AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Garbage plants DATE: 6:04 AM ----- BODY:
This section of the garden is where I put all the plants I can't fit anywhere else. Imagine my surprise when they matured into this lovely community of leaf shapes, colors and sizes.

Clockwise from bottom left: Extra Foxglove, Russian Sage, Witch Hazel (the only thing planned for this spot), cool Japanese grass, a weird blueberry adapted to the Southern states, Swordfern.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Tomatoes! DATE: 9:00 AM ----- BODY:
Woo-hoo! Tomato season is under way! For weeks I've been watching my eight tomato plants get loaded down with tomatoes of all shapes and sizes.

Three varieties of tomatoes we are eating now. Only one SunGold is pictured because the others were eaten before the picture could be taken.

Last week we started eating our SunGold cherry tomatoes. Those little guys are definitely going on my list of tomatoes to plant every year. They are like little sweet fireworks in your mouth - the juice squirting out of their skins. Mmm... those aren't lasting long in our house.

Our three-year-old eats them faster than she eats the M&Ms out of her trail mix. We are working on teaching her which ones are ripe enough to pick. We've ended up with some rather green SunGold tomatoes! I keep intending to collect enough to make an arugula and tomato pasta, put alas, they are eaten too quickly.

We've also gotten a handful of Yellow Pear tomatoes. This is the first year I've grown them and I am still learning what color they should be when picked. The first we picked too yellow and I wasn't in love with the taste. However, the next three we picked were riper and the taste was much sweeter. I've learned that I need to keep my 15-month-old away from the Yellow Pear tomatoes. He thinks they are just the right size to squeeze in his little fist.

The Cherokee Purple is the first of our slicing/beefsteak tomatoes to ripen. We haven't eaten yet...it's on the menu tonight for supper with some of our fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil. There is no better salad.

We are continuing to watch our other varieties grow larger and larger and ripen; I think a good-sized Brandywine will be the next tomato on our menu.

Fresh tomatoes are so exciting!

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Build your own compost bins DATE: 8:30 AM ----- BODY:
A compost bin can be as simple as a big pile that gets turned maybe once. It gets moistened by the rain, drains into the soil below, and is big enough to get hot inside.

But the needs of an urban gardener can require a bit more structure. Your piles need to be more "contained," partly for looks, but partly because the less space you have, the more organized you need to be. Smaller piles need to be turned more frequently, so you'll need at least three bins if you want to crank through a couple loads of compost every year. In theory, the third bin is for finished compost, the first two for flipping a single pile back and forth every time I turn it. I say in theory because I need the compost before it gets to the third bin. If I'd had more space, I would have built four bins - the fourth holding carbons (leaves) until I had enough nitrogens (greens) to build a proper pile from the start.

Mostly I use compost as a mulch. I compost it about three quarters of the way - so that it's at least a uniform brown - but it's still got lots of stick-like things poking out every which way. I spread it around in my perennial beds, covering up the stubble of the cover crop. A more refined gardener would sift it through a half-inch screen at least and put the sticks back in the bin for another round of digestion. But I'm too lazy for that. I dig it into the vegetable garden a little more aggressively, feeling a little guilty that it's not better composted (and thus will rob my plants of nutrients just a little while, until it's done digesting).

There's a lot of science behind composting. For the most part, I ignore it, adding greens until (the next day) the temperature of the pile feels about as hot as a hot-tub. In my small pile, this temperature doesn't last long, so I add lawn mowing greens whenever I mow (and turn the pile at the same time). The clearest guide I've seen to the science of composting can be found here.

There are a lot of good compost bins on the market. They're all based on the idea that you don't turn the stuff, you just put waste in at the top and either scoop it out of the bottom when it's done or let it sit until it's completely done and then "unwrap" it. If you chose to turn one of these systems, you'd need a lot of space. Compost tumblers may have problems staying moist, according to Gardenaut Dale. And if it's not in contact with the soil, you're getting fewer micro-organisms in there to digest the stuff. So with tumblers you have to buy "compost activators," leave enough of the old compost in there to recharge a new load, or treat a tumbler as a second-stage composter to transfer half-finished compost into for rapid breakdown.

I like to manage my compost, turning it by pitchfork every week or so, mixing in fresh greens when it cools down too much. I use the pitchfork to provide the fresh oxygen a tumbler is supposed to introduce, which helps speed up the composting process. To this end, I use a classic three-bin system, with removable slats on the front. A lid is optional, in my case, since I place my food waste in a green cone, where rats can't get at it. The three bins allow me 2 bins for the "working" load of compost (which I turn back and forth from one bin to the other) and a third bin for "finishing," this is the cooler stage when the worms move in and make it all nice and crumbly.

How we made our bins

Generally, I follow Seattle Tilth's plan for an urban compost bin: Three, three-foot cubes side-by-side. But my bins were right up against the property line, so I built a solid cinder-block wall along the back. Wood tends to fall apart after awhile, dumping bits of refuse into the neighbor's yard. I also used cinder blocks for the dividing walls, though I penetrated these with holes so the soil organisms could travel back and forth between bins. I also wanted to avoid using pressure-treated lumber where the composting was going on, and concrete is a relatively inert material.

