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.

Delusions of Grandeur, Or The Backyard Orchard

Well, I finished reading Grow A Little Fruit Tree. It was a great book, and now I am fully armed with the knowledge to create and manage my very own home orchard. And that, my friends, is the problem. I bit the bullet and placed my tree order today… and I went for broke. Only figuratively, since I actually got a really good deal – I ordered from Gurneys (don’t judge me) and all of their trees were on sale, plus I got $50 off my total. So, a really good deal. But now I’m committed. I ordered the following -

2 American persimmons

2 American hazelnuts

1 Gala apple

1 Fuji apple

1 Golden Delicious apple

Lost. My. Mind. Slightly-less-than-quarter-acre lot. I will be playing tetris with edibles. And I have to really embrace the aggressive pruning techniques advocated in the book (which, as the author admits, can be emotionally difficult to do – the first cut essentially decapitates the tree! Talk about a leap of faith). But if I don’t, we’ll probably be doomed to live in a thicket of overgrown trees and drowning in rotting fruit. So how’s that for a dichotomy between success and failure for you?

But really, I’m okay. No buyer’s remorse, though I have seriously bitten off a lot with the garden this year. No one is going to give me the life I want, so I’m going to build it. And I’m going to make time for the garden, and spending time with my menfolk in the garden, and cut out the noise that doesn’t matter. So maybe I’m just biting the fruit that I’m looking for.

Garden Planning – 2015

Spoiler alert – this is the year I lose my mind. It will be the very first year of our adult lives where we have our own yard and garden space, right where we live. I have big plans for our slightly-less-than-quarter-acre lot. Observe -

For the vegetable/fruit beds –

Jacob’s Cattle beans
Envy edameme
Gonzales mini cabbage
Boston Pickling cucumber
Lacinato kale
Lancelot leeks
Evergreen Bunching onions
Southport Red Globe onions
Valencia onions
Lincoln Garden park
Early Jalapeno peppers
King of the North peppers
Jack Be Little pumpkins
Small Sugar pumpkins
Ronde de Nice squash
Gold Nugget tomatoes
Tiny Tim tomatoes
Jubilee Bush watermelon
Yukon Gold potatoes
Bristol Black raspberries
Mara de Bois strawberries
Friendship blueberries

Herb/flower beds –

Grandpa Otts morning glory
Patriot morning glory
Valerian
St. John’s Wort
Italian Large Leaf basil
Caraway
Black cumin
Compatto dill
Citronella lemon balm
Marjoram
Green oregano
Flat Leaf parsley
Rosemary
White sage
French thyme

And if that isn’t enough crazy, I’m adding fruit and nut trees to the mix – as yet undecided varieties of apple, American persimmon and hazelnut. Yes, you read that correctly. I just started reading Grow A Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy-Harvest Fruit Trees by Ann Ralph. It’s all about keeping standard sized fruit trees at a manageable (around six feet) height with proper pruning and maintenance. Which considerably opens up the varieties one can consider, since only limited varieties are available as dwarf, semi-dwarf or columnar. It’s so good, I can’t put it down. I’m a convert to the method and I haven’t even finished the book yet. So yes – in addition to multiple vegetable, fruit, flower and herb beds, I’ll be adding a tiny orchard this year as well. If I’m going to do something, I do it. :-) Only a few weeks and we’ll be getting the first seeds started!

The DIY Medicine Chest – Lavender

As I get older, I want simpler, and the medicine chest is no exception. You may recall me also admitting that I want a more tactile life, and one of the ways I’ve started to accomplish that is to amp up the type of DIY I do. One of the problems I really suffer from on a regular basis is insomnia and poor sleep patterns. I’ve tried all of the conventional solutions, including over-the-counter sleep aids and even prescription sleeping pills. While the sleeping pills were effective, the side effects were awful. Oftentimes conventional drugs have side effects that are worse than the issue they’re trying to cure. Don’t get me wrong – they have appropriate uses, and there’s certainly a time and place to use them. But my point is, they don’t have to be the only option.

