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Archives for January 27, 2016

After ordinance, Cottage Grove barraged with solar gardens –

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Cottage Grove is warming up to solar power.

The city council has approved a 36-acre solar garden in the northeast corner of the city; three other similar-size projects have been proposed, and a new ordinance is making the city more solar-friendly.

“This fits with the city’s environmentally friendly attitude,” city engineer Jennifer Levitt said.

Last week, the city council cleared the way for Ecoplexus Inc. to build a solar array within an 80-acre site southwest of Manning Avenue and 70th Street.

The San Francisco-based company, whose website says it has completed 30 solar projects nationwide and is developing 50 others, plans to sell the five megawatts of electricity generated at its Cottage Grove array to area homes and businesses.

The other proposed solar gardens are:

  • A project immediately to the north of the approved project. This one calls for 40 acres of solar panels on a larger parcel. It is being proposed by SunShare, a Denver-based provider of solar power systems.
  • A garden of similar size roughly west of Manning and north of 100th Street, developed by Rochester-based MN Solar Connection.
  • A solar array southwest of Ideal Avenue and 100th Street. This project is also being proposed SunShare.

The surge of interest in Cottage Grove from solar companies can be traced to an ordinance adopted by the city last fall.

Levitt said the city smoothed the path for such companies by adding solar power generation to the list of permitted uses on hundreds of acres, mostly between Manning Avenue and Kimbro Avenue.

That land is not scheduled to be served by water and sewer lines for the next 25 years — so few businesses or homes were expected  be built on it.

Levitt said the city isn’t necessarily promoting the solar gardens, but officials have spent plenty of time studying the issue.

She said the city has clarified or expanded rules regarding solar power, including regulations on screening and landscaping, overhead power lines and finances.

“We knew the trend was coming, and we wanted to be well-prepared,” said Levitt.

She said the change will make solar companies more likely to build in Cottage Grove. “I think they have a level of comfort,” said Levitt. “There is no second-guessing about what is required.”

SunShare, which is proposing to build one of the projects, says it is involved in various stages of talks to set up solar gardens in 20 Minnesota communities.

“The market is fantastic,” said Matthew Bowers, director of commercial sales for the company.

SunShare has asked the city to allow solar projects in an additional 430 acres south of 100th Street and east of Hadley Avenue.

However, the city’s Planning Commission recommended that the request be denied, and the city council is expected to vote on the request later.

The Cottage Grove solar array is one of dozens being built or proposed in communities across the state, including Scandia and Rosemount.

In 2014, solar power provided about 0.4 percent of the utility-scale electricity generated in the U.S., according to the Institute for Energy Research.

Fueled by government incentives and growing demand for clean energy, the solar industry was on track to increase power generation by about 30 percent in 2014 and 2015, the magazine Scientific American recently reported.

The Solar Energy Industries Association, the industry’s trade group, projected solar power would generate 28,000 megawatts last year, then add generating capacity for an additional 20,000 megawatts in 2016 and 2017.

Although its cost is dropping, solar power generation remains more expensive than other methods.

Solar power plants cost about $125 per megawatt hour to build and operate — compared with $95 to $144 for various types of coal-fired plants, $72 to $141 for natural gas plants and $95 for nuclear power plants. The estimates were calculated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration for plants entering service in 2020.

The cost of any of the approved or proposed solar installations was not available.


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Treasure Valley gardening events: low-water landscaping, going organic, more

Saturday, Jan. 30

Creating a Xeric Landscape: 2 p.m. at Idaho Botanical Garden, 2355 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise. Peggy Faith, a specialist in creating native and non-native xeric gardens, will discuss design ideas, considerations for placement, lawn alternatives, irrigation basics, hardscaping and maintenance. $12 IBG members, $17 nonmembers. Register: 343-8649,

Saturday, Feb. 6

Organic Yard and Garden: 10 a.m. at Idaho Botanical Garden, 2355 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise. Jennifer Miller will discuss ways to establish and maintain garden and flower beds without the use of herbicides, and various methods for managing common pests. $12 IBG members, $17 nonmembers. Register: 343-8649,

Wednesday, Feb. 10

Grape Growing: 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Boise Public Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Free, but register at or call 608-7700.

