Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Native Americans didn't have microwaves.

This morning I dug up approximately thirty pounds of greenbriar tubers...all from the same plant.

I've been wanting to try preparing them as the Native Americana's did, both slow-roasting and starch removal. The N.A.'s would bury them under a large fire and bake them for three days. At this point the starch was converted to sugars which they would then chew and suck off the fibrous tuber body. I didn't have enough wood for a 3-day bonfire, but I did have a microwave...

Greenbriar tubers are very much like very fibrous potatoes and so I figured I treat it like I was baking a really big potato in the microwave. Considering the size of the tuber, 15 minutes at full power seemed like a reasonable setting. Everything seemed to be going well until around minute 12.

WHOOMP!! Suddenly the greenbriar burst into huge, leaping flames. I reacted in a split second, diving for my camera to take pictures of the burning microwave, then that annoying "reason" part of the brain kicked in and made me grab the fire extinguisher instead. A quick blast of yellow powder and the fire was out.

Of course the kitchen was filled with thick smoke. Luckily the Misseswether and the Wethergirls weren't home so I was able to open all the doors and windows...and wash down the whole kitchen.

Surprisingly, burning greenbriar tuber smells a lot like caramel plus dark roast coffee.

When Misseswether got home her face lite up as she walked in the door. "Someone's been cooking something yummmy! Is there any left for us?" she said and raced to the kitchen...and saw the microwave. It cleaned up pretty well but I think some of the scorch marks will be permanent. After giving her the whole story she just shook her head and sighed, "We don't have these problems when you're at work."

This started out about the size of a nice acorn squash.

Adventure! Excitement! Six more days of vacation!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Making Earth Buckets

A bold person can get an almost infinite supply of free 5-gallon buckets. Restaurants, bakeries, and fast food joints are particularly good places to ask for these. At worst they'll say no, at best you'll be needing a truck to get them all home. So what does Merriwether do with free buckets? He turns them into uber-productive (hopefully) container garden thingies aka Global Buckets.

Just finished these two hours ago. Meanwhile the rest of the world seems to be wrapped in blizzards. I love Houston!!

Global buckets are based on the self-watering Earth Boxes, but are made from easy to find scrap materials. I did have to buy some 1.5" diameter PVC pipe and the soil mixture for inside the buckets, but everything else was just laying around.

Global bucket
1. inner bucket
2. outer bucket
3. fill tube made from 1.5" PVC tubing
4. cotton cloth to wick water from reservoir to soil
5. soil (mix of peat moss, topsoil, and vermiculite)
6. gap between two buckets which acts as the water reservoir
7. henweigh

This is the bottom of the inner bucket.
A hole approximately 1.5"-2" in diameter is cut in the center of the bottom, this is for the cotton wick. A second hole 1.73" in diameter is cut near the edge of the bottom, this is for the fill tube. A bunch of small holes (about 5/16" in diameter) are drilled randomly around the bottom of this buck to improve drainage and allow air to get to the plant roots. Sidenote: do you really think I drilled a 1.73" hole? I just cut until the tube fit.

The bottom of the fill tube has a large notch cut in it to simplify the system.
A precise person could measure (twice) and cut (once) fill tubes to the exact length needed for perfection. Luckily, plants don't need a perfect system in which to grow, so just hack a chunk out of the bottom of the fill tube, stick it through the inner bucket, and whack it off somewhere around the top rim of the inner bucket.

An overflow hole is drilled in the outer bucket.
To keep from flooding the buckets a drain hole is drilled in the outer bucket just below the bottom of the inner bucket. Hopefully you can see how I precisely measured the location for this hole.

Completed buckets before adding soil.
Now you can see all the drain holes, the fill tube and the cotton wick. The wick was made from this really hideous dust ruffle thing that I've always hated. Hopefully this hatred won't affect the plants.

Getting ready to fill the buckets.
Being lazy, I didn't feel like holding up the wick while adding the soil so I tied it to a stick. This picture is slightly misleading as the wick does end 2"-4" below the top of the soil once the bucket is filled.

Making soil.
My soil recipe is based on Square Foot Gardening and is composed of roughly 1/3 cheap topsoil, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 vermiculite (the stuff in the wheel barrow) mixed together thoroughly. The peat moss helps hold water, the vermiculite keeps the soil loose and aerated, the topsoil gives the plant roots a place to grow. Depending on what I grow, some fertilizer may be added to the particular bucket.

And here we are back at the beginning.
It took me about four hours total to make these eight buckets and they have all been planted with different wild edibles except for the one on the end which has chard I picked up on clearance.

This is a great way to set up a container garden in a small area, especially in hot, dry locations. Another benefit of these Global Buckets is that you can move them around to optimize their access to sun or to protect them from freezing.

