Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Squash

Today is Thanksgiving and I have many things to be thankful for this 2009 year.

Because I have a wheelbarrow full of Butternut Squash, I'm trying to fix new squash recipes and use them up.

I've been rather unsuccessful pushing them on friends and family. . . . hummmm.

Yesterday, I baked three large squash. 320 degrees for 2 plus hours (until a knife inserted in the neck indicates it soft.) They should first be wrapped & sealed in foil. Let stand after cooking for two hours. Unwrap, peel with vegetable peeler, scoop out seeds and strings, chop (or mash) and freeze the squash meat in bags.

Aside from specific squash recipes, it is good in soups as a thickening agent, cakes in place of fat, tomato sauces and many other dishes to simply add flavor and nutrients.

The recipe I used today was "Squash Delight" from the "Hickory Works" on-line store.

Heat oven 350 and butter a 12 x 7 x 2 inch pan.

Cook and mash 2 lbs (2 cups) Butternut Squash.


2 Tbsp. Maple or Hickory Syrup

1 Med. Onion chopped fine

1 Cup Shredded carrots

1 Cup Sour Cream

1 Can Cream of Chicken Soup

Fold all the above together. (This portion can be made ahead & refrigerated)

8 oz. packages Herb Stuffing Mix prepared with Chicken Broth.

Spread half of stuffing in the bottom of the pan. Gently add & level the squash mix and top with the remaining stuffing.

Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.

Friday, November 20, 2009

November Happenings

The following bird & critter information is thanks to the Peoria Journal Star's sports reporter, Jeff Lampe. I've collected these bits over the years and finally entered them in my journal. I thought I'd share the November happenings.

Although we gardeners think of November as a quiet month, as you can see, nature is quite busy.

  • River otters breed.

  • Great horned and barred owls are courting.

  • White tail deer rut peaks in mid month.

  • White tail deer does enter first estrus.

  • Deer-vehicle collisions peak.

  • Sauger and walleye are good on the rivers.

  • Quail form coveys.

  • Crow migration peaks.

  • Turkey flocks split, and young jakes group up in flocks.

  • Bluebill migration started early this month.

  • Peak canvasback and mallard duck migration.

  • Lesser scaup migration occurs.

  • Most doves are en route to winter areas along Gulf Coast.

  • Winter birds, such as juncos, tree sparrows, and purple finches arrive.

~~ . , . ~~

I've had tree sparrows, purple finches, nuthatches, blue jays, cardinals, gold finches, downy woodpeckers, black capped chickadees, and a red bellied woodpecker on my feeder this month.

From the National Weather Service records:

The record low temperature for November was in 1977 at minus 2 degrees.

The record high temperature for November was in 1950 at 81 degrees.

The average low temperature for November is between 25 and 37 degrees.

The average high temperature for November is between 41 and 57 degrees.

The 2008 rainfall for November was 1.12 inches.

The 2008 snow for November was 4.6 inches.

Illinois and Indiana Departments of Natural Resources for deer/vehicle accidents:

1.5 Million is the average number of deer/vehicle accidents for the United States per year.

Illinois ranks third for the most per year - There were 24,212 deer/vehicle accidents in 2008 - including two human fatalities.

Howard County, Indiana had 6.6% of their accidents in 2008 from deer/vehicle crashes.
~~. , .~~
Enjoy what's left of this Fall season.
Winter, dear friends, is on the way.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Old by Any Other Name

Images: Batch of heirloom tomatoes. Old fragrant peony. Wild petunia. Heirloom hollyhocks.

What is an Antique/Heirloom flower?

The most widely accepted definition is antique or heirloom plants are open-pollinated varieties that originated 50 or more years ago. Open-pollinated flowers are fertilized by insects, hummingbirds or wind, and the resulting seeds will produce plants that are identical or very similar to the parent plant.

Heirlooms have typically adapted to whatever climate and soil they're grown in and are resistant to that region's pests, diseases and weather extremes.

