Sun Tea & Other Good Things

Make tea while the sun shines! And that’s exactly what I’m doing today since for once there is not a single cloud in the sky. And it’s hot – at least in the upper eighties. Hello summer? We had pancakes out on the deck for breakfast this morning and as soon as I was done clearing the table I whipped up some tea and put it down on the patio to perk away all day –

We also finally got the deck “finished” (yeah I know – I keep saying that). We moved the etagere to accomodate our new chairs and create more of a defined space from the nasty neighbors, and finally hung up the lanterns –

And here’s the view from behing the etagere, showing off our new chairs –

You’ll notice most of the plants are downstairs on the patio soaking up the sun while we’ve got some. We bring them back up at night (got to keep the squirrels on their toes!). You’ll also notice some pillows – I stitched those up this morning, actually. Here’s a close up –

I used some vinyl tablecloth fabric that I’ve had lying around for a few years now, that I bought with exactly this purpose in mind. Finally I get around to making them! They’re nothing fancy – I just eyeballed the dimensions I wanted, sewed them inside out and once I righted them, stuffed them with with batting I had on hand. I did take a shortcut here – instead of inserting a zipper, which I am well-versed in doing at this point, and instead of sewing the stuffing seam shut (which makes me cry every time as I struggle to get a nice closure seam) I closed it with stick-on velco. I know, I know – but no tears for me today and now I can easily replace the stuffing as they get flattened. I love this fabric for outdoor use because it can stand up to a little moisture and can easily be wiped clean. I have a little bit of it left, and I’m thinking of using it to replace the blue fabric in the white windowbox, but not today. A project for another weekend.

Oh, and just because we happened to snap a picture of it, here’s our new hops plant and the planter that my husband repaired –

I’m super pleased with how the space turned out. I’m looking forward to grilling out later and relaxing back there as a matter of fact. We’re going to be grilling steak, shrimp, onion, mushroom and pepper kabobs for dinner tonight, served with dolma and herbed couscous.

And of course, I can’t let a day like today go by without a couple of food projects happening in the background – I’ve got a double batch of barbecue sauce simmering on the stove, and I liked the jalapeno cornbread so much I’ve decided to make a variation of it for breakfasts this week – jalapeno-bacon corn muffins with sun dried tomatoes. But I won’t do that until after dark and it cools down a bit. And since the duck wasn’t defrosted enough to work with yesterday while it was cool and the weather was awful, I’ve got to do it today. In an hour or so, I’ve got to sharpen my knife and take it down. The breasts will go in the freezer for another meal. Then I’m going to render the skin and fat so that I can confit the legs and thighs. And then the carcass and wings will go in a stockpot to simmer into stock. It’s a hot day for all this kitchen work, but sometimes nature doesn’t cooperate. And fortunately, it’s not stuff I really have to stand over.

And I’m fitting in some relaxation and reading and internetting as usual… all in all, an excellent three day weekend. Hope yours is just as great!

Garden Financials

Finally having outdoor space after nearly ten years in the city (and five blogging about it), I was curious as to how much we’ve spent this year getting our deck and potted garden going, and comfortable. Here’s the rough math –

Six seven-gallon plastic planters – $42.00

Four black wire plant stands – $12.00

Two tan resin Adirondack-style deck chairs – $40.00

Various seeds – $20.00 (gotta count the expense, even though they didn’t work out!)

Various vegetable transplants – $30.00

Six bags of potting soil – $15.00

Fiskars garden clippers – $10.00


We also acquired some things for free –

Blue glazed Ikea gallon-sized pot – scavenged from the alley (had some cracks on one side that my husband repaired with epoxy).

Two bags of potting soil – gifted from husband’s Grandpa.

Six strawberry plants and a hops plant – gifted from husband’s Grandpa.

Green plastic watering can – gift from husband’s Mom.


And we already owned the following items –

Wire windowbox planter

Wooden freestanding windowbox planter with storage shelf

Cast iron and copper etagere plant stand

Ikea bistro set

Four hanging baskets

Two metal brackets for hanging baskets (we actually own another two should we ever need them)

Terra cotta strawberry pot

White lantern set

All purpose plant fertilizer

Fiskars plastic soil scoop, cultivator and transplanting trowel

Weber charcoal kettle grill with wire brush, chimney starter and cover

We also own some random things that may come in handy that we keep around in a mini white metal trashcan from Ikea – some plastic plant saucers, metal plant tags, seed starting soil pellets, a cover for the Earthbox, bamboo stakes, twine, and an ornamental bamboo pot with saucer.

