A science experiment- you can grow that


Tomato A, with rich chunky, water retaining compost.

Tomato A, with rich chunky, water retaining compost.

I had a paradigm shift this spring. I love that. I have always read that tomatoes are heavy feeders, that they need rich soil, so I have planned my rotations to give that to them. I hopscotch my compost bin around the garden, trying to balance out the need for soil improvement with the pain in the neck factor of walking all the way to the back corner of the yard when I need to dump avocado peels.
I read in The Tao of Gardening, by Carol Deppe that tomatoes will produce fruit earlier when they are grown in poor soil. So, they would be heavy feeders if they were allowed to be, but it makes them slow and lazy.
I decided to test it. I had the lovely, chunky nutrient rich black soil, with some still identifiable avocado peels (those things take forever to break down) where I had intended to place the tomatoes in the first place, and a few feet away, some clayey, brown soil. It wasn’t terrible, It has had compost added to it in the last few years, but it wasn’t the rich soil I usually reserve for the tomatoes. They both get about the same amount of sun, and while they are different varieties (Fourth of July and Juliet) they both have about the same number of days to maturity and I have given them the same amount of water.

Tomato B, no soil enrichment.

Tomato B, no soil enrichment.

In my day job, I have had a paradigm shift as well- I have always taught English, and beyond that, I have always been an English teacher, with that mindset. This past year, I have been working with students who are learning English in their math and science classes. It’s been weird. Good, but weird. I had to think in a way that I’m not used to. Staving off dementia one hypothesis at a time.

So the hypothesis in this tomato experiment was that the tomato plant with lush soil would produce a lot of leaves, but would fruit later, and the plant in poor soil would make fewer leaves, but would fruit earlier. Well, on August 4, I don’t have ripe fruit from either of them. The one in poor soil has slightly pinker fruit, but not by much. There are many more tomatoes on the plant in richer soil, so i would prefer to balance out quantity over earliness. Another detail, which I wasn’t hypothesizing about, is that the one with rich soil is much more drought tolerant. When we left town, temperatures got over 100 degrees F. When we got back, the plant in good soil was still lush and green, and the one in poor soil was slightly withered. I think it hasn’t completely recovered from that drought stress, where the other plant had enough moisture reserve in the soil that it did fine.As you grow, remember that it isn’t just about the fruits and vegetables, you can experiment and learn and improve.

Science- you can grow that.

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Science Fair- please, no wagering


“When is your science fair?” I asked the Boy one cool evening not long ago.

“I don’t know…” he responds.
Ooops. Hope it isn’t tomorrow, because we aren’t ready.
The Boy is a self proclaimed nerd, and loves science. He is memorizing the periodic table of elements (hint, if he asks you if you want to hear him say the first 37 elements, insist that he sing them. He’ll blush, but he’ll do it!)
He loves weather, and nature, and dinosaurs, and is getting into chemistry, and so there is a lot of pressure to have a really amazing science fair project. Pressure from his peers, but also from himself.
The problem is, we are pretty bad about follow through around here…
We brainstorm, and come up with things…then we get distracted by something shiny.

It turned out that the Science fair was a few weeks away, so we had time to follow through.
So,  the decision for this year was to examine the life growing in the jar of pond water we collected last summer . The 1 quart jar has been in his west-facing window, growing algae and stuff.

Look- follow through! With a map and a video and everything!

Look- follow through! With a map and a video and everything!

When we first collected the samples, we didn’t intend to make it a science fair project. I had read about the project in a garden book, and when I told the Boy about it, he thought it was a neat idea, and nagged me about it until I got a jar, and went with him to the park.

This made the “research question” portion of the science packet problematic… we couldn’t just say the question  was: “wouldn’t it be cool if we had a jar with pond water…?”

So, the research question became: “Can an ecosystem be formed by mixing materials from different sources?”
We took a video of the little critters that are swimming around, and looked at them with our thrift store microscope. With help from the interwebs, he determined that they were daphnia.

The science fair was a success- there was the usual supply of baking soda volcanoes, and several decomposition displays.  The Boy was the only one to have a jar of tiny critters with a water cycle. Our school fair is non-competitive- just an exhibition, not a competition.

