Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cloudy with a chance of Artichokes

Steady rain. Cloudy. Driving rain. Sunshine and a rainbow. Overcast. Windy. Microburst and rain pouring off the roof in landscape-lacerating arcs. Silent night. Songbirds in the morning.

Weird weather over the last 30 hours or so, but hey, my water tanks are topped off again, so I am happy. And Jillian discovered a few of these as we were inspecting the front yard for storm damage. She is anticipating the first artichokes of the season with twinkle-toed delight. Seriously, she was dancing around the yard, but then she does that whenever a new plant in the garden starts to produce edibles for us.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Yes, We Have Two Bananas!

If you need some indication of how warm our winter has been, check out these.

We've had two fat little bananas from the larger of my two big banana trees. OK, actually bananas are the world's largest herbaceous flowering plant, but who's keeping track? Although the tags identifying their cultivars (short for "cultivated varieties") have long since been stolen by small children, I am fairly sure that this one is a close relative of commercial, "Cavendish" variety, bananas (which, by the by, are nearly all genetically identical to one another and hence particularly susceptible to diseases). The flavor was very similar, although the skin was much thicker and the texture was firmer. In fairness, I may not have waited long enough for it to be fully ripe.

I think for the next one we will try frying it like a plantain. But not in my leftover squid-flavored cooking oil.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Experimental Cuisine

I've been trying to get my kids more involved in feeding themselves, and not just in the "open a box of cereal" sense. Growing veggies is a great way to get kids to actually EAT veggies, as they get to see the food progress from seed to plant to fruit, and tasting the resulting produce is as much fun to them as showing off a picture would be after they had worked on for hours and hours. Teaching my kids to cook is also a part of the plan, partly to make sure they know how to make healthy food, and partly because someday I really would like to be able to delegate some of the family cooking duties.

Seeing as how it is also Science Fair season at school, we did a three-fer Saturday activity. We set up Michael's science experiment, an aquaponics (that's aquaculture combined with hydroponics) fishtank & growbed, and a traditional seedling flat for comparison.

Of course, if you are going to do aquaponics, you need fish for the aquaculture half of the business. We had a few dozen mosquito fish in the tank, which had been filled up with nice clean(ish) rainwater, for most of the winter. But they're the size of guppies, and they don't poop all that much. You need fishpoop to fertilize the hydroponics half. So the kids and I trucked on down to little Saigon, to an Asian market with a nice big tank full of live tilapia. the Hispanic man (I couldn't help wondering, in how many different languages could he say "do you want this cleaned and fried?") behind the meat counter looked at me funny when I plunked a bucket full of fishtank water on the counter and told him I needed four LIVE tilapia, but he got out his net and did what I asked. It was a longish wait, so the kids poked around the seafood section. We came home with four large live fish, a fresh but dead squid, and a half-dozen shrimp, also recently deceased. My children were delighted.

The four fish were quite confused (if I am any judge of fish expressions), but happy to be poured into the tank when we got home. 200 gallons of water is much more comfortable than 4. They promptly parked themselves on the bottom of the tank, so we couldn't get a picture right away.

Meanwhile back in the kitchen, Jon boiled water for the shrimp. the kids got a kick out of how the shells changed from grey to pink when they cooked, and Jillian (7) asked me if that was an "irreversible change". I didn't teach her that phrase, so I guess the public schools are doing something right. Michaelson went after the squid with a knife to show us all how he had dissected one in summer camp last year. He didn't care much for gutting it, but the chickens were delighted that we fed the offal to them, rather than throwing it away. If you've never seen chickens chasing each other around with squid innards dangling from their beaks, you haven't lived. I'm just saying.

We looked up an episode of "Good Eats" (which takes the "Bill Nye the Science Guy" approach to cooking - my children love it) on Youtube to see how to fry squid properly. This ended up being my job. Call me crazy, but I am more confortable with my children using sharp knives than I am with them plopping food into 375 degree frying oil. I didn't get a photo of the resulting calamari because is was so darn good and was eaten so quickly. The tentacles were a little chewy for my taste, but the rest was fantastic! If the results of the rest of our day's efforts turn out half so well, Michael will have a very good science fair project this year.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

No use crying over spilled pool water.

Having gotten 7 inches of rain in January, the pool was in serious need of a good pumping out. So I put the spare pump on the top step of the pool, ran the outflow hose into the patio sump (which pumps water out to the flood control chanel), plugged it in, and walked away. A few hours later I unplugged it and went to bed.

The next morning, this was the water level. Notice where the leaf is floating. That's six inches below where it had been the prior afternoon. And this is the lower end of the pool (the deep end of our pool is higher out of the ground than the shallow end, but that tilt hasn't changed in decades so no worries). The deep end, where the filter pump inflow is located, was high and sadly dry, and not able to maintain suction for filtration.

