Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Halloween dilemma

September is drawing to a close, and that means that stores are beginning to gear up for Halloween, with prominently placed displays of candy and costumes. (Well, actually, they've been doing this pretty much all throughout September; I just do my best to ignore it while it's still technically summertime.) In preparation for the annual candy-fest, I received a bulletin last weekend from Global Exchange, a Fair Trade organization, announcing a month-long program about choosing Fair Trade goodies for Halloween. This is an idea that I like in theory but have some problems with in practice, because the Fair Trade treats this site is promoting are Equal Exchange chocolate minis, which cost $35 for a box of 150 (the smallest size they offer). Now consider that last year, I paid just $4 (on sale) for two bags of mini Snickers bars from M&M Mars. This company is not 100% Fair Trade, but it got more than 20 percent of its cocoa last year from certified sustainable sources, making it the largest buyer of sustainably sourced cocoa in the world and putting the company ahead of schedule to reach its goal of 100 percent sustainability by 2020. I suppose you might argue that, for a product that's 100 percent sustainable instead of 20 percent sustainable, I ought to be willing to pay 5 times as much—but that would still be only $20, not $35 plus shipping. And sustainable treats from other companies, like Endangered Species chocolate, Divine, and Dagoba, are equally expensive or more so.

Now this week, Green America has stepped up to propose other alternatives. The bi-monthly Green American, which arrived in my mailbox on Friday, has an article on ways to "Green Your Halloween," starting with ditching candy in favor or "healthier treats and non-food 'treasures'" that are "recycled, natural, or sustainably sourced." It profiles Corey Colwell-Lipson, the founder of Green Halloween, who says that she founded her group because of concern about how candy harms children's health. The article cites the statistic that "One out of every three children is overweight, and the same number is expected to develop diabetes in their lifetime" as a result of "poor eating habits." The article doesn't attempt to explain exactly how a once-a-year candy splurge on Halloween qualifies as a "habit" that is supposedly responsible for child obesity and rising diabetes rates, but it does claim that when kids attending Green Halloween events see the alternatives to candy the group offers, "from polished stones and seashells to temporary tattoos and friendship bracelets," they invariably plump for these in place of candy. "[T]housands and thousands of kids came by," Colwell-Lipson claims, "and not one single child of any age, toddler to teen, said that they would rather have candy when they saw the alternatives. Not one."

Somehow, I can't help being just a bit skeptical about that claim. I realize it's been about 25 years since I last went trick-or-treating, but casting my memory back, it seems to me that if one of my neighbors had offered me a polished rock in place of a lollipop, I'd be pretty cheesed off. In fact, there were always a few killjoys who gave out things like colorful pencils instead of treats, and while my classmates and I generally refrained from TP'ing their houses, we certainly didn't respond with wild enthusiasm. Sure, I might have gladly forgone the candy in favor of something really cool, like a book or a little toy, but the problem with this is that even really cheap toys, such as you might find at the dollar store, are going to run about a buck apiece, while mini Snickers bars cost as little as eight cents apiece. And the same problems apply to pretty much all the items on the list of alternative treats proposed on the Green Halloween website. Either they're way more expensive than traditional candy (e.g., recycled glass tiles) or they're just, not to put too fine a point on it, lame (e.g, acorns, no matter how much they insist that "kids love items from nature"). A few of their suggestions (like toothpaste and miniature boxes of organic raisins) manage to fall into both categories.

So are there any realistic options for Halloween treats that are healthier and/or more sustainable, yet won't break the bank? In the past, it might have been possible to distribute homemade goodies, like popcorn balls or pumpkin seeds, but nowadays paranoid parents would snatch those away and dump them straight into the trash for fear of poisoning (even though there's no evidence that this has ever actually happened, even once). Even the CDC explicitly warns kids to "eat only factory-wrapped treats." So any homemade edibles are clearly out of the question. And any "factory-wrapped" edibles, such as the ones suggested on this site, are almost certain to cost more than mini candy bars. (Most of them have more calories, too, so it's questionable how much they'll actually help to reduce childhood obesity.)

