Monday, July 27, 2009

Garden Update: 5 weeks after planting

Just a quick update on the garden. Things have perked up a bit, especially since we had a massive weeding session and then covered the empty ground between the plants with dried grass clippings from the lawn mower. These effectively rid us of the need to weed since the weeds can't get enough sunlight through the dried grass to grow. Why didn't we think of that sooner?

The tomatoes are finally taking off. Tons of flowers and probably twenty or so baby tomatoes are growing now.

The tomatoes.

The cucumbers are taking off also. Literally, I mean. They're all over the place!

Cucumbers. Lots of blossoms and 6 mini cucumbers. They look like spiny baby gherkins.

The swiss chard is doing better, but not well enough to eat yet.

The bean plants are coming along fairly well. No beans, but they're starting to get some blossoms.

The carrots are slightly more visible. That's all I can really say for them.

Most of the pepper plants are doing really well, and we've got a few peppers growing already.

This pepper plant, however, isn't looking so hot. Not sure what its deal is.

Too late to weed in the watermelon patch. I've no clue if there are actually baby watermelons in there. I figure we'll see them when they're big enough to eat at least.

A very overgrown watermelon patch.

We must have about a hundred habaneros growing on our two plants. It's ridiculous. And they're huge! We've got bags full and no idea what to do with them all.


Garden Update: 5 weeks after plantingSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Macro Perspective: Student Loan Relief? For Some.

Classic college campus sceneImage by anne.oeldorfhirsch via Flickr

More and more students are borrowing for college and graduate school, and most everyone knows that in recent years the prices have been rising. But I didn’t know by how much. Turns out that "In the past five years, tuition and fees at public universities have risen by 57%."1 That’s with over half of the students who attend public four-year institutions now borrowing from the federal government, and over 80% of students who attend private two- or four-year institutions now borrowing.2

Luckily for a lot of those borrowers, since 2006 new federal legislation has been working to overhaul the loan system with the intent to relieve debt. Among several changes, the interest rates for Stafford loans, the most popular of student loans, have been dropping--from the record-high 6.8% fixed rate (for fixed-rate loans made after July 1, 2006, and before June 30, 2008) to 6.0%, and now to 5.6%, and so on each year until the rate is halved at 3.4% in 2011–12. Too bad the rates are set to jump back up to 6.8% in 2013, unless Congress intervenes. Also too bad that graduate students are excluded from receiving the new lower rates.

One plus of the federal loan overhaul started this July 1. Now the amount you earn can determine the amount you have to pay back each month. The new option is called Income-Based Repayment (IBR). For those borrows who are eligible, most "IBR loan payments will be less than 10 percent of their income."3 Not bad. But the repayment plan doesn't reduce the principal you owe, and paying less each month means you're paying more in interest over time. For more information on IBR, try The Project on Student Debt.

Another change certainly looks impressive--it lowers interest rates to 1.88% or 2.48% (when the loan is in repayment mode) for borrowers who hold variable interest rates. But the change only affects students who hold variable rates, and on July 1, 2006, the government stopped issuing Stafford loans at variable rates of interest.

So if you used Stafford loans to borrow before July 1, 2006, you're in luck, and if you’re borrowing with them now, you’re also in luck. But if you’re a graduate student, or if you borrowed in the small twenty-four-month window during which the Stafford rate became fixed at 6.8%, well, you got the shaft.

If you fall into the shaft category, perhaps writing to Congress is your only hope. It wouldn’t hurt to try. In your letter, please feel free to pilfer anything you read in this post.

Resources for student loan relief:

The Project on Student Debt. Here you can also sign petitions to Congress for stronger debt-relief legislation and share your own experience with student loan debt.

The Institute for College Access & Success.

Student Loan Borrower Assistance, made available by the National Consumer Law Center. A wealth of information, including your legal rights as a borrower.

[1]The Project on Student Debt, "Quick Facts about Student Debt."

[2] Ibid.

[3] "Income-Based Repayment now Available," July 6, 2009, The Institute for College Access & Success, available at
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Monday, July 13, 2009

Garden Update (Slackers Edition)

The past week I've not only been slacking on blogging, but slacking on gardening as well. But it's really not my fault, since I've been completely consumed by MDT's and my new business (or more accurately, its website).

