Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A fully-avoidable horror story

How much do we value human life?  How big of a priority to we, as a local society, place upon the safety of our children?  These are the questions I encourage you to contemplate as you read this post.

A precious, irreplaceable little girl was struck and killed by a motor vehicle yesterday morning in Texas City as she waited for her school bus to arrive. 
Christina Lopez, age 11, photo screengrabbed from this Galveston County Daily News article.
The circumstances of her passing included exactly those same contributing factors related to infrastructure about which I have absolutely railed in previous blog posts.

The road was narrow and unimproved, with no sidewalk.
According to published reports, this is the approximate location where she was struck.  No sidewalks, no shoulder, just a narrow strip of blacktop over grade.  Who knows what construction standards were in force when this residential street was installed?  Whenever that occurred, the standards included absolutely no provision for pedestrians. 

Screengrab from Google street view.
The lack of essential infrastructure shown above is not rare and is certainly not limited to Texas City.  In a May 2011 blog post titled "Municipal Shame", I showed a dash cam screengrab of a young boy who d*mned-near fell under the wheels of my own car because his foot slipped off the curb as he was walking.  There was no sidewalk available at this densely-populated location in the City of Webster, and he was doing the best he could to walk in the narrow strip of grass between the street and this adjacent private property - but it almost cost him his life, and here once again is my memorable photo of that event:
See his body tipping toward the roadway as he struggled to maintain his balance. 

I was traveling 35 mph when this was taken - if he had fallen, I would have almost certainly struck and killed him because, at such close range, there would not have been time for evasive action. 
And what I spent considerable time railing against wasn't just that incident, or that boy, or that municipality.  This failure to meet the basic needs of our local pedestrian population is endemic:
I still don't have an answer to who the hell in League City approved the plans for the Sportsplex WITHOUT a sidewalk in front of it to connect with the other sidewalks that already exist in front of Star Toyota and also re-commencing at West Walker. 

How F-ing difficult is it to require sidewalks?!  This is NEW CONSTRUCTION - this should have been a no-brainer.  Which one of our municipal wizards was asleep at the approvals wheel when this particular development design was rubber-stamped? 
But of course, as I've also bitched out loud before, we can't even seem to make our own municipal complex into a walkable area!!  No sidewalks here, either, despite the fact that kids converge on the public swimming pool located within this complex!!
In this other post, called "The Bravest Leaguer", the situation was especially telling: a tiny speck of another precious little girl, wobbling down one of the miserably-unimproved streets in Old Town as she tried valiantly to learn to ride her bike.
Where is the simplest public infrastructure that would be necessary to pay even the most basic level of respect to this child's life?

Where is the sidewalk that this child should rightfully have access to? 

There's nothing.  Most of Old Town is characterized by crumbling pedestrian-unfriendly narrow strips of asphalt with nothing but deep muddy ditches on each side.
And it's not just the children who are denied basic safe pedestrian access to our outdoor areas.  Here's a very telling picture that I took just two days ago, because I was fixin' to blog again about this larger issue even before Christina was killed:
Sunday, September 23, 2012, fairly early in the morning.

Do you see that car parked at the terminus of Centerpointe Drive?

Do you ever wonder why cars are frequently parked in this location at the very back of our subdivision, especially in the mornings?
I'll tell you why cars are frequently parked there:  it's because the people driving them have no basic access to safe public infrastructure that includes sidewalks

Wrap your head around this, now:  Those people come from other neighborhoods so that they can avail themselves of our one isolated sidewalk segment which I nicknamed Centerpointe's "Bridge to Nowhere". 
If you pay careful attention to what's actually going on, you'll frequently see people stop here so that they can walk, jog, and/or exercise their dogs.  This one-mile segment (two miles if you do the loop) seems to be one of the few good accessible sidewalk opportunities for some League City-ers.
How does that grab you?!  How do you feel about your wider society when you contemplate the fact that some of those people who park at the end of Centerpointe Drive are doing that because that's all they've got.  That's the best they can achieve for themselves in the way of obtaining a simple, safe walk outdoors. 

A week and a half ago, military personnel apparently asleep at the wheel failed to stop a Taliban attack that cost American taxpayers $200 million.  We as a country effectively p*ss away that kind of money in the blink of an eye, and yet we can never seem to find the kind of funds that would provide the most basic public infrastructure - simple sidewalks - for our little children and adults.  It *disgusts* me. 

