Friday, August 30, 2013

A second crop

When I first started gardening, one practice I was keen to adopt was succession planting. The idea is simple enough: when one crop stops producing, you pull out the plants and put new ones in the same place. Logically, this seems like it would significantly increase the amount you can grow in a given space. My first few attempts at it, however, were singularly unimpressive. I tried to plant butternut squash and pumpkins in the space where my snow peas had been—but because the snow peas didn't start producing until June and kept producing until the beginning of August, the squash plants went in late and never actually produced anything. I tried planting cabbages and spinach in August, and they never came up. Eventually, I decided the whole idea was just more trouble than it was worth. I'd just set aside a given number of squares for each crop and plant it at the appropriate time, and if that meant that parts of the garden ended up sitting empty for a while, so be it.

This approach has certainly saved me a lot of trouble, and it's made it much easier to grow certain crops. This year, for instance, we got our butternut squash down nice and early in mid-May, and as a result, we were able to start harvesting them in August (with plenty more still on the vines to see us through the fall). However, when I read an article this week about "5 Things to Buy in September," and it mentioned spinach as a seasonal crop, I found myself developing a hankering for some fall greens. True, I'd had no luck growing spinach in the past, but maybe I'd just been planting it too early. I had all that space in the garden where our spring crop of lettuce used to be; what did I really have to lose by sprinkling some lettuce and spinach seeds in there and seeing if I could grow a second crop for fall?

The lettuce was easy; I still had plenty of seeds left over in the packet of Tom Thumb Baby Bibb lettuce I started this spring (I had some other varieties too, but none I liked nearly as well). However, since I hadn't actually planned on growing any spinach this year after my marked lack of success in the past, I hadn't bought any new spinach seeds. A quick rummage through the seed bin turned up a few unused or half-used packets, but they were all several years old. I had two opened packets of "Bloomsdale Long Standing" spinach, one from 2008 and one from 2009, neither of which had actually given us a crop; there was also one unopened packet of "Harmony" spinach that I didn't actually remember buying. (Most likely I acquired it on Freecycle and then forgot I had it.) "Bloomsdale Long Standing" had only mediocre ratings on the "Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners" site at Cornell, and I certainly hadn't had any luck with it in the past, so I decided to go with the Harmony.

Unfortunately, spinach seeds don't tend to last long in storage; the Extension Office at Oregon State University says you can't expect them to keep much beyond one season. So it was likely my four-year-old seeds would be kaput, or at least would have a significantly lower germination rate than new seeds. But still, since I wasn't going to use the seeds for anything else, and I wasn't going to use the space for anything else, what did I have to lose by trying? Rather than planting just nine individual seeds per square foot, I decided to scatter pretty much the whole packet over a three-square-foot area. That way, even if only one in ten of them actually sprouted, I'd have a reasonable chance of getting enough plants to fill the space.

So my new seeds have been planted, covered over with dirt, and watered. Now there's not much to do except wait (and pop back there every now and then to pull any weeds that try to pop in in that spot). We might not succeed in growing any fall greens, but at least it won't be for lack of trying.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Amazing Vanishing Zucchini

You know how brochures for investment funds always have this little warning, "Past performance is not a guarantee of future results"? Well, the same seems to apply to vegetables. If we grew a good crop of something last year, it doesn't necessarily mean we'll get any at all this year—and conversely, crops that usually peter out by early August will sometimes continue producing clear up to Labor Day weekend and show no signs of stopping. Such is the case with our zucchini plants, which we successfully rescued from squash vine borers a couple of months ago (my little foil collars didn't succeed in keeping the grubs out, but we managed to catch them early and perform some successful surgery to remove them). Normally, by this time of year, our zucchini plants have succumbed to bugs or disease or some other malady, but this year they've just kept producing and producing, leaving us struggling to stay afloat in a sea of zucchini.

So, aside from trying to pick them before they get too big, our main strategy has been to develop lots of variations on the Disappearing Zucchini trick. After the relative success of our Zucchini Waffles earlier this month, we decided to try another variation on Mark Bittman's Vegetable Pancake recipe. This time we used mushrooms as well as zucchini, and since we're still getting loads of Sun Gold tomatoes, we also whipped up a simple salsa to go with this. We figured these sweet little cherry tomatoes would give us the balance between sweet and tart flavors that seemed to provide the best complement to the mild flavor of the cakes. The result was good enough that I decided it was worth sharing with you here on the blog, so here we go. (Note that all measurements for veggies are approximate; if you have more or less to work with, the recipe should be able to adjust to accommodate them.)
For pancakes:
1 egg
1 cup flour
About 2 cups grated zucchini
1 small medium onion, finely chopepd
About 4 ounces mushrooms, finely chopped
3/4 tsp. to 1 tsp. salt
Beat the egg in a large bowl, then stir in all the remaining ingredients. Drop large spoonfuls onto a hot griddle and fry in as little oil as possible. 
For salsa:
About 1 1/2 cups Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. lime juice
1-2 scallions, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, diced
Combine everything in a medium bowl and let sit for at least 30 minutes. You may want to drain off some of the liquid before serving.
If our zucchini plants continue to produce at this rate, I'm sure we'll be developing still more of these Vanishing Zucchini recipes, so watch this space for more.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I'm a lover, not a lister

Now that we have some basic cable service at home, I've been taking advantage of our access to network websites to watch a few HGTV shows I've only seen glimpses of in the past. For instance, this past week, during a lull in my work schedule, I've treated myself to several episodes of "Love It or List It" as a kind of mind candy. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, here's the basic premise: you start with a couple (or, once in a while, a single homeowner) whose house is no longer working to meet their needs. Often it's because their family has grown, but it could also be that the house was a fixer-upper they never got around to fixing, or maybe they now have a family member working at home. Typically, one partner wants to sell the house and move, while the other wants to keep it and fix the problems. Enter the show's stars, Hilary and David: a designer who will try to fix up the house (on the homeowners' budget) so they can keep it, and a realtor who will try to find them a new house that's ideal for their needs. The show follows both experts through various trials and tribulations (invariably, Hilary uncovers some sort of unexpected problems that cut into her budget, while David gets complaints about every house he shows them), but the end is always the same: Hilary shows them a gorgeous remodeled space, David tells them how much more their home is now worth with Hilary's changes, and they must decide whether to keep it or take their increased equity and get out.

So I watched a few episodes of this, and while I generally enjoyed them, I began to notice after a while that only half of the show really interested me. While David is an amusing character and does his best to make a house viewing more entertaining, I'm always impatient to get back to the couple's current house and see how the remodeling is going. The process of fixing up an existing house is just inherently more interesting to me than the process of shopping for a new one.

I think my preference for Hilary's job over David's is due to a basic element of my character: I'm a lover, not a lister. In virtually every case, I would rather find a way to work with what I already have than discard it in favor of something new. And this is true not just of houses, but of practically everything I own. When any of our belongings—from a bicycle to a desk fan—starts to wear out, my first thought is to fix it so I can keep using it, rather than to look for a replacement.