Since I'm so behind (especially on weeding), these are actually pictures from last week. Except for one hardy plant, the beans aren't looking so hot. The crows kept biting them in half as soon as they sprouted, so MDT and I had to plant a second round of seeds nearly two weeks after the first planting. And the bugs are just chowing down on the new seedlings. I've been trying to spray them with organic homemade pesticide (recipe below) but it keeps raining and washing it away. Sigh.

String beans.

The pepper plants are all doing pretty well, except that we haven't gotten any decent peppers yet. It's been so hot here that the two little ones we had merely shriveled up and fell off. Hopefully we'll get some more now that it's starting to cool off a little.

Pepper plant and partially shriveled pepper.

The carrots are finally coming up, but it's nearly impossible to weed around them since they're so spindly and hard to see. Next time I plant carrots, it'll be in a raised bed or a pot, where I don't have to worry about weeding around them.

The carrots are the itty bitty light green ones with leaves that look like little hands.

The swiss chard is doing especially poorly in this heat. In fact, only seven or eight actually sprouted. I really like swiss chard, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they hit a growth spurt soon.

Sad little swiss chard.

The cucumber plants are growing the best so far. One bunch is getting especially huge. I'm going to have to keep an eye on it so it doesn't take over the rest of the garden. Next year we're building a trellis for sure.

The runaway cucumber.

The tomato plants are doing pretty well also. I neglected to sucker them (oops), so they're more bush-like than I wanted, but oh well. We should be seeing some blossoms soon.


The watermelon patch is looking pretty good considering the rocky soil on top of the hill. I'm thinking I won't bother weeding up there since the grass will give the melons something to rest on so they don't rot. Think that'll work?


And finally, this is our compost pile--grass clippings, food scraps, and a whole lot of coffee grounds. It's not in a fancy tumbler or anything, but we're not in a hurry and the heat here speeds the decomposition along nicely. When the garden is done this fall, we'll just spread the new compost over it and till it in so it'll be nice and fertile for whoever lives here next year.

The compost pile--not the prettiest or the quickest, but it was a last-minute idea and we decided to go with it.

Garden Update (Slackers Edition)SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, July 6, 2009

Garden Update: Plum trees, Habaneros, and Strawberries

One of our picturesque plum trees.

I neglected to mention that the new house already had 2 plum trees and a strawberry patch (of sorts). The larger plum tree didn't produce many plums at all, but the smaller one produced probably a hundred small (2-3" diameter) purple/red plums, which were delicious. Sadly, it seems to be done growing plums; they all came in about a month. MDT and I only got to eat ten or twenty of the tiny plums, though, since the new place also came with an abundance of squirrels who apparently love plums. I keep seeing them out the kitchen window scurrying up the tree, picking a plum, and running back down with it in its mouth. The plums are easily bigger than the squirrels' heads, but they'll sit right there at the bottom of the tree and eat the whole thing. I know they're pests, but I have a soft spot for squirrels, so I didn't make any effort to deter them. I don't know how I would've done it anyway.

The strawberry patch also gave us quite a lot of small strawberries--about a fourth of the size of store-bought ones, but the bugs got to a lot of them first. We're guessing they're June-bearing plants since they stopped producing fruit right on cue at the end of the month. They may have been small, but anyone who's grown their own strawberries can tell you they taste ten times better than the mass-produced kind.

Our overgrown strawberry patch, deterred only by asphalt.

And finally, the habaneros. Two very large potted habanero plants were given to us soon after we moved and have been producing a ridiculous number of peppers ever since. MDT makes a great hot salsa and a phenomenal pico de gallo, but we can only stand to use one habanero per half gallon of salsa or pico, so we've ended up freezing the vast majority of the peppers. Anyone have any ideas on what to do with them? Please comment below. There's only so much salsa two people can eat.

