Thursday, February 27, 2014

Aesthetically Pleasing Bird Netting

It is a fact: if you garden, you will be in a constant battle with the birds. Years ago, when I began gardening, I did not want the birds to touch a single piece of fruit in my yard. We had a peach tree, and when I would see a bird in the tree, I would run outside and chase it away. That year I was in the best shape of my life from all that running, although my wife was constantly perplexed as to why I would bolt out of the door in the middle of dinner. I tried using bird netting, and the birds would figure out a way to get in. And then they would get stuck and inevitably die in the netting, and I had dead birds to deal with. So I started talking to farmers and avid gardeners and asked what they did. The response: most farmers don't worry about the birds. They accept the fact that birds will get some produce. They do what they can to deter the birds, but birds are part of nature, and they eat many of the bugs that we don't want in our gardens, so we accept that they are part of the ecosystem.

ALWAYS work with a helper
That being said, I still get hopping mad when I've been waiting for the perfect moment to taste a succulent fresh strawberry only to have some feathery jerk with wings pick it off  before me.

There are many things that can be done. I have a friend who puts old socks on her pomegranates as they ripen to keep the birds from bothering them. I didn't know why she had so many socks on her tree the first time I saw it. I thought that maybe she had found a sock tree, so I started looking for some new argyles. Alas, she was not growing them.

So socks are one option, but I wanted something to cover my strawberry patch that would also be aesthetically pleasing. The solution: copper pipe bird barrier.

Total cost - approximately $50, although I had many of the pieces/parts already in my workshop
Total time - 30 minutes to 1 hour
Materials (for my specific garden bed) - Three 10-foot sections of 1/2 inch copper pipe, eight 1/2 inch elbows, two 1/2 inch tees, bird netting

Spin the tube cutter around as you tighten the blade
I started by creating the general layout (which will vary from garden to garden). Based on the size and shape of my garden bed, I decided that I needed one support in the middle and a support on each end. The copper pipe creates the frame for the netting so it is not resting on the strawberries. Because strawberry plants do not grow very tall, the vertical pieces only needed to rise about 18 inches above the plants, with about 6 inches going below the soil to secure the pieces (so we add the two, carry the one, and come up with 2-foot sections for the vertical pieces). I do not like to have waste, so I cut five 2-foot sections from one piece of pipe. I then determined the horizontal runs, again based on the size of my garden, and cut those pieces as well.

For years I used a hack saw to cut copper pipe. It was tedious work and created rough edges. A few years ago, I discovered this pipe cutter. It is an absolute breeze to cut copper, the cuts come out perfectly, and there is no cleaning of burrs needed. Awesome! Some of you may be suffering from deja vu, as this is pretty much the exact same experience I had with a PVC cutter.

Center support
Once everything was cut and ready to go, I assembled it. The elbows created the transition from the vertical run to the horizontal run. In the corners, I used tees to create an additional horizontal run (see pictures below if the description makes no sense). The fits were tight enough that I did not use any adhesive. This will allow me to disassemble it if needed and store it easily. If you wish to use an adhesive, a dab of hot glue will keep it in place and still allow you to disassemble it.

Next, I secured the bird netting to the backside of the copper piping with zip ties, and then used screws in the raised bed to stretch the bird netting taught across the copper frame. This allows me to lift the bird netting from the front to harvest strawberries.

Tee creates an additional vertical run on the corner.
Added bonus, the netting also prevents my not-quite-two-year-old son from "harvesting" the strawberries prematurely, an activity he recently decided was almost as much fun as trains and fire trucks. So I guess I could have called this Baby Netting. Get around that, ankle biter.

Covered strawberries waiting for harvesting
After a couple of days the pipe is already starting to patina.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Best Lawnmower: A Review

I've already said it. Superlatives are the best ever. So here is a shout out to what I find to be the (almost) perfect, best lawnmower.

In the past ten years, I have owned five different lawnmowers: one electric, two gas (one being self propelled), and two battery powered (one being self propelled). I'm trying to think of a type of lawnmower that I haven't owned, and a ride-on is the only one that comes to mind. There are generally pros and cons to each type.

