Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Learning to Be Cool

Well, autumn temperatures have finally arrived in the Mile High City, and I'm on a new mission. This year I'm gonna be cool!

Seriously, I'm actually trying to see how long I can go without turning on the heat this year. While this may look like one of those environmental challenges you often hear about, or perhaps an attempt at even further frugality, honestly, my motivation is a bit more down to earth.

The thing is, I am ALWAYS cold. As a child, my best friend called me "frozen nose" and with good reason. I've always sorta blamed this on being born in the tropics (I was born in Hawaii). Like my internal thermostat got set at birth to think that 80 degrees is "average." Generally speaking, once the temperature falls below about 75 I'm reaching for extra layers.

But, about a month ago I read some very interesting new research about human fat cells and their role in keeping us warm. Apparently humans have 2 distinct kinds of fat... well, we may have more than that, but the stuff I was reading focused on the difference between brown fat (so-called "good" fat) and the more common white or yellow fat.

As it turns out, brown fat plays a different role in human metabolism than does white fat. While white fat can be burned to fuel muscles, it is brown fat, and brown fat alone that can be burned to keep us warm. It's sort of like the fuel for our internal furnaces.

Anyhow... babies generally have mostly brown fat, while adults have primarily the white variety. But the study I read suggested that this might not have always been the case throughout human history - like before we all lived in climate controlled environments.

The study basically had people volunteer to expose themselves to colder temperatures than they normally would - some by wearing light clothing in temperatures around 62 degrees for about 2 hours per day, and some by putting ice packs on fatty areas of the body for about 30 minutes a day.

The results were that routine exposure to chilly temperatures (by either method) converted some of the subjects' white fat to brown. Now, most of the articles I read were interested in this study for its weight loss implications, but my interest is more along the lines of trying to find a way to ignite my internal furnace so I'm not cold all the time!

You see, I'm always the coldest in the fall and spring... but when winter rolls around and the temperatures really dip low, somehow my internal thermostat kicks in and I stay reasonably warm.

Sooo... ironic though this might seem, it got me to thinking that perhaps the key to staying warmer and kick starting my internal furnace is to actually let myself be cooler!

At any rate, that's my long-winded explanation for what I'm trying to accomplish by keeping the furnace off. So far I have to say that the results have been nothing short of remarkable!

Being cooler takes some getting used to, but overall I'm finding that I'm able to tolerate temperatures in the mid-60's without extra layers of clothing... even with bare feet sometimes, and for me, this is absolutely remarkable. I've even found that I do better on bike rides in the 60's without any extra layers!

Now, CatMan has a completely different theory in regards to my new-found cool temperature tolerance.

I'm not sure if this has come through in my writing or not, but the past year has been a time of intense emotional upheaval for me, precipitated by my mother's death. It's not so much about grieving her loss, though there has certainly been some of that, it's more that her being gone has somehow allowed me to open up some long-shuttered emotional doors and start dealing with some of the crazy stuff from my childhood.

I don't know if anybody out there has ever done much emotional work, but the experience has been rather intense. I have spent hour upon hour sobbing, and hitting pillows, and confronting a whole host of seriously uncomfortable feelings that were lurking inside. And remarkable things have started to happen in my body.

Areas where I've perpetually held tension are starting to loosen up, and I can definitely tell that blood is flowing more freely. There are even times when I'll catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror and not recognize myself because the deep furrows across my forehead seem to be vanishing.

Don't know if any of you pay attention to this sort of thing, but recently Hollywood was in an uproar over the changed appearance of Renee Zellweger.

The general condenses is that she's had plastic surgery, but her response has been a bit mysterious.
I’m glad folks think I look different! I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows. My friends say that I look peaceful. I am healthy. For a long time I wasn’t doing such a good job with that. I took on a schedule that is not realistically sustainable and didn’t allow for taking care of myself. Rather than stopping to recalibrate, I kept running until I was depleted and made bad choices about how to conceal the exhaustion. I was aware of the chaos and finally chose different things. People don’t know me in my 40s, perhaps I look different. Who doesn’t as they get older?! Ha. But I am different. I’m happy.
I dunno... perhaps it's too much to hope that such a transformation could come about through emotional honesty... especially in Hollywood, but you never know. Her face certainly does look like she's holding less tension than before.