The superstructure is inert, solid, concrete. A secondary wood frame is attached to the concrete using anchor bolts cast into the concrete slurry inside the cinder blocks. This wood frame provides an easy place for attaching lids, the metal tracks for the removeable front boards, etc. Wood is cedar where in contact with compost, ACQ pressure-treated on top of the bins (where I may attach a lid later). I probably would have used cedar there too if the bins were not protected from the rain. Then I screwed in a metal "L" shaped channel, so that removable wood slats could line the front of the bin. I found the metal in the basement, from a previous owner of the house; it was part of a bedframe. The removeable front slats are any old wood - 2x4 untreated studs. They can rot as they wish, and are easily replaceable. I used "duplex" nails (these have a double head - making them stick out a prescribed distance) as spacers, keeping the wood front slats gapped to allow air penetration. If the other wood components rot, it will be easy to unscrew the anchor bolts and replace the wood.

The first year, I smashed up a lot of free pumpkins from my grocery store's dumpster out of Halloween. But the liquid had nowhere to go, and pools of moldy pumpkin juice made the bottoms of the bins rather yucky all winter. The second year, I rented a jackhammer and busted a drainage hole into the concrete slab. Nothing fancy, just a hole. The worms provide the drainage channels. This hole also provides a repository for decomposers. Until this hole, my bins had a problem not unlike a compost tumbler - they had no direct contact with microorganisms in the soil.

I love the look of my bins. But if I had to do it all again, I'd have made all the interior walls and probably one of the side walls our of a concrete frame with a mostly mesh infill panel - removeable, replaceable panels of course. The concrete frame restricts airflow too much. Granted, I turn my piles a lot, so some of this is mitigated. I'm also toying with the idea of sinking a perforated pipe in the heart of each pile, but this is an awkward work-around.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: A vegetable garden, dug the old-fashioned way DATE: 9:14 AM ----- BODY:
After reading about all of the inspired methods for carving a garden bed out of your lawnscape, I sure regretted digging my garden the old-fashioned way. Here it is at left several weeks ago: just some herbs that basically wouldn't die. In the photo are chives, garlic chives, marjoram, tarragon, oregano, lemon balm, thyme, catnip, mint, chamomile, a rosemary that survived the mid-Atlantic winter, and a sage that didn't. I was sad about this until I realized the plant had left us a parting gift in the form of a volunteer descendant, growing right in the middle of the chamomile.

To dig the rest of the garden, I first stripped off the top three or four inches of grass. I stacked this sod along the edge of our yard, where it slopes down a little too much for our comfort - it might be ugly this year, but it will grow in eventually and we'll have a flatter edge.

Then I double-dug into the Maryland clay, breaking up the "soil" and adding organic matter (grass clippings, composted leaves,) fertilizer, and topsoil. It was hard, ugly work. If I had to do it all over again, I might just plant some of those radishes, sit back and wait for next summer. I'm sure that method is more sustainable and better for the soil, in addition to a lot less work! But now I have a plot that's roughly tripled in size, from 50 square feet to 144, and I have it right this very minute, along with a sore back and a sunburn.

I had laid out a rough plan of where everything would go, but alas, my seedlings are not doing so well. I think my well-meaning husband may have over-watered them in the basement, and one of the days when I left them outside ("hardening them off") we had a surprise downpour, which saturated them further.

The herbs were the best-faring of the bunch, so I put the basil, parsley and nasturtium seedlings into the ground as soon as it was ready. The complete failures were, surprise, the ones everyone tells you not to start indoors: beans and squash. A few of them were still alive, in a spindly and sad sort of way, so I put those in hoping for a miracle, and planted seeds nearby just in case the miracle didn't come through. The lettuce and onions sprouted briefly and then died (again, I suspect overwatering). And I'm still holding out hope for the tomatoes and peppers, which are still alive and green, but small.

Below, the (edible) garden in a recent photo. As you can see, the other members of my family were exceedingly helpful. Yes, that is the last sip of a Belgian beer in Rob's hand.

"Who will help me eat the stringbeans?" said the little red hen...

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Looking on the bright side DATE: 6:30 AM ----- BODY:
The lot to the west from my house is owned by a mostly blind, mostly deaf, shut-in little old lady. She knew my name when my husband and I first moved in, but now she seems to have lost it in the cruel fog of aging.

Lawn care, understandably, is not a priority of hers, and through the years the dandelions have become... shall we say... dominant.

There is a bright side that I remind myself of every time I curse the thick rain of dandelion fluff that covers my property. I know for sure that she never, ever, uses dangerous weed killing chemicals on her lawn. With one new baby, one large dog that eats anything, eight quasi-free range chickens and two organic garden plots, I am glad that I fret about harmless yellow flowers, not chemical warfare.

