Monday, April 21, 2008

All the Spring Things Are Happening

I know everyone always says it seems like spring will never get here, but, really, this year winter seemed especially long. After the January thaw, we really didn’t have any of those nice warm days that pop up in February. There were a couple of half days that were freakishly warm, but I spend most of those days down in the basement wading around and running the sump pump. How on earth you can get a flood in a basement on the top of a hill is beyond me, but this late winter and early spring, our happy home featured a spring fed pond plus a spring fed basement as the French drains reversed themselves and started sucking water out of the swamp and into the basement.

March was wet and rainy, too. In fact, it was one of the top ten rainiest Marches ever according to NOAA. I’m a big fan of the National Weather Service. They have great statistics and tolerably good forecasts and their storm warnings are better than what they have on the local weather, that’s for sure. I’m waiting with baited breath the final diagram of season snowfall total amounts. Last year we were in the 180 inch zone. It seems like we have had more snow this year, though. 180 inches sounds like a lot, but, in one of the big snow storms, you can get 30 inches just in a day or two. If that happens a few times, viola!

We got quite a bit just in March alone. It was like Mama Nature misread leap year and not long did we have an extra day in February, we had two Februarys March was so bad! And now, April is dry! Can we ever win? The almanac says heavy rain that last weekend of the month. We’ll see. I actually plunked down at the computer and started typing because it was clouding up out there, and one of the main items on my to do list is watering, and I’m hoping to get a little sprinkle instead, but now it’s looking sunny.

Seed starting has gone very, very well with just about everything making a good go of it, including a lot of seeds I gathered from plants in the fall. I see in “Organic Gardening” magazine there is a little blurb about ground cherries. I grew a few last year, and I thought they were kind of good. They look like Japanese Lantern plants but they have this juicy little berry in them that is kind of citrusy-caramelly tasting. I never got enough to make anything with them, but I did get enough to save the seeds, and they are coming along nicely. My tomatoes are in, and the earliest variety has already been transplanted. Alpine strawberry seeds that I saved and cold treated are growing, too, along with a few herbs and flowers.

There are a lot of good books on starting seeds, but actually, the seed packets themselves are good enough a resource. I use a combination of things for starting seeds. I prefer the peat cups just because it makes things easier to water from the bottom. I have a quart container I just dump water in plus a squirt bottle. When I plant seeds in peat cups watering is quick. If I’ve just thrown the seed starting medium into an old cake pan and added seeds, I generally mist them, and that takes longer and needs to be done more often. Peat cups are cheap, and I use quite a few of them. I tend to get the larger ones and plant four or five seeds in each one. And I keep everything in a combination of tin cake pans and cookie sheets and also a few “real” cookie sheets that are cheap at the dollar store.

My original cookie sheet plant tray was one of the “air” cookie sheets that were popular in the ‘80’s that were supposedly made to keep cookies soft and squishy and never let them burn. The sheet never let them brown, either, and you also couldn’t submerge it in water or the steam could build up inside next time you baked and make the cookie sheet EXPLODE! I’m not sure they have those sheets anymore, but it they ever try and bring that one back, remember the ‘80’s and just say no to air cookie sheets. Needless to say, the sheet has had a better career as a plant tray!

When the seeds start coming up, I start to thin them a little. I’ll pull out the slower ones or the smaller looking ones. It sounds mean, but you’re not a gardener unless you kill plants! After second and third leaves appear, then I start transplanting. I’ll transplant into anything. I reuse old plastic flats and cells from plants bought at the nursery, yogurt cups, more peat cups, clay pots -- they’re cheap and reusable, but it’s hard to control the amount of water plants get. With the yogurt cups, you need to take a hammer and nail and punch a hole or two in the bottom so water can drain. Last year, I transplanted a ton of tomatoes into styrofoam cups with the top inch or so peeled off. All I needed to pop holes in that was a sharpened pencil, and the tomatoes grow better than in anything else. Also, the nice white styrofoam made marking the plants really easy. If I have one complaint about the peat cups it is that there is no way to reliably mark the variety of plant in it. I’m planting about twelve different kinds of tomatoes this year, and last year I have fewer kinds and lots of trouble keeping them straight.

