Archive for June, 2011

Grow, grow, grow!

June 23, 2011

Last year, I launched into an experimental garden with my potato crop derived from a few sprouted spuds. If you read this blog, you’ll know the results were somewhat less than great. With that in mind, when I got the urge to garden again this year, I decided it might be a good idea if I gave my small garden plot a rest to (hopefully) regain some of it’s fertility.

So, with that decision out of the way, I was left with two possible courses of action:

Find a section of the lawn I could turn and use for planting, or

Find some sort of containerized gardening solution.

Having past experience with going from lawn to garden, I knew this meant a lot of work and the problem of a bare spot after I decided to move my garden. So, container gardening it is!

I know some folks who have used those hanging plant containers, and they all report that while they look odd (and are occasionally cumbersome to get planted), they’re very effective at producing healthy plants and fairly good harvests. The problem, of course, is cost. Most of the hanging planters come without any dirt, so you have to pay for both the planter, plus whatever you use to fill them, be it bagged topsoil, compost or anything else. On my budget, cost is Factor #1, so the less costly a solution is, the better I like it. This lead me back to the tried-and-true system of planting garden plants directly in a bag of whatever soil/medium I was going to use. A bit of shopping around turned up the cheapest bags of suitable planting medium, specifically composted cow manure, at the local Wal-Marts (yes, I know, I’m no big fan of theirs either). Given the space I was going to have available to me (the corner of the same porch last year’s potatoes had grown next to), I figured that I would have room for two, perhaps three bags. Rather than try to squeeze the maximum number of plants into the space and risk them shading each other too much, I opted for only two bags. What to grow was a lot easier: tomatoes and bell peppers. Here I caught a break: the local grocery store was selling garden plants, and not only did theirs look better than those on offer at Wal-Marts, but they were offering heirloom plants that were priced cheaper than the Wal-Marts ‘specials’ too.

In the end, I chose an heirloom tomato plant, a “Brandywine”, and a more modern “Valencia Orange” hybrid pepper plant. As with a lot of things, once the decisions were made, Fate stepped in to have it’s say. In this case, it happened that while I was unloading the bagged compost, I managed to snag one of the bags along the edge and tear it. The usual approach when doing this sort of approach is to lay the bags down flat, just as they were stacked where you bought them, and open the upper surface to allow the plant to be planted. With an opening already in the bag, it wasn’t a hard decision to make to turn the torn bag on it’s side and just expand the opening already there. Well, that was the theory at least. You see, what with being stacked up and all, the compost inside the bags gets pretty well compressed. That, in turn, means that what you’ve got inside the bag is sometimes less like garden soil and more like cheaply-made concrete. In my case, it wasn’t quite that extreme, but it definitely took a good deal of work to break up the compost into something that could be planted in without leaving it in huge chunks. The resulting bag was much thicker than it would have been, and seeing as how tomatoes like a good, deep bed to grow into, the place to plant my “Brandywine” was decided. After it was in, the other bag for the “Valencia Orange” was slit open and the compost inside it broken up in the immediate area under the opening. Getting it planted took even less time than the tomato had (the bag wasn’t nearly as neatly opened or controllable on the tomato bag) and I was done. Plants planted, garden ready to start growing.

Or so I thought.

Like last year, things happened that gave me options I hadn’t thought of before. In this case, it was some garlic I’d bought. I needed some fresh to season a dish, but I didn’t need the whole clove. So I put the rest aside, thinking that it would be safe to leave it lying around. No, it wasn’t. In this case, the weather took a hand in making the decision for me. After a couple of says when the local temps shot suddenly into the mid-80’s, I happened to look at my left-over garlic and found that almost all of it was sprouting. When I took the clove apart, I found six segments had sprouted. I knew these would not last long, and with nothing to use them in, I decided to do what I did last year: plant them. As a general rule, garlic like to be planted in cooler weather, but with the only other choice being throwing the sprouted segments out, I figured I had nothing to loose. Because of the way the bags were lying, the bag holding the pepper plant had more space, so it drew one segment at each corner of the bag. The tomato bag took the other two, one at each end. That was about three weeks ago.

