Sunday, December 16, 2012

Make Your Own Soda

Lots of families have kids who love sugary drinks, which we all know are generally unhealthy and are linked to obesity and diabetes. But when Mom and Dad love their soda, too, it is a tricky proposition to remove it completely from the house. But there is another option... and it's healthy, too.

The first thing we must remember is that for most people, soda is actually an acquired taste. This is especially true of diet soda, which often contains chemicals that are quite bad for you in order to provide the "sweetness" craved by the drinker. So changing a soda solution might require a few attempts to get used to the flavor, but it is worth the small effort.

These days, it is becoming more common for families to make their own sodas at home. Carbonating systems are available at many retailers. Their mixes, however, are generally just the same chemical junk found in mass-produced beverages. But if you crave a frosty carbonated beverage, these machines allow you to inexpensively make your own seltzer water, the starting point of all soda drinks.

Without a contraption to sparkle your own water, you can still pick up bottles of seltzer or club soda for a fraction of the cost of name brand cola. Once you have the fizzy water ready, you only need two more ingredients and you are moments away from a delicious soda.

The secret ingredients are fresh lemon juice (you only need a little) and molasses. All sodas need a sweetener of some sort, but looking at all the natural options reveals one basic truth: while sugars generally offer the same calories, they are otherwise mostly nutritionally vacant. Honey and maple syrup offer some trace nutrients and are healthier options than refined sugar, but molasses is a nutritional powerhouse in its own right. That is correct: molasses is downright good for you.

So take a glass of sparkling water, squeeze some lemon into it and stir in a spoonful of molasses. The amounts you like will take a little experimenting to work out, and will likely change as you grow to appreciate the complexities of flavor in good molasses. I recommend the rich tasting black strap variety and Meyer lemons as a flavor combination, and I like mine strong and frothy with an extra pump of carbonation. Have fun finessing your own homemade bubbling beverages!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Pest Solution: Praying Mantids (Mantis)

One day in mid-spring, I walked out to the garden and noticed with some surprise that a whole lot of eagerly awaited guests had arrived. Several times in the past I had tried to get these little critters to emerge in my garden, only to never see more than one or two briefly and then never again. This time, I had decided to do things a bit differently.

Welcoming the Praying Mantis

The first thing that I had done was procure four "eggs" for the common praying mantid (or praying mantis, as it is often called). Two of them I had put out in secure places that were more or less hidden from view and I promptly forgot exactly where they were. The other two I kept inside longer and then placed in highly visible locations where I knew the sun was going to shine on them and really warm them up.

Praying Mantis Eggs are usually available for purchase through, though I purchased mine from a local nursery. The rule of thumb is to put them out when the days are beginning to warm up and insect activity is already noticeable. This way, when they hatch, there will be something for them to feed upon. As an additional precaution, at the first sign of hatching, I made sure to sprinkle water around the area (very gently) so that the baby insects would be able to drink. This proved to be the best move I made in terms of retaining the creatures. They seemed much more interested in water initially than they did in finding any sources of food to hunt. (This is also true of ladybugs, which need to be set free in the evening when it is cool, and are generally quite thirsty right away.)

Mantis or Mantid

According to the National Geographic website, "The praying mantis is named for its prominent front legs, which are bent and held together at an angle that suggests the position of prayer. The larger group of these insects is more properly called the praying mantids. Mantis refers to the genus mantis, to which only some praying mantids belong."

"Mantids" is generally also considered the proper plural form to use when referring to more than one Praying Mantis. However you choose to pronounce it, the creatures are quite fascinating and potentially very beneficial to the home garden. It should be noted, however, that the mantis does not discriminate between other harmful or beneficial insects and will eat whatever is smaller than itself. In rare instances, exceptionally large versions of this insect have been known to eat small animals or birds, but they are generally quite content feeding off the local insect population. (There are some interesting videos available on web site, along with a few interesting facts about the creature.) My experience has been with the more "garden variety" mantis which is expected to reach a maximum of three to four inches in length, therefore posing no threat to hummingbirds or rodents.

 Preparing the birthplace

When I chose a location to place the last of my egg sack (known as an ootheca), I wanted to ensure that the nymphs would be visible when they came out. I also wanted to hatch them in an area where there would likely be insects for them to feed upon without the exposure that would make the nymphs easy prey for birds or lizards. 

