Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cheap Fix for a Poltergeist Car

I reported in a previous post about my middle-aged Nissan acting like it had been visited by a poltergeist. The car was unlocking itself and rolling its own power windows down, even after the car had been turned off. Spoiler alert: there is a reasonable explanation for the car's behavior. And there were two potential solutions.

One would have cost me about $230. The other cost $17.95 plus shipping.

I'll let you guess which option I chose. Especially since my sweet husband, Don Burke, found and paid for the second option as a gift.

At my regular mechanic's suggestion I took it to a Nissan dealer. The friendly service technician informed me that all the problems could be caused by the aging remote to the car. I was skeptical that the remote could roll down the windows, but he borrowed the remote and showed me.

I asked him how much a new remote would cost. He told me the dealership would only consider selling me the remote after a full diagnostic on the electrical system of the car to confirm that the remote was the problem. The diagnostic would run $99.00. I asked him how much more the remote would cost, if it were in fact the problem. He hesitated, then stated the remote would be a "mere" additional $130.00.

No, thanks! I informed him I would ditch the remote for a while to see if the problems stopped. Don pulled the battery out of the remote, and that was enough to exorcise the car's demons for good. I figured I would get used to living without the remote.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my husband is a retired submariner from the U.S. Navy and a wonderful problem-solver. He found and purchased a nearly-identical remote at from "World Wide Remotes" for $17.95 plus $4.36 shipping. The one page of instructions that came with it not only worked but required no tools. Don's efforts produced a savings of over $206.00 over the dealership's service, a deal so good, and a solution so easy, I just had to share.

My Virginia Garden Late May 2012

Square-Foot Raised Beds, May 27, 2012, Southeastern VA

My raised beds are doing better than I ever dreamed. If you want to see what I have planted where, my online garden planner has more details. The asparagus is coming up beautifully, and the beds are coming alive and green with vegetation.

Asparagus Bed
 The beds are mostly vegetables but I interspersed flowers to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. I've put some flowering potted plants near the beds for the same reason. I've already started to harvest some Cherry Belle radishes, both the greens for salads and the roots themselves. The Romaine lettuce is ready for some selective picking of their outer leaves. I've mulched most plants, except the lettuces, since mulch attracts slugs. Most plants have been mulched with a mix of chicken manure, vegetable scraps, straw, and other items from my Compostumbler, but some of the squares of asparagus with white clover. The clover is an experiment. I suspect it is a bad idea, especially since it is the first year for the asparagus. I read in an article that researchers tried this and the asparagus produced thinner spears than the control plants and reduced yields:

 Unsuppressed white Dutch clover established
at asparagus planting controlled weeds and provided
N over time to the asparagus in a Wisconsin
study, but reduced yield significantly. Establishing
the clover in the second year or third year of an
asparagus planting would be more effective.
Experimental asparagus with clover as living mulch

Unfortunately, I sowed the clover with the asparagus in the first year. Everything I've read suggests that Dutch White Clover is a good idea under tomatoes and pole beans, although it does compete with the taller plants for water. Water has been plentiful so far this year so I will allow the experiment to continue. ***Update or 7/18/12: The asparagus has grown in so thick, it has smothered most of the clover for lack of light. I suspect this is just as well. The clover adds nitrogen to the soil, and if it's dead, it can't compete with the asparagus for water in the summer heat we are having. I was afraid the clover would take over my vegetable beds, but it never did.

I read somewhere a recommendation of sowing winter peas and oats in late September over cleaned asparagus beds as a winter cover crop. The Sustainable Agriculture Network recommends winter rye for the same purpose in its free publication, "Managing Cover Crops Profitably."

