Tomato Roulette – August Update

My tomatoes are coming in – I have had at least one from every variety I planted, except the Brandywine, which is always late and therefore not my favorite.

IMG_20190801_134830
Tomato log – notes on flavor and production
IMG_20190801_134059
Tomato records – variety, harvest date and number, size

I already love the 4 of July variety. While they are small – between the size of a golf ball and a billiard ball – they were indeed early and have a nice flavor, a bit acidic, with a good skin – not too fragile or tough.

The loser far is the so-called “Better Boy” which has produced few fruit, and most of them are malformed, like this one:

IMG_20190801_133900

I have no problem with ugly produce, but I do want some normal tomatoes too. The plant only has a few other fruit on it. They taste OK – nothing special. Definitely won’t plant this again. Better Boy, my butt!

The king tomato was Big Beef – almost a one-pound fruit so far and several more on the vine:

IMG_20190801_134206

The other two varieties – Big Boy and Brandy Boy – also were very good. They were pretty similar really – in a taste test Brandy Boy seemed a bit sweeter, with the delicate skin of a Brandywine. We’ll see what else we get for the season.

Advertisements

Tomato Roulette

Gardeners in New England tend to judge our short growing season by one crop: tomatoes. It was “a good year,” “a bad year” or an “OK year.” Sure, the cucumbers might delight for months and the blueberries, packed in the freezer, might get you through the winter, but nothing beats a juicy summer tomato, fresh off the vine and warm from the sun.

img_20190626_105029
Tomatoes, settling in for a summer of growing

The past few years have been blah for tomatoes. I think the soil in my raised beds was to blame. Even though I rotate the tomato crop between two beds and liberally supplement the soil with my own compost, raised-bed soil loses its oomph after a while. So this year, I’m trying four strategies:

  1. Replace about half of the soil. I had several yards of clean, screened topsoil dug in with the old soil. The result was a richer soil, but the screened stuff got mixed in with the actual ground soil, full of small rocks that have irked New England gardeners since Colonial times. So I will need to rescreen next year. It’s fine for this year.
  2. Plant further apart. I’ve tended to overbuy tomato plants because of all the fascinating varieties you can get nowadays. The plants tend to crowd one another by midsummer, and inevitably tomatoes rot on the vine because I can’t find them through the dense foliage. This year I followed the directive to plant each 2 feet away from the next.
  3. Skip most of the heirlooms. Many lesser-known tomato varieties provide fabulous flavor and gorgeous looks, but a paltry harvest, less disease resistance or other drawbacks. I have labored with these tomato varieties many times and have concluded that while they’re fun, they’re really not worth the trouble to invest in heavily. Hey – if you’ve got the time and patience, go for it. But I have wasted too much time and money on plants that succumb to disease and insects,  or that produce only a few tomatoes late in the season, to get excited anymore. For heirlooms, Brandywine is our favorite, so I planted a few.
  4. Try a test garden for commercial varieties. Many common varieties produce bushels of tomatoes, but they might not win beauty contests or pack as much flavor as heirlooms. I decided this year to try out several common commercial varieties, in search of two I can rely on year after year for volume with decent enough taste and reliability to be my “go-to” tomatoes. . I’m trying these:
    1. Big Boy – the granddaddy of big-ass backyard garden tomatoes
    2. Better Boy – a variety derived from Big Boy that produces more, but smaller, fruits with a slightly shorter growing season
    3. Brandy Boy  – a hybrid of Brandywine and the “boy” varieties
    4. Big Beef – Big Boy crossed with a traditional Beefsteak tomato
    5. Fourth of July – An early variety that produces loads of smaller fruits

Finally, I planted go-to cherry tomatoes, Super Sweet 100s, and tried a yellow cherry variety, just for fun.

Gratuitous Garden Photos

It’s rained so much in New England this spring that people are joking that it’s like “Old England.” I’m not complaining, especially when I see the results of this wet weather and milder temperatures.

img_20190624_184324
Perennials having their moment – with a weeping cherry and Japanese lilacs for company in the back
img_20190624_184317
More perennials – Shasta daisies, phlox, bee balm, coreopsis, veronica and red yarrow showing off.

