The weather is starting to warm up, I have a pea trellis and I have planted peas, carrots, radishes, and turnips seeds as well as some kale seedlings I started indoors.  We’ll see how they do in a few weeks.

For those who are just starting their garden, now might be a good time to consider a soil test.

Why get a soil test?

I got my first soil test last year when I first acquired a plot at Symphony Road Community Garden in Boston.  My main motivation for getting a soil test was to check the lead levels of the soil.  A lot of soil in the Boston area is contaminated with lead due to the use of lead paint on many residential homes until it was banned in 1978.  I wanted to see how much lead was in the soil before I planted anything.

Other reasons for getting a soil test include the following:

  • Helps you improve yields
  • Helps you save money (don’t buy/apply nutrients the plants don’t need)
  • Helps you manage the nutrients in your soil (know which nutrients to apply)
  • Helps you optimize soil health (the importance of organic matter is discussed below)

Soil Test Results

The most important numbers on your soil test are pH and CEC (cation exchange capacity).

If the soil pH is not within the range that your plants need, they may not be able to absorb all of the nutrients that are available in the soil.  Most plants need the soil pH to be between slightly acidic to neutral.  The following chart provides the ideal pH ranges for some plants.

Ideal pH range Plants
5.1-5.4 Blueberries, rhododendrons, and azaleas
6.2-6.5 Green beans, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, peas, onions, peppers, spinach, and squash
6.4-7.0 Most garden plants and turfgrasses

Cation exchange capacity is a measure of the soil’s ability to hold moisture and nutrients.  The lower the CEC, the more sandy the soil and the lower the capacity to hold nutrients.  The higher the CEC, the more clay-like the soil, and the higher the capacity to hold nutrients.  If you add organic matter to sandy soils, the CEC increases, if you add organic material to heavy clay soils, the CEC decreases (more on organic matter below).

What do soil test results looks like?

Click here to see what my soil test results looked like for my plot at Symphony Road Community Garden.  Surprisingly, my garden plot has very low lead levels and contains a lot of nutrients! If you are unfortunate to have higher lead levels in your soil, all hope is not lost:

What if you have high levels of lead in soil?

  • Locate gardens away from old painted structures and busy roads
  • Plant fruiting crops
  • Incorporate organic materials
  • Lime soil to pH 6.5—7.0 (Lead is less soluble at this pH)
  • Discard outer leaves of leafy crops and peel root crops
  • Mulch soil surface to keep lead dust to a minimum
  • Use a raised bed and fill it with other soil (This can be pricey).

Where can you get a soil test?

For those who live in Massachusetts, you can order a soil test from UMass Amherst.  That’s where I got my soil tested, and it only cost me $15.  See their website for order forms.  My soil test results above are only for the Routine Soil Analysis, but if you get a soil test you should consider getting the Organic Matter Composition Test as well for an additional $6.

Organic matter is the remains of plant and animal life in the soil.  The amount of organic matter will affect the soil’s structure and drainage.  Ideal soil contains approximately 50% solid material (roughly 45-50% minerals and 2-5% organic matter) and 50% open or pore space (25% air and 25% water).  Sandy soil will not hold water and nutrients well while clay soil can hole water and nutrients but can pack down, decreasing aeration and making it difficult to till.  Clay soil also because hard when dry, which can restrict root growth.

Addition of organic matter will both clay and sandy soils.  When added to sandy soils, organic matter will help bind sand particles together, increasing their capacity to hole water and nutrients.  In clay soils, the addition of organic matter will increase granulation which will allow water to move through the soil more quickly.  Compost, composted manure, leaf mold, and composted grass clippings are good sources of organic matter.

When to get the soil test?

For those who have just acquired a plot in a city that is known for having lead paint in the soil, such as Boston or Cambridge, you might want to consider testing the soil before you plant anything edible in it.  However, now is peak season for ordering soil tests, and it can easily take over two weeks to receive your results.  If you can wait, you can test your soil in the fall or even in the early spring as soon as you are able to get a shovel into the soil.

If you decide to get a soil test and you’re part of a community garden, it might be nice to share your soil test results with others, especially if the soil has high levels of lead.




