House Centipedes and Earwigs: Snack Time!

House CentipedeLots of people freak at the sight of a house centipede, an understandable reaction when they scurry about the home at night, quick and leggy, so perfectly embodying the creepy-crawliness of, say, an entryway to The Temple of Doom.

I’ve learned to love them. They’re harmless, they run in fear the moment you tickle their legs, and they eat pesty insects. Colloquially called “ghetto bugs”, they’re really quite adorable on close inspection. We had lots of baby centipedes running around a few weeks ago and truly, it was charming to see the little buggers scampering up and down the doorframes.

We’ve had some earwigs around this season, too, and while earwigs aren’t harmful to people, either (those pincers aren’t actually pincers, and they don’t go in your ears), I have a bias against earwigs because they devoured a bunch of my marigolds a year ago.

House Centipede Eating Earwig
House Centipede Eating Earwig

Last night I spotted a large house centipede on the baseboard near the downstairs bathroom. She* had a tasty dead earwig in her mouth. In my efforts to photograph her with her prize, she fled into the bathroom and I had to guide her back to the hall where I didn’t have to contend with the scale, the toilet, and the hard-to-reach corners.

I’m afraid I distressed her along the way, but once I left her alone and she realized that I wasn’t trying to steal her precious earwig, she joined me in the TV room, ran behind the couch, and–I can only assume–enjoyed her snack while watching a really terrific episode of Breaking Bad.

* I can’t say for certain it was female but am exercising gender fairness, as female centipedes have suffered far too long beneath the oppressive male-centipede hegemony.

Wood Pellet Day

A grueling but enjoyable annual tradition: I carried two tons of wood pellets this morning. We bought a pellet stove for the library several years ago and run it all winter (plus part of fall and spring). The stove burns pellets that look like rabbit feed. We go through a couple of tons during the heating season, and you get a better deal if you order in early summer.

The pellet delivery satisfies me in a forward-thinking, squirrel-burying-nuts kind of way. Since we pay for the pellets now, that’s hundreds of dollars of heating bills that won’t be hitting us around Christmas. Receiving a full supply in warm weather also prevents my having to stock back up in frigid weather, a mistake I made in the first year when I under-ordered and had to carry the extra ton on a slushy cold January day.

Path of Pellets
Path of Pellets

Most people ordering pellets have a driveway. The deliveryman drives up and leaves the order wherever you like, maybe right in the back of your garage where the pellets can stay all winter as you burn them one bag at a time. We have neither a driveway nor a garage, so our delivery is left on the street in front of our house. Where I need them is the back corner of the basement. This takes some work.

The pellets arrive on two separate pallets. Each pallet holds fifty bags weighing 40 lbs each for a rand total of 4,000 lbs.

Our house is higher than the road, with two small hills that don’t look like much until you’re walking up and down them, fully loaded, 100 times.

It’d be easy for someone to steal a bunch of bags in the middle of the night, so I have to get them off the road pronto. And so I do, carrying one bag at time up the double-hill and down the length of the house, where I pile everything up near the rear basement window.

My regular exercise must be paying off because I was able to carry 2,000 lbs. without resting; I wasn’t able to do that two years ago. After the first ton was moved, I came inside, ate a piece of chicken, drank water and juice, watched an episode of Breaking Bad, and went back out to haul the second ton.

Bones, Side Window

Bones was fascinated. He watched me from the front window and ran to meet me at the back window forty times before he finally got tired. (When I carried the second batch, he wised up and watched from the front window only.)

Now that everything’s off the road, Phase 2 will be getting the pellets into the basement. What we do is place a plastic slide from my son’s old swingset so it runs from the ground-level window down to the basement floor. My wife and son slide the bags in–this way they don’t break or grown misshapen–while I receive them inside and pile them up into nice neat stacks. The finished piles are immensely pleasing.

It’s also a hell of a workout. My heart rate was over 150 throughout the two solid hours it took me to move it all. I determined my heart rate using an iPhone app, aptly named Instant Heart Rate, that really works even though it seems like it shouldn’t.