The list of non-food treats on the same site includes some that are more reasonably priced, but most of them decidedly fail the coolness test. Of all the items on the list, these are the only ones that look both comparable to candy in price and likely to pass muster with kids of trick-or-treating age (which, in our area, can be anywhere from 3 to 16):

  • Glow sticks. A flier we recently got in the mail advertised 5-packs of glow necklaces for $1—about twice as costly as a mini Snickers, but not so expensive as to be completely unreasonable.
  • Temporary tattoos. (Stickers would also fall within the cost limits but are likely to be rejected as lame by kids over 10.)
  • Coins. A quarter is likely to be more enthusiastically received than a Tootsie Pop—but that's because it's worth a lot more. A dime probably won't generate much excitement. So once again, this option means shelling out more per trick-or-treater.
  • Used books. This one could be really cool in theory—I would have been a lot more excited as a kid to get a book while out trick-or-treating than a candy bar—but I recognize that not all kids would be equally enthused. Also, to make it work, you'd have to have a wide selection of books so that you could dole out age-appropriate selections to a wide range of kids. And to make it cost-effective, you'd have to be able to pick up a whole lot of books really cheaply—and have a way to get rid of whatever was left over come November 1.
Now, as it happens, I actually do have in my possession a fairly large collection, not of books, but of old Cricket magazines—accumulated during my childhood and only recently cleared out of my parents' house. My original plan was to give them to nieces and nephews for Christmas. But I've started wondering: would it actually be feasible to give these out to trick-or-treaters? Back when I was subscribing to Cricket, before it was split into two separate magazines for the under-9 and over-9 sets, the material was aimed at kids anywhere from age 5 to age 12, which covers most of the range of trick-or-treating age. The question is, would kids actually appreciate getting these? Would they, as Colwell-Lipson suggests, actually prefer them to candy? Or will they, instead, mentally classify me as I did the prissy neighbor who handed out pencils in lieu of goodies?

I'm kind of tempted to put this question to a practical test. I'd greet trick-or-treaters at the door on the 31st with two containers—a bowl filled with my usual mini Snickers treats, and a box of Cricket magazines—and offer them the choice: "Which would you like? Candy, or a magazine full of stories for kids?" Then I'd keep notes on how many kids opted for each choice, and based on the results, I'd have some idea whether to continue seeking out creative ideas for future Halloweens—or just stick with the Snickers bars, which I know won't get any complaints.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Edible landscaping, stage 1

Well, we have officially thrown our caps over the wall as regards this edible landscaping project. Yesterday, we drove all the way out to Rumson to buy a small electric chipper/shredder from a guy on Craigslist. (He was originally asking $35 for it, but he graciously dropped his price to $30 when the machine proved a little finicky upon testing.) The purpose of this purchase is to ecofrugally convert waste—leaves and brush—into useful mulch for the garden and flowerbeds. But in order to get our money's worth out of it, we knew we'd have to generate a large volume of leaves and brush in the near future. In other words, by making this purchase, we pretty much committed ourselves to embarking on stage one of our edible landscaping project: taking down the massive forsythia hedge in our back yard to make room for some bush cherries.

So today, we spent a big chunk of the afternoon outside with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction, hacking away at the forsythia monster. I didn't remember to get a picture of it before we started cutting it down, but this picture shows what was left of it after we'd removed the first few bushes—so just visualize the same thing, only extending about 20 feet, and you'll have an idea of the scope of this project. I went after the low-hanging branches with the clippers, clearing them away to give Brian a clear shot at the main trunks, which he sawed off with our garden handsaw. (This tool, a gift from my brother-in-law, is wickedly sharp and folds up for storage—rather like this one, although it's not exactly the same model. It's an incredibly useful tool, but it has to be handled with extreme caution. I don't doubt it could saw off an arm if it really had to.) Within an hour or so, we'd reduced the whole mass to stumps, which Brian is working on rooting out with our heavy-duty spade—another gift from the same brother-in law. (It's known as the King of Spades, and well worthy of the title. This thing cuts through anything. It's also the only tool I've tried that really works for chipping thick ice off the sidewalk in winter.)

So now we're left with a huge pile of brush, which we're leaving to dry for a bit before we attempt to put it through our new chipper. We figure it'll take a couple hours more just to break it all up into bite-sized chunks and feed it through, but it should still be less work than attempting to bundle it all up (in bunches no more than 4 feet in length and 18 inches in diameter, as required by our local Department of Public Works) for curbside collection. Sadly, the stubby little stumps with their little tendrils of roots hanging off them are both too short to be bundled and too tough to go in our light-duty chipper, so they'll most likely end up going out with the regular trash. It seems like a terrible waste of organic material, but unfortunately, I can't think of any way to put them to better use (unless perhaps we can offer them to a friend with a fireplace as firewood with its own built-in kindling).

