January 31, 2012

Breaking My Personal Best! and One More Day for Heirloom Tomato Giveaway!

It's the last day of January...and I'm very close to exceeding 2,000 page views for the month! Not only will this be my all-time highest page view count since this blog started in November 2010, but it will exceed my previous all-time high by almost 750 page views! This might not sound like much to the blogging big-wigs out there, but it's huge for me!

Help me get there, spread the word (and you might just read something interesting in the meantime)!

Also, entrees into my heirloom tomato seed giveaway (Click Here) are open until noon tomorrow (Feb 1). Tell your friends and get entered today! 

January 30, 2012

Make Your Own Seed Starting Shelf

I recently saw somebody post about an awesome looking seed starting shelf sold by Johnny's Selected Seeds. It comes with the shelving unit, plastic trays for each shelf, light fixtures for each shelf, and four wide-spectrum fluorescent tubes per shelf. This particular model has four shelves...and costs $895 (plus $49 shipping)! YIKES!

I happen to be making my own seed shelf this spring, and I'm going to see how much it costs. The last few years I have started seeds in my basement (and no, I haven't had any midnight raids from the police). However, my basement is about 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house. With the basement at only 55 to 60 degrees, my seedlings grow a lot slower than they could if they were grown at say, 68 degrees upstairs (which is what my thermostat is set to during the day). Also, I think it will be more fun having the seedlings upstairs where I can see them all the time. This might also help prevent a little watering mishap that happened with my seedling-sitter last year while I was out of town.

Last year I grew seedlings under five, 4-foot shoplights. This year I've upgraded to six, which will light three shelves. However, my shelving unit has 5 shelves, so if I ever want to upgrade to more lights, I have the option.

I will be comparing my seed starting unit with the three-shelf unit from Johnny's, which is $695 (plus $44 shipping).

Here's what I purchased to build my seed starting shelf:

  • $70: 5-Shelf Steel Shelving Unit, 72" H x 48" W x 24" D. I will be using this shelving unit in the off-season for storage in the basement.
  • $60: six, 48" shoplights. I have accumulated six of these over the last 5 years, but they've aways costed about $10 a piece. 
  • $8: three packs 48" Cool-white fluorescent tube (two-pack).
  • $14: three packs of 48" Warm-white (a.k.a. Soft-white) fluorescent tube (two-pack).
  • $3: twelve 1 3/8" eye hooks.
  • $3: twelve S-hooks.
Total Expenditure: $175
Until seed starting time rolls around, this shelf will be used as kitchen storage. I think it will be fun to have the seedlings in the middle of the kitchen!

Two cool-white and two warm-white bulbs per shelf should do the trick!

Fluorescent tubes should be replaced periodically because they get dimmer over time. I bought all new lights this year, which is expensive, but I shouldn't have to replace them for at least two years.


My version: 
  • $178 (could be built for even less money if you already own a suitable shelf and/or shoplights)
  • Combination cool-white/warm-white bulbs may not be as effective as wide-spectrum bulbs, but they are a lot cheaper and have worked very well for me in the past.
  • Lights can be raised or lowered using S-hooks and/or chain
  • Can be used for storage elsewhere in the house when not in use.
Johnny's version: 
  • ~$750
  •  Wide-spectrum bulbs may be more effective for plant growth
  • Adjustable shelf height
  • The shelf is on wheels and can be moved around easily
  • Shelves are not solid, but instead have rails to hold drop-in plastic trays...however, this means that the shelf can't be used for storage during the off-season.
The Johnny's version might be a little fancier, but I think I'll stick with my version for now. Just think! You could build four homemade seed starting shelves for less than the price of one pre-fab shelf! I'll keep you updated on how well my new seed shelf works.

What kind of seed starting setup do you use?

