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Tomato Cages

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Today I am thinking about tomatoes.  I am at odds with myself about what tomatoes I am going to plant and whether I will start from seed or not, but I find myself looking longingly out the back door at my homemade tomato cages and wishing to see them filled with bushy tomato plants and scrumptious fresh tomatoes.  In the last few years, I have planted several different varieties of heirloom tomatoes from seed.  I especially enjoy the cherry and grape tomatoes and the ones that survive popping directly into the mouth are used in chili, soups, and stews.  Last year we had an unexpected visitor in the garden when we had a surprise orange cherry tomato plant pop up!  So, when we decided to grow tomatoes,  we  decided right off the bat that we did not want to waste any time, money, or energy on the pitiful tomato cages that are sold in local stores.  I wanted a REAL tomato cage.  The kind of cage that screams giant tomatoes.   The kind of cage that can be used year after year and not fall down under the weight of hundreds of plump, juicy tomatoes!

To achieve this sort of tomato growing support, we had to trot down to the local Tractor Supply and purchase some fencing, about fifty feet, to be exact.  We sat out on the lawn, under the tree, with a pair of snips and heavy gloves.  I wanted each cage to be about 4-5 feet tall, and 24 inches diameter.  We cut 18 lengths of fencing, bent the remaining wire around the starting side, and several hours later, we had our 18 cages ready for tomatoes.

To stake the cages, I use my favorite garden tool- electric fencing rods from Tractor Supply, $1.20 apiece, and INVALUABLE!  These fiberglass rods have served so many purposes in our garden and are inexpensive and re-useable.  The only problem with these cages, is that now I am wishing we had made more of them!  Soon I will be starting my little tomatoes from seed, and for now must remain content to look out a the cages lining the back fence.

Shrimp Scampi Linguini

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I was trying to find my picture of this dish- but seem to have lost it.  It is super yummy, though, and worth sharing, picture or not!  One of our favorites.

Skillet Scampi with Linguine

1 ½ lbs linguine
5 TB olive oil
6 TB butter
3 TB minced fresh garlic (8-9 cloves)
2 lbs large shrimp
½ tsp pepper
¼ tsp hot red pepper flakes
¼ cup parsley
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1. Bring to boil pot of water with dash of salt, add linguine, cook 7-10 minutes.
2. Drain noodles, run under cold water, drain again, mix with 1 TB olive oil, set aside.
3. Melt butter with remaining olive oil in cast iron skillet on medium heat. Add garlic and sauté for three minutes.
4. Add shrimp, pepper, sauté until shrimp turn pink (5-7 minutes). Remove from heat and toss with red pepper flakes, parsley, lemon juice, and Parmesan cheese.
Pour shrimp mixture over linguine, toss to combine, and serve.

Lasagna Gardening- How to Start a New Bed

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I Love Lasagna Gardening!!  Okay, now that I got that out there, let me explain to you how to do it.  I will first have to admit that I am somewhat of a lazy gardener, and also that I am extremely frugal and do not have much money or time to put into something that I greatly enjoy.  I was on a mission to find out how I could create wonderful garden beds for the least amount of money and time.  At a used book store, I came across the book, Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanzer.  I lapped up every word and began thinking about my own yard.  When we purchased the house, there had been a garden, but it had been covered with sod.  I was determined to reclaim the original garden spot and make it my own!

Original Yard

My first task was to collect large amounts of cardboard from the hospital that I work at.  After painstakingly removing all of the tape, I began laying the cardboard out on the grass, leaving no spaces for weeds to sneak up through.  I began this project in the fall to leave all winter for things to happen.  After laying out the cardboard, I began piling grass clippings and leaves on top of the cardboard.  I also purchased 10 bales of 3.8 cubic feet sphagnum peat moss because our soil has so much clay.  In addition, my husband and I hauled a truckload of composted manure from a coworkers horses and spread that out as well to add nutrients.  The finished product was pretty impressive.  I spent $90 on peat moss, and everything else was free.