One of the habanero plants.Super-hot yellow habaneros, on their way to max-hot orange.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Garden Update: Time and Money Spent So Far

seed packets, garden map, old couchImage by cafemama via Flickr

In the interest of seeing how economical and efficient my gardening endeavor is this first year, I've been keeping track of everything I spend that is garden-related. I haven't been marking down all the time MDT and I spend working in it, but I can estimate.

I think we've done pretty well, though as I mentioned last post, we've been lucky to have my dad nearby to lend us equipment.

Initial Expenses:
Seeds (cilantro only): $.65
1 pot with 5 watermelon seedlings: $1.99
1 large orange bell pepper seedling: $1.99
1 flat of 6 small bell pepper seedlings: $1.89
2 flats of 6 tomato seedlings (12 total): $3.78
1 large bag of sphagnum peat moss: $2.10
Total: $12.40

Borrowed supplies:
garden rake
sledge hammer (for hammering in tomato stakes)
gardening gloves: 2 pair

Found supplies:
old wood for garden border
old wood for tomato stakes
5 bricks

Time spent:
Planning, preparation, and planting time: 3.5 hrs
Feeding, watering, and weeding time (approximately 30 min every other day, since 6/13) = 5.25 hrs
Total (first 3 weeks): 8.75 hrs

I love the time I spend in the garden. It doesn't seem like work to me at all; it's really calming and peaceful. I feel so much calmer now than I did in Boston. MDT says he feels the same way. I never understood why people enjoyed actually working in the garden before. Pretty cool.
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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Backyard Gardening: Starting Your First Vegetable Garden

A few weeks ago, as soon as MDT and I got settled in our new place, one of the first things we did was start a garden in the backyard. It was already June, a bit late to be starting a summer vegetable garden, but we were determined to have one for what could be our last Midwest summer for quite a while.

For the reasons why we wanted to have our own backyard vegetable garden, see our previous post titled Save Money on Food: Grow Your Own!

Many people spend hours or even days planning the layout of their gardens, but for the beginning gardener, it's best to start small and simple.

Step 1: Choose your seeds and/or seedlings. Make a list of what vegetables and herbs you like best. If the list is too long to plant everything, choose the ones that are most expensive to buy at the grocery store. Plants like green beans, peas, beets, carrots, turnips, swiss chard, lettuce, cucumber, zucchini, watermelon, cantaloupe, and other melons and squashes grow easily from seeds. Others like eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are better planted outside in the garden as seedlings.

Make sure you check the back of your seed packet to determine the best time to plant that vegetable in your zone. For planning purposes, see this map of U.S. hardiness zones. Remember that some plants thrive in warm and hot weather, while others, mostly green leafy vegetables and root vegetables, prefer cooler weather. Lettuce, for instance, can bolt (stop producing leaves) in hot weather, so it's called a cool-weather crop. Here's a list of warm- and cool-weather crops. Though not extensive, it'll get you started.

Cool weather crops
Warm weather crops
  • Lettuce
  • Chard
  • Spinach
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Peas
  • Kale
  • Carrots
  • Turnips
  • Parsnips
  • Onions
  • Cucumber
  • Tomato
  • Okra
  • Strawberries
  • Summer squashes
  • Radishes
  • Zucchini
  • Eggplant
  • Melons
  • Peppers
  • Green beans

Where do you get seeds and seedlings? You could purchase them online (and pay via PayPal or credit card), from a seed catalog, or from your local home and garden store. Seeds are usually least expensive at the beginning of the year and at the end of summer. When purchasing seeds, make sure the package is dated for this year. Old seeds can be duds.

If you plan ahead, you can start seeds for the more difficult plants indoors in early spring, so they'll be ready as seedlings to transplant outside when it's time. Or if you know other gardeners, you can ask if they'd like to share or trade seeds/seedlings with you. Remember to save the seeds from this year's best garden produce to plant next year!

Since seeds are much less expensive than seedlings, try to minimize the number of seedlings you buy. For instance, MDT and I really wanted bell peppers and tomatoes, but we didn't have time to start them from seeds, so we bought the peppers and tomatoes as seedlings and stuck with seeds for the rest of our garden. We were lucky enough to have a bunch of seed packs that my father had given us: string beans, carrots, swiss chard, cucumber, and marigold. The only seeds we bought were cilantro, MDT's all-time-favorite herb. The marigold seeds were a couple years old, so we didn't have high hopes for them, but we decided we'd plant them anyway just to see what happens.

