Toting all the Camping Stuff

We camp a lot; it’s usually our vacation of choice. Gabriel frequently has stretches of 5 days on, 3 days off work, so it’s easy to skedaddle off to the wilderness. Nobody cares if the children yell and get dirty in the woods. They can forage and explore in the good clean air. The dog can go along. There are no deadlines or ticket lines or even restroom lines. We eat simple food cooked on sticks and drink tea all day long. And it’s quite affordable.

There is a thing though… you women know what I am going to say. It’s the packing up of such a lot of small details that can sabotage the fun. If you have ever planned to have canned baked beans and forgotten the can opener, you know how frustrating it can be to hack open a tin with a sharp rock. Or maybe there were some leftovers at lunch that someone will surely eat later, but you have nowhere bug-safe to put them. It could even be the unbearable clouds of gnats that swarm when you stir the grasses on your walk, made even more miserable because there is no bug spray. Remembering everything– that is the key to a fun camping trip. I have 36 white hairs that attest to the truth of that statement.

A few years ago I noticed that I was making the same lists over and over, every time we decided to take off to a state park for a few days. I even noticed a smoky hue on my roll of aluminum foil and some campish looking stains on dishcloths. I decided to get smart and store all the essentials in a Rubbermaid tote that can easily be grabbed and loaded into the Suburban. It has made camping about 73% easier and spared me a further 49 white hairs. (Those are hanging onto their brown pigment until more of my children hit adolescence.)

I shelled out the money for really sturdy totes with no regrets. We have a cargo rack that attaches to our hitch, and these totes have seen mud, sleet, snow and blazing sun, not to mention thousands of miles. My husband uses one for sleeping mats, tarps, tie-down straps, first aid kit, etc. Another one is assigned to non-perishable foods and packed fresh every time. The totes are stored in a shed and ready to go. While mine is labelled “kitchen camp stuff,” it would be more accurate to say “herein lies the balance between delight and despair.”

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Here’s the list of what I consider essentials:

  • dishpan
  • small bottle of soap
  • scrubber and old dishtowels and cloths
  • clothesline and pins to hang up wet towels
  • potholders
  • plastic tablecloth with clips for picnic table corners
  • plastic cutting mats (for butchering freshly caught fish)
  • sharp knives and scissors
  • cooking utensils, including can opener
  • plastic tumblers and bowls
  • real spoons and forks (1 set per person… Goodwill sells them cheaply)
  • mugs (we hate drinking out of styrofoam around the campfire)
  • coffee strainer
  • salt and pepper shakers, cooking oil
  • toothpicks

Then there are the things that I replace promptly as they get emptied out. It is very important to keep these stocked.

  • Germ-X
  • sanitizing wipes
  • bug spray
  • citronella candles
  • flashlight
  • matches/lighters
  • strong ziplocs
  • heavy duty aluminum foil
  • plastic grocery bags and a roll of trash bags

It all packs in neatly, and that canvas roll on top is a design of my husband’s that I sewed up for him before he took the boys to the Adirondacks for a week. He thought it out carefully, and it works great to keep the cooking utensils organized and clean.

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The red canvas flaps fold in over the utensils so that it can be rolled up and nothing falls out.

When we decide on our menu, I stick the appropriate cooking vessels on top of the tote, along with a stack of paper plates and napkins. With this array, I have peace of mind that I can feed my crew reasonably well with not too much effort. I remember the time years ago when my mom forgot the frying pan and we tried to make scrambled eggs over the campfire in a deep stock pot. It made great memories, but the cook was a little flustered. I also remember trying to clean a hopelessly scorched iron kettle with nothing but a bit of rag. These small trials sprinkled through life have shaped my ideas of what I must have to function in an outdoor cooking situation. Minimalism is a nice idea, but there are limits. I try to strike the sweet spot between too much and too little. If I were carrying this all in a pack on a trail, there would be a lot of dumping out cargo, but at this point we do cabins with rubber-coated foam mattresses and water hydrants.

Do you go camping? What would you add to the tote?

Maybe you hate camping. Maybe this would fix it. 🙂

How to Sew an Athletic Skort

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My active little girls love skorts. They are tree climbers, hikers, pig riders, bikers… For the sake of modesty they usually wear bike shorts or leggings under their skirts when they are tearing around, but those can get very hot. I looked at the prices for ready made athletic skorts and thought about how quickly my small heroines could ruin a $30 garment in a tangle with greenbriars or on a slide down a rocky path. I decided there has to be an easy way to make a skort (skirt/shorts combination, for those of you who haven’t heard of this).

I found knee-length athletic shorts in the boys’ section at Walmart for 4.44. I wanted the mesh fabric ones, but those were wiped out because July. My fabric was just about the same feel as the shorts, stretchy, yet sturdy. It was swimsuit fabric I got on clearance at JoAnn for $3 a yard. I laid the shorts onto a fitted skirt pattern so that I could see how long to cut the skirt part. As you can see, I left about an inch at the top to fold over the shorts elastic and enough at the bottom for a hem.

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I sewed the sides of the skirt with a lightning stitch to keep the stitches from breaking when the fabric stretches. If you don’t have this stitch option, you can use a small zig-zag. It is also helpful to use polyester thread and definitely a needle for sewing knits.

