Monday, March 23, 2015

Big (realistic) Garden Dreams: Starting Seeds

Copra onion seedlings 2015


You might have already guessed this but, I love starting seeds. It kind of goes along with my obsession with love of seeds. Every spring I anxiously keep my itchy fingers in check until the almanac says I am in the right timing. I patiently and lovingly tuck those little plant baby makers in the soil, water and wait. The first year I did this it was a complete and utter fail because I knew nothing. I mean, how complicated should this be? Seeds fall on the ground and grow without anyone helping in nature... What I was forgetting was that I was not nature and I was not growing seeds like God intended. Agriculture is man made after all. So, most of my seedlings died that year. (Can you see a trend in my series here? I failed a lot before I got a clue). Because of my less than successful experiences, I have a few tidbits of wisdom for you.


I think timing is the first big one. So many times I have started way off the mark, either too early or late (um, starting tomatoes in June anyone?). It wastes money for one thing and it just doesn't make for a real productive year! I am a big fan of an almanac (either can be found online or purchased in a small local store). It will give you approximate frost dates and planting by the moon charts if that strikes your fancy. Always read your seed packets for exact instructions but here are some references that I also deem useful:

Almanac Chart, just plug in your zip code for personal dates.

This chart needs you to plug in your first frost free date at the top.


Water is the next big thing as it can be kind of tricky. I chronically forget to water my seedlings. Sometimes this works in my favor because my seedlings never become water dependent. Or, sometimes they just die. What can I say? I'm a bit scatter brained these days! If I were to water properly I would keep seeds and very young seedlings consistently moist and then once the first true leaves appear then I would back off on the watering a bit. I try to water about 3 times a week or every other day at this point while they are in single cells. Then after I pot on anything in need I try to only water them every 2 days. The reason behind this is preventing water dependence and shallow roots. When you soak thoroughly a few times a week it then forces the roots to drive deeper to access the water being stored in the bottom of the pot. Many people also like to bottom water with a tray but I am not a huge fan of this. Personal preference, experiment with what works for you!


Potting on is the last thing to seedlings. Most plants that need to be started more than a few weeks ahead will need potting on at least once to prevent root binding and "legginess". I like to pot my tomatoes on when they are about 3 inches high and I bury them right up to their top leaves. I have found that little 4 ounce yogurt cups are the perfect size for the first potting on. Tomatoes I tend to like to pot on 2-3 times depending on when I can get them in the garden. Things like greens usually don't need much start time and I try not to waste space with potting them on (the bigger the plant to bigger the container). Also, onions do fine in the little cells until it is time to plant outdoors once I transfer them from the flat and having them in cells if better for their roots when transplanting.

Potted up onion seedlings 2014


Starting seeds is a skill! It takes trial and error and perseverance but it is a very worth while knowledge. Happy Spring everyone!




Sunday, March 15, 2015

Big (realistic) Garden Dreams: Choosing Seeds



I love shopping for seeds. Love. It. I am shopping for seeds pretty much as soon as Christmas is over an I can feel free to do so and not feel like a freak. There is just something so exciting about reading descriptions and day dreaming about the possible bounty. Hmm... do I want a funky heirloom tomato that looks almost to weird to eat? Or... no wait! The cucumber that claims to be the original pickling cuke. Yup, I am a seed lover. Tiny little miracles that all look so different and act just as uniquely.

After years of gardening and buying seeds I have learned a couple things. First is, try to find a smaller and most local company. This really will work to your advantage because odds are they are going to have many varieties that are just for your climate thus being the most productive. There is no point in buying a drought resistant variety if you live in Seattle if you get my drift. Second, don't buy without a budget! There are many years I have spent over $100 on seeds because I just couldn't help myself (see above... I LOVE seeds)! There is no need unless you are planting an acre. And, now we come to the realistic expectations and goals.