Furthermore, I know where I can get dandelions to try out that jelly recipe...

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Fits and starts of a Montana spring DATE: 9:00 AM ----- BODY:
I can see snow at the tops of the ridges that surround my house, but I got a pretty bad sunburn last week while downtown for a microbrewery festival. The signs of spring are strong - the farmer's market is running, we have outdoor festivals downtown again, there is sunshine, which comes with more exposed skin, and then in the last few days this has happened:

Adequate chicken protection ain't pretty(before)

The big payoff! (after)

The good part of spring has legitimately arrived here. Now, that isn't to say it is warm out, or that frost danger is over, or that I can safely plant broccoli starts. It is more like a frame of mind. Instead of debating leather clogs or lightweight hiking boots, I'm debating sandals or Crocs. I shouldn't get ahead of myself, however. In 1996 Missoula had a freak weather event that dropped six inches of thick snow on June 1st. You gotta stay on your toes in a climate like this.

Happiness is tulips under the office window

We've been busy with planting prep lately. I bought some locally grown organic potatoes that I intend to chop in half and then plant. This method is cheap, easy, and effective. The locally grown part ensures that the potatoes are adapted to our soil and climate. The organic part guarantees that they haven't been sprayed with anti-sprouting chemicals (most store-bought potatoes are, because people don't like it when they sprout). And cutting the potato in half doubles your potato investment without, as far as I can tell, affecting your final harvest. Then you drop your potato half into a 6" deep hole surrounded by well turned soil. Done! Harvest those spuds in September! I'll do this tomorrow because today it is blustery and chilly, which is bad weather for gardening with a eight-week-old baby strapped to your back.

I broke down and bought lettuce starts. My lettuce from seed is 1/4" tall right now. Pitiful. And I hate buying lettuce at the farmer's market for some reason. It angers me that I am so bad at growing it that I need to buy it. So instead I'm cheating and I bought six starts. That ought to ease my lettuce pain until the lettuce from seed gets moving on up.

On the other hand, I always buy tomatoes as starts, and I always buy from the same little farm because they harden off their tomatoes very nicely before they sell them. This year I got excited and bought six instead of four. I'm not sure why. I buy the same cherry tomato varieties every year - Sweet 100s and Sun Golds. Why mess with a good thing? On the other hand, I vary my Roma and Slicer purchases. One year I had Cosmonauts and Early Girls, another year Juliet and Oregon Spring. I have yet to say to myself, "YES! This is the correct breed of Roma for my garden!" so I just keep trying. One year it will happen, I am sure.

My tomatoes are currently in a foster home of sorts - they are still at the farm, yet they have been earmarked for me. At their greenhouse on their farm they are kept in much better shape then I'm capable of, so I just order them through my co-op and hope that they don't get delivered until at least May 15th. I can't plant them until June 1st in good conscience, and even that is risky business. I've checked the NOAA website during the first week of June before and found myself grabbing big plastic tarps at 9 p.m. to protect my tomatoes and basil from imminent frosty destruction. My neighbor, who is 90 and has lived with her 91-year-old husband on their tiny city lot for 73 years, is almost always out there with me. We both curse the weather from our respective sides of the tidy fence that separates our lots as she covers her ten Early Girl tomato starts with tattered flowery bedsheets and a very, very practiced hand.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Urban gardening and green business DATE: 7:01 AM ----- BODY:
An inspiring story from today's New York Times:
Greensgrow, a one-acre plot of raised beds and greenhouses on the site of a former steel-galvanizing factory, is turning a profit by selling its own vegetables and herbs as well as a range of produce from local growers, and by running a nursery selling plants and seedlings.

The farm earned about $10,000 on revenue of $450,000 in 2007, and hopes to make a profit of 5 percent on $650,000 in revenue in this, its 10th year, so it can open another operation elsewhere in Philadelphia.

In season, it sells its own hydroponically grown vegetables, as well as peaches from New Jersey, tomatoes from Lancaster County, and breads, meats and cheeses from small local growers within a couple of hours of Philadelphia.

The farm, in the low-income Kensington section, about three miles from the skyscrapers of downtown Philadelphia, also makes its own honey ? marketed as ?Honey From the Hood? ? from a colony of bees that produce about 80 pounds a year. And it makes biodiesel for its vehicles from the waste oil produced by the restaurants that buy its vegetables. [Link]

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Time to eat DATE: 1:00 AM ----- BODY:
Thanks to the warm front porch and some shy bunnies, the harvest has begun around here. We made a salad the other day with the porch lettuce and the winter survivor arugula.We had to cheat a bit and throw in some store lettuce, but it was still divine.