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This is a detail of the stripe I sewed on top of the side seams just for fun. Later I realized that it really does reinforce the seam.

Now let’s backtrack a little to the process of sewing the skirt onto the shorts. I did not use my overlock machine since this fabric didn’t fray at all, but you could neaten it up if you wanted to be picky. This is the skirt top arranged over the top of the shorts. How else could I say that so that it makes more sense? Basically you hold the shorts inside the skirt and double the top of the skirt down over the elastic. Make sure to match the side seams and centers of each piece. I pinned it down to the second seam on the elastic and stitched it about 3/4 inch down. The skirt part was just about the same width as the shorts, but since the elastic was already sewn in once, I had to stretch it gently while pinning the skirt and also while I was sewing.

Don’t use lightning stitch for this! If you have to pick if open for any reason, you will find yourself buying more shorts at Walmart for 4.44 rather than wielding a seam ripper through all those layers. Ordinary straight stitches are much more forgiving in the event that something wonky needs to be altered.

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I hemmed the finished garment and behold, it was a skort!  It took about one hour of sewing and $8 worth of fabric, trim, and ready made shorts. The girls asked me if I could figure out how to open the side so they can access the shorts pockets. I said, “Not today, girls.” But I would like to try that on the next pair.

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Who would like to know how many days they can wear these without washing?

 

 

Linky Love for Monday: Beeyoutiful

It’s been awhile since I did this. No, wait, there was the link for the Kitchenaid ice cream bowl just last month. Insert monkey covering eyes emoji here:

But you know me. I really like to pass on a good thing; it’s what friends do. I received an email from one of my favorite companies for herbal products and essential oils.  Beeyoutiful is having their annual summer free shipping spree  or is that free shopping spree? No, not free shopping, I guess, unless you consider not having to get into the car to get to a store, and free shipping is just sweet! The deal lasts from today, July 9, through Wednesday, July 11. The company kindly provided me with affiliate links, and I heartily endorse their products. There is a wealth of information on the website, as well as hundreds of reviews. You can do your research very thoroughly if you are a skeptical sort of person. Here are a few of my favorite products.
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This is where I get ProMiSe Blend, the essential oil that contains it all in the name. I love it, and it is 50% off for 3 days! If you have ever used Clary Sage oil for the delicate condition known as PMS, you know that it has a rather strong aroma. As in, your husband can smell it when he walks into the kitchen and then he knows what’s up with you. This blend, however, is delightful, fresh and invigorating even with the clary sage in it. I don’t think your husband will hate the smell and it won’t make you feel even more grumpy. It’s the geranium and peppermint and all the other good stuff in with the sage. And it works! Better days ahead, as they say.

Beeyoutiful makes SuperMom, the only prenatal vitamin I ever took. It’s not just a prenatal, of course, but that was when I started taking it. I never had trouble with iron levels while taking it, and I could usually tell the days that I forgot to take my vitamin in the morning.
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Then there is SuperKids, a multi-vitamin I buy for my children. When they were little, they begged for spoonfuls of the orange flavored liquid every day. There is a chewable form available as well.
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We went through a lot of Chew C as well, especially the winter that my 3 year old developed a crush on it to the point where I had to hide the bottle. I am a huge fan of preventative care when the bugs are flying through the air, but 6 vitamin C’s daily is probably in excess.

Of course, my very favorite product of all time is Berry Well, the flu-fighting elderberry syrup that has served our family so well. This stuff works! When the boys were little, I used to get the 6 bottle deal for the winter just so I wouldn’t be caught short. If our friends had flu plaguing them, I would offer to sell them a bottle from my pantry. The price ($20) never seemed too high where there were kids lying all around the living room with puke buckets beside them. This is the original of the recipe that I try to replicate when I make my own with dried berries. Beeyoutiful also sells a kit with the dried berries and other ingredients you need to make your own, if you wish to do that.
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I can personally vouch for the good folks behind this company. One year I met them at a Mother Earth News fair, sampled the teas they were graciously handing out, and chatted for a bit before I bought a whole pile of stuff. Ha. I have also called in with questions about my order and always received stellar service.

I think you will love Beeyoutiful. Maybe you already do. What products do you love? Why not share the love and leave us a comment so we can all get it shipped free? 😉

…and that concludes my linky love for today.

 

How to Cope With More Than You Can Handle

6:17 AM. Seven years ago, right at this time, I was on the way to the hospital in the last stage of labor. The fibroid tumor alongside my chubby baby’s head was giving us problems with her position, so even though the baby wasn’t stressed, we headed to our back-up plan. (Insert my opinion here, because I know this: Home birth is amazing, but never try it without doctor backup and make sure you are close to a hospital.) It’s 20 minutes of my life I don’t ever want to do again, and I remember moaning about just wanting to die while my husband was driving. “Well, honey, that’s not an option,” he told me cheerfully. He had just finished the first semester of nursing school and as always, he was an amazingly supportive birth coach, keeping me focused on the moment. So, dying was out. I would just have to do this. Seventeen minutes after we were escorted to OB  by an orderly who talked too much in the elevator, Addy came flying into the world. It was so sudden I laughed my relief out loud in the delivery room.

