Thursday, June 25, 2009

Trying Again with the Pumpkins

Remember when we were pumped about our pumpkins? Me too... Let me summarize our little pumpkin adventure thus far.

We saved the seeds from the bigger of our two Halloween jack-o-lanterns and planted them indoors in late winter, mostly just to see if they were still alive. They germinated all right and, as spring wore on, became quite gangly little vines on our bedroom windowsill. They even began sprouting blossoms.

But indoor winter weather just isn't ideal for vegetables—the sunlight isn't quite right, the air and soil are stagnant, the little cups holding them are small. We started these seeds way too early. So we planted a few more later. These, too, germinated and sprouted quickly, stretching toward that sunshine just out of their reach outside our bedroom window.

About half of the oldest seedlings eventually pooped out and died. We gave most of the others away. When the danger of overnight frost was gone, we finally planted our two remaining vines outside. Within days, someone or something nipped them off at the base of the stem.

I planted six more seeds in a shallow tray of seed-starter mix on our front porch. It dried out so quickly, I couldn't keep up with the watering, and only two of these sprouted. They promptly died while we were on vacation.

In a fit of frustration, I dumped the tray of seed-starter mix right onto the spot where we had planted those first two seedlings. I spread a handful of seeds around in it, making sure the seeds were just lightly covered with the soil. I watered it every morning (except days it rained).

Just a few days later, voila! Cute, aren't they?

Upon closer inspection, however, I gasped in horror at this creepy crawly discovery: Roly-polies were everywhere, and they were eating my precious seedlings! Just look at that guy munching the leaves of that poor baby pumpkin plant.

Web forums on the subject of protecting plants from roly-polies (a.k.a. sow bugs, pill bugs, wood lice) were mostly useless, mostly just hosting debates on whether or not these formerly endearing crustaceans actually do eat living plant matter. Guess what? They do. I was watching them chew.

So what to do without using insecticide? I mixed up some olive oil and hot pepper flakes to brush or spray onto the leaves, thinking the bugs might not like the spiciness. But I have not tried that remedy yet. I'll go back to it if my first line of defense doesn't work. I cut plastic drinking straws (See? We rinsed and saved those straws for a good reason!) into segments the length of the seedlings stems. I cut a slit down the side of each piece of straw, so I could slip it onto the little stems—it looks like the seedlings sprouted right out of the straw. Then I pressed the straw segment into the soil just a tad, to hold it in place and to give the seedling a tiny bit of protection under the surface. I also skipped a day of watering, since roly-polies love that ever-moist soil.

Today, it seems there are fewer roly-polies. So far, the seedlings are in good shape. I will, of course, keep an eye on them and adjust my battle plan as necessary. I'm saving the hot pepper oil just in case.

And, I'll have to thin out the bunch soon. (You saw how many there were!) I never liked thinning out my plants. It feels like killing something, wasting potentially good produce. At the same time, I understand that if I don't thin them out, leaving only the very few strongest seedlings, the growing vines will be fighting for soil and sun and water and space. In our tiny yard, even one vine would be fighting for space.

