Thursday, August 26, 2010

Green Watermelons

I posted a photo of me with a watermelon from my garden and the response to the watermelon prompts me to add an entry about it.  I don't particularly think it's the largest watermelon I've ever seen but many responses have indicated other people think that way about it.  Melons in the stores these days seem to be definitely smaller than when I was young and there has been an emphasis on seedless varieties (but lots of things seem smaller these "1/2 gallon" ice cream containers).  The cantaloupe size watermelons I find in the stores today drive me nuts; The volume of a sphere is equal to 4/3 pi times the radius cubed.  If a melon is twice as big, it contains 8 times more melon!  It may also be personal preference but I find the seeded varieties of melon to be sweeter and better tasting than the seedless.  This watermelon is an "orange tendersweet" which has orange flesh instead of the usual red... something you only get with garden grown stuff, and of course home grown is always far better than store bought.

I planted the watermelon in mid June; pretty late for Phoenix.  I sowed 8 seeds in one hill, and all the plants came up.  Watermelon demands a lot of water, a precious commodity here in the desert.  I sprinkled the melons with Miracle Gro crystals twice before the first melons set and found I needed to water them twice a day.  Even with twice a day waterings the plants were languishing.

In order to reduce my labor and save water, I connected a hose fitting to the pvc pipe that drains the air conditioning unit on the roof of my house.  This air conditioning condensate is purified (distilled) water, so I ran it to the melon hill with a cheap hose.  When the melons got a hold of this continuous drip they really took off.  The plants have grown over the whole corner of the yard, producing quite a few melons close to this size.  The plants are now growing a third set of melons, something I've never been able to get in the past.

The water from the A/C usually goes to waste; it drips off the roof into the ground next to the house.  It now feeds my watermelons, with no additional use of city water -- it is the water that is 'squeezed' out of the air in my home by my heat pump.  I was concerned at first that this water, having run through a hose that is exposed to the sun, would be too hot but this does not seem to be an issue.  There is an additional advantage in that the water no longer falls next to the foundation of my house.  Water will draw termites to a desert home and can damage or undermine the concrete foundation.  A 3 foot space is a good distance to help prevent this, but I have to admit that I have numerous plants inside of that 'safety zone.'  In any case, trapping this AC condensate and sending it to the melons has not only produced some great melons but additional advantages with my house, too.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Foreclosure's Other Side

A year ago, interested in investment opportunities, I started checking on the sales price of homes that were being offered for sale after foreclosure.  I had heard claims of "pennies on the dollar" and people were selling lists of foreclosed homes out on street corners.  Instead, I searched the web, found multiple houses at a wide range of prices, and drove around to see a few of them.  Many were garbage.  I found additions and modifications that, shall we say, were not up to building codes or even standard construction practices.  I found wavy roofs indicating rafter/truss problems, decomposing foundations with crumbling concrete.  I didn't want to get involved in a project that involved massive reconstruction on these kinds of levels.  I kept looking because it seemed that there might be a chance of finding something with the right things wrong and out of pure curiosity.

I was right.  In a historic neighborhood just outside of Phoenix I found a house that I liked.  This blog will mostly concern itself with the restoration of this house.... turning it into a home.  I will also include information I have learned about how to find and purchase these properties as well as what I have done and learned to fix it up, correctly, "on the cheap."

Phoenix has it's own unique architectural criteria.  Summer sun blasts unabashed on the desert floor and anything unfortunate enough to get in the way.  How a house is built should take these parameters into consideration;  A house facing east-west will incur the wrath of summer heat in the morning and afternoon.  The house I found is oriented North and South, with a nice patio and cover on the South side.  A single carport is located on the West side, protecting the living areas from the afternoon blast.  There are three foot eaves overhanging the walls so mid-day summer sun would not touch the house.  In winter, with the sun lower, the house would be heated from solar rays.  It is a three bedroom, 1-3/4 bath, 1070 square foot house.

The roof on this house appeared to be recently replaced, did not contain waves, or sink at the ends.  The structure is constructed of 4 x 8 x 16 inch concrete block.  The foundation has one crack but this has not displaced the block above it.  A support post in the carport was substantially rotted and in need of replacement, and the house was in dire need of paint.  Some graffiti artists had visited the carport and the city had painted over this with a nice (?) color orange/brown.