Squash Bed
Something, either slugs or caterpillars, has been munching heavily on my radish tops. I plan to try some beer traps in case it is the former. The radishes may be acting as a trap crop, however, because whatever the pest is, it has been mostly leaving my young spinach and lettuces alone. I'd much prefer to lose radish greens than the other salad greens. I also tried spraying a little Neem oil on the radishes and on the few lettuces that are seeing damage.
Romaine lettuce

Basil with leaf mulch

Basil with compost

Baby spinach
We have lot of trees on our property. This has both its good and bad points. The main bad point is that we accidentally located the garden in a spot that does not get enough sunlight for fruiting crops such as tomatoes. To give ourselves credit, there are so many trees it is hard to find a truly sunny spot. Don plans to trim trees and limbs to improve the sunlight. He can't do it fast enough for me!

The "up" side to having so many limbs is that they produce lots of leaves. Our oak tree also sheds flowers in the spring (and tons of acorns for the squirrels). Yes, the leaves are a plus! We continually shake our heads at neighbors who bag them up and leave them at the curb.

We have a terrific lawnmower. We can either use it as a mulching mower, and mulch DRY leaves and oak flowers into the soil, or we can use the bagger that comes with the mower to shred the leaves to use as mulch. Right now most of my garden is mulched with compost  or leaves or a combination of both.

Two words of warning: be sure the leaves are brown (dry). Be sure compost is well-aged. Squash and potatoes, however, will grow more easily in less-than-optimal compost than other plants.

So far I love pole beans! This is the first year I've ever grown them, and I love how quickly they grow up the teepee-style trellises I have put up for them. But I wouldn't have planted them so close to the tomatoes if I'd realized how little sunlight my gardens would get. Oh, well.

Tomato, Pepper, and Pole Bean Bed
  Note to self: I have GOT to pay more attention to my garden planner. I originally planned to grow two tomatillos. I think I read they pollinate and produce better that way. I had two growing beautifully. Wouldn't you know it, I pulled one up? Aargh! At least I'll have more room for squash, since I am growing more than I originally planned in the same space. The square-foot method isn't well suited to squashes, melons, etc., although you can try growing them vertically, which is what I plan to do.

I will post some pictures of my flowers planted for biodiversity and attracting pollinators below. Some double as edibles or herbs.
Nasturtiums are spicy and edible

Marigolds are welcome in any garden

Forget Me Nots

Potted Thyme and Cilantro Flowering

The Little Tomato That Could, End of May

The Little Tomato's first fruit

It's been a month since I've updated my posts on the "Little Tomato That Could." This is a little plant that came up as a volunteer in one of my outdoor pots in November of 2011. Don Burke, my then-fiance, now husband, likes to rescue forlorn-looking creatures, and I've rarely seen a plant that looks as pathetic as that poor tomato did last fall. He stopped me from pulling it up. He nurtured it all fall and winter with reluctant help from me. The plant has gotten a little brittle, and the last time Don moved it, about half of it broke and fell off. Ever the optimist, Don took one of the broken vines and stuck it in some dirt in another pot. That part is still alive, but I'm not sure for how long.

The original "Little Tomato" has bounced back from the rough handling. It is even producing one early and large tomato, which is in that green-turning-yellow stage that tomatoes reach as they begin to ripen. I hope it turns red and that it avoids blossom end rot. The moisture content has been hard to manage in the pot that Don has been growing the plant in, especially with our summer weather so hot and dry. I don't have high hopes for it. I already see a little sunken area in the green tomato that looks like the beginning of the problem.

The Little Tomato That Could
The Little Tomato last fall

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Environmental Justice

A focus on sustainability can widen your view of the world. Yes, we need control over our own food supply (as in becoming chicken activists), and yes, we need to help those who live in food deserts do the same, as I blogged about in "Paying It Forward." But the food supply is part of a bigger picture called environmental justice. I just watched a riveting 18-minute TED-Ed video, by Majora Carter, called "Greening the Ghetto." Her talk is intelligent, critically important, and eye-opening. It shows the potential power of grassroots activism.

