Monday, May 22, 2017

The Myth of the "Extra" Tomato

So it's happened again. I mentioned the number of tomato plants I put in this year (60, as of last count), and a well-meaning, generous soul has responded by suggesting a charity that I could donate my "extra tomatoes" to.

This isn't the first time I've heard this.  Every year, one or two people have a local charity or food bank that they would like me to send my garden produce to. In general, I think it is a lovely idea. I like the idea of helping those in need have access to fresh, organic vegetables instead of packaged crap, and I may very well decide to make a donation of vegetables as I see fit.

The problem I'm having is this idea of the "extra" tomato. I have never, at any point of my life or at any success level of my garden, looked at my tomato crop and said, "I have no use for these." So, I've set out to attempt to prove or disprove the existence of the "extra" tomato in a scientific fashion.

Hypothesis: There is such a thing as an extra tomato in the FC&G universe.

There are 52 weeks in the year.  Let's say we don't eat tomato products for four of those weeks, which typically accounts for the period during which all we eat is cucumbers while we wait for the tomatoes to ripen. 

Let us further assume that ripe tomato season lasts for eight weeks. During that time, the plants need to produce at least six tomatoes per day to feed the two of us; I can eat that many slicers by myself each day, but let's assume that Mr. FC&G and I each have one capresse salad per day made of three sliced tomatoes, basil, and cheese, which is not unusual at all.  

Then, let's look at how much canned and dried tomato product we would consume if rationing were not an issue.  We would easily drink a quart of tomato juice each day, for a total of seven quarts. Then, we would use a certain amount of chili sauce, salsa, dried tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, and plain tomato sauce in our cooking. For ease of calculation, let's say that we would consume eight quarts of tomato products per week.

8 quarts = 2 gallons per week
2 gallons per each of 40 weeks = 80 gallons of tomato products

Therefore, my tomato plants need to produce 80 canned or dried gallons of tomatoes in addition to the 336 slicers we will be eating fresh.

Lest you think that the bottleneck will occur at the canning end, let me point out that I have a 7 quart large canner and a 7 pint small canner.  I can do two batches a day in each of those with no problem; I'm a writer who works from home, and I have no fewer than four laptop computers that can move easily into the kitchen.  I can spend August in the kitchen.

Let's assume, again for ease of math, that I can two batches totalling 10 quarts on each of five days during each week in August.

10 quarts x 2 batches x 5 days = 100 quarts, or 25 gallons

So, during the month of August, I have the capacity to can 100 gallons of tomato products if need be.

Now, I have great hopes for my 60 tomato plants, but I don't believe for a second that they are going to produce 80 to 100 gallons of canned tomato product.

Hypothesis disproven.
There is no such thing as an "extra" tomato.
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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

How the World's Best Ballroom Dancer Picked My Kitchen Sink

Note: In response to a conversation I was having about the joys of home ownership, I wrote this account of the tragic winter of 2008-09 when we replaced a sewer pipe.  While not strictly a sustainability issue, I thought you all might enjoy laughing at our misfortune.  It's OK; really, we don't mind!

Mr. and Mrs. FC&G Replace a Sewer Pipe: A Tragedy in Four Acts
How the World’s Best Ballroom Dancer Picked My Kitchen Sink

Act I

It all started when we thought we’d gotten lazy about the compost.

Like a lot of DIY sustainability types, we have a compost pile, and that means we have a compost bucket. Now, one really needs to empty that bucket every day, especially during high gardening season, but sometimes you get lazy. So, when we started to smell rotted food in the fall of 2008, we immediately blamed the compost.

We started being vigilant about emptying the bucket every day. Then, it was every time we put a scrap of food in it. Then, it was a thorough washing outside before the empty bucket dared to come back in the house. By the end, we were pretty much carrying individual tomato peels and cores out to the compost pile as soon as they were cut, then sterilizing the compost bucket and sunning it for extra measure. But the smell continued.

Mr. FC&G insisted that the smell wasn’t a clogged drain pipe (spoiler: he was right), but I was unconvinced. So, one day I bought a bottle of Draino and dumped it down the non-disposal side of the kitchen sink. I was quickly rewarded with the fresh, chemical smell of Draino wafting through the house every time the AC kicked on.