Kansas is a very difficult place to grow greens in the summer for some reason. It's no hotter than Utah and no moister than Connecticut, both places where I had decent luck with summer greens. There must be something about our particular mix of brutal heat and frequent hot winds in summer that just sucks the life out of even the most robust greens. If anyone has advice on overcoming that problem, I'd be happy to hear it.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: What a difference some rain makes! DATE: 11:00 AM ----- BODY:
It's amazing what a difference rain makes in the garden. Over the last 30 days our rainfall total is 0.88" above normal and you can see it in our plants - everything is thriving. The zucchini seeds we planted have sprouted and already put on their first true leaves; the cukes, peas, and beans are all finding their way up our trellises; and you can see the beginnings of blossoms on our bell peppers and tomatoes. For this gardener there's nothing more satisfying than a nice steady spring rain followed by a day of sun. Plants seem to respond with explosive growth so rapid it makes you think you can see the cells multiplying if you look hard enough.
Of course I'm not naive enough to think this good fortune is going to last as we head into June. Our soaker hoses are down and our rainbarrels are full and at the ready. I still need to buy a pump I saw at Harbor Freight Tools that hopefully will deliver water from our rain barrells to the soaker hoses with enough pressure to push water through the pores in the hoses. Even though the rain barrell in the picture below is about four feet off the ground, gravity alone isn't enough to push the water out of the soaker hoses. However, this set up does work great for watering our blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, asparagus, hops, and strawberries, all of which are down hill from the barrell.


The fruits and veggies aren't the only things benefitting from our spring rains. Our perrennials in this bed seem to really be enjoying themselves as well. Even our chickens are benefitting from the rain. Since the coop is right next to a rain barrell their waterer gets filled from the barrell, which is also convenient for the chicken keepers.

I guess about the only downside to our rainfall is that the weeds are doing very well too, but given the "exceptional" drought we went through last year I'll take the weeds with the rain.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Hope springs eternal DATE: 6:45 AM ----- BODY:
Our house is in the middle of a hill between two wetlands, and for years it that seemed as the snow melted each spring it ran down the hill and seeped up into our basement. After last spring, when it took eight kind neighbors and me five hours to empty the entire soggy basement while the dad was on a work trip, we realized we needed a plan. That fall we decided the way to keep water out of our basement each spring was to re-grade part of our backyard and replace our deck.

We drew up a modest little deck with a small expansion, painstakingly got city approval, and had lumber and a bobcat delivered. he only way to get the bobcat into the backyard, without destroying the aforementioned kind neighbors' lawn, was to drive through one of our side gardens.

The very prettiest garden I had. The one that people out on walks stop and ask about. My pride and joy. Fine. I stood in the garden and guarded the heirloom peonies, originally from my grandma's house, that I had already moved to three different houses. (We wrote it into the purchase agreements.) Everything was squashed.

Earlier this spring a few bulbs came up amidst the gravel and tire tracks. Just the other day I noticed a few other green things. Hope springs eternal...

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: An oral tradition DATE: 7:00 AM ----- BODY:
I think of gardening as an oral tradition. Some things I love reading about, cooking, eating, and parenting, to name a few. However, I don?t think of gardening as something I read about. I tried before, I even read a book that was specific to gardening in Texas and I planted things at the wrong times, planted the wrong things, and couldn?t find other plants in the book. I ended up rather frustrated.

I ditched the book. It?s sitting forlornly on a bookshelf, gathering dust. Instead, I decided to talk to people I considered experts on gardening, my parents and grandparents, people at local nurseries (usually the owners), and the farmer from our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. Of all of those, the farmer has proven to be the most helpful.

When I picked up my box of vegetables from the farm, I usually run into the farmer. He usually shows me his new projects; the new greenhouse, the irrigation tanks, and this week, the composting project he was starting. In turn, I get to ask any garden questions I had for the week. This week was about tomatoes.

I asked about suckering tomato plants. I?ve heard people say I should sucker my plants. I don?t and was hoping I wasn?t severely limiting my tomato output. I didn?t expect the farmer suckered all his plants (he estimated he has 6,000 tomato plants in this year, including 20 different varieties of heirlooms!), but I thought maybe he would have advice for someone gardening on a much smaller scale.

His response was that there are two different types of tomato plants - ones that need suckering and ones that don?t. The ones that suckering is beneficial to is the indeterminate plants, those that will produce indefinitely and grow monstrously huge. I had seen the word indeterminate before in seed catalogs, but had ignored it because I didn't know what it meant.

Thinking of my tomatoes, I knew exactly what those were: Mortgage Lifter (pictured on left) is an indeterminate, however my cherry tomatoes appear not to be. My grape tomatoes are an indeterminate. Upon a little research on the internet (my exception to the reading is Seed Catalogs and pictures of plants or bugs), I learned that Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and Old German's are also indeterminate. Here I had thought that the nitrogen content in my little garden had varied greatly from one area to another. It seems it is more the plant than the dirt.

Back to suckering. The farmer then went on to say that one year (when he had a lot fewer tomato plants), he tried suckering his plants. He said it was a lot of work, and he didn?t notice a difference.