Copper thieves had removed all the plumbing and electrical wiring before I saw it so that would have to be replaced.  The price was lower because of this but I think the vandalism may have been a good thing.  According to the papers the house was built in 1957.  It had copper piping and 2 pronged, polarized outlets common for the time.  I could replace the plumbing with PEX and the wiring could be upgraded to 3 prong grounded outlets with GFCI breakers in the bathrooms and kitchen.  The interior of the house was a general disaster... hideous, green vinyl self-stick tile in the kitchen, hallway, 2 bedrooms, living room and both bathrooms.  It would have to go, as would the asbestos tile in the remaining bedroom, but the adhesive this stuff leaves behind is a problem.  There was lots of drywall damage from water and vandals there would probably be rotten footers behind the drywall under the studs.  I was pretty confident in my ability to repair and replace these problems, so I got with my Realtor and made an offer of $35,000 which was just under the asking price. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fried Okra Recipe

The response to my recipes has simply been phenomenal!  By popular demand I feel I need to add another.  I just picked some of my okra this evening and fried it up.  Okra is very easy to grow, has a pretty yellow flower, and is a huge producer.

  • buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • shortening - enough to fill a frying pan 1/2 full
Combine the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.
Cut about 10 pods of okra into 1/2 inch thick slices
soak the okra pieces in buttermilk for about 10 minutes.  While the okra is soaking, heat the shortening to 350F.  Dredge the okra pieces in the cornmeal mixture and place them carefully in the hot shortening.  Cook until they are golden brown and then drain on a towel.  Be sure to let them cool a bit before you pop them in your mouth.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Whole Wheat Banana Nut Bread

OK, because the response to my other recipes has been so intense, I'll post a recipe I've developed for some really cool banana bread.  Who knew that I would get such a response from just a couple of simple recipes?!  This recipe is chucky-jam-full of good and wholesome things and while it is very healthy it doesn't taste like cardboard. 

1/3 cup honey
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 bananas
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup wheat germ
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup nuts (I like pecans)
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tbs. freshly ground flax seed
1/2 cup chopped dates

Preheat your oven to 325 F.  Combine the wet ingredients.  Mix the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and fold them into the wet mixture.  Bake in a bread loaf pan at 325 for 1 hour and 10 minutes. 

Flax is high in omega-3 fatty acids, but those break down fairly quickly once the seed is ground.  I have a coffee grinder that I use just for grinding flax and herbs which allows me to grind just as much as I need just before I use it. 

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Herb Garden Recipes

In my last post I revealed how you can make an excellent raised garden for herbs or tomatoes in about an hour using used tires.  I suggested planting dill, rosemary, basil, and mint, as these are very easily grown, can be purchased as seeds or in sets for transplanting, and taste great in the dishes below.  Years ago I made an herb garden and grew some wonderful herbs.  I had no idea what to do with them!  The garden was pretty cool, though, got lots of rave reviews from my gardening type friends.  It was also a great conversation piece until the question came up about what I did with the herbs...  So that you won't have to be like me and not know what to do with what you have grown, I offer these recipes...

Something magic happens when tomato and basil meet, so let's do that on a cracker.
You will need:
  • your favorite cracker
  • any kind of tomato
  • fresh mozarella cheese
  • olive oil
  • Optional:  red onion
Place a thin slice of mozarella on the cracker.  Put a single leaf of basil on the cheese and a small slice of tomato on top of that.  Drizzle with olive oil.  A small slice of red onion adds color and taste, but the fresh ingredients in this quick hors d'oeuvre offer an amazing blast of flavor.  The tire garden is also great for growing tomatoes and fresh, home grown tomatoes in this recipe make a world of difference. 

Save a bunch of money and make your own pasta sauce.  Take a can of tomato sauce, a can of diced tomatoes, and a few sprigs of basil.  Simply mix the three!  Sure, you can add oregano, garlic, onion and whatever else you like.  Make extra, freeze it, and use it within a month.  Trader Joe's sells a marinara sauce in large cans and products of this type are perfect for jazzing up with your fresh herbs.