Stage One Lasagna Gardening

In the Spring, we added straw to the walkways and defined each bed to be separated with rows.  I based my design on the wide row system explained in the Joy of Gardening by Dick Raymond.  My rows were going to be wide so that I could maximize space and productivity.

Creating the walkways

In the Spring, when it was time for planting, I made sure to add a healthy dose of fish emulsion to each spot as I planted.  I did not add as much as the book recommended- she recommends at least 18″ of material for the raised bed lasagna gardening idea.  I had to work with the material that I had for free, however, so each year I add more grass clippings, more leaves, and straw.  This method is a no-till method, which also appeals to my lazy factor.  I occasionally have to mix the clay and soil a little bit, but the one year that we did till a little bit was a disaster and we had weed central to contend with.  The last thing that we did was add a short fence to deter bunny rabbits as well as the dog.  I have since added a row and filled in the area by the back fence to plant blueberry bushes.

The fence gate

As you can see in the above picture, I initially had grass around the beds, which is now being removed by the addition of more cardboard and straw.  it looked nice initially, but became a huge hassle for mowing and also gave me more weed problems.  I now have the entire area inside the fence as a grass-free zone!  We also added a small amount of sand last year to mix in with the clay.  I think this was a good idea, but now have thistles sprouting up in the garden…….  Have I mentioned that I have a serious issue with weeds?  I will save that for another post!!  Good luck with your lasagna- I am convinced that it is the best way to create new garden space!

Gardening in Colder Climates

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I am currently in Zone 5, but lived for a long time in Zone 4, so I am no stranger to cold climate gardening.  It can be more challenging, but also somehow more rewarding!  Some of my plants spend as much of their lives indoors as out, but I love every step of the process, and there is really nothing better than the taste of a fresh cherry tomato bursting with flavor!  An oldie but goodie, I have used the Alaska Gardening Guide by Ann Roberts as a guideline for much of my gardening in a colder climate.  The average growing season listed for Anchorage, Alaska  is 120 days.  This means that you want to pick varieties of vegetables that will fit within that time frame.

I have found that it is easier to learn the basics of growing and gardening before trying to extend the growing season with cold frames or greenhouses, but that is just my experience and yours may vary depending on the amount of things you like to tackle at once!  My first year gardening, I picked some basic varieties and also picked a couple of things that I was curious about, but not sure if I wanted to grow on a regular basis.  Every year, I try to fine tune what varieties I like the best, grow those varieties, plus a couple of extras just for fun.  By doing this, I have learned what things I like, added some new ones, and lost a few!

I have found several different numbers for last and first frost dates for Anchorage, but it looks like the average last frost is May 19th, with the average first frost being September 10th.  If you plug this date into the Seed Start Chart  at http://www.yougrowgirl.com/2006/03/31/the-lazy-gardeners-seed-starting-chart/  you will find the dates to plant in the ground as well as when to start seed.  Our first frost here in West Virginia is the same as Anchorage, but our last frost is later, so I will be starting much of my garden at the same time.  For the indoor starters, I always start some early tomatoes by March 10th, along with some onion seeds, and artichoke.  The bulk of what I started was late March/early April.  The second round I started more tomatoes, cabbage, celery, peppers, broccoli, basil, oregano, parsley, and thyme.  The third round I started at the end of April/early May: cantaloupe, cabbage, okra, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, and cucumber.

My planting in the ground rotation looks like this:

  • Late April: Lettuce, Peas, Spinach, and onion
  • Early May: Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Cabbage, Carrots, Potatoes, and a few Tomatoes
  • Late May or Early June: Beans, Cauliflower, Corn, Cucumber, Melon, Okra, Peppers, Pumpkin, Squash, and the remaining Tomatoes

The first two years, I planted a little bit of everything.  This year, I am drastically changing my garden layout to include more of what I really like, and I am basing it on a cost-to-buy idea.  I used to grow cabbage, but cabbage is incredibly cheap to buy, and I do not use much of it.  My basic garden this year will include:  Potatoes, Okra, Yams, Snap Peas, Green Beans, Hot Peppers, Sweet Peppers, Spaghetti Squash, Butternut Squash, Lettuce, Tomatoes, Cucumber, Carrots, Broccoli and Cauliflower, Brussel Sprouts, and Summer Squash.  My herb garden includes: Basil, Oregano, Thyme, Sage, Cilantro, Peppermint, and Cumin.

