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Ask Martha, March 2007

Martha Stewart Living, March 2007

Sprinkler Specifics
Q: I'm thinking about installing a sprinkler system. What factors do I need to consider?

A: Irrigation systems certainly can be worthwhile investments. Not only do they save time and effort, but they also can help conserve water because of their precision controls; many people overhydrate their lawns and gardens when they tackle the job by hand. However, since the initial cost can be significant, you'll want to weigh several factors in order to determine the type of irrigation that matches your needs.

A drip-irrigation system consists of perforated tubes that snake throughout a property, delivering water to small-scale vegetable, container, or rooftop gardens. There's also inground irrigation, in which subterranean pipes carry water to sprinkler heads. This alternative, which is more expensive than a drip system and requires professional installation, is designed to keep large lawns and foundation plantings hydrated. Companies usually charge per number of sprinklers. Depending on soil conditions, inground installation will cost $2,400 to $4,000 (including labor and materials) for the average suburban yard. For an additional charge, you may be able to run drip-irrigation lines off the system.

Inground irrigation can be operated manually, or you'll need to choose a controller, which determines when and how much water is released. If you live in a hot, dry area with water-use restrictions, you might want an ET controller (ET is short for evapotranspiration, the process that causes soil to lose water). Equipped with smart technologies such as soil sensors and Internet links to local weather stations, these controllers deliver only as much water as needed (automatically turning off when rain is in the forecast, for example). Certain municipalities even offer rebates on them.

Perhaps the most important decision of all concerning inground irrigation is choosing a contractor. This professional will be responsible for designing and installing the system, plus he or she will handle routine maintenance issues. In other words, this is the start of a long and lasting relationship. Ask friends and neighbors for recommendations, or visit to find a certified professional in your area.

Not-So-Stainless Steel
Q: Why does my stainless steel flatware get horrible rust-spot deposits in the dishwasher?

A: Despite its reassuring name, stainless steel can rust if not cared for properly. That's because its base metal contains iron. Over time, the object's protective chromium topcoat can wear down, allowing oxygen and water to reach the iron, which results in rust.

To keep this from happening to your utensils, rinse them before loading the dishwasher. This prevents acids in food from corroding the protective topcoat. Also, avoid dishwashing detergents that contain citrus, which can compromise the topcoat. Don't mingle silver and stainless steel flatware in the utensil basket of a dishwasher, because the two metals may react, damaging their finish. If you hand-wash your utensils, use a soft sponge, and dry them right away. Never soak flatware overnight.

Fortunately, unsightly rust spots can be removed easily with a paste of one part baking soda to three parts water. Rub the paste gently onto the stainless steel with a soft cloth. To add an extra layer of protection (and restore the luster of tarnished flatware), apply stainless steel polish a few times a year or whenever the surface becomes dull.

Alternative Cooking
Q: While shopping for a kitchen range, I came across an induction unit. How does this technology work?

A: Although still relatively unknown in the United States, induction cooking has been popular in Europe and Australia for years. It is sometimes referred to as "heatless cooking," as it doesn't require an open flame or red-hot electric coils. Heat is instead generated by electromagnetic currents in the "burners" that respond to metal cooking vessels. Whether induction cooking is the wave of the future or just an electromagnetic flash in the pan, this technology is worth a closer look now that more manufacturers in the United States are offering it.

When you cook on an induction cooktop, only the vessel and food contained within it become hot-as soon as the pot or pan is removed from the burner, the cooktop surface becomes almost cool to the touch. Therefore, safety is a big selling point with induction cooking. The burners also won't heat up your kitchen, which appeals to many caterers and restaurant chefs. Induction cooktops can achieve extremely high temperatures in a very short amount of time; during cooking, heat adjustments are almost instantaneous and quite precise. (Gas ranges also boast precise heat adjustments, but their burners take longer to heat the pan to the initial temperature.)

There are some drawbacks to induction cooktops. They tend to be more expensive than gas and electric units, starting around $1,500 for a four-burner range. If you previously cooked with gas, you may need to rewire your kitchen to accommodate the 240 volts required for most induction cooktops. Only ferrous metals, which are magnetic, will work with induction heat. If you cook with copper, you'll need to trade your pots and pans for stainless steel or cast-iron ones. (Not all stainless steel vessels are fit for induction though. They should work if a magnet sticks to the bottom of them.) Also, pan size can be an issue; the magnetic coils may not work properly when paired with pans that are much smaller or larger than the burners.

Spring Bird Feedings
Q: Should seed mixes in bird feeders be different during warmer months?

A: With milder temperatures making more natural-food sources available, your feathered friends won't be dropping by the bird feeder as often. But shortages can occur year-round. As a result, you will still want to set out some food that they can rely on.