The Current Gender Pay Gap

April 12th was Equal Pay Day and many media channels and politicians quoted the statistic: “Women make 79¢ for every dollar men make.”  Gender pay gap has been a popular topic recently and Glassdoor has even published a study that shows the top 10 jobs where women earn less, 10 jobs where women earn about the same, and 10 jobs where women earn more than men.

The thing that stood out to me the most was that the pay difference in the top job where women earned more than men (7.8%) was much less than the pay difference in the top job where women earned less than men (28.3%).  These jobs were the following:

Top job where women earned less than men:
Computer Programmer
28.3% base pay difference
Women earn $0.72 for every $1.00 men earn

Top job where women earned more than men
Social Worker
+7.8% base pay difference
Women earn $1.08 for every $1.00 men earn

Another thing is that a percentage base pay difference doesn’t really tell us how many dollars someone is losing out on.  For example, a 10% pay gap between two workers could mean Worker A is making 50k/year and Worker B is making 45k/year, so Worker B is losing out on 5k.  However, if Worker A is making 100k/year and Worker B is making 90k/year, the Worker B is losing out on 10k per year.  If you put that extra 10k into a retirement account each year for 30 years, growing at a modest 7% interest rate, you would have $1,010,730.41 in the account!

Negotiation can help close the gap

The gender gap has been a popular topic of discussion, but it’s difficult to point to only one reason for the gap.  However, I feel that negotiating is something that can help narrow the gap.  Studies have shown that women are less likely to negotiate than men.  I didn’t negotiate my salary for my first job out of college.  Shortly after I joined the company, I learned that a few other coworkers who joined around the same time were earning up to $10k more than I was and I was a bit upset at myself.  The initial offer they received had been lower but they had simply asked if our employer could do better than another higher offer they had received.  And upon asking, they were rewarded.

After this experience, I decided to learn about negotiation so I could use it them in my future job searches.  Negotiation doesn’t just apply to your salary when you are looking for a new job.  There are many times you will want to or may have to negotiate throughout your career.  I recently read the book: Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains by Deborah Kolb.  I think it’s a great negotiation book for those who have already started their career.  It really opened my eyes to how to negotiate for things such as a promotion, not having to relocate, telecommuting, or the conditions upon which you would accept a new role offered to you.  It made me realize that you don’t have to just say “Yes” to every opportunity you are offered just because you feel obligated but that you can say “Yes, and..(here’s what will make me accept).”  The “here’s what will make me accept” could be a salary increase, a title change, or that your boss will help you get another position you really want in a certain number of years.

How to Negotiate

  1. Know what you want.  You have to know what you want to get what you want.  You may also want more than one thing or there are few ways to reach you goal.  Then you can prioritize what you want.  Perhaps, you can’t get your first choice item, but you can get the second.  For example, your goal is to get higher compensation.  You might first try to get an increase in your base salary.  Maybe the company won’t budge on the base salary, but they can give you a higher sign on bonus.  Or maybe the company is willing to evaluate your performance after six months for a raise.
  2. Prepare, do research, and collect data.  Get an idea of how feasible your asks are.  Has someone you know successfully been to able to achieve the same?  What is a reasonable ask?  For compensation related data, in addition to people you know, you can look on Glassdoor or Quora.  For students who are looking for their first job, university career offices often have data on the average salary that previous graduating students in your sector were offered.  Also, if you have an idea of how the person you are negotiating with will respond or concerns they may express, you can think ahead about how you would respond to such statements.
  3. Ask for what you want.  You may want to role-play to practice negotiating, but ultimately you will just have to be brave and execute your plan.  Even if don’t get what you ask for or you don’t get everything you ask for, you’ve already accomplished a lot in making others realize you will speak up to try to get what you want.  Perhaps, you can reflect and find areas you need to improve on.  I’m still trying to improve my negotiation skills too.  You will become better with practice!

Learn to Negotiate at free Boston workshops for Women

For those who live in the Boston area, the City of Boston is offering some free negotiation workshops for women.  Here are the upcoming workshops in 2016.  You can register here.