A few hours later, my parents brought the rest of the children to see their baby sister, proof for the chatty orderly that no, this was not our first baby. My oldest son was 8, the next one was 6, and the girls were 3 and 2. I look back at these photos and think that they were all babies.

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My burning question was simple. How? How am I going to do this? When we bring this baby home from the hospital and my husband goes back to work/school, how will I cope? I was reminded of these feelings recently when a friend with 5 small children asked me what one thing I would say to a mom in the daily, hourly, minutely role of raising small children. “I am living the life I used to fear,” she told me, and I knew exactly what she meant. The answer that came was simple.

You do this one day at a time, faithfully doing the next thing. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for successful mothering, because our lives are all different, but this is a formula that will grow and change you in your own heart toward your children. It will give you backbone and strength when you are so tired you are cross-eyed in a tunnel lined with milky sippy cups and poo-stained onesies. Are you ready for this?

This is the time when it is okay to die. This is the time to slay the whiny, “BUT what about ME?” and just pour it out for others. You know you won’t actually die, but selfishness and grandiose ambitions and pride of accomplishments will. Just chuck them out and allow yourself to settle into a very small, hardly noticed place of service. Nobody says, “Wow, did you see how neatly she wiped up those squished peas under the highchair? Isn’t she accomplished? And just look at how amazing she was with that baby wipe.” And yet in that moment with a rag on the floor you gave your life for another. You’ll get it back someday and the more freely you give it up now, the happier you will be.

Don’t be afraid of the narrowness. I think of it like water flowing through a hose. You aren’t a river, satiating the thirst of an entire county. You are responsible for that hopping, squirming row right there in front of you clamoring for a drink. Keep them hydrated. Just concentrate on that. This is not the season to crusade for world peace. Your contribution to the world is nurtured children and it is a huge contribution even while it kills you repeatedly, day after day.

I can’t say you will always feel your “high and holy calling.” It is intense and hot and sticky and there are all these clingers-on every time you do venture away from home territory. You will fight the urge to run to a place where nobody calls you “Mama.” There will be times you feel like you simply cannot get off the couch to deal with the children who are scrapping madly in their bedroom.

But you will be all in, freely investing your talents in this hidden place. You will be lavishly working to make life happy, saying “yes” when you dread the mess your consent will create, reading the same storybook 3 times a day, listening to endless rewinds of an alleged dream, thinking endlessly about what to feed the people. You will be teaching your children how to say sorry, how to wash their hands and their dishes and their clothes, how to make life sweeter for others. Your books will languish, unread, and your prayers will be profound phrases like, “Help me, Jesus.”

You will repent and apologize when you fall, and then you will get up for another round, knowing that Grace is holding you and you are in a good place. You will find Joy in this spot, like looking through a cardboard tube at your life and when you block out all the peripherals you zero in on the loveliest vignettes in the middle of the chaos.

It is simple, but I didn’t say it is easy. “I’ll do hard things for love of you, Jesus,” I promised in my youth. Hear me. It was impossible for this impatient, goal-oriented, ambitious girl to settle into that narrow life and flourish. I wasn’t a nurturer by nature. I wanted to do big things, broad strokes that would change the world. Something had to give and it was me. I just didn’t know how hard it would be to live small, contained, in one little place, with just these same little people every day. I needed to learn the glory of small things, a little leaven, a grain of mustard seed. The dying was excruciating and it continues on. How can one person have so much selfishness?

I am currently in a season where I am able to zoom out, pick up dreams to pursue, walk in a wider place. My baby just cooked her own breakfast while I hovered anxiously in case the eggs spilled onto the stove. Wow, that happened fast, I think.

 

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If you feel stifled, smothered by neediness, afraid to let go of who you are, take it from me. Things become richer when you condense them, even souls.

Homemade Ice Cream in 15 Minutes

I started hankering after an easy ice cream maker a few years ago. We have a large churn type that takes ice and a few hours and makes phenomenal ice cream. It is great for a crowd, but not for a quick summertime treat. The thing I needed was a countertop version. I also needed something compact, and when I discovered that Kitchenaid makes a bowl that simply attaches to the stand mixer, I was hooked. I just needed an excuse to get one, and Father’s Day last year was perfect. It wasn’t any more lame to get my husband something I wanted than it would have been to get him something he didn’t want or need. 🙂 I figured he would be benefiting from this insight pretty often.

This is what I got:

 

It attaches by a twisting motion onto my mixer but is also fitted for the bigger models that have a lifting lever for the bowl. The whisk attachment has two sizes as well, so that it is interchangeable with sizes. Just do your research if your mixer is very tiny or very huge.

Here’s how it works. You store the bowl in the freezer. When you want ice cream, you get it out, pour in a quart of ice cream mix, and start it up. Typically it takes about 15 minutes to freeze and do that amazing expand-y thing that ice cream does when it is just about finished. It is a good practice to stand there at the bowl with a spoon so that it doesn’t expand too far out over the edge of the bowl or anything like that.

