On tools

Having a collection of fewer high quality tools is better than having many cheap, inaccurate ones that won’t last long and may be dangerous.

When I was young, I couldn’t afford very good tools. I’m not talking about software here, I’m referring to things like power saws and kitchen pots. I bought them as I needed them, but they were never top end. Over time, I replaced them all.

The problem with cheap tools is that they often do not work very well and they don’t last very long. Other than that, they’re great! (grin) Inexpensive screwdrivers twist and lose the shape of their tips, for example.

Take the power saw. Cheaper models do not have the power and often the precision to do the job right. Yes, they may be better than a hand saw but your work may be sloppy and inaccurate. That hand saw? Cheaper models may not be made of high quality wood and the metal may be be too thin, so it will wobble when you make a cut. It will likely dull faster as well.

In the kitchen, inexpensive knives will also dull quickly and may end up being downright dangerous. With any tool, cheap or otherwise, you need to know how to use it safely so that it will at least not be ignorance that caused the nicked finger, knuckle, or worse.

So while it is nice to say “buy better, more expensive tools,” that doesn’t solve the problem of affordability. Borrowing tools may work, but better from a relative than a friend. Better yet is having a skilled relative with good tools to help you!

Plan your strategy of getting good tools over time, and spend more sooner on the really important things you need. Start by thinking about what you will be using frequently.

For household work, construction, and carpentry, spend extra as soon as you can on screwdrivers, pliers, and tape measures. You can do a lot with an accurate electric saber saw and a square. Get the best quality cordless drill and drill bits you can afford.

For cooking, begin with the knives. You don’t need many of them, just a few very good ones. Don’t splurge on measuring spoons and cups since inexpensive ones are often good enough. Get a good Dutch oven sooner rather than later. Favor fewer stick-free pots and pans with new, high quality coating rather than a set of cheap pots. Sets can be cheaper, but you can also build up your collection piece by great piece as you have the money.

As a final suggestion, tools often come in three price ranges: inexpensive, moderate, and very expensive. If you know nothing else, go for the moderately priced tools. That said, do your research.

Treadmill Desk

For several weeks my wife has been asking me to convert our old Proform treadmill into a treadmill desk. The idea, exercise-wise, is to be on the treadmill for several hours a day at speeds less than 2 mph.

Treadmill desk

This weekend my son and I did it, and the conversion was straight-forward. To start, we moved the treadmill into my wife’s home office and then removed the walking-pole like handles and the decorative guards where the hand supports connected to the treadmill console. This allowed the treadmill to fit in the space better and allowed us more access to attach the desk.

I then cut a 12 inch deep piece of 3/4 inch birch plywood that I happened to have in my shop, and cut it to the outside width between the handles. This is the actual desk and the 12 inches was sized to the necessary dimension to fit my wife’s MacBook Pro. I rounded off all the edges with a router and then sanded them to make them as smooth as possible.

To mount the desk, I drilled holes in the corners of the plywood approximately 1 inch in from each side. To make these smoother, I used a counter sink on both sides of each hole. I then use plastic corner ties to attach the wood to the bottom of the treadmill handles. The tie connectors were on the bottom side of the wood and the excess plastic straps were trimmed.

This mounting position was approximately the right the height for my wife. If you need it lower, you can put wooden strips or blocks between the desk and the handles. Similarly, if you want it higher, you can mount it on the top. The idea is to have the laptop keyboard at a comfortable height that you can use while walking.

The laptop screen is too low for comfortable use, so I added a 19 inch Samsung LED TV with an HDMI input and mounted it (VideoSecu TV Wall Mount Articulating Arm Tilt Swivel Bracket) on the bookcase/wall in front of the treadmill. While the mounting hardware is adjustable, I suspect I will be raising it an inch or two as my wife gets more experience in using the desk. It should be at a comfortable height so you can look straight ahead and not crane your neck.

Possible things yet to do: put a couple of coats of water-based polyurethane on the wooden desk, raise the TV, and strap down all cables.

Treadmill Desk, Front View

Partially rebuilding the kitchen porch

The porch in 2006Very long time readers may recall that in 2006 I built a new wooden porch off our kitchen door to replace some small concrete steps. It was a fun project, though it took longer than I expected. The structure of the porch is made of pressure treated wood, while the outer wood is plain and untreated other than being painted. Therein lay the problem, in one particular area.

If you look at the photo on the right, you see that the hand rails slant down and join to the bottom posts on the side of the posts. It looks nice. It also collects snow, ice, rain, and debris.

A couple of years ago I noticed that rot had begun to set into the top of the post on the left, and probably a bit on the right. Today I finally got around to repairing it. This is what the porch looks like mid-reconstruction:

Partial deconstruction of the kitchen porch

Most of the wood on the up-step side of the left post was rotten. I was hoping to save some of the outer wood since I had routed decorative fluting into the sides, but the rot wrapped around on the bottom. So I made the decision to just rip it all out. The porch on the right did indeed have some rot, but I can repair that without complete replacement.

The handrail will also need to be replaced since the bottom end has too much rot:

Partial deconstruction of the kitchen porch

I’m leaving it there for the moment until I put replacement on. I’ll need to unscrew all the spindles from the top and then screw the new rail onto them. I’ll use the old handrail as the pattern for the new.

My immediate plan is to let the pressure treated inner post dry out while I purchase some good quality treated 1x6s and a 1×4 for the outer post and the new hand rail. I’ll cut them roughly to size and let them dry out as well. This is necessary before I cut them to final size, angle the corners, and cut the new fluting. Then everything goes back together again.

When that is complete, I’ll cut some triangular pieces of wood and put them at the bottom of the handrails so that the rain and snow is diverted off to the sides. I’m hoping this is enough to save the post on the right from further damage.

10 tips for raking leaves and other things

It’s that time of year again here in the northern parts of New York State when the leaves are starting to fall. At our house we also have the added bonus of many black walnut trees which add to the mess. Starting about 4 weeks ago, large, half rotted walnuts have been dropping out of the trees like grenades, threatening to bonk passersby on their heads.

I’ve been raking leaves for over 40 years and while I do now have someone to help me, I do a fair amount of it still. Here are some tips for approaching the job.

  1. If possible, try to do the job on a day that is not too windy. Otherwise you’ll find yourself repeatedly raking the same leaves again and again.
  2. More generally, your goal is to touch each leaf a minimum number of times. So rake the leaves from a small area into piles on top of a drop cloth, tarp, or old sheet, and then move the whole pile to their final destination. If you find yourself raking the leaves many tens or hundreds of feet, you’re doing it wrong.
  3. Try to compost the leaves for your garden next year, but don’t use leaves like those from black walnut trees that have toxic chemicals in them. You’ll need to chop up the leaves with a lawn mower or shredder and then mix them with green matter such as cut grass. You can store the leaves in a pile or a bin over the winter for final composting next year.
  4. Wear gloves. Blisters can happen in minutes. Leaves on the ground can also have insects lurking among them that want to take a nip out of you. Watch how you are holding the rake so you can minimize blisters.
  5. Rather than waiting for all the leaves to fall for the season, plan to get the job done in pieces as autumn progresses. There will be fewer leaves and the ones on the ground won’t have as much of a chance to get wet and mat down.
  6. Dry leaves are much lighter than wet leaves. Therefore you should try to rake them before they have a chance to get rained or snowed on.
  7. Don’t overdo it and get a heart attack. Scope the amount of work you do in any given raking session to what you can handle given your health and fitness. Wet leaves will take much more effort to rake, so factor that into how much you will do.
  8. Sometimes it is easier to push piles of leaves with a rake than pull them. It also adds variety to a very repetitive experience.
  9. If you use a leaf blower, practice with it so the leaves move efficiently to where you want them rather than creating a great big cloud. Your hands and clothes will smell from the exhaust from the blower if it is a typical 2-cycle gas model. These can be loud, so wear ear protection. Don’t use the blower for 5 minutes to accomplish something you could do with a rake in 1.
  10. Find some kids to help you.