Winter seed mixes are intentionally high in fat to help birds stay warm. Come springtime, your feeders should reflect the birds' changing natural diet, which now relies more on protein. Sunflower seeds make an excellent filler, as they attract so many types of birds. Millet is also good to include; the tiny yellowish seeds will bring in a steady flight of small-beaked ground feeders, such as quail, sparrows, and towhees. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website ( suggests seeds that will appeal to other species. Calcium is also important for birds during spring, their breeding season. You can make a homemade supplement from crushed eggshells; bake them in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes to kill bacteria before adding them to a packaged seed mix. Pulverized oyster shells are a second calcium-rich option.

Nectar is also a component of birds' spring diet. For an alternative that's easy to make, bring a quarter cup of sugar and one cup of water to boil; let the mixture cool, and then add it to a hummingbird feeder. (Do not substitute honey, which turns moldy and toxic quickly in warm weather.) You can also make a concoction to replace suet cakes, a winter staple that goes rancid quickly in the summer heat: Combine one part peanut butter, a favorite of woodpeckers, with five parts cornmeal, and use the mix to fill drilled holes in a hanging-log feeder or crevices of large pinecones.

During the hot and humid days ahead, it's important to keep your feeders clean. Plastic ones are the easiest to maintain since you can usually take them apart and scrub the crevices with an old toothbrush and hot, soapy water. If mildew is a problem, soak the parts in a bucket filled with water and a capful of chlorine bleach; rinse thoroughly and reassemble.

Here's another way to ask Martha a question: Give her a call. She answers questions during her live radio show, Ask Martha, which airs on Sirius Satellite Radio channel 112. For a few exchanges that aired on recent broadcasts, read on.

Patio Plantings
Q: I have a flagstone patio in my backyard. How do I encourage moss to grow between the pavers?

A: Assuming the pavers were set in stone dust, as opposed to cement, it is possible to grow moss. The first thing you need to do is pour a little beer into the cracks. This creates a fertile environment for the plant to grow. Then take equal amounts of moss and buttermilk or beer and grind the mixture in a blender. Pour it between each paver. Water the cracks often enough to keep the ground moist until the moss takes root.

You might also consider using creeping thyme instead of moss, which you plant in the cracks as you would anywhere else, and water frequently. I have thyme in between the fieldstone covering my patio at my home in Bedford, New York. It smells lovely.

Simple Conversions
Q: I have a lot of old home-video footage from my wedding and other family events. Is there a way to preserve it?

A: You should convert the videos to DVD as soon as possible. Such precious images are far too valuable to let slip away. DVDs are more stable than VHS tapes, plus they're a lot easier to store. There are places just about everywhere that offer the conversion service. Check the phone book or search online to find one in your area. Some professionals may even edit the content for you, though you will either need to sit down with them during the process or provide detailed instructions.

All-Weather Compost
Q: I've been composting all winter, but now my heap is very stiff and dry. Should I compost during cold months?

A: You can compost all year long, but you need to remember to turn the pile regularly, regardless of what season it is. Sprinkle the pile liberally with granular lime, which is available at nurseries, and then turn it with a pitchfork. The heap will be dry on the outside but hot and decomposing in the center, so mix it well. When you reshape the pile, leave a small crater in the middle to collect rainwater. The moisture will keep the pile soft and help matter decompose quickly and evenly.

Hold the Butter
Q: I received a beautiful, handmade French butter keeper as a gift, but I'm not sure how it's used. Are you familiar with this type of dish?

A: Many people like to leave butter at room temperature because it's easier to spread. A French butter keeper -- also called a bell or a crock -- is a popular way to do this. It consists of a cup that is packed with butter and placed upside down in a water-filled base to form an airtight seal. Not only does a butter keeper make an attractive serving dish, it also keeps butter fresher longer than a regular butter dish. Replenish the water every few days and keep the butter cup filled to maintain the seal.

A butter keeper is not a foolproof substitute for refrigeration. If you live in a hot climate or if the crock is left in direct sunlight, butter won't stay fresh for long, plus it will melt. Regardless of which container you use, I find that salted butter keeps better at room temperature than unsalted butter.

Perfect Onions
Q: What's the best way to caramelize onions? Every time I try to do this, they always end up burned.

A: It sounds like you're trying to cook them too fast. Remember, there's no rushing good food. Once you've sliced the onions, add them to a skillet with a little bit of butter or olive oil. Then you just need to cook and cook and cook the onions over medium heat until they're really caramelized. The process usually takes 10 to 15 minutes. You can also try adding a pinch of sugar to the pan. The granules will combine with the natural sugar in the onions, turning them a deep, delicious brown and drawing out their sweet flavors.

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