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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Balcony Garden 2021


Behold, this summer's balcony garden!  Our balcony gardening was fairly limited last year.  We were pretty late in acquiring any plants at all because we were dutifully staying at home except for essential outings.  Then, by the time we did decide to buy plants, moving was looking like a distinct possibility, so I didn't want to go too overboard.  I bought a few herb plants and moved them with us last summer.

I definitely wanted to do some balcony gardening this year. We currently have basil, cherry tomatoes, parsley, and my faithful mint plant.  One wrinkle of balcony gardening in our new home is that our plants get less sunlight than they did in our old place, mainly because we have a solid brick wall on our balcony here, as opposed to rails that let the light through.  I basically learn all of my gardening lessons the hard way, but may do some things differently next summer in light (haha) of our gardening circumstances.

Basil:  I'll grow this again next year.  Summer is basically incomplete for me without copious quantities of pesto.  It took some experimenting to help the basil plants get sunlight, but one of them has done extremely well with the planter raised off the ground, closer to the light.

Cherry tomatoes:  I really love the idea of cherry tomatoes and plan to keep trying.  This year has actually been reasonably successful.  The plants have a lot of brown leaves, but they are producing tomatoes.  Pollinators seem to be able to find our balcony, so I've stopped resorting to toothbrush pollination.  Unfortunately, other critters have been able to find the balcony, too, and sometimes take bites out of the tomatoes while they are still on the plant.  It seems to matter little whether the tomatoes are actually ripe or not.  I'm guessing squirrels are the perpetrators, although I did once see a chipmunk scuttling across the brick wall.

However...I think the cherry tomatoes would benefit from much more light than our balcony offers.  Our plants grew very tall very quickly, which I suppose could be a characteristic of their variety, but I suspect may have to do with them trying to reach more sunlight. The result of this is unwieldy tomato plants that spill over the balcony wall and sometimes appear to be fighting with the shrubbery behind the balcony.  I will try growing cherry tomatoes next year, but may try to find a variety that is more shade-tolerant.

Parsley:  This was a disappointingly underperforming plant this year, no doubt in part because it was visited by a parsley-eating caterpillar.  I'll probably try planting another herb in its place next year.

Mint:  How can I complain, when it keeps coming back year after year?  As long as this mint wants to survive, it has a planter with me.

I'm thinking of adding some shade-tolerant plants next year. I've read that leafy greens are generally okay in the shade, so I'm thinking of trying kale, particularly since I eat a lot of it anyway.  Short of a true crisis, it's hard to imagine what would make me want to move at this point, so I think I'll have plenty of time to figure out gardening on this particular balcony.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Vegan Meringues: A Sticky Partial Fail

 Although I'm not vegan (or even vegetarian), I've been somewhat interested in vegan cooking and baking for several years.  I had read before about using the water from canned chickpeas ("aquafaba," if we're being fancy), but had been extremely skeptical until I saw it being used on The Great British Baking Show. After watching contestants construct vegan pavlovas, I decided I would try scaling down a bit to make some vegan meringues. I consulted the internet for recipe ideas and learned that in addition to using the water in canned chickpeas, I could potentially use cooking water left over from cooking dried chickpeas (or even other dried beans).  This worked for me.  I do occasionally used canned chickpeas, but more often than not, I'll just cook a batch of dried chickpeas and keep them in the freezer for when I want to use them.

It came time today to cook some more dried chickpeas, so I carefully drained them over a large bowl and let the cooking liquid cool to room temperature.  I beat the liquid in the bowl of my mixer with a little bit of cream of tartar.  It was fun to watch because they really did look like egg whites becoming fluffy.

I put them in the oven, and they became dry and even a little crispy in less time than the recipe suggested.  I tasted one, and it was a little sweet for my taste, even though I had added less sugar than the recipe called for.  Still, it was tasty and had a cool texture.