An electric mower usually has enough power to do a decent job and is lightweight, quiet and fairly efficient. The biggest con is that you have to deal with an extension cord crisscrossing your lawn. I'm not a fan.

Gas mowers generally have more than enough power to handle any type of lawn. The biggest cons in my opinion is the noise and having to store gasoline. Having little children, I decided that I did not want to have the fuel around or the mess of the fuel that tends to spill when filling the mower.

Battery powered mowers tend to be clean and efficient (no fuel or oil to worry about). However, they generally do not have much power, and the batteries usually only hold enough charge for a smaller lawn.

Finally, the self propelled models add quite a bit of weight. The self propelled battery mower that I had weighed over 90 pounds, and the battery itself was quite heavy. The battery was large and powerful, but the self propelled feature chewed up a lot of the battery life, causing the mower to lose power before I finished mowing my yard.

So what's a guy to do?

Greenworks G-Max 40V Lithium Ion Mower
When I first saw the Greenworks G-Max 40V Lithium Ion mower, I thought that it was just another gimmick mower. I looked into it and realized that the engineers are people who have probably actually owned lawnmowers before, and probably actually did research into what a great mower should be.

The Greenworks mower weighs just over 40 pounds. It is extremely light and maneuverable. In fact, I find that I tend to mow a little fast because it is so easy to push. Maybe Mow Jogging will be the next Olympic sport, kind of the summer version of Curling.

The mower has two 40-volt lithium ion batteries. For those who may not be familiar with lithium ion technology, it is a powerful rechargeable battery that has little to no memory (which is actually good in a battery), little energy loss while sitting on the shelf, less weight than traditional rechargeable batteries, and a great energy density. The energy density allows the battery to run at full capacity until it is depleted, which means that you don't get the slowdown effect that you get with other rechargeable batteries. These batteries run at full speed and then stop, kind of like a two-year-old. So this mower will run off of one battery at a time. When the first battery is depleted, you get a little power interruption, indicating that the mower is switching to the next battery.
Check out that backside!

The mower also features a variable power feature. This means that when mowing thick, heavy grass, the mower will run at full power. When the mower does not need full power, it will reduce the amount of power going to the blades to conserve battery life.

Wait a minute. Did I say blades? Yes I did! This is where the Greenworks engineers really thought this through. Electric mowers generally have a smaller blade which means a smaller footprint. That means that the cut is not as wide, which means more paths up and down the yard. A larger blade requires more energy (torque) to spin, which does not make for an efficient battery life. However, the Greenworks G-Max mower has two short blades. They run side-by-side, giving the mower a 20" cutting path, something that few battery powered mowers have been able to accomplish. Its light weight combined with the lithium ion batteries means that this mower will run for a long time, making this a viable option for those with larger yards. In fact, I often mow my large yard with this mower without it kicking over to the second battery.

Two lightweight lithium ion batteries
The Greenworks mower also offers the option to bag clippings or mulch. In case you're not sure which to do, I almost always mulch my clippings. I would rather see the clippings fertilize my lawn than throw them in the landfill. The mower also has a one lever height adjustment, which means that all of the wheels are adjusted at once.

Are you ready for one of the coolest feature?  This mower is quiet. It makes about the same amount of noise as a box fan on high speed. That means that I can carry on a conversation while mowing, I can hear what is going on around me, I can listen to music, or, very importantly for a Renaissance Dad, I can mow at night after the kids are asleep.

So what are the cons? To be honest, the drawbacks are minor. The first is the way the Greenworks mower handles the corners of the yard. Because the twin blades are in the middle of the mower, It is very difficult to mow the corners. I just hit them with the string trimmer as I am doing the edges. I believe that this is a very small tradeoff in having this mower. This mower also struggles when trying to cut too much thick grass. Before I put in my winter lawn, I tried to cut the old summer lawn as low as possible. The grass was too thick for this mower to handle, and I was too impatient to incrementally cut the lawn. The final drawback is the price. This mower retails for around $400. I could never pay that for a mower, so here's what I did.