Local foods, sustainability and "green" practices and jobs are all part of a bigger picture called social justice, not just in major cities, but in rural areas, too. And if, as a nation, we can refocus the conversation to find solutions to these issues, we will make the world a better place.

Consumers in the U.S. support these kinds of changes, according to a recent poll by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  There's a great infographic on the results.

What if we don't know where to start? Let's start with our own backyards, patios, rooftops, or maybe that abandoned lot that is a potential park around the corner. Let's start with a conversation with our neighbor. But let's start.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Poltergeist Car?

Before I start this story, I want you to know that I like my car. I really do. It's a middle-aged but not decrepit Nissan. I bought it used. It has a nice sound system, a leather interior, and lots of conveniences like heated seats and electric door-locks and electric windows and electric mirrors and a sliding sun roof and--

you get the picture.

I remember thinking it was getting muggy when I arrived at work yesterday. I rolled up my windows and locked my car before I headed inside.

Or at least I thought I did.

When I finished work for the day, I headed for my car to pick up my CSA order on my way home. I noticed the passenger-side window was rolled completely down. I stopped, startled.

Had someone broken in? It's a good neighborhood, but still...

I looked around for signs of broken glass. Having found none, I cautiously looked inside. Nothing seemed missing.

Perplexed, I went around to the driver's side. That window was down, too, and the driver's side door was unlocked.

I remember thinking I must have had a senior moment. Maybe I had actually left the windows down due to the muggy conditions rather than locking up tight like I remembered? I got in the car, rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and headed to pick up my order.

That's when all hell broke loose.

As I was heading down Battlefield Boulevard, I thought I heard my car doors unlock--click!.

But I hadn't touched the controls!

"Must be my imagination," I thought. I was watching the traffic, so I reached over and locked the doors again without too much thought. But I decided to pay a little more attention to the goings-on within my car and not just around it.

About two blocks later--CLICK! They definitely unlocked themselves again. I had not touched the controls.

Was this some student's idea of a prank? I looked around. No, there's no student, however brilliantly geeky and prankstery, that could pull this off  as I drove down the road at forty miles per hour, especially at such a distance from the school.

I have one of those remote-control radio-controlled door-unlocking key chains, the kind with a panic-alarm button on it. Could I have accidentally set that off as I drove down the road? Could someone nearby be unlocking their door with a remote with the same frequency?

I  looked around a bit, trying to find a logical explanation. Finding none, I resisted the urge to hit the panic button on my own remote. I was feeling panic, but I somehow didn't think that pushing the button would help. I turned onto Cedar Road toward my pick-up point for my order. I locked the doors and pulled into the lot. I parked. I turned off the engine, made sure I'd rolled up all the windows. I reached for the door handle. Before I could touch it--

WHIR!!! As fast as they could, both front windows rolled down by themselves. With the engine off. And I hadn't touched anything.

Startled, I fought back the urge to scream. Could I be dreaming? Was my car haunted? The windows were open, the evening was starting to cool off quickly, but I began to shiver with more than the cold.

I called my best friend, who also happens to be my husband. He was at work for several more hours. He answered his cell.

"Hi, Mary; what's up?"

"Hello, Don? Are we really talking right now? Or are we... am I dreaming?"

He paused to answer. "I think we're both awake and talking right now."

"Oh, Shit! I thought I was having a nightmare!"

"What's going on?"

"I think a poltergeist has taken over my car."

Don is a retired U.S. Navy submariner. He doesn't panic easily. I'm sure if anyone could calmly face down a poltergeist, HE could. It's one of the reasons I called. His reaction was calm but concerned. He told me to tell him exactly what the car was doing. So I did.

"It sounds like an electrical problem, probably in the driver's side door," he said.

I was mostly relieved but a little unhappy with that explanation. An electrical problem, especially one this weird, sounds expensive. An honest-to-goodness demonstrably haunted car, on the other hand, could bring me fame and fortune and television appearances, not necessarily in that order.

If I lived that long.

I shuddered.