I have several reasons for this attitude. First, I've never been one of those folks who enjoy shopping for its own sake. In fact, for most things, I find it to be a big hassle. Partly, this is because I'm picky. I can spend hours going from one shoe store to another, trying on pair after pair, and come home tired, grumpy, and empty-handed because not one pair fit my highly particular needs. Partly, also, it's because I'm a tightwad, and I don't want to spend money on anything unless I'm absolutely sure it's what I want. If I buy a new bottle of hair conditioner for $6 in hopes that it can make my unruly mop more manageable than my $1 conditioner does, and I find it's no improvement, then I've just wasted $6, plus I'm stuck with a nearly full bottle of conditioner that I can't use and hate to just throw away. So unless I'm really dissatisfied with the $1 conditioner's performance, it's just not worth the risk—not even a $6 risk. And if I'm this cautious about even the smallest of purchases, then you can easily imagine that a big purchase—a car, a computer, an appliance—is a major undertaking involving loads of research, and not something I'm about to enter into lightly.

Moreover, while I don't tend to enjoy shopping, repair and renovation are my idea of fun. I get a real kick out of transforming a room in our house, or the landscape in our yard, or a piece of furniture—turning something that was ugly or non-functional into something new, useful, and beautiful. Even the tiniest of repairs, like darning the sweater my sister got me for Hanukkah, gives me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. And if I can fix something up on a budget, by making use of materials we already have on hand, that just doubles my pleasure: I get to satisfy my creative impulse and my frugal instincts at the same time.

I think, though, that the main reason I prefer repairing over replacing is that I don't believe in waste. I just can't stand the idea of discarding something that's "still good." Yes, I do realize that when you replace something—especially when it's something big like a house—you're not necessarily throwing it away; most likely, you're passing the old one on to someone else for whom it will be a better fit. But it's also true that the bigger the item you're replacing, the more hassle and expense there is in buying a new one. Buying a new house, in particular, is a huge chore; even once you've found a place you like, you still have to run the gauntlet of price negotiations, inspections, loan approval, legal wrangling, and seemingly endless paperwork, all leading up to the major proceeding of packing up everything you own and moving it from one house to another. And every stage of this process comes with a price tag, too, completely independent of the price you're paying for the new house itself. Why would you ever go through that if there was any possible way to work with what you already have?

Moreover, while repairing rather than replacing can save money and reduce waste for almost any purchase, in the case of a really big purchase, there's also an emotional factor to consider. On the show (remember the show? The thing I was writing about way back at the start of this column?), the homeowner who wants to stay in the house often pleads in its favor with arguments such as, "This is the house we raised our children in," or "The kids shouldn't have to leave their school and their friends behind." These points aren't based on cold hard facts—they're not saying that the house their children grew up in is the best fit for those same kids in their teens, or that the school their children go to now is inherently better than the one they'd be switching to—but they're important all the same. People do form strong emotional ties to their homes, and sometimes to other belongings too, like cars or even articles of clothing—and the happiness that comes from living in a place that's full of joyful memories isn't something you can really put a price on.

None of this is meant to say that repairing is always better than replacing. Some problems really are too big to fix, and sometimes a new item offers benefits that you just can't add to the old one (like a new appliance that's twice as efficient, or a new computer that's three times as fast). But for me, the process of repairing—transforming something that doesn't work into something that does—is inherently more interesting than the process of finding something completely new. And that's why, while I do enjoy "Love It or List It," it will never be as dear to my heart as the late lamented "Wasted Spaces."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Dishing the dirt

When we first got our patio installed, the surrounding ground looked like this (right). That ragged slope is formed from several blocks of sod that we dug out of the area where the patio now is, which we stacked up around the edge to build up the ground to the required height. They're stacked about three high closest to the near corner of the patio, then the stack drops off gradually in all directions. This helped make the overall slope of the yard near the patio a bit less precipitous, but it was still rather uneven and tricky to walk on.

As of last weekend, however, it looks like this (left). Basically, we just scooped up dirt from the big pile we had left over from the excavation stage, dumped it over the terraformed areas, spread it out, and stomped on it until we had a relatively smooth slope. With the new dirt layered over the old turf blocks, the slope is now less steep and more even than it was before—but unfortunately, the bare dirt doesn't make a terribly stable surface. Eventually, we'll seed it over with grass (ideally a variety that can compete well with our stubborn lawn weeds), but according to the lady in the garden department at Home Depot, we'll need to wait until fall, because grass doesn't germinate well in hot weather.

So while we wait for planting time, we'll probably have to go through several rounds of building up and tamping down the slope to get it nice and firm. Fortunately, we've still got plenty of dirt left to work with. Unfortunately, there's no way this slope is going to use up all of it, even after multiple rounds of adding a little more each time. I guess we'll end up pushing the rest of it up onto the hill behind it, to hide itself among the weeds and forsythias. By the time we get around to replacing those weeds and forsythias with something else (which will probably be our next big landscaping project), the extra dirt should be fully integrated into the hillside.

Too bad we can't make the remaining concrete chunks disappear into the landscape just as easily.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The final chapter

Well, the Saga of the Rat has come to an end. And yet it's an ending that leaves us with more questions than answers.

Last night, around 5:30, Brian went out to the garden to pick some basil for dinner, and the first thing he noticed was that the cage he'd put up over the rat trap had been overturned. Oh great, he thought, a bird or something managed to tip over the cage. Then he noticed that the trap itself, still sitting where he'd left it, had been sprung—but there was nothing in it. Oh, even more great; did the rat somehow manage to spring the trap and flip over the cage? Or did something else do it? Looking around for the culprit, he glanced along the garden paths and spotted, about two feet away from the cage...a dead rat. Not mangled in any way, but clearly deceased. (Oh, and it was also apparent that the rat I've been referring to in this blog as "he" was actually a she. Brian didn't exactly examine the corpse carefully, but with rats, maleness is a pretty obvious trait.)

So the rat herself is now resting in peace in a corner of the yard (the websites say to dispose of the corpse in the trash, but with a week of August heat between us and our next trash pickup, we decided against that), but the questions remain. What tipped over the cage? How did the rat manage to trip the trap without being caught in it? And what, exactly, was the cause of death?

So far we've thought of two possibilities. In the first scenario, the rat enters the cage and perches on the front of the trap to nibble at the peanut butter. She springs the trap, which goes off—but instead of catching her in it, it throws her forward, hard enough to tip over the cage. The injured rat manages to drag herself some distance before expiring, while the trap falls neatly back into place exactly where it was. The problem with this idea is that when the trap is tripped with nothing in it, it tends to flip over, and that didn't happen in this case. Maybe if I worked out the physics I'd find that it's actually possible for the trap to have transferred all of its tipping-over momentum to the rat, but it seems peculiar.

The other possibility is that the rat sprung the trap but somehow managed to pull back fast enough to avoid being caught. Panicked, she bolts from the enclosure at top speed, not bothering to squeeze through the chicken wire—so as she runs, she pulls the cage over. This causes the rock we'd put on top of it to topple off, striking her right on the head. Suffering from a fatal head wound, she manages to stagger a few steps more before collapsing. Again, it sounds possible, but what are the odds?