Twin blades are genius for a rechargeable mower
I am a regular Lowe's shopper. When I decided that this was the mower for me, I checked on it every time I went to Lowe's. During one visit, I noticed that they had one of these mowers that they were selling as an open box. Cha-ching! To further reduce the cost, I sold my then-current lawn mower on Craigslist. So the total out of pocket for this mower was $100. Now I could have easily justified the $400 price tag, considering that I would never need to purchase gasoline or oil. And because of the weight I have fewer chiropractor visits. And because of the quietness I do not suffer from hearing loss. So you can see that this mower easily pays for itself, but I still liked finding ways to reduce the initial out-of-pocket. Parenthetically, is a great place to purchase out-of-box and factory reconditioned lawn and power tools. At the time of this publishing, they offer this mower for $359. They regularly have 10% off coupons, so that would bring the cost down even more.
One touch height adjustment

What would I like to see in this mower in the future? It really doesn't matter, since I'm planning on owning this forever. But if the engineers ever decide to redesign it, I think a couple of LED lights on the front for night mowing would be pretty cool. Aside from that, I think I have found the perfect mower. If the other Greenworks products are as exceptional as this mower, I will probably slowly add those to my collection.

Oh, I just thought of another addition for future engineering: a flux capacitor with Mr. Fusion attachment that utilizes the grass clippings for time travel! Now that's a mower that this Renaissance Dad would spend some money on!

Roads? Where I'm mowing, we don't need roads...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

WTF - Where's the Fruit!?!

Peeled fruit ready to juice
When I was a kid and we went to the mall food court, there was one shop that always got my business. It was a fruit stand, and they had a fresh fruit cup. And on my 8th birthday, instead of a birthday cake, I wanted a watermelon. So my parents cut a watermelon in half lengthwise, put some candles in it, and I was in hog heaven. Needless to say, I love fresh fruit.

The kids love helping with the juicing
Living in Arizona, I am amazed at the number of citrus trees in peoples' yards. I was even more amazed when I learned that many people throw away their excess fruit at the end of the season. What a travesty! So this has created a boldness in me to ask my neighbors to let me glean. and are additional resources to find people in your area that have excess fruit (I wish I had done this in Illinois, looking for people with excess apples!).

So I asked my neighbors if they ever have extra citrus, and they invited my kids and I to come over and pick whatever we wanted. We ended up with a large bag of oranges and a large bag of grapefruits. We decided to juice them.

Instead of peeling the oranges, I cut the top and bottom off, and then follow the curvature of the citrus with a knife, cutting the pith (the white part) off with the peel. I lose a little of the fruit, but I more than make up for it in the time that I save, especially when peeling a large quantity of citrus.
The judge's decision - two thumbs up!

Then we dropped them into our trusty Jack Lalanne Power Juicer and, voila, two gallons of fresh juice.

Five years ago, my wife and I had the most life-changing fresh- squeezed orange juice at Bar Cappuccino di Luigi in Rome. If you are ever in Rome, go to Bar Cappuccino di Luigi and order the blood orange juice. In the meantime, I will now teach you the secret of Luigi's liquid nirvana.

A little fresh squeezed lemon juice in your orange juice pops the flavor. Yeah, it literally and metaphorically pops the flavor. For our gallon of orange juice, I added one lemon. Boom. I blew your mind. You're welcome.
The end result

One last observation. Fruit is not just for taking. At our first house, we planted a peach tree, which ended up being the only peach tree on the street. Every year, we packed up bags of fresh peaches and delivered them to our neighbors. It was a great way to connect with our neighbors, share with them, and enjoy our harvest all the more. 

May the fruit be with you!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Renaissance-Dad Marble Chute Maze of Fun

When I was a kid, my great-aunt Elenore had a really cool toy that was quite simple. It was a series of rails with grooves and a small box at the bottom. We would drop marbles in the top groove, and watch and listen to the marbles as they rolled down the rails. I would sit on Aunt El's floor for hours (well, it was probably 10 minutes, but to a six-year-old it felt like hours) and play with that marble chute roller thing. It was my zen place before anybody knew what zen places were.

