Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Rule of 1.6

Today, I came across an article in the Huffington Post called "Why You Shouldn't Buy Organic." The author, an agricultural economist from Oklahoma State, attacks organic food on the following grounds:
  1. It's "much more expensive."
  2. Organic farmers sometimes use "natural" pesticides that are "just as toxic and carcinogenic" as synthetic ones.
  3. Pesticides in foods don't really hurt you anyway.
  4. It's healthier to spend the same amount of money on a larger amount of conventional produce.
  5. Organic food doesn't taste any better.
  6. And it's not more nutritious.
  7. Organic farming is "not necessarily more sustainable," because crop yields are lower (so it takes more land to grow the same amount of food).
  8. Organic food isn't lower in calories.
Now, some these arguments just seem to me like straw men. (I mean, does anyone really think organic food is lower in calories simply by virtue of being organic?) Others seem to contradict each other: if synthetic pesticides are as harmless as the author claims, then why is it a problem for organic farmers to use natural pesticides that are "just as toxic"?

But to me, the real problem with the arguments on this list is that most of them—like most of the articles I see arguing either for or against eating organic—seem to miss the point. To me, pointing out that organic food is no tastier or healthier than conventional is a bit like saying that it's throwing away money to give to charity. After all, if you give money to, say, an organization that helps the homeless, yet you're not homeless yourself and it's highly unlikely you ever will be, then there's virtually no chance that you'll ever recoup your investment, right? Um, well, right, but so what? I don't give to charity because I expect to benefit from it personally (in any tangible way, that is)—and that's not why I eat organic, either. I'm not worried about how much pesticide might end up in my food; I'm worried about how much pesticide might end up in the soil, and the water, and the bodies of the birds that eat the pests, and the bodies of the workers who pick the crops. I don't buy free-range meats and eggs because I think they're going to reduce my chances of getting heart disease; I buy them because I'm not willing to be a party to the way animals are treated on factory farms. (I'm not the first to be struck by this, by the way; articles from The Atlantic and the Christian Science Monitor make essentially the same points.)

However, there is one argument on the list that carries some weight with me, and that's the first one. While I do believe firmly in the benefits of organic farming, there's a limit to how much I'm willing to pay for them. So one thing I do is prioritize my organic purchases—not on the basis of how much pesticide residue the foods contain, as the Environmental Working Group recommends with its "dirty dozen" list, but on the basis of how much damage they cause to the environment when grown conventionally. Thus, there are some foods that I will only buy organic, such as coffee, sugar, and bananas. The price markup on these, as I've noted before, is pretty high, but that's okay, because I can keep my cost down by cutting back on how much I use. Drinking less coffee or eating less sugar certainly won't do me any harm.

For other products, I follow a simple rule of thumb. I call it the Rule of 1.6. Years ago (in fact, probably decades ago now), I read that organic food cost, on average, 60 percent more than conventional food. But since this was an average, some organic foods cost way more than that—up to 4 times as much as their conventional equivalents—while for others, the price difference was almost nil. So I decided then and there that I would be willing to pay up to 60 percent more for organic foods, and that was my limit. Any more than that, and I wouldn't be getting my money's worth. Organic apples at $1.99 a pound, as opposed to $1.29 a pound, yes; organic breakfast cereal at 50 cents an ounce, as opposed to 20 cents, no. 

This rule is, of course, a bit arbitrary, but in general, it's worked out pretty well for me. It's helped steer me toward whole foods, which have a lower cost differential, and away from highly processed foodstuffs—which is just what folks like Michael Pollan say we should all aim to do anyway. Of course my original benchmark of 60 percent may no longer be an accurate average of the cost difference (if it ever was); the most recent figure I was able to find comes from a 10-year-old USDA study, which puts the organic price markup at anywhere from 10 percent to 100 percent, which is a pretty broad range. Still, 60 percent is close enough to the midpoint that I think it still works as a reasonable guideline. Lowering my cutoff to 50 percent would make the math a bit easier, but I'm willing to do a little more work to give the organic farmers as good a chance as possible.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What I did for Earth Day

You know, given that the date for Earth Day was originally selected mostly on the basis of when the weather would be warm enough for outdoor activities, Earth Day 2013 was awfully chilly. When I headed out for my afternoon walk, I nearly went back for my winter coat (but I compromised by just getting a warmer scarf). I did not feel at all moved to spend half an hour relaxing in the park and enjoying nature.

