A while ago I pledged to learn the great and ancient art of beekeeping. I contacted several bee schools and was about to enroll. Then I realized that it won’t be possible to have a hive this spring or summer, for the simple reason that there are no flowers nearby. We live in a wooded area. There are no fields or meadows close by, most of the vegetation is trees, shrubs and lawn. So I’m holding off on enrolling in a beekeeping class and the new plan is to first establish lots of bee-flowers around the property. That will take a good year, so the bees will hopefully arrive next summer.

Instead I enrolled in a pottery class. My first class was yesterday and I already threw two “competent” pots at the wheel (“competent” as in: they will hold water and they look okay, but their shapes are entirely accidental). Next week I will learn to trim the pots, then later to fire and glaze them. There will be hand-made sessions too, and I’m keen on learning how to make decorative tiles.

But I already know that my favorite will be sitting hunched over that wheel, shaping the earth with steady hands and sensitive fingers. It feels just great to work with the earth. To see the pot come off the wheel is so satisfying: I did that? And then to think how strong well-fired clay is, that it can withstand temperatures of over 400 degrees.

I’ve already added a pottery wheel to my wishlist! Maybe we can devise one ourselves. And a kiln…

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Today we finally had a chance to set up our germination/seedling area in the basement. It’s not fully done yet, but so far we have:

  1. One large Gorilla shelf rack – fits 4 standard Jiffy or Burpee seed starting flats perfectly. $87.97
  2. four shop lights (2 sockets each), chain links and S hooks included. 4 x $8.97 = $35.88
  3. One pack of 10 fluorescent bulbs: T8, 48″, 32W, 6500 K color temperature, 36.000 hours lifetime light temperature. $25
  4. four wooden dowels (4 x $1.45 = $7.25)
  5. one timer ($11.97)
  6. one power strip ($4.98)

Total cost (so far): $173 (plus tax), at Home Depot.

If more space for seedlings is needed, we can put two more lights/four more bulbs above the lower shelves.

The dowels (those round wooden sticks) fit the holes in the shelf unit perfectly and the shop lights hang from it securely. We can adjust the lamps’ distance from the seeds/seedlings either by shortening the chains or by moving the dowels up some more.

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We’re going to put a sheet (poly? shower curtain?) around the whole unit, creating a chamber. This will trap the heat and the humidity.  Now the dowels are too long and we’ll trim them some, but we’ll leave them sticking out so that

  1. there is some clearance in front for one person stand inside the chamber
  2. there is space for the heat to rise to the highest shelves (for the germination and the most heat-loving plants)
  3. there is air flow (we might also drill holes in the particle board shelves)

We’ll monitor if these lamps generate sufficient heat for the seed/seedlings (our basement is only about 55-60 degrees F, and we’ll need temperatures between 65-70). If not, we’ll try a hot lamp or  heating mats, which are more expensive.

We’re also going to put a small household fan inside the “chamber”, to prevent damping off (fungus).

  • Germination part

The top shelf will be the germination part of the operation, because it will be the hottest (since the heat from the lower shelves will rise).

Most seeds need an ambient temperature of 65-70 degrees F, and soil temperatures of optimally (though not necessarily) 80-85 degrees F. Heat is the most important consideration, then light. Some seeds need light to germinate (lettuce), others need darkness (many flowers), but most are indifferent (pepper, squash, tomato). We’ll simply put newspaper over the darkness-loving seeds to block the light, or we’ll paint their domes black.

  • Seedlings

A plant is a seedling as soon as it has grown to “true leaves” – leaves that weren’t already part of the seed-package. Seedlings need up to 16 hours of bright light per day to thrive. Our timer will ensure we don’t forget!

There will no doubt be some shuffling around as we get to know our system, our seeds and seedlings. I’ve added an extra Flickr badge in the sidebar with annotated pictures of anything garden.

Also still needed: seed-starting mix, flats, domes, potting soil, peat pots…

Seeds? Check!

Riot for Austerity fist with Thermometer

This is only our third Riot month and I feel like I’m slacking already.