Friday, June 19, 2009

More Adventures in Edible Gardening

In mid-June, the temperature has finally crept up to what I consider comfortable; most other Chicagoans might consider it warm. Good gardening weather.
Today, I planted some more fun stuff in our yard: jalapeƱo seeds we cut out of a store-bought pepper, the butternut squash and cucumber seedlings I had started in small containers, and, just to see what happens, an avocado pit and some key lime seeds. We have previously made an avocado pit sprout roots and a scrawny stem in a glass of water, but it died before it really turned into anything. This time I just stuck it in the dirt. As for the key lime seeds, I have no illusions that we can sustain a citrus tree outdoors in this climate. They're just an experiment. If little lime trees happen to spring from the earth, I'll dig them up and pot them and then figure out what to do.
A garden really is just an outdoor laboratory, isn't it? I made an interesting discovery in mine a few weeks ago. This plant, and now, another baby one just like it, sprouted on its own in our little garden bed.
As it grows, it looks—and smells—a lot like a tomato plant. Last fall, I spread some almost fully decomposed compost onto my garden areas. Could it be that seeds from tomato scraps survived the winter and germinated "wild" on their own? We'll find out. I'm letting these two plants grow undisturbed until I discover they're actually a cleverly disguised weed.
Another experiment I began today is growing my cucumbers in a window-box-type container hanging on our fence, right under some latticework for easy climbing. But, can cucumbers thrive in shallow soil? There isn't much room for their roots to stretch. We'll see. Just in case, I planted two more seedlings in the ground at the base of the fence. They'll just have to reach a little higher before they can attach themselves to the lattice.
Meanwhile, my snow peas aren't doing so great in the hanging baskets. They look pretty, but don't get enough sun under the porch roof and therefore haven't produced a single pea yet.
The sweet pepper and tomato plants (the purposely planted ones) are still short but are slowly reaching for the sky. A pepper about half the size of my thumb is already growing, so that's something.
The strawberries are still producing like crazy. And we still have our own little salad bar out there with the remaining heads of romaine and buttercrunch lettuce.
The grapevine is stretching and has tiny clusters of tiny green balls. I wonder if these become the grapes, or if they become flowers that become the grapes? I've never seen the life cycle of a grape, so I don't know. Again, I say, we'll find out.
And, take a look at my bushy raspberry bushes (tied back to grow up against the side of our garage instead of out into the yard), fronted by massive shallots. Those onion shoots are almost waist-high. Their tips have burst into clusters of mini onions, shallot "heads" meant to be planted back in the ground, meaning the onions beneath the dirt are almost ready to be pulled. Could I have ten times as many next spring? Or even as soon as this fall?
Oh, and that scary-looking Chinese cabbage was definitely not cabbage. It sprouted lanky stalks of tiny yellow flowers. My mom suggested it was a type of wild mustard. She found the same thing growing in her garden 300 miles away. It had to have come from that Chinese cabbage seed packet we shared! Strangely, though, she did get some cabbage in her garden. Whatever it was, I yanked it out last week. Maybe I'll sow my leftover seeds later for a fall harvest and keep my fingers crossed.
What's new in your garden, readers?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gadgets that Save You Energy and Money: Guest post by Dan Harrison

As fossil fuels diminish, energy costs are going to keep rising until we have a viable alternative energy source. Until then, you can minimize your energy bills by using as little energy as possible. So in the interest of saving energy, here are a collection of gadgets for your home that should help you reduce your energy bills.

Central heating is great for keeping you cozy and warm, but your house is losing heat; you'll be wasting energy. The Thermal Leak Detector from Black & Decker is essentially a remote thermometer gadget that helps you find cold patches in a room. The detector shines a beam of light onto the part of the wall you're checking. The color of the light changes from red to blue when a cold spot is detected. The temperature of the cold spot is also shown on the LCD display on the detector. By finding the cold spots, you can then patch them up and save more energy.
For the kitchen, you can make your morning breakfast more eco-friendly with a Morphy Richards Ecolectric Toaster. The toaster saves up to 35% of the energy compared to a conventional toaster. The Ecolectric Toaster uses a special cover that closes when you start to cook your toast, resulting in less energy needed to cook the toast. The toaster also uses a motorized carriage to ensure your toast is evenly cooked. It's a bit more costly than a standard toaster, but it will save you money if your family eats loads of toast.
Do you love your cups of tea or coffee? Well the eco kettle is designed to make it as easy as possible for you to only boil the water you need. Using a special chamber of water, you release the water you need into the main kettle compartment to boil it. On average, people boil twice as much water compared to what they actually need, so this simple kettle should save energy pretty quickly!

Perhaps something for the bathroom? Namely the EcoDrain. The EcoDrain is a clever heat exchanging device that uses the excess heat from waste shower water and uses it to preheat the cold water inlet to the shower. This means the shower's heater uses 25–40% less energy compared to using just cold water from the mains. The EcoDrain has no moving parts, but it does have a non-stick coating on its waste pipe to ensure it doesn't get clogged by dirt and debris. What makes the EcoDrain practical is that it needs very little plumbing work to fit it into your existing shower system!

I hope you enjoyed reading about these interesting energy saving gadgets. This article was written by Dan Harrison who writes about eco gadgets for EnviroGadget features all kinds of gadgets and technology that save water, save energy or just do something to help save the planet!

Friday, June 12, 2009

One Man's Trash Is...One Town's Cash?

With the economy against the ropes, it's no surprise municipalities left and right are tightening their fiscal belts; but in some places, things are getting a little desperate. Take the Cook County suburb of Evanston (pop. 74,360), which is now looking into regulating scrap haulers because the city loses money (normally charged to homeowners) every time a scrap hauler nabs an item before the city has a chance to pick it up. Starting at $25 a pop, the city last year generated an impressive $89,000 that way.