I had set up one of my container gardens with netting around it, held in place by a frame above the garden that used to hold a canvas roof. This netting was the right size to keep birds and small animals away from the plants, but insects were still able to easily crawl through the spaces. Hanging the ootheca from the top of the frame made it incredibly easy to see the activity when the nymphs hatched. 

The Egg Sack (Ootheca), Hanging Safely
Young Mantids, A Few Hours Old

Please enjoy the following images of these mantis nymphs from their first weeks of life.

When they were first spotted, crawling out of the ootheca and along the string that held it, many had already made the journey all the way to the top of the frame and had crawled out onto the netting. Putting out some drops of water along their path seemed appreciated and many of the tiny creatures stooped low to drink.

At this stage, the mantis nymph is too small to catch many insects on its own. And they were easy prey for larger spiders that had already set up base on the corners of the frame. To aid the many nymphs, I collected them in small groups and placed them among other plants in the area. I also brought over small collections of aphids that were plucked from a flowering tree (where, incidentally, one of the earlier oothecas had also hatched).

These various actions may have helped to ensure that the mantis population was able to take root. While there were perhaps a hundred of these creatures, maybe even more, during the first few days, the population rapidly began to dissipate. Some of the mantids were obviously moving on to new places, some seemed simply to die for no apparent reason (lack of food, perhaps), a few clearly had become meals themselves. 

Still, one month down the line, a handful of larger mantids continue to hang out in or near the plants on which they initially settled. The most noticeable difference in my garden versus previous years that were mantis-free is that the tomato plants are suffering far less from invasive diners. The same can be said of the morning glories that adorn the edges of the garden. While it has taken some perseverance, and there are still "tomato worms" that need to be occasionally plucked from the vines, this year's biggest nuisance bug has been the katydid. The population of the katydid has recently diminished, however, and the plants in general are being much less consumed. Hard to say how much of this is due to the still relatively small mantis army (small in size and small in numbers), but much has changed in the first 30 days of having them around.

Hunting Aphids

Hunting Aphids

The Mantis Nymph is easy to catch
Probable Female, 5 Days Old
One Day Old Nymph

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Flies and Maggots

The video linked here contains some unsettling footage for those of us who don't like watching maggots squirm. It is interesting, however, because it shows in detail what appears to be a pair of maggots (or fly larvae) emerging from a mother fly.

Normally flies lay eggs. Although commonly believed that all flies lay eggs, there are a few notable exceptions to this rule. There is a large fly in Africa, for instance, that gives birth to a larva that is almost as large as the mother and is quite active at birth, but this single child at a time version of fly reproduction is confined (as far as we know) to a single species. A few other smaller flies are known to give birth as well, though it is not something normally seen in the United States.

The fly in this video was captured in Los Angeles, California. I am posting it here as a simple reminder of why we should all keep flies out of our homes as much as possible.

Certainly, flies play a role in nature. They feed on rotting food, carcasses and excrement and help these things break down in the environment. The downside to this is that flies also carry germs and bacteria from their food sources and readily deposit them on everything they touch. Flies spread diseases and carry pathogens quite readily. Plus, they deposit their eggs in large quantities wherever they can find a food source for the emerging maggots.

Reducing or removing anything that might attract a fly from inside the home is an essential step in keeping flies away. They are attracted to uncovered kitchen compost containers, garbage and recycling bins. Ensuring that covers are used on garbage containers is beneficial, however it is best to still take the garbage outside often. Even a covered container may emit smells that attract flies, which will then continue buzzing around indoors while looking for a place to deposit their eggs.

If this video is to be believed, then the featured fly and others like it could simply be dropping maggots in the kitchen, bathroom or bedroom. Most indoor trash containers could potentially offer some sort of food source for flies, so ensuring they remain covered or emptied is important.

Obviously, installing screens and keeping unscreened doors and windows closed is a good idea. There are some decent non-chemical solutions on the market for keeping flies at bay. But nothing takes the place of simple diligence.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Gardening With Limited Space

Container Gardens Can Be Prolific

For many years now, I have had no yard space available for my own garden. At previous homes, I had been able to cut out a section of dirt in my yard to section off for growing vegetables. With my current home, however, I do not have an area in the grass that I am comfortable removing or that would afford the necessary amount of full sun to grow what I want.

