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Fly in the sky. May 29, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I just read the most extraordinary technique for keeping flies away from your home in “Dollar Stretcher Tips,” the free e-newsletter from The Dollar Stretcher (www.stretcher.com). It’s homemade, nontoxic, practically free, and best of all, it works!

All you need are zip-lock plastic bags and water. Say what? No, the flies don’t mistake the bags for aboveground pools and drown. Instead, they apparently mistake them for menacing predators and flee the area.

The author of the tip said friends’ formerly fly-infested porch was completely fly-free after they hung up five of the water-filled bags under the porch eaves. (She’d been understandably skeptical, but visited both before and after and saw for herself.)

The editor of the newsletter added that because of the numerous facets in fly eyes, the water distorts their vision, frightening them off. She noted that this technique had been known since at least Colonial times, when folks would set out clear glass bowls of water to repel flies. I wonder if our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, used fly-repelling water bowls in his home? Maybe he even invented the technique.

Unfortunately, the article didn’t mention exactly how the people hung up the plastic bags. Try as I might, I can’t think of a good way to suspend a heavy, water-filled plastic bag without either obscuring its transparency or turning it into a water balloon, just waiting to rip free and crash down on somebody’s head (almost inevitably mine).

Mercifully, our friend Ben and I don’t have many flies hovering around Hawk’s Haven, so I won’t have to put this technique to the test. But if anybody tries it, please let us know what you do and how it works for you!

                ‘Til next time,



Four seasons or five? May 27, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I’ve recently discovered that in Japan, there are five seasons, not four: spring, summer, late summer, fall, and winter.

For those of us who garden and cook seasonally, this makes so much sense. Late summer is the harvest season for so many vegetables and fruits: late-ripening corn and tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, melons, grapes, plums, sweet potatoes, onions, beans, and so much more. It’s prime pickling and canning season.

Fall is the time of harvest for crops like winter squash and pumpkins, apples, pears, persimmons, popcorn, garlic, Brussels sprouts, and a second crop of greens like spinach, kale, collards, and winter lettuce. It’s not the same as late summer, which is not at all the same as true summer.

The difference between all these seasons makes me wonder why we in the West settled on four seasons rather than five. Any thoughts?

                ‘Til next time,


Is thyroid disease creeping up on you? May 26, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Today is apparently World Thyroid Day, as I discovered this morning from an online article, “Could You Have a Thyroid Disorder?” from SHAPE magazine. It showcased the plight of former “Baywatch” star Gena Lee Nolan, who discovered that she had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (aka Hashimoto’s disease) after experiencing a buildup of debilitating symptoms.

Ms. Nolan decided to fight back by raising awareness of thyroid disorders, partnering with Dr. Alan Christianson, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Thyroid Disease. For the estimated 22 million Americans who suffer from thyroid diseases—more than those who suffer from heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer—this is very good news. It’s especially good news for women, who are eight times as likely to suffer from thyroid disorders as men. (It’s especially likely to turn up after pregnancy and menopause, times when women’s hormones are in flux.)

I salute Ms. Nolan’s and Dr. Christianson’s efforts, since I also suffer from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I can give you a first-hand account of the symptoms, which tend to creep up on you so you have no clue as to what’s happening. It’s like a litany of horrors: Your weight inexorably creeps up, even if you’re exercising and eating right, and even when, perceiving the sagging scale, you increase your exercise and cut back on even healthy foods. You’re tired all the time, desperate for naps and early bedtimes. Your hair becomes dry and brittle, then starts to fall out. You feel like someone’s constantly trying to choke you, like there’s a noose around your neck, making a traditional crewneck tee-shirt or anything else that hugs the neck, like a choker necklace, impossible to wear. You can’t swallow vitamins or any other pills. Your digestion goes completely to hell. And then these puffy swellings pop up on either side of your neck. What the bleep?!

My beloved Mama died of lymphoma when she was just three years older than I am now. Seeing those swellings on each side of my neck convinced me that I had lymphoma as well, and was going the way of my unfortunate genetic destiny. But our friend Ben and my brother raised such relentless hell with me to see a specialist that I finally gave in and went to an endocrinologist.

The specialist assured me at once that I didn’t have terminal lymphoma, but instead was suffering from thyroid disease. After a battery of blood tests, Hashimoto’s was diagnosed, and I was put on a low dose of inexpensive Synthroid (just $18 a month) or its even more inexpensive generic equivalent, which was less than $9 a month. (Can you believe it?!) I felt very lucky.

