Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Strawberry Bed Settled for Winter

Patch with last of six loads of weeds (mostly wheat).
       With four inches or more of snow blanketing the ground, I believe it's time to proclaim the 2011 growing season finished. Earlier this month, I weeded the June-bearing strawberry patch one last time, with Sam's help of course. I wound up removing the volunteer wheat, which I'd intended to leave in place all winter. The cold would have killed it, but I decided I'd rather have it working in a compost pile than withering uselessly in place. Aside from the wheat, there wasn't much in the way of weeds, and the rows have filled out so well that I'm dreaming about harvesting a hundred quarts instead of a "mere" hundred, twenty-five pounds I picked this year.
Patch blanketed with straw for the winter.
      I can fantasize about endless strawberry shortcake, but the size of next year's crop depends heavily on the weather this winter and, especially, next spring. To help protect the plants, I've blanketed the rows with a couple of inches of straw. I'll need to rake this aside in the spring when the weather starts to warm, and probably, rake it back onto the rows when frost threatens. Then I'll need to be sure the awakening plants get plenty of water. But that's months away. For now, I've put the patch to bed, and like a mother watching her child sleep, can dream of what the future will hold.  

The Stool Project

Challenge: make this sad looking stool attractive enough
that a four-year-old will want to sit on it.
      When our daughter Chris was little, she often sat on that special retro red kitchen stool at
Grandma Lentz's house. Over the years, that stool's condition deteriorated and the sad remains were delegated to the farm basement. Years later, a mother herself, Chris found a similar red stool and simply had to get it for the newer Grandma Lentz. (Ah, that would be me.) Now there's a problem: one stool, more than one small grandchild who insists on using it to sit up to the table.
       So I took a look at the old stool. It was unsightly, but otherwise usable, just rusted and spattered with paint and other nasty stuff. It required new fabric covering on the seat and back as well as replacement padding, and some painting. So I gathered everything I could think of that I might need and went to work.
Covering the seat: secure opposite
sides, then ease and secure corners.
      First step was to remove the back and seat. I used a wire brush and steel wool (the pre-soaped type used to clean pans) to remove as much rust and yucky stuff as possible. I took the stool outside to wash and rinse it thoroughly.
      "Yucky stuff" is the technical term for the stripper I used to remove more than a hundred years of varnish and paint from this old farmhouse's woodwork. The stool, brought up from the basement ten years ago, was already in sad shape. Using it for remodeling projects didn't help its condition one little bit.
       I opted not to repaint the red part of the stool as I'd already purchased padding, fabric, and silver paint, and spent more than I wanted to. I suppose I was thinking, too, that I wanted to preserve some of the stool's original flavor. The goal was to have another stool the kids would use, not to make the old one look new. So I covered the red areas with newspaper and tape and sprayed. I'm forever amazed at what a difference a little paint can make!
Mission accomplished. My granddaughter is delighted
with "her" new stool.
       The hot melt glue gun warmed up while I used the old back and seat covers as patterns and cut padding and fabric. I found that smaller amounts of glue worked better than gobs at holding the fabric to the metal. I glued the two sides, then top and bottom, then eased the fabric to fit around the corners. I did wonder if sewing the fabric might have worked as well, but decided that thread would break when I fitted the metal pieces together. I reattached seat and back, being careful not to touch the still wet silver paint. That paint took a couple of days to dry thoroughly, but then the chair was ready for its debut. 
       My concern now is that the grandkids will fight over who gets the old chair.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Watercolors Show and Tell

This is Pharaoh, a long-haired sweetheart we lost
to cancer four years ago.
       All my life I've felt I had artistic talent, but my parents never encouraged the interest when I was a kid, and as an adult I never could find time to test the waters. When I turned fifty, I decided to find out if I was delusional. I enrolled at Lansing Community College in the Fine Arts program. My son started taking classes there about the same time. I remember his horror at the thought of being in the same Figure Drawing class with his mom. The models were human and nude! We wound up taking the class from the same instructor but during different semesters. He received an A, of course, and I was more than a little relieved to earn one also, one of only two the instructor awarded in my class. I freely acknowledge that my son is a better artist than I, but it was satisfying to have someone tell him (and me) that, yes, I am talented.     
Cockatiel, from a photo I took at the zoo.
      Drawing is cool, and what my prodigy does best, but my thing turned out to be watercolor.  I enjoyed all my art classes and earned an associate degree as a part-time student, taking most classes at night. My watercolor teacher was, of all things, a professional psychologist. He wouldn't let his students see any of his work until toward the end of the semester. He didn't want to encourage students to copy his work, but to develop their own styles. One of his first lessons involved dealing with "mistakes." You've probably heard that in watercolor you can't correct mistakes. Maybe not, but you can incorporate them into your work as part of the design. He tried to instill the idea of making the paint itself do most of the work, to "draw tight, paint loose." I have trouble with this. I want to be in control. I don't go for random drips, or paint running all over the paper.
        Have you ever seen a good nude in watercolor? It's amazing what can be done with this medium. No, I haven't done nudes, but have completed several portraits on commission. Getting a good likeness without overworking the paint is always a challenge. I do animal portraits and flowers too, and have included a few of those here.
       Most of my work, and all of these examples, is done from photo references.
       Truth to tell, I haven't painted in a few years, having been so tied up with gardening and landscaping. I hope to change that this winter. I could use some encouragement.
       As always, please note that for some insane reason I can't comment on my own blog or anyone else, for that matter. Your comments are welcome and will be addressed on my Wall.