What I did (and didn’t do) on my summer vacation

Now that it’s early September, I suppose I can look back over the last several months and take stock of what happened over the summer season. Technically, summer is not quite over, but in northwest New York where I live you can really feel the first flourishes of fall in last August. Admittedly, it’s 85 degrees F today, so it would be hard to convince many people that summer is on the way out.

I did start a new job within IBM in early June, owning project management for what we call the WebSphere Foundation line of software. More recently I picked up some additional executive leadership in the mobile area, which just might account for the links showing up in my (almost) daily news postings. Altogether, though, it means I’ve been swamped in a very good way with work.

Therefore what I didn’t do is blog very much. Part of it was time constraints, but a good deal of what I’ve been working on is internal business, product and technology strategy. Those are not exactly areas I can freely write about, but, heh, it’s a living. Given the stability of the WordPress platform on which my website is implemented, I’ve also not had to tinker much with the infrastructure behind this blog.

I did start using Google+ in addition to Facebook and Twitter. While I do wish everyone would just switch from Twitter to Google+, that’s not going to happen. Apple‘s support of Twitter in the upcoming iOS 5 will ensure it has a social networking role for quite some time. I feel my energy flagging with respect to Google+ and I suspect that is true of some others as well.

I didn’t sail much at all. This was a combination of the time I had available, the weather, and the conditions on Lake Ontario. I’ve decided that I’ll move the boat to another lake starting next year, but which lake is TBD.

I did spend quite a bit of time in the New York Adirondack region. Our son spends two weeks at camp up there, and this summer my wife Judith and I spent a week at The Hedges in Blue Mountain Lake. We managed to get up to the mountains a couple of other times as well. We’ve been to the Adirondacks quite a bit in our lives and plan to spend even more time there in the future. That’s one reason why I’ve been posting links on Facebook about the damage caused by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene.

Judith and I had a great time visiting friends in Maine over a long weekend in July. It set lobster as the season’s culinary theme, and that was just fine with both of us.

I didn’t have a major outdoor project this summer. Before the snow flies I need to do some repairs and paint the porch I built 5 years ago. It is holding up well except for some of the small pieces of trim that developed some wood rot because of the moisture from snow and rain.

I did enjoy watching the two guys who did the landscaping work on our side lawn. After battling an overgrown area that was once a grape arbor and then a garden for over a decade, we decided to convert it to lawn.  It took the two guys two days with a skid steer to pull up the weeds and hundreds of bricks that were used in the walkway and as edging. They then filled the area with 20+ cubic yards of dirt and seeded it. The grass is growing nicely now and the eyesore is gone. To visualize 20 cubic yards, think of a volume that is 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep by 60 feet high. That’s a lot of dirt and it validates my conclusion that it was work that I was just not going to get done myself.

With autumn coming on fast, I do hope to get a little more sailing in, do that porch work, and perhaps start and finish a few more outside evening projects. I get frustrated when I’m not building something, so it’s best if I have a few tasks like these in the pipeline.

Photos from the garden, end of June, 2011

Yesterday at lunch I wandering outside to see how the various plants were doing in the gardens around the house. Because of the generally cool and wet weather this spring, we are several weeks behind where we would normally be at the end of June / beginning of July here in upstate New York, climate zone 5b. Here are some images of what is blooming and what is almost ready to do so.

Photo from the garden in upstate NY, end of June, 2011 Photo from the garden in upstate NY, end of June, 2011 Photo from the garden in upstate NY, end of June, 2011 Photo from the garden in upstate NY, end of June, 2011 Photo from the garden in upstate NY, end of June, 2011 Photo from the garden in upstate NY, end of June, 2011

My lilac festival

This last week was the annual Lilac Festival in Rochester, NY. Even though they had several rainouts, the cool and wet weather preserved the shrubs and their flowers. In some springs, early hot temperatures can cause the blooms to peak too early, but that was not the case this year.

We have several lilac bushes around the property and all are in flower this week. Here’s a sampling of what they look like. I plan to add more plants over the next few weeks to increase the variation, though these are quite lovely.

Click on an image to see a larger version.

Image of a lilac in upstate NY in May, 2011 Image of a lilac in upstate NY in May, 2011 Image of a lilac in upstate NY in May, 2011 Image of a lilac in upstate NY in May, 2011 Image of a lilac in upstate NY in May, 2011 Image of a lilac in upstate NY in May, 2011

The garden in late spring, 2011

I took a few minutes late in the afternoon yesterday to walk around and check on the state of the gardens. We had a very wet spring and I feel like I am weeks behind in weeding, edging, and planting. That hasn’t stopped the various trees, shrubs, and bulbs from blooming, and it also hasn’t stopped the dandelions from proliferating. I don’t do anything to them other than try to dig them up, but I’m clearly losing the battle.

The red buds (Cercis canadensi) have come into full bloom in the last few days. When we moved to this house yesterday we only had one. Thanks to the wind and the squirrels, we now have half a dozen of them and the original one is on its last legs.

I included a shot of the sailboat in the driveway. I have some work to do replacing the standing rigging but I’m still hoping to get it into Lake Ontario by the end of May.

Images from the garden in late spring, 2011 Images from the garden in late spring, 2011 Images from the garden in late spring, 2011 Images from the garden in late spring, 2011 Images from the garden in late spring, 2011 Images from the garden in late spring, 2011

Visit your local farmers market

There was a very good article today in our local newspaper, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, about farmers markets in the area. The paper listed many of the local markets along with the days they start their seasons, when they are open, contact information, and, often, websites.

Even if you do your own gardening, farmers markets can be a great place to pick up local prepared foods like baked goods, jams and jellies, as well as crafts. It helps you support your local economy and cut down on the carbon cost of getting your food to you.

The US Department of Agriculture maintains a website that will help you find a market near you.

Sauerkraut pie

A traditional food in my family at Easter time is “sauerkraut pie,” coming down from my Slavic ancestors on my father’s side. This is is really not a pie at all, in the sense of an apple or cherry pie, but a sauerkraut and onion filling inside a thin bread dough crust. In that sense it is probably most similar to a Cornish pasty and was probably a meal that workers could take cold to the fields or factories.

Sauerkraut pies

I once saw my grandmother’s recipe and it had a very involved dough with quite a few steps and ingredients. I don’t know where that recipe went and my Irish mother didn’t pass it on to me. Here, therefore, is an approximation that resembles what I remember having as a child. I’m a bit wordy in my recipe, but don’t let that dissuade you. If my relatives pop in with variations or improvements, I’ll append them below.

