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Supermarket samaritans. May 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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7 comments

Silence Dogood here. I’ve been noticing a heartwarming trend at my local grocery the past few months: People have been leaving coupons on the shelves with the products they’re good for.

These aren’t expired coupons that some piggish litterers left behind when they saw that they’d waited too long to redeem them. Nor are they coupons that have been inadvertently forgotten. Sometimes, there will be a little stack of them piled neatly in front of the appropriate product.

In these hard times, small gestures like this can make a big difference. I don’t know if I’m seeing the work of a single samaritan or a group, if this just goes on in my grocery or if it’s happening nationwide. But however many of you there are, wherever you are, thank you.

        ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

Purple Pennsylvania artichokes! May 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

Here at Hawk’s Haven, the ‘Violetta’ artichoke plants in our greenhouse are forming buds, the unopened thistle-like flowers that we eat as artichokes. Our friend Nancy Ondra gave us some ‘Violetta’ transplants last year (see her wonderful blog, Hayefield, by clicking on our blogroll at right, and see our earlier post, “Red corn and purple artichokes” for more about them, plus a yummy recipe for Artichoke Pasta a la Silence). Thanks again, Nan!

‘Violetta’, also called ‘Violetta di Chioggia’ and ‘Violetta Precoce’, is only hardy to Zone 7a (or where temperatures never drop below 0 degrees F). Our garden is Zone 6a, a full hardiness zone colder. So we tucked our three plants in our in-ground greenhouse bed and tried to keep them alive over winter. Much to our amazement, we succeeded.

And now, lo and behold, the biggest plant has produced an artichoke bud, with a second on the way. You’d think we would be ecstatic—perennial artichokes in Pennsylvania!—but we have a couple of problems. Our friend Ben’s problem is that, with a name like ‘Violetta’, the leaves and artichokes are supposed to be purple, or at least purplish. And outside in full sun, they probably are. But in our greenhouse, their color is, shall we say, unexpected, more like a very faint purple-grey bruise spreading over an expanse of jaundiced skin. Our friend Ben recognizes that this is probably due more to my less-than-tender parenting skills rather than the inherent traits of the plant, but still. It’s not quite the color of my dreams.

Silence Dogood also has a problem. I’ve never known Silence to be at a culinary loss—I would stake my lottery money on her as an “Iron Chef” contestant any day—but she can’t figure out how one is supposed to cook an artichoke that’s about an inch around.

When preparing the standard ‘Green Globe’ artichoke, she tells me, you cut straight across the top with a sharp knife to remove the spiny tips, then plunge the big buds in boiling water for half an hour or so until the “leaves” pull off easily and are tender. To eat them, you pull off one leaf at a time, dip the broad end in melted butter and lemon juice, vinaigrette, or a mayonnaise dip, then lift it to your mouth and pull the soft, buttery flesh from the bottom half of the leaf, discarding the rest (which is fibrous). When you’ve run out of leaves at the bristly core, scoop off the bristly part with your spoon and add it to the discard pile (the flavor of artichokes is an aesthetic delight, but nobody could say that the process of eating one was an aesthetic experience!), revealing the soft, succulent, delicious heart beneath. You then scoop bits of that out with your spoon, lower them into the melted butter, and savor them like the treasure they are.

This technique works beautifully for an artichoke the size of your two fists. But what, Silence wailed, can you do with a mini-artichoke? It’s not like the “leaves” (actually sepals surrounding the future flower) of the little thing look soft and tender or anything, so you could just drop the ‘choke in boiling water for a few minutes and eat it whole. They’re every bit as spiny-looking as their bigger cousins. But if you cut the tops off of them, you’ll only have about a half-inch of artichoke left!

