Friday, January 22, 2010

"It's in the Bag"

The frugal among us "brownbag it" in an effort to be good. For my boy, Luther, brown bagging it means being devilishly bad.

An extra large, brown paper bag is all it took to occupy the energetic, too-mischievous-for-my-own-good but cute-as-a-button, I-can-do-no-wrong Luther with eight weeks (and counting) of 100% unadulterated fun. (It's a good place to snooze, too.)

Behold, the Amazing Bag.

It is not empty.
Note the many pinholes made by sharp little claws.

One day, one of those pinholes became a tear. Soon, the tear became a hole. Oh, the possiblities.

This seat is taken. Scram!

 How about a hot dog and a glass of milk?

 Did anyone see my mouse?

 That took a lot out of me. Snore.....

End Note: The more timid Waldo observed Luther inside, around and on top of the bag for most of the past two months. Finally lured forward by the irresistible sound of crinkling paper, he only recently screwed up the courage to approach the strange brown object. To be continued....

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Crazy About Compost

I love the idea of diverting everyday kitchen waste - the endless stream of parings, shavings, peels and pits - that springs forth from my cutting board. And now that I'm home more, there is never a shortage of apple cores, onion skins or the butt ends of carrots, celery or broccoli stalks.

It might seem strange that in my 14 years at Owl Hollow I have never really maintained a proper mulch pile. I inherited one, a simple affair held together by slatted wood, but I never used it much because it was set way back in the overgrown area of the rear yard, prime deer tick habitat.

Two years ago, I took the somewhat daring step of digging a new vegetable plot in my front lawn. (The front lawn, you should know, is quite private and difficult to see from the road unless you're standing at the bottom of the driveway.) I felt it was a smart move since the front yard receives sunshine in abundance, while the backyard is more shaded and enclosed.

So it would seem to make sense to locate a new compost pile in the proximity of the new vegetable garden. It's not going to be anything fancy, and may not be more than a pile of kitchen waste and lawn clippings periodically aerated with a shovel or pitchfork.

(An enclosed bin of some sort would make the whole affair tidier and more manageable when it comes time for aerating. There's a paper company just a few miles down the road from me that last year would regularly put  4 x 4 foot slatted wood pallets out by the road for the taking.  If I could fit three of these in my car trunk, they'd made the perfect sides for the compost pile.)

In addition to reducing my contributions to the local waste stream, starting a compost pile would also enrich my garden soil.  Compost acts as a soil conditioner/fertilizer and will keep my garden growing healthy. Compost adds nutrients to the soil and feeds microorganisms that are needed by growing plants.

For optimum decomposition, the nitrogen-to-carbon ratio needs to be about 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Here's a list of some of the materials I'll most likely be adding to my compost pile and their estimated carbon-to-nitrogen ratios.

High Carbon Materials ("brown" matter)

Wood ashes, a perfect 25:1 ratio (Too bad I don't have a fireplace.)
Fruit waste, 35:1
Leaves, 60:1
Pine needles, 80:1

High Nitrogen Materials ("green" matter)

Food waste, 20:1
Grass clippings, 20:1
Hay, another perfect 25:1 ratio (Too bad I don't have a horse.)
Vegetable scraps, 25:1 (This I have, in abundance.)

Depending on what you've got, you may need to tinker with your compost pile to reach the ideal balance of 25 to 30:1. If your carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is too high, you can simply add grass clippings; if it's too low, you can add dry leaves or wood chips.

I'll know the compost is "done" when it's a rich, dark color, crumbles easily and I can't distinguish any of the original contributions. Or, as Organic Gardening magazine editors say, "It's ready when it looks and feels like moist chocolate-cake crumbs and smells like fresh-turned earth."

Depending on how good my composting technique is, I could have ready-to-use compost in anywhere from nine months to a year. My success will hinge not only on the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, but also on ensuring that the pile is kept moist (not wet) and turning it once a week.

Organic Gardening also recommends using straw as your bottom-most layer to keep your pile off the ground and away from weeds and small animals. Straw should also be used to top off your pile to thwart pests and keep odors down. The compost pile should be located in partial shade.

Are you a composter and, if so, what goes into your mix?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Baking for the Birds

By this time of year, my outdoor chores are limited to keeping the driveway cleared of snow, some anticipated winter pruning and keeping the bird feeder filled.

Truth be told, I don't really mind these chores; all of them are a good excuse to bundle up and get outside, even as my Inner Hibernator whispers, "Take a nap."