We may never solve this mystery, but we have managed, at least for now, to solve our rat problem. The only possible cause for concern is the discovery that this rat was female, which means that she might conceivably have had a litter somewhere. So there's two ways that could turn out badly for us: if the little ratlings weren't big enough to survive on their own, they could die of starvation, leaving us with a bunch of rotting baby rat corpses in a spot that may not be easy to find. On the other hand, if they were big enough to survive on their own, then we may at some point find ourselves trying to deal with multiple rats in the garden instead of just one. Frankly, I'm not sure which scenario is worse. But there's nothing we can do about either one at this point, so I guess all we can do is hope that this rat left no descendants. Or at least, none on our property.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Collateral damage

The Battle of the Rat rages on. Yesterday, after a few days of thinking the little rodent had deserted our yard for greener pastures, we spotted him again just as we were heading out for the evening. So when we got home, Brian once again baited the snap trap and set it out in the garden. And when he went out this morning to check it, he found in it...a bird. (A dead one, fortunately, since a live but horribly injured one would be an even more hideous scenario.)

This was the first time our battle against the rat had claimed an innocent victim, and Brian felt really terrible about it. We'd tried to avoid hurting any harmless critters by putting the trap out only at night and inside the garden boundaries, so that any large or non-nocturnal animals would be unlikely to encounter it. But birds are up with the sun and we're not, especially on Saturdays in summertime, so it became clear that so long as this trap was in a spot where birds could reach it, there was no way to ensure that they wouldn't become collateral damage.

So Brian came up with a new plan: we'd use the rat's own cunning against him. The whole reason he's been a problem for us is that he's small enough, and wily enough, to slip through the chicken-wire fence into our garden, so he built a small chicken-wire cage to enclose the trap. It's similar to the squirrel-blocking cages he built to enclose our eggplants (although if, as we now suspect, it was actually the rat that stole the eggplants last year, rather than a misguided squirrel, then I guess it won't actually keep him out. Fortunately, he doesn't seem to have shown any interest in them so far.) With the trap safely contained inside the cage, the wily rat will still have access to it, but the birds won't. Although we know the rat's small enough to slip through chicken wire (since we've seen him do it), Brian cut a couple of slightly larger holes in the mesh to make sure he has no problem getting in (but not, if all goes well, out).

Another advantage of enclosing the trap in a cage like this is that we can now leave it out during the daytime without fear of harming birds or other wildlife, rather than having to set it out each night and bring it in each morning. We've set it out in the same corner of the garden where it was before; if we left it out in the open there was a slight risk the groundhog or some other larger critter might manage to tip the cage over. Brian weighted it down with a rock to keep the wind from blowing it over, and now we play the waiting game. The modified trap may or may not catch the rat, but at least we can be sure it won't catch anything we don't want caught.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Cable re-revisited

A couple of months ago, we unexpectedly found ourselves with cable TV for the first time. We hadn't intended to buy cable service; what we actually wanted was VOiP phone service to replace our increasingly unreliable Verizon landline, but it turned out that the cheapest way to get it was to sign up for Cablevision's 3-part package deal. Under the terms of this deal, we would get cable, phone, and broadband Internet, all for 85 bucks a month—5 dollars less than it would cost to pay for phone and Internet separately, and actually slightly less than the total amount we were already paying per month for broadband from Cablevision, local phone service from Verizon, and long distance from a little no-name provider called TCI. So it seemed like a good deal all around.

Until we got our first bill.

Now, I knew this bill was going to be a little higher than the flat $85 we'd normally pay, because it would include a $40 charge for transferring over our old phone number. So I was expecting it to come to about $125, or maybe a little higher with taxes. But the actual number was $187.31—more than twice as high as the monthly rate they'd promised us. W, as they say, TF?

I got onto Cablevision's website and started up a chat session with a customer support person called Lata, who was kind enough to walk me through the bill line by line. Our three-part service was broken out into three parts: $14.95 for phone service, $29.95 for Internet, and $40.05 for TV. All right so far, and the $40 charge for "number activation" was one I expected. Then there was $30 for installation (unexpected, but at least it was a one-time charge), $7 for taxes, and $15.46 in "partial month activity" because we'd signed up in the middle of the month. So that left only two items unaccounted for: a $7 charge for "1 Cable Box(es)" and a $3 "surcharge" for "Sports Programming." Okay, these weren't exactly big-ticket items, but they still added up to an extra $10 a month above what I'd agreed to, and I wanted to know what for.

Well, the $7 charge, she explained, was for the rental of the cable box. What, that wasn't included in the supposed $85 flat fee? No, of course not; the $85 charge is only for the services, not the equipment. Oh, so if we supplied our own cable box, we wouldn't have to pay $7 a month to rent one from you? Well, no, you have to use our equipment—but we don't include the cost of it in the advertised rate, because "every customer needs a different number of cable boxes in their home." So it's not really $85, it's $85 plus $7 per cable box. (That was all in the "fine print," apparently, though it must have been very fine indeed, since I don't remember seeing it anywhere when I signed up for the deal.)

Okay, and the $3 sports programming "surcharge"? What was that—an optional fee for additional sports programming (that we hadn't actually asked for)? Well, no, apparently it was a pricing gimmick by Cablevision, though Lata didn't use those words. The way she put it was, "Over the past two years, Cablevision has not raised cable TV prices, despite the rising cost of programming, particularly sports programming. Due to the cost of sports programming rising dramatically, Cablevision is instituting a Sports Programming Surcharge, to recover a small portion of these costs." So they hadn't "raised prices"; instead they'd added a non-optional "surcharge" on all accounts that include sports channels. This applied to the "Optimum Value" TV service included with the $85 package deal, raising its real cost to $88 a month—not counting the $7 per cable box.

Here, however, was where the conversation started to get interesting. Lata explained that the reason the $3 fee counted as a "surcharge" was because you could "opt out of it" by downgrading to the cheapest TV service: the Optimum Economy package. My ears pricked up at this, since it was an option I hadn't heard anything about when we first signed up. By switching to the economy package, Lata said, we could lower our monthly charge to $77 before taxes—including the $7 cable box rental. She did warn that we would "lose a lot of programming with that change," but since we'd never actually intended to get cable in the first place, I wasn't terribly concerned about that. I told her to go ahead.

I wasn't prepared to celebrate, however, until we'd actually received our second three-part bill from Cablevision and I could actually see that the promised savings were there. When the bill arrived today, it momentarily confused me once again, this time because it was lower than I'd expected—but a quick examination revealed that the reason was that this bill also included "partial month activity," this time in our favor. Since we were partway into the August billing cycle when I spoke to Lata, she credited us the cost of the Optimum Value TV package (including the sports surcharge) for the rest of the month and replaced it with the lower cost for the Optimum Economy package. So next month's bill should finally show the normal amount we can expect to pay going forward, which should be around $80, tax and all.