Tuesday, Feb. 16

Spring into a Successful Garden: 6:30 p.m. at Idaho Botanical Garden, 2355 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise. Toby Mancini, IBG Horticulture Director, will help you organize your garden maintenance including improving soil conditions and pruning and dividing perennials; discuss weeds, pests and their controls; and share timely plant care tips and other spring gardening wisdom. $15 IBG members, $20 nonmembers. Register: 343-8649,

Wednesday, Feb. 17

Organic Gardening: 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Boise Public Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Free, but register at or call 608-7700.

Wednesday-Thursday, Feb. 24-25

Fruit Tree Pruning: 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Boise Public Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Free, but register at or call 608-7700.

Thursday, Feb. 25

Right tree, right place and pruning techniques: 7 to 9 p.m. at Nampa City Hall, 411 3rd St. S. Learn how to select the right tree based on the planting location and how to prune properly. Presenter: Earl Moran, city forester. Free. 468-5858,

Saturday, Feb. 27

Rethinking Idaho Landscapes: 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Special Events Center, Boise State University. Community forum, presented by the Idaho Botanical Garden and the University of Idaho, provides attendees with examples, tools and information useful for gardening in Idaho. $35 garden members and U of I Master Gardeners, $45 nonmembers. Register at

Wednesday, March 2

Tree Biology: 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Boise Public Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Free, but register at or call 608-7700.

Wednesday, March 9, and Saturday, March 12

Tree Pruning: 6 to 8:30 p.m. March 9 and 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. March 12 at Boise Public Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Free, but register at or call 608-7700.

Thursday, March 10

Fruit tree prunning: 7 to 9 p.m. at Nampa City Hall, 411 3rd St. S. Learn the best time and way to prune fruit trees to keep them healthy, well-balanced, open to sunlight and maximize fruit production. Presenter: Jim Jenkins, CWI professor. Free. 468-5858,

Wednesday, March 16

Tree Selection and Planting: 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Boise Public Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Free, but register at or call 608-7700.

Thursday, March 17

Low Water Landscaping: 7 to 9 p.m. at Nampa City Hall, 411 3rd St. S. Learn how to achieve a low-water landscape that looks great. Topics include hydrozoning, irrigation and planting design. Presenter: Dan Schults, CWI horticulture professor and certified nursery professional. Free. 468-5858,

Wednesday, March 23

Tree Problems: 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Boise Public Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Free, but register at or call 608-7700.

Wednesday, March 30

Lawn and Irrigation: 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Boise Public Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Free, but register at or call 608-7700.

Saturday, April 2

Tree planting and pruning demonstration: 10 a.m. to noon at Lakeview Park, Garrity Boulevard and 16th Avenue North, Nampa. Hands-on tree planting class to learn proper planting and pruning techniques. Presenter: Earl Moran, city forester. Free. 468-5858,

Wednesday, April 6

Roses and landscape: 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Boise Public Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd. Free, but register at or call 608-7700.

Thursday, April 7

Tree disorders, insects and diseases: 7 to 9 p.m. at Nampa City Hall, 411 3rd St. S. Learn about some of the most common insect related problems found on local trees and most common problems created by people. Corrective suggestions will be given to help maintain healthy trees. Presenter: Dan Schults, CWI horticulture professor. Free. 468-5858,

Saturday, April 9

Rose pruning and care: 10 a.m. to noon at Lakeview Park, Garrity Boulevard and 16th Avenue North, Nampa. Learn basic techniques to produce beautiful, healthy roses. Presenter: Lucas Navock, Nampa Parks employee. Free. 468-5858,

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Column: Tips shared for exploring downsized gardening

If you have reached the point in life that you are ready to downsize what you have to care for but you still would like to do some gardening, take heart. You can downsize your garden too.