Before you start shopping, make a list of things you want to grow and then take inventory of your growing space and the number of growing days in your zone. It's not as complicated as it sounds but it might take an afternoon of dedicated time. Well worth the effort I promise. Once you have your info look up the space requirements of all your varieties and compare to your actual space. From here weed out your list (sorry couldn't resist the pun!). With your messy piece of notebook paper you are now ready to shop!

The first time you shop on your chosen company's site (or seed rack) don't buy. Make a wish list and then walk away. Just walk away. You will be overwhelmed by the many choices and you will bust your budget. Seeds are like any other thing in this world, there are trendy things that are there just to make you spend money so by really taking your time it will be easier to stay focused and not get caught up in all the "NEW!" and "EXCLUSIVE!". They might not be lyin' but if you are new to the garden go with the varieties that have good reviews. Because of my own preferences I tend to gravitate toward heirlooms from my area because they are truly time tested and are not as much a gamble plus are just more natural. I usually start my wish list months in advance and then whittle it down to my 'buy' list as I reason with my irrational seed loving self.

Now that I have told you to go slow, if you plan to start seeds please don't wait forever! Here in Maine we plant Memorial Day weekend. Most things need a 6 week head start (except for your cold weather crops). So I try to have my seeds ordered by the end of February so I have them by early to mid March. Onions for storage benefit from being started as early as 8-12 weeks early to get them to a nice size for planting in the garden. Tomatoes are one of those that can be easily started to soon, 6 weeks is plenty or you will to re-potting over and over with little benefit to the end result. You only need enough time, don't stress it or jump the gun.

And, lastly, have fun! Every year you can try another new something and slowly collect your favorites.

Til next time.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Big (realistic) Garden Dreams: The First Timer

Rainbow Chard is a great 'first timer' veggie!


You googled 'garden first timer', right? You clicked on this post thinking I am going to tell you the secrets of having an amazing garden cranking out pounds and pounds of produce with minimal effort when you have never even touched dirt before. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I'm going to give it to you straight... this year might stink. Your seedlings might die, your tomatoes might not ripen or all your corn will be eaten by deer. BUT, if you do take some of my advice you will probably have a fighting chance (no promises though).


I had my first garden at about 7 years old. I laugh now because my dad put it in a spot that only got about 3-4 hours of sun a day and filled the box with nothing but rotted cow manure from our neighbor. I can't remember everything we grew, only this one zucchini plant that would not stop cranking! Finally the frost killed it and that was the end of my first year 'gardening'. Then I expressed interest again and my dad once again lovingly set me up, this time with a little greenhouse complete with raised beds at the front of it. Being I was completely clueless and only 11 I let this beautiful gesture of faith fall into neglect. No more garden for me. Then I met my husband in Montana and moved in with him. This first house we shared was a shack, and we affectionately call it that! But, what it lacked in suitable housing, it made up for with low rent and... a backyard. Oh, my 18 year old fingers were itching to grow something, anything! So my loving husband-to-be made me a raised bed. Not much longer after my seeds sprouted, we had to move. So, again, I was left feeling the sting of failure.

Fast forward, we are back in Maine, married, and every year I keep trying with out much luck. Until last year. You want to know why last year was a success to me finally? I realized that I need to stop trying to cram my unrealistic expectations into a tiny greenhouse and some pots. Sure, this may have been a really long back story to tell you I learn slow, but gardens are like childbirth... you remember the beginning and end but forget about the details unless you write it down. So that's why we are going to start with:

Record keeping! No matter how much of a steel trap you think that brain of yours is, march yourself down to the office supply store and get a rocking notebook. I find if I get a pretty one I really like I will actually use it. If you're a guy, just cover that puppy with duct tape or trashy bumper stickers. Now use it! Write down everything. I won't bother to tell you how to organize your notes because this is always a very organic process to me (meaning I do it different every time). But, basically you want to keep track of seed names and types, germination rates, conditions, DATES, fertilizers/soil, and yields. This may sound tedious and sometimes it is, but trust me it is worth it.