So when all is said and done, we are, in fact, spending less with Cablevision now than we used to spend with Cablevision plus Verizon plus TCI. And, on top of that, we still have at least nominal access to cable TV, which is more than we had before. With our downgrade to Optimum Value, we no longer get Lifetime, so we can't watch Project Runway directly; we'll still have to go through the website (and since it appears to have only the most recent episode available to non-subscribers, we'll have to furtively download some episodes to get caught up on the current season, which apparently started when we weren't looking). But we still have HGTV, so I can still watch the occasional "Flea Market Flip" or "Love it or List It" through our "TV to Go" service—which means we do, in fact, have more entertainment options now than we had a few months ago, and we're paying less. Result!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why is the water back?

Some of you may remember how, back in February, I expressed my frustration that our household's water usage had been gradually creeping upward over the years for reasons that I couldn't understand. Where once our quarterly water bill had consistently fallen into the first tier of usage (under 800 cubic feet), it had started falling more and more often into the second tier (800 to 999 cubic feet). And naturally, we did nothing to reduce it by adding three new trees to the yard in March, each of which needs a minimum of 5 gallons of water each week—not to mention the five cherry bushes and the dozen raspberry canes. So it came as no surprise when our next water bill, covering the period from February through mid-May, was all the way up to 910 cubic feet. Disappointing, yes, but hardly shocking.

What really baffles me is the bill I got yesterday, which covers the period from mid-May through early August. This includes the hottest part of the summer, during which we increased our tree-watering schedule to three times a week, and also continued to water the bushes and the vegetable garden on a regular basis. And our water usage for this period was...400 cubic feet. Half the cutoff for the lowest tier. Our daily water use, which had been over 70 gallons in the spring, had somehow dropped to less than 36 gallons in the summer. That's less than it's ever been, in all the time we've owned this house.

Naturally, this is good news—or rather, it would be if I could allow myself to believe it. But frankly, I just can't grasp it. How is it possible that, with no significant change in behavior, our water usage climbed from around 50 gallons a day to 70—and then, out of nowhere, dropped to below 40 again? Especially when the one change in behavior we had made at that point was the after addition of a bunch of thirsty plants to our landscape, which should have increased our water use rather than decreasing it?

I'm beginning to wonder whether our water meter is actually hooked up to anything. Maybe the borough just has a guy coming round to our house and setting it forward by a random amount each month. In fact, maybe he saw my post back in February about how high our water bill was getting and decided to drop it dramatically this month, just to freak me out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hey, nice rack

One of the quirks of our house's layout is that the only coat closet is in the central hallway. This puts it in between the front and side entrances, but not particularly close to either one of them. It's a reasonable place for us to store our coats, but it's not at all a convenient place for us (or our guests) to hang them up when we first come in. As a result, our winter coats tend to spend most of the winter draped over the back of a kitchen chair, where we drop them when coming in and pick them up right before going out—and occasionally trip over them in between while trying to prepare meals. In the summertime, the coats stay in the closet, but my sun hat usually get perched precariously on the bak of a chair, where it may be joined over time by a gradually growing pile of lightweight jackets or sweaters that I take with me on jaunts to air-conditioned venues and drop on the chair when I come home.

After a few years of this, it occurred to me (duh) that it would make a lot more sense just to hang a simple, wall-mounted coat rack in the kitchen. Then we would have a logical place to store coats and hats right near the door, where they'd still be easy to drop off and pick up on entering and exiting, yet they wouldn't get in our way. On a recent trip to Home Depot, we found some ready-made ones for about $25—but we also found individual hooks in a variety of styles for $5 apiece, and we figured we could buy some of these and make our own custom-designed rack using something out of our overflowing scrap wood bin. I was a bit hesitant at first, because I'd seen a reasonably nice-looking coat rack in the IKEA catalogue for only $10, and I thought it was silly to spend $20 on supplies to build something we could buy for $10—but since we'd already made two trips to IKEA recently and weren't likely to be making another one any time soon, we'd have to make a special trip just for the coat rack and spend close to $10 on gas and tolls to get there. So under the circumstances, it made more sense to pick out some hooks and build our own. (And as it turns out, that was a smart choice, since I just checked the webpage for our local IKEA store and it appears they no longer have the rack in question.)

So we rummaged through the scrap bin and eventually fished out an old board that seemed to fit the bill pretty well. It was painted on one side, but we could just put that side against the wall and save the trouble of stripping it—and the other side had a nice weathered look that you'd pay big bucks for if you bought it out of a catalogue. Over the next few days, Brian routed the edges, filled up a largish chink in the board with wood filler, sanded the wood, and applied a coat of stain (its original color looked rather nice, but the filled-in spot stood out too much). Then we gave it a couple of coats of finish, lightly sanding it after each one, and last night we got down to the business of placing the hooks. This was the trickiest part of the process, as we had to make sure not only that the hooks themselves were evenly spaced, but that the rack itself was positioned where it could screw into the studs—so the hooks had to avoid blocking the places where the screws needed to go. Brian took careful measurements, both horizontal and vertical, and marked the location of each hook before screwing it in place. Then we took it upstairs, positioned it on the wall, and leveled it—and once we were sure we had it where we wanted it, I held it in place while Brian secured it to the wall. Here are two pictures of the finished piece: first by itself...

...and now in use, holding my hat and lightweight summer jacket.

It's surprising how satisfying a little project like this can be. We only spent $20 and maybe an hour or two of work on this (spread over the course of a few days), and the finished result is, technically, just a small item—but it's a small item that will solve a fairly big problem in our house, and in a cost-efficient and space-efficient way. Makes me feel a bit like I did after completing the much bigger (but still not overwhelming) pantry project two years back: boy, that was easy! Why on earth didn't we do it years ago?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Build a better rat trap...

...and, it appears, they'll just go and build better rats.

The current score is Rat 5, Amy and Brian 0. For the past two nights, the Tomcat rat trap has been armed and set out in the garden, and it's been brought in the next morning still unsprung, yet with the bait gone. Brian, examining it, has concluded that the trigger simply isn't sensitive enough; if the rat doesn't actually put weight directly on it, it won't spring. This makes it safer for us, of course, but also easier for him to circumvent; if he sticks his little furry head in there and just licks the peanut butter off the dowel, without actually touching the trigger, the trap doesn't go off. It would appear that the good old-fashioned wooden trap really is the better system; with those, the bait sits directly on the trigger, so there's really no way to get to it without setting off the trap. (Of course, a truly clever rat could figure out some way to spring the trap first and then eat the bait in perfect safety, but we're still holding out hope that we're not dealing with some kind of mutant genius rodent here.)

Brian still has one more idea for a possible modification to the plastic trap that might work. He's removed the dowel that currently holds the bait, instead leaving just a hole in the wood that the peanut butter will get stuffed into. This will force the rat to push farther into the trap to get at it, and possibly get him to step on the trigger in the process. But just in case, we also picked up one of the traditional wooden snap traps. We can bait this one with a bit of sausage rind, which can be actually pushed onto the trigger switch, so Mr. Rat can't possibly get at it without touching the trigger. We plan to set out both traps tonight, and see which—if either—succeeds in snaring the rat. I just hope that if one of them does catch him, it actually finishes the job; I don't much fancy having to go out and put a wounded rat out of its misery.

