Saturday, June 28, 2008

European Gas prices don't work so well in America

One thing that has gotten me a about comments one hears regarding the gas prices is this, "Well, now we're paying what people in Europe have paid for years." I was reading about how some of our political leaders think this is a good and positive thing...but then again they don't have to pay for gas (transportation is one of the things the American people pay for them via expense accounts). Maybe you've heard them say this too, and maybe you have felt a little ashamed, like why are you such a wuss that you can't handle the gas prices. The thing is, I wouldn't mind the European Gas prices if we could also have the pedestrian/bike/Vespa friendly society with well structured public transportation as they do in the original land of the $6 gallon of gas. Some cities in America are set up to be pedestrian friendly, but most areas, rural, urban, and suburban, are set up for car ownership.

The reason why this comment about European gas prices annoys me so is that I lived in Europe in the Eighties and again in the early Nineties. In fact, I lived in Europe so long, I didn't have a driver's license or own an automobile until AFTER I came home from living over there simply because life is set up over there in such a way that it really isn't completely necessary. Let me explain.

When I need to go to the store here in my area, I have to decide if I am going to walk up to the mini mart a mile away (which has $5 gallons of milk, a selection of last year's VHS movies, some candy, lots of alcohol, a potpourri of the basic groceries, and some really awesome pizza), or I can drive 15 miles to the nearest grocery store which is a bit better stocked, or I can drive 20 miles to the larger, better stocked and more affordable grocery store, and sometimes I drive 30 miles to the bulk food store to stock up(every few months). Needless to say, we carefully plan out our trips to the store, and don't just run out to the store the minute we need something, especially with the gas prices.

We even live close to our church, and we decided that when the weather
is nice we should walk, but it isn't easy. The walk requires us to walk
down a busy stretch of road with a narrow shoulder, no sidewalks, and
swampy ditches on either side of the road....with five kids in tow.

When I lived in Europe, working as an Au Pair for a family, I went shopping daily. I put the child in the stroller, walked 1/4 mile to the meat market and grocers, and did our shopping, then walked home. sometimes we walked 4 miles to downtown Salzburg, where we shopped at the large fruit and veggie market in a pedestrian zone, or at a specialty shop, or if the weather was inclement, we used the bus.

Yes, I seriously was the Au pair of one mild-mannered 2 year old child in scenic Salzburg. It was a tough job but someone had to do it ;).

I've lived in Rural Austria, in Krems (a medium sized town on the Danube), in Vienna, and in the outlying areas of Salzburg Austria....and lived without a car or a chauffeur. I only rode in a car when someone invited me along for something...or on our once-every-few-months major shopping trip to the big grocery store. When we did use a vehicle, the design of the cities seemed to be designed to frustrate drivers, with the narrow roads, one way streets, scant (and expensive!) parking, traffic reminiscent of my nightmarish road trip to Chicago 13 years ago, and most of the time you were still hoofing it quite a distance, as you didn't just park in front of the store very often as you do here in the land that Ford built.

How did I get around? Bike...Walking...O-Bus in Salzburg and U-Bahn (subway) in Vienna and the back of a friend's Vespa (moped) in rural Austria...The occasional train trip or car ride with a friend. I thusly travelled all over Austria...sans automobile...and in fact all over much of Central Europe...including Prague, Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Rotterdam, northern Italy, Rome, and so forth.

There are many aspects of life in America that I prefer over life in Austria, such as 7-11's, 24 hour grocery stores, an openness towards the things of God when talking to others about Christ (by comparison), and our taxes being much say nothing of Freedoms we often take for granted.

That said, there are aspects where I wish I was living in Europe again...such as being able to live easily without a car, getting a decent Cappachino and delicious fresh bread that I didn't have to bake myself, and people whose company I enjoy immensely (not necessarily in that order).

European cities, and even smaller towns, seem to have been designed with pedestrians, bike riders, and "community" in mind. It took a while to get used to riding a bike on the street with traffic, because doing the same in America would be asking to be hit...I'd have been a bug on someone's windshield in my hometown of Detroit.

American cities, small towns, and rural areas, I am guessing, were designed by the marketing division over at the Big Three Automakers (I'm being sarcastic of course...but it does seem that way sometimes doesn't it?). There are a few urban areas (out of my price range LOL) where there is more of a European model at work, but by and large, Americans are more dependant on cars not just because we are in love with the automobile (in my case, can I say, I HATE DRIVING and would give it up in a minute if it wasn't a necessity?), but because most of our society is not designed with pedestrians, bikes, mopeds and vespas, or public transportation in mind. Having lived in several urban and suburban areas of America, our public transportation is no where near as user-friendly or practical as it is in European cities, if it exists at all. Even the Eastern Block Countries, just a few months after the fall of communism, had better public transport in place. Prague's subway system blew me away.

My husband drives 60 miles one way to work each day. Not because he likes to (would you? ugh!), but because we are having a bit of an economic downturn here in the Great Lake State, and this is all the employment we could find. Move closer? Can't sell the house, and can't afford the houses near where he works. It's a quandry. Thankfully he carpools with other men in the same predicament.

A friend in Europe was horrified at this fact, and suggested he take the bus. Take the bus? BUS?? what bus? Sure, we have a bus..I think...I've seen it maybe three times in the ten years I've lived here, and the only bus stop I've seen is about 10 miles from here....but it doesn't go near where we need it to go. And it's too far to walk, too far to bike, and I don't think a Vespa would work either.

So, is it a good thing that we have European style gas prices? I wouldn't complain if someone could also provide us with a bus around here...or even some sidewalks! Keep that in mind when you hear that.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Garden Yields: What do I plant?

