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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Harvest Goddess

Most of gardening involves ceaseless toil for me. But then I have moments that make me feel like this:

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In a cardigan, surrounded by produce. Harvest goddess!

Check it out!

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Some tomatoes, eh?

More …

blueberries
Lots of blueberries this year
peaches
And bushels of peaches
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Ready for sauce!

My freezer is getting full….

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?

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

A Common-sense Guide to Pruning Rose Bushes

If you want to try pruning roses, here’s two pieces of advice from me:

  • Get a tetanus shot before you start. You will prick yourself 100 times with thorns.
  • Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing, or you’ll start a fight. Everyone thinks they know the best way to prune rose bushes.

OK, fine, here may be some do’s and don’ts with pruning. Here’s how I do it. If you disagree, don’t take it personally.

Basically, you need to prune the bush a lot more than you think you have to. I know I’ve done a thorough job when I feel a little pang of guilt about it and worry I’ve pruned too much. I never have. Yet, anyway.

To start, here’s a prime example messy rosebushes I have to cope with each spring:

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Wild rosebush on the loose!

If you just cut off last year’s hips and spent blooms, OK, you did something. You can stop there. I have, plenty of times, said the hell with it after that little chore. You can see those bits on the outside and top of the bush. But let’s say I want to do a proper job of it.

Next, cut off anything that’s obviously dead. This is also pretty easy. If the cane looks brown and dry on the outside, prunes off with a crisp snap under the shears, and is brown on the inside, you’ve done it right. There’s more of this than you might expect, if you’ve had a hard winter.

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Dead canes at the top, a nice healthy green cane at bottom left.

Take little bites at a time with the pruning shears. It’s easier to handle the debris (hello, thorns) and also ensures you don’t overdo it.

Now things get tricky. You also need to prune the stuff that is mostly dead.

 

You will know the canes on your rosebush are “mostly dead” when the pruned cane is slightly green on the inside. It may be brown on the outside, but there’s a bit of life left. “Bummer,” you may think when you prune such a cane, “this was OK after all.” Well, it really wasn’t. Miracle Max isn’t going to revive that cane with bellows and a chocolate-covered pill. The cane may have produced some offshoots, but it’s a second-best cane anyway. Gotta go. Prune it down to the first offshoot that’s heading in the direction you want the offshoot to head – outside and up from the bush, not inside or down. See below, where a few red offshoots at the top right had to go because they were headed in the wrong direction.

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This rosebush cane is mostly dead, so I pruned it back to where it was 100% healthy.

Then things get tricky.  Some perfectly good canes will need to go because they don’t play well with others. One cane may crisscross another. Look closely and you’ll see both canes have a little dead spot from the friction. One of these has to go, maybe both if the dead spot is extensive.

I prune canes that are also headed for trouble – pointing to the inside of the bush, pointing down, or going off at a weird angle that likely will break later on. I also prune very low canes that run close to the ground, since the dog likely will step on them and get thorns in his paws. This is all very subjective and debatable.

I don’t stop, however, until I feel like I have done a little too much. Here’s a before and after picture, with the finished job on the left:

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Pruned bush on the left, two unpruned ones center-right. The upper right bush is a river birch and needs its bushy shape, lucky for it!

One down, 11 to go! And yes, I see all the damn weeds too! No rest until frost!

Appreciating the October Garden

The trees are just starting to turn here in Connecticut, but the weather’s been unseasonably warm and sunny and we haven’ had a hard frost, so flowers are still blooming. It’s a funny time of year for the garden, with pruning on the agenda, as we wait for the leaves to fall and for the annuals to die.

I harvested the last of the tomatoes and basil, and pulled them out of the raised beds for compost. I’ll process the basil with some olive oil and salt and freeze in mini plastic containers to use all winter. The frost had kissed, but not killed the green basil, and there was a little of the red basil left. It didn’t produce that well this year. The tomatoes were spent.

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I harvested more broccoli but left the plants alone for the most part. Despite harvesting almost every day, eating a lot and blanching some to store in the freezer, some broccoli flowers and goes to seed. I love these humble broccoli flowers, and so do insects. You probably can’t tell from this picture, but there are at least 9 species of insect feeding off these plants, including four kinds of bees, two kinds of moths, a ladybug, some other small flying bug I can’t identify, and one noisome garden pest – these gray aphids that form huge masses on the plant and suck the life out of it.