Start small. Duh, right? No, really, SMALL. Pick no more than 5 things to grow including varieties. Meaning not 5 vegetables and then 3 varieties of each, 5 total. And, even limit the amount of the 5 despite how much room you have. That way you have less of a chance of becoming overwhelmed by weeding, watering and daily care. Do not let your advanced human brain trick you into thinking you can do something as simple as grow a dozen tomato plants, 500 carrots, 50 cabbages, 100 stalks of corn, 20 pepper plants and 5 kinds of pumpkins. It's like going to the huge buffet place and taking one of everything, you will regret it. 5 things! No more!

Learn to start seeds. Others might tell you to buy starts from the garden center. I think it's cheating... (don't hate me!). Listen, if you are gonna do this thing, do it right man! Seeds make plants and plants make gardens. It's not that hard, really! Even those elusive tomato plants are easy if you know what to do (more on that in another post). I will go over this sequentially I promise.

Choose your medium wisely. Do you have nothing but clay or rocks in your soil? Don't have access to a tiller? No yard at all? Do your research and pick something that will actually work for you. For example if you have lots of rocks and clay like we have here in our area of Maine, do raised beds and save your time. Make either a few small or one long one (no wider than 5 feet or you won't reach the middle). If you have no yard than choose varieties that do well in pots and get whatever kids of pots you like or can afford! As long as they have drainage and can hold enough soil for your plant types, you are good to go.

Do not underestimate water. For the love of peet, don't! Water is even more important than soil or fertilizer. If you have pots, water every day. Shallow raised beds at least every other day if not every day and regular 'in ground' beds and deep raised beds need a good soak 1-2 times a week. You might need to double this during high temperatures, droughts or when fruit it in it's peak of growing in size (not ripening).

Find a buddy. I have gleaned so much knowledge just by talking to friends, family and strangers who also garden in my climate. Don't try getting first hand advice from your aunt in Kansas if you live in Washington, pointless. There are garden clubs, strangers in the grocery store and vendors at the farmers market you can wheedle into giving you some advice. Don't try to compare your garden to theirs this first year. Just don't.


Now, I know lots of blogs and articles will enthusiastically tell you that this will be easy and so much fun! And, it can be if only you be realistic. I am not trying to trod on your confidence but rather feed you truth. Gardening can be hard at times. It is very rewarding though!

Til next time!




Sunday, March 1, 2015

Snow Makes Me Think Green

The first year I started my own seeds.



Not money green, foolish, seedling green! Here in Maine if you want a decent tomato crop before September you have to get those babies going early. But, you already knew that didn't you? See, you've redeemed yourself already. Well all this cold and snow has me craving to anxiously peer at the flats for signs of sprouts, brushing my hand across those tender little tops and spending an evening tucking delicate onion seedlings in individual cells. While I will be the first to admit that I am no master in the garden, I love it more and more each year. I dream big even if I grow small.


So dream big I shall! Well, with a hint of meticulous planning cause that's how I roll. In honor of the pre-garden season I will be doing a series on how to start your growing season off on the right foot. This year I really need to be super organized and stay on top of my chores because I have a young baby. He's a little time thief I tell ya! But, if he loves the outdoors as much as his big brother and sister, he will love just hanging out with me while I tend the beds. He hung out with me all last summer (ok, he had no choice because he was still in my uterus, but a mama can hope)! Back on track, this series will take you through what and when to organize with lists, seed selections, space allowance and how to be realistic with your time. That last one I am still working on because I have a bad case of optimism and always think things will take me less time than it really does. Like writing.

