Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Yikes! What's that White Stuff?

I am disappointed to report that powdery mildew has taken hold of our pumpkin patch and spread to the butternut squash.  Next year—and it will be back next year—I will recognize the first signs and take offensive action immediately.  This season, however, I didn't know what it was at first, I played the wait-and-see game, and now we're playing aggressive defense and hoping it's not too late. 

I saw small white spots on some of the pumpkin leaves and wondered if they were getting too hot throughout these very hot, very sunny days.  Perhaps if I give the leaves a little water, I thought, while watering one evening.  Big mistake!  What powdery mildew loves the most is hot, humid weather and wet leaves overnight.  So, the dusty white spots spread to more leaves and completely covered some leaves, and then I finally Googled the description and diagnosed the problem. 

I already had a spray bottle of organic fungicide for controlling the same malady on our apple saplings (why didn't I realize?!), so the next evening, I took action.  Some gardeners will say you must remove all affected plants.  Whole plants!  I couldn't do it.  I had baby pumpkins to try to save.  I clipped off the worst-affected leaves and bundled them in a plastic bag, which went into the trash—not into the compost where they would only harbor the mildew until it could spread to anything the compost later touched. And then I sprayed the remaining affected leaves (tops and undersides, which were sometimes worse) with fungicide until the bottle ran out.  I went to the hardware store and bought three more bottles and went back two evenings later to clip even more leaves and finish spraying the rest of the pumpkins, squash and—oh no!—the cucumbers too, until I had about two-thirds of a bottle left for future attacks. (You must wait at least four weeks between treatments.)  The pumpkin patch had it the worst and looks pretty sparse now.  I hope that the poor baby pumpkins, some on nearly leafless vines, continue to grow.

And, in much the same way that a person with a compromised immune system is more susceptible to further infection, a diseased plant is more vulnerable to harmful insects (and vice versa).  It's no surprise, then, that while I was lifting the leaves to spray their undersides, I came across a small cluster of bronze pellet-shaped eggs.  Squash bugs!  Those ugly, flat-backed, brown bugs that like to suck the sap right out of vining vegetables.  I only found the one cluster, which I removed by tearing off that portion of the leaf and trashing it with the mildewy leaves (I also crushed the eggs and soaked them with fungicide for good measure), but now I must be on the lookout for other eggs under the leaves as well as other signs of squash bugs, like yellow spots and wilting vines.  Great.  Stay tuned for a progress report.

Let's end on a positive note: We have already harvested nine cucumbers and used some for a delicious cold soup that I may post later; we have three good-sized regular watermelons and two palm-sized giant watermelons, as well as a few teeny tiny baby fruits in our very viney watermelon patch; and tassels are finally popping up out of our corn, resulting in fresh pale silk strands spilling out between the leaves of one stalk so far.  Exciting!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

I'd Like to Thank the Bees

Thanks to the hardworking drones buzzing around our garden plot, like this guy on the left, just covered in pollen inside one of the pumpkin blossoms, we have some baby fruits and vegetables to nurture. So exciting! Our garden has not become a jungle yet, but leaves are getting big, and vines are stretching out. As I watered the garden for the first time in weeks yesterday, I also picked carefully through the plants more thoroughly than I have lately, and I am proud to share what I found: baby pumpkins, up to the size of a golf ball, baby butternut squash about as big as my thumb, and even some baby watermelon, no bigger than my fingernail! Aren't they cute? I hope we can bring them all to to a delicious, ripe maturity. We also picked our first cucumber and have several others steadily growing. The corn is getting taller but has no tassels yet. And, in our front yard, a few small, green tomatoes are hanging out. How does your garden grow?


Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Garden, Four Weeks Later

Many of the seeds we planted last month in our community garden plot sprouted in just a few days. That whole first week, I was so diligent, rising early every morning to haul water to the site and soak each mound of bare earth, and it was exciting to see so quickly the fat seed leaves of the pumpkin, squash and watermelon and the yellow-green shoots of the corn ("Is that grass or corn? It might just be grass, but I think it's the corn. It's gotta be the corn!"). Since then, we've had a lot of rain (and, wow, does that garden turn into a mud pit!). I think I've watered the garden myself just once in the last three weeks. This weekend, I finally took our "finished" compost (the stuff that looks like rich soil with broken egg shells in it) and piled a handful or two around the base of each plant. Good fertilizer. I hope it helps along the blossoming and fruiting and such. The plants are all doing pretty well—the pumpkin especially took off—so here are some photos of our four-week-old garden.