Those of you who are reading this who hold political positions:  Please take note of what I'm saying and the importance of it, because the decisions you make today could very well indirectly factor into the death of a child tomorrow, unless those decisions are well made.  This is not a joke or a hypothetical scenario.  Galveston County residents are needlessly put at risk of their lives for lack of basic infrastructure such as sidewalks in residential areas.  They die because, without sidewalks, they have to share the road with motor vehicles and, in a conflict for space, the motor vehicles always win.  It's not right. 

My heart goes out to the Lopez family for their incalculable loss.  I'm the mother of a daughter just a few years older than Christina was.  My daughter, too, takes a school bus each day.  My daughter has access to sidewalks now that we live in Centerpointe, a sidewalk available for her and the other subdivision children as they wait for their bus, but that was not at all the case when we lived in Old Town League City.  When we lived in Old Town, she waited on the open unprotected street pavement just as Christina did yesterday.  What happened to Christina yesterday is not right.  For the sake of our people, I hope we can each contribute something to fixing those inexcusable underlying infrastructure conditions that so obviously contributed to her unthinkable death. 
Screengrab from this post in which I talked about the phenomenally high number of people killed in our area in traffic events.  The map shows an excerpt from the ITO database of traffic fatalities, 2001-2009.  The blue ones are pedestrians.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Centerpointe needs more outdoor cats

About a year ago, I told the story of seeing a Cooper's hawk kill a rat in one of my neighbor's back yards, in broad daylight. 

Prior to that, I had described the significant concentration of red tailed hawks on the hunt for small game around the retention ponds and undeveloped areas south of us. 

And then just three days ago, I reported on the Great Horned owls, one of which hooted his brains out in our signature massive pine tree at the corner of West Walker and Centerpointe Drive.  Rodents are the primary prey for owls. 

I also talked about people leaving dog food out because that can attract pests, including coyotes, which I have also seen in Centerpointe.  Coyotes eat dog food if they can find it, but they also more typically eat smaller mammal prey such as rodents. 

And I complained about the trades leaving food scraps everywhere as they were building the 75 houses in Centerpointe Section 9.  I complained to our builders Meritage and Brighton about their tradespeoples' inadequate hygiene several times. 

Sigh.  I naively hoped that, once that Section 9 build-out was complete, we would see a reduction in those scrap food sources and a corresponding reduction in RODENTS.

Unfortunately, I see no evidence that a rodent reduction has taken place.  The reason why we have Red Tailed hawks and Cooper's hawks and Great Horned owls in close proximity is that we have food sources in close proximity, specifically rodents.  You wanna understand the behavior of people?  Follow the money.  Wanna understand the behavior of wild animals?  Follow the food.  I don't know whether those food sources are man-made (including dog food and bird seed left outdoors) or natural - probably both.  We have retention ponds and fields surrounding us, and those probably support the natural rodent population which is then augmented by the behavior of people. 

I can't tell you how many Centerpointe residents I've talked to who have struggled with mice in their own homes.  I like to joke that Section 9 houses were built with mice already in them.  There were so many mice here that they moved into the new houses before construction was even complete. 

We finally solved our latest mouse mystery just the other day.  We knew that we had them in our garage (again) but, for the life of us, we could not locate where they were nesting. 

My husband finally cracked the case, and this is what he found:
My husband has an antique car that he is restoring as a hobby.  This is the back seat pulled out of the car and turned upside down.  That large clot of paper towels, shredded seat upholstery, paper, plastic, and miscellaneous material you see wedged under the seat support bar (photo right) is the mouse nest.
Here, he's picking it apart to see if any live mice are still in it.  Notice that he's wearing a surgical glove.  I'll get to that in a minute. 

He's pointing toward the little hole in the center of the nest where the mice went in. 

Notice the sheer volume of material used in the construction of this nest.  Mice can tear apart you house during the construction of their nests.  This one even included pieces of a paper coffee cup and shredded plastic bags.
Back seat with mouse nest now removed.
This kind of thing is just so frustrating.  We had gone to considerable lengths to exclude mice from the garage, but they can squeeze through any opening that is as small as a dime (including under your garage door, especially if they chew the rubber seal at the bottom).  It's virtually impossible to exclude a concentrated source of mice from a home because of this incredible ability they have to penetrate just about anything. 

