My Straw Bale Garden

Despite the best efforts of and repeated attempts by our Alaskan-sized mosquitoes to kill me, I am still alive. And gardening!

Gardening is something I have wanted to do for a long time and something I have failed to actually accomplish for a long time. (We will not speak of the bags of dirt that eventually decomposed on our front porch some years ago.) But last year, I finally, actually made a small attempt at it. It wasn’t terribly successful–some of which was my fault, some of which was the fault of the constant heat and severe drought conditions, some of which was down to the dog–but I learned a lot and decided to persevere.

I got a start a little later than I wanted this year–a combination of rainy weather and a cold snap  prevented me from getting my stuff set out–but I’m still within the planting season for the things I’ve put out, so I’m not actually behind.

I chose a different location this year for the vegetable garden. One, I wanted to go bigger and the little bed beside the sunroom only holds about 5 straw bales. (It’s now my herb garden. Pictures of that in a later post.) Second, our plants seriously wilted when the sun was on them–despite the fact that the area didn’t get direct sun until about 10:00-11:00 AM and it slowly went into the shade between 2:00 and 4:00 PM. No matter how much we watered them, they wilted every day and perked back up again as soon as they were in the shade.

Now, according to conventional garden wisdom, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and the like are supposed to need all day sun. But our plants didn’t seem to like that at all. And researching it this winter, I found that’s really a guideline more for the northern latitudes of the country where the angle of the sun is lower, so it’s less intense. It’s also not as hot, on average, and the hot days don’t last nearly as long. There are some gardeners who say that not only will summer plants be okay with just partial sun, but in southern areas, it’s necessary to limit the amount of sunlight to keep the plants from getting too hot.

For instance, when days get over 90 degrees and nights don’t fall below 75 degrees, tomato plants won’t produce pollen in their flowers. We went over 2 months last year with no days/nights under 70 degrees and pretty much every day was around 90 degrees. The drought made things worse because it was all sun all the time; never any clouds to provide some shade or cool breeze.

Something else I hadn’t considered until recently was that those plants were all planted against a light-colored wall, which meant that all the sunlight they got was amplified. (The concrete block portion of the wall behind them probably didn’t help either; it can hold heat and radiate it at night, keeping the air around the plants hotter than it would otherwise be.)

So, this year, I put my straw bales behind my house, next to the woods. They are against an open deck, not a solid wall, so there will be nothing radiating heat to them at night. They should get roughly the same amount of direct sun as before, around the same times every day, but there is no white backdrop reflecting a lot of light back on them. And instead of being across from our driveway–which is open, sunny, and the hottest place to be anywhere on our property–the plants will be across from the shady woods. But they are still in a corridor of our property that gets a nice breeze, which should help keep them cooler. The day may be 90+ degrees, but the air around my tomato plants should be down in the 80’s. (This is called creating a micro-climate. Most people make them so that their plants will be warmer–that’s how a family friend can have a large palm tree growing next to his log cabin in Middle Tennessee–but where you have hot temps, you may need to do things to cool your plants.)

We shall see how well things do this year. The fact that we’re not in a drought and aren’t predicted to have one this year will help, I’m sure. But this is why I said in my posts on being prepared that you need to garden now, when your life doesn’t depend on it, because gardening takes practice. You have to learn through experience what works (and doesn’t work) for your weather, your latitude/zone, your soil, your sun exposure, etc. Certain varieties may do better than others. A “summer” crop in northern zones may need to be a spring/fall crop in southern areas, and “cool weather” crops may grow all winter! Reading about gardening will only get you so far because just about all gardening manuals are written to be as generic and universal as possible, even though the continental United States has zones ranging from 2b to 11b. That is an area that goes from an average minimum temperature of -45 to an area that doesn’t get below 50 degrees. Logic dictates that gardening rules for Minnesota cannot be the same rules for Florida.