Almost 20 stalks of corn, blowing in the wind.


The tiniest cucumber you ever saw and some other promising blossoms.


The pumpkin patch.


The butternut squash plants show signs of blossoming.
. Three of the watermelon plants that will somehow (we hope!) bear giant fruit.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

In Our Twenty-by-Thirty

On this glorious Saturday, with several more days of pleasant weather to come, I finally got down on my hands and knees (really—my jeans are mud-colored now) to work the rough-tilled soil in our community garden plot.

Without a rototiller at hand, I used a small spade and a trowel to break up large chunks of soil and to make little mounds where I would plant seeds. It was hard work, but sometimes that's what gardening is all about. Nevertheless, I'll consider renting or borrowing a tiller next year. For water, I half-filled a plastic storage bin from the hose and hauled it in the Croozer to the garden, where used a smaller container to scoop out some water to pour over each new planting.

As I mentioned earlier, our plot is 20x30 feet, which I realized is pretty big as I was kneeling and digging, and crawling and sowing, and crouching and watering, and standing and stretching... Just look at all we were able to plant, and keep in mind that most of these are vining plants that need a lot of room.

  • 20 spaces for butternut squash (40 seeds sown today)
  • 24 spaces for 3 varieties of pumpkin (48 seeds, 16 of each variety, sown today)
  • 8 spaces for two varieties of cucumber (approximately 20 seedlings—from seeds started indoors a few weeks ago—transplanted today)
  • 26 spaces for sweet corn (26 kernels sown today)
  • 5 little hills for watermelon (14 seeds sown today, 5 of which are for giant watermelon that can grow up to 200 pounds—our special experiment of the season!)

I cannot wait for the seeds to sprout. Until they do, I'm going to worry that they're all duds, or that I'm not watering them enough, or that I didn't prepare the soil well enough. And when they do sprout, I'll worry that they'll dry up in the sun and die or that they'll be eaten by rabbits or deer or roly-polies. And when they get blossoms, I'll worry that they won't get pollinated or that their fruit will be eaten by insects or wildlife before it ripens... Basically, I'll worry until we're harvesting.

I also planted some edible stuff in our yard today. Basil, cilantro, and parsley seeds (because the ones I planted a few weeks ago never sprouted, boo!) as well as cherry tomato seedlings, yellow pear tomato seedlings and New Mexico green chile seedlings. I'm really excited! And yes, I'm really worried about roly-polies. Just gotta roll with the punches, though, right?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Yes! A Plot of Our Own

Today, we became the proud lessees of a 20-by-30-foot patch of land in the new community garden across the street from our neighborhood. I couldn't even create a handful of 10x15 spaces our subdivision without charging more than $50 per person, but less than 100 yards away, 250 spacious community garden plots are now available to us at just $15 a pop, thanks to a partnership between the Fox Valley Park District and the Kane County Forest Preserve.

About a week ago, Len and I noticed several large rectangles of tilled earth in the grassy field (belonging to the forest preserve) that runs along a road bordering the north end of our neighborhood. Each time we drove by, to and from work, we wondered what it was about.

Yesterday, on the way home from work, I noticed small signs posted at the short end of each rectangle. We got home, fed the cat, and immediately hopped on our bikes to see what the signs were for. Labeled sections of newly planted wildflowers, perhaps? Some kind of organized prairie restoration project? Instead, the signs read, "Garden Plots 1-26," "Garden Plots 27-52," and so on.

Thrilled by the prospect of so many garden plots in such a convenient location, you better believe we snatched one up as soon as possible!