Okay. My embarrassing little secret is that I do not have a bed. I’ve been sleeping on a succession of second and third hand couches that I’ve gotten from different aunts and uncles for about ten or fifteen years now. But I do have a miniature greenhouse in my “bedroom”. In a week or two, when more of the plants have been transplanted, I’ll migrate the whole operation outside to the pop-up greenhouse. I use the same shelves and everything, only when I put them outside I take a couple of short t-posts and drive them in the ground and tie up the shelves to keep them from falling over. That happened to me the first year, and I’ve also had trays of plants flip off the shelves in high winds, too. But the greenhouse has been remarkable even with the amount of wind we get up here.

I’ve also lost plants to frost even in the greenhouse, so once my babies are outside getting used to being on their own, I’ll get up and monitor the temperature a couple times a night if I think it might frost. Last year, I hooked up two heat lamps in the greenhouse and ran an extension cord out there and that was enough to keep things warm. I don’t have anything fancy for lights. I got a couple clip on shop lights and put grow lights in them and have all of about twenty dollars invested in lighting for both indoor and outdoor planting.

My other big and kind of crazy project has been turning over ground for my planned Three Sister’s garden. I’m really excited about this, but I decided about a week ago that instead of just marking off a bunch of spots where I would be planting individual hills of corn, I was just going to plow under all the goldenrod and make the plot into a proper garden patch that I might be able to use next year or the year after. My big problem with that wording is that I have no plow. I have no tiller. I have a shovel and a motika. So I started shoveling. I squared up the plot and just started loosening the sod in strips. Then, I went back through and flipped the sod and gave it a chop or two and went back up the strip.

I’ve done this before. I’ve cleared a good sized garden patch out of thicker sod and more weeds and junk down the hill from the house. In that case, I removed the sod entirely and made a sod pile down by the compost pile and have been using up the sod little by little to patch holes in the yard where my uncle got his truck stuck in the fall bringing a load of wood. It was wet. We were pushing it bring the truck down and not just unloading onto the driveway. We should have listened to my aunt. I’m pretty sure we might have learned our lesson.

Anyway, down below, when I expanded my second garden, I added clover seed to the newly turned dirt and turned it again when the clover sprouted and got big. It was so incredibly easy compared with all the other garden digging I’ve done around here, and the quality of the soil was fantastic. So, even though I’ve left the sod in place up above here, I have still added red clover seed to the new dirt, and hopefully, it will rain or dew enough to get a good sprout going by early June which is when you put corn in up here.

The guy at the farm co-op said ten pounds of clover seed was enough to seed an acre. I got five pounds, which raised some eyebrows. Which also leads me to my second problem. Once I got committed to digging out the whole patch, I figured it is somewhere in the neighborhood of a tenth of an acre. I’m done with it. The cover crop is in. My arms are a little tired.

So, this is picture of the fence we put up the first year we were here. Behind the fence is my new patch. To the right is border of wormwood I planted around a flower patch of annuals last year, and I hope to put ground cherries in that spot this year.

Just a note: I was reading in the Independent yesterday -- which is a British lefty newspaper -- how there has been a three year study done scientifically on the productivity of Monsanto’s genetically modified soy bean seeds. According to the study, the GM seed produced on average under the same growing conditions ten per cent less than the non GM seed. With extra added nutrients, the farmer was able to bring the GM seed up even with the regular seed, but was never able to surpass traditional seed.

Scientists were able to explain the results of this study, and the US Dept. of Agriculture agreed, by the simple fact that it is easier and faster to improve plant productivity by traditional plant breeding methods, i.e. crossing the healthiest, most productive plants and planting those seeds, than by mechanically modifying the genetic makeup of the seed. Also, plant productivity is at the frontier of its possibility. The only improvements that can be made by any means will be very slight.

