These little critters right here …

There's a lot to love in this photo: the toads, the duckweed, the eggs, and the fact that the water is absolutely clear. Yay, healthy pond!
There’s a lot to love in this photo: the toads, the eggs, the duckweed, the lilies and the fact that the water is absolutely clear. Yay, healthy pond!

… are the reason I got out the spade and dug a big hole in my yard last fall, hauled in a couple hundred pounds of sand, sculpted the sides, laid in a flexible liner, loaded 250 lbs. of decorative stone into my car, unloaded it, arranged it, blew $100 on a UV clarifier, and ran all over Southeast Missouri in search of duckweed and water lilies to keep the algae down.

If you look closely at the right side of the photo, you’ll see what looks like a string of tiny beads. Those are toad eggs, and there are hundreds of them out there, which means at some point in the next two weeks, I will walk outside to find the water absolutely black and wiggling with tadpoles that will spend the summer growing into itty-bitty toads.

Benefits of providing toad habitat:

1. They’ll eat a metric crap-ton of mosquitoes and other garden pests. Yay, toads!
2. They sing their hearts out.
3. It’s hilarious to watch the cat when they start singing. Walter has spent the entire evening stalking the back hallway, staring at the back door and trying to figure out who’s making that sound.

If you don’t have a water feature in your yard, I highly recommend adding one. Doing it right is a lot of work (and expensive as hell), but the fringe benefits are terrific.



I’ve been slowly but surely converting a tiny, unused space at the end of the kitchen cabinets into a sort of FlyLady-style “launching pad” for the back door.

Thanks to an inconveniently placed vent, I had a section of unused space at the end of the cabinets that was about 18 inches wide and as deep as the counter. The wall was wide enough to hang a calendar, but I couldn’t put anything on the floor because it would impede air circulation.

Last week, I installed a hanging deck planter under the calendar to hold a hive tool, a pair of bee gloves, a can of goldfish food and a few other odds and ends, and we picked up a little tile-topped plant stand yesterday to hold a bag each of quail feed and dried mealworms (the birds’ favorite treat). Then last night at Target, I found the most appropriate of all possible hooks to hang my ballcap and bee jacket:

beehook1 beehook2


Very convenient, and I love reclaiming wasted space — especially in a 730-square-foot house, where we don’t have much space to waste.

I made a few other purchases today, mostly for the pond:

Duckweed. Hard to find sometimes, but awesome for shading the water and giving pollinators a safe landing pad.
Big pot of water lilies, also for shade and pollinator protection.
Little concrete bench so I can sit and enjoy my coffee in the garden in the mornings.

The white circles in the pond are the bottoms of styrofoam coffee cups. They’re temporary; I put them out there to give the bees a safe place to land so they don’t drown while they’re trying to get a drink. Also note the presence of our old friend Smeagol, the weird Gollum-looking lawn ornament I found at Lowe’s a few years ago and absolutely could not resist. Too many summers in the Oklahoma heat left him with what appears to be the corrupt-plastic-hobbit version of vitiligo, but a coat of Rust-Oleum should fix that easily enough. I still need to come up with a good way to display a replica of the One Ring in the pond. Geeky, yes, but that’s just the way I like it.

Hope your garden is just the way you like it, wherever you are.




Eco-Saturday: Beekeeping

Hive inspection.

Assuming you don’t have anaphylactic allergies, beekeeping is pretty much the greatest hobby ever. Given the role of honeybees in the ecosystem, it’s also one of the best things you can do for the environment.

Rescuing a swarm. And baby-talking them, because OMGfuzzybees!

We started keeping bees when we lived in Belleville, Ill. I was having trouble finding cut comb to use as a treatment for hay fever, and I liked the idea of having pollinators living in my garden, so Ron’s parents gave us some old beekeeping equipment, and we ordered our first package of bees.

Mites killed them before the season was out. That could have been the end of the story, but then I interviewed a pair of beeks in Tulsa a couple of years later, and the next thing I knew, I was giving my credit card a workout on the Dadant website.

The first time I went out to inspect a hive myself, I was terrified, but I sucked it up, suited up and opened the cover.

(More after the jump, along with umpteen photos that will terrify my friend Marilyn if I post them without warning.)
Continue reading Eco-Saturday: Beekeeping

Vegan Friday: Philly cheezshroom sandwiches

This doesn’t really turn out green. My iPhone camera just hates my dining room, and no amount of Photoshopping will fix it. Grrr.

Here is the latest entry in my increasingly inaccurately named “Vegan Friday” feature. I really am going to get it together one of these days and start posting stuff on the right day. In the meantime, enjoy the belated recipe.