I prune off aphid-infested stalks and let the rest of the flowers go. The bees get rather aggressive at this time of year, as the flower supply dwindles.

While autumn color is still a few weeks away, my blueberry bushes are doing their own thing. I have three varieties in my garden, and they’re all donning their autumn colors on their own time.

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The fully green bush to the left is the “Blue Crop” variety, a midseason berry. Its scarlet neighbor is “Jersey,” a late season berry and the coppery neighbor to the right is “Earliblue,” an early variety, of course.

We pruned the lilacs and holly bushes so they won’t crowd the driveway and sidewalks this winter. I still need to do the roses, but that will have to wait for another day.

“You Can’t Spoil It”

I canned seven pints of piccalilli today, following two old family recipes. As with most family recipes, they make no sense. But after a bunch of roundabout instructions, random amounts of ingredients and other “be sure to’s,” there’s a line at the bottom: “You can’t spoil it.”

True enough. This stuff has enough acid, sugar and salt in it to survive World War III.

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The base for this sweet and sour relish is green tomatoes, as piccalilli is meant to use up all the veggies from your garden at the end of the season. I picked all my Roma tomatoes yesterday, saving anything red or almost red for one last batch of spaghetti sauce. The rest went into the piccalilli pot, along with a green and a red bell pepper, a couple of onions, and some broccoli stalks. Everything took a whirl in the food processor, before being salted, drained, and boiled in white vinegar with more salt, what seems like way too much sugar, a pickling spice sack and a generous palmful of mustard seeds. I hot-packed the relish into sterilized pint jars and processed them in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes.

They’re sitting on a beach towel because after they’re processed, I swaddle them in a heavy towel so they can cool very slowly.

I learned to can at my great-aunt’s knee. She had a kind of subsistence farm in rural New Hampshire, where growing and canning food was a matter of survival. I’d visit for two weeks every August to help her harvest, process and can her food. She had a special set-up in her basement with a giant hand-crank Foley Food Mill and some pressure- and boiling-water canners. It was hot, dirty, dangerous work. I loved it.

One time, we worked all day and went to bed early, only to be awakened by the sound of smashing glass. In the basement, we discovered that a jar of tomatoes we’d canned that day had exploded, in turn smashing several others around it. We’d forgotten to swaddle the jars and had left the basement windows open, letting some damp cold mountain air invade the space. We cleaned up the mess in our nightgowns, glass crinkling underfoot, the stinky tomato guts all warm and slimy.

I laid awake for much of the night, convinced that more jars would expolde.

The next day, my great-aunt inspected all the other tomato jars and decreed that the exploded jar was defective. She sent me home with several jars of what we’d put up, and I was afraid the whole long ride home that another explosion was imminent. To this day, I swaddle my jars overnight.

Some years, I don’t get around to making piccalilli or canning anything else. For one thing, a freezer is a much better option for preserving food nowadays. (We rarely have power outages; Every winter she’d be out of power for at least a week.) For another, I really don’t need to do this time-consuming, archaic chore. I don’t live off my food I grow or even care about it that much. But then I look around my home and think about all my blessings, and think about where I have come from and where so many of my relatives still are – scraping by, yearning for the past, feeling like a stranger in the here-and-now. I and so I make some piccalilli, using the old recipes, for Christmas gifts that are truly appreciated.

 

The $5, 15-hour Cucumber

My reluctant garden finally turned out some produce. Behold! The $5, 15-hour cucumber!

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Are you saying to yourself, “This looks like every other cucumber I ever saw?” Well, yes. But this is a magic cucumber. It’s magic because I put some seeds in some dirt and out it grew.

Now, are you saying to yourself, “Um… Duh… Isn’t that how all cucumbers grow?”

Again you are right. It wasn’t magic. It was horticulture.

Happy now?

I estimate this cucumber cost me $5. I bought a packet of seeds. I also bought some mulch. So those are my raw materials. We don’t count wear and tear on other things, such as gloves and tools. We won’t count the soil in my raised beds, since that’s been in place for a while. We also won’t count the cost of water. What do I look like, an accountant? Let’s just say $5 and call it square, OK?

I estimate it took 15 hours of labor to grow this cucumber. The “stick seed in the dirt” bit takes 10 seconds. But you know what takes hours? Weeding, watering, shoveling, tilling, screening the soil, making compost and digging it in. Also peeking at the cucumber vine to see if it’s coughed up anything yet.

So that’s my fabulous cucumber. I’m going to eat it with some hummus. I may get another one next week.