Though it often is quite a struggle to diagnose thyroid malfunction—in Ms. Nolan’s case, it took 10 years to find a doctor who recognized her symptoms—the treatment tends to be very straightforward. Just take a tiny pill each morning to rectify your thyroid’s inability to function. By contrast, not getting your symptoms diagnosed and treated properly have the most dire consequences imaginable: Your immune system attacks and eventually destroys your thyroid gland, which produces the hormones that regulate all bodily functions.

So, everybody, please: If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms I describe, get yourself to an endocrinologist ASAP. If you’re diagnosed with thyroid problems, the remedy is at hand, it’s cheap, and I had no side effects of any kind. Don’t wait until the symptoms have piled up to the point where you think you’re dying, as I did. Get in there and get your thyroid function tested! Your insurance should cover the tests.

For more information and support, go to Ms. Nolan’s “Thyroid Sexy” Facebook page.

           ‘Til next time,


If you won the lottery… May 25, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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“Silence! Are you thinking prosperous thoughts?”

“Ben, I’m always thinking prosperous thoughts. So… have we finally won anything?”


“Not again!”

“Oh well, there’s always tomorrow.”

Silence Dogood and our friend Ben are fortunate to live in a state that has a lottery. We consider it the cheapest form of hope. For less than the cost of a bottle of Coke or a candy bar, you can buy a ticket to financial freedom. We buy exactly one ticket a day, and first thing in the morning, we go online to see if we’ve finally won. We’re not morning people, so wondering if we’ve become instant millionaires is a great way to get us out of bed in the morning. And when we discover that, yet again, our ticket is not a winner, our spirits aren’t dampened, since, after all, there’s tomorrow’s ticket already waiting for its chance.

Admittedly, this is the only sort of gambling we indulge in. We don’t see much sense in sinking the minute amount of financial resources at our disposal into efforts that promise no more than our dollar-a-day lottery habit. But we do think that $7 a week invested toward our potential financial security is a better investment than, say, $20 spent for us to go out to a movie, which after all we can rent on Netflix along with bazillion others for $13 a month. Not to mention that in our state, Pennsylvania, the lottery directly supports services for the elderly, so our money is being used in a very good cause. 

Having lottery tickets on hand not only boosts our spirits, it’s a spur to self-knowledge and creative thinking. What would we do if we actually won? We like to split our plans into categories based on the amount of takehome money:

$500,000 or less: Pay off any debts, put the rest in the bank.

$600,000: Previous, plus buy new cars to replace the 240,000- and 180,000-mile models we bought used and drive now. This would be the first time we’d bought not-used cars in our lives. But we’d still probably stick to the VW Golf and Honda CRV that we know and love. If there was any money left over from that “extra” $100,000, we’d love to finally be able to travel, to Greece and Crete, by ship to Europe, to the Southwest and West Coast.

$1 million: Previous, plus upgrade from our tiny, falling-apart cottage home to one of the marvelous Colonial-era stone farmhouses with amazing outbuildings in our area. Um, who are we kidding? This would probably cost between $500,00 and $1 million-plus all by itself. But at least we could afford to fix our Hawk’s Haven homestead and get someone in for regular landscape and home maintenance.

$1.5-2 million: Maybe now we could get that gorgeous historic home, or at least finally be able to afford to live in and maintain OFB’s family’s National Historic Register home, Mile End, between Nashville and Franklin, Tennessee. 

$7 million, after taxes: We think this is the line in the sand for financial security in these times. Once we’d done all the things we needed with the interest income, we’d hopefully have lots left over to give our families and friends the gift of financial independence.

Anything more than $7 million: Yes!!! At last, a chance to create and contribute to scholarships, museums, college endowments, Native American and environmental causes, and everything else we think would be worth pursuing. A chance to give back to a world that has been so generous to us. We don’t need more than $7 million in the bank. Anything more than that is free money to give to help everyone else. If we get there, believe us, we’ll let you know!

Meanwhile, what would you do if you won the lottery?!

Careful with those veggie toppings. May 24, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were enjoying one of our increasingly rare dinners out last night, since family had come up from North Carolina. Because they’d been to Greece, we took them to our favorite local Greek restaurant. Like us, they loved the ambience, the food, and the warm-hearted service. It was almost an afterthought when, later, I asked OFB if he’d enjoyed his food.

“Well… ,” he hedged.

“You didn’t like it? That herbed chicken with feta in phyllo served with wild oregano-seasoned potato wedges sure looked good to me!”