I'm so excited to have a large area for our pumpkins, squash and cucumbers—and more—this summer! Len wants to plant our various fruit tree seedlings there (we recently discovered that an apricot seed sprouted after I'd given up on it—a short story for another time), but permanent plantings aren't allowed, obviously, because the park district tills the ground every year.

Anyway, the plots open for planting on May 10, so stay tuned!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day, Easy to Extreme

Well folks, Earth Day has been around for 40 years now. How many times have you really celebrated it in all that time? Maybe not every year? I'm here to help. Don't worry, you don't have to give up meat or move to a commune.
I like to think of Earth Day as another kind of New Year's celebration. In other words, don't just focus on the one day. Look forward. Make a change. Make an Earth Day's resolution!
I have loads of ideas, whether you want to try an easy change or an extreme one. I'll let you think of the in-betweens. Here we go.
  • Heating and cooling. Just go easy on the thermostat. No higher than 68 in the winter. No lower than 80 in the summer. You might even baby-step your way to more extreme comfort deprivation and save more than just a few bucks.
  • Water. Take a shorter shower. Set a timer for five minutes and see if you can finish before time runs out.
  • Driving. Just drive less. Several people in my office bike to work in the summer. The rest of the year they take public transportation. It's easy (and more convenient) to drive less in the city, but even in suburban and rural areas, you could walk, bike, or carpool a lot more often if you made the effort.
  • Air conditioning. Live without it, I mean. Open windows, drink cold lemonade, wear skimpy clothes, lie in the shade, and use fans when absolutely necessary.
  • Driving. As in, not at all. Quit your car and rely on transportation by automobile as little as possible. I know people who have done it. Yes, they all live in the city.

  • Grocery bags. One of our friends once wondered how anyone could still be using plastic grocery bags when it's so easy to switch to reusable bags. We were still on the plastic a year later, and it's all because of cat litter. In a future post I'll tell you all about it. In the meantime, switch to reusable bags like we eventually did. Any bag will do.
  • Water bottles. Lightweight, stainless steel water bottles are all over the market now. Get one, carry it with you, fill it with tap water (or filtered tap water if you must).
  • Coffee cups. One day earlier this year, Starbucks gave free coffee to anyone who brought in a reusable travel mug. But even on regular days, Starbucks gives you a 10-cent discount if you're using your own thermos (or even just an open mug). Ten cents off isn't much incentive, but if you instead think of it like they're charging you 10 cents for the paper cup, suddenly you want to avoid the fee, no matter how small.
  • Water. Whole-house gray water systems collect and filter the water that runs down your sink, shower, dish washer, and washing machine drains and reuse it for watering the lawns and filling the toilets. Smaller systems set a sink above your toilet tank so that you're never using fresh water just to flush.
  • Material goods. Before you throw anything away, see if it might have another use. Len's good at repurposing scraps of wood and other things leftover from various projects. Out of scraps, he has built two compost bins, one little set of drawers for coffee and tea things, and several shelves, and he's also made many home repairs with project leftovers.
  • Paper. Paper is so easy to recycle, you'd better have a grand excuse if you're not already doing it. If you don't have recycling pick-up in your neighborhood, there is probably a school or church near you that does have a big recycling dumpster on the premises just for paper.
  • Beverage cans and bottles. Again, if you don't have recycling pick-up at home, save aluminum, glass and plastic drink containers in bins or garbage bags. When you have a trunk load, drive it to your municipality's recycling center. It's just another errand, no big deal. Some restaurants and city sidewalks also have separate trash cans for recycling. Use them.
  • Fashion accessories. Whether you're looking for a real leather purse, a brightly colored tote bag or some unique jewelry, you can find almost any fashion accessory made from other recycled things.
  • Building materials. Whether you're putting in new carpet or building a whole new house, you can order almost any of the necessary materials made from other recycled materials, including insulation made from old jeans and white picket fences made from old soda bottles.
  • Anything. Implement a recycling program where there isn't one. At your office, in your neighborhood, in your school district, or in your city.
What will be your Earth Day's resolution? What change, big or small, will you make to make a difference?
I want to know your ideas! Click the "Comments" link at the top of this post and tell me!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Earth Hour 2010 Report

Earth Hour 2010 was the largest public demonstration in history, according to a press release by the World Wildlife Fund:
4,000 cities
in 125 countries
including all 50 states
and Washington, D.C.
In northern Illinois, ComEd registered a decline in electricity usage of about 1 percent during the 8:30-9:30 period. One percent doesn't seem like a big number (and of course it could be bigger, which would be awesome), but it is a noticeable difference: the equivalent of removing 124,320 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or planting 15 acres of trees. Nice work, people. Let's shoot for an even higher percent next year!