The Eggplant of Salvation

Hey remember when I couldn’t fix the shower and wrote about it here and here? Summary of my frustration:

  1. The tub spout leaked
  2. I replaced the knobs and guts; the spout leak stopped
  3. But then the middle knob that sends the water to either the bathtub spout or the showerhead leaked
  4. I needed to replace the inner diverter, but no one sells the right-sized part anymore
  5. I cleaned the current part and did everything right and the knob itself stopped leaking but then…
  6. Whenever we ran water to the tub spout, water backed up in the pipes and also came out the shower head
  7. Gravity is supposed to prevent this; my enemy was physics
  8. I couldn’t understand why it was happening and gave up
  9. Lost hope, rending of garments

Regular readers will now remember the recent Eggplant Incident in which my darling wife put the troublesome vegetable into the garbage disposal, from whence it traveled and clogged in a pipe just below the earlier-described bathtub and filled said tub with hideous gray dishwasher/eggplant water. As I could not easily access the clog with traditional tools, I used Power Plumber, a can of compressed gas that you blast into the drain to jolt the clog. It worked beautifully.

Now yesterday: I had a handyman coming to do some electric work and was prepared to mention the shower-diverter conundrum. Before he arrived, I tested the shower again and lo and behold, the problem had completely remedied itself. How was this possible??

We owe it to the eggplant, it seems. My wife encouraged me to blog about this (while I was giving her a neck rub) in the hope of repairing her eggplanty reputation. I happily comply.

My theory. There must have been a partial blockage in the pipe below the tub/shower. This blockage prevented the drain water from flowing as intended, which resulted in a very slight backup, which resulted in the water rising up the pipe and leaking out the showerhead. Along came the eggplant to jam at the partial blockage. When I cleared the pipe entirely with Power Plumber, the drain water flowed at full capacity, the pipe stopped backing up, and the shower leak abated. So it seems I fixed the diverter correctly all those weeks ago and didn’t know it.

If not for the eggplant, we might have lost hundreds of dollars as the handyman attempted to solve the mystery and found himself similarly baffled. So hat’s off to the exquisite Mrs. Mahoney putting forbidden “fibrous material” down the garbage disposal. We have our second shower back.

Seasoning the Skillet

Today I’m re-seasoning our cast-iron skillet. It’s a Wagner Ware #8 and we use it all the time for vegetables, eggs, and burgers. The surface has lost a lot of its non-stickableness* and I mean to re-nonstickabilify* it in the oven.

Seasoning SkilletPeople used to do this with lard. I’m going with Crisco. The first step is to scour the skillet with hot soapy water, which you only ever do to a skillet if you’re planning to re-season. (If you scour it all the time, you’ll de-nonstickify* the surface.) Once the skillet is clean and dry, you rub it down with plenty of Crisco, place it on a cookie sheet, and put it into a 250-degree oven for a couple of hours.

If the skillet is really worn out, you may need to repeat the process. I’m going to do it three times in a row to ensure absolute un-stickabilitableness*.

Seasoned Skillet
Newly Seasoned

As I understand it, the heat opens the metal’s pores, allowing the oil to seep in, where it’ll be trapped once the skillet cools and the pores close back up. That creates a long-term seasoned surface.

For regular upkeep, the skillet should be gently cleaned after every use. Then you rub it down with olive or canola oil, place the skillet back onto the hot stove for a minute or two, and let it cool with that extra layer of protective oil so it’s good as new the next time you use it.

* Actual words, as of now.

Pumpkin Plant Kickstand

The giant-pumpkin plants are growing well in the warmer weather. I have three of them under the temporary greenhouse and will eventually cull the weaker two. Right now there’s a clear leader, predictably the one that’s been receiving the most direct sunlight throughout the day. Yesterday that plant tipped forward because of its own increasing weight, a looked-for advance that’s often called “kickstanding” because of how the vine naturally stabilizes itself when this occurs.

