Friday, April 27, 2012

Tomato Seedlings and a DIY Grow Light

Now I've done it.  My little tomato seeds have all sprouted, so I am committed to caring for them for the next several weeks until they're ready to go out into the world our back yard. 

As recommended, I put two seeds in each cell, and almost all of them came up.  When the first true leaves form, I'll use a nail scissors to cut away the weaker of the two.

I made a trip to Lowe's last weekend and came home with a small  (25") shop light and two flourescent bulbs. 

I thought we would just mount it onto something and rest the tray of seedlings underneath, but it turned out to be more of a DIY project than I bargained for.  Maybe I am naive, but I assumed the light I bought would come with a plug.  It turns out that this thing had to be wired in, and it did not come with any instructions.  But Matt made us both proud.  He cut the end off an extension cord and stripped the wire casing back, and attached the appropriate wire ends to the right places.  VoilĂ - a shop light with a plug. 

You'll note that this shelving unit (an old wine display from a store that we picked up on the street on trash day) could accomodate another light and tray of seedlings, should I be successful at this endeavor and want to do even more next year. 

The self-watering tray has been great.  I haven't had to fill it up since I started the seeds a week ago. I check the level once a day by sticking my finger in the side, and then also touching the capillary mat to make sure it is still damp.  I've got the seedlings propped up on boards so that they are about 2 inches away from the light, and I'll remove boards as they grow.  The lights are on a timer for 14 hours a day. 

When it comes time to trim away the second seedlings, I'll also fertilize them. And, the last thing I'll do is add a fan, on low, per the grow-better-tomatoes-from-seed instructions on  The slight wind makes them stronger. 

I'm looking forward to doing some outdoor planting this weekend, but I'm sorry to say that it's also time to wash windows again.  Do you have anything good planned?  I hope you have a great weekend!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Starting the Tomato Seeds

We usually plant our tomatoes on Memorial Day weekend, so counting six weeks back, it's time to start the seeds. I haven't wanted to bother the last few years with starting seeds indoors, but when I decided to save seeds from last year's tomatoes, I was committed to giving it a try. Margaret Roach on has a good seed starting basics that I found to be incredibly helpful. 

I wanted to do this as simply as possible, so I purchased a self-watering tray with insulated individual cells. It was $20, but it can be used for several years. I saw some similar kits with heat mats on Amazon and I wondered, Do I need a heat mat?, but then I read somewhere that tomato plants will be leggy if they grow too fast, so best not to use one. We want short, stout tomato plants that are about four inches tall when it's time to plant.

I also purchased some seeding mix ($5). According to Margaret, you don't want to use regular soil, but a fresh, sterile medium that contains things like moss, peat, vermiculite and/or perlite. She also recommended putting 2 seeds in each cell, and then cutting one once the first set of true leaves emerges, if both do in fact germinate.

I planted:
Black Cherry
Sharon's Grandfather's (not an official name- actually my friend Sharon's grandfather's tomatoes)

And, here they are.  For the moment, they're on the windowsill.  This weekend I will fashion some sort of a grow light contraption, because once the seedlings emerge, they're going to need more light than they can get here.  I'll let you know how that goes. 

If this whole seed-starting project is a flop, I do have an insurance policy.  Thanks to a very thoughtful and generous gift, I have ordered six tomato plants to be mailed to me from

Brandywine (Sudduth's Strain)
Cherokee Purple
Green Zebra
Rosso Sicilian
Mexican Midget
Gold Medal
I also ordered some peppers while I was there- Tolli's Sweet Italian, Jimmy Nardello's, and Ancho Giganta.

If my seed starting is really successful, I will give away some of the plants I grow.  Either way, I think we're going to need to start digging that second garden.  I may have gotten carried away...

Happy weekend!


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bathroom Update

Yesterday we had the someone come in and install the wallboard in the bathroom. 

First, it's been a while, so let me show you what it looked like yesterday morning.  Matt and his dad patched the floor, insulated the walls and ceiling, and covered it all with plastic sheeting.

The boards on the bottom half of the wall were placed for the beadboard to be nailed into; drywall goes on top.

And, now:

And, this is the bedroom closet and built in bookshelf:

 And, because none of that is very pretty or exciting, this is the sun setting behind our house last night:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Healthier Vegetable Garden

I am way behind in my vegetable garden updates.  We pulled these from the garden in early March.

They are parsnips, and no, we didn't forget about them.  They are supposed to be sweeter if you plant them in the summer and let them sit in the ground all winter.  They are also supposed to be bigger.  I should have put a measuring tape in the photograph so you could see just how puny they were.  The ones in the middle, once peeled, amounted to the size of a baby carrot.  