Try an omelet with dill and your favorite cheese.  Mix it with lemon zest into home made pasta.  Substitute dill for rosemary in the following recipe.

Grilled rosemary-citrus chicken:
You will need-
  • 1 whole chicken
  • olive oil
  • handful (3 - 4 sprigs?) of rosemary
  • lemon or grapefruit
Rub the rinsed chicken with olive oil followed by rosemary.  Stuff the rosemary in the chicken cavity.  Then rub the chicken with either lemon or grapefruit.  Stuff the lemon in the cavity and if you use grapefruit, place 1/4 of the remaining grapefruit in the chicken. 

Grill the chicken with indirect heat until done.

For a refreshing summer drink, mix iced tea with lemonade.  The ratio of lemonade to iced tea can vary, and you might try starting with a 50:50 mix, but I prefer about 3 parts tea to 1 part lemonade.  Add 2-3 sprigs of mint after you crush them in your (clean!) hand or beat them gently with a meat tenderizer.  Drop the mint into the lemonade-tea mixture and place in the fridge until cold.  Serve with ice in a large glass, a slice of lemon and a small sprig of mint on the rim.

I invite readers to add recipes and herb suggestions in the comments!

A Cheap, Durable, Raised Herb Garden

Would you like to make a raised garden and maybe to grow some herbs?  Wood structures are prone to insect damage and concrete, block, or brick just seems too permanent and labor intensive.  What if you could make a raised garden in a matter of minutes that re-uses common materials that are free and readily available?  This blog entry will tell you how to do just that.  I have used this system to grow herbs and tomatoes in the desert heat of the Phoenix metropolitan area and I'm sure it would work in just about anywhere a raised garden is desired.  It can be "jazzed up" to look very "gardenesque" if a less industrial appearance is desired.
Materials Needed:
  • 2 used tires
  • river rock
  • top soil
  • herbs (plantings or seeds)
  • Optional - charcoal 
  • Optional - garden border fence
For this project my girlfriend Gena and I raided a local river preserve.  We were able to find 2 tires after a flash flood last year and with some work an sweat we were able to wrestle the carcasses to my truck.  The removal of used tire carcasses from the preserve made this project doubly "green."

Level a spot and lay one of the tires down.  Fill this first tire with rock; river rock works great, but just about anything will do, even left over ABC from that last project.  Be sure to completely fill the tire - shoving rock into the tire interior will be necessary to fill the space between the tire bead and the upper sidewall.  Gloves certainly help with hand protection here, especially if there are undiscovered spikes, screws, or nails in the tire.

The second tire gets placed directly on top of the first.  It helps if both tires are the same size but if they differ somewhat that's OK, and it doesn't matter which one goes on top.  This top tire gets filled with soil.  I have found those water holding crystals, poly-acrylates, help the planter retain moisture.  I don't know how the "organic food" movement views these, but if you use them be sure to follow the package instructions. While a little bit is good, a lot will cause your planter to rise up like a loaf of quick bread as all those tiny crystals absorb water and become huge.  Water the soil in well, so that it compacts and then add more soil to bring the level where you want it.  As an option, I have used tires that have the sidewall cut off and this provides a larger planting surface.  Placing a layer of charcoal (the type you'd use for a barbecue but NOT the self starting kind) will "sweeten" the soil and help with plant growth.

Congratulations!  You are done and your planter is ready for seed or transplants.  If a set of stacked tires in your back yard has too much of a "junk yard," you can purchase a length of that garden border fence product at your local home improvement store.  Simply wrap the fence around the tires - the tires disappear and your raised garden takes on a cottage farm appearance.  How much do you need?  You can simply measure the distance across the tire, multiply by 3, and round up.

Black tires will keep the root zone of your plants warm, so you may find that you can plant up to a month earlier.  Take care in the summer not to let the system bake dry.

My favorite herbs for this planter?  Basil, rosemary, dill, and mint are all easily grown.  What do you do with those once you're able to pick them?  That will be the topic of my next post... some delicious, fast, easy, and healthy recipes that require herbs.  Maybe readers, if there are any, will have some to share, too.