Please, keep this in mind and quote the results of this study to people who will claim that genetic engineering of plants is the way out of the coming food crisis. GM seed is simply a tool by which very rich companies are trying to gain control over the food supply by patenting varieties of seed which they claim to have improved. Speculation in the food markets and the interference of large corporations are some of the root causes of the growing food crisis, not some deficiency in the seed. These companies have tried and failed to do things like patent rice to force all rice farmers to buy seed from Monsanto instead of using saved seed. As ridiculous as it sounds, Monsanto has successfully sued farmers in Canada who replanted seed after Monsanto patented pollen blew onto their fields. These are bad, ruthless people who think nothing of starving whole countries, and I’m getting off my soapbox now to do some real work!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Some "Real" Digital TV Answers


Okay, when they were talking about doing this two or three years ago, I wrote to Senator Arlen Spector and said, basically: Don’t get rid of analog TV. And if you do, don’t spend millions or billions of dollars to buy people converter boxes.

I really think the whole switch was just to trick people who didn’t know better into having to buy new televisions or paying for TV. At its least sinister, there were still a few big electronic companies who stood to make a lot of money selling converter boxes or new TV’s to people who knew about what to do. And the coupons were just handing money to big electronic companies who make cheap electronic crap in Chinese factories and turn around and sell it at high profit to the American people, thereby taking advantage of everyone: the Chinese people, the American people, the federal government, anyone who pays taxes to the US, and anyone who just wants to be able to find out if that tornado is going to smack into their house and has just found out that their TV is no good, their TV band on their emergency radio is no good, and no one really cares about them anyway!

I still think all those things. I am really spoiled right now, because for the first time in my life, I get free TV. When I wrote my original letter about saving analog over the air signals, I had never actually lived anywhere that really had free over the air TV. No kidding. When my sister moved to Erie, she and her husband were sitting around and twiddling their thumbs waiting to scrape together enough cash for cable or dish, and I was like: “Go get an Antenna.” My sister has basically lived everywhere that I have lived, but her husband is a veteran and lived all over the country and overseas for a while, and neither one of them realized, that in a lot of places, TV is like radio, and you can just watch it with an antenna without paying for it. A lot of places in the country get a fuzzy channel or two with a big, ugly ariel, but we never lived close enough to a TV station to make it worth doing.

So, this year, when all those commercials started yapping about how TV was going away unless you did the thing, I was all mad. I finally had free TV, blah, blah,blah. There’s no way a digital signal is going to reach us out in oogah-boogah land. I get all my stations but one boosted through a translator that I have no idea of the origins or locations. And I checked every digital TV answer site and message board I could think of just to see if the analog signal death date has anything to do with translators serving rural areas without finding any real answers to my questions.

I am always very pessimistic about technological advances. Because I am a gadget person, and I really like electronic toys and computers and things like that, you’d think I’d be like: Oh digital TV! Now the world is perfect. But I’m typing this on a really nice imac that is connected to a 26k telephone line. I kid you not. That is the top speed. Most of the time it is 24, and sometimes 18. There is one phone company. They do not offer high speed. There’s no cable. There’s no wireless. That’s what you get. And all those nice calling packages that are advertised all the time: pay this little amount and get unlimited calling. We get the ads for that in our phone bills, too, but they don’t really offer those prices out here. You can’t even get them on the phone to complain.

In Pennsylvania, there is a law that says everyone has to be wired for DSL by 2010. I’m pretty sure there is a loophole that’s going to let the phone company get out of doing it up here, since it also takes about five days to get anyone to fix the lines when the phone goes out. I don’t even have a phone hooked up to the landline because even talking on it is so crackly and noisy.