“See, I fixed it!” I crowed! “Now you can just smell how clean that pipe is.”

Mr. FC&G didn’t so much react as wilt, visibly, on the spot. “Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of,” he said.

I will always remember this moment of my life as the last time I was truly innocent about the horrors of home ownership. “Whatever do you mean, my darling husband?” I asked. (I may be remembering that moment a bit better than it actually was.)

“You didn’t clean the pipe. The sewer pipe from the kitchen sits on top of the ductwork that returns to the HVAC system. We have a pipe that is leaking, and you just leaked Draino into the air ducts.”

After a bit calm discussion (or else I’m intentionally misremembering that part too), two things became clear: First, if the heat had been on instead of the AC, I could have sent a stream of Draino into the heater, and, second, our sewer pipe was located in our slab.

“What do you mean, ‘in the slab?’ Is there a crawl space?”

“No,” Mr. FC&G said defeatedly.

“Then how do you get to it?”

“Exactly how you think. You jackhammer up the slab.”

The rest of the day is pretty much a blur. I don’t have any desire to remember anything else about that day.

Act II

Well, all was not lost, because first we needed confirmation that the sewer pipe was indeed broken. For that, we just needed someone with a flexible camera that could be threaded down a pipe. I had no idea there was such a thing, but there is. Apparently, it’s kind of like a colonoscopy, except no one offers you anesthesia and you have to be awake for the entire invasive procedure.

Not that we would know this first hand, mind you. As it turns out, there was precisely one plumbing company in town with such a camera, and they would not, for any amount of money, consent to come to our house to scope our sewer pipe because – are you ready? – if they stuck their camera designed to view the inside of pipes down our sewer pipe, it might break. No appeals to logic, or, indeed, offers to just buy them a whole new camera that they could throw away if it broke, would change their minds.

So, after approval by our insurance, we found a company that would handle the whole deal. With their help, we moved the entire back half of our house into the front living room. Every cabinet, every picture on the wall, every piece of furniture, all of it moved into the living room or up into the spare bedroom. Then, our workers sealed off the living room and various entrances with plastic and tape, and they prepared to jackhammer up our slab.

At the time, I was working part-time as an instructor at a local college, and I left that day thinking that this wasn’t going to be too bad.

I returned from work and, hand to heart, it looked like someone had been re-enacting The Grapes of Wrath in my house. Dust clouds hung in the air, swirling and obscuring your vision. And, once I made it through the dust and into the kitchen, there it was.

There was a three-foot deep, 15 foot long trench through my house, running from the kitchen, through the pantry, across the downstairs hallway, and into the guest bathroom.

To their credit, the workers had done an impressively neat job of the work, once you took into account that they were wielding a jackhammer in places a jackhammer was never intended to go. But, as it turned out, they started at the bathroom end and excavated the pipe toward the kitchen until they found the break: at the joint where the sewer pipe met the drain pipe from the sink.

Let me let you think about that for a minute. Had they started in the kitchen – or, had we had someone with a flexible camera willing to shove it two feet down our kitchen drain – we would have known that the break was essentially right within the slab under the kitchen counter. Sure, there would have been some destruction, and I probably would have freaked out anyway, but it would have been a problem that required relatively little in the way of jackhammering and pouring of concrete. But now the damage had been done, and we had to live with the repair.


The problem with not having a sewer pipe hooked up in your kitchen, in addition to a gaping trench in there, is that you lose the use of your water, your disposal, and, until they haul it back in from its temporary spot in the dining room, your stove. This makes eating a little difficult because, while you can still microwave, cleaning up the dishes requires washing them in a dishpan and then taking the dirty water outside and throwing it in the yard. Since it was now December, this was no one’s favorite job. We spent part of the subsequent May rescuing flatware from the yard before we started mowing that year.

Our workers proceeded with, well, absolutely no speed at all. Part of this was because it was now Christmas. I had to call them and ask nicely if they would hook up my stove so that I could make us something more than reservations over the holiday.