Once the plants are growing I'll add either a thick layer of mulch or some secondary plant like nasturtiums to shade the soil which reduces evaporative water loss. Water is added to the system through the fill tube until water flows out the overflow hole. The plants will eventually grow their roots through the holes in the bottom of the bucket directly into the water reservoir. Until then the wick keeps the soil at the perfect level of moistness. I'll update you through the year on how well this system actually works.

Adventure! Excitement! Recycling!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Amazon.com Video on Demand Sucks

You can't download your purchased movies to a Mac. Do they tell you this anywhere before buying it? No.

Friday, December 24, 2010

All that's left is the waiting...

Cookies for Santa.

Adventure! Excitement! A whole bunch of sweetness!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas!!

Wishing you all a great Christmas!

Adventure! Excitement! Hallelujah!

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Our homeschooling group had their traditional "Dickens" Christmas party this evening which including going out caroling. It was a lot of fun.

Hi, I'm here to sing to you.

Two of the three.

Then the mothership arrived and we all went home...

The group was pretty big, well over thirty people though mostly kids (hey, we're a Catholic homeschooling group). It was a fun time though I did win a big "Bad Parent" award when I first wouldn't switch Misseswether for Miniwether during a waltz and then accidentally elbowed Miniwether in the mouth when she tried to sneak in anyway. :-(

Adventure! Excitement! Mob of people with candles outside your door!

Mercer Botanic Gardens

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
~John Muir

When Misseswether and I first moved down to Houston I was miserable. We lived in a little apartment in a big, fenced-in apartment complex that one could not escape by foot. I could see nature over the high fence but had no way to get to it and even if I could get to it it really was little more than a row of trees surrounding several oil rigs. I was driving 2-3 hours a day across all of Houston to go to work, and Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays were tied up with competition ballroom dancing practice and events. There was no time or place for me to get my fix of good nature.

Misseswether could tell I wasn't happy. Somehow she discovered the nearby Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, and brought me there one Saturday morning. It was love at first sight.

Lovely...beautiful...stunning...gorgeous...breathtaking...circa 2001.

We used to spend every spare moment there and when we moved into our house I used Mercer Botanic Gardens as my model for turning the flat, empty space of my backyard into Ravenscar. Any visitor we had we took to Mercer and no one was ever disappointed. One can walk the trails for hours through both cultured beds and wild spaces. Miniwether got a lot of her early training as an adventure-girl there.

Miniwether at Mercer, November of 2006.

Misseswether has been taking the girls to Mercer once a week for over two years for homeschooling nature study there. This occurs while I'm at work, so I never get to join them. It occurred to me this weekend that I hadn't been there in ages, so off we went!

Mini and Mambo at Mercer, December of 2010.

The overlook now in 2010, two years after the devastation of hurricane Ike.

Same spot back in 2001.

Overlooking the Japanese maple pond (Miniwether's FAVORITE spot).

Same spot, 2001.

A fountain-thingy they built since the last time I was at Mercer. Sidenote: If I set the iso-number on my camera to 1600 I can catch the individual drops of water falling through the air. That was pretty cool.

Cypress creek makes up the northern boundary of Mercer park, but actually getting to the creek takes some minor bushwacking.

There's a number of bamboo groves there.

Cool bug-eating swamp plants, too.

Assorted fish ponds to help lower your blood pressure.

Swings! Sidenote: Mambo didn't just punch Mini in this picture, it just looks that way. That's my story and I'm sticking too it!


Bathrooms! Also some nice rocking chairs on the porch.

I can't believe in the six years I've been writing this blog I haven't done a review of Mercer. It is worth going to even no matter where you live in Houston. You aren't allowed to eat in the Mercer Botanic Gardens but they have all sorts of great picnic areas and playgrounds across the street in Mercer Arboretum. Most weekends you see professional photographers out there taking pictures of beautiful brides, which is always neat, especially when you have little girls of your own along...though that could lead to expensive bills later in life... One other note, don't let any of the park workers see you holding any flower, leaf, or other bit of plant matter. They are REALLY protective of this garden!

Adventure! Excitement! Misseswether is a babe!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ego Post #2

It seems I'm a bit more famous than I thought.

Last Saturday author Keith Stelter did a book signing of his latest hiking guide, Best Hikes Around Houston at Once and Again Books. Afterwards the lady in charge of Montgomery County's parks had him lead a hike at the Montgomery County Preserve.

This is a very nice place.

This preserve is near home and in fact was the first place I ever took Mambowether out into the woods...she found her way back, though. Anyway, when I saw Mr. Stelter was leading a hike there I knew the Wethergirls and I had to go along.

Well, it turned out I was expected.

Uh, apparently I'm well know by government officials.

When I pulled into the parking lot a strange lady came running up smiling and introduced herself to me. She gushed over Mini and Mambo, then returned to beaming at me. She didn't seem to be wearing a badge, so I figured this wasn't an elaborate sting operation to catch me.