January 28, 2012

New USDA Zone Map...Finally

The USDA recently released an updated zone map. I was really excited to see if my zone changed or if my first and last frost dates changed.  I read an article released in the last few days that said something along the lines of "8 million gardeners rejoice as their gardens move a half zone warmer". Well...not for me. My area was zone 5b on the old map, and it's still 5b on the new map! Bummer!

Apparently, the USDA was going to release a map in 2003, but the Busch administration didn't want it to be released (because it showed evidence of global warming). And because of that, over twenty years later, we were still using a map from 1990! I'm glad for the updated map, but it doesn't open any new doors for me!

January 27, 2012

Google thinks I'm a 40-year old

My friend Joseph over at Greensparrow Gardens recently posted on Facebook about Google Ads Preferences...basically Google tries to guess your age and gender based on the types of websites that you visit most often.  While they at least got my gender correct, Google thinks I'm 10 to 20 years older than I am. I guess I must have very "mature" interests and hobbies! It makes sense though...in a horticulture class I took a few years ago, they taught us that most marketing for gardening products is targeted at 40-year-old women (and you'll see below that most of my internet time is spent looking at gardening stuff).

To try it for yourself, simply click on: www.google.com/ads/preferences

Here's what came up when I clicked on the link:

"Your categories
Below you can review the interests and inferred demographics that Google 
has associated with your cookie. 
Business & Industrial - Agriculture & Forestry - Livestock
Food & Drink - Cooking & Recipes
Food & Drink - Cooking & Recipes - Fruits & Vegetables
Food & Drink - Cooking & Recipes - Meat & Seafood
Home & Garden - Gardening & Landscaping
Pets & Animals - Pets - Rabbits & Rodents
World Localities - North America - USA - Midwest (USA) - Michigan

Your demographics
We infer your age and gender based on the websites you've visited. 
Age: 35-44
Gender: Female"

January 25, 2012

Giveaway: Heirloom Tomato Seeds

Every year I've added a few more heirloom tomato varieties to my collection. As of my 2012 seed inventory, I have about 28 varieties in my collection and I will be adding a few more this year. I don't grow all of them every year and I don't continue growing the ones that I don't like.

Here's a portion of what I have stashed in the fridge  (in no particular order):

Kellog's Breakfast
Yellow Pear
Bloody Butcher
Japanese Black Trifele
Aunt Ruby's German Green
Principe Borghese
Martino's Roma
Polish Linguisa
Matt's Wild Cherry
Cherokee Purple
Pruden's Purple
Black Krim
Goldrush Currant
Yellow Brandywine
San Marzano
Amish Paste
Chocolate Stripes
Creme Brulee
Peach Blow Sutton
Anna Russian

And here's the giveaway: 

Leave a comment below (USA and CANADA residents only please) telling me which three varieties from my list that you'd like to grow this year. A week from today (Wednesday Feb 1), I will randomly select 2 winners and mail you a packet of seeds for each variety you've requested (at least 10 seeds per packet).  If you want descriptions of the individual varieties, check out either Pinetree Garden Seeds or Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Keep in mind that these are seeds that I've saved myself, so the germination rate and trueness to type can't be guaranteed...that said, I've have excellent results saving seeds year after year and I think they'll work great for you to!

January 23, 2012

Casting Your Vote As A Meat Eater

No, this post isn't about meat-eaters versus vegetarians. It's about choosing what meat you consume as a meat eater.

I recently had a talk with my boyfriend about the possibility of raising meat rabbits. He seemed to take it in stride with all the other off-the-wall ideas I have on a daily basis. My boyfriend has spent his college years eating a lot of prepared foods, and like most Americans, doesn't often think about where his food comes from or how it was produced. I don't blame him for it, because that's how most Americans are raised (including myself). It wasn't until my college years that I really started giving a hoot about this stuff.

I told my boyfriend that I was going to buy a butchered rabbit from a local grocery store so we could see how it tastes. There's no point raising meat rabbits if we don't like how they taste! He was fine with the idea of eating grocery store rabbit. But then I asked him if he would eat rabbit grown in our own backyard, he said he would be weirded out by it and that he wouldn't want to eat animals that he knew. This response threw me for a loop!

