Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A (new?) method of germinating seeds indoors with high success rate

The Joshi Kitchen Garden

Folks living in southern United States or in warmer countries, don't have to worry about germinating seeds indoors. But up here in the North, I have no choice but to grow seedlings indoor if I were to expect produce in a reasonable time.  If I were to wait for the right temperature to grow seeds outdoors, it will be the tail end of July before I would be able to get any produce at all. So, I typically start growing seeds indoors in the month of March and often start harvesting vegetables by early June.  This year was no exception - I started my seeds indoor in mid March.  

Over the years I have tried various methods of seed germination, planting in seed starter trays, using warming pad, placing them in sun, placing them in plastic tubs to maintain humidity, and placing the tubs in the sun etc etc. But I was having mixed success.  I would get about half the seeds to germinate and some to not germinate at all! So last year I decided to try something new.  

In Indian homes, we germinate moth bean (turkish gram, Vigna aconitifolia) by soaking them in water for a day, and then loosely tying them up in a kitchen towel for a few days.  The humidity in the pack is sufficient to keep the moth gram moist and germination is seen within 48-72 hours.  Taking a lesson from that experience, I said why not try that method for germinating all seeds.

But moth gram is a fairly large seed, about twice the size of a grain of rice, and vegetable seeds can be tiny - often smaller than a speck of sand. And the quantity one is trying to germinate is usually very very small - perhaps no more than just a few seeds. So germinating them in a kitchen towel is impossible and I had to come up with a different system ... germinating seeds on a wet paper towel, placed in a ziploc bag. Wet paper towel acts as a medium and the ziploc bag ensures that the seeds don't just dry out. 

Seedlings after being transplanted into small pots

Here is a step by step method for germinating seeds in paper towels:

Step 1. Buy the smallest ziploc bags you can find, from the store - I had some that are 3 inch x 4.5 inches, which are perfect for this kind of activity. (I purchased them from ULine catalog)

Step 2: Cut paper towels into small strips such that they will fit in the ziploc bags folded once over.  In my case, I cut them about 4 inch x 5 inch such that I would fold them over length wise to give me a 4 x 2.5 inch folded paper towel

Step 3. Spray a little water to wet the unfolded paper towel.  Mind you, the paper towel piece should not be soaking wet or dripping - otherwise your seeds may rot. If you want, you may add a few drops of hydrogen peroxide to the water to prevent fungal growth.

Step 4. Sprinkle the seeds on one side of the fold line, and fold the paper towel over to cover them.

Eggplant seeds ensconced in their kitchen towel bed.

Step 5. Gently place the moist paper towel with the seeds into the ziploc bag and close it, leaving some air in it so that there is a little room for the seedlings when they germinate. Don't forget to label them :-) otherwise you will soon be wondering which seeds are which.

Step 6. Place the ziploc bag(s) in a small tupperware container and place it in a warm area. I place mine next to an aging iMac whose fan emanates heat waves like the winds of Sahara! Monitor the bags every few days to see if germination has occurred.  

Often I find that the largest seeds germinate the fastest. Cucumber, beans, okra, etc, will germinate within a week, but smaller seeds like tomato and pepper take a bit longer. In my experience, smallest seeds such as basil and rosemary have take the longest, but there is not hard and fast rule. Just last week, I had a couple of basil seeds germinate within a few days where as the cucumber seeds were yet to sprout.

A turnip seedling

Step 7. Once the seeds have germinated and appear strong enough, it's time to transfer them to pots.  I find it easiest to break up the paper towel to separate the seedlings, taking care that the roots aren't destroyed.  Gently place the seedling, with the piece of paper towel stuck to the root, into the pot, cover the roots with soil and water sufficiently to moisten all the soil around the seedling.  

In transplanting the cucumber seedlings, I tore the paper with roots so that roots were not destroyed.

I use both degradable pots and plastic pots, with a mix of peat moss and perlite as growing medium.

Here are recently transplanted seedlings labeled with their hindi names.
Karela is Bitter Gourd and Bhindi is Okra.

My turnip seedlings standing tall!

Step 8. Place the seedlings into a large plastic storage bin with sufficient head room, and place it in a warm area. This step is only necessary if the temperatures outside are below 70° F. If it's warm enough outside, place the pots in a partially sunny location ensuring that they don't dry out. 