We also pulled last summer's leeks from the ground last weekend.  They weren't eaten earlier because they never grew to be very big, and the waiting turned into winter and then spring.  Still, I roasted them with salmon following Martha's instructions, and we had one very nice meal.

Do you see a trend?  These have been good reminders that we need to figure out how to improve the health of our vegetable garden.  Stunted growth is a common theme.  So are evil bugs.  Our local garden center has been offering a spring lecture series, and I finally caught one on vegetable gardening a couple of weekends ago.  I've also been reading my Vegetable Gardener's Bible.

Now armed with good knowledge, we are taking five steps toward improved produce:

1. Test the soil.
I finally got around to using the kit I bought last year, but the results were...uh, inconclusive. You have to mix the soil with water and pour a different chemical in each vial and then compare the colors of the soil mixture to the colors on the chart. I spilled some of the chemicals and our vials looked like slightly tinted dirt, so I wasn't able to make any reasonable matches. There are better methods for testing- sending soil to a lab- but I already have a pretty good idea of what we need based on good advice and past failures.  At the garden center they assured me that everyone in our area has the natural problem of too much acidity, so we want to sweeten the soil (raise the pH) by adding some hydrated lime. I also learned that the reason our butternut squash plant grew big beautiful leaves, but no fruit was probably too much nitrogen.  The only way to remove the nitrogen is to grow plants that will suck it out of the soil. I'm wondering if this is something that will fix itself over time as we continue to grow things in this space. 

2. Attract the good bugs early.
We planted this rhubarb at the back of the garden, where it will grow to be about 4 feet wide and 3 feet tall.  When it blooms next month, it invites all of the good bugs to our party before they settle in for the summer at someone else's house.  It's a hardy perennial and should last 30-40 years, so I feel that my $15 was well spent.  We're also planting shrubs and perennials around the west side. 

3. Interplanting. 
This is the garlic we planted last fall.  Growing lots of varieties from the onion family confuses the pests and keeps them away from the stuff the like.  I learned that flea beetles hate onions, so I now know where to put the arugula.  We aren't growing any actual onions, but we've got garlic, shallots, scallions, leeks and chives, and I'm spreading them out around the garden. We're putting borage- a flowering herb- near the tomatoes to repel tomato bugs, and nasturtium near the cucumbers and zucchini to discourage squash bugs.

4. Fertilize.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  The food needs food.  After the plants come up, we need to water with a liquid fertilizer at half-strength around the base of the plants.  I used an organic liquid seaweed fertilizer and fish emulsion on some of the vegetables last year, and I am going to buy stock in the stuff this year. I'm also looking into less expensive alternatives.

5. Monitor.  Before I water in the morning, I'll check the undersides of the leaves of the plants as they start growing, and remove the eggs of bad bugs before they become a problem.  That's the goal anyway.  We'll see how it goes.

We've planted two kinds of peas and some arugula so far, and I'm going to add spinach, kale and shallots this weekend.  Last year's scallions are still growing thanks to the mild winter.  Does anyone have any recipes that use a ton of scallions?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Not-Raspberry Coconut Macaroons

The minute I saw the recipe for Raspberry Coconut Macaroons on Smitten Kitchen, I wanted to make them for Easter.  Raspberry and coconut sounded like a dream come true in a cookie to me, and the suggestion of drizzling some bittersweet chocolate on top had me curious.  But then I waited until Easter Eve to go buy raspberries, and after three grocery stores, I was out of luck. 

I can't tell you how wonderful these cookies are with raspberries, but they were pretty great with strawberries and blueberries.  (Blackberries would have also been a good alternative, though I skipped over those at the first grocery store, still hoping to find that elusive pint of raspberries.) And, they were super-easy to make.  If you don't like coconut, you should (obviously) skip this one, but as far as coconut macaroons go, the tartness of the fruit cuts the sweetness, and the processing of the coconut makes them lighter than other macaroons I've had.  A definite keeper.

Strawberry and Blueberry Macaroons

Makes 50ish 1 1/4" round cookies
Preheat oven to 325.

1 14-ounce package of sweetened, flaked coconut
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 large egg whites
1/4 heaped teaspoon flaked sea salt or 1/4 level teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 pint (6 ounces) blueberries and strawberries (or raspberries, if you can find them)

1. Blend the coconut in the food processor for a minute.
2. Add the sugar and blend for another minute.
3. Add the egg whites, sea salt and almond extract, and blend for another minute.
4. Add the fruit and blend in short pulses.  Deb at Smitten Kitchen instructed/counted 13 short pulses, and I followed. There will be some white parts and some fruity parts.  Do not stir them together.
5. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper and use a teaspoon to gather a little white batter with some fruity batter.  Drop teaspoon-sized cookies onto the parchment paper, relatively close together as they won't spread.
6. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes.  (It was 28 for me.)