Making the Garden

After arranging my bales, I fenced them in. Why? Well, that would be one of those things I learned last year: the dog likes to rip up plants. I think I lost a total of three bell pepper plants to her (one pepper plant got ripped up twice; I wasn’t able to save it the second time around), the catnip, most–or was it all?–of the dill, I think another herb, and the watermelon plant. (It was replanted and it survived, but it lost the one melon it had started to produce and only ever produced one full-size one.)

The fence is constructed from plastic, step-in fence poles and, oddly enough, trellis netting. I found it on the discount rack at Wal-Mart for 50 cents per 5.5′ x 8′ package. You can’t get any fencing cheaper than that. It’s not like I needed to fence coyotes out of a chicken run; I just needed to deter the dog. Plus, if she ever gets to the point where I don’t need to fence her out, these can go back to being trellises.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “What on earth do straw bales have to do with gardening?” My friends, straw bales are pretty much the laziest, easiest way to have a raised bed garden! All you have to do is wet them and fertilize them. (And, honestly, these only got one dose of fertilizer; they got wet long before I used them, so they cooked all on their own, no fertilizer help required. I only gave them a good dosing of fertilizer a few days before planting to make sure they had nutrients in them.) Once the bales have started to decompose (and they are no longer hot in the middle), you can plant or sow seeds right in them. And at the end of the season, you can put them on your garden or flower beds elsewhere and they make great mulch. Last year’s bales are mulch for my herb garden this year and it not only looks good, but it holds in moisture so I don’t have to water my plants nearly as often. Plus, any residual fertilizer remaining on the straw goes to the plants in the bed.

I used a couple of trellis nets as actual trellis. This was partly to keep the dog from jumping into the garden from the porch, but mostly it’s to act as a trellis for the cucumbers and tomatoes. Last year’s cucumbers climbed up onto my porch by themselves and started to take over. Old garden hands will probably laugh at me, but I didn’t know cucumbers grew like that. I know my grandparents had cucumbers in their garden when I was growing up, but they never had any trellises. Either they had a bushy cucumber variety and I have a vine variety, or their cucumbers just trailed along the ground and I never noticed they were a vine rather than a bush like everything else.

This year, though, my cucumbers will have a proper trellis and we will control how much of the porch they overtake.

So here’s what the bales look like up close. Those dark spots you are seeing are mushrooms. Mushrooms are a good sign when you’re cooking your bales (i.e. starting the decomposition process) because it means the bales are decomposing. Last year, I had mushrooms on the bales the entire season–not just when the bales first started to cook. I also had these exact same types of mushrooms, even though I’m sure this year’s bales were sourced from a different source than last year’s. That means the spores are probably coming from our woods.

Using a garden shovel and my hands (mostly my hands), I pulled out a big plug of straw from the bale. If you prepared your bales correctly, the straw will be slimy and you should see white or black mildew-looking stuff on it (that’s more fungus). This is also good; that sort of thing will break down the bales and feed the nutrients to your plants.

The straw from the center of the bale may still be warm when you pull it out, but it should not be hot; that will cook the roots of your plants–especially any that are cool-weather. I had one bale that was hotter than the rest for some reason. I didn’t think it was dangerously hot, but I made sure to put a pepper plant in it; of everything I had, I knew the pepper plants like the warmest soil.

I made sure to save the straw I pulled out of the bales; it will get used as mulch in an herb bed. Also, if you find you pull too much out (it wants to come out in long flakes, but you will be trying to get a round hole), you can stuff some of the straw back in where you need it. It pretty well sticks to itself at this stage.

Next, I put some dirt in the hole I made, banking it up the sides so it was essentially a dirt-lined hole. For the pepper plant in the hot bale, I made a bit bigger hole and put more dirt in, hoping that the dirt will keep the roots off the hotter straw until the bale cools down.

The plant (this is a tomato plant) goes in next, then I fill in the rest of the hole with dirt and pack it down a bit. I don’t have to worry about compacting it too much; the roots have all the room in the world on the straw side of things. In fact, when I busted up last year’s bales, I found that my tomato plants had put roots all the way down through the bale. If it hadn’t been sitting on some old vinyl signage repurposed as landscape fabric, those tomato plants would have struck dirt.

