony (putting it up in late June) and still got a couple dozen tomatoes. Hang them in a spot with plenty of light, and water and feed the plants regularly, and they do a great job. Plus, you do not have to worry about most of the pests that invade veggies that are planted in the ground.

We have one with a tomato, one with a cucumber, and one with a zuccini. In the second image below, the planter on the right is the one we used last year.

Then there's this "strawberry" planter, which has 15 ports rather than one, and I planted two cucumbers, a chile pepper, and several annual herbs (basil and parsley). We've harvested one cucumber and another should be ready today. Lots more blooms on there, too.

The local Walgreens had the strawberry planters on sale for $7 and I bought two more for next year. (Topsy-Turvy sells a "pepper" planter which is a half-sized strawberry planter with seven ports rather than 15.) I think we'll use one for annual herbs, another for various peppers, and our veteran for squash and cucumbers. I also want to buy one of the Topsy-Turvy trees, which can handle multiple tomato plants. We saw one at a garden center and I'm hooked. We may not plant any tomatoes in the ground next year.

Being a sucker for garden gadgetry, I also bought this upright tomato/veggie stand. You let a tomato grow upside down in the center port and then put other veggies/herbs/flowers in the bed on top. So far, so good.

As you can see, the tomato and Anaheim chiles are doing fine.

Back to the hibiscus hole. After removing all the roots, etc., I nuked it again with Roundup. The next step is covering the hole with newspapers, putting down landscaping cloth, and covering everything with dirt and mulch. (And containers.) That's tomorrow's task. If this killed the ivy, then next year we'll plant stuff here.

I'll update tomorrow.