She was the newly-put-in-charge-of-the-parks-lady, she figured I'd show up at this event, and she was hoping I'd join Mr. Stelter in leading the hike to talk about wild edibles along the trail!!

Mark Stelter kind of looks like Santa Claus.

Assorted hikers. You can't see Mambowether but she's at the front leading the way. She took to that roll like a natural!

A lovely mix of yaupon holly and poison ivy.

A raccoon I saw last week while hiking alone somewhere else. I just wanted to add this picture because he's cute.

So anyway we hiked, I lectured, Mini and Mambo made new friends, and it ended with me agreeing to be the official wild edible plant teacher for Montgomery County. Once the new nature center is finished I'll be doing free foraging classes out there several times a year. The really cool thing about that is I now finally have permission to pick stuff for y'all to eat during these classes! That will be great. Downside is this is a volunteer, unpaid position. Well, downside for me but pretty awesome for all y'all!

Merri Christmas everyone!

Adventure! Excitement! Joyous tidings!

Sometimes I even impress myself.

What do you get when you cross some bolts, springs, a cheese press, some conductive foam, and a multimeter attached to a computer?


Total price: $214.45
Cost of instrument it mimics: $160,000, excluding shipping and set-up fee.
Merriwether's Christmas bonus this year: Vegas!!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Russ Pittman Park & Nature Discovery Center

Earlier this year I was contacted by the Nature Discovery Center here in Houston to see if I'd give a talk about wild edibles plants. "Heck, yeah!", as normal, was my answer. So last Wednesday I and my beautiful assistant Miniwether spent half a day exploring their land and giving what I have been told was (and I have to swallow my normal modesty to repeat these words) "the best talk they ever had there!".

Nature Discover Center - 1
This is a very cool place.

Russ Pittman Park is four acres of wonderful wilds in the heart of Bellaire, just inside 610. Wooded trails weave past fountains, pools, a wounded bird sanctuary, reclaimed prairie, a playground, an herb garden, and assorted surprises. Above you scamper playful squirrels, butterflies flutter by, goldfish flash in the pond, and birds flock a'plenty. On one edge sits the original Henshaw House. Once a beautiful estate home built in 1925 by the president of the Sealy Mattress Company, it now houses the Hana and Arthur Ginzbarg Nature Discovery Center. What were once stately (and stuffy, I mean it was owned by a mattress maker, what would you expect?) rooms are now filled with gobs of hands-on activities designed to teach nature stuff to kids without them realizing it.

Rooms of cool stuff!

Lizards and microscopes, it's almost as good a combination as gin and tonic!

more stuff2
Many live things in cages and every science book ever published!


Bearded Lizard
Bearded lizard!

It was surprisingly soft.

A slimy, wriggly thing.

Warm, fuzzy things. Is it just me though or does that bunny have an evil look in its eye?

Turtle jenga
Turtle Jenga!! Sidenote: don't actually play Jenga with the turtles, they bite.

Sargasso Sea
Sargasso sea stuff!

Mini under the sea
My lovely assistant...

...who likes dead things.

More Stuff
There were several naturalists on hand to talk about all the living and dead things.

A little over a month ago Misseswether discovered that Miniwether had been teaching wild edible plant classes to the other kids at their weekly meetings in the park. Misseswether was terrified that Mini may accidentally poison one of her friends and when I got home from work that night she had Miniwether show me all the plants which had been pointed out to friends. Turns out Miniwether was perfectly accurate in every case, both identifying the plant and explaining how to eat it. So now she's my assistant when I give plant lectures. The class at the Nature Discovery Center was her first official presentation as my helper and she did very well. Her main job was to hold up the plants as I talked, pass them around the room, and collect any uneaten plants. Unfortunately since I was doing the talking I wasn't able to take pictures of her helping. I've really been wanting her to do this as I think it's a great way to get her used to being in front of crowds. The ability to speak to crowds is an amazingly useful skill that I want both my daughters to inherit.

The audience was wonderfully attentive and asked many questions. I was scheduled to speak for about an hour and when I finished talking about the last plant I was sad because I had been having so much fun. The listeners felt the same way and so at their urging I continued on into edible landscaping plants, food security, being a 10-percenter, hunting deer, why vineyards in France are covered with dandelions, and many other topics brought forth by the adults and kids.

It ended up being a late night but Miniwether was still thrilled with the excitement of being my assistant and spent a lot of the ride home recounting the evening. Alas, the Nature Discovery Center is rather far from home and even as pumped up as she was, sleep pulled her down. The last 20 minutes of the drive home was mostly just Led Zeppelin tunes coupled with her snores. An excellent combination if you ask me.

Adventure! Excitement! Discovery!