The definition of the word heirloom, when describing plants, is highly debated. Here are some expert opinions:

  1. The age or date point on cultivars must be over 100 years old.
  2. The age or date point on cultivars must be over 50 years old.
  3. Anything prior to 1945 (the end of WWII). This was the beginning of widespread hybrid use by growers and seed companies.
  4. 1951 is the last year a plant can be originated and still be called an heirloom. That was the year widespread introductions of the first hybrid varieties hit the markets.
  5. Another set of experts declares heirloom cultivars are those plants that have been nurtured, selected and handed down from one family member to another for many generations.
There is another definition similar, but definitely different, called "commercial heirlooms." They were introduced commercially generations ago and had enough merit to have been saved, maintained and handed down even when the seed company or business has gone out of business and the seeds have been dropped from the market.

Most experts agree the plants must be open pollinated and no genetically modified organisms used.

There is a growing controversy concerning the growing and storage of heirloom seeds by only seed companies and government entities. It is feared all dependency will be insured to only those seed companies and the true heirlooms will be lost forever.

Heirloom plants are typically vegetables and before industrialization of agriculture, a much wider variety of plant foods was grown for human consumption.

The industrialization maximizes consistency for shipping, storing, shape, color and tolerance to drought, frost, or pesticides. Nutrition, flavor, and variety are frequently secondary or not a concern at all. This has led many to turn "back" to heirloom varieties in their personal gardens.

There is also seed gene banks - a new and controversial movement.

Many of our national parks practice "in-situ" conservation" of seed producing plant species. This allows the targeted seeds to grow in their natural environment, unlike an arboretum that grows them in a protected state.

Aside from the above bigger issues and convoluted definitions, gardeners grow heirloom plants for many reasons:
  • There is the historical interest of preserving a plant that was grown by our ancestors, friends, historical figures, or during a particular era.
  • Increasing the available gene pool for future generations. An effort to keep these plant from becoming extinct.
  • Use in organic gardening.
  • Others simply want the taste or variety of vegetables.
  • And, those that want to grow something rare or different.
Heirloom plants may take a little more care in the beginning, an ability to expect and tolerate the more subdued, and a realization you're in for a different experience.

I once grew an old Polish heirloom tomato that had purple flesh. It was wonderfully delicious but getting past the purple took a little mental adjustment.
If you've never grown heirloom plants, give one a try. Or, if you currently grow them, share the seeds. I never look at my "Cousin Bonnie" hollyhocks (started from seeds she shared) that I don't think of family.

"Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God." - II Corinthians 9:10-11

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Landscaping Around Electrical Boxes

I recently read an article in a well known garden magazine that gave several options for landscaping around enclosures for underground distribution systems. I was amazed and dismayed at how little the author had researched the subject from the practicability point of view.

The landscaping did indeed camouflage the box; hiding it from view from every angle. I suspect there are innocent homeowners taking the advice and designs to heart as we speak.

The design methods for totally surrounding the boxes will be a lose-lose situation when there is a maintenance issue in the box.

Lose-lose in these ways:

(1) The box is placed on an easement signed by the property owner and the utility. It is a legally binding contract even if the property owner was prior to your purchase. That easement gives the utility the right to access the equipment for routine and emergency maintenance. If access is blocked, the utility can take what measures are necessary to bring equipment and manpower to the site in a safe manner.

(2) For utility workers to gain access to the equipment, your beautiful (and probably expensive) landscaping could be destroyed. A worker will need to have room to maneuver and work on the equipment without being put in an unsafe position. If the work requires other equipment (truck, backhoe, etc.) the probability of more damage to landscaping is high.
The utility and it's employees do not want to damage your property. It is bad for customer relations, it places them in a safety hazard and it prolongs the time needed to do the job. There is also the cost for the homeowner for damages.
Some homeowners don't realize these boxes need routine maintenance to keep the electrical systems running without problems. Others believe underground systems are problem free. Some customers believe the utility can't be on their property even to access the utility's equipment, especially, if there are no outages. There's a lot of misinformation floating around.

Think this through:

You want to have dependable and continuous electric service. To have this reliable service, expect the utility to do their job.