Be sure to check out the recipe on Smitten Kitchen if you do want to make these.  She has way better pictures.

I hope you all had a great weekend!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Spring Pruning

We inherited a mass of overgrown forsythia when we moved in five years ago.  We've been pruning them for the last few years, and they're finally starting to take shape. 

Technically, they are not on our property, but they cover a large part of the border between us and our neighbor, whose yard is otherwise meticulous.  We've made it our business to improve the view, and we're pretty satisfied with the progress.

The trick was to cut back a third of the tallest branches all the way to the ground each year.  This stimulates new growth, so we get blooms from the ground up, rather than just a few at the tips.  We also removed a lot of dead branches, those that were crossing over each other, and those that were hanging too close to the ground.  If given the chance, they'll reroot, and then it's a bigger mess. 

I've just discovered a couple of other random patches of neglected forsythia, and hope to do the same with these. 

I find it's easiest to prune them when they're in bloom (because they're easy to identify), though it makes the most sense to do it after the flowers fade so that you can enjoy them first.  I took some of the branches I cut inside and put them in a vase so it wasn't a complete loss.

While I was pruning, I took care of the hydrangeas, removing last year's spent flowers, cutting down to the next bud on the branch.  I also removed any branches that didn't have any buds on them.  One of the few things I retained from the hydrangea expert I met last year is that March is when it's best to remove a little more if you want to shape the plant.  Since ours are relatively young, I only removed the minimum to keep them healthy.

My hydrangea pups- those that I tried to propagate last year- don't seem to have survived the overwintering in the shed.  Not enough light?  I'll make some more early this year, and plant them late summer/early fall.  I seemed to have better success that way.

This weekend, I'm going to split our catmint to put half beneath our climbing hydrangea,
and move the periwinkle to a more prominent spot so that next year it'll bloom near the crocuses and daffodils.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The File Bench, and How (Not) to Remove Veneer

This is a long tale full of indifference and bad decisions, but it has a happy ending. 

My sister found this on the street and left it in my mother's garage, where it sat for a couple of years until I decided it was fair game.

 The veneer was damaged, chipped and peeling on top,

and I wasn't a huge fan of the cut designs in the wood,

but I did like the nice looking cedar inside.

At first I thought I would fill in the missing veneer with a little wood filler, but it seemed so brittle that I decided to peel it all off.  Important note:  If you ever peel a piece of veneer off a piece of furniture, don't assume that it will all come off as easily.

I did a little research on how to remove veneer and learned that it all depends on what type of glue was used.  Antique pieces have a water-soluble glue.  Newer pieces don't.  If there was any question as to whether or not this chest was an antique, I have definitely proved that it wasn't. 

I tried using a wet towel and and iron to soften the glue and "lift" the veneer.  It may have made a tiny bit of difference, but in the end it all came off due to hard work and a tremendous amount of (tried) patience.  I used a hammer to bang the end of a chisel to get underneath and chip it off bit by bit. I don't recommend this approach, but if you're desperate, it does work. 

However, even after using the orbital sander to smooth the surface, I still had with many serious gouges that needed to be filled with wood filler. 

It was finally time to paint the thing.  I used Annie Sloan Chalk Paint in Empire Silk.  At first it was alarmingly hot pink, but it dried a nice, dark red.  I had to use four coats in order to cover the chest though, which isn't typically my experience with this paint.  Maybe it was very thirsty wood? 

When the paint was dry, I covered the piece in clear wax, and then did a tiny bit of distressing.  I added a little dark wax in spots, too, to give it a slightly worn and aged look.

The inspiration that got my through this long and tedious project was the new purpose the chest would serve.  We don't really have a room where this would fit at the foot of a bed, and we have little need for a place to store blankets, so I decided to turn it into a place for file storage in our office.

We used to have three file boxes sitting on the floor in this bedroom that also serves as an office area. 
They weren't much to look at and were a pain to move around whenever I vacuumed.  But now they're hidden and off the floor.

Viola.  Pretty bench serving a practical function.  If holding on to a ridiculous amount of paper is practical.  My next project should be to go through these files and find out what really needs to be saved.  For example, for how long should you save all of your pay stubs?  Is it necessary to hold on to every cancelled check since you opened a checking account?  I'm guessing... probably not.  Still, there will always be some paper documents that need a home.  And now they have a good one.

What do you think?  Was it worth the effort?  Do you have too much paper and where do you keep it?