24 June 2009

Review: The Little Road Trip Handbook

I've always been a fan of road trips. Not necessarily the stereotypical frat-boy-hijinks-filled variety of trip (although many would argue those are the only real road trips), but I just love travelling by car. I think it might be because your car is your home away from home--a place that's comfortable and familiar, yet from which you can see new places and have real-life adventures. Now that summer is here, I'd say it's the perfect time to take a few liberties with the definition of "domicile" and hop into our respective homes on wheels for some carefree exploring.

The Little Road Trip Handbook is short but packed full of information. Some of it is quirky, some is questionable, but mostly it's all about the fun.

A few of the better features this book offers include Classic Road Trips (from Route 66 to The Alaska Highway), a guide to local radio stations, advice on preparing for the trip and saving money on the road, fifty nutty roadside attractions (one per state), and a chapter on "crazy local legislation" (good to know that causing a catastrophe is illegal in Utah!)

A couple of the more debatable features include "must-have" music and great road trip movies (how can one take this list seriously when Highway 61 doesn't even get an honourable mention?) Some readers may also take issue with the overwhelming American slant of this book. May I humbly suggest the author consider writing The Little Canadian Road Trip Handbook next :)

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter what the book actually says. The real purpose of The Little Road Trip Handbook is to provide inspiration, and it does so beautifully. What more can a road-tripper (or reader) ask for? Happy trails...

15 June 2009

Urban Potato Farming

My local city council recently decided to replace everyone's recycling boxes with giant bins on wheels. All commentary about cost, practicality, and aesthetics aside, the new system left us wondering what to do with the old--unrecyclable--boxes.

I'm fairly sure the city will take the old boxes back if you return them (what they do with them, I have no idea), but I decided to hang on to ours. Even if they're useless for their original purpose, they're still pretty handy. I've been using one to store all the large pine cones that fall into our yard from the neighbour's tree. I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do with them (holiday decorations? Fire-starters?) but I'll figure that out eventually. Meanwhile, I still had a recycling box to contend with.

Talking to a friend a few months back about our gardening plans, she mentioned she wanted to grow potatoes in her old recycling boxes. I thought that was a great idea. The boxes are a good size for potatoes, and they're far easier to harvest when grown in a container than in the ground (no digging is even necessary--you can just tip the container over and pick up the potatoes!) They're also fantastic if you only have a small area (like a balcony) for growing things. Since I wasn't planning on growing potatoes myself, I just filed the idea away in the back of my mind.

A week or so later, in the process of making dinner, I discovered several of my potatoes (Yukon Gold, for the record) had gone soft and bore large sprouts (like onions and garlic, potatoes will automatically start sprouting in spring. Sensible for them--annoying for us). Rather than toss them into the compost, I decided to put my remaining recycling box to good use and set up my own mini potato bed.

The procedure itself couldn't be simpler. Conveniently, the box I had on hand already had holes in the bottom for drainage. If yours doesn't you'll need to break out a drill.

I started by placing a layer of soil, about two or three inches thick, on the bottom of the box. I moved the box to the sunniest spot on my deck, and then spaced my sprouting potatoes evenly on top of the soil. Technically, you can cut the potatoes into pieces to get even more plants out of them (as long as each piece has at least one or two "eyes" or sprouts). My potatoes were "new" (that is, small) and I had just enough of them to fill the box, so I wasn't overly concerned about making even more. Once the potatoes were in place, I put enough soil in to just barely cover them.

Because I wasn't sure how cold-hardy they'd be (I started them well before the last frost date) I covered the box at night with a board until the weather improved and the plants seemed strong enough to handle nights without the extra layer of protection.

As the plants have been growing, I've been filling in the space around them with growing medium: potting soil, triple mix, manure, compost...whatever I have on hand. Eventually, the box will be filled to the top (it's already almost there). The potatoes will grow in the soil, so the more soil in there, the more room for them to grow.

I was concerned about inadvertently rotting the seed potatoes, so initially I only watered whenever the soil was looking particularly dry (I aimed for moist but not wet). As the plants are getting bigger they're starting to need more water. I wait until the plants look a little limp (but not wilted) before giving them a thorough drink. Right now they need watering about twice a week.