Someday I would like to make one of those for my kids, and I will probably post the directions and final picture online. Unless it's terrible, and then I'll probably pretend like it never happened. However, last week, as I was fixing a sprinkler, I had a great idea about making something like this for my kids with parts that I already had around the house. If you don't have these parts, you can get them at a home improvement store. I involved my kids in the process, so they got to help decide what this would look like. I call this the Renaissance-Dad Marble Chute Maze of Fun.

Skill - beginner

Time - 10 minutes to cut and sand parts (5 minutes if your cuts are clean and don't need sanding), 5 minutes to assemble

Total cost - under $10, but free if you have the PVC pieces around your house

What you need:
Various lengths of 3/4" PVC

- One 10 foot section of 3/4" PVC (about $2) - Home improvement stores like to overcharge for smaller pieces (pipe, plywood, etc.). A 5' section is $2, and a 10' section is $2.25. Always go with the larger piece and ask them to cut it down if you can't fit it in your car. More bang for the buck!

- Various 3/4" PVC fittings - elbows, tees, and 45 degree elbows (50 cents to $1 each)

Ratcheting PVC Cutter--life changing.
- PVC cutter - optional, but get one (about $10) - I spent years using a saw to cut PVC. I always ended up with less than square cuts, as well as burred edges that I would have to clean up before gluing the PVC. When we moved last year, there was this tool left in my workshop, which I discovered was a PVC cutter. That magical moment changed my life. These tools ratchet, so cutting PVC is easy, quick, and accurate.

- Marbles - if you don't have marbles, you can usually buy a fairly large bag at Goodwill. Target and Walmart also carry marbles. Just make sure that your child knows that they are not candy. And make sure that you know they're not candy. 
3/4" PVC fittings

What you do:

1) Wipe down the PVC with a damp rag, and cut to various lengths. If your kids are older, have them help design what this will look like and determine how long the pieces should be. My 5-year-old was able to help cut the PVC with the cutter.

2)  Make sure that there are no sharp edges on the PVC. If there are, give them a quick sanding.

3) Assemble the marble chute. I put the pieces together without adhesive so the maze could be easily changed. This allows the child to hone his or her engineering skills and design something different. The other benefit of having it not glued is that it breaks down nicely for storage. We put the pieces in a bag, and can come up with new configurations the next time we pull it out.

4) Have your child drop a couple of marbles down to see how they roll. This is a great lesson on gravity, and one of the reasons I chose not to glue the pieces. With the fittings not glued, we could rotate and change the maze to help the marbles move more freely. We also chose to prop the bottom of the maze up with a book.

Some additional notes. We added the corner piece at the bottom so we could have two exit points. I had one girl watching each exit, and those were then the marbles that they could put back in the top. It kept them (and a friend) entertained for a good portion of the morning.

Dropping the marbles down the chute

Monday, February 10, 2014

What's Arugula? It's a Ve-Ge-Ta-Ble!

I like saving money, I like bargains, and I have no problem asking for discounts. I have always been that way. In fact, my entire family is that way in one way or another. When we exchange Christmas presents, we intentionally leave the original price tag on the gift, and then announce to the entire family the discount that we got. And, yeah, it's kind of a competition. So when I have a great deal that may be somewhat unknown, I like to share it.

I have been participating in a produce co-op for about six years. If the term "co-op" is unknown to you, it is basically a way for a person to create buying power. As many people know, buying in volume or bulk usually means that you get a better deal. A co-op is a way to do that. A whole bunch of people get together, pool their money, and buy directly from a supplier. So six years ago I heard about this produce co-op and decided to try it out. I have been volunteering as a backup site coordinator ever since.

The co-op is called Bountiful Baskets (, and since I've been volunteering, BB has gone from being in Arizona to being in 26 states. I'm not saying that the growth has anything to do with my volunteering, but I'm also not not saying that...