I finished my conversation, rolled up the windows, locked the car up, and went inside to pick up my order. I was gone maybe ten minutes.

When I got back to the car, the driver's side door was unlocked, and the passenger window was rolled down.

On the drive home, the car continued to unlock itself and the windows to roll down. At least I felt calmer, since Don had half-convinced me that there was some logical explanation for its behavior. Something about a short-circuit. I wished he weren't working late.

I got the car home, but even after it sat in my driveway it wouldn't stay locked or rolled up. And the sky was threatening to rain. My son and I did our best to cover it up with a tarp, and I lugged anything valuable into the house.

Don pulled a fuse out when he got in and today a co- worker put it back in. Pulling the fuse caused the mad car-behaviors to stop, but it also pulled the plug on my headlights, taillights, brake lights, and blinkers.

Not a good idea, especially if you know anything about traffic in this part of Virginia.

So the car has been behaving better while I've been at work today. I plan to get it worked on as soon as I can. And the haunted-car mystery has been solved. I'm at home, it's getting late, and I plan to check on my car one last time before I head to bed.

But I'm afraid to look.

***Update: the above story was true, and we found a solution that did not involve an exorcist. The story above is so much fun, I was reluctant to share the solution. But the savings of over $200 off of what the dealer was going to charge me is too good not to post. Click for the solution.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lemony Asparagus Confetti Salad


Please note that brown rice takes longer to cook than white rice. Plan your time accordingly, or cook the rice in advance. Using a rice cooker makes the job easier because you can turn your attention to the other ingredients while the cooker takes care of the rice. I find the rice cooker makes better rice than I can make by any other method and is well worth the money.
  • 3/4 cup uncooked brown rice (1 rice cup)
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 2 lbs. fresh asparagus, rinsed, trimmed and chopped into 1 inch pieces
  •  1 cup turnip or other fresh greens, rinsed and shredded
  • 1.5 cups precooked or (low-sodium) canned Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
 Rinse and cook the rice according to package directions, or preferably cook in a rice cooker using the rice cooker's directions. While the rice cooks, prepare the other ingredients as follows:

 Heat up the oil in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and saute about 5 minutes until beginning to soften. Add the ginger and cook for three or four minutes more. Add the asparagus, cook for two minutes more, then add the greens and continue to cook for another minute or two until the greens just begin to wilt. Set aside until the rice has finished cooking.

When the rice is done, drain if necessary--this should be unnecessary if you used a cooker according to its directions. Stir the rice, the beans, and the asparagus mixture together in a large bowl. Drizzle the lemon juice over the mixture and stir well. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to three days. Serve warm or cold.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

More Reasons to Grow Your Own

Some states have greatly tightened the noose on illegal immigration. The result is that crops are left to rot in the fields for a lack of skilled workers:

Growers are moving toward more mass-commodity crops that can be harvested mechanically and away from organic, sustainable methods.

Even with the high unemployment rates, Americans are not stepping up to take these jobs:

They cannot make decent money at it, they do not have the skills, and they are not physically fit enough to work like a skilled farmhand.

These farmhands have skills because many have been toughened by farm work since they were seven or eight years old.

That's right!

Children have been working in the fields with their parents to provide income for their families. While most of us in the U.S. have children who go to school most of the year, the migrants' children are in the fields, harvesting our produce, making less than minimum wage, and facing pesticide exposure and other dangers we wouldn't THINK of exposing children to. Farm work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. An estimated 400,000 children in the United States face these abuses, and it's perfectly legal due to an outdated law from 1939.

A new documentary, "The Harvest/La Cosecha," is bringing these abuses before the public's eye.

These are yet more reasons to eat locally, seasonally, and to grow as much of our own food as we can. One of the foods left to rot for lack of workers was asparagus. Well, let's grow asparagus in our own back yards and take control over our food supply and the conditions under which we grow it!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Urban Chicken Activist

A laying hen from our visit to Polyface Farm
I feel like Clark Kent: mild-mannered reporter by day, Superman in his spare time.