If anyone out there can help Silence, please let us know. Otherwise, we’ll probably be enjoying beautiful purple artichoke blooms in a week or two, and hope that Silence can solve the mystery before next year’s buds form…

Eat Your Words May 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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1 comment so far

Silence Dogood here, and no, this isn’t a comment directed at our friend Ben. It’s actually the title of a fun book I found yesterday at our local library. (Subtitle: “A Fascinating Look at the Language of Food”) The book tells all kinds of stories about how foods and food-related expressions got their names, most of which tally with what I know, which of course inclines me to trust the stuff I didn’t know, such as this entry about sardines:

“Why can’t you buy fresh sardines at the grocery store? The answer is surprising: Because a sardine is not a sardine until it is packed in a sardine can. Actually, there is no living fish called a sardine. Any one of twenty different species might end up as a canned sardine. The most common are young herring and pilchard. The name sardine comes from the island of Sardinia, where sardines were first canned in 1834.”

Who’d’a thunk? If you enjoy the origins of words, or obscure facts about food, look for Eat Your Words (by Charlotte Foltz Jones, Delacorte Press, 1999) at your local library. You’ll find the origins of expressions like “a baker’s dozen,” how words like canape and pie came to be associated with foods rather than their original meanings, and why a dish of ice cream and syrup came to be called a sundae. It’s fun!

Don’t be put off by the fact that this book is likely to be found in the children’s book section. What publishers are thinking when they assign books like Eat Your Words (especially with its vaguely disturbing Goreyesque illustrations by John O’Brien) to the children’s books category is beyond me. I don’t know if children would enjoy it, but I did, and I think you would, too!

Oh, and OFB, listen up.

          ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

How to water hanging baskets. May 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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5 comments

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood enjoy hanging baskets. We grow everything from Easter cacti to spider plants and decorative sweet potato vines in hanging baskets, suspended from a pole that runs the length of our greenhouse and/or hanging from hooks in the branches of trees that surround our deck.

However. We emphatically do not enjoy watering our hanging baskets. No doubt Groucho Marx, Peter Sellers, Lucille Ball or Roberto Benigni could have made an incredible slapstick routine out of our friend Ben’s watering attempts: Lifting a gallon milk jug of water high overhead and trying to upend it over a hanging basket, inevitably having water (and often potting soil as well) pour out of the top of the basket into the unfortunate face and all over the shirt of the devoted gardener, and then having to continue to try to get the water to saturate the soil until it, also inevitably, pours out the bottom onto said gardener’s head, clothes, etc. Then move on to the next plant and repeat. Arrrgghhh!!!

Well, you can imagine how awed our friend Ben was when Silence, our puppy Shiloh, and I visited Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm in scenic Bowers, PA and saw his basket-watering technique on Memorial Day. Jim had run drip irrigation across the roof of each greenhouse, setting it up so that one spaghetti tube and nozzle were positioned over each hanging basket. Looking up, mesmerized, our friend Ben saw the water dripping down into each hanging basket a drop at a time. Drip. Drip. No wasted water, no hauling milk jugs, no slapstick routine. And the health of the plants assured me that everything was getting plenty of water, with no water lost.

Wow. Our collection of hanging baskets here at Hawk’s Haven is too small to justify the expense of this setup. But gee, what a perfect solution!

OFB opinion poll #1. May 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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11 comments

Our friend Ben wants to know what you think. Specifically, I want to know what you think about upside-down tomato plants. Our friend Ben saw a whole lotta those this past weekend while plant- and potting soil-shopping at local nurseries. And I’m not happy about it.

We all know those horrible plastic bags of soil that you hang up and dangle tomato plants out of, sort of like a sausage that suddenly sprouted upside down. And now there are hanging “baskets” (you may think of baskets in terms of white plastic, but not our friend Ben) with holes in the bottom, out of which the hapless tomato plants hang helpless like the victims of Ghengis Khan or Vlad the Impaler. One ingenious retailer had even planted basil in the tops of these hanging planters, so you could presumably enjoy tomatoes and basil from the same container.

Our friend Ben just doesn’t get this. If God wanted tomatoes to hang upside down, He’d have given them monkey tails and sent them into trees. Mind you, I don’t see anything wrong with growing tomatoes in containers; see our earlier post, “The container tomato trial,” to find out about our own experiments with this. But there’s quite a difference between growing tomatoes upright in a container and having them hang upside down from the bottom of a bag or “basket.” I realize that it means you wouldn’t have to cage, stake, or otherwise support the growing plants. But frankly, that’s not a huge deal.