Part of it was because my tile shop was mad at me. I wanted to replace the vinyl, Formica, and nasty carpet that were originally in the kitchen, on the island countertop, and in the hallway, but I wouldn’t opt for any of the expensive choices and complex layouts that would make this a good before-and-after story for their design portfolios. So, since I didn’t want granite and mosaic tiles laid on the diagonal, they were going to make me wait.

In the meantime, Mr. FC&G started having to go out of town for work, and I was left home to manage this. I was only going to be out of class for a couple more weeks of Christmas break, and I pushed to get the big parts of the job done while I was home, but of course the project dragged into the beginning of the semester.

“Oh, ma’am, we’re bonded! Just leave the house unlocked and we’ll let ourselves in!”

Like hell. Pardon my French.

So, I spent the next two months giving the workers set hours that they could be in the house and shooing them out when I had to leave. This made for some interesting schedules. For one thing, it necessarily made me the first stop on their route each day, so I was getting up at about 5:30 to let workers in the house so they could do a little bit of work and leave by lunch time.

I tried to disguise the fact that I was home alone without my husband, but I was running out of places he could possibly be at 7:00 every morning. At a certain point, I resigned myself to the fact that my life had turned into a situation in which every day I waited for a panel van to show up in my driveway, and I would let two or three strangers into my house to do heaven knows what while I tried to write. One day, I went downstairs to get something and found my tile guy rummaging through my cabinets looking for a coffee mug. When he grabbed one of my good ones (mostly I only have printed coffee mugs that people give me as speaker gifts; no one ever thinks to give the guest speaker a bag of coffee beans), I offered to make a pot of coffee.

“No need,” he said. It turned out that he just wanted to use my good mug to measure the water so that he could mix a batch of mortar. I just sighed and went back upstairs.

Act IV

As I mentioned, Mr. FC&G was doing some travelling for business and was on a per diem (read: paid restaurant meals), but I was home alone. And, since my kitchen facilities were limited for most of this endeavor, I had pretty much stopped eating. There were a good three months that I subsisted on granola bars, cashews, and cookies – anything that wouldn’t require me to do dishes and throw flatware into the yard.

So, when May arrived, the project was nearly done, and I was literally on my last nerve. I was having panic attacks and was basically shaking all the time. And that was when a man I’ll call BK came to town.

BK is the world’s best ballroom dancer, or at least he was. A professional ballroom dancer and body builder, BK has won championships in every ballroom discipline available when he was competing. BK doesn’t walk across the floor; he floats while the angels sing and small birds come and light on his shoulders. And he is an absolutely ruthless ballroom coach, but he is not one that you dare miss if you have the slightest opportunity to take a lesson from him

When our project was nearly complete, BK was in town, and we booked lessons knowing full well we didn’t have the time or the mental stability for the usual dressing-down one gets from him. But go to our lessons we did.

BK, who had relentlessly critiqued us and our sub-par cha-cha the previous visit to town, apparently figured out that we were not at our best, and he asked us what was up. We told him a highly abbreviated version of this story, ending with, “and that’s why, once we finish up here tonight, we still have to go to Lowe’s and pick out a kitchen sink.”

He leveled his gaze at us and said, “stainless?”

I agreed and said that I had my eye on one of those three-basin sinks with the vegetable sink in the middle, but BK said no.

“Nope. What you want is a single basin sink. The whole thing, one basin. You won’t ever use the others, but if you get a single large basin, you can defrost a turkey or wash your puppy.”

We left the dance studio that night and drove to Lowe’s and said, “BK wants us to get a single basin stainless steel kitchen sink” and handed the guy the measurements. And that’s what we got.

I’ve never yet defrosted a turkey in that thing, and I don’t have a puppy. I don’t care. At least I know the world’s best ballroom dancer picked my kitchen sink.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

More of DIY Weedkillers

 Last week, I wrote about using DIY weed killers in place of commercial herbicides that are available for a premium price stacked in your local garden center. If you are maintaining your own property, it only makes sense to use the cheapest and safest thing you can, and that often is something you make yourself.

As I mentioned, loyal reader L. has gone the extra mile to experiment with a gallon of vinegar and a tablespoon of Dawn dishwashing liquid.  She shared her results with me and gave me permission to share them with you.