I encourage you to read some of the accounts from cities around the world on EarthHour.org's news page. The site also has some really neat photos and videos of the event.
Here's just a sampling of Before-And-After photos:

St. Louis Arch, MO, USA ©WWF/Steve Behrends


Chicago Theater, IL, USA ©WWF/Chuck Osgood
. .

Burj Al Arab, Dubai, UAE ©Jumeirah Group


View of Central Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong ©WWF/HKPPA .


Tower Bridge, London, UK ©WWF/Jon Freeman


Candlelit coffee (illuminated by battery-powered headlamp)


Yes, that last one is ours. Len realized he needed to reheat his cup of coffee after everything was already unplugged. Setting a pillar candle inside a jug of similar diameter and balancing his mug on a cookie-cooling rack, he made use of the flame. It worked, but it also was quite precarious (as if you couldn't tell), and some coffee spilled on the carpet. Yeah, we cleaned it up by candlelight too, but not without the help of our awesome LED headlamps.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Don't Forget Earth Hour Tonight!

Tonight at 8:30 p.m. your local time, turn off all of your lights and unplug all of your nonessential appliances. Unplug your coffee pot, microwave, TV, DVD player, sound system. Charging your cell phone or iPod? Unplug 'em for this hour. Unplug everything you can. Go off the grid until 9:30!

So what do you do in the dark for an hour, especially if you're in a cold climate like us? If you live in a city, especially near a downtown area with lots of skyscrapers, go outside. It could be really cool to see your city's landmark buildings go dark for this simple, hour-long call to action on global climate change. Last year's news coverage had great photos of places like Paris, New York, Chicago and Las Vegas dimming their normally well-lit recognizable buildings. It was moving.

Live in the country? Go outside and watch the sky.

Don't want to go outside? Maybe a candlelit dinner is for you. Or flashlight tag. Or snuggling under a blanket. I'm sure you can think of something.

For more information about Earth Hour, go to www.earthhour.org.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

It's Alive!

It happens every year. Mild mid-March weather tricks us into believing that spring has arrived. Then winter blasts back in to remind us that we may have weeks of cold temperatures yet. Today, for instance, is the first day of spring (Happy Spring, everybody!), but we awoke to a world of gray and white. It's snowing! And it's really cold out there! And yet, the garden is alive!

Leaf buds on our baby apple trees—they overwintered in the garage successfully!
Yesterday, on the other hand, was a work-in-the-yard kind of day. The wind was chilly, but the sun was warm. No jacket or hat necessary, just jeans and long sleeves. It was marvelous. A few years ago, I might have been hopeful—and foolish—enough to start planting my vegetable garden on a day such as yesterday. But I've lived here long enough to know better. Instead, we did some yard maintenance. Churning up the soil where I plan to plant the veggies later... Stirring the compost...

We had quite a bit of garden-ready compost in the bottom of the bin, so we reorganized it—put a piece of wood down the middle of the bin to divide in two, keeping the soil-like material on one side, and all the still somewhat recognizable other stuff on the other side. Now we can dump scraps into one side and allow one side to fully decompose. Then, we'll shovel the ready stuff into the garden and start dumping scraps on the now-empty side, allowing the other side to sit and rot (so to speak). It should be good cycle. I'll let you know how it works out.

In the meantime, let's get excited for winter to really go away so we can really get the garden started. I have big plans! (Just like last year, but hopefully I have learned a few things after last year's minor successes and many failures.) More garden posts to come, of course.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

First Bicycle Commute of 2010

Because we have only one car, and public transportation in the suburbs is mostly useful only for getting to the city, we rely a lot on our bikes or our own two legs when we must be in two different places at once. Even though it has been cold (oh, so cold), I've been walking a lot lately. I'd just rather not navigate the snowy and icy sidewalks on a bike. But the temperature topped 40 today!