Yarrow: Weed or First Aid Kit?

Yarow in the Apple Guild.
       Yarrow is an invasive weed. I wasn't aware of this years ago when I discovered the flowering plant in a flower shop. I liked both the white and pink blooms and the feathery leaves and, in my ignorance, purchased a few plants and added them to my landscaping. They made themselves at home and spread before I learned their true nature and started deadheading and digging them out. "Digging" is the operative word, because it spreads through roots as well as the 1600 seeds a single plant can produce in a year.  I was, of course, unsuccessful in eliminating what I believed to be a nuisance plant.        Fast forward a few years and copious reading about herbs. Yarrow's nature hasn't changed; it's as invasive as ever. I've learned to recognize the plant growing wild in the fields around our farm, and I marvel that I actually paid money for what nature provides so abundantly. What we know as common yarrow is not native to the U.S. Apparently, its ancestors immigrated and inter-bred with a related native species and ones imported from Asia. What I purchased is something different, as common yarrow, I read, doesn't survive cultivation. I'm relieved now that my earlier efforts to eradicate it failed. I moved some of the survivors to the apple guild, where they can thrive and spread with my blessing. As plants in a guild should, yarrow provides more than one function. It's a ground cover. It repels Japanese beetles, ants and flies; its root secretions help the disease resistance of nearby plants; and its presence increases the essential oils in nearby herbs.
       On top of all this, a single fresh, finely chopped yarrow leaf  added to a wheel barrel of raw compost will speed composition.
       The plant has a history of conjuring powers. Want to identify your future true love? Sew an ounce of yarrow into a small flannel square and place it under your pillow, recite the requisite poem, and see him/her in your dreams. Druids used yarrow stems to predict weather and Chinese I Ching masters foretold the future by reading fifty thrown yarrow stems.   
      With all these uses, how can we possibly classify yarrow as a weed? And there's more! Finely chop young leaves and add to salads and soft cheese dips for a peppery, slightly bitter taste. Use leaves as a garnish. In a pinch, substitute yarrow for cinnamon or nutmeg. Chewing fresh leaves helps to relieve toothache. A leaf infusion can prevent baldness; so one source claims, anyway. Sources agree that an infusion flavored with honey and Tabasco sauce will cause profuse sweating to help break a cold-related fever. Yarrow has been used as a hops substitute in making beer. A flower infusion serves as a facial steam and tonic lotion to treat greasy skin.
       Last year my husband and I were checking on some seedling trees we had planted in one of our overgrown fields. I scratched my hand on the wire cage protecting one tree from deer an rabbits. Since I didn't have anything to treat the wound, I ignored the bleeding. Later the same day, I learned that yarrow is used to staunch blood flow. Legend has it that yarrow was used during the Trojan Wars to treat Achilles's warriors' wounds, thus the name Achillea millefolium. My seedling trees nested among yarrow plants. A decoction made from leaves treats wounds, chapped skin and rashes.
       Don't forget that the flowers are attractive, suitable for cutting and drying, and the plant makes a terrific border--if you don't mind that it spreads. Flowers appear from June to October, and even into November when the photo above was taken. Unlike many weeds, frequent mowing doesn't kill yarrow. Instead it adapts, and becomes a ground hugger. One source suggested using sheep as a control. Or let deer browse on it.
       For the uninitiated (I had to look this up) an infusion is boiled water poured over herbs and left to steep, covered, strained and used or refrigerated (up to three days). In a decoction water is added to the herb and brought to a boil, simmered until the liquid is reduced to half, then cooled, strained, and used or bottled and refrigerated. I recommend more research before you try this. Keep in mind that too much yarrow use can make your skin sensitive to light, and beware of possible allergic reactions like rashes, dermatitis and eczema.
       I  consulted more than one source for this post, but mainly used The Complete Book of Herbs, a practical guide to growing and using herbs, by Lesley Bremness.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Weigh In from the Garden for 2011