Now our biggest problem is actually getting our hands on the bush cherries we want to go in the empty space we've managed to clear. While the term "bush cherry" can be applied to a variety of different species, including Hansen's bush cherry (Prunus besseyi) and Nanking bush cherry (Prunus tomentosa), the kind we want is Meader bush cherries, a cross between Prunus jacquemonti and Prunus japonica. These four-foot bushes are specifically recommended in one of my favorite gardening books, The Weekend Garden Guide by Susan A. Roth, which is all about how to create a beautiful garden that you won't have to spend so much time maintaining that you never get to enjoy it. Roth loves these bushes because they produce fruit "almost indistinguishable in flavor from the beloved pie cherry," yet they are incredibly easy to care for: drought-tolerant, easy to prune, resistant to powdery mildew and Japanese beetles, and short enough to be covered with bird netting (although Roth notes that it probably isn't necessary, since these trees produce fruit in the autumn, and birds tend to ignore red berries that late in the year). So this really sounds like the ideal fruit plant for inexperienced (and/or lazy) gardeners.

The problem is that despite its myriad advantages, this variety doesn't actually seem to be all that popular, and most nurseries don't carry it. We planned to order them from St. Lawrence Nurseries, but the snag is that you can't actually order them directly through their website; you have to e-mail them to request a copy of their catalogue and then order from that. Unfortunately, they caution that "During the months of May through October, we are outdoors doing fieldwork or chores for most of the daylight hours" and "may sometimes get behind on emails," although they do promise to "get back to you eventually." Apparently "eventually" takes at least a week to arrive, because I e-mailed them once last Monday and a second time on Thursday and I have yet to hear back from them. I'm trying not to fret, but I can't help wondering what to do if October rolls around and they still haven't gotten back to us. Having taken the plunge and torn out the forsythias, I really want to get our new plants in before winter comes. So how long do I wait before trying to find another source for these cherries? And for that matter, where can I find another source? The only other websites I've found that theoretically list them for sale don't actually have a link to purchase them; Edible Landscaping says to "contact our office to see about availability," and Rolling River Nursery says to "Enter your e-mail to be notified when this product becomes available again." Why on earth is this incredibly useful, easy-care plant so hard to find?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Joining the permaculture club

Last weekend, Brian and I took an unusual (for us) step: we actually consulted a professional for help with a home project. Well, a yard project, to be exact. As I mentioned in this post last year, our yard—both front and back—is a real mess, and fixing it up is a challenge because of our really, really heavy clay soil. In the five years we've owned the place, we've made a few small improvements, but they haven't always been successful. The asparagus we planted on the south side of the house is doing okay, though it hasn't produced as much as we'd hoped—but the rhubarb I foolishly planted on the north side, where it's mostly in shade, has mostly remained scrawny and insect-riddled. The day lilies we planted along the wall in our front yard are thriving—but the little cherry tree we planted on our fourth anniversary first developed a fungus on its leaves and then perished of canker. The creeping phlox we planted to prevent erosion on the slope in front of our front hedge has spread out nicely—but the shrubs themselves gradually started dying, due most likely to overcrowding, and eventually we just removed the lot.
So fixing up our yard ourselves has been kind of a hit-and-miss proposition. That's why I was intrigued to read this post on Young House Love, one of my favorite home blogs, about the couple's decision to bring in a landscaper for a one-hour consultation. Like us, these two bloggers generally dislike paying professionals for jobs they could do on their own—but they also, as Sherry admits in the post, have "black thumbs" and little knowledge about plants. Also, they were able to take advantage of a deal on Living Social that reduced the cost of the consultation from $125 to $60. After reading their enthusiastic post about all they learned in just one hour with a landscaper, I started wondering whether it might be worth it for us to do the same.