Right now, the garlic is growing like a proverbial weed, with the tops already six or more inches tall. Whether they’ll form cloves or just go to seed is something I’ll find out in the next month or so. Both of the ‘non-volunteer’ plants are doing well, with strong growth on both plants. The pepper has already flowered twice without showing any signs of fruit forming, but it’s early in the season, so I’m not discouraged. One thing I had not thought of, and that I’ll have to tackle soon, is how to support the tomato plant. “Brandywine”, like many other heirloom tomatoes, has a tendency to grow big and grow fast. Mine is already showing signs of wanting to take off in it’s own direction, so some sort of support to keep it upright is going to be a necessity soon. What that support will be, well, I guess you’ll find out shortly after I do.

I hope anyone who reads this will give serious thought to growing something for themselves. It’s getting a bit late to be planting things like tomatoes and peppers, but not too late if you have a long warm season. There’s also plenty of time, even in the shortest of warm seasons, to grow things like lettuce and other salad greens. A bag container is a good solution for these sorts of crops too, and between the satisfaction of ‘growing your own’, the savings on your grocery bill and the generally better quality of crops you grow yourself, it’s a good thing to do. So give it a whirl.

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The joys (?) of summer.

June 19, 2011

Officially, summer arrives on June 21. I think someone forgot to tell summer that.

Already this year, the area I live in has seen multiple days with the temperature over 90, and the actual day summer should start is forecast to be at or around that temperature. Now I know the Earth isn’t a climate-controlled environment where every day dawns the same, the temperature never exceeds a specified range, and it only rains when it’s supposed to (like at night or when I feel like setting inside and watching it). I’m actually glad for that fact, because the very idea of such a world seems very distasteful to me. That said, I really, really do not like hot, humid weather. It’s like you can never get comfortable, and no matter what you do, you always end up sweat-covered and feeling like you’re carrying around a couple of pounds of general crud stuck to your body. Around here, if that weren’t enough to make your life miserable, you’ve also got the mosquitoes. I have never, ever been able to close a house up tight enough to keep those little blood-sucking buggers completely out of it. Admittedly, I don’t have a house with central AC, so some of the rooms are left with windows and doors that are usually open (abet, with screens over them) to the outside. I don’t know if they manage to squeeze through the screen openings, or through small gaps around the doors, or if they just await their chance to steal in whenever you have to go out, but somehow, they always manage to get in. Then, the real fun begins!

MOSQUITO HUNTING!!!!!!

It’s the moments when you’re least able to do a lot that they seem to strike. It could be that you’re “occupied” on the toilet, or paying attention to a show on TV, or some other similar instance. Then, out of nowhere, you hear that irritating little buzz that tells you a mosquito is stalking you. If your house has any darker-colored walls, and the mosquito is between you and one, they can almost seem to vanish into the background, unseen until a chance movement draws your attention. Even in rooms where the walls don’t help them to ‘blend in’, they can often be hard to spot, frequently approaching from behind as if they know which way your attention is focused. If you don’t spot it, your only hint that you’re about to give of your blood to further their species is the sudden quiet that tells you they’ve landed. Then it’s the frantic search of your exposed body parts, trying to find the culprit before you’re bitten. Now is the real fun, because a mosquito can sometimes just alight on any convenient surface, like it’s in need of rest, or like it’s watching you to see how fast you can move. If you’re lucky, and you spot it while it’s resting/scouting you, you have a chance to swat it before it can get to you. What you use is more a question of what you have at hand, rather than a planned defense. I usually try to use my hands, even though when I succeed in catching my potential attacker unaware, the resulting debris leave a nasty mess on them. Nothing to reach out and grab, no hesitation, just swing and (hopefully) SMACK!, one dead bug. If you spot it on yourself, the mess is compounded, but if you can get your lick in before it has a chance to get you, the satisfaction factor is not to be ignored.

If, on the other hand, you either don’t spot that the malefactor someplace nearby, or it has managed to land on you someplace you can’t see, it’s time to wait for the bite. Some of them seem to have barbs on their snouts, given the level of pain they can sometimes inflict when biting. Others, you never feel them until you start to itch. I’ve tried all manner of creams, sprays, lotions, you name it, to control that desire to scratch a mosquito bite. Some of them aren’t half bad, but none I’ve ever run into really does a good job of it. That wouldn’t be bad if it only lasted a day, but I’ve had bites that continued to itch for two, three and even more days. After a while, it’s just maddening, trying to fight the desire to just start scratching away.