So, I set my little bicycle taillight a-flashing, donned one of the fabulous headlamps we got for Christmas (because, until Daylight Savings Time, it's still dark when I get off the train in the evening), and I biked home from the train station!

It was great to be back on two wheels again, if only for 20 minutes. I can't wait for even warmer weather and longer days so we can do some serious biking.

One note: 40 degrees—or perhaps the upper 30s by this time of the evening—will not freeze your face off, but it is still cold!  Remember to wear gloves; my hands were burnin'!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine Lollipies

These were a good idea in theory.
I got the idea to make these little pies on a stick from a website called Luxirare—yes, another recommendation from a friend. "They're so cute!" I thought. "I'll make heart-shaped ones for Len for Valentine's Day!" (Luxirare's pie pops are round.) "And I'll fill them crab apple butter so they're pink, for Valentine's Day!"
Well, as you can see they did come out looking cute. But aside from that, the lollipies, as I choose to name them, were not the best result of all my dessert experiments. Far from it. In fact, I think only the Rhubarb Souffle of '03 can compete with this mini-disaster. And there was a melted lemon ice cream pie once...
Could they have been great? Yes, according to Luxirare's success story. Would I make them again? Maybe, but only if I followed the advice I have included at the end of the short recipe below.
What you need:
  • A pie crust, rolled out thin
  • Small amounts of any pie filling
    (for example, finely chopped or mashed fresh fruit mixed with sugar and cornstarch)
  • "Cookie sticks" or oven-safe lollipop sticks
    (found in the baking/candy-making section of most craft stores)
  • A cookie cutter or a jar lid, anything to cut out the mini pie shapes
Cut out little rounds (or hearts, or whatever) from the pie crust, and place half of them on a baking sheet. Put a dollop of filling in the center of each round. Lay a stick on each one.
Place the other rounds on top of the filled ones, press the edges to seal, using a fork or the end of a spare stick to make the seal more decorative.
Bake at 450 for about 20 minutes (more or less depending on the size of your pies).
And now the advice:
The crust. I would use a store-bought crust next time, because I cannot roll out a thin-yet-sturdy homemade crust. I just haven't mastered it. My homemade crust was far too flaky to hold together and, therefore, was so thick that each pie ended up being about 95% crust, 5% filling. Awful. Very dry. This is the main reason my lollipies were a failure. The pies are going to be more crust than filling no matter what, but you need a thin crust so they're not all crust, and you need a sturdy crust so they don't fall apart.
Moving the pies. Do not touch the pies until they are cool! They'll crumble right off the sticks otherwise. (Even after they cool, they might fall off the sticks if your crust is too flaky.) They should come up very easily from the pan, but if some filling spilled out, just use a spatula to gently scrape them loose.

Shared at Eat, Make, Grow

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Kitchen Waste-Nots

A friend recommended a great website to me, and I also think it's pretty great, so I have to forward the recommendation. It's called Re-Nest, and it is so frequently updated, that I can't keep up with its abundance of DIY and green ideas.

One idea from today is How To Waste (Almost) Nothing in the Kitchen. It boils down to five basic things, all of which I am happy to say we already do (most of the time):
  1. Switch from paper to cloth (paper napkins and paper towels become cloth napkins and cloth rags)
  2. Compost as much as possible
  3. Recycle as much as possible
  4. Pack leftovers in reusable, reheatable containers (avoid plastic wraps and plastic bags)
  5. Make and use a grocery list to avoid purchasing things you don't need (and might then toss later)
I would add one more—one we still need to work on at home—and that is to scrutinize the packaging of your grocery purchases and aim to buy things with as little non-recyclable packaging as possible, so you trash as few wrappers as possible.

Any other kitchen waste-nots you would share?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

DIY - Cough Drops?

I found this article in an e-newsletter today, "DIY: Herbal Cough Drops," complete with what appears to be a simple recipe. I haven't tried it yet. Neither Len nor I is sick right now.