In the top two photos, you can see how beautifully this solution worked on both driveway seams and on mulch around posts. I might mix some of this up just to do a strategic kill of the grass around the stop sign in our yard, because I'm getting mightily tired of weed whacking around it!

The bottom is your cautionary tale. The solution will kill grass, so if that is a concern for you,  you will want to exercise caution. But, if you look closely in the bottom photo, you'll see some lovely little violets popping their heads up, which I always think is so pretty in a yard!

 For us, we are well on our way to polyculture instead of monoculture in our yard. No big expanses of uninterrupted bluegrass for us! We do all we can to invite violets, wild strawberries, clover, and all sorts of groundcover plants. (We even love our dandelions, although this time of year we do have to keep on top of mowing the deadheaded ones.)

Not only do the bees love the spring flowers, but encouraging the low groundcover reduces the amount of grass we have and therefore the amount of mowing we have to do. As I mentioned last week, we have whole patches that we no longer have to mow regularly just because we've encouraged the grass to depart in favor of something prettier. It isn't for everyone, and if you absolutely love a yard that looks like a golf course, you should go for it.  To each his own.

In any event, thank you to L. for sharing her findings with us!

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Weed Killers without Poison

Spring is finally here!  And along with the ability to wear flip flops, get out in the garden, and sneeze my fool head off because of the allergies comes the phalanx of neighbors and their weed killers.

Sigh. As you know, I'm no big fan of herbicides. And it's none of my business what the neighbors do on their own properties, as they march up and down their driveways and side flower beds with the big spray dispenser of Roundup, gleefully dumping five gallons of glyphosate preparation on perfectly innocent plants that happened to grow in the wrong place. (And spraying their own feet and legs in the process, so good luck with that, guys.)

It's none of my business, but I get cranky when I think of herbicides in the water table, to say nothing of potential impact on my garden. But all I can do is treat my property without the herbicides that make me uncomfortable. So, here's my top five ideas for controlling weeds without any chemical nasties:

Reframe your perspective: Those dandelions and purple deadnettles? The bees love them, and they are the first food for our pollinators in the spring. Give the bees a break and let your weeds grow a bit. We have some of the friendliest bees in our garden every year, and I think it's because they know they can always come eat at our house.

Mow: I know the good people who sell chemical lawn products don't want you to know this, but there's very little visual difference between a yard full of grass and one that has clover and other "weeds," especially if you mow it short. Once you think you've attracted the bees and are ready to get rid of some lawn weeds, just lower the blades on your mower. We have whole patches of our yard that basically never need mowed any more, because the low-slung clover has taken over the grass.

Boiling Water: So, having weeds in the yard is one thing, but having them in the cracks of your sidewalk or driveway is another. I get it. Every year, I take the boiling water from the canner outside and dump it on patches of offending weeds as my last step in putting up my produce. The weeds stay gone for a long time, and there is no worry about runoff. Just don't accidentally dump on your toes!

Salt Water: Ever heard of a "salted earth" strategy? That refers to the fact that salt will keep your land from growing anything. I occasionally take the leftover brine from making pickles out to places with really stubborn weed growth.  The hot vinegar and salt will pretty much kill anything; just make sure it doesn't run off into your garden!

Vinegar and Dawn: Thank you to my loyal reader L. (I wasn't sure if she wanted her name used) who experimented with a gallon of vinegar mixed with a tablespoon of Dawn dishwashing liquid.  According to her report and the pictures she sent, it does a bang-up job on the weeds, which are dead in a couple of days. She also shared how it will kill grass, so exercise caution. But the best news is that this solution costs about $3, compared to ten times that amount for Roundup!  That's a FC&G win!
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Friday, April 7, 2017

Salted Caramel Applesauce Cookies

Some of my favorite cookies are those with chips in them. There are just so many flavors of chips out there, you can come up with a ton of different flavor profiles. And, even though I haven't found a good source for organic chips, the rest of my ingredients are typically organic, so I know we're avoiding some of the pesticides, herbicides, and other nastiness that might be on more processed, commercial treats.