Update: My mom’s recipe is at the bottom of this entry, courtesy of my sister Ruthanne.

The basic idea is that for four pies you need 16 ounces of sauerkraut, one medium onion, and ingredients for one loaf of simple white bread.

These pies go well with baked ham, deviled eggs, and Polish kielbasa.

The Filling

  • 1 medium onion
  • 16 oz. sauerkraut (I prefer bagged to canned)
  • ground pepper to taste, but at least 1 teaspoon

Peel, halve, and then slice a medium onion in narrow strips. Sauté for 10 minutes in a heavy 12 inch skillet or a dutch oven in 2 tablespoons of butter over very low heat. (A common mistake in cooking onions is to use too high a heat so that they burn before they are properly cooked.)

Drain the sauerkraut and add to the onions. Sauté for 10 more minutes until the sauerkraut just begins to brown. Add the pepper and set aside to cool for at least 30 minutes.

The Dough

Any simple recipe for one loaf of white bread will do. Here is one adapted from The New York Times Bread & Soup Cookbook by Yvonne Young Tarr.

  • 1 1/2 cups of milk
  • 3/4 tablespoon butter
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3/4 package active dry yeast
  • 3/8 cup lukewarm water
  • 4 to 4 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose or unbleached flour

Add the yeast to the warm water and stir until the yeast dissolves. Set aside.

Scald the milk in a saucepan (meaning: over low heat warm up the milk to the point where it just develops a skim). Add the butter, salt, and sugar, stirring as you add them until the hot mixture is blended. Cool thoroughly until just warm. Don’t cheat here or else you will cook and kill your yeast in the next step.

Variation: My sister Ruthanne told me that my mother’s recipe (below) would here also include one large egg yolk. Beat it into the milk mixture once it cools.

Add the cooled milk mixture to the yeast mixture in a large mixing bowl and stir until combined. Add 4 cups of flour and mix with your hands until your dough is blended.

At this point you can either:

  • Knead the dough by hand for 8 to 10 minutes, adding flour when the dough becomes too sticky, or
  • Use a food mixer (such as a KitchenAid Mixer) with a dough hook to knead the bread for 8 to 10 minutes. You will also need to add flour if the dough gets too sticky. You will also probably need to turn off the mixture and remove the dough from the hook periodically. Adding more flour will minimize this.

Grease the inside of a large bowl with butter, place the dough in it, and turn the dough until all sides have a light butter coating. This helps prevent the formation of a dry skin on the dough. Place a kitchen towel over the bowl and place it in a warm but not hot location until the dough rises and doubles in size, probably 1 to 1/2 hours.

After the dough has doubled, punch it down, rotate it, and let it rise again until double in size. Remove the dough from the bowl, punch it down, and cut it into 4 equal pieces.

The Assembly

Prepare two medium to large cookie sheets by placing a piece of parchment paper in each that has been cut to fit exactly. Preheat the oven to 400 F (205 C, Gas Mark 6).

Repeat the following for each of the 4 quarters of dough. Place some flour on a countertop or large cutting board and roll out the dough until it is 12 to 15 inches (30.5 to 38 cm) in diameter. The dough will fight you but keep working it until it is as thin and round as you can make it.

Spoon one quarter of the sauerkraut and onion mixture into the center of the dough circle and spread evenly until roughly 2 inches (5 cm) of plain dough remains around the edge.

Grab one edge of the dough and stretch it out a bit and then fold it into the center. Repeat 6 or 7 more times until the filling is completely covered. Wet your fingers and pinch the dough until it is sealed. Now use your fingers to press down and out on the pie until it is as thin and round as possible with the filling evenly distributed.

It would be nice if the pie were perfectly circular at this point, but it will not be, and will taste just as good. The pies I make are notoriously asymmetrical, as the photo above attests.

Invert the pie onto one of the cookie sheets and spread it out again with your fingers. Cut 5 or 6 small slits in each pie.

Repeat with the other 3 pieces of dough until you have 4 pies, with 2 pies on each cookie sheet.

The Baking

Place the pies on the cookie sheets into the oven and bake for 20 minutes. For each pie, quarter a tablespoon of butter and place the four pieces on top of the pie. Spread the butter around until the top of each pie is covered. Bake for 10 more minutes and remove from the oven. You can let the pies cool a bit or eat them hot after cutting each into 4 to 8 slices.

Refrigerate or freeze any uneaten pies.

The Reheating

If frozen, remove a pie from the freezer and let it reach room temperature, approximately one hour.

Rewarm in an oven or toaster oven at 325 F (160 C, Gas Mark 3) for 15 minutes. Feel free to add more butter to the tops of the pies before reheating. Do not microwave as this makes the bread dough too chewy.

Sauerkraut pies

Original recipe from my mother Anita O’Brien Sutor,
courtesy of Ruthanne Sutor Terrero

Gardening 2011: Getting ready to start the seeds indoors

Two months ago I bought my first vegetable seeds for this summer’s growing season here in northwest New York, climate zone 5b. On that day in February it was 10 degrees F (-12 C), today it is 49 F (9 C) at 11 am, and sunny. Today’s weather doesn’t make too much difference because I’ll be starting the seeds in the basement.

Over this and several more blog entries, I’ll chart their progress. Here I’ll review my seed inventory. These are the seeds I bought from Seeds of Change two months ago:

This is what I ordered and just received from High Mowing Organic Seeds:

Many of these will be started directly in the soil around the third week of May. However, I’ll need to get the tomatoes and peppers started this weekend, and then the broccoli in two weeks.

As I looked at the lists above, I realized that I forgot to buy basil seeds, so will need to pick some up later today.

Perusing the High Mowing catalog now and seeing what is sold out might be a good way to get a jump start on seeds you may want to order next season, albeit quite early.

Next up I’ll look at getting the seeds into some soil.

Update

In my search for basil, I was not able to find organic seeds locally, so I had to go with some standard ones. I also took the opportunity to pick up a couple of other packets:

The Gardening 2011 series

More spring cleanup

Two weeks ago I posted an entry about checking up on the grounds around the house to see what was happening on the first day of spring. Since then I’ve had two business trips (POSSCON and NASA Open Source Summit) and the weather turned colder and gave us half a foot of snow. Spring is trying to happen again, so I got outside for another couple of hours. Here’s some of what I did.

Woody border cleanup

Between us and the next house down the hill there is a woody border containing about a dozen black walnut trees, a few scrubby pines, odd bushes, some ground cover plants like ivy, and sumac saplings.

The sumacs are weeds. Several years ago I spent days cleaning out all the trees but the saplings keep coming back. This is the best time of the year to cut them out, before they leaf. I probably lopped off 50 saplings an inch or less in diameter and perhaps a dozen two to three times larger. The area looks a lot better now, albeit not very green yet. I added them to the big pile of brush I’ve been building and will need to move them into the woods at the back of the property with my son.

There are very few choices for things to plant under black walnuts, but this year I plan to put in half a dozen young maple trees. They will survive the juglone put out by the black walnut roots, but it might be too shady under the walnut canopy for them to grow very fast. It’s worth a try.