So far, I've only seen two potato bugs (where the heck did they come from? Is there a potato farm over by the subway I'm unaware of?) I'm squeamish about killing bugs (it's that whole crunching thing), but it's one of those unpleasant chores that must get done. Potato bugs multiply fast and will eat every last leaf off your plants. You can avoid the whole crunching issue by drowning them in a bucket of water (a little dishwashing detergent or soap in the mix helps too). Of course, then you've got a load of soapy, buggy water to contend with. Go with whatever creeps you out the least.

Potatoes have surprisingly pretty flowers and deep green leaves. That's good, because recycling boxes aren't exactly the most attractive of containers. Luckily mine is green, which blends well in a garden. It's also hidden by masses of tomato plants. If you want you can also grow potatoes in half barrels, or in any other large containers you can find/afford. I personally enjoy an extra level of satisfaction in knowing the container has been re-purposed. At least, it makes me feel better about not being able to get those beautiful pots with the hundred-
dollar price tags down at the garden centre.

In a few short months (about the end of July to mid-August) the plants will start dying. Once they're dead, it's time to start harvesting. There should also be enough time left to grow a crop of something else in the same container once the potatoes are out: carrots, chard, green onions, lettuce--anything fast-growing and cold-tolerant (I haven't decided yet). There's something about food you've grown yourself--especially in the city--that just makes it taste so much better. Happy gardening--and happy eating!

(All plant photos by me.)

11 June 2009

Pinkies and the Brain

All the hard work of gardening becomes completely worth it when you start seeing results. This morning I took a break from said hard work to snap a few photos. I think you'll understand the title of this post in a minute...

My apothecary rose (Rosa gallica 'Officinalis') is the first to bloom. It smells as lovely as it looks. I try to grow roses that are hardy, disease-resistant, and--most important--scented (what's the point of a scentless rose?) The apothecary rose's drawback, however, is that it only blooms once a season and is done. I still think it's worth it.

This is a climber whose name I forget (although I'm pretty sure it's one of the 'Explorer' series). It's covered in buds this year and surprised me with its first flower today, peeking out from the back. The interesting thing about this rose is that I remember it being far less red last year! I have it on good authority (my mom) that changes in the soil can affect flower colour. I seem to recall fertilizing with "sea" compost (basically manure and ground-up shellfish) earlier in the season. Unexpected results!

So, I'm one of those hopelessly unfashionable gardeners who actually like geraniums. They might be old-fashioned, but they're also beautiful and low-maintenance (and I think the leaves smell nice). They come in a good range of colours too (speaking of which, mine all changed from the original shades with the second batch of blooms--must be the thing to do this year). The pink and lavender ones I've got also sport double blooms.

This is the newest of my three clematis plants and also the earliest to bloom. At this point I'm not surprised that the first flower it sported was far darker than these (almost black). The flowers are large and you can see it's covered in buds. It was a great find (I can probably look up the name if anyone's interested).

All my peonies were here when we moved in (I owe a big debt of gratitude to whichever previous owner was the gardener. S/he even left recipes for potting mix written on the garage wall!) The plants were still young last year and we only got one or two blooms. This year almost all the plants are covered in buds! They're a little late but it was definitely worth the wait. Best of all, they seem to all be my favourite garden colour (I was worried they'd be yellow--one of my least favourite colours in the garden, although a pale yellow could have been nice). And like the roses, they also smell divine.

Our first flower, just re-opening first thing in the morning.

Fully opened by 8 a.m., with another that'll likely join it by late afternoon.

And here's the Brain of the post's title, although all the squirrels around here qualify for that designation. They have rapidly learned that being cute (standing up with their front paws curled in front of them) and/or being persistent will get them food (beyond what they steal from the bird feeder, that is). This guy is enjoying some bread I threw to him after caving to his charms. The birds also got a small measure of revenge by stealing some of the bread for themselves. Welcome to our wildlife sanctuary!

(All photos by me)

04 June 2009

Review: Mrs. Meyer's and Molly Maid

Leave it to me to wait until spring is almost over to catch the spring cleaning bug, but I say spring cleaning is whenever suits you best (besides, around here spring is mainly devoted to the garden). But in honour of this yearly tradition, I decided to review not one, but two books on housecleaning! Will the excitement never stop?