This year’s bales are not sitting on landscaping fabric, so who knows how deep their roots may go?

Once the plant was in and the hole filled, I took some of the straw I pulled out and put it around the plant so that no dirt is showing. This works just like any mulch: it keeps the moisture in and helps insulate the plant’s roots so they stay a more constant temperature.

So, how many plants can you put into a bale? Well, that depends on what you’re comfortable with. Last year, I put two tomato plants and one bell pepper plant in a single bale and they were pretty crowded (although a lot of the crowding came from the tomato cages rather than the plants themselves). I have seen people with more densely-planted bales, but I don’t know whether my dense plantings were okay or harmful last year. I have the feeling that dense plantings in full-sun locations are not only okay, but preferable, because the plants help shade one another, keep their roots cooler, and trap more moist/humid air around them. However, my bales are not in the full sun, so I think it’s better that my plants have room to bush out and collect as much sunlight as possible. So I only planted two plants per bale this year (although if I had had more than 2 cucumber plants, I would have done up to four in that bale, the same as last year; they have plenty of room to spread out vertically).

You can also plant the sides of the bales. If I had smaller plants, like maybe lettuces or spinach, I would plant those in the sides of the bales. You can also plant herbs (although my herbs are now in a permanent bed). You don’t even have to put dirt in the holes (especially when planting something that won’t be there long, like leaf lettuce).

So, here is something else I learned last year: when it’s really hot and dry, you need to water the garden every single day. We’re not always home every single day. Also, I didn’t fertilize the bales like I should have once they got started because it was hard to do. You can’t get fertilizer on the plants, because it burns up the leaves (ask me how I know), but when they get big and bushy, it can be hard to get the jug of fertilizer in there to it.

Ollas can be kind of expensive. Click the picture for link to a website that shows you how to make them out of much cheaper terracotta pots. You can even fill them up automatically!

Enter redneck ollas. (Or, if you prefer, upcycled ollas.) An olla is old technology (2,000+ years old). It’s nothing more than an unglazed terracotta bottle that you bury in your garden and fill with water. The terracotta will slowly weep water, providing your plants with a constant moist (but not too wet) earth. When the ground is wet from rain, the water will not wick out of the olla, so you don’t waste the water or overwater your plants. It pretty much idiot-proofs watering your plants. And, depending on the size of the olla and how moist your ground is, you may only have to fill it once a week.

It works most efficiently if you put your plants in a circle and bury the olla in the middle, but you can use it however your garden is configured. However, it’s important to note that it’s best to plant the olla when you plant your plants. If you wait until later, when your plants are bigger, you will be digging down into their roots to bury it. This may not kill them, but it’s better not to take the risk; just plant your ollas when you plant your plants. Your plants will soon discover this reliable water source and they will surround it with their roots and be happy as little clam . . . plants. Happy clam plants.

So, what’s a redneck olla and how does it work?

I saved up some small plastic coke bottles, removed the labels, and used a pin to poke a hole in each “foot” on the bottom of the bottle. (There are five feet on a standard American coke bottle. Some bottles are tougher on the bottom than others, but all of feet are thinner at their edge, right where the plastic bends up to form the side of the bottle. It’s easier to put a hole there.) I got this idea from the internet, but other people poked holes up and down the sides of their bottles and said they needed to refill them every day or two (they may have been using 2-liter bottles, too). I didn’t want water coming out of my bottle that quickly, especially since I was planning on having 1 bottle per plant/2 per bale. So I poked a hole in the bottom of one bottle, filled it with water and tested it. I decided it didn’t drip enough, so I ended up adding 5 holes–one in each foot. This made a slow, but constant drip out of the bottom of the bottle. I also found that if there was any pressure on the side of the bottle (just the pressure from my grip), the water would squirt out like I was milking a cow.