I, too, have a secret. I am Mary Lou Burke, mild-mannered Latin teacher by day, Chicken Activist Extraordinaire in my spare moments.

A lot has been happening since I first mentioned my yearnings for a few backyard layers in "Longing for Urban Chickens" back in December.

I am not the type to sit back and whine about laws, policies, and other situations I don't like. If I see any opportunity to change the status quo, look out! So I started a Facebook Page, now called At first, and for a long time, there were only two or three people in the whole universe who "liked" this page. But I tried to keep the content interesting and fresh by updating it with news and articles about chickens. I also linked my posts to Twitter to expand their reach with the use of hash tags. And the number of "likes" grew. Gradually my page started to get a broader and more active base of fans, folks who posted comments, suggestions, and links of their own, like this great video about "cage free" vs. "free range" vs. "pastured" eggs. It became an interactive forum for what is happening in South Hampton Roads regarding chickens and zoning.

In the meantime I continued to research about chicken-keeping and the urban agriculture movement.  I found out about and began to utilize online resources like Urban Chickens and Backyard Chickens. And I blogged about my frustrations with the current zoning laws here in Chesapeake, VA, in a post called "How Much Space Do Laying Hens Need?" In response to a suggestion on the Facebook Page, I started an online petition at on April 20. I set a goal of 500 signatures by July 20. My fellow Facebook chicken-activists and I have been promoting this petition online, and we have nearly 275 signatures as of May 12. We are over halfway to our goal!

Next came considerations about who will present our petition to Chesapeake City Council (and how and when). While I am perfectly happy to take a stand all by myself, I have spent enough time around local politicians to know a group of local citizens will make more of an impression than one lonely Latin teacher, even one armed with a petition. I had been suggesting face-to-face meetings through the Facebook page, and eventually got enough interest to set a time, date, and place for our first meetings.

What a nice group of people! A local homeschooling mom who has five children came with two of her daughters, my husband came, of course, and a young mother came with her 4-month-old infant daughter. We have different motivations for our common interests in keeping hens legally, but they are all sound, strong reasons, and we share a commitment for seeing this through. Andrea, the mother of five, has experience in grass-roots activism and great insights into the workings of the local city council. Minutes of our meeting are available online and we plan our next meeting for the afternoon of May 20. Danielle, the young mother, put together a compendium of Chesapeake's chicken-related zoning ordinances to help answer the frequent questions we get about Chesapeake's current laws.

We are now expanding our network of contacts out in the community as well as online. We are planning group T-shirts and putting hard copies of our petitions out at local businesses, flea markets, farmers' markets, and other community events to gather more signatures. I have posted a version of our petition at Google Docs to make it easier for volunteers to print petitions and gather signatures.

**Update on 5/14: The T-shirt has been designed and is adorable! Visit our Facebook page to see the design and to place an order.

**Update on 5/17: T-shirts are available for pick-up. We have launched an XtraNormal video that satirizes the local zoning laws and asks for signatures on our petition.

**Update on 6/4/12: We have over 330 signatures on the  petition as well as hard-copy petitions at local fee and seed stores. We have posted our video on Youtube to extend is audience. Youtube allows us to post links to our Facebook page and petition site.

 No, we don't have the X-ray vision, flying abilities, or extraordinary strength of Superman. But, like many others, we have learned to use the powers of the internet, cloud computing, and social networking to improve our community and the world. Clark Kent would be proud!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

How to Grow Gardening: Paying It Forward and Local Foods

"A food desert is any area in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain" (Wikipedia). I checked the U.S. government's Food Desert Locator, and to my surprise there are food deserts located not far from where Don and I live in Chesapeake, Virginia.