I have tried many recipes and simplified one way down to 5 ingredients and no cooking. That way I can take a sudden notion to make ice cream on a Sunday evening and it is no hassle. I will put in a disclaimer here: if you cannot stomach raw eggs, you should just skip on to the cooked custard recipes on Pinterest. I got this blender ice cream mix idea from a mom who raised a dozen children on it and nobody ever got an e.coli infection. Just be sure you use fresh eggs without any cracks.

I prefer the ice cream made with a cooked custard mix when I have had the foresight to get it ready 12 hours before we want ice cream. For a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-skirt person, that doesn’t happen very often.

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The ingredients list is simple:

  • 3 1/2 cups of milk/cream/almond milk, etc.  …We are looking for milky liquid. You can be as health conscious or as fatty as you want. I used 1 1/2 cups half and half (because cream can form little butter lumps if it hasn’t been cooked into custard) and 1 1/2  cups milk.
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar  …Again, you can do whatever sweetener you want. This is not sweet compared to regular ice cream. It is just how I like it, a hint of sweet decadence without the brain numbing sugar high. Sometimes I use part maple syrup, or even alternative sweeteners.
  • a pinch of salt …Trust me on this. You want a little bit of salt in there.
  • flavoring   …I used a TB of instant coffee dissolved in a TB of water. Sometimes I use vanilla or caramel flavoring with flakes of salt at the end for you know what!

Put all ingredients into your blender, or if it is broken like mine, into a deep bowl for the immersion blender treatment. (I have tried many and varied  immersion blenders. This one isn’t expensive, but it is by far the most powerful one I have owned. Bonus: it comes with a mini food processor. Make sure to keep the stick blender down against the bottom of the bowl! You have been warned. Whip up the mix until it is thoroughly blended, but not so long that it gets warm. You want the mix to be as chilled as possible. If at this point you don’t quite have a quart of mix, just add milk until you do. You can also add a bit of xanthan gum. It helps thicken and smooth the finished product.

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This is how the beater attaches to the mixer. (Just pretend you don’t see that flour that I should have wiped off the mixer.) You pop it on, then put the whisk part down into the bowl, start the blender on low and pour in your mix. Go cook the hamburgers and toast the buns while this mixing is going on. The ice cream will be ready by the time you have the supper made. 😀IMG_20180623_182136316

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Riddle: What is better than dessert?  Answer: Dessert that is coffee flavored.

Currently, a Long Time Ago, with a Look at the Future

I just spent a few post-supper hours in my pottery shed. I shut the door, turned on the fan, briefly mourned the smashed pitcher that a well-meaning child dropped before it was fired, and got down to business with a fresh box of clay. That was especially nice, since I have been only working with reclaimed clay from pieces that seemed good at one time, but lost their appeal as I got slightly more advanced in my skills. Yesterday I made a really nice serving bowl, only to fish a piece of plastic bag out of it when I was doing the final trimming. Bummer.

Tonight I cut my fresh clay into equal 200 g portions to try my hand at making small matching bowls. I wanted snack bowls, the sort of thing you put your child’s apple slices into. I had only three successes and at least six squashes. Apparently it was the night to make every rookie mistake and I may have invented a few extra ones.

We are sitting on the deck with the Tiki torches lit to fend off the mosquitoes on this perfect summer evening. Addy practiced “reading” a story that she has pretty much memorized while Rita played with her miniscule Sculpey clay figures. She made a squirrel family for her fairy garden, and one mischievous fox that slinks around. The people turned out the same size as the squirrels, and their couches would work for either the humans or animals.

We had humid sunshine this week. Every time I check the gardens, the cucumbers and tomatoes have leaped higher. I am so pleased that finally I have cucumber plants growing up a trellis. They never cooperated in other years, but these are flourishing. I keep an eye on developments, but every time I need a cuke for a salad, a small Peight girl has already had it for snack. I have six plants; surely they won’t be able to keep up! Sadly, my seed potatoes and a lot of my dahlias rotted in the weeks of unrelenting wet after I planted.

The lawn is leaping too! Our grass isn’t thick, so we can get by with only once a week mowing, which is good because I run out of dollars for the mower-children. Most of their jobs are unpaid except by thanks and hopefully a good feeling at being a useful part of society. Lawn mowing, weed-eating, window-washing, and car cleaning are paid work. I have wondered what the children of the future will do to earn spending money once all the tasks are taken by robots.

I am deeply suspicious of robots. Every time we go anywhere local, we drive past a neighbor with a robotic lawnmower. It drives me nuts. The children say, “Mom. Mom… don’t look.” But of course I have to look. It is always out, questing around for a stray blade of grass, leaving the worst zig-zag tracks you ever saw! When we had a snow shower in late April, it was out tracking in the snow. That was when it clicked for me. Ever since I read “There Will Come Soft Rains” in Literature class in school with its mechanical cleaning mice that darted out of the walls to clean up crumbs and dirt, I have felt that robots are creepy. (You can listen to Ray Bradbury’s short story here.  (disclaimer: It’s very sad when the dog dies.) )

I do not intend ever to have an Amazon Echo in my house. Nope, nopety-nope. It’s too much like August 5, 2026. And a goat would be a huge improvement on that ridiculous mower!