So Bountiful Baskets offers baskets that are about half fruit and half vegetables. They also regularly offer additional healthy products, like raw honey, organic olive oil, breads and tortillas. The conventional basket is $15, and the organic basket is $25. I have priced out the organic produce that I get, and it is regularly at least $50 in produce.

So how does it work? Bountiful Baskets is a not for profit, volunteer run produce co-op. People can pool their money to create buying power. Contributing takes place on Mondays and Tuesdays. Sites have a certain number of baskets allocated, so the earlier you can order the better. Then you pick up from your designated site at the designated time.

Because it is a co-op, participants do not have the choices for what produce they get. As I say to my kids,"You get what you get and you don't throw a fit." I have found that the benefit is, along with the produce we already love, we are forced to eat "out of our box." A year ago we got some fennel and had no idea what to do with it. We ended up finding a recipe for a butternut squash and fennel soup that became a hit in our house.

Here's a final, and completely pointless, Bountiful Basket story. When I first started participating, I was also coaching cross country with Keith, a good friend of mine. We went on an early morning Saturday run. After the run I told Keith that I had to pick up my basket, so he went with me. We went in my family's new Honda Fit, wearing our (coincidentally) matching running clothes. While we were loading up the organic basket, another participant held up something and said, "What is this?" I answered, "It's Swiss chard. We love sauteing it in a little olive oil and sea salt." At that moment, we both realized that it would not be possible for two straight men to seem more gay.

I have loved my time volunteering with Bountiful Baskets. I have gotten to know many of the people who pick up at my site, and I volunteer with a wonderful group of people. On top of that, I am saving money each month on fresh, healthy food for my family.

By the way, the first person to comment with the movie reference for this title will get a free bag of Gatorade.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Renaissance Daddy Daughter Dance

Prom, 2011
I had the wonderful privilege of taking my two daughters, ages three and five, to a Daddy-Daughter dance last week. It was not the first time that I have taken one of my girls to a dance. My oldest daughter accompanied me to a prom that I was chaperoning when she was two. Yeah, I took her to her first prom, and I will make sure that she hears about it in her high school years. I also took her to a Daddy Daughter dance last year. This, however, was the first time that I took both girls.

We talked about the dance for weeks. I bought them both corsages, and realized that florists know that dads buying corsages for their girls will pay anything for them, because they charge an arm and a leg. Regardless, the girls got their butterfly corsages that matched their outfits. I wore a suit, polished my shoes, and let them pick out my tie. I figured that I would probably be one of the most dressed up dads, but I had no idea by how much.

Daddy Daughter Dance, 2013
Not only was I the most dressed up dad, but I could have been one of the most dressed up dads by wearing jeans and a polo. Don't get me wrong. I was very happy that there were parents that came to the dance. But it seems to me that if you're going to make the effort to go to the dance, you should go to the effort to dress up for your child. I don't particularly like dressing up on a Friday night. Nor do I like to jump around like a dork to music that I've never heard in front of people I don't know. But I was not at the dance for myself. I was at the dance for my daughters. I dressed up and danced with my girls because I want them to know how much I love them. More importantly, I want them to know how they should be respected when they're older and going on a date. I am instilling an expectation in them that they are worth getting dressed up for.

Daddy Daughter Dance, 2014
You see, a Renaissance Dad does not just do things for himself. He does things for his family. He gets uncomfortable because it means a lot to his kids. He buys them overpriced corsages because he wants to see the look on their faces when they get fancy. He spins and twirls them because they giggle and feel loved. A Renaissance Dad sets the bar high, because his kids are worth it.

So, to the future teenage boy who plans on taking my daughter out... Know that you should dress like you care about yourself, because that's what my daughters will expect. Know that you will treat my daughter with respect, because that is how they are treated at home and they know they are worth it. And know, that if you are taking my daughter to prom, you better take a dance lesson...because her dad has some sweet moves on the dance floor.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Start Those Seeds with a Miniature Greenhouse

The kids watering newly planted herb seeds
I admit it. I'm having a really difficult time not spending every waking minute outside (cold climate readers - please refer to the post about hope and patience). I want to garden more and more as the daytime temperatures start to warm up. The kids and I decided that we would start our spring seedlings today. Here's how we created a miniature greenhouse for our seedlings.