That, and they just taste better.

In any event, I recently discovered salted caramel chips, and these things are a wonder. Riffing a bit on the traditional Tollhouse Cookie recipe, I devised a salted caramel applesauce cookie that is soft and sweet with just that hint of salt to balance things out.

Salted Caramel Applesauce cookies

1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 1/2 cup organic raw or turbinado sugar
2 sticks organic butter (either salted or unsalted will work)
1 t. organic vanilla extract
1/2 cup applesauce (I used homemade)

2 1/2 cup organic flour
2 cups salted caramel chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix first six ingredients together until smooth.  Mix in flour and chips to make a reasonably stiff batter. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased baking sheets, and bake for 10-12 minutes.  (My oven requires about 12 minutes; you should see just the barest hint of brown on the tips when they are done.)

Makes 3-4 dozen.

Correction: there is no butter in this recipe, but there are two eggs. So sorry!
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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Ferrying the Tomatoes

Somewhere between Groundhog Day and St. Patrick's Day, depending on your growing zone and how impatient you are, is the right time to start your tomato seedlings. Mother's Day, in this growing zone, is the traditional time for setting them out in the garden.

In between, April is the month of Ferrying the Tomatoes.

That first month, the tomatoes are so easily contained. They sit in their little starter pots in the nursery incubator that I've hauled into the dining room for its seasonal use in the the sunny window. Grow lights and a heat mat provide a cozy, sunny environment, and all is right with the world.

Inevitably, the repotting starts, and this year I have been more diligent than ever before in not letting my little darlings get at all root bound. This means that I'm currently in the process of repotting an estimated 100 tomatoes into four-inch pots and hoping they can get some decent growth before planting time.

But 100 tomatoes in four-inch pots aren't going to fit in the nursery incubator; they won't even fit in the dining room. So, every day, I ferry tomatoes from place to place, hoping to get them each a chance at the ideal amount of light, warmth, and natural exposure to begin hardening off.

We have a pop-up greenhouse that will ultimately hold all of the tomatoes, but right now, it is only warm enough during the day. So, any tomatoes in the greenhouse get carried back inside at night.

I have the cozy incubator, and it has a nice shelf underneath, but it will only hold a few tomatoes under its grow lights.

There's a sunny window available, but the shelf under it will only hold a few tomatoes as well, and it doesn't get quite enough sun during the day to make it a long-term solution.

The sunroom is also a likely candidate, because it has both natural sunlight and a grow light, but the shelving situation doesn't allow enough room for all the tomatoes.

So, even as you read this, you can imagine me taking tomatoes from place to place, rotating them into different environments, inspecting them, fertilizing them, and hoping that this year I've got them off to a good start.

I wouldn't have it any other way.
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Thursday, March 16, 2017

How Much Does a Garden Grow: January and February 2017

As always, winter is a slow time in the garden, but that doesn't mean there's nothing happening. In fact, the year has started off with some harvests.

Overall, I harvested a laughable three ounces of produce over the first two months of the year, with most of that coming from my kale plants that I seeded last February (2016) and kept growing for an entire year. An infestation of aphids made me pull the plants, but I think they gave their all.  I also harvested a single small pepper and experimented with growing some microgreens, with little success.

Expenditures were confined to seeds so far, so we are starting off economically. My tomatoes are on their first repotting, enjoying their larger homes after getting started in their baby pots. The photo at the right was taken a week ago; today, I looked in to discover that I had some tomatoes that were already four inches high.  At this rate, I may finally have some really respectable tomato plants by the time planting season comes along. In fact, I plan to put up the outside greenhouse at the end of the month, in hopes of weather warm enough that I can move larger pots of tomatoes outside into their protected pop-up greenhouse to harden off and keep growing. In the meantime, one of my daily jobs is to rotate the tomato plants to make sure they all get a shot under the grow light, and to keep topping up their soil, watering them, and fertilizing them regularly.

Cumulative Totals to Date
Total Ounces Harvested: 3.0
Total Pounds Harvested: 0.1875
Total Value of Harvest: $2.30

Total Expenditures: $26.70

Total Profit (Loss): ($24.41)
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