Pumpkin KickstandWhat it means is that the vine is beginning to run. As each new leaf develops, the plant will harness more of the sun’s energy, establish new roots at every leaf node, grow secondary vines to the right and left, and grow faster and faster as it lengthens.

I won’t cull the weaker plants until the patch becomes crowded and I have to. It’s good to have an emergency backup as long as possible in case some catastrophe befalls the favored vine.

So far I’ve been mixing a little liquid seaweed and Grow Big fertilizer into the water. The Grow Big is expensive but a gallon goes a long way and it seems to be strengthening the plant very well.

Note: the decay at the tips of the little base leaves is normal. Those leaves are the first to emerge from the seed. Their only function is to get the plant growing before the true leaves take over. They’ll probably fall off entirely in the next few weeks.

Pumpkin Seedlings in the Ground

Five of the six giant-pumpkin seeds germinated over the week. I’m planting three outdoors and keeping the other two (as long as I can) as emergency backups.

The seedlings are planted at the far end of the patch, where the morning and early-afternoon sun shines most directly. After digging three holes and filling each with forty pounds of humus/manure, I mix in a handful of mycorrhiza (a beneficial fungus that increases the root system’s nutrient and water intake; it comes in granules) and gently remove the seedlings from their starter pots. Then I give them a drink of warm water and extreme blend powder (from Extreme Pumpkin Store) and hope they aren’t too shocked by the transplant.

As I wrote in an earlier post, by delaying my start-time by a few weeks this year, the transplant is occurring with warmer air and soil. This ought to reduce the stress and allow them to flourish more quickly. I keep the plants protected from chilly weather, hail, pests, and curious puppies by covering the planting area with a popup greenhouse, making sure to ventilate on hot, sunny days. The greenhouse will remain until the vines outgrow the space. By then I’ll have a makeshift fence to keep Bones from uninhibited access, though it’ll really be a matter of training him not to trample and eat the vines.

Pressurized Eggplant: A Plumbing Tale

Since I don’t wish to name names, allow me to say that anyone who is currently married to me is hereby advised not to dispose of eggplant down the kitchen-sink garbage disposal.

Last night, water from the dishwasher backed up into the kitchen sink and downstairs bathtub. Foul gray water, full of sediment and eggplant. Down in the basement, the kitchen pipe meets the bathtub pipe before it all flows into the giant outflow pipe, and the semi-shredded eggplant had jammed up tight in that particular spot. Everything else in the house bypassed the clog, so we still had a functional upstairs shower, two bathroom sinks, and both toilets. But once I had isolated the clog, I realized there was no easy way to attack it.

The Pipes:

As you can see, the bathtub drain pipe is one twisty mofo, and the chance of successfully feeding an auger down to the clog was zero. I tried plunging the tub drain to no avail, which meant that one of two remaining options–an option I did not like–was opening that white safety cap that juts off the side and feeding the auger in that way. Opening that cap, however, would release the hideous water stuck in the pipe, and said water would need to be caught in a big garbage can or something, and I would assuredly be a gray-eggplant-water-soaked mess by the time it was all over.

Option #2: CRL Power Plumber. I’ve used this stuff before and it’s miraculous. The can is full of non-toxic pressurized gas. You invert the can over the drain, press down, and blast the trapped water against the clog. The gas is super-cold; ice crystals appear after use, and you can apparently get frostbite if it hits your skin directly. I love it dearly.

I wasn’t sure it’d work this time. The clog was way beyond the drain (see pipe picture above), and the blast would have to move the water down the long twisty tub drain and then, at the t-junction, have enough oomph to blow in both directions and still affect the clog way off to the left.