If my math is correct (and often it’s not – I’m better with words!) we spent a total of $169.00 on the garden this year. Not bad, since there are “capital” expenses in there, like the large pots and chairs. And we still have plenty of potting soil left over for impromptu planting, and we haven’t filled two of our largest pots yets. So we have room to grow should we want to this season. And we certainly didn’t drop all that cash in one fell swoop – we bought a little here and a little there when we had some ready cash. Next summer, however, I intend to spend considerably less money!

Hello, Three Day Weekend

I love weekends. Three day weekends especially. No alarm clocks, no schedule, no WORK – complete bliss.

This morning we headed up to Evanston for the farmer’s market since the one in our neighborhood doesn’t start until next week. I was after morels. Unfortunately, I came home disappointed. I might’ve gotten some if we went early (we didn’t get over there until after 10:30) but I really needed to sleep in this morning. I spoke with my favorite mushroom vendor there though, and she confirmed my fears – this season is no good for morels. Just too cool. Morels like to grow in hot, humid conditions. Well, we’ve had the humidity this season but not the heat. The supply is incredibily limited, and a lot of foragers are just keeping them for themselves instead of selling them. And can you blame them? I’d do the same thing. At any rate, she said they’ll likely have a few again next week, but I’ll have to get there right when they open because they’ve been selling out of them almost immediately. The one bright spot is they’re not charging super high prices even though the supply is severely limited. They’re letting them go for about $30.00 per pound, which is a steal considering how rare they are this spring. So if I can hold onto a $20.00 this week and convince myself to wake up at 5:30 next Saturday… I might be able to get myself a little pile of morels for my once-a-year proper coq au vin.

Fortunately, the market had plenty of other goodies on offer that we availed ourselves of. Our mushroom vendor did have some fine looking criminis, so we got a quart of those. Some mushrooms is better than no mushrooms. We’ve been doing them on the grill a lot lately. We also picked up some green onions, Rose Finn fingerling potatoes and some beef kabob cubes. We looked at flowers too, since we’d like to get a couple of spots of color out on the deck, but we didn’t see anything that caught our eye. Maybe next week.

While in Evanston, we popped over to Market Fresh Books, which is having a killer sale this weekend since they are closing their second location. You can get a whole grocery sack full of books for only $20! I was able to pile in 42 before my husband cried uncle and had to drag me from the store. Apparently I’d been in there an hour – but it only felt like a few minutes! I got a few books for me, and a major haul for the kiddo – I scored THIRTY vintage Golden Books! I also got a couple board books, two of which are Dr. Suess, and some activity and learn-t0-cook books (for when he’s older). Each book came out at just under fifty cents each – what a score! You can’t touch vintage Golden Books for that price on Ebay. And they’re all in near-perfect condition. There are a lot left, so if I were you I’d head up there today or tomorrow! They are my favorite used bookstore of all time, and this is an unbeatable deal.

Once we got home from our Evanston adventure, we had some leftover Cincinnati chili for lunch and then I rearranged the deck and potted up the last few plants we’ve acquired in the last week – have a dozen strawberry plants and some hops. (Stay tuned for the pics of the deck, in it’s “finished” state). And then it started raining, even though all the weather reports called for a sunny, warm afternoon. I spent some time relaxing and reading and listening to the rain until it got to cool to sit out (even with a blanket) and then retreated indoors, where I now sit. It’s relatively quiet for a Saturday in the city – it’s still raining a bit, and the birds are chirping outside and it’s nice. I might work up the motivation to hit up the grocery store in a bit, but we’ll see.

Tomorrow I plan to make a big brunch – barbecued pork with jalapeno corn bread and breakfast potatoes – I’ve been craving something different. It’ll be the home version of what I usually get at our favorite brunch spot. Then we may head over to Andersonville to do a little thrifting – I’m always on the lookout for canning jars this time of year, and books and Saveur magazines as always, and now – baby things. Plus I’ve got a bag or two of things to donate myself. If it continues to be cool, I’ll bake some bread and do up a coffee cake or muffins. And I’m going to work with a whole duck this weekend – rendering the fat, confiting the legs/thighs, freezing the breasts for a later dinner and making a stock out of the carcass. Keep your eyes peeled for that post before the weekend is out.

