Last Call for Fearless Fall Gardeners

These days, the leaves are changing and pumpkin spice is ubiquitous. But surprisingly, it’s also the perfect time to prepare your garden for all the delectable crops that thrive in the chilliest months of the year. Even if you don’t have a yard (or have perfected the art of growing weeds and crabgrass), you still have time to get a winter crop off the ground. Consider it a worthy investment with a big payoff. Here’s a handy guide to help you get your winter garden in gear.

Survey the land

Not sure if you have enough room? Don’t worry. You’ll probably be starting your garden in pots — especially if you start from seed. And luckily, planting spaces come in all sizes.

Big yard

Gardeners with a big or medium-sized yard have several layout options at their disposal since they’ll be able to arrange their crops in different rows. Beginners, though, might want to start small.

Small yard

Small yards might fare better with the space-efficient “keyhole” orientation. This means planting in a “U” shape and leaving a “catwalk” in the center for the gardener to walk through. 

No yard

Have you ever heard of a vertical garden? Inventive gardeners can use anything from old dresser drawers to hanging soda bottles as makeshift (aka “upcycled”) planters in a vertical orientation.

And, of course, there’s always the windowsill or countertop.

Pick your crop

Autumn is the perfect time to sow the seeds for winter vegetables. If you’re new to the gardening game, then you’re in luck: winter veggies easy to care for, require less water and sun, and can withstand varying levels of frost.

Included are a whole host of leafy green varieties, including kale, cabbage, and lettuce. Carrots, radishes, and other root vegetables are also on the list. And bulbs like onions and garlic might be the ultimate in low-maintenance crops — you can even start a garlic plant with a single store-bought clove.

All about soil

Drainage

When it comes to soil, good drainage is key for keeping oxygen in and mold out. You can test your yard’s drainage by running the hose over your planting area. If the water puddles and doesn’t get absorbed right away, then your soil might need a little help. Fortunately, the solution is as easy as mixing in some compost (either homemade or store bought).

If you’re sticking with pots or other contained spaces, just add bits of broken terra-cotta or gravel to the bottom.

pH balance

A good pH balance allows your soil to absorb nutrients. You can easily test your soil with an inexpensive pH meter, available from your local gardening store. Just stick it into the soil — if the meter reads somewhere between 5.5 and 7, then you’re good to go (vegetables generally like a pH of 6.5).

If your pH is too low (acidic), then your soil might benefit from a bit of sulfur. Adding lime or wood ash will raise the pH. Talk to an expert at your local gardening supply store and make sure you follow the directions on the package.

Plant the seeds

Seeds vs. seedlings

Figuring out your method of choice can be a little overwhelming. On one hand, seeds are cheaper and offer more options, but they also require more time and care. Seedlings, on the other hand, may offer fewer options, but allow you to skip the initial germination steps, ensuring that you’ll be starting off with a healthy plant. If you’re a beginner, you might want to start with seedlings.

Containers

If your region is still getting blasted with a final burst of autumnal heat, then you might want to start some of your crops in pots and wait for the temperature to drop before transplanting. Anything from terra-cotta to an old yogurt container will do, as long as it has holes on the bottom for drainage. Starter kits are another handy way to go. Some crops like carrots and peas, however, can be seeded directly into your backyard soil since they don’t transplant as well.

You can use almost any container to start your seeds — it just needs to be at least 2 to 3 inches deep, with a couple of holes at the bottom for drainage. Start by filling your container with multi-purpose compost or a germinating mix. Water thoroughly and poke several holes in each pot. Add a seed to each hole and then cover them with your planting mixture.

Water

As you care for your plants, the most important thing to remember is not to overwater. Not only is this a great practice for conservation, but watering too often can deplete your soil of much-needed oxygen.

And how can you tell when your soil or germinating mix needs water? One inch of water per week is the standard dose, but you might want to check your soil first. Dip your finger down about 3 to 4 inches. If it’s dry, then it’s time to water. Wilting leaves are another indication that water is needed, but it could also be a sign that drainage is poor, so test it first.

Get “down to earth”

When your seedlings have grown their second set of leaves, it’s time to transplant. This could take anywhere between 3 and 12 weeks, depending on the plant.  