This marks the second year for these perennial beds that line a walkway from the driveway to our back door. I am pleased with how it turned out, with a few issues. A few things didn’t make it over the winter, and a few things grew differently than my expectations.

img_20190623_171939
Coreopsis crowding out the veronica

When I bought the coreopsis and veronica plants, for some reason, I thought the veronica would be taller. Maybe it’s stunted from crowding or not enough sun. Anyway, it’s fun to see the purple spikes try to break through the sunny yellow coreopsis crowd. I’ll move them to the front of the bed in the fall.

img_20190623_171929
Phlox and red yarrow

Here’s another unusual color combo – pink phlox and red yarrow. I think the blue undertone of the phlox makes it work with the red. I also like the contrast in flower shape and structure. Even if it clashes, who cares?

img_20190531_175616
Poppies… you are getting sleepy…

The poppies have been gone by for a few weeks, but I couldn’t resist a photo anyway,

img_20190607_100923
Jake photobombing the roses

My roses really went to town. I didn’t get around to pruning them all – a few bushes to one side of the garden were left to their own devices. See what a difference pruning makes?

img_20190602_143332
Pruned roses
img_20190602_143336
Unpruned roses

Even my little yellow climbing rose is putting out.

img_20190615_150051

After years of frustration with this yellow climber, I decided to just let it do what it wants. It will never really climb onto the trellis. I will always need to tie it. Boo. Look at the flowers though!

Trees are also loving all the water. This redbud is a stunner:

img_20190615_145658
Eastern redbud with its variegated pink and green leaves

I have lots of peaches in my future:

img_20190615_150020
Elberta peach

And even my reluctant Cortland apple is putting out for a change.

img_20190615_161302
Cortland apple

And with some luck (and defense against birds) buckets of blueberries are in the future.

img_20190615_145955
Early Girl blueberries

I never water plants as much as I should. I mean, I will water annuals and my vegetables, and anything in pots or planters. But that’s it. I leave perennials, bushes and trees to their own devices. Seeing this year’s bounty makes me realize I ought to water everything more often, if Mother Nature hasn’t.

A Year in Review

I happy that I scored a few accomplishments in 2018 in my distaffian pursuits, besides sewing. In no particular order, here they are, plus some recommendations in case you’re interested in knowing more.

Survey Research and Statistics

survey

I enrolled in a graduate program in survey research. I took an intro to survey research class in the spring and a statistics class in the fall. I recommend that everyone gets to know a little about surveys – how they’re conducted, what a good one looks like, what a bad one looks like, how the math is done and how to interpret results.

There are so many surveys these days. I estimate I get a request to take a survey at least twice a week – mostly marketing and customer service surveys where companies want to know why I bought or  didn’t buy something or what my experience was like. Sometimes a pollster calls me for a public opinion survey or a political poll. I used to say “thanks but no thanks” to surveys, but after learning more about them, I participate more often.

A couple of takeaways:

  • People like to harp on surveys that are “wrong,” but they rarely are wrong. Most 2016 US presidential polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win by a slim margin. Most Brexit polls predicted the UK would vote to “remain,” by a slim margin. Those surveys were not wrong. A slim margin is still a margin – the margin represents the likelihood that the outcome would go the other way. It’s unlikely, but it does happen, as we know all too well.
  • Innumeracy is a problem. Many people do not understand simple statistics and random chance. For example, if you flip a coin, the chance it will be heads is 1 in 2 (expressed mathematically as 0.5). If you flip a coin twice, the chance it will be heads twice in a row is 1 in 4 (0.5 times 0.5 = 0.25), but the chance is will land heads on each individual flip is still 1 in 2. The odds reset with each flip of the coin. If you flip a coin 9 times and it comes up heads 9 times, what’s the chance it will be heads on the 10th flip? Still 1 in 2. Every slot machine ever was built on peoples’ inability to understand this.
  • All surveys contain some kind of bias, no matter how well the pollster controls for it. For example, some respondents will modify their survey responses depending on the gender or race of the person asking the question. Some people will misunderstand a question. Maybe a question is poorly worded. The person asking the questions may not be clear or understand a response. Many other things can go wrong.
  • Survey fatigue is a problem. As more and more surveys are conducted, respondents are getting better and better at evading them. This makes it harder to get a decent response rate, which increases the cost and time it takes to do a solid survey. The old random-digit telephone dialing methodology doesn’t work well when so many people have cut the cord, and most young people have never had a land line at all. New technologies are needed to combat this.
  • Internet polls are useless. Seriously, don’t ever pay attention to what an Internet survey says.

