Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cultivating Joy


A few years ago, when I really started gardening in earnest, my mother asked where my sudden interest in growing things had come from. "I'm cultivating joy," I replied.

Of course, gardening was only part of it. But it really was a shift in focus of my life, to turn my energy towards things that I found sustaining and nourishing, and away from those I found draining or painful.

I struggled with depression of various degrees and manifestations for many years. But it wasn't until just a few years ago that I feel I really kicked it for good. I can say with relief and gratitude that it has been years since I felt anything like the despair that was all-too-common in my younger years. What changed?

It sounds like an over-simplification, but in some ways, it was just this simple: I stopped waiting for joy to arrive in my lap, and began to cultivate it. I assumed complete responsibility for my own happiness. I let go of negativity as much as possible, not allowing myself to be poisoned by anger or resentment.

I realized that happiness doesn't just happen. It is the result of conscious effort. I no longer pick at my scabs. It does me no good to dwell upon the ways in which the world has wronged me. Instead, I have made choices that have brought me here, to this place in my life. A place where my energy is spent caring for my children, nurturing my own creative spirit, loving and being loved by my life's true companion, and tending to my garden.

Cultivating joy.

This post is part of the Moms' 30-Minute Blog Challenge, hosted by Jamie over at SteadyMom.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sunday Seedlings Update #5

My seedlings are feeling camera-shy. Really it's that it's been so cloudy, all my pictures look terrible. So you're going to have to take my word for it.

Oh, fine. We all need to be humbled now and then. Here's what the 99.9% of pictures I take that you don't see look like. It ain't pretty.

Broccoli is surprisingly tall and willowy in seedling form:

Broccoli seedlings

And the parsley continues to thrive, which is good because I have cooked two recipes that included parsley this week and I'm just so excited about getting to use my own soon. (Also, did you know that parsley attracts butterflies? Especially when planted near a butterfly-attractive flower like verbena? We had black swallow-tail butterflies and caterpillars the last time we grew parsley -- quite an exciting addition to the garden.)


OK, seriously, that's all I'm showing you. They're doing well, I promise! Scout's honor!

And this week we planted basil and tomato. Red calabash tomatoes, to be precise, which for some reason makes me start singing "Rock the Casbah" in my head every time I read it.

Anyhow, basil seeds:

Basil seeds

And tomato seeds:

Tomato seeds

We have six weeks until my planned planting date, and still no soil in the raised beds. I know! I need to get cracking, but I was trying to calculate the amount of soil needed and my head exploded. Got to get on that this week, though, because my peas are begging to be put in the ground.

And now, because I have some kind of obsession with growing things, I must show you... the wheatgrass! I saw a fabulous tutorial on Simple Kids, showing how to grow wheatgrass in the kids' Easter baskets. I was totally charmed, and ran out to the grocery store to buy wheatberries. I soaked them overnight, lined the Easter baskets with containers from the recycling bin, filled with potting soil, and planted my wheatgrass. But I had all these extra wheatberries. So I kind of got carried away...

Soaked wheatberries


Easter basket

Wheatgrass in egg shells

Wheatgrass in tiny bowl

Basically, I started planting wheatgrass in anything that would sit still. But now... look!

Roots and shoots

Roots and shoots! Ah, these are the things that feed my soul.

Our weekly summary:

Leeks: Planted 5 weeks ago, looking spindly.
Thyme: Planted 4 weeks ago, seems to have stagnated.
Parsley: Planted 3 weeks ago, lookin' good.
Eggplant: Planted 3 weeks ago, tall stalks.
Sage: Planted 2 week ago, finally emerging.
Broccoli: Planted 2 week ago, tall and willowy.
Basil: Planted today.
Tomato (red calabash): Planted today.

Check back every Sunday as we follow the progress of our kitchen garden from seed to table!

Friday, March 26, 2010

This Moment: Finding His Courage

No words, just a moment from this past week that I want to pause and savor. Check out all the moments being shared over at SouleMama this morning.

Finding his courage

Thursday, March 25, 2010

That's Just How I Roll

Resting rolls

You've heard me rhapsodize about Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day before (and its delicious sequel, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day:!). And it's not just that it's a great cookbook. For me, it has created a habit. When something becomes a habit, you don't even have to think about it anymore. I don't have to consciously remember to brush my teeth or put on underwear, it's just part of my routine. And now, making a fresh batch of dough whenever I use up my last batch is a habit. Thus, I really can have fresh, homemade bread whenever I want.

But not just bread! Oh no. When I have dough on hand, it is used for pizza crust, pita, naan, baguettes, boules, sandwich loaves, whatever. Some types of dough are better suited to some forms than others, but the recipes are very versatile and leave room for a lot of creativity.