One of the few vegan "cheeses" I consider worth eating.
A rarity: decent vegan “cheese.”

I came up with the basis for this vegetarian variant on Philly cheesesteaks one week when I was broke and went shopping at ALDI, where they happened to have a sale going on portabellas, ciabatta rolls and bell peppers. You probably won’t find a vegan cheese substitute at a bring-your-own-bag store, but you can get by without it.

If your local grocery store happens to carry Daiya shreds, the mozzarella version is on the veeeeeeery short list of fake cheeses I consider convincing enough to be worth using. (I can’t say the same for the cheddar, however. That one’s still a work in progress.) My local Schnucks has them, so I’m guessing they’re available at most of your bigger grocery chains at this point. Alternately, if you prefer your cheesesteaks with the Cheez Whiz type sauce in place of regular cheese, you can mix up a batch of nooch sauce — leaving out the Ro-Tel, of course — and get a similar effect.

Philly Cheezshroom Sandwiches

1 carton sliced portabellas
1 bell pepper, sliced into strips
1 small onion, sliced thinly
Margarine and/or olive oil
Hoagie buns or ciabatta rolls
Daiya mozzarella-style shreds (optional)


You cannot go wrong with sauteed mushrooms. Ever.


Saute the pepper in olive oil, margarine or some combination thereof while you slice the onions. (Be generous with the fat; this is a vegan recipe, so you can afford to splurge and still have a reasonably low-calorie meal.) Add the onions and keep cooking until they start to become translucent. Add mushrooms and a little more fat if needed and cook until mushrooms release water and shrink a bit.

Scoop the mixture onto hoagie buns or ciabatta rolls. If desired, top with Daiya mozzarella shreds and microwave about 30 seconds to melt the cheese. Makes three to four sandwiches.

Folk Thursday: Melanie Safka

Listening to Melanie kind of makes my vocal cords hurt, but I love her anyway, and this video is worth watching for the audience alone. Could they be more Establishment, sitting there in their horn-rimmed glasses and Sunday best, clapping along awkwardly and looking confused? Bless their hearts, I don’t think this was exactly what they were expecting when they came to the show. Hilarious.


Adventures of a townie homesteader

Our second colony of bees arrived today via the good ol’ U.S. Postal Service. I had to cover an arraignment this morning in Illinois and thus missed the fun when Ron installed the girls in their new hive, but he reports that they seem to be as saucy little wenches like every other Buckfast colony we’ve ever owned. I’m pleased. I like Buckfasts. They have attitude problems, but they tend to be healthy and incredibly productive. I’m willing to endure the occasional sting from an overzealous guard in exchange for good harvests and healthy bees.

Meanwhile, we’re down to eight quail. Three died a couple of weeks ago of mysterious leg issues that I suspect had something to do with sloppy breeding, and I had to cull a fourth today when I came home for lunch. Little snot beat up one of his broodmates last night, so I switched him to a different brooder and mixed up the flock a bit to shuffle the pecking order. This just gave the bully a new crop of victims, and by the time I got home this afternoon, the little turd had bloodied another bird, so I spent part of my lunch hour teaching myself to dress quail.

It wasn’t terribly difficult or messy, and as I told my mom: I’d rather dress out a clean, healthy bird I raised myself than handle factory-farmed poultry from the grocery store, with all the risk of food poisoning that entails.

In related news, I gave the quail tractor a shot of lacquer and plan to spend tomorrow morning clipping some little birds’ flight feathers so they can go live outside. (Just the thought of that makes me deliriously happy. These little guys are cute, but I’m tired of dealing with litter and the itty-bitty waterers that go in the brooders and have to be refilled umpteen times a day.)




Vegan Friday: Earth Day edition

My Earth Day efforts happened a few days early this year (see my last post), but before I go to bed, I’ll probably dig out my copy of the original edition of 50 Simple Things that I bought for Earth Day in 1990 and see where I am 24 years later.

In the meantime, I remember “Eat Low on the Food Chain” being the name of one chapter, and since I owe you a Vegan Friday recipe anyway, I’ll just let this killer vegan banana bread recipe stand in for an Earth Day project:

Vegan Banana Bread

3 or 4 overripe bananas
1 c. sugar
1 tbsp. vanilla
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. vinegar
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. melted margarine
Handful of pecans


Preheat oven to 350. Mash together all ingredients except margarine and nuts. Add margarine and stir to make a thick batter. Stir in nuts. Pour batter into a greased Pyrex loaf pan and bake for an hour.