My ultimate goal for our yard is to have a low-maintenance permaculture landscape that mimics a natural ecosystem, sustaining itself with little need for extra materials (such as fertilizer) and labor (such as weeding) from outside. I wanted to get rid of the things that required a lot of effort to maintain and produced no real benefits in return (such as lawn and non-flowering hedges) and replace them, as much as possible, with plants that would provide us with flowers, veggies, and fruit without a lot of fuss. So I figured that if we were going to call in an expert from outside, it should be one who specializes in this kind of landscaping. After a bit of searching around, I located one in Morristown and e-mailed to ask what she charges for an initial consultation. The answer: $150, enough to make us hesitate a bit as our usual tightwad instincts kicked in: "Do we really want to pay over $100 just to have someone look at our yard? Is she going to tell us anything we don't already know (or have the ability to find out on the Internet for free)?" But eventually we realized that (1) I'd already devoted many, many hours to research (both in books and online) on suitable plantings for our site without finding any answers I felt totally confident about, and (2) with our present hit-and-miss approach, we were wasting time, money and effort on plantings that weren't necessarily good choices. If a professional could give us sound advice on what to plant, she would probably save us at least $150 that we might otherwise spend on plants doomed to fail in this setting, not to mention many dollars' worth of unnecessary work and frustration. So we bit the bullet and made an appointment.

When the landscaper first arrived, her initial advice had me worried that maybe we weren't going to hear anything useful after all. We explained that we'd been thinking about planting a couple of fruit trees in the front yard, but that our first planting (a cherry tree) hadn't done well, so we were looking for something that could thrive in our heavy soil. Her response was, "Well, I always start with the soil first, and amend that to make it a better environment for planting." She advised us to till up the entire front yard, break up the clots of clay, and then select the best areas for planting and add organic matter in a three-foot circle around each spot. At this, my heart sank into my shoes, because the whole reason I'd hired this person was to help me choose plants that would work with my site, and here she was instead telling me to change the site to fit the plants. This seemed to me the complete opposite of ecofrugality—throwing everything out and starting over rather than putting what we already had to good use. 

As we moved about the yard, however, she did begin to offer more useful suggestions. She confirmed that, as I'd already found from my online research, the easiest fruit trees to grow in our area are pears, apples, and plums, and she also suggested figs (which we don't care for) and pawpaws, a native tree with a mango-like fruit that's nearly impossible to find in stores because it's so delicate that it's basically impossible to ship. However, neither of us has ever tasted pawpaw, and we'd be reluctant to plant a fruit tree without knowing whether we actually like the fruit. (My inclination is to stick with semidwarf plums, which, according to more than one of my references, actually prefer a stiff clay soil.) She also suggested that taking down the side hedge, as we've already done with the front one, would most likely improve air circulation and help the trees grow and pollinate better. She said we could use dollar-store pinwheels to test the wind direction and strength before deciding.

