Proof of Life – Garden Edition

We’ve been doing stuff! Got the orchard planted, at long last –


It doesn’t look like much at the moment, because those are bare root trees, and they’ve been beheaded to about knee height, per the aggressive pruning techniques I’m following from Grow A Little Fruit Tree. On the far left are two American persimmons, then a trio of apple trees – Golden Delicious, Fuji and Gala – and then a pair of hazelnuts. These trees will be only about my height-ish – around six feet – at maturity. Just right for our small backyard, and the amount of fruit and nuts we’re looking to harvest.

We also got our trio of raised beds for the vegetables in –


We obviously need to get some more soil before we can plant anything. That’s 20 bags worth, and we figure we’ll need another 20 to fill them up! Each bed is a few inches shy of being six feet long by three feet wide. They’re made from cedar fencing, and we got the idea from a post at Preparedness Mama on building raised beds on the cheap. Each one cost around $15 to build, so we made a trio for under $50. And they’re just shy of six feet because we’re OCD and cut the tapered dog-ear edge off the top of the pickets. Would’ve annoyed us to no end! They look great and a super cedar, and the cedar is sure to last for awhile. We’re really pleased with how these turned out.

And last but not least, husband built a covered compost bin, from his own design –


So, we’ve been busy outside. You’ll notice we still don’t have the privacy fencing up in the yard – the blue and white garage and the wire fencing both belong to our neighbors. Eventually we’ll get a six foot privacy fence back there to screen the view and provide protection from critters – we already know we’ve got rabbits, squirrels and even opossums living nearby!

And also outdoors, we’re trying to identify our big trees – we’ve got five maples of varying types and either something like an ash or walnut. Naturally I’m hoping for walnut. And I’m hoping that we’ve got a couple of sugar maples, because I’d love to try my hand at making maple syrup – it takes 40 gallons to make a single gallon of finished syrup, so with five trees and a good sap run for a week I could do it! Still need to definitively ID those trees so we know what we’ve got though.

Indoors, a little progress. We bought a pull out trash can/recycling sorter to retrofit into one our kitchen cabinets, and it’s been a lifesaver. So much easier to recycle religiously without having to haul the recycling out to the garage. So between having a recycling bin right instead and our covered compost pail for food scraps, our goal is to have next to nothing get thrown into the actual trash. We also decided to do shiplap paneling in our living room. This is the inspiration photo we’re shooting for (though we sadly do not have vaulted ceilings) –

white room

That photo is from a feature on Country Living. Seriously love that magazine – so many great design ideas, that are actually accessible. And I love the blue tones an the mixed woodwork as well, so we’re using the whole style as a guide. We were able to pick up the shiplap at a good price so we have it all stacked in the garage and ready to go. Still need to get the trim down, true up a few dips in the walls, and work up the nerve to install several hundred dollars worth of wood on the walls without screwing it up… but progress is just around the corner.

I also caved and bought two crappy particle board bookcases to get the stupid books of the floor. They’re already half busted because they’re total crap, but they beat stacks of cardboard boxes and we can make do with them while we scour antique malls and tag sales and the like for the real deal replacements.

So, that’s most of it for now!

Furniture Love

Wonderful weekend here. I took Friday off work to celebrate husband’s birthday and we had an amazing time. We all headed up to Madison for a family day, and did some of husband’s favorite things – lunch at his favorite pub and a tour of some gaming stores up there. We also did the children’s museum with Little Man, and of course – stopped at a few antique malls.

There is nothing I love better than a good, affordable antique mall and the Madison Antique Mall is both of these things. I was happy to find a lovely oval Blue Willow vegetable bowl – for just $5 – to add to my collection. And I was happier still when husband called me over to look at this little gem –


Isn’t it wonderful? It’s a gorgeous little bedside table that fits perfectly into the tiny space next to my side of the bed. The paint needs to be freshened up, but otherwise it’s in great condition. It’s hard to see in the photo, but on the back of the table is a vertical magazine pocket – so handy, and gives it a little extra bit of charm. But the best part about this table? It was only $30! We’ve been searching for bedside tables since we moved in and I realized that the bureau-style tables I wanted to make over wouldn’t fit in the bedroom at all. So excited to not be using moving boxes as a table anymore! Well, on my side at least… we still need to find a table for husband’s side. But we’re halfway there.

Our visit to Madison was a day trip, but we have a superb antiques mall in our town as well – Colonial Antique Mall. I absolutely adore this place. I always find something (usually multiple somethings) when I go in there, and the prices are completely reasonable. They have a consignment section in the basement that I call the “bargain basement” with the best prices of all.