The border between the grass and the woody area is irregular, mostly what I establish when I mow the lawn. We have many hosta growing on the property and these transplant very well, so I plan to start moving some over to better define the boundary.

Sailboat

The boat is still out of commission, covered with large tarps behind the garage. I didn’t put quite enough support under the tarps last fall so water collects in pockets on top. I’ve drained them several times, but they came back with the snow and rain of recent weeks.

My general process is to put a short length of hose in a watery area and then siphon out the liquid. Sometimes I can get underneath and lift the tarp so the water flows out. Two bad things can happen, and do with disturbing regularity:

  1. The water comes off the tarp and onto me. Cold water soaking and running down my arm is really unpleasant. Today a burst of water hit me in the head and filled my left ear. I really was trying to avoid this.
  2. I get water in my mouth as I try to start the syphon with the hose. This only happened once today because I’m getting better at it. It is rain water so I’m not terribly concerned about its purity, but I rinse my mouth out with Listerine just in case. I could use a pump of some sort but this is “greener.”

Next year I plan to keep the boat indoors somewhere, somehow.

New vegetable garden

I’ve decided that I will not be keeping the garden in the same place this year after two rather frustrating summer growing seasons.  I’ve either got a tomato blight or the black walnut roots extend farther than I thought, but in any case I’m giving up on that location.

My plan is to put the new garden several hundred feet farther back in the middle of what is now an open area of lawn. That should keep it away from the walnuts and give it a lot more sun. It will involve tilling the grassy area just as soon as I possibly can so I can repeat several times before the end of May, as well as constructing a new fence.

This is a vegetable garden, so I can’t use pressure treated wood for the fence, but I have a few ideas. More on that when I break ground.

The outside view on the first day of spring

Today is the first day of spring and since the temperature hit 45 F, I decided to celebrate by going outside and doing some cleanup after the rough winter we just had. The first task is always picking up the branches that have fallen in the last few months, and most of them come from the many black walnuts around the property. I’m always surprised that there are any branches left on those trees once I see the pile of them I’ve collected.

Images on the first day of spring, March 20, 2011 Images on the first day of spring, March 20, 2011

We have some woods at the back of the property, so the branch cleanup involves pulling a large garden cart around, loading it up, and hauling it to the back. Through the years my pile has compressed but seems to be the home for many small animals and birds. I filled one cart and then spent almost an hour collecting larger branches into a pile which you can see in the photo below. He doesn’t know it yet, but my son William will have the task of bringing those to the back.

Images on the first day of spring, March 20, 2011 Images on the first day of spring, March 20, 2011

The rest of the photos show the various flora that are starting to push up around the property, some of them seemingly rising out of the ground hours after the melting snow has retreated. We still might get snow here in the next couple of weeks, but psychologically I’m in spring now, even if the weather changes its mind.

Images on the first day of spring, March 20, 2011 Images on the first day of spring, March 20, 2011

Click on an image to see a larger view.

Photo: The Melting

Today the temperature reached 45 degrees F here in northwest NY but we still have quite a bit of snow on the ground. So while we are getting some melting, I would say that the mounds of snow are more slumping than disappearing.

I had a break from business calls after 5:00 so I took a walk outside to get some air. The photo below shows a puddle formed from melting snow with a reflection of the 200+ year old black walnut tree that is directly above it.

Puddle in February

Tips on scraping painted windows

I spent a few hours this weekend scraping the four windows in our bedoom after I finished painting them. These are older wooden sash windows, with 6 panes over 6 panes. For those of you counting, that’s 12 panes per window, or 48 panes total. It gets rather boring to scrape that many windows.

windowI tried using masking tape years ago but was never that happy with the results. So I just paint the wood and later scrape off any paint that gets on the glass panes.

Here are some tips, many of which I actually follow when I am preparing to paint the windows and then when I am finishing the job.

  • If the previous person did not do a good job of scraping the old paint off the glass panes, you should do that before you paint the window. Fill in any gaps between the glass and window with caulk, then let it dry.
  • Clean the glass as well as the other parts of the window before you paint.
  • As you paint, try not to get too much paint on the glass, but you do want the paint to seal between the wood and the glass.
  • Let the paint dry at least 8 hours and preferably closer to 24 before you scrape it. Otherwise the bits you scrape off may paint-glue themselves to your nicely painted wooden sill.
  • Before you scrape, take a sharp knife such as a box cutter and score through the paint where the glass meets the wood. Even if you do use masking tape, don’t forget this step.
  • Presuming you are using a razor blade to scrape, make sure it is sharp, which probably means that is it new. Don’t use the same blade for more than one or two windows, depending on how large they are and how many panes they each contain. Buy extra blades before starting the job.
  • Use a razor blade holder. Your local home center probably has several models. It’s worth paying a bit more for one that is sturdy, holds the blade securely, doesn’t slip, and fits your hand. Scraping is tedious, don’t make it more so by using a tool that will cramp your hand and make the job last longer.
  • Use a stiff non-metallic brush after you scrape off the paint to get the remaining little paint bits out of the corners between the wood and the glass.
  • If you vacuum the window, don’t ruin your new paint job by scraping the vacuum nozzle on the window itself.
  • After the paint has dried for a few days, clean the panes again with a good household window cleaner.

Gardening 2011: First seed purchases

It’s February 3, six to eight inches of snow cover the ground here in northwest New York, climate zone 5b, and it is 10 degrees F. Just to tempt me, our local Wegmans supermarket is now selling gardening seeds at 25% off.

Even though I can’t get the plants in the ground until the end of May and therefore will be starting seeds at the beginning of April, I gave in.

This year I’ve decided to go only with strictly organic seeds. This is what I picked up this morning:

High Mowing Organic Seeds catalog coverI’ll probably purchase my remaining seeds online either from Seeds of Change or High Mowing Organic Seeds. I had good luck with the latter last summer, wild foraging animals notwithstanding.

Last year I started my seeds in the basement on April 2 and while I had enough light, the seeds just weren’t warm enough to germinate quickly. This year I ordered two warming mats to go under the flats. Once the seeds are uncovered I’ll use a small fan to improve air circulation around the seedlings.

But all that is two months away. For now I’ll just collect seeds and get ready for spring.

The Gardening 2011 series

First serious snow

Though we had a couple of inches of snow a couple of days ago, the weather got warmer and we started having heavy rain. Unexpectedly, at least to me, that turned to snow and everything got slippery. It is a bit above freezing now and so the snow is very wet and heavy.

Here are two photos that show what things look like outside my front door.

Snow in December

The weight of the snow has bent over some bushes, blocking the front walk.

Snow in December

Some thoughts on baking apple pies

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you celebrating it today in the US or elsewhere!

My first cooking task of the day was to bake an apple pie, something I’ve been doing for many years. There are many recipes for the pie and the pie dough, and this entry is not one for either, but rather a few comments and recommendations.