At any rate, whether it's igniting brown fat or increased blood flow due to emotional work, so far I'm feeling warmer and I've only turned the heat on twice... both times when CatMan was here. Now, it's not like it's been terribly cold here yet... though it does get down into the 30's at night so the house is generally around 60 degrees in here when I get up... so we'll have to see how this goes as the mercury gets lower. But so far I am encouraged!

So tell me, have you turned your heat on yet this year? Are you a "frozen nose" or do you tolerate cooler weather well. And waddya think about my crazy idea?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Just Another Day in Paradise

It has been a stunningly beautiful autumn here in the Mile High City. Seriously, it's in the low 80's today and we've been breaking high temperature records all month. I think I've turned my heat on a grand total of once this fall.

I rode my bike over to the pet store yesterday - I think I've finally plotted a course that gets me there through the winding cul-du-sacs without having to ride more than a few blocks on busy streets... Yay!

I'm hoping that CatMan will decide he doesn't have to work today so we can go for a bike ride together. Here's what we saw on our last ride:

Rainbow at Chatfield State Park

Anyhow, I snapped a few pictures in my yard and figured I'd put them up for your viewing pleasure.

Cherry tomatoes still producing!

So are the zucchini

And the Mexican squash...

The volunteer pumpkins & mystery squash are ripening

The Grape Hyacinth are a tad bit confused by the warm weather!

I FINALLY got some of my iris thinned

The Cosmos finally decided to bloom. Better late than never!

Sorta doubt they'll all have a chance to open though...

The marigolds are still holding on

Autumn colors everywhere!

The Locust tree from below.... soooo artsy, doncha think? :-)

Anyhow, I hope y'all are having a beautiful autumn too!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Breathing New Life into Old Towels

I have come to that time of the year when my mending basket runneth over!

Seriously, I try to keep up, but during the summer I'm so busy being outside either playing in the garden or riding my bike that there just never seems to be any time for quiet indoor pursuits.

But now that the days are growing shorter and cooler, the idea of nestling in on the couch with a nice blanket, a cat and some sewing to occupy me seems much more appealing.

The main thing I've been tackling right now is the towels. I'm not sure why, but for some reason all of my towels get frayed along the edges.

I suppose it could have something to do with the fact that most of them are over 15 years old! It's not only unsightly, but it means they tend to leave lots of lint behind in the washer and they do tend to unravel even further as time goes on.

So I discovered that you can actually just fold over the edge and hem it to create a nice new seam.

I wouldn't have thought this would be possible because towels being fairly thick, I didn't think I could get a needle through them. But sewing it by hand using a simple whip stitch seems to be doing the trick!

I had to use a thimble to push the needle through the thick spots at the corners, but other than that it's been a nice easy project.

I'm sure these towels will start to fail in other places at some point - when they do I'll cut them up and make them into rags or washcloths. Until then, I'm hoping I can get another fifteen years or so out of them!

So tell me, have you undertaken any sewing projects recently?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Embracing Easy - Thoughts on Eco-Perfectionism and my Summer of Gardening Lite

Well folks, we're headed towards mid-October and I've reached the point in the gardening season where I'm sorta hoping for the first hard freeze to kill off the zucchini plants! Seriously, my freezer is full and I'm just not sure I can eat any more of those little suckers!

Not my photo, BTW - but you get the idea!

So you may remember that back in the spring I had a bit of a time deciding if I really wanted to commit to a garden this year. The weather gods had not smiled upon us the past few summers and I really just wasn't feeling up to it. Ultimately I decided to to "gardening lite" and since the season is almost up, I figured I'd give y'all the review of how it went.

The short answer is that gardening lite gets a bit thumbs up!

So here's the play by play.

Buying plants. So, in the past I've tried to start everything from seed - which is REALLY challenging with a house full of cats who will destroy anything that gets in the way of their window space. Letting go of the idea of starting things from seed made it much less stressful, if a tad bit less "green."