In all seriousness, I was looking forward to reading both these books. Anything that can help me do a better job of taking care of my home is welcome in it.

So I was doubly disappointed when I saw how much these books were lacking.

Having received my copy of Mrs. Meyer's Clean Home first, I started with it. I was particularly excited about this one: cute graphics and a fun design will always sucker me in. Too bad that's where the fun stopped.

As soon as I started reading, I could tell this book was ghost-written (a fact confirmed at the end of the book as I perused the "contributors" list and found the writer's name). With so much personality infused into the book's design, it was beyond annoying to have to endure the generic, pseudo-folksy tone throughout (you can tell the actual writer was trying--maybe a little too hard--but it was still apparent to me that the writer's voice isn't Thelma Meyer's voice).

Having been put off right away by the writing, I wasn't drawn back in by the content. Unfortunately the advice on cleaning was either too unrealistic (dust furniture/light fixtures/banisters/shelves once a week, but only clean the inside of the microwave once a month); too basic (did you know throwing something red in with the whites when doing laundry will turn everything pink?); bizarre (use white-out to cover smudges on baseboards); or potentially destructive (clean your computer tower with water and dishwashing liquid!) A lot of the sidebars seem pointless, and the frequent "My House My Rules" notes feel like a never-ending lecture.

Also, Mrs. Meyer's attitude toward pets borders on disturbing; it's telling that the pet advice is contained in the chapter that also deals with odours and pests. Anyone who would dab vinegar on their cat's mouth to keep it away from the houseplants should not only not have pets, but should probably be investigated by the Humane Society as well. (FYI--vinegar burns and its strong smell would be torturous to a cat.)

A few of the better aspects of the book include an insistence on using environmentally friendly products, (occasionally extreme) tips on thriftiness, and the inclusion of instructions on canning tomatoes.

You might like this book if:
--you come from a large family
--you're into a frugal and/or green lifestyle
--you remember the 1960s fondly
--you know enough about cleaning to weed out the bad advice, but still need basic help
--you don't have any pets and never plan on having any pets

Mrs. Meyer's at least has the graphics and the occasional amusing anecdote. The Molly Maid Cleaning Handbook, on the other hand, is all business, following the same formula chapter after chapter, with little to break up the monotony. At least here, one expects the writing to be generic, and readers aren't insulted with an individual's name on the cover.

Overall, this is a better book. The advice is more reasonable and there are some great features (e.g., "Body Wise" tips to prevent injury while you're working, Q&A, suggestions for getting motivated...) Although I did start to suspect the book is designed to overwhelm you with numerous lists of endless "necessary" cleaning tasks so you'll just give in and hire the Molly Maid company to do it all for you.

Probably the worst part about the Molly Maid Cleaning Handbook is that it gets really repetitive, really quickly, stating the same things over and over: clutter keeps you from being able to relax... everyone in the household plays an important role... it's easier to keep things clean in the first place... always clean from top to bottom, left to right... and don't forget the aforementioned, not particularly helpful, lists. Also, predictably, Molly Maid's obsession with abolishing clutter soon leads to books being labelled as clutter. Um, you mean like your book? If I hadn't committed to reviewing it, I would have tossed it right then and gone to read something by those of us who respect books as more than just dust-collecting space-wasters.

You might like this book if:
--You need solid, basic information
--you're anti-clutter
--you like a no-frills read
--you like lists
--you'll probably just hire cleaners anyway

I kept comparing both of these books to my gold standard: Home Comforts, and both came up way short. Granted, not everyone needs fifteen chapters on fabric care and laundry, but whatever you might need to know is in here, and the information is trustworthy. I also find Home Comforts a lot more inspiring and motivating than either of these books.

My ultimate advice when it comes to cleaning manuals is to first find a routine and schedule that suits you and your needs, and then only consult the books when there's something you're not sure about (how do you clean window screens?) or to pick up helpful tips you might not discover otherwise. The point of life is to find your own way. Trying to live according to a manual is a fast way to get stressed and still have a messy house.

Mrs. Meyer's Clean Home
Molly Maid Cleaning Handbook