You will need the following:

- cardboard egg cartons, or compostable seedling containers
- seeds
- clear plastic bin with holes (or let your kids shoot up a regular plastic bin with a bb gun. Just kidding. But it could work. Maybe.)
- tray or old cookie sheet (FYI, I keep old cutting boards and cookie sheets for occasions such as this).
- dirt from your yard or potting soil
-little helpers
Watered seed containers on a tray (2 types of watermelon and tomatoes)

While this project could be completed in about 5 minutes without helpers, the half-an-hour and mess caused by little ones helps encourage them to a) enjoy the outdoors, b) give mom a break for half-an-hour, c) contribute to the family, and d) begin their love of gardening and natural food.

Begin by filling the egg cartons or seedling containers with dirt. This is best for little hands and little shovels. Read the seed packet for seed depth recommendations, basically ignore those, and plant the seeds. Water and keep the soil moist until you have seedlings and they're ready to put in the ground.

Seedlings covered with a plastic bin, our greenhouse
Here's the great part about the tray and the bin. The bin acts as a miniature green house, allowing air to pass through but keeping most of the moisture in with the seeds. It also keeps birds and other critters from bothering your seeds. The tray keeps the seed containers in one place, and it's easy to bring the seeds inside if there is a late freeze. Northerners, it may not be too early to start your seeds indoors. Ask at the local nursery (the infants at church can't help you, so be sure you go to the kind of nursery that sells plants).

By the way, one additional tip--if you do expect a freeze, wrap a string of Christmas lights around your tree or plants then cover with a sheet or frost cloth. With this method, you can raise the temperature around the plants by several degrees. This only works with the old school Christmas lights, not LEDs. 

Happy gardening!

Monday, February 3, 2014

What is a Renaissance Dad?

The question has arisen - What is a Renaissance Dad? How did I come up with that name for this blog?

When I think of Renaissance men, I think of Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo, the turtles who used the swords and nunchucks. If you don't get that reference, you're either too old, too young, or too female. Of course I'm referring to the polymaths of Italian descent who were known to be experts in many different fields. While I'm not quite delusional enough to place myself in the same category as these two great thinkers, I do find that through a lot of studying, research, and trial and error, I am able to be successful in many different things.

A Renaissance Dad uses power tools AND wears princess bandages
My flavor of Renaissance Dad is kind of a combination of Norm Abrams, Dave the Garden Guy, Atticus Finch, Norman Rockwell, and James Bond. I love building things, spending time with my family, taking my girls on "dates," gardening, milking cows, reading, cooking with my wife, making stained glass, and volunteering in my community. A Renaissance Dad has varying interests, does not give up when he fails (which he does a lot), but rather uses these opportunities as learning experiences, and most importantly, enjoys learning new things. A Renaissance Dad has no problem crying at the national anthem, especially when it's for the first football game of the season. In fact, I could give you a whole list of things that I cry for, which partially includes:
  • Listening to the aforementioned National Anthem 
  • Thinking about a daughter's future wedding day (my daughters are 3 and 5, so this is WAY in the future)
  • Saying goodbye to a power tool that has been through many house projects but no longer works
  • Watching Rocky I and IV
  • Thinking about my two brothers serving in the Army (with a combined 3 tours overseas)
However, a Renaissance Dad does not cry because of the occasional power tool injury.

My daughters regularly bandage me up when I injure myself. The first time my oldest put a princess bandage on my finger, I was embarrassed.  I thought, "I can't go out in public with a princess bandage. I'm a grown man." But then I had an epiphany. I am a grown man with daughters who love me enough to care for me, and I can show them love by appreciating their care and not letting my pride get in the way. So I now wear my princess bandages with pride. They are indicative of my battle wounds, and a reminder to be a little more careful next time because I am not just a Renaissance man, but a Renaissance dad. I have a family that needs me, little hands that love holding mine, and I need to take care of myself so I am here for them for a long, long time.