Michelle writes,
I just downloaded your e-book, Growing Groceries. We have been working to become more self-sufficient, reducing expenses. You mention in your book that can an average of 500 jars per year. We use raised beds, and the Square foot gardening method. I am trying to figure out how much I need to plant in order to can a sufficient amount for our family for the year (we have 8 children). Do you have this knowledge or know where I could find some general guidelines? I have found some information about how much to plant in a 100 foot row to yield so many pounds/bushels, but I’m not sure how well that translates to the square foot gardening method, or how many quart jars I would end up with.

Hi Michelle,
Well, it's pretty individual, and depends on what you need or will use. I think it is something you figure out as you garden, and as you see what does well for you and how many tomatoes, on average, a tomato plant produces for you, for example.

I did see a great chart in a book called "The Encyclopedia of country living" which is a great book to have anyway (it's by Carla Emery and is widely available...including an upcoming new edition), but it was also (As this is) more of an example of what she has done, and she also emphasizes that it is pretty individual and depending on what sorts of things you use a lot of. I think there is also information in the Ball Blue Book of canning and preserving. It's always going to be "best guess" though, because there are so many other factors involved in knowing just how much food you will get out of your garden, especially if you are trying to grow with plans to preserve much of it. Your yield may also vary from year to year.

I find that with the Square Foot Method, in beds that have lots of compost and good soil, there is a much higher yield, so that throws off those estimates you see elsewhere too. Also, some things may grow great for me but not for you. I have crazy-productive grapes, but no one else I know in my immediate area has grapes that grow like that. On the other hand, I can't get other things to grow well, like corn, which for me doesn't have very high yields. (thus we barter with neighbors on some things :-)).

With some items it's easy to plan. We use about 2-3 heads of Romaine type lettuce per day (We like salad), and it takes about 2 months for it to get ripe, so I start as soon as the ground isn't frozen out, planting lettuce in the cold frames (sometimes using lettuce all winter long if it is mild, as lettuce likes cold weather), and I plant enough each week for the entire season, so that I will have a continuous harvest of about 20 heads a week. Sometimes we lose a few here or there, but that's ok. You can't can or freeze lettuce and still have it quite as enjoyable, so we make sure not to overplant on that. Along with the lettuce, I also plant a staggered crop of radishes (about half a seed packet every few weeks for the entire season) to eat on the salad, and I plant carrots 3x a year(the whole packet), knowing that we will either enjoy them fresh or freeze them in slices or cubes if we can't use them all. Through trial and error we have figured out that 100 yellow and 100 red onions are about right for use in the various things we can (such as salsa) and for use until they start to go bad. We usually plant about 50 cloves of garlic in the fall each year. If I don't use it all, I make it into roasted garlic, and freeze it for use on garlic bread. I don't think you can ever have too much garlic :-))

When you can some vegetables, it depends on how you prepare them as to how many quarts you get. For example, with tomatoes, varies based on, among other things, the size of the tomatoes, how much meat is actually in them vs. water (which cooks off), and so forth.

Most of what I can includes items like tomato sauce, whole tomatoes, and salsa because we use tomato sauce or tomatoes in many dishes like spaghetti, curries, and some soups, and we use salsa with various Mexican dishes. I have figured that a flat of tomato plants (about 48 plants) will yield enough tomatoes to be enough for our family of 7, though this year we did run out early, so I planted a few more tomatoes. A teenage boy has been throwing off my grocery budget and garden plans, and last year we also got far less than normal due to the weather I think :-)) I often get tomatoes from friends who usually offer me their overflow. We also plant 48 red pepper plants (yielding about 8-10 bushels of red and partly red peppers) and 20 cucumbers (yielding about 15 bushels of cukes).

I can some jelly with the grapes from my 2 grapevines (though if I were to make as much jelly as those grape would make, I'd probably have a few hundred jars of just that!), and with raspberries (about 100 canes yielding close to a bushel I think...our raspberry pickers do a lot of eating, and you don't usually pick them in a big bushel basket anyway) and gooseberries (1 large bush yielding a good peck of berries), and we also make some drink syrups from the fruits that we don't eat fresh. The drink syrups are either used on pancakes or on and in ice cream, or mixed with water to make a fruity drink. I freeze some raspberries too for use in homemade ice cream on special occasions. We have about 100 strawberry plants, and they are usually eaten fresh, though sometimes I make some homemade ice cream with them, or use them in other recipes.

We make sweet ('bread and butter") pickles, relish, pickled beets (my husband loves those)--I plant one seed packet of beets, and chutney, which we can.

I also use some of my onions, garlic, and spices, a neighbor's plums, plus one large can of pineapple juice, to make homemade plum duck sauce, because we eat so much home cooked Chinese food.

I have two apple trees, and i also can apples and pears, as well as making apple or pear butter. My in-laws give me pears from their pear tree, and a friend gives me the peaches, nectarines and apricots from her trees. We like to eat these fresh of course, but any that are not looking so good, I usually make into a jam/jelly/butter, and some we can in slices, which the kids enjoy for lunch in the winter time.

When we still had chickens, we also canned the meat of the older hens after we slaughtered them, and cooked down the carcasses. I also canned some chicken stock. I found both were useful for quick meals especially soups or stews, and canning an old bird is about the only way to make it edible ~smile~ I miss having chickens but because of zoning changes, I can't have them anymore.

Some of my vegetables I think taste better frozen, so I freeze a lot too...beans for one, and peas, though my kids love peas fresh off the vine best. I also have lots of red peppers which i grow and I freeze the roasted red pepper sauce, which I use in many things for a seasoning. I freeze that, as well as fresh basil, fresh cilantro, fresh parsley, and fresh tarragon in ice cube trays (separately of course), storing them in zip lock baggies once they are frozen solid, and use those as needed. I also freeze some red and green peppers, and dry some of the hot chili peppers (2 plants which yield about a peck of hot peppers), as well as using them in the plum duck sauce and salsa).