Once my bottles were prepped, I hollowed out a little hole for the bottle next to each of my plants and stuck the bottom of the bottle in the bale.

Why didn’t I bury the entire thing? One, since the holes are only in the bottom of the bottle, the entire bottle doesn’t have to be buried. So why make extra work for myself?

Secondly, one of the drawbacks to the ollas is you can’t see how much water is left in them. Some people recommend sticking something like a surveyor’s flag in a cork and dropping it into the olla so you can tell where the water level is. By using clear bottles and leaving more than half of them aboveground, I can see where the water level is and can refill as necessary.

Thirdly, as I mentioned before, even a small amount of pressure on the sides of the bottle will cause the water to squirt out instead of drip out. I was afraid if I buried them completely, the straw would squeeze the sides; this way, there is little pressure on the bottle, so it should stay in drip mode.

Now, if we’re going to be gone for a weekend, I can fill the bottles and not have to worry about missing a day of watering the garden. I can also pull the bottles out, fill them with liquid fertilizer and stick them back into the bales to slowly–and safely–feed my plants.

At least, that’s the plan. We will see how well it works.

 You’ll be relieved to know that this project had appropriate supervision. (I’m just glad I don’t have any real plants in that planter yet.)

Here’s everything planted out. In the two foreground bales, there are 4 bell pepper plants. Starting on the back-right bale, I have 2 jalapeno plants, 2 cucumbers, a sweet banana pepper, 2 roma tomatoes, 2 Florida 91 tomato plants (a solidly average tomato in size, weight, shape, seed count, etc), then 2 more Roma tomatoes.

There is also an unknown plant growing out of the backside of the jalapeno bale. I found it when I was plucking a few grass weeds out of my herb bed. I picked it up and was about to throw it out when I said to myself, “Self, that looks like a tomato plant.” So I sniffed it. And then I said, “Self, that smells mighty like a tomato plant.” This was, after all, the spot where last year’s garden was and at the end of the season, like any good permaculture gardener, I pulled up my dead plants, tossed them into the bed, then broke up the strawbales on top of them. Some of the tomato plants had tomatoes on them that we didn’t harvest because they never grew to size or cooked in the heat before they every really ripened. So I was thinking to myself, “Self, this might possibly be a tomato plant.”

I didn’t want a tomato plant growing in my herb garden–there’s no room for it, so I took it over to my bales. I had fertilizer on top of the bales that hadn’t yet soaked in, so I just stuck the little plant into the side of the bale, where the fertilizer hopefully wouldn’t burn it. It’s still there a couple of weeks later and growing, so we’ll see what it turns into.

If you have any questions about straw bale gardening, ask below in the comments.

International Men’s Day

Yeah, I made that title up. But it ought to be a real day. Just saying.

I know I’m supposed to be writing Bloodsuckers episodes. I only lack one having my third volume. But between religious holidays and NaNo meetings, I haven’t been home much lately. And when I am, I have to do things like feed me, feed the cats, bathe, and a do a minimum of laundry and litterbox duty. Oh, and prepare for a Halloween party.

I do hope to get one more episode done and the third volume released on Smashwords this month. But I am going to take a break in November, while I work on my new novel. It takes some effort for me to switch gears going from story to story, and it’s worse when I’m really focused on  one (as I will be during NaNo).

But, anyways, I felt like having some fun. All this talk of Canadian mounties (and men who treat women like shit in novels) has made me think about men who have attributes, talents, and faces that are actually desired by women. So, using my blog-statistics to show me where my audience is from, I thought I would highlight some men that are real, manly (in various ways), and not too hard on the eyes.

America

I have nearly 7 times more American visitors to this site than any other nationality, so America gets a few extra men.

Chuck Norris is an obvious pick for a manly man who bleeds red, white, and blue. He has great hand-to-hand combat skills and he’s a prominent member of the NRA. He spends most of his time ranching these days.