      Because of the strange weather we experienced this summer, my garden's production was anything but typical this year, so naturally I chose this year to tally everything I grew for the first time. I plan to follow through with tallies in the years to come. Doing so, and knowing I'll be sharing them with you, will provide the extra incentive I need to keep better records.
       Rhubarb. I started the plants two years ago so this is the first year I could harvest. Ten pounds.
       Strawberries. One hundred, twenty-five pounds.
       Tomatoes. Brought into the house for processing and eating, 175 pounds. An equal or greater quantity went to compost because of splitting, blossom end rot and other problems, mostly attributable to gross under- and over-watering. I did drip water during dry spells, but when it rained here this summer, we had deluges, almost ten inches of rain in one weekend. Last year I processed over 550 pounds.
       Potatoes. About 190 pounds. I planted three kinds: Pontiac red, 120 pounds; Russian blue, 45 pounds, and a white variety, only 25 pounds. They grew in rows side-by-side in the garden. This was their first year in this spot. Last year was their third year in the same site, which is the maximum that's recommended. The soil ph in that area was adjusted down from 7.4 with the addition of sulfur. I added sulfur to the new site, but perhaps it wasn't enough. Last years' potato crop totalled 330, down from the prior year of over 400.
       Rutabaga. I chopped up an eight pound rutabaga for the freezer to use in pasties and wrapped a few whole ones in plastic wrap for storage in the extra refrigerator. I planted too many for our use, as in past years I've had disappointing results with rutabaga. That was in the old veggie garden, which I'm rejuvenating this year. This is the first year I've grown nearly everything in what used to be the old bull pen when my in-laws raised black angus cattle. The more fertile soil probably made the difference here. Call it 25 pounds for actually usage for this crop.
       Carrots. This is another crop that I had trouble getting started last year in the old garden. I planted three times before I had germination. We thought slugs might be eating the new plants as they appeared so I spread a few pounds of fresh coffee grounds over the entire garden. I don't know if this helped because my husband sprayed with a organic pesticide too. In response to last years trials, I over planted this year, and of course, had great germination and over 100 pounds of carrots. I'm pleased to report that most of these wound up in someone's freezer or canning jars. I planted Tendersweet, Scarlett Nantes, and Danvers half long. I  plan to plant Tendersweet again next year, but not the others. I'll look for varieties recommended for canning.
       Peas. Peas were the only crop I planted this year in the old garden, figuring their nitrogen-fixing property would enrich the soil. I froze 27 pounds of shelled peas, and saved another three pounds of dried ones for seed.
       Green beans. Forty-three pounds of beans went into the freezer. Another four pounds of dried beans were saved for seed.
       Corn. I froze 18.5 pounds of shelled corn. That was 77 ears. I failed to pick the rest of the crop, planning to let it dry on the stalks for later harvest and use as cornmeal. The deer had other plans. My husband is at this moment out there hunting. I hope he brings me some processed corn in the form of venison.
       Beets. I planted a short row of these, because the only way I really like beets is pickled. After I pulled what I wanted, the rest went to my daughter. Call it 17 pounds.
       Onions. I planted Walla-Walla and yellow. Both did well, but I lost some when they got wet lying on the ground curing. My fault for not bringing them in in a timely manner. Still, bagged and hung 25 pounds. I save the mesh bags Tom turkeys come in to storing onions.
       Sweet potatoes. First time I've grown these and I got them in late. In spite of this, I harvested 21.5 pounds. Some of the tubers were long, some fat. I didn't try eating the leaves and vine tips although they're edible so I'm not counting the greens. Not all of these were planted in the vegetable garden, and with the ones planted elsewhere, I wasn't careful to dig up everything. It's said if you leave any part in the ground, you'll get another crop next year. That's what I want because sweet potatoes make a sweet ground cover!
       Miscellaneous.  Green, chili and paprika peppers, 10 pounds. Ground cherries, 20 pounds. Herbs, hm, pounds doesn't tell the story with herbs, but say five.
       Sugar beets. Now we're adding on the pounds! Eighty-two! As soon as I find the time, I want to process some of this into sugar.
       Mangol. Never heard of it? Neither had I until my husband bought seeds last year. Before people used grain to feed livestock, they used mangol. It's a beet that grows over a foot long, often half out of the ground. My husband wants more livestock and wanted to experiment. That's another 90 pounds.
       Wheat. This was an accidental crop, but one I welcomed. About four pounds from volunteers from mulch in the old garden.
       I'm sort of disappointed that this totals to less than a thousand pounds. Because I relocated the garden and didn't feel I had the space, I didn't plant the usual vining plants. No squash, pumpkins or cucumbers. Those would have put me over the top!
       I expect a much higher total next year, especially if tomatoes and potatoes do better, and I get the viners in. I'd say I'm looking forward to seeing what the new season brings, but, frankly, at this point I'm ready for a break.
        You won't find any answers here to comments because for some reason I cannot comment on any post, mine or anyone else's, perhaps because of something to do with security stuff my husband has on this computer. I respond to comments on the Wall. Sorry for the inconvienence (yours and mine!).