Rolls from bran-enriched white bread

One of my favorite things to do with my ABin5 dough is to make rolls. They are so cute, and you get to maximize your crust. Plus they stay fresh a bit longer, being self-contained units. These were made with the bran-enriched white bread recipe from the first book, and they were absolutely divine. We used them as the buns for our bulgur burgers (say that three times fast!). Yum!

Looks like I'll have to make some more tomorrow. I'm think I'm on a roll.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Are You Certified?


Who lives at your address?

This question may have come up recently, as you were filling out your census form. But I wonder, when you were counting up the human beings who call your place "home," did you think about the critters? You may already be playing host to a myriad of creatures, big and small -- and that's a good thing.

As homeowners and gardeners, we sometimes have a knee-jerk anti-critter response. We don't think of animals like mice as wildlife, we think of them as pests. And while we may not want them obliterated from the earth (rabbits are cute, after all), we certainly don't want to encourage them. This is why some people look at me funny when I tell them that our backyard is a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

Development continues to encroach on once-wild areas of our country, leaving many creatures homeless. These creatures can become pests in our neighborhoods when they can't find what they need. The interesting thing is that when you create a haven for wildlife in your backyard, when you provide an environment that can support a diverse and thriving ecosystem, the mice stay outside. Okay, yes, I do lose some carrots to the rabbits. I try to protect my crops as best I can and let it go. But we gain so very much from the proximity of our small neighbors.

Frog hiding

Some of the ways we make our yard welcoming to wild creatures are:

Provide a water source. We have a man-made backyard pond, which is lovely to look at and allows me to grow aquatic plants like water lilies. But in addition to being ornamental, the pond provides a constant source of fresh water for birds, squirrels, chipmunks, etc. Also, our pond makes an excellent habitat for fish and frogs.

Provide shelter. This really just means that we have shrubbery, thickets of native grasses, and a rock wall. These all provide places for creatures to hide and raise their young.

Provide food. No, I don't set out squirrel treats. But I do give the squirrels time to pick up the acorns that fall before raking them away. I do put out bird feeders, particularly in the winter. I keep the pond stocked with un-named, not-a-pet goldfish, some of which do get eaten by visiting ducks and herons. I never chlorinate the pond or make an effort to remove algae -- thus providing a food source for tadpoles, who then become a food source for ducks. And I never use herbicides or other chemicals that could contaminate my visitors' food sources.

It's really pretty effortless. And what do we get in return? Oh, how about the lifecycle of the American bullfrog being played out in our backyard? Yeah, that was pretty amazing.

We went from eggs:

July 2007 - a mama bullfrog spawns in our backyard pond.  Those black things in the slime are frog eggs.

to tadpoles (here we brought some inside to study them):


to baby frogs:

Pond teeming with young bullfrogs

to BIG frogs.

Mama bullfrog

It's one thing to take the kids camping in the wilderness and show them deer. Or take them to the zoo to see more exotic creatures. But getting up close and personal with wildlife in your own backyard... nothing beats it.

To read more about creating a certified wildlife habitat in your backyard, visit the National Wildlife Federation.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Food, Farms, and Revolution

Up close and personal

Have you ever come to the realization that you are part of something larger than yourself? A movement, or even, dare I say, a revolution?

Food. Where it comes from, how it's grown and processed, how we prepare it, and how (or whether) it nourishes us... these have become big issues. Concepts like locavore, flexitarian, farm-to-table... were these even part of our vocabulary ten years ago? There is such a growing awareness of the perils of fast and processed food, along with the real long-term problems created by large-scale factory farming, and I feel like I have been waking up to these issues right alongside the rest of America.

Don't mess with me

For me, my learning curve over the past few years has gone something like this: Super Size Me, Fast Food Nation, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, The End of Food, In Defense of Food, Nourishing Traditions, Food Matters, Food, Inc., King Corn, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. With a lot of great blogs, articles, gardening books, and cookbooks along the way.

And where it's led me is to a passionate belief that our children must know where their food comes from. This is truly essential to our survival on this planet.

Ooh, tractor...

One of the ways I am trying to teach this is to grow our own food, which we have done with some modest success in the past and this year are taking to the next level. We also cook together, eat as many whole foods as possible, and are trying more and more to limit the amount of processed food in our diets.

But one of the simplest ways to connect children -- and anyone! everyone! -- to the source of a food is to visit a farm. I am really excited to be forming a relationship with a farm by joining a CSA this year. But anyone can visit a farm. Find a pick-your-own farm and make a weekend outing of going to pick strawberries. Find a farm with a petting zoo or hayride. Or at the very least, chat with the farmers at your local farmer's market.

Food doesn't come from the grocery store, or through a drive-thru window. If our children can truly absorb this, if they can internalize the importance of what they're eating, and where it comes from, they might actually turn this thing around.