Worth a shot. I removed the bathtub’s drain cap and overflow-drain face plate. Then I stuffed the overflow drain with a wet cloth to contain the pressure, put the can over the tub drain (there was still backed-up water in the tub, which is actually ideal when you’re using CRL), and blasted away. It took half-a-dozen attempts but then I heard that glorious sucking sound, the water began to move, and lo:

Giant-Pumpkin Seed Germination 2012

Last night I took out my big bag of seeds from the 314-lbs. pumpkin I grew in 2010. When I originally gathered those seeds, they were cleaned, dried, baggied, ziplocked, and stored in a cool, dark box, and they’re still in excellent condition.

Giant-pumpkin seeds tend to be thicker than regular seeds, so I do a presoak to soften them up… just an hour or two in warm water mixed with liquefied seaweed; some growers believe the seaweed gives the plants a jumpstart, and since I already have the seaweed for later in the season, I figure it can’t hurt.

Next I gently file the edges of the seeds (everything but the tip, where the delicate embryo is) so moisture can more easily penetrate the shell. I wet a bunch of peat pots; a dry peat pot will wick moisture out of the planting medium and I need to keep everything lightly damp at all times.

Seed-starter mix is added to the pots, just wet enough to barely hold together when it’s squeezed. The seeds are planted tip-down an inch below the surface and lightly covered. Then the pots are placed on a heating pad to keep them warm. If all goes well, the seedings will emerge in less than a week. The seed itself contains just enough energy to get its head in the air. After the seedling is up, the first leaves, or cotyledons, need light to keep growing… not too much direct sunlight or else they’ll burn, but more and more each day until they’re ready to go outside.

I’m germinating later than usual this year. In previous seasons, I’ve started the plants on May 1 and had to wait longer to plant them outside because the overnight temperatures were dangerous cold, even with a temporary greenhouse enclosure. The plants simply don’t grow in chilly air and soil, so they tend to stall a while anyway. This year I’m hoping they’ll respond quickly after I transplant them into the warmer outdoor patch, and any time I lost waiting until May 15 will theoretically be overcome by faster early growth.

I need a fence to keep Bones from eating/trampling the plants, but I will have that temporary greenhouse in place for the first several weeks. We had quite the super happy funtime shoveling compost (last year’s ruined pumpkin, maple leaves, etc.) into a wheelbarrow and over to the patch. Bones kept biting the shovel, leaping into the compost bin, and chasing every shovelful I tossed into the patch. He had a grand old time. It’s a miracle I was able to get the job done, but it was nice having an enthusiastic partner.

Bones Mahoney

Max, our eighteen-year-old cat, died early last week. I was really close to this cat and don’t feel like writing about him yet, but we suddenly have a dog and so I’ll write about that.

My wife and son led the charge on getting a dog so quickly after Max died, though we had talked for years about “getting a dog eventually whenever our poor old achy cat passes on.” We wanted a rescue dog, preferably a mix, not too big and not too small, playful but snuggly, the kind of dog that looks like a dog in the most generic, plain-old-dog sense of the word.

My wife made the perilous move of looking up Homeward Bound and discovering online photos of cute and lovable puppies, which even in our sadness over Max, or perhaps because of the empty-house vulnerability we were all experiencing, convinced us that we had to rescue one of these particular pups as soon as possible, because what if, what if, he or she was destined to be our family pet and our inaction, though perfectly reasonable given our cat grief, resulted in a Badly Thwarted Cosmos or, God forbid, the tragic euthanasia of Unadopted Cuteness? We applied the next day.

We liked one litter best — a set of spaniel mixes (two border spaniels, two boradors) — and went to meet the whole pack of homeless dogs on Saturday morning at a rundown local mall. It’s a place that used to thrive but now, for reasons that are difficult to pin, is empty of virtually everything expect a decent movie theater, a JCPenny at the far end, and a couple of depressing stores that sell incense, dreamcatchers, and pewter dragons (it’s likely even those have closed; I didn’t check). An ideal location, in its way, for a weekly adoption clinic. I suspect it makes the mall smell better.