Here's my take: these so-called "rogue haulers" are doing the city and its neighborhoods a valuable service, so there's no need to regulate them. Rather than leave that refrigerator rusting in the alley (where it can pose a danger to kids and shelter rodents and other pests) in the hopes that a city employee will eventually get around to picking it up, why not notify AMVETS (800-732-1708 for pick-ups in IL) or just pick a scrapper out of the phone book, give them a call and let them pick it up for free? I'm all for supporting city government, but I think there are probably better ways to fill the budget gaps.

Granted, there may be a few bad apples in the bunch—haulers that steal unattended items and/or rifle through recycling bins for scrap metal—but there has to be a way to isolate them without taking a bite out of business for those haulers willing to play by the rules. I wonder if Evanston's beef has more to do with demographics, as many of the haulers come from downtown and drive trucks that don't exactly add to the pleasant suburban aesthetic.

I admit, I may be speaking too soon; the news indicates only that officials are looking into "regulating" the haulers, so there's still a chance Evanston will find a fair the same time, it's clearly about money, and that's usually when the fights start to get nasty. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

In the meantime, our own little scavenging operation is humming along. I just picked up a large, two-drawer coffee table from our alley for my sister-in-law. Even after a slight rain, it was easy to spruce up with some furniture oil and a little lubrication of the wood sliders. (I'll post a pic next week. I wish I had the foresight to take a snap before I put my refurbishing skills to use on it so you could see the "before and after" effect).

For more on the issue of Evanston's trash, here's an editorial that falls on my side of the issue. Feel free to get in on the discussion here if you have a viewpoint you'd like to express.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

English Muffin Bread...from the Microwave!

It might sound funny, but it's true–you can "bake" some breads by nuking the dough in a 650-watt microwave oven, which also decreases rise time and offers better energy efficiency than a gas oven (especially true if you're only making one loaf).

Since we hadn't had any bread in the house for awhile, Nicole had requested that I bake a loaf or two for sandwiches and breakfast toast, so when I came across a recipe for English Muffin Bread, I knew I'd found what I was looking for. I added a little cinnamon and some raisins for good measure, and although there aren't as many nooks and crannies, the slices toast up nicely and make for an economical choice over the prepackaged varieties you'll find in the grocery store.

Cinnamon-Raisin English Muffin Bread

1/4 cup warm water
2 1/4 tsp. yeast
1 cup warm milk
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. baking soda
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2–1 cup raisins

Place warm water in large bowl; sprinkle in yeast and stir until dissolved. Stir in milk, sugar, salt, baking soda and cinnamon. Stir in raisins and add flour gradually until dough is uniformly sticky.

Grease microwave-safe loaf pan; sprinkle with cornmeal (optional). Turn dough out into loaf pan and microwave uncovered at 50% power for 1 minute. Let rest 10 minutes and repeat, allowing another 10 minutes of rest time. Once dough has doubled in size (you might need to repeat the process a third time), microwave on high for 4–6 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes in pan before removing to cool on wire rack.

I've since made this recipe a second time with the same quality result. The picture below also shows a couple loaves of a new multigrain bread recipe I tried. If only our blog offered smell-o-vision!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chocolate Cranberry Macaroons

Inspired by Au Bon Pain's ambrosial, fist-sized Chocolate-Dipped Cranberry Almond Macaroon, I experimented a little bit and created this easy and quick bite-size replica. I should say, these macaroons are quick in that they require very little hands-on time, but there is cooling time needed for the "cookies" and then for the chocolate. So allow for a couple of hours overall, or make them at a leisurely pace, baking the macaroons in the early evening, dipping them in melted chocolate later that night, so they'll be ready and waiting in the morning. Mmm!

2 egg whites
pinch of salt
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 cups shredded coconut
1/3 cup dried cranberries or cherries
1/4 - 1/2 cup chocolate chips
1 - 2 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter a mini-muffin pan.

Beat the egg whites and salt with an electric mixer until they form soft peaks; that is, you can form a temporary crest in the whites before it falls back down a little. (It is very important that you do not overbeat the egg whites into stiff peaks, as if you were making a meringue, or your macaroons will turn out too crunchy—more like macaringues...) Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the sugar over the whites and beat again for just a few seconds, until the peaks appear glossy.

In a separate bowl, toss together the remaining sugar, the almond extract, the coconut and the dried cranberries. With a rubber spatula, carefully fold these into the egg whites until evenly blended.

Drop the batter into the buttered mini-muffin pan, filling each cup just a little over the top. You probably will end up with a couple of empty spaces. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the coconut tips have begun to brown and the macaroons look like they're "breathing." Allow the macaroons to cool completely in the pan.