“It was the green beans.”

“The green beans?” They’d looked delicious to me.

“They tasted like beets!”


“I think they put tiny pieces of minced beets on my green beans. They must have been trying to poison me!”

“Did you see any beet pieces?”

“No, but I tasted them.”

Hmmm. I couldn’t imagine putting minced beets in a green bean dish. But OFB, who loathes the rich, earthy flavor of beets, had been surrounded by them—in a beet-and-feta salad at one end of the table and in my side veggie of roasted beets at the other. Perhaps the sight of all those beets simply created sensory overload, or maybe he’d had one too many glasses of Greek wine. Too bad he’d managed to force himself to choke down the entire serving of green beans so I couldn’t have provided an objective opinion.

Whatever the case, the beets-beans incident at least gives us a valuable lesson: When preparing food for others, don’t go overboard on toppings unless you know your family and/or guests will like them. Some people might have tossed the green beans with the far more prevalent combination of sauteed garlic or onion and roasted sesame seeds. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered people who simply hate garlic and/or onions and/or sesame seeds. Ditto for red pepper flakes, capers, kalamata olives, green olives, even balsamic vinegar. And of course there are people who scream at the prospect of salt, black pepper, butter, you name it.

At this point, you might be muttering to yourself, “Geez! If I go to the trouble to make it, why can’t I make it taste good?!! What’s the point otherwise? I might as well be making one of those hideous plain steamed vegetable platters!”

But there is a point, at least if you’re serving guests. By finding out their aversions in advance, at least you’ll avoid putting beets in their green beans. (You can always serve them, or anything else, on the side for more broadminded diners.) You can challenge yourself as a cook to come up with dishes that still look, smell, and taste good despite your guests’ limitations.

If it’s a family member who’s resisting good food, you can see if hiding things you want to eat in unrecognizable forms will win them over (such as braised chiffonaded Brussels sprouts as opposed to the little “cabbages,” or roasted yellow rather than red beets). But if they persist in their loathing, desist. You can always make a separate dish of [okra, butter beans, hominy, collard greens, rhubarb, your favorite here] so they don’t have to eat it.

          ‘Til next time,


Those awful annuals. May 23, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was astounded to receive an e-mail this morning from Horticulture magazine with the attention-grabbing headline, “Are annuals evil?” What on earth, I wondered, could cause the venerable garden magazine to condemn an entire class of plants in such a sweeping manner? They might as well have asked, “Are pets evil?,” and for the same reason.

Needless to say, neither plants nor pets are evil. Even ticks and poison ivy are just trying to fulfill their Darwinian destiny. The point Horticulture’s provocative headline was trying to raise was that some people condemn annuals as eco-unfriendly in terms of their production, and as water and fertilizer hogs in the garden. The e-mail asked for readers’ opinions as to whether they agreed or disagreed. The goal was to generate an open discussion of the issues.

Our friend Ben would weigh in on the “Think this through, please” side on this one. Silence Dogood and I buy our annuals each spring from local Mennonite farmers, who raise them from seed or starts, just as we and most gardeners sow seeds and take cuttings every spring, just as gardeners have done from the very beginning. Where’s the evil in that?

As for wasting huge amounts of water and fertilizer, it’s simply not so. We water our annuals if it’s dry, as we do all our plants, using water from our rain barrels. We fertilize them with compost tea, earthworm castings from our earthworm compost bin, and finished compost from our three-bin system, just as we do every plant in our gardens. We pot them up in premium organic potting soil, but then, we don’t coddle them. They grow and thrive without a drop of chemical fertilizer.

Admittedly, we tend to focus on “annuals” that are, in fact, tender perennials, since we hate to see any plant die. Yes, we grow marigolds, nasturtiums, and morning glories, which will bid us adieu at season’s end. But we also have a rich assortment of “annuals” that either self-sow, so they appear to be perennial, or that are in fact tender perennials that can be held over in our greenhouse. (You’d be amazed by how many “annuals,” including coleus, begonias, and pelargoniums, the so-called zonal and scented geraniums, fall into this category.)

We love perennials. But we also love annuals, or at least, annuals that are selected with care and nurtured organically. We’d hate to see the plant police outlaw them.

Want to meet Mike McGrath? May 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Thank God for Mike McGrath. Some days, even our friend Ben, Silence Dogood and Richard Saunders run out of post ideas. This was starting to look like one of those days: Silence and OFB were jubilant about planting, potting up, and placing the very last of our transplants and container plants, but figured nobody really wanted to read about that.

