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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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Friday, March 10, 2017

On Using the Good China

I was looking at some advertising from the 1940s and 1950s the other day, when post-war affluence met demographic trends to create the bridal industry that we know today, and I started thinking about how much I love my good china.

It grieves me, on some level, to think that I may be part of the last generation of brides to even want good china. The day after we got engaged, Mr. FC&G and I went to the department store and registered for our china, silverware, and other items. I remember how excited I was to finally - finally - get this lovely, delicate stuff and to have it displayed in my china cabinet. (Buying the china cabinet, which I had done years earlier, should have been my first clue that I was on the end of a demographic trend, because it took trips to many, many stores to find something that would function as such. No one offered a "china cabinet" per se.) Receiving the beautiful boxes of china as wedding gifts thrilled me, and, to this day, I stop and look at my china every time I walk into the dining room.

It made me sad when, a decade or so ago, I started reading reports of how people were no longer buying good china. They were afraid of breakage, they didn't want to wash it by hand, and they wanted the money to spend on something else. More power to them, I suppose. However, I also became aware, through personal experience, that no one knows how to act around good china any more.

I have let myself become shamed out of using the good stuff, because it invariably sparks some sort of contentious moment in which I either be a good hostess and let my guests have what they want, or I stand my ground. Since I am of the school of thought that holds that a good hostess, upon seeing her guest drink from the finger bowl, resolutely takes a swig out of her own, I usually wind up capitulating.

I have had guests hand plates back to me, asking for something not so precious and saying that they can eat off anything - and that's just when I'm using my second-best, "everyday" china that was my "good stuff" from when I was single. I have nearly bitten my tongue off to refrain from saying that, if they can eat off anything, surely they can figure out how to eat off a plate that I didn't buy in a boxed set in grad school.

I have had visitors charge into my kitchen and plunge their hands into my everyday silverware drawer, unwilling to wait until I retrieve a matched set for their use.  "Oh, don't go to any bother; I can get it," they say. But maybe I wanted to offer something nice for their use, and it's not like I don't have a couple of complete, matched sets of dessert forks that I can use to serve people.

I have even had people hand cloth napkins back to me and ask for a paper napkin. On that one, I have no choice but to protest, because I don't own any paper napkins, save for maybe a pack of birthday-themed ones shoved into the back of the pantry. I haven't otherwise purchased paper napkins in over a decade. I've learned to hide the paper towel roll if I have people over for a summer cookout, because they will invariably refuse to pick up a cloth napkin from the buffet and tell me that I shouldn't have to wash the cloth napkins. Really, folks, it's no trouble; I put them in the washer and hang them outside to dry. I'm not exactly washing them on a wash board and then starching and ironing them.

In short, I have let myself succumb to peer pressure to not enjoy and share my finest possessions, even though doing so brings me great joy. I want people to know that they mean a great deal to me, and that they are worth me creating an elegant experience. Am I going to serve picnic food outside on the good china?  Probably not. But I derive a lot of pleasure from using the china, the good silverware, and the pretty cloth napkins to enjoy a meal with friends or family. To me, it is my reward for serving my guests.

So, no more of this. From here forward, the good china is coming out of hiding once in a while, if only just for Mr. FC&G and I. We have long planned that, when we retire, we will get rid of the kitchen table and take only the good dining room table to our new home, and that we will likely use the china as well. I think that should start today. We deserve the joy of using the nicer things, and, if you are invited to our house, I hope you will do so too.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Reusable Swiffer (TM) Mop Covers

For a long time, I've been intending to crochet some reusable covers for my Swiffer mop,.  And, since the weekend past was boring and cold and yucky, I had time to do just that.

I love my Swiffer mop.  There's just something about that ball joint that lets you mop in corners and around furniture legs that is so pleasant-feeling, you really want to use it more often.  But the disposable dry and wet (especially) cloths will break the bank!

For a long time, I've attached cut up flannel and fleece rags to the mop head, and that solution works pretty well.  But these reusable covers are another level entirely.

I made them with pockets on the ends that hold the cover snugly on your mop head, so they don't slip off like the disposable sheets do.  Plus, I made the cover ridged, so that it picks up dust and dirt more easily.  Afterward, you just slip the cover off and wash it with your towels or jeans, and it is ready to use again.  If making or having a couple of these saves you from buying a single box of Swiffer wet cloths, you will have saved money.

If you like to crochet, you can design a pattern that works well for your particular mop and needs and work through these pretty quickly.  (I might write up the pattern when I used when I get time.) I recommend using cotton yarn, as it is more absorbent and easier to wash.

