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Posts Tagged ‘outdoors’

Sitting on an apartment balcony in the early morning, the rising sun awakens birds singing a morning song to be heard; however, there isn’t a single bird in sight. Apartment balconies are notorious for being void of wildlife. With a few simple changes a thriving sanctuary can be created on any balcony.

Attracting Birds

Feeders are one of the easiest and quickest ways to attract a variety of birds. Use tube feeders to attract Goldfinches, Chickadees, and finches that prefer thistle and small seeds. Hopper feeders work well for Blue Jays, Cardinals, House Finches,  Purple Finches, Tufted Titmice and Buntings—a favorite is sunflower seeds and cracked peanuts. Suet cages work well as a companion feeder and will attract Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and Nuthatches. If wanting to attract Orioles, provide fresh slices of oranges.  Thinking thrifty? Even a shallow dish filled with seed, peanuts, or meal worms will attract birds—they aren’t picky. Any seed mix containing the large, brown, round millet should be avoided as birds do not readily eat it.

The Hummers

A petite, colorful hummingbird is always an exciting and welcomed visitor. By placing a hummingbird feeder on the balcony, you’ll be sure to attract the small bird. The syrup is easy and quick to make at home. Boil 1 cup of sugar with 4 cups of water—the syrup will keep for up to one week in the refrigerator. Change the syrup regularly in accordance to outside temperature—hummingbirds will refuse spoiled syrup. This tiny, flying package will be full of attitude and provide a viewer with countless hours of its antics.

Splishin’ & Splashin’

By also providing wild birds with a source of fresh water, they will be assured that your balcony is the place to be. A traditional bird bath will work, but they also make hanging bird baths. For a more cost-effective solution, wild birds will be just as pleased with a shallow dish filled with water.

Go Natural

By growing certain plants, you can provide a natural source of nutrition for wildlife. This is beneficial as it provides wildlife with the proper nutrition and encourages natural survival skills that are not reliant on people—if you’ve ever had a hoard of House Finches at your bird feeder or would like to find out, then you’ll know what I mean! Plant flowers that are attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds.

A few balcony friendly plants:

  • Petunia
  • Fuschia
  • Salvia
  • Lantana
  • Beebalm
  • Snapdragon

More than Novelty

Enthusiasts of colorful caterpillars and butterflies may also grow host plants for caterpillars. Providing the host plant of a favorite caterpillar will attract not only the colorful caterpillars that rely upon them for food, but also the butterfly looking to lay eggs.

By growing a variety of plants and providing a food source for varying wildlife, your balcony will soon be thriving with its own wildlife oasis. For every garden pest I’ve found, I had a garden predator that preyed upon them—from hungry birds looking for juicy, fattened caterpillars to colorful predatory insects looking for a sticky slug.


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Whether a novice or an experienced gardener with a lot of land, plants such as mint need to be kept in check. That’s why container gardening is great! They are easy to start, maintain and are wonderful for those with little time or space. There is little to no weeding, no tilling, and allows plants that aren’t winter hardy to be grown.

Any container will serve well in a garden, but be mindful of size ratio in comparison to how large the plant will grow. Growth can be stunted or need water more frequently in a container that is too small. Putting a layer of rocks in the bottom also helps to keep the pot upright as the wind may blow over a top heavy plant. Searching for broken plants and pots three stories below may not smiled upon by a neighbor’s dog.

Raised Garden Beds

Raised beds have recently gained a lot of popularity due to a book called All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. In the garden center, I regularly get customers inquiring or raving about this technique. While raised beds are nothing new, they do offer a unique, space-saving garden. To simplify, it involves a raised wooden bed filled with an extraordinarily nutrient rich soil and compost mixture. These beds can be modified and customized to suit the gardener’s needs. They utilize all available space, allowing the gardener to grow a lot in a small area.

Trellised cucumbers

Growing Up

When faced with a small amount of space for a large, trailing plant then the best way to grow is up. While falling into this category, tomatoes are typically grown on a trellis; however there are other plants that also grow well this way. Cucumbers are an excellent choice for this as they readily take to trellising. Peas, squash, beans, and melons can also be effectively trellised. Be aware that any plant with a large fruit will not grow as large due to the extra weight that must be supported. Once big enough, be sure to train any trellised plant to climb onto the trellis.