  • Before landscaping, call the utility and ask if they can direct you on how they will access the equipment, from what direction, and how much room they will need.
  • Do not put landscaping plants, fences, borders, rocks, decorations and other blocking material around the entire unit.
  • NEVER open, paint, damage, hang or sit things on a piece of electric or gas equipment.
  • NEVER NEVER let children play on electric or gas equipment.
  • None of this is the punish or infringe upon the customer's landscaping or beautification plans.
  • It is all about safety and reliability for the utility workers and for their customers.
  • Horror Stories:
  • Children taking hammers and pointed objects to put holes in the boxes. Seriously, there is energized equipment in those boxes - that's why there is the box over them.
  • 6 foot chain link fence totally around the box. Seriously, this fence was cut and removed in a not so beautiful manner during an emergency situation.
  • Large bushes, a tree, and many perennials totally surrounding the box. Seriously, one whole site was flattened when an equipment failure necessitated removal and replacement.
  • The entire right of way access from the road had been blocked by many homeowners on the block. This easement is much like an alleyway. Seriously, the fences, landscaping and a shed had to be removed at the owners' expense when a large truck and a crane were needed for heavy repairs.
There are ways to hide this equipment, it just needs some planning before things are put in place. For instance, use landscaping at a safe distance from the electrical equipment. Situate between your views and the objects. Behind the landscaping, let there be an area of grass or other low plants that do not require much effort and will allow utility access.

Turn the situation from lose-lose into win-win.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Belly Button Lint

Images: Possible dryer lint collection piece and an extra large clothes dryer.

One of my favorite composting materials is dryer lint. Yes, I was kidding about the belly button lint. . . If you don't already save the dryer lint for hobbies, such as paper making, now is the time to start!

Keep a container in your laundry room and after each dryer load, collect the lint and deposit in the container. I have a new flower bed outside one window and simply throw the lint outside after each load.

It serves three purposes: It decomposes in the soil, does not end up in the trash AND it is a great nesting material for birds. Typically, birds prefer dryer lint that doesn't have excessive amounts of fragrant water softeners or dryer sheets used.

There is always the additional benefit that a dryer works better and cheaper if the lint collector is cleaned after each load - saving money and wear and tear on the machine. It cuts down on the risk of dryer fires from a collection of lint in the exhaust hose.

The lint can simply be tossed on the top of the soil or if you don't like the look, it can be immediately tilled into the soil. It will seldom blow around because it absorbs moisture quickly.

I don't recommend putting it directly against plant trunks and stems as it makes too good of a mouse nest in the winter. If mice house directly against bark, they tend to chew on the plant when winter gets really cold and food is scarce.

I tried using an onion sack for my lint and hanging it from the clothesline for the birds to take in the spring but my birds refused. When placed randomly on the ground, they would sometimes clean it up in one day.


Since brushing pets is somewhat messy in the winter, I find if I toss the pet hair in the same way as dryer lint, it also provides the same benefits to the soil and birds.

I've seen many a nest lined in a smooth cushion of pet hair. They do seem to like the dog hair better than cat hair but that might be a "scent of predator" issue. Still, the nutrients in both pet and human hair are beneficial to the soil.


Find a perfect container for your dryer lint and pet hair: Mesh onion sacks, coffee cans, decorative tins, antique clothespin holder, or let your imagination find a choice. It's another little way we can help use what we once sent to the landfill.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dig It Man

Image: Old electric overhead lines in downtown Galva, Illinois.

From years of working at a public gas and electric utility, I've heard all the complaints about utility tree trimming practices.

A good portion of the problem stems from the public's lack of knowledge on exactly how and why tree trimming is done. I thought a short summary might help gardeners make better decisions around the yard.

Myth Buster:
No one sits behind a desk and says, "Now let's see how we can trim trees to make our customers unhappy and the trees ugly." Really! I've never known one forestry man or arborist that doesn't appreciate and admire healthy trees. They are dedicated to preserving and enhancing trees where possible and suitable.

Tree trimming is performed for one major reason: To prevent electrical situations/outages that can hurt or destroy humans and property.

  • Outages affect the reliability of service to customers and is monitored and regulated by both the utility and the state's Commerce Commission.
  • Utilities follow the National Arbor Society guidelines for tree trimming.
  • Outages and damages are not only difficult for our customers but they cost the company a lot of money during the restoration process. That goes back to the cost to operate the utility which in turn will eventually affect the cost of the product you buy.
  • Trees planted on easements and city right-of-ways can be trimmed or removed by the easement holder. They do not NEED your permission because the original easement has granted that permission.

What you can do:
  • Do not ever plant a tree under or close to an overhead electric line that has any chance to grow near or into the lines.
  • Consider having large old trees replaced with a more appropriate sized tree.