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Annoyances in the Kitchen--And What to Do about Them

       I have enough to do in the kitchen without having to search for a pencil, combat fruit flies, or deal with a slow-running drain. Don't we all. So I thought you might be interested in reading about what I do about these and other little problems that can dull your pleasure of preparing good food for your family.
Dobie pad for non-abrasive cleaning,
food sieve for sink, Goo Gone

       I'm a list maker. If I don't write it down, I'll forget to do it, whatever "it" is, so I NEED that pencil! I purchased this cute little metal basket with a magnet on the back and stuck it on the refrigerator, high up so small persons can't remove it or the pencils in it. The wall calender where I record appointments and other plans is nearby. I make sure after I write on it, that pencil gets back where it belongs.
      Dealing with fruit flies is more complicated. You know already that if you leave any sort of very ripe fruit, including tomatoes, on the counter for more than a day, you'll get fruit flies. The obvious solution is not to leave fruit out; keep it refrigerated or in an enclosed container. Now lets consider the real world, where you're working all day peeling those pears and don't get around to disposing of the waste, or one of the kids leaves an apple on the coffee table and it gets buried and forgotten under papers, toys, or whatever, or someone tosses a piece of fruit in the wastebasket, or spills juice on the carpet. So now what do you do? After getting the offending fruit out of the house, vacuum up any little buggers you can find, then set a trap for the rest. Be sure to empty your vacuum outside so that the flies don't escape into the house. For the trap, in a small jar mix a tablespoon of warm water, a teaspoon of molasses, and a pinch of yeast. Form a paper funnel with a quarter inch hole and attach it to the jar with tape. Set it near the worst infestation and wait. I rinse the trap out with hot water and reuse the jar if (when) I have the problem again.
       Ever see those advertisements for the spray to kill the trashcan odor because you don't want to take out your garbage when the bag isn't full? Someone in product sales came up with this one, and the product isn't trash bags. Use smaller bags, for Pete's sake, or just take the garbage out more regularly, or put what you know will stink in a bag in the freezer until garbage day. Why add more chemicals to the air you breathe? And an air freshener isn't going to eliminate the bacteria that's causing the odor.
       I rarely use that metal stopper that you'll find in most kitchen sinks. I've replaced it with a food strainer that really stops even small food particles from going down my drain. This does a lot to prevent clogs, but doesn't stop them all.  Our drain line may be particularly sensitive because of a right angle turn or two. It doesn't take much to start a clog and I suspect grease is what contributes most to the problem. I've started wiping off any grease, solid shortening or butter before washing measuring spoons and cups, skillets or the butter dish. I never pour hot grease down the drain! Instead of using a commercial chemical cleaner to clear a drain, try a cup of baking soda followed by a cup of hot vinegar. Wait a few minutes, then flush with very hot water. For an overnight fix, pour half a cup each of baking soda and salt down the drain, followed by a cup of boiling water. Flush the next morning with hot tap water. Following this procedure monthly could prevent a huge plumber's bill or having to use one of those drain snakes.
       Want to take a label off a jar? For some labels, filling the jar (or milk jug) with hot water makes peeling easy. Sometimes soaking works, though this may require a little scrubbing with a Dobie or steel wool pad to remove all the sticky. For really hard cases, I like Goo Gone. I've used this to take off masking tape that was used decades ago to label canning jars.
       I label my frozen food and those little white plant labels with a Sharpie pen. Since I rarely reuse a container or plant label for the same thing, I want the old markings gone. A wet finger tip dipped in baking soda and rubbed over the marking will remove it from some surfaces. I admit sometimes I'm forced to use Comet Cleanser to get really good results.
Organizers stretch storage space.
       When a recipe calls for half an onion, I refrigerate the unused portion in a snack bag. Works just as well for other small portions and takes up very little space.
       There's no such thing as enough storage space. I use plastic-coated organizers to stretch cupboard space, and I have two baskets in the freezer portion of the refrigerator to hold Ziploc bags of vegetables, cheese, meat or whatever. Ziploc bags don't stack well, and used to slip out and fall onto the floor whenever I opened the freezer door. Caused quite a bit of cussing on my part. The baskets pull out like drawers.
Drawer organizer: I love it!
       Speaking of drawers, before we remodeled our kitchen, my silverware went into a box where every piece had to be sorted into its niche. I hated doing that. Now silverware unloads quickly from the dishwasher into the sectioned holder in a drawer dedicated to such things. Such luxury!
       Keeping my glass-topped range clean is a challenge. It gets hard use and scrubbing it with harsh cleaners is a no-no. The Dobie cleaning pad is my answer. I use it to clean my no-stick pans too.
       These are some of the kitchen annoyances that I've found solutions for. Do you have suggestions or alternatives you'd like to share?