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Follow-ups to Home stories

Readers ask questions about Pat Marfisi's 'no dig' vegetable garden, talk about household employees, and respond to The Times' stories about pets.

March 28, 2009|Lisa Boone and Craig Nakano

Some stories leave you wanting more. Perhaps you take on a garden project featured in these pages but need some questions answered. Or you read about people in need and you want to help. Or you simply wonder, what ever happened to the orphaned Chihuahua on the cover of the pets issue? Read on for follow-ups.

A profile of Pat Marfisi and his "no dig" vegetable garden ["No Reason to Dig Any Deeper"] may have been published on June 12, but the e-mails continue to land nine months later. Gardeners loved how Marfisi created low-water raised beds by layering alfalfa, straw and compost, but many of those who copied the approach are wondering: Now that the organic matter has decomposed, what to do?

Marfisi cuts old crops down to the soil and leaves roots in the ground. This will create compost and aerate the soil as the roots decompose. Next, Marfisi recommends testing the soil's pH before rebuilding the bed and replanting.

"People are currently asking me if they have to pull off the old straw and hay and begin again with newspaper," he says. "But it's not necessary." Simply spread the old hay around and start layering: alfalfa broken up and spread 1 to 2 inches thick and dusted with blood and bone meal; then a 2- or 3-inch-thick layer of straw, also dusted with blood and bone meal; and then 4 inches of compost on top.

If old crops are still growing from the original garden, is it necessary to lay down new layers? Not in the short term, Marfisi says. But after the second year, the soil quality will deteriorate. Refurbishing the layers will make a huge difference year to year.

Vegetables such as Swiss chard, celery and collard greens are biennials. Marfisi rebuilds the soil around the base of these plants.

"Don't choke them, but definitely cover the roots to keep them going," he says.

After new plants reach about 6 inches tall, Marfisi mulches them with a half-inch of straw. The straw will double the soil's capacity to hold water, he says. He also adds compost along with fish and kelp emulsion from time to time to stimulate growth in leafy vegetables.

The most common mistake? Using hay, not straw, on the top layer. Put hay on top, Marfisi says, "and you will have a wheat field in a week."

To see the original story, including Marfisi's steps for starting a no-dig garden, go to


Last week's package on housekeepers, nannies and other household employees generated the biggest response from readers all year.

The majority of letters stemmed from an article about the unusual relationship that often exists between housekeeper and homeowner. Readers shared tales of the cleaning lady who also raised children, cared for sick parents, pretended not to hear fighting spouses and often doubled as a therapist. We've taken excerpts from these letters and posted them under "The Housekeeper Chronicles" at

Many readers offered to provide work to the subjects in the stories. Others simply reflected on the subject.

"My family and I moved to Santa Monica 18 months ago from New York City," wrote Dennis Mitcheltree, adding that he still marvels at his neighborhood's well-kept homes, its beautiful gardens and cars that sparkle as if they came off a showroom floor.

But at the local playground, he noticed children were often accompanied by adults other than their parents. He realized he could get his car washed every week because it was cheap. People suggested that if he needed help moving something heavy, he should pick up a few people in front of Home Depot -- and he wouldn't have to pay them much.

"We have set up and daily use a system which uses and exploits those with the least protection," he wrote. "Thank you for the article, which brings our culpability and responsibility for this out of the shadows. The question we must now ask ourselves is: How do we change it together?"


And then there was Baldwin. The 1-year-old Chihuahua mix was the cover boy for Home's Dec. 6 pet issue. One story addressed black dog syndrome -- a phenomenon in which dark-coated animals in shelters have a harder time getting adopted.

We received letters with readers' own black-dog stories, some of which we've posted at People also called and e-mailed to inquire about adopting Baldwin, ultimately without success. Baldwin, it turns out, had already found a new home.

Ricardo and Maria Olszewski of Porter Ranch were eating breakfast Saturday morning when they turned to the Home section and saw a dog that reminded them of a beloved pet from 10 years ago. They jumped in the car, drove more than an hour to the SPCA-LA shelter in Long Beach and waited for the doors to open.

There, they learned that Baldwin was adopted by a family but was returned to the shelter for reasons unknown. "We adopted him not as a dog," Ricardo says, "but as a son."

Like a good son, Baldwin is housebroken. The Olszewskis renamed him Bruno. He gets two walks a day and naps at Ricardo's feet while the couple watch their Netflix movies. Though he is "not the friendliest" to visitors, Ricardo says, the dog has bonded with his new family fast. "We are special to him, like he is special to us."


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