More soil prep

Make sure your outdoor soil is loose, level, and free of weeds before you transplant. This ensures good drainage. You can use a metal rake to first loosen up clods of dirt and remove rocks and lumps. Next, compress the dirt by walking over it, carefully, in rows. Then use the rake to loosen the top few inches. A fine texture is what you’re after.

The big move

Before transplanting, you’ll want to ensure your veggies are prepared for the changes in temperature that come with the change in locale. You can do this by moving your pots to a covered outdoor area for several hours a day, 7 to10 days before you plan to transplant.

When you’re ready to transplant, loosen the soil in your pot with a fork or spoon and pull the plant out gently by the leaves. The spacing will vary depending on the crop, so double-check your seed packet. To transplant, dig a small hole in the soil and place your seedling inside. The top of its roots should be level with soil line. Fill the hole with water and then the surrounding soil (this is called “puddling”). Repeat until all your seedlings are in the ground.

And with that, you’re on your way to a great winter garden! By taking one step at a time and sticking with low-maintenance crops, even the most novice gardener can create a little late-fall magic.

And to ensure the inside of your home is just as well cared for, make sure you have homeowners or renters coverage.

9 Savvy Airport Survival Tips for the Holiday Season

The holiday travel season is upon us — and it looks like an especially busy one.  Industry trade group Airlines for America projects that some 25.3 million Americans will be flying between November 20 and December 1. That’s a 3 percent rise from last year.  Lower airfares are one reason for the increase, which likely means more travelers over the Christmas holiday as well.

With flights, airports, and parking lots near capacity, air travel can be a daunting experience. Here are 9 savvy strategies to help make your journey smoother, more efficient, and all around more pleasant.

9 smart tips for airport survival this holiday season

1. Book an early-morning flight

Few of us relish the idea of getting up before dawn for a 6 a.m. flight, but there are a number of excellent reasons to choose those flights anyway. The earliest flights of the day are most likely to arrive on time, with delays increasing throughout the day. Early flights are often less expensive, as well. Traffic is generally lighter in the wee hours and security lines can be shorter (though it’s best not to count on that).

2. Pack your carry-on with care

If your trip allows you to pack light, traveling with just a carry-on is one of the best ways to save time. No need to check your bag or wait at baggage claim after your flight, hoping your bag hasn’t gone missing.

Nonetheless, when flights are completely full, there’s always a chance the overhead bins will fill up and you’ll have to check your bag after all. Or maybe you need to bring a larger bag and can’t avoid checking it. In either case, it’s a good idea to bring a smaller bag packed with essentials that you can fit under your seat. This bag should always contain your small toiletries as well as any electronics, valuables, or prescription medicines (which should never be checked). But you should also consider bringing spare socks and undergarments in case your checked bag goes astray. Also, if you like to travel in super-casual comfort, you might pack a few dressier or sturdier items of clothing that’re appropriate for your destination. (Yoga pants and flip-flops are fine on a flight — for Thanksgiving dinner in Minnesota, not so much.)

3. Ship some of your items ahead

Maybe you need to pack a lot of clothing because your trip is long or the weather at your destination is cold. Or maybe you’re bringing a lot of presents with you. You can avoid checking your bag entirely (along with any baggage fees) by shipping your items via FedEx Ground or UPS. These shippers have better reliability records than many airlines and they also allow you to track your items. Schedule your shipment at least 5 days before you leave to get a good rate.

4. Check in online

Another great way to avoid lines at the airport is to check in online through your carrier’s website. Most airlines allow you to do this up to 24 hours before departure. If you didn’t get your seat assignment when you bought your ticket, you can often take care of it here — the earlier you check in, the better your choice of seats. Then, just print out your boarding pass at home or at the airport kiosk (printing at home is often faster). If you don’t have a bag to check, you can head straight to security. If you do, many airlines offer express lines for passengers with boarding passes in hand or you can use the curbside bag check.

Online check-in may also reduce your chances of being bumped off an oversold flight, since airlines usually start with passengers without seat assignments.

Keep in mind that it may not be possible to use online check-in for international flights or if you’re traveling with a pet.

5. Get a mobile boarding pass

If you’re worried about losing or damaging a paper boarding pass or simply want to save paper, consider going mobile. Many airlines will send passengers a digital boarding pass to their mobile device via text or email. When you click the link, the pass will open either through your web browser or as a document you can download and store on your phone. Having the airline’s app on your phone isn’t usually necessary, but it can make accessing the pass easier.

