Archive | July 2013

YAY for CSA!

Since I’m just starting to manage this whole garden thing, I knew I wouldn’t be able to grow enough fresh veggies (quantity & variety) to keep us in business all summer.  My friend Po suggested that we join our local CSA and take advantage of locally grown produce delivered right to our door.  I’m so glad I listened to her!

Every week we get a bin of fresh picked fruits and vegetables delivered to a predetermined drop-off point (in our case, Po’s house).  It’s filled with a variety of whatever is in season that particular week.  Here is my delivery bin this week (squash, cucs, patty pan, chard, beans, peaches, & a dill plant):

csa box

In addition to our delivery, we can go out to the farm and pick up and/or pick additional items (it changes weekly) for free!  Included in our membership!  So far this summer, I’ve personally picked sour cherries, blueberries, peas, and green beans.  I’ve picked up (harvested by farm personnel) lettuce, peas, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, beets, plums, apricots, and some other stuff I’m sure I’m forgetting.  It’s like a whole additional bin each week!  All you have to do is pick it up yourself.  What a deal!

Today, Po and I drove out to the farm and spent a very hot morning picking blueberries and green beans.  Look at all those beans!

csa beans

Membership is around $500 (depending on whether you get a delivery – and if it’s a single or group – or pick it up yourself) for a 5 month harvest period, June to October.  If you think about it, $100 a month for that much produce THAT YOU KNOW WHERE and HOW IT WAS GROWN is a great deal.  I mean, one cucumber at my local chain grocery store costs more than a dollar.  A pint of Roma tomatoes is $3.50!  Heck, fruit alone could cost me $100 a month the way my kids go through it.

Anything I can’t or won’t use immediately, I freeze or can or give to friends or family.  So guess what I’m doing this weekend?  Freezing green beans, of course.  Last month I made homemade strawberry jam – my first foray into the world of canning – and it was awesome!  I loved hearing the *snap* of the lids sealing in place.

I also have a quart of frozen blueberries, and two quarts of frozen sour cherries that I got from the CSA farm.  In the winter, when I’m ready to bake, I’ll have fresh, local fruit to use.  That makes me happy.

Anyway, if you have a CSA near you, I highly recommend checking them out!

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Defective Dog

maya couch

This is my dog, Maya. I often refer to her as Ding Dong.

Doesn’t she look comfortable?

She is on her couch.  It sits in the bay window of my dining-room-turned-office, and she loves it more than any spot in the house.  Sometimes she sits on it like a human being – upright, facing forward, hind feet hanging off the edge, like we’re having a chat while I work.  Most times, though, this is what you see.

It faces south, so in the winter, she puts her chin on that sunny corner there and just basks like a teenager getting a suntan.  It’s summer now, of course, so she’s sticking to the shady side.

The couch is older than the house itself which is why I don’t care that her toenails have torn holes in the cushions and split the upholstery down to the wood frame.  (Ok, I care when company comes, but otherwise no.)

When I have a real homestead, I want a dog that works for a living.  One that pulls its weight.  And listens when I say get that ball/stick/newspaper/rabbit!  She’s supposed to be a Labrador retriever, but we must’ve gotten a defective one.  Hubby will throw the tennis ball and watch as she chases it, skips completely over it, and runs around the yard like a maniac, completely forgetting the ball.  Retreeeeeeeeiiverrrrr! he shouts at her.

Last night, I went into the back yard to check on my garden one last time before locking up.  Maya likes to come along with me to see what kind of interesting chores I might need help with.

There is a female rabbit (I’ll explain) who has been invading my garden and helping herself to her own little all-she-can-eat salad bar.  Initially, I installed plastic mesh fencing, about 4 feet high, all the way around the beds.  Then I started discovering rabbit-sized holes chewed in the bottom and chunks of plants going missing.  I plugged them up with lengths of 2-foot tall wire mesh that I had on hand.  And the next day, more holes would appear.  And so on.