Layering – The Waterfall Effect

See how stunted the sage is?

Layering can save a great deal of space. Placing tall plants behind short plants is one version of this, but a more effective version is raised containers behind shorter containers. This way plants of the same height can all get the right amount of sun. For example, last year I grew some herbs in a long planter, but the basil quickly grew so tall that the sage’s growth was stunted due to sunlight being blocked out. If these were layered, the sage would have still been able to get enough sun to grow well.

Thrifty Containers

Where to find cheap pots and containers:

  • Garage sales
  • Flea markets
  • Thrift stores
  • End of season clearance
  • Freecycle
  • Craigslist
  • Friends, family, and neighbors

Holes can be drilled in any container to create a successful addition to any garden.

Thrifty Container ideas:

  • 5 gallon food grade buckets are perfect for tomatoes

    Burlap sack for potatoes

  • An old tire
  • Pots
  • Food grade plastic buckets: 5 gallon frosting buckets from a bakery.
  • Raised wooden gardening beds
  • Metal cans
  • Any plastic containers

Some plants that grow exceptionally well in containers:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Many flowers
  • Strawberries
  • Herbs
  • Lettuce

Look for patio versions of plants as these are selected for their exceptional growth in limited space or try a dwarf fruit tree. Get ready to experiment with a variety of containers and plants. Container gardening offers something for every gardener: the decorative, creative, thrifty, or trendy.

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Bees are buzzing, frogs are chirping, and flowers are blooming. Spring is right around the corner and we’re all thinking about starting our gardens. Before buying every packet of seeds and every other sprouting product—stop! There is a lot of planning to lure a garden up out of the ground. I prefer cost-saving measures while making the most of my space.

How to get started

Because I live in an apartment, I am limited in space and have improvised by container gardening. There are many options for container gardening such as raised beds, pots, and any other home-rigged container. Also, soil and seed markers are needed. Working in a garden center, I see various techniques and costs of startup.

Cheaper alternatives

Since my goal is to maximize quantity while minimizing cost, I try to grow from seeds, rooted cuttings, or plant division. There are some plants—such as mint and tarragon—that should only be propagated by cuttings or division since they either do not breed true from seed or are sterile. I don’t find seeds to be particularly picky about what they’re sprouted in, so any well-draining container should work. The easiest way to do this is to use small peat pots, recycled nursery pots, or a seed starting tray; however, there are many other thrifty options ranging from paper or plastic cups, cardboard egg cartons, and opaque milk jugs.

Thrifty and Timely Options

  • Peat pots: relatively inexpensive, absorbs extra water, dries out quicker, fragile
  • Nursery pots: inexpensive or free, holds moisture longer
  • Seed starting tray: saves time as they often come with dirt pellets, usually has a clear plastic cover to create a miniature greenhouse, comes with directions, may be costly

Thriftier Alternatives

  • Paper and plastic cups: time consuming, may hold in moisture
  • Cardboard egg cartons: environmentally friendly, absorbs extra water, lid to keep seeds protected from cool night temperatures, small growing space
  • Milk jugs: time consuming, environmentally friendly, acts as a mock greenhouse, start seeds earlier

Avid gardener Paula Nowak also suggests strawberry containers, clear take out containers, 2 liter bottles, or any other clear container; however, she prefers milk jugs for their reusability and size. Making a milk jug into a miniature greenhouse is simple.

According to Nowak, start by making drainage holes on the bottom—a simple knife will do the job.

On the bottom of each side, she also makes a small slash to aid drainage. She then makes a small, horizontal cut halfway up the side of the jug. Using scissors, she cuts around the entire jug to separate the top from bottom.

Then, she punches a hole in each corner of both pieces.

Water well and let drain before planting seeds. Then Nowak connects the top and bottom pieces together with green floral wire.  Remember to remove the lid from the jug.

Now it’s time to stick the jug outside to be forgotten until spring, or if already spring, check regularly for dry soil or sprouts.