This was on someone else's display. Now, I don't know Tyler or Jack H., but I am pretty sure they touched it.

This was on someone else’s display. Now, I don’t know Tyler or Jack H., but I am pretty sure they touched it.

Now we have to think about next year.

Radical Apple Pruning


 

We have a giant apple tree that has been butchered in the past, then ignored, the butchered again, by the city tree trimming crew. It is probably about 50 years old, and most of the apples are developing way up high, because the major branches go up high, then bend over…after researching a lot, hemming and hawing and reading, online and in books, I have decided to renovate it. Slowly, over a few years, I’ll take off major limbs and train young branches to be the new major limbs, at a more convenient height. Convenient for me, not the squirrels.

Let me tell you about apical dominance… there is a chemical in plants that causes the  buds on the end of every branch to be dominant- it turns off the other buds back down the line. This chemical, auxin, is affected by gravity. If the end bud on a branch droops down, there aren’t many buds that will be activated. There will be buds on the tree up high, before the branch starts to droop. So we have very few apples down where we can reach them, and a bunch up high, which then fall down to be half-eaten by squirrels.

 

Another thing about apical dominance is that when the end bud is cut off,  other bud back down the line are activated. This is good when your pinch back flower chrysanthemums to make the plant bushier, so you get more flowers in fall, but not so good when the city crew whacks back your apple tree on a semiannual basis.

Since it is a standard tree, not a dwarf, it is really big. Branches are growing up into the power lines, and the city crews want to prevent that, but they don’t care much about the tree other than that. Every time the city comes to prune, they take out the center aggressively, which causes it to grow back aggressively. It’s pretty bad. There are seven major limbs, up to about 6 inches in diameter at the trunk, and they have kind of an umbrella effect, going up, then curving way down.
I have thought about it a lot, planning, and checking, and finally decided to take off one of the seven major limbs. Next year, I will take out another, never removing more than 25% of the leaf area at a time. Hopefully this will prevent major regrowth of water sprouts. I wanted to clean up the south side of the tree, since that is where I have recently sited a veggie bed and I wanted it to have more direct sun.

So, I chose my first limb, sawed it, then spent some quality time wondering how to get it down without seriously hurting myself. Seriously. It was tangled in so many other branches that even when it was cut all the way through, it just sat there.  I moved the ladder and made some more judicious cuts, then spent a pleasant afternoon cutting it into reasonable lengths for our chimenea.  Next year, I’ll select another limb from the North side of the tree, and work on that one.

The most helpful book for me in this project, which has mostly been a project about thinking, is Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning. Tons of illustrations, tons of examples, written by a woman on a mission.

The Ubiquitous Mason Jar


lots of duckweed, little bit of water

We went to the river park this week. There are steps down to the Big Thompson river, where you can float or splash, or put in your tubes and drift down the river. We didn’t bring tubes, but ran into friends who shared with Kate.  There are sprayers where the little kids can shriek and splash and get soaked in relative safety, and there is a bridge under which the water slows down a little, spreads out into shallows, where you can look for crawdads. This is where we spent the bulk of our time. The boy discovered that when crawdads are really little, they just tickle when they pinch.

In Gaia’a Garden (I know, terrible title, great book) there is a description of a project where you take water samples from several different places, with plants and muck and life, mix them in a mason jar, put the lid on and then watch. The idea is that you are mixing elements and creating an ecosystem that is not quite pond, not quite river, not quite lake, but a blend of the three.
I told the boy about the mason jar project at bedtime, and he was fired up- he couldn’t think about anything else. Right after breakfast he asked for a jar, and kept asking when we could go. Obviously, I needed coffee first. And there was that pesky dental appointment…

We went out in the afternoon, after a wonderful thunderstorm. There is a wetland by Kate’s school, but no way to get to open water, so we wound up going to the Sculpture park near our house. This park has a chain of wetlands, culverts and open water, so we were able to find swampy still water, fast running aerated water, and duckweed covered water.

This lake is usually deeper than this…

The final piece of the puzzle was mud, from the reservoir. They have been lowering the water level alarmingly, and we had to walk out quite a ways in the mud. It was pretty gross.

The water is clearing, and the mud has settled, and we can see stuff swimming around.  The boy had high hopes for a minnow, but I don’t think we caught one.