If you have a small care space or a deck, patio, balcony, porch or even some steps, container gardening may meet your needs. Here are some tips for designing your smaller “garden.”

Container gardens may allow you to have more control and expend less work than a larger garden with beds and rows of plants.

Many vegetables and flowers require several hours per day of sunshine so look at where your containers would best be located. Look around your garage, basement or kitchen to see if you have some items you could use as plant containers.

If you prefer, visit a garden center and evaluate the choices you find there. Generally the bigger container the better but if you will need to move it to follow the sun, be aware of how heavy it might be.

Items such as an old dishpan or stewpot might serve you well. After you have found containers, the time has come to consider soil, water, plants and seeds. Bagged soils available in garden centers offer choices of potting soils with slow release fertilizers in them.

Potting soil amended with compost provides a mix that will support your plant’s growth. Growing in containers will require frequent attention to watering since containers will dry out faster than planting in the ground. When hot weather arrives, the soil will dry out even faster. Plan for where to get the water and how to deliver it to your plants. Watering may be required daily.

When you have your container garden ready to go, it is time to think about what you want to grow. Herbs may be a good starting point.

You can begin with purchased transplants that will only need a few leaves to liven up a salad or other parts of your meal. Mints in a container will grow again each year and the container will limit their invasive spread. (Think about hot mint tea when it is snowing outside.)

Some of the challenges of container gardening can be met by moving the containers to meet needs for sunshine and by choosing carefully the varieties you plant.

Tomatoes are certainly possible but you would likely want a variety like Sungold or Patio Princess. Leaf lettuce or any smaller variety of greens can be planted early and are easy to raise.

If your containers are large enough, vegetables such as cucumbers, beans, squash and similar vining varieties can be grown on a trellis. Choose flowers that will fit in the containers you have.

Staking flowers may also be required. As you choose varieties of vegetables or flowers think about watering needs and soil depth of the containers. Container gardens can certainly keep you involved in a gardening hobby and supply fresh beauty and taste for your downsized lifestyle.

Pat Smith is a Licking County Master Gardener Volunteer.

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Seed Savers shares garden seeds, tips

Saving seeds

Saving seeds

Ron Cook brought some of his trademark “heavy hitter okra” seeds to Sunday’s Green Country Seed Savers meeting. Cook picked out a batch of Heidi tomato seeds that another attendee had brought to the meeting.

Posted: Tuesday, January 26, 2016 11:02 am

Seed Savers shares garden seeds, tips

Whether a lifelong gardener or just starting out, the Green Country Seeds Savers is a good organization for those looking for a gardening community to share their tips and tricks, along with their seeds.

The GCSS met at Napoli’s on Sunday afternoon for its monthly meeting to exchange seeds, secrets and for camaraderie. George McLaughlin started the organization in 2013 with the purpose of promoting knowledge, and to practice propagating food plants so people don’t have to resort to buying seed each year. McLaughlin said people can have a measure of their self-sufficiency, while being able to enjoy a better food product.

The meetings are also a good place to meet like-minded people, and McLaughlin said there is a family-like atmosphere. Those who attended Sunday’s meeting got to make their own homemade vacuum seed wand out of a baby nasal cleaner, a one-eighth inch coupling and a hypodermic needle. Many who attend grow unique plants, and bring seeds so that others can try their hand at growing them. McLaughlin brought seeds from the Heidi tomato plant, which is elongated, thin-skinned, thick-walled and rich in flavor, to Sunday’s meeting.

“In my whole lifetime, most of the work that has been done on food crops has been done for standardization,” McLaughlin said. “People want things to be the same so those were developed for a commercial setting. They were shooting for appearance and durability in shipping. A lot of the heirlooms were grown with the idea that they’d be eaten in the place they were grown, so they’re softer and they have very distinct flavors.”

McLaughlin said one of his favorite facets of gardening is being able to experiment with different plants, and finding unique ones that he enjoys. He said gardening is a fun hobby because a person can tailor the difficulty to how much effort they would like to put into it.