However, trying to water a container that’s high enough off the ground to allow a tomato plant to grow to its full height (or length, I suppose, in this case) would be a big deal. It would be an even bigger deal to try to hoist a container that’s roomy enough for deep-digging tomato roots to spread out. Our friend Ben thinks you’d need a support as strong as an arbor to hold one up, and a half-barrel-sized container swinging from on high strikes me as Monty Pythonesque. Not to mention the unfortunate truth that fullgrown tomato plants aren’t the most aesthetic botanicals on the block. Foliage yellows and spots, and often falls off; tomato hornworms make their stealthy way onto stems and leaves. Do you really want a mass of that hanging down in your face?

Well, maybe you do. Somebody’s definitely buying these hanging tomato gizmos, or the nurseries wouldn’t be selling them. That’s why our friend Ben is asking for your opinion. Do you use them? Do you like them? If so, sound off and change my mind. If not, let me hear from you, too: We right-side-up-minded gardeners need to stick together!

Note: For some very astute observations on tomato-growing habits in general, see David in Kansas’s comment, which unfortunately wound up with our earlier post “Frugal living tip #21″ rather than here.

Frugal living tip #21. May 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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4 comments

Silence Dogood here at last with this week’s Frugal Living Tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. (We’ve been a little distracted this week, and besides, our friend Ben has been hogging the airwaves. But better late than later, right?) This week, I promised to share an interesting item I found in the Wall Street Journal on “Sites [that] Let You Swap Till You Drop.”

[Totally unrelated rant: WSJ, "till" is what you do to the soil. The correct spelling of the short form of "until" is 'til. As in, "Swap 'Til You Drop." Shame on you!]

The Journal reviewed three websites that primarily feature clothing and accessories swaps. (Swapped items can be “gently used” or new.) Basically, you upload a photo of the item you want to swap, review offers of swaps from folks who are interested in your item, and if you like something that’s offered, agree to the swap, ship off your item, and get the item of your choice in exchange. Like eBay, comments and ratings help keep transactions aboveboard and prevent “swaplifting.”

The sites are Swapstyle (www.swapstyle.com), Rehash Clothes (www.rehashclothes.com), and Dig’N’Swap (www.dignswap.com). The author of the article, Nancy Matsumoto, put up items to swap on each site and reported on her experience with each site in the article, as well as providing an at-a-glance comparison chart. (Look for the article, “Sites Let You Swap Till You Drop,” under “Cranky Consumer” on the Wall Street Journal website, www.wsj.com.)

The point of these sites is that they let you exchange that too-big sweater Great-Aunt Ethel bought you last Christmas (okay, it was handmade and probably pretty pricey, but just look at that color!) or the too-small shoes you absolutely couldn’t resist but only managed to limp to work in once for something you’re pretty sure you’ll love.

Yes, of course you could just take the stuff to your local Goodwill or Salvation Army, but the chances of finding something really good there aren’t so great. These sites let you feel like you’re shopping without spending any money, or at least any more money than it costs to ship your stuff. So if you love to shop but are in a money crunch thanks to our faltering economy, here’s a way to shop for (practically) free and get rid of unwanted stuff. Sounds like a deal!

              ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

Potato bin update #1. May 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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5 comments

Our friend Ben is delighted to report that our potato bin experiment is going well (so far). If you missed the initial description and setup, check our earlier post, “Tower of (potato) power.” After a month of pretty much nothing happening, our ‘Yukon Gold’ seed potatoes have not only sent up shoots but have been growing so strongly that it was obviously time to add a layer of soil to cover the stems.

Cover the stems? You read that right. Just as the related tomato will grow roots all along a buried stem—which is why old-timers always suggest burying new tomato transplants up to practically the top leaves to make for stronger, better-supported plants—potato plants will set potatoes all along their buried stems. Our plan is to alternate layers of straw and soil as the stems grow until we reach the very top of the bin, then let the stems grow in the fresh air, bloom, and eventually die back. At which point we’ll lift off the bin and paw through the soil and straw in search of potatoes.