Some things to keep in mind: not all airport security systems are equipped to scan digital boarding passes (check with your airline or the airport to see if the technology is available). When scanners are available, they sometimes fail to read the bar code. Also, you may need internet access to open the link, and you’ll certainly need to be sure your phone is charged.

6. Fly through security with pre-check

A long, slow line at security can derail even the best-laid travel plans. One way around it is to sign up for an expedited security screening program. The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) offers TSA Pre√. Approved members are assigned a special number that lets them use a special security lane and eliminates the need for them to remove their shoes and belts or separate their liquids.

Frequent international travelers might prefer Global Entry, which lets you scan your passport and fingerprints at customs and bypass the line. This program includes TSA Pre√ and costs only slightly more. The downside is the often-lengthy approval process, which involves an interview at a Global Entry enrollment center.

A third option is the CLEAR program, which directs passengers to a special lane to have their boarding pass and fingerprints scanned, skipping the usual wait for ID check at security. The approval process is much faster for CLEAR than for the other programs. But the cost is substantially higher and the program is currently only available at a handful of airports.

And remember, you should carefully consider whether any of the above programs are right for you before signing up.

7. Stay charged up

Your flight’s been delayed and you need to text your family, but your phone is running out of juice. Or maybe you have a last-minute email to send, but your laptop battery is low. Not to worry: this Wiki guide will help you locate the power socket closest to your gate.

8. Hydrate the free and eco-friendly way

The air inside an airplane generally has very low humidity, so it’s important to stay hydrated — dry nasal membranes can make it easier to pick up germs from other passengers. Rather than buying bottled water or waiting for in-flight beverage service, bring an empty water bottle in your carry-on, and once you’re through security, fill it up at a water fountain in the terminal.

9. Keep a credit card handy

At last, you’re in the air and on your way. You’d love to catch the in-flight movie or use the airplane’s Wi-Fi, but both cost money and most airlines no longer accept cash for onboard purchases. Avoid the risk of boredom at 30,000 feet by keeping a credit card within easy reach.

Whether you’re driving this the Thanksgiving holiday or leaving your car at the airport, make sure your car is protected with a top-notch insurance policy.

And don’t forget about your home. Here’s how to keep burglars at bay while you’re away.

Best wishes for a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

Surviving Thanksgiving: 5 Easy Kitchen Shortcuts

Who doesn’t enjoy a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast? As much as we all love digging into a packed plate of turkey and trimmings, not everyone’s enamored with the idea of spending 12 hours in the kitchen. But just because you’re looking for a few Thanksgiving shortcuts doesn’t mean flavor and perfection have to go out the window. And at Esurance, we understand the importance of saving time (and money). So here are 5 simple tricks to seriously streamline your Thanksgiving prep.

1. Mashed potatoes

When it comes to conquering the ultimate carb, there’s one secret weapon: the slow cooker. You can boil, mash, and cook the potatoes all in one spot — no colanders required. Sure, it’ll take a little more time (about 5 hours total), but it requires way less maintenance and minimizes the risk of burning.

Just cut your potatoes into small pieces and then place them in the slow cooker with some mashed garlic and about a cup of milk. Leave the skins on to save time and add a “rustic” touch. Once they’re fork-tender, it’s time to get down to business. Heat up all the necessary fodder for creaminess — milk, sour cream, and butter — in a saucepan and then incorporate slowly with a potato masher.

And the best part? The slow cooker keeps your mashed potatoes warm all day with little need for supervision.

2. Stuffing

It’s time to think inside the box. A box of pre-made cornbread mix, that is. With a little bit of store-bought chicken stock and walnuts, pecans, or dried cranberries, no one will know your Thanksgiving stuffing was ever store bought. You can throw in just about anything and make it work. Sautéed onions, celery, and garlic are pretty classic, but who says you can’t add sausage, fennel, or diced apple? When it comes to hacked stuffing, creativity is your friend.

Just simmer your dried fruit and other additions in a bit of chicken stock, add to the cornbread mix, and bake in a greased pan until it’s all nice and golden brown.

3. Turkey

You can call it a hack, but the truth is this one’s been around awhile: it’s called “spatchcocking.” That’s fancy culinary talk for removing the backbone, flipping the turkey over, pressing down, and cracking the breastbone. This allows the turkey to lie flat, and cook faster with tender, juicy results. You can use a pair of kitchen shears or a good sharp knife to cut either side of the backbone and pull it out.