Hello, chicken!

I can feel it in the air. You might even call it a revolution.

This post was hammered out in 30 minutes as part of Jamie's Moms' 30-Minute Blog Challenge, hosted over at SteadyMom. Whew!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Seedlings Update #4

Sunday again, and time to check in on the progress of our kitchen garden.

We didn't have any seeds to start this week, which worked out well, since we spent much of the weekend building our new raised beds! Yay! Here they are, all ready to fill up with dirt.

All four raised beds in place

And given how warm and gorgeous the weather was this weekend, it's tempting to just plant those seeds directly in the ground (once I have some ground for them to go in!). But I've been lulled by a mild early Spring before, only to have my hopes dashed by an unexpected late frost. I will stick to my Mother's Day planting date for the majority of my crops. Peas and potatoes, I'll be getting in the ground sooner, though. (Which reminds me -- my blue seed potatoes were supposed to be here by now... better check on that.)

Staggered beds

So, time to check in on how all our little seedlings are doing! Goodness, I just love the baby stage of plants... they're so tiny and fragile.

Here are the leeks, still in need of further thinning, lest it be mistaken for tall fescue or something:


And the thyme, which is getting sturdy and probably also needs to be thinned:


Parsley is coming along nicely and starting to look like a real plant:


And we finally have some eggplant action as well:


I can't say the same for the sage we planted last week. It looks like I'm going out of my way to care for the dirt gently nestled in an egg carton. Hello? Sage? Comin' out anytime soon?

Sage, doing nada

Ah, but my broccoli is consoling me with its cute little baby brassica sprouts:

Baby broccoli

Our weekly summary:

Leeks: Planted 4 weeks ago, in need of a ruthless culling.
Thyme: Planted 3 weeks ago, also needing thinning.
Parsley: Planted 2 weeks ago, coming up nicely.
Eggplant: Planted 2 weeks ago, just starting to emerge.
Sage: Planted 1 week ago, taking its sweet time.
Broccoli: Planted 1 week ago, already sprouting nicely.

Check back every Sunday as we follow the progress of our kitchen garden from seed to table!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Raised Vegetable Beds

This weekend, the snow and rain had finally left us, and it was time to finally build the raised beds for our kitchen garden. First a few questions about raised beds.

Finished bed in place

Why bother with raised beds? Why not just plant in the level ground?
This is my first year planting in raised beds. In prior years, I double-dug the soil in my vegetable beds. Double-digging is a great way to prepare your soil for growing vegetables, and I've had good success with it. But I'd kind of run out of space in my existing beds. Knowing that I was going to be taking over a section of the yard for growing vegetables, I wanted to give my growing area a bit more definition. I also have small children and a crazed mutt running around, and I wanted to minimize the chances of veggies getting trampled. I also, like much of Maryland, have very clayey soil, so the improved drainage of a raised bed really appealed to me. Because you are never standing on the soil, you never compact it. And there is somewhat better pest and weed control, being raised a bit off the ground (one foot, in this case). I don't know if I'll be able to keep the bunnies and voles out with these things, but here's hoping.

How do you build raised beds?
I am a big believer in not reinventing the wheel. Or, of taking full advantage of the resources that are out there. In other words, the Pioneer Woman did a fabulous step-by-step tutorial on building raised garden beds, and I just followed that. I could have, I don't know, designed my own or something (I did make mine somewhat longer than hers), but really, I was just as pleased that someone else had already figured it out.

What wood should I use?
Since I am experimenting and didn't want to break the bank, I used regular old untreated pine. You could use cedar, and it would hold up better, but it costs a great deal more. There is quite a controversy about using pressure-treated lumber. Some people suggest that arsenic or other toxic chemicals can be leached into the soil, while others contend that the risk has been blown out of proportion. Since I am going to eat this food, and since I go to ridiculous lengths to garden 100% organically, I decided I didn't even want to think about whether chemicals might or might not be leaching into my carrots. Now, my pine beds will not last forever, but like I say, this is an experiment -- and in any case, I'm not out that much money.

What if I'm building on a slope?
I'm sensitive to this question, because my house is on a slope. Hahahaha, that's putting it mildly. People sometimes break out their climbing gear to get up our driveway. I am building my raised beds on the flattest little section I could find, but it still ain't flat. But here is the key -- you want your bed to be level with the universe, not with the ground. If it's level with the ground and the ground is sloped, then your corners won't be perfectly square and the whole thing won't be quite as stable as it could be. But more importantly, water will pool. You will not get proper drainage. If you level the whole thing out, and there are small gaps at the bottom, these probably won't be a problem once you fill it with dirt. If you have large gaps, you can line the bottom with some kind of landscaping cloth or mesh to hold your dirt in place, while still allowing water to drain out. Do not worry about it looking silly. It would look a lot sillier if it wasn't level.