This rabbit is stupid.  I know this because there is clear “evidence” of a large canine predator in our back yard, and this rabbit not only chooses to make frequent raids on my garden, but she dug a big hole under my deck and planted a half dozen babies inside it.  Helloooooooooo?  Probably not the best idea.  Though based on what I’m about to tell you next, maybe she knew more than I did.

So Maya goes out with me to check the garden.  I unhook the section of fencing that serves as my gate, and what do I see sitting smack dab in the middle of my garden?  You guessed it.  At about the same moment, she sees me, she sees the dog, and the dog sees her.  She takes off, intending to shoot through one of her holes and bound away to safety.  Only I’d plugged those holes with wire mesh.

The damn rabbit starts careening off the sides of the fence like some kind of deranged, furry pinball.  The dog, FINALLY feeling those hunting/retrieving instincts kick in, tears after her.  I’m standing there frozen, watching my own private episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, praying they won’t tear through the beds and knock over the trellises and tomato cages.

Maya finally corners that damn rabbit between the fence post and the deck support beam.  And has NO. IDEA. WHAT TO DO. WITH IT.  Ugh!  The humiliation.

The damn rabbit, sensing it has been cornered by a ding-dong, runs toward me, causing me to jump and shriek, leaving just enough room for her to shoot under the gate and make her escape.   I give the dog my best you disgust me look.

Ding Dong, unfazed, pees in my flowerbed.

See.  Defective.

Shire Girl

Homemade Vanilla Extract

I love to learn new things.  In fact, I aspire to live up to the old adage “you learn something new every day.”  For 2013, I wanted to focus on becoming more self-sufficient, learning what I call the heirloom skills like baking from scratch, canning, and making lots of other things myself that I would normally buy from a store.

Sometimes you set out to learn one thing, and you end up learning lots of other things you never expected.

For instance, when a friend told me you could make your own vanilla extract for baking, I was intrigued.  I‘d never given much (any) thought to where vanilla extract comes from.  I just always bought my little bottle of McCormick’s at the store like any normal person.

Several things about making vanilla extract surprised me.  For instance, did you know that vanilla extract is simply vanilla beans soaked in alcohol (typically vodka)?!  I had no idea!  My first thought was why don’t you have to show ID to buy this stuff?  Seriously.  If word gets around, surely some enterprising young person will start patronizing the baking aisle to get a buzz.  I mean, if they figured out how to get high cooking Sudafed and huffing cleaning products, this can’t be far behind, can it?  And frankly, drinking vanilla extract sounds a lot more appealing to me (just sayin’).  Maybe that’s why most grocery stores only carry the airplane-bottle size?

Anywhoooo . . . moving on.

Next surprise – the beans.  Have you ever seen a vanilla bean?  I never had.  Maybe, like me, when you hear the term “vanilla bean,” you think of BEANS, as in pinto or lima.  Nope.  This is what vanilla beans looks like.

vanilla beans

Crazy, huh?  Each one is about six inches long, dark brown, and leathery.  If you’ve ever had real vanilla bean ice cream, you’ve probably eaten tiny little pieces of these beans.

To make vanilla extract, these beans are soaked in vodka for several months (yep) while they leech out their fabulous flavor and caramel color.

I’ve found that there are lots of different schools of thought on the details, but the gist of it is that you need three or four beans per 8 ounces of cheap vodka (the more beans, the stronger the vanilla).  People say it doesn’t matter if you use the good stuff or not, but I didn’t want to get 3-4 months down the road and find out that wasn’t true.  So I went with a brand of vodka that I knew to be decent (uh, someone told me about it once . . . ).  You can also add a touch of other liquors, like dark rum or bourbon, to the mix if you want to get funky.  I’m not sure my palate is that sophisticated, so I decided to just try it in one of my bottles and see.