If I had to pick 4-5 veggies to start with in Alaska, I would choose the ones that I enjoy eating the most and the ones that are SO much tastier fresh than from a store.  For me, that would be:  Sugar Snap Peas and Snow Peas, Tomatoes, Potatoes or Yams, Green Beans (Bush not Pole), and Squash (winter and summer).  Peas will do very well in Alaska, potatoes should do well, green beans should do well.  You will have to work a little bit harder for the squash and yams, but they are worth it!  We have found that the more we eat from the garden, the more we want to eat!  Our first year, the only veggies that I bought were broccoli and some potatoes late in the Spring.  Everything else came from the garden.  If we ran out, we didn’t eat it until we grew more!  This year, I still have frozen zucchini from two years ago, and am whittling away at the canned green beans, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and various peppers.  We also still have pickles, pickled okra, and pickled pepper, along with various jellies.  It is a huge amount of work, but there is just nothing more satisfying or tasty.  The vegetables that you grow in your own garden have so much more nutritional value than anything in the store.  Being in a northern climate can be more challenging, but all the more worth it in my opinion!

 

 

 

 

Starting From Seed

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Well, the time has almost come for me to sort through my seeds, order new ones, clean up the basement, and get ready for the new season of gardening.  This will be the first year that I am starting this adventure with a child!  I wanted to talk a little bit about what I do to start plants from seeds, things that I have learned along the way, and what setup that I use.  Here are the things that I need to get started:

  • shelving unit ($40)
  • grow lights  ($15) – I have enough for three shelves
  • heating pads ($20)- I have two
  • plastic trays with lids ($4)- I have MANY
  • peat discs ($2.5)- 36 come in a pack, and I usually by three packs
  • fertilizer ($6-8)- I use fish emulsion- stinky but good

I now have some metal shelves with adjustable heights that I currently use, but this is what I started with.  I have 24″ grow lights as well as 48″ grow lights to have some options.  I rotate the heating pads to use when I am germinating and remove them once things have sprouted. I wait until most plants are at least 1″ before transplanting from the peat pods.  I plop the whole pod into the dirt and avoid disturbing the roots.  For my soil mixture I buy the 3.8 cubic feet of sphagnum peat moss and mix it with perlite 10:1.  I also mix in some fertilizer with warm water so that the soil is moist.  My ideal texture is moist enough to clump.  I try to keep the lights no more than 2″ from the tops of the plants.

This is a close up of the onions, lettuce, and parsley.

I have started seed with the peat pots and I have started them without, and I have determined that I like the peat pots even if the cost is a little bit more.  I also prefer the sphagnum bales for transplanting  instead of bags of dirt.   The sphagnum  comes in a huge bale and I can use the same bale throughout the growing season and put the leftover on the garden bed for some more organic material.

I currently use a chart from the Farmer’s Almanac to determine my start date for various seeds.  That chart can be found here:  http://www.almanac.com/garden/garden.frostchart.html

The two books that I use the most often for reference for start dates, starting depth, transplanting information, etc. are:

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith

Joy of Gardening by Dick Raymond

These two books alone have given me almost all of the information that I needed to get started.

When it is time to plant, I place a peat pod into each circle in the plastic tray.  Saturate the entire tray with warm water until all pods have expanded.  Place 2-3 seeds in each pod, being careful to label each row so that you know what is what.  Push the seed into the dirt (I use a chopstick) and cover lightly.  When all pods are seeded, place plastic cover over tray, put on shelf, plug in warmer, and wait.  Once the seeds begin to germinate, I set the grow lights on a timer to give them at least 14-16 hours of light each day.  You do not need to water the plants at all as long as the plastic cover is in place.  Once the plants are touching the top of the plastic lid, I remove and transplant into 4×4 pots.