Watering. One of the biggest struggles I've had with gardens in the past was keeping enough water on them. So this year I mulched heavily with both straw and the free Christmas Tree mulch that the city gives away, and everything did much better. Of course, the fact that Denver has finally emerged from the drought didn't hurt! I also set up my homemade old garden hose drip irrigation system which made it sooo much easier when I did need to water.

This photo is from a few summers ago when I wasn't quite so good about mulching!
But you can see the old garden hose which has little holes poked in it to make a drip irrigation system.
The other thing I did to make watering less of a hassle was to use some cheap Y connectors so that when I wanted to use the drip system, all I had to do was turn on the water and flip the switches in the right direction rather than having to haul the hose around, unscrew the sprinkler and screw it into the irrigating hose.

Not sure why, but this made a HUGE difference in my attitude toward watering. It worked so well, in fact that I set up a similar system in the front yard switching between the sprinkler and the hand held sprayer. I plan to expand this whole concept next year to the "herb garden" section of the garden that got sorely neglected this season. (More on that later.) I may have to find a few more dead garden hoses somewhere, but that shouldn't be too difficult!

Plant Protection. Another big gardening struggle here in Denver is hail. Not sure why, but our city is pretty vulnerable to frozen marbles and golf balls falling from the sky. In the 19 years that I've lived here I've lost numerous gardens to hail, not to mention roofs, windows and siding!

So this year I decided that I'd had enough of the OMG here comes a storm, quick cover the garden game and I constructed a hail cover for a big section of the garden. Early in the spring I crafted some individual protectors for each plant using some old pieces of window screen.

This photo also shows off this year's thorough mulching!
This worked so well that I decided to see if I could expand the idea once the plants got bigger. I basically put tall metal fence stakes in the ground and attached hardware cloth on top to create a cover that would let in sun and rain while protecting the plants from hail.

It was sort of a pain to put up so I decided that the volunteer squash was on it's own,
which worked out just fine!
This was a HUGE win. I didn't have to run outside in the rain, get pelted with hail or risk getting hit by lightening even once!

The only problem with my little "hail house" is that it isn't terribly sturdy, and was sorta hard to put up. I was hoping I'd be able to leave it up all winter, but it's really rickety, so I think it's coming down when the garden is done. But for next year I have an even better idea for a new and improved hail protection system.

My basic plan is to buy a large portable greenhouse. Something like this:

This may take come creativity to accomplish, but I'm planning to cover the frame (at least the top portion) with the hardware cloth so it can function as a "hail house." Then I can use the cover that comes with it on top of the hardware cloth in the early spring and in the fall to extend the growing season. I'll take the cover off during the main gardening season so it doesn't get too much wear and tear, and so the plants don't over heat.

If it works like I'm hoping, it should also save me from the quick, cover the plants here comes an unseasonable snow/frost/etc panic that seems to strike several times each year. Hopefully I can avoid having to employ too many creative tent-building schemes next year!

Plant Support. I'm not sure if you could tell from the pictures, but my poor tomatoes suffered again from toppled over syndrome. It happens every year - they get so big and tall that they outgrow their 3-4 foot tall tomato cages. I staked the cages this year so they wouldn't fall over, but still the branches grew too big and draped over the tops making it hard to harvest the tomatoes and doing damage to some of the stalks.

So next year I'm either gonna suck it up and buy some expensive taller cages (like the six feet tall variety) or else I'm gonna try a new system. I was watching one of my "escape from the Amish" television shows recently (I'm a bit obsessed with this topic... sorry) Anyhow, there was a scene where they showed them growing tomato plants and instead of cages, they somehow trained them to grow up strings like this:

Has anybody out there ever tried this system? I'd love to know how difficult it is or isn't. I figure if I'm gonna leave the greenhouse frame set up all season, I'll have something that I can easily tie the strings to.

I also need to give the cucumbers something to grow up because they got totally lost under all of the squash this year. Perhaps the old tomato cages can be re-purposed for the cucumbers!