Date Time Location Address
Wednesday, April 20 6:00–8:00 p.m. NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts at Simmons College 300 Fenway
Boston, MA 02115
at Main College Building (Room C-311)
Thursday, April 21 5:30–7:30 p.m. Charlestown Public Library 179 Main Street
Charlestown, MA 02129
Monday, April 25 6–8 p.m. Suffolk University, Sargent Hall Law School 120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108
Tuesday, May 3 5:30–7:30 p.m. South End Public Library 685 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02118
Wednesday, May 4 5:30–7:30 p.m. Simmons College Office of Alumni Engagement 300 Fenway, 5th Floor
Boston, MA 02115
Thursday, May 19 5:30–7:30 p.m. West Roxbury Public Library 1961 Centre Street
Boston, MA 02132


The past weekend, Sharon and I decided to do some work getting our garden plot ready for planting. This year, we decided that we’d like to grow some peas, and when Sharon asked me to build a trellis I was more than happy to break out my tools. Peas that are of the vine variety need a trellis to provide support since vines climb.  The peas will have tendrils that search from things to grasp onto.  The trellis also keeps the peas off the ground and makes it easier to pick the pods. Our plot is relatively small and we’re going to be growing plenty of other vegetables, so the trellis had to be compact. Additionally, our community garden has a height restriction on any garden structures of no more than 5 feet tall.

I started by measuring and cutting two 8′ long 1×3″ boards into two 5′ boards and two 3′ boards. The trellis is going to end up standing a few inches over 4′ tall, because almost a foot of the 5′ boards is going to be buried underground.




I then cut one of the 3′ boards to be 1.5″ shorter than the other. The reason for this is because the shorter board will be inset between the 5′ boards, whereas the longer board will rest on top of the 5′ boards, forming the top edge of the trellis. Therefore, the inset board will need to be shorter by an amount equal to twice the thickness of the boards. Since the actual thickness of these boards is 3/4″, that comes to 1.5″.


Next, I drilled the pilot holes for the angle brackets that will hold the frame together, and screwed them in to the side pieces of the trellis.



The next step was to screw the top and bottom pieces onto the angle brackets as well. I forgot to snap a photo of the trellis before putting it into the ground; the side pieces extend down into the ground about a foot, leaving a nice rectangular trellis sitting above ground.  IMG_0570

I then started to tie vertical lengths of string between the top and bottom pieces of the frame. These will be the supports that the pea plants can grab onto as they grow upward.


The last step is to attach some horizontal lengths of string if you’re so inclined. I attached screw hooks to the sides of the frame, and then tied more string between the hooks to form a grid pattern.  Here is the finished trellis!



When the trellis was finished, we went ahead and planted some peas.  Hopefully they’ll be popping up out of the ground soon!

The gardening season in Boston is just getting started!  It’s the perfect time for gardeners to consider using row covers for their leafy greens.  What is a row cover?  It is a light, semi-transparent piece of fabric that lets sunlight through while providing the following benefits:

  • Prevent bugs or other pests from chewing holes through your leafy greens
  • Provide some protection from cold weather and wind

I had tried to grow leafy greens once before, but most of my greens were eaten by mysterious garden thieves (bunnies being the most suspect) and the ones that remained were full of little holes from bugs, so I used a row cover last year for the first time and it worked wonders.  Here’s what my setup looked like:


I used the following materials.

The raised bed may not be necessary for your needs.  My plot in the pictures above did not have good quality soil, so I used a raised bed.  If you are able to plant your vegetables right into the ground, you can make a row cover structure directly in the ground similar to the smaller one on the right in the above picture.  If you need or want a raised bed, you can also build one with materials from Home Depot for a lot less.  I have built my own raised bed before but as a car-less city dweller, a trip to Home Depot requires me to get a rental car, so I opted to order one from Amazon last year.

To build the row cover structure, you simply insert one end of the hoop into the soil and bend it over and insert the other end into the soil to form an upside-down U shape.  You want to space the hoops close enough so the row cover won’t sag too much.  In the picture above, my hoops are space about 2 feet apart.  Once the hoops are set up, drape the row cover over the hoops and weigh down the edges with rocks or bricks.

Here is what my leafy greens looked like right after I set up the raised bed and planted the seedlings.  I didn’t start these leafy green from seed and got them from Ricky’s Flower Market in Somerville.  The raised bed contained a total of 22 seedlings.  There were red lettuce, bok choy, kale, and swiss chard.


