Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Crystal ball

I want to take my photography in a more artistic direction; and, one thing I want to do is to buy a crystal ball.  The idea is that you shoot through the crystal ball to produce an sureal effect similar to this picture I found on flickr.

I've been discussing this with a member of my photography club - and he sent me a link to a place that seems to have the cheapest prices on crystal balls.

It's a metaphysical supply web site.  To find the crystal balls, I have to click on "ritual supplies".  They also have a feature, like Amazon, where they suggest other things you might be interested in, such as potions, and magic wands.  I feel like I"m shopping on Diagon Alley.  I've done some searching on my own - and they do seem to have the best prices.

The price of crystal balls goes up exponentially with size - so, I'm going for a 3 inch one.  Small enough to carry around, but not too small.  Now I'll need to figure out a way to support it on a tripod. I've got some ideas brewing in my little brain.

Organic pest control

Garden pests can be a big problem in a vegetable garden. In the rest of my yard, I have enough diversity that having a few chewed leaves here and there isn't really much of a problem. So, I've learned to live in peaceful co-existance with most bugs and other critters (snakes, lizards, etc.) - with fireants being the notable exception

But, a vegetable garden is different. For one thing, there is a concentration of plants in a relatively small area. Also, if the plants are edible for people - that means that bugs and birds like them too. I remember once, a number of years ago (before we moved into the home we currently live in), we had planted some squash plants. Some squash beatles found them and, almost overnight, chewed them down to the ground.

So, here is my plan for organic pest control

Citrus oil - according to Howard Garret (an organic texas gardener who has several books and a radio show), you soak orange, and other citrus, peels in water for a week, strain, then dilute this with water to spray on the follage to discourage garden pests. I've done this. I was concerned about the citrus oil solution molding; so, I've frozen it in 1/2 C quantities - which is the amount to dilute in 1 gallon of water.

Dead bug juice - another idea Howard suggested. If there is a particular insect you are having a problem with, collect some in a container and let them dry out. Then stick them in a blender with some water and strain - and use this as a spray (we have an old blender which will be pressed into service). I don't know how this works - but, evidently, dead bug juice discourages bugs. But, they have to be of the same variety. That is, use dead squash beatles to treat squash beatles, dead tomato worms to treat tomato worms, etc.

This is where our good ol Texas sunshine will become an asset. I figure, a plastic wide mouthed container, with holes punched in the top, used to collect bugs off of the plants - they should dry out in no time sitting out in the sun. And, if that particular bug starts to become a problem, I can use their dried brothers and sisters to make dead bug juice. So, now I'm saving plastic containers that look like they might be useful for my dead bug collection.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Organic fertilizing

A basic fact of life here in Texas is that our clay soil is heavy, dense, and essentially devoid of nutrients. So, in the vegetable garden beds I'm preparing, I'm trying to mix in a lot of organic matter, primarily kitchen waste as well as leaves and other yard waste.

But, it's going to take a while to enrich the soil; so, I felt I needed to boost the soil this year with additional nutrients. Wanting to stay organic, that meant a trip down to "Green Mama's" - the nearest organic nursery. We used to have an organic nursery much closer, called "Redenta's" - but, they closed a year or so ago. Jon was very sad.  Jon is still mourning the loss of Elliotts Hardware store (what's it been?  5 years?) - but that's a topic for another blog post.

Anyway, I talked to the good folks at Green Mama's, and settled on a 40# bag of a general purpose organic fertilizer. Based on some reading I've done, I also bought a bag of lava sand and green sand - which add additional minerals and other nutrients besides the basic N-P-K (Nitrogen-Potassium-Phophorus). From what I've been reading, I'll probably want to get a bag of lava sand and green sand each year to enrich the garden; but, a 40# bag is only $7 each which should be sufficient for my entire garden.

For now, I've been tossing kitchen waste directly into my raised beds and mixing it in with the native soil; but, I need to come up with a place to compost. I have a compost pile in my back yard; but, it's on the total opposite side of the yard as my vegetable garden - as inconvenient as it can possibly be. So, I want to move it to be closer to the vegetable garden since that is where most of it will be used.

But where? Since my vegetable garden is in the front, I don't really want a compost pile in the front yard - not very attractive. I've thought about putting on just inside the gate - but that's where the swimming pool is. Do I want a compost pile next to the swimming pool? Is there a way I could dress it up so that it isn't quite so ugly? 

Decorative composting - now there's an idea that needs pursuing . . .

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Organic gardening

In my garden I am mostly organic. I generally try to stick with organic methods of fertilizing and pest control - but there are a couple of exceptions

Fire ants - The imported fire ants we have here in Texas are nasty critters. They have no natural predators. They are extremely aggressive when disturbed - swarming to overcome the invader (i.e. me) and inflicting nasty bites which swell and itch. Their unsightly nests, if left untreated, can reach the size of a garbage can lid.