Jon pointed out to me that when the pump is in the pool and the end of the hose is all the way down into the patio sump, it forms a siphon. I know how a siphon works, of course; it just hadn't occurred to me that, in our ridiculously unlevel back yard, the hose was farther down on the sump end than the pool end. Even unplugged, the pump was allowing water to flow out of the pool and (pump out into the ditch) all night.

So I ran the hose the other way and put about 1000 gallons of water from my overflowing rainwater tanks back into the pool. Sigh. Well, it is early in the year, perhaps we will stilll get enough rain to fill them back up again.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In Her Own Little Corner, In Her Own Little Chair

Or even in the playhouse. A good book and a good imagination can take a girl anywhere

The warm, 70+ degree sunshine on her back just makes it all the more pleasant.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


There's really no reason I would have known that my kids were outgrowing their winter raincoats. It's not like we had any rain, or even cold weather, before January (nya-nay!) I was keeping up with the growth spurts in the pants department. I had let out all of the hems in November and December. But when my kids were gearing up for the wet walk to school last week, I noticed this:
When I was Ben's age, going through growth spurts, I could tell that my arms were ridiculously long. Chimpanzee long. Knuckles dragging on...OK, so that's a bit hyperbolic. But my father was also self-conscious about his arms in his teenage years. So now that I am seeing limb-focused growth-spurts in my own children, I am particularly sensitive to the fact that long sleeves really are supposed to go ALL the way to the end of your arms. I deal with it for myself by buying women's tall sizes, which are about an inch longer in the arms. But what do you do for kids? They don't make tall sizes for children. Regular, slim, and husky, yes, but nobody makes a "boys 12 tall." I buy Ben's pants from Lands End, which offers a few styles of pants unfinished/unhemmed, allowing me to make them as long as he needs them. But for shirts and jackets, I'm still hosed. Despite my sewing skills, I can't buy fabric of high enough quality (locally, at least, I have had some luck with online fabric shopping) to make it worth the effort to make daily wear. He's waaaay to thin for men's sizes, so no go for men's tall departments. But what about women's?

Aha! Women's tall sizes for Mom and Ben for the forseable future. More expensive, but self-confidence is worth something.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Do You Igloo?

My children want to build an igloo. In Long Beach. That's SOUTH of Los Angeles. An igloo is not gonna happen.

But I am pondering the notion of allowing them to build a cob dome, rather like our cob oven, and make it look like an igloo. Cob is a dirt-cheap construction material, made of nothing but clay, sand, and straw. I have plenty of straw, which I get for free from pumpkin patches in early November. It is a habit for me now to scan craigslist for "straw" the week after Halloween. Clay is available for the digging - our subsoil (only about one foot down, two at the most) is almost nothing BUT clay. So all I would have to buy is sand, and that's pretty cheap. Might even be able to get it free once the rain stops and people want to be rid of their sandbags.

This is what I looked like the summer that I made the cob oven. I dug a shallow hole and lined it with a sturdy tarp. Into that I put a few buckets full of clay, one bucket full of sand, and added water enough to make a mudpie out of it. Then I trodded it (what is the right verb conjugation???) with my feet, mixing in straw until I couldn't get any more in. I did it barefoot, which is actually quite pleasant in the summer, but some folks do it in old boots. Construction itself is very like making mudpies, plopping one on top of the other. But as you stack them, you squish your fingers vertically down into the pies (more accurately, cobs) to poke the straws from the mudpie on top into the mudpie on the bottom. Once dried, the structure has impressive compressive and tensile strength.

Something tells me, however, that if I let the kids do their own cob project, what they come up with will not end up looking like an igloo, no matter how much Michael proclaims that is what he wants (with a hole in the roof, no less, "so we can make a fire and have the smoke go right up!") No, I'm thinking a building project of theirs, besides being remarkably messy, wouldl end up more like this.

What backyard would be complete without its own little hobbit abode?
Perhaps the tactile nature of the building process, not to mention the necessary planning involved, would be good for an ADD kid. Or perhaps they would abandon it in the middle and leave me to finish it (not likely) or attack it with a pressure hose to reduce it back to a heap of dirt.

I continue to ponder the possibility.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Just a typical day

I have a head cold. It is my first of the season, so I actually feel pretty lucky that I got this far before coming down with something. My day (and yesterday, and possibly most of the week) will therefore be on the dull side. Instead of posting any of my nyquil-addled dreams or wobbly ramblings 'round the yard, I am posting what may someday become the first chapter of my memoirs of urban homesteading.