I am a local-foods enthusiast, so I have been wanting to play a role in helping other people grow fresh, local, sustainable food for themselves. If the people I help are in need, so much the better. I very much admire the work that Will Allen and his Growing Power has been doing in major cities, and I wanted to do something similar in some small way here. I also remember when I first moved into my previous house in North Carolina, a divorcee with lots of needs and barely two dollars to rub together in my pocket. I wanted a vegetable garden because gas was $4.00 a gallon and I wanted to avoid driving to Walmart for veggies I could grow at home. At that time members of the Freecycle community there took me under their wing and shared cuttings, seeds, and advice with me.

But how to start here? I am new to Chesapeake, and I know almost nobody in town.

My answer came in the form of a plea on the local Freecycle list. This particular request was for vegetable seeds, flower seeds, cuttings, and anything that could help someone who knew very little about gardening to get started. The request came from South Norfolk, an area of Chesapeake that is needier than other parts of the city.

I exchanged a few emails with the sender of the message. I learned that "Grace," as I'll call her, is disabled and hasn't been able to work in a few years. She wants to garden but has very little money to spend. She has a few pots but nothing over 8".

Today I got to "pay it forward" when I arrived with potting soil, seeds, cuttings of mint and oregano, some tools, a helping hand, pots of various sizes and shapes, gardening magazines, and advice. Grace and her housemate are lovely people, and it felt good to help them in some small way. I finally got the chance to play a role, however tiny, in spreading the local foods movement and to do it in in honor of all the gardeners and Freecylers who have helped me over the years. I also had a chance to clear some unused flower pots and containers out of my yard.

I will be on alert for other opportunities to grow gardening and local foods in my area. The world will be a better place if others will do the same. I'd love to see more towns with the giving, grow-your-own, self-sufficient spirit of the quaint little Todmorden in England.

Wool "Natural Growers Pack" for Container Gardens

Portulacas thrive in hot, dry conditions (source)

I bought another impulse item from my online local-foods coop this week.

My understanding husband has taken in stride my purchase of red wrigglers for vermicomposting and wool dryer balls to replace fabric softeners in our dryer. But this week he actually raised his eyebrows and looked askance at me. There's a first time for everything, I guess.

The $8.00 purchase was a "Natural Growers Pack," a "sheep manure compost fertilizer and water retention system" from Breeze Hill Farm of Powhatan, VA. What arrives is a gallon zip-lock bag filled with unwashed, untreated sheep's wool and a small packet of composted sheep manure to use as fertilizer. It is meant to be used in container gardens. According to the packet:

Our product reduces the need to water the plant 
and provides one of the best all natural organic fertilizers 
available to feed your plants for the entire growing season.

I always have trouble keeping outdoor potted plants sufficiently watered in our hot, dry Virginia summers, so I am hoping the sheep's wool will help. And anyone who reads my blog knows I'm a big fan of composted manure! The directions are to line the bottom of the container with the wool, mix the sheep compost in with the potting soil, add the soil on top of the wool, then add the plant. 

That's what I did, except I sprinkled some seeds on top of the soil in my flower box instead of transplanting plants. The seeds are for dwarf phlox plants and portulacas, also called moss rose. Both are hardy, and I am hoping they will grow in the same container. The sheep's wool took up so much room that I wonder if there's actually enough soil in there for the plants. I'll provide an update on how the system works after my flowers are established.

Update on 7/21/12: The wool does seem to keep the planter moist for more time than I would expect, especially in our unbelievably hot summer weather, but my plants have failed to thrive. the phlox has all died. I am not sure if it is something I am doing wrong that is unrelated to the wool "growers pack" or not. If others have any experience with this growing system, I would appreciate the feedback.

 Update on 8/25/12: I moved the flower box into full sun, and the portulacas are thriving and blooming beautifully. I wish I'd planted more of them. And the soil does stay moist longer than I expect. I'm not sure what happened to the phlox, but the moss rose seems to be making up for it. Overall I'd say the experiment has been a success. I'd try it again.

Phlox (source)