The minute we arrived, we were greeted by a tawny pup who, as if confirming our cosmic suspicions, had unexpectedly arrived overnight from a high-kill shelter in Kentucky. He would have been euthanized in a matter of days but Homeward Bound saved him, bringing him all the way up to find a home here in upstate NY. We still had our eyes fixed firmly on the litter we’d considered, but here came the Kentucky stranger, over and again, full of friendly action, licking our son, jumping into my lap (to be cradled, not to pounce), and rolling on his back in total submission to my wife. None of the pups we’d planned to chose from gave us any kind of serious attention.

My parents brought their own dog, a terrific sporty Dachshund named Howard, and he and the Kentuckian hit it off right away. This was crucial… we spend a lot of time with my parents and need our dogs to be Bosom Friends. Homeward Bound approved our application more or less immediately. I expected them to say we’d acquire our puppy in several days, once proper arrangements had been made with his foster family. But nope, he was ours on the spot, so before I really grasped what was happening, we had a dog named Bones wagging around the house.

He’s a Jack Russell mix of some kind. Homeward Bound said he was mixed with boxer. Friends and family disagreed. Today at the vet we heard “lab” and “German shep” and discovered he’s probably four months old instead of six, as we were told at the clinic, and so we really don’t know what the heck he is except capital-A awesome and exactly what we wanted.

He was found roaming the streets of Winchester, KY. That’s all the early history we got. He was neutered shortly after being found and got his early shots. But he must have had some training, too, because he’s already pretty good at Sit, Stay, Come, and peeing/pooping outside. He’s great with things that puppies are supposed to have to learn, like soft biting, letting go of toys when nicely asked (even marrow bones and antlers, which he loves), submitting to inner-thigh, belly, face, and tail handling like he’s trusted us for years. He’s been great with every stranger he’s met and seems inquisitive and active — not aggressive — around the few other dogs that we’ve encountered. Today we had the Best Nap Ever on the couch and played with a toy skunk. He rarely barks, and when he does he has a respectable reason.

He’s currently 16 lbs. Not knowing his actual mix, he might double or triple in size by the end of his first year. But that’s OK because he’s home no matter what, and while we still miss our old cat Max, whom my wife got before she even met me 17 years ago and was a member of the family for the entirety of our son’s life, Bones became a permanent Mahoney as soon as we walked into that hopeless old mall.

Giant Pumpkin Season 2012

Giant pumpkin season is here. The serious competitive growers are stretching closer every year to a 1-ton world record. The current record, set last year, is 1,818.5 lbs. You can see that pumpkin here.

My own attempts are far more modest. I read some books about serious pumpkin growing a number of years ago and found myself hooked. Backyard Giants is a terrific account of the early competitive growers that got the sport rolling, and I suspect I’m not the only one who caught the bug by reading it. For the best advice on how to grow a giant yourself, Don Langevin’s books are the definitive resources. There’s even an organic edition for those wishing to avoid the nastier pesticides/herbicides.

Several years ago, I grew some ordinary pumpkins in our small backyard and had such a good time that I expanded operations, digging up a larger plot and scoring a 50-pounder the following summer. By 2010, I’d grown obsessed (I get obsessed with things) and managed to grow a 314-pounder, pictured below:

Last year I had a nice one growing in August but a groundhog chewed it up and I couldn’t save it. Most serious growers have at least a half-dozen plants, so if catastrophe occurs they always have backups. Our yard is simply too small to handle more than one. My patch is about 300 square feet and really ought to be double that. A single vine will easily fill the space in the course of a summer. But having only one heightens the drama, I suppose, and it’s definitely possible to grow a 500-pounder in my yard if everything goes well.

There’s a good chance this is the last year I’ll be growing big pumpkins, although one can never tell with obsessional behavior. I have seeds of excellent lineage (more on that in future posts) and will plant them indoors, in peat pots, in the next week or two. I always start with 4-6 plants and go with the strongest grower.

I’ll be writing updates every Tuesday throughout the season, detailing each step of the way and, I hope, growing a nice fat pumpkin for the fall.