I’ve been using organic potting soil for the soil layers, since we don’t have any soil to spare from our garden beds. But now my supply of potting soil was almost exhausted (and besides, Silence Dogood always needs some to pot up the houseplants, greenhouse plants, and deck container plants as they grow). So Silence and our friend Ben piled our puppy Shiloh in the car and headed off to Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm out in scenic Bowers, PA on Memorial Day to stock up. (See our earlier post, “Scotch Bonnets and Dutchy Gunpowder,” for more on Jim and his amazing hot peppers.)

Jim had a selection of potting soils and soil amendments for sale, including organic mushroom compost (the best!), their own compost, and bags of an intriguing mix of compost, vermiculite and perlite they called “Square Foot Gardening Mix.” Not seeing any reason to quibble, our friend Ben bought some of each and loaded it into the car along with a happy Shiloh and an even happier Silence. (She had found one pot of thyme that was a sport in the middle of a flat of silver-variegated thyme. This one pot did show some silver variegation, but the new leaves were pure gold, making for a breathtaking combination. Silence looked unusually smug, even for her—ouch, Silence! just kidding! owww!!!—as she clutched her newfound treasure.)

Back at Hawk’s Haven, I poured the Square Foot mix carefully around the potato stems until they were buried up to about the top two inches. Next time it will be a layer of straw. The plants looked healthy and vigorous. So far, so good. Of course, assuming they continue to thrive, the ultimate test will come when we pull off the bin and look for the harvest sometime late this summer or fall, whenever the plant tops have completely died back. Stay tuned. As noted, numerous potatoes overwintered for us this year—a first!—and are growing strongly in one of our in-ground raised beds, so we’ll have an interesting comparison when we harvest those, sort of the classic experiment setup with the new technique versus the control. 

And if any of you are familiar with Square Foot soil mix, let us know what you think! With the Weavers’ good compost as the main ingredient, it looked pretty good to our friend Ben.

Do chickens eat radish greens? May 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

An alert reader just came on our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, with this query. The answer is yes.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were out yesterday visiting Mennonite farm stands and Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm out in Bowers, PA with our black German Shepherd puppy Shiloh, and Silence found a long white radish at one farm stand that she just couldn’t resist. (Not that we don’t already have French Breakfast, Easter Egg, and Cherry Red radishes in the fridge, but for the devout radish lover, the lure of an unknown radish is admittedly hard to ignore.)

After walking Shiloh in the Bowers community park, where she had a quite comical encounter with another mostly-black puppy (both had a splotch of white on their chests) the size of a hotdog—thank God, Shiloh was quiet and gentle with him—we meandered back to our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven. At which point, Silence removed the massive growth of prickly, muddy radish foliage prior to washing the white radishes (4-6″ long and, it turns out, quite good) and storing them with our radish stash in the fridge. Trying to have as little contact with the radish foliage as possible, Silence gingerly handed it over to our friend Ben to take out to our chickens.

Which I did, and of course they loved it. Our friend Ben rejoiced that the chickens were enjoying such a rich source of nutrients, sort of a free bonus for our $1 bunch of radishes. And as always, it feels good to know that our kitchen scraps are making healthy chickens and incredible eggs. 

So, dear reader, by all means give your radish greens to your chickens. And any other greens, for that matter. The only greens we don’t give our chickens are onion, garlic, chives and other allium (onion family) greens, which might give the eggs an off-flavor. Otherwise, all bets are on! Your chickens will thank you.

Thinning peaches. May 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

It’s peach-thinning time here in Pennsylvania! Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have a dwarf ‘Reliance’ peach tree, so named because it’s cold-hardy and flowers later than other peaches, reducing the risk that the blooms will be killed by a late frost. (Dead blooms = no peaches.) Our ‘Reliance’ has certainly lived up to its name, reliably producing bumper crops of delicious peaches every year. In fact, it’s way too enthusiastic when it comes to peach production.

Our friend Ben can’t believe that wild peaches behave in this extravagant way, but it certainly seems like every one of the clouds of hot-pink blooms that make our ‘Reliance’ so spectacular each spring goes on to form a peach. Right now, the peaches are about the size of my thumbnail, and they’re already touching each other. That’s where thinning comes in.