Moreover, since it was a Monday, all the really big Earth Day events had already taken place over the weekend (except for a scattered few that are taking place this coming weekend). But we did, nonetheless, do a few small things appropriate to the occasion:
  • Brian rode his bike to work, braving the 30-mph winds—though on the way home he found himself wishing he hadn't, as he had to pedal furiously and downshift and be prepared to use the brake to avoid being pushed backward. On the plus side, the huge hill he has to climb every afternoon felt like nothing by comparison.
  • I picked up a few scraps of litter during my walk and deposited them in the nearest bin.
  • I used my reusable IKEA folding bag on a trip to the grocery store (though that's so automatic for me now that it's really hardly worthy of mention).
  • We had local produce for dinner. Really local: asparagus from our own patch. Instead of "miles to market," we could have measured the distance from farm to table in feet (though we didn't actually bother). Unfortunately, April 22, in addition to being uncertain weather-wise, is also early enough in the asparagus season that we only had four spears, which wasn't enough to make the crab-and-asparagus omelet featured in our supermarket flier. So we had the asparagus as a side dish, eked out by frozen peas.
I also attempted to practice the three R's—reduce, reuse, recycle—by doing a little Freecycling, continuing to work my way through the pile of stuff we recently cleared out of our garden shed (about which more in a future post). Unfortunately, the person who made the request was apparently a total flake. First she asked for just one of the three items I listed, even though the listing clearly said "please take all"; then she said she'd take all three and asked if she could pick them up that day; then she e-mailed again to ask the same question, even though I'd already responded in the affirmative; then she sent a message around 5:15 pm to say she'd be there "in 20 minutes" and still had not showed up by the time we went to bed at 11:15. (This morning I got another request from a different person who wanted to take only one of them. Maybe I need to be more explicit when saying "please take all," like "Please DO NOT REPLY unless you are willing to take all three.")

So that was my Earth Day. Anyone out there in readerland do anything more exciting to celebrate?

Friday, April 19, 2013

DIY tree-watering bucket

If necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, then I think my husband can be said to be the father. Here's his latest creation: the tree-watering bucket.

Our newly planted trees, as I noted when we first got them, are going to be needing a lot of water over the course of their first year in the ground. The planting guide that came with them says to give them 5 to 10 gallons each on a regular basis—at least once a week, and as often as once a day during the hot, dry summer. We do have a hose hookup on the front of the house, but applying 5 gallons to each tree with a hose would be a big pain; you'd have to stand there for about two and a half minutes, holding the hose and looking at your watch, before moving on to the next tree. So Brian came up with this clever solution: he took a five-gallon bucket we had out in the shed, which we'd been using for things like hauling compost from the bin to the garden beds, and drilled two holes near the base. Now when we need to water the trees, we can just prop the bucket up against the side of its mulch mound, stick the hose in the bucket, and go tend to other things while the bucket fills. Once it's full, we can shut off the hose and leave the bucket in place to dispense water directly to the tree roots at a slow, steady rate that doesn't disturb the mulch bed too much. Below, you can see a close-up of it in action.

Of course, the five-gallon bucket probably isn't dispensing exactly five gallons, because the angle at which its perched makes it impossible to fill it up right to the brim, and there's also a little bit of water that's left over in the bottom on the side opposite the holes. But we figure that's more or less balanced out by the amount that leaks out from the bottom while the bucket's being filled from the hose. (And after we're finished watering all three trees, we can take the little bit that's left in the bottom of the bucket and go drizzle it over our flowerbeds, so it doesn't go to waste.)