Dough

  • Making the pie dough is not my favorite part of the process but I’ve learned to relax about it as I’ve gotten older.
  • A mixture of butter and shortening in the dough works well in a ratio of 3 or 4 to 1. I’ve never used lard but I hear it is even better than the shortening. Keep all the “fats” in the freezer until you are ready to use them.
  • Use unsalted butter if you have it, but if you use salted butter reduce the amount of salt added to the flour for the dough.
  • pie birdI bought some pie birds this year, not so much because I have a problem with “empty dome syndrome” where the filling reduces while the top pie crust bakes as a dome with air under it, but because I think they are fun and cool to use. Artfully placed slits cut in the top crust work well. If you have a child, spell out his or name in the slits.
  • Per Alton Brown of the Food Network, I substituted very cold apple jack for water in the dough. The pie is not done yet, but I can confirm that the dough is much easier to work with and much less gloppy.
  • Though I’ve used wax paper for years, I’ve decided it is more trouble than it is worth. Today I just used flour on the counter top and it worked just fine. Making sure you sprinkle both sides of the dough and move it to ensure it is not sticking to the countertop.
  • rolling dowelI prefer using a maple rolling dowel rather than a wood or marble rolling pin.
  • If I have extra rolled dough after constructing the pie, I put the pieces on a baking sheet, sprinkle with a sugar and cinnamon mixture, and bake until lightly brown. My kids love these.

Filling

  • Try using apple jack or apple cider instead of water.
  • If you put raisins in your pie, soak them in apple jack for 10 minutes. Alternatively, use some brandy.
  • apple slice and corerAfter peeling the apples, I use an apple slicer and corer to get uniform slice sizes. I then cut these the long way to make slightly thinner slices. Make sure you get all the peel off the slices.
  • Consider substituting light brown sugar for one-third of the sugar in the filling.
  • The recipe I used today called for 6 large apples. I used 4 varieties but generally the more the better. I would not recommend using all Granny Smith, but one or two lend a nice tartness and crunch to the filling. You are going here for a variety of flavor and texture in every bite.
  • limesYou can use lemon or lime zest but I think you should add some lime juice to the apple slices as are you are collecting them so that the apples do not brown. It also gives the juice a little more time to soak in. Lemon juice works here as well, but I usually prefer lime in most situations.

Update

A finished pie

Saturday slow down

Today was the autumn work day at the club on Lake Ontario where I keep my sailboat but I didn’t make it up there this morning. On Monday evening after work I was putting up a new aluminum storm window on our dining room and after getting one screw installed I managed to slip and fall off the step ladder. The window stayed up as I fell down.

I fell 4 or 5 feet and the ladder went in the opposite direction. I landed with a thud on some border stones that separate the grass next to the driveway from the mulched area next to the house. I bruised my back behind my right hip and twisted and wrenched various other things. Nothing got broken and I avoided hitting my head on the stones, though I’m not sure how.

So I’ve been sore all week though I’ve definitely getting better. My back hasn’t liked dealing with lifting since my mishap, so I decided not to push it today. This has also meant no strenuous chores this past week. I’ve contracted with someone to rake the leaves this fall, so at least I don’t have to worry about that one.

With that prolog, I mostly took it easy today. My son and I arranged for the tuxedo he’s going to need for a special eighth grade dance in Rochester in a few weeks. I also spent more time on the website reconfiguration after switching my WordPress theme from Atahualpa (it never saw an option it didn’t like) to TwentyTen (it’s basic, it’s sharp, it works).

Related to the second task, I also spent a lot of time grumbling about our slow DSL connection. We used to have cable but shifted to DSL when that became unreliable. However, over time the speed of DSL has varied widely. Once they managed to turn it up a bit, but I’m getting tired of family members asking why the Internet is so slow. Lately I’ve noticed that it get glacially slow when it rains, which indicates that there is likely an issue with wires or equipment getting wet. I called today and they submitted a work order.

I also went online and order a fast cable-based Internet service. There is a 30 day money back guarantee for it so I should be able to run them side by side and see which one is really better. My money is on the cable one. Unfortunately, the earliest date they gave me for installation is almost three weeks from now. Let’s hope the phone company can improved the DSL between now and then. Otherwise, if you send me an email and I don’t get back to you right away, that’s why.

Basement door project: Part 2

When last we left this project, I had removed the very old screen door, scraped the siding and the main door, and painted both. What was left was to construct a new storm door. I planned to build a new door rather than buy one because at 66 inches tall, it was a very non-standard size, and getting a custom door made would have cost several hundred dollars. Besides, I could and wanted to do this carpentry project.

The old screen door was useless because it was in such bad shape and it provided no insulation, something we need here in northwest New York State in the winter. We didn’t need a screen door because we never left the main basement door open, so I decided that I would construct a storm door with fixed plexiglass panels. Plexiglass is stronger and lighter than regular glass.

My original thought was to use 1×6 pine for the wood in the door, though I would have preferred thicker wood to add rigidity and strength. Neither of the big lumber stores nearby had what is called 5/4 inch stock that was in good enough shape to justify the premium price. Then it occurred to me: in the oldest part of the basement I had a collection of old doors and shutters that had been saved through the years since the house was built in 1820. Sure enough, there was the old screen door from the front of the house and the wood was in very good condition.

Wood in houses from the nineteenth century is often beautiful stuff with very few knots, and this door was 1 1/8 inch thick. I removed the old screening and hardware, and you can see the door in the first photo on the left below.

Basement door Basement door Basement door

Next I cut the old door apart and to the lengths and widths I needed for the new door. I used a high quality acetone-based wood filler to fill in the holes left from the hardware and screening tacks, as you can see in the middle photo. When this dried, I sanded it down.

The door I found was built with mortises and tenons but I planned a simpler approach, using Gorilla Glue and countersunk 4 inch screws. I considered using wood biscuits, but I decided that the screws and glue should suffice for the size of the door.

For the plexiglass, I purchased a 30 by 60 inch sheet for $40. I hate working with this stuff. I tried to use a knife to score the material and then snap it, but it was just too hard. Ultimately I use a sabre saw with a fine blade. Since the edges were all going to be concealed within the wood, the cut needed to be accurate but did not need to be perfectly smooth. I sanded the cut edges.

Using my table saw, I cut grooves in the center of the wood pieces on the narrow edges that would be the inner sections of the frame. I then glued and screwed together the door except for one long side piece. I needed to leave that off so I could insert the plexiglass panels. At this point I painted the inner edges of the door frame so I wouldn’t have to try to do an accurate job at the end and probably have to scrape paint off the plexiglass.

Before inserting the plexiglass, I ran some clear exterior caulk down each of the grooves so I would have a flexible seal against air getting around the panels. The caulk should give enough when the wood expands and contracts. I put on the final piece of the wood frame and let the whole door dry for a few hours. Construction was complete.

I knew from some early measurements that the door opening was fairly consistent width-wise but varied a bit from top to bottom. This is not unusual in old houses. When I place the door in the opening I saw that I would have to cut a small wedge out of the top of the door. I measured 3 or 4 times, clamped a straightedge to the door, and then used my circular saw to cut off the triangular piece .

After a little sanding and the final paint, the door was ready to be installed. I installed the hardware including three spring hinges, carefully put the door in the opening with consistent openings all around, and screwed the hinges to the jamb. I finished the job by adding weatherstripping. The completed install door is shown in the rightmost photo above.

Given that I had an old door to work with, the total cost of this project was less than $60, almost all of it spent on the plexiglass.