I am sticking to that opinion. Maybe someday, when my kids are older, I will have time to sucker my tomatoes. For now, I am letting them grow wild and free without worrying too much that my tomatoes will be less than they could be. They will still be mighty tasty!

And about reading: Maybe someday I will find that great gardening book by someone who writes not just in a scientific, educational way, but who also has a sense of humor and makes gardening mistakes (like not suckering indeterminate tomatoes). Maybe then I'll change my mind about gardening books. Barbara Kingsolver has come the closest so far, with her Animal, Vegatable, Miracle. It isn't really a book about how to garden, just a book about someone who does garden.

Do you sucker your tomatoes? And do you find better advice in books, or from the "experts" around you?
----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Eco turf: Who needs a lawn when you can have a meadow? DATE: 6:45 PM ----- BODY:


This year I'm experimenting with lawn substitutes. I bought a bag of a seed mix locally called "eco turf," which I plan to broadcast over my existing lawn. I've seen similar mixes sold as "Fleur de Lawn" from Protime Lawn Seed. My hope is to populate my tiny lawn with cute little flowers. It may even extend my lawn's season, since the grass quickly turns brown in late July when our annual summer drought begins.

We'll probably have to stop walking in the lawn barefoot, since the possibility of stepping on a bee is quite real. But I'm hoping to expand the buffet for those tiny stingless parasitic wasps, the kind that do nasty things to aphids. Like lay wasp eggs on their pillowy aphid backs so the baby wasps will have something to munch on when they emerge.

Where else but in the garden do you find such a perfect mixture of the cute and the gruesome?

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Planting has begun DATE: 4:15 AM ----- BODY:
I wish I could report that my seedlings are thriving, but I can't. After the initial springing to life, they became wilty and listless. Nothing I tried revived them and finally, I had to admit they were not going to make it.

I mourned them briefly, then we got to work on the beds. After two trips to the store, we had enough top soil and peat moss to fill one of them. I put down landscaping fabric, Tracy topped that with gravel for drainage, then we added the dirt. About halfway through this process we realized that trying to create and maintain two beds of this size was a little ambitious, and we decided to consolidate our efforts to one bed.

I planted a few seeds and they were promptly "watered" by a day-long rain. Tonight, we bought plants and I put them in - tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, strawberries, echinacea and lavender. It's satisfying to see the young plants in their neat rows -



- and I'm ready to fill my spray bottle with cayenne pepper "tea" that's supposed to keep the squirrels away. I had a talk with this guy



as he was raiding the bird feeder and he promised to leave the tomatoes alone.
----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Portable Sand Table DATE: 7:42 PM ----- BODY:

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: BPA-Free Water Bottle Showdown DATE: 8:41 AM ----- BODY:

Concerns about the chemical bisphenol-A recently saw polycarbonate water bottles pulled from retail shelves in Canada, and changes in the U.S. appear to be following the same path. This means water bottle manufacturers have been rolling out new models or showcasing existing bottles that are BPA-free, and consumers are also taking a closer look at stainless steel, coated aluminum, and polypropylene water bottles to replace old standards. Luckily, there are a variety of styles available from a lot of great brands.

We keep a reusable water bottle at our side whenever we're in the garden, while we're working at our computers, when we're out running errands, and during travel. It's our best bet for having cold, clean water on hand wherever we are, without wasting plastic bottles or the money it costs to buy water on the go. But different needs call for different features, so there can't be one "best" bottle in this showdown; instead, we selected several of the best options we found as our favorites. We evaluated BPA-free water bottles by the following brands over a five-week period of continual use:
We've also rounded up most of the contenders in our new Gardenaut Store, where you can buy any of the above available from Amazon.com.

Evaluation Criteria
Bottle Reviews

Camelbak
BPA-Free Better Bottle with Bite Valve [$10-$12, Amazon.com]

BPA-Free Better Bottle [Amazon.com (see note)]
Design: Good. Camelbak's "bite valve," a straw lid with a plastic housing that must be bitten to allow water to be sucked out, takes a bit of getting used to, but it works well and quickly becomes natural. This model features a twist cap to open the valve and allow water to pass through; a "classic cap" version offers a simple screw lid, and an alternate bite-valve lid design (not yet available for sale) flips the straw into a depression in the cap, one of our favorite bottle designs overall. Available in 16-, 25- and 32-oz. sizes, the smallest of these features a slimmed-down base portion to allow it to fit in standard cupholders.
Durability: Moderate. The bottle itself is made of highly durable Tritan copolyester. When bottles were dropped on their lids scratching of the lid and mild damage to some valves occurred. All bottles remained fully functional.
Insulation: N/A.
Value: Good. Priced at $8 for the Classic Cap version or $14 for the bite valve model, we believe the BPA-Free Better Bottle's thoughtful features and durability make it a good buy.