“You can start out with something easy like a tomato, hot pepper or beans,” McLaughlin said. “The best thing about it is that you get to grow what you like. I have a brother on the East Coast. About three or four years ago he paid for about 20 different plants of hot peppers that don’t grow around here. He planted them in a row, and I got there at the end of the harvest and tried every single one of them. I ended up finding one from Ecuador that was fantastic, I stuck three pods in my pocket and I’ve grown them every year since.”

Ron Cook attended Sunday’s meeting and brought some of his famous “heavy hitter okra” with him.

The specific strain he has perfected over two decades can produce around 250 pods of okra on one plant, compared to a normal yielding okra plant, which produces around 15 pods, according to Cook.

Cook’s product is known around the world, and he has sold seed to people from Malaysia, Panama, Saudi Arabia and Canada.

“When I started out, I was buying seed every year which can be pretty expensive,” Cook said. “So I started saving my seeds and then I started just saving the seed from my best plants. Every year I would pick my best one, plant those seeds and throw the rest away until I got the plant I have now.”

Cook said seed saving allows gardeners to grow superior plants and cleaner food.

“Probably 10 years ago on the East Coast they had a late season blight on tomatoes,” Cook said. “It spread from New York all the way across the country, because these big nurseries supply everyone with plants. A blight, which is a soil-borne pathogen, once it gets into your soil, your garden is done for the rest of your life basically. If you collect your own seed, it’s kind of like venereal disease – if you keep clean you won’t get that stuff. If you grow your own garden with your own seed, you know that it’s disease free.”

Elisabeth Knox grows Cherokee Squaw corn and said she came to Sunday’s meeting to inquire about Rabbit tobacco from Cook. She said the weed has medicinal properties, and can be used to repel roaches and other insects.

“My son has pulmonary fibrosis, which is a thickening of the lungs, so this would help him with his breathing, to smoke it,” Knox said. “Usually it just grows wild but I wanted to come here and get some seed so I can start growing it.”

Knox said she also has a garden and enjoys knowing where her food comes from. She said the seed saving meetings are useful to swap seeds, and to exchanged knowledge to help any gardener be successful.

“You know when you get seeds from these folks that there isn’t any cross-contamination,” Knox said. “Plus you know they’re going to grow better. The stuff here is authentic. You know what you’re getting and that’s the key. Native people need to get back to their diet – the three sisters, corn, beans and squash. We need to get back to those things and get rid of diabetes. It’s just rampant. My granddaughter has it and she’s 7.”

People wanting to learn more about the Green Country Seeds Savers and keep up with the group on its website at

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016 11:02 am.

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Will the Knox Street Redo Move the Most Dangerous Valet Stand in Dallas?

Looks peaceful in this Google Street View image, but much of the time this valet stand is a menace.
Looks peaceful in this Google Street View image, but much of the time this valet stand is a menace.

Tomorrow the Dallas City Council is expected to approve the Complete Streets Design Manual, a long-gestating project that’s the result of a $400,000 federal grant received in 2010 that in turn spawned the city’s Complete Streets Initiative.

The resulting document (see it in the council’s posted agenda) is intended to serve as a “comprehensive policy guide for all public or private projects that impact the planning, design, construction, and operation of streets.”

You may recall that in September 2012, the city authorized an experiment — with the help of the Better Block Foundation — wherein Knox Street between Central Expressway and the Katy Trail was narrowed, with bike lanes added and street parking rearranged. That effort was part of the development of a vision of building “streets that are safe and comfortable for everyone: young and old; motorists and bicyclists; walker and wheelchair users; bus and train riders alike,” as the Complete Streets Design Manual puts it.

While not part of Wednesday’s council vote, the city is right now also planning a redo of Knox that will adopt many of these ideas permanently into the streetscape. Sidewalks would be widened, landscaping and bike racks would be added, intersections would be gussied up, and the road might be narrowed to three lanes. The best idea on the to-do list is to switch the street parking to an angled rather than perpendicular configuration. Anyone who regularly drives on Knox will vouch for the wisdom of that change, as the current setup often makes pulling out of a space a death-defying experience.