Basement door project: Part 1

We’ve now lived in our 1820 Federal-style house in western New York for 10 years, and in this blog I’ve documented some of the projects I’ve worked on. (A fence, a porch, another porch, yet another porch, some shelves.)

We have two doors out of the basement, one of which is sealed up. I’ve always hated both of them, especially the one going out by what we call the corner garden on the western side of the house. The screen door was in very bad shape and out of kilter, the threshold was worn, the door hardware was in bad shape, and water came into the basement when it rained. What’s not to love?

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been working to fix all these problems. In this entry I’m going to describe the fixes to the door frame and door itself and in the next I’ll describe how I built a new storm door by recycling an extra 100+ year old screen door I had in the basement.

First, the photos, which I’ll refer to as Photos 1, 2, and 3 from left to right:

Basement door Basement door Basement door

In Photo 1 we join the job in progress. I’ve already removed and disposed of the screen door. This side of the house is due for a paint job in a year or two, but the area around the door was in particularly bad shape, so I scraped it thoroughly. You can see that the threshold needed work. What was there were two boards, one horizontal which was the threshold itself and a vertical board in front of it. Both needed to go.

In Photo 2, the siding has been caulked and primed and a new threshold is in place. The horizontal board is a 1×8 that has been cut to width and notched to be inserted from inside the house. The vertical piece is a pressure treated 1×6 that has been cut to width. I installed it closer to the door jamb molding than the previous piece to help keep water away and to make a tighter fit for the storm door I will eventually build and install. The glazing on the window needed some minor repairs.

Though you can’t see it from this external shot, I removed the two ancient deadbolts and handle on the inside and replaced them with newer and stronger models. I also painted the inside of the door with a white exterior semi-gloss enamel, covering up some of the ugliest green paint I’ve ever seen. The threshold was painted with a gloss exterior latex enamel after being first spray painted with a stain blocking non-latex primer.

In Photo 3, the siding has been painted with its final coat of satin exterior latex paint and the door has received its first coat of gloss exterior latex enamel. It will receive the final coat of green when the storm door is in place and I can leave the inner door open while the paint dries. I can’t leave it open for long now for fear that one of our cats will try to exit or a neighborhood cat, squirrel, fox, deer, skunk, raccoon, or chipmunk will try to enter.

While I was repairing the door and waiting for the caulking and paint to dry at various stages, I began work on the storm door. Projects such as this have tens if not hundreds of small to large steps, but you need to think about what parts of the overall job can be done in parallel. You also have to map out what you can do right now so that you can do something else in an hour, at lunch, after work, or over the weekend. This is especially true for tasks involving glue, wood filler, and paint.

The summer garden moves toward the end game

There are two days left in August and though we’re not yet at the end of summer here in northwestern New York State, we starting to be able to see it. The garden is not looking as neat and tidy as it was a few months ago. Many of our flowers are still blooming, but the pumpkins have set and berries are forming to feed the birds this winter.

Here’s a visual update on what’s happening in the backyard. Contrast it to my last update in mid-July.

Late summer flora Late summer flora Late summer flora Late summer flora Late summer flora Late summer flora Late summer flora Late summer flora Late summer flora Late summer flora Late summer flora Late summer flora

Flowers in the summer heat

We’re fully in the middle of summer here in northwest New York State, climate zone 5b. In another month the nights will start getting quite cool, though we’ll still have some very warm days into September.

A month ago I posted an update on what was blooming as summer was about to start. Most of those blooms have passed, but others have taken their place. Here’s a visual tour.

Flower in July Flower in July Flower in July Flower in July Flower in July Flower in July Flower in July Flower in July Flower in July

Next: “The summer garden moves toward the end game”

Weekend images, before the work

Before my son and I started working in the backyard on Saturday I took a few photos related to the work to be done. One of my first errands in the morning was to go to the farm market and get a few additional vegetable plants for the garden. Half a flat quickly turned into two flats as I walked up and down the aisles.

Earlier in the week I had three yards of screened topsoil delivered so that William and I could grade the lawn falling off the west side of the driveway. To give you an idea of how much this is, each cubic yard is 27 cubic feet, so with this much dirt you could spread soil 6 inches deep over an area of 2 x 3 x 27 = 162 square feet.

The backyard The backyard

I’ve already tilled the vegetable garden twice this Spring and it will get one more deep tilling before the seeds and plants go in. One of the neighbor deer is impatient for me to put up her evening buffet of vegetables.

The backyard The backyard

Life in the garden, end of May

There are two days left to May, but it feels like Summer here in northwest New York State. I will be planting the vegetable garden tomorrow, but there are plenty of plants in bloom or making good showings before Spring says goodbye for 2010. Here’s a visual update, one month after I last showed the flora in the backyard.

Flowers at the end of May, 2010 Flowers at the end of May, 2010 Flowers at the end of May, 2010 Flowers at the end of May, 2010 Flowers at the end of May, 2010 Flowers at the end of May, 2010

Next: “Almost summer in the garden”

End of April flower status

It’s been three weeks since I last did an update on the state of flowering things in my yard, and I did manage to sneak out yesterday to survey where things were. We’re at the end of the daffodil season and moving into the final phase of the middle tulip blooming time. The lilacs are in bloom, a good two weeks earlier than usual here in upstate New York, climate zone 5b.

Here’s a visual survey of what’s blooming. For the most part I’ve omitted the dandelions since they and I are no longer friends. I don’t use chemicals on them and even though I dug up many of them last year, they are back in full force. I actually am resolved to live with them, but I do wish they would stop mocking me.

All photos were taken with an Apple iPhone 3GS.

Flowers at the end of April, 2010 Flowers at the end of April, 2010 Flowers at the end of April, 2010 Flowers at the end of April, 2010 Flowers at the end of April, 2010 Flowers at the end of April, 2010

Next: “Life in the garden, end of May”

DMV bliss: life in a small town

I have lived in various towns and cities in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. With the exception of Massachusetts and where I live now, every interaction with the Department of Motor Vehicles (or whatever they called it locally) was a pain in the neck. Long lines, absurd forms, and cranky officials made me dread having anything to do with them.

Massachusetts is excluded only out of my lack of experience there: I never had to get or renew my driver’s license, car registration, or car inspection in that state.

My current home village and town is not on the bad list because it is a pleasure. Here’s today’s story.

I was away last week and my car inspection was set to expire at the end of the week. Also, my driver’s license expires in three weeks. I needed to get both of them taken care of this week, and Monday and Tuesday were tied up with work and a business trip. I was hoping to get one task done today and the other Thursday or Friday.

After I dropped my son off at school and returned a rental car from my business trip (long story), I brought my car to a local oil change/service station for the inspection. There were no other customers, so in 35 minutes I got the inspection done, the oil changed, the car lubed, the fluids topped, and I was out of there. I managed to do parts of two business calls as well. One down.

Since this was my first driver’s license renewal in ten years, I needed to get an eye test. One option was to go to a optometrist or ophthalmologist and have it done there, and then send in the form in with the test results. The other was to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which happens to be in my village since it is the county seat.

After doing some more business calls, I left the house at 11:32. I drove to the DMV, there was no one in line, they did the eye test, I got a new photo taken, we completed all the paperwork, and I got my new interim license. The new photo license will be mailed to me within two weeks.