Gap under corner

So I'm building four raised beds that are each 4 feet by 10 feet, and 12 inches high. One of them is sited in full sun -- that's where the tomatoes and other sun-worshippers will go. One of them will get almost full sun, and two of them will be partially shady. I love that I have a range of different environments for my beds. I have actually had surprisingly good luck with growing vegetables in partial shade, and have found that the best part is they need much less water.

Today I got all the supplies and we got the first bed built. Can I just say, going to the Home Depot and buying lumber is such a rush. There is something so exhilarating about having in your hands the raw materials to build... anything! I can totally see how some folks could get addicted to tools. As much as I love to do things by hand, I am quite appreciative of things like circular saws and cordless drills.

And pickup trucks. Oh man, was I longing for a pickup truck today. I spent forty-five minutes getting my lumber (16 10-foot-long boards and 8 8-foot-long boards) into my car. CAR. Not pickup truck. If I had a pickup truck, I would have been out of there in five minutes and home drinking something ice cold instead of making a fool of myself in the Home Depot parking lot. But I considered it an engineering challenge and was determined. And I did eventually get it all in and get home safely. Somehow.

Tomorrow we will build the other three beds, which will be easy since we've already done it once! Right? Yes!

One down, three to go

And then, we will need dirt. I am going to call our local garden center and have them deliver me some dirt. Good dirt. And then, oh by golly, then I will finally plant my peas. Whew!

Friday, March 19, 2010

This Moment: The Artist

No words, just a moment from this past week that I want to pause, savor, and remember. Inspired by Amanda over at SouleMama, pop over and see all the lovely moments being shared this morning.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Letting Go and Holding On


Oh, the ache of a mama's heart when she can't shelter her child from all of life's bumps and bruises.

When your child is a wee one, you can give yourself the illusion of control. You can make sure that solid foods are introduced exactly how and when you feel comfortable, you can child-proof the house to protect against accidents, you can research and select the very safest car seat. All of these things create the illusion that we can actually protect our children. But there comes a time when our children will go out into the world and gain their own experiences -- and that is a good thing. But oh, the shock of realizing how many things I cannot control:

I cannot make that boy like her back.
I cannot make her math teacher more fair.
I cannot give that bully a stern talking-to.
I cannot convince her director to give her a bigger part, even though she's the most experienced and accomplished Shakespearean actor in that whole darn school and what are you thinking giving her of all people five measly lines when she's been looking forward to this play all year and have you even seen what this kid can do on a stage are you blind???


There are some ways in which I have to let go, I have to let her out into the world to learn for herself how to handle disappointment and unfairness. And at the same time, I can hold on tight... by holding her hand as she vents her frustration, and making sure she knows that I will never let go.

This post is part of the Moms' 30-Minute Blog Challenge, hosted by Jamie over at SteadyMom.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sunday Seedlings Update #3

Wait, what? It's not Sunday? The whole household has been staggering around, delirious from sleepless nights, performances, houseguests, and one heck of a Spring cold. That's my excuse anyway.

So, it's Sunday Monday night! And time to check in on the progress of our kitchen garden!

First a peek at our established seedlings:

I thinned the leeks, but I think I'm going to have to thin them more. They seem happy, though.

Leek seedlings - 3 weeks

And the thyme is coming along nicely, although very sensitive to sun placement -- I have to remember to keep turning them so they don't grow sideways.

Thyme seedlings - 2 weeks

Last week, we planted eggplant and parsley -- and thank goodness I gave them an extra day, or I would have had to report that there was no action from either one. But today, the first little parsley sprouts came poking through.

Parsley seedling - 1 week

Eggplant is still a mystery, though. Hoping for the best.

This week, we planted broccoli and sage. Here's what the seeds look like, in case you were curious...


Broccoli seeds

And sage:

Sage seeds

They were planted in another motley crew of containers. Hooray for the recycling bin!

This will be broccoli

In other gardening news, the snow finally melted and I was getting geared up for building my raised beds... until it decided to rain for days on end and turn my yard into Mudville. If I can wade out there, I may try to get them built next weekend, so I can fill them with soil and compost and get my super-early seeds in the ground already! Times a-wastin', by gum.

Our weekly wrap-up:

Leeks: Planted 3 weeks ago, thinned once, need more thinning. Doing great!
Thyme: Planted 2 weeks ago, about one inch tall.
Parsley: Finally beginning to sprout.
Eggplant: Whole lotta nothin'...
Sage: Planted today, 7-21 days to germination.
Broccoli: Planted today, 5-14 days to germination.

Check back every week as we follow our kitchen garden from seed to table!

Sage seeds, just planted