And just because a post is more interesting with a picture, here’s the view from my deck on a gorgeous morning last week.

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The children and I are doing a summer Bible reading challenge, during which we are reading the New Testament. This past week we read Revelation. It is breathtaking and terrifying- all those apocalyptic descriptions where John seems to be grasping at words wholly inadequate for what he saw. The scene that touches me the most is the one where all nations, kindreds, and tongues fall before the throne of the Lamb. All our temptations toward me-centeredness will be gone for good! The popular theology that makes God and irresistible me besties that hang out together is a flippant view that makes me cringe every time I hear it. I know that I am loved with an Everlasting Love and that knowing is the sort of thing that prompts falling on my face before God in worship.

I have to include a bit of my personal drama, not because it is so important, but because I am living in a haze of gratefulness these days. About 10 days ago I was on my hands and knees, washing the kitchen floor. I twisted to the side to reach as far as I could when I felt my knee do the crazy strain/pain that I have had before. I broke out in a cold sweat, trying to push past the pain to straighten out my leg. Thankfully, Gabe was home so that he could help me up off the floor. I thought if I held really still, the pain might go away, but when the tears squeezed out of my eyes uninvited, and the children stared in horror, my husband said, “We’re going to get this checked out.” An Xray showed no bone damage. It was the weekend. I came home with an immobilizing splint and crutches. If I kept my leg completely straight and held perfectly still, I could deal with it. If I tried any funny business like ordinary life, I got extremely unhappy messages from my knee.

It was 5 days before I could get in to an orthopedic surgeon and I was told that I just have to take it easy, wait a week for an opening to get an MRI to assess the damage to my meniscus (hypothetically). I hobbled out to the Suburban, did my awkward stiff-legged climb in with the driver’s seat all the way back so I could get my foot past the e-brake, and I sat there in a parking lot and cried great salty tears of self-pity. I felt that my summer was shot. The doc had said there was always a chance that whatever was torn would unfold itself and give me relief. Meanwhile… pain meds and splints.

I had been begging God to fix me the entire week. As I sat there in the Suburban, mopping my face with a scratchy paper towel, I knew that this was a test. I say He is always good. So what if (worst case scenario) happens… Do I believe that He is good? Yes. Yes, I do. Am I so special that I should never have any hard things in my life? No. No, I am not. Is there grace for this problem, for this looming summer of inactivity? Yes, of course. God graciously poured His truth over me and I stowed my paper towel and drove home.

The next day I was stiffer than ever. I was scooting along the edge of the porch to try to pull some weeds that were growing there, but it wasn’t going very well. “Please, Lord, help me bend this knee,” I muttered under my breath. Impulsively I used my hands to haul on it, and tried for a 45 degree angle. There was no pain! I pulled on that knee until it was bent to the full normal range of motion. Hardly believing it, I walked to the mailbox. It was a creaky walk, but with every step I felt it getting more limber. I was too cautious to leap and dance, but I sure did praise God! For some reason He allowed that handicap to last for 6 days, and then He gave me relief.

It isn’t healed totally. My knee is gimpy, buckling without warning a few times a day. I didn’t cancel the MRI. But I am so thankful for the ability to go up and down steps to do laundry, for being able to sit at my wheel and throw pots, for the capacity to lie on my side in the bed, for the privilege to serve my family instead of them serving me.

Meanwhile I will be using a mop.

A Quick Note

For those of you who subscribe through email and read the posts without clicking through to the browser, this is just an alert that I accidentally posted my Six Ways blog before I had finished and before I realized that I only had Five Organic Ways. You can’t call a weed eater and a mower organic, can you?

Anyway, do click through and read the finished bit if you feel like it doesn’t make sense. Good night!

Five Organic Ways to Take Dominion over Weeds

Nothing quite brings the country dweller down from their Back to Eden aspirations like a flourishing crop of weeds running wild over the land that they fondly slated for productive growth. We went away for 5 days after school was done and when we got back the jungle was encroaching. It has been raining buckets this spring, meaning we didn’t get our gardens planted until last week. The lawn went to seed for a while before we made hay, and the goats cannot possibly keep up with their pastures, even with their nonstop chewing.

We made a plan to bring the rank growth into submission. Using all the weapons in our arsenal, we have been making slow progress. It’s times like this that we are glad our property is limited to less than five acres. I will not mention the options that rhyme with keed-willer or pound-sup since they are bad, bad, and we try to be good with our weed control methods. That is not to say that we never resort to desperate measures, but I will list our favorite methods.