Some of her other helpful ideas:
  • Move the rhubarb out of the shade in the north side of the house, where it will never thrive, and instead plant some kind of brambleberries, which are less vulnerable to birds than blueberries. She suggested golden raspberries, which fruit twice, spring and fall (although another source I consulted, The Weekend Gardener, says you can prune them in such a way as to get a single, heavy crop in the fall, which is less work).
  • Get rid of our overgrown foundation shrubs and plant a "pollinator garden" of native perennials. In a follow-up e-mail, she explained that her favorites "to attract pollinators and the good insects that eat the pests" include Joe-Pye Weed, New York ironweed, goldenrod, New England Aster, boneset, mountain mint, bee balm and catmint. Unfortunately, all of these go dormant (brown and ugly) in the winter, so I'm afraid this combination could look pretty depressing from November through March. Brian suggested we just try the plants in a small patch and see how they look, but I'm a little hesitant for fear we'll never get them out of there once planted.
  • Use the comfrey plant that a friend gave us as a compost accelerator to brew "comfrey tea," which makes a nice garden fertilizer. (Comfrey has deep roots that pull nutrients from way down deep in the soil, which then make their way into the leaves and can be transferred to other plants.)
  • Along the back fence, plant some "hardy kiwis," a vine-like plant that can grow in any soil and produces grape-sized, smooth-skinned fruit that can be eaten whole. We'd never even heard of this plant, so that's an idea we definitely wouldn't have come up with on our own.
  • Interplant flowers and herbs with the veggies in our garden to ward off pests. When I said some gardeners found marigolds, commonly recommended for this purpose, to be useless, she said that most commercial varieties were too inbred and I should get a good organic seed and start it indoors. (This led us to a question about why our seedlings always tended to be so scrawny, when we'd done everything the books said to do—using a special seed-starting mix and giving them plenty of light with our homemade light tray. She advised us to continue using the sterile potting mix to start with, but then transfer the tiny seedlings to larger pots full of real soil that contains the nutrients the plants need to get bigger.)
  • Whenever we get around to putting a patio in the back yard (with those pavers we got more than two years back), add a pergola or lean-to along one side of it that can be covered with plastic to make a miniature greenhouse for starting cold-hardy vegetables or hardening off the more tender ones.
  • Cover our long-neglected garden paths with a layer of brown kraft paper (which makes a better weed barrier than newspaper) topped with a few inches of wood chips. We were thrilled with this idea, since we have tons of kraft paper left over from our paper floor project and would love to put it to good use. When I expressed concern over the cost of the wood chips (which have to be replaced every year), she suggested contacting a local tree company, which will often deliver them right to your driveway for little or no cost. Oh. Duh.
  • Finally, while she approved my idea of terracing the slope in the backyard to put in a strawberry bed, she thought I'd be wasting my time putting in Alpine strawberries, which she considered too small and hard to harvest. When I explained that I thought these were easier to care for since they don't require selective thinning to keep the beds from getting overcrowded, she said she doesn't bother doing that with her regular strawberries either; she just cuts the whole lot back in July (or whenever it finishes fruiting). So that, too, was useful advice that we hadn't seen anywhere else and that probably will save us a lot of needless work whenever we get around to planting the strawberries. (She mentioned that, as an interim measure, we might try putting some flowers in on that slope so that we wouldn't have to mow it in the meantime.)
So was her visit worth the $150 we paid for it? Well, I'd say it's too soon to tell. She definitely gave us some helpful ideas that we probably wouldn't have come up with on our own, but it remains to be seen how well they will work out in real life. One thing her visit definitely did, however, was to reawaken our interest (Brian's especially) in doing things to the house and yard. For the rest of the day after she left, he puttered around the yard making measurements and drawing sketches on a clipboard, eagerly planning out what we might eventually build in the back yard. We also now have a lengthy to-do list for the more immediate future, including getting some pinwheels to check our wind flow, tearing out our forsythia hedge in the back yard (a project for which Brian is contemplating investing in a small electric chipper/shredder to dispose of the plant corpses), ordering some bush cherries to take its place, putting down some paper on those garden paths, and ordering a load of wood chips. So we should have more than enough to keep us busy until winter—and plenty of planning to occupy us until spring. Now I'm just hoping that, with the impetus from this consultation (and the knowledge that we've invested $150 already and wouldn't want it to be wasted), we'll manage to get up the gumption to actually do all these things, rather than just talking about them.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Non-kitchen compost, part 2

So, for all those who have been waiting on tenterhooks to hear how my idea for a compost pail in the bathroom worked out, here is the result. We just washed out an empty plastic ice cream carton and gave it one coat of spray primer and one coat of silver spray paint, and it fits neatly on a corner of the vanity without looking too out of place. I used it this morning to deposit the contents of the dustpan, and it is indeed much more convenient than taking it directly out to the compost bin. And since it's a good-sized container (1.75 quarts) that only needs to hold small deposits, and since nothing going into it is likely to smell like the contents of a kitchen compost pail can, it shouldn't need to be emptied that often.

By the way, this may be the last picture to appear on the blog taken with our old camera. As you might recall from my post on replacing my husband's bike, we've been debating for several months now over whether to replace this, since it technically still worked—it just ran down the batteries in a matter of minutes. Brian was the one who finally got fed up with it, so we cashed in some credit-card reward points to buy a new one on It arrived two days ago, and it seems to work—but unfortunately, the listing for the camera didn't mention that the memory card was not included. So we had to order that separately and we have to wait until it arrives before we can actually play with our new toy. Bah.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Yard sale haul

We spent several hours yesterday and today treasure hunting at the town-wide yard sales. Because there are so many sales spread all across the town, we took a systematic approach to try and hit as many of them as reasonably possible. First we took the list and the paper map that the yard sale organizers (a local realtor) provided and marked them up to find the areas with the highest concentration of sales. Then we'd drive to those areas (so as to have the car handy if we picked up anything large), park somewhere near a likely-looking sale, and start roaming up and down the streets, checking out each sale we passed in turn. At first, it looked like we were going to have poor hunting, because Saturday morning kept threatening to rain, and so many of the scheduled sales hadn't materialized (and some of those who had set up bright and early were hastily trying to bring things back in or cover up all their goods with tarps). But eventually the weather cleared up, though it was still so humid that we found ourselves wearing out long before we'd exhausted the possible sales. Today was much nicer—clear and not too warm—and we were able to check out all the areas with Sunday-only sales.

