Thursday, April 28, 2011

Greene Thumb Thursday: Planting Procrastination

The most stressful part (thus far) of growing our own food has been trying to get the plants in the ground! We have tentatively declared this year as the trial run of our eating local project and next year to be a strict(er) version of the goal. So our garden attempt for this year is basically a trial-and-error run also.

But, just because I already have acknowledged that we will for sure be going to the grocery store still at least once per week this year, that doesn't mean I'm okay with haphazardly going about raising a garden. I'm pretty adament about maximizing our production and minimizing waste through various different ways of preserving our (hopeful) extras. I'm fairly stubborn, and although I work well with others, I generally do appreciate when things go my way.

When you attend a liberal arts college pursuing a degree in Communications, there is a ton of emphasis focused on learning to work in a group. Which, obviously, is helpful when you get into the working world and have similar responsibilities. And thus far, in my initial plan to start a garden, I have realized that this...unfortunately...cannot be a one-woman show. It's not that I don't like working with other people, I just simply don't like my success to depend on another person. And just as getting a so-so average grade on a presentation (due to the halfassery by classmates) didn't sit well with me, neither does the idea that our garden production will be limited by people who may not take this as seriously as I do.

To illustrate this point, let me talk briefly about the last month. We knew early this year (February-ish) that we wanted a garden and started planning for one. Tending the ground in our chosen location was pushed back far past the last possible planting for the cool weather crops (good-bye lettuce, broccoli, and spinach...maybe in the fall?) and was encroaching on the first planting dates of the summer crops. That's when we realized why it kept getting pushed back and quickly moved to plan B: the raised beds.

We have yet to find the right place in our yard for the new garden beds. It's May (or might as well be). It's time to PLANT, but I can't. My devoted loving husband dreams big...real big. Rather than allow me to construct the beds in an area of the yard that we don't actually use (at all) so I could actually plant them, he decided to clear an area of our wooded land for me to use instead. I think the idea is wonderful, I just don't see our timeline allowing for that much earth-moving right now. And I'm big on schedules and timelines.

I have been known, on occasion, to be up until 2 am the night before a project is due. Usually, I'm not cranking it out, but fussing over tiny details until the wee hours of the morning. I'm not perfect, and am admitting here to self-plagiarism on 3 occasions within one month in high school (It's not MY fault that everyone wanted an essay on pretty much the same topic. Also, one of those counts did involve translating my essay into Spanish, so I don't think it counts). However, I think it goes without saying that procrastination has no place in gardening. And we've been waiting around long enough. Tune in next Thursday to see if we have come any closer to seeds in soil.

PS...just for kicks, here is a commercial from a few years ago that seriously sums up "group work" for what it (more often than not) tends to really be.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Charlie's Fate

Meet Charlie. He could, actually, be a Charlotte, but considering that our house is full of rough n' tough testosterone, we assume he is a boy. Charlie lives in the window above my kitchen sink, spending his days traveling from one side to the other, occasionally "napping" up near the edge. Kevin and I spend a great deal of time watching him poke along with his little hairy legs moving purposely along the screen lining of the storm window.

I grew up here in Tennessee, and spiders do not scare me. If you do not live here, or if you have recently moved here, google "wolf spider" and you'll understand why this little guy doesn't bother me in the least. I don't like spiders and am by all accounts going to stomp anything that resembles a brown recluse or a black widow. But, I know how important spiders are to ecology in general. You don't have to be a Biology major to know their role.

So, as long as this little guy stays on his side of the window, I vow to do him no harm. He is welcome to capture and devour any stray fruit fly or ant that trys to infiltrate my home through this important portal to the motherload for insects: the kitchen. But as I was washing dishes yesterday, watching him scurry up towards the top of his perch, I wondered: am I going to kill Charlie, accidentally?

You see, this thought occured to me because I noticed a few dead ants at my back door earlier in the day. We have a pest control company come once a quarter and spray our house. I may not care about spiders, but I despise millipedes and centipedes, which are also unfortunately in abundance here in the wooded south. Oscar slaughtered one of these squirmy nasty creatures in Kevin's bedroom once soon after we moved in, and I would not have any more of them in the house. So I invite a man with a jug of pesticide into my house and I pay him $75 to spray like mad around...our doors and WINDOWS. When I saw the ants, I was so thankful that the "bug man" was here last month. Springtime comes and everything wants in the house. Yuck. But then, while watching Charlie, I I killing his food supply? Surely he would not be munching on those ants, even if they did survive long enough to make it into the kitchen.