We're now keeping an eye out for a couple more of these buckets, so that each tree can eventually have its own dedicated watering bucket. That way, we could just put one on each tree mound and fill them all up one after another, instead of having to fill up one bucket and then come back after five minutes to move it to the next tree.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tweaking the schedule

I'm wondering whether I need to rethink these gardeners' holidays that I've been trying to celebrate throughout this year. The problem is that it seems like the most significant dates in a gardeners' calendar don't necessarily coincide with the solstices and equinoxes and points in between; they come whenever they come. The year started off reasonably well, because the first seedlings I started (the parsley) went in on January 29, which was close enough to February 2 for me to dub that the Festival of Seeds. But the first seeds to get planted directly in the ground (the snow peas) went in on March 31, a full 11 days after the spring equinox. And our first harvest of the year came less than two weeks after that. Admittedly, it wasn't much of a harvest—only two spears of asparagus, which we put into an omelet with some mushrooms—but still, the first meal of the season to be made with home-grown food is a pretty momentous event in a gardeners' calendar, and it came smack-dab in between the spring equinox and May Day.

So there are a couple of different ways I could go at this point. One is to scrap the whole notion of tying the gardeners' holidays to the "wheel of the year," and instead just celebrate our gardening milestones whenever they fall: First Planting, First Picking, the Opening of Tomato Season, and so on. But the problem with that is, they aren't really holidays any longer. They're still special occasions, but not the kind that you can plan celebrations around.

The other approach is to keep the schedule of holidays—February 2, March 20, May 1, and on from there—but drop the idea of tying them to specific events in the gardening calendar. After all, when you're keeping a garden, there's always something going on at any given time of year, so instead of trying to stretch and declare March 20 to be Winter Sowing Day, I could just say something like, "As of today, March 20, I have parsley, celery, and leek seedlings; the Sun Gold tomatoes I started last weekend aren't up yet, and the rest of the tomatoes don't go in until this weekend." But the problem with that is that then my "holiday" wouldn't be much of an occasion. Sure, there's stuff going on, but nothing really momentous.

I think the best compromise between the two may be to fudge a bit. I could either tweak the dates to bring them closer to events of significance in the gardening calendar, or tweak the timing of the events to bring them closer to the preselected dates. For instance, I probably could have gotten away with planting my peas on March 20 instead of March 31; my schedule said to do it seven weeks before the last frost date (which I estimated at May 12), but the seed packet actually says "as soon as ground can be worked," and I'm sure the ground was workable that early.

So my tentative plan for the rest of the holidays on the wheel of the year is to tie them to whatever significant event on the gardening calendar falls closest to them—whether it exactly coincides or not. For example, I could declare May 1 to be the Festival of Asparagus—though not the Dawning of the Age of Asparagus, since as I've mentioned, we've harvested our first few spears already. But according to this local produce chart, the asparagus season should be reaching its peak right about then, and the rhubarb season will probably be just starting around the same time. So either of those might work. I guess we'll just wait and see what comes up when under real-world conditions.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Fruit of the month: white pomelo

This month, I decided to shake up my usual "veggie of the month" routine by going for a fruit instead. On our latest trip to the H-Mart, I didn't see any veggies that were new to me and looked appealing, but I did spot a bin full of white pomelos, which I'd never tried before. Brian was familiar with them already, so I ended up getting just one, like so:

Looks just like a grapefruit, doesn't it? But when you slice it open (which Brian recommended as an alternative to peeling it), the difference becomes apparent:

Yeah, I'm glad I didn't try to peel off that thick rind by hand. I just sliced it into quarters and ate them right out of hand (getting a lot of juice on myself in the process).

The flavor was...well, I'm not honestly sure how to describe it. It was rather like a grapefruit, but without that distinctive bitter undertone that grapefruits have, and with a hint of another flavor in the background that didn't seem citrusy to me at all. After a few bites, I identified it as banana, of all things. Brian says that particular flavor comes from amyl acetate, which Wikipedia says is also a component of an apple's flavor—which fits, since the taste of the pomelo was also vaguely reminiscent of apples to me. I must confess that I didn't eat any part of the peel, although the Organic Authority site says it's actually very nice for candying or making into marmalade.

So, would I buy this fruit again? Well, I suppose I might, if I found a good deal on it. But since it's a citrus fruit, it's not grown locally, and if I'm going to buy a fruit shipped all the way from Florida or California, I think I'd prefer to stick with the more familiar citrus varieties, like oranges, clementines, and tangelos (a hybrid of the pomelo with a tangerine, which I like better than either of its parents). I like their flavor better on the whole, and they're definitely a lot easier to manipulate.