In my almost half-century of living, I have never seen mice as bad as I've seen them in Centerpointe.  When I was in graduate school, I was the proverbial starving student, and I lived in an impoverished inner-city area.  There was dirt, crime, lawlessness, you name it - but in my three years of life there, I never saw a single rodent.  Here's a big part of the reason why:
There were few rodents because it was the type of economically depressed area where people routinely ignored municipal animal ordinances and let their pet cats range freely outdoors.  And there were a lot of cats because fewer people spayed and neutered. 

This is what cats do.  This is why we domesticated cats a few thousand years ago: for rodent control.  They were exquisitely designed and bred for this essential function.
Photo from Wikipedia.
League City has an ordinance against allowing any animal to run at large, but I'd encourage you to contemplate the rationale behind that ordinance.
First, look at the definition of "animal".  It has an intentional emphasis on rabies.
The ordinance contains a secondary emphasis on the elimination of uncontrolled feces. 
Nobody enjoys finding cat poop on their front lawns and in fact, it's unhealthy. 

But so are un-checked rodent populations unhealthy.  Houston recently made national news because of a Hantavirus incident; you can read about that here and here and here.  Thirty people exposed to a virus that has a fatality rate of about 40%!  Granted, that was an extreme case - but the point is, that virus is transmitted by exposure to rodent droppings.   And if you get it, your odds of dying a horrible death are about even. 

The pathogen exposure potential is the reason why my husband was wearing surgical gloves in the photos above.  And now that we've finally identified our latest locus of mouse activity, we have to go through the painstaking and time-consuming process of cleaning and bleaching the entire garage.  This is a huge, huge hassle

It's not just potential pathogen exposures that derive from mice.  They also carry fleas into your house, and chew through wood and electrical wiring.  And if you happen to be parking a car in your garage, they can chew through seat upholstery.  There's no end to the damage they are capable of doing.

Given the choice between finding a few cat poops on my lawn and having an overabundance of mice in the neighborhood, I'd choose the cat poops hands down.  Life usually reduces to a series of lesser-of-evils choices like this.  We think we can simply write ordinances and outlaw certain behaviors and create this antiseptic, utopian society in the process, but it never works like that.  There are always unintended consequences.  The unintended consequence of a cat control policy is an out-of-control rodent policy. 

From what I can see, our current robust collection of resident owls and hawks is not sufficient to get these rodents under control.  We can also trap and poison and exterminate to our heart's content (we've tried that stuff previously, too), but there's another crucial tool that we would benefit from having in our countermeasures kit(ten): domestic cats who are allowed to go outside and actually kill these vermin as they were bred to do.

Hantavirus is rare, but so is the rabies that municipal ordinances were written with the intention of preventing.  Nobody would argue that we should do anything to increase rabies potential, such as allowing the feral cat population to increase.  But if a homeowner has a neutered or spayed cat and that cat is up-to-date on its rabies shots, is it a detriment or an asset to the rest of us if that cat is allowed to roam outside?  I would argue that it's more of an asset than a detriment.  A rodent control asset. 

And I would hope that such animals would not be an enforcement priority for Animal Control.  Surely those folks have more urgent tasks than messing with some resident's Tinkerbell sitting serenely in their front yard...?

I jog a two mile loop around Centerpointe, and I see only four cats at large here on a consistent basis.  All four of those cats are of the "Fluffy" variety - they are well-cared-for family pets with collars and shot tags and with their spaying/neutering having been done. 

But four cats is apparently not sufficient to help with rodent control in a subdivision that encompasses 405 homes.  If you happen to become one of those residents who allows your cat outdoors but then encounters resistance from neighbors, please email me and maybe I can have a discussion with your neighbors, just to ensure they have all the facts on this issue, because they might not be aware of this other side of the issue.  Maybe I could bring your neighbor up into their own attic and/or their own garage and show them the physical evidence of their own rodent activity because, dollars to donuts, that evidence would be there if I went looking for it. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Landscaping Made Easy, Part 10: More edible landscaping

Following this post where I talked about growing okra and this post where I hinted at sweet potato potential by showing a picture of harvested sweet potato plants that were destined for the compost, here we have yet another option for those of you who would like to have your landscape and eat it, too!
The contents of this stock tank are entirely edible.  Those are two varieties of oregano draping over the right and left sides (I do harvest some of this for certain recipes, but I also let them grow big like this because they are pretty).  That smaller plant in the middle of all that oregano is sage, which I primarily use in making quiches and turkey stuffing. 