Am I purposely limiting his role in our world? Why even let him live in his little nook if I don't trust him to do his job? And what's to come of him? I routinely open this window to let in the breeze and thus far, Charlie has preferred to stay hidden at the top while it was open. But what if he decided to venture out, crossing the line of pesticide residue on the windowsill? That would be the end for him. Or what if some rogue insect managed to get across that chemical tripwire and into his territory? He would surely be posioned for doing nothing more than his natural obligation.

And, I get it. So what? He's a spider. A tiny little spider. He can't hurt anything, and he can't kill a millipede or a centipede, so who cares if he is here or not? The point is not whether I readily see his worth (which, I do!) but whether I am caring that my actions affect him at all. While Kevin is not quite old enough to understand the whole scenario, we do talk about Charlie and how he has a happy life (maybe? since he's starving...) and we need to respect that, since he is of no harm to us.

I can't help but project this situation onto some of the stories I hear of bullying now prevalent in schools. I often wonder about these bullies, as I'm sure you are aware, who are no longer just the "abused, neglected children" but often children from loving homes, with happy lives, and a bewildering lack of respect for other people. Simple teasing (think: boys chasing girls around playgrounds with some happy country song playing in the background) happens everwhere, but malicious tormenting of another child is beyond my comprehension. The best I can do is continue to teach my child to see that everything in God's world has worth, no creature was put here by mistake. And conversely to teach him that we need to protect ourselves from the ones that can harm us, and not simply allow them to do so just because they can.

The next time our "bug man" comes by, I will ask him NOT to spray the window above my kitchen sink. I think Charlie can handle that little area for now.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Greene Thumb Thursday: Feeding our Family

It's officially past "tax day" and here in Tennessee, that means it's time to plant our gardens! In honor of finally making it to this point in the spring planting season, I'm starting a new series that will follow my efforts to grow our own food this summer. This should provide some very interesting posts, considering that I have grown nothing but two small children and one obese cat in my quarter-century of occupancy here on Earth.

So for today's post, I thought it would be appropriate to outline my reasons behind starting a garden and lay out my ambitions for the coming months. I hate making New Year's resolutions, but I find that time is good for slate-wiping and attempting to change things, even by just a little bit. However, having a one-month old at New Year's makes it hard to concentrate on anything but taking a shower and trying to eat at least 2x a day. So this past January, Mark and I decided to make a healthy change in the way we eat. "Diet" is a four-letter word. But we both wanted to get healthy and hopefully, as a consequence, lose some of our spare flesh at the same time.

We started with a trip to our family practitioner's office for some advice. The answer? KISS (keep it simple, stupid). Fresh foods with fewer than 3 ingredients. That, literally, along with some vitamin supplements, was her answer. It's a lot harder than it seems. Our lives are so dominated with packaged foods, and until you really start looking at them, you just take it for granted that they are fine to consume. (Which, they are. This is NOT a "you need to eat healthy or we can't be friends" kind of lifestyle change for us. It's personal, and we aren't trying to project on anyone.) A quick comparison of homemade bread vs bagged bread from the store is a great example. When I make bread, I use 5 ingredients (water, flour, yeast, sugar, salt). The average bread label includes over 15. What IS all that other stuff?

So as a natural progression of trying to eat fresh foods, the idea came about to have a little garden this summer. We decided to ask Mark's grandparents if we could use a little space on their land to plant our crops, in turn being able to hopefully also provide them with fresh foods to eat during the summer months. As we talked about our initial plans, we decided that we should grow "enough" to be able to preserve a lot of it to eat during the winter months as well. As this is our first attempt, we are incredibly unsure of what "enough" really translates into as far as plants go. For the past few months we have been making preparations and getting ready for April.

The time has come to plant the garden. Only, our plans have changed a little. Mark's gparents are the sweetest in the world and they would never say "no" to any request by their family members. While this quality has given them some amount of worry and grief over the years, they are hardened in their resolve to provide anything they can for their family (did you read yesterday how his Granny still packs a lunch for his grown cousin living with them? She did the same for Mark when he was living with them, and insisted on doing so). But, as the time drew nearer to planting, we became accutely aware that possibly, they did not exactly like the idea of us having a garden there. So rather than go ahead and do it anyway (they would NEVER tell us that we couldn't), we started looking for other options.

So on to plan B. Have it at our house? While we do have a little over 3 acres of land, most of it is wooded and our yard is a wonderful rocky red clay mud mixture that has trouble growing grass. Asking it to grow veggies is probably out of the question. The solution, we think, is to build raised beds for our crops. I've been reading like mad about the square foot gardening method and I think this will work for us. Hopefully so.