I even seem to always have a generous amount of shredded zucchini in my freezer despite not growing any magically appears in my van after church during the months of July and August when everyone else is battling an overflow of it!

Will the real bargain please stand up? (Bargain Hunting, Part Two)

Yesterday, I discussed the importance of having a PLAN when you go out bargain hunting, whether to garage sales, thrift stores, or where ever. I also concluded with the oh-so-important thought:

It's only a bargain when it's something you truly need!

Profound in it's simplicity, isn't it?

But, say you do need something, but you aren't sure if it is a good deal or not? That's what today's post is about. In short, price is not the only factor in determining whether or not something is a good bargain. Sometimes the better quality but more expensive item is the bargain, and sometimes it isn't. Just because something is "cheap" doesn't make it a good deal.

There are a few questions I ask myself when bargain hunting, especially at garage sales, but also at regular stores too. The main point is not only is a bargain only something that you need, but it is something that is of good quality that really does meet the need (this is more true of bigger ticket items).

I learned a valuable lesson (again!) over the last 6 months as I have tried to find a decent headset for my phone. As my husband usually calls and is chatty while I am making dinner, I needed something hands free so that I would recover from the kink in my neck. I have also started to be one of the publisher's assistants over at TEACH part time, which has involved some phone time as we discuss projects, and so forth (the older I get the less able I am to do things like type and hold a phone at the same time). Then there's the times I spend on the phone on hold with the insurance company trying to find out why they are making me repaint my house or else have my policy dropped (that's another post, though)...or any other sort of phone call that involves time on hold, or getting bounced around. It seemed a necessity to buy a head set, and it took me over a year to be convinced that I really needed one....

So what did I do? Of course I searched the clearance table at Walmart! LOL The headset was cheap, and I was happy until I discovered it was uncomfortable, slid off my head when I moved, and eventually died a few weeks into owning it (being on clearance, it wasn't returnable). Then I got one from a business auction. No one else bid on it, and the other headsets were way out of my price range, so I was again happy until I realized that it may have been a different brand but it seemed to be the SAME stupid headset, and I couldn't hear clearly in it. After buying several headsets that died young without warrneties, I was struck by the fact that as a bargain hunter, I was trying to avoid buying the "expensive kind" so as to save money, but wound up spending almost that much on things that are now in the county dump. A bargain is only a bargain when you need it, something that is of reliable quality, and it fulfils the need you have for it....I needed something reliable not always breaking, and which had a guarantee if it did die.

So question number two is this: 2. Is this going to meet the need I have for it or is it likely only a short term fix? If you are buying it to be a short term fix, is it still a good deal or a waste of money?

Granted, sometimes a bargain is just a short term fix until you can afford to get the one you do really need, and it helps you get the garbage back duct taped to my van window right now until I have raised enough cash to have it fixed. ;). But, you need to weigh it against the price you are paying for it. If you are going to wind up buying 4 head sets in a year (at $20-30 each) to avoid buying the $80 head set that would work great for you, that's not a good bargain.

3. Do you have all of the parts for it, and if not, are the parts both available and affordable?

A few years ago, we found a video camera on Ebay for the low price of $25 with "no accessories", which we planned to use for homeschooling projects and family stuff...I looked online to find out how much the accessories we needed to run it would cost...and it was under $30...and the new, accessories included camera was $399.00 on Amazon. Good deal? You betcha! It's still alive and ticking, making video reports and helping young ones learn some filmmaking while expressing their creativity.

My husband needed a Router, and I found one at a garage sale, but when I called him up and gave him the specs, and what was with it, he did a quick online search and discovered that the cost of the items needed to make it work made it a bad deal.

A blouse that is missing a button which is of a common shape and size would be a good deal, because you could replace the button. A blouse with a unique set of buttons, missing one, would mean removing all of the buttons, and replacing them with something you found.

You get the picture.

4. If repairs are necessary, is it worth the time you will spend doing it?

Obviously you don't always know or accurately guess just how much time you will spend on a project...but if you look at something and realize you will be spending a few weeks fixing it, that may or may not be worth your time and the cost of the parts, depending on the value of the item when done. My time is not free, and your's isn't either. When we spend our time doing something, it is being paid for by those things we are not able to do while being busy with that other thing.

The exception to this would be having a repair job that your son or daughter wants to learn how to do with you...which would then file this purchase under "educational expenses", and be valuable. How to repair a seam in a pair of jeans, how to sew on a few buttons, how to raise a neckline and lower a hemline on an otherwise nice dress...there are practical sewing lessons galore if you have the time.

5. Can a repair even be made?

Again, sometimes you don't realize you can't fix it at all until you get it home, but sometimes there are signs to indicate with wears and tears in places other than the seams, for example.

6. Can it be repurposed for something else affordably and with an acceptable amount of time?

I am a broken china freak (I've had to remind myself that broken china is not a need). I have coffee cans full of different colored chips of china and tiles in my barn, and I have made many mosaics, including our dinner table, and a more recent picnic table (made from an old door we found in our barn, some two by fours, and some broken plates used to form a mosaic in the door's recessed panels). The picnic table took only a Saturday afternoon, and the total cost for a unique picnic table was under $20, compared with $89.00 for a new one from the hardware store.