Once the plants and the weather are ready, I move everything to our back porch so the plants can get exposed to cooler evening temperatures and warm daytime temperatures and prepare for planting.

That is the process up to hardening off and transplanting.  Stand by for more on getting your plants into the garden.

I Love You More!!!!

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I remember when Dave and I first got married, I was always amazed at how my love for him would grow more and more every day, month, week, year…   It always seemed so wonderful to me that I could love someone so much and love them in new, exciting ways with each shared memory, laugh, triumph, tribulation, etc.  After six years, I have discovered a love that is deeper and richer than I ever imagined possible.  Last night our son woke up with what must have been a night terror.  He was screaming and screaming with eyes wide open.  There was nothing I could do to comfort him and I quickly became distressed.  Dave came into the room, snuggled him into his arms, and our son turned his face into Dave’s chest and immediately quieted and went back to sleep within minutes.  I cannot describe the love that I felt for my husband at that moment.  Seeing this little guy snuggle into him with absolute trust made me love my husband more than I ever imagined possible!

I think that these two boys might very well succeed in melting my ice-coated heart!

Mexican Lasagna

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I have been wanting to try some different recipes lately because I am getting kind of bored of the same old stuff.  Tonight we had Mexican Lasagna.  As usual, the recipe is half borrowed and half made-up.  I will try to give you as close to the original as possible!

Ingredients:

corn tortillas

1 can low-sodium black beans

1 can black olives

frozen or canned corn

cottage cheese

mozzarella cheese

1/2 lb ground beef or chicken

diced tomatoes

salsa

Oil or grease an 8×8 dish (you could do 9×13 and just double the ingredients).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare 1/2 lb of ground beef (I used some mexican seasoning to flavor it) and add 1 can of drained diced tomatoes (I used frozen cherry tomatoes from the garden).  If necessary, you can add some corn starch to thicken the sauce.

Mix 1-2 cups cottage cheese with 1-2 cups mozzarella cheese (depending on how cheesy you like it)

Layer corn tortillas on the bottom of the pan, cover with meat sauce, spread layer of beans over meat sauce, then sprinkle black olives and corn, spread salsa on top of that, then add cheese layer, then a second layer of corn tortillas.  Repeat with meat sauce, beans, corn and olives, then cheese, and one more layer of corn tortillas.  Spread remaining meat sauce over top, sprinkle with mozzarella cheese and bake until bubbling (30-40 minutes).  Serve over lettuce and top with sour cream if desired.

Like I said, this was kind of made-up but turned out yummy!  This summer, once we have some fresh veggies, I will add some bell pepper and maybe anaheim pepper as well.

Almost Fresh From the Garden

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Tonight I was rummaging around in the freezer in the basement, trying to decide what in the world I wanted to have for dinner.  I have been tired of the same old stuff and wasn’t sure exactly what might inspire me to cook.  As I stood up from browsing the leftover shelf, I noticed a container of chopped, frozen basil alongside a bag of frozen cherry tomatoes.  An idea began to take shape.  Pulling out my trusty old Joy of Cooking, I found a recipe for tomato pesto sauce.  Noodles cooking, baby in one hand, I threw the basil,  tomatoes, a couple of cloves of garlic, a dash of olive oil, and for lack of anything fancy- a bit of parmesan powder, into the food processor.  It whirred to life and left me with a paste that smelled just like summer!!  I mixed it all up with the noodles, threw some cauliflower on to steam, and called it dinner.  We all sat down to eat and as I watched my son happily munching noodles coated in almost fresh garden veggies, I began to feel the stirrings of excitement for summer, for the seeds that will soon be sprouting in the basement, and for the garden bounty that will surely follow.  This simple meal, made on a cold day in January, gave me something to look forward to!