You may remember that our dining room still has no dining furniture at all. We do not dine. We eat meals scrunched around the coffee table in the living room. Not fun, so getting the dining room usable is high on my list. But furniture, especially large pieces, is so expensive! I’ve felt discouraged for months, knowing there is no way ever that I will be dropping 2k on a china cabinet or hutch.

So on Saturday we decided to continue the winning streak with the bedside table and check out Colonial – just to see. We found lots of maybe pieces, but nothing we loved. And in our last five minutes in the store, in the back of the consignment room, I spotted a hutch and it was love at first sight. Just the look I wanted. And just exactly the right size (our dining room is small; we need petite. Most hutches are not petite). I ran (oh, yes I did) across the room. It was gorgeous up close! No major issues. I was afraid to look at the price. I glanced at the tag and it said “Ethan Allen”. No, an Ethan Allen piece could not be in the bargain basement! So I walked around to the back of it, and sure enough the maker’s mark was clear as day – Ethan Allen. I had to know the price. I was determined to have it and I had to know if it would bankrupt me. My heart all a flutter I finally checked the tag – $150!!! Just one zero, not two! I literally did an actual happy dance in front of the hutch for a few minutes, with Little Man laughing and husband imploring me to calm down. So what does this beautiful piece of furniture look like? Behold –


Is it not the most gorgeous hutch you’ve ever seen? And only $150!? You’ll see one of the knobs is broken (I found it in a drawer when we got it home, so I’m hopeful of repair) and it has one little scratch on the top that is hardly noticeable at all. Otherwise, it’s in glorious condition. But the best part? I took the tag to the cash register and the kind lady ringing me out gave me another heart attack. She said to me – “Do you know this has been marked down?” Do I know this has been marked down!? Apparently the seller was insane. Or knew in their hearts I was out there, and had faith I would come at just the right moment and make a home it. Do you want to know how much I paid? It was on sale for just $114! So after tax, it cost me $122. Win! Win! Win! Could not believe my luck. Since hutches, even small ones, do not fit in Honda Civics, we did have to rent a truck, but fortunately Menards rents pick up trucks for $25 for an hour, which is all we needed. So all in including the truck rental, we paid $147 for this lovely piece of furniture.

Once I got it home, I started a little research on it. Additional marks on the piece read Baumritter and “Made in Vermont”. Apparently Baumritter was the first name of the company that started out as Ethan Allen. They used the name “Ethan Allen Baumritter” between 1936 – 1969, so I have an earlier EA piece. On the inside door I also found a poison control poster copywrited to 1959, so that further narrows the dates of it’s manufacture to between 1936-1959. It was clearly made in Vermont. It’s solid maple – there isn’t a piece of plywood or MDF on this thing. It’s a dream.

On Ebay, similar pieces are going from anywhere from $500 to over $1,000. So I got a good deal! The bottom cabinet will house my sewing supplies and fabrics. Since I don’t have a craft room, I needed a place to keep supplies that is easy to access and near a big work surface (the dining table, when ever we build it), but still enclosed so it doesn’t look cluttered and messy all the time. The hutch solves that problem! The larger drawer will hold table linens. The silverware drawer will hold serving pieces. And the top shelves will display some of my milk glass and Blue Willow.

The house is slowly but surely coming together. And I’m happy, as always, to buy second hand and get a great deal!

Digging In

So, we have been doing things. Notably, trying to keep seven fruit and nut trees alive in our basement for longer than most orchards recommend, because the weather has been random and weird and not at all conducive to digging holes and actually planting trees.

And then there was the matter of the utilities. I spent the winter months dreaming and scheming about the best placement of all of the various edibles on our property, and had earmarked a spot on the northern edge of our property in the front yard as being the best spot for an orchard hedgerow. Great sun, solved an aesthetic problem (the not-so-lovely view of our neighbor’s driveway) and had an absence of existing planting beds, so could use a little  something.

Well as it turns out, there’s a reason the previous owner didn’t plant anything there – it’s where all of the utilities, including electricity, cable, and gas – come into the property. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

The next suitable spot is in the backyard, along the western edge of the property. Only problem is, there was a trio of  young lilacs already in residence. But a door never closes without a window opening, and as it turns out this new problem is actually the solution to a few issues. Number one, I hate shrubs, and the entire front of the house is swathed in bushes. Number two, half of said bushes are dead. Not precisely an elegant landscaping situation. So, slowly but surely, out come the shrubs, and in go the new – in this case, lilacs.