That larger-leafed thing in the rear, the plant that's being encouraged to grow up the shepherd's hook, is a sweet potato plant.  Click on the photo if you'd like to enlarge it for a better view. 

Incidentally, I do realize that the garden mirror shown here is fairly unusual.  I like to experiment on the bleeding edge of garden design.  I picked up a couple of old sheet mirrors for about twenty bucks apiece at a church yard sale and my husband generously built sturdy outdoor frames for them.  We now have them facing two of our stock tank gardens.  Not only do these things break up the imposing view of the fence and add some extra dimension to our tiny back yard, they also help reflect extra sunlight into the stock tanks. 

See, vegetables can be grown in Houston year round, except there's a problem:  sun angles are much lower in winter, so the plants don't get as much light energy and therefore the vegetable yields are correspondingly lower.  I wondered if I couldn't kill two birds with one stone: add some visual interest to the garden using big mirrors, but also re-double the sun's own energy so that plant growth is increased. 
Sweet potatoes also have a couple of additional advantages as landscape plants. 
  • They are a summer crop - they are one of the relatively few vegetables that can tolerate Houston's intense summer heat (in fact, they have to have hot weather to grow properly). 
  • Along with those luxurious leaves, they also produce beautiful purple flowers similar to morning glory.
Here's a pic of a portion of our harvest this year:

Sweet potatoes do have one challenge associated with them, though: curing.  The best taste only comes from long-term storage (according to reliable internet sources, about eight weeks) at 55 degrees F.  Well, there's a problem with that, because Houston generally only offers these four temperature options, none of which are close to 55 degrees F:
  • 95 degrees F (outdoors)
  • 75 degrees F (inside your air-conditioned house)
  • 35 degrees F (inside your refrigerator)
  • -5 degrees F (inside your freezer)
My solution to this predicament is to use this little wine refrigerator to hold my sweet potato harvest.  It can be set at exactly 55 degrees F, which is apparently the magic curing temperature. 
This kind of accomodation is like a luxury hotel suite for sweet potatoes.  So I started calling them "suite potatoes".  Arf!

I will probably end up with many more than these shown here... by the time I started packing them into this fridge, I had already given an arm-load to my neighbors, and we had eaten some of them ourselves.
This is the first year that I'm attempting this wine fridge storage experiment, so we'll see how it goes.

Sweet potatoes, of course, are a southern staple food, and can be eaten a number of ways regardless of whether or not we're near to the Thanksgiving holiday, which is when they are de rigueur
If you prepare an un-cured sweet potato in the traditional mashed way, you'll need to add a bit of honey as well as butter and a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg, to intensify the taste.
We are also going to try to make sweet potato french fries in the near future. 

The gourmet / organic / local foodshed restaurant T'afia, which according to Yelp has apparently been closed and a new establishment named Sparrow opened in its place... T'afia used to do some interesting and innovative things with sweet potatoes, if I'm remembering correctly, but of course I can't access their menu given that they apparently ceased to exist last mongth. 
I don't see stuff like sweet potato fries on Sparrow's current menu, but I do see this reference to sweet potato vines.  I didn't know that they might be edible - I'll have to look into that.

I certainly do know about Swiss chard though, and talked about that in this previous post called "Doing things the chard way" (continuing my race to the bottom with myself for bad puns).
So there you have at least a cursory summary of the potential for sweet potatoes to enhance your suburban homestead.  There are a few more caveats I didn't mention here for brevity, so if you decide you'd like to try growing these, feel free to drop me an email for more info.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Another courier package has disappeared

About a year ago, I published this post in which I described a disturbing situation.  My husband had ordered a rather expensive item for home delivery.  The courier claimed to have delivered it to our house, and provided us with date and time and even a basic description of the person who was home at the time to receive it.

The disturbing part was this:  they got the description of the receiving person correct (me!).  But no package was ever delivered.  I began to suspect (but had no proof) that it was perhaps a pre-meditated theft.  Why else would there be an emphasis on me as the receiver?  It wasn't a signature-required delivery.  The note on the delivery line item simply listed that a female just happened to receive it.  Someone wanted to emphasize the receiver's involvement. 