You can expect your tree to be trimmed or removed if:
  • A tree can be climbed by a person and that will put him/her in a position to touch a line.
  • A tree/branch is in a position that if it falls, it will damage the line.
  • A branch will rub an electric line which can burn, damage, or energize the tree.
  • Prevents access to the lines when they need maintenance or repairs.
  • A tree is damaged or rotten.

Story #1:

An entire line of beautiful big fir trees bordering the front of a country property had the tops removed by the utility. It was unsightly and the homeowners and public were very upset.

Step back in time and another story is of a beautiful fir tree that was situated under the electric lines which had not been trimmed. A child climbed that tree and was killed when he touched a branch that had become energized because it was touching the line.

That child can never be replaced nor can the sorrow be eliminated to his loved ones. What can and did happen was a stricter tree trimming policy was implemented. That was the policy that mandated the entire line of fir trees must now be topped.

Story #2:

When a small town was hit by high straight line winds, many of the beautiful old trees lining the streets were toppled along with trees and branches on personal property.

Those trees were a source of pride for the community and there was much sadness at the loss. Most of those large growing trees were planted prior to customers realizing the outage ramifications some fifty plus years later.

The restoration of electric service to this community took much longer because of the need to cut and remove trees and branches. It was also prolonged because of the extensive number of outages due to tree damage. Many homeowners had to hire electricians to fix damage to their customer-owned services. In other words, homes were without power for a much longer time because of damage from large trees and the cost to the customers and utility were much higher.

This city now mandates only low growing trees be planted on municipal right-of-ways. Low growing trees can still be damaged by high winds but they will not cause prolonged electric outages and expense for you or an entire community.

These are but two of the many many examples I could give. I hope that you consider the needs of your electric utility when you plant trees, bushes and vines. If unsure of the guidelines, call them. Or, if you have underground electric, gas, water, telephone or cable services call JULIE (both in the yellow pages.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Knitting Those Little Sweaters

Image: American Tree Sparrow.
Providing shelter for birds is another hobby many take seriously.

In nature, here are birds' winter habitats:

  • Bobwhites sleep in a tight circle on the ground, all heads facing outward. The contact enables them to conserve precious body heat, and the outward orientation allows them to detect danger in all directions. Leaving long weeds and grasses helps insure a warm nest.
  • Crows and turkeys roost in trees.
  • Some birds will build winter roosts in open chimneys.
  • Starlings and Pigeons often roost under brides or other infrastructure. In rural areas, old barns and sheds often have enough holes to allow birds shelter.
  • When there's lots of snow cover, ruffed grouse sometimes bury themselves in snow drifts, where the snow itself insulates them from plummeting outside air temperatures.
  • Owls sleep in tree cavities and sometimes in large nesting boxes.
  • Song birds, such as cardinals, blue jays and finches, retire to dense thickets of vegetation. Even greater protection is found in evergreen refuges such as conifers and ivy covered walls.
  • Woodpeckers, wrens, titmice and nuthatches sleep in cavities much like the ones in which they nest.
  • Sparrows use thick vegetation, vines next to houses or available roof spaces. Some small birds will wedge between the bark and tree trunk.
  • Even solitary birds will often sleep in large communities to keep warm.
A bird's first line of defense against the cold is its feathers. They repel water and insulate. Each feather is controlled by a group of small muscles that can raise and lower the feather.

By fluffing their feathers, birds create many tiny air spaces that drastically reduce heat loss. On extremely cold nights, birds reduce heat loss further by burying naked body parts into their feathers.

Birds have a network of blood vessels in their feet and legs that minimizes heat loss.

Two or more days without energy food, in severe weather, and a bird will not survive.

In the fall, birds often build nests in nesting bird houses. They have decided to prepare it for cold night roosting. Birds will often pack these little houses although they aren't ideal.

Nesting boxes (bird houses) are where birds lay eggs and raise their broods. They are made for a family.

Roosting boxes are for winter shelter and warmth. They are made for a community.

Many man-made roosting boxes are sold commercially. Do not waste your money on those cute little woven homes - they don't conserve heat or shelter from rain.

Real roosting boxes are rather large wooden structures with perches, grooves or shelves inside. They will accommodate a large number of birds. The perches and shelves keep them from smothering the ones on the bottom. There are few or not vent holes at the top and the entrance is near the bottom so body warmth doesn't escape. When hanging the roost, face the opening south and shelter from the wind. Hang about 12 feet off the ground.