As I walked out of the county building, I glanced at my watch: 11:46. It had taken 14 minutes to both get to the DMV and do everything necessary. I ran an errand and was home 35 minutes after I had left.

This town and village in upstate New York are such a pleasure to live in compared with any place else in my personal experience. The combination of the low cost and high quality of living is amazing, though I must admit the regional political bent could be a lot more to my liking. You can’t have everything, but at least I do have a new license.

Sprouts!

Two weeks ago tomorrow I planted some seeds for this summer’s vegetable garden and put them under grow lights in the basement. (“Starting the seeds for the Summer vegetable garden”) Dissatisfied after 10 days with having no growth evident, I moved the whole operation upstairs to the ping pong table in a sunny room.

Two days ago I say the first evidence of growth and yesterday, when this photo was taken, things were well underway.

Seeds sprouting

These are baby tomato plants and some of the basil has started to sprout. I’m still waiting for the peppers to make an appearance. Once I get solid growth in the majority of the cells, I’ll move the operation back to the basement.

Spring 2010 is well underway

Every week or so I’ve been documenting the flowers and flowering shrubs that have been making progress over our long winter here in northwestern New York (climate zone 5b). This last week has shown the great activity so far because it made it into the 80s F last weekend and, though it’s cooled off, we’ve had plenty of sunshine and some rain as well.

Here’s where we stand today.

Spring flowers Spring flowers Spring flowers Spring flowers Spring flowers Spring flowers

Still no sign of sprouting in the vegetable seeds I planted 9 days ago.

Next: “End of April flower status”

Starting the seeds for the Summer vegetable garden

I had targeted April 1 to start the seeds indoors for my vegetable garden for this Summer, and I only missed by one day. Last year I bought plants and started seeds in the ground, but did not begin any in early Spring. Usually you begin them inside 6 to 8 weeks before they should be transplanted outdoors, allowing for one week hardening outside before they go in the ground. I live in the northwest corner of New York State, in climate zone 5b.

I decided to use the Burpee “Ultimate Growing System.” This provides 72 cells and makes it much easier to keep the soil moist while the seeds germinate and get underway. You can put together your own system, but since it’s been several years since I started seeds I decided to keep it simple. I may need to transplant the seedlings to Jiffy pots if they get quite large, but that’s a decision for down the line.

Today I only planted seeds for tomatoes, peppers and basil. The majority of the seeds will be planted in the garden directly in mid-May, but I may start a few more seeds this weekend for flowers like Zinnias.

I ended up planting seeds for 6 varieties of tomatoes, hoping to get 3 plants of each; 4 varieties of peppers, hoping to get 4 plants of each; and 2 varieties of basil. Almost all the tomato and pepper cells were single seed plantings while the basil had 4 or 5 in each. Basil seeds are very small and it will be fine if I get more than one plant per cell. Cherry tomato seeds are also quite small, so those were double planted.

Each row of seeds was labeled with permanent ink on a plastic label, and the codes are reflected in the table below. I’ll augment the table to include other data as the process continues.

Seed starting

Label Type Variety Seeds Per Cell Days to Germination Germination Rate
T1 Tomato High Mowing Seeds Rose de Berne 1 - -
T2 Tomato High Mowing Seeds Sunkist F1 Hybrid 1 - -
T3 Tomato Burpee Big Boy Hybrid 1 - -
T4 Tomato Burpee Supersteak Hybrid 1 - -
T5 Tomato Burpee Super Sweet 100 Cherry Hybrid 2 - -
T6 Tomato Ferry-Morse Red Cherry 2 - -
B1 Basil Ferry-Morse Sweet 4-5 - -
B2 Basil Ferry-Morse Genovese 4-5 - -
P1 Pepper Burpee Crispy Hybrid 1 - -
P2 Pepper Burpee California Wonder 1 - -
P3 Pepper Ferry-Morse Anaheim 1 - -
P4 Pepper High Mowing Seeds Ring-O-Fire 1 - -

Once everything was planted, I put the whole contraption under grow lights in the basement. The lights are on a timer to be on between 7 AM and 7 PM.

Seed starting

Next: “Sprouts!”

March showers bring April flowers

It’s the 2nd of April here in northwest New York State and the weather forecast calls for a high of 80 degrees F (27 C) today. This is very unusual, but I’ll take it. Last night we were able to sleep with a window open for the first time this year. We’ll certainly have colder weather and even frosts between now and mid-May, but I plan to enjoy this while I’ve got it.

I have a a lot of outdoor projects planned for this weekend, most of which are cleanup projects after the winter. As I walked around the yard the last couple of days making my plans, I couldn’t help but notice how many flowers and plants have either bloomed are almost ready to do so. As a continuation of my series of photos of the changing of the seasons, here is an update on what the flora around my house are doing in early Spring.

Spring flowers Spring flowers Spring flowers Spring flowers Spring flowers Spring flowers

Next: “Spring 2010 is well underway”

Winter ends as Spring tries to arrive

A week and a half ago I posted some photos of early flowering plants here in northwest New York State. Though I was away much of this week on a business trip, the weather evidently was warm, sunny, and evidently very nice all around.

Here are some photos to show you how far things have come in just a few days.

Spring photo Spring photo Spring photo Spring photo

From the top left, going clockwise: early buds on a cherry tree, snow drops in their leaf mulch, some onion plants in the garden that were not harvested last year. and winter aconite spreading across the border by the driveway.

By the way, it might snow on Monday.

Next: “March showers bring April flowers”

2010 photos of late winter / early spring flora

Every year I find it hard to resist slipping out of the house on warm sunny days in late winter and photographing the first flowers that break through the ground and snow. Here’s this year’s batch:

Late winter 2010 Late winter 2010 Late winter 2010 Late winter 2010

Here’s what things looked like in March, 2005. Things were quite a bit more advanced just ten days after the above photos were taken.

Two photos on the inevitability of Spring

Though official Spring is still two weeks away, and “meteorological Spring” is several weeks ater than that here in northwest New York State, it’s possible to find some signs that Winter really is coming to an end.

Here are a couple of photos from yesterday: a bunny being sold at the local farm supply store (“just in time for Easter”) and a shoot from a bulb coming up in a warm part of the front garden.

bunny shoot

Daily links for 02/28/2010 – Gardening Edition

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Post mortem on the 2009 vegetable garden

vegetable garden in snow

Last year I blogged about the vegetable garden I put in and my trials and tribulations in protecting it from critters. Today my garden looks like what’s shown in the photo on the right. I live and garden in the northwest corner of New York State in the United States.

Therefore, I thought it would be a good time to review what I did right and wrong last year as I start to think about my 2010 vegetable garden.

Last year was the first year in about eight that I decided to put in a vegetable garden. In the past I have gardened quite a bit, but I had not made the time to continue it from year to year. Also, we have a particularly obnoxious bush-like weed that spreads via thick, deep underground roots, so it’s a battle all season long to help the vegetables win. I was pretty successful in this this last year, but it was a lot of work.

Location

As I just mentioned, that weed is very hardy and persistent. If I keep the garden where it is now, I may rent a small backhoe to dig down and pull up all the roots. One key reason to move the garden is to get it away from the black walnut trees that ring the property and are near the driveway. The part of the garden that is toward the front of the photo is just over the drip line for a black walnut and so only certain plants will grow there.