I found some benches at the Salvation Army store...they were covered in vinyl cushions with some wild pattern reminiscent of the clothing Mrs. Brady wore in the Brady Bunch, and the wood was painted in Brady Bunch Orange. I suppose today it would be considered cool and retro, but this was before everyone was reverting back to design's most colorful decade. The thing was, on my list of needs was two benches that EXACT height and length. I flipped them over in the store, noted how the padding was attached, and also noted how sturdy they were made, and decided they were worth it. Within a few hours, the vinyl was off to spend eternity in a landfill, my son was pulling out the staples from the staple gun, and I had sanded off the top smooth. We painted it with a few coats of enamel to match our table, and we were set. Total cost: $10 (for the benches and the paint--I had the half gallon left over from the table).

Before you jump off on that good deal, make sure it really is by asking yourself these simple questions!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Bargain Hunting Basics, Part One: Shopping with a plan in mind.

I love a good bargain...but just because something is at a thrift store doesn't make it a bargain. There is definitely an art and science to bargain hunting wisely, which will be the topic of my blog for the next however long.

I haven't been online for the last couple of days due to trouble with
our internet service (those pesky storms we had a few weeks ago
necessitated repairs to the local server), and some general family
busy-ness, including a trip to our favorite Salvation Army store down
in Romeo, MI, where I never fail to find good quality clothing for a
very good price, especially men's and boy's dress clothes, and some
very nice skirts and blouses. We did pretty good at our trip this past
week....but, we went with a plan.

When you are out garage saling, or thrift store hopping (or dumpster diving LOL), you can sometimes wind up spending more than you need to spend, and waste valuable time and money, not to mention bring home junk you really don't need by not starting with a plan.

This past week, we had a few things in mind: Judah needed some dress slacks (the boy just keeps on growing!), my husband needed some jeans, my daughter Ruth needed some skirts, Isobel and Esther both needed some jeans/play clothes, and Anastasia was low on dress tops that fit right. As for me, I was hoping to find a blouse or two that matched a skirt that was given to me, for which I have nothing matching (But love the skirt! :-)).

So, part one of the plan was deciding what we were looking for.
I got pretty specific for some things (for example, I needed blue or ochre blouses), and for others I left it general (Martin needed jeans but wasn't fussy about what kind).

I also have a running list of things I look for at garage sales and thrift shops, which I have personally found to be of good resale value on Ebay. If I've sold one just like it before and did well with it, I usually snatch it up at a yard sale. If I have an upcoming project (whether a repair around the house, a class I'm teaching at our co-op, or anything of that sort), I also keep a list of supplies I am looking for if I happen to catch an exceptionally good deal. Everything else stays at the garage sale :-)

Part two of our battle plan was deciding where to search for what we were looking for. As we live somewhat rurally, and have only a few thrift stores in the immediate area, and a few more further away, we need to plan a bit more seriously than if we were living in an urban area with many choices. Normally when we are looking for nice men's/boy's clothing or jean skirts, the place to go is Romeo, as the stores up near us are usually pretty thin on those items, but I planned to stop at each of those stores on the way, in the hopes that I might find what I was looking for before driving several more miles, with gas prices as they are. If I didn't have time for that, I probably would have just hit the highway and went directly to Romeo, but since we planned to make a day of it, we took our time looking.

Along the way, we saw quite a few garage sales, and we stopped at the ones that looked promising. We were able to get some jeans at one of them in the right size, which was a blessing, and we found something that I know does well on Ebay (Saxon Math books for a dollar each), so we did doubly well. At another garage sale, another item on my list was found. The person doing the garage sale was helping her aunt declutter, and among the finds were a great set of paint brushes, and several large tear-off pads of water color paper for an absolute steal. I will be teaching drawing later in our co-op, and I love to paint for personal enjoyment anyway, as well as paint with my children, so this was a blessing to find water color paper (an expensive item) at such a great price....but that is just another example of where the running list comes in.

With gas prices hovering over $4.00 a gallon, driving all over Timbuktu for garage sales is perhaps no the best use of our resources (if you are able to walk within a neighborhood to garage sales, that would be ideal!), so I usually limit my garage saling, especially this year, to garage sales that are en route to somewhere I am going anyway (unless I hear of a really good one and can swing by), and again, I never shop without a plan or I run the risk of filling my van with someone else's stuff that I don't really need. Anyone else ever do that, besides me? ~smile~ "But it was such a good deal!" It's only a good deal when it is something you truely need, remember that!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Family Astronomy: Check out the Solstice Moon Tonight

Tonight, in the evening sky, you and your family can observe a phenonmenon known as the "Solstice Moon". This is an optical illusion in which the moon, just above the horizon, looks much bigger than it normally is.

Last year, my children asked me if the moon was actually closer to the earth, and so I asked Jay Ryan, author of Signs and Seasons, a Classical visual astronomy curriculum, who explained to me that this is an optical illusion caused by our own perception. In essence, it's all in our minds. Strange, huh?

This evening, try something with your kids. put something in your hands....maybe a pencil, or a ruler, or something of that sort, and hold it at arm's length from you, and "measure" the size of the moon at the horizon. After it rises overhead, use the same technique to "measure" it again. It's the same size!

For more information, USA Today has an article on this today too: The Solstice Moon

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Compost, Part 3

If you've been reading the other posts on composting, and maybe you've even made some compost over the last few months in your own backyard, but now you are wondering, "What do I do with the compost I make?" Glad you asked!

Obviously you use it in the garden, but how? I use my compost in several different ways.

As I said earlier, when I empty out my composter towers that I have in some of my garden beds, I just spread it around and dig it into my beds in the spring. That is simple and straight forward enough. I do this early in the spring, when things have just thawed, and the compost towers look nice and black and crumbly. If I haven't thrown anything in them since the early fall, and they have been sitting there since about October, everything is probably broken down pretty good. Keep in mind, my towers are made of metal fencing, and are about 18 inches in diameter, and about 4 feet tall. The air can circulate through it, helping the composting process, and the finished compost filters out through the bottom throughout the year.