Note: There are still a wide variety of BPA-containing Camelbak bottles on the market, and the limited name changes for their non-polycarbonate version as well as the "Better Bottle" title that applies to both polycarbonate and the new Tritan bottles may be confusing some consumers. At this time only the Classic Cap model appears to be available to consumers in the BPA-free version. Any models you find in the Gardenaut Store have been vetted as BPA-free; if buying in a brick-and-mortar store, note that Camelbak's new Tritan bottles have "BPA-free" printed on the bottle itself.

BPA-Free Better Bottle With Flip-Top Bite Valve [$10-$12, Amazon.com]

BPA-Free Better Bottle with Classic Cap, .5-Liter [$8, Amazon.com]
Podium Bottle [Amazon.com]
Design:
Fair. The Podium Bottle features a pliant polypropylene body and a sport cap that twists to open. Water is released at the speed one would expect from this type of cap, making its graduated opening settings somewhat superfluous. The bottle's dial settings become firm near the beginning and end of the turn, making securing the valve in a fully open or closed position slightly awkward. There is no clear advantage of this lid type over the standard pop-up ring lid typically seen in biking water bottles, particularly as the latter can be opened with the user's teeth. Available in 21- and 24-oz. sizes.
Durability: High. Hardness is not necessarily equivalent to durability, as this bottle proves. The bottle suffered no damage when dropped on its lid.
Insulation: N/A.
Value: Fair. At $8 it is competitive with similar bottles, but its design is inferior even to standard biking water bottles.
Performance Bottle [Amazon.com|REI.com]
Design:
Good. The Performance Bottle features a 22-oz. soft polypropylene body and a bite valve lid.
Durability: Moderate. Dropping the bottle on its top resulted in a scratched handle and a slightly wiggly straw top.
Insulation: N/A.
Value: Excellent. For a mere $8, the Performance Bottle offers Camelbak's well-designed bite valve straw lid in a lightweight, flexible polypropylene bottle. A Gardenaut Top Pick.

Klean Kanteen


Stainless Steel Sports Bottle [Amazon.com|REI.com]
Design: Good. The Klean Kanteen's simple design does the job. Stainless steel with a small enough footprint to stand tall in most cupholders, the Kanteen's screw-top lid is easy to open and its sports top functions as expected. The possible squeaking of steel on steel of the loop or flat cap may bother some, and the sport cap is a good alternative which also keeps ice inside when drinking iced drinks.
Durability: High. The Klean Kanteen can and does dent when dropped, but dents are minor and only add to its character. The lid and neck are extremely durable. This water bottle is a tank.

Insulation: Moderate. The bottle's stainless steel is a good insulator, and a thick top plug, also stainless steel, makes a significant contribution. The mouth is wide enough to add ice, and foam sheaths are widely available to provide some insulation and keep your hands from freezing.
Value: Good. The Klean Kanteen comes in a large range of sizes - 12, 18, 27, and 40 ounces - with several cap styles available. We like the 27 oz. size best, which is generous but still fits in a standard cupholder. Foam sheaths are available to increase insulation and protect your bottle.
Nalgene
Everyday Tritan Bottle [Amazon.com]
Design: Good. The lid swivels vertically on a hinge built into its loop cap, and those who like to drink to fast will appreciate the quarter-sized opening, which makes quenching your thirst a hasty affair. The inside top of the cap has a soft seal that presses firmly against this gaping maw when the lid is closed, making the bottle leak-proof.

Unfortunately the plastic catch this lid uses lacks the satisfying snap a bottle this bulky demands, and users will find themselves fiddling with it a bit to make sure the cap on the opening is closed tight. That said, this bottle's design impressed all of our testers; the Everyday Tritan simply means business, heavy like a good sledge and nearly as strong.

Durability: High. When dropped on its lid, Nalgene's Everyday Tritan bottle popped open, but neither the hinge nor the opening sustained any damage.
Insulation: N/A.
Value: Excellent. At $9, this solid contender's value is hard to beat among non-insulated bottles. A Gardenaut Top Pick.

Polar Bottle

Insulated Water Bottle [Amazon.com]
Design: Good. Polar Bottles' sports-style plastic squeeze bottles are formed in two layers with a sealed core of insulation that helps keep liquids cool. At just over 4.5 ounces, their 24-oz. bottle is extremely lightweight bottle and clearly it and the company's 20-oz. model are the least bulky of the "refrigerating" bottles on the market.
Durability: High. The bottle's flexible polypropylene construction is highly durable. Where the new entrants by Nalgene or Camelbak pride themselves on their ability to withstand blows, the Polar Bottle gives in gently, then reclaims its turf. The bottles were not damaged, or even scuffed, by any of our drop tests.
Insulation: Fair. The insulating layer allows this bottle to outperform traditional sports bottles, but it can't compete with even single-walled metal containers. Chilling the bottle and water in the fridge solves that problem.
Value: Excellent. At $8 to $10 for their 20 and 24-oz. bottles, we think the layer of insulation makes this a standout among standard sports bottles. A Gardenaut Top Pick.
Sigg