However, a few hours after taking them out of the oven, they are becoming sticky and messy.  I warned Scott that if he wanted to stress eat meringues, he would have to do so soon.  I'm thinking it's possible that the humidity is a contributing factor to the sticky mess, but I don't know.  It was an interesting experiment, but I think I have to count this as at least a partial fail and think hard about whether I want to spend precious recreational cooking time trying again.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Downside To The Cicada Merriment

 Earlier this summer, I wrote here about the emergence of cicadas in the DC area. They were a fairly polarizing insect in this area, I believe with many more people hating them than loving them.  I actually like them, but am now experiencing an unforeseen (at least to me) downside to their emergence:  oak mites.

I had never even heard of oak mites before this summer.  Evidently, they are very small insects that eat cicada eggs (hence their large population this summer in the DC area).  They can be carried by the wind, land on people, and bite.  Though I have no way of definitively proving it, I believe both Scott and I have been bitten.

Scott was bitten first. He had a bite from something on his back. It didn't quite look like a mosquito bite, and he said it was much itchier. Then I saw a post on our community's that described similar bites and advanced the theory that it was oak mites. I subsequently saw news coverage of oak mite bites and how people were flocking to urgent care clinics and dermatologists for relief.

More recently, I had two bites on my back which were much itchier than mosquito bites. I tried using hydrocortisone cream, but I didn't get much relief.  I was having a fairly uncomfortable night of sleep, punctuated by the cat stretching next to me and clawing my itchy bites. Fortunately, I remembered that someone had who had posted on mentioned getting relief from putting gel hand sanitizer on the bites. I have no idea why that would work, but I tried it, and fortunately, it helped. So, consider this a public service announcement to anyone else who is similarly afflicted.

Not that I get any say in this at all, but I did enjoy the cicada emergence enough to think it was worth the oak mites now. That being said, seventeen years from now when this brood emerges again, I might consider enjoying the cicadas but then taking a long vacation somewhere else until the oak mites have had a chance to come and go.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Trying To Be Green

 Before the pandemic spread around the world and became the focus of everyone's attention, I wrote here about my fears and pessimism surrounding climate change and a small effort I was making to help Australia's wildlife.  I'm sorry to say that if anything, my fears and pessimism have increased since then.  This summer has been very frightening, with too many extreme weather events to keep track of.  Some that immediately come to mind are the apocalyptic heat waves and fires out west, fires in Siberia, and flooding in Germany and China.  Of those, the one that hit closest to home for me has been the heatwaves in the Pacific northwest.  I have several relatives there and have gone out there many time.  It's sad for me to think that such a wonderful area of the country may be changing forever.

I think we need much more than individual efforts to combat this existential threat that impacts us all; however, I'm not optimistic that sufficient government action is forthcoming, particularly in the US, where any and every issue is routinely politicized.  As a result, I am looking for ways to be "greener."  One of those ways is trying to divert some of my food waste from the landfill.

We're not living in an ideal environment to compost. We live in an apartment-style condo. In theory, I might be able to keep a small composting bin on the balcony (as long as it doesn't stink, attract pests, or do other things that would dismay my neighbors), but even if I could pull all of that off, there is the problem of where I would ultimately put the end product when I don't have a yard.  However, our local farmers market has a community composting program where you can drop off plant-based scraps.  I decided to join.

With limited space (and not a very firm grasp on how much plant-based waste we were actually producing), I bought a small counter top bin.  It turns out I pretty consistently fill it within the first 48 hours of emptying it.  This may be particularly true in the summer, when seasonal treats like melons and fresh corn create a large amount of waste in one go. I bought some biodegradable bags so I could store our compostables in the fridge after collecting them, not wanting a full bin on the counter to attract bugs. For a while, I tried filling the bin multiple times during the week, but it turns out our fridge is really too small to hold both massive quantities of scraps for compost AND all the food we plan to eat.

There are times when I wonder if it's worth the effort to divert maybe two days of waste from the landfill out of every week. But then I see the collection bins at the farmers market and how fast they fill up with so many people contributing. This community composting program certainly won't save the planet on its own, but it has been inspiring to see the power of collective action.