Denzel Washington is not just a pretty face in a hot body. He spends time visiting wounded veterans, is the spokesperson for the Boys and Girls’ Club of America, and supports numerous other charities and educational institutions. By all accounts, he’s a super-nice guy in real life, humble, and generous.

I grew up watching Peyton Manning play as the University of Tennessee’s quarterback. Even now, he has a special place in the hearts of all Tennesseans, who will root for whatever team he plays on (and if he’s playing against the Titans, we’ll root for our team, but give him a warm welcome at the Colosseum nonetheless).

The boyish-faced Manning is famous for his sweet personality and good manners. In fact, his entire family–including father Archie and brother Eli–are known for it. I once read the comments on an ESPN article (which was about him and his family leaving a waiter a tip for several hundred dollars) and I have never seen so many positive things said on the internet all in one place. There was not one snarky remark or compliant about him. Dozens of people spoke of meeting him or his family–even in random places, like at the airport or in a restaurant–and they were all gracious and friendly to everyone.

His opponents sing his praises in pre-game shows (my husband once complained about how much the Titans players were going on about him before a game). I’d not be surprised if they apologize for sacking him. The man shits rainbows and unicorns and little white kittens.

Canada

When I was a girl, I liked horses and men in uniforms. So, naturally, I wanted a Canadian Mountie. Being from Tennessee, though, it was a bit hard to find one (impossible, really).

I’m willing to live vicariously, though, so if you are a Mountie, or know one, send me a shout-out. I’ve know a nice French-Canadian girl you should meet.

Germany

This is a vampire blog (among other things), so of course I need this pic of German actor Florian David Fitz. (I wonder what show this is, and is it available with subtitles?)

He is known for his charity work related for the Tic and Tourette Syndrome Association.

And I just can’t pass up the opportunity to mention Udo Kier, who’s been in two vampires movies that I know about (maybe more). A quintessential bad guy on screen, he reportedly has a wicked sense of humor off-camera and is great fun to work with.

Von Gault in my book, Acceptance, was specifically based on Udo Kier’s bad guy character acting.

The U.K.

Sean Bean, English.

Now, here’s a man who would willingly die for you. After all, he has a lot of practice doing it.

Sean Connery, Scottish.

Can you get any more manly than Sean Connery? What’s not to like? The accent, the goatee, the way he cocks that one eyebrow, the kilts….

Despite his age, he still exudes manly charisma, and even when he’s dead, he’ll make a sexy corpse.

Ioan Gruffudd, Welsh.

Now, you may think I should feature star of the newest Batman franchise, Welshman Christian Bale, but I am rather fond of Ioan, who is most famous (at least in my house) for his portrayal of Horatio Hornblower. He has a nice smile and that innocent, boy-next-door look. You wouldn’t be ashamed to take him home to your parents.

(Although how do you pronounce his first name? His last name I can manage–I’ve been to Wales and I can handle the dd–but I’m not familiar with the first name. It has an alarming number of vowels in it for Welsh.)

Liam Neeson, Northern Irish

Northern Ireland has produced a number of famous people, including Kenneth Branagh (who was a contender for this slot), but I chose Liam because, unlike many others, he spent his entire childhood–and into his adult years–in Northern Ireland, so I thought he was a fairer representation of his country.

Liam knows the meaning of hard work, having driven a truck, been an amateur boxer, and operated a forklift at a Guinness plant. He attended college with the intention of being a teacher, but found theater instead. The rest, as they say, is history.

And, just to prove that I have awesome geographical knowledge of the United Kingdom for an American (I’m still haunted by the fact that I was 18 before I learned that Wales was not a separate island–in fact, I was rather disappointed that “the British Isles” had a lot fewer islands than I had imagined):

Mark Cavendish, Isle of Man

Known as the Manx Missile, Mark is a competitive cyclist. Unlike most other famous Manx people (including the Brothers Gibb–aka the Bee Gees), Mark has spent most of his life on the island and still calls it home.