I use raised beds, and not rows, for my garden, and I have those lined with some old bricks. So, I don't use a rototiller but rather a pitch fork. It's good exercise. :-)

I usually dig up the bed, and just fold the compost under, as if you were folding in well beaten egg whites into a fine cake batter, so that it all mixes in. This, like the egg whiles, also adds air to the soil, and loosens it in preparation for gardening. You don't want your soil all compacted down.

Another thing I do with compost is use it as a mulch around my plants. I mostly use my household compost for this, which I process in the spinning composter usually. I find that after I put some plants in the ground, a nice heap of composted materials around the plant help give it an added boost.

Then there's the compost tea. Compost tea is what forms when the water runs through your compost. It smells just what you are imagining it smelling like. (pee--yew!) My spinning composter has a base which is designed to catch rainwater that runs off of the composter. I use this to water around my plants after every good rain storm we have. This may smell bad, but it is full of good things for our plants.

I also have leaves, as I said, which I compost anaerobically in black plastic bags by raking them into the bags, lightly watering them, and letting them set for the winter. By spring it is mostly decomposed, especially if you had them sitting in the sun all winter, and I can then use the leaves as a mulch around my plants, which will then compost right on the spot.

Today, a friend gave us about a yard and a half of mulch he was going to throw out because it was starting to biodegrade (awesome! just the way I like my woodchips!), and the good thing about any sort of biodegradable mulch is precisely that--it will eventually biodegrade, and feed your soil. So, if someone has an ancient pile of woodchips that they are not going to use, ask for will cut down on weeds, and feed your garden.

For perennial beds, that is, garden beds with plants that come back every year, I find the best way to feed them is to use some sort of mulch, because we risk damaging the roots when we dig too much. Strawberries we need to take extra care with, as they don't root very deeply, and it is easy to pull them out (it's also easy to put them back in again, too, thankfully). I usually have some fine woodchips around my strawberries, or some partly composted leaves. I also put some fresh compost around my strawberries after we've picked the last berry, to feed them.

For raspberries, I also use lots of wood chips, if I can, or else a thick layer of straw. You want to buy straw bales, not hay, as hay usually has seeds in it (though straw may too). A good trick is to buy your hay/straw bales in the fall, lightly water them, let them start to "Grow" and sprout, and then when it freezes, the little plants will die, and your hay/straw no longer threatens to fill your garden with wheat plants. Rasperries do great with lots of hay thrown down around them, at least a foot thick, to try to keep the weeds at bay. I also throw down some compost from the composters before I apply the hay, too.

I also lay a good layer of compost and other mulch around my fruit trees, and vines, to feed them.

With my herbs, I lightly mulch around them with compost, digging it in gently around the plant but being careful of the roots, or just leaving it as a mulch. I also add whatever other mulch I have to my perennials.

For more information on growing your own groceries in your backyard garden, check out my ebook, Growing Your Groceries.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Compost, part 2

Yesterday, I posted a little bit about compost and how to gather is about how to actually do it.

Pretty much anything biodegradable will eventually biodegrade, no matter what you do to's a fact. Composting methods described in most gardening books are designed to hasten that process to allow you, the gardener in need of compost, to use your organic fertilizer sooner than later. For example, the leaves in the bags will probably revert to compost within 1 year if I left them in bags tied up and did nothing else to them, but if, during the process, I ripped open one of those bags, it would smell nasty because there would be anaerobic composting going's slower to compost something without good air circulation, and definitely smellier, but it will eventually happen if you did nothing at all. If I put them into some sort of composter, turned the compost daily, and made sure it was exactly wet enough, and had good air circulation, it would probably be ready in 6 weeks (Aerobic composting).

I use a combination of methods. Some of my compost is in a small, spinning black composter...but the problem with that method is (1) that composter is expensive (2) it doesn't hold nearly enough (3) it's hard to get stuff out of it when you are done. For all of the biodegradable stuff we have to use, we'd need several of them. Still, compost is done in 6 weeks or so with it. In the spring, it provides me with the first batch of compost I need to feed the bed where my 200 onion sets go, so it serves it's purpose.

Most of my compost is in several wire mesh towers that I built by cutting wire mesh into a 4 foot length, and forming a cylinder with it, and standing it up at the end of one of my garden beds. I have 3 of these actually. Into those, I throw garden scraps, lawn clippings, and sometimes leaves. I don't turn it at all; I just let it rot in place. Eventually it will. Because it is tall and skinny, and air circulates in it well, you don't get much smell (depending on what you throw in there of course--I don't use those for kitchen scraps as that can be smelly), and as the compost is formed on the bottom of the pile, it just filters out into the bed. In the spring, the fall's garden scraps are usually completely or at least mostly composted, and I just unhooked the composter, and spread it around really good to all of the beds. There was a good half yard of compost in each of them. If there is any big hunks of uncomposted materials in there as I spread it around, I pitch fork them out, and add them to the other composter.

I've also used wooden frames, about 2 ft across, and a foot tall each, with holes drilled in them for air circulation, for compost. What i would do is fill them with biodegradable matter, and then, every few days, I would turn it by stacking the top frame next to the other frames, and carefully shovelling the compost into the frame, stacking the other frames as I went. By shovelling the compost back and forth, it moved around enough to have good air circulation and usually decomposed in a few months. It's not really the easiest job in the world, and most of the time I didn't remember it. :-))

As I said in the last post, I also have black bags of leaves each fall which I moisten and allow to partly decompose over the winter before using it as mulch in the spring. The leaves are another part of my compost puzzle, providing both a thick mulch and quickly decomposing into the garden beds, providing rich, black humus when they're done.