I made up a few for myself, and then, with the encouragement of a friend, I have listed a few in my Carrot Creations shop.  The link is below.  In their initial day, they seem to be selling pretty briskly, so check back if you don't see what you want.  I have lots of leftover yarn and have priced these to be FC&G!

The Analysis

Fast:  Quick to make, quick to use.

Cheap:  If you buy these from me and spend $10 (plus S&H) on two, you will break even once you forego buying one box of wet mop covers.  If you make your own, you will be in the black even more quickly.

Good:  I adore a project that helps me keep my house clean and saves me money while keeping junk out of the landfill!

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

On the Value of Going Old School

This week has been an odd one for me regarding technology.

I was researching an article about certain kinds of tech, and I started looking into fitness watches. You know: those strap-on devices that only incidentally tell time; their real purpose is to count your steps, use GPS to track the route you walk or run or bike, and maybe even gather certain biometric data like heart rate.  I have to admit they are cool, and there's part of me that wants one.

A couple of days later, I was in a conversation with some college instructors who were admitting to going old school.  One, like me, uses a paper planner. Another uses a traditional, paper grade book. For these instructors (and for me), there are certain kinds of information that we find most accessible and easiest to manage by using a pencil and paper.

It got me to thinking about the role that technology plays in our lives. I like to think that I'm not a technical Luddite; the other day, I posted a picture to Facebook of my office, in which I had no fewer than four screens spread across three computing devices open, active, and in use. My favorite device right now is my iPad mini, which has replaced a laptop in a lot of situations for me.

But, for other things, I like to go old school. I like my paper planner; I can't quite get the same grasp on the cycle of my day and my to-do list by flipping back and forth between apps on my phone. My all-time favorite laptop replacement, which I have written about before, was my AlphaSmart; sadly, I can no longer get it to sync with any of my more modern devices, meaning I cannot write on it and extract what I have written. I've been thinking fondly of the days when your cell phone could make and receive calls, maybe do some very clunky texting, and play a game or two, instead of operating as a mobile office, productivity suite, and entertainment center that costs several hundred dollars and which you are terrified of losing or breaking.

Technology is great. If we were to completely eschew technology and took this to extremes, we would not have the wheel, the loom, or the most basic of knives. Technological progression helps us move forward as a species.

But sometimes, technology leads us instead of us leading technology. What good is a productivity device if you spend all of the time you have saved reworking your work flow and buying new connectors, adapters, and chargers that fit an ever-changing array of devices. For example, I have "solved" the problem of how to work on an airplane and on vacation no fewer than six times over the past 20 years, and every time devices change, I have to rethink my preferred solution.

I don't know the answer, but maybe the next time I go on vacation, I'll take a legal pad and a few pencils. They'll work anywhere, they never lose their charge, and I don't have to worry (much) about them being stolen. And, my writing always was better when it occurred at the pace dictated by my own hand and when I edited it while I typed up the final version.
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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Plan the Work and Work the Plan

It should tell you something about my general motivation level today that I've put off writing this blog piece because I couldn't figure out what photos to use.  So, you're getting a promo photo for one of my books (that's available on Amazon and through the link at the right, thankyouverymuch!), and we're going to plug ahead.

As a college instructor, I notice that we spend a lot of time telling young adults to follow their dreams and to find work that they enjoy so much they "never work another day in their lives." I love the sentiment.  May we all find pursuits in life that are the most pleasant and rewarding ever.

However, even your favorite job - even the best aspects of your favorite job - will sometimes drag you down.  Sometimes, there are days when you are simply unmotivated; sometimes, work hits a rough patch or you simply have to do things you are not in the mood to do.

I'm not immune to these feelings, and it is never easy to struggle through a patch of low motivation, but I do have a system that helps me stay productive during those times.  I divide my work into roughly two "moods:"

Dreaming and Executing
These are the days when motivation is high.  It's not that these days don't involve work; indeed, some of my best productivity comes during my planning days.  But these are the days that the clouds part and I can see the big picture, and one thing I'm sure to do is make lists.  I make lists of all the things that need to be done to reach my long-term and intermediate goals, and I break everything down into individual tasks, ranging from making copies of documents to outlining new books.  Everything goes on a list.

I also execute the difficult stuff that requires a lot of brain work.  So, I won't make copies on days of high energy, but I will do a book outline (I must have 5 books in the queue behind the one I'm currently writing), rework a lesson for class, design a new product for my Carrot Creations store, or market for new work.  These are also great days to get lots of writing done, and these are the days to make lots of necessary phone calls, because I'm probably feeling gregarious.