Whether you buy nameless/faceless meat at the grocery store, or slaughter and butcher your own animal, you are casting the same vote. Either way, an animal is being slaughtered! And wouldn't you rather know that the animal had a happy life, was raised in a spacious and clean home, and was slaughtered in a stress-free environment?

I'm hoping I can bring him around to the idea...and I hope our initial taste of rabbit (from the grocery store) is so good that he'll be hooked for life!

January 20, 2012

Popcorn Chickens

My boyfriend brought home a giant garbage bag full of popcorn to feed to the chickens. I'm only giving it to them in small quantities since it is butter-flavor popcorn, but I'm sure a little bit won't hurt them any.

They love it! They seem to like to crunch it up into smaller pieces and then pick up all the crumbs.

I wonder if this will make their eggs buttery tasting (or higher in cholesterol)?

January 18, 2012

Aged Eggs

I've been getting eggs from my chickens for over 6 months now and I recently realized that I still had a carton (or two, shh) of their eggs way back from the beginning. I opened up the carton and started laughing because they used to be so tiny! Here's a side-by-side shot of last week's eggs on the left (notice that the Aracuana is not laying) next to the first round of eggs on the right.

I decided it was probably time to get rid of the 6-month-old eggs, so I cracked them down the garbage disposal and put the shells in the compost pile. Amazingly, even though they seemed a little shrunken inside, not a single one smelled off...even after 6 months.

These'll make a nice addition to the compost heap.

January 16, 2012

Thrift Store Canning Jars

I made a trip to one of the many thrift stores in my area yesterday to look for canning jars. I was lucky this time, I found four 1.5 pint jars, two pint jars, and two 8 oz jars. At $0.30 a pop, I got all this for $2.54 including tax!

However, the 1.5 pint Atlas jars are kind of weird, so I looked them up online. It turns out that the Atlas Mason jars are just commercial spaghetti sauce jars used by the Classico brand. I think these jars are simply a gimmick used by Classico to make their product look more legit. Honestly though, can they really put the word "mason" on their jars, if they aren't actually canning jars?

I know I've water-bath canned with Atlas jars before with no trouble.  I just assumed Atlas was a brand that had gone out of business, since you can't buy them anywhere. But now I'm wondering if I should really be using them for canning? From what I've found online, plenty of people use these for canning with great success, but I've also heard that they have a coating inside that can wear off and eventually cause breakage.

I'm not sure what to do...

January 13, 2012

Home and Garden Goals for 2012

Things are pretty up in the air for me at the moment. I've decided to finish grad school early with a Master's Degree instead of continuing on for the PhD.  I'm actually really excited about moving forward with my life, and I hope by this summer I'll be settled into my first "grown-up job". Who will I be working for? What city will I be living in? I have no clue, and it's very exciting.

I would like to stay in Lansing for a while longer, so hopefully I can find a decent job in the area. I own a home and I'm not ready to pick up and move yet. If I had to move (say, for an awesome job opportunity) I could do it, but I would also be displacing my boyfriend from his job. I have my mortgage paid off and finally have a chance to build up some savings. I put a lot of work in my house (built in 1920) when I moved in (re-finished hard wood floors, new carpet, new windows, new paint, new linoleum, etc). There's still a lot more to fix-up, and I'd like the chance to finish giving the house the attention it needs.

I put a lot of love into my house when I moved in.

 I have my vegetable garden, which I'm not ready to leave. I have my chickens, which probably couldn't come with me if I move out of town. I have the prospect of legalizing goats in my city, which I'm really excited about. I'm in a good centralized location in Michigan to visit a number of friends and family. I have a lot going on here in Lansing, so the prospect of going back to apartment living (while testing the waters at a new job out of town) isn't very appealing.

When I moved in, the huge and sunny backyard was a great "blank canvas" for a garden.

Building raised beds the first spring at my new house, 2009.