  1. Salt. Nothing fancy, certainly not Epsom salts, which will actually enhance the root systems of vegetables. Just buy ordinary table salt. This works well for fence rows, in sidewalk cracks, along walkways, and to my astonishment, on asparagus beds! My in-laws taught me this trick. They suggest salting the bed once a year, then mulching heavily on top. It works like a charm! Somehow the asparagus continues to thrive while the weeds do not. In other areas, salt will produce more of a scorched earth look, so be careful where you dribble it.
  2. Boiling water. When I do water bath canning, I pour the scalding hot water on weeds in the driveway. Nice and easy, except for the part where I haul a huge kettle full of boiling water through the house, trying to hold it at arm’s length. An easier method is to fill the tea kettle and then pour the boiling contents onto such things as pesky wild rhubarbs or evil start-up vines of poison ivy. I try to hit some of the leaves, but especially the roots right by the stem.
  3. Garden gloves and old-fashioned bending over to pull weeds. You can walk through your grounds daily, nipping things in the bud as they come up. This is not terribly effective if you have too much garden to keep up with. I almost cannot walk past a weed when I get in this mode. It’s terribly distracting. I just wanted to cut a head of lettuce, and here I am, halfway down the onion rows, pulling red-roots.
  4. A sharp hoe. Some people hoe a section every day. I will never forget the sight of African farmers working patiently through vast plots with short-handled hoes. It’s a good practice, very effective if you are into bodily exercise that profits much.
  5. Cardboard with mulch on top. This gets my top vote, because of the way it builds up the soil and retains moisture in the warmer months. There are lots of options. I will dedicate the rest of the post to this idea. (Apologies. This is an edit to what accidentally got published with a title of six ways when I really only have five. I would have made up more if I could have thought of them. Maybe you can help a girl out.)

We have a grass catcher on our mower, so every time we mow, we pile the clippings around garden plants. This works, but it gets weirdly slippery.

Old hay or straw is great mulch for keeping the soil moist, but it is not so great for weed control because the seeds in the bales will abundantly compensate for every weed that is smothered. Maybe you will be fortunate and get very clean hay. It’s a risk I prefer not to take after one year when I had wheat growing all over my garden on top of the mulch.

Composted manure with straw or sawdust is a wonderful option. Sourcing this requires becoming buddies with a farmer who is willing to let valuable by-products leave the farm for other places. We tackled the problem by becoming the farmer. It required building a barn, then building fences, then buying a menagerie that obligingly ate what we fed it and turned out bushels of poo mixed with their bedding so that now we have a fairly steady supply of mulch for the gardens. Since the chickens have already scratched through the compost, there are very few seeds left to cause trouble and the plants fairly leap into the air when they receive rain water filtered through fertilizing mulch.

We also mulch with wood chips, especially around the base of the fruit trees and berries. I don’t recommend twisters, but if you have a storm that takes out a bunch of your trees, you might as well dry your tears, cut the firewood, and run the branches through a chipper. Wait a year and the pile of chips will be fine mulch. Alternately you can take up spoon carving and collect the chips. We have a number of failed kuksas  and spoon blanks scattered around the blueberry bushes.

The easiest, least economic way involves carting loads of mulch home from a distributor and spreading it. If you mulch as heavily as you should, about 4 to 6 inches deep, you’re going to run into a bit of money.

However- no weeds! (Unless the chickens get out and scatter it into the lawn.)

Last week my greenhouse friend and I were fantasizing about gardening in heaven. Everything peak season, always bearing fruit, no pests, and no weeds! It’s a tantalizing thought. We just aren’t there yet, so we deal with it.

One Way to “Git ‘er Done”

“Oh, you horrid dog,” I exclaimed when she grabbed every weed in midair as I tossed it toward a compost pile. I looked at the yard, strewn with twiggy lavender branches and gigantic dandelions. Now we would have to rake it yet. “UGH! Gregory, go put Lady on the deck!” I ordered in exasperation.

“What did she even do?” he wanted to know. He’s always a softie when the dog is in trouble. I pointed wordlessly at the mess and he said, “You sure can’t take much, can you?”

That, from the child who was born by emergency C-section after his mother (me) had experienced 2 hours of exhausting and fruitless pushing and a transport to the nearest hospital because he (Gregory) was star-gazing in utero. I did not point out to him that his birth nearly killed me, but I thought it.

We were working on mulching the perennial beds. I had prepared these borders for mulch weeks ago, freeing them of weeds and waiting for an opportune time such as a day when my husband has off work with nothing better to do. Today I looked at the recurring carpet of fine weeds coming up, then I looked at the weather forecast, which is rainy, cloudy, rainy, rainy, rainy, for about as far ahead as can be seen. It was pay now or pay later, and I dislike carpets of weeds, so we (Gregory and I) hitched up the trailer and went for three scoops of mulch.

All my life we pronounced it “mulsh” like it was from some special pronunciation group. Then one day I heard yet another person say “mulch” with a “ch” at the end, and I got out the trusty dictionary. What do you know? They were right and I was wrong. I have been correcting my habit ever since, but my children think it sounds so affected and wrong. I said it as often as I could today, just to make Gregory splutter and to pay him back for laughing at me when I couldn’t back the trailer as well as I should have. “Mulch, mulch, mulch,” I said under my breath, just loudly enough for him to hear.

Before we mulched, I told Gregory to cut off the tulip leaves just because it looks so much cleaner. I know you aren’t supposed to do that, but I do it every year and so far they have always forgiven me and bloomed again. Daffodils aren’t quite so gracious, so we just doubled their leaves down and mulched on top. I transplanted some volunteer pink petunias and brought purple coneflower volunteers up from the edge of the garden.