And Monday, just relaxing at home. Spending some time outdoors as much as possible – hopefully the weather turns around! We’re going to grill some kabobs for Monday dinner. I might get started on cutting the quilt blocks for my son’s baby quilt too, especially if it remains gloomy and cool. All in all, a perfect weekend.

Spring Cleaning

At long last – a gorgeous spring day in Chicago! It’s supposed to get up to 80 today. Nevermind that we’re supposed to have severe thunderstorms starting this evening, there’s plenty of beautiful day ahead between now and then. We started the morning by taking the patio furniture back outside and having breakfast on the deck. Scrambled eggs and bacon never tasted so good.

After breakfast, I tackled the winter clean up. First, I swept the deck and stairs. Then I pulled the dead plants out of both window boxes and cultivated the soil. We lost two of the dwarf firs over the winter in the free-standing window box. The two junipers on the end survived and I just had to clip one dead branch of one of them. Now we have a giant space in the middle of the planter that needs to be filled. I have no idea what will go there, except that it won’t be dwarf firs again.

I also cleaned up the etagere and swept the patio – the landscape rock we have back there freely migrated during the winter storms so that had to be put back into it’s rightful place. I also pulled out some weeds and dead plants from the inch-wide strip of soil on our side of the back fence, and cultivated the soil there. I’m going to plant morning glories on our side in a few weeks when we’re past the frost free date (about April 20th here).

The only things left to do are to hang some brackets for hanging planters, hang the lanterns and actually get things planted in all the pots and boxes. I know the chilly weather probably isn’t completely done yet since this is Chicago, after all – but it’s closer than ever and outdoor space is that much closer for a long summer season of tons of use. Finally!

Sunday Seed Starting

The day has finally arrived! We’re eight weeks away from our frost-free date here in Chicago, so seed starting time has officially arrived. I thought I had an abundance of potting soil left over from last season, but apparently I only had about two gallons left. I stretched it with a little perlite I had leftover, so I had enough to get started.

I’m reusing the green windowsill greenhouses I’ve had for a few years now, so I started by rinsing one of them out and wetting down my potting soil. The seeds that got their lucky start today were Martino’s Roma tomatoes, Alpine strawberries, and red bunching onions. I started six tomatoes, six strawberries and eighteen onions, to fill one of the greenhouses. It’s got a plastic lid to keep the moisture in, and I made some makeshift labels by writing the names on some balsa wood strips I pirated from husband’s miniature modeling supplies.

The rest of what I plan to grow this season doesn’t need to be started for another few weeks, and I have enough potting soil yet to fill the second windowsill greenhouse. Time to make a list though, because I am going to need quite a lot of soil to fill the Ikea box planters I plan to use. I’m thinking when we get out to Ikea (I’m hoping we can go in a few weeks) we can load up on potting soil and whatnot since we’ll have to get a car for that jaunt anyway.

The seeds are currently sitting on the kitchen counter next to the sink under a cabinet. I’m going to keep my eye out for a small under-cabinet light fixture to pick up and rig up a makeshift growlight so I don’t get leggy, lethargic seedlings. Hopefully I can find one that will work and isn’t too pricey in the next few days, before the seeds begin to sprout. Guess I should measure that cabinet tonight then…

At any rate, gardening season is officially underway here at Apartment Farm! I’m excited about the prospect about having a deck and patio full of plants this year – and the first bites from the garden are going to taste soooo good!

Dreaming About Extending the Season

Well, it’s January first and greenhouses are on my mind. Husband is refurbishing my tabletop Ikea greenhouse for me by painting the wood a bright, cheery red and replacing the plexiglass in it. It will be great for the first batches of tomatoes I plan to start at the end of February. But to tide me over until then, I thought I’d see what other attractive greenhouses I could set my sights on as well.

This one is well beyond my current abilities to accomodate (the common concrete patio below our deck isn’t much larger than it’s footprint) but’s it’s just gorgeous. I just love the brick wall base.

This is a much more manageable size, but still a little large for our deck space.

This one is a good size for our deck and would be a cinch to build with cedar slats and plexiglass… but it just looks squat and bumbly.