So I’ve started to explore the use of essential oils to supplement my sleep routine, which includes trying to go to bed at the same hour evening, and at a time which allows me to (hopefully) get a minimum of seven hours a sleep. For me, eight to nine hours is even better, but I have to get up before the crack of dawn to leave for work and I just can’t go to bed an hour after I get home at night – I’m sure you’re just as familiar with compromises that affect a good sleep routine. But with a minimum of seven hours sleep, limiting screen time at least an hour before bed, and trying to cut off caffeine by mid-afternoon I can get to a state that’s functional.

It’s getting that seven hours which is the trick. As it turns out, lavender can be a fantastic sleep aid. Lavender is soothing and relaxing. I like to use lavender as triple threat before bedtime – as a lavender salve on my hands and the pulse points on my wrists, as an oil roll-on on my temples, and heat diffused into the air in my bedroom.

Naturally, you can make all three yourself with easily obtainable ingredients. For the salve, you’ll need the following –

1 cup carrier oil (I really like grapeseed oil, but olive, jojoba or almond would all be suitable)

¼ cup beeswax pellets/granules (I really recommend these over grating  your  own from bars because it’s a terrible mess to clean out of a grater, but you could certainly grate your own)

10-20 drops lavender essential oil

½ cup dried lavender flowers (optional)

1 or 2 quart mason jars

Bamboo skewer or wooden chopstick

Saucepan

Cheesecloth or a loose-weave muslin

2 4 ounce jelly jars (or other small glass or metal containers, to hold your finished salve – try to avoid plastic)

You’ll notice I listed the lavender flowers as optional above. You can make a perfectly good salve with just the essential oil, but if you infuse your carrier oil with flowers as well, your salve with pack a double punch, so I recommend it. To make the infused oil, put your carrier oil in one of the mason jars along with the lavender flowers. Place the mason jar in your saucepan, with a few inches of water in the saucepan, in order to create a double boiler. Heat up the oil until the water in the pan is simmering, and let it heat up for a few minutes. At this point you’ve got a few options – you can proceed with the recipe if you’re the instant gratification type, or you can let your oil continue to infuse for a period of time. The longer it infuses, the more potent it will be. You can even skip the simmering step by just placing the jar in a sunny window for a few days or a week if you want. If you do that, just make sure all of lavender flowers stay fully submerged in the oil so they don’t go moldy.

Once your infused oil is the way you want it, use the cheesecloth and strain the oil into a clean mason jar. Discard the flowers. Now you can proceed with actually creating your salve. Add the beeswax to your carrier oil, and put the mason jar back into your saucepan with a few inches of water. Bring the water to a simmer, and stir the oil periodically with the skewer until all of the beeswax has melted. Once it’s fully melted, take the jar out of the pan and off the heat. Stir in the essential oil, and pour into your storage containers. I love the four once jelly jars by Ball – two of them hold the entire recipe, so it’s perfect for making one for yourself and one for a friend, and the jar is just the right size to sit on a bedside table. And they’re cute too!

Try not to disturb the jars while the salves are setting up – I like to place the jars on a small towel in an out of the way spot on the counter so they can firm up undisturbed. They were fully solid in about a half hour of being poured, so this was a really quick activity. They should keep for up to a year at room temperature – just make sure you only dip into the jar with clean hands to prevent anything unwanted from getting into the salve and spoiling it.

Lavender roll on oils are also great, and they’re perfect to keep in your bag so you can have relief on the go – not only is lavender good as a sleep aid, it can also be really effective with stress relief and as a headache remedy. The best part about the roll on is that no double boiler is needed – just your ingredients and a roll on container. You’ll probably have to order them online – I don’t recall ever seeing them at craft stores in my area. But you can get a dozen at a reasonable price and then you have plenty of bottles on hand to make all kinds of essential oil roll ons for your DIY medicine chest. But to start with, you’ll need a roll on bottle, lavender essential oil and a carrier oil. Since I tend to use this one on my temples, I wanted a carrier oil that did not feel or look greasy, and almond oil seems to be a good choice for that. Jojoba would also be a decent choice, followed by grapeseed. I’d probably avoid olive oil for an application like this, as it feels extra greasy to me, and has a strong aroma of its own that may overwhelm the scent of the lavender. All you need to do is put 10-20 drops of the essential oil into the bottle, top up with your carrier oil, and give it a good shake with the lid on to evenly mix it. And then it’s ready to use! These will keep for at least a year as well.