In order to resolve this, we retrieved our outdoor security video footage and searched for several hours on either side of the delivery timestamp provided by the courier.  During that interval, no courier truck of any kind was visible driving down Arlington Pointe. 
Highly useful items, these.
An eye in the sky.
What this means is that, if the courier computer scan with the timestamp was even halfways accurate, either that package was delivered to the wrong address, and/or it was stolen. 

We presented our security information to the courier, and the credit card charges for our missing item were voided. 

Now fast forward about a year. 

A few days ago, there came a knock on our front door.  There stood two of our Centerpointe neighbors with long faces.  The husband had ordered a very nice gift for his wife's birthday - the kind of item that many people would enjoy owning.  Despite the fact that the courier claimed that their box was delivered, these neighbors had not received anything.  They wondered if perhaps we could shed some light on this situation. 

Once again, my husband retrieved our archived security video digitals.  And once again, no courier truck was visible driving down Arlington Pointe at any time in reasonable proximity to the courier's delivery timestamp.

I don't know what the deal is here.  Were these just lost or misdirected packages, or is something else happening?

If anyone else in the area ever has a similar experience with delivery packages, please email me.  Thanks. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Listen for the Great Horned Owls

Remember this post from about two weeks ago when I published the world's crappiest camera phone pic of a Great Horned Owl that was perched on a utility tower in the Interurban easement? 
Clearly not one of my better artistic achievements.
Well, check this out - I'm now following that up with some equally-crappy video that I shot last night up by the same easement.  This is only ten seconds long, but you'll probably have to turn up your computer's volume to hear the interesting sound it contains:

In case you'd like to see what these magnificent creatures look like and sound like up close, here for comparison is somebody else's non-crappy short video showing one in captivity (turn the volume on your computer back down before hitting 'play'!).
As near as we could tell from the sound, there were two of them hanging around the east side of Centerpointe last night.  They started out in the Interurban easement around 8:00 p.m. with their hooting, but then an hour or so later, one of them moved into the large pine tree at the corner of Centerpointe Drive and West Walker.  After walking the dog, I hung around in our back yard for a few minutes just to hear a bit more of what they had to say. 

So listen for their haunting calls the next time you find yourself walking along West Walker or the eastern section of Centerpointe Drive.  I have no idea what prompted all this hooting last night, given that I had not heard them on previous recent walks, but they were literally calling out every thirty seconds.  If cars are flying by on West Walker, the sound will be obscured by the noise, but when a gap in traffic comes, you might be able to hear them coming through loud and clear in all their mysterious feathered glory. 

Shuttle Endeavour over Centerpointe

None of the public knew that it would happen like this, or in this exact place: out of the blue, literally, this stunning vision appeared - not once, but multiple times!
Shuttle Endeavour, riding piggy-back
and flying directly over Centerpointe. 
Yes, I took this pic while standing on Arlington Pointe,
without a telephoto lens.
Most folks knew that there would be some kind of flyover as the shuttle arrived in Houston yesterday en route to California, but for security reasons, there were few details given in advance.  Many of us figured it would involve a buzzing of the area around Johnson Space Center, and probably little else beyond that. 

What a surprise we got.  And that lack of foreknowledge made the surprise all the more special.
One of the farther-away passes,
in profile with the chase plane visible,
Centerpointe home in foreground.
It was easy to figure out who in Centerpointe was a stay-at-home (parent or home-based worker) or an off-duty shift-worker yesterday, because as soon as those droning engines became audible, people knew what it meant, and they started running out of their houses. 
View looking southwest down Arlington Pointe. 

The Mundane and the Magnificent: 
Endeavour stands in wild contrast
to the typical scattering of trash cans.
Note the position of the resident in the SUV in the photo above.  Somehow in the middle of this show, they had gotten themselves exactly cross-wise to the flow of traffic on Arlington.  And they just sat there like that for the duration, which was the only sane thing to do.

Anyway, it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I'm so glad that I was right here to see it.  Houston may not have gotten a shuttle, but we sure got a "thank you" yesterday. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Landscaping Made Easy, Part 9: Edible Landscaping

OK, we have to divert from the "Landscaping" blog series for a bit of fun here.  The idea planted below (hah!) might not achieve much cross-fence neighbor privacy for you, but it'll surely elicit a good belch.

There have been a number of high-profile news stories recently that have showcased vegetable-growing urbanites and suburbanites getting themselves into major hot water by running afoul of ordinances and subdivision covenants.  One of the most prominent involved the case of Julie Bass of Michigan, who danged near went to jail for her refusal to stop growing vegetables in her front yard. 