Up the garden path, part 3

The experimental solution we tried out last week for the paths in our vegetable garden proves to have a few flaws. For one thing, a couple of days of heavy rain turned the dirt paths to mud paths, which aren't exactly the a nice stable surface for walking on. It also weakened the kraft-paper underlayment to the point that a couple of ambitious weeds were able to poke their way clean through the paper and the dirt above it, which kind of defeats the purpose of putting down the barrier in the first place.

For the time being, we've covered up the mud with a layer of leaves, which we had been using to mulch the garden beds during the winter and raked off the top as we prepared the beds for planting. The path is still a bit squishy underfoot, but at least it's not slippery. But for the long term, it appears that dirt over paper is not an ideal solution for the garden paths. However, paper with something else on top, like wood chips, could still prove a viable solution. Although having a whole truckload of woodchips delivered to our house appears to be impractical, I did recently come across some information I'd dug up last year and then forgotten about a tree service in a nearby town (about 7 miles) that will let you come to their yard "by appointment" and haul your own wood chips for free. (You can also get logs from them, which we don't happen to need, but I'm planning to pass the information on to a friend who has a fireplace.)

So my current thinking is, we pick up some of those big paper lawn and leaf bags, and we haul them to the tree service and fill them with wood chips. Well, actually, when I say "we," I probably mean "I," because they're only open on weekdays while Brian is at work. But in any case, I fill up several bags with wood chips—as many as I can easily stuff into the back of our little Fit—haul them home, and drag them down to the garden. Then, I can just lay the entire bag down in the path, slit it open the top, and either tuck under the top layer of paper or cut it up entirely. No need to mess with cutting kraft paper off the roll first and laying it out; the bag itself will provide a ready-made weed barrier, with the wood chips laid out on top.

Of course, the downside of this is that it wouldn't use up all that leftover kraft paper we have from our paper floor project, and we would have to pay something for the bags. But at 50 cents a bag or whatever, with no additional charge for the wood chips, it's probably the most cost-effective idea we've come up with so far.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Up the garden path, part 2

It's been nearly a year since I posted about my difficulties coming up with a suitable surface for the paths between our raised vegetable garden beds. Well, I can now report that we have come up with at least a possible solution.

One of the by-products of all the planting we did last weekend was about ten gallons of fill dirt—mostly subsoil, with a generous sprinkling of rocks, that got dug up out of the holes where we planted the plum trees and never went back in. Our original plan was to add this extra dirt to our garden beds, as the landscaper we consulted last year had recommended. (Her argument was that if you have boxed raised beds, they should be filled all the way up to the top to improve airflow.) So we cleared all the leaf mulch off of one of the beds and mixed in a couple of buckets of our homemade compost in preparation for planting the snap peas, our first crop of the year to go into the ground. But as Brian stood with a bucketful of dirt poised to dump into the bed, he paused and said, "I just can't do it." The soil in the bed was so much nicer than the stuff we'd be adding to it that he thought it could only make the overall soil quality worse rather than better. So I said, "Well, just dump it out onto the paths, then."  And after we'd done so, it occurred to us that we might as well spread all the rest of the dirt on the paths as well, over top of some brown kraft paper. (This had been another of the landscaper's suggestions, and we happened to have plenty of it left over from our massive floor refinishing project three years ago.)

As you can see in this picture, we had enough dirt to cover just one corner of the existing garden enclosure—about one-sixth of the total path area. The kraft paper we had was nearly twice as wide as the paths, so we unrolled a length of it, folded the excess over, and tucked it underneath before spreading the dirt on top. After we'd picked out the largest of the rocks, it made a reasonably smooth and comfortable surface—certainly much better than the surface we have on the rest of the paths, which is a mixture of weeds and dry leaves. And we hope the brown paper barrier will keep it weed free for the rest of this growing season, at least. So, in theory, there's no good reason why we couldn't use this solution for the rest of the garden paths as well. The only problem is that we've run out of dirt. No doubt we'll generate some more when we dig up the rest of the rhubarb bed to add our new plants (they're due to ship this week), but it won't be enough to cover the entire area.