That said, I'm hesitant to plan much for my 2012 garden. Come summer, I don't even know if I'll be living here.  Assuming I stay here for at least a couple more years, here are my garden goals for 2012:

  1. Finish legalizing dairy goats in Ingham county- the wheels are already set in motion and I'm confident that this is going to happen!
  2. Assuming #1 happens, convert shed into a goat house, fence off back part of yard, and purchase two dairy goats.
  3. Build a top-bar bee hive and start beekeeping
  4. Raise meat rabbits (I will probably do either #3 or #4, but not both in the same year)
  5. Build a mini-hoophouse for season extension
  6. Finally get my raspberry patch under control
  7. Continue to learn more about breeding my own vegetables (I have a friend with a cool blog who's currently writing a book called 'Creating New Heirlooms')
  8. Defeat the mealy bug on my cactus and succulent collection
  9. Take regular "aerial panorama" photos of my garden this year. The ones I took last year were pretty cool...I'd love to track how things change from month to month.
  10. Can some pickles (the meager cucumber harvest in 2011 prevented this from happening)
  11. Can some whole tomatoes (for some reason I tend to turn my entire tomato harvest straight into spaghetti sauce)
  12. Plant some fruit trees (I should have done this the first year I loved into the house). I would love pear, apple, cherry, peach, nectarine, and apricot.
  13. Buy a meyer lemon tree
  14. Grow corn, winter squash, and leeks for the first time
  15. Start onions from seed (I've always grown them from sets)
  16. Learn how to make cheese (I've already experimented with butter and yogurt)
  17. Improve my basement seed starting setup (new lamps, new bulbs, more space, etc)
  18. Experiment with soil blocks for seed starting (I have accumulated so many plastic trays and liners, I'd love to get rid of them all and replace everything with soil blocks).
And here are a few house-related goals:
  1. Work on the half bathroom (new linoleum, new paint, new cabinetry)
  2. Finish cutting and laying quarter-round in all the rooms that got new flooring
  3. Get new kitchen countertops and possibly gut the entire kitchen and get new cabinetry (I like the free-standing modular Ikea cabinets, but I'm worried they'll look too modern in my ancient house). Possibly extend the cabinetry to create an island, or create space for a dishwasher (I would really really love a dishwasher). 
  4. Clean up the basement, which has become a giant scary storage dump
  5. Buy more shelving for the basement
  6. De-clutter, get rid of knick knacks, have a garage sale
  7. Buy one or two dressers. We've been storing all of our clothes on shelves, and it is not working.
  8. Figure out some sort of storage system for my recyclables, which are currently heaped into piles in the basement

January 9, 2012

Garden Goals: How'd I Do in 2011?

Here's a re-cap of my gardening goals for 2011. Let's see how many things I actually accomplished... 

1) Eat more vegetables. I would especially like to try to eat more of the vegetables that I grow. I should try to incorporate veggies from my garden into every single meal this summer. I have a bad habit of growing random vegetables that interest me, but then I never actually get around to eating them! For example, I've grown swiss chard the last two years, but never eaten a single leaf. Swiss chard is beautiful enough to grow for its ornamental value, but I'm probably really missing out on some good stuff!
I definitely accomplished Goal #1. I tried many new vegetables this year as well as increased my overall intake of vegetables. In 2011, I ate a lot more kohlrabi, kale, swiss chard, cucumbers, edamame than ever before. The dark leafy greens often found a home on top of a homemade pizza

2) Keep better records. I usually keep track of the dates that I sow my seeds, but I never remember to record things like plant-out date (if transplanting), date of first harvest, or harvest yield. Generally, I remember things like flavor, disease susceptibility or resistance, and growth habit. Over the years, this knowledge can get a little jumbled and should probably be written down.
Goal #2 didn't go so well...I started the year off fine, but once seed-starting season was over, I pretty much stopped keeping records. Keeping up with recording names and dates for a highly diversified 1,000+ square-foot garden is a bit much for me.