These two college textbooks were pretty well written and approachable:

Elementary Statistics in Social Research by Jack Levin et al.

Survey Methodology by Robert Groves et al.

Also, the statistics posts on DrMath.com and the LinkedIn courses by Eddie Davila are good.

Easy-Does-It Gardening

I finished my perennial beds this year. A few things didn’t do so well, but all in all, I am happy with how this turned out. I am glad I spent the money to have the old bed dug up and new beds created.

IMG_20180705_113625
New perennial beds

I have learned the hard way not to engineer a perennial bed that closely. Maybe some gardeners are OK with fussing over everything, but I lack the money, time and energy for any high-maintenance plants. They have to grow with little love or supervision, or they’ll take their chances. That means no delphinium, which need constant fertilizer, or Asian lilies, which get eaten by bugs.

IMG_20180905_191731
Asters (blue) and false sunflower (yellow)

I didn’t design these beds but instead adapted a sample bed design from the book “The Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosch. Not all of the plants were available in the varieties and colors the book suggested, but I was able to find decent substitutes. A friend gave me this book years ago. There’s a new edition out that has updated recommendations for plant varieties.

I’ll revisit the plan in the spring, as some plants likely won’t survive the winter. I wanted some white phlox, but I couldn’t find any – will seek again in the spring. Also, I think the design overall has a few too many “daisy” shaped flowers – I’d like more shape variety.

The vegetable garden turned out pretty well, considering the soil in my raised beds needs replacing. I augmented it heavily with compost – bought some in addition to what I made. As usual, I planted too many tomatoes.

IMG_20180803_193546
There is such a thing as too many tomatoes

And I really messed up with the seedlings I bought from a roadside stand. I will always go to a reputable garden center from now on.

Modular Cooking

In 2018 I discovered the joys of modular cooking. In brief, my husband and I cook and prepare a variety of proteins, veggies, starches, salads and soups that can mix and match into meals.

For example, in the summer I do every week a big mixed grill of vegetables, and in the winter I do a big pan of roasted mixed vegetables. The mixes are seasonal and vary a bit week to week.

IMG_20180719_184423
Mixed grill of summer vegetables

This mix above has bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and yellow squash. Alongside this grill wok we cooked several chicken breasts and a few ears of corn. We get these meals out of it:

Meal 1: Chicken and veggies with corn on the cob

Meal 2: Chicken fajitas with the veggies, plus salsa and tortillas, with corn salad on the side

Meal 3: Pasta primavera with the veggies and the last of the chicken, plus some Parmesan cheese and a tossed salad on the side

Meal 4: Omelets with the last of the veggies, plus cheese, bread and salad

Winter takes on this concept start like this, with a whole roasted chicken and roasted root vegetables.

IMG_20180520_170304
Modular cooking in fall and winter

Dinner 1: Roasted chicken with sweet potatoes and roasted carrots and parsnips

Dinner 2: Chicken pot pie with some of the leftover chicken and roasted vegetables, plus a gravy and a pastry crust

Dinner 3: Stuffed sweet potatoes with leftover chicken, plus some nuts and dried fruit

Dinner 4: Chicken noodle soup, with broth made from the chicken carcass, plus pasta and the rest of the roasted veggies

This method of cooking is a revelation for me. For this to work, you have to be OK with leftovers, admittedly. Often as the week goes on, the more flavorful dishes appear. Hot sauce is my new best friend.

 

Garden Fail

We had a cold spring, and I was on vacation during prime spring planting season. So those are my excuses for why my vegetable garden looks like crap this year.

I usually buy seedlings at a suburban nursery about 1 hour roundtrip from my house. This year, already behind and short on time, I bought my seedlings from a pop-up store along the roadside.

What’s wrong with this picture?

IMG_20180803_193341

Red bell pepper, Italian frying pepper, same thing, right?

This plant was marked as broccoli. It’s kale. And not the good kind of kale that makes a nice salad. This is the tough stuff that requires a half-hour in a pressure cooker to be edible.

IMG_20180803_193354

Also, because I was so late in planting, a few volunteers got started without me. I figured what they hey – fewer plants to buy.

I thought this was a cucumber plant, based on the leaves. It finally revealed itself this week as a butternut squash.