Other things I've used include chicken litter (Which you must completely compost before you use's very "hot"--meaning, so high in nitrogen, it could burn young plants), composted cow manure, and peat moss. Digging some of any of those into your garden beds in the spring will give your soil a little more life.

Monday's post: how to use the compost you make

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tacos, Anyone?

Beth recently emailed me and asked
We love tacos, but we are trying to cut back on prepackaged mixes and such. Do you have any suggestions for how to make some from scratch?

Well, I don't make my own taco shells...but I do like to make my own sauce and toppings for tacos.

First, a word on frugal taco shells...the ones we prefer that are also the least expensive come from Save A Lot. They tend to break less, and they taste pretty good...and as of last week's shopping trip, a box of 12 was under a dollar. I also buy taco shells at our bulk foods store (Country View Bulk Foods in Snover, Michigan), where they are 20 for $1.99, though they break more easily from my experience.

Next, ingredients for the can use pretty much anything. I can't say that this is my "recipe" because I tend to vary it whenever I make it, based largely on what is in season, and what I have available.

I usually start off using a cast iron skillet, and brown my ground beef, then drain of any excess grease. After removing that from the pan, with a light dab of veggie oil or olive oil in the pan, I brown 1 small onion or half of a large one (I save the other half as a topping later), and add 1 T or so of coriander seeds and cumin seeds (you can also use ground, but add it when you add the beef), and some hot red pepper flakes.

I then return the meat to the pan, and add 1 12 oz can of tomato sauce, and 2 T of either A-1 Sauce or Worchesterhire sauce for flavor (optional). I season it some more with chili powder.

After removing it from the heat, I add some chopped, fresh cilantro. Like Basil and Parsley, cilantro is best used fresh...and when fresh isn't available, frozen works too. I freeze my basil, cilantro, and parsley all in ice cube trays, and use it one ice cube at a time, when it is not in season in my garden (as it is right now). When adding it frozen, drop it in while it's still cooking over the heat.

Heat up the taco shells per package directions, and assemble your other toppings. For us that is usually grated cheese (hint: soft cheese grates easier if you stick it in the freezer for about 15 minutes), finely shredded lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole (for my husband), and red peppers if we have them. I prefer them to tomatoes on my tacos. I also add onions and a little bit of minced fresh cilantro. Sometimes we've added corn, hominy, and other things of that sort.

To more easily get the sour cream in the tacos, we use a baggie, with the corner cut off, and used like a pastry bag. It gets it in there easier. Last time I went to Kroger, they had a sale on those squeeze bottles of sour cream (10 for $10--what a deal), so I had that instead this time around. We have an assortment of taco shell holders, which makes it so much easier to assemble them.


Compost. It's a valuable commodity for organic gardeners...and best of all it's free.

I often stand in amazement at how God designed the world to work when I ponder little things, like compost for example. Fresh stuff that is grown in your garden or mine produces scraps and leftovers, that can then be used to feed the garden again as compost. Trees make leaves that fall in the autumn time, which then biodegrade and feed the tree by providing good things for the ground around it. It's really amazing to think about.

Of course, what do modern folks do? rake leaves and get rid of them....well not me anyway...I rake leaves, put them in plastic bags, water them lightly, and stick them in the barn until spring, at which time they are partly decomposed and make great mulch. This works better if you can leave them in the sunshine all winter, but some neighbors are not into the whole organic thing. My friend Dale takes other people's leaves left in bags at the street corner for use in his garden the following spring, which I'd do if I didn't have a tree and if my kids didn't love raking so much. :-)

Kitchen scraps are another great source of future compost. I save all of my veggie peelings, cores, etc....everything but meat...and we add that to one of the compost bins every other day.

The kids are so used to this idea of compost and biodegradable things, that the other day, they were eating watermelon with some guests over, and my youngest went into the kitchen, grabbed the compost bucket, opened it (ew) and said, everyone throw your rinds in here to feed our garden!

For years, I used a regular bucket for my kitchen scraps but one year someone got me this one in the picture, which has a filter, and doesn't smell (unless opened), and it works wonders too.

So, how do you compost? Stay tuned for tomorrow's post....part 2

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Goodbye, Old Friend

One of the bits of sage advice my husband gave me early on in our marriage is that you can't hold on to computers for sentimental reasons. This is actually quite the age in which we live, technology changes so fast that in a few years it is no longer a reasonable thing to keep fixing a 15 year old computer.

When we got married, we didn't just combine the usual things....housewares, china, t-shirts, and automobiles in disrepair. We each brought a computer into the marriage too, both of us being geeks and such. Mine was a 486 (oooh....ahhhh....)with a whopping 3 MB of hard drive space, which was quite amazing at the time. It had something like 1 MB of ram...which means it probably wouldn't be able to run my email program in my current computer. When it was finally about to give up the ghost, I didn't want to let go, and my husband said, "You don't hang onto computers for sentimental reasons! Be reasonable!" Sniffle. It got me through college, and my first writing job. I was attached....until he gave me a newer computer that year for our anniversary (who needs diamonds?).

I forgot the old dinosaur.

I was thinking about her just this week, when my "new" computer was starting to show signs of age. You see for every human year, that's 7 in dog years, and 20 in computer years.

While working on a website for someone all of a sudden it just died.

I was freaking out in a serious way because like ALL of the graphics for this lady were on my computuer....all of the photos I had just edited....all of the documents...not to mention a few newly edited ebooks I am working on...can you say panic attack? I am so, so bad about backing things up...but at least most of it was on my external hard drive...just not the stuff I was working on when old bessie died.