 

Confessions of a First Time Mom

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Well, I have a confession to make that is sort of embarrassing but if you have ever been a mom, you may understand.  When my little guy was five months old, he started getting his two bottom teeth.  He woke up every one to two hours to eat and fuss.  Once the teeth came in, the waking up continued.  This was back in November.  Tired and distraught, we asked at our six-month doctor’s appointment and she assured us that once he started eating solid food, he would sleep.  That was six weeks ago!  To my increasing distress, he did NOT sleep better and continued to wake up every two hours.  I became a zombie, napping when I could, and slogging through the day.  I felt like the gerbil in the wheel, running and running from nap to nap, waiting for bedtime with a mixture of anticipation and dread.  Would he sleep tonight?  When the clock rounded the two hour mark I would start to get anxious…… When I heard the telltale sounds from the bedroom, I would groan and moan, knowing it would be another night without sleep.  I apologized over and over to my husband at the state of the house, the state of my mind, and my complete lack of enthusiasm for anything involving cooking or cleaning.  I plodded through the work day one foot in front of the other, trying my best to take care of others and seem like I really cared.  I became desperate.  We talked about getting rid of the pacifier.  We talked about letting him cry.  We tried half-heartedly once or twice but couldn’t stick to it.  We talked about using gas drops.  We poured over Internet sites, looking for a solution.  We took turns going into him and discovered that he really didn’t need to eat, we could coax him back to sleep with a little bit of snuggle time.

Then, two nights ago, I was browsing a website that discussed some of the reasons for night waking.  Nothing seemed to make sense.  He woke like clockwork, didn’t always need to eat, and went back to sleep as soon as we held him for a bit.  On a random whim, I decided to turn the heater up in case he was getting cold.  We usually turn the heat down at night to save money and then pile the blankets on, but he wears his blanket, and doesn’t keep the other one on.  So the first night he slept for five hours, woke to eat, then slept another four and ate again.  Wait, that was it?  I wasn’t convinced, so we tried it again last night.  He slept SIX hours, ate, then another four and ate again.  Could that SERIOUSLY have been the only reason he couldn’t get back to sleep?  He was cold!  So now of course, we feel a mixture of relief and also mild guilt.  The little guy was waking up and was cold, and cried to us, not being able to explain what was wrong.  How sad!

Needless to say, I feel like a new person.  I am now sleeping in four hour blocks and it feels absolutely heavenly!  What a wonderful thing to sleep for FOUR HOURS in a row!!  Thank goodness we all somehow survive childhood.  I love this little guy to pieces and would do anything to protect him from harm, but couldn’t figure out that he needed to be warmer so that he could learn to sleep on his own without my help!  Wow…..

Veggie Pancakes!!

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As a kid, my mother always made potato pancakes, served with sour cream.  I wanted to make a version of these for our 7.5 month old.  Most of the ingredients came from our garden, which made them even more exciting!!  Konrad absolutely LOVED them and ate an entire pancake in one sitting. Unfortunately, I was making it up as I went, so the ingredient amounts are guesses, but I will definitely make these again!!

  • 3 cups grated zucchini
  • 3 grated carrots
  • 1 grated onion
  • 1 grated yam (medium size)
  • 3 grated potatoes (medium size)
  • 1 egg
  • enough flour to soak up some of the liquid (about 1 cup)
  • Salt/Pepper/Cajun seasoning (optional)

Put safflower or other cooking  oil in a cast iron pan or skillet on medium-high heat.  Then roll the mix into balls and roll in flour.  Place the balls in the skillet and gently smash flat with fingers.  Let cook briefly on one side then flip, flatten with spatula to about 1/4 inch thick.  Let cook until browned on one side, flip and brown.  Serve with ketchup or sour cream.

I made a small batch without any seasonings for the kiddo, then added a healthy dose of cajun seasoning for Dave and I.  Yummers!!