Our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders had read an interesting piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about how little we really know about the evolution of dogs, but beyond noting that dogs—our first domesticated animals—had been on the scene at least 15,000 years, but the oldest known dog breeds were barely 1500 years old, there didn’t seem a lot to say about it short of quoting the article in its entirety. (We have a serious feeling that this is illegal.)

Silence was thrilled and astonished to learn from a reader comment that someone had made one of her chili recipes and won a chili cookoff!!! (Type “Weird, wonderful chili” in our search bar at upper right for the recipe.) But even this didn’t strike us as post-worthy.

Abandoning the tabula rasa of our computer screen, Silence and I headed off to the nearby village of Kutztown, PA to run some errands. This included a stop at our bank to see how Shiloh and our other pets were doing raising funds for pet cancer research; we were thrilled to see that Shiloh’s cash box was almost full, and our cats Linus and Athena weren’t far behind. Then we stopped at The Companion Plant, a store specializing in organics and hydroponics, to fill our gallon jug with the free high-tech compost tea they’re giving away every day in May.

As we were happily departing with our compost tea, already engaged in a, shall we say, lively debate about which plants needed it most, The Companion Plant’s owner appeared waving a brochure. “Mike McGrath is coming to speak here! Do you think you could put this somewhere where gardeners could see it?”

Why, yes, as a matter of fact. Finally, something to write about that might interest others besides us! Thank you, Mike McGrath.

As I hope all of you who’re organic gardeners know, McGrath was the feisty, funny, and passionately committed editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine during the years when our friend Ben was working in garden books at Rodale, the publisher of OG. Mike and I worked together on several projects, including his book You Bet Your Tomatoes!, and I always found his wholehearted commitment to organics and to helping gardeners, a commitment I share, extremely refreshing. After his stint at the helm of OG, he founded and hosts a gardening radio talk show called “You Bet Your Garden,” which airs on WHYY.  

Mike’s presentation, held at The Companion Plant on June 9th starting at 6 p.m. (363 E. Main Street, Kutztown, PA 19530, 610-683-9676), will be about, in the words of the brochure, “summer plant care, weed control, attracting beneficial creatures, and other timely topics that can make or break your season!” The event is free and also features music by The Wallace Brothers Band. (The concept of music and McGrath in the same space at the same time is, admittedly, a bit mind-boggling to our friend Ben. But I digress.)

If you live in the scenic Lehigh Valley or in Berks County, PA, and are interested in organic gardening, put MapQuest or your GPS or smartphone to work and find out how to get to Kutztown and The Companion Plant. (On your way in off Route 222, you might stop at the tiny Fleetwood Bank and stuff a dollar or two into Shiloh’s or another pet’s donation box for pet cancer research. We would all thank you.) Kutztown’s a delightful little village with historic architecture, interesting shops, and some fun restaurants, so why not make an afternoon of it?

Even if you live farther afield, but are a McG fan, scope it out and come on in! It’s bound to be a beautiful drive. Just don’t forget to bring your gallon milk or water jug (one per person, so consider carpooling) so you can get some wonderful free compost tea while you’re there!

The smell of memory. May 21, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I just read a review of a new book, The Omnivorous Mind (John S. Allen, Harvard, 2012), in today’s Wall Street Journal (check it out at www.wsj.com). Mr. Allen, a neuroanthropologist, sets out to show why humans’ omnivorous tendencies helped make us what we are.

Yeah yeah yeah yeah. Like opposable thumbs and being able to walk upright, being omnivorous helped us evolve, adapt, and thrive as we spread out over the earth. This is not exactly news.

What is news is a finding that confirms what I’ve long believed, embedded in the body of the review: “there appears to be no connection between taste centers and the neural networks of memory.” It isn’t taste, but smell, that connects food to memory, that makes food trigger memories.

That hot buttered biscuit at Grandma’s house, the yummy barbecued ribs at the annual family cookout, the rich aroma of coffee in your parents’ breakfast cups, the smell of fresh-baked bread or cookies or baked potatoes or char-broiled steaks or fried chicken: One whiff, and your mind time-travels to the golden age when you enjoyed the scent for the very first time, and every time thereafter.

This is also why people who lose their sense of smell also lose their enjoyment of eating: Food no longer “tastes” like anything. It becomes meaningless, rather than a gateway to the past and to past and present pleasure.