The final trick up my sleeve for decent sleep is to heat infuse a little lavender essential oil in my bedroom. There are ton of diffusers on the market these days – desktop models with batteries, ones that plug into wall outlets, candle diffusers – but I don’t bother with any of those. Part of my relaxation routine before bed is to read for leisure, so I always have a small lamp on for 20-30 minutes before bed. I simply put a few – no more than two or three – drops of lavender essential oil directly onto the lightbulb. It gently infuses the room with a relaxing lavender scent, and I don’t have to worry about blowing out a candle or having another gadget plugged into precious wall outlet space.

I’m happy to report that the lavender does help. I do still have sleep issues (stress and chronic illness play a pretty big part in this for me as well) but the lavender has done a lot to help me get closer to a more balanced sleep routine so I can function better every day. So if you’re suffering from sleep issues as well, give these remedies a try – there’s a lot you can do with one little bottle of essential oil!

Garlic Noodles with Chicken

I love a good noodle dish, and garlic noodles are at the top of the pile. The best part is, these can be whipped up in less than 15 minutes with ingredients from a well stocked pantry. I was inspired by the Garlic Noodles on Budget Bytes, and while I love most of the recipes on that site, Beth’s version wasn’t quite garlic-y enough for me. So I set out to amp up the flavor a bit, and add in my own secret weapon for Asian style sauces – wine. Yes, it’s in no way authentic, but it’s just the ingredient to give brown sauces “that taste” of great takeout. I usually just whip these up when I’m dining solo after the kiddo has gone to bed and husband is working, but I’ve scaled this recipe up to serve two.

- 2 chicken breasts

- half a box of spaghetti, cooked according to package directions in well salted water

- 4 tablespoons oyster sauce

- 4 teaspoons soy sauce

- 2 teaspoons sesame oil

- 1 tablespoon garlic powder

- 8-10 garlic cloves, minced

- 4 tablespoons brown sugar

- 1/2 cup chardonnay

- 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed into a slurry with 2 tablespoons cold water

- Saute the chicken until well browned on both sides and cooked through. Slice into thin pieces and set aside with the cooked spaghetti.

- Combine the remaining ingredients (except for the cornstarch slurry) and bring to a boil. Mix in the slurry and let boil for a minute or two until thickened.

- Pour the sauce over the spaghetti and chicken and mix well to evenly coat the spaghetti. Serve hot and enjoy!

To increase the nutritional value and flavor, you can add in some lightly steamed or sauteed veggies – green onions, broccoli and sweet peppers would all be delicious.

Gingerbread Crumb Coffee Cake

After years of trial and error, I have finally – finally - found the perfect gingerbread. I love gingerbread. I eat it year round, it’s so good. I have an excellent soft gingerbread cookie recipe that I rely on, but I’ve never quite been happy with the cake-style gingerbreads that I’ve tried. None of them were quite right. But then I happened upon Gingerbread Crumb Cake at Cookie Monster Cooking and I knew it was a game changer.

Sadly, nothing is perfect at first glance. I had a couple of challenges to overcome with this recipe – it’s use of buttermilk (since we’ve got two lactose intolerant adults in the house) and it’s use of melted butter. I hate recipes that call for melted butter, mostly because I’m just lazy. I hate melting butter. So I set out to axe that. I also wanted a softer crumb, so I opted to use the crumb I used on my classic Crumb Coffee Cake, and just added the recommended spices to it. Also, no messing with melted butter there either. I also increased the spices in the recipe – I like aggressive spices in my gingerbread!

So, with modifications, here’s what I ended up with -

Crumb Topping

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup butter

Cake

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 egg

1/3 cup molasses

1 1/2 cups flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/2 cup soy milk

For the crumb topping, mix all of the dry ingredients. Then cut in the butter with your fingers until the mix resembles wet sand. Set aside.

For the cake, cream the butter and sugar. Mix in the egg and molasses until incorporated. Add all of the dry ingredients and mix until the batter has come together, then add the soy milk. Pour into a 9-inch round cake pan and top evenly with the crumb topping.

Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes, until a knife comes out clean. Tastes great either warm or at room temperature. I think I’ll make this again on New Year’s Day – it’s a great crumb cake!