Now, when the landscaper originally proposed the brown-paper barrier for our garden paths, her suggestion was to top it with a layer of wood chips. She said it was often possible to get these delivered for free from tree removal companies. However, when I tried calling around, the one company I found that would do this warned that they come by the truckload, which he said was "about 25 yards." (Assuming he meant cubic yards, this works out to 675 cubic feet.) At the time, we assumed that this would be way more than we could possibly use, since the entire path area would only take about 50 cubic feet. But now, with all the plantings we have added to the yard, there are a lot more places where we can use mulch. If we were to have a load delivered at the beginning of the spring, we could put

  • 50 cubic feet on the garden paths
  • 4 on the cherry trees
  • 16 on the raspberry patch
  • 22 on the rhubarb bed
  • 8 on the asparagus bed
  • 15 on the cherry trees
  • 2 on the day lilies in the front yard
  • 6 on our foundation plantings

And all of that adds up to...hmm, just 123 cubic feet. That's a lot more than we could easily haul home from the store in 2-foot bags, but it's still less than a quarter of what a tree service could be expected to dump in our driveway. So we may have to look for other options. A quick search of the Craigslist postings for our area did turn up a few posts from homeowners who have wood chips to give away (either left over from a delivery or produced on site from trees felled during Superstorm Sandy), but we'd have to pick them up and haul them ourselves, and our little car can't accommodate much more than 12 cubic feet at a time. So we'd be talking about maybe 10 trips. That might not be so bad if any of them were actually nearby, but the closest one I've found so far is half an hour away. Still, it might be worth keeping an eye on.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A narrow victory over HP

At one point last weekend, it looked like we were going to have to concede defeat to HP in the game of "Us Versus the Man." After successfully refilling the black ink cartridge three weeks ago, we found last Friday that the color ink supply was running low and we could no longer print anything in color (and our attempts to print in black-and-white mode came out looking all wonky). So on Saturday, Brian pulled out the color cartridge and attempted to refill it using the colored ink we'd bought for our old HP printer. Adding colored ink is trickier than adding black ink, because the color cartridge has three separate compartments—cyan, magenta, and yellow—and it's obviously important to get the right color into each compartment if you want your images to print properly. Brian consulted the same website where he found instructions for refilling the black ink cartridge and discovered that there's an additional wrinkle: on the HP 61 color cartridge, sometimes the yellow and magenta chambers are reversed. So the only way to be sure you've got the right compartment is to draw a little ink out of the chamber with the syringe and check its color.

So, being a meticulous person, Brian carefully checked the color of the ink in each chamber before filling them up. In order to access the chambers, he had to peel off the label on the top of the cartridge, which made working with it even trickier, as ink had a tendency to spill out if the cartridge was tipped. He eventually managed to fill all three chambers, although he noted that they didn't take much ink; it didn't seem like they could really be full, but with the ink overflowing through the holes, it was clear that the cartridge wouldna take much morrrrre. While he was at it, he also pulled out the black ink cartridge and pulled off the label to see if he could get it to accommodate any more ink than it had taken on the previous fill-up. He eventually discovered that by injecting the ink slowly, he was able to fit in quite a bit more ink than it had taken to overflow the cartridge last time.

So far, so good. He carefully (since they now had their labels off) reinserted both cartridges and printed out a test page, and it came out looking a bit odd. The blue sample looked normal, but the yellow and red bars looked muddy—as if he'd somehow managed to get the magenta and yellow ink into the wrong cartridges. But surely that couldn't be right; he'd checked the color before filling them. So he printed out a test photo, and all the greens came out looking pink. At this point, he could only conclude, with some bewilderment, that despite all his precautions, he'd somehow managed to get the colors reversed. So he figured we'd have to buy a new color cartridge and start over.

We stopped by a Staples the next day while out on our mulch-buying errand, but it was closed for Easter, so I went online to check prices on HP cartridges and see where we could find the best price on a new one. And in the course of my research, I made an interesting discovery: HP 61 cartridges actually come in three sizes. You can get the standard HP 61 tricolor cartridge, which prints up to 165 pages, for $20. But for just $10 more, you can get the HP 61XL, which prints up to 330 pages. At first blush, this sounds like a great deal: you pay only 50 percent more and get twice as much output. But I couldn't figure out, looking at our printer, how a larger cartridge was supposed to fit into the same space occupied by the standard HP 61 cartridge. It didn't look like there was any extra room. And then it hit me: there's actually no difference in size between these two cartridges; it's just the size of the sponge inside that's different. The standard ink cartridge is actually designed to hold only half as much ink as it's capable of holding, so that you'll be forced to buy new ones twice as often. And then, to add insult to injury, they make a cartridge that actually does hold as much ink as it's capable of holding, charge 50 percent more for it, and act like they're offering you a great bargain.