I heard my sleepy husband stumble in behind me as I was still trying to figure out what to do...he said I screamed which I didn't remember doing, but obviously must have if I woke him up all the way upstairs...

What a guy! He pulled the hard drive out of my computer and put it into his (much slower) computer, and I was at least able to back everything up. Whew. Thank you Jesus. We make quite a team. I'm the software/programming/design girl, and he's the programming and hardware's a match made in heaven.

It was pretty good timing too, in a way. In a few days, Dell computers will stop giving you the option of having Windows XP on your computer, and you'll be stuck with Vista (ew). Given the fact that I have a significant investment tied up in graphics software that is not Vista compliant, that would be a with reluctance, I got an early birthday present that should be arriving next week...

I just wish I could fathom how my first computer cost more than my van...but had less memory and ram than my cell phone...but this new one that is arriving can do more than the other computers combined, but cost less than my monthly grocery bill. LOL

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Fabulous Post on Copyright

I was sent this link today by someone else. It is a fabulous post on copyrights and the Christian. Very thought provoking stuff from a blog called Reformed Mafia, whose name and artwork made me laugh out loud.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Garden Fence Project

Sherry posted on her blog, A Passionate Housewife, Desperate for God, a great project for gardeners: a bentwood garden fence. Check it out.

Happy Gardener's Feet

I wanted to show you the fun little gardening shoes my kids got me for Mother's Day. I keep meaning to take a photo...finally remembered.

They are surprisingly comfortable, and it's nice to not ruin my shoes in the garden or to go out barefoot (which drives my husband nuts). I've been wanting a pair for a while, but could never find some in my size (11 wide).

the other good news is that I have lost so much weight I can see my feet without too much bending. LOL

Monday, June 09, 2008

Baked Kibbeh with Yogurt Sauce

today is monday, and as such, I have posted on Lorrie Flem's blog over at today's post is a yumm-o recipe for my own modified version of baked kibbeh, a lebanese dish. Check it out here.

Father's Day Ideas

I found a great post on one of my FAVORITE blogs, Mom's Talk News, with a pdf of Father's Day Ideas. Check it out (half way down the page)

Mom's Talk News for Monday June 9th

Combining Passions

I love it when my passions collide.

Right now, I am doing a few different websites for people who sell herbal products. I love doing websites, and I definately love herbs.

Melvin's site is basically done, though he has a few changes here and there he wants me to take care of when I get a moment.

Judy also has a great herb website, and all that is lacking is some verbage for the front page. Overall I am pleased with the way that it looks, especially since I love lavender. :-)) (those are some of my lavender plants in the picture behind her logo).

Caroline's is a bit more complex because I am doing a full shopping cart for her, and though the layout is done, my oldest daughter designed the buttons on the site, and we like the look, now comes the tedious task of slowly entering each of the products into the shopping cart. This is something any computer literate amateur can easily do because of the GUI interface, and thus she's going to enter most of her own products, but I loaded in the first 20 to get her started. (Come back by the end of the summer for some great herbal products).

On Saturday, when it began to poor rain outside right as I was making some progress weeding, I sat down with my 15 year old daughter Ruth, to begin my search for some stock photos of herbs (at least, herbs I didn't already have pictures for, since that is a passion of mine, as I said). Finding some Almonds was fairly easy, as was a photo to represent "apricot kernel" (for the apricot kernel oil, which I will tell you now, is the ultimate when you are giving helped me have my 11 lb baby, Isobel, with nary a stitch--and to think I didn't like apricots before that).

Finding a photo for Anise seed was more difficult. For one thing, my Anise plant outside decided not to bloom yet (bummer). And, there are several things in the herb world which are titled Anise. I guess it is a very good thing that I know my herbs or else I would have just slapped up one of those hundreds of attractive photos of Star Anise (which is AWESOME in chai tea and some stir fry's and spiced rice dishes, I will add), or Florence Fennel (which is an Italian vegetable and among my favorite things to eat), or Fennel Seed (which is a major seasoning in sausage, and though it tastes similar it is something entirely different), and even Anise Hyssop (a variety of Hyssop, not Anise at all). The Anise Hyssop also looks better than a plain pile of anise seed too.

About half of the photos I found were of Biscotti, and Anise Cookies, both of which are also things I like to eat, which caused my daughter to get up and fetch us both a biscotti and cup of coffee while we continued our search. We had recently baked the biscotti as a birthday present for a friend, and of course, kept some for our family too. Anise flavored biscotti...buono.

I even found out, in my quest for a royalty free picture of Anise Seed, that there is such a thing as candy coated Anise seed...though it is unclear, because of the aforementioned confusion concerning "things named anise that aren't what I am looking for", whether the photo was of Anise Seed or just Fennel Seed, coated up like a dish of M & M's. People eat candied anise?? Seriously?

It got my daughter and I wondering two things:
  1. What does it taste like?
  2. Where do you buy M&M style Anise Seed anyway?

Rabbit Trail! After spending a few moments googling "Candy-coated Anise Seed", we got back down to business, and finally found a picture of a pile of anise seed on iStockphoto...and from there, moved on to Basil, which as you may have guessed, caused us to crave some pesto sauce. I volunteered to walk out in the rain to the garden and fetch us some basil for tonight's side dish, while she added the basil photo.

Needless to say, it's Monday, and we are still working on it. ;)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Rewards of Diligence

"Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men." (Proverbs 22:29)

Can I brag on my husband for a bit? I'm allowed, aren't I?~smile~

His work has a been a trial as of late, because of how no matter how hard he works, they keep "rewarding" him with paycuts, cut hours, and reducing our health insurance benefits. Nothing new. This is happening all over the place.

The Lord has, however, not let this go unnoticed. He keeps good accounts.