As for roasting your turkey, you’re probably thinking you need one of those fancy roasting pans and elevating racks like the chefs on TV. Nope! A disposable foil roaster will work just fine. As for the rack, simply bunch up some tinfoil and arrange it in a swirl pattern. You could also elevate the bird with a bed of cut onions, potatoes, and celery. This allows for a more even cook and the aromatic vegetables will impart some extra flavor.

4. Gravy

Good gravy. Sounds like you’ll need to drain the roasting pan, find a whisk and … what the heck is a roux? Don’t worry. All you really need is some strained liquid from the pan. Pour it into a measuring cup and stick it in the freezer for a few minutes. The fat will solidify on the top, making for easy removal. Then, to thicken the gravy, add a little bit of cornstarch mixed in with some cold water.

And if that sounds like too much work, here’s the ultimate gravy hack: get yourself some store-bought chicken or turkey stock and pour it in a saucepan. Stir in a teaspoon of cornstarch mixed with a tablespoon of cold water. Cook it down for about 10 minutes and you’re good to go. You can even add a pinch of parsley as garnish and no one will be the wiser.

5. Dessert 

You know that easy pumpkin pie recipe from the back of the can? Of course you do, because just about everyone on the planet does — and there’s a good chance it’ll bore your guests to tears.

Enter the cobbler. So simple, it might just be the original “food hack.” It’s warm, it’s gooey, it comes out of the oven, and it conveniently takes pie crust out of the equation.

Instead, you’ll make a crumble out of flour, oatmeal, butter, spices, and sugar, all of which you probably already have around the house. Measurements are flexible, so there’s plenty of room to get creative. And it’s pretty hard to mess up.

As for filling, almost any fruit or berry combo will work (and you can even go with frozen fruit). Just mix in sugar and the spices of your choice. Other popular additions include citrus rind and cloves.

Enjoy time with your loved ones

See? Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be a fiasco. With a little ingenuity and some good planning, you’ll be able to wow guests … and spend more time outside the kitchen.

Have a happy (and delicious) Thanksgiving!

Related links

3 Common Thanksgiving Fails and How to Avoid Them

How Much Do You Know About Thanksgiving? (Quiz)

How to Park on a Hill [Video]

Even if you’re a pro at parallel parking, doing so on a steep incline can be quite a challenge. So if you want to brush up on your hill-parking know-how, check out our “How to Park on a Hill” video.

Related links

How to Parallel Park 

How to Cool an Overheated Engine

How to Jump-Start a Car

How to Avoid Panicking When Your Brakes Fail

How to Check Your Oil

How to Survive a Blown Tire

How to Tell If You Live in a Flood Plain

Floods can happen almost anywhere given the right (or wrong) conditions. In fact, according to Floodsmart.gov, all 50 states have experienced flooding or flash floods in the last 5 years.

But there are some places — namely flood plains — that are more likely to flood than others. With more and more wet winters on the way, here’s everything you need to know about flood plains, including how to tell if you live in one.

What is a flood plain?

Simply put, a flood plain is an area of land that’s prone to flooding. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), an agency run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has 4 categories for determining flood plains and their associate risk.

The 4 types of flood plain zones:

  • V zones are the most hazardous and generally include the first row of beachfront properties. Flood insurance is mandatory in V zones.
  • A zones, the next most volatile, are subject to rising waters and are usually near a lake, river, stream, or other body of water. Flood insurance is mandatory in A zones.
  • X zones are minimal-risk areas where flood insurance is not mandatory.
  • D zones are areas that have not been studied, but where flooding is possible.

How to tell if you live in a flood plain

FEMA estimates that 20,000 U.S. communities are in flood plains and provides a website where you can enter your address to find out if you live in area prone to flooding. Using their online tool, you can see detailed flood maps of your home and surrounding property. Find out if you live in a flood plain.

Do you need flood insurance?

If you discover you’re living in a flood plain, you’ll want to make sure you have adequate flood insurance. Most homeowners insurance policies don’t cover flood-related damages, but a qualified agent should be able to help you find the coverage you need. Learn more about flood insurance.

If you’re an Esurance customer, you can talk to one of our helpful experts anytime at 1-800-378-7262. We’re always available to help make sure you’re protected and prepared for an El Niño winter.