You slice each bean lengthwise almost all the way through (so the end is still connected).  This allows the alcohol to work on the more tender insides of the beans, as well as more surface area.  I’ve seen some recipes that call for chopping the beans up, but you can end up with bits of beans in your cookies or whatever.  If that appeals to you, by all means, give it a go.  Don’t be afraid to adapt it to what works best for you and how you cook/bake/live.  Regardless, you may end up having to strain it once the beans start breaking down.

As for bottles, that’s another matter of personal preference.  I’ve seen some people stuff a bunch of beans inside a 750ml bottle of vodka, while others use cute little apothecary bottles w/corks to give as gifts.  Some say amber bottles are best (which makes sense since that’s how it comes in the grocery store).  I used 4-oz. amber glass bottles with screw-top lids and put two beans in each one.  I did it this way in case I decide to give them to friends during the holidays.  Next time, I’ll probably make a big batch by using quart canning jars (with about 20 beans each) and then just pour the vanilla off as I need it.

vanilla2

Whatever method you choose, set the bottles in a cool, dark place, and let them sit.  You should shake them maybe once a week to distribute the extract.  You can check the flavor in a few months (some let it go as long as 6) to see if it’s satisfactory.  Some people will even pour in more vodka as they use the vanilla and continue steeping the beans to make continuous batches.  Again, whatever works, though at some point the beans will be dissolved and you’ll have to buy more.

Where do you get vanilla beans?  Well, you can probably get them in the baking aisle of your grocery store, but I don’t recommend it.  They can be very expensive unless you buy in bulk.  I bought mine at a discount grocery store and they ended up being about 75¢ a piece.  Since then, I’ve seen that you can get them on-line for closer to 50¢ each (if you buy in larger quantities).  Live and learn.

You might be wondering WHY anyone would want to make their own vanilla.  Well, besides the obvious answer (you bake a lot and go through the stuff like water), it can be very satisfying to know how to make something with your own two hands.  Plus, it’s super easy, and now I never have to worry about being in the middle of baking and discovering I’m all out!

Another reason (for me) is that this kind of knowledge is dying out of existence in many parts of the country, and I’d like to help change that.  Maybe my grandmother knew how to make homemade vanilla extract, but sadly, I can no longer ask her.  My mother and sister didn’t know.  But now *I* do.  And so does my daughter.

And that makes me happy.  Which is the most important reason of all.

Shire Girl

Plans for the Future

I’ve always wanted to live in “the country.”  Everyone pictures something different when you say that, but to me that means a semi-rural area where I can have a small homestead.  A modest house with a big front porch, on multiple acres of fenced land, partially wooded, with a stream, and a nice view.  Where I can enjoy the birds, bees, butterflies, and fresh air.  And plant a BIG garden, and have chickens and goats.  Where I can light a campfire, fire a gun, or build a greenhouse without it bothering anyone.  And see the stars at night and NOT see my neighbors (or hear their cars/mowers/kids/dogs) if I so choose.

Hubby was initially unsure about this idea.  He has always liked and needed socialization, and until recently, he has enjoyed living in planned suburbia with all its modern conveniences like movie theaters, health clubs, and paved roads.  For the better part of our marriage, he has poked fun at my father, calling him the Unabomber (note to NSA: my dad is not really the Unabomber) because he shuns society and prefers to keep to himself (my mother is another story).

Now he’s realizing that my dad might be onto something.  So what has changed?

Well, a few things.  Due to the nature of his business, Hubby spends nearly every hour of each and every day engaging with people.  And it’s exhausting.  When he comes home, he just wants to unplug and not be bothered by anyone (including us sometimes!).  It’s difficult to do that, though, when your job demands you be accessible virtually 24/7.  And since his industry is technology, the constant barrage of information and stimulation can be overwhelming and inescapable.

In addition, he’s discovering what I’ve been telling him for years.  The company of too many other people is becoming less and less enjoyable.  I’m not sure what’s going on.  We live in the richest county in the nation.  I don’t know if the two are connected, but we seem to have an inordinate share of arrogant, selfish, hypocritical, superficial people living here.  Road-rage, passive-aggressive behavior, gossip, and a general rudeness abounds.  Everyone is so wrapped up in themselves, and so far more important than anyone else, that they disregard common courtesies.  I find myself wondering if it’s just this area or is everywhere like this?  And if so, why?