The potential problem with gardens like Julie's is plain to see:
It was neat, it was tidy, it was mulched between the boxes... but it was arguably ugly.  It's just a bunch of raw lumber holding back some dirt.  It's difficult to see how this installation might enhance property values, and if you want to understand any given neighborhood conflict, follow the money
Photo from The Germinatrix blog, copyright status unstated.
Contrast that photo above with a scene such as this:
That planter is actually a converted Behlen Country brand livestock tank - love their product line, and you can buy these oblong varieties as well as round ones at American Fence and Supply which is located just two miles from Centerpointe on the feeder between here and FM 646.
This is what the west side of our back yard currently looks like...  it's not our front yard, because I haven't yet gotten around to re-landscaping the front (I hope to do that soon).  But imagine if instead I had put this kind of combination raised bed / oversized steel planter in an area that was visible to the public.  Would anyone file complaints?  I rather doubt it.  Mostly what happens these days is that visitors step into our back yard and say, "Wow!"  It's hard to imagine how this landscaping job could be perceived to detract from anyone's property values. 

Readers who grew up in rural areas are probably snickering by this time, because you've recognized that it's actually okra growing in the steel planter. 
Okra produces a profusion of beautiful big yellow flowers that would enhance any landscape, as long as it is tastefully integrated into a suitably-sophisticated design.

Get it?!  Tastefully integrated??

And this is what comes forth from those flowers.
And then a lot more where those first few came from.  Okra is very prolific, and you have to cut off the pods when they are fairly young - perhaps three to five inches long - because the older and bigger they get, the tougher and woodier they get (too chewy).  If you plant okra, you'll find yourself harvesting these things about every other day because of this growth pattern, which is very rapid.  You can store the interim harvest in a plastic sack in the refrigerator until you've built up enough to cook with (it'll keep for about a week in the fridge). 

This collander above holds a combination of a few days of my harvest (about 75% mine), plus one of my neighboring families' harvest (25% theirs).   We didn't plan to be both growing okra this summer, but that's just how it worked out.  There are more "closet" vegetable gardeners in Centerpointe than you might first imagine. 
We got overrun with okra in the past week or so - too much to cook into a meal at any one time.  But occasionally I make some butt-kickin' jambalaya, of which okra is an integral part.  Therefore, with this particular harvest, I deep fried some for immediate consumption, and froze the rest to be used in a future batch of Cajun delight.
Here's what to do if you plan to freeze okra:
(1) Wash it
(2) Trim off the heads and tails
(3) Blanche it by dropping it into rapidly-boiling water for three minutes (no longer)

and then...
...(4) Remove the okra from the boiling water with a big slotted spoon, and immediately plunge it into ice water to stop the cooking

and then...
....(5) Chop it into your desired piece size (depending on your eventual recipe)
(6) Put it in a plastic freezer bag
(7) Suck out as much air as possible
(8) Pop it in the freezer.

Notice I lay mine FLAT for freezing instead of in a lump.  This is so that I can break it apart later if I only need to use some of it for a given recipe.

Have you ever wondered why the frozen okra you buy in the store is so much greener than the fresh stuff that's sitting over in the produce section (if you're even lucky enough to find fresh, which is rarely offered)?  It's because the frozen stuff is blanched like this.  Blanching minimizes degradation but it also intensifies the color.  If you start to see that maximum bright color fade, you'll know that you've let it cook too long. 
OK, so there's the frozen stuff, but what about that all-important deep-fried stuff?
Deep Fried Southern Okra:
TELL ME you don't want a piece of this! 

I make my batter by mixing together organic yellow corn meal, a lightly-beaten egg, unsweetened plain yoghurt, and Cajun spice mix (I use Tony Chachere's).  Coat the okra, drop into hot oil and fry.  It was AWESOME!  I gorged myself.

There's an Asian-Indian analog to this stuff called pakoras.  I also wanted to try making some okra pakoras, but I didn't have any besan flour on hand, so I stuck with corn meal for this batch. 
And of course, lest we forget, as a final step, the severed okra heads and tails go back into the compost machine that I described in my last post
Bye, guys.  You've served us well.
That's a shot looking down into my Delafield Pottery kitchen compost crock.
As a matter of fact, once the okra plants themselves are exhausted, I'll chop them up and add the entire plants to the compost.  But not before I've reserved a few of the pods for seeds, because we need to repeat this entire okra exercise all over again next year.  I'm nowhere near sick of southern fried okra yet.