I realized this when last week I volunteered to drive Amie and a preschool buddy to their field trip. This was legitimate, I think: the preschool needed volunteers. On the way back – just Amie and I – I decided to stop off at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which was legit too, as it was on the way home. It was too cold and windy to go for a walk, and then the officer told me about this great Visitor Center at the Assabet River Reservation, only a couple of miles away. She gave us directions.

Only a couple of miles away – back up north, though, with our home to the south. And the directions turned out to be faulty. And there turned out not to be a Visitor Center. Just a kiosk.

After driving around in circles for many miles, almost getting the car stuck in a snowy lane, with a grumpy child in the back who needed to pee, and seeing the miles tick-tick-tick away on the dashboard, I was very upset.

But it was my own fault. After so many months I was on the road, you know, and I used to love road trips, and getting lost in the country, cruising by the farm houses and going bumpety-bump through dark woods. So I left our “legitimate” route for some pleasure driving…

I’ve been leaving the big computer on all day, letting it sit there, munching on electricity. The screen saver isn’t even on.

I’ve been leaving lights on in unoccupied rooms.

I’ve been wasting water with longer showers, and sometimes boil a full kettle, to forget and then have to bring it to a boil again.

Most of the hay box is finished, but I still haven’t brought myself to put it all together and to actually cook in it. This though I’ve made several soups and stews in the meantime.

We spent too much at Whole Foods on Saturday. Too many exotic luxuries.Y Yesterday  I forgot to put an opened can of tomato puree in the fridge and had to throw it out.

Etc. Etc.

To some of you that may sound uninteresting, but to me these mistakes hurt. I do recognize them as mistakes, and regret them. So why did I make them? Is it Riot fatigue?  Is it winter?

Will the numbers at the end of the month jar me awake?

I think of the seeds every day. They’re locked away in their envelopes, in Ziploc bags, in a large cookie tin, in the cold basement. Held within these many layers, deprived of light, water and warmth and temperature fluctuations, they are kept suspended.

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I am rereading Thoreau’s Dispersion of Seeds. It was published for the first (and so far only time) in 1993, in a lovely volume called Faith in a Seed.

Thoreau was writing around 1860, when most people in the States believed that plants spring up spontaneously, not from a root or a cutting or a seed. It’s so hard for us to imagine that people ever thought such a thing. But Thoreau could, though he was one of the few arguing against it (this was part of his larger, Darwinian argument against Agassiz’s “immutable species”).

Thoreau drew this interesting comparison between the American vs. the European idea of a seed.  He writes (on page 1):

We are so accustomed to see another forest spring up immediately, as a matter of course, when one is cut down… never troubling ourselves about the succession, that we hardly associate seeds with trees, and we do not anticipate the time when this regular succession will cease and we shall be obliged to plant, as they do in all old countries. The planters of Europe must therefore have a different and much more correct notion of the value of seeds than we… we know only that [trees] come out of the earth when we cut them down, as regularly as the fur grows on the hides of animals after the summer has thinned it.

Old country versus new country, a place where man has to plant versus a place where Nature sows… I came to this country ten years ago and I live constantly with this Old-New comparison. Look around you, is your America still that New World? Or has it become Old?

What a privilege, what good luck, to be able to read this text!

I have faith in a seed too. The seeds in my basement seem dead, but I believe they will live and flourish. I believe that nature is forgiving. If I make a little mistake, I believe she will correct it. If I make a big one, she will give me another chance, here, in my New World.

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One of our Christmas gifts was this game, Max, made by a small family-owned company called Family Pastimes that makes only cooperative games (they even print and make their own boards and boxes).

We must help get the little Creatures safely home before Max, the Tomcat, catches them. In an exciting way, children learn logic, consultation and decision making. An important issue to discuss is also raised: we don’t like Max catching those Little Ones, yet we recognize that he is a natural hunter. How do we resolve this in our minds and hearts? Let’s talk it over.

The game is just at Amie’s level.  She isn’t getting the strategy yet, but a game like this – not too simple, not too complex – is just what will help her understand the necessity of thinking ahead. The duration of the game is also well within her attention span… so there’s time for one more, of course, or two…

It’s also very engaging. Amie gets very concerned about the little creatures – a bird, a chipmunk and a mouse. So much so that she calls Max back to his porch (with a treat) even when he isn’t anywhere close to being a threat. So much so that she tries, very clumsily, to manipulate the dice, which decide who gets to move ahead, the little ones or Max. When I told her she has to leave it up to the dice, she tried hard, but soon I caught her again.