So, I dare you to do it for me. One of you readers must have a scratchy throat, a nagging tickle in your chest...

You may find it helpful to read the whole article from The Herb Companion at the link above, but for the daredevils who would rather just get down to it, here is their recipe for homemade cough drops:

Powdered herbs
1 cup sugar, or honey
1/3 cup light corn syrup, or honey
1 1/2 cups water
Powdered sugar, for easy handling
  1. Steep your preferred soothing herbs in 1 1/2 cups of water to make a tea.
  2. Mix sugar and corn syrup with tea. Cook over low heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved and mixture boils.
  3. Continue boiling without stirring until the mixture begins to crystallize; reduce heat. Wash away crystals from the side of your pan with a damp cloth.
  4. Remove from the heat after a few minutes. Drop some of the mixture from the tip of a spoon onto a greased surface. Allow to harden and cool completely before removing. Roll the candies in powdered sugar and wrap in waxed paper for storage.
The article suggests a few different herbs with expectorant qualities; I bet you have at least two of them in your spice rack already—ginger and thyme. It also links back to past articles about the best herbs for soothing a sore throat.

Somebody let us know if you try this at home!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Socks and Fuzzy Slippers

How low do you keep your thermostat in the winter?

Growing up, I was accustomed to my parents' standard setting of 68°, a commonly acknowledged threshold between comfort and energy conservation. Now married, I face winters of perpetually icy hands as the standard was knocked down a couple of notches to 66° (this is Len's threshold of comfort and part of a compromise that means I freeze in the winter and he sweats in the summer).

Yes, the house is cold. I sure can feel the change made by those two degrees, but I can take it because they make an even bigger change in our utilities usage. And don't we all like tangible results, like smaller gas bills? I make up the difference in my comfort level by walking around the house wearing socks and fuzzy slippers. It works. Thick, fuzzy socks by themselves do not cure my toe-cicles; it's the layering of regular socks with thick, warm slippers that does the trick. When your feet are warm, your whole body feels warmer. (It works the same in reverse, too: If you're hot in the summer, take those socks and shoes off! You'll instantly feel a littler cooler.) Take it from somebody who hates dressing in layers, the sock/slipper combo is very comfortable—not at all restricting like wearing three turtlenecks.

Of course, my hands are still cold but I find that keeping busy, like moving around a lot, cleaning the house, helps get the blood flowing to the extremities. Wearing—or burrowing under—fleece is also quite effective. And burrow we do, for at night, our programmable thermostat bumps the heat down a few degrees more. We don't notice that temperature change because we're snug in bed, but we do notice the big chunk it takes out of our gas bill, yet again. The heat is programmed to go back up to 66° shortly before we have to wake up. It goes back down again while we're gone for the day. That's when the cat burrows.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Post-Holiday Post

Happy New Year, everyone! No, I am not going to suggest that you make a New Year's resolution to be greener. That's what Earth Day is for. (Watch out: it's only a few months away!) Instead, I just want to share a couple of highlights from our whirlwind holiday season that I think are relevant to this blog.

A beautiful sight. Driving up and down I-55, as we often do to visit family and friends, we pass a somewhat new wind farm. In the flat land of central Illinois, these fields of slender, white, three-armed wind turbines are—in my opinion—an elegant, magnificent sight, especially in an otherwise brown and barren winter landscape. At night, they are a wide matrix of red dots in the dark, blinking in unison (gotta warn those low-flying aircraft). I love it.

Homemade holidays. There were a whole lot of heartwarming, handmade gifts exchanged this year on both sides of our family. Most of it was good food: We gave out our apple, crab apple, and pear butters, of course, as well as some of Len's Bacon Cheese Beer Bread. We received homemade berry jams, grape jelly, hot salsa, bow tie pasta, tomato sauce, candied nuts, and fudge. And, in the DIY category, various gifts of family memories went around: a book of memories and old photos on CD, a DVD of old family videos, framed photos from a wedding this summer, and memory frames of VFW and American Legion hats paired with a photo of Len's grandpa when he was young and in uniform. Great stuff.