Would you like to know what we did about that carpet of teeny weeds coming up? We have been saving up our empty cereal boxes for months for the purpose of  putting them under the mulch. Gregory and I decided that it lends a sort of nobility to eating cereal at breakfast, what with the repurposing and all. We made sure the words were on the bottom so that if the mulch happens to shift, you can’t see how many Marshmallow Mateys we have eaten.

Every year I have trouble with plants dying out in my perennial border. A friend suggested that it may be because it is right along the picket fence by the road where the snow plows throw in the salt. It makes sense to me. I just keep experimenting with different things to see what can tolerate those conditions. So far purple coneflower has done well, but all the black-eyed susans croaked. The daylilies are okay and the yarrow is spreading out of all reason. My favorite peonies are flourishing, but the peppermint tea at the end is not happy at all. Not to worry, it’s what I love about gardening… so much scope for imagination! Gabe thinks it is weird how I like to move plants around. Why not plant it where you want it and then leave it there for always? I don’t know why not; it’s just not how I roll when I garden. It is so much fun to dig up a clump of roots, divide it, and rearrange the environment.

After a few hours of steady off-loading with a scoop shovel, I was pretty hungry. Olivia brought me a baked sweet potato with a sprinkling of cinnamon on it. I ate it without taking off my gardening gloves, peppering it with some tiny bits of mulch. Gregory felt the tug of all the cereal boxes and disappeared for the space of a bowl of Chex.

At seven o’clock the predicted rain started to sprinkle down on us. We had one-fourth of our load on the trailer yet. I speeded up and the jokes stopped. Gregory pushed the last mulch into a pile and put away the shovels while I drove the Suburban down the hill to park the trailer beside the barn. Right then I decided I couldn’t face turning, backing, turning, backing, nearly jack-knifing, etc. As he came to help me unhook the trailer, I told him we are just going to let it sit until tomorrow, and I plodded up to the house in the drizzle.

“Are you seriously that beat?” he asked. This, from the boy who took bathroom breaks and snack breaks and cardboard-shield-making breaks while I plodded doggedly along.

“I am just about dead,” I admitted. But guess what? It is raining steadily and I am feeling pretty good. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the ibuprofen has taken hold.

 

And for one parting shot: This is Mother’s Day, in the evening, when I suddenly remembered that we had not taken our annual photo because we left for a choir program at 6 AM. A Hallmark photo it is not, but it reminds me that a mother’s best defense against the erosions of time and reason is maintaining a sense of humor. Seriously.

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Glorious May

What could be better than sitting in a clean house while a rain-shower patters down outside? Try adding a piece of chocolate with salted caramel bits, a bird singing outside the window, a son planning supper around his freshly caught fish which he filleted himself, and an hour to write. Bliss.

You may wonder why my house is all clean on a random Thursday. Let me tell you, I nearly killed myself with mopping and clearing away of chaos this forenoon. This, because the insurance adjusters were scheduled to come take a look around. The last time we had a property assessment, I was unprepared and embarrassed to the core as they walked through every room, taking pictures and ignoring the mess with cheerful grace. Every time they opened a door, there was a child doing school in an odd place, or playing something incredibly messy on an unmade bed. Gabe told me that from his years of experience with replacing windows, this is nothing. Well, it feels dreadful to me, so I was going to be prepared today. We got lunch cleared away and the children’s faces washed before they showed up.

Turns out we don’t have wood heat, so they didn’t even have to step inside. I felt a little cheated. Why can’t someone take pictures of my house when it is like this?

This next scene is right outside the window. My long-cherished dream of throwing pots of clay in that little barn is about to come to pass. We had a grand clearing out and reassigned the stuff in there to other storage places. Plans are for a corner for carving for the man and the place where the lower windows are will be the pottery section. Can’t you see us in there, companionably creative? Only problem is, I still can’t concentrate with people around and I certainly can’t hold a conversation while trying for just the right wall thinness on a clay bowl. About the time I start to talk, my precious piece suddenly feels gravity in a new way and settles gently downward. I have never had so much fun being terrible at something.

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Check out the green fuzz on the ridge, which we have been waiting for for a long time. Suddenly it is popping, almost too fast. It takes the breath away. This morning the lawn looked like this, but in about 2 days we will have abundant dandelion chain supplies again.

 

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I used to spend hours with the older children outside, looking for signs of spring, weaving flower chains and playing in the fresh grass. One day when Addy was grizzling and bored, I realized that I don’t do that very much with her. So I took her little paw in mine and we meandered around the pond, discussing things that interest her life. I braided her a coronet of gold and she had a heart change.

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The children are all but done with school books for this term. There are a few random tests yet, but other than that, we’re done. One of the cousins told them about DIY tutorials on Youtube for making tiny doll furnishings or clothing. From there they have moved to all sorts of  projects, resulting in sketchy looking lip balms made with raspberry juice and coconut oil or odd hot air balloons where the tissue paper tends to flame up suddenly on liftoff. My personal favorite was when Rita said, “Did you know that you can fix nail holes in the wall by putting toothpaste into them?” I told them to take a break from creativity, so we are back on the more familiar ground of a pet snake in the terrarium and some pillbugs in a plastic container. “May we google, ‘What do pillbugs eat?’.”