This is a nice picture, but alas, none of the seeds labeled Desi Ber (back three) germinated as they were germinated directly in the pots, but I did have some success with Kantola (spiny gourd, Momordica dioica) germination (the labeled one on the right). Language of labels is Hindi.

Here are some tomato seedlings. I have had good success raising Tomato seedlings indoor.

Just look at the gorgeous seedlings of bitter gourd (Karela) a few weeks after transplantation!

Here are some Marigold seedlings. I used the same method for flower seedlings too.

Step 9. When the seedlings are strong enough (about 2-3 inches tall) and the soil is warm enough, it is time to transfer them to the kitchen garden. 

If you are growing seedlings inside, it is important to harden them before you plant them in the soil.  This year, my dear cousin and friend Dev gave me a plastic greenhouse as a Christmas gift, and that came in very handy to harden the seedlings.   

Portable green house, a gift of Shubhra and Dev Pareek

Sorry for the mess - just wanted to show how I used the portable green house for seed hardening.

By this method, I have almost 90-95% seedling success rate, where was directly planting in the pot my success rate was no better than 50%. Although this is a good method and it works for me, it may not work for some one who has a much larger kitchen garden than mine (30' x 30'), because it is a lot of work to germinate seeds in paper towel and transfer them to the pots.  

And this is what my kitchen garden looks like, six weeks after the seedlings have been transplanted into it.

The Joshi garden towards the end of June 2020

I already have a few peppers! How exciting!

Parsnip root (Mooli, in hindi)

Long green gourd (Doodhi) grows very nicely in New Jersey.  Here are two vines grown from seeds germinated indoors.

Gardening is such an adventure and more enjoyable if you start from seeds and watch little plants emerge from these tiny little specs carrying all the genetic code. But most people find it frustrating to germinate seeds, and just run to the local Home Depot to buy potted plants. There is nothing wrong with that. But should you choose to germinate seeds indoors, my method might be a way to reduce some frustration. 

Do let me know if you try this in your home. I would be interested in knowing your success with the method. 

Good luck gardening!!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Hiking Baldpate Mountain With Friends

Hiking Baldpate Mountain in New Jersey

Not more than 8 minute drive from my home, is an open space called, Baldpate Mountain. One lazy Sunday afternoon I stumbled upon this place when I took an unplanned turn onto Fiddlers Creek Road. Spying the lonely parking lot on the left, I wondered - should I, should I not. With only a hard top Jeep to keep it company, the parking lot seemed to be calling my name. Why not, I reasoned, and turned into the lot,  slowly getting out of the Mercedes to stretch my legs. The bulletin board at the end of the lot announced a trail going up to the top of the hill and not having much to do, I started to walk on what seemed like a well trodden trail. 45 minutes later I was at the top peering over the Delaware river into Pennsylvania.  The proximity of broad vistas offered by Baldpate Mountain, to my home, surprised me and I vowed to come here more often.

That was in late December when the blanket of winter was well spread and everything looked dismal. It has been 5 months, perhaps longer, since then and I have been living a rather monastic life, limiting my social interaction to Zoom and FaceTime calls.  So when Alok suggested we should get together, I grabbed the opportunity and suggested a hike up the Baldpate (how the mountain got its name is a mystery; it used to be called Kuser Mountain when the John Kuser’s family owned it.) Yes, we would maintain social distance, and yes we would wear a mask, for that’s the guidance today, but we would get our families together even if only for a short time. The suggestion to hike Baldpate was received rather warmly, and we agreed to start hiking on Sunday afternoon. 

On the appointed day, a last minute request to postpone or cancel the hike for fear of heat, was quickly dispatched with clarification that much of the hike is in wooded area. An hour before the hiking time, I sent the coordinates of the parking lot to the Sonigs, but when I arrived there, I realized that the coordinates were wrong.  There are, it appears, two parking lots on Fiddler’s Creek Road, one for Ted Stiles Preserve, and another a little further up for Baldpate Mountain, and we had arrived at Ted Stiles Preserve. While hiking Ted Stiles Preserve would be fun, the hike isn’t in wooded area that I had promised. The mistake was corrected quickly and new directions provided to the Sonig family. Within minutes, they arrived at the corrected location, all decked in hiking finery appropriately adjusted for COVID-19, (i.e. their angelic faces gracing face masks) and we started up the Summit Trail.