IMG_20180803_193416

Another plant with cucumber-vineish leaves turned out to be what I thought was a cantaloupe. We ended up calling it a “cantanope.” As in, is “It a cantaloupe? Nope!”

IMG_20180721_112149

It looks like a cantaloupe on the outside, looks like a honeydew on the inside, and has absolutely no flavor. I had to bust some myths – there’s no such thing as a canta-cumber, for one. And yes, it was “ripe.” It must have crossed with a honeydew, although I can’t imagine how as I have never planted one.

Finally, one volunteer did good. A cherry tomato, of course.

IMG_20180803_193546

Sometimes I think I should just plant cukes, cherry tomatoes and lettuce and be done with it.

Well, at least there’s a farmer’s market in the park on Sundays.

One Year, 7 Pounds, Lessons Learned

I have been trying to lose weight for a year. I have lost seven pounds. This is a good news story. Many people might say, “Seven pounds, in a YEAR? That’s not much.” Those people would be misguided. Seven pounds is a lot, especially for me, for two reasons:

  • I have around 15 pounds I want to lose, so seven pounds is about halfway there.
  • If I had continued on the road that caused me to gain seven pounds in the first place, I’d be even more overweight now.

To lose this weight, I tried two commercial weight-loss programs. I like the structure and accountability they offer. Here’s my quick review of them.

Noom

Summary: A weight-loss mobile app that provides daily articles to read and activities to do, plus tracking of food intake and exercise, and pairs you with a coach and a group for support. I learned a lot from this app, but I didn’t actually lose any weight during the four months I tried it. (I would lose a pound, then gain it back, on a repeat cycle, that is.)

What you eat: The diet itself is just a calorie-counting app, which breaks foods down in a stoplight system – eat lots of “green” foods, such as fruits & vegetables with high water content, some “yellow” foods, such as lean meat and dairy, and few “red” foods, such as sweets and fats. The app provides 1,200 calories a day, which left me starving and irritable most of the time. I think this very low calorie limit set me up for failure. There is such a thing as eating too little and putting your body into “conserve” mode. I often ate 1,400 to 1,500 a day, making sure the “extra” calories were for filling fruits and veggies. Still, every day I felt like I was one scary moment away from this:

giphy

What you do for exercise: The system sets an activity goal that ramps up gradually to 10,000 steps a day (the app has a pedometer built in) and X minutes of exercise a day after that. I had no problem here. If you exercise more, you get to eat more, which seems to defeat the purpose of exercising.

What you learn: The best parts of Noom are the articles and activities, geared to change behaviors around weight loss. You learn not to fear the scale by weighing yourself daily. You learn your “big reason why” you want to lose weight – a very good exercise if you want to get at your real motivation.

IMG_20180720_105157
You can’t hide from the scale.

You learn how to deal with temptations by exposing yourself to them, to the point where they lose whatever meaning they had for you. You learn to identify triggers for overeating, how to deal with difficult people and situations, how to eat mindfully and how to cope with all those hormones and other bodily systems that conspire to frustrate weight-loss activities. The first two months the articles, activities and quizzes were great. And then the program changed and each day you got a lot of random crap, repeated articles and “duh” kinds of stuff.

Support: This was a big letdown. The so-called “coach” was really just someone who’d text you once a week and ask you to set a goal. If you reached out for support, the “coach” would get back to you, eventually, but would not offer any real guidance beyond asking you questions so you could figure out for yourself what to do. The coach did not seem to remember my issues or struggles – each week it was like the first time they’d ever met me. I looked up the coaches on LinkedIn and Glassdoor. They all looked to be thin people in their 20s, and some had training as dietitians or nutritionists. They said they coached up to 300 people at a time, which means they have only a couple of minutes each week max to spend with each person. The “group” support also was very lacking, as new people were coming all the time and others were dropping out. It’s hard to connect with anyone.

Cost: $99 for two months, with no extras to buy.

IMG_20180707_095646
Rollerblading like it’s 1999.

Best takeaway: The best thing I learned from my coach was to think back to when I was at my ideal weight. What did I do back then? How did I feel? What was an average day like? What were my struggles? I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and it helped me see my present a bit more clearly. When I was at my goal weight, for example, I did a lot more cardio exercise than I’d been doing lately, so I got back into that, in addition to my Pilates, walking and gardening.