The same birds that nest in cavities and nesting boxes will use roosting boxes. One blueprint source for roosting boxes is

"Poor indeed is the garden in which birds find no homes." Rev. Abram L. Urban, author.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Eco Friendly Weddings

Step One: In the "what wonderful thing shall we throw as the bridal couple leaves the church" discussion is: Check to see what the facility allows.

Step Two: If you use something that isn't biodegradable, you must have someone(s) pick it all up. A time consuming and no fun job that could loose you a friend and make relatives wish they weren't.

Below is a list of things that have been thrown and some thoughts for you to consider.

Rice has been a custom since back when it was meant to give the couple good luck with their crops and provide longevity. The debate about it making birds explode has "opinions" and "facts" on both sides. The real fact is in this "litigation happy" world in which we live, rice might cause people to slip and fall down steps or on hard surfaces and most churches and reception halls have banned it's use.

EcoFetti is a brand name for environmentally friendly confetti. It comes in several colors and resembles old fashion artificial snow. It will melt away (so they claim) in the first rain or may be hosed away. I don't know if it stains clothes.

Dried lavender buds don't sting if they hit the couple and they smell wonderful. You may still have to pick them up if there is a large quantity.

Rose petals can often be bought from florists and if you agree to use "seconds", the charge is much less. Rose petals can also be freeze dried. If it's raining/snowing, the colors might stain a wedding dress.

Butterfly releases are expensive plus the butterflies are often not ready to fly and throwing lots of insects that immediately drop to the ground and then are trampled is just wrong.

Bubbles is the new rice because it has been used quite a lot recently. Some wedding guests simply refuse to do this, some aren't very effective but if you have a crowd that is willing, it can be pretty. It doesn't work well on windy days and it may stain the material on the wedding dresses.

Seeds sometimes are an alternative to rice. Bird seed, grass seed, pumpkin seeds have all been used. They can also cause slips and as with rice, can get stuck in the brides elegant hairdo, down her dress and undergarments and make a miserable bride at the reception.

Doves being released is another beautiful Hollywood idea that might have a bad outcome in real play. Domesticated white doves are not always adaptable to all habitat and would find it difficult to survive especially if it is already cold outside.

Noisemakers such as kazoos and whistles can be fun if you have a crowd that likes to make noise. Obviously, you don't throw them, you play them. They can also be a memento of the day.

Streamers on sticks is visually pretty and can be waved instead of actually throwing things. Wooden dowel rods with ribbons on the ends can be handed out as guests are leaving the church. A friend can gather them or you can have guests take them to the reception and then home. The ribbons can be in the wedding colors. Realize young children will eventually use them as swords.

Helium balloons in the wedding colors can be released but there is the environmental debate as to the damage it does to animals/birds/and as trash once they come down. Also, Mylar balloons should NEVER be released outside as they can get into overhead electrical wire and substations causing outages.

Sparklers at night weddings is said to be beautiful. My concern would be the flammability of some clothes (especially the wedding dress and veil), getting them all lit at once and the disposal afterwards. Children would have to be closely supervised.

Fireworks would certainly be showy at a night wedding. It would involve an experienced and talented (perhaps licensed) person to do this, check to see if you need a permit, and you'd have to consider flammability of the area. Setting a two-hundred year old church on fire might take the zing out of the wedding. Both sparklers and fireworks are against the law in California (and perhaps other areas.)

LED lights also are fun if waved by the guests at a night wedding. They can be a memento for them to take home and are safe for children. Cost might be an issue but there are little ones on key chains and they come in many colors.

Little bells can also be a memento and there is the wedding reception game that every time someone rings their bell, the bridal couple must kiss. Some couples have their names and the wedding date engraved on each bell.

Dollar bills could be thrown but would need to be picked up by someone who would return them to the couple and it would take some planning to accomplish this little trick. It is a custom in some cultures as is throwing coins.

Dried leaves and herbs would be pretty in the fall and are no big environmental threat. Large quantities would probably need to be swept up.

Maple tree seeds "helicopters" float down slow and softly. They would need to be gathered in the spring and dried.

Some brides have opted to no longer have things thrown because it can get out of hand, sometimes hurts, messes up their hair, can damage their dresses, and is an added expense.

The most novel idea I've heard about is the Redneck wedding where they throw punches. Environmentally friendly as long as they don't draw blood.