Whatever the reason, Hubby finds himself joining me in my desire to withdraw a bit.

As for timing, I’d go sooner vs. later, but the rest of the family gets a say in the matter.  Hubby isn’t quite ready to jump in (or out?) with both feet yet.  And while the idea of having our own little homestead sounds romantic and fun to them, the kids don’t want to leave their familiar routines.  So we’ve decided not to move until after both kids have graduated from high school.

You might be wondering, after my glowing description of life in suburbia, WHY WAIT seven more years?!

Although there are certainly negatives to where we live, there are also quite a number of positives (otherwise we would never have come here).  Among them, excellent schools and close proximity to sports, arts, and other such opportunities for our children.  The weather is moderate, the economy is good (relatively speaking), and the scenery is beautiful in any season.

And frankly, we just don’t want to uproot the kids.  Hubby and I were both military brats.  We know what it’s like to move around a lot, to have to start over, making new friends year after year, not having a town to call home.  Many people would say it builds character, and in some cases, that might be so.  But unless you’ve been through it, you have no idea how stressful it can be. And unless you know my children better than I do, you don’t know what it would do to them.  We are simply choosing not to put them through that.

Besides, I like that my children have lived in the same house since the day they were born.  I like that they have known many of their classmates since they could walk.  I like that one day, when someone asks them where they are from or where they grew up, they’ll have an answer.  I never did.

Suburbs aside, we do love living in Virginia. But due to our county’s high cost of living, plus the traffic congestion, over-development, and high taxes, we want to move farther south. We’ve started compiling our list of required features (amount of acreage, etc.) and are beginning to narrow down to a certain geographic area. Seven years may sound like a long time, but it’ll be gone before we know it.

So we are giving ourselves some time.  Time to make some changes.  Time to find the right place.  Time to learn and practice new skills.  After all, the last thing I want to do is move out to the country without a clue as to what I’m doing.  I want a Shire of my very own, and I intend to be ready when I find it!

Shire Girl

First Harvest

harvest1

One of the skills I really wanted to improve upon this year was my gardening. We’ve lived in our suburban home for more than 16 years now, and although I’ve spent many hours working on landscaping with much success, I’d never attempted a vegetable garden.

My father came from a farming family, and when I was growing up, he always had a compost pile and at least some tomato and pepper plants in our backyard.  With a career, then babies, then a husband establishing a business, I never had time (or frankly the inclination) for such a garden.

This year, as part of my journey toward self-sufficiency, I decided that learning to grow my own food was mandatory.  Since I wanted to be able to save seeds to ensure future crops, I decided to try my hand at growing heirloom plants.  I chose a seed company that specializes in non-hybrid vegetables and got to work studying their catalog.

Let me tell you, this can be overwhelming if you don’t even have so much as a raised bed built yet.  I could not envision how much space I needed, how many different varieties I’d want, nor even what my picky family would be willing to eat (and the LAST thing I wanted was to end up throwing away all of my hard work!).

I chose about a dozen seed packs to try.  Long story short, I definitely need to work on my seedling skills.  Although I was able to grow tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and onions into seedlings, none of them survived the cold wet spring to end up in my garden.  I had to toss them all into the compost pile (where a couple of hearty tomato plants have actually taken root!) and go with store-bought hybrids this time around.  I did learn from my mistakes and hope to do better next year, but I didn’t want to forego the whole season without growing anything.

I am now growing onions, peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and strawberries from store-bought plants.  In addition, I direct-sowed pole and bush beans, cucumbers, and carrots using my heirloom seeds.  And if I can keep the damn rabbit out of the garden, I hope to have something to show for that!

