Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Wearable Tech for the Backyard Homesteader

If you are one of the estimated 50 million people who received some sort of wearable technology this Christmas, you are most likely thinking about how that gear will help you improve your fitness, lose weight or become a better athlete. While all of these are great, there's a lot for the backyard homesteader to love about this technology, as well. No, your Fitbit won't tell you when to plant your garden or water your lawn... yet, but it will provide valuable feedback on the energy you are expending doing those things. If you watch shows like Mountain Men, you will occasionally hear the narrator refer to the extraordinary number of calories the men burn each day as they go through their rigorous outdoor activities. For those of us who merely putter for a couple of hours each day in our backyards, though, it was difficult to get a feel for the level of exertion and how it related to other activities, like running or a gym workout. Sure, there was a general sense that mowing the lawn was roughly equivalent to taking a long walk, and that raking leaves was a pretty good upper body workout, but these activities were difficult to quantify in a meaningful way.

When I got my first piece of wearable technology, a simple Fitbit Flex, almost four years ago, all that began to change, and now, with my more advanced Charge 2, I can keep a reasonably accurate accounting of the calories expended doing just about any kind of outdoor task. If your response to that is, who cares? you are probably 25 and could eat a side of beef in one sitting without gaining a pound. I was there once, myself, but these days if I want to avoid having to buy new pants a size bigger every year, I need to keep track of such things. 

The least expensive devices, typically under $100, use a simple accelerometer to track body movement and translate that into "steps." This data is then uploaded to a computer, tablet or smartphone and translated into an estimate of distance traveled and calories burned. It's not an exact reading, of course, but as a general rule, I found my Flex to be fairly accurate in terms of relating my steps to the distance traveled, and the calorie count to be conservative relative to other methods of calculation. I learned that mowing my lawn was the equivalent of a two mile hike, and that 30 minutes of rigorous hedge trimming burned at least 300 calories.

Devices like the Charge 2 ($150) add features such as a heart rate monitor and an altimeter. Together with the accelerometer, these generate data used to provide an even more accurate and complete profile of physical activity, accounting for the fact that walking uphill burns more calories and that activities like moving landscape stones expend energy without a lot of body movement. The most expensive wearable tech, like the Fitbit Ionic ($299), Apple Watch ($329) and Garmin Fenix ($549) include a GPS for even more accurate distance tracking.     

Statistics show that about a third of owners stop using their fitness trackers after the first six months, and that only half of Fitbits, the market leader with almost a 75% share, registered are still actively used. While that figure may be a little misleading because I suspect many Flex users, like me, upgraded to the Charge, there is no doubt that the attrition rate is relatively high. One of the key factors noted by those who gave up the devices is that the information generated was no longer useful or interesting. After a couple months they got the general idea that a normal day's activity was worth 3,000 to 4,000 steps and that a three mile evening walk or run added to that got them to their 10,000 step goal. There was rarely anything new or novel to be learned; which I think says a good bit more about the lifestyle of the average person than it does about the usefulness of wearable tech. 

For the backyard homesteader, however, the sheer variety of different things we do and the seasonality of those activities should keep the information fresh for a very long time. Filling the bird feeders, trimming shrubs, planting seedlings; these all have an exertion value and they are all different. Before fitness trackers, we were told that an hour of "gardening" burned 275 calories, but there is a huge difference between holding a garden hose for an hour and double-digging a plot of land for an hour. My Fitbit captures that difference and that information is very valuable to me as I plan my meals and my supplemental exercise activity.     

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Keeping Christmas Plants Alive After the Holidays

Maybe you got it as a "hostess" gift, or maybe you bought it yourself to brighten up the house for the holidays; a Norfolk Island pine, rosemary topiary, Christmas cactus or poinsettia. And if you are like 90% of people who buy these plants, the minute the holiday decorations come down they will be headed to that great compost bin in the sky. That's really a shame because most of them make great year-round houseplants, and with a little care can provide many years of enjoyment.

First, a couple of caveats:

​The businesses who grow and market Christmas plants fully understand that the vast majority of people are buying them as a sort of extended cut flower arrangement. Their efforts go into getting them to bloom at the correct time and stay relatively fresh and attractive looking for the 4 or 5 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. This impacts the way the plants are potted, fertilized, transported and even the specific varieties grown. In other words, very little thought goes into the long-term health and vitality of the plant, so keeping them alive past January can be a bit of an uphill battle.

Also, Christmas plants are often displayed in discount stores and convenience marts or in parts of home & garden stores where plants are not generally sold, so the employees are often clueless about how to maintain them. You can pretty much assume that a plant bought from a temporary rack at the front of a Walgreens has been stressed by too much or too little water and insufficient light; possibly beyond the point of recovery.

​Generally speaking, if you are going to buy a plant from a "non-traditional" seller, it is better to get it toward the beginning of the season. A few days before Christmas, stores will begin selling these plants at a deep discount, but you need to be extremely careful about buying something that has been sitting in a dimly-lit aisle, likely without water, since Thanksgiving.