The only effective way I've been able to deal with fire ants in my yard is to use Amdro or other similar bait - applied directly to and around the mound. The problem with fire ants is that a colony can have literally thousands of queens - so you have to kill all of them, or the colony will simply rebuild. Although, if you disturb their mound enough (such as mowing over it), they will swarm and relocate the colony.

A few times I've found fire ant nest around my pond in the back yard. I am very careful about using chemicals around the pond (don't want to kill the fish) - so, for these, I've resorted to more brute force methods. I put several pans on the stove to boil water - and then pour the boiling water directly on the mound. This causes the ants to swarm out and die in a ring around the mound. I find it strangely satisfying watching them writhe in agony. But, this method is far too labor intensive to be used as a general remedy.

Weeds - Weeds are just a fact of life in gardening. Mulch is the best way I've found to control weeds. Deprive them of light and they will eventually die. In the fall, I use the leaves I rake up as mulch around the yard. But, mulching is not always an option - for example, weeds in the path and/or cracks in the driveway. For these, I will resort to an herbicide, like Roundup, to spot treat.

So, I do have a couple of things I use which would cause a die hard organic gardener to label me an organic heathen - but I justify myself in that I only resort to chemicals to spot treat affected areas - I do not broadcast chemicals all over my yard.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Vegetable garden nearing completion

I've embarked on a major project this winter to build raised beds for a vegetable garden. What with the economy and all - this could become my sole source of sustenance.

Problem is, with a swimming pool and 2 decks in the back, there really isn't any room for a vegetable garden in the back yard. Plus, whatever space that might be available has too much shade.. So, I've decided to put the vegetable garden in the front yard. But, vegetable gardens aren't always the most attractive feature in a yard; so, I'm trying to make it look nice. I've built raised beds in geometric shapes, intended to be reminiscent of an english garden. Good thing I don't live in Southlake, or in one of them gated communities with strict codes.

On the Northern edge is a long garden where I intend to plant blackberry, raspberry, and blueberry plants. I'll be building a trellis to train the plants on - although, that will probably have to wait until next year. This year I'll probably plant tomatoes there.

There are two trees in the area already: A pomagranate and a jujube. Last summer I was paying close attention how the trees shade shifted throughout the day and designed the boxes to be mostly in the sun. I've reserved a space for a 3rd tree; but, I haven't quite decided on what yet. It will be something unusual, like a quince or a fig. I've also considered planting a peach tree on the other side of the fence, near the swimming pool.

When all is complete, I'll have 400 square feet of planting area. I've filled the beds with soil from around the yard where I've been doing other digging and contouring; but, I'll need to buy some top soil to finish filling the beds. I'll be using drip irrigation on the entire garden with each planting box on a separate drip circuit. I'm also considering some sort of water feature and possibly some statuary.

One of the beds has already been planted with some winter crops, namely
onions (texas sweet)
lettuce (green leaf, red leaf, and bibb)
swiss chard
As the weather warms, these crops will die out and will be replaced with summer vegetables, such as
As the other beds are finished, I will be planting
beans (pole and bush)
peppers (both sweet and hot)
tomatoes (multiple varieties)
other melons
Many of these we already have the seeds for. I ordered them from a woman who sells heritage seeds. So, we're just waiting for the weather to warm up.

One of the beds (the one closest to the kitchen) will be reserved as an herb garden. In it I want to plant perennials like
oregano (both regular and Mexican)
I'll also have room for annuals, like
I'll also have Rosemary in a nearby flower garden; plus, we have a bay laurel tree near the front door. In the back yard I already have mint growing. I would also like to plant asparagus - which is a perennial. But, I don't think I'll have a bed prepared in time this year.

What I have left is to dig trenches for water lines to each bed for the drip irrigation system and to fill in between the beds. One of my challanges is figuring out what to put around the raised beds (for weed control). Essentially, my choices are

Grass - this would be the easiest since that what wants to grow there - but it would be far too labor intensive having to mow around the raised beds. Also, after a rain, it would be muddy to kneel on when working in the garden. Also, it's questionable how much grass would actually grow compared to weeds.

Pea gravel - this was my original plan since it would provide an inhospital enviornment for weeds. I also think it would look the nicest. However, I've been having second thoughts since pea gravel would be hot in the summer and not be very comfortable to kneel on when working in the garden.

Mulch - I'm concerned that mulch, over time, would promote weed growth. I can put landscape fabric down underneath; but, that would only be effective for the first year or two. Also, new mulch would have to be added each year. Additionally, I'm using mulch in the adjacent flower beds; so, it might be confusing where to walk and where to avoid.