As I learned in school and then really learned from experience in the "working world"...a project is only worth what the outcome proves. So, from the get-go, you need to have measurable goals to really tell if something is successful. There are 2 main goals for this adventure:

1) To grow "enough" food to supply our family through the summer months AND provide for preservation through the winter months. (This is not yet measurable, as we have yet to determine what "enough" really is. That's this weekend's chore)

2) To save money by growing our food instead of purchasing it. This seemed easily within reach when we were planning to have a row-by-row garden at Mark's grandparents' house. Now, we have to calculate the cost of the materials to build and fill our beds, and the added cost of the water throughout the summer to keep them moist. Keeping an expense journal as well as a weekly price estimate (based on grocery prices and farmer's market prices) for the veggies is a must. So is recording the amount of produce we actually harvest and use.

Will we meet these goals? Stay tuned for the weekly play-by-play and please feel free to comment and leave suggestions or tips for success!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

About couponing

I've tried 3 times to write this posting. Each time, I have wound up with what I feel like is "information overload", something I am critically guilty of on numerous occasions. I was inspired to write this by my many friends who have begged me to share my "secrets" to couponing success. After writing it several times, I opted not to share the step-by-step directions for becomming a couponing queen (or king). You can, however, find these instructions over at Southern Savers in the "Getting Started" section.

But, in a nutshell, here is the basic concept:
*Say an item is regularly priced $2.99 at Publix.
*It's on-sale BOGO, which means it is half-price (you DO NOT have to get 2 to get the sale price at Publix), so $1.49
*There is a manufacturer's coupon in the paper for $.50, which Publix will double to $1.00, bringing the price down to $.49 +tax.
*Often, in the best deals, a Publix coupon will stack with the manu' coupon, making an item free PLUS an additional few cents off your total bill.

I decided, rather than fill this with scenarios like that, I would share my opinions and most useful tips for couponers. These are not time-tested and are extremely limited to MY specific life situation (1 income family, 2 kids, living in rural TN), but I feel like they do apply on a wide scale, with some imagination. I promise to try to keep them short, but I have a napping baby in my lap so I'm not going anywhere anytime soon...

Know where you are getting your coupons
First things first, right? You have to have the coupons in hand before you can use them. I prefer to use coupons that I don't have to print, but I will print high-value (over $1) ones (lots of them offered on Facebook these days). I have a pretty set collection process. I purchase 2 Sunday papers, Mark's gma gives me hers, and my sweet sweet 82 year old Nanny keeps them under a couch cushion for me until I can come pick them up. I would suggest doing something similiar with family and friends. And pay-it-forward (or...backward, in this case). We don't use the coupons much for food anymore (more about that in a later tip), so when I can get something useful for free, I will, and I give it back to our grandparents, or donate it to a food bank.

Buy only what you (or someone you know) might need
Sales very often are on a 6-week cycle. So....even if you randomly have 25 coupons for mustard, you probably shouldn't clear the shelf without good reason. This is a bit rude to other couponers. For example, in my rural part of life, we have a Rite-Aid and I know if I'm not there when the store opens on Sunday morning, I'll have zero chance of catching a sale item in stock, because of another couponer who clears the shelves. Now...I don't see the problem with going to buy what you need, then swinging back around on Saturday night near closing time to see what, if anything, is still left on the shelf. This is the time to buy "extra" items. I don't buy pasta every time it is free because we don't eat THAT much pasta, and generally, even without the coupon, it is very often on sale for less than $1 at my favorite grocery store (Publix).

Don't make unhealthy trades in an effort to save money.
It's a wonderful and often necessary thing to save money. And the most common place to start cutting back is the grocery budget. While you can get lots and lots of healthy snacks and other meal components with coupons, it can be very tempting to get the free mac and cheese and eat it with every meal, just because you have it. Often, you can get free frozen veggies at Publix, which is a great deal. And it is smart to plan your meals around what is on sale. But, while a dinner of mac n cheese with hotdogs (ever seen this supposedly "kid friendly" dinner idea??) may cost less than $1 after coupons, it will cost a lot more in the long run. Go ahead and get the mac n cheese for free (dare I say throw a bag of frozen veggies in too?), but opt for the $2 salad mix, throw some breadcrumbs on the mac n cheese, put it under the broiler and have side salads with it. We have moved to the outer perimeter of the grocery store, and as the summer season gets started, we will soon be only visiting the dairy, frozen, and baking aisles in Publix, opting instead to buy local produce and meat, and *hopefully* harvesting our own fair share of veggies in June, July, and August. This really limits our usefulness for couponing, but we have plenty of family members who can still benefit (Mark's sweet Granny still packs lunch for her 19-year-old grandson to take to work with him, so this week, I'm picking up some free cracker snacks for his lunches.)