Plant Selection. OK, here's where I still need some work.

I knew going into this season that I did NOT want to be blanching, peeling and putting up boxes and boxes of tomatoes like I have in the past.

So instead of my customary 6-8 tomato plants, I just did 4 and two of them were cherry tomatoes. I think next year I'll just go with 2 plants, one cherry and one regular.

And in general, I think I just need to plant less of everything... like say, maybe just one zucchini plant next year! Seriously, I wasn't really gonna plant any, but there was some extra room so I threw a few seeds in the ground... you know how this story goes!

I also have to be ruthless with the volunteer squash. Apparently squash seeds don't compost very well, so I inevitably end up with them all through the garden, and for some reason I just feel too guilty to pull them up in the spring. But then they start to take over and shade everything else, and I end up with ridiculous amounts of pumpkins and mystery squash instead of what I wanted to grow.

NO MORE, I say! From now on, I shall be ruthless!

So, I'm hoping that if I stick to those rules I'll have better luck next year growing something besides zucchini, tomatoes and squash!

Which brings me to my dirty little secret....

That only covers about half of the garden. I actually have another section of raised garden beds that's even bigger than the part of the garden I've talked about so far, and I pretty much just ignored it this year.

To tell the truth, this whole section of the garden is pretty much a mess. The raised beds that I constructed about 15 years ago are completely falling apart, and I think I've decided to do away with them completely and just make this into one big plot. Having everything boxed off was a nice idea, but the reality of it ended up being that it was just too difficult to maintain that way.

Trying to turn the soil in those boxes is a real pain in the arse, especially now that entire sections of the wood has rotted away, and over the years the paths have filled with so much debris that the landscaping cloth that was supposed to keep things from growing there is practically meaningless because there's at least 3 inches of soil on top of it now!

Plus, the oregano and catnip have nearly taken over their entire plots, and other sections are being invaded with creeping bellflowers... which are impossible to dig out because the boxes are in the way, and the asparagus that I've been trying to grow in the plots on the right hand side is doing absolutely nothing!

Anyhow, I think my plan for this section is gonna be to remove the boxes, do some terracing (it's on a bit of a hill) and then use the area for perennials (like asparagus... not willing to give up yet) and herbs. Removing the boxes will also make it easier to set up another garden hose drip system there.

And... we're not done yet.

This little plot here also sat fallow this past year:

I haven't decided what to do with this section yet, but I'm thinking that I might plant another section of raspberries because they're so easy to grow and honestly, is it possible to have too many raspberries?

But before I do anything with this area, there's a volunteer elm stump that needs to be removed - so since that could very likely take all next summer to accomplish, I'm not really gonna worry about what to put here at the moment.

OK... so there it is! Just to summarize here... my plan going forward is:

  • Fewer of each kind of plant
  • More variety of crops
  • Be ruthless with volunteers
  • Set up greenhouse for hail and weather protection
  • Automate watering with drip systems and hose diverters
  • Better plant support
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch!
  • Create a place for perennials and herbs
  • Buy from a nursery instead of planting everything from seed
  • Stop trying to be perfect!!!! (heavy emphasis on this point!)

I guess the thing I realized this year is that it's OK to look at the garden as a fun hobby instead of a phantasmagorical save the planet while not spending a dime and making myself miserable in the process sort of a project. I don't have to try to preserve tons of food for the winter - I can just enjoy the fresh produce when I have it and plant with that in mind.

In fact, since I spent less time and energy during the growing season this year, I wasn't as burnt out as I usually am, and I actually did some things like making grape juice from the concord grapes and drying some oregano to use later.

I even had the energy to experiment with freezing some summer fruit (peaches and watermelon) that are sooo cheap and plentiful now, but will be unavailable soon (unless you count stuff flown in from the southern hemisphere).

Somehow I've always chaffed against the idea of buying things for the garden... like greenhouses, or extra hoses, or plants from a nursery. It sorta went against my "something for nothing" gardening philosophy.

But ultimately, sustainability has to be sustainable for the people too. And perhaps making a few compromises like this will let me enjoy it more, and keep doing it longer!