This one is absolutely beautiful, and would be perfect in red cedar. It also doesn’t look that difficult to build (hint-hint husband) and has a certain whimsical charm to it. Though I’d probably like it a little shorter, with just three shelves instead of four. If I were to build a patio greenhouse for the next season, this one would likely be it.

And last, but not least – I love this fold down sideboard. I could easily see it doubling as a tidy little potting bench, which would be the perfect combination with the greenhouse. Situated just below our kitchen window, to the right of our back door… perhaps another piece of outdoor furniture I can convince my husband to build? Fortunately, I’ve got a few months yet to convince him. 😉

Winter-Proofing the Great Outdoors

We had our first storm this week. No, no snow yet, but we did have a fairly severe windstorm. Wind is almost worse than snow and cold temps because you really have to make sure things are battened down tight so they don’t get destroyed and potentially hurt anyone.

Patio Furniture – It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be dining al fresco during the winter months so if you have indoor storage space where you can stow your furniture, such as a shed, garage or basement, that’s ideal. If you have to leave it out over the winter, make sure it’s secure – we have our bistro set chained to the deck railing. Our deck is also fairly sheltered, so high winds and snow accumulation won’t be that much of an issue. If you have a cover for your set, that will certainly improve it’s lifespan from winter wear and tear.

Grills – How you’ll keep your grill depends on whether or not you’ll want to use it during cold weather. If you don’t intend to use it, just put it away along with your patio furniture after you empty it of ash and coals and clean it out. We like to grill on the milder days in the winter, so we’ll leave our grill out. It’s good to have it in a sheltered location and chained down if necessary. And since grills have lots of pieces, it’s imperative to have a cover on it. That will prevent anything from blowing away and minimize the chances that the grill will become damaged or weather-worn.

Window Boxes – If you’re like me, you’ll want to leave your window boxes and some of your planters out during the winter months. For window boxes, make sure they are securely attached to your home or deck railing. You’ll also want to make sure that you have something sturdy and hardy planted in them (such as ornamental kale). Or, if you go in for evergreen boughs and such, make sure they’re laid in well so they don’t blow away – you can use wire hooks to secure the greens horizontally into the planter. What ever you decide, as long as you’re leaving them up, you’ll need to have something covering your potting soil so it doesn’t all blow off in a strong wind.

Planters and Pots – Some planters you’ll want to bring inside. I always bring in my herb pots, so I have to get some plastic pot coasters for drainage so I can water them indoors without a giant mess. You’ll want to bring in or put away any pottery or terra cotta planters you’re using as ice can damage them fairly easily – the freeze and thaw of water that can get inside can cause the pot to crack. For planters you’re leaving outside, make sure they’re winter proofed. I have a wooden free-standing window box planter, with an earth box nested inside. I’ve got dwarf spruce and creeping juniper planted in it, so I’ll leave it outdoors. However, to protect both the planter and help out the plants, I’m going to insulate the space between the earth box and wood planter box with bubble wrap from packages that are sent into my office – I do love to reuse useless items! In the same vein, you’ll want to think of any plants that need some protection – young fruit trees, roses and some shrubs may need to be wrapped in burlap to protect them from windburn and below zero temperatures.

Garden Tchotchkes – Really, I just like to find a way to use the word ‘tchotchke’ from time to time. But you know the kind of things I mean – wind chimes, lanterns, patio cushions, lawn gnomes. For the most part these types of items should be taken down and put away indoors during the window. If nothing else, getting it out of the elements will prolong it’s useful life. We have a string of white lanterns that we’ll likely take down after Halloween, though in all honesty, we should’ve taken them down prior to the windstorm this week. It was ten o’clock at night when we realized how nasty it was going to get though, and taking down lanterns didn’t seem appealing at that late hour. But we don’t want to tempt fate more than once per season, so we’ll take them down this weekend when we take down our string our of ghost lights that we also have on the back deck – and you should take your lanterns and lights down too! The exception here is outdoor-rated holiday lights – just make you’ve got them safely secured to your deck or whatever. We just staple ours onto the wood railing using hardware staples (being super careful to staple around the wires, not through them – electrocution is bad) but they also sell fancy plastic or metal clips that you can permanently affix to your dwelling, and then string the lights to those. But if you’re careful, really the staples work just fine.

And while you’re at it, you’ll want to have a can of salt or sand by the back and front doors, as well as a shovel. With a little foresight and planning, your outdoor space and garden will do just fine through the winter months.