Pick your stores and be loyal
This is a time-effort thing for me. Couponing can take up a big chunk of your life if you let it. And with two kids, grocery store hopping is just not something I want to do. So we stick to Publix for groceries and often Rite-Aid for toiletries. On the rare occasion, there is something just too good to pass up at another store, so I'll visit or ask Mark to stop on his way home from work. Plus, when you go to the same places, you will find that cashiers and others know you and know what to expect when you are in line. On the same note, DO NOT try to slyly cheat on something. While some cashiers will occasionally let something slide, it's never a good idea to demand that they make an exception to the rules just for you. Which brings me to my last tip for the day...

DO NOT watch "Extreme Couponing" on TLC.
This show purposely searches for souls without lives and an unnatural need to hoard or take opportunity from other people. They then exploit the routines of these rare individuals and cast the stereotype upon all couponers, which is not true in the least. Stores on the show have AGREED to abandon their policies in exchange for appearing on the show, making this just like any other "reality" TV series...just a theoretical reality. I promise, you would not ever be allowed to purchase 1400 boxes of cereal with 1400 coupons, at any store. Ever.

I'm still more than willing to answer any questions my lovely compadres may have, so don't hesitate to ask. I love the thrill of saving money and getting things for free, but we have finally figured out where the idea fits best in our lives. And that's the true secret to success...making it work with your life and your family.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cookies for Jenaleigh

My good friend Martha is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her baby girl, Jenaleigh Kate, due in May. Along the way, she has come to a point where she needs to stay in the hospital for a time so the medical staff can keep an eye and a monitor on little Jenaleigh until she is ready to meet the world in a few weeks. In an effort to keep her sane, I'm sending her a little kit to make some cookies for Jenaleigh to (eventually) play with and enjoy. Maybe someday, someone (wonder who?) will make her a little felt tea set so that she and mommy (and Daddy!) can imagine that they are having tea and eating sugar cookies in a far away palace....

Back from "dreaming I had a girl" land, I realized that she would also need directions for how to make these cookies from felt cutouts. I had initally imagined this posting to be a tutorial for how to make felt strawberries, but that must be set aside for another day. Cookies are more fun anyway!

First, I'm going to share another piece of sewing advice from my Gma. Patterns are great tools, but much like defined toys, they limit the amount of creativity and imagination that can be built into each project. Gma taught me to see something and imagine how it was created, and then to re-create the process in a way that makes sense to me. This is why I dread making clothes and rarely do so. Simplicity, McCalls, etc patterns confuse me and require a great deal of concentration...which is usually in short supply at my house! So, often, I will look around and see what I can use to help me bring my idea to life.

For this project, you will need:

*Cookie-colored felt (I'm sending Martha light khaki and tan to make sugar and chocolate chip cookies)

*Icing-colored felt (Martha's kit includes pink and purple icing "blobs", red hearts, and dark brown strips for the chocolate pieces)

*Coordinating thread (I primarily use 2 strands of embroidery floss on all my felt projects, but any type of thread will work)

*Stuffing (optional)

First, look around and find yourself a good circle. Or, bust out your compass from elementary school to make a perfect one. I usually gather up a couple and then decide which will work best. I decided that the oatmeal lid was a smidge too big and the mason jar was a little small for this project. The glass was just about "right" for cookie making.

Next, you'll use your sample circle to make 2 felt circles for each cookie you want to make. I like using these disappearing ink pens on light colored felt, but regular pens work too.

Now, it's time to pick the decoration on top. I chose to do a heart shape on the top of this cookie, other options include: chocolate chips, icing "blobs", small beads for sprinkles, etc.

Next, you will attach your icing to one felt cookie circle. I used a simple running stitch here (in-and-out) for the purpose of saving time, but a blanket stitch would look nice as well.

Once your decoration is attached, choose another thread color and you are ready to connect the two circles. I always start my thread so that the knot will be on the inside of the layers and not visible on the outside.

I used a very simple whip stitch on this cookie, again in an effort to save time. A whip stitch is an edge stitch where the needle goes into the fabric, then around the edge to another point on the opposite side of the fabric.

When making these types of projects, a blanket stitch looks very "finished." To find a good tutorial on creating a blanket stitch and it's various uses, visit Stitch School. In an attempt to crank this tutorial out during naptime, I only did a few blanket stitches so you could see the difference.

When you are near the start of your stitches, stop sewing and stuff your cookie with a little fiberfil (if you want). The cookies work fine without any stuffing, but I like for them to be a little fluffy!

Finish stitching the remainder of the edge, knot your ends, and you're done!

See Martha? I promised it would be easy! For some great insight into Martha's pregnancy and unexpected hospital stay, follow her blog Bedrest, Blessings, & Baby.