Yes, I am aware of what 3 cups of pond water would smell like if it spilled on top of legos. We would probably have to move. But, we are also trying not to spill.

Vanilla Vine update


Not only has my vanilla plant survived the winter, but it has even grown- it isn’t to the top of the trellis, but it has quite a bit of new growth on it, and some aerial roots going into the moss on the trellis. The trellis is made of 2 layers of hardware cloth, with sheet moss in between the layers and orchid potting mix inside the cylinder.

Ignore the messy kitchen counter…

My pop bottle humidity system is not perfect- it takes a while to dial it in to slow drip, and about once a week I just bring the whole contraption to the kitchen and hose it down with the sprayer. I moved it out to the back porch today, and I’ll splash it with the hose regularly.

I added a grocery store orchid to the pot- vanilla is a type of orchid, after all, and they should like the same conditions. I don’t remember what kind of orchid it is, and the tag just says “orchid.” C’m0n, grocery store…

Spring Cleaning- the Hillbilly Goldfish Pond


Even pond scum looks pretty in the sunset.

I left the water lily in the pond (okay, it’s a horse trough) over the winter, and didn’t cover the tank up, so any and all leaves and detritus that got in, stayed in.

I skimmed the scum off the other day with a mesh thing that I got at the dollar store- I think it was originally intended to prevent grease from splatting all over the place when you fry stuff. It works great for skimming scum, though. Frugal, or cheap? Either way.
I pulled up the lily, and it had new growth. I pulled off some of the last leaves from last year and tossed the plant back in the tank. My pond book says to re-pot in a mesh basket in heavy clay with fine gravel on top, but I think I am going to be lazy. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

We wait for warmer weather before putting in goldfish- cheap feeder ones from the pet store. I mostly have them to eat mosquito larvae, and it isn’t hot enough for mosquitoes yet. In the past, I have brought goldfish inside for the winter, but we are starting over with young, cheap ones this year. Wow, I did say cheap twice to describe my choice of fish…I bought a $10 koi one time, when I first started with an outside pond. It died pretty quickly.

White emporor tulips on the west side of my 100 gallon horse trough

White emperor tulips on the west side of my 100 gallon horse trough.

Before the fish come home, I will scoop out most of the leaves and rotten gunk in the bottom of the pond and put it  in the compost. I am waiting for a warmer day- the water is still pretty cold. I think we’ll also do some science, and do an ammonia and pH test on the water. The boy recently learned about the pH scale, and spent a happy afternoon cleaning the copper bottoms of my pans with lemon juice, lime juice and vinegar.

Speaking of science, if you didn’t get a chance to see Nova’s recent episode about the periodic table, check it out Nova link There are explosions and everything!

The Lost Tape Measure


In my quest to become handy, I have made a list of projects, many that have been simmering for a while, and I have thought about first steps.For several, the first step would be: “measure the opening.”
Yeah. About that.
I do have a battery operated, automatically retractable measuring tape. Which I have misplaced. I think it is in the garage?
I have another 25′ one, my favorite, which I have accused the Boy of losing.
The Boy likes to measure stuff- when he was littler, we would read animal encyclopedias together, and it was worlds different from reading with the Girl. With her, we would snuggle with a story, and predict what might happen, and find the rhyming words, and talk about the characters. With the Boy, we would read a little fact box next to a picture of say, a Siberian tiger. Then he would hop off my lap, hand me one end of the measuring tape and walk backward until he got to however many feet. The Siberian tiger sticks in my memory, because it was too big for the living room. This isn’t a technique they taught me in teacher school, the kid just came up with it on his own.

Obviously too big for the living room. Photo from Tiger-pictures.net

That year at Christmas, he asked for a 100′ measuring tape. I asked him what he would measure with it, and he answered, “mostly blue whales.”
Oh. I see.
We didn’t get him one, and I wish we had, because then maybe mine wouldn’t be in a snowbank, or in the bottom of a toybox, or who knows where. We looked in all the usual places.
So, the last time I was at the dollar store, I went ahead and bought a new measuring tape, so that I can measure stuff so that I can work on the projects on my list.
And then wouldn’t you know it, when I opened up the junk drawer in the kitchen, there was my favorite measuring tape. Put away. It’s not really where it goes, but it was put away…

Becoming Handy


I’ve been crafty, now I want to become handy- I have a list, and some goals… I’m working on it.