UPDATE: As of this morning, both traps were still unsprung. The peanut butter from the first trap was gone, and the sausage was still there...with a bunch of ants crawling on it. Which raises the possibility that perhaps it's been ants taking the peanut butter for the past two nights, and the rat has actually removed himself from the scene. This would explain why the traps weren't triggered, and also why we have seen neither the rat himself nor any sign of his presence for the past two days. Maybe he somehow set off that trap the first night we set it and thought, "Whoa, this thing looks dangerous" and scarpered (after first removing and stealing the cup with the peanut butter in it).

If this is indeed the case, it's probably the best possible result; it means we no longer have a live rat in our yard, and we no longer have to worry about disposing of a dead one. The only unfortunate part is that we can't be totally sure whether he's actually gone—or whether he might be back. Brian did think he'd seen a rat fleeing our compost bin a few months back, the last time he went to turn the pile (yeah, we make our compost the lazy way), but he never saw any sign of it again, so we decided to forget about it. If he did, in fact, see a rat at that time, and if it was this same one, it means that the rat is a creature of nomadic and unpredictable habits. So he may be like one of those old movie monsters; gone for now, but you never know when you might see him again. (Fortunately, rats only live about three years, but I think having him periodically pop up over a three year period and then disappear again would be more than enough hassle.)

The local advantage, part 2

This morning's e-mail brought the latest edition of our local newsletter, the Highland Park eNews, which keeps Highland Park residents up-to-date on everything from recycling pickup schedules (very useful) to new businesses in town (sometimes useful) to which local kids have just achieved distinction in the state art fair (neither useful nor interesting in the least, unless you're related to them). But this week's edition, for a change, happened to lead off with a story that was both highly useful and highly interesting: "SHOP HIGHLAND PARK; Tax Credit Rewards Program Starts Soon."

The gist of the story is that an assortment of local businesses will soon be sharing a shopper-loyalty card, much like the ones I already have for every supermarket and drugstore in our area. Only this one has a twist; when we use it at local businesses, instead of giving us a discount on certain items that they sell, it will give us a percentage of what we spend as a credit on our property taxes. How cute is that? The residents benefit from the discount, the stores benefit because residents will be encouraged to patronize them instead of seeking lower prices elsewhere, and the town benefits because local businesses will be more likely to stay in business and keep contributing to the tax pool. For the community as a whole, it's a win-win-win.

I checked out the website of the company that runs this little scheme, and apparently they've been running programs like it in a variety of towns since 2010. The money for the rebates comes from the businesses themselves, not from the town, so it's up to them to decide how much is a reasonable amount to offer so that the cost of the rebate won't wipe out any benefits from the extra business they attract. They also have to pay a $10 fee each month to take part in the program, so it's probably not worth it for them to do it unless they think they can actually attract a significant volume of business from it. This might explain why only about a dozen of our local businesses have, so far, signed up for the program—most of them ones that we seldom, if ever, use.

I did, however, find two local businesses on the list that are of interest to us. Through the Moongate/Over the Moon Toys, a toy store and gift shop run as a single business by two sisters, is planning to offer a rebate of 7.5 percent. Now, given that we don't actually shop there all that often and almost never spend much when we do, this isn't that big a bargain. After all, a 7.5 percent rebate on a $10 board game only works out to a 75-cent credit on our property taxes, which is hardly enough to bother about. Still, given that we've been trying to encourage ourselves to do more of our shopping at local businesses anyway—even toying with the idea of creating a special budget item just for this purpose—having the card would be a good way to psych ourselves into going there more often, even if the actual savings was minimal.

The other local business on the list, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. Schwartz and Nagle, our trusted local mechanic, is offering one of the largest rebates on the list: 15 percent of the total bill. Now, granted, taking the car in for service is not exactly a frequent expense (thank goodness), but when we do go there, we generally spend at least 50 bucks, and often much more. So at 15 percent of a $200 repair bill, we're talking 30 bucks off our taxes, which is—well, still just a drop in the bucket when you consider what the tax rates are like around here, but nothing to turn up our noses at. Especially since it's an expense we'd have anyway, and the local business is definitely the one we'd be using anyway. (This isn't such great news for Schwartz and Nagle, actually, since they could have our business whether they paid the rebate or not—but if all goes according to plan, offering it should encourage more people to go there and help the business thrive, which would definitely be a good thing for us as well as for them. A mechanic you trust—rather like a dentist you trust—is something you want to hold onto at all costs.)

So we'll definitely be signing up for one of these new local-shopping cards as soon as they become available. And with luck, the program will turn out to be a big enough success that other local businesses will be persuaded to take part in it—such as, say, the Thai restaurant, the sushi place, and the comic shop.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Oh, rats

After all the trouble we went to building a groundhog-proof fence for our garden so that we could peacefully coexist with our resident groundhog, it appears that we now have a new and even more cunning garden pest: Rattus norwegicus, the common brown rat. Or at least, a common brown rat.

The first sign of it came on Friday, when Brian brought in a zucchini from the garden that had clearly been gnawed on by something. We were puzzled, because we were pretty sure we'd finally managed to build a fence the groundhog couldn't penetrate, and in any case, if he'd eaten it he'd probably have eaten the whole thing. But what else could possibly have gotten in? A squirrel? Surely they wouldn't be interested in zucchini, would they? Baffled, we cut off the bitten parts and set aside the rest, figuring the only thing we could really do was keep an eye on the garden and see if we could spot the culprit.

The answer to the puzzle became clear yesterday, as we were sitting in the back yard taking a break from the task of transferring the big pile of concrete chunks to a less obtrusive spot in the back corner of the yard. (Side note: The pieces that were pebble-sized, or not too much larger, got spread along the gap between our rhubarb bed and the main garden area, on top of a layer of weed barrier. We also threw in the remainder of the gravel left over from the patio project and the assorted rocks we'd pulled out of the ground when we planted our plum trees way back in March. We're hoping that this lot will, if not keep the weeds out entirely, at least deter them enough that we don't have to do more than an occasional weeding back there.)

Anyway, as we sat on the grassy bank, trying to work up the energy to get back to our task, Brian suddenly pointed and said, "Look at that." And there, perched right next to the groundhog hole, as bold as you please, was an unmistakeable furry grey critter. It ducked out of sight as soon as we moved, but it didn't take long for it to prove that it was, in fact, the culprit in the zucchini-gnawing incident: next time we looked, we saw one of the zucchini plants moving back and forth, even though there was no wind. And when we headed for it, a furry grey shape bolted straight out of the garden, squeezing right past the gate, and whisked down the groundhog hole.

Our reaction to this new intruder was kind of interesting. Naturally, we were somewhat concerned about having it on the premises at all, since rats, unlike groundhogs, can carry diseases that affect humans. And naturally, we were also annoyed about the loss of our veggies (including the other half of the chewed-on zucchini, which we threw away just to be on the safe side). But we also both found ourselves feeling rather offended to see this upstart intruding on the territory of the groundhog, which we had come to see as an authorized, accepted resident of our property. I actually felt kind of ticked off on the groundhog's behalf: "Who does this rat think he is, anyway, trying to use the groundhog's hole as if it were his own?" Brian, by contrast, felt annoyed at the groundhog: "Hey, what are you doing letting this rat use your burrow? We allow you to stay on our property, but we never said you could have house guests!"