How I sometimes wish they would just vanish, that they’d suddenly go extinct and be nothing but a bad memory. The reasoning part of me knows that this is never, ever going to happen, but it’s a nice fantasy, isn’t it? Kind of like winning a big Lotto jackpot or something like that, it’s a dream more to be take your mind off what’s going on around you than one you expect to happen. Still, it’s a nice dream, and if I can find that little buzzer who’d been bothering me all morning, I just might let my mind stay there.

If you’ve got mosquitoes where you live, and it’s summer, good luck and good hunting! Winter comes soon!

Loosing our past.

June 13, 2011

Sometimes it seems that history has a way of slipping away from us. One day it’s all around us, easy to remember; then the next, it’s gone. Something that happened today, fairly near to where I live, brought that home to me.

In the 1930’s, America’s military was in a state of ferment. Some officers were busy trying to perfect the tactics of the last war, while others were looking around the world to try to get an idea of what sorts of nasty surprises the next war might bring their way. In no other field was this more true than aviation. America hadn’t really even had a service dedicated to aviation when it went into WWI, and it found itself embarrassed to find that the birthplace of flight was woefully behind the rest of the world when it came to military aviation. The inter-war years were a time when American military thought turned to flying, but matters were far from settled as far as whether America would manage to make any major advances in military flight. Some innovative designs were put forward, but so were many that might best be described as “furthering the status quo”. Part of this was reluctance on the part of those at the top, but part of it was money, or more precisely, a lack thereof. As conflicts began to break out in lead-up to WWII, though, military aviation thinking began to crystallize around several ideas. One was that American fighter planes would be mostly used as short-range interceptors, used primarily to defend American cities from attack. The other was that, because we hoped to keep our enemies as far away as possible from American soil, if we were going to have a chance to strike back, we would need a large, long-range bomber.

With this in mind, a request was put out to industry for the development of (what was at the time) a very long-range bomber, capable of carrying a a large payload at speeds roughly as fast as those achieved by current-generation fighter/interceptor aircraft. Of the three companies that responded with designs, Boeing won the contract. Thus was born the progenitor of what would become the B-17. A single test aircraft was built that proved to be successful enough to warrant further production. Over the next few years, the design was moved from a flying concept to an aircraft ready for serious production. As 1941 started, Boeing began to churn out B-17 for the war that everyone could see was coming. Over the course of the war, the basic design was refined and improved, often building on lessons learned in blood and death. A total of 12,731 B-17’s built during WWII era, most of them seeing service in the European theater. Bristling with as many as 13 guns, the B-17 flew in attacks that could see hundreds of these massive machines gathered together to attack targets deep inside Nazi-occupied Europe. At the beginning, with their heavy .50 caliber defensive machine guns, it was thought that the “Flying Fortress” could defend itself well enough to go to and from the target without the aid of fighter escort. After loosing hundreds of aircraft and their ten-man crews, American thinking finally realized that if we were not to burn through resources as such alarming rate, a fighter escort would be needed. Even with this added protection, air crews often found their lives depending on the toughness of the planes they flew. Here, the B-17 served it’s crews well, taking damage that would have brought down other aircraft, while continuing to fly.