There are a lot of little things on the list, like the drain plug lifter handle on both basins in the main bathroom. Then there are big things, like the gutters that still drip and the squirrels in the attic. Maybe we should outsource the squirrels. They frighten me.

My first step when learning new things is always getting books about it. I am not a person who can jump in and try something without endless research first.

I hit the library for some home improvement books, and found a strange mixture-a  memoir about moving a cottage to be an addition to a house on Cape Cod, a collection of tips and tricks culled from the pages of Fine Homebuilding magazine, and a book about home repair for cheaters. They are now overdue at the library, and I still haven’t fixed anything. Sigh. Being handy is harder than I thought.

This is the toilet that still runs. Sigh...

Knitting at the top 10 percent of my ability


My Dad used to recommend skiing at the top 10 percent of your ability- his thought was that you wouldn’t improve if you just coasted along on the easy runs.
For the past several years, I have been skiing at probably the bottom 10 percent of my ability- teaching the kids to ski, then saying, “oopsy! time for hot chocolate!” or “brrrrr… lets go warm up!”

The knitting is finished, but the finishing isn't even started.

This past week or so I have been knitting at my highest difficulty level, though. It all started when I got a library book about the history of Bohus knitting, and kind of made up a yoked sweater pattern, based on a design from the book. Knitting it went smoothly enough ,I finished that in November. I put the sweater into a tote back next to my closet door because of what had to come next. steeking, which means stabilizing the stitches on either side of the center front, then cutting, thus turning a pullover into a cardigan. Scary.

Deep breaths, just snip, and it will be fine.

I committed this week to doing it, though, so I checked multiple internet sources, picked up button bands, and this morning, got out the brand new sewing scissors, and cut. Many sources recommend a glass of wine at this step, but seeing as how it was only 9:30, I decided against it.

The newly-knitted button bands will fold over the raw edge.

There will be a few more finishing steps, like sewing down the button bands and picking up and knitting the collar. I plan to park on the couch, watch some episodes of Downton Abbey. I hope to wear my new sweater this next week.

Exercising Willpower


I learned recently about the idea of will being like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to be strong. I guess before I thought it was like a talent, something some people are born with, like mechanical aptitude, or great hair. but two things have changed my mind about this: I read in a yoga magazine about the idea that the front of your body embodies desire, and the back embodies will. Both sets of muscles must be strong, and will must follow desire. Strong belly, strong back, strong back, strong belly.

Is desire stronger for a lot of us? So many people tell me, “I wish I spoke Spanish,” and I have to tell them that wishing isn’t enough, they have to do it. The same goes for learning to knit, or play music, or anything you desire- the will to do it has to follow.
The other thought I have had about willpower is that most of us try for willpower on the big things in life- quitting smoking, or changing our diet, rather than exercising our willpower on little things for practice. Is there anything bigger than changing your diet? We all try, at one time or another, then discover it’s too big, and blame ourselves for lack of willpower.
I have been training myself-  putting post-it notes on my computer that remind me to do things.  Simple things, mostly- like “stretch” or “menu plan.” As I do them, I feel this satisfaction that I am exercising my will. Yeah, there are benefits to stretching, and to planning out a menu once a week, but the other benefit is that I am doing something simply because I will it.
I have also gotten in the habit of cleaning the kitchen sink every night before I go to bed- no dishes to soak, no goopy pans. Most nights, it is a pain, but most mornings, it is a joy to have a clean sink. I will it to be so!
We have an older house, and there are a lot of little things wrong with it, that I have desired to have fixed, but haven’t had the will to follow through on. So, now that my will is stronger, I have started to work on home projects- not crafty ones, but things that can be defined as “handy.” Things that involve caulk, and levels, and maybe the rental of a heat gun. Projects that I have “desired” to be done, but until now, haven’t had the will to do myself. These are projects that I want to accomplish, that I will accomplish. (slowly, and with plenty of mistakes, I’m sure- watch this space)
So, what do you do to exercise your will? Not resolutions, but things that you desire, and are willing into existence?

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