If I move the garden, it will be a lot further back in the property and centered in a grassy area. However, it will be very difficult to water and I’ll need to rely on rainfall for the most part.

That brings me to …

The Fence

The fence I installed did a good job keeping out the deer, especially once I extended it by a couple of feet around the corn. The deer just nibbled on the corn over the top of the fence until I added two more feet of fence.

The right side of the garden was entirely in sunflowers and corn:

Lemon Queen Sunflower Sundance Sweet Corn Sugar Dots Sweet Corn Peaches and Cream Sweet Corn Garden Cross Bantam Sweet Corn Velvet Queen Sunflower

From left to right, the corn moved from earlier to later varieties for harvesting. Probably 40% of the entire garden was planted in corn. It looked pretty promising.

We didn’t get one ear of it. The raccoons ate it all, though they didn’t bother anything else.

This next year I’m not going to bother with corn at all. To keep out the raccoons I would either have to install an electric fence or completely enclose (encage?) the garden, sides and top. I’m not going to do that. So next year I’ll have more room for vegetable and maybe try something new, like pumpkins.

Peppers, Tomatoes, and Basil

The peppers I planted in the ground were fantastic, though those I put in a container did not do well. This year I’ll be expanding the group to more varieties and only put them in the ground.

While we did get some tomatoes, it’s clear they were affected by the blight. I needed to get a replacement tomato plant and I picked up one from a home center on a whim, and I think that infected the rest of the crop.

The basil crop was strong, though late in arriving. This year I plan to start many of my plants directly from seed. They’ll need to get going around April 1, so I’ll have more on that as I get closer. I’ve ordered several packets from some catalog sources, and I’ll go through how I’ll make my final choices.

Squash and Cucumbers

The Garden Spineless F1 Hybrid Zucchini Squash grew well (too well), and produced a large crop. I need to stagger the planting of the seeds this year to not get inundated with zucchini. This is an old joke, but we were indeed told when we moved to this village that people locked their cars in summer so that others would not put zucchini in them.

The Summer Pac F1 Hybrid Calabaza Yellow Squash was a disappointment because it was more of a gourd than a yellow zucchini. I blame myself and will need to do more research this year.

The Marketmore Cucumbers produced a good crop and didn’t overwhelm us with volume. I grew many of them up the trellis I used earlier in the season for the snow peas, and that sort of worked. This next year I may build a wood ladder for them.

Beans and Peas

Both the Tender Green Improved Bush Beans and the Yellow Kinghorn Wax Bush Beans did very well, however they were too crowded. I fell victim to the urge to over plant too many vegetables in too small a space. This year I’ll either have more room because I’m not doing corn, or I’ll be in a larger space in a different location.

For peas I went with the sugar snap variety. We got a few, but I put them in too late. I should have started them around May 1, or even late April, but it was closer to the end of May by the time the garden was in shape. My mother always told me to get them in on St. Patrick’s Day, but around here the ground is still frozen and we’re likely to get more snow, so that’s not going to work.

Lettuce and Carrots

I got a lot of lettuce but should have staggered the crop. The carrots grew very slowly and we didn’t get to harvest very many. Next year I need to explicitly amend the soil where I plant the carrots with a lot of sand.

Summary

The major lessons in my return to vegetable gardening were:

  • If the deer don’t get you, the raccoons will. Watch about for ground hogs as well.
  • Your fence can never be too tall.
  • Plant half the vegetables you want to plant in the space you have available.

Sources and Books

In a previous blog entry I gave some good sources for vegetable seeds. If you want to go organic, pay very close attention to the seed descriptions or else go with an all-organic provider like High Mowing Organic Seeds. Rob Weir also posted a good blog entry with ten seed providers for New England gardeners.

There are hundreds of books about vegetable gardening, some of which are specialized to specific parts of the US or the world. Here are some that I’ve found to be quite good:

Almost Spring, in my dreams

Late yesterday afternoon I trudged from the car through the snow to a Home Depot to pick up a few things for a home project. After getting inside and shaking off the snow, I was met with a wonderful display of seeds for the garden.

Display of seeds

Around here, we can’t plant anything outside until May, and it’s usually late May at that. However, after the problems last year with the tomato blight, I decided to start my own seeds for some vegetables for this year’s garden. Therefore at some point I was planning on getting those seeds.

It’s certainly economical to do so: a pack of tomato seeds yielding one to two dozen plants is less than $2. To jump to the punchline, I did buy some seeds. I got 2 varieties of hot peppers, two of sweet peppers, two of basil, and four of tomatoes.

I’m not going to put plants from all the seeds into the garden, but since I’m not planting corn this year (the raccoons got all of it), I have a lot of extra room. So I might do half a dozen of each of the tomato and pepper varieties and then a lot of basil, most of it to be used for pesto. I’ll also plant other vegetables like lettuce, peas, and beans, but I’ll run through there when I publish the post mortem on last year’s garden.

Note that while I bought these seeds on impulse, my final selection of plants to start will be developed over the next couple of months. In particular, I’ll be looking at some organic seed providers such as High Mowing Seeds, based in Hardwick, VT. This company was featured in a one hour Emeril Green special in early January, 2010.

I’ll need to start the seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before they must go outside, so that puts the date around April 1. I have some work to do before then on this project, primarily figuring out where I’ll put the seeds and how to set up a grow light. It’s all fun, and all helps the winter go by faster.

Also see: “Getting ready for Spring gardening in upstate NY” for suppliers of gardening supplies, plants, and seeds.

Getting ready for Spring gardening in upstate NY

Ok, it’s after New Year’s so I can officially start thinking about gardening again in about three months. I live in the northwest corner of New York State in the USA, so that very much affects what plants I can and can’t use. I’m in gardening zone 5B, which means that the lowest temperatures we can usually expect during winter are from -15 F to -10 F, or -26.1 C to -23.4 C.

Here are some gardening resources that I’ll be looking at in planning what I’ll be planting this year:

  • High Mowing Organic Seeds is an independently-owned, farm-based seed company dedicated to supporting sustainable agriculture and providing farmers and gardeners with the highest quality certified organic seed.” High Mowing is based in Hardwick, VT, and was featured in a one hour Emeril Green special.
  • logoBurpee’s Seeds: More seeds than you can imagine, but may not be local to your area. Where I live, these are often available at a great discount toward the end of winter at Wegmans supermarkets.
  • White Flower Farms: Great selection of plants, especially perennials and bulbs. I’ve bought their naturalizing collection of narcissus several times through the years.
  • logoPark Seed Co.: Another company with a huge selection of both seeds and seed starting apparatus. Same caveat as above about seeds perhaps not being local to your area.
  • Musser Forests: Great source of seedling and transplants for trees and shrubs. Located in Pennsylvania. I’m thinking of using them to start a small stand of future Christmas trees for our family.
  • Garden’s Alive!: As they say, “Environmentally Responsible Gardening Products that Work”. Good for supplies for organic gardening.
  • logoMiller Nurseries: A big selection of fruit trees, as well as raspberries and asparagus plants.

If you have favorite sources of plants and gardening supplies, please append a comment with the details.