While you are waiting for the wisdom that is about to ensue, here are some posts from last season to hold you over:

Seed Tapes

Welcoming May

Managing the Small Greenhouse

How to Re-pot Onion Seedlings

Growth

Planting

Record Keeping


Til next time!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Realizing My Limits

This a short note just to say that while I realize I do not have much traffic on my blog, I still feel obligated to keep my promises of posts. However, I am having a hard time keeping up with the blog at the moment. I would very much like to have this blog be a part of my life still so instead of just muddling, I am going to be taking some time off to get ahead and plan some posts thoughtfully and get back on track :-) I will be back full swing hopefully posting weekly by March 1st. Thank you to those who do visit and read!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Me and My Baby Weight



What new mom doesn't talk about their baby weight? We're women, we talk about everything. But, how many of those new moms are just glowing and back in their skinny jeans in a matter of a couple months? Not really any I know. So, here I am coming up on the 3 month mark with my little Happy Boy and except for the 30 pounds I lost in the two weeks after his birth I have lost nothing. In fact I even gained back a couple. After I had Mini Me I had obviously never had a postpartum body before and much to my disappointment nothing went back to how I remembered! Despite breastfeeding exclusively and eating fairly well I was stuck at a rather uncomfortable 180 pounds on my 5' 7" frame. After Mini weaned herself at 10 months I finally found my will power and started to lose the weight by cutting out all gluten and sugar as well as walking faithfully. In about 6 months I was down to 155, 10 pounds below my pre-pregnancy weight.

This time around I would like to try losing all my pregnancy weight plus about 10 pounds like last time but while breastfeeding. My supply seems to be much less finicky than before so I am feeling confident I will be able to accomplish my goal without effecting it. I certainly have enough fat to fuel production! But, I have more than just weight loss as my goal. I would like to...


Increase my energy. This is probably even more important to me than the weight loss. I have really struggled this time with fatigue and constant ups and downs. My mood has not been awful but it certainly has not been as even as I'd like it to be. So I would like to find a natural way to get some decent energy! Right now I am a major coffee drinker (BAD!!!) and sugar eater (WORSE!!!). Combine these and no wonder I have this issue.


Slowly detox. Now, before you jump on me about how I'm going to dump a bunch of toxins into my milk let me just say that I have concluded through research that I can absolutely detox without it effecting my milk. Done slowly and carefully detoxing can help jump start a very tired and overloaded body which is precisely what I have! Mainly I will be reducing the toxin intake and increasing toxin elimination by eating whole, unprocessed foods, drinking lots of water, drinking supporting herbal teas like milk thistle and trying out some gelatinous foods like chia seeds.


Regain my clear skin. Before having Happy Boy my skin looked great! Now it's dull and I'm getting breakouts! Enough said.


So, the big picture is I would like to regain my health and continue to breastfeed while doing it. It's going to be hard but when I think of how good I will feel again it's motivation for sure. I will elaborate more on the actual weight loss once I start losing some!

Til next time.

Canning My Own 'Convenience' Foods


For me canning is somewhat romantic. It gives you pause to think of simple or weighty things as you wait for things to boil or gain proper pressure. It gives you the comfort of an exact routine each time you fill a jar and prep it for processing. And, it praises you with clear vessels showing you beautiful food waiting to be enjoyed. Yup, for me canning is just something I enjoy. Since I didn't can at all this summer I was feeling a bit bummed like I missed out. Well I was reading an old cookbook my mom gave me a few years ago in my renewed quest of simpler yet tasty food, and I ran across instructions for canning dry beans so that they are ready just like store bought canned beans. So I wanted to give it a try as well as get some stock in the pantry ready to go.


I started with stock. We are slowly getting our chickens butchered so I had a carcass from one bird I roasted and one I had stashed in the freezer from a previous chicken dinner. I put them in the really big stock pot with onions (skin left on for color), celery, carrots, bay leaves and peppercorns, covered with water and set on the wood stove for several hours. I them strained it and left it in the fridge to cool overnight so I could skim the fat off the next morning. I then returned the stock to the big pot and the wood stove to come to a boil while I got everything ready for the canner. My husband's bosses were kind enough to lend me their pressure canner for my projects! I have yet to get my own but, one will be coming my way as a housewarming present from my grandparents, I just need to pick it out. Anyway! Stock is just about as simple as it gets. You just heat it to a boil, pour into hot jars, seal and process. I ended up with 10 quarts plus a little more which I just poured into my moose stew. I will caution you from using too many herbs or flavorings in your stock if you are going to can it because canning will intensify the flavor. One quart jar is equivalent to one standard box of stock minus the MSG, plastic lining and mystery ingredients. I hope to get a good stash of beef stock put up before I return the pressure canner. We have a ton of moose so I often needs beef stock to make stews and quick gravies to accompany steaks. I could make stock from the moose meat but I just can't bear to boil that beautiful meat to death!