This next photo represents a triumphant moment for us all, but especially for Gabriel. He had been hankering for a motorcycle ride all spring, saying if he didn’t have this assignment to finish, he would just break out and go riding. The thing about unrelenting assignments to study is that Jack feels like a dull boy, ready to bust out and do something different! One day I was gone for a while, and when I got home he was at the neighbor’s house, borrowing his bike.

“Did you finish your course while I was gone?” I asked at first opportunity, not believing it could be possible. He just grinned and nodded. He had the last two assignments to work on when I left that morning, but in a spurt of determined perseverance, he had actually submitted them both in one day! I didn’t begrudge him a long ride through the countryside in the least! (For the concerned folks out there, the child did not ride with him. Prop only for a spin in the lawn. 🙂 )

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It occurred to me that some of you may be interested in my container gardening tips. I can’t grow houseplants worth squat, but I do seem to have success with my containers on the deck. I will use last year’s pictures for this DIY session. 🙂

  1. Find a friendly greenhouse proprietor who knows their stuff. You need to consider the light where your container will be. Is it full sun or partial shade? Ask your new friend what grows well in your conditions. You do not want to mix a shade plant with a full sun needer, or you will be conflicted all summer as to who gets what they need. (If at all possible, do not buy your plants at the big name stores. They ship them from who-knows-where, so the plants are stressed and sad from the start. You local greenhouse people deserve your business. Have you ever thought about how hard they work?)
  2. Look for a grass or spike plant to give you a visual high point. These plants usually are very tolerant of almost any condition. Last year I found these neat “Prince Tut” grasses, which look like a scepter with a sunburst at the end. I haven’t seen them anywhere yet this year, but I did find curly pink grasses. That’s the fun… mixing it up.
  3. Your next requirement is for a showy leaf. Some good ones are sweet potato vines which come in endless varieties ranging from bright lime green to purple. Those trail beautifully. More upright plants with dramatic foliage are dusty miller or coleus.
  4. The third category in a mixed planter is the blooming plant. We enjoy things that attract hummingbirds, so anything with a trumpet-like flower makes us happy. Million bells, those tiny petunias that never have to be deadheaded, are great for show and easy to please. I don’t hold back much on color combinations, but I do try not to put orange and pink together, etc. Really, there are no rules. If you love your flowers, they will love you back.
  5. My fourth category is something with big blooms. You see Gerbera daisies in these photos, but I am officially done with mixing them in planters with other flowers. They don’t like sharing my space, for some reason. Also, my greenhouse friend told me they hate fertilizer, and literally everything else loves it. So they are out this year. Geraniums work, especially the vining ones that aren’t stuck on one upright shape. I have fallen in love with large begonias as well. They are a little picky about water. Not too much, or they rot.
  6. The next step is funny. Line your planters with adult diapers. This trick comes to you courtesy of my friend who is caring for her elderly mother. She was given some Depends that would have wrapped twice around her mother, so she changed up their use, figuring they would hold moisture in her planters during the hot July days. It works like a charm. Also, your big planters can be filled with empty milk jugs or soda bottles at the bottom. You really only need dirt in the top 12 inches and it makes them much easier to move.
  7. Use good potting soil. Trust me, it is worth 5 or 10 dollars extra to buy a good brand versus cheap, generic stuff. I like Miracle Gro potting soil with fertilizer in the mix.
  8. Arrange your plants until you like the configuration in the pot. I like mine full and energetic, but they do tend to take up whatever space they have. Just don’t be stingy. You can always repot something if it takes too much space.
  9. Plant them. Pull the roots apart gently at the bottoms. They are almost always root bound in the greenhouse pots. Set your planters in a sheltered area for a few days so they can get used to the big outdoors.
  10. Remember that the plants are used to a lot of fertilizer. It’s what greenhouses do to get that luxurious growth that makes you want to buy the whole place. If you never feed your plants, you will see them taper off and look sickly for a while. I have one word for you. Miracle Gro. Seriously. At least once a week. If you feed them oftener, make the solution weaker. Pinch back the aggressive plants, and have fun!

These (below) are my planters last year, at the end of July. See how sickly/nonexistent those Gerberas are in there? I stuck some houseplants in last year, as well. Sometimes I include perennials from my flower beds. Hosta is a good one, as are coral bells. I also do herb planters. They do not have the eye catching appeal of florals, but it is really fun to step outside the door and pinch off some basil. Bonus points for anyone who spots the flourishing plantain weed in one of these arrangements.

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Is it worth the money? I heard that. For us it is. For about a hundred dollars, it turns our outside space into a haven. We may live right beside the road with traffic noise, but we have months of enjoyment out of this investment. I know a man who says he will wait for heaven to have flowers, but I don’t want to wait that long. God gave them to us here. If you source carefully, or wait until the greenhouses are getting rid of inventory, or propagate your own plants, you can grow astounding variety right at your house.

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Well, that concludes my writing hour. I ate a piece of excellently prepared catfish while I sat here, and now I must leave you to go find a greenhouse.

So here we are. May is glorious any way you look at it. And it is triumphant this spring, flush with accomplishment, ready for the next good thing. We feel mellow, delighted with the endless possibilities, despite the normal adult things that weigh down on us. The weariness is passing, the catch-up time is here.