Work the Plan
Inevitably, though, I will have a day when work seems insurmountable, and I just don't have the energy to go forward. The goals seem so impossibly far away, to say nothing of the dreams.  Working hard seems an exercise in futility.

That's when I pull out the lists.  I tell myself that I don't have to do anything big or far reaching; I just have to cross things off those lists.  That's when the photocopying comes in, or the filing.  These are the days for research that involves looking up specific facts for an article or sending bunches of emails to people who need information or who I need to get information from.  And these are great evenings for simply sitting and churning out crocheted items for Carrot Creations.

The ultimate point is that these lower motivation days may not be the most fun or the most inspirational, but work keeps moving forward.  Tasks keep getting done, and I'm making progress toward the goal, even if it doesn't feel like the goal will ever be reached.  Then, the next time I'm well-motivated, I have all of the little tasks done, and I can once again think big because I can once again see the big picture.

What do you do when you have a low motivation day?
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Friday, January 20, 2017

Crazy Gardener Tricks

January means a certain amount of "twitchiness" among gardeners.  We console ourselves with seed catalogs and plot planning, but, at least in my area, true seed starting can't begin for a few more weeks.

What am I doing to break the tedium?  Well, one project I have is saving and crushing my eggshells.

Eggshells are a great addition to your garden; I like to put some in the holes with my tomatoes when I transplant.  When in the soil, they add calcium, which helps the cellular structure of your plants grow strong.  Sprinkled on top of the soil around the base of your plants, they also help control slugs, because the sharp edges of the little pieces cut their little slug bellies.  (Graphic, I know, but gardening is war, people!)

Because I'm saving these egg shells all winter, I rinse my shells and let them dry thoroughly before crumbling them in my hand and putting them in my jar.  In the summer, I just take the fresh eggshells directly out to the garden and crumble them at the base of the plants.  For this batch, I will crumble them more before spring planting.

It's a quick and easy project to do to get you ready for gardening season; I love the thought of getting out there in the dirt in my bare feet, putting in this year's garden.

The Analysis

Fast:  It doesn't take much more time to rinse, dry, and crumble your eggshells than it does to throw them in the compost bucket.

Cheap:  As you know, my favorite projects turn waste into benefit.

Good:  If this helps ensure a good harvest next year, I'm ready!

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

The 2016 Garden Wrap Up: How Much a Garden Didn't Grow

2016 Cumulative Totals

Expenditures: (-$232.88)

Total ounces of harvest: 1280.5
Total pound of harvest: 80.03125
Total value of harvest: $310.11

Total net saved: $77.23

Ladies and gentlemen, that stunk.

I mean, I had a better garden year the first year we moved into this house, and the garden was a 6' x 8' patch the previous owners dug up, and I still got something like 8 quarts of tomato juice and a few quarts of pickles out of it.

This year, I got bupkis.  And I worked my tail off.  I mean, if I hadn't put the gym membership on hold while I gardened for six months, this wouldn't have been worth it financially at all.  (If you are keeping score, I did cut $150 off my total yearly gym fees this way.)

It was all that stupid oak tree.  I think.  I hope.  My theory is that my garden just didn't get enough sun, so I'd get healthy plants that grew until the tree started to shade the garden, and then they just sort of stopped.  So, that tree is gone, and we'll see what happens.

I'm also going to go back to using a rototiller this year and dressing the garden with manure.  My heart breaks at not being able to make a go of my modified lasagna gardening with the eco-friendly broadfork, but I think maybe my soil is too full of clay to let that happen.

What did work well this year?  Well, I brought in $32.12 worth of greens, mostly from a batch that I planted last February and I'm still getting harvests from.  Greens (kale, in this case), are very shade-friendly, so you do the math on that one.

I also harvested over 5 pounds of blueberries for a retail value of $30.78, which I think is pretty good for three bushes.  The blueberries also sit in the one remaining sunny spot (pre-tree removal) in the yard.

Cucumbers and zucchini were relatively good, but I didn't really get to make pickles.  That said, there was a very solid 6-8 weeks there where I ate a plate of cucumbers for lunch every day and had something zucchini-related for dinner most nights.

So next year is the big test.  I may be exaggerating a big, but with the new, expanded, sunnier garden, I swear I'm going to plant 75 tomato plants.  I told Mr. FC&G that we were going to spend the month of August buying nothing at the grocery but pop, cookies, and canning lids; everything else is coming out of the garden, and I'm going to can around the clock.  We are going to have one of those garden years where I finally get to make those Facebook posts in May that say, "Oh, the new tomatoes are in, so we'd better hurry up and finish eating the canning from last year."

Hey, if the Cubs could win the series, I could hit one out of the park too.

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