Of the four plants we are discussing today, poinsettias are the least likely to survive into the next year. A colleague of mine whose thumb is at least two shades greener is able to keep them alive, but it's hard work and getting them to bloom again is hit-and-miss. Honestly, it's probably more trouble than it's worth, but here goes...

If you are planning to keep your poinsettias, the first thing you need to do when you bring them home -- and this goes for all the other plants as well -- is re-pot them. The soil mixture used to grow the plants is designed for fast growth in carefully maintained greenhouse conditions. It is not intended as a long-term growing medium. Use a high-quality potting soil that drains well while retaining moisture, or make your own by combining equal parts peat moss, compost and vermiculite. Poinsettias are tropicals and require lots of light and water, so keep your plant in a sunny window and water whenever the top of the soil feels dry. In a house with dry winter air, you will need to water frequently; at least 3 or 4 times per week.

In the spring, start cutting back on the water and move the plant to a cooler location like a basement or garage. As summer approaches, cut the stems back 2-3 inches and add a bit of organic fertilizer -- I like Espoma Plant-Tone -- every couple of weeks. Once the temperature reaches the mid 70's during the day and doesn't drop below 60 at night, move the plant outdoors to a partially-shaded location. Continue to water and fertilize. Around the 4th of July, pinch each stem back an inch to promote balanced growth. By mid-August, you should see significant new growth. Pinch these new stems back a half-inch in late August.

Now, here's the tricky part. Poinsettia blooms are triggered by the length of the day. In their native habitat, they bloom after 8-10 weeks getting less than 10 hours of light. If you do the math, you will realize that poinsettias don't naturally bloom at Christmas. To force the blooms, place the plant in complete darkness for 14 hours each day, beginning in early October. By late November or early December you should see new buds. Once these appear, you can leave the plant in a sunny window full-time, and if the poinsettia-gods are smiling you should have beautiful new blooms in time for Christmas.


We go from the most difficult plant to keep alive after the holidays to the easiest. Rosemary is actually a small shrub, a fact that is lost on most non-gardeners until the Christmas season when they are often sold as topiaries cut into the shape of Christmas trees. If you are planning to keep your rosemary as a houseplant, re-pot it as soon as possible after the holidays using a good quality potting soil. Rosemary requires full sun, but is drought-tolerant, so you can let the soil dry out just a bit between waterings. Do not allow the roots to sit in water. In many climates, including here in the North Carolina Piedmont, rosemary will grow as a perennial outdoors. If this is your intent, simply transplant into your herb garden or landscape bed right after the holidays.

Christmas Cactus

A Christmas cactus really is a cactus, although it bears little resemblance to what we traditionally think of as cacti. Native to the coastal mountains of Brazil, they grow wild on trees or rocks with very little soil, poor light and high humidity. They were first cultivated as exotic houseplants in the 19th century and became associated with Christmas in the United States because they are relatively easy to force into bloom in the late fall. After the holidays, re-pot using a soil that drains well. The commercially available "succulent" soils work well, or mix equal parts compost, sand and peat moss. Place the pot on a small saucer filled with gravel and water, refilling the water on a regular basis. This will help keep the plant moist. Water frequently, allowing the soil to drain completely. The plant will thrive in moderate light, but like the poinsettia requires extended periods of darkness to bloom. For Christmas blooms, place the plant in complete darkness for 14 hours each day beginning in mid-October. Having said all that, my mother had a Christmas cactus that grew to the size of a large beach ball over a period of ten years and routinely bloomed in late December without any special treatment whatsoever.

Norfolk Island Pine

The very first houseplant I purchased with my own money was a Norfolk Island pine. It was about six inches tall and I bought it from a display near the front entrance of the Woolworth's in the Sandusky Mall circa 1977. That tree grew to be over a foot tall in my south-facing bedroom window and thrived until I went off to college to 1980 and my mother apparently forgot to water it. Since then, I have bought many "seasonal" Norfolk pines and have yet to recreate the success of that first one. It's a plant that I seem to have difficulty keeping alive much past the holidays, despite doing "all the right things." And here's the reason; remember how I said that growers are more concerned with the plants looking good for 5 weeks than they are with their long-term viability? It turns out that many growers spray these trees with a green colorant to make them more attractive in the stores, and this interferes with the ability of the plant to photosynthesize food over the long-term, essentially starving it. So, be aware that the odds may be against you on this one, and that the first thing you should do if you are planning to keep a Norfolk Island pine is to give it a good washing, preferably outdoors where you can really spray it well. Norfolk Island pines are one of the few trees that respond very well to being misted with cool water rather than room temperature water.

These trees are native to, well... Norfolk Island, which is located off the coast of Australia. They are actually an ancient species that would have been very at home in Jurassic World. The trees grow especially well in high humidity environments, so frequently misting them is important for their overall health. Norfolk Island pines should be watered every week during the summer months so that the soil is kept moist. During the winter months, however, the soil should be allowed to dry out completely before the tree is watered again.The pines grow best in cool daytime temperatures and indirect sunlight, but cannot be grown outdoors in the United States; too cold in the winter in the north and too hot in the summer in the south. When placed in a window, the plant should be rotated periodically so that all sides get equal light and the plant grows uniformly. This is important because these pines do not tolerate pruning.