Traveler 1.0 Liter Bottle [Amazon.com|REI.com]
Design: Fair. We love the styling on Sigg bottles - the wide array of surface graphics, the bold colors - and we do take such things seriously. But the neck is very narrow, and after a year plus in a hot car, our trusty Sigg's aluminum walls give water an off taste. We also don't care much for Sigg's sport cap, which twists to open instead of pulling up, although we do like the Mud Cap designed to go on top of it, a polypropylene dome that looks nice and is easy to use.
Durability: Moderate. Sigg's loop caps are strong and bottles are stronger, but a bottle this dedicated to appearances can't age as gracefully as a bare bottle. Some surface paints scratch easily, and dents can lead to small chips in paint.
Insulation: Moderate. The metal helps keep cold water cold, particularly if you chill the bottle first, but the neck diameter makes it hard to add ice, and the SIGG can't compete with comparable bottles with double walls.
Value: Fair. SIGG's $15-$20 price tag is the highest for single-walled sports bottles we tried, and you're paying primarily for looks. Foam sheaths are available to add insulation and protect your eye candy.

Thermos

Hydration Bottle [direct]
Design: Good. Thermos' Hydration Bottle has a dime-sized spout that gets water flowing fast. A hinged trapdoor lid springs open when you push a button and stays out of the way. A hard plastic gripping surface is a bit superfluous, but we like the bottle's small footprint, which allows it to rest snugly in standard drink holders. The lid unscrews to allow access to the main chamber, which is double-walled stainless steel.
Durability: Moderate. The lid was a bit rattled in our drop test, but functioned as normal; the lid's hard plastic was visibly scuffed. The base lacks the plastic bumper of some Thermos models.
Insulation: Excellent. The Hydration Bottle's double-walled design did a great job keeping water cold for hours.
Value: Good. It's $17, but it's clear what you're paying for. Good insulation, easy to drink from, fits in a cupholder. A good bottle all around.
Raya [Amazon.com|direct]
Design: Good. Thermos' Raya line includes insulated commuter mugs with and without handles, a slurpee-style insulated cup with a straw and dome (polycarbonate) lid, and a slimmed-down version of its classic design, with a screw-plug lid with pour spout (open the lid a bit and you can pour liquid out) and an exterior screw lid that doubles as a cup. This model a handsome and stylish bottle that updates Thermos' standard vacuum-sealed stainless steel model with a slimmer design and some soft-grip features. Available in silver or blue.
Durability: Moderate. The lid was a bit rattled in our drop test, but functioned as normal; the lid's hard plastic was visibly scuffed. The base lacks the plastic bumper of some Thermos models.
Insulation: Excellent. The Raya outperformed all other bottles in our chill test, keeping cold water at 54 degrees in a hot car for four hours.

Value: Excellent. At $19, this well-designed bottle is a bargain. It's better for desk work, where filling and drinking from the accompanying cup is a reminder to hydrate, than for anyone who doesn't want to interrupt physical activity for more than a moment. As for us, we welcome the interruptions as a chance to take a breather. A Gardenaut Top Pick.

ThinkSport


750-ml bottle [Amazon.com|direct]
Design: Excellent. The only double-walled, vacuum-sealed, stainless-steel bottle we found that wasn't made by Thermos, ThinkSport distinguishes itself with a well-designed, dual-opening lid with small and large screw-tops. The smaller offers a dime-sized opening for drinking, and the larger conceals a removable mesh guard that keeps ice inside the bottle when you drink from the small spout. The bottle's slight hourglass shape makes the large bottle easy to hold, although it won't fit in a standard cupholder.

Durability: High. The upper dome lid was slightly dented when the bottle was dropped on its lid. The carbon black model's surface reveals slight surface scratches after long-term use (we've had ours for months). If that's a concern for you, the silver model might be a better option. But make no mistake, this bottle is another tank.
Insulation: Excellent. ThinkSport's 750-ml bottle came in second in our chill test, allowing water to reach only 60 degrees after four hours in a hot car. With ice added, the ThinkSport fulfills the same basic functions of Thermos' Hydration Bottle, but with increased durability and a larger tank.
Value: Excellent. At $20, you're making an investment, but it's a good one. This is a high-quality bottle that could last a generation. A Gardenaut Top Pick.
350 ml bottle [Amazon.com|direct]
Design: Good. A more diminutive version of the above with all of the same features, ThinkSport's 350-ml bottle fits in standard cupholders and works great for those not too far from a refill. Our nearly-four-year-old uses this as her current water bottle of choice, and as long as we don't screw the top lid too tight, she can manage it all herself. This is a great bottle for adults wanting a smaller profile bottle but the benefits of double-walled insulation and stainless-steel durability.
Durability: Moderate. Vulnerabilities are the same as the larger model; at this size, only silver is available.
Insulation: Excellent. Same as above.
Value: Good. A little less bottle for your money than the larger version, we wish this bottle could come in at a bit lower price point. But it's still a very good value, and fulfills a set of needs unmet by any other bottle we saw.
We've added these bottles to the new Gardenaut Store, where all listings are and will remain BPA-free.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Dandelion Jelly DATE: 7:43 AM ----- BODY:
We've been wanting to make dandelion wine for a while now (we've made prickley pear wine before, and will blog about that process sometime) but found this great how-to for making dandelion jelly through a new blog we're enjoying, Family Freedom. FF wrote:
I had read some reports that it was surprisingly good, but I was still skeptical. I took a sample taste, and then tried it on some wheat toast ? absolutely phenomenal! I am so impressed with it, that I will easily make more for both my family as well as gifts! [Link]