Wednesday I canned the beans. I had recently bought an assortment of dry beans for the pantry since I am restocking (more on that later), so I canned a pound each of navy, pinto and garbanzo beans. I soaked them all overnight so they were fully re-hydrated yet not softened. Each pound filled a bit over 3 pint jars so I made a combined jar of pinto and navy beans. The garbanzos got cooked and went to the chickens because I forgot about them and they cooked unevenly (my bad). I chose to can pints because they hold about the same as a standard can which I thought would serve my pantry better. I am not to going to give instructions on how to can beans but there are plenty of resources which I used available either on the internet or in books. From the looks of things from the outside of the jars the beans might be slightly mushy. I read after the fact that softened water can cause this which is what we have. It might also be because the pressure was higher for a bit while I was trying to find the sweet spot for maintaining the proper pressure.

I would really like to try canning soups and things like baked beans as well in the future. Why bother? Well, right now we have about 300 pounds of moose and deer in the two deep freezers in the basement and the upstairs freezer is a drawer style in the fridge that always seems to be packed with odds and ends. Needless to say I do not have much room for stock and ready made items. Also, I am not real good about remembering to take things out of the freezer ahead to thaw. When I want some stock it's nice to just pop a top like the store bought stuff. Just way better.

So the kitchen has been busy! Not only with canning but I also made venison jerky and was on a quest for the perfect gluten free cinnamon roll. Add in making 3 meals a day and I have pretty much been spending all my time not nursing the baby in the kitchen. And, sometimes I nurse the baby in the kitchen. I have food prepping problems...


I'll be sharing about my pantry and how I am trying to both simplify and stock it up soon. In January I will be giving the Pantry Challenge another go to encourage me to use up bits that have been hanging around too long or are just hanging out because it's easier than figuring our what to do with it. So, I will try to blog daily on the challenge to share how I make it work beginning January 1st!

Til next time!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Life as a Family of Five

Puzzle Boy's favorite job holding his baby brother.

Well, 7 if you count my parents in the same house. I do feed them! Happy Boy is now 10 weeks old and growing at an amazing rate! He is now about 13 pounds and fitting into 3-6 month clothing. What can I say? The kid loves to eat and I get to take full credit for that heft on his thighs.

7 weeks old

Logistically 3 is not that much harder than 2. Obviously there is more laundry and newborns will sleep deprive you whether they have older siblings or not (although 'sleeping when baby sleeps' is impossible with older kids). I have just started getting back to some little extra projects like...

Making fire starters from egg cartons, shavings and paraffin wax.

and...

Making a new recipe of laundry detergent that makes 12 quarts of concentrate.

This is how I managed to make said laundry detergent.

Honestly Happy Boy is such a good baby that if not for the other two hooligans I would probably get a ton done everyday! Mini Me is blossoming into a preschooler as she just a few months away from turning three. She is talking a lot and enjoys being a 'big girl' including helping Mommy with everything from laundry to cooking. Puzzle Boy will be turning 7 (!) this week and will soon be transitioning from being homeschooled to public school which I will elaborate on after the transition is done. I will say that it was a heart wrenching decision but I am now making peace with it and Puzzle Boy couldn't be more excited for this new experience.


One thing about having 3 children that I find amusing is the comments from strangers when we are out, especially in the grocery store. If I had a dime for every "You have your hands full!" I could buy them some manners. Now I am sure some are just remarking but it makes me realize that 2 children is still the accepted normal. But, I enjoy just flashing a smile and replying with a hearty "Gladly!" and moving on.