Rubber mulch - this is made from ground tires and comes in a variety of colors. It has the advantage of pea gravel in that it would provide an inhospital enviornment for weeds; but, it seems like it would be more like mulch to kneel on. Problem is - it's very expensive. A 40# bag is $9 - and I'd probably need close to 100 bags. I might be able buy it in bulk - but it would still probably be 3 or 4 times the cost of pea gravel or mulch.

Right now I'm leaning towards mulch. I'll need to order 2 or 3 yards of top soil to finish filling the raised beds; so, it would be an easy matter to order some mulch to be delivered with it.

Achiote Grilled Ribs from down under

One of the challanges of being empty nesters is having to cook for only two. For all of our married lives we were cooking for a crowd - and now, suddenly, it's down to the two of us.

I found a web site http://www.fooddownunder.com/ which has a feature to enter the number of servings and it will adjust the quantities accordingly. So, I tried one of their recipe's last week. I had to find an online food calculator to convert some of the adjusted quantities, like 1/12 cup (which is 8 teaspoons). Also, I ended up making a few adaptations.
  • Couldn't find annato seeds, so I left them out

  • Didn't have any tomato paste, it was only 1/3 cup, so I left it out

  • The original recipe called for a 2/3 ham hock (after reduced to 2 servings). I thought about using bacon, but I decided to just leave it out since I was using pork ribs which would provide it's own flavor

  • 2/3 gallon of beef broth seemed excessive for the small amount of ribs I was cooking; so, I reduced this to 1 quart

  • I was afraid that 4 teaspoons of cayenne pepper would make it too spicy for Linda; so, I reduced this to 1 teaspoon

  • 1/2 cup ground cumin seems excessive - I'm not a big fan of cumin, so I reduced to 1/4 cup

  • One of the ingredients was for achiote paste for which a recipe was provided. After dutifully making the achiote paste, it occurred to me I could have just added all of the ingredients for the paste direcly to the braising liquid
So, here is my adjusted recipe for

Achiote Grilled Ribs

  • 2-3 pounds of pork ribs

  • Braising liquid
1 qt beef stock
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup ground ancho chilies
1/4 cup ground cumin
4 Tbl lime juice (juice from 2 limes)
2 Tbl garlic powder
1 Tbl tabasco
1 Tbl honey
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp oregano (preferably mexican oregano)
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground allspice
4 garlic cloves, pressed
3 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, cut up
Add all braising liquid ingredients to a covered baking dish and mix together. Add ribs, cover and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 2 hours, or until tender. Remove ribs from the braising liquid, cut ribs into sections of 2 bones each, then grill for a few minutes.

Optional: Brush ribs with honey or BBQ sauce before grilling, careful not to burn.

Note: The braising liquid can be frozen (after straining) and used again.

The recipe said to brush the ribs with Ancho Chili Barbecue Sauce before grilling. I didn't end up making the BBQ sauce, but I may try it next time

Ancho Chili Barbeque Sauce

1 Tbl olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 dried ancho chilies, seeded and chopped
1 cup apple joice
1/3 cup worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup cideer vinegar
1 can tomato sauce (assume 8 oz can)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp kosher salt

Cook onions and garlic in oil until crisp tender (about 3-4 minutes). Add remaining ingrecients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer (stirring occasionally) for one hour, or until sauce is reduced to the desired consistency.
8 tsp chili sauce

Who am I?

I am a middle aged curmudgeny married man living in the Dallas/Fort Worth region of Texas. Although I was born and raised in California, I've lived in Texas since 1984 - so this is my home now. The reality is, I work out of my home and could live virtually anywhere (that has high speed internet access) - I just can't think of any place I'd rather be.

I have 4 children, all of whom have graduated from high school and have moved out of the home. Two of my children are married; so, I also have a son-in-law and a daughter-in-law. Two of my children are soon to be married. I have 4 grandchildren - two granddaughters living in California with my daughter and twins (boy and girl) living here in Texas with my son.

I am an active member of the LDS church (the Mormon's). I am currently serving as the early morning seminary teacher - which means I meet with the high school aged students at 5:45am before school for some religious instruction. There are two seminary teachers; so, we swtich off week to week.

I am an amatuer photographer. I especially love taking environmental portraits of people

I love to cook. I love trying to cuisines and new recipe's. I have a man crush with Alton Brown (Good Eats).

I can't say that I love gardening so much, but I love having a nice garden and am willing to do what it takes to have one. Garden railroading is another interest of mine, I have a G-scale railroad setup in my back yard that winds around the yard. Although, there is some need for some track work, so the railroad is not running at the moment.

I am politically conservative. As a registered republican I voted for John McCain. Although, more accurately, I would describe myself as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. I believe in less government and giving more control to local governemnts; although, there are a couple of key areas where I differ from the republican platform, such as gun control and same sex marriage. I support the 2nd amendment; but, I just don't see why a civilian needs to own a sub-machine gun. I also don't see how allowing two guys to be married poses any threat to me and/or my family.