Here’s the before with some of the offending shrubs –


The sentinels are out of control… when we moved in six months ago (has it been six months!?) husband gave them a buzz cut and trimmed them down quite a bit, but at that point it became apparent that despite the lush greenery in this photo, they were actually quite unhealthy. And anyway, my hatred for them was cemented from the first. So out they must go. So the lilacs have found a home flanking the big window –


Now granted – you might be thinking it looks worse at the moment and is not much of an improvement. And yeah – I can see that. I kind of feel the same way – they’ve not got any new growth on them yet (I mean, it is only mid-April in Northern Illinois…) but they have leaf buds on them, so I have hope that they will take to their new location. And obviously all the mulch has been pulled out of this bed for this little transplant operation, so that adds to the sparse look. Ultimately the big hedge will come out and something else (still TBD) will go in. And I’d love to install a window box planter on this window, and we definitely need to do something about the faux shutters on the house… it’s amazing how one little change opens up a black hole into the five billion other things you want to/should do. Crazy! But aside from that, I’m hoping the lilacs take to their new location, because the prospect of the lovely smell of lilacs wafting into the open windows on the springtime breeze is a wonderful thought indeed.

Oh yeah – and now we need to dig seven holes in the newly opened space in the backyard and get the orchard planted!

A Snow Shower In Springtime

I’m trying to regard the powdering of snow that is covering the tentative greening of my yard with a sense of wonder, as though it is the first snow I’ve seen in what seems like a very long time, and not what it is – yet another accumulation in an endless parade of snowy days and knee-deep drifts in a winter that seems like it will never really end. The second day of spring, and it is snows.

A few days ago, we had the first 60 degree days of the season, and it was amazing to see how the neighborhood woke up. So many kids and people walking dogs! Parents with strollers and crowds at the park. All winter I was convinced we were living in a ghost town; the only evidence of human habitation was the appearance (and disappearance, in January) of Christmas lights, and shoveled driveways. So the 60 degree days were a tease. Having living in this corner of the world for all of the parts of my life that have counted, I know that a Midwestern spring is fickle thing indeed, but still. I had a tentative, skeptical hope that the snow was behind us for another season.

C’est la vie. So, it’s snowing. But I’ve got barbecue chicken in the crockpot, the house is clean and cozy, and a loaf of bread is baking in the oven. There are few things more miraculous than the toasty smell of baking bread – flour, a bit of yeast, a touch of sugar and salt, and water – and the sum certainly turns out greater than that parts. And anyways, I’m always saying – if it’s going to be cold, it may as well snow. Prettier that way.

A Random Springtime

Welcome spring! Finally, the end of winter is in our sights. I’ve been busy doing a whole lot of ordinary things, most of them un-blog-worthy, but all of them necessary to daily living. Some items from the highlight reel –

– Finally found the perfect recipe for home made buns/soft sandwich bread from The Kitchen Whisperer. The secret to a soft sandwich bread is dairy (usually milk) but since husband and I are both lactose-intolerant, that wasn’t happening. This particular recipe calls for butter mixed in at the end (which I thought was weird, but hey – all I had to lose was a batch of flour, yeast, some salt and a bit of Earth Balance if it failed). Subbing Earth Balance for the butter was a no-brainer, and the bread turned out perfectly.

– I’m about two weeks late on seed starting, because I’ve been searching for over a month for a new grow light set up. I’m tired of leggy, lethargic seedlings! After checking every hardware store and garden center in the vicinity and coming up empty handed, I finally caved in and ordered one from Amazon. I chose the Enviro-Gro 22-foot 4-light fixture at $90. Yes, it was pricey – but I’m hoping it will last a long time and more than pay for itself in allowing me to start quality veg seedlings at home. And I’m excited to repurpose our Ikea Sniglar changing table into a seed starting station. We’ll start tomatoes, pepper and cabbages this weekend and kick the garden season into high gear.

– We haven’t been thrift store shopping in a good long while, but this weekend Little Man and I hit the jackpot – we found a new wooden train track section, a play construction helmet, a Play Doh extruder and a Richard Scarry book for him. And for me, I found a set of six Fire King milk glass dinner plates, a rectangular milk glass dish with a basket weave pattern (perfect for Easter egg display!), and two books – Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping Home by Cheryl Mendelson and a vintage (I think it’s from the 1960s, by the look of the dress patterns) Better Homes & Gardens Sewing Book.

– In preparation for the outdoor season, we’ve added some gear to our homestead – a new shovel in anticipation of breaking much ground for garden beds, a pruning saw for the fruit and nut trees that will arrive any time now, a fire pit, a children’s Adirondack chair so Little Man has his own place to enjoy the backyard, and some wire baskets that will be perfect for root vegetable storage in the root cellar setup I hope to arrange in the basement this summer.

So, that’s life for the moment at Apartment Farm – quiet, but nice.

An Endless Winter

Of course, that’s not literally true, but it’s certainly starting to feel that way. I have been just trudging through the last few weeks, mentally hibernating. The cold and the dark have been so persistent for so long that my brain seems to be frozen.