Well, it was clear that for those who intend to buy a new cartridge every time the old one runs dry, the HP 61XL was the best deal—but for us, there was no point in buying twice as much ink from HP at their grossly inflated prices, even if they were marginally less grossly inflated. Brian did pause to consider the number of times each cartridge could be refilled before the print heads would wear out, requiring a replacement—but then we concluded that this was probably a function of the number of pages printed rather than the size of the cartridge, so for us, it made sense to buy the smallest possible cartridge, the HP 61 Economy. According to Staples, this size would print up to 155 pages and cost $5 less than the standard cartridge—a 25 percent savings with only a 6 percent reduction in capacity—so it was definitely a better value, and the difference in time between refills would be minimal.

Once I'd discovered the existence of the Economy cartridge, it occurred to me to wonder if maybe the cartridges HP had provided with the printer when we bought it were actually this size. That might explain why the color cartridge (and also the black one, on our first refill attempt) seemed to hold so little ink. So I opened up the printer to take a look at the cartridge and see if there was anything on it to indicate what size it was. Except, of course, I forgot that the holes in the top were no longer covered, so I managed to spill ink all over my fingers—and when I tried to pop the cartridge back in, the black cartridge popped out and spilled its ink as well. While I rushed to wash the ink off my hands, Brian started cleaning up the spilled ink—and noticed something interesting. When he'd refilled the color cartridge, some of the spilled ink had apparently gotten onto the printer leads themselves. Could this be the reason why colors were no longer printing accurately?

By the time I got my hands clean, Brian had cleaned off both the cartridges and was carefully covering up the area formerly covered by the label with tape, so it wouldn't spill again. Then he put them back in and printed out the test picture again, and lo and behold, the greens all came out nice and green. So the good news was that we didn't need a new color cartridge after all...and the even better news was that he hadn't completely lost his marbles and managed to put the magenta ink in the yellow container even after checking it.

So, in conclusion, I can now declare Round 1 of "Us Versus the Man" a victory for Amy and Brian. And I can also say we've learned two useful lessons from it. First, when refilling these ink cartridges, clean them carefully and re-cover the label area. And second, a more general lesson: before you run out to replace something, be sure you check it carefully to make sure it's really broken. If I hadn't happened to spill ink all over the place, Brian might never have examined the old cartridges carefully enough to discover what was the problem with them. Good thing for us that the Staples was closed on Easter, eh?

Monday, April 1, 2013

Murphy strikes again

This morning, the weather report was predicting a beautiful, sunny spring day, with highs around 60. A bit windy, perhaps, but still perfect weather for hanging laundry. And since the forecast for the rest of the week was much chillier (highs in the 40s), I hastened to get a load of colored laundry up on the line as early as possible. I got that all hung up and found that it used less than half of my available clothesline space, so I figured I'd just go ahead and throw in a small load of whites, as well, and hang those on the second clothesline. I had to hang the handkerchiefs up by one corner to make it all fit, but I squeezed it in.

So, of course, this afternoon it started to rain. And, of course, it happened while I was out taking my walk, a mile from home, so I couldn't rush out and take down the laundry.

Fortunately, it didn't rain very hard, so by the time I managed to get everything off the line, it was only a bit damp—still drier than it had been when I first hung it up, so my line-drying efforts weren't totally fruitless. But I sure would have saved more energy by hanging up the second load in tomorrow's colder weather, instead of trying to do them both today to take advantage of the nice warm sunshine.

Still more annoying is the fact that the little sprinkle of rain we got was just enough to wet my freshly dried laundry, but not enough to save us from having to water our newly planted trees. Although I can only assume that if I do water them, it will then proceed to rain really hard tomorrow.