– Amie, we shouldn’t cheat.

– Shhh, Mama! Max didn’t see me do it!

How is that for immersion! I had to put a stop to it after three games. She was getting too excited.

I heartily recommend it anyone with a three to four-year-old, or older child. Also check out Family Pastimes’ other cooperative games: they have them for all ages. Of course I’m putting “Harvest Time” on our urgent wish list!

(I hope this company won’t be adversely affected by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.)

winterwednesday

The theme of last Winter Wednesday was snow and well, no shortage of snow around here: a whole lot fell last night and more is on the way.

I requested the book, Discover Nature in Winter, from the interlibrary loan, but it hasn’t arrived yet. But Barb mentioned the following experiment: melt and filter different kinds of snow (new and old), then look at the particles left behind, through a magnifying glass or a microscope.

We were in luck today: the snow that fell was the fluffiest I’ve seen so far – it was a joy to shovel. I scooped some up into a glass, taking care to compress it as little as possible. Then I filled up another glass with some old snow that was underneath – the difference between the two layers was very pronounced. That made two glasses of snow:

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And one interested little girl who came a-peeking:

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6:07 pm

– What are you doing?

– Experimenting!

– O can I help?

We talked about how these glasses of snow looked exactly the same. What would happen if we let the snow in them melt? And what would happen if we packed it down?

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Strange, the new snow was very easy to push down. Its volume was reduced drastically. Not so the old snow. So we got to talk about “compact” and “dense” again. The new snow was very soft and fluffy. That meant there were many air pockets or empty spaces in between the snowflakes or ice crystals, lots of air that was were squeezed out as Amie packed it down.  The snow crystals in the old snow were already packed much closer together, with less air or empty space between them, so it was harder, much less easy to compact even more.

– So (I asked Amie when she had packed both glasses as much as her little fists could stand), is there as much snow in one as in the other?

– No! she said. (It was plain as day, looking at the one glass, still 3/4 full, and the other, only 1/4 full.)

– But, remember, at the beginning they were as full, no?

– Yes.

– How come?

– I don’t know, she said.

I have to laugh at this point. Really I’m not going to pretend that my 3-and-a-half-year-old gets all of this! She just likes playing with the snow. But she did listen, and we did continue our explanations, because we want her to get an idea of this experiment, and of how important and fun it is to experiment, and of how much we value her opinion and think she is capable of understanding.

So the glass with the new, fluffy snow had been filled with more air than snow, and the glass with the old, hard snow had, in effect, a lot more actual snow in it. It also weighed more.

But nothing explains it like a picture, and she and I sat down to make one.

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We returned to our melting snow throughout the evening – Amie often pulling on my sleeve to drag me over. Very soon it was obvious that the new snow was melting much, much faster.

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6.38 pm

Why would that be? There had been much less snow to begin with. And even after compacting there had probably been a lot of air in it still, which warmed up and melted the snow from within. By 7:14 the new snow had all melted. But the other glass was still half full:

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By 9:30 that the old snow too had melted. By then Amie had gone to sleep. I kept the two glasses, with saucers on them, in the kitchen for her to see in the morning. So… to be continued!

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Snow fell during the night and a good part of the day. It stopped by 3 and I set out. I used the tiny electric snow thrower that was given to us via FreeCycle, for about half the driveway, and shoveled the other half. Took me 2 1/5 hours in all for about 1000 sq.f. and 4 inches of snow. Thankfully it was very fluffy, so more air than water.

As I was shoveling, a couple strolled by on a winter wonder walk. The woman gave me an encouraging smile. The man frowned and said: “Why don’t you hire a plow, it’ll be done in two minutes!” “True,” I said, “only this is my gym workout, for free”. Her laughter was appreciative. His was skeptical.

I am proud of my self-sufficiency. And it really is not just about that: my two-hour workout made me healthier, so that might add at least another two hours to my life, or make two other hours fitter. At the very least it’ll deepen two hours of my sleep tonight.And the fitter I am, the more self-sufficient I will be…

It’s a gift.