The early section of the hike is flat but quickly it takes on a moderate intensity with a section covering large boulders. This was my favorite section of the hike in December, almost seeming like a steep ladder of stones, but I realized to my chagrin that the vegetation did a good job of hiding the rocks stealing some of the hike’s beauty. Still, the kids seem to be having fun time bounding from rock to rock. 

The mask makes it doubly difficult to breath on a hot and humid afternoon, but even though I am rather out of shape, I managed to keep company with athletic Alok. I fully expected the kids to complain yet I didn’t hear much; it was my lovely better half who expressed her unhappiness for being arm twisted and dragged out of her cool castle for a “mask-on” hike on a hot stinky afternoon. The ordeal didn’t last long - it took us less than an hour to get up to the top of the hill where the Kuser’s majestic Strawberry Hill house sits overlooking a beautiful vista.

The Masketeers

We rested a while in appropriate social distance, taking in the beauty of central Jersey and imbibing cold cans of coke, before climbing further up to the top of the hill for a view of the Delaware river and Washington Crossing bridge.  

A short while later we started back on Ridge trail towards the Welling-Burd farmhouse and pond. I don’t know if this pond is man made or natural, but it is very picturesque and worth a visit. 

Our way back could have been shorter had we taken a bypass to Summit trail, but instead we doubled back towards Strawberry Hill and then came back onto the Summit trail. The time was very well spent for on the way back I had a great conversation with my little Jiya about writing stories and creating videos. During the walk, Jiya proceeded to create four five characters for a story she plans to write this summer.


Writing is Jiya’s passion, and without any prompting, Jiya came up with some goals for summer writing - writing two pages per day, at least 10 pages per week for 10 weeks, which should result in a book of about 100 pages. 

Jiya is also motivated by her recent success on Youtube - over 13,000 views of her youtube video, and over 100 subscribers!  So she wants to work on developing youtube videos for two hours each day with the goal of uploading at least two videos per week, and 20 videos by the end of summer.

By the time we returned it was 6.15pm, almost exactly 3 hours round trip. It was a great way to dispel the COVID doldrums in the company of good friends. But the icing on the cake was my conversation with little Jiya, who I am sure, will become a good writer and Youtube star one day. Wish you luck, baby!


Mercer County Park Commission Map of Baldpate Mountain and Ted Stiles Preserve

New Jersey Trails Association page on Baldpate Mountain 

NJ Hike’s most complete description of the hikes in Baldpate Mountain

Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space page on Ted Stiles Preserve

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Roman Candle Fountain Pen from Birmingham Pen Company

Writing as a form of human expression has evolved with our civilization, and so have the writing instruments. Since the earliest days of writing when cuneiform expressions were made on clay tablets by the ancient Sumerians (modern day Iraq) and a quill was used by ancient Indian sages to write hymns on palm leaf, writing instruments have evolved from reed stylus to quill and made its way to the modern day stylus used on iPad and Android devices. Yet nothing is as charming a writing instrument as the good old fountain pen. 

A fountain pen is a "thinker's instrument".  Similar to brewing tea, there is a certain degree of meditativeness to using a fountain pen. A fountain pen user eschews the hurried nature of our modern lifestyle and prefers to take time to prepare the writing instrument. (S)he opens the barrel deliberately, fills the pen with ink and wipes down the excess, before putting the nib to paper. There is a certain ritualistic aspect to all this, to be done weekly in preparation of getting ready for the coming week.

When using a fountain pen, the nib has to be pushed on paper quite deliberately, quite unlike the ball point pen, which tends to run away at the slightest push. This was one reason why teachers in the past used to forbid writing with ball-point pens and insisted on their pupils using fountain pens only in their writing. Teachers would often tell students that their handwriting would get worse if one were to use ball point pen, but I didn't really needed much convincing.  I always enjoyed writing with a fountain pen, even though at times more ink ended up on my shirt pocket than on the paper!