Cut into thick slices and serve warm with a pat of margarine.

Happy Earth Day, kids. And if you haven’t done anything nice for the environment today, you can start by taking the environmental footprint quiz. And making a batch of banana bread, of course.


Eco-Saturday: Planting day (and a tomato tip)

Today’s Eco-Saturday entry is mostly excited chatter, with one good tip at the end for drought-proofing tomatoes.

First, the excitement: It’s Planting Day!

Mini-bed at the center of the yard. Indian blanket, strawberries, some direct-seeded arugula and an assortment of herbs.

This year, we had another bit of excitement to go with the usual joy of getting the garden into the ground:


We spent the morning picking up a nuc hive from an ol’ boy down at Dexter. I’ll explain about nucs in a future post. Right now, I want to talk about the bees’ move-in day.

When honeybees feel at home in a new hive, they signal that to each other by sticking their butts in the air and doing a little dance.

Before I could finish transferring the frames from the nuc box to the girls’ new hive, they’d started doing the “yay, we’re home!” dance. If Miley Cyrus hadn’t clearly demonstrated why white girls shouldn’t twerk, I might have been tempted to join them, because with their arrival, I finally felt completely at home in my house, too.

More excitement: We left the lid off during a rainstorm to give it a good soaking, so the compost bin has finally heated up. I think it’s a little nitrogen-heavy — it smelled like ammonia when I opened it today — but that should change as the quail litter, which is mostly carbon, starts to break down.

The next couple of pictures are herbs I planted near the pond.

Gratuitous mermaid shot, with lemon balm planted at left. Not shown, because they were busy hiding: Eight little goldfish.
Chocolate mint (left) and lavender (right).

They don’t look like much yet, but here are a couple of our tomato plants:

When the soil hits 80 degrees, they’ll grow like kudzu.

If you want your tomatoes to be virtually drought-proof, here is the secret:


Dig until you hit hardpan, then keep digging until you’ve gone all the way through it. Fill up the hole with compost and plant your tomato seedling in it. This allows the roots of the plant to go deep enough to reach moisture, even during a drought.

You can grow decent tomatoes without this step, but if you’ve got time to do it, you’ll love the results. I had the best-looking plants and biggest tomato crops of my life when I used this method in Belleville, and my dad, who taught me this trick, used it to grow 24-foot vines with spectacular yields the year I was born. I think I’ve got a picture of that garden around here somewhere. If I can find it, I’ll post it. It’s glorious.

Hope your Saturday was as awesome as mine.


P.S.: I know I still owe you Vegan Friday. I got sidetracked last night and didn’t get it posted, but it’ll be worth the wait, I promise.


P.P.S.: Edited to correct a detail about the bees’ weird little dance.

Eco-Saturday: Solar landscaping lights

This is more of a product endorsement than a how-to, but I was so pleased with the outcome of today’s landscaping efforts that I had to share.

We’re a week out from Planting Day, which longtime readers of this blog know is my favorite day of the entire year. I spent most of today getting the backyard ready for next week’s gardening extravaganza — tilling the garden area (Ron rented this little Stihl tiller, which was very lightweight and easy to use, even for a first-timer), buying a quarter-ton of flagstone and turning it into stepping stones, fixing a small problem I discovered with the fence I installed a couple of weeks ago, shopping for odds and ends, and installing solar landscaping lights to mark the stepping-stone paths I’d just put in.

I’m sure the batteries compromise some of their environmental integrity, but I’ve been a fan of solar accent lights for years. I bought my first one when we lived in Belleville. It cost $30 and produced a weak amber light that ran down a couple of hours after sunset. I wasn’t impressed, but I liked the fact that it didn’t require any wiring, and I figured the technology would improve over time.

Nearly 15 years later, you can buy bright white solar accent lights for $2 apiece. I picked up 10 of them tonight and spent longer removing the bar-code stickers than I spent installing the lights themselves. They don’t use any electricity from the power company, and I didn’t have to wire anything. More importantly, when I buy solar-powered products, I’m showing their manufacturers there’s a market for alternative energy, which hopefully will drive more and better technology in the future.

Here are a few grainy shots of the new lights in action. I love that star pattern the diffusers make:

solar1 solar2 solar3 solar4

You aren’t going to end global warming with a handful of accent lighting, but you’ll save a little energy and make the garden a little prettier — and the more you enjoy your garden, the more time you’re likely to spend working in it, growing your own vegetables and herbs and reducing your reliance on factory-farmed produce. There’s no question that’s good for the environment.