Step 2: Prepare the bed. If your soil is really infertile or you have particularly pesky pests (say that three times fast) like moles, you might try a raised-bed garden, where you build a wood frame with a bottom layer made out of netting, screen, or--best of all--heavy fabric like sackcloth.

Another handy thing about raised-bed gardening is that you don't need to till it because its soil is pretty, and new, and non-clumpy. Most people seem to use wood for the border of a raised garden bed, but that can get pretty pricey. Cinder blocks are much, much cheaper (and sometimes you can find them free). Arrange the cinder blocks hole-side up and in a rectangle, and voila! You have a cheap border that lasts pretty much forever. And you can even use the holes in the blocks to plant flowers, herbs, or more veggies!

Since the soil where we live seems fairly rich, and since we didn't want to spend the money for potting soil to fill it, we opted to forgo the raised bed and get to tilling. We found the sunniest spot in the yard and tilled an area roughly fifteen feet square. We wanted to have enough room for all our veggies but not to bite off more than we could chew. It is our first vegetable garden in a new location, and there's always a learning curve while you figure out exactly what type of soil (and "varmints," as my father likes to call them) you're dealing with.

I should point out for those who are new to vegetable gardening that tillers are dangerous and expensive machines. That said, I happen to think that buying one is totally worth it if you plan to have a garden every year. If you're not ready to invest just yet, try asking family, friends, or neighbors if they have a tiller you can borrow. We borrowed my father's. He's definitely come in handy this year. Thanks, Dad!

Till when the soil is fairly dry because you don't want clumps of mud flying everywhere, and always wear work gloves. If you think you don't need them, ask MDT. He didn't think he needed gloves either and, despite his callused mitts, wound up with two nasty blisters between his thumbs and forefingers. The blisters turned to big skinless spots that took over a week to heal. So wear gloves. And if you don't have any, a cheap pair from the dollar store will do. Work gloves are also something you can borrow pretty easily.

After we tilled a few times to make sure all the clumps were broken up and the grass that had been there was shredded and turned under, it was time to fertilize. There are many options for fertilizing and preparing your soil, some of which can be combined easily for optimum growing power. Here are a few:
  • Add a few bags of potting soil or top soil and till it in to mix well.

  • Mix in a bag or two of peat moss. You can get this at most home/garden stores, and it's fairly inexpensive. We got a huge bag for $3.

  • If you've been composting, throw in a bucketful or two of compost and till right through it to mix it in. Compost is best as an underneath layer, though, so you'll need to add at least a couple of inches of soil on top after you mix it in.

  • Mix some powdered Miracle Gro Organic Choice for Vegetables (follow the directions) into buckets of water. Pour over garden. Mix. Note: Regular Miracle Gro is not organic and may contain chemicals that harm the earth in the long run. See below.

  • Buy a small bag of commercial fertilizer, like 10-10-10 or 5-10-10, sprinkle it sparingly over the garden, and till to mix in. Note: these are simple chemical fertilizers made from naturally occurring deposits, but they are not organic because they've been chemically altered. I don't really recommend using them since, according to Wikipedia, "chemical fertilizers may have long-term adverse impact on the organisms living in soil and a detrimental long term effect on soil productivity of the soil."

  • If you happen to have horses, cows, goats, or rabbits, mix in some good-old manure (with a hoe, not a tiller--you don't want this stuff flying). Note: Rabbit manure can be mixed right in; the others are best composted first. Dog and cat wastes are not recommended since they can contain parasites harmful to humans even if your pet is healthy.
Sadly, we'd only been composting at the new house for a few weeks and our sludge wasn't quite primed to mix in yet, so we opted for peat moss and a bit of Miracle Gro I had lying around (left over from last year's tiny lettuce and tomato garden at my old apartment). We tilled in the peat moss, used a garden rake (not a regular leaf rake!) to even out the soil, and prepared to plant our veggies.