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: In search of the ideal compost bin DATE: 6:00 AM ----- BODY:
I spent way too much time last night shopping online for a new compost bin. I left my beloved compost bin behind in Connecticut when we left three years ago, and have suffered withdrawal ever since. Guilt overwhelms me when tossing banana peels, coffee grounds, and other kitchen detritus into the trash.

The bin we had in CT looked like this one. Whether it was the design or just pure dumb luck, that bin was a kitchen waste destroyer. It was invaded by thousands of worms that chewed away at anything and everything ten months a year. We poured everything we had into it, and were never able to fill it up. The bin was a gift from a friend who no longer needed it, but it seemed silly to move a compost bin. In hindsight, that seems like a poor decision. Surely we moved many items of lesser utility.

As someone who gardens in part to support a simpler lifestyle, I feel odd spending $100 or more for a box made out of recycled plastic. I know I could build one myself, but my time is valuable to me, and given the cost of materials these days, it would likely cost just as much. It doesn't help, either, that there are so many options, such as this one or this other one. A tumbler is not the answer (had one once and hated it), and it's critical that it be closed to keep out critters and to maintain temperature for year-round decomposition.

I'd appreciate any advice or tips anyone may have, both on recommended models and inexpensive sources. If you're a reader, leave tips in the comments; if you're a Gardenaut, sounds like a good topic for a post!

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Tending Time DATE: 9:35 AM ----- BODY:
I am leaving the planting time of year in Central Texas and entering the tending time.

I was finally able to get into my garden to weed. It's usually feast or famine here when it comes to rainfall - "drought or flood" might be a better phrase - and last weekend we got two and a half inches. It took a good part of the week for the garden to dry out enough to be able to get into without severely compacting the soil. But the weeds were starting to take over, so I decided it was time.

When I feel like doing it (which often isn?t the case), I enjoy weeding. I am a no-gloves gardener. Consequently for days after I weed you can see chlorophyll stains on my index finger from pulling weeds. I like the feeling of dirt on my hands. If I could, I would garden barefoot as well, but using a hoe while barefoot is something that would make my husband squirm if he heard about it, especially since he already harasses me about not wearing gloves. I must admit too, I am rather fond of all my toes. As for the fire ants, I've learned to avoid them.

It's amazing how much of a difference an hour of work in the garden can make. I now have the weeds somewhat under control, and my plants have a little more space to themselves. I wish sometimes there was an easier way to get rid of weeds besides weeding. We have half the garden covered with newspaper and grass clippings (I needed to get the second half weeded before covering it), which helps considerably with weeds. However, I must admit my parents were right - the only true way to control weeds is to pull them with a good tug which gets the roots and not just the stem and leaves.

An update on the basil starts. They didn?t make it. I had them outside for a little the other day, which was nice and cool, 60 degrees in the morning hours. A gust of wind, which brought our cooler temperatures, blew the flats over. All the dirt and little seedlings were blown about our back porch. I was lacking optimism overall about their chance of survival, so the loss wasn't quite as hard as it may have been. I think I may just try direct planting some seeds and see how that works.

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----- -------- AUTHOR: Jeremiah McNichols TITLE: Silver garden DATE: 2:45 PM ----- BODY:
One of the first things Rob and I wanted to do in our little suburban yard was get a handle on the back corner. The previous owners had bought the house and "fixed it up" only to re-sell it a few months later, so they hadn't been thinking long-term when they ripped out some shrubs and didn't re-plant the area very well. In particular, there was a tenacious species of morning-glory weed that seemed bent on reproducing itself as many times as possible before the frost came. We're still fighting that battle!

It was our very first gardening project, so we made some mistakes, particularly in using some pretty native grasses without containers. One in particular, called "ribbon grass," sends up sweet little pink-and-green shoots that turn into lots of monstrous white-and-green stalks. It really is a nice effect when allowed to go wild, but we had a definite place in mind for it, so it's not as successful here - we just keep ripping it out and cutting it back every year.

In general, though, we're very happy with the way the garden looks. We both love the silvery-green leaves and white blossoms, especially at this time of year!

The plants we used (not all are visible): Spirea; Artemisia; Lavender Cotton; Elijah Blue Fescue; Blue Lyme Grass; Ribbon Grass; Dianthus/Pinks; Creeping Woolly Thyme; Lamb's Ears. We also have French Lavender and Dusty Miller on the other side.

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