In addition to a caged, triple-tube seed feeder that's stocked all winter long with black oil sunflower seeds, I also maintain a caged suet feeder using commercially-made suet cakes I buy at rock bottom prices (.50 a cake). But you may enjoy making your  own version of wild bird cakes that invite inspired improvisation, depending on what you've got on hand in the kitchen.  And, if there are children afoot, you can bet they'll be clamoring to help you out, too.

Most recipes are quite simple, relying on either peanut butter or unflavored gelatin as a base; from there, you simply stir in nuts, dried fruit or seeds of your choice,* pour the goopy mixture into an empty plastic suet container) a Lean Cuisine dish also works well) and refrigerate until it sets.

When you're ready to hang your bird cake(s) outside, pop it out of the tray and insert in your suet feeder, if you have one. If you don't have a caged suet feeder (preferably double-caged to deter squirrels), you can put your creations into those green plastic berry baskets, the kind that strawberries are sold in, or even onion bags.

Here are a few of my favorite recipes, adapted from those found in Birds 'n Bloom magazine, which by the way, don't actually require baking.

Gelatin Seed Blocks

2 1/2 ounce envelopes of unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup of water
Assorted bird seed, nuts, raisins, dried fruit

Empty the gelatin envelopes into the water in a saucepan and stir over low heat until the gelatin is completely dissolved. Stir in 1 1/2 cups of any combination of the bird seed, nuts and dried fruits. Mix well. Pack the mixture firmly into a plastic container and chill until set.

Woodpecker Delight

1 cup cornmeal
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1 cup water
1 cup birdseed

In a microwave-safe bowl, combine the first 5 ingredients. Microwave on high for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the bird seed and let cool. Press into roughly sandwich-sized plastic containers and refrigerate. These will then fit nicely in your suet feeder.

Chickadee Sandwich

If you're too impatient to dissolve the gelatin, you can simplify things by smearing two slices of bread with peanut butter. Sprinkle birdseed on both slices, press together like a sandwich and insert in a suet feeder.

You can also send the children on a pine cone hunt around the yard and then slather the pine cones with the peanut butter mix you've prepared. Thread a string through the pine cones and hang from trees you can easily view from indoors. Grab the binoculars and watch the action. You can also save your old toilet paper rolls and stuff them with your seed mixture to make Peanut Butter Bird Burritos, minus the hot sauce.

The birds will appreciate these treats during the coolest days of winter, your kids will enjoy some old-fashioned fun and you'll get a kick out of cooking like your eight-year-old.

*Depending on what you've got on hand, you can also incorporate the grease from cooking bacon into your bird cakes, along with stale breakfast cereal, bread or waffles torn into pieces, cat or dog food (dry or canned), cooked rice, oatmeal and apple cores. Aim for a consistency that's not as wet as pancake batter but moist enough to spread like butter.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

An Early Morning Visitor in the Garden

It was 7 a.m. and the snow was lightly falling. As I sat watching the morning news and eating toast with strawberry jam for breakfast, Luther gazed outside the kitchen window.

Within  minutes, Luther's demeanor changed from neutral to breathless as he jockeyed for a better viewing position. The look on his face was more excited than his expression when he sees one of my neighbor's cats roaming around.

So I leaned toward the window, just in time to see a beautiful red fox pacing inside the large, overgrown garden enclosed by a waist-high picket fence. It's just six feet from the north side of the house. He must have jumped inside. It was clear he was looking for a way out that wouldn't require jumping  Like so many wild turkeys that refuse to fly when they can walk, I guess the fox didn't want to expend any more energy than was necessary.  Within a few seconds, he found the gate ajar and slipped out.

I watched as he headed back up the slope, into the woods from whence he came. I hurriedly finished my breakfast, opened up a pricey can of cat food the cats turn up their noses at and put it in on a plastic plate. Then I threw on my coat and grabbed my camera.

I left my food offering at the edge of the brushy area that borders the backyard. Perhaps it's unlikely the fox will return and find the food before squirrels or crows do, but I wanted to try, anyway.

Although the snow has already obscured the finer details of the fox tracks in the photo above, I learned two important things about fox tracks: 1. Unlike most other four-legged animals, fox tracks appear in a nearly vertical line, and 2. The tracks themselves are quite round, more like a cat's than a dog's.

After examining these tracks, I realized happily there were more fox tracks elsewhere in the yard. I often see tracks in winter I do not recognize; now, I'll recognize these.

The fox sighting has renewed my interest in baiting the mouse traps in the garage, it's something I can get quite lazy about, especially when, roughly half the time, the mice eat the peanut butter so delicately the trap isn't sprung. But any mice I do catch could be tossed in the same area where I left the cat food. Perhaps the fox, a welcome visitor not seen on my property for at least 10 years, will find them and make Owl Hollow a regular stopover.