On the first day the seedlings were planted.

Three weeks later, the raised bed looked like this!



And another week later, it was brimming with vegetables!  All hole-free!


Harvest time!

I was able to harvested leaves of my vegetables for a few months until the lettuce bolted and I decided to harvest whole heads of bok choy, but I continued to get some kale and swiss chard throughout the season.  If you’re a gardener and haven’t used row covers before or if you’re a beginning gardener, hopefully this post has convinced you to give row covers a try!

We recently made a four-day trip (Wednesday night – Sunday night) to Washington, D.C..  During that time we had the chance to experience the following attractions:

  • U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing
  • U.S. Capitol
  • Library of Congress
  • National Zoo
  • National Portrait Gallery
  • National Gallery of Art
  • Cherry Blossoms
  • National Museum of Natural History

Lines, lines, and lines
Some D.C. attractions, such as the Washington Monument and the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, require tickets.  For these attractions you can acquire free tickets the morning of, but you will need to get in line very early.  What time do you have to start lining up?  Our experiences might give you an idea.  On Thursday, our first day of the trip, Dave and I attempted to get tickets for both the Washington Monument and the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  Around 8:15am, we split up and each got into a line in hopes of getting tickets for both attractions.  I got into the line for Bureau of Engraving and Dave got in line for the Monument.  The Bureau starts handing out tickets at 8am, so the line was already moving when I got into it.  By 8:28am, I had 2 tickets in hand!

We were not as fortunate with the Monument line.  Below is what the line looked like from Dave’s spot in line.  The Monument started handing out tickets at 8:30am.  They sold out around 9am, at which point we were still very far back in the line.


We were determined to see the Monument though, so we tried again on Friday morning.  This time we arrived at 7:45am and were closer to the front of the line than the day before, but still not close enough.  When the tickets sold out again around 9am, we were barely into the roped in section of the line.  After that, we decided it wasn’t worth waking up so early to try to get a ticket.  Given our experience, in the peak season such as during sprint break, my guess for when you have to line up is probably around 7am and if you aren’t in the roped in section of the line, your chance of getting a ticket is very slim.

Cherry Blossoms
We were very lucky to be in D.C. during the peak bloom of the cherry blossoms this year.  We hadn’t planned to see the cherry blossoms during our trip since it’s very difficult to time.  Two years before, we had visited D.C. in hopes of seeing the cherry blossoms but they came later than we predicted.  It’s funny how things happen when you least expect it.


The main motivation for the trip was to see Beibei, the newest baby panda at the National Zoo.  I have a soft spot for pandas.  I find them so cute and furry, and I always wish the zookeepers would let me cuddle up to them :).

It’s quite difficult to catch Beibei in action though.  As he is only seven months old, he likes to sleep a lot, just like seven-month-old human babies.  The National Zoo website indicates that the best time to see the pandas is between 8am and 2pm.  From our experience, visiting at the very beginning or near the end of that time frame might increase your chances of seeing Beibei in action.  The pandas get fed at 1:30pm, so Beibei will probably be awake for food.  We visited the zoo on three different days in hopes of catching him in action.

On Friday, we showed up at the indoor panda viewing pavilion close to 3pm.  It was extremely crowded and via others’ cameras held above their heads, I glimpsed Beibei playing for a short time before he went to his own room to take a nap.  I was disappointed that I didn’t have a chance to see him in action not-through-a-phone-camera, so thinking he was just taking a short nap, we walked around other parts of the zoo and checked on him again after thirty minutes and again after an hour, but to no avail.  Beibei was still fast asleep, so we decided to leave and try again the next day.

On Saturday, we decided to show up earlier, around 9:45am.  All but one of the pandas were in their outdoor areas.  Beibei was outside too, but snoozing away in a tree!  It was impressive he was able to keep his balance while sleeping so high up in the tree.


On Sunday, our last day in D.C., we showed up a little before 9am and finally managed to catch Beibei awake!  He spent some time climbing over and under the top of his playground made of lumber.  It seems he was simply trying to find a comfortable place to nap because within 15 minutes he was sound asleep!