You thin the fruit for three reasons: First, to give the remaining peaches enough room to reach full size. Second, to help prevent disease, since peaches rubbing against each other are more likely to get black mold and rot. (You should put the thinned peaches in a bag and trash them rather than letting them fall to the ground or composting them for the same reason, in case any of them are carrying fungal spores.) And third, to keep from weighing down the branches with ripe fruit, which can actually rip an unsupported limb off the tree (don’t ask our friend Ben how we know this).

But how far apart should the peaches you leave on the tree be? Here’s a great tip from our friend Dave: “I worked at a local orchard one summer when I was a kid,” Dave told us this past weekend. “The owner said if you spread your thumb and little finger as far apart as you can”—he held up a hand to demonstrate—”that’s about the right distance to leave between peaches.”

Our friend Ben tried this later that night with a ruler, and on my hand, it’s eight inches from fingertip to fingertip. Of course, you could eyeball it when you’re thinning, but I love the idea of having your own integral measuring device with you at all times. It links me to the past, back to mediaeval times when body-based measurements like handspans and paces were the norm rather than the exception. Today, the foot is the only body-based measurement I can think of that’s still in common use.

So next time you need to thin your peaches, remember Dave’s handy (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one) rule of thumb (or that one either). Your measuring tool is just an arm’s length away.

It was a dark and stormy night. May 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
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8 comments

And that was just the beginning. Silence Dogood here, with a tale of domestic terror that will make “Angels and Demons” look like an entry in “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

It was 3:30 a.m., and our friend Ben and I were attempting to get some sleep despite the fast and furious action of the NASCAT races going on between the bedroom and the living room. (See my earlier post, “Cats in space, or what we do at 2 a.m.,” for more on NASCAT and the feline space program, FASA.)

Suddenly, a groggy Ben lurched to his feet, having apparently intuited that our new puppy Shiloh needed to go out. But it must have taken the sleep-addled OFB too long to get on his boots, open the deck door, and let little Shiloh out of her crate, because the next thing I heard was a groan followed by “Oh NOOOOO!!!”

Well, accidents will happen, I thought smugly as I headed to the bathroom myself. As it turns out, maybe I should have shown a bit more sympathy for OFB and a bit less for poor Shiloh, because no sooner had I returned to the bedroom, leaving a miserable Ben on his hands and knees in the kitchen with the paper towels, than I heard one of the most dreaded sounds known to pet-owning humankind: the unmistakable noise of a cat in the process of throwing up. (The only sound that can bring even more fear to the pet owner’s heart is the noise a dog makes before throwing up.) Soon enough, I too was on my knees with the paper towels. 

But at last the ordeal was over and I crawled wearily into bed, leaving OFB to his fate. Turning the light off, I reached to rearrange the pillows when my hand brushed against something long and stringy. At first, I assumed it was yet another shred of Kleenex—I’d done the laundry earlier and, despite OFB’s protestations that he’d searched every pocket of his shirts and jeans for hidden Kleenex, he’d apparently managed to miss one, much to my disgust when I took the clothes out of the dryer—but then I realized that it didn’t feel like Kleenex. It felt like, well, like a thick, shiny ponytail tie. It felt like…. YAAAAAHHHH!!! It felt like a centipede!!!! 

Please don’t ask me how I knew what a centipede feels like. I’m relatively certain I’ve never handled a centipede before. But sure enough, when I turned the light on, there it was: a centipede. “AAAAHHHHH!!!!” I screamed, attempting to alert Ben, still in the kitchen cleaning up after Shiloh, to this latest disaster. “There’s a centipede on our pillows!!!”

“Really?” came the response, delivered in a tone of mild scientific curiosity.

“Centipede bites are poisonous, Ben!!!” As if any bug on the bed wouldn’t be nightmare enough!  

“Really?”

GRRRRRRRRRRRRR.

“You’re not going to kill it, are you, Silence?”

No, actually I was planning to drop it down the back of your tee-shirt. “Aren’t you going to get it out of here, Ben?”

“I can’t, I’m still cleaning up here. Why don’t you just bundle it up in a paper towel and toss it out the door? Don’t squeeze it or anything or you might hurt it.”

“!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Too bad they don’t make dog crates for people. OFB would definitely have spent the rest of the night in one!

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