So I had a look around on the Internet for information on rats as garden pests and what to do about them. I found one article on the Organic Gardening site that mentioned that rats supposedly dislike the smell of mint, so I decided as a first step to spray the plants with a solution of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Oil Soap and see if that deterred the little rodent. Brian also shimmed out the garden gate, which had become a little loose-fitting near the bottom—still plenty tight enough to keep out a groundhog, but easily wide enough for a rat to squeeze through. However, within half an hour after applying both of these remedies, we took another look out the window and saw the zucchini plant wiggling again. Then, as we watched, the rat took off and squeezed straight through the fence, chicken wire and all, not even bothering to go near the gate. So far, the score was Rat 2, Amy and Brian 0.

So we decided it was time to bring out the big guns. Two separate articles I found on rat control (one from the University of Illinois and one from UC Davis) confirmed that no repellant, whether smell-based or sound-based, will deter rats for very long, so if we wanted this thing out of our yard, pretty much our only option was to kill it outright. Based on the article, a trap seemed to be the best choice; unlike poison, it would pose no hazard to humans and most other critters, and it would also ensure that the rat died in a spot where we could find it and dispose of it, rather than leaving a rotting (and, eventually, stinking) carcass in some hard-to-reach spot. The article advised against using the humane type of trap that catches the animal alive, since you really don't want to release a disease-carrying critter into the wild, so we figured we'd have to go for the traditional snap trap, which would (we hoped) kill the rat as quickly and painlessly as possible.

At Lowe's, we found two types of rat traps: the old-fashioned wooden type, with a metal pin on a spring, for two dollars, and a fancier plastic one called a Tomcat trap for five dollars. We opted for the latter, as it looked like it would be much easier to bait and set without injuring ourselves, and also less likely to inadvertently trap some harmless animal just passing by, such as a bird or a stray cat. The trap was in two pieces: a hinged set of plastic jaws, and a removable cup for the bait. Setting it was indeed quite easy: Brian filled the little cup with peanut butter, snapped it into place, carried the whole trap out to the garden, placed it against the side of one of the beds, and stepped on it to pop it open. Unfortunately, I can't give the trap equally high marks for effectiveness. When Brian went out to check on it this morning, he found the trap had been sprung, turned upside down, and dragged to another part of the garden, and the cup that had held the peanut butter was not only empty but completely gone. Rat 3, Amy and Brian 0.

However, Brian is not one to give up that easily. Since the main part of the trap was still intact, he went down into the shop and made a couple of modifications to it. First, he rigged up a board with a short length of dowel to stick up through the hole where the cup used to go. Since we're using peanut butter, we don't really need a cup for it; we can just smear it on the dowel. Then he screwed the body of the trap itself onto the board, which should make harder for the rat to flip over. The trap is a little more difficult to set now—you have to hold it open with one hand while using the other to spread peanut butter on the dowel—but it is definitely heavier and more stable, and it no longer flips over when you set it off. (Brian actually managed to close it on himself at one point, but fortunately it wasn't fully open to start with, so it didn't cause any real damage. I just hope that from a fully cocked and loaded position, it's powerful enough to kill the rat right away.)

We're waiting until nightfall to deploy the modified trap, since rats are more active at night, while birds and other critters we'd rather not harm are less so. If the rat manages to get the bait out of this one without setting it off, I'm not calling an exterminator; I'm calling a science lab, because this rat is obviously some sort of rodent genius who needs to be captured and studied.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Garden gadgets

About a year ago, Brian and I discovered that our eggplant crop was being poached by squirrels. The stupid rodents weren't even eating them; they were yanking the tiny fruits off the plant and then, apparently, realizing that they weren't nuts and discarding them. So we realized that if we hoped to harvest any eggplant this year, we'd need some way to keep the little varmints' mitts off them. We tried pepper spray last year, but it was kind of a hassle to deal with; because it washes off whenever it rains, which happens pretty frequently in the summer, we had to keep reapplying it several times a week (and it turned out to be too late to save any of our eggplants, anyway). So this year, we figured we'd see what we can do about creating some kind of physical barrier.

Introducing the Hudson SQ-X Squirrel Excluder. Basically, it's just a cage constructed of chicken wire, large enough to fit over two eggplants planted side by side. It's not foolproof, because the holes in the mesh are still small enough for squirrels to fit their paws through, so any eggplant that forms right next to the edge of the cage will be within their grasp. But my hope that they're either to dumb to figure out that they can reach through the wire, or smart enough to figure out that even if they did, they wouldn't be able to get the eggplants out. The plants are just beginning to form fruits, so we'll see how it does. If we can manage to protect the eggplants until they reach the size of an actual egg, I think we'll be okay; surely the squirrels should be able to identify them as not-a-nut by then.

And talking of makeshift gadgets for the garden, check out Brian's other new device: the Hudson SQ-SL Squash Sling. Our butternut squash plants already have good half-dozen healthy-sized squash on them (much better than what we got last year), and they were getting big enough to weigh down the vines and pose a risk of pulling them loose from the trellises. Mel Bartholomew, of Square Foot Gardening fame, actually says this hasn't been a problem for him—the stems just get bigger and thicker as the squash do, so they have no trouble holding up their weight. But Brian doesn't like to take chances, so he fashioned some sling supports out of something we already had a plentiful supply of: the mesh bags that onions come in. We'd been saving these up in a cardboard box, figuring that all this tough but loose netting was bound to be the ideal material for something, sometime, and now it's finally being put to use. So even if the slings aren't strictly necessary, they've at least served to justify our months if not years of bag hoarding.

Now all we need is some sort of system to keep the birds from eating all our new bush cherries, and we should be in good shape.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Two piles down

What you see in this picture is something you couldn't see in this part of our yard for most of the past three years: the ground.

Ever since that fateful day in March 2010 when I answered a posting on Freecycle offering a load of cement pavers, this part of our yard has been home to a stack of bricks about three feet high, six wide, and two deep. After a while we got so used to it that we more or less stopped noticing it was there; it just sort of blended into the landscape. And even after most of the pavers finally made their way into our new patio a month ago, the pile didn't entirely disappear; in fact, it actually spread out more, as the bricks we'd rejected due to defects of various kinds formed a secondary pile, much untidier than the first, next to what remained of the original stack.

But no longer. As of today, the pavers that we've decided are still usable (for some potential future project as yet to be determined) are neatly stacked against the back wall of our shed, forming a pile four bricks deep, five wide, and nine high. The ones that we've deemed too badly damaged to use are in a smaller stack next to our trash barrel, where they can be added by ones and twos to each load of garbage as we put it out for pickup. And the ground where the brick pile once stood is ground once again—a bit bare, perhaps, since nothing green could have survived three years without seeing the sunlight, but at the rate the weeds in our yard spread, the bare patch will be covered over in no time.

So that's two of the four piles left over from our patio project gone, and two still left to deal with: the big pile of dirt excavated from under the patio, much of which will no doubt go into smoothing out the new slope we built up around its edges, and the pile of concrete chunks left over from the demolition of the old concrete slab, which will...well, we'll think of something. But bit by bit, our yard is finally starting to look like a yard again, rather than a recently abandoned construction site. I actually have hopes that before fall comes, we may get it to the point where the whole yard finally looks better with the new patio than it looked without it.