On the morning of November 2 I woke up at 5:00 a.m., not because I needed to, but because my husband had to get on a plane at 6:30. He works as a business consultant for IBM, so he goes wherever the work is, stays the week (if that place is more than a few hours’ drive from our house), then comes back home on the weekend. He tries to be quiet in these early hours, but sometimes my brain just starts up, regardless of my body’s complaints, and I can’t settle back down. He brought my 7-year-old daughter to our bed before he kissed us both and drove to the airport. My girl just can’t function without her morning cuddle time, and I love it, too. I stayed in bed reading until 6:00, then rolled my daughter onto her daddy’s pillow and got up. It was light, and I wanted to get in a hive inspection before making whole wheat waffles for breakfast.

I let out the chickens and fed the rabbit on my way to the hive. My yard is about 100 feet deep, so animal husbandry is a fairly efficient process; walk 50 feet from the back door to the greenhouse, scoop up rabbit feed, walk around greenhouse, feed and water rabbit, turn around, unlatch chicken coop, walk 12 feet, feed chickens, walk 10 feet, open beehive. The little ladies were still cranky when I opened the hive. They had been cranky for some time. They were trying to raise a new queen, and apparently had not yet succeeded. If there were a viable queen in the hive, they would have settled down by now. I messed around just enough to see that there were still sealed queen cells. Maybe my math was off and they weren’t dead, just not done yet. No need to get stung over it. I closed back up and went into the kitchen.

I mixed batter and put away clean dishes from the dishwasher while the waffle iron heated. As the first batch cooked, I put my hair back in a barrette and woke the kids. My nephews weren’t coming for babysitting until after school that day, so the morning would be relatively unhurried. I let the kids watch PBS television while they ate breakfast and made their lunches. I refilled the dishwasher (the kids had been practicing baking the day before and left a huge mess), and took the full compost bucket and stack of broken eggshells out to the compost bin. I put out the mail – a ballot voting in new bylaws for the Los Cerritos Wetlands Stewards – then washed up and stopped at my laptop to check email and my Facebook friends’ Halloween pictures of their children. When the kids were finished eating, I scarfed down all the leftovers.

After riding the kids to school (I hauled the younger two in my pedicab, a.k.a. “the exercise machine,” while my oldest rode his own bike to another school), I sat down to rest in a soft chair and, lulled by the dull sloshing sound of the dishwasher, fell asleep. Cardio really takes it out of me. When I awoke half an hour later, I changed into grubby clothes and mixed up a 5-pound batch of color coat stucco in my KitchenAid stand mixer. When they say “heavy duty,” they mean it. I smeared it onto hose-dampened patched spots on the rear exterior walls of my house with a sponge trowel. We had had insulation blown into the back half of the house last year and I hadn’t gotten around to tidying up the stucco yet. The chickens watched, with little interest, then ran to the composter hoping I would give them something disgusting to eat. I tossed them a few hot dogs left over from a church Halloween party, which they decimated while I washed out my dirty bowl and trowel on the back lawn. Although the fruit trees were losing their leaves and most of the county was well into autumn, we were expecting an 80-degree day, and some of the grass was in need of some second-hand moisture.

Heading back toward the kitchen through the side door, I saw that my sister-in-law had done her usual Monday morning laundry, so I started running the barrel full of greywater onto the front garden. I squashed a few bugs and grasshoppers (if only I could let the chickens forage out here!) and grabbed a broken leaf from an artichoke (for the rabbit) before heading back in. The dishwasher was finished again. I cleaned up while listening to NPR. I started a small load of laundry (bleached whites), then wandered out to the swimming pool and nudged the “automatic” sweeper to get it started. I threw a few pieces of squashy fruit from the kids’ leftover lunches to the chickens and watered the vegetable garden, now mostly peas and a few stubborn cherry tomato vines that were producing scores of little green tomatoes. Maybe the heat would ripen a few. I pulled some weeds, gave the tastier ones to the rabbit, and checked for eggs. There were three, still warm and in varying shades of brown. Back inside I put them in the fridge, and then took down the last of the laundry from Saturday – jeans and other thick things that needed extra time to dry- from the line over my bathtub. We have too many allergies in our family to line dry outside.

I temporarily had nothing to do, so I sat down to read blogs. That reminded me I needed to make some phone calls. Two appointments and several web pages later, the washer beeped that it was finished. I hung the laundry to dry and brought in the mail. I made a mental note that after I ate some lunch I needed to clean out under the chicken coop and, if it wasn’t too hot this afternoon, work on digging out a fruitless spiny natal plum shrub out front so I could put it in the next day’s trash pick-up. I checked the clock.

It was five minutes to Noon.

Ahh, the life of a Greenmommy in the suburbs.