How to Plant Seeds

I find it easiest to lightly fill the container with soil and gently pat it down. This will leave just enough space for your seeds and a blanket of soil to cover them with. Place your seeds on top of the soil and tuck them in under a thin layer of soil. This will work for most seeds; however, there are some seeds—such as hibiscus—that need specific treatment before planted. These preparations can range from soaking in water, chipping a strong husk, or specific temperatures to increase the chance of germination. It is best to double check their needs to ensure seeds sprout.

These thrifty, time saving, and space efficient methods work in every situation whether you container garden or a traditional garden. Now it’s time to tuck in your seeds, kiss them good night, and say “Good Morning!” when they wake up in spring.

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Tapping maple trees is easy and the rewards are sweet. Much of the process consists of a waiting game. Even for those who know and love the taste of maple products, nothing quite compares to the flavor of fresh, warm, homemade syrup.

I first got sap from my trees last year, but I only used plastic pop bottles on tiny holes I made with a nail. This did not yield much sap, although the taste of the syrup produced was phenomenal. It made me seek more, and I vowed to buy some real equipment and try my hand at making gallons of it. I had long been a customer of Big Tree Maple, and I probably will still get the occasional item from them, but let’s just say that this season has shown me that I have no need to purchase syrup from anyone else ever again.

I purchased a set of a dozen used, ~2 gallon aluminum buckets, new aluminum spiles (spouts), and flat metal lids. I wanted the aluminum buckets because they had a good combination of durability and light weight, and the price was very right – $4 apiece, as compared to brand new steel buckets at $20 apiece. Nothing was wrong with them, except that a few had minor dents that do not affect their functionality. To avoid more dents, I have taken them down when the wind gets above 40+ miles per hour (if they’re empty – full buckets are heavy, and stay on the trees extremely well).

The only things I have to store my sap in are a set of large camp water jugs, which I carry to the trees and fill using a long funnel. You can use whatever containers you want, as long they’re food safe and clean. I sometimes get a little overflow of my sap buckets if I’m not home to watch them on a really strong flow day, but for someone like me, that’s not a concern, because it’s all I can do to keep up with it anyway. Sometimes I’ll even sip from the buckets before I mix them in the jugs, and if a tree doesn’t taste sweet that day or the sap seems mixed with rainwater, I’ll dump it out and only use the best sap.

Many of the Acer species can be used for sugaring. Sugar maple is one of the best, because it’s sugar content is high and it buds later than others. However, red maple, Norway maple, black maple, silver maple, and box elder are all examples of other Acer species that will work. I only have 7 trees tapped – 3 have 1 tap/bucket, 2 have 2, and 1 has 3. One with a single tap is a silver maple, and all the rest are sugars. By far the best producing trees, both in volume of sap and sugar content of sap, are the largest three sugar maples. This makes sense, because maples with less competition and larger crowns are able to produce more sugar. On a good day, I can get over 20 gallons of sap. My trees are also more sugary than the ‘average’ maple in the 40:1 figure given for sap:syrup – my ratio has varied anywhere from the high 20s to low 30s:1.

I boil on my kitchen stove only, so I can only make a couple of pints in a day, as my evaporation rates are far less than with a dedicated evaporator. For the quickest evaporation, it’s important to use flat pans with as large of a surface area as possible. I also keep the screens and doors open when I do this – if you don’t, the house steams up in a hurry, to the point of damaging humidity-sensitive things if you have any. This is another main reason an outdoor evaporator or a setup in a sugarhouse is better, but I don’t have the money for that right now.

I started at the very beginning of February, and have since produced several gallons of syrup. The season began early this year. Sap flows when days are above freezing and nights are below. The syrup starts out light in color and flavor, and darkens/deepens as the season goes on. However, this early season might also come to a somewhat early end, because the warm temperatures will signal the trees to bud, and sap that flows during budding is not suitable for use due to off flavors.

I take out bugs/detritus before and after boiling with a simple metal strainer – the kind made for tiny pasta.