Zucchini waffles

The midsummer zucchini-fest continues. We picked one a few days back that had rather sneakily hidden itself under the leaves until it had grown to, if not the size of a baseball bat, at least as large as a bowling pin. We managed to nip another in the bud while it was still fairly small (smaller, in fact, than the largest of our cucumbers, which was picked the same day), but both the large and the small one came on top of what we already had in the fridge that didn't get used up in our zucchini binge last week. So we needed to come up with a use for some of these, pronto.

So on Thursday night, we looked up "zucchini" in the back of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and found a recipe he calls simply "Vegetable Pancakes." Based on the name, I was expecting something rather like a potato pancake, with shredded veggies loosely bound together with egg and fried. But these were actually  more like a traditional breakfast pancake, with a flour-based batter into which the grated veggies are stirred. They cook up on the griddle into thick, puffy cakes, rather like crumpets. These didn't have a lot of flavor by themselves, so we tried them with a huge variety of condiments, including ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, applesauce, pancake syrup, and lingonberry preserves (the traditional accompaniment to Swedish pancakes). The ketchup and the lingonberries seemed to work best, as their combination of sweet and tangy flavors perked up the blandness of the cakes. However, I spent much of the meal meditating about what would really be the ideal compliment to this dish, and also about other possible ways to make them. (Winter squash cakes with apple butter, perhaps?)

All this must have continued percolating in my subconscious for the next day or two, because when Brian asked me this morning what I'd like for breakfast, what popped out of my mouth was, "How about zucchini waffles?"

The idea of cooking the zucchini pancakes in the waffle iron was actually Brian's, though we decided not to try it the first time we made them. And the existing recipe needed very little modification to make it a breakfast dish; all we really did was leave out the onion. Then, since we happened to be out of pancake syrup, I cooked up the idea of an orange syrup to serve them with. (Well, I cooked up the recipe; Brian cooked up the actual syrup.) Since the tangy-sweet condiments had worked best with the savory zucchini cakes we had for dinner, I thought an orange-based sauce might be the ideal topping for them at the breakfast table. I based the recipe on the cider sauce that accompanies the Rosewood Country Inn's "Oven Apple Pancakes" (I forget where I originally found this recipe, but you can see it here).

The combination was...well, I would say surprisingly good. The recipe might still need a little tweaking, as the zucchini makes the batter very moist, even with no added milk, so the waffles don't really stay crisp even in a warm oven. But they were still tasty, and the orange syrup was indeed an excellent foil for their mild flavor—and in early August, any recipe that uses up extra zucchini without being too obvious about it is a good recipe.

So in case you're at all inclined to try this yourself, here is our newly created recipe for Zucchini Waffles with Orange Syrup (with acknowledgements to Mark Bittman and the proprieters of the Rosewood Country Inn):

1 medium-large zucchini, peeled and finely grated (about 2 cups)
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp. baking powder
1 egg
2 Tbsp oil

Combine everything in a bowl to make the batter. Add milk as needed to thin (we didn't use any). Cook on the waffle iron on medium to high heat. Serve with Orange Syrup.


1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. corn starch
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup orange juice

Combine in saucepan and bring to a boil. Continue to cook, stirring, until thickened (about 1-2 minutes). Remove from heat and stir in 1 Tbsp. butter.
Bon appétit, or as we say in New Jersey, Eat Your Zucchini!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Veggies of the Month: Chocolate Beauty pepper and Moreton tomato

The Veggies of the Month for August are special in two ways. First, there are two of them, and second, they're the first veggies/fruits of the month to come out of our own garden.

As you may recall, my Gardeners' Holiday post a week ago included a picture of our first full-sized tomato of the year, a Moreton. This is a variety developed at Rutgers back in the '50s that eventually fell out of favor because it was too soft for commercial use. A few years ago, however, Rutgers resurrected the breed as part of an ongoing quest to revive "the old time Jersey tomato." The attached article refers to it as "the July 4 tomato," but that sounds like a bit of an exaggeration to me; ours first started producing right around the end of July, which is still plenty early. Since then, we've harvested a total of three.

Then, just a couple of days ago, we harvested our first pepper of the season. It's a variety called Chocolate Beauty that we picked up at the Rutgers plant sale last May after determining that the pepper plants we'd attempted to start from seed just were not going to make it. You can see from the photo where it gets its name, as it does indeed have a rich, chocolately brown hue with just a hint of red. (This one is more of a beauty in the photo than in real life, however, as we turned it so that the tiny insect hole on one side isn't visible.)

But never mind how they look; how do they taste? Well, both the tomatoes and the pepper went into a small pot of chili on Tuesday night, so their particular flavors were a bit hard to discern in the mix. However, I made a point of snitching a small fragment of each one to taste before they went into the pot. The Moreton tomato tasted...well, tomatoey. I really can't think of a better way to describe it. It wasn't particularly sweet, or particularly acidic, or particularly anything; it just tasted like the basic, Platonic essence of tomato, through and through. And the Chocolate Beauty pepper, despite its appearance, didn't taste a bit like chocolate: it tasted like...bell pepper. Really, I do wish I could come up with a more vivid description, but that's the honest truth; it just tasted exactly the way you expect a bell pepper to taste.

On one level, it's a bit of a disappointment that these two notable breeds—an heirloom pepper and a vintage hybrid tomato—don't have more distinctive flavors that I could wax lyrical about. After all, what's so exciting about home-grown produce if it just tastes like what you could buy at the supermarket? But on the other hand, I guess there is something to be said for consistency. True, this may not be an extra-special tomato or an extra-special pepper, but it is just what you expect from a tomato and just what you expect from a pepper. They may not be more striking in any way than a supermarket tomato and a supermarket pepper, but they can give you everything you'd want from a supermarket tomato or pepper, with the added bonus of being fresh-picked and free.

So would I grow them again? Well, it's too early to say. Since neither of these varieties seems to have anything special to recommend it in terms of flavor, it's a question of yield—of quantity rather than quality. The Chocolate Beauty has given us only one pepper so far, and it did suffer a bit of insect damage, so I'm not sure it will end up being a great producer. But the Moreton tomato is producing sound, unblemished fruits, and producing them well ahead of our Brandywines and Ramopos—so if it can keep on giving good yields throughout the rest of the season, I think it's well worth keeping in our tomato lineup.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Patio Project, Stage 8: Furnishing

The night we finished (or nearly finished) work on our new patio, Brian hauled a card table and a couple of folding chairs out there so that we could use our new space right away. However, it was clear that this makeshift furniture wasn't really going to work for us over the long term; to enjoy our patio properly, we'd need some real outdoor furniture. And as I observed last year, this stuff doesn't tend to come cheap. A quick Google search just now on "patio furniture" popped up a sponsored list of hits ranging from $500 to $2500 in price, and even the sets we saw on sale on our last trip to Home Depot were marked down to between $300 and $600.