So how did we do? As you can see in the picture at right, we brought home a pretty good haul. Our best find was the kneeler chair, which we picked up for 10 bucks at the Reformed Church rummage sale. (We also got a back pillow there that can be used in a normal chair--that's the black square at the back of the pile.) This will allow Brian to sit in good spinal alignment at both work and home. But we also found some other great stuff at good prices, including:
  • a bicycle pump that will work with Brian's new bike
  • five board games—some to play at home by ourselves, some that can be played with a group
  • four books, including an amusing little hardcover called Uppity Women of Medieval Times and a selection of short stories called English Country House Murders, which should be good for reading aloud in the car
  • a set of computer speakers for a friend who needs some
  • a nice pair of silver-and-paua-shell earrings for me
  • various gift items, including some clothes and accessories for our nieces, some blocks for one of our nephews, and one other item that isn't in the picture because a certain reader of this blog is not allowed to see it yet
Altogether, we spent $32—pretty good considering that the chair alone would cost over $70 new and the various board games sell for anywhere from $22 to $75 at Three of the four books were actually free; we came across a yard where there was just a tarp spread out, covered with books, and a sign saying, "FREE." People were stopping and saying things like, "Are these really all free?" and "Well, I can't say no to free!" But Brian said the chair alone was enough of a find to make him consider our weekend of yard-saling a success.

One additional note: those who read my last post will note that our yard sale haul did not include a suitable container to use for compost in the upstairs bath. However, the sales did provide us with an idea for such a container. At one sale, there was a huge box full of all kinds of Tupperware and similar containers, including several empty Blue Bunny ice cream cartons. Unlike most "half-gallon" cartons (which these days typically hold only 56 ounces), these are made of plastic rather than plastic-lined or wax-lined cardboard. It occurred to me that one of these, spray-painted to blend in with the bathroom decor, would make a perfectly reasonable compost pail. And since we happened to have a nearly empty carton of Blue Bunny in our own freezer, all it would cost is the time needed to paint it. (We have black and silver spray paint already; we could also spray on a coat of primer and then brush over that one of the colors we used to paint the vanity several years back.) So I will fill you in on that project in future posts.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Non-kitchen compost

Ever since I first started delving into the topic of waste reduction about a month ago, I've been puzzling over the fact that Brian and I don't seem to have many options for reducing our household waste beyond the point we're at now. This morning, for instance, as I was sweeping up the spilled cat litter in the bathroom (the rest of the house gets swept once a week, but the bathroom has to be done daily to remain tolerable), I grumbled to myself once again over the fact that I really ought to dump out the sweepings in the compost bin, but since I'd already undressed for my shower, I'd have to re-dress to do it. "What I really need," I thought, "is a separate trash can in here for the compostable stuff." Of course, I realized, that idea wasn't really practical, because there's barely room in our tiny bathroom for the one small wastebasket we have now. But then a thought occurred to me: why not a countertop compost bucket?

Usually, bins like these are kept in the kitchen, since that's the room that produces most biodegradable waste. In our house, though, we don't have one, because the compost bin is right outside the kitchen door, so vegetable scraps can simply be tossed in a bowl and dumped after the meal. Good thing, too, since counter space in our kitchen is scarce enough as it is. But in our case, most of the waste generated in the bathroom is also compostable material, such as:
  • the tangles of hair we scrupulously scoop out of the drain after showering
  • swept-up cat hair and wheat-based litter
  • scraps of toilet paper used for wiping up dust, sweeping up hair after shaving, applying medicine, and so on
  • cotton swabs (the kind with cardboard rather than plastic centers)
So why shouldn't we have a little compost bin in the bathroom to hold this stuff? Although the room itself is small, the vanity is a good size, and we aren't really keeping anything on it now. And that would free up the small wastebasket for such non-recyclable items as dental floss, Band-Aids, medicine bottle tops (the bottles themselves are usually recyclable) and blister packs, and empty deodorant containers. And since all of these items either take up very little space or get discarded very seldom, we'd hardly ever have to empty that bathroom wastebasket anymore.