How to tap a maple tree:

  • – Select your maple tree(s). A tree of a diameter greater than 10 inches or so can have 1 tap. A tree 18-24 inches can have 2, and a tree even bigger than that can have 3. You should not put more than 3 on a tree, or put any at all on a smaller tree. If you’re only doing a few/just starting out, it helps if the trees are near your house or somewhere you can get to them easily. You can use maple trees in the city, too! Just get permission if they’re not on your land.
  • – Get your supplies together. You’ll need something to drill with, a hammer, something to catch the sap, and something to hang that sap-collector on. If the sap-collector is open at the top, it’s also best to have some type of lid, to prevent debris from getting inside (there will still be little gnats, especially in warm weather.) You don’t have to buy nice buckets. You can use simple things like milk jugs with the side cut open, and any type of improvised spile. Just don’t use anything that might be toxic to you or the tree.

  • – Drill into the tree at a slight upward angle. You don’t need a gigantic hole. Just make one appropriate for your spiles. My spiles use a 7/16″ drill bit, and I just use a cheap Ryobi cordless drill. You could use a hand drill/brace too. It’s best not to drill on the most north facing side, because sap flows better on the other sides from sun exposure. Try to hold the drill steady, so you don’t make the hole irregularly shaped. Don’t drill too deep, either – it only needs to be 1-2″ deep at most, and the shallower you can get it while still being effective, the less of a wound it will leave. Also, don’t use any visibly wounded area or any area very close to any unhealed old tap sites.

  • – Put your spile/spout into the hole you just drilled. To make sure it will stay in place, give it a few taps with a hammer. Don’t hit it really hard, as you can split the tree slightly, causing sap leakage around the spile. It doesn’t need to be in all the way, just enough to be snug in the hole. Hang your container. If the sap is flowing, you should see droplets already.

  • – Put the lid on and wait. That’s all. Sap will fill the container, and you’ll have to come by and empty it. You can boil it by whatever means you wish – some have even used turkey fryers. Just consider your fuel costs, and remember what I said about the humidity if you do it in the house! Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate.

You don’t need to keep too close of watch on the boiling sap at first, but it should be checked at regular intervals. It does create a little foam on top that you should skim off and discard. Keep adding more sap to your pan as the level boils down. You’ll get the hang of the speed after a few tries. (If you NEED to leave and it’s not done, do not leave it cooking, as it can burn and ruin your pan. You should take it off of the stove and refrigerate it during the time you’re not cooking it.)

After a while, you’ll notice that the bubbles start looking different. They also begin sticking together as they rise. They start out larger, but turn small and more foamy looking as it gets very close to becoming syrup. The syrup is done when it reaches 7.1 degrees above the boiling point of water, which varies with your location and can be measured with a candy thermometer beforehand. You can also tell when the syrup is done using a hydrometer. Some people filter the syrup through wool, felt, or cheesecloth to remove the sugar sand in the bottom of the pan. This ‘sand’ is only tiny crystals of the natural minerals of the syrup, and is not harmful, but it’s your choice if you’d like to remove it to create a clearer product.

The syrup can be put immediately into sterilized jars, and will keep on the shelf for a long time in a sealed condition. It should be refrigerated after opening. You could also simply store it in any old container in the fridge, but it won’t keep as well. Very extended storage will affect the quality, causing darkening and some flavor loss.

You’ll soon find that even with a few trees tapped, it’s easy to make a good quantity of syrup. It’s not difficult to sell, as many people love it, although you may want to check the regulations in your area/state for legality or other requirements. I’ve had people asking me for syrup or for prices before I even suggested I was thinking of selling. Set your prices based on other producers in the area and on your fuel/jar costs.

Even if you don’t sell it, it also makes a great gift, although I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to hoard it all.

All you need to do at the end of every season is take the buckets down and pull out your spiles, and then give everything a good cleaning/scrubbing before storage so bacteria don’t grow on the leftover sugar. Buckets like mine, which nest together nicely, are best stored fully dry or on their sides, else they have a tendency to stick together a little. Then, when the next season comes, rinse things off and it’s all ready to go again. If you used milk cartons, pop bottles, or other disposables, you can skip this altogether and just start anew if you wish. You don’t need to plug the tap holes with anything, and doing so might even impede healing. The trees will heal themselves in a few years, or sometimes in only one if especially vigorous.

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