Close up of Nemosine nib

My love affair with fountain pens began in the earliest days of childhood when the teachers at Mahila Samaj Railway School insisted on the pupils using fountain pens for writing. In those days all we could get were cheap plastic pens with names like Parker and Camlin, and those were ones in which ink had to be filled with eyedropper. Oh, how happy I was when one year I received a Parker with aerometric squeeze filler mechanism! I still remember that day! Today I yearn for exactly the opposite.  Most pens come with little cartridges and I look forward to filling the pen with an eye dropper!

Writers of the yore extolled the virtues of fountain pen, an instrument that allowed the ideas to take full form before being put on paper. The great English writer, CS Foster, was quite fond of fountain pen & this is how he described his writing with the fountain pen:
The material came bubbling up inside like a geyser or an oil gusher. It streamed up of its own accord, down my arm and out of my fountain pen in a torrent of six thousand words a day.
-CS Foster
Imagine writing 6000 words in a day.  One full day!!  That is equivalent of typing 4-5 pages on a computer writing program! Today, there is such a rush to put things out in blogs and other electronic publications that I can't imagine a modern day writer using a fountain pen to allow only 6000 words to "gush out like a geyser".  

The tribe of fountain pen users is rather small and dwindling. Sad! So it's a pleasure to meet another fountain pen user let alone a creator. This is where  Birmingham Pen Company (BPC) comes in.

I never imagined that I would come across an original American Pen Company.  Like most manufacturing, fountain pen manufacturing has also moved on to the far shores of China where companies like Jinhao and Luoshi have come to dominate the pen market. In United States, one hardly ever hears of fountain pens. The only way to find a fountain pen is to go looking online, and so looking to find a new Italian or Japanese fountain company, imagine my surprise when I came across BPC.  

BPC is a Pittsburgh based family affair run by two brothers Nick and Jonas, and apparently their father, who is the machinist.  The company website claims that each pen is hand turned from a resin blank, on a CNC lathe machine.  The nibs and converters are pre-fabricated and come from a variety of parts suppliers like Jowo and Nemosine.

Roman Candle Pen from Birmingham Pen Company

An American Pen Company! Naturally, I was curious about them. After browsing their website, it became clear that they were sold out of many of the different styles they supposedly manufacture, but there were a few that happened to be available on that day, and I picked out a vivid golden resin pen with colorful marbling, called the "Roman Candle". I have still to understand the geneology of BPC pens, but the Roman Candle seems to belong to Sixth Avenue Fountain Pen category.  (The only other category of pens, BPC seems to manufacture, is Model A).  

When the package arrived a week after ordering it, I was anxious to open it, yet Mrs. Joshi had passed a strict edict that I would not touch the package for 72 hours on account of COVID-19. For 72 hours, while I was miserable yet comfortable in my 70°F house, the poor pen sat in the garage in sub zero weather. When finally the 73rd hour arrived, I ventured into the garage with my gloves on, tearing open the mail package dispatching it to the garbage can, and bringing my Roman Candle into the warmth of the house.

The packaging in which this beauty arrived, is rather sparse - a plain paper box holds the pen itself, and another box, about three sizes larger than the pen box holds the certificate of authenticity. And the two boxes are together held by another small paper wrapper with the monogram of the company imprinted in gold.

The Roman Candle pen comes with a Nemosine No. 6 stainless steel nib and an ink converter (If one wishes to use eye dropper for the ink, all one has to do is remove the converter, as I am apt to do).  

The pen is rather light weight, weighing at 22 grams and is 144mm in length & ~15 mm in barrel thickness at its thickest.  At 22 grams I felt the pen was too light, but having used it for a few days now, I have become accustomed to the light weight.  Delta Dolce Vita, my favorite fountain pen, weighs in around 28 grams without ink, and feels nice and sturdy.  But as I said, I have become accustomed to the lighter weight of the Roman Candle. 

You can read the other specifications of the pen below:

The pen lacks a cap clip, or a barrel ring so there are no frills, which also explains the light weight.  The name of the company is embossed on the barrel, as is the serial number, but given the vivid colors AND the small embossing size, it's virtually impossible to see.  However, I am not worried - resin doesn't really wear out so the name and serial number will likely remain despite regular use.