Incidentally, this is the same stock tank planter that I referenced in a post back in June of this year, when it was growing tomatoes instead of okra.  This spring, we harvested about one thousand cherry tomatoes just from this one planter.
Here's a screengrab from that June post.  Tomato plants are not as photogenic as okra, but we still like 'em.
So there you are - hopefully that will give you a few tasteful ideas about how you might embellish your landscaping with stuff you can eat. 

There's a certain irreverent wit to all of this, isn't there??  It's almost like yet another emerging form of American imperialism on a suburban scale: "Well, we put in some sophisticated-looking landscaping around our home, and we liked it, but then we got tired of it, and so we ate it."

Monday, September 17, 2012

Successful composting in the suburbs

As an adjunct to my landscaping and gardening posts, a word here about composting.  It's surprisingly difficult to find any quick-n-dirty (pun intended) descriptions of how to do home composting on the internet.  The commercial co-opting of the topic is so intense that you even have to be careful to avoid ads and scammers while searcing for Wiki entries.
Liars.  That's not a Wiki site. That's a Trojan title.  Screengrab from a Google search.
Position statements:
  1. I'm not out to save the world or save the whales or anything else through a "green" composting effort.  The fact is, gardens and landscaping have to be supplemented with regular infusions of organic compost, and it costs a surprising amount of money - about $12.00 per each small bag of quality material, and you need to apply many bags if you want to treat a landscape properly.  Composting puts money in my pocket instead of in my trash dumpster.  I estimate that my composting DIY saves me between $50 and $100 per year.  Not riches, but it's also not more difficult than hauling trash to the curb, so why not?
  2. The approach to composting that I'm going to show here is unsophisticated, reflecting my personal love affair with the 80/20 Rule.  I want to put in minimum effort and get something substantial out of it, but I'm not interested in spending a lot of time tweaking the process in order to actually maximize returns.  If you want to screw around with the details of how you compost, you could probably get more material out of the process in less time than what I'm going to detail below.
In order to make your composting job easier, you need two implements:
  • A receptacle on your kitchen counter or under your sink.
  • A receptacle in your yard.
Yard receptacle.  I use an "Earth Machine" composter, which is basically an open barrel with a convenient trap door at the bottom that allows easy removal of the bottom layers of formed compost.
Screengrabbed from The Earth Machine website.
I got mine from a City of Houston distribution event held several years ago, but guess what??  There's another one scheduled for next month:
Here is the screengrab from this COH newsletter.
It's not clear whether these sales are supposed to be restricted to City of Houston residents only.  I believe you have to give your address when you make your purchase, but I'm not sure they'd actually turn anyone away if they happen to be outside the city limits.  Money is money, after all.  Contact the organizer if you have questions. 
You actually can compost without any receptacle at all, if you just put your stuff in a pile (or you can build a receptacle for free using wooden pallets or other materials).  But these are the tony suburbs here, so I wanted something compact and not messy and not unsightly (not that anyone can actually get a view of the thing from any public area).

I put my composter in that godawful five-foot setback we have on the west side of our house.
I tend to leave the lid off, because that way the rain keeps the material moist without any additional effort on my part.
This narrow space is good for Absolutely Nothing, except maybe storage and the occasional composter so, again, why not?  Centerpointe has a minimum five-foot setback provision written into its subdivision specs, and our personal setback is five point zero zero zero feet (5.000') by design.  Seriously, the more I live in Centerpointe, the more I wish we'd had a zero lot line option, because I could sure have used this wasted 5.000 feet on the other side of my yard instead of here.  I mean, if we're going to have microscopic yards, we might as well go all the way. 

But I digress.  Here is how you do composting in two easy steps.