Phil Vickery, Cornish

Okay, American ladies. Do I have to say anything other than “rugby player” and “nickname: The Raging Bull”? He also has a tattoo that says, “I’ll fight you to the death.”

Maybe you Midwest girls are on the fence, so let me add: Phil grew up on a dairy farm and is still a qualified cattle inseminator.

I bet he eats his steaks rare. Hell, he probably slaughters his own beef and punches the carcass to tenderize it.

(You know, this explains a lot about me. The Peardon family was Cornish originally.)

Australia

Sorry, but if you’re Down Under, I don’t think you can get more raw manliness than the late Steve Irwin. While he and wife Terri were on their honeymoon (in the Bush, of course), he gallantly came to her rescue when a poisonous snake came too near her while she was rather indisposed. He also saved her from a snake in their boat (although, granted, he’s the reason why it got dropped into the boat in the first place).

I mean, I consider one of my husband’s finer moments to be the time he told me to stay back, then he went to deal with the snake between us and the front door. Once he decided it wasn’t poisonous, he picked it up and threw it back out in the yard.

Women eat that shit up.

Brazil

I was tempted not to put a picture here, because Brazilian men (like Brazilian women) seem to be almost universally hot to the point of making your head explode. But I found an image that I think might be safe, because it doesn’t show too much face.

Actor/model Carmo Dalla Vecchia knows that women find men with pets (especially cats) very attractive. True manliness must come with a soft side–be that for mother, daughter, or Mr. Frisky.

Philippines

Actor John Lloyd Cruz was discovered in a mall by a talent scout when he was 14. His father’s business was not doing well, so he decided to pursue show business in order to help support his family.

Greece

Sakis Rouvas is, perhaps, the most famous entertainer in Greece. He was athletic at a young age, belonging to Greece’s national gymnastics team. He turned to music, though, to help support his family. He became a pop star in Greece and famous throughout Europe as he competed in multiple Eurovision contests (one of which he won by the highest margin ever).

Having grown up poor, he supports charities for children. He also supports environmental programs and LGBT rights in Greece.

Turkey

Uğur Pektaş started out on Turkey’s version of Survivor (he won, so count on him to take care of you in the jungle), and is now a popular actor.

India

While there are many hot Bollywood men to choose from, I selected Hrithik Roshan. Roshan is a second generation Indian actor and began his film career as a back-up dancer while still a child.

He developed a stutter at age 6 and continues to battle the speech impediment. He also has two thumbs on his right hand.

Despite what could be considered fatal flaws in the movie business, he is a popular actor and has been in several high-grossing films.

Denmark

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is creating a buzz right now, as he’s slated to play Hannibal Lector in a TV version of Silence of the Lambs (network television, no less. Wonder how they’ll get through all the gruesome stuff?). Hopefully we’ll be hearing more about him in the upcoming year.

Mexico

I have to go with the late Ricardo Montalban (full name: Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán y Merino) as the Mexican epitome of a great man.

It was he (and his co-star: his chest) who made the greatest Star Trek movie of all time, The Wrath of Khan. And, unlike Janet Jackson, he was able to spend over an hour and a half on screen without showing either of his nipples.

He was respected in Hollywood for his strong work ethic. Many people who knew him referred to him as “the epitome of a gentleman” and “classy.”

Dismayed by the negative Mexican stereotype played in Hollywood (think bad Westerns), he helped found the Nosotros Foundation to advocate for Latino actors and Latino portrayals in Hollywood.

While filming in 1951, he fell from a horse and was trampled, resulting in a serious back injury. He walked with a limp until a surgery in 1993 left him completely unable to walk. He, however, continued to work, doing voice work for several cartoons and making an appearance in Spy Kids.

He was a man of deep religious faith and in defiance of all known rules of Hollywood, he was married to his first and only wife for 63 years, until her death.

He was the original “Most Interesting Man in the World” and the fantasy of many women.