But what I really want to know is what’s going to be done about the valet stand in front of Toulouse and Taverna, right next to the Katy Trail? Any night of the week, if you drive through there you’re bound to encounter a dangerous mix of pedestrians coming off of and entering the Katy Trail, while also having to look out for valet parkers darting back and forth across the road to the empty lot of the former 7-11. Cars often are forced to the middle of the road to navigate around all the hazards.

I asked Peer Chacko, the city’s chief planning officer, whether Knox upgrades will do anything to remedy the situation. He told me that so far not much has been considered in the way of improvements for the segment between Travis Street and the Katy Trail (which is already narrower than the rest of Knox), however, “as the project moves forward we will certainly also be looking at specific operational improvements (including valet) from the standpoint of safety. We are coordinating on this with the Streets Department and the Police Department that are responsible for street operations and valet licensing respectively.”

There’s no question that valet stand needs to me moved off to a side street (probably Travis), right?

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The creators of The Witness on how they made a 100-hour puzzle game

One of the reasons The Witness has remained so mysterious is that the team is extremely wary of spoiling the experience. The Witness is a game about solving puzzles, but it’s also a game about observation. You need to pay close attention to your surroundings to find out the solutions — the game gives no text instructions at all — and much of the joy and challenge comes from those “a-ha!” moments when you realize the answer to a problem that’s been stumping you. The team is very conscious that those moments can be easily ruined, and they’ve tried hard to avoid that. When I wandered around the office, even the testers would make sure I had already seen whatever puzzle they were working through before they proceeded.

This, in turn, has made it a difficult game to discuss in the press. When you can’t explain the details that make your game special, it’s hard to get across why it’s interesting. Last week Blow revealed that the The Witness would cost $40. Many gamers were shocked at the price, wondering why a simple puzzle game cost so much money. From what I’ve played, The Witness is an experience that’s much larger and more intricate than its initial sliding maze puzzles suggest, but Blow wants you to learn that for yourself.

“When I go to talk about the game, already it’s a hard game to talk about,” he says. “I have to somehow convince people that drawing a line in a maze is fun for 100 hours. So that’s hard. But I also have to do it without telling people most of the things that are fun, because I want them to experience that, and that surprise is what makes the game fun to play.”

One of the most astonishing things about the game is the attention to detail. The Witness takes place on a relatively small island — after a few hours I was able to get around pretty easily despite my poor sense of direction and the lack of an in-game map — but it’s an incredibly dense place. Nearly everywhere you turn you find something new, and much of it feels important, even if you don’t understand why immediately. From the shape of a building to the placement of a tree, everything in the game feels deliberate, like someone put a lot of thought into how to stack those rocks. The developer even enlisted the help of real-world architects, who worked with the artists to ensure that the architecture and landscaping were grounded in reality.

“If you’re asking someone to pay attention to details, clues in the environment, then you as a designer have to go and make sure that what they see is going to be a high-quality experience,” Blow says of the focus on details like architecture. “If some part of the game doesn’t support being looked at closely, you’re setting yourself up to be bad.” Spanyol adds that “it makes it feel very grounded. It feels more immersive just because the details are in place, and your brain kind of picks up on it.”

Those details are one of the aspects of the game that has benefited from the prolonged development time. In 2010, Blow secretly showed the game at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle; a playable version was available for people to check out, but with no signs or information to explain what the game was or who made it. It was a much uglier version of the game, with placeholder art and buildings that looked like boxes, but players seemed to pick up on it anyways. Some spent upwards of two hours playing this version of the game in the middle of a crowded convention floor, according to Blow. “That was the first time I saw other people who were not my friends play it,” he says. “So then I knew I wasn’t just totally deluded.”