I hope you enjoyed this primer on Christmas plants. I will be taking a few days off over the holidays and doing some fishing at the coast, so I want to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas. See you again in the new year!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Buying Christmas Gifts For Fishermen

A few years ago I received a well-intentioned Christmas gift from a family member who was not a fisherman; a bait-casting rod paired with a spinning reel. How exactly that particular combo came about is a story I would have loved to hear, but not wanting to hurt his feelings I simply said "thanks" and later bought an appropriate reel to go with the rod and appropriate rod to go with the reel. On the bright side, I guess you could say it was two for the price of one. While the "innovative" bait cast/spinning combo is maybe an extreme example of a non-fishermen buying questionable gifts for their fishing friends and family, it's not as uncommon as one might think, so I want to offer some simple advice for the non-fisherman who wants to purchase fishing-related gifts:

1. The number one best piece of advice I can offer is get professional help. No, not that kind of professional help, but the assistance of a sales associate that at the very least has been fishing once or twice in their life. While it is possible you might find such a person at a big box retailer, it's essentially a crap shoot. I have overheard some extraordinarily bad advice doled out by the employees of a large store chain whose name starts with a "W," ends with a "T" and has a logo resembling a big asterisk. The best advice can typically be found at a small, locally-owned fishing or outdoor sports stores, but big box sporting-goods retailers like Dicks, Cabela's and Bass Pro generally have someone manning the counter in the fishing department who has at least a decent knowledge of the sport. If you describe the type of fishing your friend or loved one does or at least where they fish and the type of fish they catch, a reasonably sharp person can probably point you in the right direction.

2. Unless the gift recipient has provided you with a very specific description -- and we're talking manufacturer and model number -- of what they're looking for it is best to leave rods and reels alone. There are too many options, too many variations and too much personal preference involved. And, of course, any fishermen worth his salt already has a nice collection of rods and reels, so even the most knowledgeable salesperson would have difficulty anticipating what they have, don't have and would be likely to need. Plus, a rod and reel that's going to be of any value to an enthusiast is going to be a relatively expensive item and one that you really don't want to make a mistake with. The caveat is a custom-built rod. This is something that you can give as a gift certificate which allows the recipient to get exactly the sort of rod he/she wants, built from scratch to meet their exact requirements. You can find a local custom rod maker by Googling "custom fishing rod." However, keep in mind that custom rods are not inexpensive and if you are used to seeing the $39.95 rods sold at the big box stores there's probably going to be a touch of sticker shock when you find out that even a modestly priced custom rod is going to run upwards of $300.

3. Clothing makes a good gift for the angler, and if you happen to be married to or living in proximity to that angler you have a pretty good idea what they already own in terms of fishing clothing. Personal tastes vary significantly, of course, but we know very few fishermen who would not enjoy a good quality fishing shirt like the Columbia PFG series or the Under Armour Flats Guide series. These are light weight, well-ventilated apparel designed specifically for fishermen. A logo tee or cap from a favorite brand or location is also a good bet.

4. Lures and other tackle make great Christmas gifts and stocking-stuffers. Even though you run some of that same risk of not getting precisely the right thing, the price point for these items is such that it's not going to be a major issue. Again, your best bet is to seek advice from a local store on exactly what type of lures are most commonly used in the area for the type of fishing your friend or loved one does. Lures are categorized into major groupings like spinners, buzz baits, crank baits, soft plastics, and the like, and within each of these there are a variety of variations, sizes and colors. There is no way I can possibly bring you up to date on the literally thousands of options available in the lure aisle(s) of even a small sporting goods store, but a good bet for general-purpose stocking-stuffer is a French spinner. The most popular brand of this type of lure is called a Mepps, although several other manufacturers produce their own variations on this theme. The size of the lure corresponds vaguely to the type of fishing setup the angler is using; from #0 or #1 ultra-light spinners, which weigh a 10th of an ounce or less, all the way up to a #7 which is used for large freshwater fish like muskie and pike. A good middle ground is the #3. These tend to run about 1/4 ounce and, while generally used on a light to medium rig, they are at the very extreme top end of what can be effectively cast with an ultra-light setup and can be used with heavier equipment, as well. There are a couple of different philosophies as far as colors go; there's a school of thought that says that lure colors are essentially meaningless and more important for the angler than they ever would be for the fish, but there's another school of thought that says fish really do respond differently to different colors under different conditions. I tend to side a bit more with the first camp (although I keep an open mind) and as a result tend to go with fairly basic colors and patterns. Having said that, if you like the brightly colored or intricately detailed designs, knock yourself out.

I hope this brief guide has been of some help. If you have any questions or if I can offer more specific assistance, please drop me a line at John@WynfieldCreekHomestead.com.

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

John's weekly rural lifestyle column FIELD NOTES is now available as part of the Speckled Paw Newsletter. You can sign up to receive thi...