When the macaroons have cooled, use a spoon to scoop them out of the mini-muffin pan and onto a sheet of waxed paper or a baking sheet. They will still be gooey, so don't worry too much about their shape as you're scooping them—just keep them in somewhat of a ball form.

Put the chocolate chips and butter (start with the smaller amounts listed and melt more later if necessary) in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir until all melty and smooth, heating for another 15 seconds at a time if necessary. Spoon a glob of melted chocolate onto each macaroon and allow to set at room temperature. The chocolate will stay soft but won't come off on your hands when you gently pick up one of the treats.

These macaroons will keep well in an airtight container at room temperature for a few days.

Shared at: Thursday's Treasures, Full Plate Thursday, Whip it Up Wednesday, Friday Favorites

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

One Stretch of Road


It's interesting how, after you start a blog on a particular subject, you might feel as though you're upping the ante on yourself. If people across the world can tune-in to your feed, shouldn't you be putting your money where your mouth is and taking your cause just a tiny step further than normal?

I think that's why I was inspired, one weekend afternoon while Nicole and I were returning from errands on our bikes, to stop along a small stretch of a nearby road (which so happens to be near a nice walking path) and collect some of the recyclable trash littering the side of the road.

With more people driving and the high-schoolers out for summer break, I guess it didn't surprise me that we were able to fill our bike baskets fairly quickly–in fact, we could have made a number of trips hauling the junk away. It was as if someone had hosted a party on that stretch of road: there was Coors Light and Bud Light, plus Sprite, Gatorade, Lipton Tea, Arizona Tea, Coca-Cola and Monster for the designated drivers. The most disgusting part, though...brace yourselves...was a bottle that had been filled with what was most definitely urine. How's that for dedication? (Without gloves, you can bet I was later scrubbing my hands like there was no tomorrow.)

And I know I don't need to remind you that there's junk EVERYWHERE. I used to go up to the northwest corner of Illinois where it was less crowded and more scenic—and even there, my morning runs turned into walks as I trudged from one dirty roadside bottle to the next.

It makes me think, one goal I'd like to set for myself this summer is to perhaps "unofficially" adopt a stretch of a given road near us. I suppose I could walk it every night (or as frequently as time allows) and try to keep it clean. Readers, feel free to do the same...but I strongly suggest you do so only after investing in a pair of thick rubber gloves.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

Our front porch looks out onto a meditation park with a water feature and a very thorough sprinkler system. When I say thorough, I mean to say that it's not uncommon to see the sprinklers soaking the grass and surrounding landscaping even after a couple days of rain or, as in the case of the picture above, during a significant rainfall event (note the large puddle that's formed underneath the pine tree). I'm all for green grass, but that seems like a bit much, doesn't it?
I think Midwesterners such as ourselves–which live just a stone's throw away from 1,180 cubic miles of fresh water–sometimes take our situation for granted. Meanwhile, the Southwest continues to ration precious H20 as Lake Mead–America's largest reservoir–is sucked dry by a growing local population.
Granted, the news on the homefront isn't all bad; my property manager tells me that the sprinklers use water recycled from the park's pond, and the pond itself is supplied by a well. Still, we don't live on a golf course, so why not turn the sprinklers off when it rains? Apparently it's too difficult to call the service personnel to have them shut off. Perhaps I should raise the issue at the next board meeting and suggest using smart sensors that accurately measure soil moisture levels, thus preventing the park from becoming a squishy, water-logged mess.
Does anyone else have a similar story of water overuse/abuse? We'd be interested to hear from you!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Field of Green

Over Memorial Day weekend, we took a trip to U.S. Cellular Field and enjoyed a beautiful day at the ballpark (though the outcome wasn't what we were hoping for; Pirates 4, Sox 3). In any event, we made sure to take our plastic cups and paper hot dog containers home with us to recycle.

That got me to thinking about the Cell's recycling services and, after some investigation, I discovered we really didn't need to carry these items home; turns out there's plenty of green things going on at New Comiskey besides the forest-colored seats and groundskeeper Roger Bossert's well-manicured bluegrass. In fact, the park leads the way with:

Recycling: In addition to bins placed throughout the park, trash gathered by the clean-up crew is sorted for paper and plastic. According to White Sox management, the Cell has recycled over 570 tons of material since 1992.

Conservation: Computers regulate lighting inside the park, conserving energy.