(1) Throw kitchen scraps and yard waste into the top, observing just these simple rules:
  • Do not include any foods that contain protein or fats.  EVER.  Do not break this rule, or you will have rodents, infestations of flies, and odors.  Acceptable composting materials include all fruit scraps, eggshells, tea and coffee grounds, all vegetable scraps, and carbohydrate-based food waste such as breads (no butter), rice, pasta, etc. 
  • Do not include grass clippings except in very small quantities.  They disrupt the biochemistry.
  • I have found that you can add all manner of other yard waste (minus grass clippings) although if you want to get rid of big branches and whatnot, you have to chop or grind them up or they'll simply take too long to break down.  I'm still searching for an acceptable yard waste grinder.  Haven't found one yet. 
  • Add some brown and some green material.  I keep a small container of ordinary yard mulch next to the composter so that, in the event that I end up with too much green stuff and/or too much food material, I have something to cover it up with, and balance it out (I'll illustrate this in photos below). Various internet websites will tell you you have to add this percentage or that percentage of brown and green, but I don't overthink the situation.  What's most important is that you have some of each.   
(2) Remove valuable compost from the bottom.  Again, that's the stuff that would otherwise cost you twelve bucks a bag.  How long the compost takes to develop depends on many variables but your eyeballs will tell you when its ready. 

Pictures tell a thousand words apiece.  Here is a photo series showing the compost harvest I did last weekend (because it's time to begin fall gardening - I usually harvest our compost in the spring and in the fall, as I'm getting the garden beds ready for the next round of planting).
Here's what it looked like when I first took the side hatch off.  You see that very dark material at the bottom?  That's called "Gardener's Gold" or "Black Gold". 

So this is pretty easy - you just stick a sharp-shooter (small shovel) in there and dig it out.  Again, you want just the fully composted black layer at the bottom.  It will be very fine-grained and fairly homogeneous-looking, as you can see in the wheelbarrow below. 
It's a deceptively large amount of material - enough for a wheelbarrow load.
So after you get done excavating the Gardener's Gold, you'll be left with a void space at the bottom.  You next need to move the non-composted overlying slug of material down into this space.
The easiest way I have found to do that is to simply jump in and stomp on it.
And then you've got it pushed all the way down...

... and you can start adding new materials.  Here, I had harvested my sweet potatoes from my summer garden (more on sweet potatoes later), so I had all those tops to dispose of.  I could have instead packed this stuff into heavy-duty (money-costing) trash bags and hauled it to the curb, but why??
OK, let's divert for a moment and talk about the kitchen compost receptacle.  That's mine in the center there, and yes, I admit to being a home decor junkie.  Having purchased and tried numerous of the compost crocks that are on the market and then found them to be lacking for various reasons, I recently settled upon one made by Delafield Pottery because the guy makes really good stuff and he's a micro-business owner who lives in Deer Park, I believe, so if you buy from him, you're supporting a creative local micro-business owner instead of simply buying some "Made in China" big-box piece of junk.  You'll often find Mr. Delafield at the Clear Lake Shores Farmer's Market but if you want to check out his stuff, you might want to contact him to verify when he's planning to be there. 
So simultaneously with my compost bin excavation and my sweet potato harvest, it was also time to dump the kitchen compost crock.  I cook frequently, so I normally fill mine two to five times a week, and we are only a family of three.  It's actually more food material than you might first imagine, that can be diverted to compost this way.
So that nutrient-rich kitchen crock stuff went on top of the newly-stomped upper layer of the existing compost mass.
Then I covered that up with the sweet potato tops and some half-rotted mulch that had accidentally gotten waterlogged because it got left in a watertight container.  Remember - add a bit of green, and add a bit of brown.  The composting process will work itself out from there. 
I tend to keep a brick on top of my active pile just to help with compression and moisture retention. 

Keep adding layer after layer of every material that qualifies (remembering no fats and no proteins).  You will be amazed at how much crap you can cram into a device like this, because it starts to break down and compact very quickly.  It's like it disappears into a black hole or something.  I'm usually adding stuff multiple times per week, and it just keeps swallowing it.
I've been using The Earth Machine in this way for the better part of two years now and I haven't had any issues with rodents, flies, or odors.  You will see some bugs around the thing, because the bugs are among the critters that are converting your yard trimmings and food scraps into compost (natural microbes also do a lot of this work).  Mostly I see worms and earwigs and other miscellaneous harmless six-legged things that I can't identify.  In conjunction with bugs, you will also tend to see these things hanging around outside the composter:
Amphibious dorks, otherwise known as common toads.  Last night, two of them had jumped into an empty mulch container in search of their next meal, and so I needed to liberate them this morning. 

Nice and plump, ain't they??  Obviously well-fed.  They're both hunkering down here thinking, "Please, no!!  We don't want to have our picture taken!!"
So there you have yet another riveting expound on daily life in the unexpectedly-fascinating suburbs.  Email me if you have any questions about this stuff.