Being winter I have found it is really hard getting out to the animals with a baby in the house. Ashamedly I will admit my dad has been doing a lot of my chores for me for which I am most grateful. We haven't been getting any eggs since we have been letting the chickens free range so I am assuming that they are laying eggs in inconspicuous places. Once we have butchered all the roosters we will clean out the barn and stall, make new nesting boxes and roosts and I will then let the hens out around lunch time everyday so that they can free range but also hopefully lay their eggs in the barn! I would really like eggs from them again seeing as that is what they are for.


So all in all Montana Man and I are exhausted from our life and caring for little brood but are happy to do so. I am so looking forward to Christmas as this will be the first year that we will be staying home and celebrating just us. Until then I will be getting the house decorated and creating the perfect recipe for gluten free cinnamon rolls which I will be sharing. December is always a busy month around here because of Puzzle Boy's birthday and the holidays but also because I always feel compelled to 'wrap up' the year. Next year I would truly like to get all my projects out of the way so we can spend the month of December only doing things we want to do. We'll see!

Til next time.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Coming Soon

Updates! Where the house is in it's painfully slow progress, how being a family of 5 is, canning for fun, attempting to re-simplify our diet and lower the grocery bill and processing heirloom breeds of chicken for our years meat supply. I'm giving myself a deadline so check back in a week for the first installment. What, you didn't think I was going to give it to you all in one go did you? I'm just not that kind of girl!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Homemade Gluten Free Pizza Crust

My older son has been gluten free for almost 3 years now and anyone gluten free or living with one can tell you that there are some really great products out there now! Pasta, cake mixes, cookies, crackers, pretzels and cereal are all things that we buy and are pleased with in the gluten free department. But, pizza had remained something to be desired either in taste, texture or both. Before I started eating gluten free myself (most of the time...) I had certain crust criteria I was fond of. Crispness, chewiness, thin but not too thin. When I tried gluten free pizza for the first time I was disappointed. I knew it wasn't going to be the same but I was not impressed. I have tried many restaurants crusts, store bought dough and recipes for homemade but still I was in search for one just right, one good enough to make pizza not seem like a facsimile of a sham. A few months ago I tried a recipe (this recipe) and it was good! Texture was decent, it didn't flop around when I picked up a slice or try to break my teeth when I bit into it. Flavor was mild and was a good background for the toppings. But, I am a tinkerer of a cook and also fearless to improvise when I am short an ingredient. Magically a few nights ago I discovered the best crust yet. Are you ready for this? It was crisp, chewy, thin but not too thin. It held shape from plate to mouth in hand, didn't hopelessly stick to the pan. It's still not regular pizza, but it is good. Here's how you can have good pizza too:

Flour blend:
1 cup sweet white rice flour (yes, it really does matter if it's the sweet)
1/3 cup sorghum flour
2/3 cup brown rice flour
1 cup potato starch
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum

1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 Tablespoon instant yeast
2 Tablespoons honey
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 cups warm water (110-115 degrees)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place all dry ingredients in stand mixer bowl and blend together. Dissolve honey in warm water and add oil. On low speed add wet to dry then mix on medium speed for 1 minute. It should come together in a ball and not be too sticky. Oil 2 large pizza pans well and your hands. Divide dough evenly and press into about a 12 inch circle with a slightly raised edge (this step takes time, press from the center out and keep it very even until about 1/4 inch thick). Pre-bake for about 10 minutes. Top as desired and bake another 10-15 minutes ( go for longer cause I like that crisp crust!) Let cool for about a minute and then remove from pan on to a board to cut. It may stick just a little to the pan but nothing a good spatula and a little loosening won't fix.

Now, the flavor is something I am still working on because it still tastes gluten free. Next time I plan to replace the water with warmed beer and add some fresh finely grated Parmesan. If it is a success I will add in the variation. Now go try this pizza!