Transportation: The CTA Red Line stop (located just across the expressway) houses a few dozen secure, weather-protected parking spaces for bikes; should those spaces fill up, several more on-street racks are located on the north side of 35th St. What's more, Sox staff maintain their own fleet of bicycles to travel in and around the stadium quickly.
Raising Awareness: The Cell turns off the lights as part of Earth Hour, and also celebrates Earth Day with educational events like "Earth Day at the Ballpark."

Parking: One of the most innovative green technologies is right under your feet! Just last year, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (which owns Cellular Field) installed what's believed to be the largest "permeable paving" parking lot in the U.S. Spanning 265,000 square feet—the equivalent of more than four football fields—in Lot L, the durable concrete paver stones allow surface water to filter back into the earth, reducing runoff. The system meets LEED guidelines set by the U.S. Green Building Council and is recognized as a Best Management Practice by the EPA. According to my sources, the Cell is the first park in the Major Leagues to incorporate the technology.

How's that for an environmental home run? Granted, there will always be some CO2-burn going on at every game, but for a team that attracts millions of visitors each season, they're still doing their part, and doing it well, all things considered. Go Sox!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lowering Your Water Bill is Barrels of Fun!

Recently, my brother and I installed a rain barrel at our parents' house. Even though it's possible to make one on the cheap using a Brute trash can, a length of hose and a few basic tools, we opted to save time with an easy-to-install, aesthetically pleasing, prefabricated barrel, capable of storing 50 gallons of rainwater.
All we did was cut the downspout, put a pedestal base in place to elevate the barrel (since it's just like a water tower, in that flow rates correspond to the hydrostatic pressure provided by gravity), made sure it was level, and set the barrel on top, securing it to the house wall with some rope (in the off-chance the base should become unstable).
Of course, we also had to test it, so I put the garden hose in the gutter and turned on the water works. Since I didn't measure the height as accurately as I should have (not easy on uneven ground), I came up a little short of the tip of the downspout; to compensate, I placed a brick on top to prevent water from spilling over the top of the barrel. And, thanks to the barrel's well-fitting screen, which is intended to keep gutter gunk out of the water, Mom probably won't need mosquito dunks.
Given the size of Mom's garden and the fact that they have a sizeable roof that collects plenty of runoff, it should be a wise investment. I'm interested to see how much of an effect it has on their water bill (though specific figures might be hard to quantify). Needless to say, the barrel filled to the brim after just one storm; Mom attached a soaker hose to the bottom, which snakes through her vegetable garden, providing slow 'n' steady moisture to the soil.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go perform a rain dance in the backyard.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Garden Eating Begins

I think it's finally safe to put the rest of my veggies in the ground. (Lettuce and snow peas I already sowed directly outside; they are "early" crops.) Here in Chicagoland, sneaky frost can occur overnight even in late May. So it was a week after Memorial Day when I finally moved my tomatoes and peppers from their tiny seedling containers, which I could put outside on nice days and bring inside on cold days, to the large wooden barrel containers in my front yard (the all-day sunny spot). But you better believe I'm watching the 5-day forecasts for that one rare overnight low in the 30s—I'll be running outside with newspaper and plastic bags to cover my precious plants. They're not quite seedlings anymore, but they're still tiny, thanks to the cool weather we've had. At this rate, it seems like it'll be July before we can eat anything out of the garden besides the lettuce!

Growing along with my lettuce is some scary-looking Chinese cabbage... or something. It looks more like a weed, with fuzzy, spiky leaves. When I look up Chinese cabbage, the pictures look like cabbage and not like the weird stuff growing in my little garden box. Maybe it is just a weed, but it's growing right where I planted those cabbage seeds. Maybe I got some bum seeds. I haven't picked or tasted any of it yet because I don't know what to do with it! It certainly doesn't look like it would be a pleasant texture. I'm sort of waiting to see how it grows out.

My other leafies, the romaine and buttercrunch lettuces, are growing great and taste great. I have been using some of the baby leaves in salads, making room for others to grow into full heads of lettuce. My spinach was good, but not all of the seeds sprouted, so we already ate it all and have to plant more. I think I can get another harvest before it gets too hot.

In the meantime, I'm just waiting for everything else to produce. Oh! Besides lettuce, we also have strawberries ripening now. About four at a time are ready every day or so, and I often just eat them as I pick them instead of saving them up for use as an actual ingredient in something, like strawberry shortcake. Now there's an idea...

So, what's growing in your garden, on your patio or balcony, or in your window sill? Check off your edibles in our poll over there on the right. If you're growing something that isn't listed, just click the "Comments" link at the top of this post and tell us about it!