Argentina

Argentinian actor Rodrigo Guirao Diaz was an electrician (among other things) before he broke into showbiz. …Will not make innuendo about plugs and sockets. …Will not make innuendo about plugs and sockets.

Spain

Forbes ranked Spaniard Jon Kortajarena Redruello as #8 on its list of the top 10 male models in the world.

He is from the Basque region of Spain and speaks both Spanish and Euskara (the Basque language). (Since he lives and works in New York City, I assume he also speaks some English.) Euskara appears to be an ancient language, predating the Roman Empire and possibly quite older than that.

Indonesia

Indonesian model and actor, Kevin Richard, is from a family of famous actors and actresses. As a child and teen, however, he scorned such extroverted activities, preferring instead to absorb himself in skateboarding (he won numerous championships).

He went on to get a degree in IT. It was only when a friend invited him to act in a movie with him that his career was reluctantly launched (with much success).

Sweden

Oh, yeah, you knew I was going to go with Alexander Skarsgård.

Born in Sweden to a father who was a famous actor and a mother who was a doctor, Alexander was actually raised (along with his siblings) in a middle class neighborhood because his parents wanted them to have a normal childhood.

Alexander tried acting as a child, but decided it wasn’t for him. (His father told him not to force it, or he would end up hating it.) It was only later, when he was an adult, that he got back into theater and film.

“I learned from my father to keep your integrity and protect your family…there are certain things that you can talk about and certain things you shouldn’t talk about.”

Hungary

It was hard to pick a Hungarian man. Hollywood is littered with people of Hungarian descent. Many are descended from Hungarian Jews who immigrated to America in the early 1900’s. Bela Lugosi and Harry Houdini are probably the two most famous Hungarians that American audiences recognize.

Zoltán Nyári is a Hungarian tenor and opera star.

This is a fun little performance, although given in adverse conditions (the wind is quite strong).

South Africa

When it comes to a strong male personality, I don’t think you can pick anyone else but Nelson Mandela.

Convicted of sabotaging government property, Mandela was sentenced to 27 years in prison. He spent 18 years doing hard time–and obtained a law degree from the University of London by correspondence–before he was finally granted a pardon and released.

It’s mind-boggling to think that as recently as 1994, blacks in South Africa were not allowed to vote or run for office.

Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and won the presidency in the first integrated election a year later, when he was 75 years old. He served one term (he elected not to run again because of his age). Since that time, he has occupied himself with combating poverty and AIDS and furthering integration and equality in his country.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

(You may be surprised to learn that Dave Matthews is also a South African.)

Saudi Arabia

Every girls wants a prince. Especially when he looks like Prince Mutaib.

And just to add icing to the cake, he’s an Olympic equestrian competitor, appearing in both the 2008 and the 2012 Olympics. He and his team won a bronze medal in London.

Ireland

Despite U2’s long and successful career, lead singer and songwriter, Bono, has a longer list of philanthropic work than musical work. He was awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen of England in 2006 for his charitable work (most noticeably AIDS relief in Africa) and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, 2005, and 2006. (But apparently he doesn’t work as hard for world peace as President Obama or the European Union, whose recent outstanding contributions to the furtherance of world peace include… um… I’ll get back to you on that one.)

Bono said in an interview that he wears his signature sunglasses because he has trouble with his left eye and is very sensitive to light. (Although he readily admits they’re part vanity, too!)

Israel

Oh, yeah, you had to know I was going with my favorite Israeli, Oded Fehr (the man I’ve already hired–in my mind–to play Joshua on the big screen).

He did his obligatory service in the Israeli Navy, then worked as a security officer for El Al Airlines in Germany before becoming an actor.

The Netherlands

I end with a tribute to Rutger Hauer’s face. Alas, the recent promo pics of him (he’s about to join the cast of True Blood) show that he has not aged well (yeah, he’s 68, but look at Sean Connery at that age). Let’s just hope he keeps the sexy accent instead of sounding like he fell off the turnip truck in Louisiana. Dear God, let him keep his accent.