Over the last few years, and especially in the last few months, He has provided my hubby many opportunities to moonlight as a freelance consultant, training others in using the machines that he is so skilled at using (wire EDM).

Today, one of the people he has just started doing some part time Wire EDM work for related to him an amusing story. Apparently, he called the maker of these machines he uses, to see if they would send someone in to do some training. He currently has no one (other than Martin) to do the work, but he doesn't have quite enough work to hire Martin full time. The company told him that they don't directly provide training for that machine, but they can recommend a very skilled freelancer in Michigan--my husband!

Needless to say, what a compliment!

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Sky This Month

Our family friend, Jay Ryan, author of Signs and Seasons: Understanding the Elements of Classical Astronomy, has created a wonderful feature: a Flash animation of the night sky for the current month. I love Jay's book, and his informative newsletter. We are currently using Signs and Seasons as a science curriculum for the four youngest children in our household, though we have all enjoyed reading it and referring to it. The hands on projects are fabulous. This new feature on his website is a great way to learn about the current night sky in a visual way.

Stumble It!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Family Fitness Thursdays 6/5/2008

We were having the most fascinating conversation around the lunch table today.

We were eating some yummy romaine lettuce, with grated carrot, some green onions, a few thinly sliced basil leaves, a handful of a few other fresh herbs (like parsley, chives, rosemary leaves, and nasturtium flowers), and some grilled chicken breasts. While we were eating, we of course had a few bottles of salad dressing on the table (it would be easier if everyone liked the same thing...but alas...).

I've always been a label reader when it comes to foods, and today the label on a bottle of Caesar dressing (which I bought by accident...meaning to grab something in a bottle that looks nearly identical by the same company while rushing through my shopping last week) caught my eye, and I said out loud, "WHAT? 700 mg of SODIUM and 5 mg of cholesterol?!?"

This resulted in a discussion around the lunch table about sodium, good fats, bad fats, avoiding trans fats, and reading labels.

Now, everyone was reading their salad dressing labels, and seeing who had the best sodium per serving, followed by whose dressing was the best as far as sugars, calories, fats, trans fats (what a shocker--the Caesar was the only one with trans fats more of that for me!), and so on.

That caused my son to notice what a serving actually is versus what we were all pouring on our salad. I think that is the biggest weight-related issue Americans have ("what is a portion, really?"). Hint: a portion isn't whatever fills your plate. A portion isn't as much dressing it takes to thoroughly coat your salad either. As I found myself explaining to the kids (and to myself on more than one occasion), a portion is not what you eat in one sitting, but rather a specific measurement that you should be eating.

That brought up the question, Who puts only 2 TBS of dressing on their salad? Do people actually measure?

Hmmmm. Maybe I should. I wonder how much sodium and cholesterol I did actually ingest today while eating my "healthy" salad?

Stumble It!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Bread Freezing Questions

Joy sent me this question regarding freezing bread:

I have been making bread from your ebook
and am wondering how you wrap your bread. You books says that you freeze
you bread but that it must be properly wrapped. I was wandering if you
cared to share what you wrap your bread in so that it is safe in the
freezer. Thanks so much!

I usually wrap them in clear plastic wrap (tightly) and then stick them in a
zipper freezer bag. I buy some special 2 gallon freezer bags for bread, and
I just wash and reuse them. I usually get 2 loaves of wrapped bread in the
freezer bag, and then I get as much air out as possible too, as that keeps
it fresher, and helps prevent freezer burn. The 2 gallon bags work better
with loaf sized loads, because of the length. I have tried that new press
and seal wrap stuff that they just came out with the for freezer, but I have
had mixed results with it (and it's expensive!). In a pinch, I've also
used foil, but then you can't do any sort of quick thaw in the microwave in
a pinch that way ;).

Does anyone else have any other tips for wrapping and freezing bread?

Recovery from a 2 week old dental visit

I'm trying to recover from some sort of nasty bug I have caught. I think these are the days when mothering is hard...when you are caring for your family while fighting off the urge to puke. Yeah, basically I've been on the old Saltines and Vernors diet for the last 2 weeks, and I finally broke down and bought a pregnancy test tonight after church because when the flu lasts longer than 3 days it usually turns out to be that nine month strain of the flu ;). The test was negative.

Does anyone know if you can feel flu-ish after being worked on at the dentist? I am going to call tomorrow (finally)...I know I procrastinate on these be sure, I'd rather give birth (without drugs) than go to the dentist any day of the week. I'm not sure why the dentist is such a torturous thing for me, but it is.

It all started when I was told, at my last checkup (I get annual checkups every 3-5 years ;)), that one of my very old fillings from childhood is starting to look like it is going to fall out. Because I have been reading all about getting the silver taken out of my mouth (but not really wanting to go to the dentist to have every one of my teeth drilled upon...because of a congenital problem with enamel not forming properly on my teeth, I have fillings in all of them)...I thought, well this would be a good occasion to get the fillings changed out of at least one tooth.

That was a bad idea. Or maybe it is just coincidence. Maybe we all were going to be sick anyway...and it just coincided with the dentist visit.

I have been sick for the last 2 weeks, and I can't shake it.

To be sure, everyone else in the family has caught whatever I have, but not quite to the same extreme. They've all been sick for a day, then back and raring to go the next. My hubby was sick for a few days, but he too made a nice recovery. Me, well, every time I think I am getting better I realize I'm not the second I eat anything other than Saltines.

Hubby reminded me that I have been trying to lose those last 40 pounds without much luck, and that this may finally help me get there. If that's the case, it will be around for weeks more before I hit my 40 lb goal ;)

Monday, June 02, 2008

Got service?

Someone emailed this to me a little while ago...very convicting.