3) Plant fall crops. Every year I intend to sow a fall crop of carrots, lettuce, broccoli, cilantro, etc., but I always lose track of time or forget. It's a shame because I could plant all kinds of fall veggies in vacant spots that have opened up over the course of the summer. I also should try to build mini hoop-houses for season extension.
I kind of accomplished goal #3. I did some sowing mid- to late-summer, but these sowings didn't amount to much. There were quite a few things that I planted in spring, however, that probably should have been planted for the fall (like daikon radish, broccoli, cauliflower, etc).

4) Grow strawberries. This will be a first for me.
I planted the strawberries and then kind of forgot about them for the rest of the summer. Hopefully they'll come back strong this year.

5) Clean up my wild black raspberry patch and my red raspberry patch. These were engulfed by weeds last year and my harvest was almost nothing.
I did clean up the black raspberry patch, but not so much the red raspberry patch. Again, my harvest was almost nothing in 2011. Small-fruits must not be my thing!

And finally...

6) Be a better composter. My goals are to chop up my compostables better (I've been meaning to purchase a machete just for this task), turn the pile fairly often (I never do this), and compost more cardboard, tissue, and paper (yes, these can be composted).
Nope...goal #6 didn't happen. I'm still composting all my kitchen and garden wastes, but they just pile up and sit there doing their own slow-motion break down. 

January 1, 2012

Year In Review: A Roller-coaster 2011

I haven't been posting as much as I would like during the last few months. There are so many things I want to share and yet I'm either too busy, or uninspired. I don't want to make excuses, but this has been a rough year for me, full of ups and downs. So here are the highlights (and lowlights) of my 2011:

I started the year off continuing to study and prepare for my comprehensive exams, which are quite possibly the biggest hurdle towards getting  PhD. The plan was for me to take my exams around the month of April, but that never happened.

My 95 year old grandmother died early in the year after years of dementia and alzheimer's. As terrible as it sounds, I think death was the best and kindest thing for her. My family drove through bad weather to meet her body two states away, where she was to be buried next to my grandfather.

A few weeks later, my boyfriend moved in with me. I'm still amazed at how easily we both made the transition to co-habitation. We've been together almost two and a half years now and we haven't had a single fight or argument. He is such a calm, understanding, and level-headed guy, which has been very comforting for me this past year. And I love him for that...and so many other reasons.

About a week after my boyfriend moved in, the scariest thing that has ever happened to me occurred. I was told that I might have cancer. At the time, I told very few people about it. The people I did tell were very upset and concerned and I didn't want to make more people feel that way than necessary. Over the previous few months I had developed three enlarged lymph nodes in my groin. I've had reactive lymph nodes my whole life (especially the ones in my neck), so I didn't think much of it at first. The nodes in my neck often get enlarged and tender when I have a cold or allergies and they usually go away after a week or two. But these ones were different. The nodes in my groin were non-tender, persistent, and slowly increasing in size.

After some testing, I visited a surgeon who scheduled me for an excisional biopsy to remove the tumors.  I was told that I could have lymphoma, which is fairly common in my age group. I could also have some sort of infection or illness that was causing my lymph nodes to enlarge. However, I hadn't been sick in years, I hadn't had any cuts or scrapes, I hadn't visited any foreign countries recently, and I otherwise felt perfectly healthy.

In the end, it didn't turn out to be any of those options. After going in for surgery, they removed four tumorous lymph nodes (I guess there was an extra one hiding in there somewhere). My boyfriend got to experience the joy of sitting in various waiting rooms with my dad and slightly hysterical mom for almost 12 hours throughout that day.

I had to wait several days to hear my biopsy results. Luckily, "no cancer" was among the results. I didn't really pay much attention to the rest of the stuff they told me. I later found out that was I did/do have is called progressive transformation of germinal centers (PTGC), which nobody seems to know much about. Basically it means that the germinal centers of the lymph node (where new cells are made to replace old cells) go haywire and keep pumping out new cells even though they aren't needed.  PTGC has been found to occur prior to or concurrently with lymphoma. So basically, I'm cancer free now, but the fact that I have/had PTGC could be an indicator that lymphoma is in my future. Oh great!