The early version of the island was remarkably similar to the one in the final version of the game. The basic idea and layout are the same, but in the intervening years it’s been filled with more stuff. A trio of artists turned what Blow describes as “ugly programmer art” into an idyllic place, a location that feels like a cross between the island from Myst and a peaceful getaway. “It’s a place where you enjoy being there and spending large amounts of time just looking around, but [it’s] also a little bit empty,” Spanyol says. “You can feel that something is missing.”

Meanwhile, Blow continued to create puzzles, building off of the core idea and taking them in new directions. The basic mechanic of every puzzle is the same — you’re confronted with a maze, and you need to draw a line through it — but the different ways you go about this are remarkably varied. Some of the puzzles are extremely challenging, others less so, but they all seem to build off of one another. The puzzles you’ll be solving toward the end of the game would make no sense when you’re just starting out, with rules that expand and become more nuanced the more you play. The game is able to teach you these complex rules without verbally explaining a thing; you learn by doing, without any explicit instructions. The result is hundreds of puzzles that all revolve around the same mechanic, yet manage to stay interesting over the course of dozens of hours.

That may sound like a lot, but if it weren’t for Blow’s stringent standards, the game could’ve been even bigger. “I cut a lot of puzzles from the game, because they were alright, but they didn’t live up to the same level as the other ones,” he says. “Every puzzle has to pull its weight. If it was like 10 percent interesting, then the game feels flawed. And it’s like why is that there. I’m very sensitive to that.”

Much like other artists, many game developers struggle with the process of following up a big hit. The shadow of past success can make creating something new a challenge. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem for Blow. “I don’t care about any of that,” he says of the expectations that come from having created a game like Braid. Instead, he’s devoted years and millions of dollars in the pursuit of a single idea, and the hope that it will turn into a great video game.

“I make the game that I think is the best game, and then I try to figure out how to communicate to people that it’s a good game,” he says. “If I was trying to make a game that people would think was good, it wouldn’t have been about drawing lines in a maze.”

The Witness is available today on PC and PS4. An iOS version is also in development. Stay tuned for our full review later this week.

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Officials: Heartbeat of Downtown Monroe strong

New businesses, new residents, tourists, festivals and growing community support have brought new life into downtown Monroe, and officials say the heart of the city is beating strong.

DoMo, as officials call downtown Monroe, saw six new businesses open in 2015, while projects such as the downtown riverwalk got important funding and an advisory board started studying the feasability of a new bus terminal.

Tuesday, city officials recognized and honored community partners and businesses that have supported revitalization efforts and discussed future projects.

In 2016, DoMO stakeholders should open a pedestrian crossing on Art Alley, continue work on the downtown riverwalk, develop a master plan for landscaping and create a long-range plan for riverfront development, especially around the RiverMarket.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in five, 10 years and we will continue to make progress. If you look downtown with the RiverMarket and all of the activities that’s going on — all of that is significant. People see the tremendous growth and it’s because of everyone working together,” Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo said.

Downtown Monroe Association president Rick Saulsberry said development strategies must be comprehensive and several organizations are working simultaneously to develop downtown Monroe.

The Downtown River Jam, Art Crawl  and numerous other activities have helped bring attention to DoMO and brought more people on board the revitalization efforts, Saulsberry said.

“All these small activities are leading to a larger revitalization effort,” Saulsberry said. “Downtown must capitalize on the unique assets it already has, such as distinctive buildings, neighborly shop owners and the river. These are the type of things you can’t find at a strip mall.”

Downtown Economic Development District chairman Larry Bratton said the riverwalk project is one of the biggest on tap. The state has approved giving the city $3.5 million for the project; so far Monroe has received $475,000 in capital outlay funding of which $200,000 is cash to begin the project.

The riverwalk would extend from Warehouse No. 1 to Ouachita Grand Plaza. It is a two-phase raised walkway project behind some sections of the sea wall and in front of others. It will include lighting, landscaping and other amenities.

Bratton encourages the community to offer ideas to Downtown Monroe Association, DEDD or city officials on things people would like to see happen in and around downtown Monroe.

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