The more I think about this cockamamie idea, the more I think it might actually be practical. Maybe not worth paying 30 bucks for a fancy compost pail like this, but definitely worth keeping an eye out at our upcoming town-wide yard sale for a container that might be suitable.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Stupid squirrels

Our eggplant crop has fallen victim to a most unexpected predator. In fact, predator isn't even the right word; vandal would be closer to the mark. We'd been warned about the possible depredations of flea beetles, which chew holes through the leaves and can eventually kill the plant, but no—our plants are green and healthy, and they produced flowers right on schedule and, eventually, tiny little fruits (see picture for scale). And then, before they could grow to a size suitable for eating, the fruits would suddenly disappear. They clearly hadn't been eaten; there were no teeth marks or anything in the plant to show where the "eggs" had been. They'd just been—removed. By something capable of grasping the fruit and pulling it right off. And that left only one plausible culprit: squirrels.

Unlike groundhogs, which we think we've finally managed to exclude from the garden with a complicated fence, squirrels can't really be kept out of the garden unless you're willing to enclose the entire area in a three-dimensional cage with gaps too narrow for them to squeeze through. In the process, you'd block out a fair amount of light and also keep out most birds, which are good for the garden, because they eat harmful bugs. So we figured we'd just live and let live with squirrels, especially since they probably wouldn't be particularly interested in any of our crops. And the thing is, there's no evidence that they actually are interested in the eggplants—that is, in eating them. The one shown in the picture, in fact, was pulled off the plant and simply abandoned, presumably by a disappointed squirrel that had just that moment figured out what it had in its hands wasn't a nut. But the stupid little furballs apparently aren't smart enough to figure out that they don't really want eggplants before pulling them off the plants.

Since keeping the squirrels out isn't an option, we've had to progress to chemical warfare. Following my dad's recommendation, we brewed up a batch of pepper spray by tossing half a jalapeno pepper in the blender with some water and a bit of dish soap (to get the chili oil to mix with the water) and pouring it into an empty spray bottle. Of course, at present there are no eggplants left to protect, but there are still blossoms, so we might eventually get some more if we can manage to keep the stupid squirrels off the plants. We're hoping that spraying the plants regularly (after every rainfall) will make them unappealing enough to the squirrels that they'll eventually learn to avoid them.

Divide and conquer

Just a quick little post to show you Brian's latest little project: a divider insert for my socks-and-underwear drawer. My dresser has one large top drawer instead of two small ones, and I'd been frustrated for a while with the difficulty of keeping everything organized in there. The bras wouldn't sit neatly lined up, but would go flopping over into the socks; the individual pairs of underpants I'd tried to line up in a neat row were likely to slip under the stack and disappear. I'd seen drawer inserts designed to address this problem, such as these from the Container Store, but $10 apiece seemed too much to spend, and my own jury-rigged solutions (shoebox lids and the like) didn't use the drawer space very efficiently.

Eventually, I got frustrated enough to ask Brian if he'd custom-make an insert to fit the drawer. He originally considered making a divided frame to fit inside the drawer, similar to this one that he made for our silverware drawer in the kitchen, but he concluded that, since the insert would have to be smaller than the drawer itself, it would reduce the available space too much. So instead, he cut a base of 1/4-inch plywood to the size of the drawer bottom, made the dividers themselves from lengths of a 1/2-inch board (neatly rounded on the top with a router so they wouldn't tear my unmentionables), and affixed them with glue and screws. (The decision to use more secure screws rather than teeny-weeny nails forced him into using the thicker wood for the dividers, even though they eat up a bit more of the drawer space than skinny 1/4-inch boards would.)

Unfortunately, this little project wasn't as cheap as I originally expected. As regular readers will know, we do a fair number of projects around the house using scrap wood and other materials we have on hand. Last week, however, Brian discovered the drawback of this approach; eventually, you run out of scrap wood, and you actually have to go buy some. So we had to shell out about 10 bucks at the Home Depot for the materials to make the drawer inserts. However, we now have some leftovers again, which will surely come in handy for future projects.