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On another note: half of the seeds arrived! We all gathered around to take the neatly stacked packets out of the box. The other half are on back order and are promised to arrive soon. Only one seed is out-of-stock, the Arnica, so I’ll have to find another supplier for that.

I’m also looking for a source of French Green Lentils. Or can I just plant the lentil I buy at Whole Foods? There is no information about where those come from, whether they’re hybrids, etc. Or are those too treated, to husked, so no longer viable? Any advice?

Amie has a cold. Dripping nose, little cough. No fever, but I’m thinking that might come tomorrow, and I’m sure she’ll be staying home from school. But all in all I am quite happy with her health since coming to live here.  She has been sick less often and less severely than when we were living in our little basement apartment in the city.

Not so for us grownups. We’ve never been sick so often, especially DH, who caught a cold last week a mere week after he had recovered from one. A couple of weeks ago I was so sick he had to stay home from work to take care of things. We’re stressed, we don’t exercise enough…

But I’m fighting. I’m telling myself I’m strong. I will not be sick. I’m impervious. I’m strong. Not me!

savehandmade button

A new law will be coming into effect on 10 February, called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). It demands that all products for children aged 12 and younger be tested for lead and phthalates, and that those that haven’t been tested yet are considered hazardous and may not be sold.

It’s about time that lead and phthalates are banned from children’s products – manufactured in the States or imported from abroad – and that the manufacturers have tests to show their safety. But this well-intentioned law suffers from two problems:

  1. It applies to any and all “consumer product designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age and younger”: from toys and clothing to books, games, sports equipment, furniture and DVDs.
  2. It applies not only to products being made right now and after 10 February, but also to products that are already on the shelves. This means it doesn’t just put manufacturers on the spot, but retailers (or resellers) and second-hand sellers, as well.

Consider that

Lead testing promises to be expensive — from several hundred to several thousand dollars per test, depending on the product. And each batch of each item must be tracked and tested, making compliance brutally expensive for items with small runs. (source)

No wonder the law in all its generality is creating a panic. For instance, for a while there it seemed as if many thrift stores and second-hand shops were going to have to close.

But there may now be good news for them. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the law,  drafted a Memo to clarify the law. “The commission does not have the authority to change the law but can decide how to interpret it” (source).

As for second-hand children’s products – thrift stores, consignment shops, and other used-goods stores:

Sellers of used children’s products, such as thrift stores and consignment stores, are not required to certify that those products meet the new lead limits, phthalates standard or new toy standards. (Memo)

How about the retailers whose entire stock is bound to become contraband? Those that sell clothing and toys made of natural materials such as wool or wood (not painted) may be off the hook, for the Commission is considering giving also them an exemption (source).

All others may have to consult their lawyers. For them too, the CPSC seems to bending the rules a little, in what to me two  rather confusing paragraphs:

  1. The new safety law does not require resellers to test children’s products in inventory for compliance with the lead limit before they are sold. However, resellers cannot sell children’s products that exceed the lead limit and therefore should avoid products that are likely to have lead content, unless they have testing or other information to indicate the products being sold have less than the new limit. Those resellers that do sell products in violation of the new limits could face civil and/or criminal penalties. (Memo; my emphasis)
  2. While CPSC expects every company to comply fully with the new laws resellers should pay special attention to certain product categories. Among these are recalled children’s products, particularly cribs and play yards etc. (Memo; my emphasis)

Does this mean (“while”) that that only those “certain product categories” should be actually tested?

Can the small shops afford to run these tests on their suspect stock? Many can’t, like Amanda Christina of Hearts and Trees, who will no longer be able to sell her homemade art, handicraft and nature study kits.

And what about children’s books, for instance? From a Boston-based article on this matter:

This Wednesday, Amazon.com sent a general letter informing its vendors that, if they did not certify their products by January 15, the items would be returned at the sellers’ expense…

To make matters worse, even publishers that have already had their products tested for lead will be forced to retest…

“All of us are totally in the dark,” says Terri Schmitz, owner of the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. “I can’t make a decision, because I don’t know what the regulations are. We’re all sort of in limbo here.” (source)

You may even find the shelves of your childrens’ library empty…

To be continued, no doubt.

Go to Cool Mon Picks SaveHandmade for more information, resources, and a way to respond to this law.