During this whole ordeal, I was trying to study for my comprehensive exams, even though I couldn't focus on anything for more than 10 minutes without worrying about having cancer.  Needless to say, my exams got pushed back to mid-summer.

At some point during the spring semester I inherited some money from my grandmother (mentioned above) and was able to pay off the rest of my mortgage. Although it was kind of bittersweet, I'm really appreciative to have the mortgage monkey off my back. Between buying an inexpensive foreclosed property, making a huge downpayment, making double payments many months, and the inheritance money, I was able to pay back my mortgage in less than two years and save myself from paying all kinds of interest!

Come exam time (July-ish) I was feeling pretty confident. I thought I had put in the time and effort to expect and deserve success. My written exams went okay (not great), but I passed all four of them. Next came the oral exam (what every PhD student dreads the most). Again, I felt really confident going into it. I was shocked to find out three and a half hours later that I "had not passed" (which is nice-person-speak for "failed"). I almost never cry, and I cried in front of my entire committee...like a fool. Later that day, my boyfriend got to see me cry for the first time, with the exception of when I woke up from surgery and was simultaneously crying and laughing uncontrollably (anesthesia side-effect, I'm assuming?).

It took me a while to "get it together" after that.  I was angry and I felt like an idiot. But after I accepted that I failed, I knew I wanted to try again (you can take the exam twice before you get kicked out of the PhD program). I knew I would pass the second time. It would take a lot of work (and more studying, ugh!), but I could do it.

Meanwhile, I had been seeing an oncologist regularly to monitor my health and check for early warning signs of cancer. They wanted to see me after my surgery, 3 months later, 6 months after that, and so forth until "the coast was clear" (however long that would take?). About a month after my 3-month appointment, I started having lymph node issues again. I start thinking the worst (it's hard not to). This time I had several much smaller (but still enlarged) nodes on the opposite side of my groin. I saw the oncologist and he said that I could have another surgery if I wanted, but that since the nodes were still small and I wasn't showing any of the "bad symptoms" (i.e. extreme weight loss and night sweats), that I could probably just "wait and see". I decided to wait on it. And since then, the nodes don't seem to be getting any bigger (but they also haven't gone away on their own). I'll go in again in February for a checkup.

No sooner did I get that aspect of my health in-check, did I find out that I had all kinds of dental work in my future! I hadn't been to a dentist since before I started grad school. Prior to then, I had never had a cavity or any other dental problems so I thought I could go a few years without seeing a dentist. And now I was finding out I needed 7 fillings and a root canal! I'm not sure how this happened? I haven't been a soda drinker for over 10 years and I've been taking better care of my teeth the last few years than I ever did as a child or teenager. I guess that as you grow older, your hormones continue to change, and obviously something changed in my pH-balence (or who knows what) that suddenly made my teeth give up the fight. And for some reason, I find nothing quite as demeaning as sitting in a dentist's chair getting your teeth drilled (and over the course of about 6 months, I get to do just that like 5 times).

Now it's 2012 and I'm faced with some big decisions. I obviously haven't been super successful during grad school (failing my comps was like a punch to the face). I'm starting to wonder if this is even the right thing for me right now. Do I really even need a PhD to reach my career goals? What are my career goals? What are my other options?

I never thought I would be thinking these things, but here I am seriously considering stopping school early with a Master's degree. I've always been a very ambitious person, and getting a PhD is just about the most ambitious thing you can do educationally. However, "just because I can do it" doesn't mean "I should do it". Hopefully I'll figure this all out soon. And hopefully 2012 will be a little less like a roller-coaster ride.

So there's my rant for 2011. I've been saving that up for a while now...Phew!
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