And I did write to complain, but the answer I received was even more frustrating than the original situation. Apparently, there is another law in PA that says there has to be a line deployment plan, and the way the phone company decides who to rewire next is if enough people in the area sign a request for service. So, once there is X number of people or a percentage of the population, the phone company has to wire them. It sounds cool, but really, all it says is that they get put on a list to get wired. And by signing the request for service, you are also agreeing to subscribe to a year of their service, whenever it is that they install the lines. There is no time line, no prices, no real explanation. If you signed it and then moved or died or became Amish, what would happen then? Would whoever lives next in your house be forced to pay for a year of high speed internet service. And also, we pay more for phone service and for electrical service because of line maintenance fees. Probably that would be the case for internet, too. Call me a little whiney party pooper, but I’m guessing the phone company show up to put in those lines right about the time we get effective wireless or broadband by powerlines or something.

Meanwhile, I did write my local PA congress guy and told him that the whole requirement to purchase service aspect of the law was a little ridiculous considering the phone company has no commitment to do a thing for the consumer, and he wrote me back a nice letter assuring me it was a really good law and much to my advantage as a consumer that it got passed. Oh.

Meanwhile, back to digital TV. I decided the only way that I was going to be able to find out the answer to my questions was to just go and find out the answer to my questions. In February, right about the time they started advertising, I went to and signed up for the coupons. Okay. I signed up for two, even though I only have one TV. My sister has four thousand television sets, and she can use my spare coupon.

Even though, they started saying in early March coupons were being sent out, I didn’t get any until last week. They look like little debit cards , and they come with a nice list of places you can go in your area to get a converter. Most of those places are Walmart, but I went to a really little Radio Shack and got one. At a bigger store, there might have been more choice, and they might have been cheaper, but I ended up having to chip in about $20 dollars for the box even with the coupon. And there are also some converter boxes you can pick up all your digital and all of the remaining analog stations, but the one I bought does not. So, to watch digital, I need to hook up the box, and to watch analog, I need to pull the plug on the digital and rehook my antenna back into the TV.

Hooking it up was very easy. It came with a little Coax cable, and there is a plug in for AV cable, but it didn't come with one. I don't have any spaces left on my TV anyway, so that was just fine. You just plug the antenna in the back where it says "In from antenna" and plug the other cable in where it says "Out to TV" and put that one in the back of the TV.

Of course, this made remote control #5 for me, and all of these remotes are supposed to be universal, but none of them do everything that needs to be done just to change the channel or watch a DVD and turn up the volume.

Watch digital, you say? YES! I hooked the thing up and scanned through the available channels and found myself pleasantly surprised. Other than public TV, only one other station in Erie is using a full powered digital signal. That came in fine, and I was able to actually see the CW channel, which I’ve never looked at before. My cousins will be thrilled the next time they come to stay with me, because they always want to watch Smallville. Two other Erie channels showed up but didn’t actually come in, and I was able to get another CBS TV station from somewhere in Ohio that came in pretty well. Then, I unplugged the converter box and switched back to regular TV because I still get more channels that way.

I live on top of a hill, with very little interferance of any kind about 30-40 miles away from the TV towers. I still was just using my rabbit ears, and I suspect if I wanted to put some ugly big antenna on the top of my house, I’d get more TV, but I don’t want to! My cute little house doesn’t want a big ugly TV antenna on it!

So, the verdict is, I should be able to get local news and weather on one channel, and my cousins will be able to watch Smallville, but unless the signal strength gets a lot better, I’m going to lose all but CBS and PBS next year. Which is fine. I’m not one of those TV snobs. I really like Law and Order, so I’ll miss NBC. I hate PBS, and, ironically, it comes in perfectly. (You should just hear me cuss when I do a Marxist/feminist deconstruction of "Antiques Roadshow".) But I mostly like TV for local news and football but the radio is just fine for football, too. But if there’s a TV show I like, I’ll just watch it later on DVD. That’s what the library and Netflix are for.