Fountain Pen features Nemosine Nib
The Roman Candle Fountain Pen features a German Nemosine #6 Nib

Each pen comes with a standard ink converter (is it Schmidt or generic?), which I promptly filled with Schaefer Skrip black ink and proceeded to test write in my journal.  

First impressions are very good.  I have never used a Nemosine nib before so the smoothness of the nib was a welcome relief.  Ink flows without interruption and produces a fine writing that dries very quickly.   In the years past, I preferred Medium to Broad nibs, but lately I have come to like Fine nibs which produce a line width of 0.6mm.

The writing is uniform and the pen glides on paper.  With the cap on the barrel, the pen is sturdy to hold and gives one a feeling of holding something substantial. 

The Birmingham Pen Company Certificate of Authenticity
Each pen comes with a certificate of authenticity

The barrel, hand finished by the craftsmen, is smooth as baby's back in its feel and has a degree of translucence that is pleasing to the eye.  The grip is just the right size at 11mm in its narrowest region and allows for fatigue free writing for hours.  I left the cap off for a few minutes but did not notice any drying of the ink.

I was curious about the serial number on the authenticity certificate that came with the pen and is also engraved on the pen itself, so I went back to the website to check on it.  Here is what it says on their website:
Since this is a small-batch production release each piece is engraved with a unique index number indicating it's place within the daily production of it's final touches and completion.
Hmm. So what exactly does my serial number 20032401 represent? It's a mystery that can only be solved by calling Nick or Jonas. Perhaps I'll do that one day.

Roman Candle Pen from Birmingham Pen Company
Writing with a fountain pen goes very well with a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label

It's been two weeks since I started to write with the Roman Candle. I have exhausted the ink twice and refilled it. All in all, I must say that I am pleased with the purchase, and I look forward to writing with this pen for many months to come.  

Here are a couple more pictures for your viewing pleasure, including one with my trusty 20+ year old Citizen Navihawk!  

Pen posing with my 20 year old first edition Citizen Watch

Close up of Nemosine nib

Monday, April 13, 2020

Installing Bees in Beehive

Although the 2019 winter was mild, my bees didn't make it through the winter.  I had fed them plenty of sugar syrup, and they had produced more than sufficient honey to make it through the winter. So I know it wasn't starvation. Could it be that despite mild winter, the hive was too exposed to cold winter winds? I'll have to find a way to protect the hive from cold winds next winter. In any case, when I checked the hive in January, the bees were gone, and I decided to install another package as soon as weather turned nice.

Jiya holding the package of bees

In March, I called Stan Wasitowski of S&F Honey Farms in Flemington, NJ, and placed my order.  Stan spends his winters in Florida and around early April he picks up the honey bee packages from Georgia in his trailer, on his way back to New Jersey.  Alas, COVID-19 has impacted the bee keepers business as well, and around the end of March I got a call from Stan saying that he won't be able to supply the package because transporting bees from Georgia could not be done due to COVID-19 situation.  

It was a glorious day to be installing the bees into the hive

That news got me scrambling to find another source. Adrienne Shipps, my colleague at Bayer, suggested Mann Lake, and a local bee keeper in Pennsylvania but also suggested to look around. Checking the NJ Beekeepers Association website, I located a local beekeeper Sallie at Beehive Barn in Cranbury, NJ, who had a few packages arriving from Georgia (Georgia seems to be the main source of bee packages for New Jersey).

Fortunately, Sallie came through for me and so on April 9, my nephew Prateek and I donned our masks and headed to Cranbury to pick up the bees. 

Although it is recommended that the bees be put in the hive as soon as possible, the bees unfortunately had to stay in the box for a couple more days due to inclement weather. Finally, on Saturday, the temperature rose to 57° F giving Jiya and me the perfect opportunity to install the package in the beehive. 

Enjoy the pictures

Beekeepers Suite
Here is yours truly, in protective gear

Installing the bee package
The first thing to do is take the can of syrup out

Opening the package of Bees

Queen bee cage
The Queen is supplied in a separate cage

Here is Jiya removing a few frames for the bees

There are about 7-8000 bees in the package

Part of the fun is wearing the beekeepers suite

The bees seem very gentle and landed on us quite softly.