Step 3: Plant! Actually, there is a little planning involved first. Some plants grow well in groups; others are best separated and planted in rows. Some grow low to the ground and spread or sprawl out quickly; others, like tomatoes, can be trained to climb on a trellis or can be grown vertically on a stake. Check the back of your seed packet (or the little guidestick in your seedling flat) to find out which you've got.

If you've got climbers, like tomatoes, cucumbers, or pole beans, you can save garden space--and you can save your vegetables from sitting on the ground, where they can rot--by planting them along one edge of your garden bed and growing them vertically. There are several options for trellises, including your standard wooden trellis, large-square netting, wire cages, and stakes. All of these are fairly easy to make yourself, so don't waste your money buying them from the store. If you can't make them from scratch, improvise! I once used a couple of rectangular grill grates I found in a dumpster, duct-taped them together, and leaned them against the side of the house. Tada! Instant trellis! Or, find three long, sturdy sticks or pieces of wood, tie them together near one end, and you've got a tepee cage! The possibilities really are endless.

Although I've been wanting to try out the net method, we found some old pieces of wood lying around that were perfect for tomato stakes, so we just went with that. When the tomato plants are big enough to start drooping, we'll tie them up with strips of scrap cloth. As simple as it gets.

To maximize your spacial economy, you can "interplant" slow-growing vegetables with quick-growing ones and vertical-growers with low-growers. For instance, you could plant cantaloupe, which sprawls out rather than up when it grows, under climbing tomatoes. Or you could plant quick-growing radishes among slow-growing carrots by spacing out your carrot seeds (according to the package) in a row, and then placing a radish seed between each carrot seed.

Some plants even seem to help each other grow because they use complementary nutrients. Check out this companion planting list, and layout your plants accordingly.

For more help with planning, has an awesome piece of online software that helps you visually plan your garden's layout and tells you exactly when and how to plant each vegetable. It's free if you sign up for their 30-day free trial.

We had plenty of space for what we wanted to plant, so we just decided on one row of each of following: bell peppers (seedlings), carrots (seeds), string beans (seeds), swiss chard (seeds), and cucumber (seeds).

Spare bricks mark our five rows; bell pepper seedlings are in the first row.

The nine tomato seedlings, which were a bit shriveled when we got them (on sale), got their own little square patch next to the main bed. Hopefully they'll perk up quickly. And we planted the marigold seeds around the perimeter since they supposedly deter varmints. We'll see.

Stakes and tomato seedlings (seedlings not yet tied to the stakes).

The cilantro got its own pot since it's such flimsy little thing when it comes up, and we didn't want it to be taken over by the vegetables. But you can definitely plant herbs in your garden right along with everything else, if you'd like.

I love, love, love watermelon, and we happened to find five seedlings for a good price. So the next day we tilled a new patch just for them on top of the hill in our backyard, where there's plenty of room for them to sprawl out.

Watermelon patch and seedlings.

The first watering
When planting seedlings, I like to dig the hole, pour in a cup of water, and then set the seedling in and fill around it. See the wet spot in the picture above? This ensure the roots have plenty of water right away to ease the shock of transplantation. For seed rows, when you're finished planting, just water them until they're nice and soaked (but before you start getting puddles).

That's it!

MDT has never gardened before, aside from a bit of cat grass he'd planted for Ed, so everything's been a learning experience for him. I think his favorite part was tilling; it's so manly. Except that I had show him how it's done by tilling the first round, which is always the hardest.

Now we wait and see.

Be sure to keep your garden moist. Veggies need plenty of water to grow. It's pretty steadily hot and sunny here in St. Louis right now, so we water every evening. You don't want to water during the heat of the day because the sun is magnified through the water droplets and your leaves can get scorched--not good since that's how our little green friends make food. It's best to water around sundown, when it's still warm enough for the leaves to dry before night. If leaves sit wet overnight, they can develop mold, which can kill a whole garden quicker than a hiccup.

Until next time. . . .

If you've got any tips for beginners planning or starting a garden, or any ideas for creative DIY planting accouterments, leave them in a comment below!

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