Scent-induced memories certainly aren’t limited to food; they are the most powerful memory-triggers in every aspect of our lives. Seeing a photo of Grandma certainly brings feelings and thoughts to the forefront; but smelling her perfume, body lotion, or soap catapults us back into her home, vividly bringing her—and our child-selves—back to life.

Smelling nasturtiums instantly transports our friend Ben, age two, to his grandma’s porch, where she had windowboxes of the distinctly fragrant plants set out. For me, the scent of peonies, freesias, and old-time iris are supremely evocative; OFB and I both have very warm memories of the scent of marigold and chrysanthemum foliage and flowers.

Which scents hold most meaning for you?

          ‘Til next time,


Another day, another dead plant. May 20, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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“Silence! Get out here!”

“What’s wrong, Ben? Don’t tell me a raccoon has attacked our goldfish! What’s going on out… oh, not again.”

Our friend Ben was pointing melodramatically to a pitiful plant, its leaves curled and withered, that had appeared on our deck with this note:

Dear OFB and Silence,

            Help Me Please!!


                        Ms. Gardenia Bonsai

P.S. I had to escape—Joan* was trying to kill me!!

* Not her real name.

The care instructions for the unfortunate gardenia were thoughtfully there with the plant and note, and they mentioned that the plant had been nurtured into its present form for three years before being sold. Three years of care and attention, and now this—another expiring plant. Another expiring plant dumped on me and Silence Dogood.

This is far from the first time we’ve had this delightful experience. People apparently assume that, because we love plants and gardening, we’re some kind of plant hospice. We’ve been given a cycad that was down to its last leaf and a poinsettia that had freeze-dried after being left outside on a 15-degree night. And that’s not the worst of it.

We don’t understand why people wait until the plant is either dead or near death, and then, rather than tossing it, decide to dump it on us. If they’d give it to us when it starts to decline rather than waiting ’til the last gasp, we’d have a much better chance of saving it. We’d be happy to restore the plants to life and return them to their rightful owners, with idiot-proof care instructions, if they would just give us a fighting chance.

We’re still hopeful for the cycad. And we’ve put the poor gardenia in our plant ER in a semi-shaded spot outside the greenhouse, watered it with compost tea, and are keeping an eye on it to see if there’s any hope for a comeback.

One thing’s certain: If you’re a plant person, we’ll bet this has happened to you, too.

Which vegetables do you love to hate? May 19, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I love most vegetables, and hate some vegetables. Slippery, slimy, bitter turnips and rutabagas have never darkened the door of our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven. (We do make an exception for Japanese salad turnips, which are almost as small as radishes and used raw in the same way.) Beet, radish, and turnip greens have also simply paused at our sink on their swift transition from root-topper to chicken feed.

It’s true that I suspect OFB of liking some veggies less than I do. Offered a choice between green beans, broccoli, and asparagus, he’ll inevitably choose either beans or broccoli. But if I tell him asparagus is on the menu, he never complains.

There are three veggies that definitely divide us into the love/hate camp, however: beets, Brussels sprouts, and lima beans (actually butter beans, the big, meaty limas). I love them all. OFB can’t stand them. He can’t stand them no matter how they’re prepared, and trust me, I’ve tried. He recently added avocado to the “never feed me this again” list, just when I’d finally been learning to appreciate it despite its horrifically slimy texture. 

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. I despise mealy, tasteless zucchini unless it’s completely disguised in spaghetti sauce or zucchini bread. OFB won’t touch cucumbers unless they’ve been turned into pickles. OFB and I love white corn, having grown up in the South, where yellow corn was considered “horse corn;” here in PA, most of the folks we know eat yellow corn and pass on the ‘Silver Queen’.

Our friends Carolyn, Gary and Rudy will only eat radishes that are mild, while we love them firebreathing hot. Neither OFB nor I can abide the horrid, moisture-sucking quality of raw mushrooms, though we both love cooked mushrooms. Our friend and blog collaborator, Richard Saunders, can’t stand eggplant. Strangest of all, our friend Rob hates tomatoes and watermelon!

Perhaps the biggest line in the sand gets drawn over the onion/garlic issue. Raw, cooked, both, or neither? OFB and I love them all, in all their forms. But we know ever so many people who simply can’t bear one version or another, or garlic, or onions, or seemingly every form of allium in existence. We think they don’t know what they’re missing, but maybe they feel the same way about our aversion to rutabagas. And, of course, we pity the countless hordes who can’t abide okra.

Which vegetables do you love to hate?

              ‘Til next time,