Now that the weather has finally turned hot, I’ve had my first harvest – hence the basket of veggies, above.  I’m so proud and excited that *I* grew this food with my own two hands, with no pesticides or insecticides, using rainwater I’ve captured in a food-grade barrel I installed myself!  It’s extremely satisfying and gratifying. I’m hoping the rest of the summer will be just as productive.

Oh, and it’s almost time to think about fall plantings.  Maybe those broccoli and lettuce seeds will get a second chance this year.  We shall see . . .

Shire Girl

Here We Go

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – Bilbo Baggins

For awhile now, I’ve been thinking about making some major changes to our way of life.

Last year, my husband had some health problems that resulted in two different ambulance rides to the local hospital.  He’s fine now (though that’s certainly relative), but I constantly worry that the next trip is right around the corner.  It’s all caused by stress, of course, and his job is the main cause.  He owns his own business, a professional services company (yes, he “built that!”), and that means long days meeting customer demands, finding new business, and putting out fires.  He not only feels responsible to our family, but to those of his employees, as well.  His goal is to make enough money to retire early, make sure the kids are “set,” and ensure that we can enjoy our non-kid years doing the fun stuff we don’t have much time for now.

But I worry he won’t make it that far.

I also worry about the message we are sending our children.  Work hard to get good grades so you can go to a good college where you need to work hard to get a great job so you can kill yourself making money to pay for stuff so you can maybe finally be free when you are getting too old to enjoy it.  See what you have to look forward to, kids?! 

Why?

Why?  Because “stuff” costs money, of course.

Not just food, clothing, & shelter, but all manner of things.  Tangible things like cars, furniture, electronics.  Not-so-tangible things like taxes, home/car/health/life insurance, cellphone service, music lessons.  Fun things like movies, sporting events, and vacations.  And not-so-fun things like vet bills and home repairs and surgeries.

Wouldn’t having less money mean giving up some of that stuff?

Why, yes.  Yes it would.

I think we probably have it better than most Americans do these days.  We live within our means.  We save for retirement, college, and emergencies.  We have a mortgage (LTV is about 70%), but pretty much no other debt.  We do use credit cards for the “points” but pay them off in full every month.  I drive a ten-year-old van with 100k+ miles on it.  Thankfully, we no longer worry about my husband having an unforeseen job loss.  And if he did, assuming the economy allowed, Plan B would be for me to go back to my career as a CPA.  (We had to temporarily implement Plan B once before when I was 9 months pregnant w/our son – which is how hubby came to own his own company.)

But there is more to my desire for change.

Awhile back, I started getting an uneasy feeling.  I can’t tell you exactly when because I think I kept dismissing it in the beginning.  It wasn’t something I could explain; I just knew I wasn’t feeling “right.”  I had this nagging feeling that I need to be better prepared to take care of my family.  Certainly some of my apprehension stemmed from the bleak economic news of the times (which continues today, assuming you’re paying attention and don’t accept MSM news stories at face value).  But I don’t think that was all of it.

I tend to sit with things for awhile and mull them over, like picking at a knot. I kept these thoughts to myself, not even sharing them w/my husband. Partly because I couldn’t even really articulate what I was feeling yet, but also because I didn’t want anyone to think I was nuts. I am a big believer in animal instinct.  We humans are animals, but because we have been “civilized,” we learned long ago to ignore that instinct.  In some (many) cases, it has been bred out of us completely.  It’s that small voice we have deep inside.  I still try to hear mine; and when I feel like it’s sounding the alarm, I listen.

So I thought long and hard about what it would mean to give up the traditional suburban life, to detach from a society that tries to control you by making you feel inadequate at every turn, to SIMPLIFY.

For me, that means relying less on others and learning to DO for myself.  Getting back to the land, growing my own food, and/or supporting those who do so naturally and organically.  Doing without certain conveniences and technological advances.   And learning, learning, learning!

My hope in making these changes is that we will be happier and healthier and feel more connected to the Universe.

 

Shire Girl