This posed an interesting problem when I moved here because I definitely wanted a garden to grow my own produce. Yet the only area on the property that truly seemed to have the proper conditions for sunlight was my driveway. Because I do not use the garage for parking a car, it seemed reasonable to re-purpose a section of the driveway for container gardening. But I wanted something big enough and deep enough to grow the plants I had in mind. It's a no-brainer that tomatoes can do well in containers, but I really wanted to expand into pumpkins and root vegetables and other plants that need a little more room to maneuver. So several years ago I sat down with a measuring tape and some paper and figured out the dimensions for a box that could fit alongside the driveway in the narrow space next to the fence.

I discovered that there was plenty of room for a quite sizable box garden, which could be deeper than any of my other containers and offer the space to plant several rows of vegetables. The first year, I even grew corn. 

Building a container is fairly easy, though you need to start with the proper materials. Buying wood for the frame that is not chemically treated is essential, because those chemicals do not belong in your food. Check with the local lumber store to find out which of your locally available wood options will resist rot the best. Untreated pine seems to do a fine job. And it looks good naturally, weathers well and is very easy to work with.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Natural Cleaners for the Home

When we clean the house, my family no longer uses brand name cleansers and the house has never felt or looked cleaner. Another big bonus is that it smells better, too! There is no chemical smell. Instead, the air in each room feels fresh. Windows have fewer streaks. Counter tops are disinfected. Floors shine. Tubs and sinks sparkle. And we save money in the process. It is not all about harder scrubbing and working ourselves to the bone, either.

What's the secret? Only common sense (and a little bit of research).

The Green Clean Book
Hydrogen Peroxide
Guide to Speedy Green Cleaning

Natural Cleaning Agents

Like most people, I used to clean with products purchased at the grocery or hardware store. In fact, I had spent some time as a youth working as a janitor at my father's office. Typically, the most toxic chemicals were chosen with the idea that they would get the job done most quickly and with the least amount of effort. That is how most people appear to approach the cleaning process, professionally or otherwise. Spray on something that will "scrub" the tiles so you don't have to. Squirt something to dissolve the stains so the brush (and physical contact) becomes unnecessary. Use disposable pads and avoid having to touch anything dirty or full of germs. These selling angles appear everywhere these days and seem to be convincing consumers that there is no better way. But there is a better way, a healthier way and a smarter way to clean.

The best part is, it is also cheaper to clean with natural ingredients. While there are terrific pre-made environmentally friendly alternatives on the market, like the Conserve brand, it is easy to mix up your own home concoction from simple ingredients you probably already have.

Image of white vinegar, rubbing alcohol, baking soda and a lemon

Ingredients for a better clean

Start by looking in the kitchen pantry and the bathroom medicine cabinet. These two places are commonly stocked with the basics. What is not already there can be easily retrieved from virtually any grocery or convenience store, usually at a cost of less than $1 per item. The best news: nothing toxic to worry about.
  • Alcohol
  • Vinegar
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Baking Soda
  • Lemon Juice
  • Water

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Growing an Organic Garden

As people learn more about what is involved with factory farming, planting and growing organic food at home is becoming a more appealing option. The increasing costs of healthy grocery store options vs the effort involved with creating an organic garden at home have lead more and more people to develop small garden plots. Urban farming continues to rise.

Growing Organic Gardens

Going organic can begin with some simple steps. Regardless of the garden size, the first and most important step is to establish the physical parameters and fill the area with clean, chemical-free soil. Using a proper compost base layer will lead to healthier vegetable growth by loosening the soil and filling it with nutrients. Composting takes a long time to do at home, so initially it may be necessary to utilize commercial compost. Over time, however, it pays off to create a personal compost reserve suited to the size of an established garden.

One of the primary tenets of an organic home garden is to avoid the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. While these are readily available and highly effective, there is much research to show that these chemicals may be absorbed into the body and that they may cause lasting damage to the environment. Natural alternatives frequently do not work as advertised, which causes many would-be organic farmers endless frustration. Yet there are simple physical options that can inexpensively solve many of the more common problems.