There was one thing that the B-17 couldn’t defend against, and that was time. As a design first conceived in the mid-1930’s, the B-17 was showing it’s age well before the war ended, and no number of tweaks and refinements could spare it from one foe it could never overcome: obsolescence. Even before the end of the war, B-17’s were regarded as “expendable”, often serving as testbeds for new idea in weapons, or even as targets for new defensive systems. When the war ended, many were simply returned home to go straight into scrap yards. Some few found other uses, such as aerial water tankers for fighting forest fires. The bulk of them, though, ended up going back to the furnaces that had once produced their own aluminum. Today, depending on who’s counting, there are somewhere around 14-17 flying examples of this once-numerous machine.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see one, especially to see one fly, it is an experience never to be forgotten. For all it’s size on the ground, once it’s in the air, it is a thing of grace and beauty. To hear one roar overhead, it’s four radial engines radiating a noise that is felt as much as heard, is to have a glimpse into a past age, when they almost literally darkened the skies over England and Europe. But chances to experience that sensation are becoming rarer and rarer. Like the men who once flew them, age is beginning to kill off the last flying B-17’s. Some end up retired to aviation museum, to live a long (if static and somewhat staid) life. Other continue to fly, and those who fly them know what they are, and how rare a bird they have a chance to pilot. There’s now one less of these magnificent birds in the world. After a weekend display at Aurora airport, the Collin’s Foundation’s B-17, “Liberty Belle” took off to continue a tour of Midwestern cities. Shortly after take-off, a fire was detected in one of the engines, leading the pilot to make an emergency landing in a field near the town of Oswego, Illinois. Many airplanes would not have made such a sudden landing without harming their crew, but once again, the B-17 proved it’s worth, as the plane landed without incident and the crew exited safely. Unfortunately, shortly after they had made it out of the plane, a second fire broke out, one that eventually consumed the bulk of the aircraft. Here is a good article with excellent, if terribly sad, photos of the B-17’s end:

http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/news/local/chibrknews-crews-responding-to-incident-involving-wwii-bomber-20110613,0,5339638.story

Those who know them expect the remains of the destroyed bomber to be salvaged, and any usable parts to go into keeping the rest of the flying examples going. So, in a way, “Liberty Belle” will continue to fly, but the plane itself is no more. Sometimes, when something like this happens, people ask if it’s worth the risk to the few remaining aircraft to allow them to continue to fly. As someone who loves old airplanes, I will miss “Liberty Belle” very much. That said, if the only remaining link we have to these incredible machines, and the brave young men who flew them into deadly skies, are a few “stuffed-and-mounted” examples setting in some dark building somewhere, the world will be a poorer place. If we can’t see one fly by, hear it’s thunder and wonder at the courage it took to take one on a mission that it might never return from, I think all of us will loose something.

Keep’em flying, keep the memories alive.

A disturbing development.

June 7, 2011

Politicians are people, just like you and I. Given that, it is not a shocking idea that they might occasionally screw up. How they respond when they screw up says a lot about them. What’s more important, though, is how the folks who support them react. Take Sarah Palin as for instance.

As you know by now, while on her non-campaign bus tour, she in Boston, where someone asked her about Paul Revere. Almost everyone knows the poem, and many of us know the actual facts of what happened that night on the eve of Concord. Ms. Palin, though, either because she does not know, or because she suffered an all-too-human ‘brain cramp’, managed to make a total muck of telling what happened. All well and good, she proved she’s human and made a mistake. However, she made that mistake in front of a TV camera, and it was all captured for broadcast. Again, no big deal, politicians have shot their mouthes off in all manner of different and “creative” ways in front of cameras since, well, there have been cameras capable of capturing those foul-ups. What happened next, though, is the story that has to be remembered.

Ms. Palin, as you no doubt know, is also a television personality, specifically, a commentator on Fox. That means she has access to the media that a lot of former politicians would not have. That would be a great avenue for her to admit her mistake and explain how it came about. Instead, she has used her media platform to deny that she screwed up, and to insist that all the history books are wrong, that her version of “history” is, in fact, the real one. That she is so unwilling to admit error is a dangerous hint at what sort of mindset she possesses, and should give pause to anyone who’s watched these events unfold.

An even more disturbing outcome of this, though, has been the reaction of the people who support Ms. Palin and her political ambitions. There are confirmed reports that Wikipedia, the online information site, has seen numerous attempts to change it’s entry covering Paul Revere. Those attempts to rewrite history have, almost universally, been attempts to portray Sarah Palin’s telling of the story as the “true” one. What does it say about a group that it will willingly attempt to change the past so that what we think of as “truth” is merely a reflection of a politician’s mistaken pronouncement?

Hubris, that most dangerous of all afflictions that politicians can fall victim to, has brought many political careers to an end. By her actions, Sarah Palin is demonstrating that she is already deeply in the grip of hubris. That those who follow her are willing to do anything to make her look good speaks less of a political movement, and more of a cult. Which one is more of a danger to America and our body politic, I am not sure. That they are a danger to those institutions, I have no doubt whatsoever, because when any politician is placed above the truth, then we are all in danger.