Fortunately, there's always IKEA.

Within a day of completing the patio, we had already checked out the patio sets on IKEA's website and narrowed our choices down to two favorites. The 4-piece Äpplarö set, priced at $220, was solid acacia wood with a nice dark-brown finish, and all the individual pieces could be folded up for storage. The Askholmen set was also solid acacia, had a lighter finish, and was even cheaper—only $120 for four pieces—but it wouldn't fold up. We were leaning toward the Äpplarö, thinking that folding pieces might be worth an extra $100 because we could store them inside during the winter, but we figured it would be best to see them at the store and try them out in person before making our decision.

This turned out to be a good idea, as we found to our surprise that the cheaper Askholmen set (a name that Brian promptly changed to "afikomen") actually felt sturdier and more comfortable to sit on. The table was also wider and shorter than the Äpplarö table, making it a slightly more convenient size for dining. And the Askholmen furniture, though it didn't fold up, was still lightweight enough that we figured it wouldn't be too much trouble to carry it inside if a hurricane was forecast or something. In fact, there was only one problem with it: it was out of stock at our local store. So looking at it one way, we'd just made a decision that would save us $100 on our patio furniture; but looking at it another way, we'd just spent 10 bucks on gas and tolls for a wasted trip, since we'd have to come back a second time to get the furniture once it was in stock again. (Actually, we spent a bit more than that, since we ended up buying a few odds and ends while we were there—a drying rack, a pair of scissors, a couple of jars of lingonberries, and some coffee and chocolate bars—but we figured we would have bought those things anyway, even if we'd made only one trip.)

Fortunately, the furniture was back in stock within a few days, and since we took the 25th off for our anniversary, we took the opportunity to go back and get it. (The trip was just as expensive on a weekday, but the traffic conditions, both on the Turnpike and in the store itself, were much better.) It was a few days before we could get around to assembling the pieces, but once we did, they went together very easily with just a screwdriver and an Allen wrench, which was thoughtfully included in the box (we've now assembled a fairly large collection of these, since for some reason we can never bring ourselves to throw one out). We were also grateful that IKEA provided instructions in an easy-to-follow pictorial form, rather than a set of inscrutable directions translated from Swedish.

So here, at last, you can see our new patio in its more-or-less final state. Along with the furniture, there's been one other addition that you can see at left in the picture: a new rack to hold our garden hose. This used to hang from a hook suspended on a metal post stuck into the ground, but the post had to come out when we started to dig the patio, so we picked up a simple $10 hose hanger at Home Depot to take its place. It only came in green, which I thought might look odd against our blue house, so Brian gave it a quick coat of black spray paint before attaching it to the foundation with a couple of masonry screws. And there you have it, folks: a finished, furnished patio. Just for the sake of completeness, I'll throw in a cost breakdown for the project like they do at "Young House Love":

Demolition: $0 (thanks to the generous loan of a jackhammer from our awesome neighbor)
Wheelbarrow: $37.43 (this will probably be used for other projects as well, but we bought it for this, so we'll count it for this)
Gravel, stone dust, ground cloth, and staples: $278.68 (including delivery)
Pavers: $0 (thanks to a great find on Freecycle, which was what started this whole project off in the first place)
Tamper tool: $32.08
Two-by-four for screeding: $3
Sand: $7.85
Furniture: $123.16 (with tax, which is only half the usual rate because the Elizabeth IKEA store is in one of New Jersey's special "development zones")
Hose hanger: $10.69 (no charge for the spray paint, since we had some left over)
TOTAL: $492.89

Spending a whole week together, covered in dirt and sweat, building this thing with our own hands: priceless.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: Squashmas

Of all the quarter-days and cross-quarter days in the calendar, August 1 is probably the easiest to assign a Gardeners' Holiday to. In fact, this is actually the one date that already sort of was a gardeners' holiday, since it used to be celebrated as Lammas, which is short for "loaf mass," a celebration of the first grain harvest. In our yard, however, we don't grow grain: we grow zucchini and tomatoes. And right now, we're growing a lot of zucchini and tomatoes.

Everything you see here was picked in the past week. The little yellow tomatoes in the bowl are Sun Golds, which are always the first to ripen; in addition to being early bloomers, they're immensely productive, and so sweet you could almost eat them like grapes. (This isn't even all of them we've picked in the last week; at least another pint went into the salad we had for dinner on Tuesday, and we used still more in a salsa last Sunday.) The one larger tomato is, I believe, a Moreton; that's an early-season variety we bought at the Rutgers plant sale for the first time this year, so I don't know yet how it tastes. And those five monster squash you see all came off just two plants, both of the Raven variety.

In theory, this gardener's holiday could be tomato-centric, but I have three reasons for choosing to focus on the zucchini instead. First, our zucchini production is currently at its peak, while tomato production is just ramping up; we're getting a lot of those early little cherry tomatoes, but the Moreton is the first full-size one we've harvested this year. Second, there's already a precedent for holding a zucchini-based holiday in early August: August 8 has been celebrated for some years now as Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor's Porch Day (or, more properly, Night). And third, we've got even more zucchini to use up than we have tomatoes.

Fortunately, there's no shortage of ways to use this versatile squash. (Hey, we wouldn't devote 9 square feet of our precious garden space to it if we didn't have lots of uses for it.) One of our standard summertime recipes is Linguini Aglio Olio with Zucchini, from Nava Atlas's Vegetariana; basically, you just sauté a whole bunch of garlic in olive oil, then add thinly sliced zucchini and cook until tender; then toss it with the pasta and season it. We've also tried, and enjoyed, the Disappearing Zucchini Orzo from Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (you can get the recipe on her website). Kingsolver also has a Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe that we haven't tried yet, since we usually prefer to stick with our traditional zucchini bread, which we know will always be a hit.

For tonight's festivities, however, we're trying something new. One of our finds at this year's library book sale was a copy of The Starving Student's Vegetarian Cookbook, and while it didn't turn out to have that many recipes that looked interesting, we did find a promising one for Zucchini Parmesana. This is very much like the classic Eggplant Parmesan, except you use zucchini, and instead of breading it first, you just layer it in the pan with onion, pasta sauce, and cheese, and then add the seasoned bread crumbs on top. You repeat these layers twice, then drizzle with melted butter and bake for an hour at 350—which shouldn't be at all unpleasant, since the weather today is an unseasonably cool 70 degrees. The recipe calls for pasta sauce out of a jar (in fact, it says to use the entire jar), but since we don't have any in the house, Brian is currently whipping up a batch of homemade sauce, which will have the advantage of using up a few stray tomatoes and mushrooms we had sitting around. Then we can just add some homemade bread to round off our zucchini-based dinner.

Then, just to make sure we celebrate the occasion to its fullest (and use up those monster squash), we'll probably top it off with a zucchini-based dessert. We're signed up to bring baked goods to the Minstrel concert tomorrow night, so we'll most likely whip up a couple of loaves of zucchini bread, cut up most of it for the hungry concert-goers, and then snag the remainder for ourselves. And if that still doesn't use up all those zucchini, well, maybe our neighbors would like some. Or maybe they'll get some whether they like it or not. ;-)