Worth it? Not for me. If you are clueless about how to lose weight – that is, you have no idea how to eat healthy and you never exercise – Noom might be good for you. If you think this might work for you, I’d try the 2-month program. Be very careful to cancel before the renewal period if you plan to quit!

Slimming World

Summary: This British weight-loss system uses a proprietary restricted food list, online recipes, articles and support, and weekly group meetings led by a coach where members help each other in real-time chat sessions. I lost my seven pounds using this system and I recommend it, with reservations.

What you eat: The restricted food list is idiosyncratic but leans toward low fat, high carb. It includes unlimited “speed” foods such as most fruits and nonstarchy vegetables – you’re supposed to fill your plate 1/3rd with these foods every meal. You also can have unlimited lean proteins, starchy vegetables, pasta, rice, beans and a few other things.

IMG_20180705_201650
Curried chickpeas and couscous – fill ‘er up!

People freak out at the idea of eating as much pasta and potatoes as you want. This is ridiculous, of course, but the “all carbs are bad” school is pretty persistent.

You can also have one serving of whole wheat bread, certain cereals nuts and the like a day, and two servings of dairy. Finally, you can spend a very limited number of “Syns” on whatever you want – chocolate, alcohol, oils and butter, etc.

This system means that you eat very little prepared or processed food and almost no sugar. Since I like to cook, it was pretty easy for me to prepare my meals and avoid “Syns.” But it makes it very hard to eat out without asking for lots of adaptations, since most restaurant food has a ton of oil in it. And you can forget about pizza. I quibble with the tough stance on oils. A little healthy oil is very important for nutrition, and healthy skin and hair. I spend at least 2 Syns a day on olive or sunflower oil.

gold

What do you for exercise: There’s a “Body Magic” component that encourages activity. Do X number of minutes, X days a week, and you get an award. I got the awards pretty easily. The hardest one – “Gold” requires at least a half hour of exercise 5 days a week.

What you learn: Each day is a new day at Slimming World. You’re not meant to save up your Syns for a big splurge, but rather do the best you can each day. This was hard for me, as I have tended to think about weeklong blocks of time, but now that I am used to it I realize it’s better to focus on the present. I liked weighing in once a week though. You also are meant to plan, plan, plan so that you know ahead of time what you’re eating. This is not a diet for people who do things at the last minute or open the fridge and say “what should I have for lunch?” They have some handy tools, such as a “For and Against” list where you write down all the reasons for and against losing weight. Sounds dumb, but if you spend some time on it and revisit it from time to time, you learn a lot about yourself.

Support: The coach and groups are much more involved and high-quality experiences than with Noom. You choose a day and time for your hourlong group meeting – I happen to do Wednesday nights. The meetings happen in a chat format on Slimming World’s website. The coach leads the meetings, but the content is whatever you want it to be. Members can pose questions to the group and we’ll all chime in to help. Sometimes this gets tedious, especially when people have asked for breakfast ideas for the 10th time. But we often have real discussions about real problems, such as planning for holidays, dealing with food pushers and fitting exercise into daily life.

sw of the weekThe meeting also includes a lot of pep talks and awards. I’ve been “Slimmer of the Week” three times. The group and coach also are available during the week on a special landing page, or you can reach out to the whole Slimming World community. A few membersof my group exchanged personal numbers so we can text each other during the week. My one complaint is the website and mobile app are both very wonky – hard to use and prone to crashes and bugs.

Cost: The initial joining fee is $30, which includes access to the online community, articles and recipes, and a booklet. After that, it’s $10 a month. I paid $14 to buy a three-month meal and activity planner book because the website annoyed me so much. This was totally optional.

IMG_20180719_184423Best takeaway: I really like the planning. Each week I make a lot of modular foods that mix and match for meals. For example, I’ll grill or roast several chicken breasts and a pile of vegetables, boil a pound of shrimp bake a few potatoes, cook a pot of couscous and a pot of pasta, hard boil several eggs, and prep veggies for salads. Dinner of grilled chicken,  grilled veggies and corn on the cob one day becomes a pasta salad for lunch the next day and fajitas for dinner, etc. I almost always bring my lunch to work now, and I never have a day when I am hungry, there’s not much to eat in the house, and we end up ordering takeout.

Worth it? Yes, I recommend this plan. You will get out of it what you put into it (as with most things in life, right?) It’s easy to follow, you get support if you want it, and you can lose weight.