January in the Garden

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I really do not like January, or February for that matter.  In November, I am always glad for winter, ready for a little bit of hibernation.  The garden is usually put to bed, the freezer is full, and I am ready for a break.  December finds me eating from the frozen garden stash, looking out the window and thinking of the many things that I want to do for Spring.  January to me is just sad.  It is usually gray and cold, and I have not yet motivated myself to order seeds for the coming summer.  I have just begun to dream and scheme of things to come.  I begin to think about what I will grow, where I will grow it, and wonder if the garlic will begin to peek up through the ground in the coming months.  March keeps me busy getting the basement ready for the growing season.  I like to start my first seeds down there in the cold and the excitement comes quick as I see the first little sprouts peeking their way into the world.   I just cannot seem to motivate myself now, though, to think about any of it.  All I can do is look forlornly out the window at the garden, that I did not finish weeding, and ponder life.  I wonder if this year my peppers will grow?  I wonder if this year I will find time with the baby to get the weeding done?  I wonder if he will learn to appreciate the food that is grown here, free of pesticides and chemicals?  I wonder all of these things and so much more while I look out at the yard, blanketed with snow, hiding all of its treasures.  In January and February I can only dream….

Sleep is Hard to Come By

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Well,  I decided to take a break from the rocking chair…..  So tonight I am sitting on the couch listening to the little man yelling from his bedroom.   It is now two hours after he went to bed….. Every night, two hours after he goes to bed, he wakes up and cries for me.  Then he does it again, and again, and again, all night long.  I am really quite flattered that he wants to be with me, but not every two hours all night long.  This kid thing is so incredibly difficult in so many ways that I never imagined.  I never imagined that I would have to sit and battle with myself about whether or not I should go to him….  I never imagined I would feel this crazy pull in my heart that makes me want to run to him and make it all better…..  The longer he cries, the more I cry inside, but sleep.must.come….  I feel like a shadow of my former self.  I want to wake up and feel glad that the day is beginning instead of dread that another day is upon me so soon.  I love this little being more than I can even describe, but he makes me see all the things in me that I do not like.  This really is a reflection for the rocking chair, but tonight I will have to be content to sit in the light and think these thoughts.  They seem safer somehow in the dark, holding him….

Rocking Chair Thoughts…..

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I have put in some serious miles in the rocking chair in the last seven months since our son was born….. That means entirely too much time to sit in the dark and think about all of the things that I want for myself, my husband, my son, and my life in general. At the beginning of this list is the basis for this blog….. I want the good life…. I don’t mean just ANY good life either. I want the good life that Scott and Helen Nearing made…. You know, the one with stone houses, gardens, self-sustainability, a FUTURE….. This is something that I have always wanted. I remember being maybe seven or eight and declaring to my mother that there were two things that I wanted in life: a cabin in the mountains, and a whole room full of books (my parents were both librarians). I still want that. Having our first child makes me want that even more. I want to give him the gift of understanding where his food comes from, how to build his own house, and how to navigate his way in this world of too much technology, not enough values, and not enough self-sufficiency.

I always imagined that it would be easier to get- this good life. But I am learning that it is something that is going to be achieved little by little, step by painful step. So here is this blog, a written journey of our adventures to find this life. Right now, the good life means living in our little house in the city, producing as many of our own fruits and vegetables as we can, picking blueberries and cranberries in the woods, trying to learn more skills to sustain us in times of hardship, and planning for a time when we can do all of these things on our own land, away from the hustle and bustle……

I will try to share with you our adventures, the things we have learned along the way, and save you from some of the lessons that we had to learn the hard way!

Our New Treasure

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Dave actually found this treasure at an antique store for a wonderful price!  He spent about an hour oiling it up, printing the manual, and getting it ready for use!  We made some sleeve liners for his wool coat- something he has been wanting to do for almost a year now!  We were coming home from the store tonight and commenting about how nice it is to come home in the rain  to a house, instead of a campground!

—Megan

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