But there are small  gains. The days are actually lengthening a bit; I walk to the train in the morning in the first bit of  bluing to touch the sky. And soon it will be time to start seeds, though I’ve not thought much about that recently. Everything is still cold. I can’t envision laying out garden beds  or doing the hard work of building a fence from scratch, or digging many, many holes for  fruit and nut trees. Perhaps in a month’s time I’ll feel differently.

Life does happen though, in the methodical gentle routine of ordinary days. I read books with my son, bake bread on the weekends and fit  in little projects around the house where I can. I’ve further organized the basement, aligned our food storage and redid half of  the kitchen by switching around cabinets to make work flow in there more functional.

And the new town and the new life have imprinted on me, at long last. It took me a full three months to really feel centered in this place, and to always know where I am in relation to every field, and every road, and every landmark. And even though snow is covering the lot of it, that’s comforting. And it’s home.

The laundry list of to-do items still seems gargantuan – paint the living room, get bookcases, build a dining room table, get bedside tables and finish the bedroom…. there are so many more, but those are the major things we want to tackle first. I keep telling myself we’ll get to it when it thaws.

So… I’m still here. We’re still trying to establish this new phase of our lives in this little house in a small town, and most of it is good. It’s just cold!

How to Use an Almanac For Gardening

Gardening almanacs can have a bit of a mysterious air. They’re a little old-fashioned; they’re a little mystical. With their hokey advertisements and talk of planting by the moon, they can be on the periphery of the legit for some folks. But stay with me – they have a valuable place on the bookshelf for average gardeners like you and I.

For one thing, I fully believe the almanac is going to give you the most accurate weather forecast around. Year after year the almanac proves accurate more often than not, when the television weather people get it all wrong. That’s pretty impressive when you think about the fact that a whole year’s forecast is established and printed in one fell swoop. Since one of the most important pieces of the gardening puzzle is the weather, the almanac always ends up being a useful tool.

The weather pages are fairly straightforward to use. The country is broken into geographic regions and each region gets a page. Each month gets a paragraph, which is then further broken into blocks of days. So for example, February 2015 for Zone 6 (Great Lakes) reads thus –

Feb 2015: Temp.28  (1 above average); precip. 2.5″ (0.5″ above average). 1-9 Snow, then snow showers, cold. 10-14 Sunny, mild, then flurries, cold. 15-17 Sunny, mild. 18-22 Snow showers, cold. 23-28 Showers, mild.

So that basically explains the average temperature for the month will be around 28 and the average snow/rain will be slightly higher than normal around two and a half inches. The first nine days of the month with have snow and be cold, the next four days will be sunny and mild, and so on.

And let’s talk about those funny charts and graphs that can look so confusing at first glance. In The Old Farmer’s Almanac (my almanac of choice; it’s the one with the yellow cover) these are “The Calendar Pages”. The first page in this section even tells you how to utilize the info, but I’ll give you the primer here to show you why you should give the almanac a try in the first place.

Each month of the year gets a two-page spread. The left hand page is the “Sky Watch”, or astronomical data. This identifies the phases of the moon, significant planetary movements and the sunrise/sunset chart. I find the sunrise/sunset chart extremely valuable, if for nothing else, than plotting when I’ll see daylight to and fro while commuting to the office. But it’s also really useful for determining how much daylight your plants are going to be getting, and when you can shut off the supplemental grow lights on your veggie starts, for example.

The right hand page is the calendar, highlighting holidays, significant astrological events (like eclipses), tide info, historical events and religious feast days that apply to the Christian faiths. A brief  weather synopsis is also provided. There’s also a “Farmer’s Calendar” sidebar with an anecdote about the weather or the season, which I personally find interesting.

Another useful chart is the one for frosts and the growing season. Knowing when it’s a good idea to plant, and how long your growing season is, is important info. This chart calls out the first and last frost dates for major cities across the country – just choose the one that’s closest to where you live.

There is also a ton of gardening reference info in almanacs – how to start seeds, plant bulbs, best planting times, pH preferences of a variety of plants, flowers that attract butterflies, and yes – even how to plant your garden by the phases of the moon, if you are so inclined. And there’s a lot of good  household info to – common weights and measures for produce, ingredient substitution, freezer storage times, which types of plastics can be recycled, and more. And while some of the articles can  be hokey, some of them are really great. This year’s almanac has some pretty good articles on DIY bath and beauty products (with recipes) and an article about quail.

In short (or maybe not so much) an almanac can be a really useful, and interesting tool for a home gardener. If nothing else, it can make you aware of the need to be more connected to the natural environment, which is as good a place as any to start.