Here is the hive after the bees had been placed in it

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

To mask or not to mask - Part 2

Earlier I wrote that using masks to prevent spread of infections makes a lot of sense.  But it turns out, prolonged use of masks may actually increase the risk of infection from respiratory virus.  Dr. David Fein of Princeton Longevity Center, has nicely summarized a couple of papers published on use of face masks. 

In one study, which looked at the impact of using face covering on three types of viruses - seasonal Corona virus, Rhinovirus and Influenza virus, the researchers concluded that
...seasonal coronaviruses can be transmitted in aerosols produced during normal breathing. However, even without a face mask, there were low amounts of viral shedding from people with influenza virus and seasonal coronavirus in both aerosols and respiratory droplets...
But another study served up some disconcerting information. In observing the effect of cloth masks and medical-grade masks in healthcare workers, the researchers found that
...that cloth masks increase the risk of infection from influenza-like-illnesses. The increase is thought to stem from a 97% rate of particle penetration with cloth masks as well as increased moisture retention observed and the frequency and effectiveness of cleaning between uses...
So, while it may be advisable to use face covering when in crowded areas, it seems it may not be good to keep it on for a long time due to the increased risk of particle penetration and increased moisture retention.  As for effectiveness of cleaning, it is better to clean the mask in washing machine in hot cycle, as recommended by the CDC, rather than hand wash them.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

To mask or not to mask, that is the question

Face masks have emerged as a matter of controversy

In the US, there is a raging debate about whether masks are helpful in preventing transmission of Covid-19 or if its just a useless exercise, unlikely to help with prevention. For the longest time, the centers for disease control (CDC) contended that face mask should only be used by those known to have symptoms of respiratory sickness - coughing, sneezing etc, out of a sense of public service. Only recently and under tremendous political pressure, did the CDC put out a recommendation for wearing face masks by everyone in public places.
On the face of it, the argument to selectively use makes a lot of sense - after all, viruses are so small that no coarse material like cotton or paper fabric would be able to prevent virus penetration.  But that misses the point of prevention, which is all about relative risk reduction not absolute risk reduction.  In relative risk reduction, a group of measures, when used together, reduce the risk to a manageable level.  

We have already been practicing relative risk reduction measures such as,
  • avoidance of crowded places - i.e. social distancing, 
  • avoidance of social contact - i.e. no hugging and kissing even within our social circle, 
  • improved personal hygiene - i.e. regular washing of hands, and disinfecting of common areas, and
  • reduced exposure to socially exchanged materials such as currency
In this context, where social distancing is unavoidable, such as in subways, buses and transit areas, use of even cotton masks can help reduce the relative risk, by absorbing any droplets that might have been released in the air by an infected person. As long as the exposure is transitory, coarse material masks can be very helpful.  

But if you are using a mask, I have two recommendations for you: 
  • if it’s a home made cotton mask, please throw the mask into washing after every use. Or if you have a disposable one, throw it away after one use or at least put it away for a few days to a week, so that any virus that might have made it to your mask, may be destroyed. One only increases the chance of infection by using hands to remove and put back on a mask that might have absorbed droplets contaminated with the virus.  
  • wash your hands after removing the mask.  If the mask was contaminated, it will likely contaminate your hand as you try to remove it.  Washing hands reduces this risk of contamination

But, is this an adequate protection for a healthcare worker? Probably not, for a healthcare worker working in a crowded environment needs absolute risk reduction, which can only happen when one uses a mask capable of holding back viruses, such as the N95 mask.  But if there are no more N95 masks, any mask will help reduce the relative risk, but the absolute risk is still high. So, data or no data, using masks is a commonsense measure that one should consider if one were to find themselves temporarily unable to avoid crowded places.  

There are a few other measures to consider to reduce our exposure to the risk of infection by corona virus. If you found yourself in a crowded situation, washing hands upon returning home or work, is always a good idea.  But perhaps a better idea is changing clothes, or even taking a bath. Another is to wash with soap, those things that might have been come in contact with other individuals, including fruits and vegetables. Those things that cannot be washed, such as paper products, put them away for 4-5 days - anecdotal information seems to suggest that the virus could survive on common materials for up to 72 hrs.

Let us do our part by using face masks in the public.